reading beneath the trees

On Friday, Chelsea Flower Shower was in full swing, and over the river in the much less frenetic environs of Battersea Park, I gave a poetry reading under the gum tree in Thrive’s main garden. This was part of Thrive’s week of Chelsea Fringe events, and an opportunity for me to share some of the new poems I’d written following my week’s residency in the Hut.

I could hardly have wished for better weather – sunny and warm-verging-on-hot – and the gum tree provided just enough shade for me to read my 15 minute set sans sunglasses. A couple of the poems were inspired by artworks that were on sale in the nearby Art Hut, curated by Mel Barry of Popsy Set. Others were prompted by images that had struck me as I wandered about the park, or from thinking about what a phrase such as ‘companion planting’ might mean. And, of course, I had to write a poem about that magnificent gum tree:

Far from home, like me.
Long acclimatised and

rooted in London soil…

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under the gum tree, Thrive main garden, 26 May 2017

Then, Tim from Thrive asked if I’d mind reading a few poems to a group of clients working in the Herb Garden. I’d brought extra poems, and I could hardly refuse the offer of a lift in one of the buggies used to travel between different parts of the park. The group I was to read to consisted mainly of people with learning disabilities, so in discussion with Tim I chose four poems, including one I’d written last year about the Herb Garden.

The group was gathered under the generous shade of a black walnut tree, working on potting up seedlings. When Tim introduced me and explained I was going to read a few poems, one of the clients exclaimed ‘Oh no!’ I promised it wouldn’t take too long or be too painful. As it turned out, everyone listened closely, applauded after each poem, and some asked for copies of the poems. It was a privilege to read in such beautiful surroundings, and to such an appreciative audience.

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under the black walnut tree, Thrive Herb Garden, 26 May 2017

a week in the Thrive Hut

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This hut, in Thrive’s main garden in Battersea Park, was my home for five days last week. Well, between around 10 in the morning to 4:30 in the afternoon. No sleeping over!

In the run up to Thrive’s Chelsea Fringe week of events at the end of May, invited  local artists have had the opportunity to use the Hut as a base for producing new work, which will then be on display during the festival week.  Mel Barry, who’s curating the Art Hut, asked if I would like to make use of the Hut ahead of my reading on Friday 26th May. A small space, away from day-to-day distractions, and a chance to gather material and hopefully write new poems. Yes please!

So, last Monday I headed over to the park with a few essentials: dictionary, thesaurus, scrap paper, notebook, pen and pencils, a few gardening themed books, ground coffee and a coffee plunger. Thankfully, I could use the kitchen and loo in Thrive’s office, and once I’d signed for the key to the Hut I could come and go as I pleased.

I wrote or made notes in the mornings, went for walks, chatted to some of the staff and volunteers, read extracts in The Writer in the Garden and random poems from Flora Poetica – sometimes out loud, on my own in the Hut. I welcomed a couple of visitors. I took photos on my phone, and resisted checking emails. Every day I had a tasty sandwich for lunch – thank you, Nick!

Mel mentioned that some of the artists whose work will be on show in the Hut have incorporated found objects or foraged material in their pieces. I thought this might be an interesting approach for me to try, so I jotted down scraps of conversation I heard as I was walking round the park as well as phrases and texts from signs and notices. I’ve written one poem which is a partial collage of words selected from two of the books I had with me – a variation on a challenge set for my next Stanza group meeting. Another is a mix of overheard snippets, found text and visual juxtapositions. More ideas are bubbling under.

At the end of the week, I packed up, tidied the Hut as best I could and returned the key. Then I met Mel and some of the local artists she works with, including a couple of talented teenagers, in a nearby hostelry, for an hour’s conversation about nature, art and poetry. Mel had brought some small art works to show me, and I shared a few poems with the group. All in all a stimulating week, and one which should yield more poems in the coming weeks.

I’ll be reading new and nearly-new garden-themed poems in Thrive’s main garden on Friday 26th May at 1pm. Come along, browse the art, eat cake and listen!

My thanks to Thrive for the use of the Hut, and to Mel at Popsy Set for facilitating this.

