Category Archives: women

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This week – a reading and a workshop – do come if you can!

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LAUNCH PARTY!

Wednesday 18th of May, 7pm – Smokestack Books Showcase

Poets Linda France and Paul Summers read from their new collections, The Knucklebone Floor and billy casper’s tears.

Linda France has published eight full collections, including RedThe Gentleness of the Very Tall, book of days (also published by Smokestack), You are Her and Reading the Flowers. She won the National Poetry Competition in 2013 and received a Cholmondley Award for her contribution to poetry in 2020. She curated the collective poems Murmuration (with Kate Sweeney) and Dawn Chorus (with Christo Wallers) as part of her Writing the Climate Residency with New Writing North and Newcastle University.

Paul Summers was born in Northumberland. A founding editor of the magazines Billy Liar and Liar Republic, he has written extensively for TV, film, radio and the theatre. His books include Cunawabi, The Rat’s Mirror, The Last Bus, Vermeer’s Dark Parlour, Big Bella’s Dirty Café and Three Men on the Metro (with Andy Croft and Bill Herbert). His most recent books are union, primitive cartography and straya (all published by Smokestack) and arise! He lives in North Shields.

And on Thursday at the Great North Museum…

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Graphite and Rainbow

With my new book The Knucklebone Floor just out, I’ve been signing copies people have kindly bought. When they see me reaching for my pencil, many offer me a pen, as if I didn’t have one at hand, implying pencil is somehow inferior, regrettably contingent. It’s reminded me that a few years ago I was asked to write something about stationery. Here it is – in neither pen or pencil – I hope you might enjoy.

Happening upon this very short text again, I was glad also to be reminded of the excellent Lady Mary Montagu and The Toast of the Kit-Cat Club – poetic grandmother to The Knucklebone Floor: both biographies of bold women in verse, unauthorised, experimental. All, of course, written in the shadow of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando – probably my favourite book of all time.

Graphite and Rainbow

1.

Nature, who has played so many queer tricks upon us, making us so unequally of clay and diamonds, of rainbow and granite, and stuffed them into a case, often of the most incongruous, for the poet has a butcher’s face and the butcher a poet’s…

Virginia Woolf knew the importance of stationery and the complicated conditions that must be fine-tuned to enable a woman to write.  When not sitting at her desk, she engineered an arrangement with a plywood board across an armchair, where she could sit comfortably and write and smoke.

…the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the underlinen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind…

2.

Postmarked June 2003, an airmail letter lands from Canada with my name and address on the pale blue envelope written in pencil.  I imagine silver feathers, wings of graphite, propellers.  The letter (a spidery hand, also in pencil) is about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.  The points are sharp, proxy for that brave soul who crossed the Alps in a basket, the first woman to travel beyond Christendom and write home of all the wonders she witnessed. 

3.

I become a convert to pencil, evangelical.  All my favourite ink pens dry up as I trawl the tiered stands of pencils in stationery shops, choosing my favourites (Staedtler HB, Papermate Non-Stop – good quality, nothing fancy, built-in erasers).  I start carrying a Swiss Army knife to sharpen them on the hoof.  Around this time, I give up smoking my beloved roll-ups and nimbly replace one ritual with another.  

4.

I’m reluctant to become dependent on certain conditions in order to be able to write but some things do help.  Familiarity.  Preparation.  Space.  Comfort.  Pleasure.

5.

Artists I collaborate with use pencil to sign their names on drawings and prints, adding a title here, an edition number there – grey less intrusive and distracting than black.  The silvery lead seems to hold some of their images’ lightness.  It lifts the words into an acknowledgement – a celebration even – of impermanence, always vulnerable to erasure, open to smudge or fade.  

6.

There is something wabi sabi about writing in pencil (a Japanese aesthetic that suggests immense care, work-always-in-progress, constantly flowing, as life does).  It recognises doubt, the tentative; freedom to change your mind; a belief in something before and after words on a page – the forever they so briefly interrupt.  Although just as human, intimate as a fingertip, it is the opposite of a tattoo, more forgiving than ink, less likely to be regretted.  Far from being noncommittal, pencil and writer become one, all their attention poured into the ongoing moment. 

7.

A pencil is child’s play, encouraging un-self-conscious abandon, a glorious antidote to unretractable digitalia.  A poet’s drafts are made for graphite, allowing a fluid evolution of scribble, crossings through, underlining and furious rubbing out.  We know not what comes next, or what follows after.  The whole swirling chaotic mess might slowly coalesce into some sort of order, almost geological – subtle shades of lead, gunmetal, ash settling into lines on the white page that, when you get it right, and know when to leave them alone, might, just might, shimmer with the colours of the rainbow.

