Reclaiming

We took back the cities with our feet

stood heel to toe with unknown faces

and thought of revolution

in deserted streets.

 

Nobody spoke,

save for a baby who babbled

and cried into the silence

and the birds who

wheeled overhead.

 

Our defiance hadn’t been planned

hadn’t been orchestrated

by words and rage.

 

We were simply an open fire

of hope.

 

(prompted by wandering, I guess, and the way that wonder/wander are such similar words; the city found, through not being found at all).

Advertisements

De/Stabilising Place Through Found Poetry

I am becoming more and more interested in the nature of language, and how it renders space and place. Much of this stemmed from playing around on Google Maps. I discovered a housing development called ‘Place’ and a a bus stop called ‘Word’ in Poland, an art shop in Salisbury called ‘Narrative’; a communication agency in London called ‘The Semiotic Alliance’, and if such locations do not pose a delicious challenge towards notions of vocabulary when applied to space, than I shall eat my metaphorical hat.

The best way I have of managing such thoughts is to think of them as destablisations. If I’m feeling cocky, I might put a little / in the middle of that: de/stabilisations. They are ways of challenging what I think about such things and how I present a thought; and it is through such destabilisations – such provocations – that a form of stability can be found.

As a writer, and as somebody who thinks language is kind of cool, I tend towards working these thoughts out in language. It’s interesting to me that, when I’m trying to destabilise my ideas around something, I filter them through that which I have claimed as my own. Language helps make things make sense for me. I write out my thoughts and then I bring them back; a bobbin unwound, and then caught back up again. Language both allows and enables that elasticity of thought.

So: a thought experiment. Place is something I construct through my presence within a landscape. My human reading of situation and context applies a name towards something; I accept the semiotic codes around me and I locate myself and my current frame of reference within that setting. I am, at present, at my desk in my house in my street in my city. The window is open. The sun is shining. This is place.

(Remember that tendency to write your address like this when you were young? The House, The Street, The City, The Country, The Planet, The Milky Way, The Solar System?)

Place is contested and multivocal, of course. This is not just understood in frames of being my house; it is X on street X in a government plan; a number in a system, a dot on a plan. It is thehouse that my neighbours see every morning, it is the house that you may walk past on your way to work, or it may be nothing at all. To recognise place is also to recognise placelessness (thank you Edward Relph).

What language does is provide that specificity; and I think that, sometimes, there is a useful thought experiment in attempting to disrupt that specificity. That ease, that lazy ease of letting language do the work for you….

Something like ‘found poetry’ does a neat job of this, where you work with a sample article – say something from a newspaper or a magazine – and simply block out the letters that speak to you, that fit together, and see what happens. The below, for example, was from a travel supplement in the Guardian but now it sings to me of where I wrote this poem, and the country that it was talking and indeed its identity as a piece of travel journalism feel long gone.

Instagram:

The charm of lakes
tree-line streets
flower ladies touch.

Sample sweet soup
fresh-fruit
crowd pleasers.

The tourists crowd
a dazzling patchwork
a waterside jam

A few updates: Thunkable, A14 and Thesis

I have a couple of quick updates to share. Firstly, I went to the Institute of Continuing Education, University of Cambridge, last Sunday to celebrate the launch of the A14 Voices anthology. This was an anthology of all of the best work we’d come across during my residency there, and the associated classes and teaching, and it was a pleasure to meet so many talented writers in person. My thanks to everyone who got involved, and to the team at the Uni themselves.

Secondly, I’ve been playing around with app development. I’m still very much of a neophyte in this area, but I like what Thunkable are doing. They offer a drag and drop service, where you can build the elements and then drag and drop the relevant coding to the relevant section. It still requires  fair knowledge of what you’re looking at, in the way of coding and options, but the tutorials are helpful and there’s a lively community of support. I also really like how you can put their app on your phone and then test your app live on your phone as you’re working on it. This is really helpful to somebody like me who needs to see it in situ as it were. The first app I’ve put together via the platform is a very simple one (like, super simple) for android which links you from the app to purchase a copy of Ballet Shoes in Amazon. You can download it here and if you want to install it, you’ll have to sweet talk your phone into accepting non market installations. Also, don’t laugh at the image quality or else I’ll have a word.

