Master Class: Poetry & Creative Learning with the MasterCard Scholars

Upile

I’ve been delivering writing workshops for a long time now, most regularly at the Scottish Poetry Library to people who, though at various points in their writing careers, have poetry on the brain. Since starting as Projects and Engagement Coordinator for the Institute for Academic Development (IAD), it has been interesting to think about how my skills as a writer and writing teacher could be of use in my new work which has the wider focus of encouraging and exploring creative learning, innovation and collaboration across the University of Edinburgh.

One of my early meetings after starting here was with Johanna Holtan who used to run the Festival of Creative Learning which I now look after. She is a powerhouse and the job she has moved on to is running the University’s MasterCard Foundation Scholars Programme, which ‘supports the brightest and best African scholars with great potential but few…

View original post 543 more words

After Economy, London Reading

I’ll be reading from After Economy this Tuesday, 9 May, in London at the Shearsman Reading Series, Swedenborg Hall, 20/21 Bloomsbury Way, London WC1A 2TH. It starts at 7.30pm.

I’m very honoured to be reading with Josephine Balmer, Alice Kavounas, and special guest, Yang Lian.

 

More details are available here and here. Please come along if you’re in town.

shearsman

The New Life

My dear friend and mentor Robyn Marsack sent me the most exquisite gift the other day. She said it was a present that she had been planning to give me on the evening of my book launch, but thought I might like to be able to wear it on the night… which I very much do, and as you can see it goes beautifully with the sparkling dress I’ll be wearing (thanks Maddy!). It is this:

IMG_2648.JPG

a precious wearable artwork by the poet Thomas A. Clark. It got me thinking about Dante, and La Vita Nuova, ‘The New Life’, in Italian, or Vita Nova in LatinI did not learn as much as I would have liked in my challenging Italian class at Wellesley College, but one stanza at least stayed in my mind, which is just as useful when travelling in Italy as being able to ask for a cappuccino. These are the first three lines of Dante’s Divina Commedia:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

mi ritrovai per una selva oscura

ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Also while at Wellesley, I had the privilege of studying with the poet Frank Bidart, who was the first person to introduce me to the poetry of his friend Louise Glück. It was love at first read, and she is one of those poets whose voice I will never get out of my head.

This became especially, hauntingly clear to me, as… realising that there was a coming together of universal threads going on, I remembered that one of if not the first book of Louise’s that we’d read in Frank’s class was Vita Nova, a book ‘that exists in the long moment of spring’, or so says its inside cover. It’s an Orpheus and Eurydice book, but also a book about relationships, and a book about change, a book about new life.

IMG_2649.JPG

(You can see I’ve been carrying it around with me for a while!) So, here’s the thing… in the second-to-last poem in the collection, which I haven’t read for some time, maybe years, there is the line:

…By the stone fountain

the willows are singing again

with unspeakable tenderness, trailing their leaves

in the radiant water.

and it rather took my breath away as I realised that the second-to-last poem in my book ends with the line:

sometimes i feel a breath, a hand

trailing its fingers in the silver water

It was quite startling, and moving, to feel the echo of the words of this poet I so admired in my youth, who still means so much to me, ringing through my words today, and to feel the thoughtfulness of another woman I admire so greatly, Robyn Marsack, sharing the precious gift of the work of another poet I admire, Thomas A. Clark, leading me to shiver at the link to the work of yet another poet, one who retains his place in history as one of the greatest of poets, Dante. This is the radiant water, the silver river of poetry, and I feel so lucky to find it flowing all around.

fullsizeoutput_25b

If you’d like to experience Dante’s Wristband in real life, and meet Robyn, and hear some poetry, and see some sparkles, and drink some sparkles, and wear some sparkles yourself, do come along to the launch this Wednesday evening. You can book your place here.

ae_cover

 

 

