Thursday, 18 August 2011

News from the 'underclass'

"walk past a restaurant // smile @ them thats th mask // I wont let them see me hungry #rainer" (Tweet from Engels)

Tweet From Engels is an 'anti-epic' poem made from encounters with homeless people. It's another phase of our a map of you project, working with homeless and vulnerably housed people in Manchester and Bury. The overall a map of you project has so far encompassed an exhibition at Bury Text Festival, screenings of short animations at the BBC Big Screen in Manchester city centre which will run over the course of the next 12 months, and two sequences of 'concertina' postcards. The raw material of all of this is the lives of homeless people, which in some cases are as harsh as the working class lives Engels described in 19th century Manchester.

missing outside beyond reach

"my friend got murdered ystrday backdoor open lights on = stoppd // that was th last time I // spoke 2 her he batterd her again #rai"

Tweet from Engels, which is disseminated through our Twitter feed, has now been running for several weeks. It's been getting some very emotive responses; people react to the plight of the 'writers'. And having something as big as this arrive in instalments is a good bite-size way to read, little verse fragments incoming as mobile phone updates or emails. The verses become surprises; some of them jolt because the stories they tell are so sad and sore. They are tales of the so-called 'underclass', a term that's started appearing in the papers again, in post-riots jargon.

"I wake up + think oh no another day will I walk in2 sum1 whos generous //? //or a fist #kit"

It takes time to find a shape that's suitable for material as emotive as this, to give it balance. Julia, my partner, suggested we try Englyns to glue the poem together. They're an ancient Welsh poetic form, the closest thing that we have to a homegrown haiku - fantastically complex to write, echoing and re-echoing resonances. But the tightness of them suits the tight restraints of writing a tweet - 140 characters or you're out. And the pun on Engels was too good to resist. Throughout the poem we've scattered quotes from Engels (as #fred) so that he is in conversation with the homeless people of today.

"yr info about conditions in #Manchester is of gr8 interest 2 me// th newspapers having chosen 2 draw a veil #fred"

In the end, we've kept it formally very loose, breaking up the interviews and poems we'd gathered into little tweet-size chunks. In the background, the maths of the englyn applied to the poem as a whole rather than each verse and instead of rhymes we have erasures, to underscore the idea of people being societally excluded. The Manchester poet copland smith helped to create this overall shape. Dropped into it there are little 'pure' englyn moments.

"[cant go on th balcony fleein // vision of walls fallin // split second 2 get back in // gettin too old for fightin] #sal"

The final piece is a collaboration between homeless people, who spoke and wrote the work and poets who acted as editors and instigators. High up the credits in this are Rebecca Guest, Steve Giasson, Geof Huth.

"wots th magic word? // please? abracadabra? #anon"

Some of the piece simply describes everyday routine, some of it is angry, some scared, some visionary. Although the poem is of course made of words, and I've talked about the technicalities of word-making a great deal in this particular blog, the chance to hear these people and to help them be heard has affected me beyond words. Working with these folk and helping to shape this many-handed poem has left me hearing and re-hearing them.

"Id giv anything 4a #normal life 50 million id turn it down u cant buy a normal life #lev "

(Finally, a special thanks for kind support from Penny Anderson, Catherine Braithwaite, Matt Dalby and Ed Richardson)

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Kershaw Day Centre

Yesterday afternoon as part of the project at Four Acre, St Helens, we visited Kershaw Day Centre, working with a group of older people many of whom suffered from memory loss.

I had a wonderful afternoon - focussing my time on two participants. B & E.

When I sat down, B. explained to me 'I don't remember anything.' However as so often happens when one memory is triggered there is a rush of others. It seems that relaxation is the key, if any pressure is put on either by other people or yourself to try and capture a thought it stubbornly refuses to resurface; if you gently go round the houses, or are prompted by other people's memories, your own are released.

E had had a very bad fall and hit her head resulting in severe memory loss; gradually her recollection is improving. 'Getting memories back is a magnificent feeling. It feels like I'm coming alive. I feel I've been away somewhere. It's hard to get your brain to remember, but a brilliant feeling when it comes back. On my own I thought I was a freak, I thought I had no life left. Coming in here you realise there are other people with the same problems - some worse.  This has been a brilliant afternoon. Talking and being part of a group helps.  I'll remember all of this. It will be in my memory I'm sure it will.'

B's infectious sense of humour made the three of us laugh through some of the hard realities that they discussed. B has dementia, at one point she described the condition 'Loss of memory its terrible, frightening, its murder. I remember being terrified. My husband, he's my carer, he say's "I'm not even trying to remember." I say 'remember what?' I tease him. I say one day when I'm in my grave, these memories will come back and haunt you.... whoooo.'

