Poet and performer.
North East Programme Co-ordinator for Apples and Snakes.
First collection, The Trouble With Compassion, launched March 2016 and available from Burning Eye Books.
First solo show, The Moon Cannot Be Stolen, voted second in Saboteur Awards 2014. Second show currently under construction.
Poet-in-Residence at the Heroism & Heartbreak project, Hartlepool Community Archive, looking at WW1 maritime stories.
Creativity is always a leap of faith. You’re faced with a blank page, blank easel, or empty stage. – Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way
I’m currently a writer-in-residence at mima, Middlesbrough’s Institute of Modern Art. Well, so what? I hear you say. Congrats and custard to you, I bet you’re very happy with yourself. But, BUT, friends – there are no terms to this residency! I have to decide for myself what to do and when to do it by. This is quite different from when I was poet-in-residence at Hartlepool History Then And Now, gathering and re-telling WW1 maritime tales. This is a teensy bit terrifying. What on earth am I going to do?
Some background? Ok. Last year I was accepted on to the Writers Block North East novel-writing bootcamp, a year-long programme during which, if participants so choose, they may supplement their frantic novel-writing with a self-generated side hustle at mima. My side hustle is this –
I will use archive documents relating to artworks in the Middlesbrough collection as source material to inspire blackout, erasure and found poetry, plus a load of other digital and multimedia approaches like stop-motion films and collage.
If you follow my Insta, you’ll know that these are all things I do for fun. They’re not my ‘real’ writing. (Whatever that means, imposter-critic-head-voice) I mean, writing is writing and I’m a writer, right? (WHATEVER THAT MEANS, IMPOSTER-CRITIC-HEAD-VOICE!) So why do I do them in the first place? And why choose to do them more?
I do them
1. To keep myself creatively active through times of block and mental exhaustion
2. To retain playfulness as a creative principle
3. To get some wiggle-room into the idea of ‘writing’ by crossing disciplines and media
4. To activate my subconscious and surprise myself
5. To activate my subconscious and recognize patterns of thought, association, values
So, by making techniques the focus of this residency, I hope to
1. Make work on a broad and unexpected range of subjects
2. Make work whose forms and materials are influenced by both the source texts and the artworks to which they refer
3. Experiment with a really wide range of techniques, and fail as interestingly as possible
4. Learn to use new equipment and digital methods
5. Say hi to a new bunch of people via the mima Insta account
But YOU lovely lot are going to get more than just an Insta post. I’m going to take you with me while I work out what the heckitty-heck to do, and if you have had any similar experiences of setting up your own residency in any artform at all, you’d better believe I’d LOVE to hear about it. Have you blogged about it? Send me links! I’ll quote you! What’s your process, your practise, your advice?
Tune in next week-ish for some Gold/Yellow collage, a process video in which my belly features far too prominently, and me fangirling somewhat about Lubaina Himid. And follow @mimauseful on Insta, please and thank you.
God loves an independent bookshop, yes she does, especially the self-help section. Independent bookshops are places of love and beauty, so small that thirty people assembled for an author talk is as good as a stadium crowd. (The best ones, like mine, also have a coffee machine.)
I loved the extract she read (enough to buy the book), but it was the Q&A session that delivered treasure – because, dear Reader, I am that unhappiest of creatures, a First-Time Aspiring Novelist.
Here are the marvellous titbits of inspiration I took from Steph’s talk, all of which I will immediately try to apply to my writing life:
1. There are no RULES for the writer’s working day, only PREFERENCES
Oh joy, you mean I’m not failing if I haven’t written 1000 words by 8am? No! Steph works when she feels most able to sit down and focus on the work. As it happens, for her that is first thing. A 2-hour morning might yield 1000 words that would take twice as long to squeeze out if she started in the afternoon. BUT – if the morning is taken up with other, unavoidable things, then a long afternoon of writing will happen. The woman has professional persistence.
2. 1000 words a day for 3 months = “a bad first draft”
I love that “bad”. If I could fixate on completion at the expense of perfection, I might be in with a shot of writing this damn thing!
3. Novels will bring their own ways of being written
Now, I’m working with a formulaic genre (cosy crime), which Steph is not, but I still found it inspiring to hear how each time she writes a novel she comes up with a different way of ‘how to write a novel’. This current book was meticulously planned using a spreadsheet. Her previous book, ‘The Curious Heart Of Ailsa Rae‘, was written in a huge outpouring and then sculpted into shape. It’s OK for me to not know exactly how to write this first book of mine. Even better, it will be OK for me not to quite know how to write the next one, and the next – better to be interested in the process than the product!
