Friday, 31 December 2010

The creatures in our garden in 2010

We live in a two-up two-down terraced house in East London and have a very small overgrown garden, but over the past year it has been inhabited by a menagerie of creatures, including in July a swarm of bees which nested temporarily in our jasmine laden buddleia. Foxes shelter in our collapsed shed and toads hide from our four cats under the understorey of
campanula and ivy. Photos all taken by Brian. Happy 2011 to you all from us and the beasts who share our lives.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Harpy eagle nest watch

My Boxing Day was a harpy eagle research day. I am so fascinated by this creature that I can spend days trawling the web, reading about it. Like the king vulture, which I am also fascinated by, it's one of the gods of Venezuelan Amazonian tribes such as the Pemón, Warao and Yanomami. The Pemón live in the Lost World of the Guiana Highlands, near Roraima and Auyantepui. The Warao, or water people, live in stilt huts on the Orinoco Delta and the Yanomami live in south east Venezuela and north eastern Brazil. I've briefly visited the Warao and the Pemón and studied their lives and mythologies. The Pemón guide eco-tourists to the foot of Angel Falls in Canaima National Park in their curiara – traditional canoes powered by an outboard motor. They know the steep, rapid-strewn rivers of that breathtaking landscape intimately, as I discovered when we dodged rocks and rapids at full speed! They also guide groups up Mount Roraima, the highest of the tepuis or table mountains.

Their mythology includes much about the 'sky-world' – the plateaus of these giant prehistoric mesas. To ascend their spirit worlds in their myths they stick white harpy eagle down feathers in their hair. I don't know if they still do this, though I did climb Mount Roraima in 1995, and was aware that they considered it sacred and that we had to keep our voices quiet so as not to offend their spirits. The Yanomami sometimes raise a harpy eagle chick in a wooden cage for a supply of white down feathers to stick in their hair for ritual dress. 

The female eagle is a third larger than the male and can even grab large howler monkeys from trees. I've posted this BBC documentary of a pair of harpies and their chick as I think it's quite extraordinary, especially towards the end, when the chick is almost fully grown (the team spent one year observing the nest), and the fledgling spends a lot of time watching the cameraman with intense curiosity. Since monkeys are pretty clever, he is going to have to learn how to outwit them so as to get enough to eat, and this film reveals the harpy's education as he observes the behaviour of his primate prey. 


Thursday, 16 December 2010

Review of What the Water Gave Me and an essay

 This is a quick post as I'm laid up in bed with flu, but very cheered up today by Ros Barber's review of What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo and Val Robert's essay about my work. I find it encouraging to be favourably reviewed by a poet whose work I admire. Ros's latest collection Material, from Anvil in 2008, was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. This is her author photo. You can become a fan of her work on Facebook. Here is an excerpt from her review:

"the book is as vibrant, and somehow life-affirming, as the paintings that inspired it. Petit’s Kahlo embraces life with all the joy of one who experienced being laid ‘on a billiard table’ while doctors ‘saw to the wounded, thinking me dead.’  There is an ecstasy in the agony."

There have been a lot of reviews and blogs about What the Water Gave Me since it came out last May, including one by Ruth Padel in The Guardian, one by Zoë Brigley in New Welsh Review and another by David Morley in Magma – three other poets whose work I admire. If you go to the book page on my publisher Seren's website you can click on links to read many of their reviews. WtWGM was also Jackie Kay's Book of the Year in The Observer. The collection was reprinted after only four months and I'm very excited that a US edition will be published by Black Lawrence Press in 2011.

