Research begins

Joolz writes: To get ourselves ‘unstuck’ and actually start the ‘R’ part of our ACE funded Research and Development project, Hilaire and I met at London Metropolitan Archives on Saturday afternoon.

Hilaire got there ahead of me and set up on the large tables where we’d sat during our first visit – so it felt familiar and less daunting to me, at least. She was already making notes and reading a book that she’d taken from the shelves nearby, and I felt a rising panic that maybe I should be doing the same. We each had our plastic bag filled with notebooks and a trusty pencil (you’re not allowed pens in the LMA) and it felt tempting to ask her to help me work out what I should do next. But I made a conscious decision to ‘do my own thing’. My first step into the ‘D’ part of Research and Development too?

I headed to the information desk and asked the assistant where I could find information about brick-makers in the Islington area and the women who had worked in them. The assistant was really helpful and answered me in a loud voice, which surprised me as I had whispered my question to her in the assumption that it’s like being in a library. She pointed me in the direction of an old-fashioned set of wooden drawers holding yellowing reference cards with typed words on them. Typewritten, by hand. It felt like time travel.

Once I’d found some reference books that seemed like they could be a good match, I made a note of them, in pencil, then couldn’t actually bring myself to ask for them to be brought to me. Instead I joined Hilaire at the table where we were immediately surrounded by a tour of people being shown how to use the archive. They animatedly pored over maps of bomb damage to areas in London during the Blitz. They were there for ages and it started to encroach on our headspace. Then off they went, and I couldn’t help but leave my seat and get more maps out of the drawer dating back to the 1880s. I found Islington and Holloway and the areas I’m writing about for London Undercurrents. Hilaire joined me and found Battersea and Nine Elms and the areas she’s writing about.

Then a bit of magic happened. Here! Here was Mrs Nichol’s Cattle Farm on Liverpool Road, Islington where I set my poem Milk, Cheese and Cream. Look there! There’s Currie Street where Charlotte Despard lived, the women’s rights pioneer who features in Hilaire’s poem Charlotte Despard Gets My Vote. The two and a half hours flew by very quickly and I didn’t get to write much, but we were both almost jumping up and down with renewed energy and both of us had the look in our eyes that says: there’s a poem forming in the back of my mind.photo-72

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And our mentor is…

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…the brilliant Jacqueline Saphra.

Needless to say, we’re over the moon. Jacqui is an accomplished poet who we’ve both long admired.

Jacqui describes herself as: an editor, agitator, enthusiast and poet, but not in that order…also an enthusiastic collaborator, working with composers, musicians and visual artists…and organising large scale poetry events. Her pamphlet, Rock’n’Roll Mamma was published by Flarestack; her first collection, The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions was published by Flipped Eye and is available from amazon. She’s also no stranger to collaborations and performed poems to a special musical ‘miniatures’ for ‘cello and piano by Benjamin Tassie. It won the ‘Best Collaborative Work’ in the Saboteur Awards 2015Her latest collection All My Mad Mothers is published by Nine Arches.

Joolz says: Jacqui may not know this, but she was the first ‘proper poet’ I spoke to when I first attended a poetry reading to try out an open mic. I was struck with her warmness and openness, and her brilliance as a performer and writer. A few years later I got one of my first paid gigs as a poet and was a Poet in Residence in Leicester Square tube station as  part of the Travel Better London campaign. Jacqui was stationed (sorry!) in Canary Wharf, and we had great fun swapping stories of puzzled looks on commuters faces as we read poetry to them. Most recently, I read at The Persisters Present Holding the Line fundraising event for women’s domestic violence charities, which Jacqui organised and co-founded. So I’m thrilled Jacqui’s our mentor.

When we were working on our Grants for the Arts bid, we approached Jacqui to ask her if she would consider mentoring us. She generously agreed to meet for an informal chat, where we filled her in a little about our project and what we hoped to gain from mentoring. We came away from that short meeting feeling sure that Jacqui would be the right fit – warm, nurturing, but willing to challenge and push us. It spurred us on to refine and polish our bid even further, to make it as strong as possible.

We’ve now sent Jacqui our manuscript of around 40 poems and wait with a mixture of fear, trepidation and sheer excitement for our first mentoring session with her.

Stuck in the blocks

Saturday was our first chance to catch up in person since the official start date of our ACE funded research and development project two weeks ago. We met at the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair in the early afternoon. This year, as we were both feeling a bit below par, we dipped, rather than dived, into the Fair.

