I feel incredibly honoured and delighted to have been appointed Writer in Residence at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham. The Barber has been described as one of the finest small galleries in Europe and, living in south Birmingham, I’m particularly fortunate to know it well. It houses works of a quality to match those in the National Gallery (where there is currently an exhibition of works acquired by the Barber in its early years) but on a scale which is much more human than in larger galleries. You can go close enough to examine the brush strokes and look portraits in the eye.
At the moment, the Barber is exhibiting, interspersed with its own paintings, portraits by, amongst others, Rembrandt and Goya, lent by the National Gallery. I think the intimacy of the Barber is absolutely the best mood in which to view these. I’ve never really got Rembrandt before, but the experience of looking into his mistress Hendrickje’s eyes is pure emotion; at first sight the portrait became one of my favourite paintings ever.
In the Lady Barber Gallery is an exhibition, called Defining Faces, of 20th century portrait drawings from the Barber and the National Portrait Gallery. I went to Undefined Faces, an event to celebrate this exhibition at which Roz Goddard read her wonderful poem inspired by Wyndham Lewis’s drawing of his wife Froanna, and Tom Jones drew elegant and accurate sketches of the audience. Tom’s drawing of me will become my image of myself for the residency.
I was fascinated by the huge variety of lines in the drawings and I tried to find words to describe them, which led to the poem below.
HER LINE HIS LINE
Doused in water, tentative, fretted, spreading from point to shadow, mechanical, dynamic, meshed, blue, stubby as a thumb, segmented, terracotta, fly by night, a boundary, unmodulated, line, industrial, approximate, sanguine, chalky, laid on thick, preliminary, exact, exaggerated, tight, humble, phantom, sartorial, furtive, flourishing
(Defining Faces 13/06/13)
I was asked by talented amateur photographer Danny Taylor to write this poem to accompany a selection of his still photographs of the No 11 bus route in Birmingham, which he was compiling into a short film. I travelled all the way round on the 11, anticlockwise, and the poem was inspired by that experience and Danny’s excellent images.
On the Eleven
describing a circle
like a burst balloon.
On a journey
going nowhere in three hours.
Like magic, Acocks Green
away down lanes, past leafy avenues
round roundabouts, along the roads
the solstice, the still point
where drivers, woolly hatted,
hi-vis jacketed, interchange,
on the A4040
they never left
caps and plastic bags.
An ad for surplus clothes
– turn rags to wealth. Bells ring.
For oh, outside are all those
city villages called green,
grassy wastes where no one plays,
no one strays, no one stays.
Inside bells ring.
“I’ll get off at the shops”
someone rises, props herself
in wheelchair space to wait
where mothers slide
and dovetail buggies.
For oh, outside they look for healing,
careless of what they throw away.
Past displays of grief and flowers
angels guard deserted graves.
Inside, bells ring, doors grind.
“Ta-ra” “Thank you driver” “Cheers”
they say as they alight.
Long waits at stops
for nowhere, nobody,
for nothing, for nought,
except to throw
some time away.
“It was busy years ago,”
they say inside.
For oh outside
forgotten pasts still
dwell in houses
derelict, pristine, careful gardens
painted railings. Space for hire
History for sale.
Inside bells ring
and something smells warm,
salty, like bacon sandwiches, greasy,
spicy, cabbage, deep-fried veg.
For oh outside the distant glamour,
exotic hints of other worlds,
places unseen clamour on posters –
Be star in Perry Barr.
Jesus cares about Rotten Park.
Inside Polish, Urdu, patois.
“Where you getting off?”
“You getting off here”
“Why not here?”
Why not now?
On the eleven,
crossing its timeline
ringfencing the city
the centre always just out of reach,
from Acocks Green
on the A4040
past alleyways and boulevards,
under bridges, over water,
down roads and streets
all the way to
against the clock.
I was asked four questions and here are my answers:
1. WHAT AM I WORKING ON AT THE MOMENT?
I’m researching the Sculpture Trail on Birminghan University campus. I’ll be doing a workshop about it in June http://barber.org.uk and I’ve become interested in writing about it myself so I’m looking at archive material in the university’s Collections department. My idea is to write a double sequence, one of poems about the specific sculptures and the other about me walking around the campus. The poems about the works will be more formal, probably with each having a specific constraint, because the works are constructed, while the personal ones will be less structured. I’ve just reviewed TalkingVrouzby the French poet Valerie Rouzeau and I’m quite taken by what she does with sonnets, which is pushing me in the direction of writing it, loosely, in sonnets. I like writing sequences, partly because publishing pamphlets makes me regard them as a significant and rewarding form for poets to engage with, partly because a lot of my poems are short, and they benefit from the cumulative effect of a sequence, and partly because I like the opportunity to write about a topic from many angles.
2 HOW DOES MY WORK DIFFER FROM OTHERS OF ITS GENRE?
I can’t say that my work does differ except in the sense that everyone’s is unique. What characterises my poetry is that I like to write in response to stimuli that are external to myself and over time, taking advantage of opportunities that have arisen, that has led me to specialise in writing about art and heritage; I think the term ‘documentary lyricism’, which I’ve seen applied to some other poets’ work, describes quite well what I do. I’m keen on putting poetry into public art and on display through poetry trails and the like because I want it to reach a wider audience than regular poetry readers – one of my proudest moments was when Laura Yates, then Co-ordinator of Northfield Arts Forum, got poems from a trail I’d curated on display in Argos. Being Writer in Residence at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts has been brilliant for me in that it has offered so much to write about. Because so much of the poetry I write is ekphrastic, I’m interested in the challenge of writing about art. Ekphrastic poems shouldn’t just describe the artworks because it’s easy enough nowadays to find out what just about any piece looks like from the internet; they should aim to offer another dimension to the artworks and make a connection with even readers who haven’t seen them. For me, the highest ideal of ekphrasis is to make poems that stand as works of art in themselves, which is what I’m always striving for.
Though I hope all my poetry is authentic to me, I don’t think it has a distinctive voice, because I’m open to writing in whatever style or form suits the subject from traditional fixed forms to modernist and experimental.
3. WHY DO I WRITE WHAT I DO?
I’m on the run from the ‘I’. When I have difficulty writing poetry it’s often because I’m reluctant to use the first person singular, except in a character voice, and ultimately find it hard to believe that anything I write about myself is likely to be interesting to readers, though this is odd because I don’t find good, personal poetry by other poets uninteresting to me as a reader. As I write this, I’m beginning to think that maybe my sequence about walking on the campus should address my relationship with ‘I’. That’s why I like to write in response to things external to me, though of course there’s always an element of the personal in any poetry, even if it’s not overt, based on the choices you make.
When I first wanted to write, which is as long ago as I can remember, I didn’t see myself necessarily focusing on poetry, but it has come to be at the heart of what I do. I like the linguistic challenge of writing poetry as well as the emotional distillation. Poetry is my work; I consider teaching, mentoring, publishing,putting on events and helping people with dementia to have a voice all to be part of my artistic practice and I don’t feel I would be able to do them successfully if I weren’t in practice as a poet myself. I have written other things though – for example I’ve had short fiction published and written an unproduced screenplay – and I am currently quite keen to work in other genres, in particular radio drama, creative non-fiction and writing about writing poetry, so I’m pleased to have a place on this year’s Room 204 writer development programme with Writing West Midlands http://www.writingwestmidlands.org
4. HOW DOES YOUR WRITING PROCESS WORK?
The best writing for me is required writing, as commissions or part of a project or something I’ve set myself to do, because it’s usually clear to me what I have to do and when I have to do it by, without too much dithering about what I’m going to write about. I have techniques for getting myself started which arise out of my conviction that constraint stimulates creativity, so I’ll often start by writing my notes in a short syllabic form (I also think that if you’re writing poetry you should start by writing poetry; beginning in prose adds a layer of work). Or I’ll use a process from Oulipo, such as a lipogram. I love Oulipo, but more for generating text that I can develop than as an end in itself, though some of my finished poems have hidden constraints. I never depend on inspiration just coming, though it’s wonderful when that happens, and I don’t spend too much time thinking before I write. In all genres, I find that ideas come in the writing; I’m a kinaesthetic thinker and learner so the physical act of writing is important to me. I mostly write either on my iPad or my phone now. I have problems with writing by hand because my handwriting is awful, though not wilfully so. All my life, at school and at work, people have criticised my handwriting as if it was a choice and I could write well if I wanted to when they have no idea the anguish it causes me. It’s often even physically uncomfortable to write by hand but still I sometimes prefer to do it that way. Like most writers I know, I love stationery and I want to write with lovely new pens in beautiful notebooks, even if it’s a struggle to read it afterwards (though that can lead to happy accidents when misreading leads to a better word). I prefer to write poetry in short bursts than long stretches, which is good because though I do a lot of writing, the creative part still doesn’t get as much time as I’d like.
I’m now passing the baton on to Julie Maclean, and Heide Goody and Iain Grant. Julie is a poet who was shortlisted for the Crashaw Prize. Her debut collection When I Saw Jimi was published in 2013 and an e-chapbook You Love to Leave in 2014. She blogs on http://www.juliemacleanwriter.com. Heide and Iain write humorous novels together. They are currently writing novels three and four in a comedy fantasy series. They are both members of Birmingham Writers Group and they are both married but not to each other. Their blog is http://mrclovenhoof.blogspot.co.uk/
One of my first tasks when I was appointed Writer in Residence at the Barber Institute was to choose a painting as the subject for a gallery talk in November. If I’d been choosing now I would probably have gone for something different because I’ve made more emotional connections with other works, but this, ‘An Allegorical Tomb of the First Duke of Devonshire’ has always intrigued me. Painted in the early eighteenth century by Venetian artists Sebastiano Ricci and his nephew Marco, it was part of a commission through which a bankrupt Irish impresario called Owen McSwinney strangely hoped to make some money by selling paintings commemorating notable Whigs – supporters of William and Mary. He employed many painters for this, including Canaletto. The Ricci had lived in England and worked with McSwinney, notably on painting scenery. They also seem to have been larger than life characters, with less than reputable pasts. Sebastiano, having got a girl pregnant, tried to poison her and was sent to prison. On his release he eventually married her, only to abandon her and run away with another woman. Marco had to flee Venice after murdering a gondolier.
I wrote three poems about the painting. What intrigues me most about it, though it was painted for a commission, is how the Ricci have played with the form and made it anything but orthodox, almost surreal, 200 years before that term was invented. The statues on the tomb seem to be coming to life, while the human mourners, rigidly posed, seem to be turning into statues. One of the stone figures is an angel which made me think of the Weeping Angels in ‘Doctor Who’, turned to stone when anyone looks at them, so the first poem is also a celebration of ‘Doctor Who’ for its fiftieth anniversary this week.
look don’t look look
look don’t look
look don’t stop don’t gaze
don’t close your eyes
don’t turn your glance from the glass
don’t primp your anguished hair
don’t stop to reflect
that your name and your time aren’t there
in the vacant cartouche
head first down that hole the worms
have gnawed avoid in the void
like snakes in the grass
unclasp the box make soup from stone
stir pigment into flesh
be prey to claws of angels sobbing
turn grizzled grisaille grey
stay don’t stay
toggle quick to extinct and flick it back
blink don’t think
think don’t blink
The second poem reflects on the artificiality of the scene, with various figures representing ideas, like art, music and history, seen from the point of view of a figure in the left foreground, who is supposed to be a painter.
Though I am not the painter
I believe I have deposited a palette in the shade
laid down pencils and a mahlstick, all
the better to enact this pose, opposing fingers,
pointing where I do not look, precisely sloped
away from the window towards the empty corner
it illuminates. There will be perhaps a folly,
a capriccio, a grotto or a tomb. The lutanist
will turn up later, sit on a tub, finger strings,
which is not his skill, but his legs
are pertinent. The climbing man is limbering up,
the general straddles a sack of straw. We all
are on the tariff: size, dress, complication. Later
barefoot, I will will wring my hands for nobody
I know, who has not died, will straighten up
and indicate again, my angle parallel,
the current void. I will be lower than
the firmament. I do not do gods. I serve
as I am and here am I on the surface,
on the edge, trying to grasp the frame,
as I wade in the darkness of something
he still has to conceive.
The first Duke of Devonshire was a notable politician given the rank of Duke because of his support of William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution. Perhaps ironically the Dukes of Devonshire, members of the Cavendish family, are not buried in grandiose tombs but in the churchyard at Edensor near Chatsworth. The Duke of Richmond bought the paintings for his dining room. The third poem is probably unkind to both dukes but I’m imagining that Richmond was far more concerned with what the painting says about him than any praise it offers Devonshire. This also gave me the opportunity finally to write a parody of what I think is one of the greatest poems ever written, so this comes with apologies to Robert Browning.
That’s William Cavendish hanging on the wall,
though not alive. Odd’s blood if I don’t call
that daub a marvel, hefty though the price
McSwinney charged. The truth is I’d pay twice
as much for such a work. The pretty leg
on that stone wench, the stag behind. I beg
to differ if I ever hear you say
that better painters play their trade today
or in the past. What, Lely? Or Van Dyck?
Both fair at faces but for spectacle I like
what these Venetians conjure up, so bold,
devoid of Art. Did I revere the old
Duke very much, you ask? No, I did not.
A blessed, jumped up earl. He never sought
our love or praise. Why then show off his tomb?
Oh sir, admit it looks well in thus room.
More of my daily tankas, reflecting a week dominated by snow and cold.
False raindrops fall from
branches heavily, spread as
circles in cloudy
puddles that just before
were mounds of snow freshly dropped.
The moon on its back,
cold on the ground, between,
pale geometry and ice
white trees gloved in fairy lights.
The weather absent
nothing but sky, no movement
except people fur-
hatted, shuffling, clasping their
coats against invisible chill.
Flakes float and fall, die
on tarmac, replenish the
sombre river. One
white, salty, sticks to the car
window, holds on for a while.
Glimpses of outside,
past the dog barking at the
window, penned in by
tumbling snow. Evening falling
early, no different from morning.
in slush of headlamps or sky.
The road opens to
landscapes mapped on water, the
way to a shinier world.
No sense of outdoors
in this waiting room as if
the glass and panels
are composed to repel all
weathers, light to block out light
Trudging along the
road, someone mediaeval,
back-packed, leaning on
a stave formed from a branch, hair
gleaming auburn in the gloom.
Rubbed out buildings
make my eyes misty even
inside the car. All
around softened, blunted, as
if invaded by the sky.
I’m not very good at month long challenges like NaNoWrMo and NaPoWrMo. Probably I start too enthusiastically as I burn myself out after on average about five days. Small Stones, a challenge run by Satyavani Fiona Robyn and Kaspalita Thompson http://www.writingourwayhome.com seemed more manageable because it’s about small pieces of mindful writing, capturing the essence of a moment in the moment. This fits in with my approach to writing about places and in heritage situations, which I’ve also taught on workshops such as the one I did at this year’s Warwick Words – writing notes about a place immediately as poetry, not pages and pages of prose which you never read again or from which you struggle to find anything to use as poetry. The most successful way of doing this for me is to use syllabic forms to write in the moment. The discipline of counting syllables and the constraint encourage creativity. Small syllabic poems can have an existence of their own or they can become the raw material for something else.
I had the idea of using a range of syllabic forms for small stones but my first turned out to be a tanka (5 7 5 7 7 syllables – 31 in all) and this set the pattern for the rest because it’s a form I find satisfying in that you can develop an image, more so than in a haiku. Writing tanka has become a homage to one of my heroes, Izumi Shikibu http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Izumi_Shikibu. Izumi was one of many court ladies in 10th century Japan who were accomplished in writing poetry. Tanka was their preferred form. Of them all, Izumi – the name we know her by is composed of the province of which her husband was governor and her father’s rank – is possibly best known because of her colourful life. She had an affair with a prince who died and she left a probably fictionalised diary of an later affair with his brother. Her poems, which have been extensively translated into English, shine through, though and hold their own against the millennium of poetry that follows her, disciplined by the form to present emotion through images chosen and described with a jewelller’s precision. It’s interesting, given that her work is focused and mindful, that, like the initiators of Small Stones, Satyavani and Kaspalita, Izumi was Buddhist.
The idea of learning Japanese to read Izumi’s work in the original and to translate it has crossed my mind but it will probably remain a fantasy. Writing a tanka a day is perhaps one remove away but at the same time more immediate because it’s new work, rather than a version of something else. I’ve loved writing these so far and maybe I’ll carry on after the month is over, even aim for a year of tanka. Below I’ve put together what I’ve written so far, with a dedicatory tanka at the start.
For Izumi, which
was not your name, this is not
of life across a thousand
years of counting syllables.
Spiked, the verges with
spearmint shoots and sudden
daisies left over
from the frost. Round the corner
a thorn in pink and white bloom.
old leaves to leather. Heels and paws
clutched by mud, grass, shale,
detach themselves, squealing, to
leave their forms as emptiness.
Dog jumps up wanting
not to go home, takes control
of the lead. All day
I will be brushing peaty
paw marks off my light wool coat.
waters by Powick cover
the land from hedge to
hedge, tree to tree. Perhaps grass
springs back when the floods subside.
Baby in cluttered
cafe frets, jettisons pink
Christmas tree, cutting it fine
for Epiphany soothes her.
Ripe ewes, enlarged by
swollen stomachs and ample
fleece, graze the hill like
giantesses below a
fuzz of blossom on bare trees.
Silvery in the rain
and darkness tips of shrubs lit
windows, little stars when in
the clouds tonight there are none.
Chevrons guide red lights
Into the grey. Bridges emerge
pass over until
sky starts coming back, holds down
mist in a basket of trees.
Heating broken in
the library. I keep my
coat on, watching snow,
desultory, dripping on
the churned up car park.
Little tanka seem
to be intact once formed. Hard
to break them up, merge
them or use their lines elsewhere
turn them into something else.