Both women selected short pieces of their reminiscence to write on doilies, for our forthcoming teaparty event. Our conversation started with descriptions of cold, and led into romance and a delightful description of B's wedding day. 'Any functions coming up we all mucked in. For my wedding all we had were tins of PREM (spam) and a tin opener. It was a very good do, everyone brought something...'

Friday, 12 August 2011

Chester Lane Library - remembering into reality

11 August 2011

Yesterday we joined our regular group at Chester Lane Library, Four Acre, St Helens to reminisce, embroider and create poems.

Brenda embroidering salmon, cucumber and tomato sandwich.
'Its been something of interest to us all. If there wasn't the group would just frizzle away.' (George)

'I'm really enjoying the sessions. Great. You would never get a chance to hear all those memories normally. You hear someone and it triggers another thought in you and you share again.' (Eddie)

Eddie writing poem on doily

'You come away with a good feeling. Memories can be rose-tinted, but there were bad old days too and we look at them both. You can pick them up and you can leave them behind.' (Brenda)

Ray's Dear Mother doily

'We're turning the remembering into reality - into art.' (Ray)

'We've all made friends - we've all got something to share, something to talk about.' (Joan)

'I'm learning alot from everybody - the sessions are making me grow.' (Jeanette)

Mary and Joan working on embroidery

'I live on my own and sometimes I go many hours without speaking to anyone. This group means I can talk to someone.' (Anonymous)

For more photos from the project please visit

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Dirty knees climbing trees

The St Helen's Four Acre project of making and remembering is near to a finish and the work finding its shape. Memories have become drawings and writings, which have in turn become embroideries, postcards, cakestands - and now ceramics. In editing we've tried to walk a line between the playfulness of childhood reminiscence and the narrowing poverty that people described.

There's a tenderness in this material which finds many expressions. 'Nauty boy settle down/nauty boy settled down' tells a world in two simple phrases. They could be the voice of a mother settling a baby, they could be mischievous young man come into the settled state of adulthood. The fact that one line is present tense, one line past puts the two statements in continual dialogue. The spelling mistake 'nauty' evokes classroom boredoms and class divides.

That balancing act between play and hardship, which we've tried to find in the artworks, was a very real part of many people's lives. How do you become more than just a 'survivalist' (as one of the homeless men we met described himself)? A touching aspect of this project has been the optimism and humour we've encountered. Despite the cramping effects of economic reality, most folk recounted their childhoods with great warmth and even glee.

The ceramics are a kind of finale for the project, a formal frame for the picture of these lives. The pieces are the result of many try-outs on paper plates, which we used for maquettes. Because we only had time and resources to make enough ceramics for one teaset, we had to shortlist. I thought of the pieces as circular poems - texts carrying an idea that works happily as a loop. We drew on the concrete (or shaped) poetry tradition for this, particularly the recent circle poems of Alec Finlay, son of the legendary Ian Hamilton F.

The originals were handwritten and we transcribed from them using tracing paper. We also used some of Lois' collection of tourist memorabilia as a source for fonts and layouts to guide us. Cup and saucer sets were the simplest, using a keyword or words and splitting them between the two objects. So for instance, one of my favourites 'Tuppence' was divided between a cup and saucer Tup/pence. The plates became much more complex, with longer stories unfolding and even spiralling. One of them replicated the circularity of progress through the year in a child's life - familiar waystations like easter eggs, walking to Sunday School, a favourite coat come round again and again, indicating a movement through time and yet also hinting that time when you're young is infinite, an endless wheeling of summer bicycle adventures.

Some of the pieces melt past and present together. A nice joke about this is a poem by Joan Ashcroft, which has also become a plate: 'I am blond, beautiful, in the midst of youth five foot ten a natural fashion PLATE alright! alright! I will tell the truth I'm five foot two, mousey and pass my sellby date. The end.'

In the photos you'll see the embroidered napkins that are companions to the ceramics, like the piece by Marian White that gives the title to this blog. But the unseen presence in these works is time itself and how we all move through it, with whatever grace or grimness we choose.

A very few of the ceramics are in these photos, there are more on flickr and best of all the pieces can be viewed as part of a teaparty at Four Acre later on this month, or at the Street Art Festival in St Helens town centre, early September.

A huge thanks to Claire Parker all her help, advice and use of Kiln. More photos of the hand-painted ceramics can be found at