Sunday 3 November 2013

Effigies: Drawings by Lawand, Poems by Pascale Petit, now available from The Mosaic Rooms

Effigies is now available from The Mosaic Rooms or its online shop for £12. This artbook collaboration contains fifteen drawings by the Syrian Kurdish painter Lawand and fifteen poems The Mosaic Rooms commissioned me to write in response to them this summer.

"The result is a deeply moving and imaginative work." Omar Qattan, The A.M. Qattan Foundation

About the artist Lawand and his exhibition Equinox: From Beirut to London

The Mosaic Rooms is currently showing Equinox, From Beirut to London, the first UK solo exhibition by Syrian artist Lawand. The exhibition features new paintings and drawings by the artist, made recently during a prolonged stay in Beirut, Lebanon.

Lawand’s paintings and drawings are dominated by elongated effigies with faceless heads, hanging or hiding in their hands. They float in formless backgrounds thick with paint, situated in the material and yet strangely placeless. The artist often hints at their movement, but denies them real motion, wrapping his figures in a private world within the painted surface. Most appear alone or with a child, each treated with a looseness of touch and depth of form that invests them with intimacy; in both large and small scale these untitled works are hauntingly emotive.

“I am not a painter of loneliness, even though my paintings are so little populated. I see in each and every one of my characters the entire human race. My characters often seem to be moving slowly and sluggishly but they are headed towards the endless path of light…so that my paintings express a desire to live!” (Lawand, 2013).

Lawand’s practice is also heavily influenced by poetry, and he has created a number of publications in collaboration with renowned poets. Born in Aleppo, Syria, in 1984, Lawand came to France with his family when he was ten. He lives and works predominantly in Lille, France.

The exhibition is on until 29th November and entry is free. Effigies was launched on 19 October in the galleries, during a talk between Lawand and Pascale on poetry and art. Photo by Carine Mneimneh.

Thursday 3 October 2013

Launch of my new collection Effigies, with drawings by Syrian Kurdish painter Lawand, at The Mosaic Rooms

This summer The Mosaic Rooms commissioned me to write poems in response to drawings by the young Syrian Kurdish painter Lawand. I had never seen his work before and was stunned by the power of his portraits. I spent August in Paris, got up early each day and sat at my French window which opened out onto a vine-covered courtyard. One day, very early, I walked through the outdoor sculpture park along the quai St Bernard and wrote the first four poems. The gardeners worked around me, watering the shrubs. 

Back in my room I noticed that the wood pigeon chicks in the nest opposite were out on their ledge, and that day I witnessed both their first flights. A few of Lawand's figures seem to be attempting flight. They emerge from a mist of thorns, as if his troubled homeland hangs behind them. Those wood pigeon chicks looked so impatient to launch into their element, yet vulnerable as they crashed into walls and fell, almost within range of the ginger cat below.

One girl – see the painting above, and the drawing below – walks towards us, head down, as if she is entering the world from a childhood in a cave. In the drawing she has a black scrawl in front of her face. She looks determined, advancing doggedly towards her hard-won light.

Tonight I will go to the Private View and meet Lawand for the first time. I will see the paintings in the flesh. I hope it's a well-attended event, but that there won't be too many people obscuring them.

On Monday 14 October I will lead a workshop in the galleries – Writing the Body a full day surrounded by these mist-wreathed figures! If you would like to take part there's just a few places left. You can book on The Mosaic Rooms website

The fifteen commissioned poems I wrote this summer will be published in a special art book Effigies, along with the fifteen drawings by Lawand that I responded to. Effigies will be launched at The Mosaic Rooms at 12 noon on Saturday 19th October, at Art and Poetry, a discussion between me and the artist about the relationship of art and poetry. You are warmly invited but please do RSVP to book your free seat. 

Seven poems from Effigies will also be published by Seren in my next full-length collection Fauverie in October 2014. Fauverie centres on my father and Paris, specifically the Fauverie in the Ménagerie of the Jardin des Plantes, but I wanted to intersperse portraits of other 'effigies' between the portraits of my father and mother in the book, and of course there are numerous portraits of the big cats in the zoo, those few survivors of a harrowing eco-war.

Very grateful thanks to the A.M. Qattan Foundation for offering me the commission, for introducing me to the work of a fabulous artist, and for believing I could do it in just one month! 