We had a quick look around the main hall, made a couple of purchases, and enjoyed two memorable readings. In the Brockway Room, we heard Karen McCarthy Woolf and Pascale Petit read from their collections, Seasonal Disturbances and Mama Amazonica, both recent PBS Selections. Both poets held the room with their poised and powerful performances from what sound like two essential collections. A short while later, we sat outside by the Garden Café in Red Lion Square to listen to three Hearing Eye poets, Pauline Sewards, Peter Phillips and the indefatigable Hylda Sims. A relaxed reading in tranquil surroundings – and that was enough for our 2017 Poetry Book Fair experience.

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Obligatory Poetry Book Fair pic

On then to sit outside a café on Theobald’s Road (yes, it was just about warm enough for al fresco coffee) and to properly check in with each other. And to confess we were both feeling a bit… stuck. After the high of learning we’d been awarded ACE funding and sharing the news – why were we feeling flat? Why weren’t the poems pouring out of us?

But hang on. We are only two weeks into our six month R&D project. We planned our project taking into account other commitments and trying to be realistic about what we can achieve in that timescale. We’ve allocated 15 dedicated days each for researching and writing over that period. No doubt we will do more, but that’s protected time to focus on London Undercurrents. And, we agreed, once we’ve had our first session, later this month, with our amazing mentor (who we can’t wait to reveal), then we’ll really be on our way.

Already, we could feel that LU energy returning. We have started. We’re reading, thinking, angsting – this is all part of the process. And the great thing is that we’re in this together. We can pick each other up and keep ourselves on track. Helped, of course, by chat, coffee and chocolate.

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Ready… Set… GO!

Today is the official start date of our Arts Council funded research and development project. And armed with our History Cards from the London Metropolitan Archives we’re raring to go!

The LMA is a wonderful resource for books, pictures, original documents and other material about London. We’ve visited a couple of times to check out the facilities and familiarise ourselves with searching the collections – that may take a little time still! It’s a friendly and welcoming place and the staff are enthusiastic and keen to help. It’s both exciting and a bit overwhelming to realise how much material the Archive holds – what you see on the open shelves in the Information Area is the tip of a very large iceberg – so we know we need to focus in on very specific areas of interest when we visit.

Another great thing about the LMA is that it’s on the 19 bus route, which runs between Battersea and Islington, so it’s only a bus ride away for both of us!

LU History Cards

Girls just wanna have funding

Submit

Six months. That’s how long it took us two London Undercurrents project co-founders to fill out and submit our bid for Arts Council Funding. Six long months. We agonised over every question – what did it mean and what was the ‘magic’ answer that would guarantee success? And whhhhhyyyy were there so many questions in the first place?

We spent hours on the phone to each other and going back and forth via email. We spoke to poet friends who had been successful in their Grants for the Arts funding bid. We met with lovely, encouraging people in positions to help us understand what it is the Arts Council are looking for in an application, and how to give real value for money to any recipient of the activities the funding would support. They championed us and gave us such a boost in confidence. And on top of that they were lovely people, to boot. But most importantly, we interrogated – between the two of us – what we both really wanted the grant for, so that if we were actually – gulp – successful, we could be 100% sure of enjoying the activities we had proposed. Because this wasn’t just an exercise in form-filling. It was a real chance to work out why our project matters to us, why we must keep on going and why we feel it’s vital to share everything about London Undercurrents with the whole wide world.

Hilaire kindly said she’d be the primary name on the application, which meant she took the brunt of Grantium tedium. Joolz cheered her on from the sidelines, and provided an ear to lean on as Hilaire…err…what’s this bit…is this where I fill in…where on earth is…damn and @@@**!!! -ed over the phone. Together we took what felt a lifetime to finally….press….shall I press it? OK I’m going to press it…I’m pressing it….to press SUBMIT.

Screeeeeeeaaaaaam. We did it. We submitted what felt like a strong proposal which we really, really want to go ahead and deliver. We crossed fingers, toes and anything else that could be crossed. And waited…

Five weeks later, an email arrived with the enticing subject line Your decision letter is available for review. With shaky fingers and pounding heart Hilaire logged into Grantium and found her way to a screen where… DRUM ROLL… those magic words Offer letter danced before her eyes. Success!

All that to-ing and fro-ing, asking and listening, refining what our project is about and how we want to move it forward has paid off. We have funding for a mentor and for some time to research and write new London Undercurrents poems. We’re going to share our progress via this blog and other outlets, and we have a few activities planned for early 2018 which we’re very excited about!

