Ah I’m sad this course has finished. It’s been a challenge in some ways but I’m glad I stuck with it. I feel like I’m writing with honesty and clarity, as opposed to trying to shoehorn myself into a style that doesn’t fit.
It’s an odd thing this poetry business. Social media means I have the privilege of access to the thoughts and musings of writers whom I admire, and for the most part this is a grounding experience – everybody’s human and hearing other people’s uncertainties and frustrations holds an odd sort of comfort. Constant access to people’s thoughts can also be a sapper of confidence. Human nature is to shout of our success and skulk about our failings, and some days my twitter feed seems jam-packed with people who’ve gathered another prize or successful submission. It’s a rare (and lovely) person who is brave enough to say they missed out and feel that weird sort of happy sad -happy to have tried, sad to have failed.
Having said that, I’m finding the rejections less wounding – I actually start looking for other poem homes the minute I’ve sent mine out, in preparation for the “Thank you for your work but it’s just not right for us” email. . I don’t know why feel less worried by them – maybe I’m growing more critical of my work, more objective? Maybe a tiny success was all the validation I needed.
Mostly though, my experience on these courses has meant I’m genuinely enjoying writing. Not all bits – the time spent agonising about a particular word or whether I need a comma can be infuriating, but the little moment when I sit back and think “I think I’ve got something here” are magic. This invariably fades when I come back to stuff a week later, but hey, I have to grab these little victories.
What’s next and what happened with Secret Severn Artists?
I’m taking a break from my courses next month – my regular copywriting work has been put on hold (thank you Brexit, thank you Covid) so I’m focusing my time and money on building up my client base whilst scurrying around for online agency work. A break also gives me a chance to really review the work I’ve done over these courses – it may even be time to begin putting together a pamphlet/chapbook which I have no idea how to do but I’m sure I can find out.
Finally (this seems like a long post) I’ve completed my work for Secret Severn – you may remember the project had to be curtailed due carefully managed purse strings – nonetheless I wanted to complete the poems for the artists I’d been able to visit. It’s a mixed collection, some that definitely falls into the ekphrastic category, some that is a pure flight of fancy and a found poem that I absolutely adore. I plucked up the courage to send them to the artists, and I was thrilled with their response. It was a real privilege to work with such talented people. It’s a shame the funding was cut for the remaining visits so there aren’t as many different artists as I’d have liked but I’m looking at what to do with the work – I still have an eye on getting a lovely handmade book together that includes some of the images and inspirations alongside the words.
A busy month ahead – I’m still in my own lockdown but I know the pulls on my time will begin to show soon. I intend to make the most of this next month, and hopefully embark on another of Wendy Pratt’s wonderful courses in late summer.
Thank you for reading, please like comment and share, and if you’d like to read more about the Secret Severn Artists (and maybe buy some of their amazing work) you’ll find them here.
It stops me doing stuff. Sometimes, it’s because I’m too ill to get up. Sometimes it’s because my brain won’t work. Sometimes it’s because I’m in too much pain. Sometimes it’s because the sheer effort of planning enough rest before I take part in anything, and the fear of consequence, is overwhelming. I deal with these things every day, and have kind of come to accept them.
This month, a new obstacle has raised its head. I’m going to have to step down from my role as poet in residence. Not through lack of skill, or lack of interest from the talented people in Secret Severn, but because I can’t manage public transport on my own, which means I can’t get out to see the artists at work in their studios.
An invisible aspect of M.E. is brain fog. Brain fog feels as though someone has reached in to your mind and twisted up all the normal paths of thought. This happens when I overload and it’s pretty unnerving. I get confused and can lose track of where I am. This means using public transport alone isn’t safe for me and I have to rely on taxis for getting around. Taxis cost money, and purse strings have been pulled, so there are no longer funds to support my role. I’m incredibly sad, frustrated and unsure what to do next.