4. Don’t read inside your own genre while you’re writing
I’ve been a reading a lot of my genre, because as a first-time writer I need to spend a bit of time working out how it’s done. But now that I’m into the actual writing, I can see the sense of giving my brain some space. Should probably lay off the cosy crime TV dramas, too! Steph reads Young Adult fiction, and dystopian fiction, so this could be a great excuse for me to widen my reading landscape.
5. Editing is great, but after a while you’re not making the book better, you’re making it a different book.
I haven’t reached this stage yet, but I’m going to bear it in mind when I do…
And the bonus bit of info is this:
6. The presenter for uber-macho TV show Top Gear was actually Angela Rippon!
*’The Woman In The Photograph’ is a story about feminism and fierce friendship. It is out now from Zaffre Books and if you buy it online via Hive then you can nominate a local bookshop to collect it from. The bookshop receives a small fee. This is massively better for authors and booksellers than going to Amazon, but doesn’t make it any more expensive for you – please make Hive a habit!
After I worked as performance mentor on Rose’s show, The Empathy Experiment, I asked her some questions about how our process had been for her. I’m very grateful for her answers, which have helped me to assess and value my own practise, and which may prove encouraging for other performance poets out there wondering what support they would need to make a spoken word theatre show.
Why did you feel like you needed performance mentoring on this show?
The Empathy Experiment is my third solo show. I created my previous two shows with a small amount of input from others, but this is the first time I have had the resources (thanks Arts Council!) to develop a project in full collaboration with other artists. I knew I wanted to bring together people who could support specific areas of development. Dominic Berry helped me with dramaturgy and how to effectively incorporate audience engagement. Kate Morton brought her design expertise into how I could create a simple but unified look for the show. Eleonora Rosca composed and recorded original music for the show. And I knew you would be great as a performance mentor.
Even though I have a background in theatre and feel confident performing in front of an audience, I felt like there was more that I could explore in my performance in terms of how I use my body and my voice. The Empathy Experiment is different from my previous two because it follows a continuous narrative arc all the way through. I felt like I needed someone to be an outside eye to help me build that storytelling journey using movement, voice and characterisation.
What did you expect out of our day together, and what was it actually like?
To be honest, I wasn’t totally sure what to expect. I imagined we would probably do some activities playing with different ways of using my body and then matching them with different parts of the show.
It was really useful to have our Skype meeting beforehand. You asked great questions about what I hoped we might explore together. In particular, you commented that you knew my performance style was often very still and poised, and you wanted to play with different ways I could use my body. You were very understanding when I said I often struggle with anxiety and that I may have to work through some of that in our session together. You struck a great balance between listening to my ideas and offering suggestions for what we might try together. You asked me to have a think about different kinds of physicality at different parts of the show.
On the day, we leapt right in. After I did a run through of the show for you we dove in to creating different bodies for the various stages of the performance. You came to the session with lots of specific ideas for me to try in each section. For example, we watched a YouTube video of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ song ‘Give It Away’ (which is what my poem ‘Put It Away’ is modelled on) and you asked me to play with how I can infuse that raw animalistic energy into my performance. We drew pictures related to the ‘Little Match Girl’ poem, which then gave me specific things to visualize when I perform it. We discovered very distinct physical differences between the two voices in my ‘Mirror Mirror’ poem (about Trump speaking to a magic mirror) which has sharpened the performance.
We hit an emotional nerve when we played with tension and anxiety in the penultimate poem, which is written to be a crisis point in the show anyway. You were very compassionate and receptive to my unexpected outpouring of emotion. After a bit of a break, we talked through how I can access that emotional intensity in performance with care and caution, which felt very reassuring.
The whole process was incredibly organic. I feel like we created bodies that I can authentically embody in performance. I feel like we created a body-centred road map that I can journey through in performance. I feel like this work has added another layer to the full experience of performing the show, and has hopefully added a depth and richness for the audience watching the show.
It was a super intense day, and I still can’t believe how much we achieved!
What made you choose me to help you on this project?
I knew you had seen me perform several times, so I knew you had a sense of my work and my performance style.
Having seen you in performance a few times, I always noticed that your physicality worked in tandem with your poetry. You often move in intentional and nuanced ways that connect with the words you are saying. I really admired this and wanted to explore incorporating that into my own performance.
I also really enjoyed the workshop sessions that you facilitated when a few of us poets gathered to prepare an opening set for Shane Koyczan’s performance in York in summer 2017. You led activities that gave our group an authentic and organic process for deciding what poems to perform. When we rehearsed our pieces you offered feedback that strengthened our performances, using language that was full of imagery. Your overall approach was joyful and enthusiastic. You guided us to discover nuance and technique in how we shared our pieces. I liked the compassionate and detailed way you worked. I found I really connected with your development style, and this led me to wanting to work with you on The Empathy Experiment.
