Flying in the Mist: A Week at The Grammarsow

A little spot by the Nine Maidens stone circle

I’m on the twelve-hour CrossCountry from Penzance to Edinburgh. Penzance is the most westerly town in Cornwall and being this close to the edge of something calms me. I always sleep better by the sea. On my way here, on the Great Western Railway, a woman gifted me a glass sculpture with a rainbow inside it, as thanks for helping with her bags at Truro. ‘It’s for stirring your drinks’. For the past week, I’ve been writer in residence at The Grammarsow: a project which brings Scottish poets to Cornwall in the footsteps of WS Graham, who was born in Greenock but spent much of his life down here, making a home of Madron, of Zennor, of the moors. To say this has been a magical week is to say it changed me. I first came across Graham when the poet Dom Hale sent me a voice note of his elegy, ‘Dear Bryan Wynter’, out of the blue; I immediately went out and bought another bright blue, the Faber New Collected Poems. There was something about that foxglove on the wall and the hum of some memory in childhood, watching the bees. 

Graham grew up in Greenock, on the Inverclyde estuary. A town where I used to teach writing workshops at the Inverclyde CHCP, taking weekly, then fortnightly trains with our chitty from Glasgow. That time in my life is a blur of shift work, seasonal overhaul, hopeless crushes. I’d get there early to look at the lurid flowers in Morrisons with Kirsty, my co-tutor, or visit the docks alone. Sometimes, I brought my little heartaches to the docks because the air felt smelted, or salt-rinsed, excoriating. The nature of these workshops was that people would share their life stories of such intensity we’d bear them home. I remember one woman writing a story about the moon, ‘we share the same moon’: the one thing connecting her, unconditionally, to her estranged daughter. Many people with stories of recovering from addiction through returning to childhood pursuits: the fishing taught by their fathers, the harbour walks, the musical grammar of language. Graham was trained as an engineer and spent some time on fishing boats, but dedicated most of his life full-time to poetry. The more I learn about this, the more I pine for the shabby romance of that clarity of pursuit. Not as a sacrifice but a great generosity from him, like a penniless rock star.

I’m sure it took a toll on his friends. Graham sent many a letter pleading neighbours and pen pals for the loan of a pound or a pair of boots, once thanking the artist Bryan Wynter for a pair of second-hand trousers. His letters are documents of a life lived in gleaning, bracing the elements, enjoying his wife Nessie’s lentil soup and of course, drinking. On a ‘bleak Spring day’ in 1978, by way of a quiet apology, he pleads with Don Brown, ‘I was flippant in the drink when you came with your news […]. Please let me still be your best friend’. He was often full of fire, a real zeal, taking poetry so seriously but life a strange lark, ‘speak[ing] out of a hole in my leg’. He wrote to his contemporaries — artists such as Ben Nicholson and Peter Lanyon, Edwin Morgan, along with family and friends — with bags of personality, a man self-fashioning in the long blue sea of ‘I miss yous’. As he wrote to Roger Hilton:

We are each, in our own respective ways, blessed or cursed with certain ingredients to help us for good or bad on our ways which we think are our ways. What’s buzzin couzzin? Love thou me? When the idea of the flood had abated a hare pussed in the shaking bell-flowers and prayed to the rainbow through the spider’s web. I have my real fire on. I am on. 

The real fire may have been a woodburner, sure, but it’s something lit within him. The letter as a turning on, turning towards: we see this spirit of openness and address in the poems. The real commitment to Lyric. I love the hare that shakes in the flowers with its rainbow religion. I love the flush of arousal from walking uphill at speed. I saw many a spiderweb and two hares chasing each other on dawn of Thursday. On the train home texting many friends as if to have the rush of being held again, ‘Love thou me?’, could I be so vulnerable. A foxglove shook in the wind. The line as a tremble is lesser felt in the steady verse. Clearly, Graham wasn’t afraid of sincerity, though he always took pains to remind his addressees of his roots. ‘No harder man than me will you possibly encounter’, he assures Hilton; elsewhere, after the death of Wynter, he writes to his Canadian friend Robin Skelton of the coming funeral: ‘Give me a hug across the sea. […] I am not really sentimental. I am as hard as Greenock shipbuilding nails’. In a way, the infrastructure of space inflects the language as its face. I’m reminded of a quote by Wendy Mulford which Fred Carter shared at the recent ASLE-uki conference in Newcastle, where she talks about ‘attempting to work at the language-face’. I wear the face of the land, Graham seems to say, and the build of it. At West Penwith, we face the end of the land, literally Land’s End to our west. It is sometimes a silver gelatine, other times a bright blue, a fog grey thicker than thought. A granite-hard land that nonetheless sparkles. I recall a rock on the beaches of Culzean, in South Ayrshire, we’d come across as kids. Mum called it a ‘moonrock’ or a ‘wishrock’. It was a perfectly huge dinosaur egg of white granite. I find this particular rock showing up in my dreams, even now; as if having touched it, I become complicit in a deep time that doesn’t so much store the past as bear its promise. What could hatch from within a rock like that? What could move it, or hold it?

