I return to you: Street art, marks, signs and symbols

 

I return to you
A chapbook of poems by Susie Campbell, with photography by Susie Campbell and Alban Low

 

You could be forgiven for thinking the title of this blog post refers to my long absence from this site, but in fact I am excited to announce that it is the title of my new chapbook published by Sampson Low with photographs by Alban Low and myself(ISBN 978-1-912960-21-7). See above.

It all started last Christmas.

The ‘Spike’, Guildford. Picture credit and further information http://www.guildfordspike.co.uk

I spent last Christmas Day in the workhouse. Because I was fortunate enough not to be born in Victorian England, this was by choice and not necessity. The workhouse in question was the Guildford ‘Spike’, now opened to visitors as a heritage centre. The ‘Spike’,  named after the spike used by the inmates to pick oakum, was the ‘Casuals’ ward’ for ‘vagrants’ added in 1905 to the Guildford Union Workhouse, built in 1838. This was a special opportunity to visit the ‘Spike’ on Christmas Day to see what it would have been like to spend Christmas as an inmate. It was a fascinating and remarkable opportunity that made a significant impact on me and the other visitors.

I remember not too many years ago watching a TV version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ and feeling my usual sense of 21st century complacency at the horrors of poverty, homelessness and workhouse labour described by Dickens. And yet in recent years I have felt not a remote horror but an all too present sense of familiarity and recognition, as all of our towns,  cities and countryside have experienced a massive growth in homelessness and desperate poverty. It would have been hard to credit, only a few years ago, that my visit to the Guildford Spike would be accompanied by a discussion of whether workhouses – or a version of them – should be brought back. But so it was. These social evils, along with the political manipulations, prejudices and scapegoating we foolishly thought were long vanquished, have indeed returned to us. The majority of us felt that re-opening workhouses was not an appropriate solution but the very fact that we could discuss at all was sobering.

The aspect of the Guildford Spike that most resonated with me was its focus on the itinerant poor, also known as vagrants or wandering casual labourers. Much of the fear and mistrust created by the presence of these itinerants is mirrored in some of the negative media coverage today of refugees and immigration. Fear and suspicion of the outsider has ancient roots. All too often the outsider is seen as the enemy or a threat to be warded off with charms and magic marks. However, sometimes the outsider is seen as providing a potential blessing, an angel or a god in disguise to be wooed by a similar set of charms and magic signs. Marks and signs can also be an important way of demarcating boundaries, ownership and identifying members of the clan or community. However they might also have a more secret use, as I discovered.

The highlight of my visit to the Guildford Spike was the information I learned about the use of chalk marks made by  itinerant labourers or wandering vagrants to communicate with each other in a secret code. There were chalk marks for danger, for fierce dogs, for good luck and for where food might be in generous supply. These marks would be left on a wall, or a door, or beneath a hedge for the next traveller to find. Not dissimilar to this secret code of chalk marks is what has become known as ‘thieves’ code’, which housethieves are reputed to use to identify and target certain houses (however  many of these supposed ‘thieves’ marks’ have been subsequently claimed by utilities companies as communications about phone lines, gas and electricity supplies, a different kind of thievery altogether!) Scratched lines and markings have been discovered on the door lintels, chimneys and windows of old houses, barns and caves, ‘apotropaic’ marks or ‘witches’ marks’ to ward off demons and curses. Indeed, the more I investigated the use of chalk markings, the more it seemed I was surrounded by a world of marks, signs and symbols.

From this obsession was born first a performance, creating a set of chalk marks which I found particularly resonant, then an interest in taking these marks out into the street: allowing them to mingle with, and hide amongst, the multitude of everyday signs, marks and symbols with which we are surrounded. Finally, the poems arrived in this chapbook, an appropriate form for a series of poems that started out as an interest in itinerants, such as the itinerant pedlars or chapmen who were the original purveyors of these little books. The poems comprise words, marks and photographs that explore our relationship with, and responsibility for,  a world of marks –  including the marks of our written language –  and how technology has in some ways detached us from our marks and in other ways, returned them to us through new forms and media.

There will be more information about various launch events to follow on this site but if  you would like to purchase a copy immediately, you can purchase it from Sampson Low –  https://sampsonlow.co/2019/08/11/i-return-to-you-susie-campbell/ or directly from me via Paypal (just message me on twitter https://twitter.com/susiecampbell)

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‘Or failing that, invent’ – Monique Wittig

(I am reblogging below a post by poet (and friend) Ruth Wiggins).

