On Saturday we finally sat down together and discussed that difficult ‘what next?’ question. Continue reading What next?
Sunday 22nd April, the date we’d chosen for our workshop, Exploring women’s history through the power of poetry, as another of our public engagement commitments for our Arts Council funded Research & Development project.
Our north London venue was just round the corner from the Emirates Stadium and we’d checked there was no home game. Then we invited a small group of women to be our guinea pigs. With only a few days to go we discovered Arsenal’s home game against West Ham, originally scheduled for Saturday 21st, had been moved to the Sunday, kicking off at the same time we’d planned to start the workshop. Don’t panic! We would start an hour later, once the game was underway, and then we’d finish well after the match was over. We emailed everyone with the new start time, and assurances that the football wouldn’t interfere on the day. But would they still come?
Yes they would. They braved the vagaries of Sunday travel. They soldiered through the unseasonably hot weather and London marathon crowds. Across London they came; our five intrepid workshop participants, undeterred by the Premier League football match taking place only a few streets away. And once everyone was settled round the dining table, we were off, delivering our first London Undercurrents workshop.
We warmed up with five minutes of free writing, and then spent some time looking at poems each written by a female poet in the voice of another woman, rather than their own voice. In particular we discussed the poet’s choice of writing in first, second or third person and how this affected us as readers.
Another exercise involved choosing two postcards from a pile spread out on the table, all of which featured a woman or women from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and eras; writing in the first person as if you were the woman in one of the cards; and then writing in the second person, as the woman in the other card addressing the first. This generated some great responses and interesting discussion.
Before a break for tea, coffee and biscuits, we shared some of our London Undercurrents experiences researching women in our patches of London, with examples of materials and books we’ve used on hand for everyone to browse. Then after the break, it was back to more writing, with a wonderful focussed hush in the room, and the occasional roar of Arsenal fans in the background.
Who won on the day? Poetry!
Let’s read our poems along the 19 bus route, we said. It joins Islington and Battersea together – the two areas that we’re writing about, we said. It will bring the women we’ve researched and created to a wider audience, and help support and celebrate International Women’s Day 2018. We said.
As we got ready to embark upon the outreach part of our ACE funded project, we wondered why on earth we had said this. It seemed slightly crazy now. We joked that the most we could hope for was that someone would actually glance in our direction for a second then look away. We couldn’t begin to imagine that a 5 or 6 stanza long poem about a woman from the past would be welcomed during the wait for the bus to arrive.
With trepidation we donned our purple sashes outside Finsbury Town Hall, almost chained ourselves to the railings in an attempt to avoid having to read poems to complete strangers out in the real world of London town, but resisted. Instead we read a London Undercurrents poem each – one from north London, one from south – about suffrage to mark the beginning of our journey. Our official photographer for the day, Rene Eyre, geed us on with words of encouragement. Galvanized we headed off to the bus stop.
It was 11.30am and we’d both not had nearly enough coffee. It was cold, windy and threatening to rain. What’s more the next 19 bus was 5 minutes away. Just enough time to give an impromptu reading and get warmed up for the day ahead. Joolz tentatively asked a young woman who was waiting for the bus if she’d like to hear a poem about an Islington explorer called Mary Kingsley for International Women’s Day? The young woman looked up and said yes. Over the next few minutes as Joolz read the poem, the young woman looked almost directly into Joolz’s eyes, listening attentively and earnestly. What’s this? Eye contact with a complete stranger in London? At a bus stop? When the poem came to an end, the young woman said thank you, then got on the bus and went on her way. We felt emboldened – an audience that may not be expecting poetry on their commute were actually receptive to the idea if you approached them nicely.
Next, Hilaire read her poem about a female clippie in the First World War, as we stood up on the bus (holding tight of course). A couple of passengers watched bemused but interested. So Hilaire asked one of them if they’d like a reading. They said yes. Again, a complete stranger, who may or may not be interested in poetry, gave us the time of day and actively listened as we shared our poetry with them. Then another passenger asked us about what we were doing so we handed out our flyers so that they could find out more about our ACE funded project. They took them, read them then put them in their bags. No discarding, or leaving them on the seat. It was all really touching. It was empowering. It was also great fun.
