Thursday, 21 June 2018

Looking Back, Looking Forward

I wouldn't call today Midsummer - summer started officially yesterday - but it does feel like mid-year.

What do we have to show for it? Children separated from their parents and locked in cages, protesters and medical personnel gunned down on a putative border, more land grabs, more money grabs, more migrations and drownings. 

Remember Alan Kurdi? Where is the world's compassion now after all those Facebook hits? 

It was World Refugee Day yesterday. The Independent newspaper tells us that 2.9 million people became asylum seekers in 2017. That figure is the biggest single-year rise in the history of the UN refugee agency. And yet we are still closing our doors. And our minds. And our hearts. 

I say our, but of course, not everyone feels the same. I have absolutely no doubt that  the vast majority of people would try to pull someone back from stepping out into the path of an oncoming car. Generally speaking, people don't like to see another human being being injured. Why, then, do we refuse to admit people fleeing from the most unbearable situations? How do we let acts of brutality and inhumanity happen in our name?

This was going to be a post about wonderful poetry readings - and there have been, believe me, with some very committed poets and an equally vociferous and active audience: Poems for Grenfell in Oxford, Songs for the Unsung in Kenilworth last night and a welcome and generous return to Derby Poetry Society. Equally nourishing are the Creative Future workshops up and down the country with writers who are under-represented, writers who have much to say and say it well. 

It has been pure joy for me to work with speakers of different languages. My ears have grown old and fluffy of late. They've been needing a good pulling. We lose our bearings if we belong to ourselves too much. That's the trouble with the world. We seem to be adopting a siege mentality. Feeling under siege makes us prone to rumour and speculation. No wonder fake news is flourishing. If we'd only look around us and see what's really there. If we'd only speak to each other and find out what other lives are really like, then we'd realise how much nonsense we're being fed.

I am heartened by young activists and I am sorry that so many feel let down by my generation too. Many young people feel disenfranchised. 

I have written on these pages before about the hope young people inspire in me - Syrian refugees, most recently, and children in some of the schools I've been working with.

Next week I shall be enjoying the privilege of meeting young people from up and down the country at the Orwell Youth Prize Celebration Day at Pembroke College. It promises to be a very full and eventful day.

Monday, 30 April 2018

Readings and Workshops Galore!

Some great events coming up. 'Poems for Grenfell Tower' has been published now and there are national readings taking place over the next couple of months. If you scroll down to my previous blog, you'll find the venues and dates listed, as well as where to buy the book. But if you're in Oxford this Friday, do come along to the Cape of Good Hope. It's a great line-up and the event is free. Please make a donation to the Grenfell Foundation if you can. People are still struggling and many are still homeless. You can, of course, buy your copy of the book at the venue. There's an open mic, too, so if you fancy reading something, put your name down on the list when you arrive.

Further ahead, I am reading at Derby Poetry Society on June 8th. This will be in Room 3 of the Friends Meeting House on St. Helen's Street, DE1 3GY. It starts at 7:30. You can phone Gina Clarke on 01773 825215 for more details.                                                                                                              And even further ahead, I am reading from 'Songs for the Unsung' in Leamington Spa at Kenilworth Books on Wednesday 20th June. Again, the line-up is very good and I shall be selecting some of my favourite poems by other writers as well as my own.

The Creative Future Literary Awards writing workshops have got off to a tremendous start. There are waiting lists for the Newcastle and Brighton sessions, but still some places left for the Preston sessions. Workshops run from 10:00 - 12:00 and they are held at They Eat Culture's brand new premises - People's Production Lab, Guildhall Street, PR1 3NU. If you want to sign up, click here and this will take you straight to bookings and more information about the workshops.

I am also  pleased to be part of  'Think Human' week at Oxford Brookes later next month. The poet and artist Jane Spiro is curating work from local writers and placing it alongside objects that have special meaning for us. More about that in my next blog. All I can say for now is that it looks very interesting indeed!

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Syrian Sisters, Synaesthesia and Stories Galore!

Lots of exciting things happening this year. After the most intense and busy funeral period I have ever experienced, it is a great relief to be turning once again to arts work up and down the country.

