Tyrants, vampires – and a book

One of the lovely things about living through a pandemic is being able to participate in poetry courses and workshops you wouldn’t otherwise get to, because they’re in That London and you’re not. The Poetry School provided me with two great courses. The first — Fighting the Tyrant — ran from June to September, with six fortnightly assignments from US poet Leah Umansky. It was a very special experience, heightened I think by the lockdown. We read poems by Tracy K. Smith, Dante di Stefano, Nathan McClain, Patricia Smith, Cynthia Manick and many more. One of my favourites was this one from Marie Howe about Mary Magdalene, so long a heroine of mine. We wrote about all kinds of tyrants, political and personal; there were poems about Brexit and Trump and about experiences of domestic violence.

I’d signed up for the course to find a way to write about politics, but it released a whole range of new material, and new ways of thinking about myself in relation to the world, in relation to history. If you have time, watch this wonderful reading by Sarah Kay of Laura Lamb Brown Lavoie’s poem, ‘On This the 100th Anniversary of the Sinking of the Titanic, We Reconsider the Buoyancy of the Human Heart’.

Alternatively, you can read it here. If you don’t have time for either – really? – I’ll just share this quote: ‘There are enough ballrooms in you to dance with everyone you’ll ever love.’

The second course was a day workshop with Chrissy Williams, on Hallowe’en: ‘GRRR, ARRGH: Poems inspired by Buffy The Vampire Slayer’. If you love Buffy, you’ll understand. If you don’t, I probably can’t explain. I’d signed up thinking it would be a light-hearted day, perhaps writing about Spike, and it was, partly: we re-wrote Emily Dickinson’s ‘Hope is the thing with feathers‘, discovering a Californian idiom and releasing the Cordelia inside each of us. But we also wrote spells, thought about monsters, and tackled themes like feminism, mortality and sacrifice. It was a brilliant day. Chrissy may be running more pop-culture poetry workshops next year. Highly recommended.

And now I come to think of it, Buffy is a lot about fighting tyrants too.

And a book! I’m thrilled to announce that I’m one of the authors of the upcoming On This Day She, an offshoot of the Twitter account I run with Tania Hershman and Jo Bell. It contains 366 stories—one for every day— about women from history, from all across the globe, all time periods, all fields of interest, all walks of life. Some of the women you’ll have heard of, many, we suspect, will be new to you. We’re so excited to make these stories better known and to do our bit to put women back into history, one day at a time.

On This Day She will be published in February, but it’s available now for pre-order. If you buy it via this link, you can support our wonderful friends at The Poetry Pharmacy at the same time.

For the first time in a long while, there’s starting to be some good news in the wider world – Biden/Harris winning in the US; the possibility of a Covid-vaccine soon; the fact that Boris Johnson must be having a really horrible time with the Brexit mess he helped create. We might allow ourselves a bit more hope. Meanwhile, we continue to live each day: making things, getting outside, caring for and keeping in touch with those we love. Real change is still a way off. Hold fast. We can do this. And don’t forget: There are enough ballrooms in you.

Being at home

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What the buggy in the hall taught me

Time is slower than you thought. Each day
is long, exhausting and full of possibility.

Thinking isn’t all that. The crunch
of a crisp packet is a happening.

Painting doesn’t pass the time, it stops
and lives time. It is as essential as toast.

Glitter is not mess. Nor is mud. Every
terraced house has a step to be stepped on.

There are often caterpillars to be found,
and sometimes ladybirds. Failing that, woodlice.

You can have the best conversations
with things that don’t answer back.

Two-thirds of the way up the stairs
is a perfectly valid place to read a book.

In the afternoon, if you’re too tired
to do anything else, you can always dance.

If you need to make a beach in the living-room
it will be possible; it’s ok to want a t-shirt

with a goldfish on. If it doesn’t exist, you
can make it. It takes as long as it takes.

(Ailsa Holland)

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When I wrote my last post about pausing, little did I guess that the pause button was about to be pressed on the whole world.

As things got serious I realised I was feeling something I haven’t felt for a while and identified it as the anxiety from the first days/years of being a mother — that realisation that the world is full of danger; that the survival of loved ones is going to require hard work and vigilance — and even then is not guaranteed.

And I’ve found myself going back to a certain extent into ‘new mum mode’: not expecting too much from the day in terms of ‘achievement’, trying to live each moment as it arrives, seeing interruptions and unplanned demands as opportunities.

I really believe that experience of forced slowness was a key part for me of becoming a poet, something I’ve tried to express here. The pram in the hall can be the birth of art.

