29 Sep Tabby cat
The 16 September 2018 is a milestone; it was the first exhibition of my writing and the first reading of my work.
Earlier in the year, it was the tail end of June, the impulse to apply for a residency with Caroline Salem took hold and I’m very glad I gave myself the time to do this because Tabby cat is one of eight pieces of writing I exhibited at the final show at 40 Clarence Mews, Hackney.
‘I’ve never hosted a non-fiction writer before,’ Caroline said when I met her in June.
I felt a bit of a fraud. I had applied for a residency but had no intention of re-shaping my voice, contorting my body to music, or practicing rounded vowels. Caroline coaches actors and performers at a studio attached to her home in Hackney. Week-long residencies offer dancers, jugglers, performing poets and choreographers time to try out new ideas, and to experiment. This private and safe space turns into a performance venue at the end of the week and fledgling works are executed in front of a supportive audience. The lofty performance studio was impressive; a ceiling soared off at an angle like a bird taking flight, its wings enclosing cool white walls. The interior space felt pure, almost virginal yet familiarity entered my body through the touch of my feet on the floor. Memories of dancing invaded the calm; treading the boards to a ragtime tune, tapping a rhythm with my toes and heels, performing pirouettes on point, throwing high kicks like a Tiller girl. I knew the silence in the room anticipated tumult, the air expected turmoil. How much of my past would come back to me I wondered. One wall was glazed with a view to the courtyard and it was there we sat in the open air drinking coffee, slabs of warm stone beneath our bare feet. I rearranged the folds of my long skirt over my knees, took another sip of coffee. I hadn’t a clue what creative output I’d have after a week.
‘What would you like to do in the space?’ Caroline asked.
‘I’m not sure exactly,’ I said. ‘I want to get in touch with my feelings, to spend time in a space that I have no control over and no responsibility for. See what happens. Then write about it.’
Caroline wore a sand-coloured sweat shirt and chinos. She ran a hand through her mass of short fair hair and studied my face.
‘You could try different spaces. Sample a range. See how they influence your writing.’
Yes, oh yes, she understood; I knew a week at Clarence Mews would be a turning point for me and my writing.
To capture the essence of the residency in words I crafted eight very short pieces and discussed with Caroline how I might present them. She said I could borrow her daughter’s vintage typewriter and I grabbed the chance, and the typewriter. This held no fear for me as I’d taken typewriting at college and passed all stages of the examinations with high speeds and high levels of accuracy. It was the 1970s, the era of the manual typewriter, and it occurs to me now that those machines may account for the arthritis in my finger joints – I bashed keys for years.
Caroline happened to mention an independent bookshop nearby so one sunny afternoon I visited Pages of Hackney and found the secondhand section in the basement. I was looking for a reasonably priced book that I could cannibalize. In the eighteenth century the poet William Wordsworth, on receiving a copy of his friend Coleridge’s book Poems on Various Subjects (1796), proceeded to deface it by writing his own poetry in the blank spaces. I decided to do something similar. For the cost of a cheap bottle of wine I obtained Allen Hurlburt’s Layout*. Carefully choosing the most appropriate pages I began tearing them from the book. Rolling the paper through the platen took me back to being seventeen again, happy days. And then I realised I had no Tipp-Ex.
The event took place at the Studio to an invited audience. In this image, taken by Mai Sarah Tassinari, I am sitting on the balcony between two of the exhibition spaces reading the words aloud. Caroline and Wilson are reading the printed words. I loved the art gallery effect created in the studio and was pleased to have produced something worthy of sharing.
‘A tabby cat tracks wet paw prints, tests the air, nose to ground. She walks with caution flicking her tail, wary of this foxy freebooter. To announce his presence in Hackney territory last night he screeched the lead off several metal roofs.’
Here is some feedback from the audience:
‘I liked the intermingling of spoken and written words.’
‘More than the past seven days resonates in these ‘verses’, past years come through.’
‘I enjoyed the writing style.’
‘I felt curious about reading the typed impressions and enjoyed being drawn into the images on the page.’
‘The interactive experience, listening to the voice, echoes of the words and navigating the space to read the words, was enjoyable.’
‘Each piece questions and has a rooting and a reach. The page offers a strange spatial accompaniment.’
‘Humour is there throughout.’
‘Hearing you speak your words was deeply enriching. Razor sharp, short and unobtrusive.’
‘More performing/sharing maybe?’
‘Each page felt like a book.’
‘There is a universal connection and relevance.’
*Layout: the design of the printed page by Allen Hurlburt, (1977), Watson-Guptill Publications, New York.
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