What a fabulous two weeks I spent with Oxford Concert Party and Tony Lloyd working with Syrian Sisters at Rose Hill Community Centre in Oxford. Though it was more like running a play scheme than an arts project at times (we had tiny tots as well as juniors and teenagers) we got an incredible amount of work done.

For two weeks, we danced and sang, told stories, wrote poems, made scores of migratory birds which we stuck to the windows, and travellers' footprints from maps of the world which we stuck to a never-ending roll of card. The food the children's mums prepared for us all was fantastic, too. This was a nourishing project in every way.

What joy it was to discover a supreme storyteller amongst the children. She told us a new story every day and she told an amazing tale about a mouse and a lion on the last day when we held a showcase for the general public. Two of the women turned out to be excellent drummers, as well. There was no shortage of volunteer dancers once they struck up.

It's hard for me to imagine what their lives were like before they arrived in Oxfordshire. I have never experienced war first-hand, much less the total decimation of my country. Grief isn't just about mourning the dead, I am reminded. It's also about loss of one's home and that deep sense of belonging when your family has lived somewhere for generations. I hope we managed to contribute  a sense of welcome in this chilly little corner of the world. I hope we managed to silence some of those terrors and deflect that grief for a little while.

We mustn't underestimate a human being's capacity for survival, of course. The Syrian Sisters are building a future. So are the children. And, I do believe, they are building this country's future too. Such generosity, warmth,  courage and openness are necessary ingredients for a healthy society. When we come together in a true spirit of sharing, we can achieve so much.

I'm back with Creative Future, too. This means lots of travelling up and down the country - Preston, Newcastle and Brighton - working with writers who find themselves underrepresented for many reasons. Some people are new to writing and are trying it for the first time. Others have been writing for years are beginning to explore and experiment with new ideas and audiences. As always, I find I have something learn. It was really interesting listening to a discussion amongst ex-offenders about how a writer can inspire empathy in a reader.

This series of workshops - there are six in total - explore synaesthesia, colour, music, translation, story-boarding and tone. Essentially, these are workshops that focus on how we communicate and interpret. Every act of writing is perhaps a form of translation. Even the way we read and intuit and finally comprehend something  is an act of translation. Since we can never inhabit each others' heads, that is the nearest we can ever get. It all seems terribly imprecise, but there's something fizzy and spicy about the bits we fail to get. It's like stepping on the edge of a crack in the ground knowing you could fall into it. That's what reading and listening are for me. That's what learning a language is like. It's good to fall sometimes. It's good to take risks.

After an interval of two years, I'm doing a storytelling session at the Corn Exchange's Memory Cafe in Newbury next month. I have plenty of new stories to share as well as some musical instruments and an assortment of hats. There's always a chance that someone might want to play a part or make the sound effects.

Am I writing myself? Well, the short answer is 'yes and no' - which means I'm writing in gasps and gulps. I'm very pleased to be one of the contributors to Songs for the Unsung edited by Joy Howard for Grey Hen Press. There are some terrific poems in this, many by poets I have a  lot of respect for, and there are various launch readings taking place this year.

I shall be reading from it at Kenilworth Books, Leamington Spa on Wednesday 20th June.

‘They are everywhere. They curl on streets in quiet blankets, wait at borders, work in cabbage fields, staff hospitals by night. They can be unheard, unseen. But when you read the generous and eloquent poems in this anthology, they are no longer the unsung.’ 
Alison Brackenbury

‘This beautiful compilation illuminates lives of the unseen and unheard, unheeded and, at times, hated. Here is a migrant child making sense of insults, here someone kind meeting a stranger and listening. We are blessed witnesses, guided gently out of grey apathy, towards understanding. And those words. They sound like intonations, not to the careless gods above, but to the humanity within each of us.’ 

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

You can buy the collection here.

Similarly, Poems for Grenfell Tower is a very good collection - again, featuring work by poets whose work I admire. The book is available from Onslaught Press. Here is a brief extract lifted from the foreword by David Lammy MP:

The poems are able to express the scale of loss, in a way that prose is not able to do — from the empty school chair invoked in Michael Rosen’s piece, to Rachel Burns’s ‘In a Hotel Room, A Father Sits Alone’. Unlike countless newspaper articles and reports in the media, poetry goes some of the way in allowing the reader to understand what is really missing — a child in a schoolroom, a much loved daughter.

