Going With The Flow

I’ve had some lovely responses to my blog about poetry in unusual places.  I’ve been to quite a few talks on the power of poetry recently.  One very interesting debate was led by Briony Bax (Editor of Ambit Magazine) at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival where the theme of poetry as a catalyst for change was explored with George Szirtes and Ralph Webb giving fascinating insights into poetry and revolution and the impact of social media on poetry (and vice versa!).  Here’s another interesting site on guerrilla poetics to enjoy:

https://www.google.co.nz/amp/flavorwire.com/402718/10-guerrilla-poetry-projects/amp

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This month I’m saying a fond farewell to West Norfolk as we move definitively to East Runton.  In the decade I’ve lived in King’s Lynn it occurred to me that most of my walks have either been by the coast or along rivers.  The Fen Rivers Way is one of my favourites and the section we do most often, Downham Market to King’s Lynn, is bleak and empty with very few, if any, other walkers.  Instead there are herons galore, standing at sentrylike intervals along the bank, and a family of seals who have colonised the sluice gate just as you reach the industrial edge of King’s Lynn.  The other section I do regularly is Waterbeach to Cambridge, the polar opposite – it’s like the Regent’s Canal towpath, full of runners, walkers, dogwalkers and cyclists.  What both lack, though, are benches, especially now the one by the ruined church at Wiggenhall St Peter’s has disintegrated! You can read Patrick Barkham’s lyrical account of this walk for The Guardian at https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2016/jul/07/norfolk-fens-rivers-way-cambridge-walking-holiday

The Fen Rivers Way follows the Cam and then The River Great Ouse.

Image result for virginia woolfI’ve just finished The River by Olivia Laing which follows the course of another Ouse, the one in Sussex in which Virginia Woolf took her life in 1941 wearing her heaviest coat, pockets full of stone.  It’s a depressing but fascinating book, Laing had just split up with her partner and her sense of anxiety and unease permeates every step as she walks alone in deep contemplation.  Occasionally Laing launches herself into the water to cool down and revitalise, these are disturbing moments during which she seems to have little regard for her safety and I held my breath until the next page, willing her to survive.   I’ve just reviewed Elizabeth Jane Burnett’s Swims (Penned in the Margins).  This powerful collection is a long poem documenting twelve wild swims across the UK’s rivers, lakes and seas.  Each poem is an experiment, pushing at the page, seeking freedom from its confines and I thoroughly enjoyed the inventiveness of it.   The thought of wild swimming entrances me and I’m even thinking of investing in a wetsuit for all year round sea swimming.  Swimming is where I plan my writing workshops and solve poetic problems – that tricky last line, what to leave out, the perfect twist for a line, the revelation of the ideal form to fit the content of the poem – it’s as if the beat of my arms and legs sets up a problem-solving rhythm.

I’m currently reading Norwich-based poet Richard Lambert’s new poetry collection The Nameless Places (Arc) – the collection ends in a sequence following a journey made along the course of a river from its source to its mouth. The title of the collection comes from the poem“The Wind” with its first line Coming up the estuary over the nameless places/ evoking, for me, walks I used to do alongThe Wherryman’s Way which runs by the River Yare from Norwich to Great Yarmouth with its big skies, waste ground and marshes.

Image result for breydon waterAnother favourite river walk is the Nar Valley Way. We’ve walked from Gressenhall (near the source) back to Narborough several times and have done the Narborough to King’s Lynn stretch too.  It’s more valley than river, although the river does pop up in surprising places along the way.  My favourite stretch is Narborough to Castle Acre.  Early on in the walk there’s a distant view of Narford Hall, seat of the Fountaines, where in the 1960s Andrew Fountaine, founder member of the BNP created an annual Aryan camp.  Or perhaps we’re better off remembering Margaret Fountaine of South Acre, diarist, lepidopterist and explorer in an era (1890s onward) when this was just not “done”, especially as it seems that the much-travelled Margaret may have had an “affectionate relationship” with her guide and trasnlator of 27 years, Khalil Neimy.  The large number of monastic ruins strewing the countryside are a great feature of the walk, all found near clean flowing water to meet the monks’ needs.  Walking past The Stag at West Acre and then down to the Fords, you get tantalising glimpses of the ruined priory of West Acre before crossing the water meadows and coming out at the ruins of Castle Acre, a Cluniac Priory dating back to 1090.

Image result for hampton court palaceI guess it’s no suprise that I’m so attracted to rivers.  My father was a boatbuilder and I grew up in Kingston-upon-Thames so the river was always a strong presence through my formative years.  At the end of the road where I lived for most of my childhood was the Hogsmill, a tributary of the Thames which, one memorable evening, overflowed – I remember my mother furiously sweeping it back under the door.  Kingston was well situated for visits to Kew Gardens on the bus with twopence entry posted in the honesty box.  I would walk along the Thames to Hampton Court where under sixteens could get in for a couple of shillings.  It’s probably here that my love of history began as I devoured Jean Plaidy and stood with my eyes closed in the Haunted Gallery where Catherine Howard is said to have begged Henry for her life, hoping to hear her cries.

Image result for rupert brookeIt was in Richmond Park that I first independently discovered my love of poetry.  At school we did Charles Causley, Ted Hughes and the war poets and I began my longest poetic crush ever – Rupert Brooke.  I still have my battered copy of his complete works.  I used to take this to Richmond Park with a friend and a picnic and we would learn his poems off by heart and test each other over bread, paté and cheesecake.  He probably wasn’t the best poet England has ever produced but his death from septicaemia in 1915 at the age of 27 on a troop ship bound for Gallipoli  has preserved him for all time as the poetic golden boy,martyred by the First World War.  There’s something about his encapsulation of the English idyll which I, uncharacteristically, love.  One of the first plays I ever saw was a Brooke tribute, Sweet Wine of Youth, at the Overground Theatre in Kingston ( when it had a rather dodgy temporary home in what seemed to be converted public toilets round the back of C & A!).

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This means, of course, that another of my favourite walks is Cambridge to Grantchester,  along the Granta and through the watermeadows.  At the height of summer there’ll be students leaping in the river to cool off, others will be punting and, last time I went it was so hot a whole herd of black cows stood stoically in the shallows, blowing through their noses like bulls.  There’s always time for a pot of tea in stripey deckchairs on the lawn at the Orchard Tea Rooms dreaming of all those who once drank here.  The Orchard was first planted in 1868 and became a tea garden by chance when some Cambridge students turned up in 1897 and asked to be served tea under the apple trees.  The Stevensons who owned Orchard House then started taking in lodgers, one of whom was Rupert Brooke.  He moved out there from Cambridge in 1909 and commuted to the University by canoe.  Other visitors came out to see him, and were called the “Neo-Pagans” by Virginia Woolf.  They also included E.M. Forster, Bertrand Russell, Augustus John Maynard Keynes and Ludwig Wittgenstein.  Alan Turing also enjoyed tea here!

And, of course, there’s TV series Grantchester based on James Runcie’s books.  I’m a great fan of James Norton, he scared the bejesus out of me in both series of Happy Valley, and also a great fan of detective series, but somehow I never took to the slightly Miss Marple/Midsomer Murders vibe of Grantchester”.  Don’t get me wrong, Norton looks great as charming vicar Sidney Chambers.  In fact, don’t you think he looks uncannily like Rupert Brooke?! The leafy village features strongly in the series, as do the appropriately costumed local residents.  It’s all a gorgeously appropriate cliché of Englishness, Betjeman would have loved it – in fact he must surely once have had tea at the Orchard Tea Rooms alongside his compatriots!

Image result for cambridge hot numbersAnd if tea really isn’t your tipple of choice then head back to Cambridge and check out Hot Numbers on Trumpington Street, just past the Fitzwilliam.  This roastery and cafe really does know its beans, specialising in single origin coffee. I’ve had the most layered and tasty coffees ever here so do give it a try!

 

Poetry for All!

