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It was in the afternoon sunshine at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge that I first saw David Jones’s painted inscription Quia per incarnati in the flesh. In this eccentric work of painted calligraphy, with quotations from the Latin Mass crowding for space, each letter has its own life and character. When I had first seen it reproduced in black and white in Jones’s long, late-modernist poem The Anathemata (1952), ‘Quia per incarnati’ had looked like a stone carving recently unearthed from the deep past. Seen in Kettle’s Yard, however, it was clear why Jones considered his painted inscriptions to be his “own form of abstraction”: it looked like nothing I had ever seen before, ancient or modern.

Even though this Anglo-Welsh artist and First World War poet was widely acclaimed by the luminaries of his day, including T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden and Kenneth Clark, Jones has slipped into something like obscurity since then. Yet at times, among those who know of him, it can feel like Jones is a password or a secret key that grants access to untold revelations, treasures and insights. Say his name, profess devotion, and before you know it a lost print is being pulled down from a bookshelf, a memory is shared, a book finds its way into your hands, or a promise of some pilgrimage is made. There is always a story to be told about how and where Jones was discovered, because, with all the revelation of a religious conversion, Jones must be discovered.

David Jones, Quia Per Incarnati, 1945, Private Collection © The Estate of David Jonessmall

Quia per Incarnati, 1945

This month I had a review-essay published on Marginalia, for the Los Angeles Review of Books, of the new David Jones book, Vision and Memory. The review gave me the opportunity to read the book with a leisurely eye, to spend time with its detail, but also encouraged me to remember what it was like to encounter the work of David Jones for the first time. It was a nostalgic experience as well as a critical one. The new book is fabulous in so many ways; the reproduction of Jones’s work is like nothing ever published before and does justice to the subtle inflections of his watercolours.

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One of the most interesting things the new book taught me was how to map out my own David Jones tour of the National Gallery – finding unseen connections between the delicate lines and lucid colours of Jones’s watercolours and the work of the masters who I have also admired for many years, including El Greco and Rubens.

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Rubens’s portrait of Helene Fourment, and David Jones’s Aphrodite in Aulis (1940-1)

 

 

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In November I was part of an event held at the Enitharmon Bookshop for the Being Human Festival, Being Writers: A Collaborative Conversation.  The evening centred around conversations on the relationship between creative and academic writing. The fabulous Enitharmon poets Hilary Davies and Nancy Campbell were interviewed by myself and another research student from UCL, Jess Cotton, on subjects as diverse as the environment, spirituality, translation, and poetry’s role in communicating history. We wrote a blog post reflecting on our insights from the evening for the Being Human festival website. A slightly expanded version of my thoughts can be found below.

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On the back of Hilary Davies’ third poetry collection, Imperium, the blurb-writer claims that in her poetry Hilary ‘draws from her historical sequences a rich, invigorating music.’ But how exactly can we take our research and make the sources sing? And can the poetic process of researching and writing teach academics anything about their own writing practice?

As I began to read Hilary Davies’ poetry, both the collections I found in the Southbank Poetry Library and the glimpses she sent me of sequences from her forthcoming book, I discovered a richness of historical detail and cultural reference that offered an immediate response to the concerns of the Enitharmon event. Hilary is a poet for whom research is an essential part of the writing process.

Hilary Davies’ poetry struck a chord with me, partly because of our mutual love for the twentieth century poet and artist David Jones, but also because her work spoke to a recent concern of my research: that is, the relationship between poetry and scholarship. After a summer spent in the archives of the National Library of Wales, reading the notes made in the margins of David Jones’ collection of scholarly resources and curiosities, I had been thinking a lot about how poetry might perform contemporary scholarship and creatively rewrite it. But the question I had failed to articulate before the event was what role subjectivity might play in this transformation of scholarly knowledge, and whether this subjectivity can ever be critically productive.

