Umbrellas of Edinburgh, redux

Fellow contributor to the Freight Books Anthology UMBRELLAS OF EDINBURGH [I have to do caps; if I type instructions for itals this Word Press dialog box tries to send an email . . . ]Laura Clay on the reading at Edinburgh University last week. I was rather fazed by the vast expanse of bright carpet, and felt as though I should be doing some gymnastics, not reading a couple of poems, but it was a very enjoyable evening. At the end of it, a group of poets occupied said carpet to discuss poetry mags and traffic jams.

This whole project has been a joy, from offsetting the January blues last year by researching my locations (Morningside / Royal Ed; and Dreghorn & Redford woods, haunt of Wilfred Owen on the edge of the city), to launches, readings and events at the end of the year. Much thanks to editors Russell Jones and Claire Askew for the energy, commitment and professionalism they brought to the whole enterprise. I read this new anthology of a city already so well written about, and fall in love again with the place where I’ve lived, by a considerable margin now, longer than anywhere else.

Writings from Otherworld

Last night, I read my story A Beltane Prayer at the University of Edinburgh, as part of the latest fab event since the Umbrellas of Edinburgh anthology launched last autumn. What with having never read this story aloud before and not having done a public reading since October, I was more than a bit nervous.

View original post 415 more words

Neu!Boots DAY TWENTY-NINE -Helen Boden

I’m very pleased to have a poem I wrote after the Brexit referendum up on Andy Jackson and WN Herbert’s Neu!Boots and Pantisocracies site. Originally set up to publish a poem a day  responding to the 2015 general election, they re-booted their project last month.

I’m not a polemic poet, but a number of factors came together to prompt me to write this one. I was new to fb last summer, and didn’t submit a post-election response, though the Pantisocracy of the title took me back to graduate student days in Newcastle in the 80s. Researching a PhD on Wordsworth, autobiography and 18thC psychology, I became intrigued by Coleridge and Southey’s vision of creating a socialist society in America. A greater part of my work was on the polymaths of the period, the usual suspects of the Scottish Enlightenment, and also English thinkers including Erasmus Darwin, and Joseph Priestley. That the latter was born in Birstall, the village in West Yorkshire where my dad’s parents had lived, added an extra layer of interest.

The adult Priestley moved to Birmingham, and was a key member of the Lunar Society,  where philosophers, industrialists, writers  and radicals met at full moon for reasons of safety, in the days before street lighting. That didn’t help them in the long run: their homes were burned down in 1791, in what became known as the Birmingham or Priestley Riots. The government turned a blind eye to locals’ violent objection  to the ‘Lunartics’, as they were known,  celebrating  the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille. Priestley fled, and eventually emigrated to Philadelphia, where he continued his work in science and theology – maybe forming a kind of pantisocracy-lite, close to the Susquehanna, Coleridge and Southey’s chosen location.

Forward to midsummer, 2016, and I was taking long, late-evening walks in the Pentland Hills above Edinburgh. On the terrace of Swanston Brasserie, the sunset sparked little stars, like the ones on the EU flag, I thought whimsically, in our beer glasses. A full moon accompanied me across the Caerketton ridge. I dubbed it ‘Remain Moon’ (I think its official designation was ‘strawberry moon’), and it seemed all would be well. Of course the assassination of MP Jo Cox in Birstall the week before could not be undone. It was always likely that Scotland would vote remain; now the pro-leave citizens of the northern England would surely re-consider?

I was back on the hill, under July’s ‘Buck Moon’, the other day, still struggling to comprehend all the events of the past month. Another Bastille day atrocity had taken place, and too many others around the world. Birmingham has been the site of further riots since the Lunartics were smoked out. We do what we can, we dream or we act, and there are some terrific poetic responses on the Neu!Boots site.

Postscript: The August full moon, according to this source, will be the ‘Sturgeon Moon’ . . . .

 

 

Remain Moon Four years ago they gathered, the local press, the people, to pause in civic duty at the statue of Joseph Priestley. A week before the vote they came again, the people, and the national…

Source: Neu!Boots DAY TWENTY-NINE -Helen Boden

Reading, Writing & Riding

 

Edinburgh Festival of Cycling: Women’s Read, Ride  and Write Tour. The plan was for a short ride round Edinburgh, with stops at bookshops and cafes for readings by endurance cyclist Lee Craigie, and writing exercises. This was my first writing & cycling gig, thanks to a cyclist friend who suggested that my Walking and Writing experience would work well on wheels. The Edinburgh Festival of Cycling, and Suzanne Forup from Cycling UK Scotland,  were interested. Funding was, as so often, late to come through – a frequent source of frustration for freelancers, and the subject for another blog – but I regarded this as a taster, an experiment to see what could be possible.

