Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Who'd Have Thought It?

The things you find in this job! Even more tired and stiff today than yesterday (apparently the adrenalin has worn off) I went back to work on Edition 49 (suspended due to festival commitments) and found some extraordinary stuff...from a wonderful re-use/recycle day in Dorset, where folks bring stuff they don't want, and everyone gets to choose what they do want, with no money involved! What a brilliant way of avoiding landfill. Also, artists are on hand to transform and help folks change any junk into something useful or beautiful...add some storytelling and you have one fun day. Reminded me of the Collective's Junk Carnival crossed with the 'yard sales' they have in America, where everyone sticks their unwanted items in their front gardens, and everyone strolls down the road and chooses what they want. Why doesn't every council or community group in the country hold these events??

- To a day long workshop for 'Invisible Theatre', i.e., where you learn to create a piece of theatre in a public realm (say a railway station) that the public don't realize is an act!! and don't know therefore, that it's not for real...(the possibilities sound quite scary if you ask me). - To a bursary for activist/interventionist art at a climate summit (a bursary?!? Great idea, but I didn't think ideological art ever got funding!). An amazing melting pot of opportunities for all artforms...I just wish I could take advantage of them all...

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts

I - Setting Up and Taking Down / Performances & Workshops

Strange to be back at the computer, indoors, and with a faint buzzing in my hearing that everyone else assures me they can't hear...also not to be covered in dust.
Five of us went up in a convoy of two vans, and after various unavoidable detours and delays, we arrived at last on site last Tuesday (a week ago now, incredibly) to try and pitch a 16ft. high tipi (which none of us had ever done before). So we were already tired by Wednesday lunchtime... We had brought far too much stuff, and Wednesday was spent sorting the camping gear from the storytelling bodymasks, the carnival heads, and all the props and visuals that go with the shows, from the willow workshop stuff from the leather workshop stuff from the cooking gear from the book stall.....then getting the vehicle to the off site car park that had only a short stay pass, making wings and swords for the next day's workshop, and generally being really grateful it wasn't raining or cold, as there was so much to do! (It reminded me why I love doing gigs at indoor venues, because the body masks are great at tearing holes in cushions and sleeping bags, and add a tipi including huge poles on the roof rack, step ladder and lanterns to decorate the venue and you have inevitably got damage. It's so nice when promoters invite you to do an indoor gig and put you up as much less stuff to take.) But this was Glastonbury, and, as the biggest performing arts festival in the country, we wanted to do things properly.
The next day we held a willow workshop and did storytelling at the same time, and in the evening we did a special adult storytelling set (as none of the bigger stages had anything on yet, so it seemed a very good time). We also were lucky, because as well as the four of us and two other members of the Collective who had come working for other areas, Clive Pig the Storyfella was also performing there! and so we hooked up, and invited him as our special guest star to the evening show (which we had been invited to do by the Daylight Studio opposite, very kindly). It was a great success, Clive doing an amazing tale involving accepting people's quirks, and being grateful for what you have, as a useless man swapped places with a buzzard, and soon was replaced when the buzzard married his wife! And we did two of our trademarks tales, ending with a literal bang as Lady Mary let off her blunderbus! In the following days, we held a longer willow workshop, programmed for the Ancient Futures marquee, making swords, headdresses and some folks made amazing wings! and a leather workshop involving friendship wristbands, small gauntlets, and eyemasks. Our performances included a set in the Permaculture Garden adjacent to the Tipi Field, and a walkabout as a Goblin and Troll stalked about and then sat and hobnobbed by the fire discussing the best ways to cook humans... Plenty of folks took pictures of our new unicorn and company (four carnival poles of unicorn, bear, giant bird head and horse's skull) and the two biggest bodymasks, especially the big green Great Dragon Kraa. We were delighted, as it wasn't as if there weren't a hundred other amazing things to look at and photograph! on the site, so we were chuffed to say the least. And we got plenty of kind praise for both the performances and the workshops. By Sunday we were distinctly dazed and confused, as were many if not most other people, in the heat and dust (and fermenting toilets) as it had really got a lot warmer on Friday morning and then built up from there... Everyone smelt and everything was either dusty or positively rancid! But Deor gathered the energy for a stirring closing tale at the central fire/gathering area of a Native American story called the Flying Head, which went down extremely well. Monday morning and we took down everything, dismantling camp, and packing it all up again...