The Story of Nelson for Being Human

Denise Levertov writes of an ‘authentic source of myth in poetry [… where] scholarly knowledge is deeply imbedded in the imaginative life of the writer’ so that it becomes ‘an extension of intuitive knowledge.’ During my conversation with Hilary I was interested in unpicking the threads that had woven meticulously researched detail (like the recent archaeology reports that Hilary said informed one of her sequences, so that her poetry actually became more current than the current scholarship) together with Levertov’s ideal of an ‘intuitive knowledge’ gathered over a lifetime of reading and experience. What is the relationship, for example, between the actually loved and known of Hilary’s Catholicism, and the research required to write a sequence of poems based on the liturgical hours, or the story of Heloise and Abelard?

In his ‘Preface’ to his long Modernist poem The Anathemata, David Jones wonders ‘what may be owing’ to, amongst other things: ‘a small textbook on botany, a child’s picture-book of prehistoric fauna, the text of a guide to a collection of Welsh samplers and embroideries, or a catalogue of English china or plate;’ presenting us with a treasure-hoard of bound papers whose influence may be so obscure as to be untraceable. For Hilary Davies one such piece of treasured ephemera might be the Ladybird ‘Adventures from History,’ The Story of Nelson, a book that she described as having ignited her childhood passion for Nelson, Napoleon, naval history, and the frequent pilgrimages she made as a child from her home in Southwark to Greenwich. Its influence on the two historical sequences in her third collection, ‘Imperium’ and ‘Southwark,’ may be invisible to the eyes and ears of her readers, but beneath the surface-weave this childhood reading still resonates.

The conversation with Hilary made me recognise the complexity of this entangled relationship between research and our own personal experiences. In her poem ‘Faultlines’ Hilary writes: ‘the river banks/ we’ve walked ravel backwards in the night,/ Like lost highways.’ How much of ourselves ends up in our research? Perhaps like the lost highways of ‘Faultlines’ our readings are steps that can never be completely retraced; this doesn’t mean that we never made the journey.

This blog has been rather silent for far too long, but that doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been a proliferation of creative and critical activity keeping me busy.  So here is a very brief introduction to some recent publications which I have been involved in, in various ways.

The Still Point Journal #1

Issue #1 of The Still Point Journal launched a few weeks ago. It exists in a printed, perfect-bound edition, complete with a spine and the delicious, freshly-pressed smell of paper and ink (it’s a slim little book!). It can also be enjoyed from cover to virtual cover online and will be making its repeated debut at various venues and events across London throughout the year.

A year in the making, Issue #1 is a veritable feast for the senses: filled with creative prose, fabulous poetry and beautiful artwork and illustrations, it is begging to be enjoyed!

 

‘The Distant Star’ – The Nottingham Review

A couple of months ago, my short story ‘The Distant Star’ was published in the first issue of the digital literary journal, The Nottingham Review, which can be read online. The journal includes some really excellent and provocative short fiction and is well worth a read. My story is about academics, artichokes, and feeling out of place in other languages. It’s the first of my stories from the Chilean series to be published, so look out for more in the future.

So the anniversary of Bolaño’s death falls now within a kind of crazy hot bliss, extenuated by thirst. Bolaño himself might have enjoyed the bitter poetics of it. The chance to torture his protagonists, to prolong their discomfort: the critics chasing their dead writer. This hot Valparaíso, enjoying its stagnant second summer: the toilet bowls stinking of urine; the frustrated, choked, gurgling of taps; the water trucks circling neighbourhoods with industrial tankers of mysterious liquid; and our hands sticky with a soap we can’t wash away. This Valparaíso greets Latin America’s finest, most astute academics: the rich smell of sweat and sex palpable on dirty streets.

 

‘Paranoid Lights’ – With Regard To Light and Dark

Back in August I also had my short story ‘Paranoid Lights’ published in the literary zine With Regard To. The zine features twelve short stories and eight pieces of ambient music written and composed for the theme of light and dark, and you can purchase a copy online. My story is about the colliding trajectories of two strangers on the streets of London.

But I see no theatrics, no cinematics: only the cold glow of artificial lights on the surface of the fountains. There is no coincidence in the gathering of that smile and its weakening shadow. If you track it, it is no longer a random act of fatal London.

 

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brainofforgetting A little piece of my flash fiction appears in the inaugural issue of ‘Brain of Forgetting’, a journal which aims to create a dialogue between past and present, and encourage creative reflections on scholarly knowledge. I’ve always had an unnatural (or perhaps peculiarly natural) passion for stones and so couldn’t resist the call for submissions when I saw that it appealed directly to my slightly niche obsessions.

