Behind the back of the poet, the Bristol Channel performs an old magic trick.

At north fifty one thirty one thirty three by west two forty six fifty one, Denny Island marks the boundary between England and Wales.  Below the high tide mark – anything wet, anything submerged – Denny Island is in England. Above – where the Great Black-Backed Gull comes to nest – it is in Wales.

On an unusually warm September morning, an even more unusual spectacle of a fata morgana (a mirage formed by the close layering of hot and cold air) transforms the predicament of Denny Island through various stages of ‘sea hill’ to space ship to levitating egg. By mid-morning, Denny Island is a floating ball of unbounded land, entirely Wales, entirely delivered from the sea.

I had to piece together this composite image from the backgrounds of my photographs of the morning, having not noticed the island lifting itself clear of the water until it had already confidently arrived at ‘lemon’.  I had been preoccupied with the chatter on the boat’s radios, the priest, the bickering and the brews, the t-bar hook disgorger lowering over the painfully familiar face of a thornback ray hauled up from behind the dark murk of the Bristol Channel.

Earlier this year, I was commissioned by the Perspectives from the Sea Research Cluster at the University of Bristol to write a poem at sea.  I set out from Portishead with a waterproof notebook and wrote anchored between Steep Holm, Flat Holm and Denny Island, letting the poem trail the 13-metre tidal lines of the channel (the second highest in the world, no less).

north fifty one thirty one thirty three by west two forty six fifty one is a sea prayer and prose poem written aboard a small fishing vessel in the middle of the Bristol Channel and first performed at Being at Sea on the 18th November 2015, as part of the Inside Arts Festival of the Arts and Humanities and Being Human.

The poem takes its form from ‘A Thankesgiuing for Mariner being safely landed’ in Thomas Dekker’s Foure Birds of Noahs Arke (London, 1609) which carries a refrain of impossible reversals, of bodies and boats being delivered safely from the sea – but also the threat of the promise to ‘sound foorth his Name even amongst Turks and Saracens: and send abroad the miracle of our deliverance to the furthest corners of the earth’.

The poem has been produced as a limited edition of 30 numbered and signed concertinaed pamphlets.  There are a handful left after the first reading and If you’d like to have a copy posted to you or the seaprayer performed for you, let me know.  Each poem comes with a foiled fata morgana on the cover, although I can’t promise it will lift lands or erase borders for you.  For that another prayer needs to be answered.







Roachstone in Jordan's Quarry, Portland

Crystals in the Roachstone in Jordan’s Mine, Portland

I am thrilled to bits to announce that I have been selected as this year’s winner of the Frieze Writer’s Prize for my review of Katrina Palmer’s ‘The Loss Adjusters’, part of the artist’s Artangel project ‘End Matter’ on the Isle of Portland, Dorset.

My thanks to the judges Chloe Aridjis, Hamza Walker and Paul Teasdale, editor of where you can read my review which drags Thomas Hardy and a few dead molluscs down into the quarry with me.

Part of the prize is a commission to write a second review for frieze in a future issue and I am delighted to see that the October issue which announces this year’s result also features last year’s winner Linda Taylor – who is also Bristol-based – reviewing Reto Pulfer’s show at Spike Island. Also also all so brilliant.



Here we are at the project in envelopes.

Over the past year, I’ve been working with artist Lawrence Epps on a book of chance, a collection of creative and critical writing called the very last time. It launches at Firstsite in Colchester on 12th September in conjunction with the preview of AGAIN, a new participatory installation from Epps exhibiting this autumn at the British Ceramics Biennial.  AGAIN centres on an arcade coin pusher, altered by the artist and stocked with thousands of porcelain and terracotta coins which the viewer can take away and pocket – or gamble and enter into a wager with the artwork.goldenno

The book is no less of a gamble and has arrived out of the nerve and nous of the contributors who each decided to toss the golden NO I posted to them, attached to a letter inviting them to write a section of the book. On the other side of the coin, a terracotta YES.  