Graham had the idea of poetry’s ‘constructed space’, what I’d call a lyric architecture for reassembling something sensuous in memory or emergence. That this space isn’t just designed (as in my idea of architecture) but constructed points to that emphasis on building. What kinds of muscle, time, effort of spirit and will go into this? The poet Oli Hazzard writes that one of the effects of Graham’s poetry is ‘that I feel like it allows me—or, creates a space in which it becomes possible—to see or to hear myself’. Graham’s poem ‘The Constructed Space’ opens with the line ‘Meanwhile surely there must be something to say’. I always hear it in the lovely vowels of his Inverclyde accent, assuring. Like he’s sitting with you in the poetry bar, two pints between yous, and the poem gives this permission to talk or make space to listen. I think of Denise Riley’s ‘say something back’. My own need always to blurt, interrupt, muse out loud what mince is in my head. It continues: 

                                        […] at least happy

In a sense here between us whoever
We are.

As I write this, light dances on the opposite wall of my tenement flat and it’s prettier than anything given to me by the window. Sometimes my love says I am harsh when they need delicacy, and so I soften the heather of my voice to listen. It’s true that I was happy while reading that poem, a happiness or lightness in the brain as precarious as the light is. Changeable and easily blown further west to let in what fog, or dimness. I don’t mind my brain when I’m in Graham’s poems. By which I mean, it’s no longer a drag to be conscious or sad; things move again, their metaphors in process. There’s a lightness to quietude, its intimate premise, that holds me. Nothing extreme is promised here, ‘whoever / We are’: lyric address sent through ether to find that ‘you’, held in the future’s new ‘us’. It’s better than a page refresh, reading the poem to think something Bergsonian of the self’s duration. I’m more snowball than the first maria who read this. It’s a kind of exhale, in a sense, like Kele Okereke singing ‘So Here We Are’ from an album named suitably Silent Alarm. Imagining my loves at the same time, out in Stirlingshire lying tripping by the loch, their eyes skyward, the high or low. I cherish that wish you were here / so here we are. I can look out from inside the constructed space of the poem. Wheeeeeeeeesht, you. You’ll find constructed spaces everywhere in Cornwall. The lashing blue skyscapes of Peter Lanyon, the abstract panoramas of Ben Nicholson, the ambient plenitude of Aphex Twin (especially ‘Aisatsana’ and most things from Drukqs). I want ambient or abstract art to give me the clouds in my head back to myself, with the light of it. Colours, gestures, fractals, lines. 

~

I’ve spent the past week schlepping around the moors and lanes, reading Sydney Graham’s poems and letters, cooking veg on my wee stove and eating simple marmite and butter sandwiches. I have this grandparent on my mum’s side who shared his name, who died of cancer before I was born. Sydney was the name Graham tended to go by, signing letters. It’s not that I’m looking for literary fathers but I stumble into their charismatic arms all the same. Is it guidance I look for, or perspective? I love the rolling enthusiasm, pedantry and chiding of his letters, as well as their cheekiness and charm. His dedication to writing and reading, his swaggering or boastful tendencies after an especially successful performance (coupled with an irresistible gentleness and warmth). His big sweet expressions ‘THE MILK OF HUMAN KINDNESS IS CONDENSED – TTBB)’, ‘IMPOSSIBLE TALK’. TTBB is the slogan of Grammarsow and a familiar exhortation in Grahamworld, meaning Try To Be Better (the title of an excellent anthology of Graham-inspired poems, edited by Sam Buchan-Watts and Lavinia Singer). I summon my voices, I try to be; used to be; want us to be. 

There’s a quietude I love about the work, which suits the land and mind. After a summer of working three paid jobs, and two voluntary, I was ready for a gearshift into something relaxed and focused. I’d had enough of my own ‘impossible talk’. Being here was like being given permission to play and explore. Quickly I realised my time didn’t need to be ‘dedicated’. I lived by the cruising whim of the big sky, its scrolling clouds and moodswings. Saw the moon at two o’clock in the afternoon. I watched dragonflies dart between the lanes, listened to my neighbourly ravens at night. Watched big jenny long-legs make flickery silhouettes on the walls. Slept peacefully with spiders above me and the ravens being craven. I wanted all these things in my poemspace, and the poems themselves were initially scarce, then they began a familiar elongation that was comforting, with the swerves of a bus but also the tread of a walk. Some poems wanting to hide themselves between logs where I might later try and find them.

~

A grammarsow is the Cornish name for a woodlouse, or what we’d call in Scots a slater. I remember growing up and having this internal argument about language: was I to go with what my English mum said, or everyone at school? Aye or nay, yes or no. At some point I realised it wasn’t a question of scarcity and elimination, but abundance. The words became barnacle-stuck from all over the sloshes of life, swears and all, and I cherished their stubbornness. Even those gnarly, uncommon words and spicy portmanteau like ‘haneck’, ‘gadsafuck’, ‘blootered’ and ‘glaikit’. And yous: the juicy, plural form of you. Addressing the crowd, the swarm or many. A woodlouse is a terrestrial crustacean drawn to damp environments. I grew up with woodlice crawling out from under cracked kitchen tiles, unearthing raves of them hidden under rotten logs, finding them in tins of old paintbrushes or sometimes a bag of flour or sugar. I always liked the way their little legs seemed translucent, a little alien, and was especially seduced by their darling tendency to curl up into a ball, for protection, like Derrida’s idea of the poem as hedgehog. 