It’s weird having everyone at home again and I love it. (It’s incomparably easier this time of course because they do their own stuff much of the time and I do mine.) We’re painting again! And baking, gardening, dancing in the kitchen. There is a new fear but there is also more green in the garden every day and I hope there will soon be fresh poems.

Take care and stay safe.

 

Winter | | Pause

p1030967-1Happy New Year! I hope you had a good last evening of 2019. I spent it with my husband and son, watching the wonderful Into The Woods – which always makes me ask, again: what do I wish? what would I pay for it? – and then writing a poem about a tree. Jools Holland and his marvellously mad mix of Hootenanny musicians accompanied us through the last hour.

And now the new resolutions are supposed to kick in: the discipline after indulgence, the activity after laziness. But my resolution this year is not to do more, but to pause more. I’ve been inspired in this by reading Robert Poynton’s Do/Pause, which I found in a serendipitous moment of doing nothing in an art gallery shop. Poynton makes the reader think about how pausing can add meaning and contemplation to life, can enable us to think, can make our choices more considered and our conversations – with others and with ourselves – more meaningful.

‘Experimenting with pause gives you a way to play around with the rhythms of your life. It gives you a way to give shape and texture to your experience, weakening the sensation that your life is driven by external forces over which you have no influence. Choosing where you put your pauses makes an enormous difference to what your life feels like and what you can do as a result.’

The state of the world in general and British politics in particular have often made me feel helpless and powerless in the last few years, made me want to hide away, to stop the world and get off. But of course that’s not possible. There is work to do and there are people to love and live with and look after.

So I’m not having a break (which sounds so destructive), I’m not stopping anything, I’m simply pressing pause – on watching the news, on following Facebook, on Twitter. I’m putting pauses into my working day. I hope to create whole days of pause where I can sit and read, and think. I plan to spend some of my pauses in hawthorn woods.

Winter seems a particularly good time to start a new pausing habit. In our technologically-driven centrally-heated lives, the difference between the seasons is evened out. For the medievals, winter was harsh but also a welcome time, where not so much work was required. In the ‘Labours of the Months’ in Books of Hours, the activity for January is feasting, for February it’s ‘sitting by the fire’: opportunities for conversation and contemplation.

I’ll still be working hard, mind. But I’ll be allowing myself all the pauses I can. Partly to recharge my energies, partly to work out what I should be doing next, what I wish, what I’m prepared to give for that. And also to enjoy the silence and what comes out of it.

Maybe the world doesn’t, we don’t
need changing in the way
that we would do it,
so we stand on a windy summit
in the last few minutes of the year
naming the view
and thinking of snow.

(‘December’)

 

 

On waking up poetry

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I saw someone the other day who made me think about blogs and I remembered that I’d also, briefly, written a blog. Does that happen to anyone else? Remembering something you used to do and it being a surprise, like was that really me?

The person who made me remember was the lovely Anthony Wilson (and if you don’t read his blog you should, it’s here – read the archived stuff too) who was this year’s judge for the Manchester Cathedral Poetry Prize, which I was lucky enough to win, with my slightly sweary ‘Mary Magdalene in the Desert’. (Copies of the pamphlet with all the prize-winners and highly-commendeds can be ordered here.)

The prize-giving on Sunday was a lovely event, with some very welcome sun streaming in through the stained-glass windows, and lots of great poetry, not only from the competition winners but also from Andrew Rudd, Cathedral Poet in Residence, and from Anthony Wilson too. For quite a few of us it was the most magnificent space we’d ever read in.

So maybe it was a little bit because I’d won (I’ve never won a poetry competition before) – but it was also the space, and the calm, and the light, and listening to everyone’s words, how we’re all trying to express something, make it real for us, put it into a form in which we can share it – whatever it was, I felt like a part of me woke up.

Because it’s not just my blog that’s been dormant. I haven’t been writing much poetry this year, although I’ve submitted some stuff, and had a few things published by some journals I was thrilled to appear in (Bare Fiction, The Rialto). I’ve been writing other things – more of that on another day – but words haven’t been coming to me, demanding to be made into a shape, a soundscape. I haven’t really felt like a poet.

But since Sunday I’ve written the first drafts of three poems.

The wonderful Mimi Khalvati once said to me (and I’m paraphrasing) that the part of us that writes poetry is not necessarily the part of us that’s uppermost in our day-to-day lives. Every time I remember her saying that (there’s that forgetting again) the truth of it strikes me.