Thirdly, I submitted my thesis on Friday! This was after corrections, and a lot of deep breaths. It’s an oddly intense point of your life, and yet one that is also full of an odd sort of anti-climax. I’ll wait now to see if the corrections are satisfactory but for now, I’m just celebrating actually having sent it in on time. And of course, I’m planning my next piece of research – which I won’t spill, just yet, but I will give you a few keywords: rebel revolution women. Boom. There we are.

 

“Taking a line for a walk”

I first came across the title to this piece in the seminal My Name is Mina by David Almond. The home-educated Mina and her mother are on a walk, and her mother tells her about Paul Klee and his quote that: “Drawing is taking a line for a walk”. As is typical, Mina begins to reframe of this aesthetic in terms of language, conceiving ultimately of a kinship between walking and her own creative practice.

“So if drawing is like walking,” I say, “Then walking is like drawing.” (267)

“Maybe writing’s like walking as well.” (268)

In these extracts, David Almond starts to touch on the potent connection between language and physicality. It’s an idea perhaps most emphatically understood in the idea of the flâneur, that individual who aimlessly wandered the streets of the city, wrapped in gender and social privilege, but I am coming to find that an increasingly problematic construct. Talks of a flâneuse don’t necessarily help as I do not think the problem lies in regendering the role.

thumbnail (1).jpg

I suspect the problem lies for me in the performativity of the construct, that to be the wanderer is to be seen and recognised and understood as such. A wandering that is wrapped in identity. I seek, I think, for the lines to be blurred between individual and action, for the walk to be understood as integral to the city’s motion and heart and not to be performed like a fly skimming across the surface of the water.

Walking – wandering – to be understood not as textual performance, but rather as text within text. The sentence within the paragraph, the paragraph within the chapter. Walls

Let’s try and unpack that a little. It involves a disassembling of what text is to begin with; that denial of the print and ink, and that movement towards something else. A language held within yourself; a body of words that tell a story each time you turn left, or get the number eleven bus to work. A person is a story, that much is true, but let’s push that a little bit more. Personstory. Deny the space between the words, and maybe even forget the person that wraps the edge of the story held inside us, just for a little bit, just whilst the sun shines and the sky burns endless blue. Be the story.

Consider a lunchtime in a park; a person reading a book. Is the story of the moment in their book, trapped between the page and cover, or is it all about them? The more I think about this, the more I let myself fall into the intoxication of thought, the more I think it is the latter. I suspect stories are moments, caught in the book, but the book is not all that they are. It never was. It never shall be. The characters that we love and understand are all about us. In our kitchens, our homes, our lives. The book is a moment; the story is forever.

thumbnail.jpg

Seek the lines within the city, and map them. I am increasingly obsessed with skylines and how capturing them, just the brief line of them – the shape of them – can help to understand them. Line is language, right? These words exist just because of the fact we all recognise an A is an A. We’ve accepted the code, become part of the agreement of language, become complicit in the lie that this is the only way to understand things.

You can find letters in buildings; the edges of them, the point where they touch the sky. Sometimes it’s not important to write. You don’t to have your magnum opus spill out grandly the moment you pick up a pen. Sometimes it’s more important to let your pen take a walk, as Klee would have it, and simply fall in love with the capture, the brief thread of rooftop that makes you start to see the city in a different way.

That, I suspect, is where the truth of wandering lies; that the similarity of wander and wonder is no falsehood.

Viva, corrections and the dance

I passed my viva just before Christmas.

The viva felt a little bit like the last hurrah of Imposter Syndrome. You are sent out of the viva for ten or fifteen minutes whilst the examiners have a chat, and you essentially sit outside and stare into the void and think: they’ve found me out. I think it is the unknown element of it, the theatre that makes you conscious that there are roles to play and lines  to say but rather unsure as to what your role is or what your lines are meant to be

I passed, though, and my examiners were lovely and constructive and kind and generous with their feedback and honestly, it was nowhere near as traumatic as my histrionics were tempted to make it.  Were I to give some advice to anybody, it would be to sit quietly somewhere before – and, actually, after. Allow your brain time to come to terms with what it’s about to do – and what it has achieved.

And as I have some corrections to make, it’s time to dance around this thesis to try and find the entry points to let me back in to it. With any big piece of text, particularly one that you’ve spent years finding, the thought of editing it is intimidating.

