Dear free-falling freelancers, the flock in which I find myself; are you frantic, too? Do you feel flightless?
What are we if not what we do, if not what we make? Commissions, projects and productions, a scant living but a joyful art. People! These things are our guide feathers, our winter down. We’re all so plucked.
I got together with fellow poet-theatre-maker-producer Zoe to interrogate these sensations of collapsing identity. What I mean is, we had a much-needed commiseration Zoom. We’re both trying so hard, but we just can’t write the poetry and theatre that we thought made us who we are. Were?
Nor can we scrape together enough success from the constant hustle to pay our bills. Nor can we slice our energy fine enough to feed the housework and exercise and good home cooking and social Skypeing AND survival.
Dear free-falling freelancers, do you feel you’re flailing, failing?
Here are some of the most useful or uplifting straws Zoe and I gave each other to laugh and clutch at, perhaps they may help you too.
“Expect less of yourself”. This line and many others from this brilliant article on ‘surge capacity’ might speak to many. It’s difficult to apply patience when creativity is your selfhood and your livelihood, but even without a global pandemic you gotta fill the well sometimes. My fellows, lie fallow. Make like a daffodil and spend winter in a bulb of nurturing inactivity. Trust the art will grow again.
Appreciate what you’ve already made/take a holiday in a different art form. Pin your poems to your walls and read them aloud. Make them a gift of some illustrations. Sing them on your tea break. Imagine what they’d look like on the dance floor (good, I bet). Dance them. Turn to them when Zoom has eaten your brain. Trust the art will grow from unexpected directions.
Find a foul-weather friend. It’s hoying it down out there, psychologically. Is there anyone who would collaborate on something small and joyous with you? My friend Jo and I are posting each other envelopes of scrap papers and postcards every so often, as a collage challenge. She reached out to me, and I’m grateful she did. Could you reach out to someone else who is pretending to have their shit together? Trust the art will grow between you.
Spend your energy wisely. My mentor told me, you can’t get out of a crisis like this by working harder. Decide – that thing you’re doing for money, is it a temporary life raft, or are you building an ark? Paddle accordingly. Zoe has found a life raft that is enjoyable and does good in the world. Right now, that’s all she needs to do – oh and watch out for any glimmer of creative enjoyment round the edges. I have the resources to gamble on a year of ark-building. I’m trying to focus and not go for every opportunity, because I know I can’t make a quilt out of those few scraps anyway. None of us can. This video of Elizabeth Gilbert may be helpful with anyone struggling with “I am what I do” and “I don’t want to find a life raft”. Trust the art will grow in the corners.
Be kind to your muse.Again with the Gilbert, though she uses the word ‘genius’. Your creativity isn’t down to you, it’s whispered to you by your genius. Your genius is tired and confused and over-stimulated by All The Everything. Reassure it that you will listen out for, and make a note of, any tiny sliver of inspiration they can pass your way. Draw a flattering portrait of your muse and put it on your wall in your peripheral vision. Ask your genius how they’re feeling, and if they might send you something in your dreams. Trust the art will grow again.
For networking and practical support (mostly north east UK) here are some links for you:
I love a fresh start, how about you? I love it so much that I have notebooks and rooms full of unfinished projects, and a head full of even more that I am definitely going to start, one of these days…
…which is why it’s a refreshing change to say I have finished something! I started this blackout poetry book back in 2012 perhaps? A lifetime ago. And last weekend I finished it. It’s not the most incredible thing in the world, but it’s mine, and I’m done. What project have you completed recently? How long did it take you?
In my imagined future I sit on a cushion rag-rug-covered in denim blues, looking at the neolithic horses I’ve sculpted out of papier mache and all those toilet roll innards. I’m relaxing after recording the seventh in my series of poetry review vlogs, and pondering the edits to my fourth collection of poems about geomancy, post-Apocalyptic shamanism and GPS. I’ve loved writing it, it’s been such a welcome break from the best-selling crime novels. On the wall behind me is a huge canvas covered with coral polyps fashioned from water-softened rail tickets I’ve collected over the past decade. My stop-motion filmpoem of hand-painted beetles has been selected for an international festival, and I pen a little celebratory sketch into one of the hand-made scrapbooks I fill each lunar month. Soon I will go out and contemplate the incredible living patterns I have painted on my garden wall in buttermilk and blended moss. Birds are bathing happily in the water feature I made from a reclaimed pedestal hand basin, encrusted with Gaudiesque mosaics. I think I may have lost a little weight…
As you’re no doubt aware, things are a little … unclear at the moment. We’re not locked down, but loads of people aren’t comfortable with the thought of nonessential socialising, like workshops or gigs. At the same time, we’re missing them and the specific emotional sustenance that comes from in-real-life connection. How can community artists bridge the gap between an activity made safe through digital distancing, and their desire to reach out to people?
It looks to me like hybrid project delivery is becoming a clear way forward, which can mix these elements: live digital workshops, pre-recorded instructional videos, materials kits delivered by post, and community displays either in our streets or online. Here are some thoughts about the pros and cons of all of that, based on work I’ve done so far since lockdown started.
Live connection via Zoom or similar group working platforms
People get to meet in real time and hopefully have fun!
