Does anyone actually enjoy failing? In my first blog about my writing residency at MIMA, I said I was going to experiment with a really wide range of techniques, and fail as interestingly as possible. But of course, I secretly hoped that everything I touched would turn to gold.
Readers, it did not.
I’ve shown you some of what I feel are the better pieces to come out of the residency so far – now here are a couple of bits I’ve binned.
The power of this African life, this free life, crosses history
I’m happy enough with the content of this blackout poem, but as an object it is ugly and dull- it actually looks much better in photographs than it does in real life, thanks to the miracle of editing tools.
I tried first to erase text using a stippling technique, then when that didn’t work I covered over text with masking tape.
That was a really revolting mess of a white-out, so I started painting the masking tape with black ink, hoping for a sort of stormy sea effect. It dried and took on a patchwork leather effect, which looks like a mistake on this crappy bit of cardboard. I used some of the blackout squares from a previous film to try to create more interest. Meh.
Can it be turned around? I think the only thing that might work is if I were to apply this technique to a human figure or silhouette. Then it might be possible to think in terms of the literal scars of slavery, or dreadful stories about the use of human hides. Then the leathery, bandaged surface might become something powerful and moving. Am I the right person to do this? I think not. But that is what the final texture of the piece brought to my mind. If I were to do this with an anonymous human form, it would be an exercise in objectification. Himid’s life-sized figure works because he is named, reclaimed, celebrated in all his individual glory.
This second piece is a more convention blackout poem, using felt-tip pen. I was experimenting with a non-linear, non-grammatical construction. Basically a sort of mind-map springing out of the central phrase “questions of migration”. It’s too random a cloud of words, requiring too much interpretation by the reader to have much of an impact.
So – there you have it, I have managed to fail as promised, though maybe not as interestingly as I would like. Not yet, anyway! Onwards! The next phase of the residency is inspired by Brazilian artist Brigida Baltar, and I’m still working on the written aspect. I’ll be back once I have some visuals for you! Plus, watch out for some writing prompts coming your way…
I’m a white woman, a nobody writer, an amateur at art. I’m writer-in-residence at mima, testing out some found poetry techniques on their archive documents.
The artist whose file I’m currently working on is Lubaina Himid. A black woman, a lifelong activist for the empowerment of black artists specifically and black people universally, an internationally-acclaimed artist, a Turner Prize-winner.
I know for a fact that nothing I do will go down in history.
But I do not know for a fact that Himid’s magnificent achievements absolutely, positively will go down in history. They bloody should. Mima wants to be part of making sure they do. But history has a nasty tendency to white-wash. Might be something to do with who gets to write it…
The picture I’m responding to is all about the white-washing of history, and how it perpetuates systemic racism. The subject of the painting is Toussaint L’Ouverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution, who in his lifetime was as famous as Napoleon.
Any English person has at least heard of Napoleon, right?
Have you heard of L’Ouverture?
I took Himid’s biography, and made a stop-motion erasure called Black Disruption/White Wash. It’s supposed to be a comment on the thoughts I’ve written above. I’m not sure it works, and if you want to comment then please do. But please, please, as well as reading this blog (thanks if you’ve got this far) it’s way more important that you have a look at Himid and her phenomenal career.
Next week I’ll post my final thoughts on this section of my residency, and show you the bits that went a bit Pete Tong…
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that one collaged found poem does not a writing residency make.
(To catch a hold of what I’m blethering on about, read how I am inventing my own residency, and have a neb at my first piece of work.)
Next steps, therefore, must be to produce more, more, more, MORE work. Dutifully, I turned my attention to the ‘treatment proposal’ document pertaining to Toussaint L’Ouverture by Lubaina Himid. I took that report, and I cut it into strips, and I shuffled it around, and I thought about how we should treat each other with the kind of loving attention that a conservator lavishes on an Old Master, and – well. Turns out either the language of art conservation is truly lacking in poetry, or I am much worse at this than I thought. Darnit.
I managed to glean two micro-poems, two tiny little ‘treatment proposals’. The first is a kind of instruction about treating your own self with patience.
Surface, glazed – a decision made
The second is more about treating others with compassion.
Whilst inherently unstable,
small tears can be repaired by
Then, because they were so teeny-tiny, I spent some time bigging them up via the application of Some Slightly Flashier Techniques, making one into a stop-motion film,
and the other into both a stop-motion and a collage.