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Inside/Outside

Early last week I wrote an initial dispatch from Glasgow for New Writing North’s Climate Newsletter and you can read it here.  I’m trying to catch up with my impressions and experiences and will post instalments as and when I have time.  

The first three lines are a quotation from Thomas A. Clark’s work included in Dislocations:Territories, Landscapes and Other Spaces, an exhibition at the Hunterian Art Gallery.

places are not as

they appear, but as

they are imagined

Wiser than all the government delegates at COP26, the Eco-cab driver who took me to the station could see there’s a gap between words and deeds, promises and action.

I met a friend on the train who is working flat out to keep his business afloat – where does he find the time to protest, campaign or the money to retrofit renewable energy options in his home?  I hear this again and again – people not having the space or resources to transform their lives in a way that would radically help the planet, despite doing everything they can day-to-day to reuse, recycle and reduce.  Of course governments need to intervene with guidance and support.

Happy to reconnect with the Coat of Hopes – with my own little patch added.  It’s been out and about in Glasgow all week and worn by lots of different folk, including some COP delegates.  So, a circle has been stitched together.

I keep coming across another powerful sewing project embellishing the city – Collective ZurciendoDarning the Planet – beautiful embroidered ‘Trees for Life’ initiated by a women’s artivist collective from Mexico, Argentina, Chile and Peru.  

use caution – walking directions

may not always reflect

real-world conditions

In the fish and chip shop two men pray to Allah.  Roma women are selling single red roses. You can hardly see the pavement for rubbish, plastic and polystyrene, stinking tumbleweed.  The Council are going to sow wildflower meadows across the city.  

I am offered a slice of vegan sausage roll in Sauchiehall Street and they ask if they can film me eating it.  They want to know why no one’s talking about veganism at COP26.

Everybody wants to know why they are aren’t talking about what they aren’t talking about.  The streets ring with them asking and singing and dancing and shouting.  The police – many more police than are needed – look confused but stand where they’re instructed and occasionally gather for group photos and selfies.  Some of them wear knuckleduster gloves and carry tazers which prove entirely unnecessary and therefore appear ridiculous, not to mention a waste of our taxes.

The COP26 Main Event Armadillo and Hydro (Blue Zone) and the Science Centre (Green Zone) are cordoned off by stout steel railings and heavily policed.  Despite the blue and green banners claiming that we’re doing this ‘together for our planet’, there is limited access and the message is one of exclusion, cumbersome and ugly.  Another example of more being spent on defending territory rather than sharing and regenerating it.  More than twice the amount the UK government spend on helping poorer countries in the global south deal with the consequences of climate change we in the so-called developed world have created with colonialism, extractivism and over-consumption is dedicated to keeping climate refugees from crossing our borders.

It’s as if Glasgow is populated by three tribes – those who are here to do their bit on the fringes of COP  and happy to announce it with a badge or a flag, a t-shirt or a hat with horns, and those who are going about their business with a mixture of bewilderment and pride that their city has been chosen to host this historic occasion, and then the police, drafted in from all over the country – with vanloads from the Met, Norfolk, Wales, Cornwall etc.  

Oh, yes, and the first few days of the Leaders’ Summit, those other shadowy presences at the centre of it all, invisible behind the blacked-out windows of their limousines gliding down Stobcross Road beside the River Cyde, protected from everything going on, ‘the real-world conditions’ on the streets.  And isn’t it true that democracy dies in darkness?

a dawn raid – police

arrest an inflatable

Loch Ness Debt Monster

As part of the fringe events, Tom Goldtooth from the US Indigenous Environmental Network kicks off the first Coalition Movement Assembly.  Humanity must learn its spiritual connection with the earth, he says, know that it is sacred, and then it will be clear that fossil fuels must stay in the ground.  It will be clear that the patriarchal system has caused so much damage with violence, rape and exploitation.  I saw mostly men coming and going down at the main site.  It is mostly women in this gathering.  