II - Bookstalls Now and Then

And of course between workshops, up to forty minute round trips to the lav, performances, trying to keep any kind of order to know where anything was when based at three sites (tipi and two vans), longer suppers when we all came together to cook and debriefed afterwards, AND meeting up with the other two members of the Collective working at other areas, (never mind going out from 9 till 2 every night trying to see and experience as much as possible of a site the size of Bath) of course I had neglected to bring any kind of outdoor display unit for the books (a table on top of the rest of the pack had seemed like madness, and so it never made it). So much for hoping to knock something up on site... How stupid did that feel? With all those potential customers going past... In my defence I can only say that it's very stressful putting up a large structure never before tackled (the old tipi belonged to one of our members who now lives in NZ, and only one of us had ever tried to pitch it with her! and that years ago), and also - well, it had been some years since I had been there last.

The last time I went to Glastonbury was under the auspices of the late, great, poetry pioneer PVT West, founder and then organizer of the Poetry&Words Tent; the first year I went as a performer, and the second year she had asked three other poets to put together different quarters of the Tent's programme, of which I was one. The poets I asked worked really well together as they were a great variety of different approaches, and we called our sets 'The Lords of Misrule'. 'The Lords' being Matt Harvey (currently Wimbledon Tennis championships poet-in-residence) Nii Parkes (British Council UK writer-in-residence), Farren Gainer (of One Minute Theatre from Canada) Marie Stanbury (a soulful singer who half sings poetry, with her own band) Re;Leaf (a DJ poet/activist/sampler/mixing duo since disbanded) and myself. And the book stall was all ready and set up, where we all took turns to staff it.

III - The End - Thank You & Goodnight!

All in all, it was worth all the dust and heat, stress and shifting stuff miles. The workshops went well, Widsith and Deor Storytelling sets garnered some very favourable remarks, and it was a wonderful coincidence that the two other members whom we would have liked to bring (if we had had a team of six instead of four) had come working for other areas! Liz (textiles/flags/signs/carnival floats of working in the Kidz Field doing flags etc. workshops and Ben (juggling/fire juggling/hexagonal marquee) in the Circus area. It was really good to be with them all, and to meet up with Clive Pig there too - all dedicated, gifted professionals whom it's always a pleasure to work with.

And then of course, there were all the amazing things to see and do...(but those are in the Performance blog). Huge thanks to Tara of Hearthworks for booking us, to The Daylight Studio for hosting our adult set, Clive Pig for performing with us, and all our lovely neighbours in the Tipi Field! And indeed everyone who performed, curated, created, organized, invented and made possible the marvellous acts and spectacles there to combine in a magical City of Wonders for four days. It was great to be part of it.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

