Project update: listening, waves, unfurling

Back in 2019 I wrote about my hopes for a new poetry project, which I called “that listening space” for the time being. I now call it CYMA, for ease, and as the project evolves. I thought I’d share an update on where the project has taken me to date, some of the challenges I’ve come across, and my plans for the next stages of researching and writing CYMA.

CYMA (swell, wave, curve, unfurling of young cabbage leaf) is a poetic exploration of spatial sound in different media: the body, urban space, and the ecology of a richly historied coastal saltmarsh. The poems are inspired by and take the forms of the sonosphere – bubbles, fields, and waves of all kinds – investigating environmental sound as a way of knowing and voicing, and how listening remains possible when hearing is frustrated or silence pervades. The project builds on my abiding interests in bodies, ecology and systems, and challenges me to find ways to privilege the aural over the dominant visual in my writing and thinking.

This year has been both helpful and unhelpful to my process. Reduced traffic noise has made my urban listening more possible and pleasant; at the same time, I have been unable to get to my primary research site for months at a time. I’ve discovered the works of so many artists, those living and those who have gone before, engaging with listening in their work; it’s been impossible to meet fellow writers and researchers as usual. This feels particularly important for this project, which was begun in 2018 after a conversation with my friend Robbie about the work of Pauline Oliveros, and I’m really missing being surrounded by creativity and sharing ideas and processes with others. That said, I have been able to attend online events that I wouldn’t usually have been able to get to, which has been fantastic. I’ve also taken solace in reading and writing more than ever before, returning to old favourites and reading genres that I wouldn’t usually choose; at the same time, the public libraries have been closed and I have access to even fewer resources than I usually do, especially as an independent researcher without the resources of a large institution. The fields of sound art, field recording and composition have been eye-opening and exciting new territories for me, and I’ve dived right into them, flailing in my waterwings; I’ve realised that it’s no mean feat to learn about a whole new discipline. And like everyone else, I’ve had urgent concerns for the health of my loved ones and myself that have blown my creative work out of the water. I’ve had no choice but to immerse myself in a sense of strangeness and disquiet. At least this feeling is exactly what first made me want to write about sound, space, my particularly eerie site and its military and surveillance history.

In terms of output, I’m generating a lot of material: notebook fragments, poems, annotations, dictated notes, photos, videos, sketches of cymatic patterns. I’ll still be in the researching and writing stage for the rest of 2021 I expect, although I edit some of the poems as I go. I’ve had to develop new methods and rhythms of researching, and to return to old ways that I haven’t exercised in a while. I’ve looked at history, ecology, geology and physics, and used notes, videos, field recordings and imagination. I’ve also instigated a parallel practice of writing “letters to S” – a cipher standing for sine waves/ sound/ site/ signal/ space/ spirit. In these letters I write to my subject about my process, research findings, as well as the “noise” of everyday life, and then “post” each letter into a sealed box. The letters form a secret diary of the project that is secret even from myself, for now, as I keep no record of what I’ve written. At the end of the project these signals will be received and incorporated into the final output(s) in some way.

I’m hugely lucky to have this project to sustain and entertain me, and look forward to sharing more of it over the coming months. In the meantime I’d love to hear from others exploring similar territory and can be contacted via my contact page.

Vessel: the first podcast, with Cat Woodward

This year I founded Vessel, a new indie zine exploring poems as containers. Joining me to guest edit issue one is my long-time collaborator and friend Cat Woodward. As the submissions window for issue one draws to a close (23:59 BST on 28 August – more info here) we thought we’d do a short podcast about Vessel, the poems we love and what Cat will be looking for from the submissions we receive.

You can now listen to the podcast here and read the transcript over on the Vessel site. We talk about “open” poems, having a dig around inside words, and the spirit of Ursula Le Guin’s Carrier Bag Theory.

While I regularly interview authors for The Writing Life podcast, this is the first podcast I have produced and edited by myself and it has been a great learning curve. I can’t wait for the next episode in this very occasional podcast series, which will be in a few months time with the guest editor of issue 2… to be announced!

Adventures in Reading: the story so far

Six months into writing my monthly Adventures in Reading newsletter, which traces my journeys in books, libraries and bibliophilia, I thought now felt like a great time to review my adventures so far.

You can find out all about my Adventures in Reading here – why I write them, why reading is so important to my practice, and the books I’ve explored so far – as well as subscribing here to receive future adventures straight to your inbox. Through writing about my reading, I hope to share and gather book recommendations, experiment with different strategies for reading texts and other forms, and to connect with likeminded bibliophiles, so please do have a read and let me know what you’re reading and what you think.

I’ve also spent a little time creating a visual representation of the Adventures in Reading so far. I’m a visual learner and find that mind maps are a helpful way for me to find connections, trace paths of correlation and causation, and have an overview at where a writing project (or any other project, for that matter) is at for the moment. So here I present my delightfully nerdy mindmap, “Adventures in Reading: The story so far” (view a larger version or download via the link below). There is a plethora of great reads in here – if something strikes you, you can find full details of the texts here to add to your TBR.

Adventures in Reading mindmap v1, August 2020

Snail experiments

Over the last few weeks I’ve been revisiting a project that I undertook in 2014, in which I collaborated with snails.

