Looking back at May 2018 visit to Southampton. ArtfulScribe Writer in Residency at John Hansard Gallery

After spending the last ten days in Southampton on my writing residency at John Hansard Gallery, I have a lot to look back on.

The Gerhard Richter exhibition provoked a lot of thought in me. In particular, an installation that caught my imagination more than I had anticipated when I read about it was 48 Portraits (1971–1991). It’s a subtly effective work that, although it uses the techniques of other Richter paintings, floats layers of potential relations between 48 individual portraits of notable men from the end of the 19th century/start of the 20th century in ways that insinuate lead a long way from the questions of image surface and relationship to subject that preoccupied me with other works in the exhibition. (I’m thinking of the Abstract Paintings Skin, Silicate and Grey made from images of surfaces of milk showing vibration patterns, and that I’m currently visually noting the similarities of to the top surfaces of clouds that I’m flying above on my way back to Edinburgh.) Maybe the deepening of engagement with 48 Portraits happened because I (and others I talked to) already had strong imaginative connections with some of the 48 men depicted, and no conscious connections at all with some of the others; it made for a bumpy and changing reading as I looked among the faces that gave or resisted my recognition.

I picked out the composers amongst the line-up first, familiar with some of the very same images that Richter had gleaned, from my own childhood readings of music encyclopedias – Anton Bruckner photographed with his seemingly taken aback expression has always mentally illustrated for me the stories about him being the more country cousin to the sophisticated Wagner, though now I wonder how much of that was in any sense true and how much snobbery. With their names displayed beneath each Richter-reproduced image, there were occasional shocks as you got close to read a name and realised this was the face of someone you knew about but hadn’t seen represented.

Paul Claudel, one of 48 men represented by Gerhard Richter in 48 Portraits (1971–1991). Image from John Hansard Gallery, May 2018.

Paul Claudel was one such for me – I knew about him from a mention in (one version of) Auden’s poem In Memory of W.B. Yeats. It was peculiar to see him looking so modern in his sciencey spectacles, having thought of him as already far back from the himself dated-seeming, mannered, young Auden. With all these men’s heads and gazes suspended indefinitely, you could daydream about the connections between them all and how their world shaped the time that followed.

I write about my thinking around this work in my poem-text written this visit. It’s turned out to be a long poem, and takes in my April visit (when the installation of the Richter exhibition had begun) and then the day before the exhibition opening, and the preview itself, ending with the writing drawn from the 48 Portraits. Incidentally, the portraits are also incredibly beautifully installed in the Barker-Mill gallery, a self-contained and well-proportioned space in the centre of John Hansard’s new set-up. The presentation really brings you close, into an audience with these faces. I can’t imagine a better way to see and think with this work. Please travel to see the show if you can before it closes on the 18 August.

Jane Birkin and Iain Morrison at the staff club, Highfield Campus, May 2018.

On my visit I was also able to have a much looked forward to lunch with writer and artist Jane Birkin, who works in the archives at Southampton University and whose presentation I had very much enjoyed at the Immediacy! Research Day I’d taken part in back in January. She had shown a very successful work there that used moving image footage of details of a still photograph and drew on the craft of carefully-neutral archival image descriptions to curate an encounter with the image in a faceted way.

There seemed a fruitful discussion to be had given the ways we both in our work started from the point of records/traces. The differences seemed fascinating to me, with Jane’s starting point being images collected and deposited by others and held in a structured system, and my note-taking and filming being more obviously subjective, yet still trying to keep a broad lens on the systems that supported what I was investigating: the public and slightly private life of John Hansard Gallery and its audiences.

Jane and I got onto a good track about the status of description within writing, and its categorisation, often, as an inferior tool to discuss, something that Jane I think challenges. I was interested in how observation (which I felt was a word to describe what I was doing during my residency) differed from description. I came to think of it as being something about intention. But then maybe Jane’s approach in her work is to observe the description? It’s all so interesting. I like the word ‘observation’ partly because it seems so mid-twentieth century with echoes of the faith in science that I associate with that space-race time. The Mass Observation project is also something thing I’m connecting in my head, the ongoing systematic recording of the similarities and different trajectories of human subjects in Britain over a long period of time. And this in turn brings me back to think about the Richter portraits, which feel a related way of taking a spread-out snapshot of a generation or two.

