Sunday, 5 February 2017

A Time for Poetry







(Photos by the brilliant Fabio Paleari of all the New River Press poets)

1)

It was getting near to dusk, and Paris was all soft blue-grey air and gold lights. I was wandering along the Seine (as you do when you’re intent on fulfilling every cliché) with one of my most brilliant, articulate friends. We’d met earlier in the day for coffee, and I caused an impressive ruckus by walking straight into the glass door of the café with my full cup in hand. It went everywhere. After the spillage had been mopped and my bruised ego was allayed, we got more coffee, sat, chatted for a while, then walked. He knows the city well. This was only my third visit. I followed him as we wove down streets until we hit the river. It was heart-soaringly gorgeous. Finally, after strolling and sitting on the stone lip of the walkway for ages, freezing but happy, watching the water pass and talking about art, relationships, politics, work, it was time to leave for Shakespeare & Company.

I was performing there that evening with the New River Press: the utterly brilliant independent press that published my debut collection Branch and Vein earlier in the year. I’d been excited for weeks. Of all the bookshops to speak in, this is pretty much as special as it gets. By the time it came to the performances, every corner of the shop was taken up. There were people spilling out of the door and squished in the alcoves beyond the stage. It felt so safe, so charged, so full with the thrill of shared words and a warm audience. I sat and listened to others, reveling all over again in their poems, then stood up and did mine. I sailed through them, enjoying the chance to play once again with cadence and timing, giving voice to my work while wearing a blue velvet jacket, naturally. When I sat down again, my adrenaline levels surged. (You can see a video from the evening here. I begin at around the 14.40 mark). 

Our performance took place on the night of the election. We read, celebrated, went for drinks and dinner, and finally all stumbled off back to bed at our hotel. I immediately checked Twitter, and felt jittery. There was nothing definitive at that point, but it was uncomfortably close. I put the phone down and pulled the duvet over my head. Over the next eight hours I kept on waking up, dozing, checking, wishing I hadn’t checked, and lapsing between anxious sleeplessness and weirdly lucid dreams. In the cold truth of morning I had no appetite. I’d been planning to walk around Paris by myself for much of the day (taking a cue from Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse), but instead I just wanted familiarity. I caught the metro and went to see the same friend I’d hung out with the day before. We drank more coffee. We talked more urgently.

It’s weird to recall now, this strange, strange 24 hours that were half heavenly, half-nausea inducing. Nothing can tarnish the gold of that evening: from the company to the audience to the poems to Sylvia Whitman being possibly the most luminescent human being ever. It reinforced to me everything that I love about poetry: reading it, writing it, listening to it spoken aloud. It made me want to go away and toy and tinker with my verse for days, pursuing new ideas and crafting old half-finished stuff. But there are shadows at the edge of the memories too. They've got darker in these last few weeks. 






(Photos by Mazzy Mae-Green for Autre magazine)

2)

I was pink-cheeked and flustered, having dashed my way through central London to get there on time. As is so often the case at the moment, I had a massive backpack with me: overnight kit and a change of clothes squeezed carefully into as scant space as possible. I also had on the most beautiful blue feather print Burberry dress. It made me feel like a very glam, un-camera shy Virginia Woolf (and oh god was I terrified of sweating into it). Over the top I had on a camel trench coat with buttons like big, black circles of liquorice. Both had been borrowed for the evening. In them, I could stand a little taller.

I had come to Thomas's café next to Burberry’s flagship store for a literary salon hosted by Greta Bellamacina: one half of the duo behind the New River Press, along with her partner Robert Montgomery. I feel immensely grateful to be friends with the two of them. They’re such forceful, shining, tireless artists: each producing fantastic work of their own, while also doing a damn good job of championing so many others. Knowing them for nearly the last year has been a dream. I can’t thank them enough for their support, and their general presence in my life. Sometimes I still look at my beautifully designed book and want to squeal all over again (SHAMELESS PROMO ALERT: you can buy it here. Please do. I’ll be very, very grateful. It has poems in there about everything from ghosts to greenhouses, via way of abandoned hotels, PMQ’s, family stories, iced over lakes, sex, tarot cards, and train journeys. Oh, and you can see more with another reading of mine here. If you need any further convincing, it's been rated by AnOther magazine, and GQ too.)

The salon consisted of a number of people performing their own work, and others reading aloud their favourite poems. I devised a poem specifically for the evening’s theme of ‘Great Britain’. Ever the lapsed student, I ended up working on it right until the moment I had to leave for the event. It was about Brexit and autumn and bad news and village halls and city streets on a Saturday night. It felt impossible to write about much else. Recently, it’s been hard to think of much else either.

