The splendid Reading Room at the Wellcome Collection
Happy New Year! I hope you’ve had some enjoyable time off over midwinter & Christmas. (A strange time; it can feel both restorative and exhausting, all at once.)
As I’m emerging from my festive burrow into the new year, I thought I’d blog about the Exhale and Exchange workshop I was invited to host (by NHS Harefield & Brompton Trust & Imperial College London) at The Wellcome Collection Reading Room last month – and share some of my own writing from that session.
We had a wonderful group of participants, some who planned to attend and some who happened to be in the building and joined in – and the resulting atmosphere was fizzingly creative and communicative.
The intention for the workshop was to use creative writing as a way of exchanging experience, knowledge and stories about breathing and lung health; exploring the potential of language & poetry to offer new ways of looking at breath and breathing.
I used a few approaches in the workshop, including the use of found words (cut out, fridge poetry and from the Reading Room collections) mixing with terms coming up for group members through word-association, mindfulness breathing exercises and discussion.
We took something of an ‘oblique’ angle to warm up our creative & linguistic muscles, using a generated pair of words and an idea from Ginsberg called ‘Eyeball Kick’ *.
I reflected on my arrival in the city:
I Enter The Rumbling Sculpture of London, its mesh of iron and its mulch of rain and voices lost at Paddington up and down stairs escalators an Escher puppet drinking frothy capital stuck on the tracks of L O N D O N rumbling sculpture with too many artist information signs too many interpretations
We then used a different combination of a breath or airy word alongside a new found word, as a springboard for another piece. For me, this lead to a reflection on the voice, voices and the space in which we were working:
Voices Moulding All around the Reading Room are the mouldings of voices some in plaster of Paris some in silicone these mouldings in shapes of sounds waveforms wobbling at their edges and jagged like metal. Voices clinging to the light fittings fluttering into the eaves. How can we contain them? Should we? There is no guidebook for how to capture and store a living voice. Only how to pickle the voice, how to tank and display it. Any voice which has been captured & contained is no longer in the wild the leaf-strewn moment with the wild hot winds of breath where two voices meet in a clearing circling each other not knowing which will show its plumage first.
In the second part of the session, we moved to address our breath or lungs quite directly – in the form of a letter or email. We used an activity adapted from poet Rita Dove’s ‘Ten-Minute Spill’, where each writer ‘harvested’ a selection of words that they then had to use in their piece (hopefully pushing the language in interesting directions):
To My Lungs in the New Year Among your thousands of branches you capture baubles like suns among the space in my chest where twisted flumps & cables entangle, fly like orangutans among burgundy branches, wobbling lazily. All I need is the air that you breathe on my behalf; a forwarding address, a lost gift. I wish you buoyancy through these bleak months. I wish you the opposite of chloroform, may you light up like a fairy.
It was a real pleasure to be invited to work in the Wellcome Collection and bring together a group of strangers who were, by the end of the session, connecting so much through writing.
I’m looking forward to all the groups I’ll be running this year, including a course for Poetry School from January 23rd, my ongoing residency with First Story, and hopefully an LGBTQ+ writing for wellbeing and filmpoetry group with St Mungo’s Bristol.
I hope that you have some time to do whatever you find replenishing over these first months of the year – take care of yourself and
*Footnote – on ‘Eyeball Kick’ – explanation from Language is a Virus.
Allen Ginsberg, “made an intense study of haiku and the paintings of Paul Cézanne, from which he adapted a concept important to his work, which he called the “Eyeball Kick”. He noticed in viewing Cézanne’s paintings that when the eye moved from one color to a contrasting color, the eye would spasm, or “kick.” Likewise, he discovered that the contrast of two seeming opposites was a common feature in haiku. Ginsberg used this technique in his poetry, putting together two starkly dissimilar images: something weak with something strong, an artifact of high culture with an artifact of low culture, something holy with something unholy. The example Ginsberg most often used was “hydrogen jukebox” (which later became the title of an opera he wrote with Philip Glass). Another example is Ginsberg’s observation on Bob Dylan during Dylan’s hectic and intense 1966 electric-guitar tour, fuelled by a cocktail of amphetamines, opiates, alcohol, and psychedelics, as a “Dexedrine Clown”. The phrases “eyeball kick” and “hydrogen jukebox” both show up in “Howl”, as well as a direct quote from Cézanne: “Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus”.”