Category Archives: cities

Windows on Jordan

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Before I travelled to Jordan I became slightly obsessed with Lee Miller’s Portrait of Space, taken when she was in Egypt in 1937.  I pinned a copy on my kitchen wall and later, after visiting her exhibition at the Hepworth, propped a postcard on my mantelpiece.  It was thrilling to discover my very own version in the bathroom of my flat at the CBRL – the same torn fly screen and sense of an unknowable beyond (literally in my case, with the opaque glass and shadowy Islamic curves) – uncanny as well as affirming to find this significant view had travelled east with me.  I took it as a good sign.

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One of the events I participated in in Amman was a session with English Literature students from Jordan University – all wonderfully well-read, enthusiastic and attentive young people. In the Q & A after my reading, one of them enquired about my position as observer in my poems – always looking rather than doing.  We’d already discussed Blake’s ‘doors of perception’ and Keats’s ‘negative capability’ so I was sorry that I perhaps hadn’t expressed clearly enough how active I believe looking and listening are, how much they demand of us – often far harder than talking or doing.

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It was a reminder of the risk that looking and listening, both happening in silence, won’t be seen, acknowledged or valued in our hectic, cacophonous world.  What is slow and reflective must be as important and transformative as more visible engaged energy.  Don’t we need both – as individuals and collectively?

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Spending time in Jordan gave me plenty of opportunities for observation – spiced with the exciting freshness of surprise – but also to connect, communicate and play.  Moving between being alone and with others, I was able yet again to interrogate my ideas about folk (of all tribes) who appear different from me – how we might occupy the space together.  It also took me to a place where I could re-acquaint myself with all the ‘others’ I carry inside me, my own warring factions and scapegoats.  There is never simply looking or listening: alone or all-one, we are always thoroughly implicated – and knowing that, changes the quality of our various modes of perception.  This is the space a writer (or an artist, like Lee Miller) must climb through and create from, making something invisible visible.

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So that is my task now – assimilating and tentatively transforming my experience, notes, reading and images into some new writing, mindful of 19thcentury traveller to the Levant, Isabella Romer’s warning that trying to find anything new to say is ‘like squeezing a squeezed lemon’ (1846).  I think maybe she was guarding her own threshold too jealously.  Better to keep in mind the TLS’s review of Gertrude Bell’s The Desert and the Sown, her compelling (though not unproblematic) account of a journey through Syria, published in 1907:

Women perhaps make the best travellers, for when they have the true wanderer’s spirit they are more enduring and, strange to say, more indifferent to hardship and discomfort than men.  They are unquestionably more observant of details and quicker to receive impressions.  Their sympathies are more alert, and they get into touch with strangers more readily.

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I stayed in Amman during September as part of ‘Alta’ir: Durham-Jordan Creative Collaboration’, a partnership project between Durham Book Festival/New Writing North, the Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL), St Mary’s College, Durham University, Dr Fadia Faqir and the British Council.  

You can read an earlier post from Amman on the Durham Book Festival blog.  There will be an ‘In Conversation’ event with my Jordanian exchangee Mofleh Al Adwan chaired by Fadia Faqir on Sunday 14th October, 12 – 1pm.  All are very welcome.

 

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On Uhod Street

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It’s not easy being a flaneuse in Amman  – the city’s built on a series of hills and steep valleys.  Dusty red limestone is never far away and pavements are consistently unreliable – often not there at all, and if so, broken and disconcertingly high, planted with trees right down the middle.  The dry heat and constant traffic adds to travelling by foot’s lack of appeal.  But after four days here, getting around by car, I feel the need to know where I am from the ground up, so this morning the air’s a little cooler and I venture out for a gentle stroll round the neighbourhood where I’m staying.

It’s hard not to feel self-conscious when no one else is out walking.  Taxis keep tooting at me – a signal they’re available.  I try looking both nonchalant and purposeful but probably just appear more and more strange as I keep stopping to inspect plants growing in the front gardens and along the roadside.  While I’m photographing a mat of tiny red daisies creeping beneath a decapitated palm, a man who looks like he might be a gardener comes to see what I’m doing.  He talks away to me in Arabic and I talk back at him in English, asking questions about the flowers of course he can’t answer.  After a while, we part with smiles and nods, making peace with our mutual incomprehension.

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Not far down Uhod Street the land to the west falls away and right there in the heart of this densely populated suburb I can see a flock of sheep – brown-wooled, semi-somnolent and fat – although it’s not clear what they might find to eat with not a blade of grass in sight.  They really couldn’t be any more different from the sheep I see every day back on Stagshaw Fair – making me feel closer to home and impossibly distant at the same time.  An encampment of cardboard shacks is perhaps where the shepherds live – urban bedouins.  Another sort of flock – of construction workers – are perched on one of the many half-finished or abandoned buildings, clambering over great blocks of concrete, sprouting rusty iron rods, without the aid of scaffolding.  ‘Luxury Homes’ says the sign.

Pretty flowers spill out from the railings of those luxury homes that are finished – plumbago, jasmine, bougainvillea.  Hollyhocks, native here, have seeded themselves beneath olive trees and telegraph poles.  Some of the grander houses have topiaried cypresses dissecting their stretch of pavement.  The ‘pavement’, private rather than public space, speaks in many languages.

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On the rougher patches of ground between housing lots the involucrate carline thistle and other prickly plants I’ve still to identify are well-adapted to take their chances with the rubbish, cigarette butts and random building materials.  My feet get dustier and dustier and the coolness quickly dissipates giving way to more familiar relentless heat.  Even though this part of Amman, Tla Al Ali, is one of the highest spots in the city (nearly 1000 metres – the same altitude as Scafell Pike) only the occasional breeze relieves the weight of the sunlight so close to the land here.