It’s so difficult to answer the question What is poetry? and even more difficult to answer Why do you like poetry so much? – the latter often said in a rather confrontational manner!   I suppose I don’t really see poetry as separate from life, or not from my life anyway!  For me, writing poetry is as essential as breathing and not a day goes by without a line or two looping through my head, ready to be incorporated and crafted into a new poem.   We probably all loved poetry at school, learnt poetry by heart, enjoyed rhythm and rhyme, nonsense rhymes, the poems of Edward Lear, Roald Dahl, Hilaire Belloc.  In the past we would have listened to bards and troubadours bringing the latest news in ballad form.  We might have wooed our loves through poetry to show our education, our passion and our sincerity, or maybe begged a lyrically inclined friend to do it for us!

Image result for cyrano de bergerac Somehow, though, as we mature, many of us lose our way and poetry becomes something alienating and elitist, seeming to belong to an academic world of closely guarded secrets which only the chosen few can access.  I would say that poetry belongs everywhere, to us all, to the world and, although it has a commercial motivation, I’m delighted that the Nationwide Building Society are using poetry to speak to their wide-ranging potential customer base.  At the moment I’m following a course run by the Poetry School and tutored by Emma Hammond. It’s called Hyperspectacle and we’re exploring poetry which occurs in unexpected places – tweets, internet review forums etc  I feel quite evangelical about getting more and more people to enjoy poetry, to realise that they can’t like it all, and if they don’t it’s not their fault but to keep on looking until they find something that speaks to them.  There’s so much poetry out there at the moment, but it’s a bit like a dating website, you have to persevere to find your match!

So where’s the most unusual place you’ve seen a poem, or found a poem?  Some time ago I went on an excellent Poetry Day School organised by Writers’ Centre Norwich and tutored by David Morley.  He encouraged to write haiku, guerrilla haiku, and then hide them (on recycled and easily biodegraded paper of course!), perhaps in a shop display, tucked in a crack in a paving slab, in a book, up a drainpipe.  I tried this out with my students who very much entered into the spirit of the activity and posted their words through the doors of people they knew locally, hid them in bus-seat seams and slipped them inside menus!  And, on this note, if you haven’t come across The Guerrilla Poetics Project then do check out their website.  https://guerillapoetics.org/  Their manifesto was simply:

Returning poetry to the people by subversively putting it into their hands.

In order to do this GPP operatives covertly smuggled over 50,000 poem broadsides into select books in bookstores and libraries all over the world. The broadsides are still being found today, perhaps the next visit to your local library will turn up a guerilla poetry surprise!  They are things of beauty, I would so love to find one… Below is one of my favourites, there are a 1,000 copies of it out there so maybe my days of shaking the leaves of all the Jack Reacher books I devour in public libraries won’t be in vain!

One of the broadsides was found in a copy Jon Ronson’s Out of the Ordinary: True Tales of Everyday Craziness in a Book Clearance Centre in Wigan, so you never know!

We’re all familiar with commissioned poems in cities and landscapes.  It’s a wonderful use of poetry, integrating it once more into life and the everyday.  Simon Armitage recently took part in a site specific poetry project, Stanza Stones, with poems carved in places which more or less follow the Pennine watershed.

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The idea that these poems will weather in time, becoming fragmented and part of the Moors in different ways as they deteriorate seems a magical use of words to me.

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I’m also rather fond of Andrew Motion’s poem What If on the side of one of Sheffield Hallam uni’s buildings just as you come out of Sheffield Station purely for its in-your-face-can’t-miss-it boldness!

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When I was participating in The Ark project recently I tried to encourage the rest of the group to create a ‘live streaming’ event by writing their haiku on strips of cloth to hang in the garden and get windswept and washed away by the summer thunderstorms.

During the recent King’s Lynn Poetry Festival ten mannequin torsos were displayed featuring a new poem on each.  These were in aid of the charity Blue Smile which helps children with mental health problems.  The torsos had previously been displayed extensively in Cambridgeshire.  I believe they’ll be auctioned off early next year. I’d love to have one, they are beautiful objects.

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In a previous post I mentioned the Rain Jane project in Winchester where Jane Austen quotes appear only after it has rained.  I discovered a similar project in Boston and I guess, generally speaking, this is bringing poetry into the world of public art in a similar way to the stanza stones and Motion’s monolithic poem.  Wouldn’t it be amazing to get hold of  some of this special paint?  I’m very taken with “painting the town grey” , envisaging people stepping onto my poetry in the drizzle…

http://mentalfloss.com/article/80854/bostons-secret-sidewalk-poetry-only-appears-after-it-rains

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So, there you go!  Poetry doesn’t just have to inhabit the page.  Be bold, be a guerilla, get more of it out there!

 

Poet By The Sea

Image result for east runtonAs you can see from the heading, I’ll be blogging under a new name from now on to celebrate our move from King’s Lynn to East Runton, a little village just outside Cromer near to where the late, great John Hurt lived.  I’ve already started writing more sea related poetry than usual so it looks as if it could be an inspirational step in the right direction and there are lots of great cafes to explore locally!

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At the moment, I’m obsessed with Jane Austen.  It’s 200 years since she died of what might, according to experts’ analysis of her detailed letters, have been Addison’s Disease.   I love her wit and the way she exposes all that’s wrong with the middle-class Regency world.  I’ve been watching the 1999 version of Mansfield Park with Frances O’Connor as Fanny Price and Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund Bertram and, somewhat surprisingly, Harold Pinter as Sir Thomas!  I’m interested in the the way Austen hints at parallels between the patriarchal oppression of women and the concept of slavery and all its moral dilemmas.  Fanny and Edmund object to slavery and reference Thomas Clarkson and the abolitionist movement, but they are both living thanks to its proceeds.  Fanny is the poor relation and Austen talks of the slavery of poverty, of which she was very much aware.  Edmund is the younger son who will have to make his own way in the world to a certain extent.  They are both dependent on Sir Thomas, the slaveowner, for their livelihood and happiness.  Austen’s stories brim with intelligence and, although it has been said that if she were alive and writing today her work would be classed as “chick lit” in that her main frame of reference is always The Marriage Plot, I feel that she does so much more in her writing than mere plotting and characterisation.  As P D James put it, “Mills and Boon written by a genius!”

Image result for bride and prejudiceI’m rather partial to modern cinematic adaptations of Jane Austen and Alicia Silverstone as a high-school Valley Girl version of Emma is one of my favourites, followed closely by Gurinder Chadha’s brilliantly cheesy Bollywood Bride and Prejudice.   I often find myself, just as Emily Blunt’s character does in The Jane Austen Book Club, asking What Would Jane do?

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And yet another reason for me to love Austen at the moment, there’s even a connection to Cromer!  The town was at the forefront of the burgeoning interest in seaside tourism and began life as a Regency bathing resort.  In Emma, Mr Woodhouse says,

 “You should have gone to Cromer, my dear, if you went anywhere.  Perry was a week at Cromer once, and he holds it to be the best of all the sea-bathing places. A fine open sea, he says, and very pure air. And, by what I understand, you might have had lodgings there quite away from the sea – a quarter of a mile off – very comfortable…”

Image result for winchester rain janeIn May this year I visited Winchester, paid my respects at Jane’s gravestone in the cathedral and absorbed the atmosphere of this pretty town where she lived out her last few months.  “I see more distinctly through the rain,” Jane once wrote and, with this in mind, there’s a wonderful trail through the town called Rain Jane.  If it rains, quotes from her novels magically appear on the pavements and disappear as the rain evaporates.

Image result for janes table chawtonI also visited the village of Chawton, where, in the cottage which is now the Jane Austen’s House Museum.  Here, Jane, her mother and beloved sister Cassandra finally had a place they could call their own, albeit briefly.  I stood reverently before the table where she wrote, trying not to be too angry at the tiny space she had to let her imagination run riot with the intricacies of hatching, matching and dispatching.  This anger led to my only Austen inspired poem, the imaginatively titled Jane’s Table!