A Visit to a Land of Sea and Song: Poetry on North Uist

3

It was such a delight to spend a few days on North Uist with the poet Pauline Prior-Pitt at the end of March. She kindly invited me to visit her and the writing group she nurtures at the Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Arts Centre. Thanks to support from the Scottish Book Trust’s Live Literature Fund, I was able to fly from Glasgow Airport to Benbecula, and in less than an hour I was transported from the big city to an otherworldly dreamscape. With some views reminiscent of a land before or long after mankind or of the time of Noah’s floods, there is somehow more water than land everywhere one looks. A strong wind blew through our hair and the hair of the ponies in a nearby field when Pauline met me at the tiny airport, and our first stop was at a well-stocked local deli to have a look at the map. We then drove on to a lovely hotel in Lochmaddy called Hamersay House (highly recommended – so clean and spacious, and very supportive of my vegan diet!).

7

Lochmaddy is also where Taigh Chearsabhagh is, and Pauline took me there for lunch and a tour of the gallery space and teaching spaces where the art college runs its studios and classes, with plenty of gorgeous work-in-progress on display… images of the sea, and art made of stuff washed up by the sea.

6

That evening I was back in the gallery to give a reading to an extremely attentive and generous audience, who also took turns reading their own poems and poem choices. I read from my new collection, After Economy, for the first time… it was wonderful that it had its debut in such a remote place! We were treated to a heart-achingly beautiful Gaelic folk song by the writer and singer Cathie Laing, and another highlight was Pauline’s reading of some new sea-inspired poems in which she speaks as the sea, with such sensual and evocative language that I still feel stroked by her sea-words.

4

The next day was so rainy that it felt as if the little land there was could all run into the sea at any moment, and we braved the weather and managed to visit a number of fascinating prehistoric and historic sites of interest, exploring brochs, barps and standing stones:

On Saturday I gave a writing workshop about entering into artworks and writing in dialogue with them, and the pieces generated by Pauline’s writing group were brilliant, our conversation stimulating and the general feeling one of joy to be creating together in such a special place. Cathie was in attendance and I was thrilled that at my request she sang us a few more songs to close the session. After another delicious lunch at the gallery we drove off to explore some of the beaches in Berneray, and I’ve never experienced anything quite like it – the white, untouched tracts of sand stretching far into the distance, the crashing aquamarine sea, the icy wind making your body ache and thrill.

5

There was something so beautiful but also haunting about the landscape… we found a hill by the sea, surrounded by white sand, covered in grass and sheep dung and sheep bones. One could lose oneself to nature here and it was a humbling experience, especially combined with the knowledge that people had lived and loved and dreamed on that tiny, windswept, loch-laden island for thousands of years.

12

We had a wonderful vegan meal with Pauline and her husband Robert that evening, and were impressed by their not one but two artist’s sheds/studios in the back garden and Pauline’s attic ‘Room of One’s Own’. The conversation ranged from personal histories to creativity to philosophy to island life and back again, and it felt we were in a place where time was different and there was endless space to think, also where relationships were so important and community was treasured. Something very striking was the sense that the ages are not separated on the island the way they are in our cities… in the grocery store I saw people of all ages interacting, grannies looking after babies chatting to teenagers in a way that touched me – these people were in community with one another, they lived near one another and knew one another and looked after one another.

8

Soon it was time to leave but I’ll keep dreaming of that sea-drenched island with its white beaches, its sandy, lacy frills and hems, its houses of seaweed and shell, and its people full of stories and song.

9

Many thanks to Pauline, to everyone who came along to the reading and the writing group, and to Live Literature at the Scottish Book Trust for making it possible.

