Poem for Bryanston Square

Here’s the collectively-written poem I promised! I had fun piecing this together.  My thanks to Open Garden Squares Weekend and the Poetry School for the commission.

 

Poem for Bryanston Square

Compiled by Meryl Pugh from words by Alison, Anna, Anwen, Evelyn, Holly, Gabriella, Jodi, Kitty, Naveed, Variety-D – and 3 anonymous writers.

 

           Welcome to the WILD, WILD West END.

If a tree falls from the forest, would you hear it?

     Distant laugh, the rustling leaves percuss.

 

           Curves and points. Ends and seams.                               

Where are the flowers, the summer bedding plants, old roses?

     Blackbird alarm call in flight. This privileged space.

 

            But listen, listen, she’s – I’m off

to a municipal gardens where the flowers

     dance and there are public toilets aplenty.

 

           Cars in waves race down Sunday-slow streets,

windows like eyes. Gravel crunching, bicycle whirs,

     children, birdsong, people laughing in French.

 

           Rough, worn, wooden memorial bench

(Sir Brindsley and Lady Ford) behind a box – blighted –

     bush. Shouting awkward intimate pleasantries:

 

           Hello! Thank you for coming today!

Smells fresh and mowed, seeds and berries, velvet, violets

     and apple, mint and lime, olive, leaves:

 

          high green cathedral lights are shining;

private, invisible decades; emerald damp world;

     the nightingale’s chime, like tiny pears.

 

           In the world’s tight space, the birds

know her songs, goddess, shining all on one. LUNGS, CALM.  

          And. Just. Still. We’re just passing through.

 

          

Poet in the Gazebo 2

Well, that was lovely!

Here’s the gazebo itself, all set up in the morning, at a tranquil spot in the shade of a mature London Plane and close to a philadelphus in flower.

Its scent permeated – something like jasmine, but not jasmine – all my encounters that day, which were not so much a series of workshops as a series of conversations, some of which my Tascam picked up as it periodically recorded the sounds of the garden.

Heh. Photography skillz.  But through the blur, you can probably see why I was so enchanted by this place.

I’m hard at work, now, going through all the recordings before piecing together my soundscape – and sifting through all the gorgeous fragments and poems that people handed in.

I’m really looking forward to collaging everything into our collectively-written poem.  It might take me a while, so in the mean time, I thought you might like to see these, by two awesome young writers who came to say hi:

Lights are shining
flowers are blooming
leaves are shining all on one
Nature will shine into your eyes
once you see next you will die

by Evelyn Heinemann (aged 9)

 

Leaves are blooming,
flowers are blossoming,
birds are singing,
flowers are shining like the sun,
nature is starting.

by Anwen Nichols (aged 8)

 

Thanks, Evelyn and Anwen – nature was indeed shining that day!  And thank you to the London Parks and Gardens Trust, Open Garden Squares Weekend and Poetry School for placing me in Bryanston Square.

 

 

Poet in the Gazebo

I’m a Poet-in-Residence at Bryanston Square on Sunday 9th June, as part of the Poetry Quarter; a collaboration between Open Garden Squares Weekend and the Poetry School.

In the morning, I’ll be using my trusty Tascam DR40 to capture the sounds around me, with a view to building a soundscape of the day.  And I’ll be writing, too, trying to record what it’s like to be this body-self in that place in these times.

In the afternoon, I’m hoping to run some short workshops, where you can write with me.  We’ll be focusing on our senses, capturing recording our impressions and the memories they trigger, and I want to use at least some of what we write to make a collaged, collective poem.

Those workshops will be running at 1.30, 2.30 and 4 pm.

If you’re not into things that interactive, you can always pick up a writing activity sheet from either of the gazebos.  But I’m hoping you’ll come write with me, ask me questions…. maybe I’ll even read you a poem or too.

See you there?  I’ll have my badge on.

 

I wrote something!

The lovely folk at Penned in the Margins have it up on their blog:

http://www.pennedinthemargins.co.uk/index.php/2019/04/i-walk-natural-phenomena-and-the-bodies-we-inhabit/

It’s in preparation for an event:

https://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whats-on/134662-out-body-experience-2019

I’ll be doing some reading and talking – but mostly listening to Abi and Kate and what they have to say about the intersections of gender and disability and place.  This is just one of the perspectives that ‘new nature’ and eco-writing / publishing could do with placing more prominently, so I’m really excited it’s happening.  See you there?