Despite a spell of summery weather having broken just as the Festival of Cycling started, conditions proved pretty perfect. We didn’t ride far –  just from the Meadows to Wordpower Books, back over the Meadows and Bruntsfield Links to The Edinburgh Bookshop, and down to Summerhall cafe – but it was an occasion, as much as a ride, and a celebration of women cyclists and of adventure, creativity and sustainability. Bookshop owners Elaine Henry at WordPower and Marie Moser at Edinburgh welcomed us and spoke on the importance of the independent and niche retailer, and answered questions about their views on a big online corporation with a bad track record for paying tax and looking after employees.

 

At each stop Lee read an extract from writing by a woman cyclist. First, from Juliana Buhrings’ contrasting beauty and pain in This Road I Ride; then Emily Chappell on energy surges and exhilaration and the experience of ‘body attached to bike and road’, and finally from her own unpublished account of her recent life-changing participation in Highland Trail 550, ‘a self supported bikepacking race over 550 miles in the Scottish Highlands’.  Lee described  gorging on a replenishing feast, depleted after a food-deprived day; and a magical encounter with a deer, after which she ponders its perception of the human creature (i.e. she switches point of view). This woman can write, as well as ride!

We did some short writing exercises – collecting what Seamus Heaney calls a ‘word-hoard’ – a vocabulary or diction resource, if you like; then making lists of things perceived by the sight and other senses. Later we took a phrase from Lee’s writing as a starting point for our own. Sometimes known as flow-writing, I often introduce this with reference to Paul Klee’s definition of drawing: ‘taking a line for a walk’. Does this need to be revised to ‘taking a line for a spin’ when the writer is a cyclist, I wondered?

These are good exercises to introduce beginners to creative writing, or for writers to use in an unfamiliar environment. They’re also good for cultivating the freshness of ‘beginner’s mind’, however experienced you are. Most of the participants here already wrote.  I was curious to observe whether there were any marked differences from writing in other circumstances, when the writer had just stepped off her bike. I’d say there were more similarities, but this was hardly scientific, and I’m keen to experiment more! The main difference seems to be between writing at the desk / from the head, and writing after an activity, or inactivity, that alters the physical state. This can be cycling, walking, running or swimming, or it can be relaxation. Any relaxation of the conscious mental, cerebral processes that we tend to foreground when ‘trying’ to write, and focusing instead on the body, provides a shift whereby the unconscious can be more easily accessed and language released.

Image 12-06-2016 at 20.01Say Cake! Writers & Riders at Summerhall Cafe

The walking-writing correspondence is well-known and well documented. As a fairly recent returner to cycling, I was especially interested to see conversations developing about the affinity between writing and cycling. Lee, with no time to stop to record on HT550, stored up and re-iterated words that poured out, like a release from trauma, on her return. Others spoke about mentally drafting ideas whilst pedalling; or the repetitive rhythm being conducive to composition. One woman said that, as a resident of a rural area where it was almost always more practical to drive from A to B, she cycled to justify her cake habit. Yup. As the former owner of an over-efficient metabolism, I used to struggle in winter to take in more calories than I could burn off, even when not being physically active. I’m 51 now, and it’s finally slowing. Cycling gives me an excellent excuse for cake, a cooked breakfast or a fish supper. It gives me new directions for my professional and writing life, too.

Simultanism: Words and Pictures, Reading and Looking

 

image2

I’ve just had a love-my-job couple of weeks. This is possibly because it’s been quite a workshop-intense fortnight, and workshops are one of my favourite aspects of my job. Also, a lot of them have taken place in beautiful gallery settings, which does tend to enhance one’s sense of creativity and zest for life.  Within the ekphrastic-workshop (writing about art) category I’ve enjoyed quite range of different activities over a short time period. What follows are some notes and observations on this, in words and photographs.

I  attended a  rich panel discussion on writing and sculpture at the Fruitmarket Gallery  the other week, during Sara Barker’s exhibition Change-The-Setting. One of the speakers argued for a fluid transition or ‘translation’ between the two mediums, rather than the old ‘influence’ model. Of course this isn’t always desirable, or possible, particularly if you are a specialist in only one field. So how do we find an equivalent language for sculpture? Another spoke of Barker’s own reading, of authors including Virginia Woolf, and her attempt to make spatial equivalents of the texts in which she was immersed. The closing remarks drew an analogy between sculpture and spoken word: both operate in space. This seemed an appropriate conclusion, as  I was en route to Kevin Cadwallender’s monthly poetry event 10RED in Leith.

Change-The-Scene, Fruitmarket Gallery: visit by Third Thursday Writers in April 2016. Photographs by Rosemary Bassett.