Alongside the ridiculous delight that comes with getting to read your work for one of the brands you’ve loved since you were a teenager (I credit Christopher Bailey’s rain-drenched SS09 collection with really kick-starting my interest in design), it was also just a pleasure to let everyone else’s words wash over me. We need more evenings full of poetry. They’re soul-lifting stuff. I also finally got to meet both Rae Morris and Scarlett Sabet: two immensely talented women I’d chatted with online, but never met in the flesh. They both outdid me in the long, curly haired stakes too. Together we did look slightly like a trio of Pre-Raphaelites… 



(Photos via Getty Images/ Tatler)

3)

I was sitting with a friend on Greek Street drinking tea. The lights flickered, flared, flickered again, and then the entire street went dark. We sat there for a minute or two, wondering what to do. Our phone signal had dipped too. In those first few moments, I panicked. It’s amazing how much you take for granted in a city. You assume that your pavements will be illuminated, that everything runs according to order, that you can pretty much always pay for things if you have a debit card with you, and ring people if your phone is charged. Having that thrown was disconcerting.

Once we established that it was a Soho-wide power-cut, it was more intriguing. The mood shifted. I was due to do another reading that evening, and worried it might be cancelled. But in the end, that power-cut provided all the magic needed. Our venue, The Society Club, assured us that it would be lit by candles. As I approached it, weaving my way down the dark street by the torch on my iPhone, passing clusters of people doing similar, I saw the windows ahead. They were radiant and fogged up with all the bodies inside. A beacon in the murk. I entered, and everything/ everyone looked like a Caravaggio painting (or an Artemisia Gentileschi one, but given how violent her portraits are, perhaps the former is a better comparison). I was wearing a pink satin blazer and a Lacroix shirt stitched all over with words. It felt perfect for the occasion: decadent enough for the task of reading aloud by the glow of a flame.

The lights came back on half-way through Rob’s performance. We were all slightly disappointed. There’d eventually been something thrilling in everything being a little off-kilter. Without the street lamps, we’d been able to stand right in the heart of London and see stars up above the office blocks.





4.)

In these last few weeks of hellish news, I’ve found it harder to write: to just continue with pitching articles, chasing up projects, plotting out ideas, scribbling poems, dashing off blog posts, dipping into the various fictional worlds I’m currently trying to construct. Many of us have. It’s strange to have to carry on with ‘normal’ things when much feels so hugely abnormal, to have to switch between work and fearful helplessness at the actions of those in power on both sides of the ocean. I don’t have much to add beyond that. Pretty much everything has already been said by people wiser and better equipped to do so than me.

All I can stress yet again is that we have to stay angry. We have to keep on listening to those most affected and marginalized. We have to keep on contacting our representatives (see Rosianna’s very helpful video here). We have to lend our voices, our time, our money, our energy, our empathy, our hands, our commitment, and, sometimes, our humour (what a time for protest signs) to those values we hold dearest – as well as, crucially, knowing when to switch off, look away from the news for a little while, and just sleep, or take joy in the things and the people around us. Joy is vital. It is energizing. It is a form of resistance - and it is yours to keep and nurture and hold close.

This is also, I think, a very good time for us to read and celebrate poetry too: to pick up Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, enjoy the Poetry Foundation's collation of poems of protest, resistance and empowerment, scroll through this Black History Month poetry account (especially this thread on LGBTQ+ poets), look at Kaveh Akbar’s beautiful list of works by poets from those countries affected by that heinous (and illegal) ban, and then go in search of those whose words provide solace and strength specifically to you. I’ve found poetry a very soothing thing these last few weeks. I’ve picked up Irina Ratushinskaya again, as well as U.A. Fanthorpe, Elizabeth Jennings, Helen Mort, and Greta Stoddart. I’ve made myself a huge list of poets to buy (Sabrina Mahfouz, James Baldwin, Marilyn Hacker, Andrew Macmillan) and reorganized my own shelves for easier access.

All forms of literature are humanizing. They’re a way of being pulled into a specific voice or setting or way of viewing the world. Poetry is especially good at elevating us into other, new spaces or, conversely, articulating the recognizable feelings we need worded most. Right now, we need art. We need sparks and flickers of hope. We need work that is tender, or emboldening, or powerful. We need some beauty to cut through the clamour at times, and add fire to it at others. And oh do we need lots of it, going forward. 