The title of the journal is drawn from the Irish legend of Cenn Fáelad, who lost his ‘brain of forgetting’ when his skull was split open by a sword-blow in battle. Cenn Fáelad developed a photographic memory for historical and legal information, which he wrote out in verse and prose on tablets. The journal includes some beautiful photographs, many many poems, and some select pieces of short and flash fiction. For more details on how to get your hands on a copy of the journal visit the Brain of Forgetting website: http://www.brainofforgetting.com/issue-1-stones.html

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A few weeks ago I went on a press trip to the Liverpool Biennial for the Learned Pig. You can read my article and review of the Biennial events across the city at the Learned Pig here. In this blog post I’ve included my own oral parable which focuses on the discovery of a mural painted by my relative in the beautiful Old Blind School building.

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This year the Liverpool Biennial’s constellation of exhibitions, events and curatorial side-shows are grouped under the title, ‘A Needle Walks into a Haystack.’ Whether you read the play of words as a joke, a surreal oral parable, or a maxim on the banal and the domestic: it’s easy to feel like the needle walking into the haystack when you begin your hopscotch across Liverpool’s art map or enter the labyrinthine, peeling corridors of the Old Blind School for the central exhibition.

The power to make you feel like the main protagonist in an oral parable, passed by word of mouth, needle-like, between the blackened terraced houses of Liverpool’s sloping streets, is the Biennial’s greatest achievement. It’s a clever trick and it sucks you in. So here’s my needle in a haystack story: read it, repeat it, pass it on to a friend, and then visit the Biennial and find a story of your own.

Every year the Biennial seeks out venues with their own local character and this time the historic Old Blind School has been chosen as the contextual and cultural backdrop. On the outside Liverpool is a city of quarry-red terraced houses and smoked-black brickwork, its tar dock-waters shrouded under grey, but the Old Blind School’s interior is a peeling palette of inexplicable pastel shades: lemon yellows, mint greens, soft pinks, baby blues and shades of beige.

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In 1791 the Liverpool School for the Blind was founded by local hero Edward Rushton and since then the building has transformed and regenerated itself many times. Over the course of a century this building has housed the Merseyside Police, The Trades Union Centre, a recording studio and performance venue for the young and unemployed known as The Picket, and most recently, the Theatre Resource Centre. The building is a fascinating palimpsest of Liverpudlian social history and testament to the city’s reputation as the pioneering home of welfare.

There’s a palpable sense, wandering the corridors of the old school, that if you scratched away at the walls you’d find living history beneath. For locals, the Biennial has brought an old, abandoned building back to life: giving people an opportunity to return to the institutional and radical spaces of the Old Blind School where they once worked, campaigned, plotted, picketed and even performed.

As a life-long southerner and occasional Londoner, I didn’t expect to find I had any place within this architectonic narrative. Yet looking up from amongst Peter Wächtler’s ceramic sea creatures I discovered a mural. A mural which was not a part of the official Biennial programme but a piece of the fabric of the building itself, a fragment of the city’s past. Like the needle who stepped into the haystack to discover a lost connection with the social and political history of Liverpool, I found that I was a part of the crumbling walls and chipped paintwork after all. The mural was painted by a relative of mine in 1986.

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My great uncle Mick Jones, son of the Garston-born Trade Union Leader Jack Jones, was a political illustrator and mural painter most famous for his work on the Dalston Peace Mural designed by Ray Walker. The mural in the dome of the Old Blind School commemorates the Peoples’ March for Jobs in Liverpool: it curls over the mint green balcony of the top floor with the rage and passion of 1980s political activism. The colours are vibrant and in wild, striking contrast to the polite neo-classical detailing of the rest of the building.

Edward Rushton, one of Liverpool’s great radicals, is depicted as the blind hopelessly leading the blind. There are towers of smoke billowing behind him, and the cranes and hooks which swing in and out of the warped mural seem to threaten to demolish the world around them, including the crumbling red brickwork of the Albert Docks. Beneath this post-industrial apocalypse the people march with their bright, rippling protest banners.

