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Poet of the Week – 12: Ian House

TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK—12: IAN HOUSE

Ian House was born in Reading during the Second World War. A child of the 1944 Education Act and the grammar school, he read Philosophy, Politics and (a vanishingly small amount of) Economics at St John’s College, Oxford, and then taught English in schools in Derbyshire, Somerset and Yorkshire, experiences which led him to conclude that a Quaker school, with its commitments to peace and equality, would be a place in which staff and students might get on in a sensible way. When the opportunity for a job at Leighton Park came up, he returned with misgivings to Reading. During twenty-four years at the school, he enjoyed a sabbatical term at St John’s College, Cambridge, which revived his brain and doubtless impaired his liver, and an exchange-year teaching in Philadelphia.

On taking early retirement he taught English in adult language schools in Moscow, Budapest and Prague and, on returning to England, began writing poetry. His three collections, all with Two Rivers Press, are Cutting the Quick (2005), Nothing’s Lost (2014) and Just a Moment (2020).

Ian House writes:

Although ‘Spinning Yarn’, Part II of my new collection, is implicitly about the making of poems, there is nothing I desire less than to investigate in prose the reason I write poems. The less I know, I suspect, the better. I observe my ‘practice’, with interest, from the outside. An experience or observation makes me feel, for some unknown reason, that there’s a poem there. I wander around for a day or two, doing the thises and thats of living, unconsciously incubating. Possibly I’m writing the poem to find out why I’m writing it. Certainly, I have no idea, when I start, where it’s going. If I do have an idea, the poem will be stillborn. I write a lot very fast, crossing out and revising, crossing out and revising … then I start over with a few rescued lines and write a lot, very fast, crossing out and revising; I do this three or four times, aware mainly of the physical pleasure of transmission from brain down arm and hand through pen to page. When I sense there’s something that feels like a poem awaiting birth, I put it onto the computer, and tinker with it for an intermittent two or three days and let it totter off. After about seven years I’d be capable of re-reading it without a sense of paternity to see if it has any merit.

At the front of the binder in which I keep the hard copies of my poems there are two sheets of paper. The first says simply, ‘Be Real. Be Surreal. NOT What do I think about it? BUT How does it feel?’ Useful advices I always bore in mind when I started writing seriously in 2001. The second sheet contains several quotations about the sun, the source of all light and sustenance. They include Chaucer’s charming and profound, ‘Up roos the sonne, and up roos Emelye’; Lowell’s beautiful prayer, ‘Pray for the grace of accuracy/ Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination/ stealing like the tide across a map/ to his girl solid with yearning’; crowning all, Whitman’s understanding of the relation of the poet to the sun, ‘Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sun-rise would kill me/ If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me.’ Little wonder that I see the two poems based on Paul Nash’s paintings of sunflowers as central to my new collection. Sally Castle’s sunflower on the cover does indeed burn.

If, on a good day, the sun fuels my poems, Wallace Stevens is their guiding star. The Man with the Blue Guitar makes the high and necessary claim that ‘Poetry/ Exceeding music must take the place/ Of empty heaven and its hymns’. Yet Stevens can ground a poem in the simplest of situations, noticing how ‘The mother ties the hair-ribbons of the child/ And she has peace’ or taking in old age ‘one last look at the ducks’ in the local park. His poems ‘were of a remembered time/ Or something seen that he liked’. And so are many of mine.

One of Stevens’s miracles is that he doesn’t so much describe a situation as create it, charm it into being as in ‘The Poems of Our Climate’:

Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow …

Would that I could get anywhere near that intensity without straining. Or write poems that invite or compel the deep attentiveness of which he writes so movingly in ‘The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm’: ‘The reader became the book; and summer night/ Was like the conscious being of the book.’ Or write a poem of which it could truly be said that it is ‘the cry of its occasion, /Part of the res itself and not about it.’

