Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Oxford Professorship and Moniza Alvi

A cub found its way into the window space outside the cellar. I found it when I went to investigate the sounds it was making. It half growled half hissed at me, a tiny, skinny little thing with enormous ears and baby eyes that was probably there half the night and the whole day. I wrapped it in a blanket and carried it to the cemetary. When I laid the blanket down it stayed there for an instant, looking truly comfortable and warm at last. It scampered off and I hope it found its mother.

In between all this natural drama is the Oxford professorship of poetry. Normally I dismiss this as irrelevant but this was to be the year two women defined British poetry and it was long overdue - Carol Ann Duffy as laureate and Ruth Padel as prof. I am irritated Padel blew it, sorry for her too that she felt she had to give it up. I think she should have sat it out.

As for Clive James waiting in the wings, he's another of those old rich men, isn't he, like Felix Dennis, who wants some artistic credibility after a life-time of chatshows. There'll be plenty of bared teeth scavenging.

And Jeanette Winterson putting Alice Oswald up instead......I've always had respect for Winterson, but in this she's wrong. Oswald is a newcomer with upper class credentials but not a patch on many other women writing today, despite her prizes. A Farrow and Ball heritage poet.

Moniza Alvi gets my vote. She writes poetry that's of the moment and relevant. Yes, let's have a woman and let's have one who's writing about modern life in all its confusion, violence, emotional complexity, who celebrates small domestic tasks, who has explored the metaphorical world of being of mixed race with imaginative brilliance.

One in ten children now lives in a mixed race family and the figure is rising to the extent that very soon being mixed race will be the norm. (I hear cheers from Pedro Archanjo here, hero of Tent of Miracles, a story of candomble, spirits and the mixing of races written by that great Brazilian writer Jorge Amado).....

So Alvi is way ahead of her time, inventing the creative landscape to which so many as yet unborn writers will return. In fact, she is probably the only UK poet charting, in poetry, the demographic changes taking place in every UK town and city.

It was Ruth Padel, ironically, who reviewed Alvi's new collection, Europa, for the Guardian and wrote this:

"Her voice is spare, oblique, surreal, compassionate and original. She has unique insight into splits, both emotional and cultural: "The receding east, the receding west", as she laconically puts it. At the end of Split World, a selection from all her books, are the poems with which she became the first, and so far as I know the only, poet to explore sustainedly what 9/11 has meant to Muslims living in Europe.

"Alvi has trained as a counsellor, and her new collection, Europa, explores post-traumatic stress disorder and the meaning of rape while mining the international politics of east and west through the myth of Europa."

So if there's going to be a debate about who's the Oxford professor, let's have a proper one - consign celebrities and strategic networkers to the sidelines and we poets should have our say, not just the media pleasing novelists and rent-a-quotes.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Anish Kapoor The Dismemberment of Jeanne d'Arc

I heard the birds screeching from upstairs in my room. Ten minutes later there's another screech by my bed. The cat's brought one in. It's still alive and I pick it up, stretch the wings gently to see if they go back into place. I'm not sure if it's injured but it lets me carry it outside. The cat's prowling, furious. I shut her in the kitchen and put the bird in the apple tree. It's small with a speckled chest but not speckled enough to be a thrush, I think it's a female blackbird, probably exhausted from feeding chicks. The male's in the sycamore behind, still calling. A wren's joined in. I go back inside to keep the cat away from the catflap and when I go out again, it's managed to fly to a neighbour's pergola, I can see it in the vine. The male's still above me and it, watching, flying from branch to branch, calling. It calls back. I feed the cat, hoping to keep her away long enough for the female to make her escape. The wren moves up into the sycamore too, where one of the parents is keeping guard. When I look again, she seems to have left the vine. But the cat's prowling again. She's moved on from slow-worms, her regular offerings on my bedroom floor and in the hall.

Before Tiger brought the bird in, I was thinking about my trip to C-Curve last night with Maude when the sun had disappeared from the horizon but the sky was still light and there were fireworks on the pier. I spent most of the afternoon there yesterday, attempting to explain why people shouldn't touch it (fingerprints ruin the effect) and wanted to see it at a different time of day. Ewes and lambs were rushing down the hill as Maude and I were walking up. The Chattri's white dome stood out on the hillside. It was perfect. We missed the sunset, although the sky was spectacular in town, but it was quiet and the side facing away from the sea totally surprised me as we walked back to see it as a whole, not close up, as a phenomenon that delivered the light, land and sky we were among back as abstract shapes - blocks of blackness with that indefineable wash that's made when the sun's just gone, the stars emerge and the sky is luminous. It's a camping sky - when people are part of the earth and light is telling us something about travel, history, space, colour and stories. On the side facing the sea - in daytime my favourite side because it's more about panorama and breadth - Brighton seemed smaller, the fireworks little sparks of saltpetre.