Undoubtably, the work has taken it’s toll. Producing good posts, editing photos and seeing folk takes time and energy and I’ve been ill since my last visit. The thing is, I’ve loved stepping up to the challenge of meeting so many new people, and even enjoyed my spell as an emergency steward in the gallery. The positive feedback from everyone was a tremendous boost, both as a writer, and personally.
Sadly, any future visits to artists studios have had to be cancelled, as well as my fledgling plans for plunging in to giving a reading or two and running a workshop as part of next year’s trail. Having to lose all this for the sake of a few pounds dispiriting.
There are still poems to be written, based on the work I’ve done so far, and I’m hopeful I’ll be able to continue working with the lovely people I met. Right now, this change of plan, as well as the general low that comes from being ill is tricky to deal with. My confidence is pretty dented, and I’m finding it hard to find resources for rebuilding.
Sometimes it feels like it’s time to stop trying.*
* I pride myself on positivity, and am an expert blessing counter. I am having a day off today. Normal service will resume shortly. I hope.
My last visit before the trail was to Mike and Suki White. They’re multi-talented, working with print, clay, and porcelain as well as being part of Wrekin Writers group. Their studio is tucked behind the Belfrey Theatre in Wellington, and it’s shared with several other ceramicists on the art trail.
On the day I visited, Mike was throwing pots, and Suki was working with porcelain paper clay. Mike explained the type of clay he was using, and about “grog”, ground up fired clay that’s used to give extra strength to pots.
As all good artists do, he made throwing the pots look effortless. Having taken up the invitation to have a go, I can confirm it’s not effortless. My attempts were hilarious, but I can see there’s something addictive about the feeling of creating something that manages to be useful and beautiful from a simple piece of clay.
There’s no fancy equipment, the finished shape and look of each piece depends entirely on the skill of the potter, and I think there’s something pleasing about this. Rather than something uniform and a little soulless, each piece that comes off the wheel has the imprint of the maker and is inherently unique.
Suki’s work porcelain paper clay enchanted me. Porcelain is white, delicate and fragile – Suki takes all of these qualities and creates pieces that have movement, and a sense of rebellion. They’re alive with texture, and the oxides she uses mean they have depth and tone. She prefers to leave her pieces unglazed, and the matt finish increases the sense of fragility.
We chatted about the Japanese practice of Kintsugi, the art of seeing beauty in imperfection. Suki showed me some pieces she’s applied this to, where cracks from the kiln have been repaired with gold, creating a piece with a unique beauty.
I’ve a good collection of material from this visit. I made good notes about the sounds and physical sensations of throwing a pot, as well as spending time looking at the contrasting beauty of the porcelain paper clay.
Over the next week I’ll be going to several workshops as well as spending time in the galleries. This is the next phase of my inspiration gathering and research, where I’m going to capture the responses of viewers to the art they’re seeing. I’m looking forward to this phase, and to seeing the exhibition as a whole.
For details about the Footprint gallery, and the rest of the trail which includes workshops and open studios visit https://secretsevern.co.uk/
Thank you for your kind support and encouragement during this project. It’s great to get such positive feedback. I’m looking forward to the next week, but I’m especially looking forward to being able to hide away with my notes and write.
Please share, comment on the Facebook post, and give me all the likes you can. Thank you x
I’ve admired Maggie’s paintings for several years, so I was really excited about the chance to spend some tine with her. Maggie’s studio is unassuming and bursting with beautiful work. She showed me her huge range of styles, moving from vivid, almost abstract pieces to delicately detailed country scenes and charming festive illustrations.
Two of my favourite pieces are in this downstairs gallery; a piece based on her experience of a choral rendition of A.E. Housman’s Blue Remembered Hills, and Shadows of Moon a swirling image of the hills. Both of these pictures make me feel as though I’m travelling through the landscape, and give a sense of there being a world waiting to be discovered beyond the frame.
