Getting Ready for English Pen Modern Literature Festival 2017

Lungta (Wind-horse)

A Note on Process 

On April 1st,  the 2017 English Pen Modern Literature Festival takes place (see all the details and link to the English Pen page below). I have already written on here about what a great privilege it is to be asked to create a new work to honour Tibetan poet and writer Tsering Woeser, and also about my own (limited) experience of travelling in Tibet. I thought it might be helpful, in the run-up to the festival itself, to share a short note on my process preparing the new work for the Festival.

First of all, I want to say thank you to Steven J. Fowler and The Enemies Project for allowing me to have this opportunity, and also to Cat Lucas and English Pen who have facilitated my access to Tsering Woeser’s writing and also have made it possible for me to communicate directly with her. My poem took a more emotional turn when I received a letter back from Woeser in response to mine.

In my poem (and performance )  I have attempted to explore an important gesture in Woeser’s poetry – that of ‘scattering lungta’ (‘lungta’ is Tibetan for ‘wind-horses’,) little pieces of coloured paper with prayers printed on them traditionally scattered by Tibetans from high places. More recently, scattering lungta has been done as an act of political protest alongside (or instead of) radical acts of self-immolation. I wrote to  Woeser about my sense of these fluttering pieces of paper in her poetry as prayers, poems, protest and a gesture of hope. She agreed, pointing out in addition that lungta are also scattered at road junctions to point the way, and that the higher the mountain from which they are launched, the further and more sacred their journey.

My main process in preparing this work has been to explore the physicality of the gesture. To address the difficulty for me to approach and apprehend Woeser’s use of this gesture in her work (as well as all the other distances between us: language, translation, political context etc), I have worked from a notation of the gesture rather than the gesture itself. I have worked with a dancer friend who is skilled in Labanotation, a system of notation for any kind of movement including dance. My journey of exploring this gesture through the distancing of notation enacts my journey as a western poet to encounter in some way Woeser’s work and experience. En route, the poem attempts to raise the deep question of the relationship between language and physical experience and explores the fragmentation caused by the imposition of an alien language (Chinese) on Tibetan culture. It also attempts to approach the impossibility/possibility of a radical embodiment of symbols of protest such as the extraordinary, courageous Tibetan acts of self-immolations, nearly 150 since 2008.
I will be sharing the poem and the performance at the Modern Literature Festival next week but here is a passage from the poem that Woeser sent to me as part of our correspondence, The Paleness of a Land of Snow, a version based on the translation by A.E Clark (Tibet’s True Heart, Selected Poems of Woeser trans by A.E Clark, Ragged Banner Press, 2008. Note: my small changes to this translation reflect the correspondence between myself and the poet):
Among white flowers, she sees Dorje Phagmo dancing!
No, not white flowers, but the peaks of high mountains.
Among pale flames, she sees Palden Llamo racing!
No, not pale flames, but the valleys between ranges.
Though the great hills ripple unbroken, and mandalas circle the deities,
Though blue lakes checker the land, and trulkus are reincarnated;
Yet the white flowers wither abruptly, and the pale flames are as swiftly extinguished.
She swallows her grief       (the poem continues)

 

The Festival

Saturday 1 April 2017
Venue One, Rich Mix, near Brick Lane, London
2pm / 4pm / 7.30pm
Entrance is free but please consider joining PEN or making a donation

On 1 April 2017, 30 UK-based writers, poets, novelists, playwrights and artists will join English PEN and the Enemies Project for the second English PEN Modern Literature Festival. Each of the writers will perform new works created in solidarity with some of the incredible individuals supported by English Pen throughout the year through the Writers at Risk Programme.

https://www.englishpen.org/event/english-pen-modern-literature-festival-2017/

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#Vispo Opening Event: New collaborations

Photograph by Alexander Kell

Photograph by Alexander Kell

The opening of the Museum of Futures Visual Poetry Event was celebrated by the Futures Camarade: a collaborative poetry performance curated by Steven J Fowler, The Enemies Project.  Pairs of poets performed new collaborative work created for the occasion. The Museum of Futures was packed for the opening night to enjoy a first look at the exhibition and to appreciate the poetry collaborations.The performances were wonderfully varied, eccentric, funny, serious and creative! Videos of all the performances and some beautiful photographs of the event, taken by Alexander Kell, can be found here:

http://www.theenemiesproject.com/futures/

 

Two Metres

…of soil by Lucy Furlong and Susie Campbell

I was lucky enough to be paired with Lucy Furlong. Our piece was both a celebration of soil – its richness and its fundamental importance to sustaining life – and an engagement with how easily it can be neglected, exploited and damaged through activities such as fracking. It was important to us to create for the audience some direct experience of the smell, texture and properties of soil both through utilising a layered/unfractured poetic form and through bringing ‘two metres’  of soil into the venue. Two metres is the average depth of top soil in the UK and is one of the reasons why graves are traditionally dug to a depth of six feet. As you will see from the video, it was not actually two metres but it was certainly nearly ankle-deep. We chose to buy a bag of top soil rather than dig our own to avoid accidentally killing any worms or beetles or roots inhabiting garden soil. After performance, the audience were invited to take away a handful of soil (in a recyclable paper envelope!) sown with the seeds of bee-friendly wild flowers and encouraged to plant in their own gardens or an appropriate public space (we donated the rest to a local pub garden then did some ‘guerrilla gardening’ in the neighbourhood with the remaining crumbs of earth. Hopefully by the summer, those wild flowers will be springing up all over London.)