What astonishes me is how that concave surface is a funfair hall of mirrors in daytime and hours later becomes a kind of outside Rothko triptich......until the fence goes up and the illusion, as with the theatre curtain, ends.

But the bird reminds me, too, of a story I heard about the Dismemberment of Jeanne d'Arc and the family of fox cubs living in a den inside the old fruit and veg market. When I was last there, I asked about marks on the mounds where the colour was gone and was told it was probably the cubs, playing at night. While I was there late one afternoon on the last shift, I was sure I could hear them behind the black netting that screens off spaces once occupied by particular wholesalers. Among the regular motor sounds of the pigeons, merging with traffic and once, perfectly, a scooter, there were the playscreams I hear outside at night sometimes when cubs take over our gardens and streets. This is the excitement of sculpture - it's made richer by everything around it. This might be obvious to artists and curators, but it's been a discovery for me.

In the old fruit and veg market, I couldn't get out of my mind a poem by Robert Minhinnick, The Fox in the National Museum of Wales. This is a verse from it:

Through the cubists and the surrealists
this fox shimmies surreptitiously,
past the artist who has sawn himself in half
under the formaldehyde sky
goes this fox shiny as a silver
fax in his fox coat,
for at a fox trot travels this fox
backwards and forwards in the museum.....

The picture from the Dismemberment of Jeanne D'Arc attempts to show how the light in that space works - rather like in a cathedral, I felt. I felt the calm of frankincense and sunlight through stained glass. Filtered light in big empty spaces is in the same league as twilight.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The C Curve and Chattri - Anish Kapoor on the Downs

Above the Chattri is the C Curve, part of the trail of Anish Kapoor sculptures that have taken Brighton Festival to an extraordinary level. I was there this afternoon with hundreds of other people, horses, dogs and sheep.

There were conversations about the Downs, engineering, physics, sculpture, and screams of excitement from kids. Kites appeared and disappeared. Figures were stretched and shrunk. The path up from the road was crowded and even later in the afternoon there were still carloads parking in the narrow lane. Some visitors were very familiar with Kapoor's work elsewhere, some had just heard about this mirror on the hill. A very angry man argued that it wasn't sculpture if it couldn't be touched.

It is strange to see so many people making this journey, sitting around a mirror, walking around it and marvelling at how stunning it makes our landscape - reflecting it all back to us on a massive screen - and how bizarre it makes us seem, on the other side, with our heads where our feet should be. And I wonder if Kapoor's 'don't touch' policy, by making us stand back, is gently suggesting that we need to contemplate as much as we need to feel.

It reminds me of a quote I have on my wall, borrowed from a fellow poet who was teaching's by Chuang Tzu: "The hearing that is in the ears is one thing. The hearing of the understanding is another. The whole being must listen."

There are some amazing thoughts on Kapoor's work in Brighton here:

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Anish Kapoor in Brighton

I left the Dismemberment of Jeanne d'Arc yesterday feeling emptied. So empty, in fact, that I found it hard to put words together. I wanted to lie on the grass somewhere and stare at the sky. In fact, I was doing a workshop with Jane. The installation by Anish Kapoor is in the old fruit and vegetable market off Grand Parade, a cavernous, netted space with speed limits on the walls and nets against the pigeons for a ceiling. Two vast piles of excavated waste sit at one end, two pitted trunks are splayed at the other. At the centre is a vast red hole.

I couldn't wander around it on my first visit because of preparations for a performance, so visiting yesterday was my first proper experience of it.

The space is a gift for an artist but Kapoor's used it well. I was delighted to be disorientated, to feel my mind had been wrung out and a little more space created, maybe, for other things. When I started looking at his work I was resistant, snagged up in the Rushdie words around Blood Relations, perplexed by the title of 1000 names (but that was my own cultural ignorance, I now realise). The Rushdie words are too loaded with everything else that is attached to a successful male novelist.

I was held up, too, by fame.

Working through all these issues was like cutting back the hedge of brambles on my allotment each year. There was a promise of something sustaining.

And yesterday, sitting in Pavilion gardens after the workshop with Jane and her partner David, we talked about the buzz that's come with these pieces placed around Brighton and about the discussion Kapoor's role has generated. This morning, though, I realised that there was something else that had worked on me yesterday and it's indefineable other than through comparing experience. It is starting to feel like my annual week at Doris (sadly not happening this year) when I set aside words and reconnect with movement and contemplation.

That's why the Doris hand is waving.

Monday, May 04, 2009

A riot in Brighton

Sirens all afternoon and I was picking spinach on the allotment, returning carpet squares to CarpetRight, baking apple cake and now, they're still going on after supper. The police helicopter emerged from mist as I came down the hill from Tenantry Down and earlier was hovering over Mouslecoomb where the arms manufacturer EDO has a factory. EDO allegedly makes parts for missiles used by the Israeli army.