Poems for Grenfell Tower brings together many different poets, whose voices are joined together in elegy. Ricky Nuttall, a Red Watch firefighter who attended Grenfell, offers a heart-wrenching account of coming to terms with what happened. His heroism is reinforced by Christine Barton’s ‘Red Watch’, which pays a moving tribute to the work of firefighters. Poems such as these are able go beyond the limits of prose in expressing the impact of the tragedy. In doing so, they offer an important way in which the voices of Grenfell are heard.

Dates for readings from Poems for Grenfell Tower are as follows:

Harrow Club                                                      April 15
Machynlleth                                                       April 21  
Seven Dials Club                                               April 27
Cape of Good Hope, Oxford                            May 4
Artefact Café, Birmingham                              June 8
RMT Education Centre, Doncaster                June 14
Dolman Theatre, Newport                               June 14
Scottish Poetry Lib, Edinburgh                       June 23
Newcastle        venue TBA                               June 27
Bradford Literary Festival                               July 7
Poetry Library, South Bank                            September 5
You can buy the anthology here - and for every £10 spent, £5 will go to the Grenfell Foundation.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Albion Beatnik R.I.P.

Earlier this week, the news broke that Albion Beatnik is closed. 

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t absolutely gutted, but I know Dennis Harrison has given his all to the shop; it’s a wonder he's kept going for so long, working the hours he does. 

I worked in the book trade in Belfast and Manchester for a while and I’ve been a frequenter of bookshops since my early teens. Albion Beatnik was the stand-out one for me and very likely always will be. It had a combination of outsider curiosity, erudition, quirkiness and downright homeliness. It was also the social glue for many different communities. We are, I often think, like Venn diagrams. We overlap from time to time, but we don’t always meet. Dennis must have had a remarkable overview.

Sadly, I can’t make the 'last gasp' reading tomorrow, but I do want to take this opportunity to thank Dennis for adding so substantially to the quality of our lives in so many random ways.

Saturday 10th February at 7:30 pm 

Free entry

Rory Waterman and US poet Richard Robbins

Rory was born in Belfast in 1981, grew up in rural Lincolnshire, and lives in Nottingham where he is Senior Lecturer in English at Nottingham Trent University. His first collection of poetry, Tonight The Summer's Over, was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Prize. His latest collection, Sarajevo Roses, has just been published by Carcanet.

Albion Beatnik Bookstore
34 Walton Street
Oxford OX2 6AA

Phone: 07737 876213

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Another Year and Never Enough Poems

Another year ends and inevitably it finds me in reckoning up mode as I go forward into 2018.

Politics aside for the moment - the battle for something as simple as the advancement of human welfare never ceases and I have already said a great deal on the matter - there is never enough time for poetry. By that, I mean there is never enough time to write it and never enough time to read it. I am hungry and I like to feast deeply, so whilst the festive period might bring me several much wanted collections - for which, thanks - there is far too much going on all around me...

...unless you get flu...

                                     ...which I did.

Out came the 'poorly blanket' I'd spent the previous twenty years knitting (which probably marks the last time I had flu) and out came the pile of books saved for just such an occasion. Except that this year's flu is a bit like being hit over the head with a cast iron frying pan and left for dead. All I could do was lie there looking at the pile of books...

I managed to crawl out of my pit to conduct a fabulous wedding in the grounds of Minster Lovell and, after a surprise snowfall, this was particularly splendid, but after that I was good for nothing.

Despite this, Sophie Herxheimer's Velkom to Inklandt was just the kick-start I needed. This is poetry that absolutely demands to be read aloud (packets of Jakemans and Potter's Cough Remover) in order to get every nuance. It's a delight and it is highly original. Interspersed between poems that are poignant and intimate are Herxheimer's exquisite paper cuts and these are also intimate. Several poets, including myself, are considering the significance of objects in relation to their owners at the moment. Personal possessions say so much about human vulnerability. This is a book to treasure and share.

I am looking forward to reading Ocean Vuong's Night Sky with Exit Wounds this year and (hint) I'm desperately hoping someone has bought this for me. I'm looking forward to reading more of Jack Underwood's work, too.