Maggie explained that her career began as a ceramicist and she has produced many ceramic murals all over the country, including the fabulous blue dragon that welcomes visitors to the Dragon Theatre in Barmouth. Working with clay takes it’s toll however, and Maggie now works with oils, as well as creating detailed line drawings and illustrations.
One of Maggie’s many ceramic murals
I also spent a little time in Maggie’s beautiful garden, which is a paradise for bees and nature as well as humans. She explained that she loves to be here in the early hours – that secret time of day before people are up and about.
Next, it’s up the stairs to Maggie’s work room, past a mural of geraniums that covers a patch of less than perfect plaster. There’s a sense of energetic chaos in the room, enhanced by a soundtrack of Mahler, which Maggie described as mirroring her work with its combination of movement and precision. Maggie showed me some of her most recent pieces, based on a friend’s memory of seeing swans in Prague. I really fell for these, and Maggie was kind enough to let me spend some time just sitting with the paintings.
There’s a mystical, magical quality to Maggie’s work and it’s this that I find captivating. As we talked about various pieces, she explained how they evolve and develop, and create their own dialogue. This chimed with me as a writer – creating a poem or story is very much about allowing the words to emerge, and allowing the poem to breathe itself into life. There is an idea and an inspiration, but there also has to be a sense of trusting the work itself.
You’ll be able to see Maggie’s work as part of Secret Severn
Art Trail in the Footprint gallery at Fusion, where she will also be Artist in
Residence, no doubt wearing a marvellous hat. To find out more about her work,
Do you know how sea urchins got their name? No? Well here goes. Hedgehogs used to be called urchins, sea urchins are spiny (like hedgehogs) and live in the sea (unlike hedgehogs), so the logical name is, of course sea urchins. Why am I telling you this? Because it’s a cheery fact, and it was part of my research for my fifth Secret Severn visit, to Emma Brownlow, a ceramicist based in St Georges.
Emma explained her skill as a ceramicist is about actualizing the image she has of the end sculpture. Part of the joy for her is puzzling out how to make this visualisation into reality, and her work shows an incredible range. She showed me her Shrewsbury pot, a homage to her home town, resplendent with images of the duck race, timbered buildings and the much maligned market clock tower. It’s a three dimensional collection of memories that brings the town to life.
Emma showed me the first piece from her newest project, a series of elemental pots exploring the power and complexity of the earth.
I’ve been a bit in love with Emma’s sea urchin sculptures
since I first saw she them, and I loved having chance to see one being made. They
start life as a lump of clay, which is shaped into an urchin-like sphere. They’re
then marked out with what I grandly called dowel (Emma later told me it was a
kebab stick – ceramicists are experts at finding just the right tool for the
job). Spaces for spines are marked out, and texture is added with slip. The
whole process is deceptively quick.
After their first firing, the urchins are ready to be glazed.
Emma uses a combination of colours and takes care to show a hint of the natural
bisque, so there’s an echo of shell shining through.
We talked about the ancient nature of pottery, and I was
taken by the inherently environmentally responsible nature of the process. Emma
showed me how any old clay is reused. It’s smashed up, rehydrated in an old
pillow case, and then wedged, an exhausting type of kneading, so it can be used
This was another different visit for me, and it was great to see each aspect of the process, and see the preparation too. The thing that shone out was the amount of love that goes into Emma’s work. She spoke of wanting to honour the sea urchin, and this really comes through, and sits well with the sense of this being an ancient craft.
I came away with a strong sense of what I want my finished poem to look like – it’s going to take a little while to emerge I think, but it’s been yet another level of inspiration for my work.
As ever, please, please help me get the most from social
media. Please like the posts on my pages, add a comment, and share them. It
helps more people see what I’m doing, and helps boost support for my work. Thank
you all so much!
I’m fizzing with ideas after spending the morning with Jayne Humphreys a.k.a. The Strolling Stitcher. I spent my time surrounded by fragments of memories, which Jayne transforms into beautiful story boxes, wearable art and intriguing pictures, and left with a host of thought and images to put into words.