Cage (2015), Jade Montserrat and Webb-Ellis, Hunterian Art Gallery

What is outside?  What is inside?  How do they interpenetrate?  How come into dialogue with each other?  How can ‘we should’ and ‘we must’ realign into ‘we will’?  Where might diversity, solidarity and unity meet?  These questions recur all week and these investigations and conversations will carry on beyond November 12th when COP26 is over.  I look forward to seeing where it leads.  

the artists make hearts

with hands and earth, dolerite

quartz sand, granite, peat

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Just to say…

 

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Last week we were supposed to be holding our first Climate Reading Group at the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle – a prelude to Rebecca Solnit’s visit.  This, like every other cultural gathering, had to be cancelled and, in our shift to connecting online, you can read my brief report of Solnit’s book of essays Whose Story is This?  on New Writing North’s blog.  I hope it persuades you to read the book, if you haven’t already.

We are working to make it possible that our next group – reading Karen Solie’s poetry collection The Caiplie Caves – will take place online via Zoom.

Wishing everyone well.

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From Dust

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Last night I attended the Opening of Susan William’s Exhibition ‘From Dust’ in the Constantine Gallery at Teeside University, Middlesbrough.  In February, Sue asked if she could commission me to write a poem to accompany her suite of ceramic sculptures as she was reluctant to ‘put any words in front of the work’.  We’d both seen an escalation in the emphasis on critical theory in the creative arts in recent years and, in our respective practices, prefer a more embodied, intuitive approach.  Apart from thoughts along these lines and a brief discussion of the word imago and the metamorphic cycle, we didn’t talk about her work directly, keen that any writing that might come out of the process wouldn’t be illustrative or attempt to ‘explain’ the sculptures, but rather set up a new dynamic between three-dimensional form and text.  In this way, it felt more than a commission but not quite a collaboration, existing itself in some liminal space between the two.  I very much appreciate her making the space to invite a wild card element into this presentation of her work and for trusting my response.  There is the sense that it’s taken us both somewhere new, beyond the limitations of self-generated and -focussed activity into a multi-layered exchange.

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Cradle

Let’s start here: at the end,

when you lay me to rest,

according to my wishes,

 

in the mother’s milk

of snowdrop flowers

– this hollow between seasons –

 

punctuated with

slow, green hyphens.

In a final negotiation

 

of wet and dry, I’ll pierce

the snow with my bones.

Won’t there be hope in my going?

 

For hope’s own sake.

For the snowdrops.

May their petal blades

 

helicopter my ashes

gusts of that first breath

         a sudden cry – my name

 

in blue air, stir the silt

of what we must learn

about earth, this clay

 

we’re born from,

about how to love it.

Even as we burn.

 

                                                                                 February 2019

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If you’re down that way, do call by to see the show.  Sue’s work is both strong and delicate, quiet but powerful, and deserves a large appreciative audience.

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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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Liminal

 

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Sea Mouse

The orphanage of possibility

has had to be expanded to

admit the sea mouse.  No one

had asked for such a thing,

or prophesied its advent,

 

sheltering under ruching

edges of sea lettuce –

a wet thing but pettable

as, seen in the distance,

the tops of copses,

 

sun-honeyed, needle-pelted

pine trees, bearded barley,

or anything newborn not bald

but furred.  No rodent this

scabrous, this unlooked-for

 

foundling, no catnip plaything

for a cat to worry, not even

an echinoderm, the creature

seems to be a worm. Silk-spiny,

baby-mummy-swaddled, it’s

 

at home where every corridor

is mop-and-bucket scrubbed

and aired from wall to wall

twice daily by the inde-

fatigable tidal head nurse.

 

Amy Clampitt

(1920 – 1994)

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As well as painting plantlife, Victorian naturalist and artist Margaret Rebecca Dickinson closely observed and recorded the array of shells and creatures she found on the Northumberland coast.  I was pleased to spot my first sea mouse a few years ago in an after-dark rockpooling adventure up at Cresswell.

I’m going to be talking about Margaret Rebecca Dickinson at the Natural History Society of Northumbria’s Library (in the Great North Museum, Newcastle) on Wednesday 22nd August, 6 – 7.15 pm, when some of her paintings will be on display.  It’s free but you need to book – details here.

 

The first photo is of harebells growing from the walls of Lindisfarne Castle, looking across to Bamburgh, 19th July 2018.

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On Lindisfarne

 

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Portrait of the Artist as an Island Flower

 

However much it loves history, a poem

is not an interpretation panel, in a frame.

 

There are many things it cannot do in a time

at odds with itself.  Gather up, as she did –

 

field garlic, brookweed, sea campion, beaked parsley,

water plantain, knotted trefoil, tufted centaury.

 

Pluck them where they hide on whin or dune to take

home (imagine crossing the sea-soaked causeway

 

by horse-drawn carriage) then paint – purple and white,

yellow and pink, the common language of green.

