I am an immigrant. Have you heard of this campaign? Have you seen the posters? What an urgent and vital voice it seems at the moment.

I am an immigrant too. I was born and grew up in Australia. I lived in Melbourne until my early twenties when I decided to move to London. My father was Scottish, which means I have dual Australian and British nationality. An accident of birth.

My story is not extraordinary. I wasn’t fleeing persecution or civil war. All I had to do was obtain my British passport and purchase a one-way ticket to London. My reasons for migrating weren’t economic, but personal and probably a bit mixed up. I arrived in London at a time of high unemployment. Ironically, one of my first jobs was working in an Unemployment Benefit Office. I remember the long queues on signing on days, and the antiquated ticker-tape computer, which was operated by a rather fierce woman, feeding the tape into the machine to send data to Reading. Happy days.

I am acutely aware of my privilege/luck/good fortune/luxury—to have the choice of two countries to reside in—both relatively stable and with all the first-world trappings we take for granted. I’ve been able to fashion my life broadly as I’ve wanted, and my struggles are mostly around writing and seeking some kind of creative fulfilment (whatever that might mean).

Yet on our doorstep, desperate people risk their lives to escape deeply desperate situations. There is an issue around language, here, and it matters at some level I think. In many of the reports I’ve read about Calais, and the boats sinking off the coast of Libya, and the abandoned lorry in Austria, the tragic victims are referred to as “migrants”. The word “refugee” seems to have gone missing. To my mind, the word “migrant” diminishes or disguises the extreme plight which such people are fleeing. A few other terms worth rehabilitating would be “humanity” and “compassion”.

We’re full of awe for nature’s epic migrations. Why do we find it so hard to acknowledge, let alone celebrate, similar tenacity and spirit in our own species?

strong stuff

August 8, 2015

Clothes can change your state of mind. Imagine you live in late Victorian times. You are in a state of extreme mental distress, and have been admitted to Bethlem Hospital. Perhaps you believe your soul has been lost, or all your organs have been removed, or some great harm is imminent. Early in your stay, you are dressed in strong clothing — a heavy dress, lined with felt, laced at the back, and with sleeves that enclose your hands in mittens. How does that make you feel? Safe and comforted? Cared for? Or restricted, controlled, imprisoned?

The current exhibition at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, held, is a series of photographs by Jane Fradgley, portraying some of the items of strong clothing from the Museum’s archive. Fradgley’s tender photographs capture the ambivalence of these garments, resulting in portraits — rather than clinical documentation — that are beautiful and haunting, or haunted. The mostly life-size photos hang in the new gallery space, and when I visited last week, I was struck by the calm and contemplative feel of the show, despite the troubling nature of the subject matter.

I got to know Jane last year, and we’d had a couple of long conversations about her held project, and some of the issues that strong clothing raises. I was fascinated to learn that very little is known about the history of the garments — who made them, the circumstances in which they’d been used, how much compulsion or consent was involved. With a background in fashion, Jane’s interest is also in the fabrics and the details, such as a frill around the neckline, which make these more than mere instruments of restraint. We discussed how the idea of being held encompasses both comfort — being hugged, for example — and enforced restraint. When Jane asked if I would consider writing a poem for her proposed book of photographs, I accepted what felt like a rather daunting challenge.

The resulting poem, Strong Medicine, had a long gestation. Jane emailed me copies of her images, the clothes floating against a white/cream or more often black background — disembodied, voiceless, yet speaking a mixture of delicacy and pain, something like a husk or shadow of accumulated anguish. Jane had lent me Presumed Curable, a book of photographs taken in the late 19th century of Bethlem Hospital patients, with brief accounts of the circumstances of their admission and eventual discharge — though some patients initially ‘presumed curable’ ended their days in the hospital. The acute distress of most patients is palpable even in the short accounts, with many expressing a feeling that their soul was lost or had died. When I came to write the poem, I was thinking about how many individual crises each item of strong clothing had contained — the specifics now vanished — and tried to bring out what might have been healing and hopeful in that experience.

My poem is included in the handsome booklet that accompanies the exhibition, along with reproductions of a number of photos and a short essay, all for only £2.00. A limited edition hand-bound book featuring 36 photos, my poem and other texts, is being launched at the gallery on 19th August. held, a thought-provoking and poignant exhibition, is on until 21st August.

Hilaire:

If you’re in or near London, it would be great to see you at the South Bank Poetry issue 21 launch this Friday. The editors promise a bit of a ‘coming of age’ party!