Ruth Wiggins’ Wittig translations are a brilliant introduction both to the work of Monique Wittig and to her own poetry. I am particularly interested in the description of the main body of Wittig’s text as ‘epic prose poetry’. There is also a link here through to the current issue of the excellent Blackbox Manifold where you can read the poems.

mudpath

Les-G-JH-cover

Originally published in 1969 by Les Éditions de Minuit, I first encountered Monique Wittig’s Les Guérillères when my dad brought home a copy of David Le Vay’s Picador translation (along with a copy of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch). Both books were decorated with the now iconic artwork of John Holmes, whose surrealist covers made quite the impression! But it was Wittig’s challenge to phallogocentric language that made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. I didn’t have the language to describe it back then, but could feel the furniture being entirely rearranged in my teenage brain.

Returning to it a few years ago, I became interested in pushing the pronouns of the translation a little further, as well as exploring Wittig’s position re white space and margins, and so began a slow and as yet unfinished translation of the book, which I dip in and…

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Christmas and New Year, 2018

 

Christmas at Notre Dame, Paris 2018.

It is quite hard to find much optimism when considering the New Year,  in the face of the current climate change and biodiversity loss crisis,  as well as the suffering and uncertain fate of refugees, the homeless and all those for whom poverty or the edge of poverty makes daily living a struggle for survival – and worse the political collusion and vested interests involved in these man-made disasters – and yet, I am looking forward to 2019, not just with rage and sorrow but also with some hope. Perhaps this is partly because I have been fortunate enough to have had the chance for a few days off  over Christmas, visiting Paris and London as well as catching up on my reading at home. Nevertheless, I do feel some hope as well as much gratitude. Hope on a political level in some of the clustering of small groups committed to non-violent direct action and hope on a personal level because of what 2019 will bring. Gratitude for so much that I have observed and have received.

The big challenge and opportunity of January for me (if I ignore the fact that I will also be reapplying for my job as part of public service shrinkage and restructure) is the start of my work on a (part-time) practice-based poetry research degree at Oxford Brookes University, taking further my interest in Gertrude Stein, prose poetry and and the work of contemporary, linguistically innovative female poets through creative practice, critical reflection and academic study. I am so excited, I can’t wait to get started. I have an amazing supervision team and of course, the extraordinary wealth of resource libraries can offer. And now, thanks to generous Christmas presents,  I have also got new stationery!

Hearing that I have been accepted onto this programme is of course a huge boost as 2018 draws to its close, but another joyful piece of news was hearing that in 2020 Guillemot Press will be publishing Tenter, the pamphlet-length collection of poems I wrote as poet-in-residence for the Post-War Commemoration Series jointly hosted by Oxford Brookes and University of Oxford 2017-18. I am so thrilled by this as I have a lot of love and respect for Guillemot Press (of course recently awarded the Michael Marks award), not just because of the beautifully designed books they publish but also because of their support for more experimental and unconventional work by both new and established writers. Some of my favourite poetry book purchases this year have been from Guillemot: Rosemarie Waldrop’s White is a Colour, Sarah Cave’s like fragile clay, Amy McCauley’s Oedipa and Robert Lax’s Notes for the Next Robert Lax. These titles alone give some idea of the range of work published by this small but substantial press.  I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to work with Guillemot on Tenter and am looking forward to getting to know some of the other work published by them.

And so, although I approach 2019 with considerable trepidation, it is also with, if not optimism, then energy and commitment. I dearly hope for the same for you all.

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Prose Poem Poetics at the Torriano Meeting House

Torriano Meeting House

(image credit: https://torrianomeetinghouse.wordpress.com)

 

Last Sunday (November 25th), a group of poets and interested friends got together at the iconic Torriano Meeting House to read and discuss prose poem poetics. It was a huge pleasure and privilege to be part of this event, alongside poets who have been my ‘gateway’ into prose poetry and to be part of the legendary reading series at the Torriano. It was a very special event in a very special venue. You can see videos of all the performances by following the link below.

http://www.theenemiesproject.com/torriano?

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Post-War/Post-Peace?

 

A Crack of Light poetry reading

I have written previously about the great privilege it has been to be one of the poets-in-residence for the Oxford Brookes/Oxford 2017/18 Mellon Sawyer series Post-War: Commemoration, Reconstruction, Reconciliation. The series brought together academics, politicians, peace negotiators, artists, musicians, and many others to engage with key questions about how we mark and respond to war. It culminated in a series of powerful events including a post-graduate seminar, a concert at the Sheldonian (including the premiere of Gallipoli to the Somme by Anthony Ritchie) and for the poets-in-residence, a poetry reading in the Harris Manchester college chapel. I am hugely grateful to the three organisers of the series: Prof. Kate McLoughlin, Dr. Catherine Gilbert and Dr. Niall Munro, and also to the post-graduate students who supported the series and my fellow poets-in-residence, Mariah Whelan, Sue Zatland, Patrick Toland and Dahmicca Wright.