I’ve thought quite a lot about which bit of me it is that writes – is it my younger self trying to say all the things she didn’t say then? or my middle-aged self trying to express the rage I feel now? I can’t put my finger on it, but I know what it isn’t – it isn’t functional me, who tries to look after everyone, be an activist, change the world.

It’s a part of me that feels small and sufficient, who sits in the quiet and waits for words, not to persuade with, but to play with. She’s happy, cheeky, scared, sad. If she needed a name I think I might call her the poetry imp. I’ve missed her. I’m so glad she’s awake.

 

Long time no blog…

… But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy…

In January I got very cross about our government (again) and decided to organise a march in Macclesfield to show support for the NHS. It happened on February 3, a national day of action, and was a great success, with around 500 people taking part. Loads of friends helped with organisation and stewarding. Demonstrators made placards at home or at a Macctivist workshop we ran on the previous weekend. Jo Bell was a brilliant MC.

With the colours and the music/chants/drums it felt like an artwork, creating a fabulous positive collective energy. See the wonderful film of the event here.

 

Then in March I was thrilled to be part of an exhibition at Townley Street Chapel in Macclesfield. How did it get so dark? was inspired by the ninth-century ritual of Tenebrae (Latin for shadows) which uses candlelight, darkness, silence, spoken word and cacophonous sound. Central to the experience are suffering and redemption. It is also known as the ‘extinguishing of the lights’, where candles are put out throughout the service. There remains one small light still glowing, which is symbolic of hope – a glimmer.

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Mike Thorpe, Erika Groeneveld, Rachel Ho, Anita Reynolds and I approached this idea from many different starting points – some with faith, some without – and using many different media – sculpture, ceramics, 2D images, words. Despite and because of all our differences we collaborated to create a collective response based on our own perspectives – political, spiritual, personal – and on the answers provided by members of the public to the question, How did it get so dark?

The response was more than we hoped for: 80-90 visitors on each of the four days and lots of wonderful comments.

‘Better than anything I’ve seen at the Whitworth.’

‘Take your hanky! Would love to see this in a more permanent space. A wonderful collection to contemplate on, reflect & down right feel Arrrggghhh! As well as knowing I’m not the only one…’

‘This should be sponsored to run for a longer period or be housed permanently. It is genius. Felt so emotional but unsure what the emotion was. Just Wow!’

‘Proper art with the ring of truth. A delicious darkness.’

We do hope to exhibit again. Watch this space…

 

And finally… Last Saturday the Manchester Print Fair was held at Manchester Cathedral and our very own Print Mill was very pleased and excited to have been awarded a stall. We had a fabulous day, making badges with folks young and not-so-young, selling prints, cards and poems, and chatting to customers and other makers. It was a beautiful setting and all the colours of the various stalls made the space spectacular.

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Next time: The reprint of my pamphlet… in new colours!

Print, fold, press, bind, trim… and launch!

So the many-staged process of making a physical object began… Those who know me know of my great love for medieval manuscripts. Beyond the beauty of their colours, I like the interplay of visual images and text and wanted some form of illustration for my pamphlet. Lili Holland-Fricke, my daughter, created wonderful circular pen drawings to chime with some of the poems. This for example for the poem that provides the pamphlet’s title: ‘She Fell in Love from Twenty-Four Miles Up’…

She Fell In Love Illustration
© Lili Holland-Fricke 2017

 

I’d chosen a font – PT Serif – and laid out the poems. Adding the illustrations made me shift the text around a bit until the balance looked right.

I printed the inside pages first, letting the ink dry on each side before printing the reverse. The Risograph requires gentle handling… 🙂

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The cover I’d designed had four colours – blue, red, green and black – so each cover had to go through the Risograph four times.

 

Again, each colour had to be allowed to dry before the next one went on ‘on top’. And printing the blue meant printing each cover individually so the ink wouldn’t smudge on the next sheet coming through…

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Then came the long but meditative process of folding – one sheet at a time. The covers had to be scored with a bone folder before folding to ensure a clean line. My advisor in this process was the lovely Rory Clifford, graphic designer and colleague at the Print Mill. He also showed me how to stitch the pamphlets by hand after rubbing the thread with beeswax. We decided to produce a limited edition of 25 stitched pamphlets – most of these were stitched by Rory.

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The rest I stapled efficiently and prosaically. 🙂 Next the pamphlets had to be clamped under a board to press them flat – I did them in batches of five – then trimmed with a craft knife against a steel rule to remove the uneven edges. Then, barely 10 days later, they were finished…

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Now came the lovely and terrifying bit – sharing the pamphlet with the world. The launch was in the beautiful King Edward Street Chapel in Macclesfield.

