making art – and finding poetry – in Nine Elms

When I saw a call-out earlier this year for artists’ proposals to make new work in Nine Elms on the theme of ‘movement + metamorphosis’, I knew I wanted to throw my hat in the ring. I’ve been following the changing nature of the area around me for years, and here was a chance for me to respond creatively to these changes.

The call-out, a new initiative from Wandsworth Council’s Nine Elms Arts and Culture team, stated that the decision about which proposals were commissioned would be made at a community event at the end of March. There were a few eligibility criteria to meet: artists had to live, work or study in Nine Elms/Battersea; the proposal had to include a budget of up to £3,000 including artists’ fees; and successful projects were expected to be delivered over the next six months.

There were also a few unknowns, such as how many proposals would be commissioned, and the format of the community decision making event (I was assured it would be informal and ‘not like Dragon’s Den’).

I made some notes, jotting down initial ideas and thinking about different approaches. I wanted to play to my strengths, but also to push myself. I thought about the short poetry residencies I undertook with Thrive in Battersea Park in 2016 and 2017; the construction site tours I led at Battersea Power Station several years ago; the collaborative booklet indoors looking out I made with the artist Stephen Graham in 2020; and the poetry taster workshops I ran at Battersea Park Library last year. And I asked myself: What am I good at? What do I enjoy? And importantly: how can I relate this to ‘movement + metamorphosis’?

I realised I wanted to include a participatory element, and also to create something tangible. Gradually my ideas began to coalesce: three workshops for members of the local community, each starting with a walk around part of the Nine Elms area, on which we’d gather found text: words and phrases from construction signs, billboards, graffiti, overheard snippets of conversation and so on. Then, at the ROSE Community Clubroom, I’d deliver a workshop using some of the found texts as prompts for creative writing, so participants could write a poem in response to the changes in Nine Elms. Following the workshops, I planned to create three poems from the found texts, one for each walk, which would be published in a free booklet alongside contributions from workshop participants. 

After more ruminating, I came up with a title for my proposal: found ~ flow ~ flux. As well as a 250 word proposal I had to submit a CV and itemised budget; all sent on the morning of the deadline. Only a week later I heard that my submission had met the eligibility criteria, so the next hurdle was the community decision making event on the evening of 25th March. Now, I’ve never watched Dragon’s Den, but I have a pretty good idea that the style is combative, so being told the event was ‘not like Dragon’s Den’, somewhat counterintuitively, did not reassure me.

The event took place in the main hall of the ROSE Community Clubroom. A2 boards, one for each of the 20 or so eligible proposals, were displayed on the walls, with an outline of the project, budget, and example of the artists’ work. Most of the artists attended, as well as local residents and people who work in the area. And although I was nervous at first, the supportive energy in the room was soon palpable. 

We had time to look at the different proposals, to chat and mingle, and marvel at the range of exciting and varied ideas. And then, the most nerve-wracking part, three minutes each to present our idea and explain how it met the key criteria: 

  • the idea has artistic merit/is of high quality
  • is relevant to and reflective of the diverse communities of Nine Elms
  • will reach people in Nine Elms and allow new voices to be heard
  • delivers good value for money

Some of the artists had brought props – paint, clay, some kind of martial arts sticks – but as a writer I relied on words. Every presentation was cheered and applauded, and it was great to see so many talented people gathered in one room. Apart from council staff and event facilitators Elizabeth Lynch and Aminita Francis, everyone attending had a ballot paper listing all the artists’ proposals, and voted for first and second choice following the presentations. The council officials disappeared into a side room to count the votes, while the rest of us continued discussing what a wealth of creative talent and exciting ideas exist in our neck of the woods. And when the seven commissioned projects were announced in alphabetical order by first name I noted them all down – with an exclamation mark against my own name!

It may sound cheesy, but it truly is an honour to be one of the first artists commissioned by my peers and the community to create new work in Nine Elms/Battersea. I’m really looking forward to working with the community to transform some of the words we’re surrounded by in our environment into poems – to create a poetic snapshot of Nine Elms in 2022, just before Battersea Power Station opens to the public.

You can read more about the initiative and the successful proposals on the Nine Elms London website.

Signs galore at Nine Elms Park construction site

that live vibe

What a buzz it was to read to a real live audience last Thursday. Around 16 people attended my reading at Putney Library and it could hardly have gone better. There was applause! There were smiling faces! There was even a Bravo!

