Saturday, September 09, 2017

Small group poetry workshops in Brighton

City Road, Cardiff, corner of Shakespeare Street. 
There was a time when I said my name and the response from kids in schools would be: Jackie Chan, never Jackie Kennedy, Jackie Collins, Jackie Brown, Jackie Stewart or Jackie magazine. The most common response from people of my generation was to repeat my name as Jackie Wilson...

And while I love that song of his, 'Higher and Higher', when I was working in schools a lot, Chan's name was the one I heard more often connected to mine. So I felt somehow in the presence of the kung fu master on those occasions and in the spirit of Chan's own words: "I do small things, I try to do good things everyday," I am running three small group poetry workshops for just six people starting on September 30. 

Big workshops of 15 or more have their place - they can be incredibly dynamic and exciting. But this autumn, I want to focus on the connections that happen in small groups. 

Limiting numbers will allow more time to read back work and for discussion. Each workshop will combine reading poems by contemporary writers with a number of writing exercises to generate new work. 

The workshops will take place in Brighton from 11am - 4 pm on Saturday September 30, Saturday October 14,  Saturday October 28. Each workshop will cost £40, payable in advance (no refunds for cancellations seven days or less before workshop). 

So, contact me by email: willsdotjackieatgooglemaildotcom - make sure you include a return email address and if possible a telephone number. Deadline for booking all workshops is September 22. 

Workshops will only run if there are six people booked in for each date - I will confirm with interested participants on September 23. 

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Anticipating a turning point - how the South African book is finding itself

Mrisi with Pip, the puppy, at the house in Mashau
The sun was hot on our backs yesterday as Mrisi, Giya and I sat in a row at the top of the scaffolding, painting window frames on our home in Brighton. Mrisi was playing music on his phone, mopeds went by noisily and when we took a break, a crowd of crows filled the sky in front of us for a moment and then flapped away, cawing.

A couple of days earlier, Risenga was also here, scraping, sanding, his head in the eaves. It's that time of year - autumn suggesting itself in a cold night when it would be reasonable to light a fire, even in August. There's fruit to pick, herbs to dry, jam and chutney to make.

Of course it is possible to mend a sash window yourself and make good your own house. I have been working every day on a second draft of the South African book, which I feel is turning into a different kind of travel memoir - one in which I return four times to the same place, investigating my responses to it after gaps of several years, curious about what I notice has changed.

The South African book isn't an objective analysis of this amazing country, how can it be in the circumstances, and that is now one of its most liberating factors as I write. The working title has changed from Venda Sun, which I am still attached to, to Road to the North, which is boring. I am still working from my diaries and increasingly from photo albums to help me remember, or at least, to help me describe some of the landscapes, moments, conversations that happened in 1994, 2002, 2005 and 2012.
Mashau from the hill behind Risenga's house

Those are the dates of my trips with the children and Risenga, although Mrisi didn't come on the last one.

I am looking at maps and Google earth, although neither of these are time travellers, so I have to make up some of the details I missed in 1994, 2002 or 2005. I have added and discarded linking sections in which I explain what's happened between trips. I will probably keep them out - how can I summarise eight years of our family's life?

But creating the linking chapters has at least given me a bit of a timeline, a sense of the bigger historical events happening on either side of our journeys and in one case, as we sat around a fire in Mashau.
Elephants in the Levubu River, Kruger National Park
I am checking the spelling of place names and asking Mrisi, Giya and Risenga what they remember.

Increasingly I am fascinated by memory, what I seem incapable of summoning up, by the completely different stories Risenga and I have in our heads about the same incident and then what has lodged and why. 

I couldn't find my way back to a turning on a dusty, eroded track between villages, when we'd been through a ford and wondered if we'd make it to the tar road again, but I can feel the red dust in my throat and see a lush field ahead. I can recall endless plantations of oranges and lemons beside the road near Tzaneen (I think) and a young woman in Mashau talking about how little she was paid to pack macademia nuts but I have no idea what roads we took to Lake Funduzi. 