Across the English language, there are many amazing names for the humble woodlouse, not limited to: 

  • armadillo bug
  • billy button
  • carpet shrimp
  • charlie pig
  • cheeselog
  • chisel pig
  • doodlebug
  • hardback
  • hobby horse
  • hog-louse
  • jomit
  • menace
  • pea bug
  • pennysow
  • pill bug
  • roly-poly

What is this penchant for lists I share with Graham? I want abundance from something other than products. I’m dumbly monolingual and lists are one of the few ways I can accumulate nuances of meaning. My attention-disordered brain collects lists as procrastination for the Thing itself, what is it I should be doing, always on the tip of some other event horizon bleeding through the last and first, so nothing is really finished. I like that in West Penwith, to look at the Atlantic you don’t see any islands, so there doesn’t have to be an end. You have the illusion that there can always be more time. The sea as this list of limitless light, colour shift, unbearable senses of depth. You are here. 

~

The grammarsow crops up in Graham’s letters. In a missive to Robin Skelton, he muses: 

And what are we now? Maybe better to have been an engine-driver in the steam-age. A sportsman a shaman a drummer a dancer rainmaker farmer smith dyer cooper charcoal-burner politician dog bunsen-burner minister assassin thug bird-watcher poet’s-wife queer painter alcoholic ologist solger sailer candlestick-maker composer madrigalist explorer invalid cowboy kittiwake graamersow slater flea sea-star angel dope dunce dunnick dotteral dafty prophesor genius monster slob starter sea-king prince earl the end.

Again the ‘steam-age’ of other infrastructures interfacing language. Better to have been a wave engineer in the renewable(s) era. I find myself somewhere between the ‘ologist’ and the ‘angel dope’, strung out on critique, measure and the promise of sensuous oblivion. Not sure if the dope is connected to the dunce or angel, but I’ll claim it spiritually as something good: an enhanced performance. As in, those are dope lines I’m reading. Do you want some? ‘And what are we now?’ not who, but what. A question I want always to ask — it’s almost Deleuzian — with someone in my arms or the sea swishing up to waist height, a sea-star clung to the hollows behind my knees. What’s possible when shame is gone. I love tenderly Graham’s list of possible existences and wonder how many I might retrain as (O genius monster), keeping in mind Bernadette Mayer’s old quip that all poets should really be carpenters. I love the raggedness of letters, which is why I love blogs (letters to the idea of being read). Who are they for? We’re so lucky to have these old ones, bound for us, evidence to the material conditions for our wild imaginaries. 

~

In Cornwall, I love falling asleep. I love falling for new poems, stumbling a little on the rugged paths, falling for the air and water, for a little more mermaid’s ale or Bell’s, a blackcurrant kombucha or 100g of coconut mushrooms. In his essay for Poetry Foundation, ‘This Horizontal Position’, Oli Hazzard writes about a time Graham ‘went for a walk on Zennor Hill in Cornwall and fell into a bramble bush’. This falling was a repeat pattern: in 1950 he drunkenly fell off a roof and complained of his three-month hospital stay, ‘I hate this horizontal position’. In my DFA thesis I wrote extensively about lying down as a beginning for writing, the horizontal as a form of refusal when it comes to the upright requirements of an assertive ‘I’. It’s no secret that I prefer poetry in the mode of dreamtime, but that’s not to say I’m also a rambler. It’s a poetry of breath and of steps (of vigour!) I enjoy in Graham. Zigzagging and winding down well-trodden moor paths, stumbling upon bridleways that lead around the hills from holy shrines. 

I was the lucky poet to first bless a new writer’s cabin that my host, Rebecca, built on some land near the Ding Dong Mine. From the garden, you can see right out over Mount Bay. The skies are huge here. I’ll say that a lot. I saw a seal down by one of the zawns on the north coast, felt the fear of losing the moon in you, let my lips chap on the telepathy of remote secrets. I try to be better, regardless. My poems become languorous obscurities. All of the land has hidden depths.

~

There was a summer before secondary school when we were gifted an unlimited pass to Historic Scotland, meaning our holidays involved camping across Dumfries and Galloway, the Trossachs, the Highlands, in search of abbeys, monasteries, castles and holy sites in various states of decay. I was turned off by leaflets documenting the actual details of history, emerging sleepy-eyed from the car where I’d been navigating the turgid sentences of fantasy novels or playing platform games like Super Mario. There’s a particular form of carsickness that produces electrolytic effects conducive to imaginative ventures. What I mean to say is, instead of vomiting I overlaid the real world with the promise of portals to elsewhere. In Penwith, I walk off my city sickness and sit by the standing stones, quoits and old ruins of industry. What do I imagine but a ‘news of no time’, still to come? Zennor Hill is both poem and place. The more I’m here, the more a sort of aura thickens.

Swap Zoom for the view from Zennor

On my last morning, I wake to sunrise over the sea. Dew shimmers the rosehips. The air is earthsweet as ever and I don’t know how I’ll go home. Travelling is an experience of dislocation: here, I find home again in language, its caught habits, Graham’s words sluicing Clydewards. There’s a poise to his poetry, steadfastly composed as ‘verse’ and often by iambic measure. Making perfect prosody with the chug of the train. I was pleased to roll into Glasgow having bumped into my friend Kenny, the whisky god of the Hebrides, attuned to the flight-pulse of conversing again. Hungry, ‘putting this statement into this empty soup tin’ to say cheerio as Sydney would, lighting up poetry to finish it, the best thing of all, a warm scaffold to hold up how we missed each other. A quiet disintegration of cloud. What are we now?

With thanks to Andrew Fentham, David Devanny and Rebecca Althaus for kindness and hospitality. Long live The Grammarsow! 