If you do find yourself in this part of Hampshire, then the Sculpture Park in Churt is well worth a visit.  It’s really a giant open air exhibition showcasing around 800 pieces of work from approximately 300 different artists.  This means it’s also well worth revisiting as the pieces are all for sale and change constantly.  It’s set in ten acres of woodland and heathland with some quite steep parts at times as it’s set in a natural valley.  There are three lakes fed by natural springs which provide a stunning backdrop for some of the artwork.

https://www.thesculpturepark.com/

And once you’ve had your fill of art, pop over to Bel and the Dragon opposite the entrance for refreshments!  It’s a lovely country inn/boutique hotel, beautifully decorated, and all the rooms are named after Jane Austen characters!

Finally, for all you writers out there, the wonderful Jack Milgram has been in touch with his latest infographic 28 Boring Words and What to Use Instead.  Jane would have loved this, what a great rescource!

https://custom-writing.org/assignment-writing-services#boring-words

INTO THE ARK PART II

All photos courtesy of  The Ark: Center for Experimentation Grace Ndiritu Laboratories d’Aubervilliers, Paris

It was a strange feeling walking into The Ark for my first cooking duty before the other participants arrived.  I had had a busy day in Paris, gadding about and generally enjoying the urban buzz. How would I cope with being in Paris, but not in Paris?  The Ark took place in experimental arts centre Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers, my home for the next 8 days. Aubervilliers is a traditional, industrial, working class commune, with a high proportion of African inhabitants.  Coming out of the metro Aubervilliers-Pantin-Quatre-Chemins, you’ll see people sleeping rough, cheap ethnic shops, lots of graffiti.  It feels edgy, urban, and very familiar.  As I entered the Labos premises I gave in my phone, camera, passport and money and mentally committed myself to the experience.  And what an experience it was!  The Ark was the brainchild of visionary artist Grace Ndiritu and, apart from myself, there were fourteen other participants from all over the world – Slovenia, Japan, Russia, Panama, France and the US.

There’s a website in progress about the whole experience which might be of interest:

http://thearkcenterexperiment.com/THE-ARK

Our aims were to create a sustainable community, similar to Biosphere 2.  Built 25 years ago in the Arizona desert, Biosphere 2 was originally meant to demonstrate the viability of closed ecological systems to support and maintain human life in outer space, it lasted for one mission only as the eight scientists who lived there for two years experienced considerable difficulties.   The Ark referenced this project but in an artistic, creative and playful sense – exploring what it meant to be part of a community of likeminded people who are concerned about the planet and its future, or lack of it.  What does it mean to be living in the Anthropocene era, the period when we look back at humanity’s impact on the Earth and comprehend that we are the generation who has the most awareness of this impact.  How does it affect us physically and spiritually?  Everything about the week was geared towards this consciousness raising.

Here’s the Ark’s mission statement:

The Ark is a post-internet living research/live art project on an epic scale. Part – scientific experiment and part – spiritual experience and is inspired by Ndiritu’s own experiences during the last decade, living on and off in New Age communities. It focuses primarily on Plants, Biology, Shamanism, Meditation, Food, Philosophy, Communities, Education, Architecture, Future of Cities, Democracy and Activism. 

Each morning we had a meditation session and spiritual exercises after a silent breakfast.  These were led by Rebecca Farr whose warmth and generosity enveloped us all.  She was a giant security blanket in human form!

The sessions followed the ayurvedic chakra system,  which is very in touch with humanity’s connection with nature. In the kitchen I worked with chef Denise Palma Ferrante, who had designed an incredible menu.  If any of you have been on retreats or courses before you will know what to expect from the food – quite ordinary, carbohydrate heavy and, if you are a vegetarian, fairly predictable. This was its polar opposite – Denise had devised a vegan/vegetarian/raw food/macrobiotic menu featuring cuisine from all over the world – Korea, Japan, North Africa, Mexico, India…  It too, followed the chakra system but worked down the body instead of upwards.   My fellow sous-chefs were Maxime, an artist, and Julian, a radical gardener.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meat and fish were introduced once The Ark went public and we came out of our bubble and it was at this point I discovered I was, surprisingly, the only vegetarian.  According to organisations such as the European Health Parliament, the World Health Organisation, Oxford University research scientists and organisations concerned with climate change such as Climate Central, eating as little meat and fish as possible, if at all, will really help the planet to support a human population for longer.  Replenishing the ocean and using the land to grow crops for direct human consumption would reduce global hunger and water usage.  It takes 2,464 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. This is the equivalent of taking a seven minute shower every day for six months.  It takes 25 gallons of water to produce one pound of wheat.  It might also make us kinder, Ghandi said, ‘The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I spent most of my free time curled up with my writing pad, exploring ideas and experiences poetically, always my way of processing the world.  My favourite place to do this was the garden, an inspiring and imaginative urban space with herbs, vegetables and flowers.  Particularly striking were the giant cardooms and the whole space was enhanced by the presence of Josette and Margeurite, the resident hens.  The yard gates were the limit of our world and as we socialised in the garden in the evenings we could hear dance music from the theatre next door.  There was also quite a famous boxing club there and we watched the comings and goings from afar.

Every day there were talks by academics who were part of the community.  A very positive aspect of The Ark was that whatever our role outside, inside The Ark we worked together, both in and out  of our comfort zones.  We had talks on the biosphere, women’s co-operatives, Amazonian agricultural systems, identity, art, gender and the Anthropocene and the structure of cults.

In the afternoons we made masks and costumes, led by talented artists Urara Tsuchiya and Anna Tanner.  This was for the grand finale of The Ark project– a street carnival parade of extinct animals, reverse Darwinism in action.  I was on megaphone duty shouting slogans in French and English through the bemused but entertained streets of Aubervilliers, resplendent in tie-dye and blue face paint!

 

 

 

 

 

 

During The Ark I led a food poetry workshop.  The exercises I chose were designed to echo our experiences and the first entailed writing haiku.  This Japanese poetry form’s  minimalist, zen-like, focused style paralleled our spiritual practice. Haiku traditionally focus on a contemplation of nature and the seasons, very much in tune with our garden shrine and plant communication exercises. Haiku are deceptively simple, they are extraordinarily profound and can be tricky to write.  The second part of the workshop celebrated the never-ending, pleasure-giving stream of amazing food which came out of Denise’s kitchen.  Below is Gleb, our Russian academic, in mid-composition.

I used U A Fanthorpe’s  poem “Harvest Festival” as a prompt.  I was both impressed and moved by the poetry the group produced.  The Ark forced us to explore our vulnerabilities and poetry is an effective tool for such exploration.  Words, associations, emotions and ideas seem to bubble up from the unconscious.  In the workshop I also wanted to celebrate diversity by encouraging participants to write in their own languages and to enjoy the musicality of the unknown.  This led to poems in Japanese, Russian, Spanish and French.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We also had a mini-cinema showing films which echoed the ethos and concerns of The Ark, such as Her, Into the Wild, La Jetee, Incendies, Solaris, Inception, Cloud Atlas, Kumare and many more – films which explore different ways of seeing the world, the future and survival.  One film which kept coming to mind was The Martian, partly because Biosphere 2 was geared towards exploring how such systems could be successfully established on other planets.  In some ways Biosphere 2 was revolutionary, but in others it was a disaster.  Perhaps the fact that William Burroughs was one of the movers and shakers behind it should have rung a few warning bells?

I loved the way our community developed – after no contact with the outside world  it was both a wonder and a shock to communicate with the staff at the Labos after days of smiling but not talking and then to venture further afield to interact with the local community.  By the end of the day we were also dancing like mad to a great selection of music, with Max and Julian DJ-ing  as the street parade was followed by a public barbecue.  The following day the Labos opened to the public for academic round-table discussions.  The timing was perfect, who knows what would have happened if we’d been Arkees for longer,  as over the week we had gone feral – enjoying the outdoor shower (it was a really hot week), spraying each other with water to cool down,  gradually losing our flip-flops to go barefoot, eating with our hands Southern Indian style, wearing more and more makeshift outfits to cope with the heat (I ended up wearing the bit of cloth I’d taken as a pillowslip as a sarong for most of the week!).