Jane also introduced me to the artist Walter van Rijn who is making an epic work for Hansard’s next show called Unconsumable Global Luxury Dispersion, which is working with the titles of every single work shown in the old John Hansard Gallery site. For a look at how he’s organising and shaping that enormous data-set, look at his instagram for the project here. I think there are going to be interesting connection between our projects to talk about over my remaining visits.

And finally, because it’s definitely part of the pleasure of the residency for a weathered Scot like myself, here’s a picture of my writing station on Sunday, in a beer garden in Winchester just up the road from Southampton. My body doesn’t know what to do with all this vitamin D!

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Lead-up to opening for real! Southampton ArtfulScribe residency at John Hansard Gallery

In my last post I wrote about the Sampler week at John Hansard Gallery in February. I next visited in April, and the Gallery was in a funny in-between state, having been open to the public temporarily, but now closed again in preparation for the official ‘proper’ opening of its spaces in May. There was exhilaration in February at having got the doors open. Now in April, there was a sense of taking pains through the detail work with a last chance to get things absolutely nailed down, in some cases literally, before the building was permanently opened.

The installation of the launch exhibition, ARTIST ROOMS: Gerhard Richter, was underway. The work wasn’t on the walls yet, but everywhere the technical team were measuring and making the place ready. I was able to do some writing around the spaces, with the ghosting works of Sampler still visible in some places so that it reminded me of my initial visit to the old John Hansard site on the Highfield campus. Then vinyl from previous shows was redundantly continuing its indication on the wall. This visit though, a site was turning round, rather than winding up.

There was a public reading this visit, with Nazneen Ahmed and Dinos Aristidou, who are the writers-in-residence respectively at Southampton libraries and the Mayflower Theatre. Matt, who as ArtfulScribe is overseeing and facilitating all of our loosely-linked residencies, organised a lunch for the four of us to get together and share experiences. This was really welcome, as we’d been active at slightly different times, and knew about each other’s activities despite not having met. Our reading, that evening at Mettricks, was chaired by Carole Burns, head of the Creative Writing department at Southampton Uni.

Iain Morrison, Nazneen Ahmed, Matt West & Dinos Aristidou

In these and other connections that the residency is allowing me to make, I am grateful for the shared perspectives, whether it’s on practical matters such as good residency programmes and potential funders, or different approaches to the way our work engages with personal narratives. Always interesting to stop and think about your own progress with people who understand the commitments and ambitions you might be balancing as someone making your way as a professional writer.

When I returned to Southampton for my current visit – I’m here now – the mood had lightened. It was the day before the Richter previews, and everything seemed in place, or close enough to in place not to be panic-inducing. It was lovely to see the staff all who had worked so hard towards this moment, all taken complex and personal personal routes to this point, celebrating together and enjoying the attention of  interested and supportive parties like Arts Council England, the University, local politicians, artists and press.

I had my camera out for the previews, recording some footage from peculiar angles for my film poems. As ever I was trying to pull back from the art and the individuals, and capture some of the social feel and the paraphenalia of the event.

still from footage for film-poem in the making

Writing through public speeches was a subtly different prospect from previous note-taking that I’d done; the language being used was so measured and a lot of necessary ritual included. I’m seeing what comes together out of that captured and remixed language in the poem-text I’m putting together to encompass this whole period from the April visit through to this climax point.

On this visit, longer than previous ones, I’ve more time for this nuts and bolts aspects of the writing job. I’ve gathered all my finished and in-progress material to date, and I think the overall structure of the final text is clear. It will start from the December visits to the old gallery, sweep through Sampler and the Richter opening, and end with a final piece of writing from Stephen Foster, the former director’s valedictory show, which opens in September. It will be a palindrome of sorts, or maybe more a mobius band, taking us back to the same place, but somehow on the other side of the page.

Artfulscribe writing residency: Sampler week at John Hansard Gallery

Studio 144, John Hansard Gallery’s new space from the outside.

