Tag Archives: research

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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Digitalia

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Spending so much time in the 19thcentury lately, I’ve been thinking a great deal about our relationship with time and history.  Not just because the present is so confounding, although that is undeniable. I’m struck by how little we seem to have learned from the past, every day faced with so many instances of collective amnesia.

But context is all and we must keep re-visiting history, our own and our shared inheritance, to re-view it in the light of the present.  Only then can we orientate ourselves in the direction of the most helpful choices, for our own individual and the common good.  Frequent pauses are necessary.  Moving slowly also makes it easier to see what is really needed.  Change is subtle as well as cataclysmic.

The most powerful new element affecting the way we relate to the quotidian and the longer view is digital technology.  My very first emails were sent back home from Internet cafés in India while I was away for six months, travelling there and in Sri Lanka, Nepal and Sikkim, in 2001-2. When I got home, I bought my first mobile phone and gradually the way I (and the rest of the world) communicated changed.  Happy to admit my ambivalence to our current dependence on the digital, I’m still resisting acquiring a smartphone but have plenty of other portable gadgets to keep me connected and distracted.

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This is a SLOW introduction to letting everyone know that I have a new website (thanks to New Writing North and Creative Fuse’s recent DigiTransform programme).   At the same address as my old one, you can visit it here – and I’d be very happy to hear any thoughts you may have about it.  I now have the skills to update and amend it myself, something that wasn’t possible with my old site.

 

On another digital note, you might like to check out the Poem of the North, an exciting Northern Poetry Library initiative for Great Northumberland 2018.  It also does strange things to Time and Space, creating something new from the shared compass of the imagination.  My own contribution has just been added and you can learn more and watch it unfold here.

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So, after all that clicking and coding, I feel the need to go back, a long way back and see things from the perspective of one of our most ancient plants – Equisetum.  A living fossil, which once dominated the understory of late Paleozoic forests, it is also known as horsetail, snake grass or puzzlegrass.

 

This poem by Joanna Boulter is worth spending some time with:

Horsetail

(Equisetum)

We live in droves.  Memory herds back

to a time before there were horses or pasture

 

when soil was hardly soil, inhospitable.

You ask why we still grow, abandoned here

 

after thirty million years,

left clinging out of our time

 

by brittle toeholds

to a past you can’t conceive of.

 

Our roots reach so deep

we can grow anywhere,

 

have done and will, in marshes or sand dunes.

We cannot be dug out.

 

Think of the silica spicules

that scaffold our stems –

 

part organic, part inorganic

things could have gone either way

 

for us, you could have been

the beached ones.

 

But we are still at the crossroads,

and you need us.

 

You need to think sometimes of sparse

harshness, of glassy grains without humus,

 

your world returning to that.

 

(from Collecting Stones, An Anthology of Poems and Stories inspired by Harehope Quarry, Vane Women Press, 2008)

 

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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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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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At Allen Banks

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I’m spending a lot of time at Allen Banks these days – stepping out of the garden into the wild.  It’s the site for my current PhD research at Newcastle University and I’m looking at its history as well as its ecology towards writing a book-length sequence of poems.

As part of my endeavour to consider it as a collective site, it seemed natural to invite a group of folk to participate in a walking renga at the end of the summer, on the brink of my starting my second year of study.  We walked on the East side of the river, up through Moralee Woods to the tarn, stopping along the way to write and share our verses.

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Here is the renga we made together:

The Landscape, Ourselves

 

Today’s truth –

the seventh month is our ninth

white river brown

 

a startled heron

wingbeat of silence

 

what is that sumptuous smell?

she only knows it

as ‘country’

 

a choice is made

to keep to the middle way

 

uphill

tripping on roots

my breathing quickens

 

through the ghost of a window

we gaze over the valley

 

mirror tarnished

by pondweed

waterlily

 

layer upon layer

memories settle

 

my companions are painting light

collecting earth

gathering pollen

 

by the water

a stack of wooden bones

 

and so we lean

into the landscape

ourselves

 

picture the moonlight

shadowing these branches

 

in a wild grove

between two fields

with all that’s unspoken

 

Allen

muttering, meandering.

 

A 14-verse Renga at Allen Banks,

Morralee Wood,

on 6th September 2017.

 

Participants:

Jo Aris

Matilda Bevan

Holly Clay

Martin Eccles

Linda France

Malcolm Green

Sharon Higginson

Alex Reed

Eileen Ridley

Christine Taylor

 

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Sound artist and fellow PhD student, Martin Eccles recorded the day and you can read his own renga here.  As well as writing our collaborative version, this time I encouraged everyone to keep all their verses and make their own individual renga, imagining them all as parallel shadows of our shared experience.

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