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Woeser, Tibetan Poet

Tibet

Tibet

In my previous blog post, I wrote about the honour of being asked to celebrate the work of Tibetan poet Tsering Woeser for this year’s Modern Literature Festival (held in conjunction with English Pen Writers At Risk Programme and curated by Steven J. Fowler), Rich Mix, 1st April 2017. Over the next few weeks, I am going to write about Woeser and her work, and also about my own process in preparing for the festival.

Woeser

Woeser was born in Llasa, Tibet. Her father was half ethnic-Chinese and was an officer in the PLA (People’s Liberation Army). He and his family were moved to a part of Sichuan when Woeser was only four years old. Woeser, therefore, grew up speaking Chinese and it was only when she was admitted to a College minority nationalities programme, that she really started to question her identity and her Tibetan heritage.

As an adult, she moved back to Llasa and started to study the history and culture of her land of birth. She soon realised that the official story she had been told – of a Chinese ‘liberation’ of Tibet  – was a lie, concealing a brutal conquest.

She had already been building up a reputation as a writer and journalist but now she started to document the repression suffered by Tibetan people. This brought her into conflict with the authorities and her book Notes on Tibet was banned. She was dismissed from her job and assigned to ‘political re-education’.

She moved back to Beijing, but she continues to write about Tibet in poetry, essays and blogposts. In mainland China, her books are banned and her blog shut down (although she was able to move it to an overseas server) however she has still become widely known as a respected writer on Tibet. She is kept under surveillance, her movements have been restricted and she has, at times, been placed under house arrest.

For more information about her, and the other writers supported by English Pen’s Writers At Risk programme, see https://www.englishpen.org/campaigns/international/writers-at-risk/

 

Woeser’s Work

It has been a great privilege to get to know some of Woeser’s writings, including her online journalism as well as some of her poetry and her powerful book on the significance of self-immolation as a form of extreme protest in Tibet.

I will write more about her work in my later posts about my own preparation process, but examples of her writing in English translation by A. E. Clark can be found on the Ragged Banner Press website (see link above), including the following poem:

A Sheet of Paper Can Become a Knife

A sheet of paper can become a knife
—A rather sharp one, too.
I was only turning the page
When the ring finger of my right hand got sliced at the knuckle.
Though small, the sudden wound oozed blood,
A thread as fine as silk, and stung a little.
Startling transformation,
From paper into knife:
There must have been some mistake, or
Some kind of turning point.
This ordinary paper… a chill of awe.

Woeser, October 16, 2007, Beijing

 

My Own Travels in Tibet

About ten years ago, I was able to spend a short period of time travelling in Tibet. As a tourist, my perceptions were limited and partial, but nevertheless, it was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. One of the lessons it taught me was about the politics of language. Despite the altitude of the Tibetan plateau, there were hours of fierce sunshine when my heavy clothing became unbearable. I stripped down to my long-sleeved thermal vest and rolled my trousers to mid-calf. Suddenly I found myself the object of attention. In one village, a boy doubled himself over for a closer look at the tattoos on my ankle. A line of small, black characters marching up my calf. As he stood upright again, he said to me, ‘Tashi delek…tashi delek!’ I knew this phrase so I smiled and nodded back, ‘Hello! Good Fortune!’ The child buried his face in his mother’s long skirt. Suddenly I got it. I realised why my tattoos were attracting so much interest. They were Chinese characters. The language of the invaders. Worse. They were Chinese characters for the words Power and Strength. My celebration of a mended leg-break. As jarring as a swastika in Europe. I hardly dared look at my Tibetan hosts. They were still boycotting shops, petrol stations, even market stalls if they had signs in Chinese. But the reaction of my hosts was also a surprise: not condemnation but sympathy for one whose body was branded with an alien language. Despite the high temperatures, I kept my trousers rolled down for the rest of the trip.

 

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Save the date!

The English PEN Modern Literature Festival 2017

April Saturday 1st 2017 in Venue One, Rich Mix: London
2pm / 4pm / 7.30pm – Entrance Free but membership appreciated. 

Save the date for this year’s English Pen Modern Literature Festival, curated by Steven J. Fowler, and showcasing new work to celebrate writers at risk.

Again this year, the Festival will pair UK-based writers with Writers at Risk from around the world, to celebrate and raise awareness of English Pen Writers at Risk programme, and of the individual writers supported by it.