Each time I visit Southampton for my Artfulscribe writing residency, I coincide with key dates in my host gallery’s calendar as it makes its move into it’s new city centre site. February’s Sampler week was always going to be a particularly hot date, as it marked the first time that the new building, Studio 144, would be open to the public. The plan was to throw open the doors for a celebratory week, along with other newly installed venues nearby, in order to give a taste to its keen anticipators of what the new programme could be, and then to pause for breath and complete the building’s fit-out, before the official launch of John Hansard Gallery at Studio 144 in May of this year.

For my Sampler week visit, I had planned to buddy up with the collective Stair/Slide/Space. They had run a playful project in the park behind Studio 144 back in August 2017 to make gentle contact for the gallery with the people living and working near the new site. They were creating a new version of that project, called Conversation Station, for the foyer of Studio 144 to run throughout Sampler week. People were encouraged to build dens and chat with each other and with the collective’s members, who would record unobtrusively the thoughts and views that came up. As Stair/Slide/Space’s project already involved setting up questions and opening up conversation with the public, it seemed a good starting point for me to tease out threads of the communications that were beginning to run between the gallery’s programme and its newly constituted audience as it was forming. At a previous meeting with Jo, Abi and Diana from the collective, as well as having great conversations about how my residency might go, and about what their work was doing so effectively, we worked out that my questions for this week could float within the frames of the conversations they were hosting.

Mostly, I wanted to find out what people *weren’t* expecting from the gallery, as I thought that might be a useful collection of preconceptions that would be fun to challenge, as I was sure the gallery would indeed go on to do.

Stair/Slide/Space set up in the Studio 144 foyer

On the day I was there, it was clear that there was a difference from the vibe from when the installation had been in the park. This had been anticipated and was in a strong sense why Stair/Slide/Space were making the work in the foyer, visible through Studio 144’s big windows from the High Street outside. A hope was that people would feel free to come in and that the collective would be good mediators between the street and the new, public spaces. It was no doubt easier to be in the conversational orbit of people in the more obviously democratic space of the park. The flow of people into the gallery was less easy to manage as a continuation from the street. As there were fewer potential interactees, I felt more self-conscious about my additional presence in the set-up and was keen to not derail the possible interactions that Stair Slide Space are very good at engendering. I was able to listen in a bit to the conversations they were holding with visitors, and it made a nice context for writing, but I also found it useful to travel around the building and write notes within the exhibitions themselves. So I drew some writing from the art on show in the galleries directly, in a way that I hadn’t been expecting. And the other unlooked for source of material was the great conversation provided by the staff working on invigilating the exhibitions. Voices were finding their way in, and I was able to grow my confidence to work in an ad hoc way. There’s a hopefully juicy cache of notes which I can write up into poems to represent this chapter in the residency period.

setting up for the Entropics reading with Holly Pester and Iain Morrison (me). Sarah Hayden introducing us.

The other part of February’s visit, was looking back and presenting all of my residency writing so far at Sarah Hayden’s Entropics poetry night. The event was held, for the first time, in the foyer of Studio 144. My reading comprised of three poems from my residency: one drawn from the old building in December 2017, one from a staff meeting in January 2018 and one much longer text from the Immediacy research day which had happened at the Centre for Modern and Contemporary Writing (see previous blog). From my point of view on the night, this turned out to be the most effective piece of writing. As I read through the long Immediacy text (which wrote-up responses to each of the talks that were given in the research day) I had the pleasure of making eye contact with speaker after speaker who was in the audience for the reading I was giving. To see their faces either perplexed or amused or pleased as I read their material back to them filtered through the distorting processes of my poem, was to feel a gradually growing confidence that my writing was recording the experience of the day in a recognisable, if discombobulating way. Sarah Hayden, the organiser, gave me the generous feedback that I’d moved beyond site-specific work to site-and-time-and-audience-specific work. I was delighted by this as it’s a real aim of the project to amplify and reflect back to itself (for its consideration) the community forming around a new space and a renewed organisation.

I read at Entropics alongside Holly Pester, of whom I am a fan! Because of the format of Entropics – somewhere between a symposium on the poets’ work and a reading – there was time to tease out connections between how Holly and I were working that I hadn’t expected and that I really valued. For example, both Holly and I were using sound-structures/repetitions/echoes that came from an awareness of music I think. And both of us were responding to either archives or notes that in some sense were indexing periods of time – in her case with the Glasgow Women’s Library’s material for her Book Works publication, and in my case with the chronologically forming notes I was taking over the residency.