IMG_0119

Expenses Tip for Live Literature Writers:

This was quite an expensive trip and only made possible because of the generous support of the Live Literature Fund, which is so brilliant because it makes events like this possible in places where it might otherwise be very difficult to bring writers. In line with how the scheme works, I had to buy my plane tickets and food myself and claim that money back after the trip. It’s worth, if possible, trying to plan for these sorts of trips so you’re not in the red for the time between the spending of the money and the reimbursement. Easier said than done, though the SBT is great at processing the expenses claim (thanks Kay and Jackie!). Another tip that I’ve found makes my life easier is to have a separate envelope or folder in my handbag where I put all my expenses and travel receipts, so that it’s quick and easy at the end of the trip to package these up and send them in. In fact, in this instance, as the trip was a more complicated one, I even made a little Excel budget to help me total everything up. Perhaps this is a sign that I’ve been working in arts administration for too long!

 

 

 

 

YOU ARE THE FIRE

Upile

I’m running a poetry workshop on Monday for some amazing students on the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program at the University of Edinburgh. We’ll be responding to the work of Upile Chisala, following on from a recent visit she made to read for the students. I’m feeling very inspired by Upile’s fire!

Also coming up:

VINEBOXvine box event poster

I’m super excited to be reading at this new night with a stellar lineup. I’ll be performing a debut collaboration with the poet Iain Morrison, in which we’ll be exploring singing glasses, opening and poetry as musical score. Come along tomorrow (Friday 14 April) at 7pm to St Margaret’s House – more details here.

And tides

Then on 27 April feetat 6pm I will be reading with Catherine Street at Talbot Rice Gallery. We’ll be sharing the new piece we’ve created in response to the current exhibition, Between poles and tides.  This new work is called ‘And tides’ and you can book your seat here.

Keep burning and keep singing from your heart!

AFTER ECONOMY Launch

ae_cover

AFTER ECONOMY

a new collection exploring the fine line between abundance and apocalypse

Out now! Get your copy here, and book here for the After Economy Edinburgh launch at Talbot Rice Gallery. More details below. It would be lovely to see you there.

After Economy | JL Williams

Book Launch

Talbot Rice Gallery

3 May 2017 6pm-7.30pm

Book tickets here.

Please join us for the launch of a new collection of poetry, After Economy, by JL Williams.

Williams has a piece in the current exhibition Between poles and tides, and you are invited to explore the show during your visit.

This event will feature a short reading by Williams, who will be accompanied by the award-winning composer and cellist, Atzi.

After Economy is an exploration of the fine line between abundance and apocalypse, an attempt to respond formally and thematically to the complexities faced by human beings living amidst political unrest and technology-driven cultural change, and an inquiry into our relationship with time.

‘For some reason, slightly unfathomable, I am reminded of a forest we visited on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido where the annual winter ice festival is held. The forest is sprayed for days by the local fire department, but not before flowers and colored lights have been hung within the branches, so when the whole forest turns to crystalline ice, the lights burn from within, the whole crystal forest glows, and when you walk there, flowers look out from the ice, arrested in full bloom. It is all so unexpected, and so extravagantly beautiful — something essential in such crystallization, and with fire in its core. Well, this vision returned to me reading your manuscript.’  Eleanor Wilner

Word Up

I’ve been meaning to post links to all these nice blogs and articles that have come in over the past few months and haven’t had time, so I thought I would do a round up.

A lovely blog by translator and poet Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese about the Polish translation workshop with poet Wojciech Bonowicz that took place at the Scottish Poetry Library toward the end of last year, including a few of our translations: Polish Signs.

A review in The Observer of my opera, Snow, which premiered in London in February 2017: Observer Review.

A collection of recordings of poems from the Signal project that I was involved in thanks to an invitation from Marjorie Lotfi Gill last year as part of the Edinburgh Art Festival: EAF Signal Poems.

A blog on the Scottish Review of Books website that seems like it’s from a different world now, but with a nice mention of me and Hillary at the end: SRB blog.

A very generous blog by Colin Waters about me moving on from the Scottish Poetry Library at the end of last year: Jennifer Leaving SPL Blog.