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The poet hard at work

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what I told the canvas

I tell myself I can’t draw, that I’ve got no visual sense. So what was I doing in an art workshop called Tell the Canvas on Saturday morning? Testing myself a little, and enjoying myself quite a lot.

This was a one hour drawing and collage session facilitated by Mel Barry, and held in Thrive Battersea’s main building as part of their open day. The workshop was a taster version of a session Mel has run for a number of different groups. Mel is curating the Locals Art Hut pop-up in partnership with Thrive for their Chelsea Fringe week of events in May, when I’ll also be giving a reading on Friday 26th May around 1p.m. So by way of warming up for my participation I thought I’d sign up for the workshop. One hour didn’t seem too daunting, and nor did the session feel rushed.

The broad theme of the workshop was to think about collective needs and imagine a positive change in any community – from local to global – with the aim of communicating that vision via a drawing or collage. Mel had asked me if I’d like to write a haiku in response to the theme, and this was posted on the wall along with quotes from artists Gerhard Richter and John Baldessari and some images to get us thinking.

A vision for our neighbourhood

pavement crack daisies
win prizes. we serenade
birds. sun burns through cloud.

It was a small group and relaxed atmosphere. Mel provided all materials including scrap paper, coloured pencils, pastels, paints and magazines and newspapers to plunder images from. We started with some quick warm up exercises and by the third I definitely felt freer in my approach to filling the page. I had fun trying out pastels and charcoal and not worrying about trying to make a perfect image. Then we were ready for the main task – composing a picture or collage that would convey a vision of a beneficial change to a community. No small task. We had half an hour and a piece of art board each. I started with a few images from magazines of nature in an urban setting, and built up a collage from there. A bit of green and red paint, some colouring in, a couple of phrases. A sense of achievement in making something that is broadly coherent (I think!).

collage

And there was time at the end for conversation about our ideas and how we’d found the process. Overall a positive experience. Deep down I know I have a visual sense (it’s there in my writing, after all) but the long-held belief that I don’t is hard to shake. Mel’s workshop is more than a start.

workshop table

If you’re interested in hosting your own workshop for a group of neighbours, friends, colleagues etc you can enquire with Mel about booking a 1 hour or two hour session at a location of your choice: buy@popsyset.com It could be for a private or public group, for a minimum of 10 and maximum of 20 participants. Ages 6+ up to any age. Workshop fee applies.

Mel will be running Tell the Canvas for under 10s on Saturday 20th May, 11am until midday, at the Locals Art Hut in Thrive’s main garden in Battersea Park. £5 each. All children must be accompanied/supervised by a parent/guardian for the hour.

notes towards a blog post

notes for blog post

scatterbrain I’m not feeling very focussed at the moment.

ARTEMISpoetry Hurrah! I have a poem accepted for the next issue of ARTEMISpoetry, due out in May.

Re-Mixed borders e-pamphlet It seems a long time ago that I was poet-in-residence at Thrive in Battersea Park for Open Gardens Weekend 2016. Now The Poetry School has published an online pamphlet with contributions from poets who took part in last year’s Mixed Borders scheme. You can view the pamphlet here. It’s well worth a wander through this virtual poetry garden, or you can skip straight to my patch on pages 54-56.

Orbis joint second/third readers’ prize Woohoo! My poem Apology, published in Orbis issue 176, was voted 2nd or 3rd (the email was a bit unclear) in the Readers’Award for that issue. A small but welcome cash prize, and a lovely glow of appreciation. Each issue of Orbis features readers’ comments on poems from the previous issue they’ve voted for and it’s interesting to read the different interpretations people bring to a poem.

Dangerous Women This was a brilliant year-long project from the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh. They posed the question: ‘what does it mean to be a dangerous woman?’ and then posted different responses every day, from International Women’s Day 2016 until IWD 2017. I wrote a piece about Unica Zürn, the German surrealist artist and writer, whose work and life have fascinated me for a long time. I was delighted to be involved in this project and all of the contributions will remain on line for at least a year.