We went to the pub with Sarah and her students afterwards and it was also really valuable to have conversations with them about how they were thinking about writing, and it was flattering to feel I was able to bring interesting gobbets to the conversation and feed some ideas into the way they were studying and writing.

with Sarah Hayden and her students from Southampton Uni’s English Dept.

The next visit was in April between the Sampler week and the ‘real’ opening. I will be writing about that privileged in-between experience in the next post.

 

Visiting Writer Page

The lovely folks at the Centre for Modern and Contemporary Writing (CMCW) in Southampton University have added a listing of me on their blog.

The mission the CMCW sets out of to ‘bring together academics, writers, and research students with interdisciplinary interests in the relations between 20th and 21st-century writing and contemporary culture in all its forms.’

My ArtfulScribe Residency at the University’s John Hansard Gallery has let me swim into their ken and it’s a generous, intellectually broadening experience to spend time in their company.

Just today I spotted in the London Review of Books, a piece on a collection of articles on poet F.T. Prince edited by member of CMCW Will May. I hadn’t realised before I attended the centre’s research day last month that Southampton Uni’s English Dept had been been headed by F.T. Prince in the post-war years. Prince is a poet I’ve been curious about for some time (I posted his ‘Last Poem’ on this blog back in 2012) and it’s wonderful to walk unawares into the centre of research on this rhapsodic, lyrical, sexually-charged voice from a time when many of the discussions that shape my identity as a gay/queer man within British culture were being triangulated.

Am looking forward to further time spent at the centre over the coming year. I hadn’t quite realised when I applied for the writing residency how much access I would have to this aspect of university life and it’s a wonderful boon!

Centre for Modern and Contemporary Writing – Research Day

I’m just heading back up to Scotland after an excellent residency day with the Centre for Modern and Contemporary Writing at Southampton Uni. One of the many great aspects of my ArtfulScribe residency with John Hansard Gallery is the academic network it opens up to me. Today there was a research day organised by Dr Sarah Hayden around the prompt of ‘Immediacy’, and I thoroughly enjoyed introducing my work and sharing ideas with the academics and practitioners (and the somewhere-in-betweeners) who make up the centre’s community. Woodrow Kernohan and Ronda Gowland-Pryde from the John Hansard Gallery team were also presenting. I’m getting a clear sense of how the gallery benefits from its immersal in the active audience of a large university.

Here’s a link to the programme and then the text of the introduction I gave to my work before showing an Art Talk Notes film poem from last year:

Final Immediacy poster updated A3 January 16th (btw I loved being put in a section called Encounters Immediate and Mediated – thanks Sarah!)

Talking Art Talk Notes

I’m taking the opportunity of this Immediacy day to introduce the project that I’m doing as ArtfulScribe Writer in Residence at John Hansard Gallery over the next 10 months or so. The title I gave for today, Talking Art Talk Notes, refers to the title of the project I pitched in my interview, Art Talk Notes, which is a poem series I started in 2015 from a growing desire to use the writing I was collecting, in the form of notes, from the many art talks I was attending. I had been working in a visual arts organisation in Edinburgh for 5 years and was increasingly keen to draw the strands of my experience in that world together with my practice as a poet.

Through thinking about somatic writing (writers like C.A. Conrad especially and Lee Ann Brown) I started to see the notes I was taking when I was in a talk as not just notes about a talk but a record of embodied experience and one that might be exploitable to form a record of not only my learning/thinking on a given occasion, but also – maybe because I was nosey in my note-taking – as a record of the wider community’s learning, it’s narratives and experience around the same events.

How I connected this project with today’s Research Day title is through the idea of immediacy as presence – as something being the thing that’s immediately in front of you, and which you are grappling with even before you have had the chance to formulate what it is. I conceive of that happening in the trajectory of planning an event, where time compresses between the planning and post-event reflection stages into the actual moments of liveness, and whatever is happening, whatever is contained within that conjunction of time and space is what the event contains, and always will have contained, to be made sense of (foregrounded, countered or erased) in recollection and dissection, after, as they say, the event.