I am pleased I came to the end of the second trip before I took a break to do the painting. I am half-way through this big re-write and the next trip, 2004/5, will be hard to go back to. It's a turning point which contains a 21st birthday, a wedding, a tsunami, a blood-red moon and an introduction to Mashau, a village at the foot of a hill where priests pray and the devout go to fast. 

Giya with Grace (front left), Mercy (front right)
and a neighbour at Caroline's wedding
in Venda

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Basilicas and friends

The bells are ringing on Lewes Road for Sunday mass and when I opened the curtains at 7.30 the sky was clear. The first thing I did, before feeding the cat even, was to print out an early draft of a new collection, make coffee, fruit salad, go back to bed and read it.

When Jane Fordham and I were in Ravenna recently, two things in particular struck us both - one was the natural paradise captured in stunning Byzantine mosaics we were seeing every day, the other was that whenever we were at a loss, we ended up on bikes at the old port. Cycling along the empty canal road, past abandoned warehouses and allotments tucked away on reclaimed plots felt like a walk on the Downs.

Since coming back from Italy I've been struggling with a way back into drafting the prose book on South Africa and doubting the place of the poems I've been writing over the past four years.

In Bologna and Ravenna, I set myself the challenge of reading Clive James' translation of Dante's Comedia. Actually, Inferno was a romp -no trouble at all reading this. James' translation is accessible, energetic and very easy to get through. I gave Purgatory a miss and went straight to Heaven, which, frankly (and nothing to do with James) is boring.

But what also came up as Jane and I were discussing the glory of mosaics - and she's an expert - was the brilliance of the colour, the birds, flowers and overall, a sense of joy that comes from these centuries-old images.

Unlike Torcello's black mosaics with their vision of hell, Dante's explicit, violent revenge on his enemies, these Byzantine masterpieces celebrate how fabrics fall, celebrate pattern, gesture, greenery to such an extent that you can feel the breeze through the curtains, hear the women's feet on the marble floors and the sheep calling in the rocky hills. Small gold tiles were the solution to taking unwanted people out of the frame - walls of gold, in fact.

And the religious message, while present, never felt intrusive. Perhaps this is what links the basilicas of Ravenna with its old port - room to think and wander.  No-one hurried us as Jane drew, took pictures and looked.  The occasional coach party or group of kids came and listened to a guide explain it all, and went. Then we were virtually alone with these Byzantine mosaic makers again, Jane laughing at where someone had run out of a shade of blue and bodged it, or questioning a disembodied hand at some curtains.

I wrote every day but not with purpose and that was fine, I wanted to allow things to emerge, not sure anything would. And when we got back it was frantic. Giya's graduation in Cardiff, Airbnb guests, house cleaning, the bathroom ceiling to re-paint, the allotment and finding ways of using courgettes. I planted far too many. The raspberries had started, blackcurrants needed picking and I wanted to get hold of some mirabelles before professional scrumpers stripped the trees up at the racecourse.

Then I looked at my notebook and found a couple of poems. I put them into lines, I felt like taking risks, I left lines in I might have cut, even weeks ago. But I returned to doubt, the weight of everything that's being published, that's been published, that is about to be published, to the weight of that question, whether it's worth anything.

I had a workshop to do and stared out of train windows for the two four-hour journeys, there and back. I filled and emptied the washing machine endlessly. I took one of the poems to a group I belong to in Brighton. And an off-hand comment about my prose book to poet Robert Hamberger resulted in him reminding me of those female titans, Austen, Rich and Woolf and how they fought silence. Another Brighton poet, John McCullough posted a quote from Hart Crane on Facebook about the importance of waiting till instinct assured him everything was assembled as it should be. My friend, the fabulous poet Moniza Alvi talked me through doubt on the phone, Rachel Rooney and Allie Rogers at lunch yesterday came up with strategies.