During the rest of the journey south, time after time, we got the same response from the people we read to. There were a couple of firm ‘no thank yous’ but no rudeness or ignoring us. We hopped on and off at several stops along the way we finally made it over Battersea Bridge in the afternoon. Then we headed back north.
Catch us if you can! On Thursday 8th March – International Women’s Day – we’ll be doing a series of guerrilla poetry readings along the route of the 19 bus. Why this particular route? Well, the 19 bus runs between Battersea and Islington, connecting our home patches. We’ll be reading to passers-by and waiting passengers, sharing poems based on some of the amazing local women we’ve unearthed during our research into our two areas.
Starting out from Finsbury Town Hall around 11 a.m. we’ll be hopping off at bus stops between there and Battersea Bridge South Side, and as far north as Finsbury Park Interchange. Look out for us along the route – we’ll be the ones in purple sashes!
Hilaire writes: Monday was not a good day. Maybe I was overconfident. The previous week, inspired by our most recent mentoring session with Jacqueline Saphra, I’d reworked roughly two poems each day. It felt like I was getting better at the editing process, at taking on board feedback and dissecting my poems with a cool head.
Monday morning I sat down to work on the short poem Sacked from Cook’s Confectioners, previously published on Ink, Sweat & Tears. Jacqui had suggested it could do with a bit more story; to try expanding it and perhaps include a few more references to the dance craze that swept the UK in the 1920s. And to think about the ending, as the narrator sounds almost defeated, which was not my intention.
So, I sat at my desk, reading through the nine line poem, writing and rewriting lines and feeling storm clouds closing in around me. I reread some of my source material – a passage in For Love and Shillings, and the chapter in Girl Trouble on flappers. I googled the names of 1920s dance moves. I crossed out, rewrote, crossed out, and hated everything I scratched on the page.
I knew, logically, that my reaction was disproportionate, but logic is no use in this kind of state. I forced myself to go for a run in the park; my storm clouds jogged along with me. I tried another change of scene, walking a quiet route up to Battersea Library. In the Heritage Service upstairs I checked the Kelly’s Post Office Directory for 1922 and found (muted hurrah) there was a Lyons ‘refreshment rooms’ in Battersea, on St John’s Road. I’d begun to think that rather than ending up packing biscuits in Fulham, my dance-mad protagonist might like a turn as a waitress in Lyons, where she could shimmy between tables. Over the road, I had a coffee in Battersea Arts Centre’s café, and had another go at reworking the poem. It still didn’t come right, but a few little chinks of light poked through those gloomy clouds.
I walked home under a deepening blue sky and a rising, nearly-full moon. Sat down at the computer and edited the poem on the screen. Maybe it was the coffee, the walk, the piece of chocolate cake placed quietly by the mouse, the calm after the storm; all these things combined to allow a new version of the poem to come together. Three five-line stanzas. A poem I felt friendly towards. A poem I’ve since shared with Joolz, and which I’m still tinkering with. Definitely an improved poem. I think it was worth the pain.
Right outside the window of the Spread the Word writing room at The Albany, Deptford the bustling street market was in full swing. We fuelled up with coffees and compulsory cake and flapjack from The Albany café, put our heads down and waited for Jacqueline Saphra’s critique and feedback on the next batch of poems in our current manuscript.
On this occasion we were both much more relaxed than in our first mentoring session and one of the first things we discussed was the many different ways of giving and receiving feedback. It was reassuring to hear from Jacqui that even the most established poets share poems with each other and have differing ideas about which bits to edit out and which bits to leave untouched. Bolstered by this knowledge, we engaged in lively discussion about individual poems and about how to make them the best they can be. Pretty soon, there was almost as much noise inside the room as out . Look, said Jacqui, you’re both making suggestions and comments about each others’ poems unprompted by me.
