Category Archives: cities

For Your Diary…

A couple of events I’m involved in coming up that folk might be interested in attending – and news of a big 25% discount at Arc that’s worth a look.  I like the idea of Reading the Flowers wrapped up under people’s Christmas trees.  Here’s a link.

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Then, this coming Monday – from the NCLA website…

ncenla_279273Flambard Poetry Prize Announcement 

Join us for the announcement of the 2016 Flambard Poetry Prize, followed by readings from this year’s judges Linda France and Andrew Forster.

Linda France has published eight poetry collections since 1992, including The Gentleness of the Very Tall (a Poetry Book Society Recommendation), The Toast of the Kit Cat Club, book of days and, her most recent, Reading the Flowers (Arc 2016). She also edited the ground-breaking anthology Sixty Women Poets (Bloodaxe 1993). Her poem ‘Bernard and Cerinthe’ won First Prize in the 2013 National Poetry Competition. Linda’s work has appeared in anthologies, magazines, newspapers, on radio and TV, in public art installations and other collaborations with visual and sound artists.  

Andrew Forster published two collections of poetry with Flambard Press: ‘Fear of Thunder’ (2007) and ‘Territory’ (2010), and, more recently, ‘Homecoming’ (2014), with Smith Doorstop. ‘Fear of Thunder’ was shortlisted for the 2008 Forward Prize for Best First Collection and two poems from it, ‘Horse Whisperer’ and ‘Brothers’, appeared in the AQA GCSE syllabus. ‘Homecoming’ was shortlisted for the Lakeland Book of the Year in 2015 and was a ‘Read Regional’ title for 2016. He has read his work at events and festivals throughout the UK and Europe, and as part of the annual ‘Poetry Live’ series, alongside Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage and John Agard.

This event is free – all very welcome.

Location: Newcastle University, Percy Building, G.05

Time/Date: 28th November 2016, 18:30 – 20:00

Andrew and I enjoyed judging this valuable competition for poets without a full collection to their name (yet) and look forward to announcing the winners and hearing them read with us.

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And down in Leeds, in a week or so…

Public Poetry Please!

leeua_1982-009_02Quentin Bell’s The Dreamer

Date: Wednesday 7 Dec 2016

Location: The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery

Time: 17:00 – 18:30

Join us for an exciting evening with award-winning poets who’ve participated in the Yorkshire Year of the Textile and responded to items from our collections.

Public Poetry Please! will be an exciting evening with the poets who’ve participated in the Yorkshire Year of the Textile and responded creatively to items relating to Yorkshire’s textile heritage.

Public poetry has been a key theme for the year-long celebration, and this special event celebrates new commissions. The evening will include readings by Malika Booker, Douglas Caster Cultural Fellow at the University of Leeds; Linda France, Creative Writing Fellow at the School of English; Helen Mort, former Douglas Caster Cultural Fellow at Leeds and  Lecturer in Creative Writing (Poetry) at Manchester Writing School; Rommi Smith, Hedgebrook Fellow and Kate Fox, stand-up poet, writer and comedian.

Highlights from the programme include a reading of Malika Booker’s poem ‘There is an etiquette to everything’, which draws inspiration from John Russell’s pastel portraits of the textile magnate, John Marshall and his wife Jane (now prominently displayed in the Gallery).  Helen Mort will read her new commission responding to Mitzi Cunliffe’s Man-Made Fibres, and her poem, ‘Texere’, which is incorporated into a newly-installed public art pavement response to the Man-Made Fibres sculpture by Sue Lawty. You can also hear Linda France’s response to William Gott’s Dyehouse Pattern Book, currently on display in the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery.

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The evening also gives an opportunity to highlight the co-creation of poetry in our knit/lit workshops, where poets reflected on the role of textiles in daily life and encourages recollections by participants of the workshops.

The event will be chaired by Professor Ann Sumner, Head of Cultural Engagement.

This is a free event but spaces are limited so booking is essential.

Book your place here: https://publicpoetryplease.eventbrite.co.uk

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Austin Wright’s Limbo

Always a pleasure to read as an ensemble, particularly when there’s a shared theme – this should be a fascinating evening.

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Natural History Museum, Sofia

 

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Medicinal Herbarium

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On the fourth floor of the National Museum

of Natural History, leaves and stems and dried

flower heads of native plants are arranged with pins,

coded and labelled, on painted boards – Verbena

officinalis, Adonis vernalis. Some

are as old as I am, all colour drained out of them

as they dessicate and curl. But there is beauty

in their withering, as if these were the bones

of Bulgaria’s flowers, their skeletons. Inside

their glass cases, they tell of loss – and what heals,

what’s worth preserving. Many I recognise, stirred by

a ghost of blue or an elegant thorn, old friends –

Centaurea cyanus, our cornflower,

and Leonurus cardiaca, motherwort.

