Eating cherries with a ghost

“The way to read a fairy tale is to throw yourself in.” – W.H. Auden

Everyone loves Fairy Tales, and everyone has their favourite. For me they have been the basis for a certain way of viewing the world- muddled up with dreams and magic, influencing my creative work, my approach to relationships and even (to some extent) my personal politics and philosophy. They are a form of escapism, a place where anything can happen- where you can walk through a door into another world and eat cherries with a ghost- or a multi-coloured unicorn.

Anyone who used to stare out the window day-dreaming at school will know that the sense of freedom these stories evoke in a person is one of the best, most gratifying kinds of freedom that there is. Nowadays, when everything can seem to be a little utilitarian, what could be better than opening a book and reading about worlds where you can wander into enchanted woodlands and avoid getting eaten by terrible flesh-eating witches or crocodiles that can talk? Not much.

It’s a shame that somewhere along the line (in the 19th and 20th Centuries by all accounts) Fairy Tales ceased to be for everyone and became exclusively for children. It’s tempting to think that maybe Industrialisation had a part to play in this; more and more we are losing touch with nature’s mysticism- the oral tradition has died out a little due to the breakdown of communities and science will insist on finding things out… the same old boring complaints. That is why an organisation like my local community centre Significant Seams is so important- it brings people together and celebrates everything ‘folk’.

With this in mind I decided to set up a night of Fairy Tale readings at the centre. As a poet I am always on the look out for opportunities to promote literacy and think that there is something really important about hearing stories out loud. As with poetry, listening to the musicality of the words adds a whole new layer of meaning and enjoyment. It wasn’t supposed to be a performance- it was merrymaking, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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Kennings in the Community

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I did my Kennings workshops at the weekend- they were really fun and interesting. Amongst other tasks, my class had to ‘unwrite’ Beowulf using collloquialisms and re-write ‘Life’ by Des’ree using Kennings. The end results for the ‘Life’ exercise were astounding- the horrible pop lyrics were transformed into something really beautiful, and utterly obscure- you can see the results here. It’s what Des’ree would want.

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My daughter did some good drawings for the class- this one was for the Kenning ‘Malignant Enemy of the World’ or ‘Devil’ in Modernspeak. Lots of other good Kennings got written around this as a warm-up. On Sunday we had a go at rewriting ‘Prufrock’ using Kennings which was pretty tiring and complex, but very interesting. I’ll be posting all the poems online at some point.

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I don’t know what happens when you write this way- but it seems like a kind of magic. There were some seriously good poems written over the weekend and we had so much fun as well. Thanks to The Create Place in Bethnal Green for lending us the space and also thanks to Debbie Potts for being my right hand woman. We’re currently in talks to develop the workshops and take them into schools etc, so lots of exciting things on the horizon.

Here is what some of my students said about the classes-

‘Emma Hammond presented us with surprising, challenging exercises, whilst maintaining a relaxed and encouraging workshop atmosphere. ”Skaldifying’ a set of bubblegum pop lyrics by using kennings to try to turn them into a serious poem was an unexpected, inspiring highlight!’  Andrew Smardon, poet

‘The Kennings workshops were brilliant. Very interesting and informative I shall now be keen to find out more about the viking’s literacy legacy; put across in an easy to follow and entertaining manner – much fun had re-writing poetry classics with use of kennings; and I feel I have been supplied with another weapon in my armoury for writing poems. Only complaint – they finished too soon. Great fun.’  John Grant, poet

A Cathode Ray Séance

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Glass Bodies is another collaboration with sound artist Robin the Fog and with the exception of my monologue, is created entirely using processed samples from a single recording of late-night UK TV channel Babestation.

It was included in A Cathode Ray Séance, a day-long celebration of the work of legendary screenwriter Nigel Kneale in New York.

Nigel Kneale (1922-2004) was a visionary dramatist, a pioneering screenwriter-auteur, one of the most important British science fiction writers of the 20th century. In works such as the Quatermass trilogy (watched by one third of UK television owners), The Year of the Sex Olympics and The Stone Tape, Kneale forged singularly visceral and unforgettable fusions of horror, spooked thriller and Cold War-era weirdness that have captured the imaginations of artists and intellectuals as diverse as Pink Floyd, Monty Python, Greil Marcus, psychogeographer Patrick Keiller and novelist China Mieville. The radical sound designs these dramas deployed (often courtesy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop), allied to their prescient explorations of the eldritch fringes of auditory Albion, have attracted the attention of theorists such as Mark Fisher and the Ghost Box record label.

A Cathode Ray Séance was a celebration of this hauntological icon whose work, even though it paved the way for well-known series such as Doctor Who, is less familiar to American than to British audiences. Staged by the New York-based Colloquium for Unpopular Culture (Kiss Me Again: The Life and Legacy of Arthur Russell; Leaving The Factory: Wang Bing’s Tie Xi Qu – West of the Tracks) in collaboration with London’s Strange Attractor, it included rare screenings, talks by Kneale admirers, and a special musical interpretation by Mark Pilkington, Rose Kallal and Micki Pellerano of Kneale’s legendary-but-lost 1963 drama The Road.

Here is what we came up with-

Modern Poets on Viking Poetry

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I am soon to start teaching workshops on Viking poetry as part of a project called ‘Kennings in the Community’ . This is very exciting as it means I get to go to Cambridge to eat cake.

Skaldic   poetry   encompasses   particular   types   of   verse   composed   in   Old   Norse   (medieval   Scandinavian)   from   the   ninth   to   fourteenth   century.   It   is   often   characterised   by   its   complex   metrical  structures,  its  riddling  syntax,  and  the  liberal  application  of  a  distinctive  type  of  metaphor   known  as  the  kenning.  The  wonderful  richness  of  wordplay,  imagery,  ambiguity  and  irony  at  play   in  skaldic  poetry  has  a  great  deal  to  offer  poets  composing  in  other  cultural  contexts.   

There is also a sister project called ‘Modern Poets on Viking Poetry’ which aims  to  cultivate  contemporary  poets’  awareness  of   the   skaldic   aesthetic. Participating   poets   will   be   encouraged   to   creatively   interact   with   skaldic   tradition   through  the  collaborative,  cultural  translation  of  skaldic  poetry. If you’d like some more information on how to get involved please email me and I’ll send you all the information. You would basically be working with Skaldic scholars to produce either a poem or a mulit-media art piece. I think it will be really fun and interesting.

“With bloody brand on-striding
My bird of bane hath followed;
My hurtling spear hath sounded
In the swift Vikings’ charge.
Raged wrathfully our battle,
Ran fire o’er foemen’s rooftrees;
Sound sleepeth many a warrior
Slain in the city gate.”

Egil Skallagrímsson

Here is a blog post with a bit more information.