Daring the City: a disaster gift

I believe that we need stories to make a better future. If we can’t imagine it, how can we create it? I get so much nourishment from sci-fi and speculative fiction which grapples with the world we want to make without ignoring the very real challenges that we’re facing (I want hope, not impossible dreams). Ursula le Guin’s The Dispossessed helped me think about the tensions inside anarchism from an anarchist perspective. Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2140 helped me to imagine collective power in the context of rising seas without minimising how catastrophic those seas would be.

We’re facing a global pandemic, something that none of us have ever experienced. The injustices and horrors of capitalism have become very stark: the UK government has bailed out airlines and given mortgage holidays to homeowners, but offered no protection to precarious workers or meaningful relief for renters. It’s very clear who they care about, and it’s not us.

In the arts, telling people to stay away from theatres and venues without ordering them to close has protected insurance companies while potentially wiping out swathes of the cultural landscape. I’m afraid that the livelihood that I’ve worked to build over the last decade may not exist on the other side of this.

But it might, if we are courageous. It might be that we can build something better.

Our whole lives have changed very suddenly, and the sense of disorientation makes it really difficult to imagine the future. My housemates and chosen family and I are still figuring out our daily routines in this new situation, working through the full-body shock of it all, working out ways to rest in the context of such uncertainty.

I normally sell this zine for £3.50, about £1 of which is printing and admin costs involved in creating a physical copy. You are so welcome to download the zine for free, especially if you’ve been hit financially by the pandemic. If you are able to give something in exchange, please donate to Queercare, who are organising mutual aid for queer and trans folks. I’ve lost work but am OK financially at the moment; if you’d like you support my work you can buy my other zines.

But breakdown – without minimising the suffering that is happening and will continue to happen – creates the possibility of rebuilding something different, something kinder and more sustainable and more just. Disasters can bring out the best in us, as Rebecca Solnit describes in A Paradise Built in Hell. It’s already happening: mutual aid groups have immediately mobilised to make sure everyone has what they need for survival (honestly it’s worth clicking on that link just to feel fortified by how many of them there are!). Artists are figuring out how to sustain each other and carry on making things because we need bread and roses too. My queer community is checking in on each other, making sure everyone is safe and connected. We’re making something new where the systems are failing us, like we’ve always done, but bigger now because those failures are having more dramatic effects and we can see them more clearly. It doesn’t solve the problem of the hoarding of resources by elites that capitalism is built on, but it’s a start. We work together and take care of each other. We protect each other. We figure out how to challenge those elites with our collective power. I don’t know if I’m ready for it, for how real it’s suddenly become, but it’s here.

Last year, working my way through a sense of panic and grief about climate change, I wrote a story about a group of neighbours in the midst of a disintegrating London, who take care of each other and make the world they want to see in their back garden, plant by plant and night by starry night. Their disaster is not our disaster, and I’m no le Guin or Robinson. But a friend told me that it helped them today, and this small thing is what I have to offer to our resilience right now: a story about the future, and how we take care of each other.

You can click the link above to download it for free – it’s a PDF of a 24 page zine, with two poems and a short story.

Land as teacher – developing a land-connected creative writing pedagogy

In February 2018, I ran a workshop alongside Jo Goldsmid – we travelled to Brighton on a cold winter afternoon to experience the starling murmuration with a mindful approach, and then retired to the back room of a pub to write about it. The idea was to use creative writing to explore, build, and strengthen our connection with the land and with nature. The writing that came out of the workshop was really powerful, and we had great feedback from participants.

Inspired by this experiment, I spent the first half of 2018 researching ideas for a land-connected creative writing pedagogy, as part of my MA in Creative Writing and Education. This work allows me to bring my sense of connection with nature into my teaching – using it as a tool to come up with new ways to engage with our environment, whether in urban or rural areas. Nurturing these connections is essential to creating more respectful and sustainable ways of living on our planet, and creative writing is a powerful way to do this – and it’s also essential to a more just society. This is from the conclusion to my essay:

“I believe that the key to changing the way we relate to the land is to transform our sense of belonging, and that a liberating creative writing pedagogy is one powerful way to do this. By valuing students’ funds of knowledge and building communities of practice which involve the land and nature, writing about place can validate and develop students’ sense of belonging and connection, which in turn encourages protection and nurturance of the land. This has radical consequences for people who are marginalised, and is part of the project of celebrating difference and building community and belonging around the places we live. This approach provides rich material for writing and can help students to write vivid, imaginative, and evocative poetry which brings place alive for the reader. Perhaps that writing will spark something in a future reader which begins the cycle again, inspiring them to connect with and protect the places that are important to them.”

I developed a workshop for schools, which leads students to explore non-human nature and then imagine their way into its point of view – building connection to place, and also linking into the science curriculum. This has gone down really well with students and teachers alike!

This summer, I am working with Phytology, at Bethnal Green Nature Reserve, to explore our relationships with soil. I’m really excited about this – Olly Edmonds will be leading a session on DIY soil testing and discussion of the make up of soil, and I’ll be following this with a writing workshop exploring soil further through imagination and words. The first session is on 4th August – details here.

In my own poetry practice, at the moment, I’m trying to create imaginative space to think about how I relate to non-human nature – to imagine other ways of connecting to it by making it strange through writing. I’m having a lot of weird conversations with birds and trees, coming up with poem-spells and elegies, and having some magical adventures in London’s amazing and complicated spaces. You can see some of this here and here!