Thanks to everyone who has helped us get to this point, especially Laura at Spread the Word. Now all we have to do is deliver!

Poetry, song and Eritrean food

Joolz writes: As much as we love reading at The Poetry Cafe, it’s been a real delight to discover new venues while the cafe is being renovated.

Fourth Friday has relocated to Bar 48 in Brixton during the Poetry Cafe’s hiatus, and promoter Hylda Sims was worried that FF’s loyal fans wouldn’t be tempted out to this new venue. Her worries were unfounded – a warm and eager crowd turned up, and the hustle of the bar and relaxed atmosphere (comfy chairs!) added a ‘proper gig’ vibe to the evening. Lively. That’s how we like our poetry readings.

Seeing as it was our second feature at Fourth Friday together, we decided to mix things up a bit by reading our solo stuff as well as  London Undercurrents poems. I read first and unleashed a new set of poems about the sea onto a guinea pig audience. This included a bawdy sea shanty, which I greatly enjoyed reading. Then Hilaire read a batch of beautifully crafted and lyrical poems about gardening and gardens. Lastly we both read north and south London Undercurrents poems that have been published most recently (Lunar Poetry and Brittle Star).

The other featured artists were fabulous – folk singer Leon Rosselson‘s satirical songs were deceptively cheery while delivering relevant and timely social and political comment. Poet Abe Gibson delivered deeply moving poems with a delicate musicality that was spellbinding. To top the evening off, the food was amazing. It’s well worth putting this monthly event in your diary, every fourth Friday.img_6377img_6380

Come hear us read!

We’re delighted to have been invited back to read at Fourth Friday again, this coming Friday 23rd September from 8pm. As the Poetry Café is closed for refurbishment, Fourth Friday is taking place at a new venue – Bar 48, a wine bar and Eritrean tapas restaurant, at 48 Brixton Road SW9 6BT. Nearest tube is Oval.

With the change of venue, we thought we’d mix things up a bit too. We’re planning to each read some of our own non-LU poems, and finish with a few London Undercurrents poems. Poetry tapas, in other words! It should be a tasty evening, with more poetry from Abe Gibson and music from Leon Rosselson, plus voices from the floor. Entry is £6 or £5 concession. Hope to see you there!

Lunar Poetry issue 10 launch

We’re delighted to have two London Undercurrents poems published in the latest issue of Lunar Poetry. With Joolz away at the Ledbury Poetry Festival, it was down to Hilaire to fly the flag for both sides of the river at the launch reading on Tuesday evening. Here she reports back.

The event took place at the Peckham Pelican, a light and spacious café bar with a relaxed atmosphere. Lunar Poetry editor Paul McMenemy started proceedings by picking out the opening of Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra on an upright piano – an acrobatic feat as he had to stretch across a table to reach the keyboard.

I was first up on the stage and read both poems included in the current issue: In the Ether, which reflects the experience of a young woman working in a gas mantle factory in Wandsworth in 1931; and Joolz’s poem Coining factory, N1, told from the point of view of a 13 year old girl helping in the family coin forging business in the 1880s. Staying north, I performed Joolz’s Thames freeze, north side, 1814. I love the young maid’s voice in this poem, so it’s a pleasure to read it aloud, despite the maid reporting that her ladyship is loathe to cross to the south / at all costs. I returned south with my poem Lady Cyclist, whizzing around Battersea Park in the summer of 1895.

There were strong readings from several other poets in this issue, including Lizzy Palmer, Rishi Rohatgi, Dennis Tomlinson, Gboyega Odubanjo and Christopher Williams; and a real mix of voices from the open mic readers, covering topics from the EU referendum fallout (in a haiku sequence) to a Dulwich Hamlet fan’s search for a plain honest Shippam’s Paste sarnie. Paul rounded the evening off with a few of his own fierce and funny poems.

The magazine is a bargain at £5 or £2.50 for the ebook version, and is back on track to publish monthly (hence ‘Lunar Poetry’). Launch readings are on the first Tuesday of the month at the Peckham Pelican, free entry, and plenty of open mic spots. Definitely worth checking out!

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Reading at the Peckham Pelican, 5th July 2016
Paul at piano
Paul McMenemy playing Strauss

What’s in a street name?

Quite a lot, Hilaire discovered, when it comes to a street on her estate named Charlotte Despard Avenue.