Originally posted on London Undercurrents:

We’re dead chuffed to have two London Undercurrents poems included in the Summer Issue 21 of South Bank Poetry. And we’ll be reading, along with a number of other contributors, at the magazine’s launch this Friday 31st July at the Poetry Café, 22 Betterton Street, London WC2H 9BX, from 7:45 p.m.

SBP’s launch events are always lively and varied, so come along and immerse yourself in some fine London and urban poetry. Admission £6.50/£5.50 concs. includes a copy of Issue 21, hot off the press!

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Je suis Grecque

July 7, 2015

I am heliocentric.
I am drama after drama.
I am lemon, honey, olive groves.
I am roadside weeds
and fresh baked bread.
I am Homer, Sappho, Socrates.
I am both thalassa
and Thanatos,
a spartan Epicurean.
Call me an oxymoron if you will.
I am winding roads,
sheer drops, wild thyme.
Goatish tenacity.
I am rembetika
and November 17.
I am the little o of omicron
the heavy aspiration of chi
the iota of hope we all need.
I am όχι.

Yesterday, it was hot and sunny in London. Yesterday, millions of US citizens celebrated Independence Day. Yesterday, Shaker Aamer endured another day held without charge in Guantanamo Bay, denied his most basic human rights, shackled, force-fed, kept in solitary confinement; trapped in a grim Kafkaesque legal no-man’s-land where he has been cleared for release for over seven years and yet he is still detained, where the UK’s “special relationship” with the US apparently holds no sway. Yesterday, Shaker’s children suffered another day without their father.

Yesterday, I joined a vigil for Shaker Aamer outside the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square. Speakers from the Save Shaker Aamer Campaign and Amnesty International demanded his immediate release back to his family in Battersea and called on President Obama to end the torture of force-feeding and solitary confinement and to finally make good on his promise to close Guantanamo. Activists mimed the force-feeding process, some acting as camp guards in combat fatigues and others as detainees, in orange boiler suits, black hoods and shackled at the ankles. One by one the detainees were dragged to a restraining chair where they were strapped in and held down while a doctor mimed thrusting a feeding pipe into one of the detainee’s nostrils. Other protestors read out testimony from former detainees of their experience of force-feeding – shockingly brutal and dehumanising. One of the activists who had taken on the role of a detainee described her short stint in the restraining chair as horrible and frightening – and this without a nasal pipe jammed down into her stomach and pumping in liquid ‘nourishment’ for up to two hours at a time.

After this powerful enactment, I read my poem for Shaker Aamer Letter from Battersea. I hope I never have to read this poem again. I fear though that I will. Cameron, ObamaFree Shaker Aamer. Bring him home.

enactment of force-feeding, Grosvenor Square, 4th July 2015

enactment of force-feeding, Grosvenor Square, 4th July 2015

reading Letter from Battersea, Grosvenor Square, 4th July 2015

reading Letter from Battersea, Grosvenor Square, 4th July 2015

poets, gardens, roofs

June 15, 2015

In late April, I attended a one day workshop at the Poetry School, which offered the opportunity to be a poet-in-residence in a London park or garden as part of the Open Garden Squares Weekend. In the morning, we were bombarded with information and ideas about how to run a residency, and in the afternoon we did some writing exercises to help us think about different approaches to create new garden or plant themed poems. On the day, we were also allocated the garden we would be resident in – except there was a hitch with the south London park I’d expressed an interest in. They’re keen to work with a poet, but had withdrawn from the Open Garden Squares Weekend. I’m still hoping to set something up, but unlike the other poets in the workshop, I didn’t have a looming deadline.

That deadline was the weekend just gone, the 13th and 14th of June. While I’ve been trying to make contact and tee up a meeting with ‘my’ park, I’ve also been following the progress of the other poets-in-residence via a closed group on the Poetry Society’s Campus website. One of the key messages we all took away from the workshop was to fashion our individual residency to the particular garden or park where we’d be located and to what suited us in terms of time commitment and temperament. Each approach has been different, and it’s been great to observe the residencies evolve and share part of that process. One or two of the other participants have also had some frustrations along the way, and again this was one of the things we were told to expect – it’s not all plain sailing!

