On International Women’s Day, March 8th, we’ll be doing a series of guerilla poetry readings along the number 19 bus route in London, supported by funding from Grants for the Arts. We’ll be hopping on and off the bus, reading poems about women in Islington and Battersea to the unsuspecting public. Eek! So that we’re identifiable as poets, we’ll be wearing specially designed London Undercurrents sashes. Joolz will wear a north one and Hilaire a south. Will we swap at the end, like Premier League footballers? Possibly.
We’ve had fun using the interactive tool on the sash manufacturer’s website. Then the thorny issue – should the sashes be different colours? Should we invoke the north/south of the river rivalry? We headed to the International Women’s Day website for ideas. It was obvious – both sashes should be the same colour, we’re standing together. Not on different sides of the river. Purple sashes ordered, we can’t wait for them to arrive so we can try them on for size.
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?
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.
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 2015. Her 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.
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.
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.
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!
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!