I have started writing the Southampton series of poems sitting in on meetings and background planning chats, and these Art Talk Notes are already skewed, in a way, from the model of my earlier ones, because of being produced currently behind the scenes, in an organisation that’s between venues. There’s a shift therefore onto the sites where discussion is happening, albeit tied to the art content that’s being planned and shown off-site.

At the moment I’m considering whether Art Talk Notes will remain the right title for this Southampton sequence. I wonder what my sequence of texts is ultimately going to rest on, in the sense of being rested upon. It may end up being called Art Notes or Gallery Notes or even John Hansard Gallery Notes.

I’m finding that the strategy of using stream-of-consciousness writing as a tool of interrogation means I am able to move fairly easily with the writing, as a sort of ultrasound with myself as the equipment, into most contexts. But I’m intent on seeing how I can keep a focus for this Southampton project as I was able to do in the earlier series. I think that previous coherence was achieved thanks to the fact there were other unifying factors holding the sequence together for me – namely my own subjective voice, belonging as it did to the networks out of whom these events were flowering; and my ability to choose a discrete path within the notes I was taking as there were plenty of them, indeed there were likely to continue being plenty of them, and I didn’t have to include everything. I had the luxury that this was my life as I was living it at the time that I was writing off of and that I was almost inevitably going to keep living it in smooth grooves, or trajectories that would lead me from one connected place of self-exploratory writing to another. And I would shape and see a personal narrative of my own unfolding alongside the chain of events.

The time I will spend during the residency here will still be marked by the relationships I am making and sustaining with the people around me, including for the first time, the public. I imagine though that they will be less complex than those that arise in a more fully embedded life – as in the earlier sequence. Maybe I’ll be wrong though, and should expect drama!

I’m going to show a short filmpoem from the first sequence of Art Talk Notes to give you an idea of how the work looks. I’m starting to collect footage from Southampton already and am likely to be producing something similar for John Hansard Gallery. Thanks.

Poole filmpoems and Southampton plans advance

I got back late last night from my 2nd residency visit to the South coast, this time fitting in a visit to Poole for a film poem course over the weekend before more time in Southampton with the John Hansard Gallery folk.

The film poem course was put on by ArtfulScribe, who are organising my residency, and was tied in to a film poem competition that’s part of Light Up Poole. It was taught by the patient and encouraging duo of Helen Dewberry and Chaucer Cameron. They share a joint practice as film poets and brought many examples of the genre to inspire us before giving us time to work on our own projects. I felt I had a double head on to think with as I’m conscious that I’ll be leading workshops and events as part of my residency and was happy to learn from their deft way of reading the dynamics of a group and making sure everyone was heard and looked after. It was a pretty diverse group! I met some interesting poets from further across the region and I hope I will have the chance to spend more time with them. Poole itself won me over with its piratey charm – so many olde world dockside pubs that I felt I was in a film set from something swashbuckling. Recommended.

This visit to Southampton was characterised by a closening of relationships with the John Hansard team. I’m blown away by their trust and the access that they’re generously giving me to the workings of their organisation at a very busy time. We had some interesting discussions about organisational voice in relation to my voice as a writer in residence – I think we’re all getting used to the unusual dynamic of having an ear in the room whose job is to document in some way. We laughed at parallels with sensationalist journalism or fly-on-the-wall documentaries, but I have a clear sense this is a very different remit and I’m looking forward to getting on with more writing so that we can all see how this time might be captured in it in some broad, outward-looking way. It’s possible to overthink things, so I think ploughing on is the way forward, then reviewing how it’s turning out.

The project I pitched is called Art Talk Notes, but since the circumstances I’ve found to write-in so far have been more in the administrative context, in the lead-up to other events, I wonder if I’ll change the name for this iteration of it. Art Notes might be a more accurate title – I noticed Woodrow, the John Hansard Gallery Director using that, and he might be instinctively one step ahead of me there. Or maybe Gallery notes? I’ll be thinking about it.