Some of the writers even posted a picture of the coin on the back of their hand, dull red YES up, to prove the decision was, despite what it might look like, out of their hands. They would write; chance had it. I received YES after YES and while it quickly became tempting to run more of my life according the way the penny falls, the texts that started to arrive on my desk spun outwards to loss, desire, prayer, pricelessness, low ceilings, betting slips.  It seems we are already standing at the penny falls, waiting for the great cascade, watching for the trickle-down, hoping for a YES. 

© Lawrence Epps 2015

© Lawrence Epps 2015

Around the book’s green baize, then, are poets, artists, academics, an archaeologist, a psychoanalyst, a valuation expert, a bookmaker, a mudlarker.  I am enormously proud to announce the contributors:

Geoffrey Munn Managing Director of Wartski, jewellers by appointment to the Queen, and Antiques Roadshow expert examines a valuable ball of whale bile

Joey Connolly, poet, asks how the bookmaker feels about the dogs

Dr Richard Kelleher, Assistant Keeper Coins at the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge talks coins that sweat and currency that forgets

Esther Leslie Professor of Political Aesthetics at Birkbeck, finds Walter Benjamin in the video arcade

Viktor Mazinpsychoanalyst and curator of the Freud Dream Museum, tosses the non-Euclidean coin

Tamarin Norwood, artist and scholar, writes to the last word of casino design: PERCEPTION BEATS REALITY

Marie Toseland, artist and Open School East associate, measures the elastic horizon of desire

And two new translations from Anna Gunin and Anne Marie Jackson.

Thank you to all the writers for taking a punt on me.

Please do join us for the launch of both AGAIN + the very last time at Firstsite.  Coins will be falling from 2pm and there will be readings and performances from our contributors once you have lost all you have won on AGAIN.  For more information on the launch event and how to get to Firstsite, please see the gallery’s listing.

Following the launch, the very last time will be available to purchase online, in some gallery bookshops and at the British Ceramics Biennial shop.  Please get in touch via the contact page if you have any questions.


AGAIN + the very last time has been made possible with the generous support of the Arts Council England, the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, the British Ceramics Biennial, Potclays, Wysing Arts Centre and the Firstsite Associate Artist Bursary Programme.

Following on from my five projects on water, under wing, on land and in envelopes, here’s the one in the box.


This time last year I was just coming to the end of my beginner’s woodworking course at the Bristol Women’s Workshop and I had dovetailed and dogeared my way through a picture frame, a hinged box and a book limiter, the kind of sad, spindly invention that tells all too much about its maker.  As the course progressed, I was whittling away at a dream of my new life, working by day as a carpenter building tiny houses for cats.  That’s not entirely true but I was in the process of packing away the hope I might be able to take up the PhD offer I had received earlier in the year and as each application for funding was turned down, cracking the cat flat business seemed relatively realistic.  A writing practice is already a rigorous schedule of rejection and admin so I patted each new failed bid into the bottom drawer and went back to sketching out designs for scratch post balustrades.  Then, of course, at the end of the course, I found out my very final funding application had been successful.  I was starting the PhD in eight weeks.

Since then, I’ve completed the first year, passed my registration viva and I’m now busily writing up my notes from the summer’s research trips. More on this soon, as this is the project on land.

At the weekends, though, I’ve been woodworking.  One of the outcomes is this, Six-Sided Argument, a light box poem for a library.


Firstly, and this is tricky to communicate in pictures or even in the final installation, it’s heavy. It’s a great weight to work with. It was like carving a breeze block while the breeze is picking up a fair bit. A bright block of storm winds. A heavy-handed stumbling block.

The block is built with thick, warped, water-damaged oak that took weeks of blistered thumbs and splintered nerves to negotiate into its narrow corridor. The corners are improbably held in place with twelve dashes of veneer in a keyed mitre joint. The front wall is a frame for a mirror that, when placed between books on the shelf, interrupts the spines briefly with your reflection.  As you catch yourself looking, a pair of short poems come into view. These two texts can be read as a pair in dialogue, but can, with a little awkward movement, interleave. In the distance between the two, a haze of foliage.