I cried, I laughed, I vented – there was a deep and eerie interconnectedness with everyone in the group and in everything we did.  I re-discovered a sense of fun and creative play, took risks and made, and am still making, extraordinary discoveries.  And I wrote and wrote and am still writing, including a kind of haiku journal – here are a few entries:

trees cast their doubles                                                         the scent of cedar

on the wall – a theatre set                                                   sage, tobacco and sweet grass

for shadow play                                                                       thickens the still air

                                        lavender flowers                                                    

                                        on yoghurt – calyx and corolla                          

                                        like fallen stars                                                        

The final evening, just as we had accepted that we would have to go back to reality, the heavens opened and there was an apocalypitc thunderstorm with torrential rain.  Perhaps it was a sign that we should stay in The Ark if we hoped to survive?!

Since the project, I have become fascinated with the idea of Dark Ecology.  Tim Morton, a philosopher,  coined the term in his book Dark Ecology – A logic for future co-extistence. Its basic message is that environmental catastrophe has already happened so we need to focus our energies in different ways in an age of radical awareness and, indeed, rethink the whole idea of ecology.  There’s a fascinating article below about Morton:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jun/15/timothy-morton-anthropocene-philosopher

If your appetite has been whetted and you want to explore further, check out

https://www.thevenusproject.com/

By a strange coincidence (although by now I should know there is no such thing!), my latest Poetry Book Society bundle included “Fast” by Jorie Grahame, here’s the book cover blurb:

In her first new collection in five years—her most exhilarating, personal, and formally inventive to date—Graham explores the limits of the human and the uneasy seductions of the posthuman. Conjuring an array of voices and perspectives—from bots, to a holy shroud, to the ocean floor, to a medium transmitting from beyond the grave—these poems give urgent form to the ever-increasing pace of transformation of our planet and ourselves. As it navigates cyber life, 3D-printed “life,” life after death, biologically, chemically, and electronically modified life, Fast lights up the border of our new condition as individuals and as a species on the brink.

It’s a tough, but really worthwhile and satisfying read.

I still feel I’m catching up on sleep after an extraordinarily enriching experience, which I wouldn’t have missed for the world, although I don’t miss my dorm bed!

RETURN TO PARIS – INTO THE ARK PART I

 

From 1-10 July 2017 I took part in a fascinating experimental art project at Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers, the brainchild of talented and visionary artist Grace Ndirritu.  It was an incredibly enriching experience in so many respects – fascinating participants, inspiration for writing a substantial body of poetry, wonderful food and recipes, interesting discussions and, above all, a deep and profound acceptance of our interconnectedness as human beings.  The Ark will be the focus of Part II of this blog but in the meantime have a look at the social media connected to the project and then join me in a couple of weeks to discover more!  http://thearkcenterexperiment.com

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/thearkgracendiritu/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/The-Ark-Centre-for-Interdisciplinary-experimentation-426940181009500/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/thearkgracendir

Tumblr: https://thearkcenter.tumblr.com/

The Russian mystic, philosopher and mathematician Pyotr Ouspensky was very much in my mind during The Ark experience – his idea that everything is connected, that every part of the universe is pulsing with consciousness and infused with spirit.  One of The Ark participants, artist and critic Kayla Anderson was a self-described animist and conversations with Kayla and the other participants got me thinking about my attitude to philosophy and philosphers.

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As a teenager I underwent the fairly typical trajectory devouring Sartre, Camus and Kafka and thinking of myself as an existentialist and an anarchist well into my twenties.  Inspired by this I signed up for a term of philosophy during my first year at the University of East Anglia but couldn’t make head or tail of the course.  My abiding memory is of our lecturer hiding in a cupboard, presumably trying to prove something about being and nothingness.

I had arrived at The Ark with Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café – Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails to read – it’s an insightful look at how Sartre and de Beauvoir developed their philosophies. Once The Ark project started we were not allowed to leave the premises or have contact with the outside world (no phones, laptops etc) but in the time before and after The Ark I had the opportunity to unleash my inner (and somewhat rusty!) philosopher in Paris.

First stop Montparnasse Cemetery and a brief and heartfelt moment at the grave of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir – note to self: re-read The Second Sex asap!  One of the films I have re-discovered and come to enjoy a great deal is Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo.  Based on Boris Vian’s 1946 novel  L’Ecume des Jours  and featuring a character obsessed with the life and work of Jean-Sol Partre, Vian encapsulates post-Second World War angst in a book which can be seen as celebrating the magic of liberation while at the same time being unable to escape the oppression of the Occupation.  Vian knew Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus and was a significant player in the Parisian jazz scene.  He played trumpet at the Hot Club de Paris and was instrumental in bringing Duke Ellington to Paris.  Vian was one of the first supporters of Serge Gainsbourg – Gainsbourg would come to Vian’s shows at Les Trois Baudets.  Coincidentally (or not!), Gainsbourg is also buried at Montparnasse Cemetery along with other greats such as the poet Baudelaire, who is influential in my constant attempts to write flaneur poems; Jean Seberg, star of one of my favourite new-wave films, Breathless; Henri Langlois who ensured that French film was preserved and celebrated in a way that befitted its importance by heading up the Cinemathèque Française and who was the revered and beloved mentor of FrançoisTruffaut and Jean-Luc Godard; and not forgetting Jacques Demy, film-making husband of one of my favourite directors, Agnes Varda.

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Corinne Marchand as Cléo finding the courage to transform in The Dôme

So, the logical next stop had to be a wander down the Boulevard de Montparnasse, home to so many of the iconic cafes where painters, poets, philosphers and writers would discuss, argue and scribe.  A quick coffee in Le Dôme, where one of my favourite scenes in Varda’s Cléo de 5 á 7 plays out.  This is the turning point for Cleo, spoilt pop princess and the object of everyone’s desiring gaze.  She suddenly becomes the observer, the subject, a woman coming to terms with her own existence and potential death.  Then on to Le Select, haunt of Hemingway, Picasso and Chagall for a light supper before looping up and round to Boulevard St Germain and the Café de Flore to pay homage to the place where Sartre and de Beauvoir made it all happen…

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Perhaps it’s worth mentioning here two very unusual novels which provide different ways into how philosophy and everyday life intertwine and interact.  The Elegance of the Hedgehog is by Muriel Barbary, a philosophy teacher.  Two narrative voices are present in the novel – Renée Michel, the concierge of a luxury set of apartments on Rue de Grenelle, is a widow and auto-didact who hides her love of culture and her erudition behind the prickly mask and drab demeanour of a typical Parisian concierge.  Paloma Josse, suicidal teenage resident and novice philosopher is the other narrative voice.  We learn so much about ideas, connectedness and being through these protagonists, a tough but satisfying read.

The other novel is Denis Thériault’s The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman which explores the idea of the haiku, inextricably linked to Zen Buddhism, and the concept of enso, this is a book unlike any other.  The French Canadian protagonist, Bilodo, is yet another character who hides his true self behind the mundanity of his profession.

As I wandered, thinking profoundly of course, towards the Seine, I noticed that the Ecole des Beaux Arts had an open studios weekend and popped in to see what the pupils of this prestigious school were up to – this is where Monet, Seurat, Renoir, Degas, Delacroix and Ingres, among many others studied and is a highly respected institution.

Philosophy feeds the mind but I do have a few recommendations for the stomach too.  For the first time I managed to a) find Du Pain et des Idées and b) not have to queue.  This gorgeous little bakery, dating from 1889, does the most delectable tarte aux abricots – the intensity of the flavours and the lightness of the pastry are worth every penny and the interior of the bakery is a joy to behold too with its beautiful toile de jouy style paintings.  Go here to find more on Christoph Vasseur’s philosophy (roots in the past but eyes to the future) https://dupainetdesidees.com/en/fabrication.html

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I spent a very contented morning at the beautiful Musée de Montmartre, this residential complex in Rue Cortot was where artist Suzanne Valadon and her troubled son, Maurice Utrillo, among others, lived.  The Renoir garden is a beautiful place for a coffee or lunch.  The buildings are among the oldest in Montmartre and with their shutters and natural gardens and view over the vineyards of Montmartre it feels as if you are back in the original village.   My goal for this visit was the Demarne Hotel – the building which houses the Museum’s temporary exhibitions.  Many impressionist painters lived and worked here as did Père Tanguy, the famous art dealer.  It was also home to Claude de la Rose, one of Molière’s troupe of actors but today it was housing the fantastic exhibition “Montmartre – Décor de Cinema” a celebration of the area as a cinematic location.  There’s so much to enjoy, it’s an excellently curated exhibition with a wealth of film clips.  There’s a whole space dedicated to Amélie, a look at Truffaut’s use of Montmartre Cemetery and Place de Clichy, but the two films which are now at the top of my wish-list were directed by Marcel Carné, La Porte de la Nuit featuring an incredibly detailed studio reproduction of the metro station at Barbès Rochechouart, which used to be my local, and Juliette ou La Clef des Songes which lured me in immediately with its air of doomed love.