King Edward Street Chapel

Lili Holland-Fricke played the cello as people arrived and then Jo Bell did a fabulous job of MC’ing, as always, making everyone laugh and feel welcome, and reading a few of her fabulous poems.

Jo Bell

Just over thirty people had come to celebrate with us and the warm friendly atmosphere meant that I wasn’t all that nervous in the end.

Reading

I got to sign my name as an author. 🙂

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And then Twenty-Four Miles Up was well and truly launched and a few of us went to eat chips to celebrate at Waters Green Fish Bar. Tel even gave me a special shiny fork in celebration.

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And so, on to the next project or several… Thanks for reading!

If you’d like to buy a copy of Twenty-Four Miles Up, email me at hello@moormaidpress.co.uk. Copies are £5 each, UK P&P is £1.50. Just let me know if you’d like to pay by Paypal or cheque.

Paper and publicity

I’ve been thinking a lot about the paper for my pamphlet. It has to be special, so that reading the pamphlet is a tactile and physical pleasure… And I wanted to buy the paper in the Northwest, keep the whole project local, and had decided on trying Marc the Printers. I’d picked up their leaflet at the Manchester Print Fair so I knew they had a big choice, including lots of recycled papers. The eco-friendly Risograph works well with recycled paper.

I set off for the train one summer’s morning with my trusty trolley. It’s not fair from Manchester Piccadilly to Edge Street in the Northern Quarter.

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It took me ages to choose paper and card but finally I did, both from the Evolution range. It all needed to be cut down to A4 from A3 so I went for a wander for an hour or so, and enjoyed tea in the Tea Cup in Thomas Street as well as a fab conversation with the lovely lady in the RSPCA shop who used to work in the education department of the Imperial War Museum North. She said she’d left when she hadn’t felt she was moved by the Holocaust films any more. She’d done an English Lit degree originally so we had lots to chat about…

When I returned to Marc the Printers I realised that I’d rather underestimated the quantity of paper and card I’d ordered. My trusty trolley was loaded up to overflowing, worsening a pre-existing tear in the process. The walk back to Piccadilly seemed rather long in the afternoon heat and my arms were a couple of inches longer when I finally got there. 🙂

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Next task was starting to think about publicising the launch event. I didn’t want just to do online stuff so I made a quick leaflet on the Riso to put up around town – Library, Visitors’ Centre, Heritage Centre.

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I did of course set up an event on Facebook and a ticketing page on Eventbrite, to make sure I’d covered all bases. I’m starting to look forward to it. Reading with Jo Bell is always great fun. Hope to see you there… 🙂

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On printing

I’ve always been interested in printing. My maternal grandfather was a colour printer, in the days when that was a highly skilled job, and not something manufactured by Hewlett Packard. My mum used to talk about visiting him at work, watching him discuss colour reproduction with artists. For her, he was an artist too. Here he is in a photo taken by the Newcastle Chronicle and Journal, the one time he was in the paper (1960).

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When I lived in York in the 1990s my university friend Lisa and I published subtext, our very own political-cultural magazine. To keep printing costs down for the first issue we hired a photocopier and installed it in my living room. A copy of my grandad’s photo was blu-tacked to the wall to guide and inspire us. (For more on subtext, see York Stories. Lisa’s website shines with her passion for her home city. If you don’t love York before you read it, you will afterwards.)

Without knowing it, we were a small part of a long tradition of women taking part in the printing process. See a few examples here and here.

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And so to the present. For a while now I have been thinking about the design of my pamphlet, seeking inspiration from books and also from the Manchester Print Fair in April. So many wonderful people with wonderful things. Here are just a few, from Dot and the Line, Kristyna Baczynski, Mr PS, Incline Press and Red Button Press.


On Sunday 4 June myself and four other Print Mill peeps (Diana, Ellie, Molly, Rory) attended the first of our two workshops with Lisa Lorenz, to learn how to use the Risograph. Lisa took us right back to basics which proved to be absolutely right as we were astonished to realise how much we didn’t know. 🙂

Then we all had a play with some images and inserting/overlaying colours. We all felt much more confident by the end and ready to explore colours further…

 

At the next workshop we (Ellie, Maeve, Molly and myself) all worked together on one object: a Print Mill zine. 🙂 In reality this involved playing with images and texts and layering colours. As ever, we were guided by Lisa Lorenz, who had also brought some great coloured papers with her for us to experiment with.