Jayne is influenced by her Grandmother, and by her environment, especially the River Severn. She explains more below.
Jayne is passionate about breathing new life into precious things, and many of her pieces feature things like safety pins and curtain hooks from her late grandmother’s sewing boxes. I asked her how she felt about giving away these things, and she responded gently that she like the idea of passing them on. There’s an thread of continuity though Jayne’s work, of harnessing and sharing the life of things that would otherwise go unnoticed.
One of the most common images in Jayne’s work are swans,which have been a major inspiration to her since she moved to Ironbridge three years ago. There’s an anthropomorphic quality that is enhanced by the story boxes she creates for each piece. Continuing the practical element, Jayne’s swans double as brooches and the story boxes are designed to display jewellery.
If you look closely at Jayne’s work you’ll see fragments of journals or scraps of receipts. One of the most fascinating things she’s found is a notebook acting as a photo journal from the WWII campaign in Egypt. Looking up at her window I see a flock of house martins made from the deeds of her old house, and inspired by visits to the Squatter’s Cottage at Blists’ Hill. Reinventing finds that would otherwise be lost in a drawer or attic brings a new aspect to make do and mend, and brings a real depth to Jayne’s work.
As befits a collector, Jayne is constantly gathering inspiration for her work. She loves exploring flea markets, which are brimming with fabrics and oddities that are crying out to be part of her creations, and she’s also inspired by the Back to Back houses in Birmingham. Jayne showed me books, chatted about films that have had an impact, and we talked about her travels, most recently to Romania. One of the most fascinating influences comes from the work of Maud Lewis, a folk artist from Canada, famous for her painted house which has been reconstructed in Nova Scotia art gallery.
On a deeper level, Jayne is inspired by visits to the Foundling Museum in London, which tells the story of the first hospital for foundling children. Jayne talked about the tokens mothers left so their babies could be identified, if circumstances changed and they were able to reclaim them. This fits well with Jayne’s eye for rescuing scraps of life that would otherwise be lost in a drawer.
Visiting Jayne has given me yet another aspect to my writing as poet in residence for the Secret Severn art trail. I’ve connected with Jayne’s work on a more personal level, and it’s tapped into my tendency to be fascinated by the things that get thrown away (I sound like a womble don’t I?). The swans in particular have sparked my imagination, and the poems that are bubbling up have a feel of a dark fairy tale journey. I was particularly inspired by the piece above, a swan with a pocket for a poem. I’ve named her, and I’m enjoying exploring her journeys. It makes for exciting writing, and has given me a new swathe of inspiration.
You’ll be able to see Jayne demonstrating her skills alongside Caris Jackson in the Art Zone in Dale End park during the Festival of Imagination on 21st September, and her work will be on display as part of the Secret Severn Art Trail from 20th-29th September.
Thank you as ever for reading. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read, please share on social media, like any posts you see, and give me quick comment on Facebook – it all helps beat those pesky algorithms.
As well as my Secret Severn research, I’ve been polishing my competition submissions. I’ve had to pare back my entries this year, partly because of cost, and partly because I’ve tried to adopt a more intelligent approach.
When I first started entering and submitting, I was so nervous I just pinged poems to every publication that came up. I had some success, but this year I’ve tried a more measured approach. I suppose I’m seeking quality over quantity. I’ve also got over that first rush of excitement about having work published, and moved back to being focused on creating work that I feel proud of, and that I need to write.
I’ve been struggling to write anything new, partly because I’ve been busy, and partly because my brain is having one of its tired phases. I recognise the signs now and know that it’s just the M.E. rather than anything else. Now I’ve got my submissions off, I’m taking a week or so away from it all, before refocusing on Secret Severn for the rest of September and into October. It’s time to read my favourite chilled out writers, maybe dip in and out of some new poetry I’ve got on my bedside table, and spend a bit of time in fields listening to new music.
As ever, getting people to engage with what I write means a lot – if you’ve read this far thank you!
