Archive for the ‘Poems’ Category

This autumn I was hugely privileged to be given a sponsored place on Pascale Petit’s Poetry from Art course at Tate Modern, courtesy of the wonderful London literature organisation Spread the Word. Over the past six weeks I’ve been part of a dedicated group of writers exploring poetry in relation to installations and artworks in the Tate Modern galleries, from Baldessari’s strange, pulsating Braincloud to Tracey Emin’s retrospectives in the current Pop Life exhibition. I’ve been writing poems in response to art for some time now, playing around with ‘ekphrasis’. As someone who’s done quite a lot of personal writing, I find it a particularly good way to step outside of myself and venture into new and often unexpected territory. The course has been a great way to develop this practise – Pascale has challenged us to approach poetry in new ways, responding not only to the artwork, but to other art-inspired poems and to each others’ stories and thoughts, as a way to feed our writing.

Tomorrow night (Monday 23 November) I’ll be taking part in a reading to celebrate the end of the course, in the Baldessari exhibition at Tate Modern. Here’s one of the poems I’ll be sharing, as a sneak preview…

Head Space
After Baldessari’s ‘Braincloud’

My grandmother hid her brain
in a cupboard, behind stacked plates.
She brought it kitchen scraps
fed it stories, gossip, TV facts
her daughters’ phonecalls, forecasts
foreign words, whole chapters
out of novels, recipes for love wounds
or smoked mackerel, once
an erotic letter, pulsing under breath.
Her brain inhaled these gifts
as moisture swells to raincloud.
Eye pressed to hinge, I watched
as, camouflaged within white china
it grew to the size of a sky.

You can read more about the event, and book tickets HERE although word on the street says it’s sold out.

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We are all expertsOn Friday, I got to do something unusual. As part of WE ARE ALL EXPERTS, a new series of events run by Raw Canvas at Tate Modern, I was invited to talk for five minutes about piece of art of my choice to a room full of young art-enthusiasts and random passers-by.

My favourite way to engage with any kind of art at the moment is to sit down and write about it creatively, to see what happens. For this event, I chose a piece of sculpture by Miroslaw Balka, descriptively entitled 480X10X10. It’s a long string of soaps hanging from floor to ceiling. The soaps (all used) are threaded on to wire and are all different colours, sizes, textures and shapes. They look like stones or beads or even chewy sweets.

A close-up of a soap-chain by Miroslaw Balka

A close-up of a soap-chain by Miroslaw Balka

At the beginning of my performance I asked everyone in the audience to think of a word in response to the soap-string. Here are some of the words people came up with: collection, sea, beads, necklace, coral, holocaust, clean, upset, mundane, eat-me. Between each section of the poem I pointed at different people in the audience for them to say their word. So the audience composed a ‘list poem’ in response to the artwork, which became part of the poem I’d written.

I had some great reactions to this, including the best kind of audience comment: “I’m usually skeptical about poetry, but I really loved your piece…”.

Here’s the poem. It was difficult to hear all the audience’s words as the acoustics weren’t great, but I’ve inserted an approximation:


I used to love collecting.
To see a family of things connected
A string of beads
A line of coloured stones
Bones curved in a spine.

I collected pebbles.
The beach was my museum
one by one I’d turn them
rinse them in the shallows
till they gleamed, moss green
slate grey, a grainy darkness
between red and black.
I’d press them in a snake
across the sand, run tiny fingers
wet, along their shapes
as smooth as soap, they smelt
of the places they’d washed.
They could have been anything.


I want you to shrink this
to the size of your pocket
take it with you, hold it
lick it, wherever it’s touched.
Let smell connect to memory:
lavender, white musk
a whiff of Imperial Leather
your grandmother’s bathroom
soft hands on your skin
lather and bubbles and snow
building worlds out of foam.
I want you to look beyond
meaning. To make it your own.


I used to love collecting
to see a family of things connected
A string of beads
A line of coloured stones
Bones curved in a spine.
I wonder what things you collected.

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One of the houses you can see down there was, believe it or not, the house where I lived aged 0-3. It’s on the Isle of Erraid, on the West coast of Scotland, opposite the holy island of Iona, which more people have heard of. It’s a big sadness of mine that I don’t get to go there more often, in fact, I haven’t been back for years now. The truth is, it’s one of the most difficult-to-get-to places in the world.


I often start performances with a poem I wrote about Erraid. Mainly because I know it well and it’s a poem that works well in performance because of the sounds. Hence why it looks a bit out of place on the page:

Morning Milking

Six am: the day

a pale sharp blue

down the track

my hand in my dad’s

everything waking

in frosted outlines

me in my wellies

and bobble hat

walking the morning.

Into the byre

sleepy and deep with dung

mixed with the mist

of breath in the moo

of the morning.

I stand on the gate

watch, as my dad

takes the teats

between fingers

and eases drips

from the udders

sending the shudders

up and down my spine

in time with the milking.

And the droplets of milk

and of mud and of love

cling in the air

of the clean blue morning

stinging the two red dots

of my cheeks

bright as my boots

and bobbling hat.

Silent, I watch

wanting to seal and stamp

this moment in an envelope

addressed to my older self

there, on the mat of a London flat

next to the semi-skimmed pasteurised

saying: you were once

this child of the morning.

You can become her again.

This poem was published in The Freedom of Paper and Ink (Salt), the anthology of the school-based poetry project Write Lines, let by poet Sundra Lawrence. I worked on Write Lines in 2007 as Project Coordinator, which is where I learnt a lot of what I’m doing now on the London Teenage Poetry SLAM.

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