Friendship has broken me through the doubt and if that sounds sentimental, I'm not bothered anymore. The old man behind Jane in this picture is breaking rocks for the road we cycled on. His life was harder than mine will ever be. But I'll guarantee that when he filled his water bottle, it was with friends and when he staggered back to sleep, knackered, he was going over the day with friends.

My new collection is stitched together with letters, some from old friends, with memories of friends, with the fruit and veg I've eaten with friends, with allotment friends, school friends, old boyfriends, with neighbours who became friends and with the absurdities of ageing I swap with friends.

Can I thank them enough?

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Twenty five years a mother

Yesterday I marked 25 years as a mother by transplanting seedlings, cutting grass and weeding and by visiting the friend of a friend in hospital - the same hospital where I gave birth, once in June, once in September - months of summer and autumn raspberries. 

Mrisi, my first, born on a blazing hot June 13 in 1992, was off to Leeds to celebrate, do some recording and release a video for Mamela, his new EP. This Is Jazz Standard magazine calls it a work of "resilience and conscience" describing Mrisi as Brighton's truthsayer. 

When he was interviewed by the Huff Post at a Grime4Corbyn event pre-election, he said, "A man they want to vilify that much has to be dangerous - but dangerous in this sense is a good thing, he’s dangerous to the establishment.”

Giya, born in 1994, is in London putting up her degree show, They Came from the Water While the World Watched, a sequence based on religion and colonialism, at Seen Fifteen gallery in Peckham with fellow documentary photography students. It opens on Friday 16 June, Soweto day. She was interviewed about her work recently by the website Nataal

Picture by Giya Makondo-Wills
from the series
They Came from the Water
While the World Watched
She says about photography, "I hope to continue to make work that has something to say and encourages young people from black, mixed, minority and underprivileged backgrounds to tell their own stories through the arts."

Which leads me to the work of poet Gwendolyn Brooks and the launch of an anthology celebrating her, later this month on 29 June in London. Before The Golden Shovel anthology, you could have asked quite a few poets in the UK to name a favourite poems by Brooks and they'd have probably looked blank. She's far better known in the US, where her politics, her advocacy for poetry, her exploration of Black lives, ensured she won a Pulitzer prize. 

I have known her poem The Bean Eaters  for a very long time and it often comes back to me because it's so sparse yet vivid. It has a haunting quality of light, too and a timbre. 

I'm proud to have a small poem in the anthology, written after my last trip to South Africa with Risenga and Giya in 2012 for Giya's 18th. I got the date of our trip wrong in the poem title - Johannesburg 2013. The Brooks poem I chose to base mine on is "The Near-Johannesburg Boy." She explains on the Emily Dickinson archive, "I decided to write this poem when I found myself hearing on T.V. that little black children in South Africa were meeting in the road and saying to each other, "Have you been detained yet?"" The lines of hers I used are, "A Black Boy near Johannesburg, hot/ In the Hot Time." 

It is entirely possible that Brooks' old woman in "The Bean Eaters" may have influenced this poem too, making an appearance as Risenga's grandmother selling corn. That place where she sold corn was established as a landmark in the city in 1994 when we first went....not quite the start, but close to the start of my 25 years as a mother. 

And in the same random vein... - on Friday 16 June at Waterstones in London, the Seren anthology, Writing Motherhood is launched. I'll be at Giya's opening. But the poem I have in that anthology is about her....

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Cracking not quite writer's block

There are many writers who'll scoff at the idea of a block but I know it's real and although I'm resisting calling this particular period of time a block, something is holding me back. But it doesn't take much for something to happen which opens the door a crack, temporarily, to allow me to see the possibilities of jumping in again. 

What sorts of things? 

Finding the poem below by Denise Levertov which I kept from an old calendar. It was the poem chosen for July 4, although I don't remember the year. 

Wind and walking by the sea for the exhilaration of what it does to the waves, hair, clothes and face. 

Brendan Cleary ringing as he walked up the hill with a bottle of wine to share it on his birthday, talking about old bluesmen and women and wanting to go to New Orleans. 

Weeding, cutting back, picking lettuce and lovage, mint and micro-greens. 

Talking with Robert Hamberger, such a generous man, such a gifted writer, who has counselled me with pretty much the same sentiments as Levertov.

So on election day, of all days, I am reassured by what she shares in this poem - confidence that I do have what it takes to write again. It's only a question of attention, of being there, of making that cross...

Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
to reconfirm
that witnessing presence.
Denise Levertov from Evening Train (1992)

Friday, March 31, 2017

The questions I should have asked before giving my writing away for nothing

It seemed innocent - someone I've known for a long time asked if I'd write a poem in response to a artist's print. The project involved many writers, mostly working in the commercial world. At the end, there'd be an exhibition.

'There's no money in it I'm afraid.'. And that was fine because we'd worked together and I trust him.

I spent time with the print and it grew on me. The other night I went to a London gallery for the exhibition opening - prints and texts hung alongside one another.

I know nothing about the commercial side of the art world. I no longer expect to make money from poetry. Once I could, as a by-product, through residencies or running workshops. But I've learned to live frugally and now my income comes from teaching an Open University course and renting a room on Airbnb.

So I was taken aback to see my poem, printed on nice paper on a letterpress machine (in garamond, for those of you interested), framed and on sale for £150. This was the sum the gallery felt made it 'accessible' to buy!

My first feeling was the absurdity of seeing this piece of paper smaller than A4 in a frame. I'd imagined it was going to be a creative exercise, the typesetting and hand-printing. But there it was, really just a piece of paper in a largish frame.

The friend who invited me to take part was as surprised as me that these texts were going to be on sale to the public. I'd been told I could buy it myself for that price (!!!) to cover the cost of printing, framing and exhibiting. Surely this small thing in its very ordinary frame couldn't have eaten up £150? That would support me for a week.

I looked at it and realised everyone along the way - the printer, the framer, the gallery (in one way or another) was getting something out of this exercise. Even some of the other writers were using it for marketing their companies.

What had I been thinking? Well and truly duped, I hadn't been told it would be sold to the public, I hadn't been told more than one copy was printed, I had to fight for a complimentary copy of the catalogue.

The next morning emails pinged to and fro, entering the absurder uses of language, how people seek to justify themselves, muddying the waters.

I went to the allotment, spoke to friends, I went to PigHog at Grand Central and introduced the wonderful poetry of Janet Sutherland and Mandy Pannett - quiet, considered, thought-provoking. Before I went to PigHog, I read the email that had really set me on fire and replied, "You cannot sell my work."

Oh, I was flattered to be asked and how dangerous is that? It meant I didn't ask questions. Yes, I was out of the habit, out of the loop, out of the world. Yes, I've been living in a kind of forest of my own off Lewes Road - foraging for work and not paying attention to the rules of the city. But - foolish old woman - I was dazzled to be asked.

Questions I should have asked

Who is funding this project and how? What commission does the gallery receive from the artists' work? Where is the agreement over how my work will be used? Will more than one copy be printed and if so, why? Will I receive a complimentary copy of the catalogue? What does the gallery get out of it?
Picasso jug in Cardiff Museum
What made me sweat as I walked up Trafalgar Street to Grand Central for the poetry last night was the gallery's remarkable unwillingness to explain the economics of this exercise - exactly what the printing and framing had cost and the costs of the exhibition. And no-one, it seemed, was interested in engaging with writers' rights in the chain of artistic production. It was the gallery throwing the word 'exploitation' into an email when I had asked in very polite and restrained terms for facts that made me see red and see the tactics I'd been bombarded with on Facebook.

Yes, these were Trump tactics - bluster, confuse, refuse to answer.

Saddest of all, I really like the artist whose work I was linked with. She's talented, interesting and aware.

I will not give my work away again. If I am asked, I will reply, "Find me someone to repair my car for nothing."

But it has  helped me understand artists friends' reluctance to engage with the gallery system and why artists are setting up their own.

The Before I Die wall was in Brighton for the Sick festival. There have been more than 2,000 in 70 countries. The original wall was made in New Orleans by artist Candy Chang.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Poets who write prose

Asda's female gnomes
With just 30 minutes in the library before it closed yesterday I focused on the travel section. The style of writing on my mind right now comes from W G Sebald's cross-genre The Rings of Saturn, translated by good friend and one-time publisher Michael Hulse and re-released at the end of last year with a new cover by Peter Mendelsund.

Actually, I went to travel after I'd found Sebald's The Emigrants, so I had a dose of him to carry home, and then I saw Joseph Brodsky had written an essay on Venice, Watermark. Nostalgic for the place, that came off the shelf and then I was looking for something that doesn't exist, I suspect, something that might give me a context for Road to the north, the book I've just finished a significant draft of. Sebald's been in my mind a lot as I've been writing it, which isn't to say I claim to be at that standard, just that it's been good to have a voice in my head that wasn't always mine, moaning.

I do like prose by poets. I realised, when I had three books, that all of them are by poet/prose writers and the third is Jean Sprackland. Her book is Strands, A Year of Discoveries on the Beach, and this appeals for all sorts of reasons - because I live by the sea, because I met her once a long time ago when she was working for the Poetry Society, because I admire her poetry and now her daughter's work. I've just lent Kathleen Jamie's two books of essays to a friend, she's another poet who writes beautiful prose.

Brighton Marina
There are perhaps far too many books on those travel shelves about walking great distances to make a statement or to change a life. I have come to prefer a less ambitious focus that allows more interesting thought and associations. With a massive mountain in front of you, how can you consider the washing up? But sometimes you need to think about the dregs, the left over bits of lettuce and the rim of oil on the bowl.

Jonathan Swain, a Brighton artist, has a fabulously sideways view of most things, particularly the urban. He walked to Switzerland and recently alerted me to the new developments at Brighton Marina. So the other night I ended up at the marina, after going to watch the starlings. I was at my desk all day, needed to move. When I arrived at the pier it was closed. But I caught the last of the murmuration before they swooped underneath it to roost. Last night I stood on the pier, chatting with a couple down from London for the night. It was freezing but a good show. They seem to intensify the shapes they make just before they roost. And then the pier sings from end to end.

So that was after I got my books out and then I walked home pretty quickly, I was so cold. But the other night, when I couldn't get onto the pier, I needed a much longer walk and after the pier, walked along Marine Drive. It's a little lonely, although joggers use it and I was a little jumpy. Behind me the sky was stormy and by the time I arrived at the marina it was dark. I nipped into Asda for the loo, was greeted by the gnomes and went home on the bus which did an entire circuit of Whitehawk
Asda's male gnomes
and a small turn through the outskirts of Pankhurst, down to Queens Park Road, before ending up on Elm Grove. I'm sure there was another I could have taken. The days have been like this. Writing/work, then an afternoon walk, waking up unsure of what day it is and occasionally mad bouts of either clearing, or yesterday, cutting myself a fringe which really doesn't suit me. The fringe fiasco's as if I need an excuse not to go out for a couple of months while it settles down. It won't grow out that quickly, but I'll have to get used to it and not feel sick about it.

What makes Sebald an early blogger, really, are the photos that go with his prose. Rather like Jack Robinson's Days and Nights in W12
although the CB Editions (his publisher's) website claims it's far cooler than Sebald.

I was given Days and Nights in W12 by the wonderful Nigel Jenkins, now dead, another walker and poet-prose writer who explored Gower, Swansea and in Gwalia in Khasia, the Welsh in India

Road to the north is based on four trips to South African between 1994 and 2012 but it's also about growing up in Surrey and finding myself in Brighton. I've been writing it since I began transcribing the diaries in 2012 and finding in them a certain structure and shape, I've been adding to them since.