Category Archives: on writing

20 Questions….. Deborah Alma, Emergency Poet

Continuing my occasional series with writers, actors, artists, choreographers, sculptors, and other creatives around process, I’m delighted to introduce Deborah Alma, Emergency Poet….

Deborah Alma is a UK poet, with an MA in Creative Writing, taught Writing Poetry at Worcester University and works with people with dementia and in hospice care. She is also Emergency Poet prescribing poetry from her vintage ambulance. She is editor of Emergency Poet-an anti-stress poetry anthology, The Everyday Poet- Poems to live by (both Michael O’Mara), and her True Tales of the Countryside is published by The Emma Press. She is the editor of #Me Too – rallying against sexual assault & harassment- a women’s poetry anthology (Fair Acre Press, March 2018). Her first full collection Dirty Laundry is published by Nine Arches Press (May 2018). She lives with her partner the poet James Sheard on a hillside in Powys, Wales. Her website is: https://emergencypoet.com/

What first drew you to poetry?

I remember loving it as a child, as I think most of us do, but it connects me very much to my much-loved grandmother Jess Alma; I lived with her until I was six or seven. We shared a love of poetry and some members of my family wrote it too…my Dad and my uncles. But I hold my grandmother as the source of a love of literature for all of us.

 What was your big breakthrough?

I don’t think there’s been a ‘breakthrough’. A writing life for me has been long and slow in coming; I was a bookseller, worked for a publisher, then I did a creative writing degree in my forties whilst a single parent and working; and a few years ago my MA, I worked with people with dementia using poetry…I suppose a moment of significance was setting up Emergency Poet and the success of that project meaning I could give up my paid job to become freelance in the world of writing. It was a brave step.

 What is the most challenging aspect of your work/process?

I have 2 strands to my writing life; that of my alter-ego Emergency Poet and then myself as a poet. The most challenging aspect of Emergency Poet has been that it is such demanding work, both physically in driving and setting up all over the country and in all weathers, and emotionally, in giving people in pain, or stress my undivided, good attention- this is exhausting.

In my own work as a poet, I am soon to have my first collection, Dirty Laundry published by Nine Arches Press (May 1st), and the challenge has been to take the writing properly seriously. I think this may be more common amongst women writers; that writing is the thing we do after all of the others jobs have been done. This means that I hardly give myself time to write or to submit. I am amazed and delighted to have had my collection accepted by Jane Commane, who has been such a supportive editor.

Is there a piece of art, or a book, or a play, which changed you?

I find that question really hard to answer, although I’m enjoying thinking about it! I was a short-sighted shy girl who escaped her noisy family and council estate in books. I think the thing that saved my life was the local library. It may be cheating but I consider that to be a piece of art!

 What’s more important: form or content?

 Another difficult question. Obviously both in perfect harmony is the best answer; but you know I have worked so long in primary schools and with people with dementia to make poetry that I am all about the process being the thing.

 How do you know when a project is finished?

 They are never finished, they merge and connect to the next one.

 What advice would you give a young writer/practitioner?

 Read. And read. And read. And after that, be very generous; enable and support others and in a hippy-karmic sort of way, it will come back to you. Have fun.

 What work of art would you most like to own?

I think your questions are agony! Ha…that’s the most impossible question! I think something by the US artist Gigi Mills, whose work I love at the moment and whose Nude with Poppies is the cover of my collection.

 What’s the biggest myth about writing/the creative process?

 That it’s hard. Obviously doing it well takes time, but I would always advocate having a go at something. We all are capable of being creative in some way in our lives.

 What are you working on now?

 Today I had a parcel of the new book I have just put together in response to the #MeToo campaign; ~MeToo- rallying against sexual assault & harassment- a women’s poetry anthology (Fair Acre Press). I’m working on the promotion and publicity for the book and putting together a series of readings/ performances/ panel discussions all over the country.

 What is the piece of art/novel/collection/ you wish you’d created?

 To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

 What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?

 That my own work was worth something. I’ve hidden it in corners.

 What’s your greatest ambition?

 I am in the process of buying an old iron-mongers shop and turning it into a poetry pharmacy/ cafe/ performance & workshop space, writing retreat. My ambition is that this might actually work and not just be a mad idea!

 How do you tackle lack of confidence, doubt, or insecurity?

