Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Visible worlds – Hilary Powell’s pop-up book factory

We made 51 of these...

 Writers are creating all the time, but we make invisible worlds. Once the notebook is closed, the book shut, there is nothing physical to hold up and say, ‘I made that!’ So it’s not surprising that writers often relish physically productive pursuits, the making of visible things. This was one of many sources of satisfaction for me last week, when I took part in a pop-up pop-up: a temporary production line of ten apprentices, making actual pop-up books.

The whole book, and the factory/performance (we were ogled by the visiting public as we worked) were designed by the artist Hilary Powell, who has been working in and on the Lea Valley in East London for years. The book is called Legend: an A-Z of the Lea Valley, and gives an alternative history of the area, from first manned flight to the Olympic developments, in the form of images and beautiful, complex pop-ups.

Apprentices learning

Hilary put together a group of workers with amazingly diverse skills – biochemists, artists, architects, geographers, librarians (and a writer) – and somehow or other we made it happen. The pink coats helped, of course.

I make a pop-up junction
We spent one day at the wonderful London Centre for Book Arts, being taught stitching and binding techniques by the meticulous Simon (check their website for courses, I’d highly recommend them). Then one day figuring out how to actually build a book from piles of laser cut sheets of paper. And then we were off.

We used a lot of glue
The last day was a frenzy, but working so hard on something so beautiful was profoundly satisfying. I didn’t notice that my knees wouldn’t bend anymore until some time later. Having endured a hailstorm, and an extremely leaky roof, we finished our  51st pop-up book at 10.30pm on Saturday, surrounded by the launch party.

The pop-up factory in full swing
 Here are a few images of the finished article. It is beautiful, unique, and very special to me because I know all the amazing people who helped to make it. 

P is for Pylon

A pop-up pile of cars

Paper buildings that will never be demolished

Thanks again to Hilary Powell for such a wonderful idea and for bringing us all together to make her book. Inspiration may lead to some pop-up papercuts...

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Bees, words, poetry, prose

John Stark's painting In Times of Exactness and Uncertainty

Last week I was reminded that the internet can, like the best technology, be a great tool – a means to another end, and a creative one. 

On Tuesday morning, a poet in Bolivar, Missouri (USA), went searching online for poems. His search terms must have been awfully specific, but nothing to do with poetry, because he found himself reading a blog post of mine from October 2011 (here) – nearly three years old, and my blog is hardly high profile. In the post I described an art installation I’d seen at Spitalfields market, London, of bees suspended inside a glass box. This creative person took a sentence of mine and reshaped it to make a poem.

I can have a little flutter when I report that he described the sentence as ‘so finely crafted’ that he was inspired to make a poem of it. To be honest, in its original setting, my sentence was pretty overblown, but as a poem I rather like it. The poet in question, Todd Sukany, sent it to me because he planned to use it with his students, and he has returned permission for me to publish his poem/my sentence here:


Of course the bees are dead,
             but they also look it - 
                          light, empty, dulled,
and thus not at all
               evocative of a living swarm,
                             heaving this way and that,
laden with pollen or rage
              or both,
                            and buzzing us out of their busy way.

- Todd Sukany 3 Sept 2014

There is something very gratifying for a prose writer, to have your words taken up by a poet, who generally takes such care over such things. This put me in mind of a series of conversations I’ve been having with Tania Hershman, a consummate writer of flash fiction, who has recently turned to poetry, and very successfully too. There is a whole ocean of possibility between prose and poetry. Much flash fiction can be read as prose-poetry, and there is a big blurred area of overlap between the two. Certainly, one can restructure a piece of prose on the page to resemble a poem and it will work just as well, but differently. It is possible to present the same piece of work as flash fiction, prose-poetry, or a poem, and all will be valid.

Even in definite prose-land, readers will often describe reading a short story as closer to the experience of engaging with a poem than a novel, since it requires concentration, repeated reading, and consideration of every word, symbol, nuance (if it’s a good one). But the shorter a prose story gets, the closer it gets to poetry, as the significance of each word and its position grows as it proportionally takes up more of its context. When I need to refocus, and improve, my prose, there is nothing better than a dose of poetry to do this.

Since the first words I ever had published also happened to be a prose poem about bees, I thought I would give it another airing. It appeared in a beautiful exhibition catalogue for John Stark’s Apiculture paintings at the Charlie Smith gallery in London in 2011 (which I wrote about on this blog here). I wrote in response to looking at John’s paintings in his studio, and together we edited and rejigged the words until we had something we felt would work with his visual art:

Theirs is the model. We only follow, whispering the spell of calm, stilling the brilliant air. We study the hum, the drone, the comb.

We take just enough. The Shepherd guides us in this; he will lead the dance when it comes. In the vision he will eat comb straight from the hive, golden honey will coat his lips, his tongue, and his cheeks. His honeyed eyes will see colours we have never known; the world will be a kaleidoscope of gold.

Already he feels the drone in his bones. He shows us where to tend each day. Our homes are ready for them, our palaces fit for gold-fed queens. We will serve, and that will be enough.