Friday, March 31, 2017

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

END CAPITALISM - oh yes!
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!

LIVING IN THE FOREST 
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.