I split my set into three sections, reading first from Triptych Poets, followed by some of the short poems in indoors looking out and a few urban nature themed poems. And for the last section, I read poems from London Undercurrents, reading poems from the north side of the river as well as the south, as Joolz couldn’t make it to Putney that evening. It was her poem What Did You Do in the War, Granny? that elicited the Bravo! I was a bit overwhelmed at the end, unused to live applause, and I think I made a little bow. Afterwards, there was time to chat to some of those who came and to sell and sign some books*. No wonder I was buzzing!

And it was great to have three guest readers from Clapham Originals, the monthly poetry workshop group I belong to, reading a couple of poems each to add some variety and show what a talented bunch the Originals are. My thanks to Claire Collison, Steve Hoy and Clapham Originals’ ringleader Tessa Lang for their contribution to a fizzing evening of poetry. A big thank you to the Putney Library staff, too, for being so welcoming and hosting the event.

*I have copies of indoors looking out and Triptych Poets available from my Shop page.

Putney Library 3rd February 2022
Reading from indoors looking out
Reading my poem Lone Piper in Battersea Park from the Words of Wandsworth anthology

Photos: Nick Rogers

a display, a reading, and a little poetry news

Late last year Stephen Graham, with whom I collaborated on the booklet indoors looking out, mentioned he was planning a show of new work at Putney Library, and that there was an empty display case in the library, which he suggested I could use to showcase some of my books and any related visual material.

The idea appealed to me, so I paid a visit to the library to check out the display case, and also spoke to one of the library staff, who was encouraging and also supportive of me doing a reading in the library.

Then last week I gathered up copies of a range of books my work has appeared in, including Paper Swans Press’s The Pocket Book of Suffrage, Salt Publishing’s Best British Short Stories 2021, my one published novel, Hearts on Ice (Serpent’s Tail, 2000), various poetry and short story anthologies, and of course London Undercurrents – over five years of research and writing with my poetry mate Joolz Sparkes packed into that handsome orange Holland Park Press book. I also ransacked our bookcases for books that are close to my heart, by writers who have influenced and inspired me. And how could I not include some of the music that fundamentally changed me, in my miserable late teens and early twenties? Bands such as The Birthday Party and The Triffids, who’d relocated to London, whose lyrics were burnt into my brain. London – the destination on my one-way ticket when I felt I had to force a change in my life. So, yes, I packed some vinyl. Nick helped me carry all those heavy books to Putney Library and set them up in the display case. Stephen’s Graham’s show of new work, which he describes as word or poem pictures, is on in the library until 6th February, alongside paintings by Gary Chappell. You can check out my book-and-record display until then, and maybe spot a few quirky items in there too.

To coincide with the display, I’ll be reading a selection of poems from my œuvre (please allow a little pretentiousness, the giddy delight of seeing my work in a display case has gone to my head) in Putney Library on Thursday 3rd February, 6:30 to 7:30pm. There’ll be some guest readers too, for added variety. It’s free, all welcome but please wear a mask unless you’re exempt. And make sure you check out the library’s Gallery space, showing Stephen Graham’s word pictures and Gary Chappell’s paintings.

Lastly, I was thrilled to be selected as one of the winners of The Poetry Society’s Members competition on the theme of ‘Survival & Extinction’, judged by Sujata Bhatt. She had to read 668 pages of poetry and could only select six poems as the winners, so it is quite an honour. The winning poems are published in the winter issue of Poetry News, which is sent to all members of The Poetry Society. The poems are also available on the Society’s website – you can read my poem Late Questions here.

half a dozen joys

It’s not been the easiest year, but here are a few things that have brought me joy:

Flickerbook by Leila Berg, published by CB editions. I have read quite a lot this year but this is the book that immediately comes to mind as my favourite. I loved it from the very first page. Berg’s autobiography is so sharp, vivid, funny and believable. It really gave me a sense of being inside the mind of a very young, very curious girl, growing up in the Jewish community in Manchester in the early 20th century. Truly a joy to read, even as the story gets darker as the rise of fascism and the Second World War overshadow her adolescence.

The Beatles’ song Blackbird performed by tenor Allan Clayton with the Aurora Orchestra. I’m not a big Beatles fan but when I heard this version on Radio 3 I was captivated. You can listen to it here. I could listen to it on repeat all day.