On Sunday afternoon, I managed to visit a few of the gardens, starting with Fann Street Wildlife Garden on the edge of the Barbican estate, where Stephanie Norgate was poet-in-residence for the weekend. The garden, created on an old WW2 bombsite, is normally only accessible to Barbican residents, but from Stephanie’s accounts of her visits there in the run up to her residency, it sounded like one not to miss. There’s a wildflower meadow, a small pond, an insect hotel and even a fox den. Stephanie gave a couple of short readings while I was there, one by the fox den where she read a John Clare poem about a fox, paired with a poem she had written in response to the space; and another by the pond, three short poems recounting visitations by birds during her time in the garden. She also had postcards of two poems she was handing out to visitors, as well as asking people to write a few words about the garden on a luggage tag, which she will work into a collaborative poem. After another wander around the garden, admiring the poppies and foxgloves, tuning into birdsong, and chatting with some of the volunteers, I was ready to commit pencil to tag and make my own small contribution to the collaborative poem.

Fann Street Wildlife Garden collaborative poem

Fann Street Wildlife Garden collaborative poem

Next stop was the Postman’s Park to visit Ann Perrin, a Londoner now living in Brighton, who was thrilled to be given the chance to write in and about the Postman’s Park. Her enthusiasm extended to creating a small replica postbox for visitors to post their poems in, and planting out a poetry flower bed with some of the many poems she has written in response to the beautiful and historically rich garden. Ann also had a leaflet printed that she was giving away, featuring four short poems.

Poetry flower bed, Postman's Park

Poetry flower bed, Postman’s Park

The last garden I visited was the roof terrace of the Nomura building at 1 Angel Lane, opened up for the Open Garden Squares Weekend, but otherwise not accessible to the public. Julia Bird was the poet-in-residence here, and her poem For the Rooftop Gardeners of Nomura was printed in the brochure handed out to visitors. I’d missed Julia, as it was quite late in the afternoon when I got there, but I know she was also planning to create a collaborative poem with input from the public. The roof terrace has spectacular views, and the kitchen garden celebrated in Julia’s poem is certainly inspiring. But the very formal landscaping of the rest of the garden didn’t really appeal to me.

Before Nomura, I ventured up to Eversheds Vegetable Garden, another rooftop space normally closed to the public. There was no poet-in-residence here, but I find it hard to resist a view. And the views are stunning, but what I hadn’t anticipated was the other-worldly atmosphere, serene yet also vaguely post-apocalyptic. As you step out between plant machinery onto the 7th floor roof, you discover a carpet of red sedum dotted with wildflowers. There are bee hives, and in one corner the vegetable garden created and maintained, in their lunch hours, by Marta and Julie. As well as lettuces and radishes, there are strawberries and raspberries, flowering lemon trees, containers growing both potatoes and tomatoes. I think it was the sedum that seduced me. Soft and squishy underfoot, it felt like I was trespassing in a Tarkovsky landscape. I didn’t want to leave. I wonder whether Eversheds would be interested in a poet-in-residence?

Eversheds' sedum roof

Eversheds – sedum roof

Eversheds Vegetable Garden

Eversheds Vegetable Garden

I’d normally run a mile from a ‘family fun day’, but last Saturday I set aside my prejudices and lent a hand at my community roof garden for their annual Chelsea Fringe event.

I’m actually a keyholder for the garden now, and on the friendly-and-informal committee, but my gardening still hasn’t progressed much beyond appreciating everything green and growing and wishing I knew more plant names. I have written a poem that addresses this, which is yet to be released into the world. But I genuinely love the idea of our community garden, and it is a lovely haven between the tower blocks. Events such as the fun day are important for reaching out to the local community and spreading the word that the garden is there for everyone to enjoy.

A call went out first thing for help with food preparation, as our designated cook had fallen ill. So I spent the first hour our so chopping apples, bananas, grapes and strawberries for a mega fruit salad – and managed to avoid self-inflicted knife wounds. Then, up to the garden, where there were stalls set out promoting local groups, an opportunity for people to contribute to a decorated sign for the garden, a snail hunt with a prize for whoever caught the most snails, Capoeira workshops on the central lawn – and the garden itself, looking splendid in the June sunshine.

Doddington & Rollo Community Roof Garden in full bloom

Doddington & Rollo Community Roof Garden in full bloom

For much of the afternoon I kept an eye on the refreshments table, dispensing fruit squash, water, teas and coffees. And hot chocolate. A charmingly confident 8 year old instructed me in her preferred method  of making hot chocolate, and from then on I had a steady queue of children requesting this beverage.