I don’t know. I am riddled with it. I used to never finish/ edit my writing so that when it was unfinished it still had potential to be good. I have learnt that ‘good-enough’ is OK.

 What is the worst thing anyone said/wrote about your work?

 ‘That’s not a poem! I’m sorry, I just can’t see that it’s got any poetic quality whatsover!’Oh dear, that was a bad moment.

 And the best thing?

 This from Jane Commane at Nine Arches Press when she accepted my MS!

 I enjoyed these poems immensely, I knew after the first few pages I was going to. I found them immensely rewarding, funny, powerful and sexy. It just feels like exactly the right poems at the right moment, and they feel cohesive and engaging as a whole. These are powerful poems and I love the fact that they don’t hold back, they feel daring and exciting.

 If you were to create a conceit or metaphor about the creative process, what would it be?

 Building a sand-castle and trying to dig a long channel to the sea to flood the moat, which keeps back-filling!

 What is your philosophy or life motto?

 Be playful. Try to be your authentic self in all that you do.

What is the single most important thing you’ve learned about the creative life?

 It feels like being properly alive.

 What is the answer to the question I should have – but didn’t – ask?

Chocolate.

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Dirty Laundry is available from Nine Arches Press on 1st May 2018. Cover Nude With Poppies by Gigi Mills

#MeToo is available at Fair Acres Press A women’s poetry anthology
Edited by Deborah Alma. Introduced by Jess Phillips MP.

All profits to WOMEN’S AID

Publication Date: 8th March 2018 ~ International Women’s Day

Cover image and design by Sandra Salter
7 B&W illustrations by Jessamy Hawke

All about the female….with thanks to those who fought…

One hundred years ago today some women in the UK finally got the right to vote.  I’ve been spending the day sharing images of these fighters, campaigners, politicians and visionaries on social media, and giving thanks to those who were ostracised, beaten, arrested, and force-fed, amongst other brutalities, so that I have a say in the governance of the country in which I live.

Welsh supporters of universal suffrage

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It is therefore an auspicious day for the trailer of richard iii redux OR Sara Beer is/not Richard III to go live. I am reminded of the immense freedom and privilege I have – to make public work, with support from the Arts Council of Wales, which uses cross-gender casting to interrogate that supposed epitome of the evil male, Richard III. This solo show puts a woman centre-stage – and not only that, but a disabled woman – “one of those from the margins, the shadows, come to stand before you, and reclaim that what is mine own….”

This project owes so much to those pioneers and campaigners I celebrate today. I am reminded again how much I take for granted – how this one woman show is largely possible because of all those who came before, who sought to change our society and power dynamic, whose actions transformed British democracy and paved the way for the freedom in my life and work I enjoy now. It is by design we open on 8th March, International Women’s Day; we wanted to participate in the festivities of that day, but also to remember those without the privilege and security we have.

With thanks to all the “shrieking sisters”, those brilliant and brave women who we remember today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So let’s talk about representation of bodies (1)… richard iii redux

Sara at Cilgerran Castle, Ceredigion. richard iii redux. Photo: Kaite O’Reilly

There has been a spate of high profile all-female productions of Shakespeare the past few years – Maxine Peake playing Hamlet in Manchester and Phillyda Lloyd’s trilogy of Julius Caesar, Henry IV and last year’s The Tempest, to name just a few. As a woman working in theatre, I applaud any attempt to provide more visible platforms for women practitioners, and believe there is still much to be mined from the classics with cross-gender casting (and I mean male actors playing female roles here, too…). Yet in the midst of all this welcome talk about diversity and parity, I believe there is still one area hugely overlooked – and that is atypical embodiment.

I have spent half a lifetime and most of my career collaborating with and writing specifically for what I call atypical actors in my atypical plays. I’ve often spoken about how I appear to have two careers – one in the so-called ‘mainstream’, writing new versions of classics like Aeschylus’s Persians for National Theatre Wales – and another within disability arts and culture, which has been invisible and seemingly of no interest to the media until recent years. For the past half decade I’ve tried to marry my ‘crip’ culture work to my ‘mainstream’ profile and argued for inclusive casts and the aesthetics of access as a matter of course rather than something ‘special’ to gain brownie points for the venues involved. For me this is my ‘normality’ and it is gratifying to perceive the debates opening up about power, diversity, and the make-up of our theatres and moving image industry – but discussions about disability still lags behind.