Mending my own clothes. Yes, I can sew on a button, maybe stitch a bit of a hem that’s come unstitched. This year I have tackled slightly more tricky repairs, inspired by Repair What You Wear, in an attempt to extend the wear of clothes I already own and love. I’ve darned a lot of holes in my jumpers, and restitched the seams on pair of gloves, which were coming apart where the thumb joins the main part of the glove. They’re not invisible repairs, I expect I’ll be re-darning some of those holes, but I find the process meditative and rewarding.

Gazing up at the sky. Or gazing out of the window at dawn, seeing the sky lighten and briefly smoulder as the sun rises. The sky over the River Thames. Clouds, sunsets, contrails. All this colourful changing drama for free. Never fails to lift my spirits. Well, okay, some days a sky of low brooding clouds mirrors my state of mind too closely, but mostly, yes, looking up at the sky is a tonic.

Yoga. A new departure for me, and one I probably wouldn’t have tried if not for the free community yoga sessions on my estate delivered by Live Karma Yoga in partnership with The Foundation LBT. I did a couple of sessions last year, but it’s really since the summer this year that I’ve been going regularly. For that hour on my mat, I’m focussed on breathing and following the yoga flow. I’m getting better at balancing on one leg (yay!), and have surprised myself with some of the positions I can achieve. But really it’s about the unconditional support I feel in the group, and focussing on my wellbeing for that one hour in the week.

I took in an orchid plant earlier this year and have kept it alive! Look at this beautiful spread of flowers. All I’ve done is soak it in water for half an hour once a week, and say a few encouraging words to it. I can’t see anymore buds coming through, so its glory days may be over, but it has brought me so much simple joy.

Wishing you and your loved ones brighter days in 2022.

Best British Short Stories 2021

I’m beyond delighted that my short story, The Red Suitcase, is included in Best British Short Stories 2021 edited by Nicholas Royle and published by Salt Publishing.

The Red Suitcase was originally published as a limited edition short-story chapbook by Nightjar Press in October 2020, but is now sold out.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading one story a day from the collection and have now read all of the 20 stories, bar my own (I know what happens in that one). What fabulous company to be among! From the opening story, Rings by Tom Bromley, which caught me off guard with its perfectly judged brevity, to the final story, 99 Customer Journey Horror by Iphgenia Baal, a nightmarish accumulation of property developer jargon, there are stories to enthral and intrigue you, unsettle and even inhabit you. Particular highlights for me included Leather by A. J. Ashworth (compellingly strange, à la Angela Carter), Wendigo by Julia Armfield (glad I read this one during the day, not right before sleep!) and Hair by Isha Karki, a disturbing tale of sexual politics, where boys climb girls’ hair.

Reading this anthology has made me even more excited for my role as one of the judges for the 2021 Manchester Fiction Prize. I’m really looking forward to reading a (very large) bunch of short stories, and seeing what kind of journeys those stories take me and my fellow judges on. The competition is open for entries until 5pm (UK time) on Friday 28th January 2022, so if you’re thinking of entering get writing, editing and polishing now. Good luck!

Poetry taster workshops – TICK

On Tuesday, I led the last of five poetry taster workshops at Battersea Park Library. Considering I first started planning these with the library staff nearly two years ago, this feels like quite an achievement. We’d aimed to start in early spring 2020, but we all know what happened.

Personally, it’s also an achievement, as I’ve not run many workshops, and still struggle with that inner voice that tells me I’m a fraud. So a big pat on the back for me. And guess what? I really enjoyed the sessions and it seems the participants did too! We had some good discussions about the sample poems I brought to each session, and it was great to hear the different ways individuals responded to the exercises. There was also quite a lot of laughter. Phew! Writing poetry can be fun, as well as serious.

I spent a lot of time planning the sessions and searching for poems to share. All of this enriches my own practice, of course. I scribbled away during the free writing and other exercises in each session too, so have some material of my own to work on. Our librarian has offered to display some of the poems written as part of these sessions in the library, which will be rewarding to see. And judging by feedback from my attendees, there is definitely appetite for further poetry writing sessions.

After Tuesday’s session, I spent a bit of time reflecting on how it all went and what I can learn form the experience. My top ‘takeaway’ has to be that I need to learn to trust and have confidence in my ideas. Second on the list: an hour is not very long!