I hadn't planned to go to the May Day demo against EDO, I wanted to walk up to the Chattri and see an Anish Kapoor sculpture. I stopped off at his Joan of Arc installation in the old fruit and veg market (it is amazing) and when I got to the pier saw Fred Pipes on his bike. Maude had told me she was going and so was my son. So I decided to join it as it moved off towards the town. It was laid back, good natured, a bit noisy but unthreatening.....

So what's so stunning, crazy, call it what you will, is the brute force demonstrated by the police for such a small gathering. (The scale of their preparation is evident from a YouTube video showing a whole street of riot vans parked up near Five Ways.)

Mounted police set off at first, then two meat wagons, then a chevron of demonstrators in black and masked, with the rest of us behind. There was no violence, but every side street off North Street had police in it and as Fred and I skived back into the north Laines later - the demo apparently heading for the factory - we watched the end of it. At the very back, a couple of cyclists and a woman pushing a baby in a buggy. Behind her, four or five transits of police, smirking.

Fred told me a funny story about a Critical Mass demo when so few people turned up that he and the other three or four demonstrators went for a cup of tea on the seafront. They were confronted by vanloads of police who asked what they were doing and they replied they were having their tea. Above them, the predictable helicopter.

Anyway, so I held my breath for the afternoon, wondering what would be going on in Moulsecoomb and hoping my son would stay away from the flashpoints. I recognised the danger signs just before Fred and I ducked out - groups of pissed men joining the crowd, sharp faced troublemakers like ferrets.

Then my daughter rang to tell me she'd gone to a friend's birthday barbeque at Preston Park, arriving shortly after so-called demonstrators had rushed through, scattering the bowls players and terrifying her friend. And then my son rang just now from the seafront to tell me it had turned into a full-blown riot.

Do the police see any small demonstration now as an opportunity for some riot training? Has this become our only visible sign of policing?

Not a copper in sight to get the drug dealer doing four or five drops a day from his car around where we live, or the one at the bottom of the road who's also been sleeping with an underage girl, or the one who's now moved but was known to police and was also a paedophile or the couple who do their deals a few doors up from the nursery in Whippingham Road, blatantly, so confident they won't be stopped by anyone because when do you ever see police around here?

Not a copper, even, half an hour after the rush through Preston Park to stop a mugging. Not a copper, apparently, even on the seafront to do anything about blatant dealing in the crowd.

Policing is easy when it's macho shield battering, riding a line of horses into battle, taunting people who are mostly genuine about wanting to voice their opinions about an arms factory on a housing estate in their home town.

Is this all it boils down to - law and order - a line of police cordoning off the Level, the street alongside Barclays, wasting our cash on a helicopter and alienating our teenagers?

The Brighton festival organisers must have been quaking today as the 'Brighton Riot' moved into the Pavilion gardens where there's 24 hour private security for Kapoor's sky mirror. Read this.......

According to the local paper, he was spotted watching the demo in Queen's Road.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Blood and ink

It's 8 am and I'm at my window, sun on the elms and hedges of my street. The elm leaves are between bud and full leaf. I was at Fabrica last night for a reading from The Tale of Genji by science fiction writer Gwyneth Jones (who's also Ann Hallam, a writer of novels for teenagers). What knowledge that woman has. It's part of a series - Blood and Ink - put together for the Anish Kapoor show at the gallery. Gwyneth took us through social history, the other writing of the time, her own fascination with the book and the way she's been influenced by it in her own writing.

Gwyneth's website is:

In the afternoon I was planning a workshop with Jane. The treat of doing this is often a glimpse of her studio. I went in yesterday feeling fractious and knackered and was stunned by the luminosity of her new paintings. The walls were full of fruit, flowers, porcelain and fabric and the colours are like perfume, or a blackbird, crickets.......I didn't want to leave. It was like opening a door into an old walled garden with orchard and rampant flowers in the middle of summer.

Jane's work is on sale during May at The Handmade House, Beards Place Farm, 98 Lewes Road, Ditchling:

There's a sculpture trail, food and jewellery too by the talented Emma Willcocks whose bracelets are never off my wrist. Emma, actually, reintroduced me to the pleasure of allotmenting when she asked me to share hers many years ago up near the racecourse, the one I still have.

And it's a busy time. I've been planting seeds, weeding etc. But for some bizarre reason my neck is rigid and I've been slipping in and out of a seam of anger, like a residue of winter muck. I'm trying to work out where it's coming from. Some is personal, but there's a fair bit stirred up by the world and its inequalities: the usual, men/women, poor/rich, confident/diffident/, powerful/disempowered.

Work no longer guarantees enough money to live on.

Men still have more influence than they deserve.

But maybe the only solution is to net the brassicas, keep slugs off the spinach and chard, scare birds from the redcurrants and leave the snarling, fighting and scrabbling for position, the mutual congratulations and building of towers to those who prefer air conditioning to the chalk slopes of the Downs.