 

By the way, the photo of me is by Jonathan Ashworth – thanks, Jonathan!

Remembering Tara on her birthday

PhotoScan (2)Here she is in the summer of 1989 on our Ibiza holiday.  We went dancing, ate ice cream and failed to get off with the only two single boys at our hotel.  I towed her to the safety of poolside after she gulped a mouthful of water in a swimming pool, and bought her medicine for her dodgy stomach.  She told me she liked my singing and took me horse-riding.  We walked and talked and laughed around San Antonio, Ibiza Town, and along the coastline to quieter parts.  We read on sun loungers and beaches, in the airport.  She drummed her feet on the floor, she loved take-off so much.  We both got sunburnt. We strutted around in sunglasses – mine kept falling off my nose whenever I bent my head – and tried to act cool, but everything was so funny, so bizarre, life kept making us laugh.

Rachel was away, preparing for her year in France.  We missed her, and wondered how she was.  We were about to enter our final year at Queens’, and didn’t know what would happen next, and it didn’t matter.  Sun, beer, the music, the water, everything bright and absurd, as our lives were.  Miraculous, as our lives were.

 

Tara Louise Few

1968-2013

Et in Arcadio Ego

You’re in London! Shut up!

I walk over.  Why is he heckling the poet?  Why is he so vexed?  I hunker down next to him.  You don’t need to shout at him, though, do you?

The conversation is a roundabout one.  Sorry, he says, indicating his bottle of whisky.

I raise my can of Red Stripe.  Me as well.  But we keep trying.

Why was the poet going on about the US?  Why was the poet going on about shootings, of other men, in other countries?  This is England.

He wrote his book and it’s how he sees things, I say, trying not to cringe at myself.  Who am, I trying to explain the poet’s work, which is urgent and relatable and beautiful and being heard by me for the first time?

Yeah but – who is he, to do that?  Violence?  I know that.  He indicates his side.

What am I being directed to?  A scar?  It isn’t clear.  What is clear, as we both stumblingly try to understand each other, is that he is twenty-eight, has seen the violent side of London, its hostile, nasty side.  That he treasures these gardens as a safe place to relax in, where everyone is welcome.  That he’s survived difficult experiences and doesn’t want any of the negative brought into our idylls alongside the raised beds of beans, the wildflowers, the tyre sculptures, the graffiti murals.

*

I haven’t had the opportunity to read Paul Kingsnorth’s take on Arcadia – which is a pity, for I did actually see it last year at the London Film Festival – as the piece has been taken down from the sites on which it was originally posted.  Like him, I kind of loved the film – in part because it excerpts extensively from Anchoress (1993, dir. Chris Newby),  about which I have a mild obsession – but from what I gather from his response to critics of that piece,* our readings of the film are very different.

The land I saw in those sequenced clips was more than ‘over long before I was born’ – it never existed – and Arcadia exposes the way in which film-makers of the past constructed it.  It presents, yes, a pastoral; a Golden Age of the English countryside, rural life, magic, folk traditions.  But it also exposes its constructedness.  Sequences are repeated; the human figures, out of the context of their film’s entirety, often look outlandish, alarming.  Voice-overs from the original footage come across as far less rousing or moving than perhaps originally intended; sandwiched in-between the urgent, rhythmic music, they seem ironic, inviting scepticism, or ominous, encouraging fear.  Clips of happy, working people seem, by juxtaposition with each other and the other elements of the film, disquieting – especially as some of those other elements include excerpts from The Wicker Man.  By the end of the film, I felt a fair amount of disquiet; all that spooky joy in the smiling faces smack bang up against the burnings, the hunts, the weird rituals, the relentlessness of the soundtrack.

Maybe you’ve seen the film more recently.  Maybe you read it differently.  I’d be interested to know.  But as you can probably guess, I read it as a kind of critique; of ‘land’, of ‘belonging’, of those old ideas about ‘Arcadia’.