Who are you reading at the moment? Who should I add to my list? I want to know. 

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Wearing the Trousers












I was named after Rosalind from As You Like It. As far as female Shakespeare characters go, I think my parents picked well. No sudden, tragic deaths a la Ophelia or Cordelia. No whirlwind romance and bad, adolescent decision-making, like Juliet. No nunhood and preservation of purity, as with Isabella, or treacherous rivalry, exemplified best by Goneril and Regan (just imagine naming your poor child Goneril: imagine). No bastard partners who drug and humiliate their loved ones either (Titania), or murderous, manipulative instincts (Lady Macbeth), or possibility of being strangled in my sleep when falsely accused of being unfaithful (Desdemona).

No, I got the wise-cracking, sharp-talking, smart, assertive one. The independent woman who makes fun of silly men, sets herself up as a matchmaker, and (literally) wears the trousers. Bloody delightful. The other main option my parents had toyed with was Miranda. Another good choice, sure, but somewhat lacking Rosalind’s sass and grit. Miranda has spent all of her life on a remote island with her father and a variety of disenfranchised magical figures. Not quite my style, much as I love The Tempest.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Shakespeare recently: not a sentence I was expecting to write for a while post-university, I must admit. But I mainly have Margaret Atwood to thank, given that I spent Boxing Day firmly entrenched in her book Hag-Seed: an utterly delicious re-telling of The Tempest, complete with prisons, controlling theatre directors, power lost and won, and a healthy side order of revenge.

As with Angela Carter’s Wise Children, detailing the escapades of twin sisters Dora and Nora Chance in the world of showbiz (it’s stuffed full of disguises, double-crossings, and moments of melodramatic revelation, and oh I love it), Atwood’s Hag-Seed achieves that very wonderful thing of making me feel overjoyed by Shakespeare all over again. It’s raucous. It’s buoyant. And it has enough depth and pathos to not get too carried away. Both are books that sit, brim-full of life, making me want to dive back into the original plays, and think about their continuing implications.

In fact, as Obama said in this recent interview about his eight years of reading in the White House, “Shakespeare continues to be a touchstone… foundational for me in understanding how certain patterns repeat themselves and play themselves out between human beings.” His comment is both so comforting and so galling, given that his successor seems to be intent on doing an Angelo (from Measure for Measure): being a man “drest in a little brief authority” who wants to exert unwarranted power over other people’s bodies, while exempting himself from any kind of moral code. What a time (and what a reason to march on Saturday).

Under nicer circumstances, I’ve also been thinking a lot about suits recently. That I can probably blame in part on Evan Rachel-Wood looking so full of self-assurance at The Golden Globes, embodying an ethos my sage friend Sarah Griffin deemed “all tux, no fucks.” It’s such a good phrase. I have nothing to add to it. All the attitude you need is held in those four syllables.

The next day, I began collating images of women and non-binary people who looked devastatingly good in suits. You can see the images on Twitter here (and some fun responses from those who took issue with my description of said outfits as devastatingly good). They include Amandla Stenberg as a vision in crimson satin, Eva Green looking enviably great in green velvet, and Bianca Jagger all louche and glamorous in white. Michelle Obama, Janelle Monae, and Tilda Swinton dressed as David Bowie all figure too, of course.

I wrote a few months ago about the power to be found in suits – about the part physical, part cultural, entirely confidence-enhancing effect of donning a good jacket and trousers. They transform posture, and tap into such a rich web of images and iconic figures. Suits stretch from Frida Kahlo to Erin O'Connor. They encompass my continuing hero Katharine Hepburn (who, in 1951, was asked to leave the Claridge's lobby for having the audacity to be female AND wear slacks). Beyond all that, if cut well, they allow you to move with extra ease.

I’ve been living by my words since then, busy swishing around events in blue velvet and eyeing up what I spend my money on next (dear lord, please let it be silver and sequined like this exquisite number). We’ll see. But for now, here’s a shoot from early autumn, back when the fields were still golden stubble and the grey, damp days were yet to descend. I pinned up my hair and hopped around the hay bales in my late granddad’s trousers and a vintage dress shirt, with the blazer – Superdry, no less - given to me by my favourite vintage dealer as a leaving Oxford present. It’s months ago now, but I can still recall the feeling. I felt terrific. More than that: I felt capable and a little playful too, bow tie and all. Besides, I was possibly the most glamorous thing ever to pose next to all that farm machinery too. 