I’ve also been getting on with meeting partners I’ll be working with to deliver events and the aformentioned workshops. Stair/Slide/Space are a collective who are delivering something called a Conversation Station during a pop-up week at the Gallery’s new building in February, and we’re planning to team-up for the first public sharing of work from my residency, so there was a meeting with them and the John Hansard Gallery team. I also caught up with Asten Holmes-Elliott. They work with Breakout Youth, an LGBT youth organisation in the city, and we’re hoping to run a writing workshop together around identity and concealment during the Gerhard Richter exhibition that the Gallery is opening in May.

I’m going to be learning a lot from these generous people over the coming months. It’s great to feel the plans firming up.

Here’s the film I made in the film poem workshop:

 

 

It uses a similar format to previous Art Talk Notes films I’ve made – footage of audience coming and going at a Gallery accompanied by loosely connected text – but as I was on a course, I let myself play more with the fiddly possibilities of editing. Not sure how this sits in relation to the overall project, but it was fun to do and has made me feel even keener to keep a film element to what I’m doing in Southampton having learned some new tricks.

Start in Southampton

with Markus Bergström’s Guildhall Pavillion. A John Hansard Gallery commission for Summer in the Square (2017)

Starting from about now, I have a temporary alias as ArtfulScribe‘s Writer-In-Residence at John Hansard Gallery in Southampton. There are many reasons why I’m excited to have swung my trajectory in line with this orbiting opportunity (I’m thinking of spacecraft landing on comets here for some reason). Here are a few of them:

I now have the prospect of having a decent chunk of writing time built into my year. This flexibly organisable residency involves me spending up to a month in Southampton split across the year, so can be scheduled around an existing full-time job.

From my initial meetings with the team administering the opportunity I know it’s going to be a genuinely developmental ‘professional development’. I’ve already felt significantly and usefully nudged by my conversations with the Matt West, who runs ArtfulScribe and who has an obvious grasp of ways to engage disparate audiences. I’m looking forward to spending time with poet and academic Sarah Hayden and her colleagues in the English Department at the University of Southampton; the chance to share work in an academic forum as well as a public one means I will be learning on at least two fronts.

This may be a silly reason, but I’m enjoying reopening a connection with the area where I spent my first year after leaving school, as a choral scholar in the Winchester Cathedral Choir. It was enjoyably trippy heading up the road to Evensong at the Cathedral after my interview last year, and trying to connect the person I’ve become in the intervening 20 years with resurfacing memories of those early adult days will be an interesting puzzle.

It’s a chance to tie together my dominant activities – being a poet and working in a visual arts organisation – that in the past have felt like they might be in tension, but increasingly feed content to each other through projects that benefit from a strong dual understanding of writing and art practice. The programme at John Hansard Gallery during the time I am writing there includes a juicy exhibition of work by Gerhard Richter which I’m looking especially forward to thinking and looking along with.

The residency comes with John Hansard’s and ArtfulScribe’s great networks and offers the chance to develop the filmpoem part of my practice. I was successful in pitching an iteration of my Art Talk Notes series for the residency, and have been keen to make more films to accompany these poems from art talks since showing some prototypes early in 2017 at Market Gallery in Glasgow. It will be great to have time, resources and impetus to put that project more fully together in this residency’s context.

 

In terms of challenges, I think I will be pushed into responding to new contexts with my writing, and I hope I will be open enough to learn from encounters I (and the things I write) will have with lots of different people. And it will be quite epic leaping up and down the country but mainly, I think, energising. The chance to experience an art gallery from the other side of the artist/organisation relationship is also already proving interesting and pleasurable. The team at JHG are excited about their move to a new building – the context for the residency – and are being generous about sharing access to their work at a pivotal time so that I can share some of that experience with them, and in turn with others.

Here’s the first bit of writing I’ve done in situ. A couple of blocks of text from my December 2017 visit. More soon.

 

 

Half an hour of writing at John Hansard Gallery

(that turned into 7 minutes because I got distracted with whether my camera was filming the shot I wanted)

Highfield Campus, University of Southampton, Tuesday 19 December 2017.