Thrive Chelsea Fringe I’m very pleased that Thrive have invited me to take part in their week of events for the Chelsea Fringe Festival, running from 20th to 26th May. I’m hoping to write some new poems and plan to give a short reading in Thrive’s main garden in Battersea Park on Friday 26th May. I’ll post more details once our plans start to take shape.

gardening & admin I find it tricky sometimes balancing the different pulls on my time (many of which are ones I’ve signed up to and feel committed to). I get a lot of joy spending time in my local community garden, helping maintain it and seeing it flourish. This time of year is exciting, noticing changes every time I go up to the garden. The admin side of things is harder graft, a necessary toil, but the outcomes are often less immediately tangible. Lots of parallels with writing (when it’s going well and you’re ‘in the zone’) and the chores of submitting work and putting oneself out there.

morning is sacred My new mantra. Basically, don’t check emails, social media etc. first thing. Sit at my desk and write or do some writing related activity (such as making notes towards a blog post…). Also known as writing first. Easy to say, harder to put into practice. But I’m practising.

Instagram & Pinterest I’ve recently diversified my potential sources of anxiety and distraction by becoming active on Instagram and Pinterest. I’ve been on Pinterest for a while actually, but prompted by the Dangerous Women project I started pinning images of or about amazing women who have inspired and influenced me. Scrolling through that board makes me smile and reminds me there is hope. So far I have found Instagram fun and not too time consuming.

Which brings me back to scatterbrain. I wonder why I’m not feeling very focussed at the moment?

hip hip

Two of my poems appeared in print this week, a lovely boost as I’m in a bit of a writing lull at the moment.

One poem is published in Brittle Star issue 39. I really like the mix of poetry, short fiction and articles in Brittle Star, and the magazine is nicely compact and handsomely produced. The new issue was launched at the Barbican Library on Wednesday evening. We missed the start due to various tube disruptions, but enjoyed readings by Michael Farry (over from Ireland), Jayne Marshall (who’d flown in from Madrid and beguiled us with her story Wxndering), South Bank Poetry founder Peter Ebsworth, Oxford-based Rachel Thanassoulis, Sarah Marina (published for the first time but surely not the last) and Kaye Lee, who nearly made me cry with a poem based on her experience of working in a nursing home. My poem, Summer Hols, originated in a South Bank Poetry workshop earlier this year, led by Katherine Lockton. In fact, it’s the second poem to come out of her workshop that I’ve had published – the first, Apology, appeared in Orbis no. 176.

The other poem to make it into print this week, In the hairdresser’s chair, was commended in the Second Light Poetry Competition and subsequently published in ARTEMISpoetry issue 17. I’m really chuffed about this. The competition was judged by Alison Brackenbury, whose work I admire very much. ARTEMISpoetry is the substantial bi-annual journal from  Second Light Network, which promotes and supports women poets aged 40 and over. If you fit that wonderful bill (a woman, a poet, aged 40 or over) you should seriously consider joining the network.

Interestingly, In the hairdresser’s chair started life in the first poetry course I did back at the beginning of 2015, ‘Poetry of the Body’ tutored by Pascale Petit at Tate Modern. At the last session, Pascale brought along a true or non-reversing mirror. We each had a go sitting in front of the true mirror (seeing yourself as you appear to others) before writing a self-portrait poem focused on the face. Staring into that mirror was an extremely uncomfortable experience for me and tapped into some very deep emotions, so I’m glad I was able eventually to fashion a strong poem from it. Shifting the writing into the third person helped!

writing ‘not yet Eden’

not yet Eden is the title of the poem I wrote for Lucy Cash’s film A Song for Nine Elms. I explained how I got involved in Lucy’s film in my last blog post. Lucy had asked me if I could write something that was, loosely, from the roof garden’s point of view. I wanted to try, but I was conscious that, having just written a bunch of garden-themed poems for my Thrive residency, I needed to approach this poem in a different way.

I’d flirted with form a little with the Thrive poems, writing two acrostic poems. The second of these turned out to be a brute, so when I finally nailed it just in time for the Open Garden Squares Weekend, the satisfaction was tremendous.

I’m still averse (ahem) to strict rhyme/meter forms in my own writing, but I wondered whether some form or constraint might help me with this poem. I started making notes, thinking about the ideas Lucy and I had discussed – about resilience, and gesture, and the traces left in the garden by visitors, human and otherwise. And not any old garden – this would be a poem centred in, and arising from, the Doddington and Rollo Community Roof Garden.