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Frosted panes diffuse the brunt of the sun. Silence

plays across the chessboard floor. Other visitors

prefer the drama downstairs of bats and bears,

tigers and eagles, in stricken poses stilled

according to a taxidermist’s whim. Pilgrim

here, I’m more moved by this room of flowers than

the Russian church next door, for all the almond-eyed saints

blessing its walls. I’ve come to ask not for my own soul

to be saved but these tissue refugees, precious

plants – their natural physick, an esperanto

of seed, rib, heart and vein – Laburnum vulgare,

Carlina acanthifolia. Hear my confession,

my sins: irredeemable gravity, this passion

for what can’t be bought or sold, a faith in silence.

 

animals

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Another display, devoted to mountain plants,

shows four Vitosha tulips clinging to what’s left

of their green and gold. A recent addition – faint

sign someone still thinks they’re worth saving: more

hope in a speck of pollen than our whole poisoned

anthropocene world. Trollius europaeus.

Today they can’t help looking like an epitaph.

 

As I leave, descend, all the creatures in the ark

follow me, eyes black with hunger, blame. Beneath

my feet, great cracks in the marble floor are spreading;

a deep fault that can only widen and slide right

open, taking us all down with it – animal,

vegetable and mineral, the country’s biggest

ammonite and its tiniest flake of stolen moon.

  vitosha tulips

9th July 2016

 

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The Last Day

Saturday 30th July

Back in the Botanic Garden, and of course it looks lovelier than ever because I am saying goodbye. I find myself making my ritual walk round, trying to imprint the experience of it in my memory to revisit when I am back in England.

There are only two other visitors – a woman of about my age and what I presume is her granddaughter. She takes a photo of the smiling child in front of a fern in the glasshouse. One of the gardeners is sitting at a wrought iron table outside in the full afternoon sun reading the Saturday paper. I, on the other hand, quickly seek out the shade round the back by the rose garden – one of the whitewashed wooden benches, a soothing place to sit, despite the unavoidable whine of the traffic barely twenty metres beyond the cypresses marking the garden’s boundary.

You enter this garden through a small flower shop, potent with the scent of lilies – cut flowers arranged in vases, highly confected bouquets, that the Bulgarians seem to love, plants in pots, for indoors and outdoors, lots of different papers and ribbons for wrapping. It is the custom to take flowers when you’re visiting – and always an odd number; even numbers only associated with death.

A door opens onto what they call the Greek garden – a little vignette of village life, panoramas of the timeless classical landscape and some ancient jars and marble fragments alongside southern plants, including a venerable specimen of a ‘European olive’. Every time I see a plant on this trip with Europaeus in its name I feel a pang of anger and sadness, already nostalgic for the continent I feel part of, at home in.

After ‘Greece’, you enter Central and Southern America, the desert plants – cacti, succulents and palms. There’s also a small Tropical House with a constant fine mist fed by a flowing cascade and trough. Even though it’s still hot, the sight and sound of the water makes you feel cooler. They are generally good with fountains here, large and small, part of their Austro-Hungarian heritage, scattered all over the city, particularly in the parks and gardens.

Outside, pears are ripening above pots of purple basil. Since my first visit to the garden a month ago, various things have gone over. The lilies and day lilies that were so striking then have been replaced by dahlias and Japanese anemones. Though I think today the roses have truly come into their own, looking fuller and more beautiful than a fortnight ago. I’ve enjoyed this way our two countries are connected – through our national flower – despite all the differences between us, a sense of recognition and understanding, possibly thorny at times.

Another of the gardeners (in the uniform of green dungarees and yellow shirt) is giving this part of the garden a good soaking – everything desperately thirsty. During this month there’s been only one day (an evening really) of rain. Otherwise it’s been in the high 20s and low 30s centigrade day and night. I have acclimatised mostly but sleep is sometimes troubled by the heat (and the mosquitoes, who took two weeks to notice I was here but, crikey, when they did, made a proper meal of me…).

In the Rose Garden there’s a fragment of volcanic stone – an unusual flowing shape almost like a horse, legs hidden by the grass, as if it were swimming. I saw a lot more of this on the coast, often studded with lots of tiny fossils. It is used extensively in the hard landscaping at Balchik Palace and the Botanic Garden there. Bulgaria has very diverse geological formations – to match its biodiversity (and cultural diversity) generally. It’s the second most biologically diverse European country (after Spain) – a fact that many of the Bulgarians I speak to are unaware of. They shrug and look confused when I tell them, unfamiliar with feeling anything like pride for their native land.