Lossy Compressed @ The Hug and Pint/

On 27th August 2022, Kirsty Dunlop and I performed our glitch singularity, fuelled by Doritos, tiredness and cheap lager, to manifest arpeggios of shimmer poem. “My favourite powerpoint in the world”, someone in the audience said. “The band” is called Lossy Compressed and this is an extract from our first performance. In this extract of the set, I’m reading from my book String Feeling and Kirsty is improvising on the harp, it gets slow and fast. Thank you to Craig and Ruthie from the brilliant King Wine for inviting us. Video footage is by Shehzar Doja.

Accompanying the performance was a one-off pamphlet (edition of 20), SLEEP FOREVER IN FLARFLAND LIL BABY DOLPHINA, published by Mermaid Motel. pdf version may drop on the internet sometime soon.

Playlist: August 2022

It’s almost autumn and I can’t stop listening to The Corrs. Something ringing in the falling rain a leaf-lorn runaway, never gonna stop falling, wish I could play the strings and not cry over a snapped shoelace that Saturday, wish I could never need name this. A fresh nostalgia for Flash player, a bad new year, kneeling in the car dirt of roadsides to fix my bike, the air all gone out of each tyre it’s tiring to be here /  wish I could change. Not into other people but into the person I was, rosy-fingered sleepless rolling cinnamon skins and talking on the internet while in the other town this guy throws a mattress out of a window. If memory serves to fall out with it. Black lace and white corduroy out to the woods I’m happiest on the hill where I see this deer, evidently a teenage stag and I’m calling angel androgynies the very next stray. Fucked up salads of affect, afraid to go outside. Emma says everyone’s a poet. You just go.

Crying in the cobblers for other omens.

Girls in the nineties with strands of dark hair, box-dyed. The electricity all gone out. I was supposed to be planning a workshop, writing a lecture. The universe owns me, doesn’t owe me. 

Across oceans of static, watching you typing…

I cycled past the cathedral and saw the sycamores blush orange as if in real-time metabolising their chlorophyll before me. I google the phrase ‘fall splendour’ in guilty luxuriance. A man on my street pisses against the wall, daylight screams; he pisses for so long I think he will disintegrate in dumb liquid gold. Can’t concentrate on this Zoom call. I’m missing something real of the days before me. Girl in old man bar is singing a ballad. Can you drink a black hole if you can’t drink a Guinness? Colin says Brian says you’d have to suck through a straw at the speed of light. Girl in old man bar is wearing tartan, a velvet headband, recently expired lipstick. I like her.

Singing Eliza Carthy, singing Amen Dunes…

I always want autumn too early and pine for spring. Trillions of magazines tell me it’s not cool having holes in my tights. It’s not cool having ragged cuticles. 

Ten years of sleazy beauty.

A paintbrush yellowing in sordid water.

Forever down Cathcart Road.

Incurable bed mornings of limb ache and long illness, it’s fine like to say it’s totes, bring myself coffee in bed and emails filling me with autumn leaves and the fly infestation fed upon fruit and air…a red car rolling backwards up the street…

It used to be so easy to write these like it never mattered to write at all. The sky is still whey and there are new routes to get to the same old temples. I swirl my tongue in the google doc long enough to know how I’d touch you; the hopescape bristles with city pollution. My friends have been to Greece and Bali, the Hebrides. I have been to Edinburgh for work. Come down the wrong side of the hill among gorse and scramble, the rocks coming loose and my heart gone trash-eating in the nights of bad sleep again, all again, falling awake with the light on, spilled ink in my sheets. I met the same America on Netflix checking my brain, my gag reflex. 

I heard the blood blister in that guitar riff and it was like vomiting behind the shopping mall in Kilmarnock, drunk on bus wine and the Alice in Chains of my arteries…you awake, say the word clavicle, touch my spine…

The Corrs – Breathless

Alice in Chains – Tears

Hand Habits – No Difference

Beth Orton – Weather Alive

Belle & Sebastian – Working Boy in New York City

Sharon Van Etten – Darkness Fades

Baths – Tropical Laurel

Doja Cat – Love to Dream

Adios Nervosa – cloudcover

Drugdealer – Madison

Thee Oh Sees – Chem-Farmer

The 1975 – Part of the Band

June11 – Who is Still Dreaming?

Regina Spektor – Loveology

New workshops: Epistolary Experiments and Pop Matters

Thrilled to announce I’ll be working with Beyond Form Creative Writing again this autumn to offer two new workshops. The first, Epistolary Experiments, begins on 28th September and is a monthly, four-part series designed to explore the arts of letter writing and correspondence across different forms. We’ll be thinking about how the work of address, posting, description and all its intimacy and triangulation can tell a story, evoke fantasy scenarios or perform an expansive, relational lyric. The second, Pop Matters: Our Songs, is a one-off workshop on 23rd November and offers a warm and upbeat ‘studio’ for musing on the relationship between creative practice and pop music. How do we write through and towards pop with all our devotion or ambient dwelling in its neon glow? Both workshops will involve a mix of reading other work, discussion and structured individual writing activities. There will never be any pressure to share work, although you will have access to the workshop threads on Experimental Creatives Collective, a closed forum space where further discussion and sharing can take place if anyone wishes.

For both workshops, there is both a full price and two concession rates.

Epistolary Experiments

4 Sessions Starting Wednesday September 28th

6-8:00pm (GMT) via Zoom

‘I write you a letter to make eyes at a reader I don’t know from Adam’ (Kay Gabriel). From Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) to Sean Bonney’s incendiary Letters Against the Firmament (2015), letter-writing or ‘the epistolary’ has inflected all kinds of writing, including novels, poetry and manifestos. Taking cue from Kay Gabriel’s ‘The Purloined Lyric’, we’ll explore the possibilities of letters, address and communication in all kinds of writing, practice and performance. While the literary letter has an established tradition, we’ll look at contemporary artists/authors who shake up the form of correspondence and in turn reframe desire, play, identity, sex, intimacy, domesticity and the political. 

