Category Archives: writing

Roma

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I started reading Muriel Spark’s The Public Image (1968, shortlisted for the Booker Prize), set in Rome, on the flight over.  She mentions that Time tends to go anti-clockwise there.  I was interested to see how that played out during my fortnight’s stay at the Accademia Brittanica, The British School at Rome.

 

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A fortnight is too short and too long for a writer – enough time to relax and be complacent, whilst staying open, searching for what stirs you; and not enough time, once you’ve found your hook, to stay there and excavate, experiment, understand and deepen.

 

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All the city’s clocks were full moons, electrical storms, a partial eclipse.  Rome – Eternal City, Dead City – is bigger than you are.  You might as well submit.  I went to see a friend read from a book he’d written about the moon.  He wasn’t there – just a ring of people talking about it.  In Italian.

 

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‘Go thou to Rome,’ said Shelley, ‘the paradise, the city, the wilderness.’  For me, lingering in gardens, it was more paradise than wilderness.  Although the often 30 degree heat felt like a small lick of inferno.

 

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Inevitably in the heat, I was drawn to the city’s many fountains – particularly the forty in the Villa Borghese Gardens – one per two hectares.  And there was a memorable outing to Villa d’Este in Tivoli, where the fountain is god and goddess and my mouth stayed wide open all day long.  A big O, clock, water spout, moon.

 

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Now I’m home, I’m not sure what day it is.  Whatever direction Time is going in, I will pluck the day and eat it.  Carpe Diem.  A hundred thousand fridge magnets can’t be ignored.

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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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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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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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Tenderness

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The American poet Galway Kinnell wrote: The secret title of every good poem might be ‘Tenderness’.

And so begins Jane Hirshfield’s ‘Late Prayer’ –

Tenderness does not choose its own uses.

It goes out to everything equally,

Circling rabbit and hawk.

Look: in the iron bucket,

A single nail, a single ruby –

All the heavens and hells.

They rattle in the heart and make one sound.

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In ‘Ars Poetica?’ the Polish poet Czeslow Milosz wrote:

The purpose of poetry is to remind us

How difficult it is to remain just one person,

For our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,

And invisible guests come in and out at will,

(trans. Czeslaw Milosz and Lillian Vallee)

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On yet another snowy day, I have been enjoying sitting by my fire and re-reading Jane Hirshfield’s wonderful essay ‘Writing and the Threshold Life’, from Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (1998).  These quotes come from that book and the images are from The Heart of the Matter at Great North Museum: Hancock, an exhibition by Sofie Layton et al. ‘Heartland’ is my own contribution.

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Happy Easter

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They bring this hint of something startled in them –

the dreadful earliness of their petals

against dead earth, the extremity of their faces

suggesting a violent start –

dumb skulls opening, overnight, to vehemence.

Their lives are quicker than vision,

their voices evade us.  And as

water tightens its surface in vases

and sharpens its glass, slicing their sticks

in half, these funnels clatter on their bent necks,

like bells for the already dead.

 

Catriona O’Reilly

From The Nowhere Birds (Bloodaxe, 2001)

 

I’ve spent the past few weeks writing about what women poets are writing about when they write about flowers (snowdrops in particular) and now I look up, the daffodils are nearly over.  Never my favourite flower, I think Catriona O’Reilly has caught something interesting in them – that vehemence.  It seems to be the case that women poets (and possibly men too, but in a different way)  write about flowers either as a strategy for addressing an actual Other or approaching what they experience as Other inside themselves.  All flowers seem to lend themselves to reflections on death, they last so short a while.  A good place to consider impermanence.

My own wild daffodil poem from over ten years ago (part of a collaboration with the ceramicist Sue Dunne) was nudged into being by the death of Julia Darling.  It’s a different sort of grief when a friend dies – at least it was for me, tangled up with my own mortality, the sheer lostness of loss.  Those brave yellow flowers have some of Julia’s radiance about them.

 

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After all that Easterish death maybe it’s good to think about all the Easterish rebirth…so here’s some daffodil-inspired handiwork and humour in an installation in Hull, UK City of Culture – 1700 flowers made out of nearly 150,000 lego pieces.  I wonder what sort of poem might these be a muse for?

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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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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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A Day for Capability

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Turning the Landscape

 

Roads that brought us here –

blink them away

three hundred years

 

rain crackles the safe tent

inside, gentleness

 

layers of water, earth, white rock

nothing straight

all balancing

 

Brown charted the sweep of these contours

shifted nature

 

songs of dragonfly and jackdaw

spread over the lake

a rippled roof for fishes

 

plodging, rafting

petting, gutting

 

ornamental maple

next to copper beech

salt next to caramel

 

feet circled

satellites flung from a planet

 

tumbled scraps of moon

sheep graze

this divided land

 

the other side of the day

slowing down again

 

in the pink

foxgloves

shimmering question marks

 

a hand’s brush

two droplets fall

 

waterlilies

a touch of Monet

upon Rothley Low Lake

 

ground sinks away

a natural ha-ha

 

over the old railway

you’ve gone too far

turn back

 

history’s fraud –

the foggy fort – kindly meant

 

sounds of planes, birds

but rain (the demanding child)

will be heard

 

glimpse of modern barn

through a Brownian gap in trees

 

Beware

soft edges

take care

 

bonfire piled high

waiting.

 

 

 

A renga in celebration of Capability Brown

at Rothley Low Lake, Northumberland,

on 25th June 2016.

 

Participants:

 

Linda France

Sharon Higginson

Liz Kirsopp

Nick Owen

Jon Randall

Eileen Ridley

Anna Smith

Tony Smith

Christine Taylor

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