The upshot is that I quite like the end products! The collage is on cardboard, something I’ve been meaning to try for ages, and which I felt duty-bound to do now because Himid’s work is on cardboard. It’s a fantastically accessible material, which I’m sure is a political statement on her part, and of course it’s a better environmental choice than buying art paper especially. I think I’ll keep on using cardboard in future projects.
The stop-motions are fairly crude, but I do love the process. I played around with filters for the first time, and liked the way a black-and-white resulted in great gashes of light appearing in the animation. It’s good to know that even if my lighting conditions at home are desperately amateur, I might still be able to salvage or even improve footage by using the right built-in cheats.
Next time, I combine erasure poetry with stop-motion, and try to pay homage to Himid’s politics. While I’m gone, here’s an automatic haiku generator for you to play with.
I’m in the second-floor gallery at mima. I’m surrounded by an amazing array of art. I need to choose maybe half a dozen artworks as my focus. I’m a writer-in-residence. I’m going to use their archived records as source texts for erasure poems, but I have no idea what kind of documents are kept on file. What do I choose?
My first choice, without a moment’s hesitation, is Toussaint L’Ouverture by Lubaina Himid. It’s huge, bold, and contains loads of brilliant collage elements. I know that I want to use collage as an erasure technique in my found poems. Himid is definitely a good choice.
Skip forward a few weeks, and I’m at home when an enormous padded envelope arrives from the mima team. Inside is a ream of photocopied archive documents, including several about Himid’s work. There is an extensive biography, an acquisition statement, and a detailed condition report from a conservator. This last document includes a thorough treatment proposal, full of technical suggestions on how to repair and maintain the painting.
I start from waaaay inside my comfort zone – a tiny found poem spied in the condition report, simple and quite abstract. It’s all about colour, but not about race. I know I’ll have to work out how to respond to Himid with some shred of socio-political consciousness, but I haven’t thought it through yet. I just want to do some erasure using collage squares that are as exuberant as the ones that Himid has used to make the floor under Toussaint’s boots.
I ransack my stack of magazines for images featuring gold and yellow, cut them into rough squares, and set about it with a Pritt stick. Bliss.
“Gold has yellowed….yellowed…yellows”
Is this developing my creative practice? It’s not so far away from work I’ve made in the past, although I’ve never made a process video before. I love time lapse! OK, I will try to do more of these videos, and framed better, without so much of my belly-bulge showing. But first I have a hankering to do some stop-motion.
Tune in next week to find out what I manage to squeeze from a treatment proposal, and why I start regretting the whole endeavour…
Creativity is always a leap of faith. You’re faced with a blank page, blank easel, or empty stage. – Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way
I’m currently a writer-in-residence at mima, Middlesbrough’s Institute of Modern Art. Well, so what? I hear you say. Congrats and custard to you, I bet you’re very happy with yourself. But, BUT, friends – there are no terms to this residency! I have to decide for myself what to do and when to do it by. This is quite different from when I was poet-in-residence at Hartlepool History Then And Now, gathering and re-telling WW1 maritime tales. This is a teensy bit terrifying. What on earth am I going to do?
Some background? Ok. Last year I was accepted on to the Writers Block North East novel-writing bootcamp, a year-long programme during which, if participants so choose, they may supplement their frantic novel-writing with a self-generated side hustle at mima. My side hustle is this –
I will use archive documents relating to artworks in the Middlesbrough collection as source material to inspire blackout, erasure and found poetry, plus a load of other digital and multimedia approaches like stop-motion films and collage.
If you follow my Insta, you’ll know that these are all things I do for fun. They’re not my ‘real’ writing. (Whatever that means, imposter-critic-head-voice) I mean, writing is writing and I’m a writer, right? (WHATEVER THAT MEANS, IMPOSTER-CRITIC-HEAD-VOICE!) So why do I do them in the first place? And why choose to do them more?
I do them
1. To keep myself creatively active through times of block and mental exhaustion
2. To retain playfulness as a creative principle
3. To get some wiggle-room into the idea of ‘writing’ by crossing disciplines and media
4. To activate my subconscious and surprise myself
5. To activate my subconscious and recognize patterns of thought, association, values
So, by making techniques the focus of this residency, I hope to
1. Make work on a broad and unexpected range of subjects
2. Make work whose forms and materials are influenced by both the source texts and the artworks to which they refer
3. Experiment with a really wide range of techniques, and fail as interestingly as possible
4. Learn to use new equipment and digital methods
5. Say hi to a new bunch of people via the mima Insta account
But YOU lovely lot are going to get more than just an Insta post. I’m going to take you with me while I work out what the heckitty-heck to do, and if you have had any similar experiences of setting up your own residency in any artform at all, you’d better believe I’d LOVE to hear about it. Have you blogged about it? Send me links! I’ll quote you! What’s your process, your practise, your advice?