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So, watch out for Part II of this blog when I’ll be in a very different environment living and working in an artistic installation and exploring ideas of community and sustainability.

 

 

Closing the Circle

A seven-day New Year trip to Paris to tie up a few poetic and cinematic loose ends made me think about circularity or boucler la boucle as the French would have it – a kind of “coming round full circle” or literally “looping the loop”.

What particularly made me think of this was where I was staying in Paris this time – for I was truly a poet in a garrett.  A teeny tiny apartment in a chambre de bonne, a maid’s room, on the sixth floor of one of those crumbling grey Parisian apartment blocks gathered around a courtyard.  I felt as if I were in a Marcel Carné film with Jean Gabin just about to burst in at his angst-ridden best…

If I pressed my cheek against the cold window-frame at a particular angle I could see Sacre Coeur…The flat was in Rue de Panama in the Barbès Rochechouart area, just round the corner from where I used to live thirty-six years ago.  I thought of my nineteen-year-old self, how naïve I was, what a rite of passage it was to come to Paris at that age and how the only advice the grown-ups gave me was “Don’t drink the water!” The whole area looks really shabby and threatening but isn’t at all.  My apartment block doorway above shows the run-down, gritty feel of the neighbourhood – there’s a very African/Arab vibe, great street markets and an incredible energy.  I particularly liked this hairdresser’s window round the corner!

 

 

 

 

 

Paris is changing, there are more people sleeping on the streets, more begging and heartbreaking ghettos of the latest refugees appearing, the equivalent to the bad old days when we had Cardboard City on the South Bank in London.  One of my friends who is living long-term in Paris has been brushing up on her Arabic and helping to run a Breakfast Club hoping that hot, sugary drinks and donated bread and nutella spread will mean that at least these destitute people start their day with some support and a shot of energy.  There are so many poignant stories, the two men with young children whose wives drowned as they made the dangerous crossing to Europe… and so many, many more…

One of the themes I was exploring this time was revolution and as well as a guided walk around the Odéon area with the wonderful Paris Walks http://www.paris-walks.com/   I visited the Conciergerie where Marie-Antoinette lived her last days.

One of the best things about Paris is being able to sit in cafes where the greatest thinkers and philosophers of our age have also sat.  I had  a coffee in  Café Procope, in the Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie,  the oldest café in Paris and a real gem.  This is where Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon, Rousseau, Danton (he lived nearby) and Robespierre would meet and discuss the issues of the day (not all at the same time I hasten to add as this would be chronologically and ideologically impossible!).  The café owns one of Napoleon’s hats which he gave to pay off a debt.  One of the causes of the 1789 Revolution was debt,  Louis XVI more or less bankrupted France helping out the Americans against the English in the War of Independence – without his help the War may have lasted a decade longer, but France may have been a very different place, perhaps with a monarchy still intact!  There are some wonderful films which reference the Revolution (although of course, there was more than one revolution as France was beset with them throughout the 18th and 19th centuries).  One of my favourites is A Tale of Two Cities – I’m a great fan of Dirk Bogarde and in this film he’s a potent combination of noble and dissolute!

To continue this revolutionary theme, I went to Versailles for the day and found that I couldn’t remember it at all although I’m sure I’ve been there quite a few times.  I love the scene in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is when frustrated Hollywood hack Gil Pender, played by Owen Wilson, has to endure a day with Michael Sheen as an irritating know-it-all lecturer when all he wants to do is follow his flâneur instincts and just be there. Gil time travels back to the twenties and the Belle Époque and Allen’s film was possibly inspired by a famous incident in 1901 when two academics, Charlotte Moberley and Eleanor Jourdain, claimed to have timeslipped back to pre-Revolutionary Versailles.  My strangest encounter was with a muskrat … I did a very extensive walk in the grounds to think and write and there he was, grazing on a little island in the hameau de la reine where Marie-Antoinette lived out her peasant fantasies.  I have no idea what he was doing there, presumably an escapee, but I felt I’d arrived in a parallel universe, one populated by giant rats!

 

 

 

I walked miles every day and wrote reams.  One of the film locations I visited was Place des Fêtes just of the Rue de Belleville.  This is where one of the mini-films in Paris Je T’aime takes place, directed by Oliver Schmitz, a very poignant section of this great film where different directors celebrate different arrondissements (see below).  Belleville is one of my favourites.  I know people who can’t leave the Left Bank but it’s too pretty for me, I need grit!

I also went to the Pure Café where Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy chat in Before Sunset.  I wanted to try out their impossible geography and started at Shakespeare and Co where they meet at the beginning of the film.  It was great fun but took me hours (the joy of jump cuts!) so a much needed bowl of soup in this incredibly vibey local café was just what I needed.

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I did another excellent walk with the amazingly knowledgeable Juliette Dubois http://cine-balade.com/  on the origins of cinema .  As we strolled past the Opéra we talked about Audrey Hepburn as one of the iconic scenes in Funny Face takes place there.

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Audrey made seven films set in Paris and her relationship with the city is also the story of her muse-like status with designer Hubert Givenchy.  It’s hard to imagine Audrey in any other clothes.  I did a chocolate-tasting tour (I know, it’s a hard life!) in the first arrondissement and thought about Audrey as we passed all the wonderfully glamorous shops in this area.  I particularly liked the specialist cobblers next to the Christian Louboutin shop whose sole purpose (no pun intended…) is to put new red soles back on his shoes as they scuff so quickly!

A long-lasting obsession of mine is dolls (I’m not sure what an obsession is when it’s negative… a phobia I guess!).  I write about them quite a lot in less than complimentary terms.  Strolling through Montmartre I discovered La Halle Saint Pierre and in this old market hall, which is also an art gallery, an extraordinary exhibition by Gilbert Peyre who tells engaging and unusual stories through his electronic automata. I rather enjoyed his decapitated dolls but there were other treasures too.

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I really liked the installation Johnny Be Good where a dress shimmied and swirled and a pair of trousers shyly ducked and dived, although the peeing/flame-throwing teddy bear was rather marvellous too!

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So back to boucler la boucle… In a way, my obsession with film is all about coming full-circle as well.  I grew up in Kingston-upon-Thames which is where Eadward Muybridge was born in 1830 (and where he also died in 1904.  Muybridge is one of the early precursors to film as we know it today and Kingston Museum opened in 1904 to show his work.  Muybridge was a pretty colourful character.  He moved to America in his twenties and was a successful bookseller in both New York and San Francisco.  He moved back to England in 1860 to embark on a second career as a photographer.  He returned to the States and established a reputation as a very proficient photographer, taking some notable time lapse photographs of the San Francisco Mint. One of his passions was capturing movement photographically, you might know some of his famous sequences such as this one below:

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His growing reputation caught the attention of the Governor of California, Leland Stanford, who asked him to settle a bet.  Stanford was a racehorse owner and a businessman and the bet was, namely, whether a horse has all four feet off the ground when trotting and galloping.  Muybridge was able to settle the question (the answer is “yes” in case you are wondering!) by setting up a number of glass plate cameras along the track with the shutter of each being triggered by a thread as the horse passed.  San Franciscans are very proud of Muybridge and I’ve visited the site where his studio used to be.  San Franciscans lay a claim, along with so many others, to being the birthplace of film.  So what happened to Muybridge?  In true Wild West style he shot his wife’s lover but was acquitted on the grounds of “justifiable homicide”!  He carried on with his groundbreaking work of capturing motion, and that’s what film is all about really – capturing still images at such a speed that the eye is tricked into registering movement.  As Jean-Luc Godard said, “I want to tell the truth 24 times a second…” the number of frames our eyes process per second as we sit glued to the screen.

