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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.

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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.

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.

15pour

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:

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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

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.

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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.

MINE.

minesample

Since the beginning of the year I have been busy with two major projects.  The first has been writing and preparing a long poem for performance in a glittering subterranean grotto in central Bristol.  The other has been fielding questions from puzzled Bristolians who had no idea there was a cave full of crystals under their feet.  It’s a secret and I’m very excited to be sharing it.

grottowide

This September, you can join me amongst Bristol’s dirt and second best diamonds.  Over twelve short performances, I will be guiding six guests at a time into the extraordinary underworld of Goldney Grotto, an 18th-century, Grade-1 listed cave blistered with crystals taken from the Avon Gorge and coral collected from slavers’ ports.  It is one of Bristol’s finest – and darkest – hidden treasures.

crystalsThe grotto is only very rarely open to the public so come along for the crystals alone.  But maybe stay to explore the underworld, play cards with the poet, trade voices and dig up a murder mystery, a disastrous meeting, a comedy, a spiralling inferno.

heavenlyhalfway

Commissioned by Bristol Biennial, MINE. has been written and developed with support the Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Arvon, and I am especially grateful to my very wise and very wonderful mentor Clare Pollard who has edited the manuscript and tackled the difficulties of performing both on the move and underground.  And at twilight.  With a bag of rocks.  In a hole.  With a lion.

lion

shellsI must also give thanks to the University of Bristol who have allowed me to perform in the space and undertake multiple site visits as I continue my hunt for the rare Oxheart clam that researchers with keener eyes have spotted amongst the raucous stucco of over two hundred species of shell.

Finally, in terrifyingly exciting news, MINE. will also be available as a limited edition pamphlet printed by City Edition Studio with support from Spike Island and Arts Council England in September 2014.  More information on this very shortly.

In the meantime, let’s all dash wild-eyed at this Facebook page and if you think you’d like to journey into the grotto with me this September click here to book tickets!

door

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September 16th, 17th and 18th 2014
Performances: 5pm, 6pm, 7pm, 8pm
Running time: 45 minutes
Tickets: £5 / £4 Early Birds at 5pm
Location: Goldney Hall, Lower Clifton Hill, Bristol, City of Bristol BS8 1BH

Suitable footwear recommended.
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Bristol Biennial is an international artist-led festival that celebrates exciting and engaging projects by talented emerging artists. In 2014, the festival takes ‘Crossing the Line’ as its theme, exploring artistic boundaries and encouraging collaboration across the city. Bristol Biennial 2014 is supported by Arts Council England. See here for the full programme.

ShitJobPosterToday The Shit Job Machine will begin filling The Front Room in Cambridge with endless lines of Lawrence Epps’ clay commuters.  From now until the 24th January, over a tonne of clay will be pumped onto the floor of the gallery.

Lawrence asked me to produce a new text to accompany the work.  Still steaming from the press, Dreckapotheke, a small pamphlet of filth pharmacy will be available to read at the show.  A short extract below:

on being turned out, the ulcerous body should be swabbed and scrutinised for irritants: hairs or desk crumbs; dirt, blood, filth.  Some employees may try to hide their private lucre, their ulcer, their glistening cache.  Look at it any way you like, they’ll say, but this  h i d d e n   a s s e t  will, unsurprisingly, only ever be  e n d e d   a s   s h i t.  Because, and this is the argument at its most essential, people will tell you  t h i s  is  s h i tIt is, is it? Take no notice.  Sew the body back up.  A pen or cotton bud can help push back into shape the fingertips, the nose, the pulse at the wrist.

Lawrence Epps
The Shit Job Machine
10th January – 24th January
The Front Room
23-25 Gwydir Street, Cambridge CB1 2LG
Private View on Thursday 9th January, 6pm-8pm.  All welcome.