A special place, with a long name. What if I wrote the poem using words containing only letters from the garden’s name? I listed out the individual letters – ten consonants, including y, and all the vowels. Not the tightest Oulipian restriction, but it got me started, jotting down words and putting together some short phrases. It forced more to be more inventive, now that certain useful or favourite words were unavailable. No h, so no the or then. No s, so no so and not many plurals. No quite or moist or how or when. And yet, I had fruit and ragged unity. I had feral cat commotion. I had gift and, of course, community. Food and rootle and microclimate. I had, after a week, a poem that I hope conveys something of the beauty and necessity of this garden, its not-quite-anarchic, not-yet-Eden quality, as it quietly gets on with ‘growing community & a garden’ in the heart of Battersea.

not-yet-eden-notes
beginnings of a poem

reflecting on A Song for Nine Elms

We had a busy Saturday in the Doddington & Rollo Community Roof Garden recently. A shared harvest lunch, followed by an inspiring and practical workshop, Growing Edible Plants in the City, led by Sue Sheehan of Incredible Edible. And then, in the community centre downstairs, the first screening of the film A Song for Nine Elms, made by artist Lucy Cash with involvement from the local community – including me. I wrote a poem for the project, and appear in the film reading the poem as I sit in the polytunnel in the roof garden.

I want to write here about my experience of working on this project and some thoughts about the film after that first screening. I’ll write a separate blog post about the actual process of writing the poem for the film.

I first heard about the project, under the title Nine Songs for Nine Elms, when Lucy Cash, and Anna Ramsay from UP Projects, visited the roof garden last winter to meet the Wednesday gardening group and tell us about the project. It’s funded by Berkeley Homes, one of the big developers in the Nine Elms area, with UP Projects curating the commission in partnership with Wandsworth Council and the Nine Elms Vauxhall Partnership’s Cultivate programme. I was immediately sceptical. I’m very ambivalent about much of the development happening on my doorstep, and its impact on the local community.

Lucy talked a bit about her ideas for the commission – to create a song cycle for Nine Elms, which would also be a film – and that she wanted to involve local people and incorporate their stories and memories of the area. I wasn’t forthcoming. I wanted to get on with gardening and, frankly, I felt distrustful. Who are these people? Why are they trespassing on my territory?

Over the following weeks, Lucy occasionally dropped by the garden, offering to help and also introducing us to the composer Fraya Thomsen who would be writing the music for the song cycle. Aside from my caution about the corporate funding, I couldn’t really grasp what the ‘end product’ of the project might look like. I remained guarded, though I warmed towards Lucy and Fraya, who showed a genuine appreciation of the roof garden and its place and role on the estate.

Then one cold Wednesday afternoon in spring, there were just two of us in the garden when Lucy and Fraya called by. We chatted and I opened up a bit about my reservations, which Lucy understood, and then I completely let my guard down and fessed up to being a writer. My fellow gardener Enid expressed similar sentiments, while revealing that her talents include acting and singing. Lucy wanted to work with both of us, and Enid is the narrator on the film, her mellow voice linking the different sections together. And here’s a story – Enid and I have lived in the same block for many years but only got to know each other last year through our involvement with the roof garden.

I was busy for the next couple of months with my residency at Thrive in Battersea Park, but I met up with Lucy and Fraya a couple of times to discuss how the project was evolving and what my input might be. We agreed that I would aim to write a poem from the point of view of the garden (approximately!). By early July, I had a poem, and we spent an afternoon filming in the garden. I was rather nervous but tried to focus on reading the poem well and not rushing. After three takes, Lucy was happy, and we moved on to the most fun part for me. One of Lucy’s ideas for the film was to include shots of people posing as Charlotte Despard in different locations – standing with the left arm bent and resting on the hip, and the right arm raised and fist clenched, echoing the striking photo of Charlotte Despard, in her nineties, addressing an anti-fascist rally in Trafalgar Square. I donned the long black skirt Lucy had brought along, clambered onto a low brick structure and struck the pose. How fierce I felt!