There was a barbecue lunch with plenty of healthy salads, lots of adults milling around chatting, even more kids running around and indubitably having fun. And local theatre group fanSHEN brought their interactive show The Apple Cart to the garden. From the bits I saw, in between serving hot chocolate to thirsty pre-teens, the fanSHEN troupe had many of the children enthralled, taking part in breakout activities and pedalling away on a sort of stationary unicycle to power the music.

fanSHEN bring The Apple Cart to the roof

fanSHEN bring The Apple Cart to the roof

Officially, the event ended at 4:00. But when I left at 4:30, after a patrol round the garden with a bin bag collecting wind-strewn plastic cups and paper plates, there were still lots of people making the most of the warm weather and the peaceful surroundings. That was very rewarding to see. Thanks to all the volunteers who made it such a successful day.

All snails were successfully rehomed

Snail hunt – all snails were successfully rehomed

devouring Barracuda

May 25, 2015

The book: Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

Start time: Thursday 14th May approximately 11 p.m.

Finish time: Sunday 24th May approximately 8:45 a.m.

Number of pages: 513

This is fast for me. I’d wanted to read this for a while but it looked like a chunky novel and not one I could easily carry around with me. I’ve been a Tsiolkas fan ever since I read Loaded many years ago, and I’ve written before that I think he’s one of the most important contemporary Australian writers around.

I’ve been reading a lot of poetry recently – pamphlets, collections, magazines – and had a  real hankering to read fiction, to be immersed in a novel. On that Thursday 14th May, we had a good friend staying over, a fellow writer and expat, who’d read Barracuda in a couple of days the Christmas before last. Her enthusiasm prompted me to dive in, and I read in long chunks, mostly in bed, at the start and end of the day. The writing is vivid and gripping, and what I love about Tsiolkas is that he tackles difficult issues – or his characters do – head on. They have conversations and arguments. They live in the real world, and struggle with what it is to be human, and as the blurb says ‘what it is to be a good person – and what it takes to become one.’

The novel is about dreams for success and what happens when failure strikes. The central character, Daniel Kelly, is on course to become an Olympic swimmer when that dream implodes. The book deals with class – and despite what many people seem to think, Australia is not a classless society; the violence that simmers and occasionally erupts in social interactions, and which is reflected in a coarseness of language; the ambivalent role of sport in Australian society; and the complexities of family and home. There are wonderful passages describing the experience of swimming, and Tsiolkas draws parallels between reading and swimming as Kelly later finds stillness and meaning through books: ‘words were the water and reading was swimming.

Tsiolkas is a thoroughly engaged – and engaging – writer. Barracuda left me feeling, not homesick exactly, but wishing that I could write about London the way he writes about Melbourne. Is anyone doing that?

On Wednesday evening we attended a free event at the Poetry Library discussing and celebrating the poetry of B.S. Johnson, who is better known for his experimental novels such as The Unfortunates. I’d prepared for the event by reading the selection of Johnson’s poetry published in Penguin Modern Poets 25 (1975) – an old secondhand copy I’d tracked down a couple of years ago. In recent years many of Johnson’s novels have been republished, and a collection of his films released on DVD, but his poetry remains out of print. Chris McCabe, librarian at the Poetry Library, introduced the evening, revealing that while Johnson’s poetry is rarely requested, his books are often stolen from the library, an indication of his cult status as a poet.

Alan Brownjohn, resplendent in a red suit, spoke warmly of his friend Bryan, recalling that in the 1964 general election B.S. Johnson had given up a fortnight of his valuable time to drive Alan around as he campaigned in a distant electorate. He read three of Johnson’s poems, including The Short Fear, a late, bleak poem, and the very funny Love – All – the latter characteristic of Johnson’s ‘Cockney ruefulness’, according to Brownjohn. He also remarked on the candour and honesty of Johnson’s poetry, particularly in relation to rejection and rebuffs – concerns that will be familiar to readers of his novels. Brownjohn described Johnson, chucklingly, as ‘a connoisseur of defeat’.

Juila Jordan, from UCL, argued that Johnson’s poetry is a ‘memorialisation of failure’ and the poems often end in an anti-epiphany. This rings true for me from the poems I’ve read. She observed there are many poems that begin with architectural or structural observation, such as the poem Myddleton Square, and then move to a lack or void or absence to undercut and end the poem. There’s a bathetic quality, which I also recognised. ‘Nothingness at the heart of everything’, as Jordan said, and I certainly felt Beckett’s shadow hovering over Johnson’s poems. This is a good thing, in my book!