Last week I was interviewed on the National Radio about my Residency here with the Next Page Foundation’s Literature and Translation House. When the presenter (also passionate about plants, which I have to say is rare) asked how I found the country and Sofia in particular, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with my answer – along the lines of ‘unusual, exotic, contradictory, something Asiatic, something European and something else I can’t put my finger on…’ Afterwards however I was more interested in the simple fact of being asked; seeming to suggest Bulgarians are so unsure about their national identity, they need to hear it from someone else, an ‘outsider’. So many things here seem very aware of their own status as work in progress. Nothing is fixed, certain or reliable. I noticed something similar on my travels to gardens in Italy. Although this can at times be frustrating, there is a truthfulness in it. Everything is work in progress after all, isn’t it? Including us. Hence my difficulty pinning down any neat definition.

Walking through the city to the garden this morning, I was struck by the accidental wabi sabi aesthetic of the place. Wabi sabi is what the Japanese call the quality of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and insubstantiality of life as manifest in the physical world, natural and man-made and the fruitful place where they meet. Unlike in Japan, in Bulgaria they don’t set out to create such an aesthetic, but it happens anyway. Their history – of many different invasions and changes of regime – has been absorbed into their world view and natural philosophy. There’s a strong sense of the ad hoc, ingenuity in the moment, informed by a deep acceptance (or maybe sometimes deep resignation) at the way things are.

Even though there’s a decadence to the appearance of things – architecture, streetscapes, even gardens – because of this outlook, there’s also an intense freshness, a childlike quality of innocence and openness. There is something consoling in this – a relief to let go of the whole goal-oriented, ‘grown-up’ perspective. And it also allows for the fact that if a thing (an idea, a poem, a garden) is never really finished then it can never really come to an end.

It’s only later I discover that Sofia’s motto is ‘Always growing, never ageing.’ I ask my friend Nadya (Radulova – one of the city’s best poets and translators) if some people might think it’s more accurate the other way round – ‘Always ageing, never growing’. But she is adamant neither are true, the city is always just itself, eluding any neat phrase or defining formula. The work in progress continues.

 

 

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In the Reading Room 


Yesterday we went to the lovely Reading Room, a public library in Sofia City Garden that is celebrating its first birthday today.


They made a little video reading there and spelled my name in big wooden Cyrillic letters outside.


As well as a library, it’s also an information point, which helps with the funding.  Brainchild of the writer Alexander Shpatov – he told me they’re trying to figure out a way to create another one to house all the books they’ve acquired.  The fee for joining is the donation of one book.


Alexander has written a book of short stories called Live from Sofia, which I duly bought rather than borrowed and am looking forward to reading – bringing a little bit of Sofia home with me.

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City of light and shade

Sofia is a city of dramatic contrasts, history and geography under pressure from all quarters.  It is sometimes confounding, sometimes beguiling.  Now I’m back here after my time away on the coast, it’s strange to see how much it feels like ‘home’.

‘A city called Wisdom should float on clouds…

…Reality is never clear.  It’s never final. You can always change it or see it in a different way.’

From ‘Solo’ by Rana Dasgupta

 

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Roundabout Garden

Sofia Botanical Garden is the only one I’ve visited (so far) that is practically located on a roundabout.  It’s hard to imagine – even when you’re actually there.  But of course the result is it’s very far from being an oasis, the constant heckle of traffic impossible to ignore.

However despite the whirlwind happening all around it, there is much to enjoy in this small but densely planted rectangle.  I’m slowly getting to know its quirks and shady corners. 

Slow is the word…even the gardeners go very slowly to be able to work in the burning heat.  Sometimes it’s cooler inside the glasshouses.  My poetry brain feels a bit like a battered coffee percolator on an old iron stove.

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Summer in Sofia


A day for wandering round the city, getting lost and trying to remember how the Cyrillic alphabet works.

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Pennycress, Willowherb

IMG_0503Because it was a sunny day and I’d just missed my connection – watching powerless as my homebound train pulled out of the station without me (always painful, much worse than missing it by ten or even five minutes) – I walked on to the end of the platform where sun struck stone paving unimpeded by canopies or walls. A row of advertising boards, brash inducements to buy the latest ‘Number 1 Crime’ books, each with their own moody picture, intimating the gruesome and forensic, gradually petered out. I was happier looking at the stone underfoot, the grid of moulded rectangles harbouring sweet green creases of moss the further along I walked.