Yates Thompson Library, Newnham College

Yates Thompson Library, Newnham College

I’ve shown this in two very distinct libraries: in the Associates Library as part of the Spike Island Open weekend 2015 and as part of Newnham College’s Literary Archive Event in the Yates Thompson Library where I am now working on my PhD. Between these spaces, I am negotiating a new and sometimes narrow corridor in which my research and my writing can align and be in dialogue and I am pleased to have had both libraries bookending this work as I develop it.  I am hoping to test out new pairs of poems.

Spike Island Associates Library

Spike Island Associates Library

Watching audiences engaged with Six-Sided Argument in both locations has got me thinking more about the nervous movements and the small, private parallax of reading – especially reading poetry – in public. I am hoping Six-Sided Argument might push open a little reflective space in more libraries later this year so keep an eye out for it.

In the meantime, I’m working on two new projects which I can reveal very shortly while my cat, happily still houseless, sleeps on my desk, warming the rejection slips.


In my last post, I started unfolding my five projects in five places – one on the water, one on land, one in a box, one in envelopes and one under the eye and wing of my mentor Clare Pollard.  I started with Aft, my poem for Matilda the Bristol Ferry.  This week, I’m looking back at my year with the Jerwood / Arvon Mentoring Scheme which came to an end one month ago today with the launch of Wassailing!

wassailingFirst things first: Arvon is an incredible generous joy of an organisation.  It was on an Arvon course that I’d be called a poet. For the first time and like it was bloody obvious.  I’ll always be grateful for that.

If you can, apply for a residential course at one of their centres.  There are grants available and you’ll be eating breakfast with your heroes (who are at first the tutors and then, day by day, are all the other writers who arrive from their lives to write for a week, who share their new poem after the workshop, who keep in touch with news of their next poem, their next book).

The Jerwood / Arvon Mentoring Scheme is open to those who have attended a course.  So, if that’s you: apply.  Even just writing out the application letter, thinking about who you are as a writer and where you want your writing to take you will be a valuable thing you can do for yourself and your work at an early stage. Should you be invited to join the scheme, it will be invaluable.

Looking back on my year, I can’t believe how much I have done and how differently I am doing it. There has been the grotto, the teaching, the pamphlet, and, behind the scenes, the poems. Clare has been there throughout, coaxing, cursing and gracefully nutting some sense into me. It’s been brilliant and it’s been brutal.  An ideal balance and exactly what I needed.

And to think I’ve been able to star jump through all these training montages alongside the real life blazing superstar that is Deborah Stevenson and the brightest lodestar Ian Dudley, two of the most committed, most kind, most hilarious poets I’ve ever been lucky enough to know.  I am so grateful for their poetry and their friendship.  Keep an eye out for both of them.

And also for the novelists Sarah Franklin, Susie Hales, Grahame Williams and the playwrights Caroline Gray, Cathy Thomas and Andrew Thompson.  Zoom out!  This constellation is huge!  Much dazzle.

© Lindsay Waller-Wilkinson

© Lindsay Waller-Wilkinson

In all seriousness, working alongside writers from other disciplines has been one of the most rewarding parts of the mentoring year.  In our first week together, we had a poet and a novelist performing an improvised scene for David Eldridge, whose exercise restricted our vocabulary to months of the year, allowing us to think more carefully about the languages of intonation and silence.  All I can say is that by March my heart was broken and the word July has been forever exploded into so many new parts.  July, july, july.  Oh july.

We ended our mentoring year at Totleigh Barton, leading workshops for each other, eating together and, after some persuasion and strong local cider, wassailing in the Totleigh Barton orchard. We banged sticks and dustbin lids and chanted the wassailers’ song:

Here stands a fine old apple tree.
Stand fast root!
Every little twig bear an apple big.
Hats full, caps full, three score sacks full.


And as it now reads on the back cover of our anthology which we named after this strange, grey day of loud and magic language:

wassail“Back in the house and listening to each other read, we realised we were all performing a kind of wassailing in our writing. We were deep in the woods of our work, banging and crashing about as we composed a kind of charm, a spell of strong verbs to make something live – and bear fruit. So, we raise a cup to the next year. Wassail!”

And while I can’t wait to see what sort of wild and glittering fruit the next year has in store for the 2014/15 mentees, in my heart I hope it will be always be July.  July Forever.