Cut now to the Doddington & Rollo Community Centre and the premiere of A Song for Nine Elms. The nerves were back – would I die of embarrassment? – but also excitement and curiosity. Other locals who’d participated, including children from one of the primary schools, and volunteers and friends of the garden, were also in the audience. The film did not disappoint. It’s a beautiful, lyrical piece, with the garden at its centre. It honours the history of the area, starting with its pre-industrial era, when an orchard flourished on the site  now occupied by New Covent Garden Market; embraces Battersea’s radical heritage, perhaps best exemplified by Charlotte Despard (who I’ve written a London Undercurrents poem about); and reflects some of the concerns felt by local residents about the rapid changes taking place in the area – as well as our sense of connection to this place. One of the songs features Battersea’s motto ‘Not for me, not for you, but for us’, and the film ends with a quiet manifesto sung by local children. I’m so glad now that I got involved. And thankfully, I didn’t die of embarrassment.

The film is showing at StudioRCA Riverlight on Nine Elms Lane from 2nd to 9th November between 12 noon and 5pm. If you’re in the area, do drop in. More details here.

overdue debut

Last Saturday I braved the downpour and headed up to Kings Cross for a special evening at SLAM – the launch of four Green Bottle Press pamphlets. I’ll declare my bias at the outset.*  I was there for one poet – Claire Booker – and this post is mostly about her pamphlet Later there will be Postcards. Overall, it was a lovely event in a great venue. Green Bottle Press publisher Jennifer Grigg introduced the evening and read three poems from Radish Legs, Duck Feet by Sayuri Ayers, who lives across the pond, so wasn’t able to make the launch. The two other pamphlets launched that evening were Life Room by Ivonne Piper, reading in front of an audience for the very first time; and Teaching a Bird to Sing by Tracey Rhys, tough and touching poems arising from her son’s diagnosis of autism. Four very different voices, from an adventurous new press.

But back to the star attraction of the evening, as far as I was concerned. I’ve known Claire for several years, having met her at Loose Muse when I first got back into writing and performing poetry. Claire’s poetry is often wickedly funny but she can equally write biting satirical poems (not easy to carry off, but Claire manages it with flair) and subtly powerful poems of loss and anguish. Claire is also a generous supporter of other poets, and encouraged me to join the Clapham Stanza group, the Original Poets, which I’ve found very beneficial. So it was great to see lots of support for Claire at the launch – my London Undercurrents buddy Joolz Sparkes, Agnes Meadows from Loose Muse, some Clapham Stanza stalwarts, and faces from Beyond Words, which Claire also regularly attends. After the readings, there was a rush to buy her pamphlet and we formed a disorderly queue at Claire’s table to get our copies signed.

This week I’ve been reading her pamphlet and finding new layers and resonances in poems I thought I already knew, as well as savouring poems that are new to me. Though many of the poems deal with aspects of grief or a loss of some kind – parents, a fading or changed love, childhood – they are never maudlin. Claire’s interest in visual art feeds into her poetry, and her poems are rich in telling  details and striking colour and imagery. Dreams provide surreal and dark material, as evidenced by the opening poem The Night Mare. There are no ‘filler’ poems here; this is a substantial pamphlet, the work of a mature poet, who knows when to wield her wit and when to let the gaps – the unsaid – say it all. A long overdue debut. Congratulations, Claire!

*I think this is known as ‘Full Disclosure’, which sounds like the title of a Claire Booker poem.

in Time Out 20 years ago

Nicholas Royle wrote some lovely words about my writing in Time Out back in 1996, as part of a feature profiling four up-and-coming London writers. I’m still not there yet (wherever ‘there’ may be) but the support of people like Nicholas Royle is what keeps most writers (wherever they are) plugging away. My novel The Sea Between never saw the light of day – a good thing in retrospect. A few years later though my next one, Hearts on Ice, did make it into the bookshops. Nicholas Royle is still a great champion of writers and a darn good writer himself. Happy Throwback Thursday!

Scroll right down for an enlarged extract of the bit about me.

Time Out 1996 1

Time Out 1996 2

TO extract