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Bristol Poetry Institute

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

swan

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.

install

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.

ferryman

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.

So far, zero drowned dogs.

Instead, November is the start of lots of new projects for me.  Not least because November brings with it my birthday and my own private calendar flips back over to the first page.  And this year November is flush with new and exciting dates.

word-cloudPOET-IN-RESIDENCE AT THE BRISTOL POETRY INSTITUTE
Room G11, 3-5 Woodland Road, Bristol, BS8 1TB. 12th November – 12th December 2014.

Tomorrow marks the beginning of my residency at the Bristol Poetry Institute at the University of Bristol.*  I am excited to be starting a five-week workshop series with the students, where we will be reading and talking about the materials of poetry, the specifics of site and the role of memory and method in writing practices.  Alongside the workshops, I am also hosting one-to-one consultation hours to work closely on the students’ own writing and I’m really looking forward to what Bristol can bring to me.  Let’s go!

*I’m afraid I must also add that this workshop series is restricted to students of Bristol University.

(11stonehandTHE POND, TOO—THAT IS ANOTHER POEM, FOR ME): A READING WORKSHOP
for Art Writing Writing Art
Room G5, 3-5 Woodland Road, Bristol, BS8 1TB. Monday 17 November 2014, 12.30pm – 2pm.

After my performances in Bristol University’s Goldney Grotto for the Bristol Biennial this September and to complement my workshops at the Bristol Poetry Institute later this term, I am so pleased to have been invited to host an open seminar for Art Writing Writing Art, a discussion and research group at the University of Bristol.  Both students and the public are very welcome and I think it would be excellent to get everyone in a room together.  I’m going to be asking us to think about how we use the term ‘site-specific’ within contemporary poetry, but more intriguingly, the event is being billed as ‘part reading group, part participatory writing event and part practice-makes-perfect’.  Phwoar.  Let’s do it.  Bring a pen.

* The title of this seminar is taken from Ian Hamilton Finlay’s letter to Ernst Jandl (1965)

clovehitchThe Clove Hitch and Camarade at Interrobang Festival
The Betsey Trotwood, Clerkenwell, London
Saturday 22nd November

I am reading twice! twice! nice! at Interrobang this Saturday 22nd at The Betsy Trotwood Pub. First with the excellent Eley Williams‘s round up of prose poets THE CLOVE HITCH at 5pm and then at 8pm to talk woodwork and driftwood and workdrift with Zelda Chappel for Camarade.

ecopoetryEco and Nature Shuffle at the Poetry Cafe
22 Betterton Street, London WC2H 9BX
Saturday 29th November
7pm-10pm

This is pretty exciting.  I’m joining the awesome Harry Man, Tom Chivers, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Inua Ellams & Gale Burns to read at the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden.  Starts at 7pm.

Three Pollards, oil on panel, 2004, Julian Perry

Three Pollards, oil on panel, 2004, Julian Perry

ARBORETUM: Creative Writing
at the Royal West of England Academy
RWA, Queen’s Road, Clifton, Bristol, BS8 1PX. Tuesdays, 13th January – 3rd March, 6.30pm-8.30pm

This one doesn’t start until January, but booking starts today!  I am absolutely thrilled to have been asked by the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol to create a creative writing course to tie in with their spring exhibition, Arboretum.  Taking place in the main gallery itself, the course will be rooted in the show’s collection of paintings and sculptures of trees.  Each of the seven workshops will take writers through from first bud to final whittling, through all the cutting and swailing of making a good piece of writing. I am so excited (and not just by the opportunity for arboreal puns).

And! Finding new ways to get lost in the woods with me are three incredible guest tutors: poet Rachael Boast, short fiction writer Tania Hershman and art writer Rowan Lear who will each be hosting one seminar each.  With three such prize-spangled specialists holding seminars in between my workshops, writers can branch out, taking new directions in their writing.  There’s always use in finding the wrong end of the stick.  OKAY, OKAY.  No more tree jokes.

For now.  More information, including schedule and booking is available via RWA.

cleggcarr

As a method of meeting someone, writing a poem towards them seems like as good a start as any.  We pointed at where we were (Stapleton Road in Bristol, I pointed, and Coton Orchard in Cambridge, John Clegg pointed) and set about working out where we had any common ground.  Somewhere in Oxfordshire?  Surely.  Is it an interest in site?  Is it something to do with assonance?  Oh is it Swindon?  Is it big hair?  No, we didn’t know about that yet, having not yet met face-to-face.

So John measured the screen with a ruler, which showed where we might meet in the middle.  I liked the idea of tracing out an as-the-crow-flies line over the landscape over the internet – but I wanted to know the exact spot, door-to-door, because I am a lazy stickler and I didn’t want to range around Google maps without knowing which hedge or glitchy speeding car was the marker that would let me know where balanced and proper collaboration should start.  The answer came from the extraordinary Geographic Midpoint Calculator, which can, if you wish, put you in your place according to your own personal centre of gravity.  We asked for the exact dividing line between Clegg and Carr was and it showed us this:

doubleloop

Where were we?  Crossing over in the corner of an Oxfordshire infinity loop.  A hellish bypass.  An egg timer.  A double cone.  A double-headed axe.  And what’s that?  To the left?  A little pinched lake silting over and echoing the same shape.  I was nervous to scroll out the scale in case there was a third hour glass just to the right, just a bit bigger, and then another and another and John and I became too terrified to start writing.

So we got cracking and turned the egg timer over.

