The splendid Reading Room at the Wellcome Collection
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”.”