Sunday 22 September 2013

My book Fauverie and the stars of the Fauverie in the Jardin des Plantes Ménagerie, Paris

 This week I handed in my manuscript Fauverie to my editor at Seren. I will still add a few poems and do more work on it before it's published in autumn 2014, but the bulk of the book is there. The title Fauverie comes from the name of the carnivore house in the Jardin des Plantes. For me the word conjures both a big-cat house and a 'fauve' wild beast painting, a habitat of primal colour and encagement. 
Like my second collection The Zoo Father, the central character is my father, but in this follow-up volume, the city of Paris is also centre stage, as is the zoo at its heart. I discovered my estranged father was enclosed in his own fauverie, because in the last years of his life  he was bound to an oxygen concentrator machine in a tiny cluttered room, about ten minutes' walk from the zoo, and was much too frail to go out.

When I stay in Paris I'm drawn back to the Fauverie. I try not to go, because it is an obsession, but I rent a room within walking distance, and this August I was so close that I could walk along the Seine, through the outdoor sculpture gardens, and be there in ten minutes! Even after closing-time – 'la fermeture' –  I would linger in the outdoor park and glance over the road to the art deco semi-circular building and think of the great cats in their night cages, locked in at 6pm for 'security'. Whether for our security in case they escape, or theirs, since they are endangered species, I was never sure. It reminded me of when I lived with my grandmother in Wales from the age of seven to fourteen, how she used to make me go to bed at 6pm, and I'd stand at the window looking out at much younger kids still playing in the fields.

Before closing-time, there is feeding-time - l'heure du repas - which is a spectacle. In fact, to see the cats active it's best to observe them in their outdoor quarters about half an hour before 'la rentrée', when they become restless and impatient for food, then to go inside and watch as the keepers thrust their meals through. At this point they are separated, to avoid conflict, and they sleep alone, apart from the caracal pair.

The star of the show is Aramis the black jaguar (a temporary resident), and when he pounces through his hatch, and it's banged down behind him, there's always a cheer, as he thuds onto the lower floor on his stocky powerful legs. Leila the elderly and solitary North China leopard is next door, and she puts on quite a performance, desperately scrabbling at her grille for her rabbit. There are two other North China leopards, Tao and Bao-bao, but she won't tolerate their company. I took these pics with my iPhone as part of my note-making.

Aramis the black jaguar, a temporary resident, before he is moved to the zoo at Vincennes and larger quarters


Karu the snow leopard, hand reared by a keeper I believe. The keeper has just passed by and Karu spotted him.

Tao the young male North China leopard, snarling at the crowd. Will he ever get used to them/us? He waits until the crowd has left before eating his food, and hides at the top out of sight, just his ears sticking up. His mate is Bao-bao. There is a rumour she is pregnant - I hope so, this is a very endangered species.

Karu's mate Unda, who recently had surgery on her paw, which broke when she leapt down from the hatch, and she 's had heart surgery.

Black-Ears the male caracal.

Monday 1 July 2013

A Poem and a Reading for Frida Kahlo's Birthday 6 July 2013

This Saturday 6th July is Frida Kahlo's birthday and to celebrate it I will be giving an illustrated reading from What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo for a special event at the Voodoo Cafe in Darlington Poems after Frida, thanks to the hard work of Jo Colley who organised this event and raised funds for it through crowdsourcing. Tickets are £5.

Poems After Frida: A Celebration of the work of Frida Kahlo with acclaimed poet Pascale Petit and music from sound artist Michael Hann. The event takes place in Darlington's award winning Mexican restaurant and bar, Voodoo Cafe. Come and celebrate Frida Kahlo's birthday, with magical words and images, amazing sounds and a perfect Margarita.

The evening starts at 7.30pm, and is at Voodoo Café, 84 Skinnergate, Darlington, DL3 7LX. Other poets reading will include Kate Fox. In the second half I will read a preview from my next collection Fauverie due October 2014.

The photo above of Frida with her pet deer Granizo was taken by Nickolas Muray. Here is one of my poems after her painting The Little Deer:

The Little Deer

Little deer, I've stuffed all the world's diseases inside you.
Your veins are thorns

and the good cells are lost in the deep dark woods
of your organs.

As for your spine, those cirrus-thin vertebrae
evaporate when the sun comes out.

Little deer too delicate for daylight,
your coat of hailstones is an icepack on my fever.

Are you thirsty?
Rest your muzzle against the wardrobe mirror

and drink my reflection –
the room pools and rivers about us

but no one comes
to stop my bed from sliding down your throat.

The book is also available in the US edition from Black Lawrence Press.