Over the course of an hour, I pass only one other person on foot –  a man carrying a yoke on his shoulders strung with clusters of shocking pink candyfloss bagged in plastic.  Later, back in my room, I hear him blowing a whistle like the Pied Piper to announce his presence and tempt the children.  Today, Saturday, is the equivalent of our Sunday – the weekend, traditional family time, after Friday afternoon prayers.  I lean over my balcony watching him climb the hill again with his vivid featherlight load, still whistling, but no one comes to buy.  High as a bird, my arms are cooled by the smooth red-veined limestone beneath them.  I have landed at last in this wondrous city of many layers.

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I am staying in Amman as part of ‘Alta’ir: Durham-Jordan Creative Collaboration’, a partnership project between Durham Book Festival/New Writing North (co-founder), the Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL) (co-founder), St Mary’s College, Durham University (co-founder) and Dr Fadia Faqir (initiator and co-founder) and the British Council. 

CBRL website is http://cbrl.org.uk/

CBRL’s British Institute in Amman accommodation: http://cbrl.org.uk/british-institute-amman/accommodation

There’ll also be posts on the Durham Book Festival blog and an event with my fellow Jordanian exchangee Mofleh Al Adwan on Sunday 14th October, 12 – 1pm.  See Durham Book Festival website for booking details.

 

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SWEET ANTICIPATION

Untitled-1967-gouash-on-paperBanner.pngSean Scully, Untitled, 1967

Like many of us, I’m looking forward to this year’s Newcastle Poetry Festival, Crossings 2nd – 5th May.  A sweet little taster came in the form of an interview with Sasha Dugdale on the Festival blog.  She will be chairing a session at the Translation-themed Symposium at the Sage (3rdMay) and also give the Royal Literary Fund Lecture on Pushkin at Northern Stage (Saturday 5thMay).  It will be an exciting few days with lots to think about.  Do come along to listen and enjoy – and spread the word to folk who may be interested.

Further excitement in the Translation Dept – the cover of my new Selected Poems from Bulgaria – blue and beautiful.  For those of you whose Bulgarian is a touch rusty, it is called Simultaneous Dress and translated by the wonderful poet Nadya Radulova.  The book is now published but I have yet to hold a copy in my hands.  They are itching.

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When I stayed in Sofia a couple of years ago I wrote several new poems.  This is one of them – seen from the balcony of my apartment on Kyril and Methodii Street.

The Screaming Party

Every evening they come darting across

the skyline     dots and dashes of high-pitched morse.

Who knows what they’re screaming for    static

in their throats     white noise plucked from the day’s havoc

and flung back into blank air.     Hypnotic drifts.

As if auditioning for Hitchcock     these swifts

carry the contraband pressure we must

scatter     before we can capitulate

to the dark tucked inside us     and sleep.     Strident

cries     industrious wings     are hooks to rest

our shadows on     watch them soar     our own fall

mouths agape.     Each burst of piercing calls

silvers a key     to unfasten the doors

to dreams     so     greet    greet     our night visitors.

 

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Knowing Our Place

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I had no idea that the Barbican had a Conservatory  – or a Library until a few weeks ago when I found myself there, reading at a launch of Issue 18 of Long Poem Magazine.  It was a friendly affair, surprising and happily sprawling like the unsung long poems and sequences the magazine does a wonderful job in drawing attention to.  We were tucked away in the Music Section, a niche of hidden delights.

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I particularly enjoyed hearing Katharine Pierpoint read her poem Camelopard, trying (and succeeding) to catch the giraffeness of the giraffe and Anna Reckin’s graceful evocation of various emanations of Jade.  Also Alex Bell’s epistolary Dearest, lurking in the shadows of Victoriana, as did my own contribution – A Hundred Ways to Know Our Place.

When I was younger and a touch adrift I often read self-help books to check my bearings.  Most of them have migrated from my shelves now (apart from a few classics like Dorothy Rowe on depression and Buddhist angles on anxiety) but I was interested to trace a clear line of connection between those and the beginnings of the genre in the 19th century.

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A Hundred Ways to Know Our Place is part of new work I’m writing for my PhD, an overture to a book-length piece.  If you’re interested in reading it and other longer poems and sequences, I’d point you in the direction of Long Poem Magazine, edited with passion and insight by Linda Black and Rose Hamilton.

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Etiquette books also fascinate me.  It’s hard not to be braced by their arbitrary sharpness, like eating a particularly arcane olive.  Possibly after a long soak in a dirty martini.  Some Russian visitors I had once called that sort of snifter a ‘walking stick’, to be taken before leaving the house for any reason.  And in the right quantity (although this is hard to gauge) it can rinse the senses wonderfully.  Isn’t that what we want reading a poem to feel like?  To ‘take reality by surprise’, in Francoise Sagan’s phrase.

And so back to music (always)…My senses didn’t know what had hit them watching and listening to Ukrainian ensemble Dhaka Brakha perform at the Sage last week.   And it was a performance, highly choreographed and styled with stunning costumes riffing on traditional styles, as did the music that playfully transforms folk songs from their beleaguered motherland into something almost miraculous.  I was transported, utterly enchanted, and continue to be so listening to their latest CD the road.  Dhaka Brakha ‘know their place’ and invite us to spend some time there.  Foolish to refuse.

Down in London, I can sometimes feel like a bit of a country cousin.  Walking from the Tube station to the Barbican, I was very excited to see a plant breaking up the clean lines of the long tunnel of the Bridgewater Highwalk.  It wasn’t going to be told where it could grow and where it couldn’t, what freedom means.

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Knowing our place is no easy matter – fierce, transgressive, and extremely quiet, it must take the risk of being there, doing it for ourselves.

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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.

 

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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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