Handing out words


September 2017

The Roving Poet Part 17: Filming Poems

Yesterday was a rather surreal day. I have never spent a Sunday in Poole before and had forgotten how sleepy some towns can be towards the end of a weekend. The museum was quiet, except for the protestations of my grumpy parrot, who clearly felt she’d spent far too long on a train the previous day. I was there to run a workshop with some members of local adult writing groups, facilitating the writing of poetry around ‘Sea Music’ and its restoration. Between 10am and 3pm we wrote, talked, read and speculated. We had some very interesting discussions, ranging from our individual attitudes towards ‘Sea Music’ itself to our relationship with the sea and why human beings imbue powerful things with personality. We talked about gods and we talked about memory. We laughed a lot. It was a lovely experience and, although I finished it in high spirits, I also finished it exhausted.

And then the cameraman turned up. I’d never met him before. An extremely efficient, smiley human being with a real knack for capturing moments of visual intrigue, we shall call him George for the time being. He had arrived to film me speaking three poems for the project so that they could be turned into videos for the exhibition and for advertising. In my usual, excited stupidity, I had agreed that filming three poems immediately after a five-hour workshop was a really good idea and of course I wouldn’t be too tired, it would be fine.

I was too tired. As George set up the cameras in various locations, directed me to sit or stand in various positions and turned light towards me, I suppressed yawns and tried to focus on the page. George laughed and said, “As long as you don’t do it in the middle of a poem!” I promised I wouldn’t and, somehow, managed to keep that promise.

The three poems we had originally agreed on became four poems as I read a new one to both George and the project organiser. This new poem was much more personal, and came from a revelation I had had whilst on the project that the phone call made by Tom Roberts, then head of Poole Arts Council, to Anthony Caro in which he asked him to design a piece of art for Poole Quay happened around the same time I was born. To an extent, ‘Sea Music’ and I were born at the same time. From then on, I drew a series of parallels between myself and the statue. Though it did not actually appear on the Quay until two years later, in 1991, it had been conceived and was being constructed from the moment the phone call occurred in early June 1989, the time of my birth. With a mix of slightly more thoughtful and evocative poems alongside this new, personal one, we set to work filming all four. After a while, the movement from sitting to standing to walking to talking became so fluid I stopped thinking about the position of my body and just focused on the camera and the poems. The words felt liquid in my mouth, spoken as if without my permission. I lost count of how many times I read each poem, how many times I had accidentally looked straight into the bright light of the galleries and ha to blink away the bright impressions they left behind.

At ten past four, we left the museum (my parrot protesting wildly in the top room) and headed out to film the final shots on ‘Sea Music’.

George said, “can you go right to the top viewing platform.”

I looked at it. I’d been up there once before, having steeled myself and clung to both railings as I forced my feet to walk me higher.

“Ok,” I said. “I’m really scared of heights.”

He smiled and said, “It’s not that high.”

He had a point. It wasn’t that high. It did not even reach the top of the sculpture. But it was difficult to communicate this to my legs. I took a deep breath at the final set of stairs and lurched up them, squeezing past a father and daughter on their way down. George asked me to lean out over the railings, looking down, and speak the poems while he filmed them from below.

I don’t know whether it was fear that made me speak them louder, or a general feeling of needing to project because the camera was further away, but reading the poems from the top of ‘Sea Music’ felt a little like declaring love from the top of a balcony. I tried not to notice that several people stopped to watch, mainly out of confusion than anything else. One man shook his head and carried on walking at a swifter pace, as if I had lost my mind. It was hard not to laugh at that. I was sure, once or twice, that I felt the sculpture laughing. Perhaps it was just the wind.

We finished with a few moody shots of my walking amongst the steel buttresses and curves of the sculpture, looking out across the harbour, running my hands down the painted flanks in a way that I would never do unless I was being filmed. I realised I had inadvertently painted my nails almost the same colour as the sculpture and wondered if I had, somewhere at the back of my mind, done so on purpose.

It’s funny how you get to know a thing when you are aware of your own shape and movement in relation to it. I swung myself from the steel columns, stumbled on ‘Sea Music’ as I tried to walk backwards from a viewing platform, felt the roll and ripple of the steel under my fingers. It felt like greeting an old friend.

That lunchtime, I had sat with my parrot on the second platform of the sculpture, wolfing down fish and chips while Maya yelled at passing jet-skis, whose drivers searched the skies for the strange-sounding gull that was harassing them.

Earlier that day, I’d listened to the attitudes of the workshop participants towards ‘Sea Music’. Some said they felt the viewing platforms cut up the sculpture, making it difficult to view as a whole. One said they didn’t like the blue it was painted in, and that abstract art wasn’t for them. Another said they felt the art would be lovely if they could see it properly. I thought to myself how each of us builds up, in our minds, what a ‘piece of art’ should be, and how confused and annoyed we get when art doesn’t meet our expectations. I thought how many people had been up on the platforms when I first sat down to eat my lunch, how children had leaned over the topmost railing to point out passing boats to their parents. Funny how our relationship with art is almost grudging sometimes.

I finished the day thoroughly looking forward to seeing the finished films, but also very excited to go to bed. It was a long journey home, and I fell asleep on the train at one point, dreaming that I fell from the top platform of ‘Sea Music’ to be caught by the statue. It was surprisingly soft and warm in the dream, like being cradled in a giant hand.


