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!
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.
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!
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.
Hilaire writes: Ever since I first came across the fascinating story of Ida and Louise Cook, I’ve thought there must be a London Undercurrents poem in there. They were opera mad spinster sisters, living in the family home in Morella Road, Battersea, who jaunted off for weekends to 1930s Germany on a mission to help Jewish families escape Nazi persecution.
Where to start though? I read Louise Carpenter’s long Granta article, detailing her research into their lives, and subsequently borrowed Ida’s auto(duo?)biography Safe Passage from Battersea Library. The book was originally published under the title We Followed Our Stars – a much better title in my view, and truer to the spirit of the way the sisters lived their lives. This turned out to be a very entertaining read! Which shouldn’t have surprised me, after all, as Ida was one of Mills & Boon’s most successful authors, publishing over 100 novels under the pseudonym Mary Burchell.
But when I sat down to try to write a poem about them I encountered the same problem I’d had with Charlotte Despard. Too much information! Such long and varied lives, so many different strands and possible angles to take. The opera star crushes, and years of scrimping and saving to travel on their own to New York in the 1920s. Ida’s unexpected trajectory as a romantic novelist, while Louise continued a steady civil service career. The contrast between their staid home life and the extraordinary risks they took with their refugee work. Their lifelong intense closeness as sisters, and in later years their deep interest in spiritualism.
It was overwhelming. I wondered about ways to contain or focus the detail. I printed off a list of all 112 Mary Burchell novels, thinking I might be able to construct something using only the titles. Or perhaps I could frame the poem as a synopsis of an unwritten opera about the sisters. Neither of these ideas came to much.
One bright morning I cycled up to Morella Road, at the furthest corner of Battersea, just off Wandsworth Common, and stood outside number 24, looking up at the attic where Ida had typed out all those Mills & Boon romances. The bedroom the sisters shared for most of their lives would have been on the floor below. It’s a quiet, tree-lined street, and strange to think of the sisters returning to this ordinary home after smuggling valuables out of Nazi Germany, in order to provide financial security for fleeing Jewish refugees.
I realised I wanted the poem to be centred on this part of their lives. Reading Safe Passage, I was struck by Ida’s mostly brisk, matter-of-fact style (‘Two girls can often do what one on her own cannot’) and the occasional burst of rapturous prose when writing about the opera stars they worshipped. And I kept coming back to an anecdote Ida related in the book, of returning to Morella Road after a particularly harrowing trip to Germany. She walked into the kitchen and found her mother making pastry. ‘…which is, after all, one of the basic things in life. I can see her now, with the flour on her arms. I began to tell her what we had seen and I burst into tears.’ Mrs Cook ‘simply went on making pastry’, and a few minutes later Ida dried her eyes and was able to continue her account.
I had a sense of Ida’s voice. But I needed an imaginative space, to allow a poem to grow. In Safe Passage, Louise is present but not very vocal. Ida, by her own admission, was the more garrulous of the two. Louise is a given, often absorbed into ‘we’. But at night, in their twin bedroom, they must, surely, have expressed some of the anguish and despair, during those dark days leading up to the outbreak of World War 2, which they otherwise managed to keep under wraps.
So I had a starting point at last, and have written a poem in the form of an imagined dialogue between Ida and Louise, late at night when sleep is evading them. In the first flush of composition, there was relief and excitement. Now, I’m not sure how strong the poem is, whether it stands on its own without all the background information I’ve absorbed and left out. But at least there’s a draft I can work on, and share with Joolz for feedback. Two girls can often do what one on her own cannot – now I come to think about it, that sounds like a great summation of London Undercurrents!