I must also say a big thank you to Troy, one of Wandsworth Libraries’ staff and an accomplished poet in his own right, who assisted with the sessions, keeping an eye on timings and generally being on hand for anything I needed, as well as offering his own poetic insights! Long live libraries and poetry!

Happy Wombat Day

Today is Wombat Day, a day to celebrate those wonderful marsupials found only in Australia.

The only time I remember seeing a wombat in the wild was as a child, on a slushy snowy mountainside, possibly Mt Buller, on a day trip with my family. It was probably the first time I’d seen snow too. The wombat was large, sturdy, and somehow mysterious. Despite its bulk, I seem to remember it vanished from sight almost as soon as we’d spotted it.

I have one wombat poem, which is currently out on submission to a magazine. If it doesn’t find its way into print before next year’s Wombat Day, I’ll publish it here.

I think we could all do with more wombat content in our lives, so here are couple of photos from Unsplash, a great site for free to use images. And on a more serious note, wombats, like many of Australia’s unique species, are under threat from habitat loss, disease and the effects of climate change. You can find out more from WIRES, Australia’s largest wildlife rescue organisation.

Wombat grazing in the Tasmanian wild!
Photo by Nico Smit on Unsplash 
“Sleeping Wombat”. A young wombat enjoys a nap.
Photo by David Clode on Unsplash 

Tube now arriving at Battersea Power Station station

The new Northern Line extension from Kennington to Nine Elms and Battersea Power Station opened this morning. I’ve lived in Battersea for a long time, and for most of that time I never thought the mooted tube line would arrive, so I was not going to miss this historic day. The first tube out of Battersea Power Station station departed at 5:28 a.m., when I was still fast asleep. I’d heard that the London Mayor Sadiq Khan was due to arrive at the BPS terminus at 8:30, with the Battersea Power Station Community Choir lined up to sing on the platform as his tube drew in, and assumed this would be VIPs only. When I rocked up at the Battersea Power Station entrance around 8:45, there were lots of people milling around and a real buzz in the air. I met the first passenger to arrive at the station on the through train from Mill Hill East, Peter Torre, and also managed to snap Sadiq Khan.

Then I headed down the long escalators and set off on my first trip on the Northern Line extension. I travelled through to Kennington, then crossed platforms and after a short wait got the tube one stop back to Nine Elms. Here I alighted and walked around the nearby streets and edge of New Covent Garden Market, and found that Arch 42 is open, but yet to be transformed by Projects Office. There are also some new hoardings on the walk through New Covent Garden Market to Nine Elms Station with artwork by Anna Nicoló. Another outing then for my Oyster card as I tapped back in at Nine Ems station and waited for the tube back one stop to Battersea Power Station station.

I rounded off my morning with a walk around my manor, checking out the recent changes to the ongoing development of the Battersea Power Station site, and treated myself to an oatmeal flat white in Black Sheep Coffee. More than enough excitement for a Monday morning!

writing local / local writing

I’m happy to have a poem included in a new anthology, Words of Wandsworth, edited by Emily Zinkin, and supported by Wandsworth Libraries and Heritage Service and Moishe House. The anthology includes poems, short stories, art and photography by Wandsworth residents, with each contribution featuring an aspect of the borough of Wandsworth in some way. My poem, Lone Piper in Battersea Park, is one I’ve being trying to find a home for for quite some time, and has undergone the odd bit of tinkering and then a hard pruning, before finally landing safely in this local anthology.

The anthology was launched with an outdoor party on Wandsworth Common a couple of weeks ago, and it was great to meet some of the other writers and artists, some of whom were seeing their work in print for the very first time – always a special moment. There was fizz, cake and even a bit of sunshine. You can find out more about the anthology, order a print copy, or download a pdf version for free on the Words of Wandsworth website.

I’ve also contributed a poem to the Royal Society of Literature’s Write Across London Map. This project aims ‘to create a poetic snapshot of the city at an historic moment in its life’, with poems reflecting Londoners’ experiences of the pandemic and lockdown. Anyone living in London is invited to send in a poem for the map, with submissions closing on National Poetry Day, Thursday 7th October. You can read my poem In Other News here.

And in other other news, I’m preparing to run a series of free poetry taster workshops at my local Battersea Park library, starting on Tuesday 2nd November. The sessions are designed for adults with little or no experience of writing poetry to take their first steps in an informal and supportive environment. Spaces are limited so please contact the library if you are interested on 020 7720 4122 or batterseapark.library@gll.org