Speculative Fiction

I want there to be a space commune
named Le Guin. It will be on Earth.
We will tell each other stories at night.
We will believe what we say.

The white rhinos will come back
and rampage through London
putting their horns through car windows
and bellowing songs of triumph.
We will call them dragons, get out of their way,
and leave offerings to them at traffic lights.

I want to walk away
and have something to walk towards.
To make the stony spaces ours,
to learn to grow food
in the most unlikely places.
I want the soil back.

Words will be light and springy.
They will be like reeds
and we will blow through them.
Everything will be a library.

I want to walk across an expanse of ice
and come out on the other side.

I want the bleached coral to evolve
into something new, to rise
from the sea and tell us:
we must imagine better.

 

It’s strange and wonderful how writers can shape who you are without ever needing to meet you. When Ursula Le Guin died on January 22nd, I was taken by surprise at the depth of grief I felt. Le Guin taught me so much about writing, stories, and the importance of imagination in trying to make things better. I loved her thought experiments, her commitment to both political engagement and brave nuance, and the way her stories took me somewhere else and brought me back a bit wiser and a bit kinder.

I worry that we’re going to imagine ourselves into a dystopia if we don’t start coming up with better stories, and Le Guin’s were the best. I guess it’s up to us now.

“I think hard times are coming where we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, who can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom… We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.”  (From Le Guin’s acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation’s medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.)

Speculative Fiction is my small poetic tribute to the grandmother of the revolution. Rest in power, Ursula K. Le Guin.

 

(Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike)

 

Debuting ‘Fat Kid Running’!

I’ve been working on my first ever solo spoken word theatre show for over a year – a very personal narrative about radical body love, fatness, exercise, feminism, and joy. It’s been quite a ride getting it to the point where other humans get to see it (though my cat has seen it in all its iterations…). Last month I got to debut it as part of the wonderful Flint & Pitch Presents… series at the Scottish Storytelling Centre.

It was one of the most challenging, vulnerable things I’ve ever done. It was amazing and terrifying and liberating to speak about fat activism and bodies and exercise in such a personal way. On the night, the show sold out, and I was totally overwhelmed by all the support and love – and I had so much fun on that stage!

Being booked by Flint & Pitch was a total joy. It’s really hard to find places for this kind of work outside of the Fringe, particularly for a debut show. Having such a solid, supportive platform gave me the courage and drive to get the thing finished and make it the best I possibly could.

The show got a lovely review and four stars from Wee Reviews.

I’m so excited to bring the show to more audiences, and I have a Scottish tour lined up with dates in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Inverness. More info here!

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Photo by Chris Scott for Flint & Pitch

love poem from heart to belly – body positivity and wobbly pottery

In 2014, I went to see one of my favourite poets, Andrea Gibson, live in London. It was the only UK date of their European tour, and it was something of a pilgrimage – I stayed in London for less than 16 hours, and the only things I did were have dinner at my pal’s house, go the gig, sleep, and get back on the train. But the gig was worth it – the performance was one of the best I’ve seen, in a standing room venue sardine-full of people who really, really love Andrea Gibson.

There’s something about Gibson’s poetry that really gets to people, and they have a huge queer following. When I first discovered them, for me it was their emotional honesty as a queer person, at a time when I was struggling. Their poetry helped me to feel OK, and then helped me to a sense that maybe, if their honesty helped me, my honesty could be worth something to someone else too.

Anyway, I was in this packed, sweaty room, full of people who looked like me and my friends, and sometimes we were all crying together. And in the thick of this, Gibson was talking about those times when they find their body difficult in one way or another – and everyone was nodding, mmhmm, yep, me too. Gibson said that something to do with those feelings might be to write a love poem to a part of your body that you don’t like much, from a part that you do.

I gave it a go – I wrote a love poem from my heart (which I think is pretty great) to my belly (which is fat, which sometimes I struggle with, even though I’ve done lots of thinking about fat activism and know that there’s nothing wrong with it).

I performed the poem for the first time at a feminist gig in Edinburgh – Project Naked, also in a packed, sweaty room – and on the spur of the moment I got my belly out on stage, and it was so good and so empowering. I got a huge cheer and some huge laughs, and I loved that little poem.

Not long after all this, I started to learn to make pottery. At first it was mostly because it was fun to make things with my hands, even if the pots were wobbly and barely usable (and it also didn’t matter if they were rubbish, which is kind of liberating). But as I started to get the hang of it, I began to get excited about the possibilities – and to start thinking about ways to combine it with poetry. I had this idea that I wanted to incorporate poetry into usable objects, to make it a part of day-to-day life. love poem from heart to belly was crying out to be on a plate – to love a belly while it’s doing its job – and so I started experimenting with images and techniques to make it happen. It was a really interesting challenge to try and get that much text onto a piece of pottery – although it’s quite a short poem, that’s a lot of text for ceramics. I also had to contend with some ironic perfectionism – for a piece which is about loving your imperfections, I got remarkably finicky about it. In the end, it came out of the kiln full of the surprises that ceramics always offers – slightly uneven, with unexpected colours, but more interesting for it. Take a look here – and watch this space for more pottery/poetry experiments.

I submitted the poem to Gutter, and they decided that they wanted to put it in Gutter 14 . I’ve been published a bunch of times before, but this time I got a bit emotional that my little poem had found a new home out in the world after all we’d been through together.

The magazine has just been published, and is full of delights, such as Harry Giles’ Ode Tae a Sex Toy – check it out. There is also a playlist, where you can listen to both our poems and a whole bunch more!