Thank you again to the Arvon Foundation and the Jerwood Charitable Foundation for making this sort of time travel a possibility for poets.  And to Clare for getting me ready for August.


Since February, I’ve been busy with a five projects in five places – one on the water, one on land, one in a box, one in envelopes and one under the eye and wing of my mentor Clare Pollard, as my year with the Jerwood / Arvon Mentoring Scheme comes to a close this June.  It’s been difficult to document the projects from the middle of them so instead, here, from the vantage of June and a clear desk, here’s the view.  I’ll spend the next few days (re)visiting each one.  First up, aft.

one on the water


I have to thank Spike Island and Bristol Ferry for commissioning this poem for Matilda, the Bristol Ferry boat that chugs brightly across the Floating Harbour from Temple Meads to Hotwells, via the city centre, Spike Island, Arnolfini and SS Great Britain.  It was a proper joy of a project and thanks to the patience of the crew and passengers, I took several trips to watch the city from the water, standing at the back window, feeling the engine’s rhythm in my feet.  I composed much of the poem on site, on the boat, measuring my line to the cm width of the window.

I started to listen to the sea shanties of the Bristol sailor Stanley Slade, which were recorded by Peter Kennedy in 1950 and are now held in the British Library’s sound archive, and let the length of the halyard’s lines also instruct the breath and breadth of the poem that was then transferred directly, in Bristol Ferry yellow, to the windows of Matilda.


aftwebAt first, I saw the couplets banding around the cabin as a two-level Plimsoll line, a measure of the rising waters (or a sinking boat), or as a twin rope, each a precaution against the severance of the other.  Certainly on the page, the poem presents its shortening of breath much more clearly and you can read the full text here.

But on the boat, it wasn’t all visible at once.  Walking the line to read the poem across the wide windows, rocking back a little to read the second line from where the first line landed you, and all the while reading as the boat pulls you across the water, makes something knotty of the reader.

As you read, the city interrupts, aligns your reader’s attention with the sudden sight of mooning stags, lads! lads! lads! on tour, traffic on the bridge, seagulls lifting in the wake of another ferry, the train, kayaks and paddles and sunburned backs, a tiny flotilla of crisp packets.

Somewhere else that is definitely also here is the harbour where Stanley Slade and sailors sang at the capstan and where teens twisted sisal on the ropewalk on what is now the car park behind MShed, and where the slave traders shook hands and purses on the harbour wall.


double crossingspondAlmost immediately, these interruptions arrived right into the boat and started to actually intervene.  The vinyl lettering was being rearranged, ever so slightly, after each journey.  I was always looking for the arrival of a good rude word from out of the poem, but mostly single letters drifted to new locations.  I started to imagine bits of the poem making its way across the city, stuck to the back of a suit.  After a hen party, all the Ls disappeared.

My favourite, though:  one slant O floated away from its moorings, accidentally recalling Ian Hamilton Finlay’s ‘pond’, from 1965.

In May, I read Aft at Watershed as an invited speaker at the Topographies conference at the University of Bristol in May.  I was absolutely thrilled to read alongside Niall Campbell and particularly thankful to watch Tony Williams’ filmpoems with Alan Fentiman, especially Fentiman’s Pairs, which for me, without text or voice, queried the potential for filmpoetry in a moving double portrait of companionship.  I thought a bit about the silence between lines, and about the pairing structures we feel necessary, and usefully that day, it helped me think about the silent public reading I had invited on board Matilda.

bark safely

So, I read aft to timed bursts in front of the video of the poem in situ.  I was a little worried about how it might work.  While aft existed briefly out on the water, read privately by each passenger in public, here the dismantled poem was being read publicly on one dry spot of the steady ground.  But the Topographies crowd and visitors to Spike Island OPEN were generous and adventurous and their feedback has encouraged me to try it out again, and I might yet sail aft across to other imagined harbours.

MINE: cover

Featured in the Guardian and described as ’fascinating and moving…a haunting experience’ by Don’t Panic, MINE was also Pick of the Week in Bristol Magazine.  And now the pamphlet – part-transcript, part-publication, part-glittery, gluey residue of a performance – is available direct from Spike Island or from the Spike Island online shop.  Good grief!  Gold!

