Better Ways To Fail

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…

Black Disruption / White Wash

Here’s my situation.

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.

Black-out. Erasure.

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?

This wouldn't be news

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…

Lubaina Himid’s Sexy Slapdash Squares

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.

mima envelopeSkip 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.

Himid collage squares

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”

Gold Yellows collage after Himid

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…

What to do with a blank page, and why?

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?

WeBelieveAnything

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

PoemsHelpDriverlessVehiclesBut 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.

Blackout Poetry Workshops

Hi folks! I just remembered I have a personal blog where I can tell you things!

I’m doing blackout poetry workshops for Crossing the Tees Festival this month, and I’d love to see a few more faces as I fly about Teesside with my trundle case full of dismembered library books, watercolours, Sharpies, glitter tape, star stickers, crayons and frames…

Book via ARC – dates include TODAY 11th June 2pm in Redcar; Wednesday 13th June 5pm at Cockerton Library in Darlington; and 10.30am Saturday 23rd June in Hartlepool Community Hub (the library on York Road)

Workshops costs a fiver, and you’ll go home with your own piece of text-poetry-art, in either a clip frame or a mount (depending on how much glitter glue you use, I swear that stuff NEVER dries…)