The Edge of Chaos

Just come back from the Edge of Chaos live art event in Exmouth in Manor Gardens, and what an amazing afternoon it was. After last summer's event (at the Voodoo Lounge) I remember thinking it must have been some kind of dream (as written up in a Performance blog), and thinking - it's not likely I'll get a gig like that again... but happily, I was wrong, and Ric White the curator of the Edge of Chaos project asked me to participate in the latest event, this time not only with musicians and painters and dancers, but another poet as well. I said yes at once (and again, overworked when June came, arrived dazed, but soon woke up!).
The other poet was James Turner, popular and witty poet, author of 'Forgeries' (available from Sam Smith's Original Plus publishing house) and experienced improvisor with Children of the Drone (some of whom also participated in the event). The weather was great, the outdoor stage shady, lots of folks enjoying the gardens, and then...the dancers didn't turn up. But we started regardless, and, having nearly joined in with the dancers last time, while I had drawn a deal of inspiration from them, this time I felt I had to step into the breach (and in the imaginary parallel universe so many artists have recourse to, am a dancer as well as a visual artist). We started with the music first, and the painters got going, one with a big blue block, another with a circle; I as last time, had been given a projector on which to write words for the backdrop screen (which didn't show up as much in daylight against glass, but was more visible whenever it clouded over) and started writing whenever the music made or paint strokes evoked a thought or impression. Squiggles, symbols and words echoed the tempo or mood, and when it seemed right, I came out from the desk, grabbed the microphone and whispered or shouted or simply spoke into it, moving about the stage.
James alternated between percussive noise - he had some wonderful gear, like a gong, that he played using a bucket (very effective), something that sounded like the Clangers, and a variety of other instruments - and speech. He chose poems that went with the music, and made rhythm out of the interface between them. At times, we spoke responding one to the other, me responding to a line from him, or taking up a theme, and him changing the emphasis of the next line or perhaps choosing another in response. It seemed to work really well - a mixture of thinking on one's feet, and creating a dynamic, yet also oddly relaxed and often bordering or crossing into the gently comic. I danced from time to time, caught up in the sound and colour as if in some altered state (no, no chemicals or herbs were involved!) and even got a scarf to wave about at one point (though I wasn't quite sure about it in retrospect). There was some wonderful cello and keyboards, and Ric is something of a master on the sax, the drums wove things together, and of the paintings, all complemented each other really well. And if I had worried about having no dancers to bounce off, it seemed that doing a 'duet' (as someone called it afterwards) with James and not worrying about getting in other's way, more than made up for it.

There were three sessions, and it seemed that quite a number of the picnickers in the park were looking our way and listening. At one point (thinking of Kandinsky and Kostelanetz) I wondered - either everyone's au fait with experimentalism, or very relaxed, or we will at some point be man, burly, came up at one point and said 'Scuse my asking, but what was that all about?' and it turned out he was a musician himself. One of the musicians got four children joining in enthusiastically with percussion for a while at one point, inspired by their responding to it, which was good, and great to see it reaching out to bring in the viewers as participants. Another really nice response was when, after the last one, a group of students (from Bicton College! as it happened, who were doing Environmental Education, the course that sounds like it's replaced the old Environmental Arts & Crafts course which many of the Collective went on) who had been sitting listening, applauded and shouted 'more!' several times, but everyone needed to pack up and go home, so they ended chanting as we thanked them for being such sports. All in all a wonderful afternoon. The others said they had really liked what I'd done, and what James had done, how it had held together, which I was really glad about, and we agreed that the whole thing had that strange hypnotic beyond-self, caught-up-in-others/mediums sensation that was so special and had brought us all stepping up to the next level... We thanked Ric for putting it all together and bringing us all together, and then it was time to step off the cloud and onto the grass...

And we even got some video of parts of it. HUGE thanks to Ric White, for putting it all together, and to James Turner and all the other artists for making such a fantastic happening.

Edge of Chaos;

Saturday, 12 June 2010

The Trouble with Marketing?