Words can be very defensive. Language can be tight. It’s hard to find the space in it to let you pull the sentences apart, to reshape them and craft them to allow in a reference you forgot, or an angle you could be clearer on. Often, particularly with the work of others, a tight text can be so intimidating that I can barely read it. I am a selfish reader, I want to find myself within a text. I want to find space for my thought. If I am being dictated to at every juncture, if there’s nothing there that would benefit from my read of it, I disengage. Swiftly.

But with my own work, it’s not the tightness that bothers me but rather the blindness. I don’t see my errors until a couple of weeks have gone, and I see more the longer that things have gone on. There is a power and a strength in immediacy, ragged though the edges might be, and yet, there’s a different type of strength to be found when you come back to something after several months.

One of the most potent comments I received was to be confident and proud about what I’d achieved. And I am, I am, but I struggle sometimes to wed this to the discourse around children’s books. I suspect this is why I struggle with people who ask for children’s books to be taken “seriously” and for them to be considered “on a par” with adult literature. By talking like this, such conversations are perpetuated. We carry on the dance even though one partner’s already gone home.

And so I begin my corrections; slowly, carefully, tentatively. I push and pull at paragraphs, opening them up and checking what’s inside. I am not here, in a way, I am inside of it and figuring out which way the sentences turn, which way the dance goes, how these corrections feel.

I’ve been reading Sappho recently:

May I write words more naked than flesh, stronger than bone, more resilient than sinew, sensitive than nerve

A day with @popupfestival

I was lucky enough to interview the founder of Pop Up Projects, Dylan Calder, before being invited to spend a day at their Pop Up Lab. The Lab was designed to take a look at issues surrounding visual literacy; the state of it within the curriculum, the teaching around it, and of course the position that it holds within children’s literature. Here’s my report of what happened.

Visual literacies are very dear to my heart. We work children away from visual narratives before ultimately allowing them to return to such when they’re presented as beautifully produced, but often astronomically priced, graphic novels. It’s an interesting curve that I’d like to plot one day; the legitimacy of the image, and its return later in life. It’s also a curve which forgets how complex it is to actually decode an image. Somebody like Scott McCloud is eloquent on this topic in his Understanding Comics. I also have a lot of time for Jane Doonan and her Looking At Pictures in Picturebooks (a book I also recommend as part of my 54 Places To Begin With When Thinking About Children’s and Young Adult Literature).

Here’s a report from the day. Thanks!

Alpha

The day began with a keynote from Bessora and Sarah Ardizzone, two thirds of the creative team around Alpha – the third being the artist, Barroux. Alpha has been on my radar for a while and I’m looking forward to the day it gets in my library. Here’s the story of its UK acquisition by Barrington Stoke, and a link to the great website full of supporting material. I admire books that have so much thought in them.

“We are all somebodies, we are not nobodies” – Bessora

As the writer, Bessora faced some interesting challenges. She was afraid of the “cliche” of immigration and so chose the diary form to give a level of immediacy to the project. In effect, this was a way to “kill off the narrator” and allow her, Bessora, some space to “back off” from the text.  This idea of distance had some resonance for Sarah, who spoke about the freedom of a multiple author format.

…[Alpha] is a lie telling truth” – Sarah Ardizzone

As the translator, Sarah also spoke about the role of translation itself. She talked about how translation is somewhat of a “Trojan Horse” when it comes to literacy, because it “seems to have been already invented” and is, as a consequence, “less scary.”  This was really interesting to me as I’d never quite thought about the strategies of reading translated work and they are quite different. I’ve read the X-Men, very laboriously, in French, and it’s peculiarly accessible because the images are there. I have a vague idea that Magneto is doing something and the Scarlet Witch is doing something, and all I have to do is figure out what that something is.

“Before writing, you draw. Writing is drawing” – Bessora

Tiny Owl

I was really excitd to hear from Tiny Owl, an independent publishing house that set out to “publish the books that weren’t there.” The co-founder, Delaram Ghanimifard, spoke of the dominant media narrative that surrounds Iran, and how books could help people find the “truth” of somewhere. They began in 2015 with a focus on Iranian writers and artists, but are now working on a series of wider intercultural projects.