Details of the event can be found at https://www.englishpen.org/event/english-pen-modern-literature-festival-2017/  or below. Information can also be found at The Enemies Project website, quoted here:

 ‘The English PEN Modern Literature Festival sees 30 contemporary UK-based writers present new works in tribute to writers at risk around the world at Rich Mix, London, on April 1st 2017. #penfestuk Visit www.englishpen.org.

Writers poets, novelists, playwrights and artists come together to continue English PEN’s relationship with innovative contemporary literature over an extraordinary day where each of the writers presented brand new poetry, text, reportage & performance on a day that celebrates and evidences the struggle of fellow writers around the world, in solidarity.

The 2017 festival will feature Denise Riley, Sarah Howe, Hannah Silva, Sandeep Parmar, Vahni Capildeo, Luke Kennard, Tom Jenks, John Hall, Nathan Jones, Tony White, Matthew Welton, Susie Campbell, Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, Chrissy Williams, Camilla Nelson, Chloe Spicer, Nisha Ramayya, Carol Watts, Larry Lynch, Kate Wakeling, Rebecca Tamas, matt martin, Zoë Skoulding, Mischa Foster Poole, Simon Pomery, Peter Philpott, Lavinia Singer, Sasha Dugdale and SJ Fowler.

Please join English PEN’

http://www.theenemiesproject.com/#/englishpen/

Woeser

It is an enormous privilege to have the opportunity to participate in this event and help to raise awareness of the Writers at Risk programme, and of the extraordinary writer with whom I have been paired: Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan writer whose poetry, reportage, history and cyberjournalism offer an outspoken and illuminating account of life in Tibet. She writes about forbidden subjects such imprisonment, injustice and protest, as well as about finding her own voice as a poet and commentator. As a result, she has been harassed and placed under severe restrictions by the authorities. Over the next few weeks, I will be writing here about Woeser, her work and the process of preparing for the English Pen Modern Literature Festival.

Tsering Woeser, Tiber, 2010

Tsering Woeser, Tibet, 2010

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Museum of Futures Visual Poetry Exhibition Spring 2017

Museum of Futures Visual Poetry Exhibition 2017

Museum of Futures Visual Poetry Exhibition 2017

 

I am thrilled to have work included in this exciting exhibition coming up soon at the Museum of Futures. The exhibition is curated by poet and artist Steven J. Fowler as part of The Enemies Project series, in collaboration with Kingston University London and cool Surbiton venue, the Museum of Futures, http://museumoffutures.org.

It is an exhibition of avant garde text art and visual poetry of various kinds. It includes work by some poets with whose work I am already familiar ( Lucy Furlong, Julia Lewis, Hannah Lowe etc.)  as well as many others I am excited to get to know. There is an launch event on February 23rd (more details to follow) and the exhibition will run until March 12th 2017.

My own piece is a multi-part visual poem, called ‘Suicide Is Not A Political Issue’. The title is a quotation from an article defending the government, claiming that suicides associated with the DWP and benefits assessments are entirely personal matters devoid of any political significance.  The visual poem that emerges is an attempt to disrupt a reactionary political narrative that tries to locate mental health problems (including suicide) totally within in the frailty of the individual psyche in order to deny any socio-economic responsibility. My piece takes as one of its starting points the image of  Ophelia, seeing her as a romanticised icon of madness and suicide, described by Shakespeare and later projected onto the suburban Surrey landscape in Millais’ famous painting.

Do drop in for the opening event or to the exhibition itself, if you are in the area or feel like a visit to the future….

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‘I was born…already gobby and spun out of stories’

If ever a pamphlet was written fast and furiously, it is my second pamphlet The Frock Enquiry edited by Claire Trévien and published by Annexe Magazine on this day last year. It draws on material from an early 20th Century enquiry into women’s sweated labour in London but is fuelled by the contemporary inequalities in women’s  work across the world. Here it is, now available online, in all its gobby fury:

http://buff.ly/2eDNm5s

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Louise @Paris

My fascination (obsession?) with Louise Bourgeois continued during my recent visit to Paris. Surprisingly, this was not through visiting Paris’s contemporary galleries,

Beaubourg

Beaubourg

but rather the hours I spent at the Musée de Cluny,  the museum of the city’s medieval history, and its rooms of tapestries, carved reredos screens, and stained glass windows.

Cluny

Cluny

The notion of the grid as a conceptual framework is a striking aspect of Bourgeois’s work but I realised how much the notion of series and sequence features in these medieval art forms.

Notre Dame

Notre Dame

Of course, Bourgeois grew up in the workshops of her mother’s tapestry restoration business – she must have been, I realised, very familiar with this history. I remembered seeing a photograph of her New York studio with a framed tapestry panel on the wall – hmm, something in this? It was only when I got back to London, however, that I realised how much Bourgeois worked directly in this medium herself. My Bourgeois-inspired sequence of poems has just taken an interesting new turn…..

In Paris

In Paris

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