In this four-part, monthly series, we’ll look at several key areas: the love letter, the political letter, the fantasy letter and the postcard. A letter can triangulate writer, addressee and reader in endlessly generative ways, not to mention the origami of folds between art, life and writing, and this series is designed for creatives of all kinds to think about the epistolary genre in their own practice. Whether you want to incorporate the letter form directly into your work as source material/form, or simply use it as an extra tool in your research, reflection and development process, this series offers a generative starting point. Workshops will combine reading and reflection with individual writing activities, with some opportunities for collaboration including optional pairing of participants as ‘pen-pals’ for the duration of the course.

Open to all skill levels and writers and creatives of all mediums. You can sign up for all or just some of the weeks!

​♡

Session 1 September 28th: The Love Letter 

An iconic motif in the history of film and literature, the love letter conveys acts of noticing, clandestine reflections, confessions, embarrassment and desire. The love letter might be a plot device, a poetic ode, a pop song, a frank or coded material expression. The love letter tells a story, obscures a truth, embodies connection; it might concern romantic, platonic or comradely love. Sometimes a love letter goes beyond the intended beloved and forges all sorts of new energies and worlds. We’ll write into all these intimacies and frictions. 

Key writers include John Keats, Jane Campion, Kay Gabriel, Jo Barchi, Diana Hamilton, Frank Ocean

Session 2 October 26th: The Political Letter

By reading unsent letters, letters to everyone, letters to no one, we’ll consider how the art of writing letters is a radically social form. Playing with the art of address and description, this workshop explores how the letter form can explode and disseminate ideas of presence, identity, desire and political (im)possibility. 

Key writers include Bernadette Mayer, Fred Moten and Sean Bonney

Session 3 November 30th: The Fantasy Letter 

Sometimes we write to someone who might never read our letters. We write to fictional characters, other writers or artists — some of them lost to time. These epistles might take the form of fan letters, speculative letters, epistolary letters or fantasy missives — defying the limits of time, space, the living and dead. In this workshop we’ll engage with such letters to consider voice, the intimate arts of reading, communication between forms, the body and queer temporalities. 

Key writers include Dodie Bellamy, Vahni (Anthony Ezekiel) Capildeo, Jack Spicer 

Session 4 December 14th: The Postcard 

‘A giving which gives only its gift, but in the giving holds itself back and withdraws, such a giving we call sending’ (Derrida, The Post Card). What does it mean to send, or be sent? This final workshop takes the pithy form of the postcard as a figure for the literary possibilities of posting. What temporality does a postcard hold? What happens in the relationship between word and image, expression and constraint, public and private? Could we write postcards to the past or future, to the more-than-human? Can thinking postcard help us rethink other kinds of ‘posting’ and (un)delivery in our daily and writerly lives?

Key writers include: Postcards from the Anthropocene project, Jacques Derrida, Kiraṇ Kumār

Register


Pop Matters: Our Songs

Wednesday November 23rd

6-8:00pm (GMT) via Zoom

Building on the success of the 2020 Pop Matters series, this workshop offers a warm and upbeat ‘studio’ for musing on the relationship between creative practice and pop music. We’ll focus mostly on pop music and love/devotion, making space for writing which borrows from the form of pop music or writes to specific pop artists. We’ll consider how pop can offer the emotional and structural inspiration for other kinds of creative output, the role of pop in everyday life/life-writing and the mythologies we give to pop icons in writing. Designed for anyone who wants to flirt with a bit of pop in their practice, this workshop will feature music, free association, reading and stimulating activities for writing.

Key writers include: Kevin Killian, Dana Ward, Anne Boyer, Ian Macartney 

Register

Infinity States: The Palace of Humming Trees

A few weekends ago marked a whole year since my exhibition with Jack O’Flynn, The Palace of Humming Trees, curated by Katie O’Grady. It was the height of summer, electrified by lightning storms and rain showers which sent the city streets flooding my ankle boots. I sat in the exhibition watching the auras of animals, drifting in and out of presence, doodling, planning short fiction I’d never write. The rain came down through the ceiling, just a little, and caught in a bucket. I texted in streams.

Something of the exhibition magicked itself into existence. We were all ’93 babies. Making things happen felt so easy. There were synchronicities and invincibilities. When Katie and I hung out at Phillies, we won the quiz. Jack and I wove this hyperplane of fantasy from the gestures of clay and line, whittling and glitter cast wide across floorboard and spiderweb. It was a strange time, the summer of 2021. I was also partially in the numb haze of grief. There was a delta wave but not like the deep sleep of the sea. People brought champagne and flowers to the opening. I wore a long white dress and wished the days were as long as they used to be. The Earth spins too fast.

Partly I wanted to write in the choral voice of many creatures speaking to one another. The process felt like a lyric surrender to this collective, their hyperintelligence of humming and stammer that spoke through pores, chitin, liquid. I don’t know where they learned all this. There was a sun virus in the emails we sent the summer before it. Time freckled on my arms. I could draw out the muscle ache from cycling more. It was possible then.

Anyway, about this experience of writing. A porous voice. Here’s an artist’s talk from a recent conference.