Val Roberts is a third year creative writing degree student at Liverpool John Moores University. In her post 'The Wonderful World of Pascale Petit' she analyses two of my hummingbird poems, 'The Strait-Jackets' from The Zoo Father and 'Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (I)' from What the Water Gave Me. I love it when people tell me things about my poems that I didn't quite register myself, but that's what she manages to do, especially in her study of the sonic echoes in both poems, and indeed, in her study of the thematic echoes, which she does very precisely, as shown in this excerpt from her analysis of 'The Strait-Jackets':

"For the first time since she arrived he starts to breathe more easily with that hummingbird metaphor, which is a soul of an injured person.  Notice the subtle internal rhymes with the words ‘breathe’ and ‘easily’ and the echo of ‘recycler’ and ‘cannula’ which is attached to his nostrils as it almost slips out. 
This is an important part of the poem as the cannula almost slips out.  This is perhaps where realisation may hit.  It makes one wonder what else almost slips out.  Perhaps Petit has spoken some truth about her and her father’s relationship.  This is the pure brilliance of Pascale’s poetry.  She says I don’t know how long we sit there, such a powerful line and in particular with the internal half rhyme and echo of language.  One does not know how long she has sat there.  One does not know what has gone on." 

Here is the poem 'The Strait-Jackets'. I love how she's accurately connected the hummingbird theme in this poem to the Frida Kahlo poem, where I am both writing about Kahlo's efforts to overcome her bus crash but am also coming to terms with my own childhood trauma through Kahlo's painting 'Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird'.

This is the photo of forty hummingbirds in a suitcase which inspired 'The Strait-Jackets'. The Brazilian ornithologist Augusto Ruschi's stowed his birds in a suitcase to transport them on plane flights, by lowering their temperature and placing them in a torpor (which hummingbirds go into at low temperatures to conserve energy).  While they were asleep he wrapped them in pyjamas to protect their wings.
Then he used to warm them up before releasing them once he reached his destination.

And here is Frida Kahlo's painting 'Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird'. It's the first painting I wrote into a poem in What the Water Gave Me. The whole book grew from this defiant self-portrait with a dead hummingbird hung from a necklace of thorns made from Christ's crown:

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Mir Mahfuz Ali and the Ten anthology

Mir Mahfuz Ali is shortlisted for the 2010 Picador Poetry Prize and is included in the groundbreaking anthology Ten from Bloodaxe. Ten, edited by Bernardine Evaristo and Daljit Nagra, is the culmination of Spread the Word's two year initiative to support talented new black and Asian poets. I had the good fortune to mentor Mahfuz for this project, and what a dream job it was. 

Mir Mahfuz Ali was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 1958. He grew up during the war of liberation and came to England in 1973, after being shot in the throat by riot police during an uprising. As a performer, he is renowned for his extraordinary voice – a rich, throaty whisper. His poetry has appeared in PN Review, Poetry London, London Magazine and Ambit. He has also been shortlisted for the New Writing Ventures Awards in 2007. His poetry combines a luxurious Bengali linguistic richness with the trauma and first hand testaments of the atrocities of war.

Read his poems in Ten, and all the exciting poets in this anthology, described by Carol Ann Duffy as "ten sparkling new talents who demonstrate the richness, energy and confidence of the poetic voice in our multicultural country". This book is groundbreaking, necessary, but most of all, an enthralling read. Here is one of Mahfuz's poems:

Midnight, Dhaka, 25 March 1971

I am a hardened camera clicking at midnight.
I have caught it all – the screeching tanks

pounding the city under the massy heat,
searchlights dicing the streets like bayonets.
Kalashnikovs mowing down rickshaw pullers,
vendor sellers, beggars on the pavements.

I click on, despite the dry and bitter dust
scratched on the lake-black water of my Nikon eye,
at a Bedford truck waiting by the roadside,
at two soldiers holding the dead by their hands and legs,
throwing them into the back, hurling
them one upon another until the floor
is loaded to the sky's armpits. The corpses stare
at our star's succulent whiteness
with their arms flung out as if to bridge a nation.
Their bodies shake when the lorry chugs.
I click as the soldiers laugh at the billboard on the bulkhead:

Monday, 22 November 2010

Poetry from Art at Tate Modern: Ana Mendieta

Tonight at Tate Modern we'll be working in the Ana Mendieta room in the Energy & Process wing on Level 5. As Ana Mendieta is from Cuba, we'll read the Cuban poet Nancy Morejón’s poem ’Ana Mendieta’, which celebrates her spirit and mourns her early death.  We’ll watch the artist's video Blood and Feathers #2, where she pours animal blood over herself, rolls onto white chicken feathers, then stands with arms outstretched like wings, on the riverbank.