There was lots of laying stuff out on the floor, copying, reducing, enlarging, cutting and sticking and in the end we had a simple folded zine made, as if by magic, out of one A3 sheet, with a Macclesfield poster in the middle.

It was a great day and gave me some new ideas for the design of my pamphlet. And I fell (slightly deeper) in love with the Riso…

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Sun again. And Macc looks lovely. Does leaving a place makes it look different? The prospect of absence makes the spectacles rosier, or something…

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In London it was warm enough to sit in the Friends House courtyard. Mimi said she now associates Friends House with me and sunshine. 🙂

I’d sent her a second attempt at a draft pamphlet, plus some additional poems which might replace any that we decided didn’t fit. Based on that she’d come up with a third version. She’d liked my substitution and some of my reordering. And she’d liked some of the additional poems and thought they could fit too. So now we had to ponder… Should we stick with 24 poems or push the boat out and go for 26?

In the end (you knew it) we went for the latter option, dropping one poem which now felt heavy alongside the others, and adding three new ones. I felt like I was beginning to get the hang of thinking about selecting and ordering: thinking about how poems look together on a double page; about the transition between poems; and about creating/maintaining a ‘field’ of mood/tone throughout the pamphlet in the way I’d think about a field of vocabulary in an individual poem.

On the theme of mood/tone etc we talked about something Mimi had said in our previous session and which I’d kept thinking about since: ‘Sometimes the person we are as a poet isn’t the same as the person we are as a person.’ Or words to that effect. We discussed that there seems to be a part of ourselves that is the bit that produces poetry. We might want to write from a different bit of ourselves but then when we run a poetry geiger counter over what we’ve produced, there’s no crackling and the needle doesn’t move.

We went through a few niggles I had about some of poems: the odd word, a comma that suddenly looked weird. And we changed a couple of titles.

Then we went through the whole sequence again and decided we liked it.

And then it was the end of our last session. It has gone so quickly. I really hope to have the opportunity to work with Mimi in the future.

In the couple of hours before my train I walked to the British Museum. I hadn’t been since its reopening in 2000. The Great Court is amazing. Uplifting architecture.

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It wasn’t long before closing so I didn’t have time to see much but I wandered through ‘Greek and Roman’ and a collection of clocks. One of my poems states ‘I like circles best’ and based on the photos I took, that seems to be true. I also loved images of women weaving. In Athens, 2500 years ago.

I walked back via Russell Square where two lovely girls were selling cookies to raise money for their youth club in Swiss Cottage, so that ‘people will come and teach us things’. And people were chatting in the sun and sitting with their backs against trees, reading. And there was a fountain. In a circle.

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Mentoring 2

Is it not going to be sunny and warm every time I go to That London? Brrrrr.

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I hate to admit it, but it got sunnier as I travelled southwards and London was definitely warmer than Macclesfield. But so many people!

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With my habitual hour to spare I made a ‘Wellcome detour’ (their terrible pun, not mine) to the Wellcome Collection in Euston Road. The Electricity: The Spark of Life Exhibition is brilliant and well worth a visit. It includes not only fascinating information but also wonderful devices in glass and brass; old light bulbs from the John Ryland’s Library; films of Berlin in the 1920s and a video of a frog in zero gravity. Open till 25 June and free.

The shop is fabulous too. Very tempted by ‘Ada Twist, Scientist’ and ‘Rosie Revere, Engineer’ in the children’s section.

And then it was time to meet Mimi. Friends House café provided us with hospitality again.

I’d sent Mimi a suggested selection of poems for the pamphlet, plus a few new/stuck poems to discuss. We started by looking at the pamphlet poems. I’d been quite flummoxed by the task of selection. In the end I’d taken a sequence of poems which I knew I wanted to include and then thought of the field of words, moods, themes in which the sequence would sit. (The ‘field’ was a term Mimi had used at Arvon in relation to the vocabulary of a poem.)

By and large Mimi liked my selection, which was a great relief. We talked about the ones that didn’t work, and why. Then we went through each poem individually, discussing words/sections/rhythms that might need editing, and also starting to think about sequence. Mimi’s suggestion was to ‘order a pamphlet the way you would order a poem’, not to place oneself above the poems and sequence them according to some idea of ‘theme’.

With the time we had left at the end of the session we looked at the new/stuck poems. I really feel that the mentoring is giving my confidence with both writing and editing. It’s lovely to discuss my writing in detail with someone who writes so well and has read so much! I’m pretty sure we’re going to be able to finalise the selection during the next session. Phew.

Outside, London was London.