Sara digging up her Richard – richard iii redux.

From 2011 I was a fellow at the International Research Centre Interweaving Performance Cultures attached to Freie Universitat in Berlin.It was my great fortune to have the time and encouragement to reflect on my work between disability culture and the so-called ‘mainstream’ and to write a series of published essays about my work.

During my residencies in Berlin, I became fixated on how live theatre – my medium – has demonised, dehumanised, or deified physical, sensory and neurological difference. I began paying closer attention to how fellow dramatists portrayed in particular atypical embodiment, the poster boy being of course that personification of evil, Richard III. And so the seeds for the project richard iii redux OR Sara Beer Is/Not Richard III came into being.

Sara Beer and director Phillip Zarrilli digging up their Richard III in Llandysul

Out of fear of misrepresenting the production Sara Beer, Phillip Zarrilli, Paul Whittaker and I are in the process of making, I will stress our project is neither high-brow, academic, nor tub-thumping. In order to explore the themes of disability, representation, and the possible ‘hatchet job’ committed by the Tudors on what seems to be historically a fair and popular King, we need to travel light,  fast, and with humour. I am not a fan of dour, PC, or dreary productions and prefer – rather like our poster image – to stick two fingers up at being ‘worthy’. What we hope to do is shake things up a bit, to play with the playing of that ‘bottled spider’ Richard III, to explore elements of the historical Richard with the Shakespearian representation, and deconstruct how this villain has been portrayed in the past.

Videographer Paul Whittaker and director Phillip Zarrilli check the footage. Cilgerran Castle.

.In effect, we want to make a production which is subversive and entertaining, prompting laughs along with the odd moment’s reflection. It’s a challenging mix, but also one that makes me giddy, especially after this weekend’s work, filming (often with great fun and hilarity) in Cardigan and Ceredigion. Sara Beer is a phenomenally versatile performer, who switches from serious to high camp comedy on a sixpence. Her presence certainly enlivened our soggy day’s filming, following Henry Tudor’s trail en route to the Battle of Bosworth, where Richard III was slaughtered, so paving the way for the Tudors and the current House of Windsor.

The production will be a mix of live and pre-recorded video captured on location across Wales and at Bosworth battlefield itself. Much of the film footage is done, and Paul is currently working on our trailer, which I can’t wait to share, probably in my next blog post.

Cardiff Shoot – richard iii redux begins!

A red phone box in Roath… A corridor backstage in a theatre… Oh the glamour of a video shoot in Cardiff…

Mockery aside, it’s incredibly exciting to finally be starting practical work on The Llanarth Group’s next production: richard iii redux OR Sara Beer Is/Not Richard III. We have been researching and generating materials for months. I have been writing what I see as ‘punts’ or propositions in a collaborative project. Co-creating is vastly different from my solo authored work, where I monologue with myself. Collaborating means dialogue, it means pitching and persuading, throwing a cap of an idea into the ring and bracing myself for any takers. I love it.

Phillip Zarrilli directing Sara Beer on location backstage

richard iii redux has been a long time coming, a project discussed in excited whispers with director-collaborator Phillip Zarrilli for what feels like years. The production questions much of what we know about Shakespeare’s villain:

Richard III: Bogeyman. Villain. Evil incarnate. Or is he? What if he is she? What if the ‘hideous…. deformed, hobbling, hunchbacked cripple’ is portrayed by someone funny, female, feminist, and with the same form of scoliosis? How might the story change, the body change, the acting change, the character change when explored by a disabled actress with deadly comic timing and a dislike for horses?

richard iii redux will be an exploration of the above, in a one woman show featuring live camera and video – and that’s what performer Sara Beer, director Phillip Zarrilli, videographer Paul Whittaker, designer Deryn Tudor and I are up to this week, sulking around backstage corridors and in red telephone boxes.

Sara will play a series of personas during the show – personas often, but not always, very similar to her actual self. We are still in the process of defining these voices and the attitudes they take to the subject matter, so Sara’s head is often swimming as we decide ‘not that Sara, the other Sara, you know, the third one’ should be voicing a particular mediatised section. As the shoot is in advance of our official rehearsal process, starting next week, I suggest we play safe and capture several versions of the same material in different personas/voices. By the end of the day, Madam Beer is tripping over her meticulously-memorised lines and I note with interest how the same speech when rendered in one persona comes easier than others.