Mendieta was influenced by indigenous Tainan myths of Cuba and the Caribbean and the writings of Carlos Castaneda, particularly The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. I've always been drawn to rituals about transformation into a bird and have written about Amazonian transformation rites in my first and second collections Heart of a Deer and The Zoo Father. Amazonian peoples stick white harpy eagle down feathers in their hair for journeys to their sky worlds.

Tonight we'll also look at the poem 'Animal Dress' by Sharon Olds (from One Secret Thing) and ' The World's Entire Wasp Population' by Selima Hill (from Violet), as alternative takes on ritual dress, the former celebrating her daughter's coming of age by dressing her in the world's animals, and the latter enacting a ritual of revenge by covering a rival in "this jam" then inviting wasps "to enjoy her".

The thirty poets in the group will read the results from tonight's session and their poems from the six week course next Monday, 29 November, at 6.45pm, in the Poetry and Dream gallery at Tate Modern. Everyone is welcome and entrance is free. The other art they responded to are paintings by Gauguin, Joan Jonas' fairytale installation The Juniper Tree and the surreal works in Poetry and Dream. The still below is of another piece by Mendieta Bird Transformation.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Poetry from Art at Tate Modern: a public reading

Monday 29 November 2010, 18.45 – 20.45

A poetry reading by the poets who attended the Poetry from Art autumn course, introduced by Pascale Petit. All welcome.

A group of poets has been working in the magical setting of Tate Modern, when the galleries were quiet and closed to the public. Led by award winning poet Pascale Petit they wrote poems in response to works from the permanent collections – Surrealism, Joan Jonas' The Juniper Tree, Ana Mendieta's Blood and Feathers – and from the current exhibition Gauguin: Maker of Myth.

You are invited to hear their poems in the unique surroundings of Tate Modern's Poetry and Dream gallery on Level 3. This event is open to the public.

Tate Modern Level 3 West, Bankside, London SE1 9TG

or call 020 7887 8888

Admission free, no booking required

A publication by the participants from the previous term is for sale in the Tate Modern bookshop. Look out for it in the Art History section of the main shop.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Poetry from Art autumn 2010: Gauguin & Joan Jonas

The theme this term for my Poetry from Art course at Tate Modern is myth and fairytale. Paul Gauguin made up his own myths, part derived from Tahitian ones. He created this goddess Oviri as his alter ego. In Tahitian, Oviri means savage – she's stamping on a she-wolf and clasping a stolen wolf cub. Here's the suggestive shape of her back:

We started the course in the Gauguin exhibition and will return there for one more session. It was amazing to work in the galleries when the crowds had left! In the opening class I supplied lines from Polynesian myths, read out the myth of Hina the moon goddess, which forms the basis of his painting Hina and Tefatou (Moon and Earth)

and read out quotes by Gauguin on the genesis of his painting Manao Tupapau: The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch, where he wrote about his use of colour and Tahitian ghost god myths:

This is what he wrote in a letter about how he painted it:

"Here is the genesis: General Harmony. Dark dull violet, dark blue and chrome 1. The draperies are chrome 2, because this colour suggests night, without explaining it, however, and furthermore serves as a happy medium between the yellow orange and the green, completing the harmony. These flowers are also like phosphorescences in the night (in her thoughts). The Kanakas believe that the phosphorous lights seen at night are the souls of the dead. In short, it is a fine bit of painting, although it is not according to nature."