MINE: stones

MINE was a site-specific performance for seven voices commissioned by Bristol Biennial and developed with support the Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Arvon.  It was performed in partnership with its audience underneath the city in the 18th-century crystal grotto of Goldney Hall on the 16th, 17th and 18th September 2014.

For images of the performances and a video of the fast-forwarded stalagmite grown at the close of the poem, head here.


10goramThe twelve performances began amongst the parking meters on Constitution Hill and moved underground, spiralling into an eighteenth-century crystal grotto in the grounds of Goldney Hall. Here, the audience of six exchanged gifts (pebbles, time, nervous glances) to trade lines of the story of the murder of brothers that Bristol is built on and still builds itself on: the giants, Goram and Ghyston, lazily in love with a woman who turned out to be a river, and who killed each other by 1) catching his brother’s axe with his own sleeping skull and 2) dying of grief.  Or are we talking about merchant venturers, the slavers trading on that same river which turned out to be a woman after all?

11stonehandAvon?  Liberty?  Hannah More? The grotto’s lagoon and waterfall (pumped with the first domestic steam engine, of course) is freshly gargled with (of course, of course) spring water diverted from Hot Wells, far above the muddy Avon and her necklace of trollies.  But then returning from the first performance, I found the parking meters had left us a message from another woman, and a ghostly eighth voice sounded in the chorus:


The grotto, again locked and again leaking winter rain, is a gorgeous and dangerous pocket of hot air under the city.  Owned by the University of Bristol, the grotto is, at least logistically, a useless gap in the foundations: it can’t host conferences or house undergraduates because it can’t power AV equipment or be made watertight because it doesn’t have mains because it is a listed structure with a lagoon in it because it was an extravagant folly built by three men who were sons of each other who claim their rollover wealth wasn’t made in the slave trade because they didn’t trade slaves but whose folly was to bankroll voyages whose cargo included humans.

The numb displacement of responsibility and the purity of ~*profit*~ are all still bubbling under Bristol, under everything and although this encrusted grotto has been left to cool and is now treated as a kind of curiosity, a glittering ‘hidden gem’ for summer visitors to the South West, it was always so and tourists have been stopping by since 1756, when Mrs Delany, friend of the royals and designer of grottoes wrote in a letter that Goldney’s was

the finest thing of the kind I ever saw; though I could not but grudge at the shells sacrificed there, and exposed to the ruin of damp and time, that would have preserved their beauty for ages in a cabinet! The master is reckoned a great humourist and a niggard, but I was so fortunate as to take his fancy, and he gave me two or three pretty specimens of coral, and said I should have what I pleased.

And there it is.  The beauty of the place.  And the sacrifice of another place.  The uneasy distance (or complete lack of distance!) between the two places.  The polite little exclamation mark.  Then the gifts offered and we should all have what we please and all is forgotten.

And then we often resolve it: the beauty of the sacrifice!  Ah, that is it!

So, you can imagine, I was very nervous and so very pleased to be able to take MINE right behind the door of this ‘hidden gem’, this privately-owned site of ‘sacrifice’, blood and capitalism at its most savage to talk about what it means to call a place ‘mine’.  I am absolutely thrilled that this series of secretive underground meetings amongst Bristolians has started conversations above ground and I hope the availability of the pamphlet will help keep us talking:

Arnolfini’s Phil Owen reviewed the performance of MINE in CCQ Magazine: ‘a narrative as intricate as the arrangement of minerals on the grotto walls, explored the interface of geology and human time’

Harry Giles’ incredibly generous review for Sabotage provides a thoughtful discussion of how we talk about poetry and documentation and raises the question of how funding structures and restraints can act as a discouragement from producing work that risks silence and smallness: ‘Work like MINE deserves a larger audience and dedicated attention, so that more of us can follow the traces of tiny performances and great flows of stone.’

Finally, MINE has been recommended for the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry.  For such a small and buried thing, I am happy if this is as far as it gets but do have a look at the list of New Work compiled by the Poetry Society as it is a useful and broad map of new territories to make your way into 2015 by.

MINE: hands