Friday 22 March 2013

Transformations: Poetry from Art at Tate Modern, Pino Pascali's Trap

When Pino Pascali exhibited Trap at gallery L'Attico in Rome in 1968 he had himself photographed standing inside it for the catalogue. He also included photos of his pet chimpanzee and of himself costumed in raffia like a tribesman. Trap, which evokes rope traps used to hunt animals in the jungle, is made of the braided steel wool found in Brillo pads. He also exhibited Ponte, a ropelike bridge such as would be hung between tree canopies. Pascali was one of the Arte Povera group who made sculptures from cheap household materials but he died at the age of 33 from a motocycle accident, which somehow made this man-sized trap more poignant.

We sat around it
and read two poems which have entrapment both in their theme and forms: 'The Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford' by James Fenton and 'Net' by Robin Robertson. Both are in free verse but written for the eye so that the shape suggests traps or nets. I've always loved Fenton's Pitt-Rivers Museum poem but it was enlightening to read it in the context of Trap and to hear the group's comments.

he form, despite being free, is structured so that after meandering through an inventory of curiosities in the museum cases, such as "a mask of Saagga, the Devil Doctor" and "earth from the grave of a man / Killed by a tiger and a woman who died / In childbirth", it lures the reader towards the finale of the lonely child wandering into the forbidden woods of his father's estate "MEN-TRAPS AND SPRING-GUNS ARE SET ON THESE PREMISES.' / For his father had protected his good estate." Each stanza begins with a one or two-word line like a door or lid to each room or cabinet of 9 more, longer, lines, containers of 'primitive' artefacts collected in empire times. The visitor to the museum thus enters both history and the forbidden woods of his or her psyche.

Robin Robertson's 'Net' has a narrower focus. A woman loosens her white silk scarf in a restaurant and her companion is drawn back "to another ocean, / another ravishing. // That moment, / at twilight, / when a cloud / of starlings / slip-drags...". The poem, with its very short lines, drifts down the page in billows of indented skeins, until "I found myself / caught, / felt myself / being pulled in." We see a double image of the ensnaring woman and the cloud of starlings "spilling the net of itself".

The task was to write a poem loosely responding to Pascali's Trap, which includes a domestic element and something of the wild, and also to consider how the form of the poem might evoke the theme.

The remainder of the session was spent in feedback workshops. For this we divided into small groups of threes or fours so that each poet would receive a short burst of intensive feedback on one poem in progress. Next week will be our last, in the Lichtenstein exhibition, with the explosions of the 'War and Romance' room, and will culminate in a celebration readaround for everyone to share a poem from the course, to perform it and bring in copies for us all. My next Tate Modern course will be in the autumn.


Friday 15 March 2013

Transformations: Poetry from Art at Tate Modern, Marc Camille Chaimowicz

Still from Orphée by Jean Cocteau

For our second session in A Bigger Splash we worked with Marc Camille Chaimowicz's homage to Jean Cocteau. This non-literal reconstruction of Cocteau's bedroom features a crumpled bed, a two-way staircase, a mirror, a rocking-horse and wallpaper designed by Chaimowicz. There is no attempt at historical accuracy, though the artist did research the Cocteau museum at Menton. The installation resembles a version rather than a translation of Cocteau's imagination, though the group noted that the colour scheme was more Chaimowicz than Cocteau, pastels rather than black and white Gothic fairytale.

Still from La Belle et la Bête by Jean Cocteau
When I was doing my BA sculpture degree my thesis in complementary studies was on Cocteau's films as poetry, so this session was full of transformations for me: film as poetry, installation as poetry, film and poetry as art. We started by finding one object in the room to speed-write about. Then I handed out lines from the screenplays of La Belle et la Bête and Orphée, lines such as "Look at yourself in a mirror all your life, and you'll see death at work, like bees in a hive of glass" from a passage-through-the-mercury-mirror scene in Orphée, and "I am the door to your room" and "it is night in my world, but it is morning in yours" from La Belle et la Bête. These magical films served as guides to our work, as I'd asked everyone to watch clips from them on You Tube as homework the previous week and some even bought DVDs of the whole films

Armed with one line from each film (selected from my handouts) and a random line from Cocteau's very surreal poems, which they picked from a French chocolate box I handed around, the task was to write a poem responding to Chaimowicz's installation, and to incorporate these three lines somewhere in the poem. I gave licence to be as free as they wished in their interpretations of the art, in the same spirit as Chaimowicz, who did not worry about being slavishly literal in his rendering of Cocteau's fantasy bedroom. I advised them to focus on one object, make their theme Cocteau if they wished, or simply write about a room of their own. In fact the poems that addressed Cocteau directly worked well, as did the more personal responses. Quite a few used their random Cocteau poem-lines as their last lines and that seemed to supply a surprise element.