The trouble with marketing is that it requires a broad brush approach to something that might be as complex as mesh wire studded with tiny pieces. People ask me how come 'Porlock the Warlock' hasn't been picked up by a big publisher? or why don't I send it out to them more often? and so on and so on. My reply is that it falls between stalls.
On one level, as something kept just simple enough for eleven year olds (or at least ones who read a lot) to read, it can be classed as a kid's book. On the other hand however, its inspirations were historical documentaries and the more popular history books such as Michael Wood's In Search of... documentaries, and C.V. Wedgewood's 'The Trial of Charles I' or Christopher Hill's seminal but highly readable 'The World Turned Upside Down'. Also J.R.R. Tolkien's 'The Hobbit' (like countless others, but at least very aware of the debt/homage), H.G. Wells' 'The Time Machine' as much as Dr. Who, and Richmal Crompton's Just William series (all 38 books of them). Those were its antecedents.
Its inspirations in terms of what the book is about however, are weaving together the destiny of two very real and ancient artifacts: The 3rd Millennium BC Epic of Gilgamesh, from ancient Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) etched on clay tablets and 'discovered' in the ruins of the Library of King Assurbanipal in the 1800's, arguably mankind's oldest story and obviously predating Homer's Iliad and Odyssey - and the 1,000 old Exeter Book, chief among the four codices of Anglo-Saxon poetry that we have left, and the largest collection of Dark Age pre-Christian work, and the oldest written example of what we would now recognize as 'English' in existence. It is worth more than the Cathedral and probably the whole of Exeter, and both are arguably of equivalent significance for literature as Stonehenge and the Pyramids are for monumental architecture. And finally adding some Viking culture taken straight from the oral history later recorded in the Medieval Icelandic Sagas. I.e. writing about three of the things I love best - the Exeter Book, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Icelandic Sagas.
Add some genuine astronomy, locally produced quality food, an environmental skein, moments of high comedy and plenty about what it means to destroy heritage, and you have 'Porlock the Warlock' - a historical time travel adventure? a kid's book? A historical adventure that kid's can read as well? Sci fi? Fantasy? Or a book about the moment of inscription, the elusive and mythical instant when the oral became the written, when poetry that had been spoken and handed down for generations, travelling with scops and skalds, singers and tellers across kingdoms and continents, became recorded by scribes on the orders of quixotic kings, seeing farther into the future than their fellows, or church authorities on a whim to catch up the past and passing savage age they felt themselves to be replacing...
Hang on - moment of inscription? That sounds either academic or some piece of text artist whimsy...doesn't it?

When people buy it and read it, they seem to love it or even if they don't like adventure novels or it's not their usual fare, find it 'addictive' and 'a good read'. Others have called it 'so poetic', 'captures the sensations of the past', 'we loved our journey to Saxon England and Ancient Iraq - where are you taking us next year?' 'she loved it - learnt a lot too!' and so on. Most buyers have been adults, with only about a quarter buying it for their children or to read aloud to their children, but everyone who has got back to me (and let's face it, most folks when buying anything just walk off with it once they've paid and you don't ever see them again), has said they liked it a lot or loved it.
But, like 'The Hobbit' and the first book in the Earthsea Trilogy (and many others) the first 30 pages start simply (author thinks; got to keep language simple for target younger market). By page 30, you, like many others before, have got really interested, know where this is going, have it all mapped out, have fallen in love with all the characters and have taken off writing a novel - not for kid's or for anything, just a novel, the one that's been desperate to get out and fly onto the paper. Except of course that it's the first 30 pages that agents and publishers ask for...and the pages are fine - perfectly good as a set up to what happens...but representative of the book as a whole? Well, kind of, but only that. When I've threatened to change the beginning, people who like it have threatened me back. And to be honest, I haven't the time, and there's nothing 'wrong' with it.
The Harry Potter books and the 'His Dark Materials' books are read by people of all ages, as are 'The Hobbit' and 'Just William' - the last of which are much funnier as a grown up! But how can you market something for 'everyone', when the publishing mainstream industry needs to categorize things in specific groups? So if the query letter is the most important part of any submission, and you're not sure how to frame it in a short space (before the agent/publisher loses interest and throws it in the slush pile, i.e. 90 seconds), then maybe (despite folks saying and believing it could sell as a mass market paperback) you should stick to issuing it yourself. So I do, pretty much. Having written, proofed, edited, typeset, and printed it, it's enough work selling and promoting it, let alone thinking of 'the right thing' to say in not more than a paragraph for the lottery of mainstream publishing as well...(given the many tales of one MS. being picked randomly from each pile of twenty or more). If I could think of a broad brush phrase for the slightly complex recipe that is 'Porlock' I would, but...hey I've got forms to fill, gigs to rehearse for, book stalls to hold, workshops to.... And yes I've visited Query Shark, but you have to have a succinct query letter to submit to begin with. (Succinct? You mean LESS than a page?!)
Anyone have a better idea? Answers on a postcard please.