NR 17-02-17 092

(c) Nick Rutter from Snow, The Opera Story, 2017

 

A Libretto Comes to Life

nr-17-02-17-335

I’ve always been interested in collaborative art forms. Some of my very early and most joyful memories are of being taken by my wonderful mother, grandmother and uncle to see plays, musicals and ballet. The magic of words, music and movement coming together to stupendous effect at these performances has continued to inspire me throughout my life.

Up until a couple of years ago, my musical collaborations had been on a relatively small scale and involved me working with one or two musicians and usually performing the words myself (for instance, the music and poetry project OPUL that I share with my partner, James Iremonger). However in 2014 I was accepted onto the Jerwood Opera Writing Programme, and it was through that amazing experience that I met a group of extraordinary composers including Samantha Fernando and Lliam Paterson. At one of the residential weeks in Aldeburgh, Lliam asked if I might be interested in writing a libretto for a new opera company. It was such an exciting offer! The company was brand new, based in London and interested in making new opera in new ways, with young artists in unusual spaces. I jumped at the chance.

He explained that the idea for the first project was to create a new operatic version of Snow White. I loved this idea and remember an enchanting walk Lliam and I took through the fields of rushes at Snape Maltings, discussing the many narrative and temporal possibilities for setting the drama. One of the ideas that was always very core to the project was to draw on early myths and tales that pre-date the somewhat cleaned up version of Snow White that many of us know from the Disney film. The Opera Story, as the new company was to be called, would keep story at the forefront of their operas and this was great news for a writer.  In some opera projects – as we had explained to us during the Jerwood Opera Writing Course – the libretto is the starting point but also seen to be of less importance than the musical components which come next.

Writing the libretto was a completely gorgeous experience. Since my first collection of poetry, Condition of Fire, which was a response to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, I have enjoyed working from and reimagining pre-existing texts and stories. When engaging with such rich material, the challenge is to find your own way to tell a very well-known story, and opera adds in its own challenges in that often when set to music some words can be lost. This may be for many reasons – when we sing words the timing of the sounds change, the pitch and volume modulate and all this is set against a musical backdrop that may support or compete with the singers. On the other hand, thankfully, there are so many ways the music, set, direction and acting can enhance the communication of the story, and in this case the fact that Snow White was such a well-known tale to begin with was ultimately very freeing.

Often poets are recruited to write libretti, as they are ideally able to use language in a way that is concise and rhythmic, even musical. This can make the job of the composer easier as you can imagine how difficult it could be to set a novel or even a typical play to music. A poem, if working well, can communicate much without having to use too many words, and the spaces in poetic writing offer room for music and drama. My libretto isn’t a poem or a play, but some mixture of the two specially designed for the operatic form.

Unfortunately Lliam ended up not being able to compose for this opera, though for good reasons as he had too much other work on his plate, and instead the folks at The Opera Story came up with the brilliant idea of inviting not one but three talented young composers to create the music, one for each act. I first met these fabulous composers, Lucie Treacher, Lewis Murphy and Tom Floyd, at a full day workshop at the home of Artistic Director, Hamish Mackay, nearly a year ago. Executive Director Manuel Fajardo joined us, and together we discussed the intricacies of each scene and character. It was such a special experience to have all these creative brains working together to envisage how the story would evolve. With the help of the three composers, the brilliant director James Hurley who brought so much research and insightful observation to the process, and the kind support and input of Hamish and Manuel along the way, we got to a point where the libretto was ready to pass on to the composers and my role was, essentially, complete.

As months have passed since I submitted the final draft of the libretto, I can hardly contain or express my excitement at the prospect of finally getting to see the finished opera at the Bussey Building in less than a week’s time. To have an idea begin as a poetic spark in one’s heart and mind, and to be so close to seeing it blazing in full voice, music, light, costume, set and drama on stage, is almost more than I can comprehend. It takes me back to the joy of those early childhood memories, when stories shimmered to life on stage in a way that was truly magical.