First delivered at Hear them speak: Voice in literature, culture, and the arts
10th June 2022

K Allado-McDowell, ‘And they showed me that their life was a pattern of hyperspace’

Who might be the ‘they’ in K Allado-McDowell’s statement? Taken from Pharmako-AI, published in 2021 and the first book to be co-authored with the neural network GPT-3, a system trained on extensive web data (from Google Books to Wikipedia), the quote suggests voice, presence and identity are questions of patterning, replication, weaving, plurality. Recurrent in Allado-McDowell’s book is the figure of the spider and its web, in a kind of constant movement like thought itself.   

I was travelling north on a train when I began writing The Palace of Humming Trees, a book-length exhibition poem which forges energy fields of dreamy relation between many species of animal, mineral and element. Late spring and the fields I could forget about, texting myself more poem. The motion of the train according inverse to the downward scroll of the document. All the while seeing spiders in the corner of my vision, emitting great clots of silk. Commissioned by curator Katie O’Grady and made in collaboration with the artist Jack O’Flynn (both from Cork, Ireland), the exhibition was to offer something of a ‘hyperspace’ to its viewers: somewhere in which voices coalesced, formed new modalities of being and relation, new webs. In a Tank Magazine interview with K Allado-McDowell, Nora N. Khan notes that hyperspace ‘is an abstract space in which we perceive patterns of information and then shape them in language in order to communicate’. Having a big, serial and open field poem adjacent to visual work premised on bold, ecstatic colour and texture was to perform multiplicities of voice within an otherwise abstracted work. Inspired by Timothy Morton’s ideas of ‘dark ecology’, adrienne maree brown’s ‘pleasure activism’ and Ursula Le Guin’s ‘carrier bag theory of fiction’, I wanted to think about that communication as a form of attunement through which we gather, desire and coexist as ecological beings. 

In The Palace of Humming Trees, the lyric voice is taken as that trembling spider silk assembling worlds. Spider silk is a protein fibre which embodies the inside of the spider woven on the outside for shelter, cocoon, courtship or the trapping of prey. It’s five times stronger than steel and is now being synthesised to make everything from body armour to surgical thread and parachutes. I began imagining the twangling of droplets on silk strands as the visualisation of a deep vibration, perhaps the wood wide web – something humming in and between trees. The world of the exhibition was inspired by the Irish folktale, The Hostel of the Rowan Trees, also known as Fairy Palace of the Quicken Trees. In the story, trees of scarlet fruit provide refuge, but the fruit itself (the quicken berries) are highly desirable to the point of despair. The rowan was brought from the land of promise, and its berries offer rejuvenation. With these symbolic undertones of danger and desire in mind, we wanted to explore a mythic ‘palace’ which merged the digitality of hyperspace with the organic textures of woodland and the chromatic intensity of dream, fantasy and ethical relation.

At the heart of our project was a notion of infinity. Hyperspace suggests that our ecological sense of world, surrounds, habitat, umwelt is always being reassembled. I wondered if infinity could somehow be voiced in a way that wasn’t just postmodern recursion or echo. What does it mean to be open to a state of infinity? To let many worlds pass through you all at once, making diamond-like instants and gossamer patterns of prosody? 

Infinity became our figure for ambience. As spider silk is densely structured, and the neural net densely layered, so the notion of ambience captures, in Brian Eno’s words ‘many levels of listening attention’. To walk through the door of The Palace of Humming Trees was to enter a portal of multiplicity. You could take any route you liked around the room, moving between sculptures of hyperfoxes and sparklehorses, lichenous forms, ceramic butterflies of psychedelic hue and illustrated groves where trees shimmered green, orange, purple and blue. You could also scan a QR code and choose to listen to a recording of the poem, voiced by Jack, Katie and I and accompanied by Dalian Rynne’s sonic dreamscapes. To hear something ‘humming’ is to sense its presence, even if you can’t wholly understand it; humming implies electromagnetic vibration, birds and bees, a weather event or tectonic movement. We weren’t interested in translating the more-than-human voice so much as bringing it into the forcefield of lyric poetry, and through that expansive patterning achieve ‘infinity states’ of reassembled meaning, of felt experience that could not be crystallised into singularities of being. Visitors took pictures, sketched Jack’s sculptures, ran their fingers through the luminous plaster dust, placed to highlight the debris or excess of our clay animals. Something always in the process of creation or decay, incomplete. Corporeal, yet infinite. 

One of the many voicings of this project was Letters from a Sun Virus, a correspondence between Jack and I that occurred over the first Covid lockdown, documented at the back of the exhibition book. While the email exchange had distinct senders and receivers, the you and I, over time in collaborating and sharing work between the visual and textual, our voices were beginning to mingle. Sometimes this co-voicing was painterly; other times musical, inflected with the characteristic intonation and energy of our respective speech patterns, moods, expressions. An entry from April 2020 reads: ‘…the wateriness of the poem. I had completely forgotten about all that blur. It’s like all the brush of the ocean and one which seems the idea to spill that way. Almost like a pressure, lines that go on and hair turning into the sea, each one of kinetic energy then finds all these points’. To assemble the correspondence for publication, I plugged it through text remixers, copying, pasting and rearranging phrases to enhance that sense of two voices repatterning one another. A ceaseless quest for points; for elements acting upon objects, emotions. Denise Riley has written of ‘inner speech’ as a strange oxymoron, where one hears voice at the moment of issuing voice inside us – a kind of running commentary that hums without actually humming. The letters suggest a kind of inner voice infected by the anticipated response of the other, rendering intimacies of collaboration which form a sticky substance, sentences and mobius formations holding time’s play and repeat – ‘Unending loop of my dream resins / not to complete the palace infinity of these trees’. Imagining the many of them speaking.