What could other poets and theatre-makers gain from employing a performance mentor?
I think working with a performance mentor in this way can help poets / theatre-makers dig into their performance toolbox (so to speak) and really play with all the performance tools they have at their disposal … like vocal tone, movement, pacing, physicality, characterization, etc. I think poets in particular (and I include myself in this) can get stuck in being talking heads. There is so much emphasis on the words that the body can be forgotten. Working with a performance mentor can bring a performance poet to life and can bring their words to the next level. I also think it’s useful for poets at any level of experience to do some performance mentoring. When we workshopped our pieces for the Shane Koyczan gig, we were all sharing poems we knew really well and (in some cases) had been performing for years. Digging into our performance toolboxes in our workshop meant we were trying new things with familiar material and injecting our pieces with new life and ideas.
How was this experience different from being directed as an actor?
Part of what was different was that I had written the show and so I was very close to the scripted material. It was a good challenge to release any fixed ideas about how I thought something should be performed so that I could be open to your suggestions. For example, I initially felt some resistance to going full Chilli Pepper in my ‘Put It Away’ poem or going full Sandy from Grease in my ‘Dear Facebook’ poem … partly out of feeling anxious
and self-conscious. But being open to playing and committing to your suggestions gave me space to discover. I also felt like we worked very much in collaboration with what we were exploring. You offered ideas and guidance, but all along the way you checked in about how I felt or what I thought. That sense of joint ownership over the creative process was different to my experiences as an actor, and was really positive in our process.
You’ve heard this one, right? Once upon a time, there was a goddess called Demeter. Her power ripened corn, and brought the fruit to sweetness. But when her only daughter was abducted and taken to Hades, she went mad with grief. She wandered the world, searching for Persephone, and the world descended into perpetual winter.
Poets write based on Greek myths a lot. I have a poem in Under The Radar magazine issue 23 based on the Demeter/Persephone myth, and I thought I’d tell you how I came to write it – by doing to myself just what I did with Rose Condo in my last blog.
On a bitterly cold day in January 2015, I created a ‘Demeter body’. I asked myself –
What if she wandered all the way to 2019?
What if she searched as far as Hartlepool?
What would she look like?
How would she move?
I imagined a muttering, distraught homeless woman, ingrained with grime, constantly scanning the gutter-edges of towns for a trace of her daughter, neck hunched forward, arms compulsively reaching out, quivering with painful hope at every child.
I got into character and went on a very long walk through the frozen streets. “Listen with your feet, the shadows are all ice”
I hunched myself, crunched my neck, and limped through some of the most neglected parts of Hartlepool Headland, down the walkway where “the old coal rail / is tarmacked and sequinned with broken fifths of scotch” and into town.
I walked through housing estates I’d never visited before. “Black dog on Vincent Street, slaver on its jowls”
I was astonished by the screams coming from playtime at the local schools. “Rosy little children / breathing out steam like rotting compost”
I even pushed through a damaged fence to search in the scrub near the railway, because by then the body was telling me that Demeter absolutely needed to check everywhere. Every dirty corner where the lost and trashed accumulate.
I lived, trusted and followed Demeter’s body for about four hours. When I came home, I was aching and exhausted, but I had a poem that seemed to have discovered a new voice.
The photographs featured here are composite images created from shots I took on my phone during my walk. They are my attempt to find a visual equivalent for the emotional atmosphere of the poem.
When I mentor performance poets, I watch their bodies. Are they – static, rigid, fidgety, slumped, blocked? Are they all up in their head, or is their personality coming out to meet me? I imagine I can actually see the movement, quality, even colour of their ‘energetic body’.
Then I get them to build new bodies.
Ones that better express their words. Ones where the non-verbal communication amplifies the verbal.
Rose Condo makes solo theatre shows, full of poems and warmth and humanity. She’s a very good writer, and Very Good People. But, she does have this habit of always keeping calm and still when she performs. So when she commissioned me to be performance mentor on her new show, The Empathy Experiment, I was itching to get her body moving. Fortunately, that’s exactly what she wanted too…
Here are the bodies I created with Rose:
The Donald &The Magic Mirror
Red Hot Chilli Rose
Hopelessly Devoted To Facebook
The Memory Arcade
Trying Her Best & The Scientist
Rose Under Pressure
The Donald & The Magic Mirror
In one poem, Rose plays both sides of a conversation between Trump and a magic mirror. We made sure the mirror showed polite horror through a rigid ‘backing off’ shape. For The Donald, Rose had some good expressions and gestures, but it really came alive when I got her to imagine projecting a huge ‘psychopathic hook’ out of the top of her head.
