Friday, February 23, 2007

The de la Warr pavilion in Bexhill is hosting a touring exhibition, Secret Service. It's a dark, claustrophobic and thought provoking collection of work rooted in obsession: a chambermaid photographing the contents of hotel rooms when occupants are out, vast works on paper showing links between public figures connected with various scandals in the US, little boxes made from packaging and an enormous series of book illustrations based on idealised child characters made subtly sinister.

I went yesterday with Jane Fordham. The pavilion's a great place to be at any time, it's so light. But on a grey, rainy day, it's somehow confirms the body's need for light. All the glass and its position virtually on the beach, its inspiring design and empty spaces pull you out of winter and make the most of the little brightness there is even when the sky's low and dumping itself on you.

We spent much of the morning and virtually all the car ride back to Brighton talking about clothes. The dresses we'd given away or lost, clothes we remembered our mothers making or wearing, the hierarchy of clothes from best to comfortable.

But today I need to cut back a hedge and make use of a skip outside the front garden, which is still a mound of earth from the work being done to put a window in the cellar. If the rain holds off for long enough.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

How do you teach creative writing? Martin Amis being appointed a professor at Manchester Uni. has resurrected the debate and it had a personal spin yesterday when I turned up to teach an Open University dayschool for a new batch of students to find just two out of 15 had bothered to turn up.

This was the first dayschool of the course! An opportunity for students who are meant to be spending months online sharing work with one another, critiquing it, participating in online tutorials, to meet face to face. An opportunity to meet me, their tutor, too. There are only three of these day schools in the entire course. I was astonished.

What do people expect from a creative writing course? Do they imagine they'll make money or become famous? Is it about ego or leaving something behind? Is it an attempt to fill an existential absence or to map life changes? Has distance learning become like self-help books - a formula to turn into something else? Do people think that it's that easy - you select an identity and ease your way in with a 10 point plan or a course book?

I can't answer these questions. I'm utterly bemused this morning. When I started journalism I was learning a craft on the job from great practitioners and shared desks, after work drinks and gossip with people who knew how to have a good time. When I started writing poetry again I knew that to learn I needed to go to workshops, meet other poets, read voraciously, ask people what they liked reading, listen to poets read their work live, immerse myself.

Writers, like fishermen, footballers, cooks, biologists, want to be with other writers sometimes. When I was starting out, other writers were natural company and although I still crave the company of other writers, like topping myself up, reminding myself who I am, at other times I need to be apart from them to get on with my work.

But consumer culture is promoting the lie that we can swap lifestyles as easily as paint a wall. Oh, I want to be a writer now.....I'll whack out a book. Celebrities have life stories and ghost written novels in the shops, buy their way into literary festivals and literary festivals wet themselves because it gives some saddo who's previously only taken the odd poet to the pub a chance to rub shoulders with money and glamour.

No. It's not that easy to become a writer. Generally we are hard up. We don't eat ready meals or have a new car. We don't go to lots of parties or have cupboards full of new clothes. We spend hours achieving very little. We can be very boring. We are often insecure, paranoid and bitter. One line can hold us up for days. It can make the difference between a completed or abandoned poem. We can become depressed and morose. You may be shocked by our behaviour. We do not respect taboos. You will not learn much from the contents of our shopping baskets.

What I have by my bed at the moment: Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood because it was a birthday present, Decreation by Anne Carson because I have to review it, Blake by Peter Ackroyd because of a project I'm doing and Blake's Collected Poems for the same reason, Midnight by Jacqueline Wilson because my daughter left it there, Treasure Island by RL Stevenson because I found a lovely old illustrated version in a junk shop, A Treasury of Saints because I can't escape Catholicism and I'm intriqued by the pornography of violence it manifests through their lives, Louis Gluck, also to review, Langston Hughes because he's rarely far away, the lovely man, and Lorca's Poet in New York, because he, too, is rarely far away.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Less than a month to submit my manuscript to Arc now and new poems still want to be written. I read somewhere, but I can't remember who was quoted, that you should always keep some poems back for the next book. The trouble is, these poems feel part of this book. I guess I'm still in the frame of mind that's delivered a substantial section of the manuscript and perhaps now, even more aware of it as a whole.

I've started a three day mini-residency at a school near Bognor Regis for NAWE, the National Association of Writers in Education. One day so far, and the starting point for writing is visionary poetry - Blake lived in the village where the school is based, Felpham. The teachers wanted to look at Blake because it's an anniversary year, so we're doing that, as well as attempting to track his influence through to Ginsberg.

Sometimes it is good to re-read poetry that seems familiar, but in a new context. It's also made me go back to Milton. I'm pretty familiar with Whitman's Song of Myself and studied Ginsberg, but it's been a while since I looked at it closely. I feel stretched, which is good, and revitalised by this kind of project that integrates reading and writing.