In his journal Noa Noa he added:
"One day I had to go to Papeete. I had promised to come back that same evening. It was one in the morning when I got home. Having at that moment very little oil in the house . . . the lamp had gone out, and the room was in darkness when I went in. I felt afraid and, more still, mistrustful. I struck matches and saw on the bed motionless, naked, lying face down on the bed, her eyes immeasurably larger from fear, Tehura looked at me and seemed not to know me. I too was caught for several moments by a strange feeling of uncertainty. Tehura’s terror was contagious. I had the illusion that a phosphorescent light was streaming from her staring eyes. Never had I seen her so frighteningly beautiful. I was afraid to make any movement which might increase the child’s paroxysm of fright. How could I know what at that moment I might seem to her? Might she not with my frightened face take me for one of the demons and spectres, one of the Tupapaüs, with which the legends of her race people sleepless nights? Did I really know who in truth she was herself? The intensity of fright had transformed her into a strange being, entirely different from anything I had known before."

I asked the group of 30 poets to choose one painting, drawing, carving or ceramic and write a poem about it, responding to the colours, and to incorporate one of the lines from Polynesian myths I had compiled. This could be used anywhere in the poem, and could be altered to suit. They were invited to make up their own myths if they wished, but had to make the poem contemporary and were to be ruthless in writing about something that mattered to them, to be free in their interpretation. 

If myth was our focus with Gauguin, for our second week we discussed
Joan Jonas's magical but grisly The Juniper Tree installation based on a fairytale. It's a darker version of the Snow White story, and involves a boy who is beheaded then cooked by his stepmother. His bones are absorbed by the juniper tree and transformed into a shamanic bird who sings his story and eventually returns to kill his murderer. The installation is dominated by red and white and a haunting soundtrack. Originally The Juniper Tree was a performance (in 1976 in the US then 1979 in the Whitechapel Art Gallery). 

I asked everyone to free-write a response to the installation then offer one of those lines to the rest of the group. We discussed the Grimms brothers' 'The Juniper Tree' fairytale and studied Moniza Alvi's poem 'Mermaid' (from her latest collection Europa) which is based on Tabitha Vevers' painting When We Talk about Rapetwo responses to a fairytale and equally dark subject matter. We paid particular attention to the form of the poem, with its deep indents, the extra space between the spare lines evoking a feeling of shock. Everyone could select one of the group's gift lines to include in a short poem, with attention paid to the form and how it might hold powerful subject matter.

Next week we will work in the permanent display Poetry & Dream. Then we'll be back in the Gauguin exhibition. Our fifth writing session will be in the Ana Mendieta room, responding to an artist who made performances influenced by Frida Kahlo and rituals of indigenous South Americans.  Our last session on November 29th (at 18.45) will be a reading open to the public in Poetry & Dream on Level 3, when the group will read poems written on the course. Entrance is free. Everyone is welcome, so please come to listen and enjoy the stunning surreal paintings which inspired some of their poems.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Preview of two poems from Poetry from Art at Tate Modern

Here is a preview of two poems in the Poetry from Art pamphlet anthology, launched at Tate Modern this Saturday 25 September. The poems by Karen McCarthy Woolf and Seraphima Kennedy both respond to installations by Francis Alÿs in his recent exhibition A Story of Deception.

The Tornado Chaser
after Tornado by Francis Alÿs

The tornado chaser is superstitious.
He wears a tornado like a cloak of lightning.  
His dreams are dark tunnels with stars slipping down them.

He can find a tornado blindfolded.
He smells the fresh-torn redbud tree, the earth’s spores offered up to
      the elements.
He catches the vacuum with his bare hands, wrenches sap from flying 

The tornado chaser sleeps with sand in his eyelashes.
His foxbrush hair has been drowned in Florida saltwater.
He has been baked in mud in the Mississippi.
He has tripped through scrubclaw in the Texan panhandle and been 
      thrown to the sides of the orange-dust caldera.

He has seen a tornado unwrap the night sky like a handkerchief.

He has been in red and turquoise and gold tornadoes.
He has been in tornadoes made of ocean.
He knows tornadoes that spin him in different directions above and   
      below his fault lines.
He knows the heart of the sky is the dark back of the mirror, and the 
      space between constellations.