As well as his example, Stevens has given us handy tips always in my mind: ‘It Must Be Abstract’ (distilling something from the concretes); ‘It Must Change’ (be responsive to the flux of living); ‘It Must Give Pleasure’ (as an artefact in words, not sounding, unless for special effect, like the ‘skreaking and skittering’ of grackles). The poems in the Paul Nash sequence, meditating on the poetic imagination, bear similar titles. All that said, my poems are nothing like Stevens’s anymore than I’m like the mackerel that fed me for lunch today.

IT MUST BURN

~Paul Nash, Solstice of the Sunflower, 1945

blazing yellows and oranges
intenser than all imagining
fierce as a fusion reactor
self-unsparing self-consuming
the sunflower hurtles downhill
freewheeling fertiliser of crops
cutting a swathe
through grass and standing corn
like a top whipped on by the sun
outpouring of nature’s juices
ah sunflower outrunning time
headlong career, suspended
at this moment for ever
leaps the frame and continues

[from Just a Moment]

THE TEARS OF THE WORLD

Unrestrained the shrieks of children
at fleeting abandonments, minor betrayals,
the vastness and urgency
of scraped knees and small losses.

In silent rooms, during polite conversations,
imagine the thickness
of the calluses we have accreted. Listen
to the wind that rattles the shutters.

[Uncollected]

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The Art and History of Whiteknights: 7 – Salvo Toscano

Salvo Toscano writes:

© Salvo Toscano

I have always been interested in looking at the space where we live and how it defines us and interact with us. How it contributes to our sense of belonging and being. It describes and defines a place in our mind, or gives us clues about the history of the place or the people, maybe makes us curious about it.

By looking at the space I aim to observe how it may reflects or holds emotions: photographing the space is a way for me to capture my experience of being and seeing and interpreting those emotions.

I was very delighted to be invited to contribute to this publication celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Whiteknights Studio Trail. I have been living in Reading sine 2001, found out and visited the WST artists for the first time in 2005 and joined in 2010. It is an event that brings local people together and a great way to explore the area. A good feature of the WST is that all happens within an area that can be easily walked through, the streets really come to life during those weekends. Every weekend I had several hundreds people visiting me and I always found fascinating to observe them while watching, scrutinising, absorbing my work. It was a pleasure during the past years to engage with visitors to my exhibitions and discussing, answering questions or just chatting, sometimes discovering common connections or small unknown facts.  Always grateful to visitors for appreciating my work and the purchases: glad to know that there are some walls and shelves in Reading with my work on display.

As a photographer one of the reoccurring questions was about my processes and equipment.  Nearly all my personal work is currently shot on film and occasionally I process black and white prints in a traditional darkroom. For me it is not a matter of better or worse, rather just enjoyment in using and responding to a vision or aesthetic, that I feel reflects a specific idea or project. I occasionally find helpful constraining an idea to a certain format or technical limitations, it contributes to harnessing how I want to express something. Other times I run totally free and combine different formats as if they were different elements of a band covering different bits of a music score.

The image selected for this publication is from a set of images I shot around the Whiteknights Campus Lake. The lake is one of those semi-hidden gems in Reading. Though we’re in an urban area, once you step in that part of the campus you are taken somewhere that feels quite rural. This dichotomy between urban and bucolic probably inspired me. I aimed to not look for extraordinary images but for a depiction of somewhere that is mundane and reachable: a space that is visible but concealed as well. By using a slow shutter approach I sought to capture a feeling, a perception of a place how it would not be normally visible to us. For a brief moment it is taken outside its real context. I decided to use a black and white film to emphasize the mood of a semi-real scenery and perceived nostalgia for a place that, as a matter of fact, is very real and present.

For this work I decided to go for my Hasselblad camera, a medium format film camera, and compose within the square frame that the camera produces. Medium format film is a type of film wider than the 35mm that most people are familiar with. With this camera it produces images of 6x6cm on the negatives. The emulsion being on a bigger surface, it generates a different looking image and finish compared to a 35mm frame. An advantage of this camera is that allows me to explore at the same time different approaches, say, in both black and white and colour, as the film is kept in a magazine that can be swapped with another one with a different film, during the same shoot. Below are the image in the book and some of those that “did not make it” .