*

I’m thinking about my pastoral companion again.  I’m English, he says, at one point.  This is London.  There’s enough trouble …

Yeah, I say, waving my can.  English.  You’re English.  Well, I’m not.  Well, sort of.  But, yeah, trouble …

*

Paul Kingsnorth’s writing disturbs me.  I wish I could get behind his ‘call for a resurgence of a love and respect for the particular’.  After all, the man in the garden and I felt a lot of love that day for the particular triangle of land in which we lounged, and the city which had welcomed us each, we discovered, over 20 years ago.  Kingsnorth yokes this call to another one, ‘for an English identity based on place, not race … ‘ and I almost wish I could cheer the English on in this respect (I have 7 Welsh and 1 English great-grandparent, so don’t qualify as English, presumably, even if I wanted to); I like the idea of an inclusive Englishness.

But therein lies the problem.  This ‘English identity’, if I am to believe another piece by Kingsnorth (to which the Arcadia response directs me), is in actual fact, a rather exclusive one.  The same, old tired one, in fact.  For what am I to make of the following

Waves of immigration from the former empire after the second world war began to change the nature of the English population …’,

of the dog-whistle to racists in ‘waves of immigration’ (think about ‘waves’ and its connotations) or the white myopia that ignores the centuries-old presence of people of colour in the British Isles and the legacy of imperialism and colonialism and slavery?

What am I to make of the juxtaposition of a paragraph laden with statistics about how ‘migration into the UK had risen to historically unprecedented levels’ against, in the following paragraph, this statement:

Meanwhile, the pressure on schools, hospitals, housing and infrastructure caused by the rapid population increase were having a real-world impact, especially on working-class and lower-middle-class English people, who were bearing the brunt of the pressure created by the influx of newcomers.

 

This narrative conveniently ignores the under-investment by successive governments in those schools, hospitals, housing and that infrastructure.  Indeed, this narrative is a lot like the one used by the Conservative Party to justify their budget cuts and then to explain the damage done by their cuts.  Sure, let’s blame the ‘influx’ (like ‘waves’; does it bring to mind for you as it does for me the images of flooding and washing away?), let’s blame the ‘newcomers’.

This is not Englishness for everyone, no matter how much we love the land.

*

The other difference in our readings of Arcadia (and again, I’m going by that response-to-critics which also can no longer be read), is that Kingsnorth makes no mention of the people of colour that appear in those archive films.  Infrequently, it’s true; I imagine many of the films were made by people who chose to unsee – in the manner of China Mieville’s The City and the City – the Britons of colour around them as they built their nostalgic pastoral – but present.  A little girl, lining up with her classmates in a school playground.  A young man, with some friends, smiling for the camera operator.  A patient woman in a crowd, waiting for something.

*

As with those film-makers, I get the disquieting sense that Kingsnorth’s England involves a fair bit of squinting and ‘unseeing’ not to see its humans.  Such is White Myopia – an affliction from which I am trying to cure myself, also.  But humans who blot the landscape with their presences and make it messy and complicated and difficult for a privileged person to enjoy – unhappy workers, people of colour, old women – have been around for a long long time – and like money, like politics – which, like concepts such as ‘arcadia’ and ‘nature’ are human, after all, and therefore subject to political narratives, that is to say ‘histories’ written by privilege – are always, irretrievably entwined with land.  And the local (rural haymakers in the sunlight, the stoppered, glass bottle of beer), no matter how distinctive, is always linked to the global (the absent landlord resident in the city, squeezing money from his estate, so much larger now that Enclosure has benefitted him, ploughing his money into sugar and those ships, their human cargo…).

*

I finish my beer and bid my fellow drinker farewell.

Take care, love, he says.

I don’t know if either of us would qualify for belonging in the England Kingsnorth has in mind.  My pastoral companion came to London with his Mum when he was 7 from Somalia – and I, as I’ve said, am definitely not ‘ethnically’ English.  And our scrappy pastoral between the railway lines might ‘uglify’ the view as well.

My whiteness might mean you don’t have to squint past me though, when you build Arcadia.  Just don’t ask me to join you.

 

*

*This piece too has now been taken down.  I’m dismayed to hear he’s received personal abuse; I don’t condone that at all.  But I would still like to read a more direct response from him to the critiques of his ideas.

My thanks to Vahni Capildeo, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Sally Carruthers for their generous conversations with me about the writings and film I discuss.

i wrote a thing

Jonathan Ashworth portrait

Mean and moody, huh?  Jonathan Ashworth took this picture of me at the Pages of Hackney / Gypsy Caravan Theatre event at Sutton House, Hackney in May.  There’s more stuff about what I’ve been up to recently on the other pages.  I wanted, here, to post up a link to something I wrote for the launch of the Ginkgo Prize – about stormsIMG_20180508_093458.jpg

Yeah, that was it. That was the thing I wrote.