Hilaire writes:
For years, I’d vaguely wondered who was behind the unusual name of an otherwise nondescript street, which stretched the meaning of ‘avenue’, being neither broad nor tree-lined. So when Joolz and I came up with the idea of writing poems based on women who’d lived in our different neighbourhoods, one of the first names I jotted down in my notebook was Charlotte Despard.

My initial rudimentary research – a few brief mentions of her in local history books – left me feeling ambivalent towards her. A wealthy widow who, in 1890, took up residence in what was then the slum of Nine Elms in hope of improving conditions, but retreated to the family estate in Surrey at weekends. I put Charlotte Despard on the back burner, thinking perhaps I could write a poem from the point of view of a recipient of Mrs Despard’s good works; someone bridling with resentment at being patronized.

Then last May I went to a talk at Battersea Arts Centre on ‘Battersea’s political heroes’. In half an hour, Professor Penelope Corfield completely changed my view of Charlotte Despard. Yes, she was wealthy, but by the end of her very long life – she died aged 95 in 1939 – she was bankrupt, having poured her money into any number of causes and social initiatives. She was pragmatic, setting up free mother and child clinics in Nine Elms, supplying boots to children who would otherwise go about barefoot, and organising the provision of free meals at local schools as she understood that well-nourished children were better able to learn. She was also a vigorous campaigner on many issues and was deeply involved in the fight for women’s suffrage, earning a couple of stints in HM Prison Holloway. At the end of the talk I asked my burning question: how did the locals regard Charlotte Despard? The answer, according to Professor Corfield, is that she was loved and venerated. I had a new heroine.

Subsequently, I read the two available biographies – Charlotte Despard: A Biography by Margaret Mulvhill (Pandora, 1989) and An Unhusbanded Life: Charlotte Despard, Suffragette, Socialist & Sinn Feiner by Andro Linklater (Hutchinson & Co, 1980) – and amassed copious notes. Charlotte Despard was and did so much more than a short blog post can do justice to. Many of her causes were unpopular at the time, and she must have cut an eccentric figure in her mantilla and sandals. Certainly, she was flawed and complex, but her energy and commitment to social justice and equality are truly inspiring.

I knew then that I definitely wanted to write a London Undercurrents poem about Charlotte Despard. Trying to channel her voice, though, felt both impossible and overwhelming. Interestingly, Despard was something of a spiritualist and occasionally consulted Giuseppe Garibaldi for advice via her planchette!

In the end I decided to come at her slantwise, so to speak, imagining a Nine Elms matriarch casting her vote for the first time in 1918, when Charlotte Despard stood as the Labour Party candidate for Battersea. You can read the poem here on Well Versed along with a poem by Joolz, in the voice of a suffragette being force-fed in HM Prison Holloway.

Since the poem was published, it’s been pointed out that most working class women weren’t able to vote until 1928. The biographies I drew on as my main sources mention the age restriction in the 1918 Representation of the People act (women aged over 30), but not the property qualification, which the UK Parliament site describes as ‘minimum property qualifications’. I’ll have to present my poetic license here, and trust the spirit of the poem is true to this amazing woman.

SW11 is streets ahead

You can take the poet out of data analysis, Hilaire writes, but you can’t take data analysis out of this poet.

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Location of south London poems – numbers indicate position in London Undercurrents manuscript

Following on from Joolz’s count of poems per north London postcode, I’ve carried out a similar data collection and analysis exercise for my south London poems. And I can reveal that SW11 has romped home as the winner, with an amazing thirteen London Undercurrents poems. SW8 is a poor second, with three poems. Sharing the wooden spoon with one poem each are SW4, SW17, SW18 and off-the-map SE16 – home of the former Peek Frean’s biscuit factory, where the poem Prunella Clough, Sketching (12) is set. In the 1950s, Clough sketched women working on the Peek Frean production line, later painting a number of canvases featuring female factory workers in her Chelsea studio. Arguably, then, this poem also has a connection to SW3.

Which raises the thorny issue of double counting. The keen-eyed amongst you may have spotted that poem 18 (Clippie, Route 19, 1917) is mapped to both SW17 and SW11. Meet the World War 1 bus conductor, released from domestic service, and relishing her daily back and forth across the river and ‘southbound far as Tooting Bec.’ Poem 22, mapped to SW4, also has links to SW8 (Nine Elms) and SW12 (Balham). Sometimes, it’s hard to pin our women down.

Tricky stuff, data. Almost as tricky as poetry.