I’m enjoying my work for Secret Severn so much! Yesterday I spent a couple of hours with Sandy Densem, who’s work I’ve admired for many years. She explores texture and tone and creates pieces that are intrinsically multi-layered. Sandy describes how growing up in Zimbabwe has given her the lens through which she sees the world and it’s fascinating to see this in action.
Much of Sandy’s work is inspired by trees, expecially the
mighty Baobab. This is a tree that lives for thousands of years, but if it’s
knocked down can fade away in a fraction of the time. The pull between permanence
and fragility is interesting thread to me and it’s reflected in the range of
materials Sandy uses.
For yesterday’s visit we focused on creations built from
collage and print. Sandy begins with lino and tissue to conjure her starting
shapes, then uses oils, water and oil pastels to layer, define and refine the
images. The layers reflect what Sandy describes as an internal landscape, and seeing
her work build and grow was a captivating experience. I was amazed at how
quickly she works, and how much work is that combination of instinct and deliberate
action that gives an artist their own style.
We talked about Sandy’s recent work in Uganda as part of the Xavier Project, which provides sponsorship to refugee children in East Africa. She showed me her concertina sketch books, produced by the light of a mobile phone, as well as artwork produced by her students which she hopes to auction as part of a fundraising exhibition.
Sandy explains, “I’m originally from Zimbabwe, where I
lived most of my life. I’m fortunate to have been born with the right to a British
passport, unlike so many millions of others who now spend their lives in the
‘no-man’s land’ of refugee camps around the world.”
Sandy’s produced a
series of works called Migration,
that are rooted in the refugee crises around the world. There’s an intensity and
pull to these pieces that I want to spend more time with, and I’m already
putting together plans for another visit.
From background, to process, to product, for me this was a writer’s dream. Ekphrastic poetry is a joy to create, and I’ve come away with layer upon layer of notes to fashion into finished poems. A good day.
As ever, please share this if you’ve enjoyed reading it, whether you’re on twitter, Facebook or you just want to reblog. It’s a great way to support me and build interest for this project and for the art trail.
My second visit for Secret Severn Art Trail was to Amanda Hillier in Coalbrookdale. If you’ve been to previous trails you’ll recognise Amanda’s distinctive lino prints and some of the landscapes she’s inspired by. Much of her work mirrors the unique landscape of Coalbrookdale where industrial architecture and natural features sit side by side.
As well as gaining inspiration from Coalbrookdale, Amanda escapes to the seaside. She challenges herself to create quick sketches of structures and rock formations, perhaps imposing a time limit, or working in shades of just one colour. She uses her sketchbooks in the same way as I use my notebooks (and scraps of envelopes when I’m not organised). Thoughts, ideas and impulses are captured, before being distilled into the final piece.
My morning with Amanda was spent seeing the re-imagining of a fragment of seaweed collected from Aberdaron. Amanda explained how the pieces are created in reverse, and showed me the carving of the lino, as well as the process of printing. It’s a process that owes a lot to Japanese woodblock printing and uses many similar tools and techniques.
I felt quite different today, compared with my visit to Both in Stitches and I think it reflects difference in process. I’ve come away from this visit with a strong sense of how I want my finished poem to be. The rhythm of the poem is there – I want to mirror the feeling of the print roller and ink on paper, and I’ve got a strong theme. I’ve already written a very rough draft, and the essence of the poem is there. This is a contrast to my work earlier in the week, where I was seeing the preparation and groundwork for a long term creation. My notes for that visit are more measured, with threads of ideas gradually coming together.
Things I’ve learned, like being sure that the form I choose mirrors the meaning, are bearing true, and helping to guide what I write. I think writing about something that isn’t entirely driven by personal emotions or strong beliefs is tapping into a different set of skills, which is another level of development as a writer. I can’t wait to see how the language and rhythms of the pieces will develop. I know I’ve already got two very different poems brewing