Tune in next week-ish for some Gold/Yellow collage, a process video in which my belly features far too prominently, and me fangirling somewhat about Lubaina Himid. And follow @mimauseful on Insta, please and thank you.
God loves an independent bookshop, yes she does, especially the self-help section. Independent bookshops are places of love and beauty, so small that thirty people assembled for an author talk is as good as a stadium crowd. (The best ones, like mine, also have a coffee machine.)
I loved the extract she read (enough to buy the book), but it was the Q&A session that delivered treasure – because, dear Reader, I am that unhappiest of creatures, a First-Time Aspiring Novelist.
Here are the marvellous titbits of inspiration I took from Steph’s talk, all of which I will immediately try to apply to my writing life:
1. There are no RULES for the writer’s working day, only PREFERENCES
Oh joy, you mean I’m not failing if I haven’t written 1000 words by 8am? No! Steph works when she feels most able to sit down and focus on the work. As it happens, for her that is first thing. A 2-hour morning might yield 1000 words that would take twice as long to squeeze out if she started in the afternoon. BUT – if the morning is taken up with other, unavoidable things, then a long afternoon of writing will happen. The woman has professional persistence.
2. 1000 words a day for 3 months = “a bad first draft”
I love that “bad”. If I could fixate on completion at the expense of perfection, I might be in with a shot of writing this damn thing!
3. Novels will bring their own ways of being written
Now, I’m working with a formulaic genre (cosy crime), which Steph is not, but I still found it inspiring to hear how each time she writes a novel she comes up with a different way of ‘how to write a novel’. This current book was meticulously planned using a spreadsheet. Her previous book, ‘The Curious Heart Of Ailsa Rae‘, was written in a huge outpouring and then sculpted into shape. It’s OK for me to not know exactly how to write this first book of mine. Even better, it will be OK for me not to quite know how to write the next one, and the next – better to be interested in the process than the product!
4. Don’t read inside your own genre while you’re writing
I’ve been a reading a lot of my genre, because as a first-time writer I need to spend a bit of time working out how it’s done. But now that I’m into the actual writing, I can see the sense of giving my brain some space. Should probably lay off the cosy crime TV dramas, too! Steph reads Young Adult fiction, and dystopian fiction, so this could be a great excuse for me to widen my reading landscape.
5. Editing is great, but after a while you’re not making the book better, you’re making it a different book.
I haven’t reached this stage yet, but I’m going to bear it in mind when I do…
And the bonus bit of info is this:
6. The presenter for uber-macho TV show Top Gear was actually Angela Rippon!
*’The Woman In The Photograph’ is a story about feminism and fierce friendship. It is out now from Zaffre Books and if you buy it online via Hive then you can nominate a local bookshop to collect it from. The bookshop receives a small fee. This is massively better for authors and booksellers than going to Amazon, but doesn’t make it any more expensive for you – please make Hive a habit!
After I worked as performance mentor on Rose’s show, The Empathy Experiment, I asked her some questions about how our process had been for her. I’m very grateful for her answers, which have helped me to assess and value my own practise, and which may prove encouraging for other performance poets out there wondering what support they would need to make a spoken word theatre show.
Why did you feel like you needed performance mentoring on this show?
The Empathy Experiment is my third solo show. I created my previous two shows with a small amount of input from others, but this is the first time I have had the resources (thanks Arts Council!) to develop a project in full collaboration with other artists. I knew I wanted to bring together people who could support specific areas of development. Dominic Berry helped me with dramaturgy and how to effectively incorporate audience engagement. Kate Morton brought her design expertise into how I could create a simple but unified look for the show. Eleonora Rosca composed and recorded original music for the show. And I knew you would be great as a performance mentor.
Even though I have a background in theatre and feel confident performing in front of an audience, I felt like there was more that I could explore in my performance in terms of how I use my body and my voice. The Empathy Experiment is different from my previous two because it follows a continuous narrative arc all the way through. I felt like I needed someone to be an outside eye to help me build that storytelling journey using movement, voice and characterisation.
What did you expect out of our day together, and what was it actually like?