Red Hot Chilli Rose
“Put it away, put it away, put it away now” – the poem mimicked the classic Red Hot Chilli Peppers track ‘Give It Away’, but we needed the body as well. Using the video as inspiration, I forced poor Rose to flail about in full rock star mode!
Hopelessly Devoted To Facebook
For this break-up love-letter to social media, I wanted to channel Olivia Newton-John in ‘Grease’, but the wistful gazing into space didn’t quite nail it. Once we included a prop for Rose to look at, I could provoke a waltzing motion that was both romantic and confrontational.
The Memory Arcade
Three memories form the three stanzas of this poem. For each one, I asked Rose to visualise a tableau and stand within it, creating the scene in her mind as she spoke. Much more effective than you might expect from an invisible technique, and we spent some times drawing the tableaux to fix them in her mind.
Trying Her Best & The Scientist
These two are the narrative glue, the personas that do all the explanation. They are both Rose, but one of her is less confident, which shows in her looser posture and looping, wandering movements around the stage. The other Rose is more structured and certain, so she stays by her whiteboard and keeps herself straight and ‘plugged in’ to her head.
Rose Under Pressure
This body contains the heart of the show, and when we found it there was a very emotional, precious moment. I’m not going to talk about it too much. Perhaps you can understand it from the pictures?
Stay tuned for more, including a Q&A with Rose herself, plus I reveal how shiatsutraining can make you a better performance poet…
Celebrating Change grew in part out of a love for film-poetry. Although not everyone who takes part in the project ends up using a poem as the basis for their digital story, there is still something essentially poetic about putting pictures to words. We ask our film-makers to explore what happens when the pictures don’t […]
Hi folks! I just remembered I have a personal blog where I can tell you things!
I’m doing blackout poetry workshops for Crossing the Tees Festival this month, and I’d love to see a few more faces as I fly about Teesside with my trundle case full of dismembered library books, watercolours, Sharpies, glitter tape, star stickers, crayons and frames…
Book via ARC – dates include TODAY 11th June 2pm in Redcar; Wednesday 13th June 5pm at Cockerton Library in Darlington; and 10.30am Saturday 23rd June in Hartlepool Community Hub (the library on York Road)
Workshops costs a fiver, and you’ll go home with your own piece of text-poetry-art, in either a clip frame or a mount (depending on how much glitter glue you use, I swear that stuff NEVER dries…)
Please click here for an audio recording of Stella’s wonderful poem.
Stella Wulf hails from Wales but now lives in France with her husband and a menagerie of critters. She has spent her life restoring ruins and is yet to live in a house that’s finished. Her poems have appeared in Obsessed With Pipework, The High Window, Raum, Prole, Ink Sweat & Tears, Rat’s Ass Review, Sheila-Na-Gig, and many others. They have also been included in several anthologies: The Very Best of 52, three drops, Clear Poetry Anthology, and #MeToo. She has an MA in Creative Writing, from Lancaster University.
2018 is, I hope, the year of TWO retreats. I spent the last week in January at Dhanakosa, marking my tenth annual retreat, enjoying snow, writing poems, and collecting footage for this filmpoem inspired by our discussions on environmental activism.
If you’re considering a retreat and would like to learn more about meditation or Buddhism, I really recommend Dhanakosa. They have wonderful week-long retreats throughout the year for beginners, and the meditation is always partnered with a sympathetic activity like yoga, writing, painting, photography or even hillwalking. Prices are also on a dana basis – you pay what you can. Go; you won’t regret it.
Hi all – quick round-up of what’s been keeping me away from blogging here – blogging HERE! Celebrating Change is a new Arts Council-funded project from me and my colleague Laura Degnan. We’re combining my writing experience with her filmmaking skills in order to run a year-long digital storytelling project for Middlesbrough residents. I’m also in charge of running the blog as a poetry/film/flash fiction online magazine, so please do check out the many poems I’ve been posting over the last few weeks.
Otters are through the first edit and getting their covers sorted, on track for publication in early October – you can still pre-order your copy, and even buy a print of my ‘Otters In A Bathtub’ illustration, or instruct me to draw an otter of your very own! You have until 10th October to get in on the deal, so do get clicking!
And finally, I will be one half of a brand-new pamphlet coming out in the Black Light Engine Room series. These are gorgeous little pocket-sized poetry gems, with a classy yellow cover, and only cost £4 a pop. I will be reading at the pamphlet launch at Python Gallery in Middlesbrough on Saturday 28th October, hope to see you there.
Lots of other gigs and readings lined up for autumn: