Happy New Year! I hope you’ve had some enjoyable time off over midwinter & Christmas. (A strange time; it can feel both restorative and exhausting, all at once.)
As I’m emerging from my festive burrow into the new year, I thought I’d blog about the Exhale and Exchange workshop I was invited to host (by NHS Harefield & Brompton Trust & Imperial College London) at The Wellcome Collection Reading Room last month – and share some of my own writing from that session.
We had a wonderful group of participants, some who planned to attend and some who happened to be in the building and joined in – and the resulting atmosphere was fizzingly creative and communicative.
The intention for the workshop was to use creative writing as a way of exchanging experience, knowledge and stories about breathing and lung health; exploring the potential of language & poetry to offer new ways of looking at breath and breathing.
I used a few approaches in the workshop, including the use of found words (cut out, fridge poetry and from the Reading Room collections) mixing with terms coming up for group members through word-association, mindfulness breathing exercises and discussion.
We took something of an ‘oblique’ angle to warm up our creative & linguistic muscles, using a generated pair of words and an idea from Ginsberg called ‘Eyeball Kick’ *.
I reflected on my arrival in the city:
I Enter The Rumbling Sculpture
of London, its mesh of iron
and its mulch of rain
and voices lost at Paddington
up and down
an Escher puppet
drinking frothy capital
stuck on the tracks of
L O N D O N
with too many artist
We then used a different combination of a breath or airy word alongside a new found word, as a springboard for another piece. For me, this lead to a reflection on the voice, voices and the space in which we were working:
All around the Reading Room
are the mouldings of voices
some in plaster of Paris
some in silicone these mouldings
in shapes of sounds
at their edges and jagged
like metal. Voices clinging
to the light fittings
fluttering into the eaves.
How can we contain them?
There is no guidebook for how
to capture and store a living
voice. Only how to pickle
the voice, how to tank
and display it.
Any voice which has been
captured & contained
is no longer in the wild
the leaf-strewn moment
with the wild hot winds
of breath where two voices
meet in a clearing
circling each other
which will show its
In the second part of the session, we moved to address our breath or lungs quite directly – in the form of a letter or email. We used an activity adapted from poet Rita Dove’s ‘Ten-Minute Spill’, where each writer ‘harvested’ a selection of words that they then had to use in their piece (hopefully pushing the language in interesting directions):
To My Lungs in the New Year
Among your thousands of branches
you capture baubles like suns
among the space in my chest
where twisted flumps & cables entangle,
fly like orangutans among
burgundy branches, wobbling lazily.
All I need is the air that you breathe
on my behalf; a forwarding address,
a lost gift. I wish you buoyancy
through these bleak months. I wish
you the opposite of chloroform,
may you light up like a fairy.
It was a real pleasure to be invited to work in the Wellcome Collection and bring together a group of strangers who were, by the end of the session, connecting so much through writing.
I’m looking forward to all the groups I’ll be running this year, including a course for Poetry School from January 23rd, my ongoing residency with First Story, and hopefully an LGBTQ+ writing for wellbeing and filmpoetry group with St Mungo’s Bristol.
I hope that you have some time to do whatever you find replenishing over these first months of the year – take care of yourself and
*Footnote – on ‘Eyeball Kick’ – explanation from Language is a Virus.
Allen Ginsberg, “made an intense study of haiku and the paintings of Paul Cézanne, from which he adapted a concept important to his work, which he called the “Eyeball Kick”. He noticed in viewing Cézanne’s paintings that when the eye moved from one color to a contrasting color, the eye would spasm, or “kick.” Likewise, he discovered that the contrast of two seeming opposites was a common feature in haiku. Ginsberg used this technique in his poetry, putting together two starkly dissimilar images: something weak with something strong, an artifact of high culture with an artifact of low culture, something holy with something unholy. The example Ginsberg most often used was “hydrogen jukebox” (which later became the title of an opera he wrote with Philip Glass). Another example is Ginsberg’s observation on Bob Dylan during Dylan’s hectic and intense 1966 electric-guitar tour, fuelled by a cocktail of amphetamines, opiates, alcohol, and psychedelics, as a “Dexedrine Clown”. The phrases “eyeball kick” and “hydrogen jukebox” both show up in “Howl”, as well as a direct quote from Cézanne: “Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus”.”
From January 23rd, I’ll be hosting a five-week fortnightly course, Letting Your Avant-Garde Down, at Hours here in Bristol.
I’m delighted to be working with The Poetry School, who are a great force for making poetry happen, and bringing people together to discover and delight in the process.
There’s an interview with me here about the course – do come along and we’ll explore together what ‘the avant-garde’ (if there is such a thing) can do for your writing, and what you can bring to the newest, yet-to-be-imagined avant-gardes, too…
Fortuitously, the film Manifesto, starring a chameleonic Cate Blanchett, is out at the moment – I’ll be going to see it next week. Might be a rather marvellous way of introducing oneself to the Ghost of Avant-Gardes Past.
Here’s the trailer:
I was double-thrilled & beyond delighted to find out that my poem, Somewhere To Keep The Rain – after Wen Ying-Tsai, Umbrella (1971) won first prize in this year’s Winchester Poetry Prize – judged by (2016 T S Eliot Prize Winner) Sarah Howe.
It’s always an honour to make it to any of the mentions in a competition – not least because, like many poets, I put a lot of time, love and energy into entering and submitting work here, there and everywhere.
I discovered that I’d won the first prize while I was on holiday – via Twitter! After which there might have been a *few too many Maltese cocktails* and a sore head the following day.
Having a poem which feels close to my heart recognised – and by such a renowned poet – is wonderful. It’s a piece which responded to a sculpture previously installed in the Tate Modern’s ‘Tanks’ space – and, for me, gives voice to those days when you feel exposed, raw somehow, and like the volume of the world is turned up to the max.
So it’s not just winning the competition – but that a poem which tries to encapsulate this feeling has been understood, that it has communicated – and now gives its title to the winners’ anthology (see above). I’m looking forward immensely to reading this, cover to cover.
When nods like this (or my National Poetry Competition Second Prize and Rialto Pamphlet shortlisting ealier this year ) come around, it’s good to celebrate and really notice – it gives us fuel to keep going. So: keep going!
As I couldn’t make it to the ceremony, I made this video reading of the poem – I hope you enjoy it:
I borrowed guided relaxation techniques from solution-focused hypnotherapy (thanks, Emma Edwards / Shine for tips on doing so safely), animal creation myths, and lovely rhyming bedtime stories: a bit of A A Milne lyricism, a splash of Dr Seuss sass, with some Channel 4 reality formats thrown in…
The story used the animal characters and dreamy rhyme to invite the artists present (and now you) to become relaxed, and explore ideas of home, hospitality – to picture a scenario where we invite everyone in, to a perfect home, for a perfect soiree.
So I recorded the script as I read it, here – so find yourself somewhere comfy for a sit down and to relax with it – ideally before bed. And especially if you’re hosting, or going to be hosting, any kind of soiree, workshop, or event.
I hope that the story generates some interesting images in your unconscious of perfect hospitality – and feel free to comment below with any experiences and reflections about these themes.
It’s been a busy couple of festival weeks! And I’m just starting to return to the so-called ‘Real World’…
The weekend before last, I was running my Petty Protest workshops at Einstein’s Garden, Green Man Festival. Some excellent, witty griping went on – here’s some pictures:
I now have a MEGAPHONE and will be planning some projects in which I can use it again…
And then this weekend, I went to Shambala for the first time. It’s a really wonderful festival, full of generosity, creativity, appreciation, energy, and downright silliness.
It’s a very free and friendly event – some of my highlights being Power Ballad Yoga and Oh My God, It’s The Church! My quick description of the festival was ‘The 1960s fed through Google DeepDream’…So to document my first time there, I wrote a poem gathering some of the moments that stay with me – here it is.
NB: This is a poem for adults! Contains psychedelic imagery and reference to specific body-parts!
(v.) – To attend Shambhala Festival (2017)
When the floor is your wardrobe.
When the sky roars from 30,000 eyes.
When you knock on your neighbour’s tent
of rainbow hair.
When your toes are doused in dahl.
When the urinals branch and billow.
When there’s sexy sequin soup between the pods.
When you meet bacon roving the woods, but nowhere else.
When Sexy Jesus reaches up yo’ ass all the way to yo’ heart.
When the flamingos form a Union.
When you’re at the urinal, blowing bubbles.
When you realise being Upside Down and Inside Out
might not be a nice thing, Diana?
When bacon sees you’re holding a spatula.
When the lipstick misses your mouth so far
you think it’s a scar under your chest hair.
When sauna chat rehydrates tardigrades.
When there’s glitter under your foreskin.
When you’ve no idea how you’re going to get out
of this outfit, but it’s entirely worth it.
When you meet a family of fellow gold-winged
beings and they give you a medal.
When you discuss seriously the toilets with which
you’ve formed an inappropriate bond.
When you grasp the spiritual plectrum and, when ready, expel.
When Jimmy Big-Top becomes real.
When Ship Out becomes his catchphrase.
When Shidney the Slow Loris Pirate finger-puppet becomes his sidekick.
When you convince the first person of all of this.
When the pyrotechnics make your eyes overflow.
When everyone sits down.
When I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar.
When you were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar.
When it was Dad’s Night tonight but Mum’s Night tomorrow.
When I wasn’t born a vegetarian! I want a burger!
When you can just come and put me on the helter-skelter,
but you don’t have to watch.
When the Snow Queen grew like a luminous shroom.
When we laughed so much we let out a little bit of neon.
When we found Helen on my hat.
When there’s an injury, then ice in every crevice.
When the Cuckoo Clock strikes two glittery boobs.
When a squatter in the corner of the Herris Fencing says in broad Northern
Irish, Solidarity with women! I’m just trying to understand their experiences.
When you blow your nose and Annie Lennox’s face comes out.
When you shout to a friend, but she’s a cloud and floats away.
When the trees are bioluminescent and living for their gig.
When Glitter Largesse gives it all away.
When you become Dispatula.
When you realise it’s got lights in too.
When you meet the stuffed dog in the cone of shame
and hear its backstory and stroke its nose, because it likes it.
When you adopt the beautiful unicorn people on the dancefloor.
When the woods flutter Spanish poetry from its million Monarch wings.
When you leave the womb as Red, Red Wine.
When you grow bright yellow tail plumage and shake it, shake it, shake it.
When all bodies are beautiful.
When queues are quilted & sawdust scented with sharing.
When play is a not a privilege but an Element.
When you receive free hugs and a free shrug.
When the security van rumbles through a sunrise sweet
as a perfect grapefruit, meep-meeping: You, sir, look *fabulous*.
When the Segway Grannies grind on their trundle buggies.
When movement is in everything and the trees
are punching the air and look: the infinite
tundra of our soles.
Last Wednesday, I ran the last workshop (of four) at M Shed museum, around their excellent Skeletons exhibition.
As well as spending time with loads of brilliant young writers, from three schools and those who’d come to the summer holiday workshop – I felt like I’d gotten to know those bones rather well.
Being as I like to model reading out writing I’ve just written, I did a lot of it before and during the sessions. We looked at Simon Armitage’s poem Ankylosing Spondilitis (which appears in the anthology Signs and Humours: The Poetry of Medicine) during the workshops – and I encouraged participants to find a term in the exhibition and write around it. This is what I came up with:
– after Simon Armitage, Ankylosing Spondylitis
– for all the Skeletons.
Osteo – relating to the bones
chond – conned – chondritis – itis
which makes things inflammatory
and dissecans – like desiccated coconut
like desecrated spaces, the rivers
of me, these capillaries drying up
at their tips, ceasing to flow, ground
of my bones splintering, tilting up
sharp fragments of bark
into the soft skies of my muscles
which mutter a low moan of it,
swear, quietly, with every step.
Can you help me? I’m shattered,
shattering – an intricate vase
hitting the ground in slow-motion.
Maybe you can hit pause, press stop.
Maybe some day you’ll be the one
to find some new language, a spell
before I am too broken
for superglue, to tape up.
Please: find the words. Speak them, a titanium prayer.
Last Thursday 27th July, I compered an event as part of at-Bristol’s Festival of What If-?
As part of the evening – with its excellent provocations on the theme of living on Mars – I crowd-sourced a poem: A Recipe for Martian Happiness. That poem is now disappeared forever (though someone might have been filming it on their phone, I think) – but I’ve used the components to generate another…
**NB contains a single, heroically-deployed swearword in first stanza**
A Recipe for Martian Happiness
3,004,437 kisses of rubies and warp-tunnel-bend them with a toolbelt.
3,279,491 metric fucktonnes of lipstick and propulse them with duct tape.
8,197,635 on the Kardashev Scale of roses; whizz with a lovely felt tip pen.
1,470,239 infinitesimally small bloods, which you’ll propel with a space-hopper pump.
4,724,435 centimetres of crochet, to asphyxiate with a defraction grate.
8,716,756 fathoms of macaws: endeavour these with
the machine on the shopping channel that slices the egg.
7,717,684 Angstroms of banjos and drip them with resilience.
3,508,683 planetfulls of strawberries to expand with a penknife.
3,094,126 semitones of folk dancing; smash with a molecular miner.
After that, locate:
6,680,979 planetoids of ferrets, so you can daydream them with a hairdryer.
4,813,550 voids of cold noses to hyperswim with a pen.
4,312,191 planet-hops of cat videos and accelerate them with a quantum discombobulator.
Pause a moment to fetch:
1,714,822 chunks of red lipstick, invented with a centrifuge.
9,705,975 baskets of fire, upthrusted with a whisk.
601,592 on the Beaufort Scale of sex, zoomed with a Mower Drill Toothbrush.
Finally, pop in:
3,498,057 furlongs of a Martian’s ruddy complexion, evaporated with a spiralizer.
4,550,125 glasses of Marslot, blinked with a sporknif.
Garnish with a run of compressors.
Method for generating this poem:
I asked those present at the What If We Lived on Mars? event to contribute to this poem – by writing:
- Measurements of any kind (on yellow tags)
- Ingredients – things that make you happy and/or are red (pink tags)
- Verbs of any kind, spacey and non-spacey (green tags)
- Tools of spacey and non-spacey kind (blue tags)
We then used this formula when performing the poem for the first and only time, in that iteration…
Take <random no. from phone app>
and <verb> it
with a <tool>
REPEAT UNTIL BORED/COMPLETE
Final sequence begins ‘Garnish with…’
Next week, I’ll be compering an event as part of at-Bristol’s ‘Festival of What If…’ – this one being around the question ‘what if we lived on Mars?’ There are details about the event here.
I might add in some specks of Martian poetry, references to Ray Bradbury’s ‘Martian Chronicles’, possible allusions to The Expanse, or even some Vogon Poetry…and I’ll be crowd-sourcing a recipe for living well on Mars (though it might not be quite what you expect…).
See you there!
I’ll be leading some witty, silly, Petty Protest at Green Man Einstein’s Garden this year, as part of their theme of (Mis)Behaviour.
We’re going to be drilling down into the most pedantic and peculiar pet-hates, forming instant campaign groups with the perfect acronyms, and equipping ourselves with some poetic & comedic tools to make the best placards possible – then heading out with out whistles to cause a bit of a commotion around the festival site…
Then you can go back out into this increasingly-parodic world, ready to turn your new-found protesting skills to something else.
Because let’s face it: there’s plenty that’s not petty to protest about.