I noticed that after periods of summer rain, the gravelled front garden of the house where I was living with friends would come alive with snails. I remember that summer as one of warm rain, grass flowers, and slow mornings drinking lots of black coffee with my friend Meg.

At that time, I had just started keeping a notebook again after a few years of being without a daily writing practice. It occurred to me to try bringing literature and snails together to see what would happen. I did this by taking my notebook outside, and placing snails upon it, and then repeating the experiment indoors, to see if anything changed.

It was fascinating to observe them – they way they moved around, towards and away from one another; the variations in colour and pattern on their shells; the patterns they formed on the page. Most interesting to me was the way they interacted with the paper itself. Outside, almost all of the snails slid off the page and away into the gardenafter a short while, leaving very little trace that they had ever been there. The couple that I brought indoors started to chew the paper, and their munching was surprisingly loud and powerful. These snails did leave the marks of their presence, either biting through a few layers but leaving the page intact, or creating a hole in my ink-scribbled pages. After a while, I removed the snails and replaced them in the garden to go about their days as if nothing much had happened.

To document this process I took photos on my phone. They weren’t of fantastic quality, but gave a nice sense of the snails interacting with the paper, capturing their tentacles fully extended and the translucency of their bodies. Later, I would go on to use one of these images in my poem “Song for a lisp” (a version has been published in The Interpreter’s House, along with two of the photos from 2014). I’ve also referred back to this experiment as part of my ongoing “Compost poems” project.

In “Song for a lisp” I call this experiment “an ecoliterary intervention”, with a wink and a nudge. Having trained myself out of lisping over many years, I had wanted to write myself a tongue-twister that would undo that training and release my voice as it was/is, without the internalised social pressures and shame that too often accompany having a speech impediment. The visual experiment with the snails eventually connected with my writing about tongues (both physical and as languages). Initially wanting to explore physical similarities in texture of the tongue and the snail’s foot, I realised that the snails also helped me to employ a certain faux-academic, formally observant register in the poem, which is about mistakes, slippages and speech impediments. Using a mock-serious, verbose and procedural register allowed me to sit the poem in that space of training/being taught whilst also undermining it, letting out something freeing, uninhibited, and “incorrect”. My hope is that the effect would enact mistakes and impediments as a valid means of aquiring and communicating knowledge, and one that opens up the potential for play, irreverence, trying things out, and collaboration (even with other life forms).

Now that my first pamphlet will be published in 2021, and is currently being typeset and possibly illustrated, it has been fun to repeat the experiment in the hopes of getting some photos of higher, printable quality. I’m still working through this process, making plenty of mistakes and slip-ups, but am enjoying it and wanted to share a few of the new photos.

Vessel: Open call for issue 1

The submissions window for issue 1 of new, independent poetry magazine Vessel is now open until 23:59 on 28th August 2020.

Poets can send up to 4 poems and/or images for consideration to vesselpoetry@gmail.com. Full submissions guidelines and more about the editorial process can be found here.

Issue 1 is edited by Flo Reynolds and Cat Woodward.

Adventures in Reading: Waves of histories, parallel stories

The fifth instalment of my Adventures in Reading newsletter has gone live today. This month’s essay looks at These Bones Will Rise Again by Panashe Chigumadzi, and Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy. Taking in the waves of history, questions of fiction and documentary, and questions of complicity, I hope you’ll enjoy the essay and be interested to read these two extraordinary books, if you haven’t already. You can read the essay here, and subscribe and view the archive for more of my Adventures in Reading.

Vessel

After a couple of years of thinking about it, I have launched Vessel, a new independent magazine exploring the ideas of poems as vessels.

Inspired in part by an interest in material culture and by Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”, Vessel will explore, both formally and thematically, what a poem might hold, what might slip through it, and how it might contain.

There will be two DIY-printed issues per year, with a rolling co-editorship model. My longterm collaborator Cat Woodward will be joining me to co-edit the first issue.

Vessel will be seeking submissions of poems and images from 1st July 2020. You can find out more here, and read the submissions guidelines here. All enquiries and submissions can be sent to vesselpoetry@gmail.com.

Adventures in reading: the writing of containment to the gift of the hard-won word

My latest Adventure in reading is now available to read here. Drawing on Sara Baume, Lorina Bulwer, and Marilyn Robinson via Ellah P. Wakatama, I consider how my relationship to words has changed during lockdown, and how tangible making can be both comfort and political necessity in such times as these.

The essay has been hard to write because I have more questions than answers, and the pull between word and making has been a vexed one for my practice of late. But I’m lucky to have such wonderful writers to shape, add to, guide and provoke my thinking, and as ever it’s a pleasure to share my adventures. Click here to take a look, and you can subscribe here.

NCW Book Club: A Line Made by Walking

It’s been a pleasure to curate and produce the second NCW Book Club. This time our chosen book is A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume. Through a combination of podcasts, Zoom discussions and a Discord community, we’ve been discussing the book with readers from around the world and hearing from Sara herself about her practice as a writer and artist.

To compliment the Book Club, I’ve curated two lists for the NCW blog: questions and activities for readers and recommended reads for fans of Sara Baume.

There’s still time to get involved with the Book Club – find out how you can join in here – and in July we’ll announce our next selected book.