The latest issue of Magma has been an inspiration and a revelation. Magma is unique in that it has a rotating editorship. It is also unique in that it is the first written word magazine (to my knowledge) to explore D/deaf poetry. If you have never come across D/deaf poetry before, here are my recommendations:

Ksenia Balabina

Donna Williams

Clearly, this is going to be a year in which language becomes increasingly important for me. I have always felt that there is a synaesthetic connection between words and their reception. The more textured and various my vocabulary becomes, the wider my scope and terms of reference. Rosamund Taylor says in 'Sheep's Head Peninsula' -

So many words are wrong:
the closed letters of dog - dog
is mouth and paw against my leg;
the heaviness of home - home is circles
It is not enough to know my own language. There are as many ways of listening as there are of seeing or feeling or tasting. Take bread, the feel of the word in your mouth. Take brot, painbánh mì, akara, chleb, rooti. Roll them around. Know their weight and their texture. Take BSL now.

Doesn't that taste different, too? There is no hierarchy of bread. It is ridiculous to assume one.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Quietly flows the river...

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus  said that no person can ever step in the same river twice because it is never the same river and the person is not the same person. However much we may wish to go back, however much we may wish to repeat the same experience, we are stuck in the present, going forward. Stuck is the wrong word, of course, because  the present is always changing. If stasis exists it is entirely of one's own construction. It exists in the mind.

Last week was the tenth anniversary of my sister's death. Ten years. That's supposed to be a milestone, isn't it? But that's also a construction. Every day since her death has been a different day. I am a different person to the one I was when I received the phone call that September night and I really wouldn't want to swap the new me for the old me. Which is not to say I don't miss my sister and it's not to say that I don't still love her and wish her by my side. But grief can't keep up with the living. Our footsteps outmatch grief in nearly every instance I can think of. There are very few people who enter the two dimensional world of stasis.

And yet...

There has been a fundamental shift in me. My capacity for happiness has been altered. I'm talking about profound happiness here. Happiness is different to having fun. Anyone can have fun. Happiness is deeply layered. It's like love. It is love, perhaps.

Nobody could make me laugh like my sister. She made me laugh in a way that was like being joined to her. Her hair, which was the colour of sunshine, had a texture that reminded me how her presence could fill an entire room. She was like light itself.

I used to find strands of her hair in random places after she'd come to England to visit - on a jumper, on a cushion, on the page of a book. And there were those occasions we'd both think of the same thing at the same time or we'd buy each other the same present. Then there was the last holiday together.

I flew over to Tucson for her 50th birthday. It was the happiest holiday of my life. I thought that then and I thought that afterwards when I was flying back and that's the way that holiday has been ever since. No other holiday has ever matched it.

We had fun - plenty of it - and we had moments of quiet contentment. We walked every day, we drove into the desert, we watched tumultuous rain running down from the mountains into the city run-offs, we talked about death and severance,  we shared the awe that comes from looking at a human body stripped down to its tendons and vascular system in an exhibition and it was pretty much the same curiosity that held us spellbound when a tarantula crawled like a slender hand down the wall into her yard one night. We were so used to sharing, so used to sitting side by side, so used to just being with one another.

And then it was all gone.

My picture is of the River Vecht near Ommen in the Netherlands. I chose it because I took so many photos of it during my last evening camping there and every shot is different. I also chose it because the holiday I had this summer has been my happiest holiday in ten years. It has been the equal of the holiday I've just been describing.

Perhaps I was just ready for happiness to enter my life again. But I think it was more than that. I suspect happiness has to be earned. I spent the whole year prior to it learning German. It's not been easy. In fact, I've found it quite a struggle. I also signed up to an exchange visit with Oxford poets to poets and artists in Bonn. Trying to translate your own work and reading in German as well as in English was, frankly, more than a little unnerving. I also worked flat-out before I went away - I did a two month stint without a single weekend off. The prospect of the holiday was starting to become more than a little significant. There was the mileage involved. From Hoek van Holland to Uelzen and down to the Black Forest and then up to Bonn and back through the Netherlands again was fairly demanding. It was going to be sad-sweet too - post-Brexit, post the deaths of some really close friends, not to mention the climate of mass migrations and terrible violence in the world. There was something keenly alert in me as I set out for Harwich at the beginning of August, something resonating in a way I couldn't easily describe.

