Reading, Writing & Riding

it was an occasion, as much as a ride, and a celebration of women cyclists and of adventure, creativity and sustainability

Source: Reading, Writing & Riding

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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on energy surges and exhilaration and the experience of ‘body attached to bike and road’, and finally from her own unpublished account of her recent life-changing participation in Highland Trail 550, ‘a self supported bikepacking race over 550 miles in the Scottish Highlands’.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

 

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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

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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.

Stravaig

Interesting reflections from a participant in Saturday’s Text & Image workshop at the Scottish Poetry Library – including a rather lovely film-poem he made afterwards.

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script1_verticalI accidentally attended a workshop at the very excellent Scottish Poetry Library yesterday. ‘Accidentally’ because the workshop wasn’t exactly about what I though it was – my fault for not reading the small print in sufficient detail once again!  I should have looked up acrostic first (well, now I know…)

stravaigWhat the workshop was about was about image and poetry, but in the sense of using text and other elements to make a poem that is spatial as well as (or maybe more than) temporal.  Well, so to speak…

…clear as mud? Think ‘concrete poetry’ (for example).

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, however, so I decided to give it a go…

To be honest, I felt a bit at sea – I’ve always found this kind of thing quite difficult to get into. But in any event it was good to grapple with it with people who didn’t.  I was impressed by the range…

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Text & Image, Writing & Surrealism

Two ekphrastic day workshops coming up in the next couple of months:

On 21 May I’ll be teaming up again with cartoonist Malcy Duff  for our Text & Image gig – but for the first time in a library setting. We’re thrilled to be doing this at the Scottish Poetry Library, where we’ll use the archive – including some amazing concrete poetry, and the text art in the building itself – as a starting point for practical and experimental exercises in writing and drawing. This will be the fifth, sixth even, time we’ve collaborated, since co-facilitating a comic book workshop at the Fruitmarket Gallery in 2007. We’ve run Text & Image as a six-week course and as one-day and two-day workshops at National Galleries Scotland, considering many ways in which words and pictures combine – including in illuminated manuscripts, political cartoons, calligraphy and pop art. We’ve worked in a variety of mediums, including collage and acetates, and with our non-dominant hands – and our vocal chords! We look forward to adapting the exercises we devised for this new setting.

For writers, and artists, and folk who identify as both, or neither.

More details and how to book here. Please book by 6 May.

 

Back at NGS, on 25 June I have a day workshop on writing and surrealism, in response to the Surrealist Encounters exhibition which runs from 4 June – 11 Sept. There will be time to look at and discuss aspects of the exhibition, try some innovative writing exercises, and develop your own piece of work. We’ll cover topics associated with the surrealists, including automatic writing and dreams, and explore  how the relationship between chance and conscious decision-making contributes to the creative process. Includes refreshments, and a day pass to the exhibition (normally £10/8).

Details and booking information here.

Writers of all levels of experience, and in all genres, welcome on both days.

cycling from summer to autumn

I have a class in Linlithgow on the last Sunday of the month, and last weekend I cycled home from it. My plans for the 22 mile ride along the Union Canal towpath this summer had been stymied first – often – by weather, and then by engineering works which meant that I couldn’t get the bike to the start point by train. Weather and other commitments have also prevented me from building up much in the way of fitness, so this would be easily my longest ride of the season.

Over the course of a few hours (including two pub lunch pit stops – I said I was unfit), stony surfaces, where the hinterland was arable and open, alternated with squelchier ones on long wooded sections. The repetitions began to create a sense of deja vu in one unfamiliar with the route. Robert Macfarlane borrows a term that I like from American artist William Fox: ‘cognitive dissonance’ (The Old Ways, p.79). Macfarlane finds this chiefly in what he calls ‘data-depleted landscapes’ such as high moors and tidal strands, my own favourite terrains, but it can happen when any sort of defamiliarisation is induced. Sea voyage, test match, Ring cycle. With the canal a constant on my right hand I felt as though I was cycling from summer to autumn. I know what West Lothian looks like: I’ve travelled between Edinburgh and Glasgow regularly for twenty years. I watch it from up in the Pentlands on a weekly basis. But I don’t know it. Canals subvert our knowledge of terrain, linking places by the line of least resistance, the contour, and not the line of greatest efficiency (the road). Their sinuings show you the locality in a new way.