“Out of every hundred picture books that are published, three are translated”

Some of the books they mentioned which caught my eye:

 

 

Minilabs / Flying Eye

The final session I attended was from Minilabs and Flying Eye, talking about Astro Cat, and the app that Minilabs had created from the book. They showed us copies of the book and honestly, it’s gorgeous. I really love what Flying Eye do with their books, particularly from a design perspective. Plus, good quality paper is always a plus.

“A third of children, aged three-five, have their own or very close access to an ipad.”

Their points about app development were really interesting. I’ve been intrigued by apps for a long time but have come to the decision that, unless I win the lottery, my idea for one is going to have to go on the backburner for a while. Lauren from Minilabs spoke of the difficulty of bringing value to something that’s throwaway. What’s the incentivisation to play this once, let alone multiple times?

The app itself is a delight. Here’s a video that’ll give you an idea of what it looks like.

Rooftop

I have a great love for the roof in children’s literature, driven of course by the pure delight of RooftoppersRooftoppers by Katherine Rundell but also, in a wider cultural context, things like Mary Poppins and that incomparable rooftop dance scene in Strictly Ballroom. Roofs are places where you’re not meant to be and so to find yourself there is a shy, subtle delight.

There’s maybe not an obvious connection between roofs and the A14 Project I’m currently working on down in Cambridge, but if you dig deep enough it’s definitely there. And yes I’m mixing my metaphors but I rather love the idea of a road and solid, firm ground being connected to something heightened and dizzy and full of a thousand different angles. There’s such a similarity between the words as well; roof and road, only two letters between them and yet they’re on opposite poles of the spectrum. I like it when word are similar and yet miles apart; it’s something I came across when I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. SlayerSayer. Saver. Semantic knots, and the untangling thereof, are fun. 

Rooftops Cambridge

 

Rooftop

I press my face to the window

let my breath sear and scar

the glass with clouds as dark

and firm as the rain that comes

after you’ve spent three hours in the hairdressers

and had your hair blow dried

to a level you’ll never be able to replicate.

Outside, the roofs swing from left to right

like bunting at a village fair

the backdrop to jam and scones

and awe-inspiring women that could take over the world

but settle instead for chutney

and tote bags.

The roofs rise to salute them

to pay tribute to their mastery

their ability to mull wine

to slow clap

to know how to get stains out of things I can barely pronounce

and as the wind starts to rise,

as my nose touches the glass,

the ribbon is cut

and the show’s declared open.

The River

As I settle down for another few days of my residency at Madingley Hall, Cambridge, I wanted to share a piece that’s been growing over the past few weeks. It’s small but lived, as it were, and comes from an urge to capture the ‘noise’ of a road. Sound isn’t an easy thing to capture in written work but really, it’s there all along. We just sometimes forget how to recognise it. Anyway, enough soapboxing! Here’s ‘The River’…

 

The River
There’s a thick, fat rush of sound,
there behind the trees,
and for a long moment I can’t figure out what it is
but then I realise that it’s a river,
storm-swollen to the shade
of a dark winter sky,
and that’s the slap of the wind there
oh the fearless ways of such weather
that leaves you boneless and raw,
and it’s the constancy of this sound,
more than anything,
that makes me realise that
this is no river,
it’s a flood
and the trees are wrapped with silt
and the grey lace of rising waters.

The mist, the bus and Anne Brontë’s grave

I had handed my thesis in a few days earlier and was wrapped in emotions that I didn’t quite yet understand. The crying at everything had stopped or, rather, ceased, so that I could now walk down the street without sobbing at a tree, but I still wasn’t quite myself. This is the part of research that nobody seems to tell you about; the lull before the end, the moment where you hand in a piece of work which holds blood, sweat and tears, and then suddenly it’s gone off to be marked by somebody and you just have to continue. You keep on keeping on. The world keeps turning. You write papers, and book proposals, and job applications. You keep going because that’s what you do now, that’s what research has made you able to do: you survive.