Sara on location in a phone box.

At this point in the creative process, I feel like a detective – looking at all the material we have generated and deciding what might be clues, what might be evidence, and what are the red herrings which need to be discarded, as they take us away from our task in hand…. There is writing, then rewriting, flights of fancy and careful choreography instantly abandoned. To some, the slow, painstaking process of creation and discovery, rejection and affirmation must seem horribly haphazard, but there is an order to our chaos, and it is exhilarating when a production moves from the sum of its separate parts and begins to form a whole.

That is what lies ahead in the next few months, as we come together to rehearse and make, then part to reflect and absorb. We find spreading the rehearsal period out over several months immensely effective, enabling development of ideas and the creative dust to settle. I will be documenting this process over the next weeks, leading to the world premiere at Chapter arts Centre on international women’s day, 8th March. For a female production dealing with Richard III, that seems quite an auspicious date for opening….

 

new year, new production – richard iii redux

Shakespeare’s Richard III: Bogeyman. Villain. Evil incarnate. Or is he? What if he is a she? What if the “hideous… deformed, hobbling, hunchbacked cripple…” is portrayed by someone funny, female and with the same form of scoliosis?

This is the premise of my forthcoming collaboration with Sara Beer and Phillip Zarrilli of The Llanarth Group: richard iii redux OR Sara Beer is/not Richard III will take a long, hard and not completely serious look at this infamous figure, evil personified, and raise questions both about Shakespeare’s hatchet-job on what historically appears to be a good and popular King, and the interpretations of this formidable role from actors ancient and modern.

The posters arrived…waiting to be sent out to the venues for the opening in March 2018

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The first two days of development begin tomorrow – and I can’t wait. We have researched the subject fairly comprehensively, read books, seen documentaries about the royal body in the carpark and scrutinised celebrated productions of Shakespeare’s play…  I’ll be documenting the process as it happens, here….

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on “Dustless Action” by Tony Brown.

Yesterday I posted a blog about poet and life-long t’ai chi practitioner Li-Young Lee, who spoke about “Dustless action”. Having received a few (often puzzled) emails from readers on this phrase, I sought further perspectives from my friend Tony Brown, a writer, artist, musical director and t’ai chi practitioner/instructor. With his permission, I reproduce his thoughts, below:

Dustless action: thoughts:

Well, organisations that offer ‘dustless’ services mean that no trace of them remains after the fact. They come, they do their thing, they disappear without trace, and without fuss.
In t’ai chi, there’s a slightly fanciful thought that you can perform the actions of the Art on a sheet of rice paper without tearing it. Without trace. Without fuss.
In the fighting styles, the same applies. The actions are responsive to need and almost clinical. If actions initiate rather than respond, they create an unnecessary state of affairs that wasn’t there before – a cloud of dust. Fuss just makes everything complicated, so simplicity is the dustless solution.
In the internal aspects of t’ai chi, one aims for smooth connection between the mind, body and breath (mind, body, spirit if you will) in order to produce smooth uninterrupted qi. As soon as the link becomes unbalanced or disconnected, well you’ll have to get the dust buster out.
Why we like dusty actions rather than the opposite:
Creating clouds of dust in our everyday actions is sort of fun. Lots of noise, lots of gesticulation, gossip, changing direction, being wasteful with words and deeds and half-baked ideas. And it can of course be very creative. Out of dustclouds of chaos creative ideas arise.
Dustless action can seem lacking in vigour and unproductive. It’s all seems a bit Zen, too Taoist, too much like meditation and mindfulness to be of much use in everyday transactions.
So balance.
Dust is what remains after a half completed task.
Dust has to be cleared away or thing will get clogged up.
But you can write in it with your finger when the dust has settled.
Tony Brown. Dec 11th 2017

A Dynamism of Opposites: An hour with Li-Young Lee. Singapore Writer’s Festival 2017

 

Li-Young Lee at Singapore Writer’s Festival 2017. Photo: Kaite O’Reilly

 

 

Li-Young Lee is discombobulating.