The route of the Union Canal makes a lengthy detour around the Broxburn bings. The red spoil heaps are a memorial to the extraction of shale for oil in this area. Accustomed to seeing them in the distance, their denuded and increasingly biodiverse proximity experienced from cycle level startles. It’s like a passage through an otherworld, or, to use another Macfarlane term, a xenotopia, in the middle of the central belt.

Progress eastwards was slow; Edinburgh seemed as though it was getting further and further away, even when the Pentland Hills and Arthur’s Seat had become visible on the horizon. Signposts – Winchburgh, Almond Aquaduct – kept indicating the passage of a ridiculously low mileage since the previous one. It was the final weekend of the Edinburgh festival, and the journey felt a bit like a (slow) progression from one stage set to another. Woodside, fieldside, woodside alternated like scenes designed to build dramatic tension – or muscle fatigue. I wanted to switch to a higher gear and higher cadence in order to get home a bit more quickly, but wasn’t able to on the narrow track.

A couple of people had told me that there was ‘a rough section’ on the towpath. I think it would be more accurate to say there was a smooth section, a surfaced stretch around Broxburn. For the rest of the route, I and my bike, which is officially and accurately classified as a rugged hybrid, were jolted along uncomfortably. On FB* there’s a photograph of me taken at a poetry reading last week. The forearm grasping my paper, honed by absorbing shock from the the rugged hybridity of Lothian cycle paths over the last couple of years, probably has even better definition now.

And the fest? As usual, I was just getting into my stride in week 3 when fatigue was setting in for everyone else. Unusually, I didn’t attend many music events, choosing to focus instead on poetry and spoken word. Refusing to make a distinction between ‘page’ and ‘stage’, or  book and fringe festivals, was liberating and enriching, though I followed with interest the debate  around the dichotomy and hierarchy between them. I went to two concerts, on the final Friday, and they were very good, but my head was still (too?) full of words. Other highlights: Juliet Binoche in Antigone; gyoza from the Harajuku Kitchen stall in George St; the moon making a guest appearance above the magical lights in Charlotte Square and George Square. Still to come: the exhibitions that stay up in September, and space to actually look at them. More cycling before it gets too cold, and some hillwalking before the heather dies away. Going back to work, and my ‘Summer’ holiday.

* Never an early adopter, I was initiated into the world of Facebook this summer and as a result my blog posts have become even more sporadic. I don’t even know if it is ethical or possible to link to the photo.

the third thursday, or why workshops work

Apologies for the formatting at the end of this post. WordPress’s ‘new improved posting experience’ is failing to deliver as promised.

Patricia Oxley’s editorial in Acumen78 focused on the lack of suitability for publication of many poems begun in workshops. I do sympathise if she’s inundated with unpolished submissions born of writing group prompts, but I also want to present an alternative perspective. I encounter publishable work resulting from such prompts quite frequently nowadays. I’m not making great claims for my own powers here – it’s what the writer does with the prompt that counts. Nor am I entirely advocating Keats’s naturally-as-leaves-to-a-tree requirement. But I’ve worked with enough writing groups to know that, given an unexpected, external stimulus, i.e., one they didn’t seek themselves, and a time limit, writers produce some remarkable work that wouldn’t have happened in the same time period in their private writing space. For those who seek publication, their writing will of course need some editing and tweaking and rest time before submission – both it and the magazine editor deserve this respect –  but I regularly witness how minimal this can sometimes be, before work is submitted to and accepted by respected journals.

The rapid response to workshop stimuli is equally applicable to beginners, who frequently exceed their own expectations and gain confidence as a result. Many workshop participants, for many reasons, do not see publication as the main outcome of their experience. I figure many of the South Side writers come on a Friday for some regular writing practice, and to hear how their peers respond to the same prompt. If something publishable happens as a result, that’s a bonus. I don’t think they would submit in haste, omitting the usual phases of rest and re-drafting.

I once led a workshop at a Lapidus conference, where participants made poems originating from the rhythms of their own breath, heartbeat and footfall. Graham Harthill was kind enough to observe that ‘the workshop is the poetic moment’. I was privileged to be able to experience this kind of moment myself as a participant last week. Dumfries and Galloway’s Spring Fling open studios event held a preview exhibition at the Dundas St Gallery in Edinburgh. It was delightful to meet one of the Spring Fling artists, and former South Side Writer, Isabell Buenz, who makes exquisite paper shoes.