I want to express my gratitude to all the many, many people involved whose hard work has brought Snow to life, and I hope you will be able to join us at one of the performances in London this week: http://theoperastory.com.

Festival of Creative Learning

This post went out last week on our blog at the Festival of Creative Learning and I thought I would share it here as well. Hope you enjoy and to see you at a Festival event if you can make it along.

page_1_thumb_large

It’s just over two months since I started as Projects and Engagement Coordinator for the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh. It has been a fascinating and joyful time, and I’m especially excited as the Festival that I am looking after is taking place next week.

It’s called the Festival of Creative Learningand this is the first year of the Festival proper, though it has evolved from something called ‘Innovative Learning Week’ which ran for 5 years (learn more about ILW here).

After an intensive period of development led by the previous Festival organiser, the brilliant Johanna Holtan, the Festival of Creative Learning emerged, and it’s a privilege to be able to continue all the good work that has gone into making the Festival what it is and to think about how it can continue to grow in future.

The Festival aims to provide space for staff and students at the University of Edinburgh to play, to experiment, to innovate, to collaborate and, dare I say it, to fail. How precious, how rare it is to discover this sort of space – where the emphasis isn’t on how many seats we fill, how many tickets we sell, how many answers we get right, but rather on truly exploring and pushing boundaries, communicating in radically new ways and leaping into the dark to find out what’s there.

Our goals are to help staff and students create innovative, experimental and collaborative ways of learning in a safe space, to give people the training and support they need to design and run events, and to celebrate the work of all our event organisers and the discoveries we make together along the way. By its very nature and commitment to openness and diversity, the programme covers an enormous range of disciplines and activities, and we encourage everyone to peruse our events calendar to get a sense of the depth and breadth of the events on offer.

Rather than running each of the events ourselves (our fabulous but small team includes my colleagues Lucy Ridley and Silje Graffer), we seek proposals from staff and students, distribute funding, provide a platform and communications umbrella for the events and aim to empower our staff and students to get the most out of what we provide. We hope that the Festival is a learning experience not just in terms of the research being conducted but also in events design and management, imparting vital skills to organisers that they can make use of in future employment, study and enterprise.

Much work is being done to explore the future of learning and teaching, and learning that involves doing and which empowers students rather than treating them like inanimate vessels to be filled is on the forefront of what appears to be not only the most effective but also the most enjoyable means to growth. We want to celebrate the idea that we learn better when we are enjoying ourselves, when we are treated with care and respect, and when we are encouraged to use our imaginations and to play.

The Festival will continue to develop, and we’ve already gathered a long list of ideas about ways to make the Festival even more useful, expansive, innovative and attractive (and do get in touch with your own suggestions), but first our team is going to visit as many of the events as we can in person to see the extraordinary experiments that our organisers have brought to life. We hope you will take the leap as well and join us for at least one of our events next week, and consider developing an idea for a Festival Pop-up event throughout the year or for an event for the Festival of Creative Learning 2018. In the meantime, keep an eye out for our hashtag #FCL17 on social media, where we’ll be telling stories and posting photographs all next week.

You can read more about the aims and values of the Festival here, and you can book tickets for our events here. Many of the events are aimed primarily at staff and students at the University, however the following events are open to external attendees and can be booked via Eventbrite:Introduction to Massage in Schools Programme, Manifest Destiny: A Multidisciplinary Forum on Mars Colonisation, Design for Wellbeing, Biffa tour: How does recycling work?, Learning Language Through Theatre, Making History: a Feminist Craft Project, ‘Camelot, tis a silly place’: Popular Culture and Scottish Heritage Castle Trip, Tech Art Collaboration Workshop and “The Birds and the Bees” Board game.

Here’s to learning without boundaries, in ways that celebrate the creativity inherent in each of us. 

 

Jennifer Williams

Projects & Engagement Coordinator

Institute for Academic Development