There are a lot of good functions to use as teaching tools and as ways to facilitate new relationships (screen share, annotate, breakout rooms)
You can record sessions (with participant permission) again as a simple way of collecting evidence for reports to funders
Inaccessible to many, due to poor internet connection, Zoom fatigue, and other discomforts particularly difficulty processing online social cues for neurodivergent participants
No in-built auto-captioning facility on Zoom, though captions can be added if you are able to afford a speed typist. Streaming to third party live transcription services is not without hitches
Combination of live talk, chat function and possibly captions as well creates utter chaos for any blind participant using a screen-reader app
Fatiguing for the artist as well!
Having a tag team where one person delivers the Zoom workshop, and another one bridges between the Zoom and a live conversation on Facebook where people can access activities in text-only form. This is how the Tees Women Poets run their monthly writing group.
People can access the information at a time that suits them, and as many times as they want
It remains useful indefinitely, for both artist and commissioning organisation, beyond the funded life of a project
Can be a beautiful and fun thing to make, and to watch
Making them requires an entirely new skillset for many artists, and the learning curve is steep
You need the kit – new iPad, tripod, ring light and clip-mic, anyone?
Downloadable patterns for craft projects are only useful if people have access to a printer
Captions! So many organisations are putting out instructional videos on their social media, from the Royal Academy to local arts entrepreneurs, but not everyone is making them accessible through captioning. Try free online captioning for short videos.
It’s gorgeous and exciting getting something in the post
It is the bridge between a digital encounter and a material one
Make sure your in-house packaging process is safe for Covid
For some artforms the postal costs might be prohibitive
Hard to see how this would work for people teaching pottery, for example
May not be able to send all equipment needed, e.g sharps, scalpels for collage
The additional time needed to make up packages rather than take a big bag of stuff to a workshop – if you’re freelancing, factor it in to your fee!
There have been some lovely projects emerging that build on our initial lockdown enthusiasm for putting stuff in our windows, such as Bloominart’s community gallery in Hartlepool.
Fosters community, provides a talking point for neighbours
Democratises art, brings it out of galleries and into community ownership
Same problem with access to home printers might arise for template-based arts activities
How to build and prove audience as well as participation? Can we think about organising socially distanced street-viewings as well? As we move towards winter, what creative possibilities might exist around lit windows, silhouettes and ‘stained glass’ effects? Can we translate these ideas to non-domestic settings?
Later this year, I hope to set up a CUBO club using postal kits, as something to offer people who are still keeping social distance as we enter the dark months. Perhaps by the time we get there, it will no longer be needed, but my feeling is that this hybrid way of working will be with us for a long time. What do you think? And how do you plan to adapt?
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…
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.
Hi all – quick round-up of what’s been keeping me away from blogging here – blogging HERE! Celebrating Change is a new Arts Council-funded project from me and my colleague Laura Degnan. We’re combining my writing experience with her filmmaking skills in order to run a year-long digital storytelling project for Middlesbrough residents. I’m also in charge of running the blog as a poetry/film/flash fiction online magazine, so please do check out the many poems I’ve been posting over the last few weeks.
Otters are through the first edit and getting their covers sorted, on track for publication in early October – you can still pre-order your copy, and even buy a print of my ‘Otters In A Bathtub’ illustration, or instruct me to draw an otter of your very own! You have until 10th October to get in on the deal, so do get clicking!
And finally, I will be one half of a brand-new pamphlet coming out in the Black Light Engine Room series. These are gorgeous little pocket-sized poetry gems, with a classy yellow cover, and only cost £4 a pop. I will be reading at the pamphlet launch at Python Gallery in Middlesbrough on Saturday 28th October, hope to see you there.
Lots of other gigs and readings lined up for autumn:
Hello! This is for anyone who would like to know what kind of stuff happened in my recent creative writing workshops for The Forge in Stanley. It’s also a bit about how poems might develop after such a workshop. If that’s not for you, then no worries, see you later xx
I recently ran two versions of the same workshop, one as an open public 3-hour workshop for Northern Writes Festival, and a shorter 2-hour version this morning for the Just For Women group. The basic structure was the same, but with 3 writing exercises in the longer version, 2 in the shorter session. In both, we start by drawing a map of somewhere we knew well as children. Over 30-45 minutes, we add on layers of details – street names and nicknames; people, animals, significant trees; places where stories happened to us and to others; urban legends; colours, sounds, textures and smells. It’s incredible how much detail you can recall using the technique of mapping.
Then we read a couple of example poems. I think of this bit as a choice between ‘landscape’ and ‘portrait’. The poems I’ve been using have been The Bight by Elizabeth Bishop, and Jean by my friend Jane Burn. We talk for a while about images, how to make them vivid, how to make verbs work hard for you. (Jean’s hair doesn’t curl, it ‘fizzes’, for example). Then we free write a landscape or portrait of our own, using the maps and their memories as our inspiration.
In the longer workshop I also ask people to try a short prose-poem or piece of flash fiction telling a real or imagined anecdote, and hand people some examples of ludicrous but real headlines to get them going. (One person in Stanley used this one – Ghost Hunters Stumble On Graveyard Porn Shoot). At some point we have tea. At the end we give our pieces a bit of spit-and-polish, talk about what editing we might do at home, share the bits we like so far. And then…
Freewrite in workshop
Edit 1 in workshop
Well this is what happened to mine – huge frustration, followed by a couple of edits that got me quite close to a finished poem. It may not be brilliant, but it’s more interesting than versions 1 or 2. In my opinion.