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.