First off  was the sea, where I always begin and end up in my poems and stories, and the stunned realisation that these days the Atlantic doesn't play much of a part in my emotional world. I was longing to swim in the North Sea, which I did more or less on my arrival. And I couldn't wait to get on my bike and cycle amongst the dunes, which I did, or test out my rather limited German, which I also did. I was prickling all over with life.

Next I had to buy a Plakette for the Umweltzonen and new tyres for my car. Talking tyres with blokes in a garage is like speaking a different language anyway. Talking tyres in German took it to a whole new level. And so to Lüneburg Heath which this time of year is covered in purple heather and a fabulous campsite with an ice cold pool fed by ditch running off the Ilmenau river. It rained for three days, but there were such moments of clarity - a tiny tot with a top-knot sitting in the middle of a blanket just being herself underneath the dripping leaves and splashes of birdsong, a man swimming silently in the rain, sitting in the sun picking dirt out of my cycling cleats after grappling with a schlecht and schlammig cyclepath for several kilometres, the sudden smell of chamomile, a raven's call from a far off tree.

Trying to find clarity at Bergen-Belsen was not possible, though. In the end you give up, because the scale and depth of human cruelty is just beyond you. It has gone on for centuries and it continues even as I write this. It isn't a tragedy. I think of a tragedy as something quite incidental. Holocausts are deliberate. The extermination of native populations in the Americas and Tasmania, the African slave trade, Pol Pot's massacres, hundreds of thousands of women burnt at the stake as witches, this unspeakable horror of Nazi death camps, Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, the persecution of Yazidis...

And yet...

These mittens were made by a Russian woman at the camp. A little girl who had been deported to Bergen-Belsen without her parents used to visit her in the hut where people could get potato peelings. The woman gave her a turnip on her first day. The little girl used to go every day. Sometimes the Russian woman was there, sometimes not. Sometimes the woman had something for her, sometimes not. One day, a very cold day in January, the woman gave her these Handschuhe. She'd made them from the threads of blankets. The girl never saw her again. Yvonne Koch is in her 80s now and she gives talks to young people. She became a research doctor and worked on an AIDS project. Her message today is strongly humanitarian. But for the Russian woman's kindness, that little girl may not have survived. There is human warmth even in the most forsaken of places. We must never forget that.

I drove down to the Black Forest in the second week and in some ways the next nine days felt like a healing process, though I'm not sure what healing can actually take place after witnessing such horrors. Perhaps it isn't healing then. Perhaps it's more of an adjustment, a shifting of perspective, a search for context to give some kind of shape to the narrative arc of human experience.

I understand now why every German I spoke to  lit up whenever I said I was holidaying in den Schwarzwald. It has always held a place in my imagination, but for German people, it's the imagination of the blood. Here is a landscape of folklore and storytelling, rich with symbolism and archetypes, and there's something amazing about a green that is so dense that it is actually black. The skyline is a sequence of dancing curves. Everywhere are the calls of crows and ravens and soaring birds of prey. Closer to, is the liquid sound of nuthatches and the shy peeps of bullfinches. Tiny flowers nestle in the crooks of rocks and fallen logs. Sapling firs grow out of the root balls of upended pines that have tumbled down a slope in a storm. Rainbow fungi hug the sides of trees. Pools of rainwater reflect the sun and sky. Small streams trickle between banks of thick moss. You tread quietly in these places. You listen more. You accompany yourself in a way that you never could in a city or town.

I walked for miles. I cycled for miles. I climbed hills and swooped down into magnificent valleys. Sometimes I just sat and and looked.

I wasn't exactly ready for Bonn - any city seems a strange and alien place after such stillness - but I was refreshed and looking forward to meeting everyone. Bonn is Oxford's twin city. Both cities are celebrating 70 years of their twinning agreement. It was a brave thing to set up in 1947. Today, we have regular exchanges of choirs and student groups. This was the first between poets and artists, or certainly the first I've been involved with. Preparations had been under way for some time and we were probably all feeling a little nervous.