Saturday, 10 December 2016

The Art of Adventuring










I’m a big fan of the word ‘adventure’. Blame it on the books I read as a child: a steady diet of Enid Blyton and Eva Ibbotsen, among others, their stories stuffed full of scrapes and escapades and strange locations. I matched these with my own, small, imaginative adventures. Trees were climbed, dens built, and knees scraped (I’ve never properly moved beyond the latter: my legs are always inevitably peppered with bruises and scratches come summer).

It’s a word with all sorts of potential meanings. It can be amusing and slightly nostalgic, a la Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or the kind of 1930s Boys’ Own annual full of knitted vests and exclamations of “by golly!” In fact, take a look at the list of synonyms: caper, lark, frolic, jaunt. All sound like terms that could be clad in tweed and cable knit – or a nice cotton sundress - exclaimed in the plummiest of plummy tones.

It can also be reduced to travel-speak, ‘adventure’ being the best label to attach to jaw-dropping waterfalls or stunning vistas or sapphire seas or whatever other cliché you wish to muster. It can be sweet. Or unexpected. Or fun. It could even be thrilling (and a little self-knowing) – Margaret Mahy’s delightfully titled book The Blood and Thunder Adventure on Hurricane Peak as a case in point.

Some of the adventures I read about then I’m glad to have left behind (I know I’d be less keen on returning to the Famous Five, knowing how bigoted and snobbish Blyton was). Others are adventures I hope I dip in and out of for the rest of my life (Margaret Mahy is timeless, ageless, and peerless in her storytelling). But I guess I continue to carry all of them forward with me in my own thirst for adventuring. There may be less in the way of dastardly criminals, and the ginger beer has been replaced by gin and tonic, but I still love the principal of setting out somewhere – anywhere – merely with the intention to play.

In fact, the adult version may involve more long walks and better-prepared picnics, but it still begins from the same principle of pleasure: pleasure in the possibilities of the day ahead; pleasure in other people’s company (unless it’s a solo adventure, which I’m also a HUGE advocate of); pleasure in place and exploration and the potential for the unexpected. Sometimes the pleasure is also in the planning. Sometimes it’s in the spontaneity. Could be a tiresome clamber through a forest, a day in a new city, hours and hours of dancing, or the thrill of going skinny dipping on a starless night. The permutations are endless.

This particular adventure, however, was a rather simple one: the kind discussed months beforehand, then finally executed on a slightly grey day back in early summer. My wonderful friend Holly and I wanted to go to the Harcourt Arboretum, which sits just outside of Oxford. We dressed up, marshaled our supplies - pork pies, pink lemonade, crisps, a camera - then caught a bus out into the green. We spent several very merry hours wandering around from woods to fields and back again, staring down the peacocks, striking poses in the undergrowth, and chatting all the way.

It felt special primarily because we’d deliberately removed ourselves from familiar routine – which would usually involve some combination of charity shops, coffee, or sitting out in the sun with a glass of wine – in order to seek something new. And we were aware of our deliberate framing of the day as an ‘adventure’ in inverted commas: an excuse to gallivant around with more enthusiasm than strictly necessary, in more swishy florals than your average arboretum day-tripper.

Now, with all the trees stripped bare, and muggy rain on the way, an afternoon of lazy strolling with bare arms and legs seems like another world - as it does every year when the seasons shift. But there are other adventures ahead: blustery hills to scale, places to nose around, people to see, freezing waves to (maybe) brave, flasks of coffee to stubbornly, stoically drink outside in grim weather.

Both Holly and I moved away from Oxford at the end of the summer. This week, we're reunited in the countryside. Right this minute, we’re both sitting on our laptops, pretending to be busy with work while regularly distracting one another with very important conversational topics like dyed armpit hair, Church of England primary schools, good books, and the best contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race. We’ve planned another set of adventures for the next few days. Hopefully some more walking and exploring. Maybe another shoot or two. Definitely a whole lot of cooking – and an even better, even brighter, even more brilliantly incongruous set of outfits. Of course.

Talking of Oxford, I have a piece in the latest issue of Suitcase magazine about mythology, ghosts, sassy abbesses, stone circles, and my own personal process of negotiating the city as both a space and an institution. It has the BEST illustrations alongside it. Suitcase hosted the most wonderful dinner earlier this week to celebrate the launch of this issue. That felt like an adventure all of its own: a delicious few hours of wonderful people, good food, and glittering, candle-lit conversation.


Both of our outfits are cobbled together from various second hand sources. If you want to know who wore blue and green best between me and a peacock, see this Instagram snap here.