He has known tornadoes shimmer like sirens.
He has known tornadoes slice him open like crazed turbines.
He knows one day a tornado will strip the flesh from his bones.
He will feel his skin split open, his eyes spread out wider than his skull.

He has looked up the length of the tornado in fear.
He has looked up the inside of the tornado in longing.

He has seen the dark vaulted cathedral above the tornado and prayed.

Seraphima Kennedy

Three Inches Closer

after When Faith Moves Mountains by Francis Alÿs

All we want to do is go backwards,
like the toy cars the kids make
from old mantequilla de cerdo cans

but I've got my foot down on the pedal
driving into a mirage that disappears
every time we get nearer; it's a river

not a road, wet and shimmering, white
on the horizon, with unknown currents
that curl around our ankles

and what looks like it's on a loop, no what

feels like it's on a loop isn't, each frame
is very slightly different, so we know

it must be real and having another baby

is a mythic type of effort,
like the five hundred men in white shirts

an artist asks to move a sand dune

three inches closer to the sea, across a desert
with plastic buckets and spades.

Karen McCarthy Woolf

Everyone is invited to the launch  at 6.45–9pm this Saturday 25 September, in the East Room, Level 7, Tate Modern, Bankside SE1 9TG. Free entry, wine, illustrated readings, great views. The booklet contains poems by 24 poets who attended my Poetry from Art summer course in the galleries and costs £4.95. It will be for sale at this event and only available from the Tate Modern bookshop afterwards.

The contributors are  Karen McCarthy Woolf, Naomi Woddis, Malika Booker, Rowyda Amin, Matthew Paul, Anne Welsh, Sarah Salway, Rebecca Farmer, Zillah Bowes, Cath Drake, Rishi Dastidar, Beth Somerford, Roberta James, Cath Kane, Kaye Lee, Lynn Foote, Seraphima Kennedy, Ali Wood, Julie Steward, Elizabeth Horsley, MJ Whistler, Andrea Robinson, Angela Dock, Beatriz Echeverri.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Launch of Poetry from Art at Tate Modern

Launch of a pamphlet anthology: Poetry from Art at Tate Modern edited by Pascale Petit
18.45 – 21.00 on Saturday 25 September 2010
East Room, Level 7, Tate Modern

Free entry, there will be readings, great views, wine. All welcome, booking not required.
(Tornado by Francis Alÿs)

This pamphlet anthology of twenty-four poems was written on my Poetry from Art summer course in the galleries at Tate Modern, the third of three six-week writing courses this year. The pamphlet includes poems after Mona Hatoum, Francis Alÿs, Joseph Beuys and Mike Nelson.

In the Francis Alÿs exhibition A Story of Deception, we sat in the darkened and at times ear-splitting Tornado room, watching the artist running into tornadoes in the Mexican desert over a period of ten years, searching for the calm at their core. There are six responses to this included in the anthology, as well as responses to his other video installations. 

Working with Mona Hatoum's Home was an equally intense experience, where a gurney-style kitchen table was laid out with cooking implements, all wired up to a live electric current. This, and two other disturbing pieces which accompanied it, also inspired another set of poems in the booklet, some dark and some humorous. 

We spent one session at Tate Britain, in Mike Nelson's labyrinthine The Coral Reef – a network of fifteen interconnected rooms for the dispossessed, and everyone did get lost in it before emerging to write a poem in fifteen minutes, using Derek Mahon's 'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford' as a possible approach, focusing on one object in the rooms, as he did in his shed, to tackle such a big theme. 

There are also poems in response to Joseph Beuys' The Pack, Sophie Calle's The Hotel series, and more (see below for more images). The publication will be available to buy at the launch then for sale only in the Tate Modern bookshop for £4.50.

For more information about the launch see the Tate Modern website
Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG. Phone 020 7887 8888.

The contributors are:
Karen McCarthy Woolf, Naomi Woddis, Malika Booker, Rowyda Amin, Matthew Paul, Anne Welsh, Sarah Salway, Rebecca Farmer, Zillah Bowes, Cath Drake, Rishi Dastidar, Beth Somerford, Roberta James, Cath Kane, Kaye Lee, Lynn Foote, Seraphima Kennedy, Ali Wood, Julie Steward, Elizabeth Horsley, MJ Whistler, Andrea Robinson, Angela Dock, Beatriz Echeverri.