The series may have formally concluded but of course the questions it raised continue. The work goes on. My exploration into what might be considered a crisis in the UK’s current commemorative practice, and into the positioning of ourselves as ‘post-war’, despite the UK’s ongoing financial, political and military involvement in war and conflict round the globe, has led me to the title of this post and its question: not post-war, but post-peace?

Below are links to a recording of A Crack of Light, a  reading by four out of the five poets of work created for the series, and a podcast of Dr Niall Munro interviewing me about the experience of being poet-in-residence.

Again I would like to express my thanks to all the organisers, poets and participants, especially those who shared their personal experiences of conflict, trauma and loss. It was a humbling and transformative experience.

A Crack of Light: Poetry reading by Mariah Whelan, Sue Zatland, Patrick Toland and Susie Campbell (work created for the series):

https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/a-crack-of-light-poetry-reading/id1315669100?i=1000417324937&mt=2

Podcast of Susie Campbell talking to Dr Niall Munro:

https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/susie-campbell-speaks-to-niall-munro/id1315669100?i=1000417324938&mt=2

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A Noisy Silence

(The following blog post first appeared on http://torch.ox.ac.uk/very-noisy-silence)

It could hardly be more fitting. I arrived in Oxford to take up my role as poet-in-residence for the Post-War: Commemoration, Reconstruction, Reconciliation Mellon-Sawyer Seminar Series 2017-8 on Remembrance Day. The 11th November is observed in many Commonwealth countries as a day to recall the end of the First World War. Hostilities officially ceased at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Saturday 11th November 2017 was also the first occasion on which I could join the series. And so it was that one of my first acts in my new residency was to participate in a ritual, an act of group commemoration, as I sat with the other participants of a workshop to observe the conventional two-minute silence.

Sat. The question had been posed earlier to the group as to whether we wanted to sit or to stand to observe the two minutes. There was a long pause as we grappled with the question. What difference to our internal or external attitude would be made by deciding to sit rather than stand? The series of questions and thoughts that bombarded me in those split seconds of deciding how to answer this question were prophetic. The subsequent hours and weeks have been a matter of confronting a whole series of similar questions about my role and work as a poet for this series. But in that moment we were all posed the same question – what form should our commemoration take? And what was the significance of our choice?

In the end, conscious of my new, unfamiliar role as poet for the series, I felt I could not leave the question unanswered. ‘Sit’, I said. I was speaking for myself initially but as no-one else spoke, it became a response on behalf of the group, leaving me to wonder uneasily what right had I to make that choice? I chose to sit for a number of reasons. I am more conscious of my own body when I sit as it recalls my meditative practice and I have found a consciousness of my own flesh is an important route to re-engage feelings, and thus empathy and compassion. It also recalls for me sitting to write, to read and to listen to stories. Perhaps sitting also feels more provisional, less of a final decision, less easy to read. I remember my father, an atheist, sitting in church as a halfway, ambiguous position; somewhere between kneeling to pray and walking out. Is sitting an act of refusal or an act of respect? For me it is an act of waiting and willingness to discover. These are personal meanings and may have had quite other meanings for other members of the group but once I had spoken my preference aloud, it took on an authority, a decision for the group. Now it was out there, I had to own it.

This entire process, the work of a fraction of a second, turned out to be a foretaste of the questions and challenges that now seem so crucial to me as a poet for the series. What authority could I possibly have to write about such enormous and crucial questions? What forms and practices could I use? Was it right to use existing forms or would something new have to be forged so that the poetry coming out of the series could form a part of the whole thinking, interrogating, critical process? Were there any rational answers to these questions or would I find my responses, like the Dadaists, in the absurd and the wildly irrational?

As we sat in silence for the two minutes, I found myself struggling with other questions. Who was I thinking about in these two minutes? From which conflict? Was I remembering those who had died or also those who had been killed? Friend or enemy? And was what was I supposed to be feeling – and for what purpose? And most crucially, should I be looking backwards or forwards to current situations of conflict, trauma and suffering?

That silence became a very noisy silence. So many questions. So many voices. Some overlooked, forgotten or suppressed. Others commodified or sentimentalised. What kinds of response – poetically, personally, politically – could keep alive all of these voices? And what kinds of narrative could be shaped to make transparent all the acts of selection and repression that go into forming remembrance, personal and public?

