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.

A tale of two (or more) stories: a photo essay

It’s the last day of the month, which means it’s time for the latest in my Adventures in Reading series of essays. This time, in “A book holds many stories” I explore how books as physical objects hold stories beyond the printed word. I mix words and photographs, taking inspiration from Chirodeep Chaudhuri and Jerry Pinto, with Caroline Bergvall and SR Ranganathan as other useful waypoints. This photo essay has been a fun and poignant opportunity to revisit the community of my own book shelves, as libraries remain closed and under threat around the world, and as social distancing continues.

You can see the photo essay here. You can read my previous Adventures in Reading, and sign up for future Adventures, too.

Developing a conscious writing practice

Around June-July for the last three years in a row, I’ve had a really productive writing time. In the space of a few weeks each summer, I seem to make more progress than I would usually do over 6 months, in terms of both ending up with a near-complete manuscript or two, and of improving and developing my writing. The second of these is less measurable, but still noticeable; I feel simultaneously tired and energised from being in my stretch zone, and I experience breakthrough moments, suddenly finding solutions to problems that I’ve been struggling with for years. From August through to October I have less creative energy, but I feel motivated when I look back on the progress made in June-July. I have another month of intensive writing towards the end of the year, usually in November. These three productive months of the year are a hugely exciting time to be writing. The rest of the year I carry on researching, making notes and editing, and looking forward to the next of these biennial writing bursts.

I share this for two connected reasons. The first is that after ten years of taking my writing seriously, I finally understand more about my working style and practice. This knowledge has snuck up on me over the years, and now that I have it I am able to start thinking more consciously about where my writing will take me next. The second reason is that in my experience as a writer, reader and producer of literature programmes, it can sometimes feel difficult to talk about writing in a pragmatic way. Being aware of the skills and working styles that writers have makes it easier to do the business and administrative side of a creative career, e.g. approaching agents and publishers, applying for funding or paid positions. Knowing your strengths, weaknesses and preferences also helps to maximise the time and effort you can devote to your writing, and suggests other approaches to experiment with.

For these reasons I find it increasingly valuable to discuss writing as a “practice” – something that requires action, that can be developed over time, and that changes as we change. Other creative disciplines and formal study of creative writing teach ways of reflecting on one’s writing, through presenting sketch- or notebooks for feedback, and writing critical reflections, artist statements and self-evaluations. But if, like me, you haven’t had such training, or if you feel outside or on the edges of a creative community or tradition, it can take time to find a way to articulate your practice, whether that’s talking about your broader concerns or themes, or the daily minutiae of balancing writing with earning a living and caring for ourselves and others.

At the same time, the mythology around writing persists in inviting us alternately to believe that it all comes down to “just sitting down and writing” or experiencing a sudden flash of “inspiration”. Media coverage of the latest bestsellers still deals in sensationalist stories like The Prodigal Young Author Who Has Achieved It All By The Age of 22, or The Established Author Who Wrote A Stunning New Book At The Very Same Time As Going Through A Momentous Life Event. The truth is that it’s usually a mix of hard work and inviting in ideas; that everyone’s development, circumstances and preferences are different, and that the unromantic stuff – like getting paid, remembering to put the bins out, and taking time off to avoid burnout – has as much impact on one’s writing as do talent, experience and training. And just as a book so often becomes its true self only during redrafting or editing, so too do we sometimes understand ourselves as writers only after the book is finished or the Momentous Life Event has passed.

I’m now at the stage where I can start to articulate my practice more usefully. While writing my artist statement has allowed me to put into words the ideas that grab me, the techniques and processes I use and which projects I’m working on now, I also want to share the quotidian elements of my practice. I used to enjoy those magazine articles about which items celebrities keep in their handbags, and now I love to hear about other writers’ ways of working, gleaning tips and things to try from conversations, interviews and events. So, in a spirit of reciprocity, I share that I have three good writing months in June, July and November each year; that I have self-imposed a social media ban on writing days, because I know from experience that if I scroll through Instagram before sitting down to write I will be stymied by a mixture of impostor syndrome, envy and self-doubt; that walking somewhere green always helps me come up with new ideas, and that I use the dictaphone app on my phone to record the ideas that arrive while I walk; that I am still learning from other writers and artists how to translate research into a narrative (events with Megan Bradbury and Michael Donkor have helped me here, as has reading Bhanu Kapil, Hannah Dawn Henderson and Sophie Collins) and how to balance personal and wider perspectives (for this I am reading Tessa McWatt, Meena Kandasamy, Han Kang in Deborah Smith’s translation, David Wojnarowicz); that I am still learning to take my time, to look back and realise how far I’ve come, to look ahead and put into words where I want to go.