Well, I hope I’ve told the truth once a month for the thirteen months of this blog – this will be the last instalment as the Arts Council funded year draws to an end and I move on to different projects although I will always write poetry, watch films and drink good coffee in quirky cafes…  And I’m sure I’ll be back blogging under a different guise.  So maybe this isn’t  Au Revoir but A bientôt…

 

Walk, Think, Write!

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I am a camera with its shutter open,” states Christopher Isherwood in A Berlin Diary  part of the collection of short stories (Goodbye to Berlin)  which are the basis of the film I Am a Camera (starring Laurence Harvey and Julie Harris with the wonderful Shelley Winters as Isherwood’s landlady  – one day I want to teach a whole session on movie landladies!) and thus to the stage show and film Cabaret.  What did Isherwood mean?  He continues, “…quite passive, recording, not thinking.  Recording the man shaving a the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair.  Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”  It’s a great analogy for the raw material a writer collects,  a series of bulging notebooks are a feature of most writers I know.  Probably the best film I have seen this year and one which really connects with Isherwood’s ideas is Paterson, directed by the legendary Jim Jarmusch.

Paterson is  the town where William Carlos Williams was born (his epic five volume poem Paterson was written between 1946 and 1958 and was inspired by Joyce and Eliot). Williams practised medicine, wrote prolifically and is eminently quotable.  He was the one, for example, who originally said, “It’s not what you say that matters, but the manner in which you say it.” He was writing at around the same time as Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens and H.D. and is usually associated with the Modernist and Imagist movement of this time.  Paterson is also where Allen Ginsberg grew up (see Daniel Radcliffe as the young Ginsberg  in the 2013 film Kill Your Darlings).  In Jim Jarmusch’s film, Paterson is a poetry-writing bus driver played by Adam Driver who has lived and worked all his life in Paterson, New Jersey.  The film follows a week in Paterson’s life (both human and town).  Adam Driver’s character is a poet very much in the vein of Frank O’Hara and the New York School (and the Beat poets and Walt Whitman…).  His life is totally ordinary but he processes his days through the filter of poetry, turning the ordinary into the extraordinary through his beautifully selected words.   It is actually Ron Padgett’s words which are used throughout (superb poet of the New York School tradition) – they appear on the screen, slowly, thoughtfully as Paterson thinks and writes them.  It’s a mesmerising experience and one which illuminates the power of good poetry.  Quite often I will read a poem and think “So what?”  It’s a response to something which is either untransformed and too ordinary and anecdotal or to something so heavily transformed that it no longer contains meaning for anyone else apart from the writer themselves.  Go and see Paterson, watch and learn!

 

Adam Driver’s character  is beautifully placed to eavesdrop and observe from his bus-driver’s perch.  Frank O’Hara wrote lunch poems, minutely observing the New York life around him in his breaks.  I tend to write better after a spell of walking or swimming – both these activities involve regularity and repetition and draw the words from my mind in the patterns and shapes I need.  It’s not surprising, for surely we walk and breathe in our daily lives to the cadence of Shakespeare, our hearts beating to the unstressed/stressed rhythms of iambic pentameter?   Anything which puts us in touch with these natural rhythms can help to bring out our words in a more pleasing way.  Does coffee raise and change my heartbeat, making it more arrhythmic ?  Is this what makes my writing more erratic and experimental at times?  Hmmm…

And on this subject, I’m reading a fantastic book at the moment, Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse which looks at urban walking from a female/feminist point of view.  Perhaps this is why I wrote so much during my five weeks in Paris.  I rarely stopped walking, becoming quite Dickensian in my need to tramp the streets and observe.  These resulted in five Flâneur poems but also meant that I had a great deal of raw material which I’m still only part-way through processing.  Recently I’ve also returned to a favourite text, “Walking” by Henry David Thoreau, an activity he describes as one which “awakens the senses and the soul” although, of course, Thoreau walks alone in nature not shoulder to shoulder with his fellow humans in the noise and grime of the city.

 

Inspiration is everywhere and repetition and regularity are not enemies to creativity but their very basis.  Many of my poems are inspired by film and most of them are films I’ve seen time and time again but re-visiting them means I always see something new, just like the bus driver in Paterson, going along the same route but finding different ways in…

Lately,  I’ve been looking at films about poets in order to explore their lives and inspiration cinematically – biographies on the page can often be too dry and academic for my taste.  There’s Bright Star which looks at Keats’ life, and Howl which focuses on the Ginsberg obscenity trial in San Francisco and is a wonderful mix of anger, animation and groundbreaking literary history.  One I’ve always wanted to see is The Bad Lord Byron starring Dennis Price, (who, in Kind Hearts and Coronets played Louis Mazzini, the disowned heir who systematically and brilliantly kills all his relatives – so I’m sure this will be a winner when I eventually source it!).  I’m also  looking forward to seeing  A Quiet Passion, the biopic of Emily Dickinson starring the fantastic Cynthia Nixon (Miranda in Sex and the City).  This set me thinking about who I would want to play me in the film of my life, should anyone be foolish enough to take this commercial risk!  My top choice would be Kirsten Dunst – she’s feisty, clever, quirky and a fantastic actress but, should she be unavailable, then I would love to have the amazing Nicola Walker – I am so looking forward to the new series of Unforgotten in 2017.  Walker is an actress of great intelligence and integrity and would do any poet proud!  So, who would you pick to play you?!

Then there are films which contain poetry.  One of my favourites is Stalker directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.  It’s one of my desert island films – so strange and compelling – a sort of dark, Russian re-telling of The Wizard of Oz… There is one section known as “Stalker’s Dream” which contains beautiful poetry by Tarkovsky’s father, Arseny, spoken over a slow-moving sequence where the actor who plays Stalker lies in shallow water and the camera explores the bizarre and symbolic environment which contains him.    You can watch it here:

To conclude these meditations on poetry and film, I feel extremely privileged to have been selected as one of the ten poets to work on a collaborative poetic response to the extraordinary documentary film “Battle of the Somme” (1916).  We’re being guided by fantastic poet Simon Barraclough (his We’ll Always Have CGI Paris is one of my top cinematic poems – follow this link to see what I mean! http://www.poetryinternationalweb.net/pi/site/poem/item/26682/auto/0/WELL-ALWAYS-HAVE-CGI-PARIS ).  We’ll be showcasing our poetry prior to a screening of the film at the Cinema Museum in London on 4 February 2017.  Hope to see lots of friendly faces in the audience!

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A Smorgasbord of Experiences…

 

My year of working harder than ever on my own poetry, thanks to my Arts Council grant, is starting to wind down. So far this year I’ve written nearly forty poems which would be four years’ worth of work at my usual, non-funded, pace!  I have delivered all four “feature-length” Inspired by Film workshops connected with my ongoing exploration of how film can speak to us poetically.  I also delivered a shorter version at the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE) conference where I hooked up with my two mentors on the Arts Council project, Maura Dooley and Heidi Williamson, who are also the judges for the Inspired by Film Poetry Competition.  There are more details of the project on my website – the final event is going to be a big open-mic celebration at the Picturehouse Cinema in Cambridge for everyone and anyone where we’ll hear the winning poems from the competition entrants and many more (30 January – pencil it in now!).  We all had a fantastic weekend at the conference – there were so many fascinating presentations and workshops and, quite frankly, what’s not to like about spending hours talking to other people who love writing and the writing world as much as you do?