Francis Alÿs Tornado

Mona Hatoum Home (detail)

Mona Hatoum Home

Mona Hatoum Incommunicado

Sophie Calle The Hotel Room 47

Mike Nelson The Coral Reef (details)

Joseph Beuys The Pack


Tuesday, 20 July 2010

New video of poem from What the Water Gave Me

Here is a new video of me reading 'What the Water Gave Me (VI)', from my new collection What the Water Gave Me – Poems after Frida Kahlo:

And here is Frida Kahlo's painting my poem is based on, the very surreal What the Water Gave Me or What I Saw in the Water:

The bathwater contains visionary glimpses from her life and art. There are six poems about this painting in my book, some describe it closely, but in this one I wanted to show her dramatic cremation, when the force of the furnace made her sit bolt upright and her hair caught fire in a halo around her head.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

A Poem for Frida Kahlo's Birthday

Here is a poem for Frida Kahlo's birthday, from What the Water Gave Me – Poems after Frida Kahlo. 'Flower of Life', like all the poems in my book, has the title of one of her paintings. The Mexican mandrake is a cactus flower and through it Kahlo seems to both celebrate the life force and mourn her inability to have children.

Flower of Life

I flip the love plant
upside-down, release a starburst

of stamens and stigma –
insecticide yellow
to ward off scorpions

from our marriage bed.
And around the ruby mandragora
I let the rosette of leaves

bare their petticoats –
the business of what’s inside
and under the fireworks.

Is that an embryo’s fontanelles
in the petalled womb
or Diego’s fountain-flower?

It isn’t roots someone’s pulled
shrieking out of the ground,

but my torn fallopian tubes.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Karen McCarthy's Open Notebooks

The poet Karen McCarthy will be launching her groundbreaking Open Notebooks project this Wednesday 30 June 6.30 – 8.30pm at The Photographers Gallery 16 – 18 Ramillies St, London W1F7 LW. This fascinating online project was commissioned by the literature development agency Spread the Word and explores how writers use the notebook as part of the creative process. Karen interviewed me while I was writing What the Water Gave Me – Poems after Frida Kahlo and has made a video about my drafting process on Open Notebooks:

Pascale Petit on What the Water Gave Me for Open Notebooks
from Karen McCarthy on Vimeo.

Karen is also one of the ten poets selected for The Complete Works, a two-year project to support talented Black and Asian poets, and will be included in the much awaited anthology Ten, edited by Bernardine Evaristo and Daljit Nagra, to be published by Bloodaxe and launched Friday 17 September, 7pm 8.30pm at The Tabernacle, Powis Square, London, W11 2AY, tickets £7.
This much needed anthology reflects the truly multicultural make-up of contemporary Britain and contemporary poets.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Ruth Padel reviews What the Water Gave Me in the Guardian

Ruth Padel has reviewed What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo in today's Guardian. I didn't know it was to be reviewed so it's a lovely surprise. Here is an extract:

'Petit's collection is not a verse biography, but a hard-hitting, palette-knife evocation of the effect that bus crash had on Kahlo's life and work. "And this is how I started painting. / Time stretched out its spectrum / and screeched its brakes." WH Auden, in his elegy for Yeats, tells the Irish poet: "Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry." Petit's collection, exploring the way trauma hurts an artist into creation, celebrates the rebarbative energy with which Kahlo redeemed pain and transformed it into paint.'

This is the painting on the cover of my collection. Six title poems 'What the Water Gave Me' are threaded through the book and respond to Kahlo's  surreal painting What the Water Gave Me or What I Saw in the Water, where images from her life and paintings float around her in the bath. The floating scenes refer especially to the devastating bus accident she suffered as a teenager and its traumatic aftermath which she countered with art. 