 

The time now is 97% I am writing in the old meeting room at John Hansard Gallery

surrounded by articles related to the transition programme

a space that has been preparing for some time to become another space

hoods in front of me and on the wall a planner chart

a gant chart beginning going gone but not yet in the writing time

I have been here all day thinking about with the team

warmly in the cold the move to new studio and the programme I think

will be a complex good and I am adjacent playing, enjoying the role

 

So far, this has been an experiment, in life and ten years

in the planning, so that’s a public public good and a cousin

in Bransgore to stay with and his dogs and news family

The new gathering around the John Hansard Gallery linking

to them to Matt, to Sarah by sconeference call in Ireland

in the CMCW in Mettricks in parks and sculpted parkland

before a move, we all make the movements for it

piling papers in the corners under chirpy named sheets

and there are memories of art works and not yet in the walls

the latex Bergvall balloon, the customised counted on days

Fairytale of New York in the dock for Homophobia

It’s Christmas! And this year, among my circle friends and those I hang out with in the arts scene, there have been discussions around that hardiest perennial of Christmas songs, the Pogues’/Kirsty MacColl’s Fairytale of New York. The conversation has been in regard to accusations of homophobia in the lyrics and against the backdrop of the recently altered landscape of Irish society in terms of equal marriage, repeal of the 8th amendment, LGBTQ and gender rights, it seems obvious that the inclusion of the word ‘faggot’ in the list of traded insults between the straight couple at the song’s bursting heart is problematic, right?

So I wondered, paying attention to LGBTQ friends who have obviously been hurt by the term’s co-option, why I hadn’t particularly felt insulted by the term in that song before, and whether I had been tone-deaf to something while perhaps falsely hearing some excusing subtlety that wasn’t there.

 

These are the explanations for the offence having passed me by that I considered.

 

– I’d wondered if there was something about the American-Irish set-up of the lyrics which gave a different nuance of the word? Or even whether the word had literally a different, alternative meaning (beyond the bundle of sticks one, or meatball ones…). I hear people saying a lot, for example that a certain c word is statistically used much more in Scotland than in England and considered much less offensive (I’d love to eavesdrop on the street surveys I like to imagine being used to determine this information) or even that it meant something different – thinking of how the word clart differs in Scots and Jamaican lexicons, say. But it was two Irish-connected people in particular who brought the current thinking around the song to my attention so this seemed less likely than I’d thought. And on investigation I realised that Kirsty MacColl was English – I’d somehow thought she was Irish, so live and learn etc.

 

– I wondered if I’d let the song off the hook because of being character-based, something about it being like a play. The characters would say this. And I got a thrill, like I do when I watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, at the exhibitionist searching for one-up insults in a hopelessly enmeshed and entangled love/codependency. I realise though that beyond this dramatic scene, this moment in the song has evidently been taken out of context in spontaneous shout-a-longs reported by other queer friends, where I’ve been told of obvious enjoyment of presumed straight people singing the taboo word with relish. And I imagine I would have felt much more uncomfortable if I had been in those situations, and felt threatened – like it was some call to homophobic arms.

 

– But then there’s another possible explanation for the song lyric’s appeal. I say ‘appeal’ to include the shouty thrill mentioned about and the enjoyment even I as a gay man think I felt at the problematic moment in the song. It’s something to do with representation. A friend I used to be in a band with told me that in a discussion about why homophobia was so present in certain genres of music (I think they were talking about hip-hop and dancehall and this would have been about 10 years ago) a friend suggested that a homophobic attack or slur might be in a lyric as one of the only ways (apart from encoding and regendering maybe, aka Noel Coward etc.) that same-sex desire could be talked about in the fiercely sexual and genderpoliced communities where the music came from. Better to say something offensive and get a thrill from it’s closeness to your desire, rather than not be able to talk about it at all.

 

– And I think there’s a perception I had that the way that the straight couple in the song include this insult along with ‘old slut on junk’ (interestingly the only term asterisked out on the lyrics site I visited) and the colourfully anglo-saxon scumbags, maggots and bums, makes a celebration in their debasement of a true seeing of people’s range of behaviours, including sexual ones. I guess I think something like the guy she’s singing to maybe *does* like having sex with men as well as with women. And I enjoyed being winked at in the song as the man that might have been one of those he’s had sex with. And I liked the honesty of her calling it in to her depiction of him.