Wednesday 6 March 2013

Transformations: Poetry from Art at Tate Modern: Ibrahim El-Salahi

Our second session of Transformations: Poetry from Art was in the Poetry and Dream galleries, working with the Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi's painting Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I.  I'd been looking forward to this, despite having a heavy cold and feeling distinctly unwell last night, the sheer pleasure of looking at this painting carried me through. The title alone sets the imagination going. 

Instead of our usual initial speed-writing I asked everyone to slow-write, to really concentrate and look. What could they see in the shadows, the lights? They should make a careful note of this but spend a few minutes just looking and listening, because it's the sounds of childhood dreams.  When they sat back down in our circle I asked each person to pair up with their neighbour and exchange impressions then make a note of their neighbour's observations. Some saw horses, fish, a whale, skeletons! Then we discussed some background: how El-Salahi had painted this on returning to his homeland after studying at the Slade. We studied three poems which attempt to capture the nature of childhood.

Kim Moore's 'Give Me A Childhood', published in the inaugural issue of POEM magazine, is a magical search for what it is to have a child's imagination and live as owls do "on silent wings. I will wear my heart / as a face." The owl-soul and the journey by car are as shadowy and haunting as El-Salahi's painting. We also read Mark Strand's 'Where are the waters of childhood?' which also embarks on a magical journey. Through a series of imperatives a life is unreeled back to a time before birth: "Now you invent the boat of your flesh and set it upon the waters /... Now you look down. The waters of childhood are there." Our last 'childhood' poem was 'The Small Boy and the Mouse' by DH Maitreyabandhu, which won the 2009 Keats-Shelley prize for its evocation of the power of a child's imagination.

To write a poem everyone had to include an observation by their neighbour about the painting, as well as something from their own notes and write a poem on the childhood theme. They could use the imperative form as Mark Strand had, or make a journey, or involve an animal, and listen to the sounds of childhood as well as its sights.

Homework was to get acquainted with Jean Cocteau's films Beauty and the Beast and Orpheus for next week's sesssion in Marc Camille Chaimowicz's Jean Cocteau room in A Bigger Splash. There are snips from both on You Tube.

Tuesday 26 February 2013

Transformations: Poetry from Art at Tate Modern, Lucy McKenzie

Last night was our first session of my new course at Tate Modern – Transformations: Poetry from Art. We worked in A Bigger Splash, in the last room, surrounded by Lucy McKenzie's trompe l'oeil room sets, with their wallpaper stains and cloudscapes. These wall-sized paintings were prompted by Muriel Spark's novella, The Girls of Slender Means about a Kensington townhouse converted into a boarding house for down-at-heel women in the post-war era. The house vanishes by the end of the story, but I won't spoil it by saying how. McKenzie interprets this with an illusion of a half-sky half-house.

Our task was to transform a visual art work based on literature, back into literature, a tall order for twenty-five people in one and a half hours. 

I started the class by asking them to speed-write their response to the installation without knowing any of its background. They had five minutes to do this, and could write anything that came into their heads. The important thing was to write. I suggested they focus on one detail. We then sat down and introduced ourselves, offering the group one phrase from the speed-writing as a gift. We followed this with a discussion of the art and McKenzie's intentions.

We studied poems which are set in a room. In Cavafy's 'The Afternoon Sun' the vanished furniture of a room turned into an office is evoked, "Beside the window the bed; / the afternoon sun used to touch half of it" and a lost love is mourned through the furnishings. In the Hebrew poet Amir Or's short poem 'Home' a philosophical meditation on ideas of 'home' ends on a shocking surreal image: "Faceless night covers with its wings    the fish's spasms on the hook". A poem can make an abrupt tonal shift and tell more of its intent through the image of a fish caught in a giant hook as if in a doll's house. I'd brought lots of examples of poems that have a house as their central focus, including Margaret Atwood's 'Morning in the Burned House' and Marie Howe's 'The Attic', but we only had time to discuss one more, Marilyn Nelson's praise poem 'Dusting', a good example of how to narrow the focus to a microscopic level, in this case dust, so as to make a larger statement.

They now had fifteen minutes to write a poem, incorporating one of the gift phrases. I asked them to consider three things: that they were not expected to write well, they had permission to write badly, because good writing might come from that, from having the freedom to experiment. The second thing was that they shouldn't feel constrained by the artwork, they should use it as they wish, and if they needed to stray far from that source then so be it. Being dutiful can hinder. However, it was there to help, instead of a blank page, so they might have a go at first. The third suggestion was that they try to remember a home they have lived in, and write about a relationship through that home and its furniture, doors or dust. It's hard to write a good poem if the writer is not fully engaged with the subject, so they should look for their way in to it.

Fifteen minutes is not much time, not enough to worry and get self-critical. Everyone read their poems back; it's always fascinating to hear how different they all are. I heard poems, germs of poems and rich material for poems, a satisfying start to the course.

Next week we'll be in the Poetry and Dream wing, looking at the Sudanese painter Ibrahim El-Salahi's haunting work 'Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I', which I am very much looking forward to.

Friday 1 February 2013

The Zoo Father & my next collection My Father's City

The Zoo Father, my second collection, was published in 2001 and was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. It was also Boyd Tonkin's poetry highlight of the year in the Independent and Les Murray's book of the year in the TLS. It was selected for the Poetry Book Society Next Generation promotion, was a PBS Recommendation and won two Arts Council awards while in progress. It charts a remarkable event in my life, when my estranged father contacted me and I met him in Paris while he was dying of emphysema. I hadn't seen him for 35 years. Those visits to his cramped flat in the Latin Quarter were difficult as he had abused and abandoned his family. He told me he moved from place to place during his life, including the Kabylie Mountains in Algeria and Marseille, as well as hotels where he had lived for years just opposite Notre Dame. The only way I could write about him then was through imagery of the Amazon jungle, which I'd recently journeyed to. The poems are a series of Amazonian animal masks of us both and use rituals from the tribes I met while there, or read about later.

Twelve years after his death I started writing new poems about him, during many stays in Paris, the city of my birth. When I stay there the poems come daily. It is an extraordinary experience falling in love with the city that I hated and feared as a child but I am quite obsessed with it, and every time I go I discover something new to love – museums, parks, squares, that radiate from Notre Dame, the core of the quartier latin, his quartier, which he knew during the jazz age. When he was young he lived in a pension a few doors down from the Hotel Cristal and knew Django Reinhardt and his nightclubs. Later, when he was disappeared, he lived just opposite the cathedral, and I imagine him overlooked by the gargoyles and chimeras on the towers

The resulting poems of this second collection about my father will be published by Seren in 2014. The working title is My Father's City. I'm very grateful to have a grant from the Arts Council again, to support me while I finish the book and to enable me to spend a month in Paris in spring.

Wednesday 16 January 2013

Hand-feeding Birds in Paris

Hand-feeding the birds in Paris is compulsive. I do it every time I go. My favourite are the sparrows. On one visit I would wander down to Notre Dame square every evening with a madeleine longue, rice or birdseed bought in the nearby bird market. I love the sensation of their tiny gripping claws, and I talk to them of course. There are regulars who feed them every day, every year, that the birds know, who attract a flock as soon as they arrive with their carrier bags full of seed or bread. If I don't have any food on me I'll ask them for a hand-full of theirs, and chat to them about the ways of sparrows, or gulls, crows, pigeons, starlings - they all take their turns. 
When I was four I lived in a children's home south of Paris called the Mésangerie – the tit-house – and the birds of Paris I encounter now remind me of those infants in their nest-like dormitories, and also of Annette Messager's sculptures The Boarders and Knit for Sparrows, with her sparrow corpses obsessively dressed in knitted capes and crocheted bonnets, laid out to sleep in boarding rooms. The sparrows – or moineaux – seem miraculous to me, as I live in east London, where they have virtually vanished, though they were plentiful when I first moved here twenty-five years ago. A special treat is to see them having a dust-bath just by the privet in front of Notre Dame, which I remember they used to do on the pavement outside my house once, so often I didn't always marvel at their ritual.

Me hand-feeding the sparrows on the parvis of Notre Dame, over the box privet, I took the photo on my iPhone with my other hand.

The gull man this Christmas on the Pont au Double. He has trained them to eat from his lips as well, I love the queue!

The crows of the Jardin des Plantes, at twilight, closing time, this Christmas. A woman arrived with a bag of bread and hundreds crowded around her.

This man must be a regular. He was so engrossed in his sparrows it was captivating. I did ask for a hand-full of breadcrumbs from him and they devoured them instantly.

The pigeon man of Notre Dame

The pigeon woman of Notre Dame offering rice, Christmas 2011