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One of the highlights was a falconry demonstration where we met Charlie the Harris Hawk, Barry the Peregrine Falcon and Molly the Barn Owl.  The conference took place just outside Stratford-on-Avon and although most of us were too busy to go into the town (I have to say the heated swimming pool at the hotel was a big distraction too…) at least hobnobbing with raptors and wearing a big leather gauntlet made me feel as if I’d gone back to Shakespeare’s time – I rather fancy myself with elaborately embroidered sleeves accessorised with a merlin…

hanoi-lakeSo, my burning question to you this month is where is the most unusual place you’ve eaten or drunk?  I thought my answer to this might be drinking Vietnamese coffee at a tiny stall by the shores of the very urban Hoan Kiem Lake in the middle of Hanoi, watching elderly ladies doing t’ai chi; or maybe having Tibetan momo dumplings at the Trades Club in Hebden Bridge where the excellent Lhamo’s Kitchen provides tasty lunches; or maybe tea and cake on a barge on Regent’s Canal.  Or more exotic still, having Christmas dinner in the desert in Rajastan with the camel I’d been riding snorting in a hideous manner nearby.  I didn’t realise how close we were to the Pakistan border until our guide insisted on giving the lion’s share of our quite meagre meal to two men who turned up out of the blue.  They turned out to be heroin smugglers so it was quite a relief that we’d all been terribly British and scrupulously polite…  I have fond memories of being in Kerala and eating at railway stations where the dhal and rice were served from buckets in a massive canteen with no cutlery in sight.  I just couldn’t get the knack of rolling my rice and lentils into a shapely ball…  Then there was the unexpected St Anne’s Well Cafe on the slopes of the Malvern Hills which did vegetarian food and even vegan cakes.  Breakfast at the Troubadour is also one of my favourites, it hasn’t changed since the 1960s and I always expect Bob Dylan to stroll in looking a bit hungover…Image result for vertigo into the bayThen there was the picnic we had by Golden Gate Bridge (I insisted on stopping at more or less the exact spot where Kim Novak as Madeleine Elster plunges into the Bay in Hitchcock’s Vertigo… )– tomatoes, hummus, tortilla chips, bright blue sky, ochre bridge and a sudden pod of dolphins arcing by…

cafe-britanniaBy far the most unusual culinary experience, however,  was on a recent trip to Norwich when Chris and I visited H M Prison in Britannia Road for no other reason than to have a mug of tea…  The prison is located in one of those gorgeous red-brick Victorian facades which seem to belie what goes on inside (workhouses etc…) and has the most amazing but deeply ironic views over Mousehold Heath and across the City.  And now you can enjoy the view  without having to bring your own flask and sandwiches as since 2014  the Café Britannia has been operating right at the front of the prison complex in the old barracks:  shabby chic  interiors, a terrace with great views, gorgeous cakes, great lunches, elegant afternoon teas, British bistro meals in the evening and bargain-priced Christmas dinners.  The staff are described as “low-risk inmates” who want to learn new skills and improve their lives.  I have to say that we received some of the best customer service we’ve ever had and there was even a slightly surreal moment when the cashier gave me one of the new five-pound notes in my change and commented that they looked fake…   http://www.cafebritannia.co.uk/

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Another highlight of our trip to Norwich was seeing dyanmic Appalachian tunesters “Furnace Mountain” at the Norwich Arts Centre.  The group were from Shenandoah in Virginia (am I the only one who weeps through the Gregory Peck civil-war epic Shenandoah?  What is it about place names in other countries which makes them so much more resonant than the familiar – Shenandoah, Hull, Ipswich, hmmm…).  I’m a huge fan of American roots/folk and Americana and some of the music the group played reminded me of the excellent soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’  O Brother, Where Art Thou.  I often use this film on my Road Movie courses.  It’s a great example of a road movie which doesn’t feature many roads (on a road movies course taught by a non-driver, I always like to add!) and it’s also a re-telling of the story of Ulysses which brings me to one of my favourite recent poems, Norfolk-based Laura Scott’s brilliant “The Dogs in Greece are Different http://poetrysociety.org.uk/poems/the-dogs-in-greece-are-different/which is a very clever take on the immigration/Greek crisis and references Ulysses’ faithful dog at the end.   There really are no new plots under the sun, just the most amazingly creative and different ways of re-telling those universals and making us engage with them and re-think them  in myriad new ways…

 

Cowboys, Critters and Cannabis…

 

shane-posterThe second part of our US trip took us to the Wild West for a week exploring Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in Wyoming and Montana.  I grew up on a diet of cowboy films, John Wayne in The Searchers, Alan Ladd in Shane, Gregory Peck in The Big Country and many, many more.   Seeing scenes from these films come to life – the razor sharp crags of the Tetons, the old, wise rocks of Yellowstone, herds of bison on the plains, a coyote leaping on a small critter and then chewing it at some length… was an extraordinary experience.

hunter-to-the-rescueWe rode out on a trail with Hunter who, reassuringly, packed a pistol as we had learnt the scary way that you are never far from a bear on the trails (eight sightings in eight days!).  Bat-eared moose deer watched us from between the trees and at one point Hunter sprang from the saddle, hoiked a handy saw from his saddlebag and cut down a tree blocking the path.  He was up in Wyoming for the season, away from his usual work as a cattle drover in South Carolina.  I tell you, I sure could get used to being called “Ma’am” in a Deep Southern drawl…

barnThere were so many poetic moments, my notebook was full of frantic scribblings, but what I was seeing was almost as difficult to capture in words as it was to do justice to in photographs.  How to describe the particular yellow of aspen leaves just beginning to turn in the Autumn sunshine?  How to describe the deserted Mormon houses and barns in soft green meadows with the towering, snow-capped Tetons as a backdrop?  What could capture the smell of sagebrush leaves rubbed between finger and thumb – a cross between cotton lavender and curry plant…

bison-jamOne of the best things about driving through the parks was the feeling that the animals were in charge as we got stuck in endless bison jams, elk jams, mountain sheep jams – seemingly no-one had told the animals that their traditional rights of way were now tarmac.

 

cowboy_burlap-bagWe were based for some of the time in Jackson Hole where we discovered the fantastic Wort Hotel as well as  The Jackson Hole Coffee Roastery which had varnished coffee sacks to create a highly original floor surface.   Coffee was mostly Twin Peaks style cups of joe – hot, vaguely satisfying and plentiful but we had to wait until Denver for a proper fix…

wort_hotel__detailThe Wort Hotel was built by homesteader Charles Wort in 1941 and its most famous feature is the Silver Dollar Bar. Charles bought 2032 uncirculated Morgan silver dollars from the Denver mint and most of them are embedded in the bar, although they do turn up in other places in the hotel too.  With its boardwalks and wooden architecture Jackson Hole was a popular location for the movies and many of the stars were attracted to the delights on offer in the Wort Hotel, not least some underground gambling.  big-sky-poster

Shane was shot here, as was The Big Trail (1930) with 23-year-old John Wayne making his debut as lead actor and also his debut on horseback…  Clint Eastwood shot the big fight scene in Any Which Way You Can in town and Kirk Douglas dimpled his way through The Big Sky…  Quentin Tarantino, not to be outdone when filming his trademark violent take on the Western in Django Unchained, used the iconic Grand Teton peaks to evoke the savagery of the times.

 

Our final destination was Denver, Colorado where I spent the whole time feeling somewhat light-headed and dizzy – it’s a mile high and although I’ve had far worse attacks of altitude sickness in Peru and Bolivia this was a bizarre, sustained feeling, especially as Colorado is the first state in the US to legalise cannabis and has more “dispensaries” (official outlets) than Starbucks!   I couldn’t imagine getting high a mile-high without falling over but many people seemed to be managing perfectly well.  Cannabis tourism has hit the roof and there are magazines devoted to the various issues surrounding legalisation, adverts for yoga clothes made from hemp and heartwarming personal stories about the medical usage of cannabis. One magazine advertised a High Tea for mothers and daughters featuring “edibles” no doubt gleaned from the countless recipes for hash brownies, hemp-seed cake etc etc

coors-field-closeupWe spent our first night at Coors Field watching  the St Louis Cardinals slaughter the Rockies against a picture postcard view of the mountains the team are named after.  In between innings I stocked up on veggie dogs, fries and homemade lemonade.  Even the Beats loved baseball, it’s the quintessential American game – check out Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Baseball Canto”:

Watching baseball

sitting in the sun

eating popcorn

reading Ezra Pound

and wishing Juan Marichal

would hit a hole

right through

the Anglo-Saxon tradition

in the First Canto…

molly-browns-houseWe discovered the story of pioneering, proto-feminist Molly Brown when we visited her fantastic 19th century Queen Anne style house with, it has to be said,  a slight touch of the Bates Motel….  This incredible woman was known as the “Unsinkable” – not only did she survive the Titanic voyage but she also insisted on turning round the life raft she was in to take on board more survivors.  Debbie Reynolds brings her to somewhat alarming life in the very cheesy Hollywood musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown with Harve Presnell as hubby J J Brown trilling his heart out in totally inappropriate operatic style.