Apart from that, it's half term and there's clearing up to do in the garden. I have more stuff to take to the tip but I've managed to stack up seed trays and flower pots ready for planting. It feels so mild that there's a hint of spring, probably deceptive, but encouraging all the same. Once March is here it'll feel like a corner has been turned. So many bulbs are showing and there are buds on most of the shrubs.

What I miss most of summer is swimming in the sea. A chlorinated pool isn't the same.

Friday, February 02, 2007

A 1920's vacuum cleaner that I was given by a neighbour, two mirrors, several broken picture frames, bags and bags of clothes, rusty tins of bright pink and navy blue paint, crushed cardboard boxes and the odd wrecked cushion have gone into my car today for the tip. There is just too much stuff in the house. Endless amounts of plastic that sausages, tomatoes, pasta are all packed in. There's a limit to how many I can save for seedlings. I'd like to dump them all at a supermarket door, actually.

I haven't had a major clear out for a long time. Moving house is a good opportunity, but the last time I moved I had a six month old baby, so everything from the old loft was transferred to the next loft and hasn't been touched since. Whatever happened to that wonderful idea from the sixties that you should own only what you can carry? Now there's a cellar as well as a loft. If in doubt, chuck it down the cellar stairs, has been my philosophy for the last 10 years. So I'm paying for it. As you do, of course.

Sensible people sell things. But once I've decided to chuck stuff out I just want to be rid of it. The Samaritans clothing bank is good - we get through far too many shoes because the kids' feet are growing fast. And then, when I'm sorting, I'm sidetracked by an old photo or a leather bag I'd forgotten about but remember exactly where I bought it and the life I had when I used it.

I've been reading Suzannah Dunn's new book, The Sixth Wife. Superb story about Katherine Parr and her best friend. Suzannah Dunn makes these two women so modern - she is so skilfull at portraying intelligent, thinking women. This isn't a historical novel, it could be happening now. It is, in fact, because her characters are universal.

I should have taken longer over it, because I want to carry on reading, but I couldn't put it down.

But maybe that's just as well, because otherwise I'd never have made new curtains today and packed up the car with all those things.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The American composer John Adams' On the Transmigration of Souls was the inspiration behind a project I've just finished with the London Symphony Orchestra, working with Scottish composer Paul Rissmann. Together with three wonderful LSO players, we were working with young people to compose a piece reflecting their lives and experience of the London tube/bus bombings.

Over two weekends, ending on my birthday, January 28, we played music and experimented with words in St Luke's church, the LSO's beautifully restored centre in Old Street, London. The sun floods through vast windows and warms the wood. The young people rose to the challenge brilliantly and Paul took them through the principles behind John Adams' music so expertly that when they performed their composition at the Barbican Centre before John Adams took the stage to conduct the LSO, connections sparked.

It was exciting for me to work with words and music in this way. On the Transmigration of Souls uses text from missing posters and messages sent on and after September 11 in New York. The words are critical but deceptively simple. I had to try and find a way to help this group of young people make words work for them without sitting them down in a conventional poetry workshop because there just wasn't time, apart from anything else.

The first full run through with music and words was a only a couple of hours before they were due to perform. We recorded the words to play over the music - triggered on I Tunes. It was nerve wracking as I was operating the laptop. One or two mistakes in rehearsal, but okay at the real thing, I think.

John Adams took time out before he was due on, to sit, listen and meet the young performers. Then we piled into the concert hall to listen to his music. It was an astonishing evening that made me realise how inadequate CDs are in communicating the power of an orchestra.

So at 52 I discovered, at last, why some people have such a passion for live classical music. I've experienced nothing as overwhelming as that concert, particularly the piece we were responding to, performed with a full choir. It made so much more sense being able to pick up some of the themes that Paul had introduced us to, recognising what was happening in the music, and it reminded me of my experiences at the Avignon Festival with CEMEA over the last two summers, the subtle links that the French animateurs make between workshop activities and a piece of work.

A project like this is so affirming. It makes sense of working with young people, of working collaboratively and using brilliant art as a model. It stretches everyone and opens up new ways of doing things. It also leads me to realise that I'd love to work with musicians to experiment, to find the places where music and words connect.

The John Adams project's transmigration theme also took me deeper into the Taliesin poems, in particular The Battle of the Trees, that have fascinated me for several years. It feels like a treat to be paid to work with such talented and inspirational collaborators. And it reminds me that Avignon sunshine beckons again this July. This year I want to go by train. I am already imagining the changing landscape. Fields of sunflowers, sun bleached rock and wild herbs in the quarry where last year we listened to opera in Russian and the crickets accompanied a canary in a cage.