You can keep track of me on Instagram at @salvo_ts and @salvo_toscano_photographer

Website www.salvotoscanophotography.com

~~

In a normal year, we always look forward to the annual Whiteknights Studio Trail, where our local artists and craftspeople open their houses. This is the trail’s 20th year, and in a joint venture with the Whiteknights Studio Trail, Two Rivers Press is delighted to publish a beautiful celebratory book, The Art and History of Whiteknights, which features 28 artworks all inspired by the Whiteknights area of Reading. The featured artists have all exhibited on the trail over the years, and in the unfortunate absence of the trail itself in 2020 (it will be back in 2021!) we hope that this book will remind you of the wealth of creative talent in our locality, as well as inspiring you to reflect more deeply on the history and roots of this special part of town.

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The Art and History of Whiteknights: 6 – Andrew Boddington

Andrew Boddington’s stained glass window, illustrated here, features in The Art and History of Whiteknights. The window was commissioned for a home in Upper Redlands Road, in a building which was previously used by the University of Reading as rooms for the Music Faculty. The design of the glass reflects the history of the building while making a bold and colourful visual statement.

In this video Andrew talks a little about this artwork in its (slightly windy!) location, and he then shows us around his attic studio and introduces his current experimental work using sifted glass frit, inspired by some recent life drawing classes and the cut out technique of Henri Matisse.

 

Andrew Boddington, Designer and Maker in Glass.

About

~~

In a normal year, we always look forward to the annual Whiteknights Studio Trail, where our local artists and craftspeople open their houses. This is the trail’s 20th year, and in a joint venture with the Whiteknights Studio Trail, Two Rivers Press is delighted to publish a beautiful celebratory book, The Art and History of Whiteknights, which features 28 artworks all inspired by the Whiteknights area of Reading. The featured artists have all exhibited on the trail over the years, and in the unfortunate absence of the trail itself in 2020 (it will be back in 2021!) we hope that this book will remind you of the wealth of creative talent in our locality, as well as inspiring you to reflect more deeply on the history and roots of this special part of town.

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The Art and History of Whiteknights: 5 – Carole Stephens

Carole Stephens writes:

I’ve been privileged to be part of the Whiteknights Studio Trail since 2004, in a variety of venues: in Progress Theatre, in a beautiful Arts and Crafts house in Northcourt Avenue, in Redlands School, in MERL, and in Christ Church, Christchurch Rd.

For my contribution to The Art and History of Whiteknights I chose to make a mixed media picture based around the Michael Cardew teapot which I discovered in the Museum of English Rural Life, where I was due to exhibit this year.

My Whiteknights Studio Trail displays were initially vivid compositions based on natural forms, or more subtle Welsh landscapes. The compositions were made using coloured inks, the landscapes more often a mix of watercolour and water based crayons, with details added in pen and ink.

In 2004, my first year on the trail, my WST leaflet description ran: ‘The effects of strong sunlight on a summer garden or dramatic weather over the Welsh mountains are seen here beside more peaceful pastoral scenes or still-life as I try to show the ordinary in an extraordinary way’. In 2005 I was writing a similar description of my work but adding ‘in a range of media…’ Thus, over the years this focus has changed and I’m now just as likely to be showing prints, collages or mixed media work.

Prints, in my case, could often be a simple line drawing. This will have been made on the back of a piece of paper placed on a surface onto which oil paint or printing ink has been applied with a roller to make an even surface. My drawing is then made with a biro or sharp drawing pencil; when pulled off the inked surface the print is revealed. Usually these prints are portraits, which lend themselves particularly well to this way of working.

How do I do mixed media? It’s always an experiment, layering painted or printed backgrounds, adding details printed from any kind of textured surfaces, be it wood, lace, plants, leaves. Then I use collage, which could be scraps of patterned papers to clothe a figure, vividly coloured cut shapes for sails on a choppy sea, even the odd word.