 

Not scented or seductive, each one’s a modest plant,

at risk from slipshod steps, or simple disregard.

 

Conjure the woman in a watercolour mirror

of flowers as tenderly as if from her own bones

 

sealed in a box; her secrets – thank god – encrypted.

Heed the silence, most eloquent against the tide.

 

  

In 1874, Margaret Rebecca Dickinson made seven watercolours of plants found on Lindisfarne, many rare and endangered.  These images are among the 468 botanical paintings in the Margaret Rebecca Dickinson Archive in the Natural History Society of Northumbria’s Library at the Great North Museum, Newcastle.  2018 marks the centenary of her death, aged 98, at Norham on Tweed. To our knowledge, no portrait of her exists.

 

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I wrote this poem for Newcastle Poetry Festival’s Waves & Bones project, based on Lindisfarne, tying it in with my PhD research.  In my critical essay, I’m connecting various threads and Margaret Rebecca Dickinson is one of them.

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One flower she didn’t paint is the Lindisfarne Helleborine, which I’m going in search of next month.  Also a good chance to see the 650 sweet peas coming into bloom they’d just finished planting in Gertrude Jekyll’s garden last time I was there.  

 

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Earth, Earth, I cried

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At times I was even sure the garden and I were made of the same substance, sand and earth rubbed my bones, mosses, ferns, violets and strelitzia sprouted from my skin, stretched out my limbs.  In springtime I let the caterpillars stride over me, in rusty soft processions, and when they made moving rings around my spread fingers, my skin had the stiffness of bark.

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In the old days I’d have been scared.  But now I knew it was me the garden.  I was the garden.   I was inside, I was made of priceless diamonds and I had no name.  Earth, Earth, I cried.

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From Hélène Cixous, A Real Garden (1971)       Translated by Beverley Bie Brahic

Images by Francesca Woodman

 

(The Portable Cixous

Edited by Marta Segarra

New York:  Columbia University Press 2010)

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COMPASS/NO COMPASS

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You’re always more unreal to yourself than other people are.

Marguerite Duras, ‘Practicalities’ (1990)

This is the epigraph to Deborah Levy’s new book, The Cost of Living (Hamish Hamilton 2018), the second instalment of her ‘living autobiography’.  It’s a compelling account of her attempt to create a new life for herself and her daughters outside the strictures of a long (middle-class) marriage.  Her reflections are multivalent – practical (the value of an electric bike), philosophical (re-reading Simone de Beauvoir) and psychological (grief at the loss of her mother around the same time).  The writing is unpredictable, playful and ultra-cool.

Just as when I read Things I Don’t Want to Know (her first memoir/instalment), my breath came in little bursts as I recognised so many things I felt about female experience but hadn’t quite been able to articulate.  This doesn’t happen for me very much these days and I am grateful for it – one of the deep delights of reading, helping clarify thoughts and grow a little.  It felt like one of those books that keep you pointing in the right direction, not not-saying.

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I’m very lucky to have been chosen as one of the Featured Poets in Issue Six of The Compass Magazine.  It is a fine online space for poetry, sensitively edited by Lindsey Holland and Andrew Forster.  There are two fascinating interviews – with Sinéad Morrissey and Pascale Petit – as well as lots of exciting new work by a wide selection of poets.

I had the chance to include poems here that were written since my last collection was published (two years ago) and before I embarked on my new PhD project.  With hindsight I can see it is the place I sprang off from (somewhere along the Whin Sill).  A sequence called ‘Soil’ looks at the small patch of Northumberland where I live through the battles it’s become known for and shaped by.  The more time I spend looking at the past, the more things seem to have stayed the same.  Military intervention, power struggles, righteousness, xenophobia – these offer no sort of compass.

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Two shorter poems, Her Voice and Tattoo, look at the whole business of trying to speak the truth, finding the right words and knowing what’s worth writing about.  There’s another page (‘Poetics’) where I attempt to review my position as a writer.  I could write a different piece on this subject every week – it turns with the world and the light.  It seems to be changing apace as the PhD process rolls on – doing strange things to one’s sense of ‘audience’ – mostly walking in the dark.

But the last words here are Deborah Levy’s last words:

When a woman has to find a new way of living and breaks from the societal story that has erased her name, she is expected to be viciously self-hating, crazed with suffering, tearful with remorse.  These are jewels reserved for her in the patriarchy’s crown, always there for the taking.  There are plenty of tears, but it is better to walk through the black and bluish darkness than reach for those worthless jewels.

The writing you are reading now is made from the cost of living and it is made with digital ink.

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