Our reception by Dada war alles gut couldn't have been warmer or more generous. We quickly began to establish good working relationships and after a rehearsal were very likely as ready as we'd ever be for the public performance with Diana Bell's 'Big Question Mark'. Open air readings are notoriously difficult and we had to deal with a failed microphone, a helicopter, a plane and church bells as well as local traffic. Nevertheless, people seemed to be listening really very closely as we read in both languages.

Diana's installation was easier to engage with. It generated a lot of discussion. Her key questions were -

Where do you come from?
Where are your roots?
Where do you belong?

These are not easy to answer. I have always believed I could live almost anywhere in the world given the right set of circumstances. My answers might be different if I were to be displaced or forcibly removed and held against my will. The longing for home when you're behind bars is like starvation and bereavement rolled into one.

My hosts, Eva and Oliver, were extraordinarily generous with their time and hospitality. It is a privilege to be accepted into the heart of someone's home. It can be quite daunting to open yourself up to a complete stranger, but we shared some lengthy conversations about our cultural heritages and about history in general. We talked deeply about so many things and we also spent a great deal of time laughing and knocking back a few beers in the process. It felt like a huge wrench when I eventually left to start the homeward journey. I hope we remain friends for a very long time.

The exchange entailed a visit to Bonn's Oxford Club - which I found rather quaint with its red telephone box outside and plates of crustless egg sandwiches and bland mini-pasties inside. Is this really the best Oxford catering can come up with? What about our Lebanese restaurants? What about my favourite little Jamaican haunt? Still, it was interesting to meet so many friends of Oxford.

Again and again I was asked why I've been learning German. I started in an on-and-off sort of way a number of years ago and it wasn't at all like my epic love affair with France which prompted me to learn French. It hasn't been a lavender, wine and literature courtship. It's felt more like righting a wrong. I had a German penfriend as a teenager whom I really regretted losing touch with, especially as our careers ran on parallel tracks in the end. When he died, I couldn't recover that lost ground. I couldn't read his obituary and I couldn't understand the songs he sang. Having German friends has been influential, too, and finally there began to grow in me a curiosity about my own language. When I embarked on reading and transforming the Grimms' hausmärchen for Kissing Bones, the journey truly started.

The Bonn poets were great to work with. We spent a marvellous day at the Arp Museum, where Dada war alles gut meet, exploring the work of Henry Moore and Hans Arp and learning about the history of the place. Eva Wal was an inspirational guide.

Nearly everyone was able to write something that day. I was so completely overwhelmed, I couldn't find my way into anything. Arp is an asterisk floating off the page to Moore's heavily underlined footnote. I got lost somewhere between the two. Moore always takes me inside my own body - it's the world of bones and ligaments and cartilage - the world my sister and I were so fascinated by. Arp moves with atoms and the ever-expanding universe. So, no, I haven't been directly responding, but I am currently preoccupied with the estimated atomic weight of a human being when it's alive and with the function of the atoms that comprise the human body when we are not. It's going to take a long time for something to emerge.

Our final reading together at Jacques' Wein-Depot was a treat. Without the distractions of traffic and church bells, we were really able to focus on each other's work. It was a very rich experience and, as always, wonderful to hear the poems in both languages. The rhythms are interesting. I had always thought that perhaps English and German were quite similar in many ways. They aren't. The unique syntax puts a completely different pressure on a line. Learning another language enables you to think more deeply about prosody and diction.

This is reflected in a much wider and more global context. Learning another language, learning about another cultures enables you to explore your own.
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
                                                                                                         John Donne
Kein Mann ist ein Insel
Eine Gesamtheit für sich.
Jeder ist ein Stück des Kontinents,
Ein Teil des Ganzen.
Wäre ein Klumpen durch das Meer weggewaschen,
Ist Europa weniger.
Sowie, als ob es ein Kap wäre.
Sowie, asl ob ein Wesen deines eigens
Oder deines Freundes wäre.
Der Tod jeder verringert mich
Denn ich bin mit der Menschheit beteiligt.
Also schick nicht ze wissen
Für wen die Glocke läutet:
Sie läutet für dich.
                                                           Übersetzung: David Paley

Here is the Vecht again in the early hours of the morning before I left. As I cycled off to the car with my sodden tent strapped to the pannier rack, the day began changing...
                                                   and changing...
                                                                                                 and changing...