I'm busy preparing for the second session of my Tate course Poetry from Art this weekend, when we'll be in Mike Nelson's powerful installation The Coral Reef at Tate Britain, then Seren will launch my book at The Horse Hospital this Thursday.


Friday, 11 June 2010

Five poems recorded by PoetCasting

Alex Pryce has just published recordings of five of my poems on PoetCasting. Three are from What the Water Gave Me – Poems after Frida Kahlo: 'What the Water Gave Me (VI)', 'The Little Deer' and 'Remembrance of an Open Wound'.  I'll be reading these and others from the book at my London launch this Thursday, 17th June, at The Horse Hospital, Bloomsbury, London, together with a slideshow of the paintings. I'll also give an illustrated reading at Lancaster Litfest on 23 June. As well as the three poems from my new collection, Alex recorded two from The Zoo Father: 'The Strait-Jackets' and 'Self-Portrait with Fire Ants'.

PoetCasting is a poetry podcasting project which works with poets throughout the United Kingdom. The project features published, performance, emerging and established poets reading their own work online and out loud.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Poem from What the Water Gave Me in today's Guardian

'The Bus' from What the Water Gave Me – Poems after Frida Kahlo is the Saturday Poem in today's Guardian. This is the title of Frida Kahlo's painting The Bus, and I wrote this in her voice, about the moments before the accident when a trolley car slid into the wooden bus she was in and she was impaled by a handrail, leaving her disabled for the rest of her life. The poems in my collection are all spoken in her voice and explore how she valiantly countered this trauma through vivacity and art. The book is available to buy from Seren and I will be giving an illustrated reading from it at the Hay Festival 10am this Wednesday 2 June. At 4pm on the same day I'll give another illustrated reading at the Culture Cymru stand.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Poetry from Art at Tate Modern - spring course photos

During my spring Poetry from Art course at Tate Modern, two photographers – Katie Snooks and Masayo Matsuda – took photos of us working in the Arshile Gorky exhibition. The paintings we worked with were 'Waterfall' and 'How My Mother's Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life'. The resulting poems are included in an online publication on the Tate Modern website. I'm now planning for the summer course which starts Monday 7 June in the Mona Hatoum installations in the Poetry & Dream wing: 'Home', 'Divan Bed' and 'Incommunicado'. We'll be in a different exhibition each week.

Friday, 30 April 2010

What the Water Gave Me – Poems after Frida Kahlo has arrived!

It's really strange to hold a collection that's taken 10 years to write, but here it is at last, with Frida Kahlo's surreal painting What the Water Gave Me on the cover, where she's surrounded by scenes from her life and her paintings, floating like islands in the bath. You can order it direct from my publisher Seren, buy it tomorrow if you come to my first reading from the book on Saturday May 1st at Chepstow, when I'll be reading with the great Les Murray for Poetry on the Border, or come to the London launch at 6.30pm on 17 June at The Horse Hospital, Colonnade, Bloomsbury, London WC1N 1HX (Russell Square tube). RSVP or 01656 663018.

There will also be launch readings at the Hay Festival on 2 June, Lancaster Litfest on 23 June, Ledbury Festival on 3 July, Birmingham Book Festival on 7 October, Manchester Literature Festival and Sheffield Off the Shelf Festival (both) on 19 October, and the Durham Book Festival on 23/24 October. Most events will be illustrated.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Notes from the Haut Languedoc

I'm writing this from Lodeve in Herault, France, a place I've known since I was twelve, when my estranged mother bought a steep terraced vineyard on the road from here to the hamlet of Les Plans (The Maps). We used to camp there in the two mazets (shepherds' huts) in summer holiday, getting to know her. The vineyard was a Christmas present to my brother and myself, just a drawing on a card which had advent type windows with maps she'd drawn of a half-hectare of land with a stream, huts, vines, walnut, olive and cherry trees and an underwood. We used to shower under the cascade at the bottom of the steep terraces, wash our clothes in the stream and go crayfish trapping in the pools. 