Marx lurks somewhere amongst the crowds along with a self-portrait of the artist himself, and recent family debates have also concluded that the fiery red-head leading the protest must be my great aunt. That statuesque red-head raises her arm to unleash a cry, the slogan on her t-shirt screaming out: ‘Give us a Future!’ This cry ripples across the painted surface of the domed mural, and by a kind of magical coincidence I suspect: the sonics of protest, dissent and disenchantment, echo across the city and the Biennial’s many venues.

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Sound carries and it is the sounds of political and social unrest which offer one of the most interesting threads for navigating the haystack. Attune yourself to a sound-map of the Biennial and you’ll have found a satisfying way in.

For me, the best of the acoustic offerings was the exhibition devoted to Liverpool’s oral poet, musician and painter, Adrian Henri, at the Exhibition Research Centre. Here rare video and audio archive footage evoke the sounds of radical Liverpool in the 60s and 70s. Henri’s words come to us slowly across the music, at times coloured with romance and at others, barbed with politics. Listening to Henri’s experimental lyricism, the sounds of Liverpool and the chiming of the Liverpudlian accent, the Mersey Sound, become richly musical and even sensual. Henri was a wordsmith of great skill and craft. It’s when the Biennial taps into the Liverpudlian local and particular, when it picks up the melody of the city’s sounds and passes them back to the visitor: that the events reach rhapsodic peaks of brilliance. It’s then that they have our attention: that we’re all finally leaning to listen in.

I catch the beginning of a final parable as I’m leaving. I overhear two scousers swapping stories about going to Henri’s spoken word events in their own Mersey youth, their voices ricocheting against the looped recordings. There’s another two needles, entering the haystack.

So now the question is (or the moral of the parable): how can we preserve the mural? Rumour has it that the Hope Street Hotel has acquired the Old Blind School and plans to convert it into luxury apartments, but will there be space for the mural in this new development? If anyone has any interest in helping to preserve the mural, or any ideas of how to do so, please leave a comment below.

Liverpool Confidential believed the mural stole the show: http://www.liverpoolconfidential.co.uk/Culture/Arts/The-mural-that-steals-the-Biennial-show You an read more about the unique Liverpudlian history of the Blind Schools on the Biennial website where they have opened up a forum for swapping stories and memories: http://www.biennial.com/blog/2014/06/05/share-your-stories-an-iconic-building-brought-back-to-life Unite the Union has more detail about the historical figure of Edward Rushton and the history painted in the mural: http://www.unitetheunion.org/growing-our-union/education/rebelroad/murals/

A3 Rv

This morning the A3 Review finally slipped through my letterbox to land in my eager, outstretched arms. The Review, which is  the size of a concertina postcard, folds out to become an A3 map of short stories fizzing with energy, lyrical prose and poetic fragments.

Several months ago I responded to a challenge from the wonderful Writing Maps to write a short story on the subject of neighbourhoods in just 150 words, and this is how ‘I Came to Find You’ found its own way into the Review. The story is set in the compact, yet drifting, neighbourhoods of east London and looks back to local patterns of movement and nostalgia. But I shouldn’t say much more – a footnote to a tiny story – except for to encourage you to buy a copy of the Review and discover all of the other wonderful pieces of Flash Fiction and poetry which are included in the inaugural issue. Order your copy here: http://www.writingmaps.com/collections/the-a3-review

It also occurred to me today (when I insisted that all of my family needed to read the story aloud and to catch hold of the right rhythm) that I am doing things with sound, and with a kind of aural, vocal sculpting, in my own writing which I am also interested in in my academic research. I will talk a little more about this in some posts over the next couple of weeks, but it is something of a newly dawning revelation. It never crossed my mind that the two things might overlap before.

Writing Maps, who produced the journal, also make beautifully designed maps and prompts to inspire writing in all kinds of unlikely and lovely places (from the beach, to a local cafe and the city streets), and they will soon be starting up their monthly short fiction competitions again in the search for new material for the next Review. So have a little browse of their website, sign up to the mailing list and submit to their upcoming prompts!

http://www.writingmaps.com/

@writingmaps