Out of Africa ‘Kampala series’

For example, in a collage of a vase of flowers, in the deep reds, ochres, yellows and pink, echoing the depth and colours of the Kampala scene, the name ‘Entebbe’, Kampala’s nearest airport. Then I may perhaps add more linear detail to complete the picture.

I’ve often been inspired by particular places or events or been asked to provide images or illustrations on a particular theme.

Kampala: In 2013 I went with my husband and the charity ‘Brass for Africa’ on a working trip to Kampala, Uganda, where sights, sounds, colours, and local costumes made a great impression. Back home in Reading during dreary January days, I could not see a way to reproduce these extraordinary and vivid images on paper.

But by chance one day an image by Picasso inspired me, and from it I developed a collage of a majestic Kampala figure. This image was replicated, several times, as a full-length portrait. These figures were then clothed/decorated/ enhanced with coloured paper scraps.

Regatta

Boats and Boating: Teenage holidays sailing across the English Channel to Brittany and plus living so close to the River Thames has inspired many monoprints and collage pictures. Colourful sailing boats take part in regattas off the French coast or rowers training on the Thames at Henley. These images of water did develop a slightly more sinister feel, when skies became darker, and the waters too, or as in a larger collage for the exhibition ‘Hooray Henley’ figures scurry along the towpath; scullers practise beneath a heavy sky and hanging trees.

‘Reading and its Rivers’ was an exhibition curated by Jenny Halstead at Blakes Lock Museum, Kennetside. For this I researched old maps of Reading, in Reading Library, and was much inspired John Speed’s map of 1611. Elements of this 1611 map was used as a basis for my compositions. To these I added cut or torn cyanotypes: simple prints made by exposing plants or torn pieces of lace or cloth to the sun, on photosensitive paper, to produce very beautiful, mysterious, subtle images. I used these cyanotypes to evoke the surface of the river, with plants and bits and pieces drifting along on, or below the surface. It was interesting to see that the flow of Reading’s waterways has not radically altered, and the plan of the town still accommodates these.

Isabella Bird ‘Top Girls’

Further focus for my mixed media work has come from Progress Theatre, and also from writers or editors asking for illustrations on particular themes. Progress Theatre put on Caryll Churchill’s ‘Top Girls’ just before the WST 2019 and as my WST venue was to be Progress Theatre, I was able to display these for the duration of the play, and during the WST weekend.

Patient Grizelda ‘Top Girls’

If you’ve seen the play, you will know that it includes female characters from differing eras. I imagined suitable portraits for each of the female characters.

‘Isabella Bird’ from Edinburgh was an intrepid traveller in the nineteenth century. I depicted her in a Far Eastern setting, her portrait surrounded with a collage of hieroglyphics, monkeys and tourists. These are all collaged scraps of information; only Isabella’s portrait is made using monoprint technique.

‘Patient Grizelda’, a character from the Middle Ages, an obedient wife whose story is told in Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’, is depicted in a simple portrait. Framed by contemporary medieval floral designs, horsemen wait patiently below her in the picture, ready to escort Grizelda onwards.

Trial portraits for ‘Famous Women of Reading‘

The ‘Famous Women of Reading,’ proved harder in the sense that I had to make portraits of real people. I chose to experiment using backgrounds ready covered in subtle print from various textured surfaces.

I both painted and printed the portraits, but here the mixed media, although beautiful, proved too subtle for successful reproduction in a book, so in this case I resorted to my original way of working; pen and ink.

‘He lay as one who lies and dreams…’ The Ballad of Reading Gaol

The exhibition ‘In Reading Gaol by Reading Town’ provided me with another excuse to make some dark, complicated compositions in response to lines from Oscar Wilde’s famous tale. The main character, the condemned man, is due to be hanged, yet in the tale ‘he lay as one who lies and dreams in a pleasant meadowland’.