During a decade of working as a freelance educator  at National Galleries Scotland – often as the only one  who didn’t go to art school or study art history – I’ve developed a love for works in the collection that incorporate writing in some way: in mediums ranging from collage to neons; by substituting objects drawn or painted in perspective with their names; playful working with signs and messages; almost-text marks, and words in unfamiliar scripts. Are we reading or looking  when we view them?  One of my favourite works has to be Sonia Delaunay’s collaboration with French poet Blaise Cendrars, A Trans-Siberian Prose

2012AA43177

Delaunay was a proponent of simultanism. This meant finding a visual equivalent for the text, rather than illustrating it. She and husband Robert Delaunay aimed to present simultaneously a number of different ‘modern’ experiences – distilling words, colour, or their signature take on the  Eiffel Tower  (bottom left in the image above) into a single picture. This could be a great way of thinking about the text and image relationship, rather than seeing them in more hierarchical terms of influence or inspiration. Of course there are pictures that serve to illustrate text, and writing that captions images, and the ‘responsive’ model of using a visual artwork as a writing prompt remains a productive one. But ‘simultanism’ seems to offer a way into thinking about some alternatives.

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art has a monthly session called ‘The Drawing Room’. This  ‘examines the range of possibilities within contemporary drawing practice and explores how mark-making can also be conceived as sculpture, installation, video, performance, writing, sound, textiles and animation.’  When organiser Sharon Quigley invited me to lead this month’s session, I jumped at the chance. We walked round the top floor of Mod One, collecting words from the artworks, before settling down for a series of  practical exercises. All the participants were visual artists. Once again I was reminded how writers and artists work differently: short, intense bursts of concentration suit the former; long, slow periods of concentration seem more appropriate for the latter – in workshop settings at least. And of course there will be individual variations and preferences. We can learn a lot from listening to each other and observing each other’s practices. I’d wanted to show  a range of activities, options and possibilities, but I realised I also needed to respect their way of working – some of them might well be out of their comfort zone here. I felt reluctant to stop them and move onto a new activity as they settled into a task, though Sharon reassured me they welcomed interruptions. During writing groups, it’s usual to pause, read and critique at several points – here saving up all the work done to display at the end worked best. I was hugely impressed by the quality and range of what they’d produced, and the way they displayed it.

The regular groups I work with use a lot of visual stimulus. The raison d’etre of the fortnightly writing group at National Galleries Scotland, Words on Canvas, is ekphrasis or responsive writing. Their recent writing triggered by synaesthesia, light, colour, time, ‘random constructions’ and ‘looking out / looking in’ in the prints of Whilhemina Barns-Graham was amongst the best they’ve ever done.

The termly-theme approach at South Side Writers tends also to encourage responsive work:  like many writing groups, we often use prompts in the form of images, objects and other texts. Writing on ‘Mapping’ just now, this seems especially the case. As always, there is a massive range of relevant historical, geographical and cultural material available to use, enhancing individual and collective knowledge of the subject. Some great discussions take place in the room. We’ve used old maps, personal maps, art maps, maps of the imagination and obsolete maps; poems about maps, and novels that contain maps. We’ve considered the aesthetics and politics of cartography, and used place names and landscape features in our word hoard. As always, members have written original, funny, moving, lyrical and surprising responses.

P1300165_Writing Room groupMapping South Side Writers. Photograph by Olga Wojtas.

Third Thursday Writers go to a different exhibition  each month. Most recently we were at the Ingleby Gallery, in its final week in its Calton Rd premises, looking at Kevin Harman’s No Man’s Land – beautiful glassworks made by repurposing double glazing units and household paint. We used them  to think about synaesthesia; and about chance and choice, mood and perspective in art and writing. Ingelby Gallery  is a wonderful writing space – I  do wish I’d used it more. The station announcements audible from Waverley across the road can seem intrusive, but we found a way to incorporate them into response to the artworks, combining place-names, remembered journeys, and imagined locations with ideas suggested by the artworks.

At No Man’s Land on the Third Thursday. Photograph by Rosemary Bassett

Cartoonist, musician and generally brilliant colleague Malcy Duff and I reprised our Text & Image workshop, previously set in art galleries, at the Scottish Poetry Library. This was about hybridity in more than medium and form: writers and artists combined their ways of working, their energy and interests, to make shape poetry, found poetry and sound poetry.  One participant blogged about his experience here. The day  also encouraged me to consider  the relationship between creative and pedagogic practice, as I participated in Malcy’s exercises, drawing different shapes of speech bubbles; collaging; reproducing pictures using only words; making non-linguistic sounds to fit a ‘script’ of drawn shapes.  Afterwards I  put the four letters of the word PLOT in the corners of a rectangle, and I drew the outlines of Yorkshire and its constituent parts before, and after, the 1973 local government re-organisation. The shape of Yorkshire uncannily resembles a speech bubble –  into which I might put the words wool, or steel, or scone, or STOP FRACKING – or that common lament of Yorkshire people living in Edinburgh who haven’t got the time to go and stand in a queue in Anstruther: decent fish and chips.

Text & Image workshop – spreading out at the SPL. Photography By Hector Michael Fried.