Meanwhile, I’m obsessively finding green alkanet everywhere.

Here’s something I wrote about it, and about my book, for the Penned in the Margins blog:

naturalphenomena_hires.jpgNatural Phenomena took a long time to write.  I’d reached an impasse – several, in fact – and didn’t know how to get out.

For a start, there was the city.  It was my home, but it seemed to manifest everything wrong with my modern life: too fast, too loud, too crowded, too abrasive, too polluted, too littered, too much.  And every day it brought me face-to-face with what we were doing to the environment: the muck-pink film of haze over the horizon, the squirrel turning a still-wrapped Kit Kat between its paws, the burger wrappers caught in the hedge.  Because of love and work, I had to find a way to keep living there, but I didn’t know how.

Secondly, there was the impasse I’d reached with writing.  Every time the ‘I’ appeared in my poems, I cringed.  It was too needy, too grabby, had too many designs and intentions. Who on earth did ‘I’ think it was?  It seemed to address the reader as if it was the Oracle.  Even grammatical structure seemed suspect at this point: the minute I connected one word to another, my ambition for the poem seemed to charge in, like the stereotypical pushy parent on sports day.

Then one of my closest friends died; suddenly and too early.

A very personal, very thorough kind of impasse, this grieving was.  I couldn’t write.  I couldn’t even – much – talk.  But I could walk.  And so I walked, for hours and hours, in the park and by the roundabout, along the edge of the rec and through the small wood at the end of our street, beside the pond and around the tea hut, over and over in loops and circles, one foot and then another until hunger or thirst or tiredness made me head home.

And as I walked, my fellow inhabitants of the world – the birds and animals and plants and people, the built things and the grown things, the still things and the moving things; all the things that persisted despite the fact that Tara had died, despite the fact that they too, like me, like us all, would end – started to catch my attention.

IMG_20180514_105935.jpg

I found myself one day crouched over a plant jutting from the wall of a boarded-up house.  I knew this plant, I saw it everywhere.  What was it?  I looked it up on the internet: green alkanet.  A weed, with a name you could trace back to Old Arabic.  Once I knew what it was, I saw the stuff everywhere; blatant in plain sight, a retort to the rule of tarmac and brick and concrete.

I started paying attention.  I learnt more plant names – tansy, marsh pennywort, herb robert – and watched more closely the creatures I saw on my walks.  I watched feral pigeons drinking from puddles, speckled wood butterflies tumble-duel, flying ants swarm around pavement cracks.  I started writing down what I noticed.  I didn’t worry any more about the ‘I’, or whether intention was leaning too heavily upon a poem.  I didn’t need to: all I had were these fragments which I slowly pieced together, not thinking too strategically or rationally, just letting kinship between their sounds guide me.

Then I realised I’d found a way to stay in the city.  My walking had uncovered those quiet, in-between spaces I’d been looking for, where I could step out of the rush and noise – but in fact, I didn’t need to shut that rush and noise out any more.  The talk that felt so suffocating before as it swirled around me in cafés and on escalators began to fascinate me.  Here were more beautiful fragments; traces from entire secret worlds belonging to other humans who were angry or afraid or sad like me, enmeshed in language just as I was.

I’m with Michael Haslam (A Cure for Woodness, 2010, Arc): ‘Nature’ is everything – and that includes the city.  It’s blocked drains and street-wide puddles, black mould on windowsills, TB, asthma, scabies.  It’s raised voices and vomit on the platform, the dark mice at Holborn with the half-tails.  It’s parakeets and blackbirds, the howl of planes and the bone-drilling imperatives of power saws.  It’s feral, which means it doesn’t wholly submit to human regulation, but which also means it’s changed and harmed by what we do, by our coffee cup lids and carrier bags, by the times we hop into the car instead of taking the bus, by the towers we build and the spaces we pave over and the way we don’t listen to what’s around us – especially each other.

Natural Phenomena tries to think about all that.  It tries to be with nature and the city, noise and quiet, life and death at the same time.  Because we are natural phenomena too, and brief.