Diana Bell
Eva Wal
Oxford Stanza II

Thursday, 20 July 2017

The Spectrum of Light

What an enormously creative year this has been for so far.  Not personally - I have had very little time to write - but in terms of facilitating the writing and helping to nourish the imaginative landscape of everyone I have come into contact with. For several months I have found myself juggling five different jobs and many weeks have stretched beyond seven days till they've run one into the other in a seamless winterspringsummer. However, I can honestly say that I haven't wished myself elsewhere. I am constantly awakened and energised by people. And, of course, the nourishment goes two ways. I am very lucky to be doing this work.

Waving Hello has been a tremendous project. It culminated in a display in Bonn Square in Oxford of 3,000 paper boats made by the people we'd worked with as well as by passing members of the public. Each boat was placed in memory of the thousands of people who have made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to find safety. We also remembered those who haven't made it. Even as we celebrated the wealth of music, art, poetry and storytelling that migrants bring with them, we recognised the appalling conditions that so often drive people to take such risks.

We read poems written by pupils from the schools we'd worked with - Buckland CE Primary and Blackbird Academy Trust schools Orchard Meadow, Pegasus and Windale. The poems reflected deep concerns for the safety and well-being of refugees and asylum seekers. Frankly, the humanity and compassion of these young citizens puts many of our politicians to shame.

We sang the songs that had been especially written by Arne Richards and listened to speeches from Asylum Welcome, Dr Ramzy from the Muslim Council of Britain and Isabel Knowland, who conceived the project.

Besides working with schoolchildren, we've worked with detainees at Campsfield House and have also enjoyed the support of the Ashmolean Museum. One of the highlights for us was the visit to Buckland School from women from BK LUWO. Filda Abelkec-Lukonyomoi's story of survival had a tremendous impact on all of us. I have nothing but praise for the teachers of the classes we worked with, too.

It has been a real pleasure working alongside Arne and Isabel from Oxford Concert Party - they've even had me singing and dancing and anyone who knows me will recognise that that is not an easy thing to achieve. It's been a pleasure, too, to work alongside Tony Lloyd whose fine printing workshops I have previously attended as a student. We missed our lovely Helen Kidd though and we shared her poem with everyone on the day.

Photo by Judie Waldmann
Still on the subject of poetry, I'm nearly at the end of my ten weeks at the OSJCT care home in Henley. We've produced a booklet of 40 poems and also a CD of residents reading poetry and singing Irish folk songs. There's also a splendid percussion rendition of rain to go with a hilarious poem about the real Dr Foster who went to Gloucester.

Again, I have been struck by the importance of music in these sessions. I have seen people transformed by a song or a passage of classical music. People who have been described to me as 'non-verbal' have spoken about things they've suddenly remembered.

One of the things I'm discovering about people living with dementia is that the capacity for creativity does not diminish when language becomes compromised. If the right word cannot be found, often a more wonderful and textured evocation will surface. Somebody told me she couldn't hear a thing when she held a sea shell to her ear. "But you're happening," she said suddenly. "And we're happening." And so we were, all of us.

My six month writing workshop tour of England finishes this week too. Creative Future run these workshops in conjunction with the Literary Awards competition. This year we've focused on Newcastle, Brighton and Birmingham and the wealth of writing that has emerged from each area has been really exciting. It's been great to see some of that channelled into the competition too, though as judges, we had no idea who had submitted work or indeed whether any had come from the workshops until after we'd chosen the winners. I have to keep schtum, though. No spoilers here. Wait and see when the winners are announced!

Photo by Judie Waldmann
Summer is the wedding and baby naming season and we celebrants can be kept very busy this time of year. As someone who does funerals as well, I feel I am involved with the narrative arc of human life. This ties in very closely with the art of storytelling as well as with poetry and music. All my jobs feel like they belong to the same spectrum of light. They're like colours balancing and bouncing off one another.

I'm hoping for some rainbow moments when I'm on holiday and finally able to write.