By the end of the day, we both had London Undercurrents poems – new and old – ready to overhaul. Some only needed a little tinkering with (technical term). Others, a complete rethink. Alongside this, we talked about research material for new poems, and just as the three of us started losing our voices, the bin men saved us by playing Christmas carols so loud we couldn’t hear ourselves think. We locked up the room (thank you Spread the Word for your hospitality) and headed out into the dark cold night energised and excited. That’s the magic of – coffee? cake? mentoring? poetry?
Hilaire writes: Joolz and I met up last week to review our progress so far and to share the poems we’ve reworked following our first mentoring session with Jacqueline Saphra.
In the past, we’ve tended to only show each other new London Undercurrents poems when they’ve felt pretty much “finished” to the poet. Feedback from the other poet has, on the whole, been light – a typo, a misplaced apostrophe, perhaps a suggestion to change a line break.
Arguably, we’ve been too gentle, too polite with each other.
It possibly stems from when we were still figuring out how we wanted to work together and were treading lightly. No doubt I also expressed some anxiety, along the lines of ‘I’m not very good at receiving critical feedback’.
But in our mentoring session Jacqui hadn’t let us get away with remaining mute, and we were soon conversing about each other’s poems in a way we hadn’t before. She made us ‘woman-up’ and inject more rigour into our feedback.
Old habits die hard though and, once by ourselves again, I found myself falling back into remaining quiet after Joolz had given me her newly reworked poems.
While I’ve certainly got better at receiving feedback, I still find it difficult to give constructive feedback as an immediate response. So I still mm-ed a lot reading through Joolz’s new version of Hollywood comes to Holloway – but could see she’s definitely tightened it up, and the way it is now structured as couplets works really well. Her suggestions and comments on the poems I shared were all very helpful.
We talked about how we both found it harder to edit the poems that we’ve performed regularly, and know inside and out in their former form. But as Joolz showed with her Hollywood poem it can be done!
We also discussed making each poem distinctive, in both tone and form on the page. And agreed that we want to crack on with writing new poems, as well as sharpening existing ones. The most valuable feedback Joolz gave me that evening is that I need to be more forthcoming in my feedback on her poems – fewer quiet ‘mms’ and more, ‘I’m not sure what you mean here’ or ‘have you thought about switching this around?’. Message received, Ma’am!
As part of the research for London Undercurrents poems, old and new, both of us have sat red-faced as we realised that a few of our poems contain incorrect facts and figures. (Some of those factually-incorrect poems have actually been published too!) The shame. But also, the splendour. We’ve brought to life, and given voice to, women’s unheard stories – both real and imagined – and held audiences in thrall, despite getting a date wrong here and a historical reference wrong there. One north London Undercurrents poem, Hollywood comes to Holloway, is dated 1939 and contains references to the film It’s a wonderful life, which wasn’t made until 1946. Darn it. But it gets a great reaction from audiences and invokes the liberation of the cinema, even though the filmic references are wrong. A south London Undercurrents poem, Charlotte Despard Gets My Vote, is in the voice of a working class women voting for the very first time in 1918. However, it’s been pointed out that at this time only women over 30 who owned property could vote, and most working class women couldn’t vote until 1928. Yet the feeling of victory and freedom is palpable, despite the historical inaccuracy.
The saying goes; don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. After our first mentoring session with Jacqueline Saphra, the poems that stood up to rigorous discussion and interrogation by all three of us, were the ones that had a strong voice, great attention to detail and an emotional pull. So now comes the delicate balancing act of fine-tuning, revising, rewriting, and creation while fact-checking and cross-referencing dates. Getting it right, so that each woman’s voice sings out, while firmly placing her in historical context and rooting her physically in the world where she belongs.
Coffee and biscuits? Check. Pencil case? Check. Award-winning, T. S. Eliot prize-shortlisted mentor Jacqueline Saphra? Check. Our first mentoring session took place on Sunday. It was intense, great fun, rewarding and a privilege.
After much discussion and insightful, clear and inspiring feedback – and being encouraged to feedback to each other about our poems, something we hadn’t done as yet – several of our existing London Undercurrents poems are well on their way to being the best they possibly can be. Roll on mentoring session 2 in a few weeks’ time.