In Texts for Nothing, Samuel Beckett writes:

Whose voice, no one’s, there is no one, there’s a voice without a mouth, and somewhere a kind of hearing, something compelled to hear, and somewhere a hand, it calls that a hand, it wants to make a hand, or if not a hand something somewhere that can leave a trace, of what is made, of what is said, you can’t do with less, no, that’s romancing, more romancing, there is nothing but a voice murmuring a trace.

To ask whose voice in The Palace of Humming Trees is to hear sound bouncing as light, romancing, refracting in what Katie, the curator, calls a many-panelled ‘vivarium of humming thought’. To say ‘there is no one’ is to declare at once absence and the impossibility of presence as a singularity, there is no ONE. What if voice was infectious, modular, sporous, erotically charged, in common? Early in the project, I had this conversation with Jack where he told me that sometimes in the process of sculpture, he’ll try turning something upside down, or inside out, to revitalise the work. Make it strange or more-than. To sculpt by hand is to ‘leave a trace, of what is made’, and to write is to leave a trace ‘of what is said’. I wondered if the inner speech of the lyric ‘I’ could be turned inside out, to be exposed to the grain, the noise, the weather. A voice that touches is and is being touched, traced, smudged. I imagine this book as a glasshouse, somewhere between inside and outside, shelter and exposure; a chamber music of alchemical voicings, always repatterning, transforming each other. Sound and light. A place of invitation, ritual attention, metamorphosis. Many selves stuck to the web of a visual, expansive language. 

Hyperfox – photo by Sean Patrick Campbell (French Street Studios, 2021)

Notes on Lyric Solarity

‘Notes on Lyric Solarity’ at Summer in the Way, Birkbeck University of London, 9th July 2022.

Video of a creative-critical paper delivered over the weekend at Birkbeck, as part of an ongoing collaboration between the87press and the Contemporary Poetics Research Centre. Below is an extract from the first half of the paper. A lot of this thinking is developed more fully in a forthcoming academic article.

As flowers turn toward the sun, by dint of a secret heliotropism the past strives to turn toward that sun which is rising in the sky of history. 
– Walter Benjamin, Illuminations

Today, I’m going to move fluidly between poetry and essay to present some nascent thoughts on lyric solarity. I want to suggest lyric solarity is a poetics in which solar imaginaries are linguistically mediated and refracted through the close rhythms, affects, sensoria and arts of noticing associated with the focalised energies of lyric poetry. Lyric solarity enacts an embodied poetics of dissolve, exposure, surplus, saturation and excess/residue: it offers a way of turning towards the sun, while helping us make, in the words of Imre Szeman, ‘commitments to reshaping’ the ‘existing infrastructures’ which underpin access to and distribution of energy. While the anthropocene, a contested epoch defined by humankind’s ascendance as geological agent, is often understood as an issue of scale, attending to the solar helps us think about planetary crisis in terms of distribution and density of harm, resources and changes to climate or energy. I take energy to mean both the power derived from physical or chemical resources, the property of matter and radiation manifest as a capacity to perform work, but also in the sense of an organism’s energy – their metabolism, vitality, ongoingness within the world, and its working demands or desires. What follows is less of an argument than a set of propositions and possibilities, a selection of field notes in search of lyric solarity.

  1. Sans Soleil

In Chris Marker’s film Sans Soleil, often translated into English as sunless, we begin with a quote from T. S. Eliot’s ‘Ash-Wednesday’: ‘Because I know that time is always time / And place is always and only place’. It begins again with an image of three children in Iceland, ‘an image of happiness’ accompanied by black film leader. The voiceover suggests that if viewers can’t find happiness in the image of the children ‘at least they’ll see the black’. The film is itself a kind of lyric documentary on human memory, how memory is fragile and so our recall of personal and political histories – especially on a global or even planetary scale – is inflected or reworked in the present. In the spring of 2020, I approached the film as a kind of memory place. I had never seen such spring sun in Glasgow, but due to Covid I was locked down inside my own sunless temple, or tenement. What follows violates, perhaps, Eliot’s insistence on the essential containment of space and time. Eliot, I guess, never used the internet. 

I was messaging the poet fred spoliar, and suddenly it was the solstice and we wanted to mark it. We began this remote collaboration, not in response to Marker’s film so much as through it, or some residue within it, a blemish or shine. A bright spot, a blind spot, a kind of fleck on its vision. We wrote remotely, wrote ‘live’ and in those hours of shared writing, we existed in a solar time: where solarity was a quality of memory, its absence our absence, and yet also speculation towards something better – waiting for rays of arrival. In that sense, the poem is about the uses and abuses of pastoral; about an ‘elsewhere’ to be written around, glimpsed, squinted at, but never quite accessed. It’s also about the temporal alignment of two people writing together. Lyric as a thought device for telecommunicating something of a paraworld hidden in language. I’d fall asleep with our phrases like film credits flashing behind my eyes. We wrote between the summer and winter solstices of 2020, we split lines with sun-cloud emoji. Here’s some of the opening sequence of the poem:  

Ultraviolet rose us

spilled into formless

unration of atoms

and we spend ourselves back, the day

extends pause,

folding up

in luxe ellipsis 

hills and hills 

of recessional cloud, cast debt 

between us, rolling one-sided 

to release it, all of I’m rain 

cast thru fierce aureate

disquietude, to not say 

hope this finds you, or 

nearest the soft motif of yr hair 

bright spots around the antisolar point

balayage of except champagne 

never sets. In a forest image / I cannot touch you 

or notify through light that drowsy reminder 

we are many. Something 

decorative / in the cold soak of sylvanshine 

gives up its entrance, the long day 

composed of such stills is lying 

back from its voyage. To say 

all of the land escapes / an exorbitant teardrop 

a teardrop. I have these ambient hands. 