It was hard to convey this mix of the harsh reality of his life as a condemned man, with his dreamed state. I tried by layering collage, inks and paint to achieve this dreamy, but nightmarish feel.

Despite appreciating the challenge of this doom-laden project, I continue to make drawings from the natural world. So those of you who know me for my lighter ‘ summer garden’ compositions in inks and paint, will be happy to know that these are still being made, and are available.

Please see my website or contact me directly.

Carole Stephens

www.artbycarolestephens.com

~~

In a normal year, we always look forward to the annual Whiteknights Studio Trail, where our local artists and craftspeople open their houses. This is the trail’s 20th year, and in a joint venture with the Whiteknights Studio Trail, Two Rivers Press is delighted to publish a beautiful celebratory book, The Art and History of Whiteknights, which features 28 artworks all inspired by the Whiteknights area of Reading. The featured artists have all exhibited on the trail over the years, and in the unfortunate absence of the trail itself in 2020 (it will be back in 2021!) we hope that this book will remind you of the wealth of creative talent in our locality, as well as inspiring you to reflect more deeply on the history and roots of this special part of town.

In the run up to the book’s official publication date of 21 June 2020, we are offering a discount of 15% off the book’s published price. Use the code AHWEARLY15 at the checkout.

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Poet of the Week – 11: Sue Leigh

TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK—11: SUE LEIGH

Sue Leigh lives in the Windrush valley in Oxfordshire. She teaches at Rewley House, Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education, and reviews regularly for PN Review. Her first collection of poems, Chosen Hill, was published by Two Rivers Press in 2018. It was described in the TLS as ‘an intelligent and considered collection that pays homage to the act of paying attention’. She has a letterpress pamphlet called Chalk forthcoming from Evergreen Press, which will include the uncollected poem ‘Flora’.

Sue Leigh writes:

I don’t know how poems happen. I love the mystery that surrounds their making. I learn continually about patience and listening, they seem to be at the heart of it.

There are fallow periods which are as important as writing itself. It has taken me a while to understand this.

And there is solitude, this is necessary. Interruption would break the line of thought, craft, feeling – it would be like waking the dreamer from the dream.

I am fortunate to live in a quiet place surrounded by fields. I feel silence all around me – broken at this time of year by the singing of birds.

I spend much time walking. This is often where poems begin. (It has something to do with rhythm, I think.) Outside, there is a sense of lightness, the mind quietens, you can listen. You look at the sky, you inhabit weather. You move through the living world – a world of plants, creatures. You feel part of it.

I write in a notebook every day. I started this practice some years ago and I can’t imagine ever not doing this. Sometimes the notes may be the beginnings of a poem.

I find myself trying, trying again to lay hold of experience, to catch something of that original brightness. But in the dance with language something new emerges and it often catches me unawares. A poem becomes an act of discovery, a small research project into one’s relationship with the world.

I was thinking the other day about why poetry matters, and it seems to me that in these times we are more in need of poetry than ever. Poetry connects us with our deepest selves, but it also connects us with each other. Rather like looking at a painting, reading a poem may enable us to see the world through someone else’s eyes. We understand a little more about our humanity. And that must be a good thing.

NAN SHEPHERD IN THE CAIRNGORMS

To be with the mountain
as if to know one place
might be enough
for a lifetime
to be with it
without intention

then to set it down
to name juniper, heather, deer
precise too about uncertainty
the mind cannot hold it all –
the water in the loch
feels cold, clear

[from Chosen Hill]

FLORA

I cannot make anything
more lovely than these names

eyebright
also called bird’s eye, rock rue

meadow cranesbill
blue buttons, gipsy, grace of God

salad burnet

travellers’ joy

lady’s slipper or Virgin’s shoe
(might there be one left)

Venus’s looking glass

early purple orchid
known too as Gethsemane

pasque flower

and the purple rampion,
does it grow still on Silbury Hill

[first published in Oxford Magazine]

Chosen Hill book cover