Something else happened as I sat there. It was impossible to keep out my own memories, my personal grief for the loss of my mother who died only a few weeks before the beginning of the seminar series. Grief wells up into any space in my day at the moment anyway, and so of course, it flooded into this two minutes of silence. I couldn’t help wondering, what was the relationship between this and my participation in public acts of remembrance? Was it a continuum, with personal grief and individual acts of commemoration at one end and public commemoration at the other, or were they radically different things? If the latter, would there be any value in moving collective acts of commemoration closer to personal grief or would that be a reactionary flight from the transformative potential of group remembrance?

And so now, a few weeks later, I sit at my desk; keen to start making work for this residency but revolving these questions in my mind. It is tempting to try to capture all the questions and thoughts that have come up subsequently from listening to the various speakers who are part of this series and taking part in the debate. Or to venture some answers to them here. To set out my poetics for this residency. But that would be to anticipate the journey. My real challenge as poet for the series, I suspect, is to try to develop a poetry for activating these questions in ways that are different from the other media of the series. My work is to create – attempt to create – an experience of this profound questioning we are engaged in, not merely to describe it or venture some of my own conclusions. To paraphrase the words of American poet Jorie Graham, it is to ensure that the silence the poetry leaves behind it is not the same as the silence it came from.

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Better to remember or forget? Post-conflict commemoration, reconciliation, reconstruction

Commemoration/s

I am very proud and excited to announce that I have the privilege to be working as poet-in-residence for the Post-War: Commemoration, Reconstruction, Reconciliation Mellon-Sawyer Seminar Series running in 2017-18.* The Mellon-Sawyer Post War Conference series, organised jointly by Oxford University and Oxford Brookes University, involves a number of guest speakers and seminars looking at how we, as individuals and as the ‘public’, view commemoration, reconciliation and reconstruction post war and trauma.

In this blog post, I want to say a bit about the series itself – to set the scene. In future posts, I hope to engage more directly with the ideas and work coming out of the series and the dialogue it stimulates.

The series itself brings together academics from many different fields: politicians, people who have played a role in peace negotiations and leading figures from cultural policy and the charitable sector.  They will be joined by novelists, poets, artists and musicians whose work has marked war in some way. You can find out more about through its twitter account @PostWarOx.

Some of the questions to be explored in the Series include:
• Who is commemoration for and why?
• How does commemoration lead to reconstruction and reconciliation?
• What is the future of commemoration?

Equally important questions are WHO is remembered and for what purpose? And by extension, who or what is forgotten?

This first term of the series focuses on textual commemoration: subsequent terms will focus on monumental and aural commemoration. (Or, as in my title, commemoration/s to emphasise the plurality of what I hope to be exploring). Some of the events in the series so far have been an ‘In Conversation’ event between Aminatta Forna, novelist and memoirist, and Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literature in English, University of Oxford, discussing how the former’s work has portrayed conflict and post-conflict and exploring the role of literature in offering new perspectives on commemoration, reconciliation and reconstruction. There have also been two panel-led workshops, one on poetry and life-writing, the other on conflict and community. In the first workshop, speakers who work at the intersection of literature, human rights, foreign policy and peace initiatives – Dunya Mikhail (poet), Philippe Sands QC (barrister and writer), Lord Alderdice (director of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict) and Professor Jeremy Treglown (Senior Research Fellow, Institute of English Studies, University of London) –  led a discussion on the role of poetry and life-writing in post-war healing. The second workshop explored the special commemorative needs that arise in the wake of civil wars and terrorism with speakers Rachel Seiffert (novelist), Professor Lyndsey Stonebridge (professor of Modern Literature and History, UEA), Professor Harvey Whitehouse (professor of Social Anthropology, University of Oxford) and Elleke Boehmer (see above). There is an opportunity to engage virtually with some of these events by podcast, subscribe here: http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/series/commemoration-reconstruction-reconciliation

Taking up this residency now has special resonance for me as I grapple with some of these issues on a very personal level in the immediate aftermath of losing my mother,  and so I am keen to direct my focus outwards as well as inwards to explore what poetry can bring to such complex individual and social matters as grief, dealing with loss, reconstruction, mobilising to action  – and perhaps, most challenging, reconciliation post-conflict. I chose as my image for this post not a picture of poppies but of grass and fallen leaves. When the poppy, beautiful as it is, was chosen as a symbol to memorialise a particular war,  other plants growing up alongside it were not chosen. That, right there, will be one of my starting points for exploration.

 

 

 

(*The Series is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in memory of John E. Sawyer.)

 

 

 

 

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