I wring the leaves…

2. Solar Apocalypse

In Etel Adnan’s poetry sequence, The Arab Apocalypse (1989), the sun is variously a shapeshifting trickster, a totalising energy, an authority, a marker of time, a blinding force, a monster, a pool of blood. Here are some of Adnan’s lines taken from across the book: 

I took the sun by the tail and threw it in the river. Explosion. BOOM…

the sun is contaminated by the city

the sun has eaten its children

a sun rotten and eaten by worms floats over Beirut       silence is sold by the pound

eat and vomit the sun eat and vomit the war hear an angel explode

The brain is a sun STOP the sun is an eye

the sun’s atoms are incarnating in my flesh     STOP          STOP

The sun is a kind of virus, pulsing and multiplying, changing form and colour, nourishing and deadly, making things grow or die; a kind of white noise in the context of war, a vulnerable body, a weapon, a machine of surveillance, a carnal threat. In the American Book Review, Barbara Harlow says of Adnan’s poem that it ‘invokes a mythic past […] to presage a present that resists narration’. To presage is to be a warning sign, a prediction, typically of something unpleasant; in archaic meaning, presage is an omen, a feeling of foreboding. In The Arab Apocalypse, Adnan writes back and forward to historical crises: as Aditi Machado points out in an essay for Jacket2, the poem was begun in January 1975 in Beirut, two months before the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War. But there is also a generalised economy of violence, exposure and replenishment which speaks to the twentieth century at large and indeed to the explosions, contaminations and environmental atrophying of the twenty-first century. As Harlow identifies, the simultaneous, coagulating, geopolitical crises of the times, what we might call the ~Anthropocene, are often resistant to narrative. The recurrent, modulating figure of the sun has more of a lyric quality, beaming and seeping, punctuated by telegraphic lines and signals of stop, break, transition. Language garners a lyric intensity which is elemental, saturating, overspilling the traditional bounds of a human ‘I’. Impressive and god-sized dramas of the stars and planets play out in a mythopoetics of Beirut, of Gilgamesh, of ‘grass snakes hiding in the texture of TIME’ (Adnan, The Arab Apocalypse).

3. More sun to consider in lyric

Julia Kristeva’s Black Sun

The music of Sun Ra

Sean Bonney’s ‘solar cop’

The shine sprites in the video game, Super Mario Sunshine

Georges Bataille’s ‘solar love’

David Schwartzmann’s ‘solar communism’

Alli Warren’s Sun Dial

The photographic process of the ‘anthotype’

Björk’s song ‘Sun in My Mouth’

Catherine Wagner’s line ‘If everything is from the Sun why praise it’

Paul Klee, Castle and Sun (1929)
Etel Adnan, Untitled (2016) Source: White Cube.

4. Shimmer 

In Paul Klee’s painting, Castle and Sun (1929) the castle is line-drawn in myriad geometry: its surface is of different coloured shapes, set underneath a bright orange sun. In proximity, the colours shimmer and vibrate. If there was a patchwork made of Adnan’s poem, it might be this; or indeed one of Adnan’s own geometric, brightly-coloured abstractions. Shimmer is to shine with a soft, wavering light. It offers a coming-to-knowledge distinct from the Enlightenment regime of ‘shining a light’ on your subject; it is a way of making contact, of existing in non-linear, non-narrative – that is to say, lyric – timespace. In her 2018 book Surge, Adnan writes ‘We came to transmit the shimmering / from which we came’. In this shimmering tautology we yet cross a line, continue transmission. Shimmer is instrumental in what I call ‘hypercritique’: a poethical form of writing which orients not to the capture of time, meaning or ecological reality, but to a beyond

Glitching the Poem: A workshop with SPAM Press

This event is part of the Glasgow Zine Fest 2022 Programme

Location: CCA Glasgow, 350 Sauchiehall St, Glasgow G2 3JD

Room: Creative Lab

Who: Maria Sledmere & Kirsty Dunlop from SPAM Press

Tickets: Pay-What-You-Can (find out more here!)


In Glitch Feminism (2020), Legacy Russell hones in on the sudden error of the glitch as ‘a form of refusal’. As our social, intimate and professional lives become increasingly directed by the commercial algorithms of everyday media platforms, how can poetry intervene in the cognitive minefield of Web 2.0? Playing with text-mixing, collage and procedural forms, we’ll consider ways of glitching between interfaces of browsing/writing in virtual space and print, with time for questions and discussion.

Through cookies, advertisements and terms and conditions, digital capitalism constantly demands that we affirm the ‘yes’ of its systems. In this workshop, poetry will offer something alternative. We’ll break through the junk space of virtual realms and create innovative works within and beyond them, while exploring the world of SPAM Press. Asking what it means to be post-internet, to write from error, to envision the poem as an interactive environment. Let’s glitch!

This event will include: group discussions, reading out loud, reading alone, writing, sharing work that has been created in the workshop.

LINK FOR TICKETS.