We moved through John’s storm-damaged orchard, the B4207’s rainblatted branches and towards the shifting territories of Fox Park in Bristol.  We wrote through the roots of our poems, sharing what we had in common, pinching things in towards the middle and moving outwards into those cones to sound out the differences.  Which were also sort of the similarities.  Echoes rang out: storms, trees, territories, damage, claims on language, claims on loss, turning up after the show is all over to pick through the leaves and soil(ed remains).

And took this to London for SJ Fowler‘s incredible Camaradefest ii at Rich Mix, where 100 poets in 50 pairs read whatever their interests and intersects had taken them towards.  There was this exercise in intimacy from Ross Sutherland and Thomas Bunstead and this incised extimacy with Eley Willams and Prudence Chamberlain and more things than I can try to cleverly word from more poets than I can fit in my car and drive around the Carr-Clegg coniunctio.  There was everything I could want: flip-charts, trip ups, rip-roaring laughter and pillows in swimsuits and sexy poems and power steeples and that was only the first hour.  It was wonderful and a bit messy and a lot good.

As John and I started the day, rolling up onto a cold stage, it was difficult to feel all that energy that would later roll from pairing to pairing.  But it was an honour to kick off such a day with this quiet tripped-up triptych:

I met John for the first time a few minutes before this was recorded and we had quickly arranged ourselves according to the compass: me on the west, John on the east.  It was a strange idea to be hurrying into London (another intersection, another neutral ground, another (0,0) on the axis I guess) to read this ‘from’ Bristol.  In truth, I had just arrived from, if not John’s orchard then from John’s city.  Two weeks ago I crossed back over with myself and went back to Cambridge to start a PhD in poetry and sculpture at Newnham College. There I am, overwriting, overdoing it:

grass

I am still committed to my projects in Bristol (my residency at the Bristol Poetry Institute, my teaching at RWA in the new year, a seminar for AWWA, amongst them) and I am excited to see how research and practice might also intersect and be another kind of axis.  The egg timer turns over again and as I am driving endlessly back between Bristol and Cambridge (surely driving through this midpoint we have visited online?) I feel like I’m stuck on that infinity loop, meeting myself in the middle.  And it was great to have so much (and such great!) company at the midpoint this time.

Thanks to John and Steven and to all the poets on Saturday, and if you missed out, all the videos are here.

11stonehand

The incredible Stephanie Elizabeth Third dug down with me in the Bristol Biennial week to document the performances of MINE in Goldney Grotto.  For all those of you who missed out on tickets, here are the playing cards, the Bristol Diamonds, the poison ring, the poem learnt by (Ox)heart, the time trapped in pebbles, the squat, clammy stalagmite I poured from a bottle.

12returnstone

10goram 10place 15pour

I am so grateful to see the other side of my face during the reading, because if anything, MINE taught me that people’s listening-to-poetry faces are identical to their cross faces.  There were gorgeous moments when the furrowed brows gave way to laughter and a few sudden tears, but mostly, the audience seemed to be squinting at the cave walls, endlessly searching for the Oxheart clam or perhaps waiting for a rare rhyme.  Thanks to Steph for gathering all these different faces, all six faces of the crystal.

1lantern 9read 13point 16skylight

I am also so pleased and so intrigued by the realisation that Steph took these photographs on film.  The unforgiving gloom of the grotto is translated into a speckly haze in the pictures and knowing that, at a chemical level at least, what is left of the performance was caught in a bit of light and silver-halide crystals is just right.

17mite

And what is left of the poem exists in this glittering pamphlet, published by Spike Island and beautifully produced by City Edition Studio.  There are only around 60 copies left at this point so email me at hccwriting@gmail.com if you would like to know more, if you would like to buy one – or if you would like to be a reviewer.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

MINE was commissioned by Bristol Biennial and researched and developed at Spike Island, during a residency in 2013, supported by Arts Council England.  The site-specific performance at the University of Bristol was written with the support of mentor Clare Pollard through the Jerwood / Arvon Mentoring Scheme 2014/5.

dylan-homerThis autumn (oh hey autumn! You’re looking pretty lovely from where I’m sitting in July’s sweaty palms) I take up a new residency at the Bristol Poetry Institute.  The BPI is hosted by the University of Bristol and run by Danny Karlin, Winterstoke Professor of English, with Rachael Boast, whose works include Sidereal, winner of a Forward Prize and Pilgrim’s Flower which was shortlisted for the Griffin Prize and I am dancing at the opportunity to be a part of this vital project for poetry in the city.

I am grateful to the BPI for inviting me to lead a series of workshops on site-specific poetry for students at the University of Bristol, and I will also be holding consultation hours for students to receive one-to-one support with their own writing.  The residency will end with a public reading on the 13th December 2014 and I’ll post more details nearer the time.

poetryschoolIf you’re a student at Bristol or you’re interested in booking a place on the workshop series, get in touch or check this page for further details.

If you’re not a student or if you don’t live in Bristol or if you’re not planning on going outside or away from your computer or into some trousers any time soon, then I can still come to you!  In (hopefully) a less (but probably more) terrifying shape than is pictured in the CAMPUS cover (left), I will also be teaching online this autumn.

The Poetry School have invited me to teach as part of their 5 Easy Pieces course on CAMPUS, their online teaching forum.  Alongside the awesome Harry Man, Kim Moore, J T Welsch and Jen Campbell, I’ll be leading a session on something strange and, for now, secret.  When I can, I will let you know more and I will appear, pleased pink and looming behind your screen.