Twelve years ago my mother died and I came to Lodeve to see the land she left me. It has little monetary value and the vines are long gone but it felt very strange owning it so I've kept it wild. The far mazet had vanished into the sous-bois and brambles but the first was still there, even some of our furniture. Where there was once a vineyard below us there is now a house, but the farm next door is still there and the farmer's wife remembered me, saying that seeing me again was like "a mountain meeting another mountain". I visited the Mayor in Les Plans, the same mayor who three decades ago had delivered milk in a horse-drawn cart. 

Seven years ago, two months after I met my second husband, we came here for a holiday, that August when it was so hot people died. We sweltered in this two star hotel then, and explored the surrounding landscape which I had previously ventured onto on my own by bus. We drove over the Grands Causses – great moors on the limestone plateaus, and we fell in love with the solitude and silence of them. So on this visit, almost cancelled because of the Iceland volcanic eruption which disrupted flights, driving our car from London, we have ranged further, a hundred kilometres a day, exploring the Cevennes in the Massif Central, and the gorges I have always wanted to see – the Tarn and Jontes. 

Our first excursion was to see the  wolves of Gevaudan in the Lozere area. On the way I teased that they were putting on their wolf costumes and practising howling. This area is famous for the Bete du Gevaudan, a wolf which had interbred perhaps with a hyena and eaten many people. There are 100 wolves in a semi-wild state in this park. As soon as we entered and looked into the Siberian wolf reserve, the limping alpha male assumed a howling stance and all the others joined in. The sound was nothing at all like it is in films, it seemed to surround us and each wolf had a different pitch. They looked enthralled with their singing. Then they all arranged their tails according to a strict hierarchical code and the alpha male and female strutted about checking that all was in order, the lowest ranking with tails tucked under cowering hindquarters.

In a corner of the park, past the Mongolian red wolves, the Arctic, Polish and Canadian packs, three males were isolated, with huge open wounds on their lower backs, the result of attempts to challenge the boss.

We also saw two green lizards in the park, one was a male with a sky-blue throat. I hadn't seen one of those since my childhood in the vineyard, when they used to flash across the path between our two mazets.

The next day we drove to the Gorge de la Jonte because B had read that it is famous for its griffon vultures. We recrossed the viaduct of Millau (highest in the world) which connects the Causse du Larzac with the Causse du Mejean, and swung around the hairpin bends of the deep and vast Jonte gorges, and reached the Maison des Vautoures. I inched out onto lookout paths, desperately clinging to the rock face. It was worth the vertigo though, to reach the terrace with telescopes aimed at various nests and perches where we could watch the griffons.

Tomorrow we hope to go to the Tarn. Yesterday we drove up on to 'the balconies of the Midi' as they say here – the Larzac moors which overlook Les Plans and Lodeve, and peered over the vast panorama towards the lower Languedoc while a nightingale and cuckoos sang. On the way up we passed a house called Chantoiseau – Birdsong.

I hope to post photos from the trip when I get back to London from this land of The Maps.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Reading with Les Murray on 1st May in Chepstow, South Wales

Les Murray will be reading in Chepstow, South Wales, for Poetry on the Border on 1st May and I am thrilled to be reading with him. He's both a great world-class poet and a lovely generous-hearted person whose poetry has magnificent sprawl and a high degree of trance. Among his many honours he has won the TS Eliot Prize and has been awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry on the recommendation of Ted Hughes. He's been very generous to me, encouraging my work since before the publication of my first book Heart of a Deer, and over the years he's published many of my poems in Quadrant, the magazine he edits.

This is
Jemimah Kuhfeld's portrait photo of him, as part of her Poets Project. Les will also be giving the Poetry Society's annual lecture on Tuesday 11 May at Senate House, London and I'm really looking forward to that as well. If you live in South Wales and can make it at 7.30pm on Saturday 1st May for our reading, please come along to the Drill Hall, Lower Church St, Chepstow NP16 5HJ.
For more details and to book: 
Tel: 01291 625011
Tickets £12.00 (£10 concessions)