The Roving Poet Part 16: A Quiet Beach

I’m writing a week after the fact this time, but my mind is still very much on the harbour, in the town of Poole with its cobbled streets and busy quay. I am back to last Tuesday, stepping out of the museum after a successful but chaotic children’s workshop. For a change this summer, it is bright outside. The air is hot and still but there is some relief by the sea.

I am feeling slightly mad. While we got some excellent poetry out of the children in the workshop, as is often the case with children, the excitement was a bit overwhelming. The room was noisy with enthusiasm, children were everywhere and when they left, ceremoniously placing their poems into my hands, the silence was almost absolute. I have poems to write, so I take a deep breath and step out of the museum and into the sun. The town is full of noise. It is living, breathing, vibrant noise and I feel slightly distant from it. I haven’t slept well and there are various things on my mind besides the mad workshop.

I decide I cannot face the inside of a café, however beautiful the one I normally choose. I head ten minutes around the corner to the house of an incredibly kind human being with whom I am staying while I am in Poole. I will call her Elaine, though her name is not Elaine. Her house is beautiful, not least because, having met me only three weeks ago, she has opened it to me. I had spent less than five hours in her company the first time I slept in the bed in her spare room, showered in her bathroom and drank her tea. But sometimes the amount of time you spend with a person does not denote how well you know them. In the last few weeks, Elaine and I have talked until midnight, eaten dinner together, walked her lovely little dog around the quay. Today, she opens the door to me, takes one look and says, “Let’s take the dog for a swim on the beach.” See? She knows.

She makes me tea and I sit quietly and drink it while she potters back and forth, collecting all the necessary equipment for taking the dog to the beach. There is a surprising amount of it but, being the companion of an energetic parrot who comes with me everywhere, I don’t know why I’m surprised by this. We leave the parrot upstairs. She is tired and making her grouchiness known, so I fill up her food bowl and leave the radio on so she can nap in peace. The drive to the beach is less than ten minutes and the dog whines with excitement the whole way, her little pointed face poking between Elaine and I, peering with huge, liquid eyes at every turn in the road. She knows where we are going.

Elaine did tell me the name of the beach, but in my heightened state, I have totally forgotten it. We turn down a small track, bump down a potholed path that can barely be called a road and end up in a small carpark that is really just a square of tarmac that leaves the cars to organise themselves. We park Elaine’s mini on the edge of the tarmac square and spend a few minutes trying to contain the dog, whose sole purpose at this very moment, is to get to the sea. She is quivering with excitement. When we get to the sand, the dog pulling with all her considerable strength because the sea is just there and she cannot handle it, I take my shoes and socks off, roll my trousers up over my knees. The beach is still in the harbour, so the roll of the tide is not as relentless at it would be right on the exposed coast, and the beach, while sandy, is still peppered with stones and grit. There are dogs everywhere, but none of them are barking. There is too much to do for them to stand still and bark. They are haring up and down the length of the beach after frisbies, leaping in and out of the water, conveniently shaking out their coats within inches of their owners. It is strangely peaceful. I follow Elaine at a distance, picking my way slowly over the terrain, aware of every stone in the soles of my feet but bizarrely happy for the feel of sand. It is slow going, and the dog is straight into the sea. She doesn’t come out of it for the entire hour that we are there. Slowly, I follow her in, sink my feet beneath the layer of stones until my feet are almost wholly buried in mud and seaweed. The water laps at my calves. It is neither warm nor cold. I don’t want to step out of it.

While the dog swims and the sea sucks gently at the beach, Elaine points towards an island in the middle distance. It is Arn, she tells me, and a nature reserve. There are species of birds on that island in need of protection and no civilians can land on that island unless part of a special group. Even then, there are areas of the island no one goes into. She tells me she traversed the top of the island with a small group on an organised nightjar watch, and that the ospreys she saw fishing at dawn a few days ago also nest on that island. We can hear strange calls coming from it. Silhouettes of gulls wheel against the whitening sky. The sounds of the quay are distant. Behind us, someone is calling their dog and their dog is selectively ignoring this.

I realise, for the first time, that I understand why Elaine chose to move here nine months ago. There is a hypnotic magic about this place. It seems to hum at the same frequency as a heartbeat. It understands the relentless strain of living, the fears that modern human beings face, whether financial, professional, personal, social, mental or physical. Yet, this place is old. The ocean might turn inwards and outwards as she feels, but the sand beneath me has been here for millennia, slowly crumbling under the gentle persuasion of the sea. It says, Breathe. And I am reminded of the vital basics of living: sleep, wake, walk, rest, eat, drink, love. Breathe. I match my breath to the steady slip and sway of the sea. We stand and watch the birds, let the dog swim.

On the drive back, I think to myself that I understand more than just Elaine. I find I am thinking about Caro, how he waived the fee for the sculpture because Dorset healed him after, he says, the madness of London. I think of him tapering the nature of steel so that it becomes fluid, so that it replicates the playful age and wisdom of the ocean. Perhaps that is too clichéd. Perhaps what he was doing is trying to replicate the empathy of the ocean. He welded it into something unyielding. Perhaps he hoped it would survive as long. As artists, we can all hope our work will have the kind of longevity that will fossilise our footprints. But I find there is a kind of peace, now, in stepping out of the ocean and seeing her gently rearrange the sand upon which I stood until there is no evidence of me at all. There is a music to her that Caro had wanted to capture. I have experienced it today and find I am not worried any more. The heightened chaos of the workshop seems very distant. The ocean and I have talked and I breathe easier now.

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