A tiny pennycress grew out of nothing, no visible earth, valiant among the coming and going of trains with their strident livery and their harried passengers, noses in novels, fingertips stroking screens, ears plugged against the outside world – I knew this because I’d just been one of them.

At the very end the platform sloped gently down until it met grey-blue clinker. I could see some plants with red leaves growing among it, sturdy against the sharp stones. Deep-veined, prolific, possibly a willowherb. I ambled slowly down the ramp scanning for any other plant life that might be thriving in this apparently inhospitable setting. The toothed leaves of an unfamiliar thistle wrapped themselves around a discarded bolt, rusty and large enough to be missed.

I eased the rucksack off my shoulders and placed it on the ground at my feet; knelt to look more closely and touch the veined leaves I’d seen from a distance, fiery in the sunlight that warmed my face and shoulders after such a very long winter, cramped and flowerless.

I dug in the pocket of the rucksack for my camera to take a picture in the afternoon light, all the lovelier for coming unannounced, unexpected. I crouched down again to focus close enough to catch these low-to-the-ground, unostentatious plants.

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Come away from there, now, step away, step away.   Please return to the platform.

A loud voice, with worry in it, a man’s. I lifted my head to see a bearded young man in a lilac uniform carrying a walkie-talkie. He repeated his instructions as if it were a matter of life and death, staying at the top of the ramp some distance from me. Until proven innocent, clearly I was dangerous.

Come up now, come back to the platform.

Another man, shorter, navy blue jumper, stood beside the first, twitching slightly. If he’d had a gun, he’d have his finger on the trigger. I could tell how much it cost him to say nothing. The tremor in his shoulders gave him away.

I had a choice: to argue the toss and claim my freedom as a citizen, my fundamental right to look at plants in the sunshine while waiting for a train; or simply let it go and reassure them – for I could see they were anxious about something and were in dire need of reassurance – that I wasn’t a terrorist, or suicidal, or a flagrant destroyer of railway property.  Though what they were reading into my grey hair and best black coat was a puzzle to me, a disguise impenetrable even to myself.

I’m just taking some photographs.

Forced to confess, it sounded like a crime. To persuade them it was true, the only sin I was committing was photography, I lifted up my camera and the shorter man started bobbing from foot to foot. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had told me to drop it and raise my hands above my head. 15.34, a Wednesday and Central Station was suddenly an action thriller. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for these men, looking down at me, chests puffed out – so keen to do their duty, or be seen to do their duty, on high alert where there was nothing to be alert about. How exhausting it must be to wear a lilac uniform, carry a walkie-talkie and suspect middle-aged women of unspeakable crimes, a threat to the common good and trains running on time.

IMG_0506I made my way up the ramp slowly, with dignity I hoped: the only way I could express my deep disappointment at such misdirection of human energy, a senselessness that seemed to becoming more and more familiar, not just to me but everyone I speak to. Resistance burned at the core of me, political, existential. The willowherb remained unphotographed.  Had it come to this – that a person was no longer able to look at flowers growing in a railway station when the weather coaxed them in that direction? Would it have been different if I was a man writing down the number of a passing train?

The two men looked disappointed too.  Perhaps that I’d proved such easy meat and offered no further opportunity for their heroics. The drama had come and gone too quickly. I wanted them to be embarrassed but no one apologised to anyone else. Not I, nor the men, who turned on their heels and scurried back towards the main body of the station, disappearing in the coolness of the shade.

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Da Roma Con Amore

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I began to attach myself by so much looking.  Here I was, centred.

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Knowledge of Rome must be physical, sweated into the system, worked up into the brain through thinning shoe leather.  Substantiality comes through touch and smell, and taste, the tastes of different dusts.  When it comes to knowing, the senses are more honest than the intelligence.

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Seeing is pleasure, but not knowledge.

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From A Time in Rome by Elizabeth Bowen, 1959.

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Gathering

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Just back from a busy weekend in Middlesbrough at the first T*Junction International Poetry Festival, where I read and spent time with poets from France (John Berger via Skype), London, Syria, Cuba, Serbia, Macedonia, Sussex, Finland, Estonia, Palestine, Nigeria and Teesside…No wonder I feel rather tired.

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The atmosphere was vibrant and unpredictable, a reflection of the rich diversity of poetic voices.  I felt as if I was in the eye of a storm – so many different experiences translated into something like harmony, our collective commitment to the word.  I came home with a case full of new books to see me through the autumn.

Many thanks to all the good folk of Teesside who gave us such a hearty welcome and created this nourishing and distinctive festival.  Here’s to many more…

 

 

 

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