Marketing is simpler face to face when you're yelling 'wonderful historical adventure novel! All ages, lots of local links! Saxon Exeter! Exmoor! Crediton!' at festivals in the summer. THEN folks come and part with cash. And guess what? You get to keep the profit! Unlike big publishers and their £1 a book if you're very lucky...

The trouble with marketing is...not having a quality product, but getting folks to hear about it. Mainstream publishing is really useful at that point as they have the marketing machines and the money, but if you have to be great at marketing the work to them in the first place...might as well try it yourself. 'In the meantime' or otherwise.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The Vibe Extravaganza II

Another showcase from the all-arts group The Vibe last Monday - with Widsith and Deor Storytellers headlining! at the excellent venue that is the Picture House. Julie Yount of The Sidewalk Anthem was again a splendid host and played songs that were a star of the evening. There were stalls of cards from a portrait painter - one could believe they looked exactly like those they depicted! some lovely colourful postcards of paintings from Alexandra, and Lisa's truly beautiful handmade wax design cards, decorative flowers and boxes, plus Japanese calligraphy demonstrations and even massage tasters by Isca Therapies! Sets included ones from Peter Farrie and Gabriel Collins (who played at the CCANW fundraiser we organized earlier in the year), this time on electric piano, and ourselves. We chose a single new story from the Caucasus called 'Anait' a wonderful tale in two parts - half fairytale, half horror story, and as before, it amazed us how quiet the bar went, and how folks just passing through, or coming up after a film not expecting a mixed arts showcase to be going on, stopped and listened. In some ways the Picture House as an arts cinema with regularly changing art exhibitions is an ideal place to host such an event - but in other ways, it is of course a cafe bar, and hence many people pass through wanting a drink after or to go with their film/popcorn or meet such, all acts had to attract what you might call 'passing trade' rather than a formal audience. But it worked! which is, for us, one of the marks of a good story. Our sword, ghoul head and spooky hand all drew attention, and our flail a gasp! People said kind things - including one who said she was on the edge of her seat, wondering what would happen next! And another who praised us for our high energy performance. The book stall also attracted interest, and all in all, the whole evening was a success.
Big thanks to all the members of The Vibe who performed or had stalls, those who came to support the rest, and especially to the ever good-humoured Julie for putting the event together and hosting it so well, as well as running the group so admirably.

Check out the group and maybe even join! at;

Monday, 7 June 2010

Lunch with a Unicorn

Last Sunday I was sitting having lunch and opposite was a unicorn...or to be more accurate, the head of a unicorn - another new figure for Widsith and Deor's storytelling shows, following hot on the heels of a ghoul's head and a severed hand. That evening I had supper with one of the inspirations and founder members behind the idea of the Collective, who was over from New Zealand (where she now lives). And as ever, her visits meant sorting out piles of stuff, running up and down stairs, selling things - this time at the boot sale - and generally an action-packed time, a whirlwind of movement, alternating with positive exchanges, an injection of adrenalin, followed by a sudden showering of gifts, as she decides promptly that this or that thing would be of more use or pleasure to you than to her. And then she is gone. Back for a few weeks, this was the fourth visit and the last...leaving one exhilarated, empowered, inspired...and yet also bereft. But to be saddened by knowing it will be a long time the chances are, before you see such a friend and colleague again, would be to renege against the inspiration she's given you. Knowing that, you throw yourself into the admin. you need to catch up on, as I did, filling in forms for the coming festivals like the Buddhafield and the Beautiful Days, replying to queries from the likes of the Porlock Arts Festival, contacting the rest of the Collective to get vehicle registrations, lengths, times of arrival and all the other details needed for promoters...
And gaze on the new seat, the giant shell of many colours, and other things, washed up by the storm and found at the floor of the rainbow.......

Things might be really tough for Spoken/Written (it may have to close if more subscribers don't pay soon!) and things are looking dark on some fronts, but there are some things that are just too good not to be happy about. Ever in the darkening sky comes a single shaft of piercing Sun.