“So what are we here for?” he asks in the opening moments of a masterclass at the Singapore Writers Festival in November 2017. “It isn’t a class or anything, is it?” Thirty heads nod in unison. “But I haven’t prepared anything,” he says, with disorientating frankness. “What’s it on?” From the front row I feed him the title: ‘”Creating the Poetic Mind.” He reflects, nodding. “Good title, but I didn’t write it. Perhaps whoever wrote the title should come and do the class, not me.”

I’m torn between irritation at this apparent disorganisation and disregard of the good souls paying good money to have an insight into ‘the poetic mind’ and a growing suspicion that that’s exactly what’s about to be revealed. “The guy’s either a jerk or a genius” an American voice whispers in the row behind me. My mind is circling on ‘maverick’.

After a few queries from the floor Li-Young Lee is beginning to warm up. He talks about the length of time required to create a poem, quoting one which took eight years from conception to completion. Suspicious of work that comes too easily, he says everything is in preparation for the future work: “I don’t like any of my work. I have a troubled relationship with my work,” he confesses disarmingly. “But there’s a good poem in me… I sense it lurking… I haven’t written it yet, and I don’t know how to reach it.” He shrugs, face and palms open towards the audience. “T’ai chi masters talk of dustless action and that’s what I strive for. Dustless action. Perfection. It is possible,” he nods vigorously, but then stalls, his face falling. “The trend now for popular poems are ones showing lots of dust.” He shakes his head, his disappointment shared by many in the room.

A lifelong t’ai chi practitioner, he believes everyone should practice, as it is “a dynamism of opposites which is at the centre of it all”.

“The ultimate polarities, the ultimate opposites is the definition of t’ai chi,” he says. “So making poetry you have a profound voice and silence – I’m not sure you have the differentials of this in prose. Let me talk about architecture,” he says as the room slides from distrust into a rapt attention. “The medium of architecture is of space. You inhabit space and you inhabit it differently – a bedroom, a shop, a temple – you’re using the same materials but how you inflect the space impacts on how a person inhabits it. Poetry is like this. You’re using the materiality of language in poetry and the opposite is silence.”

As an example, he speaks of a visit to Duke University Cathedral, and how when he was approaching the building he was walking in “vertical infinitude” but wasn’t aware of it until he went inside this gothic cathedral with “space inflected” and saw a little boy lying on his back looking up into the great dome, calling out to his mother ‘I’m falling upwards!’ “We live in vertical infinitude,” he smiles, “yet we forget this until we go into a cathedral and then we remember. Poetry is like this. Poetry is a revelation of reality.”

Born in Indonesia to Chinese political exiles, the family were, as he puts it “fugitives, on the run, changing names and identities” during his early years, finally receiving asylum in the US in 1964. An audience member asks about his childhood, and his acclaimed memoir, The Winged Seed: A Remembrance (1995), but Lee is reluctant to speak about it.

“I don’t want to remember any of that stuff,” he says. “The Ancient Greeks said the Great Muse is memory, but it is the kind Buddhists remember when they meditate – our original state.” He is warming to this new subject, expanding before our eyes. “I have a self I expose to the public world – a public self. My private self is disclosed to my family and friends, my secret self is disclosed when utterly in private, and my unknown self has a kind of personal memory I can’t account for. There’s an unknown self that is twenty thousand years old. This is what poets need to connect with – that intelligence we find in Emily Dickenson’s poetry – it’s an intelligence that’s older than America – this unknown intelligence which poets need to connect to.”

I can feel others in the room leaning forward into this surprising conversation. “Composite nature is in us,” he says suddenly, “like the number twelve – it’s a version of two, three, four, six. Then there’s a prime number like seven, which is just a version of itself. We’re versions of each other – our friends, mother, and so on – we’re composite – versions of Buddha, our teachers, etcetera – but we’re also prime. There’s a primacy in us. How do we access this primacy? We can only encounter it through the unknown self. You can’t will a poem into being – it isn’t up to you. When you’re in contact with the unknown self, the imagination – well, that’s when you’re really working, really making.”

Chimes from the Clock Tower across the way break into the silent room. Our hour is up. We wander out from the Old Parliament Building into the shrill brilliance of tropical sunshine, past the river-side statue of Raffles, ‘founder’ of modern Singapore, dazed. I sit at Raffle’s landing place and look out onto Boat Quay, light-headed from a masterclass with a poet, mystic, and trickster all rolled into one.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/li-young-lee