 

And that might all be far-stretched and rose-tinted. I also remembered that the same band I mentioned earlier writing a song in response to the homophobia of Ragga lyrics about a ‘trannie’ who was taking the culture on, having a good time and calling the frontmen out for their sexual double standards. I can’t imagine writing that song now. I have since educated myself more about trans experiences and I see the way we conflated a lot of issues around LGBT inclusion into a trans character, as well as the way that no one in our band was trans, would mean I would choose a different character instead, if I wrote the song at all. I had a glimmer that some of my band’s LGBTQ politics were in conflict with other people’s when we were invited to perform at a queer night called Fag Club, and brought out a mixed straight/queer audience to the gig. I remember being vaguely offended when I heard that some of the queers present had producted a zine about queer spaces and how our night had not worked for them. Now I would like to see that zine!

Maybe there’s a way of framing my song and the lyrics of Fairytale of New York as something that felt, or hopefully *was*, productive in its time and place in pushing back against an oppression. Hopefully they’re part of the success that leads to their own content seeming outmoded and embarrassing at this later, present time.

For Fairytale of New York, I think I am guilty of not having thought about the use of the faggot enough. Having done so, I feel like I may continue to claim something about that problematic lyric moment as part of my life-history experience of queerness. I will remember the excitement it gave me as a gay/queer person, but I am now thinking that we are in a hard-won position to move beyond the use of that word in such a song because in terms of representation and respect, we are achieving that in healthier, more supported ways.

I have shifted in my feelings towards this song, and the pasts it anchors me to. And this change becomes part of a complicated nostalgia for times that were never simply worse or better that the song performs so beautifully.

Involvement in Mark Bleakley’s A Boy stands…(Cartographies)

Artist and dancer Mark Bleakley is a multifaceted individual – my favourite sort! He asked me to come in to a performance he was making at Basic Mountain in Edinburgh during a recent exhibition in order to be one of two people recording it in writing. It’s nice to occasionally write to a brief like this and especially when the person asking is an artist whose line of enquiry sparks your interest. Here’s Mark’s thinking about the experience and other recent work.

I also hope he shows the beautiful kinships video again with Claricia Kruithof’s hands interacting with the casts made of the dancers’ bodies. There’s an excerpt from the 10min video below. I really love this work and I like seeing how work emerges successfully out of a sustained period of focus and research.

This writing invitation also geared me up for my writing residency at John Hansard Gallery in Southampton over the next year where I’ll be writing during events at the gallery. More on that soon!

Sutra as poem again thoughts

Am just writing the notes section to my first published collection of poems, I’m a Pretty Circler, and having worked out with my editor Colin Waters which of the poems would benefit from notes, am now treading that line between explaining and overexplaining.

A happy diversion for the moment is that I was writing a note for my poem Birthday Sutra, which is one of two poems with Sutra in the title that’ll be in the collection. I knew that I’d gotten the title from Ginsberg (there are two Sutras in his complete works, Sunflower Sutra is the most famous I think) but I thought I’d just doublecheck again whether there was any sort of googleably recognised poetic form definition, and I found this from a school-essay-help website that I liked so much I thought I’d share it here:

‘Ginsberg titles the poem as a “Sutra,” a Buddhist form of literature in which a string of aphorisms compose a body of work. An aphorism is a kind of quick line – spoken or written – that uses wit or humor to state a deep seeded truth. Ginsberg’s poem is more complex than a simple Sutra, however, though by titling the poem as such he means to suggest that the message of the poem is really quite simple.’

Not sure about that last sentence with its heavy handed didacticism, but I find the the chaining of aphorisms idea helpful, and happily in tune with the loose forming of the two poem structures I gave the ‘sutra’ name to.

Then again, I also offer my own definition of a sutra poem halfway through my Sunny Sutra, the second sutra poem in my collection. So I’ll leave that here too:

‘Sutras: poems occasional, read at times which are propitiate
Sunny Sutra: the long poem about the sun in which I know how to say things and
think like a fire poet.’

…wondering now about the word ‘propitiate’ too, which I realise is officially a verb, but I use it here as an adjective. Maybe I liked the sound better than propitious, but I think there’s a ghost word that’s a real, although old-fashioned, adjective lurking behind my use of it somewhere. Maybe it’ll pop up in my consciousness now I’m thinking about it. The phrase ‘this initiate May’ is coming into my head, but that doesn’t seem to mean anything previously…