Shoestring Press publisher John Lucas, like Alan Brownjohn, had been a friend of B.S. Johnson, and recounted first meeting him after a talk at Nottingham University when Johnson had railed against academia. Lucas had quoted part of Johnson’s poem In Yates’s to him, and they subsequently repaired to the very same Yates’s Winelodge. Asked who his favourite poets were, Johnson had replied, to Lucas’s surprise, Robert Graves and the little known Cornish poet Jack Clemo.

Julia Jordan had referred to Johnson’s decision to write in syllabics and there was some disagreement between her and John Lucas as to how successfully this works in his poems. Lucas’s view is that Johnson was not naturally a poet, and that his use of syllabics creates a hippity-hoppity rhythm that undermines the poem. Julia Jordan conceded that some of the poems are problematic – not least those that display a misogynistic streak – but suggested that in some ways his poetry is a more successful expression of his key concerns (the problems of honesty in writing, his obsession with causality, the attempt to present chaos) than his novels. Chris McCabe observed that Johnson’s poems are conventional in terms of form and asked where the experimental or avant-garde side of Johnson resides in his poetry. Julia Jordan’s response was that the content is the radical element in the poems.

All of the above is, of course, my recollection and paraphrase, pulled together from the notes I took at the time. What it perhaps doesn’t convey is the humour in so many of Johnson’s poems, as in his other work. And what a stimulating and uplifting event it was, a celebration indeed. It surely says something that the work of this ‘connoisseur of defeat’ is still being debated, read, argued about, more than 40 years after his death.

eight week review

April 27, 2015

It’s just over eight weeks since I quit my job and time is doing that weird thing it seems to do of speeding up and filling up the more ‘free’ time one has. So I thought it might be good to take a step back and reflect on what I’ve done in that period.

I’ve written six new poems and reworked two old ones into much better shape. I’ve submitted a couple for an anthology and I’m deciding where to send the others. I’ve also written three short prose pieces, each in response to a specific call for submissions, so they’re out there now and time will tell whether I’ve hit the mark or not.

Joolz Sparkes and I performed a bunch of our London Undercurrents poems at March’s Fourth Friday and were buoyed by how well they were received. Since then, I’ve been researching ideas for new LU poems, including reading a lot of, and about, Angela Carter.

On Easter Saturday I attended a one day poetry workshop in a small group with Ruth O’Callaghan, around her dining room table, partly fuelled by mini gold-wrapped chocolate rabbits provided by one of the other participants. I’d booked back in January, and didn’t know what to expect, but came away with a handful of rough drafts, and a burning desire to read more Alice Oswald. One of the poems we’d looked at was Oswald’s strange and powerful Autobiography of a Stone.

Last Monday, I went along to my first local Stanza group session, and found it welcoming and stimulating. It’s still fairly new for me to share work in progress, especially with a group of people I’ve never met before, and I’m also not terribly confident in giving feedback on others’ work – it’s hard enough being articulate about my own! – but this feels like something I need to expose myself to. I left with my sense of myself as a writer still intact, and intend to go along to next month’s meeting.

As well as all this, I’ve been to a number of readings and events, one of the highlights being the private view of the Prunella Clough retrospective at the Osborne Samuel Gallery. Clough is one of my favourite painters. I love her muted palette and her subject matter – industrial spaces, overlooked detail, the scraps and discarded elements of mid to late twentieth century England. I’d been excited to read in Frances Spalding’s excellent monograph Prunella Clough: Regions Unmapped that in the 1950s Clough had spent time sketching in the Peek Frean Biscuit factory in Bermondsey and later worked the sketches up into paintings. That sparked an as yet unpublished poem for the London Undercurrents project. In the current exhibition, two of the Peek Frean Biscuit factory paintings are on show, so it was very special for me to see these.

Inevitably, there have been some niggles and frustrations. Much of it is about balance and discipline, keeping on top of emails without allowing them to dominate, not giving in to the distractions of social media, and reminding myself that it’s not possible to fit in every cultural event in London. Not if I want to write. And there’s an ongoing plumbing issue (domestic, not medical), which is tedious but is taking up a certain amount of time and mental energy.

Overall, then, perhaps I’d give myself 7 out of 10. Room for improvement, but on the right track. Now, get back to that poem!

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