Trying to find a good coffee place after our visit to Molly Brown’s we instead chanced upon Poet’s Row – six residential apartment buildings in Capitol Hil, all named after influential poets or authors. Would I be a better poet if I lived in the Spanish-Colonial Robert Frost building?  Could I write a best-seller if I resided in the Mark Twain art-deco style block?  Do you have a dream address and does it need the addition of a literary pseudonym for yourself to do it justice?  I will, in future, be Sophie Tindall of Brooke Heights…

denver-poet The Tattered Cover Bookstore became one of our favourite Denver haunts – an enormous, laid back place with a coffee bar, free literary talks and a fantastic range of poetry books and writing magazines.  I discovered David Mason, Colorado Poet Laureate, and bought his wonderful collection “Sea Salt”.  Mason’s language is simple and elegant, with a strong sense of place:

Necessity – David Mason

Below the blinkered traffic on the road,

almost unseen, the creek falls as it must,

called by downhill, called by the waxing moon…

Even the bookstore coffee didn’t quite hit the spot – for the right stuff check out Little Owl Coffee on Blake Street where the cool, beardy dudes treat it with the scientific respect it deserves.

rockmount-ranchwearSurely  the best shop of all has to be Rockmount Ranchwear  (www.rockmount.com) which even sells books of poetry for cowboys and cowgirls! “The West is not a place, it’s a state of mind,” declared Papa Weil, founder of the store and inventor of the snap shirt (so you can keep your collar and pockets down!).  Everyone who’s anyone has been to Rockmount and bought one of their famous shirts – their celebrity gallery features stars from Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Cary Grant and Chris Isaak to Bruce Springsteen, Matt Leblanc and Paul McCartney!  Second hand cowboy boots, Stetsons, checks and plaids, fleece and flannel, ponchos and bandanas – “No-one knew more about dressing a cowboy than Papa Jack.”

I Left My Heart in San Francisco…

 

ferlinghetti-quoteJust back from over three weeks in the States where our adventure began with a return trip to San Francisco (fifth visit to date…) where the streets are paved with poetry…

 

 

Poetry is the shadow cast by our streetlight imaginations (Lawrence Ferlinghetti).

First stop, as always, City Lights Bookshop to celebrate the Beat poets and their groundbreaking work.  Although the Beat movement started in New York just after the Second World War, by the 1950s it was firmly entrenched in San Francisco.   Poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder and Gregory Corso questioned mainstream politics and culture and battled against social conformity in new and refreshing ways, very much like our Angry Young Men movement in Britain, also a product of post-war disillusionment.  The bookstore was opened in 1953 by Ferlinghetti and published Ginsberg’s Howl, go to www.citylights.com/info/?fa=aboutus to find out more about this wonderful bookstore/publisher which retains its intimacy despite its popularity.

city-lights-window

 

My favourite section is, of course, the Poetry Room upstairs and I always ensure I have plenty of time to sit in the Poet’s Chair in the hope that I’ll gain divine inspiration from the generations of poets who must have sat there before me.  Indeed, there’s even a notice to ask people to treat the chair with reverence – it’s a rocking chair and one over-enthusiastic poet (not guilty!) previously caused extensive damage.

the-poets-chairHere’s an extract from my imaginatively titled new poem “September in San Francisco”:

 

 

 

Rocking in the Poet’s Chair in City Lights Bookshop,

cool breezes from the alley below,

Lawrence Ferlinghetti speaks to me

in half-sentences with no commas of the gone world

and I understand for the first time.

 If you want to find out more about the Beats then the film Howl starring James Franco as Ginsberg and focusing on the revolutionary obscenity trial surrounding its publication is a great place to start.

coppola-cafeSan Francisco oozes cinematic references and while Chris had fun at the Oakland A’s ballpark I went on a Silent Film San Francisco walking tour.  It’s possible that if it hadn’t been for the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires which devastated the city that it would have been the hub of American film instead of Hollywood (although the famous San Francisco fog may have put off studio moguls…).  What better way to recover from a walking tour than a glass of chilled white wine, and what better place to sip it than Francis Ford Coppola’s very own restaurant, Café Zoetrope (www.cafezoetrope.com) which serves wine from his very own vineyard!  The café is in the historic Sentinel Building, one of the post-earthquake landmarks, which, at one point, housed a recording studio owned by The Kingston Trio where bands like the Grateful Dead hired the space.  Coppola bought the building in 1972 to use for his production company, American Zoetrope, which he founded with George Lucas. A number of Coppola’s films including the Godfather II and III, Apocalypse Now, The Conversation, One From The Heart, The Outsiders, and Dracula were written, edited, or sound mixed there and the walls of the Café, which Coppola created in 1999, are full of fascinating Coppola memorabilia.  Oh, and my 2010 Chardonnay Director’s Cut (Sonoma Coast) was excellent!

flywheel-coffeeThe coffee scene in San Francisco is to die for, you can’t move for Third Wave Coffee shops.  One of my favourites was Flywheel Coffee Roasters in Haight Ashbury, just opposite Golden Gate Park.  The company was founded by Aquiles Guerrero, a Nicaraguan who grew up on a coffee estate so he certainly knows his stuff.  We discovered they also did vegan muffins which went very well with my cold brew coffee (steeped in cold water for 18-24 hours, this is one of the hot(!) new trends in the coffee world).  I also tried a nitro sample which is, apparently, the next step after cold brew.  The coffee is infused with nitrogen to give it a Guinness-like flavour – it’s really smooth and comes with a frothy head, it also packs quite a kick!

george-lucas-cranesAnother favourite was Blue Bottle Coffee which we discovered on a trip to Oakland across the Bay (coupled with a baseball game of course!).  We took the ferry – check out the cranes in the docks – they have to be George Lucas’s  (a local lad) inspiration for the huge white fighting machines in Star Wars.  Oakland is a strange city, blue-collar, run-down but also deeply trendy and happening and full of vintage cinemas!  Only one of the cinemas is still operating as such, The Grand Lake Theater, castro-double-billand we couldn’t factor in a visit this time but compensated with a double-bill at our favourite SF cinema, The Castro,  where even the usherettes became famous movie stars – Janet Gaynor started her career here!  The Castro is always an experience, a mighty Wurlitzer performance begins each show with cheesy classics.  The audience clap and cheer when the stars come on and are, overall, very interactive…  “Sunset Boulevard” was a joy, as always, and the accompanying film, “The Star” featured a wonderfully hammy Bette Davis.  At one point I did wonder if someone was holding up cue cards for her with the pauses marked in all the wrong places…

vertigo-sfSan Francisco’s most famous appearance in film is, without a doubt, Hitchcock’s Vertigo and we went on a fascinating “Hitchcock’s San Francisco” walk.  We did around six walks, all with the same organisation www.sfcityguides.org – well worth checking out.  I’m due to teach a Cities on Screen session on films featuring San Francisco so took lots of geeky photos but felt I should be swanning around in heels, a grey, tailored suit and a classy handbag like Kim Novak rather than jeans and flatties.

bad-advice-sfOne of the downsides of San Francisco is the number of homeless people in the downtown area living rough amidst the affluence.  How they manage to muster a sense of humour is beyond me, but the evidence speaks for itself!

 

 

 

Very Bad Advice Only $1

 

abandoned-boots-promptThose of you who come to my creative writing classes know that I’m an inveterate collector of images to use as writing prompts and, for all you budding writers out there, I thought you might enjoy these two photos, both taken in Yellowstone National Park which was our next stop for eight days of sparkling wilderness and bear-spotting!writing-prompt-steam