To be honest, I wasn’t totally sure what to expect. I imagined we would probably do some activities playing with different ways of using my body and then matching them with different parts of the show.
It was really useful to have our Skype meeting beforehand. You asked great questions about what I hoped we might explore together. In particular, you commented that you knew my performance style was often very still and poised, and you wanted to play with different ways I could use my body. You were very understanding when I said I often struggle with anxiety and that I may have to work through some of that in our session together. You struck a great balance between listening to my ideas and offering suggestions for what we might try together. You asked me to have a think about different kinds of physicality at different parts of the show.
On the day, we leapt right in. After I did a run through of the show for you we dove in to creating different bodies for the various stages of the performance. You came to the session with lots of specific ideas for me to try in each section. For example, we watched a YouTube video of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ song ‘Give It Away’ (which is what my poem ‘Put It Away’ is modelled on) and you asked me to play with how I can infuse that raw animalistic energy into my performance. We drew pictures related to the ‘Little Match Girl’ poem, which then gave me specific things to visualize when I perform it. We discovered very distinct physical differences between the two voices in my ‘Mirror Mirror’ poem (about Trump speaking to a magic mirror) which has sharpened the performance.
We hit an emotional nerve when we played with tension and anxiety in the penultimate poem, which is written to be a crisis point in the show anyway. You were very compassionate and receptive to my unexpected outpouring of emotion. After a bit of a break, we talked through how I can access that emotional intensity in performance with care and caution, which felt very reassuring.
The whole process was incredibly organic. I feel like we created bodies that I can authentically embody in performance. I feel like we created a body-centred road map that I can journey through in performance. I feel like this work has added another layer to the full experience of performing the show, and has hopefully added a depth and richness for the audience watching the show.
It was a super intense day, and I still can’t believe how much we achieved!
What made you choose me to help you on this project?
I knew you had seen me perform several times, so I knew you had a sense of my work and my performance style.
Having seen you in performance a few times, I always noticed that your physicality worked in tandem with your poetry. You often move in intentional and nuanced ways that connect with the words you are saying. I really admired this and wanted to explore incorporating that into my own performance.
I also really enjoyed the workshop sessions that you facilitated when a few of us poets gathered to prepare an opening set for Shane Koyczan’s performance in York in summer 2017. You led activities that gave our group an authentic and organic process for deciding what poems to perform. When we rehearsed our pieces you offered feedback that strengthened our performances, using language that was full of imagery. Your overall approach was joyful and enthusiastic. You guided us to discover nuance and technique in how we shared our pieces. I liked the compassionate and detailed way you worked. I found I really connected with your development style, and this led me to wanting to work with you on The Empathy Experiment.
What could other poets and theatre-makers gain from employing a performance mentor?
I think working with a performance mentor in this way can help poets / theatre-makers dig into their performance toolbox (so to speak) and really play with all the performance tools they have at their disposal … like vocal tone, movement, pacing, physicality, characterization, etc. I think poets in particular (and I include myself in this) can get stuck in being talking heads. There is so much emphasis on the words that the body can be forgotten. Working with a performance mentor can bring a performance poet to life and can bring their words to the next level. I also think it’s useful for poets at any level of experience to do some performance mentoring. When we workshopped our pieces for the Shane Koyczan gig, we were all sharing poems we knew really well and (in some cases) had been performing for years. Digging into our performance toolboxes in our workshop meant we were trying new things with familiar material and injecting our pieces with new life and ideas.
How was this experience different from being directed as an actor?
Part of what was different was that I had written the show and so I was very close to the scripted material. It was a good challenge to release any fixed ideas about how I thought something should be performed so that I could be open to your suggestions. For example, I initially felt some resistance to going full Chilli Pepper in my ‘Put It Away’ poem or going full Sandy from Grease in my ‘Dear Facebook’ poem … partly out of feeling anxious
and self-conscious. But being open to playing and committing to your suggestions gave me space to discover. I also felt like we worked very much in collaboration with what we were exploring. You offered ideas and guidance, but all along the way you checked in about how I felt or what I thought. That sense of joint ownership over the creative process was different to my experiences as an actor, and was really positive in our process.
You’ve heard this one, right? Once upon a time, there was a goddess called Demeter. Her power ripened corn, and brought the fruit to sweetness. But when her only daughter was abducted and taken to Hades, she went mad with grief. She wandered the world, searching for Persephone, and the world descended into perpetual winter.