And it was because of that, that I found myself walking into town one day with the intent of finding a desk somewhere, buying a drink, but within minutes found myself on a bus to Scarborough. It’s a trip that’s familiar to me but one that, on the bus, takes something of a different tone. Buses are odd, delightful things with their colour combinations and their habits of stopping by a random hedge somewhere which turns out to be a bus stop. The new bus, too, the unfamiliar route, that’s something quite delicious that hovers on the edge of panic and excitement all the time; will you miss your stop? Will you even catch the bus in the first place, or will you be destined to traipsing home along the hard shoulder somewhere or scrubbing your pennies together to make enough for a taxi?

Sign to Anne Brontë's graveI went to Scarborough to visit the grave of Anne Brontë.

Back in 1849,  Anne Brontë passed away in Scarborough. Something about Charlotte’s decision to ‘lay the flower where she had fallen’ and have Anne buried in St Mary’s churchyard, as opposed to bringing her back to Haworth, cuts to the very essence of grief for me.

Scarborough is a strange place; elements of the old town push up against amusements and chip shops, rendering a landscape that doesn’t quite know what it should be or indeed when it should be. I had a mad moment of delight when I realised that a second hand bookshop I first went to about twenty years ago still existed and an even stranger sensation when I realised that the children’s books were in the same place on the shelf. Who knows what will be there in another twenty years?

Anne Brontë's graveAnne’s grave is located just outside of what may be seen as the ‘main’ graveyard. The wall in the picture is the barrier between the graveyard and the road, but it’s also easy to figure out where the grave is due to the throngs of people. I sat there for a while, watching and listening, because I am Northern and had paid a fair whack to get there, but also because it’s fascinating. This is a site of literary pilgrimage and it’s one that is active. In about ten minutes, I witnessed a whole host of visitors quietly trek into the graveyard and study the slim, eroded headstone and the plaque and to talk of how beautiful it was here for her.

(Oh that beautiful “her”. That conscious acknowledgement of a person and of personhood; that recognition of living, of life…!)

There was a gentleman sat on the bench next to me and we got to talking. He showed me a picture he had of the grave back when the headstone was more intact, and another of the grave when it was surrounded by iron railings. The railings disappeared during the war, but the background of the shot was still surprisingly constant. The fishermen’s cottages, the line of the landscape, it was all still so beautifully familiar, and I was reminded again of that unknown edge of Scarborough, the way that it doesn’t quite know where it begins let alone where it ends.

Anne Brontë's grave with intact headstone

Anne Bronte's grave with railings

As I spoke to this gentleman, he told me about how he comes to the grave regularly and talks to visitors. He wasn’t a member of the Brontë Society, though he’d written to them for information. He simply kept an eye on her, making sure that the headstone wasn’t damaged and that people didn’t take souvenirs from the headstone.

Another group came, stood, talked. He told them, all of us, about how every now and then somebody would speak of moving Anne’s grave to Haworth. Someone said how she was happy here. Somebody else nodded and said that you shouldn’t go against their wishes.

They moved on, as did I.

I walked down to the front, past the thickness of the fret as it rolled in off the sea in great, cloudy waves, and then I climbed the hill back to the bus stop and I had a slight breakdown over Twitter about it all. About how people cared about Anne. About how this man went there so often just to sit and have his lunch and keep an eye on her grave.

About the strange beauty that can be found in death, about the love.

 

Creativity doesn’t have to be just daffodils and the Lake District

The more I get involved in the A14 Stories project, the more I start to recognise a suspicion I’ve held for a long time. We work, so hard, as individuals to recognise ourselves and to gain liberty and self-worth and yet, we work equally hard to deny that level of personal validation when it comes to creative work. It struck me particularly today when, as part of an interview with a journalist from Radio Four, we stopped some strangers and told them about this project and my position as the A14 Writer In Residence.

The A14 is a road which has a powerful emotional response. What’s massively interesting is the amount of people who, when told about the project, have an intensely emotional and vital response but then self-edit that response as being inappropriate for writing about. “It’s not suitable for poetry”, for example, or “Yes, but I can’t write about it.” The title of this post, in fact, comes from such a conversation.

So, for the record:

Creativity does not require permission.

Creativity is not the sole refuge of the powerful nor the privileged.

Creativity is able to found anywhere; and that found creativity is <i>legitimate</i>.

Creativity is not about things you cannot, or should not do; it is about what you can do.

Creativity is the act of saying yes.

(And now, having said that, because this is the internet here is a picture of a cat. His name is Stephen).

stephen.jpg