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Marjorie Gill, writer in residence at Spring Fling, ran a workshop, using the ‘duo prompt’ and metaphor-generating method of applying vocabulary the writer thinks of in association with artwork A, to their choice of artwork B. We had three short periods of writing. Unusually, I hadn’t seen either A or B beforehand and hadn’t had to think about what to do with them. The connections I started to make, the creative potential that was opened up, startled (and eventually exhausted) me. I see this (ideally not the exhaustion bit) happening with others on a weekly basis. That it happened to me provided confirmation of the value of what I do: workshops work. Personally I am a tweaker, a slow-burner, a perfectionist who finds it hard to say ‘it is finished’ (or abandoned) and to press ‘send’, or commit to the post box. I sent a couple of concrete poems (rare genre for me) off to Marjorie for the Spring Fling website. These were inspired jointly by Isabell’s shoes, a ceramic bird sculpture and a print of a deer that incorporated some text. I shall continue to work, with gratitude, at greater length on words and ideas triggered by these artworks.

The National Galleries Scotland education dept isn’t running CW courses this year as these don’t enrol as well as, say, textiles or life drawing. I had a half-full beginners class in the autumn who all wanted to continue, so, supplemented by occasional others on my mailing list who’d been to gallery writing events, we formed Third Thursday. We meet on the eponymous day in a different gallery each month, and I use the art on display for whatever writing prompts and themes it suggests (though there is of course an argument for a more arbitrary relationship between stimulus and product).

We started off on NGS sites, before moving to City Art Centre last month and Fruitmarket  Gallery this month, on the day before the Spring Fling workshop. Their current exhibition is The Possibilities of the Object: Experiments in Modern and Contemporary Brazilian Art. We considered the possibilities of these objects for creative writing, paying attention to their metaphoric and sonic potential, making concrete poetry, or allowing the object its own first-person voice. At the entrance to the exhibition is a group of ten ballot boxes, entitled Cabecas (‘Heads). In post-Referendum, pre-General Election Scotland, these are suggestive of talking heads, debate and democracy. But the work was made in 1968, under the military dictatorship of Brazil. Consideration of cultural difference gave a further, more political dimension to the writing. One member produced a memorable piece by juxtaposing two adjacent works in her words: a fistful of dead leaves behind glass, and a bullet-pierced bundle.
At the end someone else pointed out how this kind of writing genuinely supplements and communicates the artwork, and I have to admit I’ve often had a post-workshop desire to do some guerrilla placing of poems and stories next to artworks in galleries. A number of visual arts organisations, including NGS, of course, have been great at posting creative writing online, or running competitions or supporting publications.
We’re off to Dovecot to write about photography and textiles next month, and hopefully will have studio visit to a working artist at some point.  A minor and not very interesting sub-plot of my working life at the moment seems to involve checking out the portable seating arrangements in Edinburgh’s galleries.
I think it was AL Kennedy who said that workshops can infantilise writers. They can – but they can also be as grown-up as the facilitator and attendees wish. And what about the importance of play for creativity?
Workshops work . . . rapidly updating the AOCB, since I haven’t posted for far too long, Lapidus Scotland is piloting an online Bibliotherapy Toolkit, a collection of prompts and accounts of workshop situations which will eventually be in the public domain. There are entries on working in mental health and palliative care, with dementia patients and sexual abuse survivors, and in prisons. If you’d like to work with the pilot material, either for yourself, or with any groups you lead, get in touch. I contributed a section on working with a group at the MS Therapy Centre Lothian, after running an 8 week course there in autumn 2014. A pamphlet, MS: MY Story will shortly be available from PlaySpace Publications. Proceeds will raise funds for the Centre, which, prior to the CW course, offered physical and complementary, but not creative, therapies. The participants continue to meet independently, and have written a play about MS, which they hope to have performed.
We think of workshops as a way to initiate a process. They can also be a way of reflecting on one. This summer I’m leading a monthly session in Linlithgow at a residential weekend for carers. Writing is used to create a record of the experience for the participants and the organisation, care4carers.  Activities on offer over the weekend include boat and cycle trips, art and craft work, and relaxation and complementary therapies, and conclude with creative writing. That’d be on the Fourth Sunday (or Forth Sunday).