Poets write based on Greek myths a lot. I have a poem in Under The Radar magazine issue 23 based on the Demeter/Persephone myth, and I thought I’d tell you how I came to write it – by doing to myself just what I did with Rose Condo in my last blog.
On a bitterly cold day in January 2015, I created a ‘Demeter body’. I asked myself –
What if she wandered all the way to 2019?
What if she searched as far as Hartlepool?
What would she look like?
How would she move?
I imagined a muttering, distraught homeless woman, ingrained with grime, constantly scanning the gutter-edges of towns for a trace of her daughter, neck hunched forward, arms compulsively reaching out, quivering with painful hope at every child.
I got into character and went on a very long walk through the frozen streets. “Listen with your feet, the shadows are all ice”
I hunched myself, crunched my neck, and limped through some of the most neglected parts of Hartlepool Headland, down the walkway where “the old coal rail / is tarmacked and sequinned with broken fifths of scotch” and into town.
I walked through housing estates I’d never visited before. “Black dog on Vincent Street, slaver on its jowls”
I was astonished by the screams coming from playtime at the local schools. “Rosy little children / breathing out steam like rotting compost”
I even pushed through a damaged fence to search in the scrub near the railway, because by then the body was telling me that Demeter absolutely needed to check everywhere. Every dirty corner where the lost and trashed accumulate.
I lived, trusted and followed Demeter’s body for about four hours. When I came home, I was aching and exhausted, but I had a poem that seemed to have discovered a new voice.
The photographs featured here are composite images created from shots I took on my phone during my walk. They are my attempt to find a visual equivalent for the emotional atmosphere of the poem.
When I mentor performance poets, I watch their bodies. Are they – static, rigid, fidgety, slumped, blocked? Are they all up in their head, or is their personality coming out to meet me? I imagine I can actually see the movement, quality, even colour of their ‘energetic body’.
Then I get them to build new bodies.
Ones that better express their words. Ones where the non-verbal communication amplifies the verbal.
Rose Condo makes solo theatre shows, full of poems and warmth and humanity. She’s a very good writer, and Very Good People. But, she does have this habit of always keeping calm and still when she performs. So when she commissioned me to be performance mentor on her new show, The Empathy Experiment, I was itching to get her body moving. Fortunately, that’s exactly what she wanted too…
Here are the bodies I created with Rose:
The Donald &The Magic Mirror
Red Hot Chilli Rose
Hopelessly Devoted To Facebook
The Memory Arcade
Trying Her Best & The Scientist
Rose Under Pressure
The Donald & The Magic Mirror
In one poem, Rose plays both sides of a conversation between Trump and a magic mirror. We made sure the mirror showed polite horror through a rigid ‘backing off’ shape. For The Donald, Rose had some good expressions and gestures, but it really came alive when I got her to imagine projecting a huge ‘psychopathic hook’ out of the top of her head.
Red Hot Chilli Rose
“Put it away, put it away, put it away now” – the poem mimicked the classic Red Hot Chilli Peppers track ‘Give It Away’, but we needed the body as well. Using the video as inspiration, I forced poor Rose to flail about in full rock star mode!
Hopelessly Devoted To Facebook
For this break-up love-letter to social media, I wanted to channel Olivia Newton-John in ‘Grease’, but the wistful gazing into space didn’t quite nail it. Once we included a prop for Rose to look at, I could provoke a waltzing motion that was both romantic and confrontational.
The Memory Arcade
Three memories form the three stanzas of this poem. For each one, I asked Rose to visualise a tableau and stand within it, creating the scene in her mind as she spoke. Much more effective than you might expect from an invisible technique, and we spent some times drawing the tableaux to fix them in her mind.
Trying Her Best & The Scientist
These two are the narrative glue, the personas that do all the explanation. They are both Rose, but one of her is less confident, which shows in her looser posture and looping, wandering movements around the stage. The other Rose is more structured and certain, so she stays by her whiteboard and keeps herself straight and ‘plugged in’ to her head.
Rose Under Pressure
This body contains the heart of the show, and when we found it there was a very emotional, precious moment. I’m not going to talk about it too much. Perhaps you can understand it from the pictures?
Stay tuned for more, including a Q&A with Rose herself, plus I reveal how shiatsutraining can make you a better performance poet…
Celebrating Change grew in part out of a love for film-poetry. Although not everyone who takes part in the project ends up using a poem as the basis for their digital story, there is still something essentially poetic about putting pictures to words. We ask our film-makers to explore what happens when the pictures don’t […]