by Anna Dickie
A layering of photographic fragments of homing pigeons being released and pigeons cut out from ordnance survey maps, the idea of getting one’s bearings being a momentary thing that we do constantly at a subconscious level. These maps are of places I traveled to with my partner of thirty years.
Anna Dickie started writing poetry in her late forties and has been published widely. Her first pamphlet Heart Notes was published by Calder Wood Press, and last autumn Imprint, a collaboration with fellow poet Irene Brown, was published by jaggnath press. Her poem “Snow” has been anthologised in Not Only the Dark, a book in aid of Shelterbox, a charity providing worldwide disaster relief, and she recently took part in BBC Radio 4’s Poetry Workshop with the poet, writer and broadcaster Ruth Padel. She also performs with a poetry group called Poetrio.
by Anna Dickie
|I||last leaf on the cherry tree
the colour of a blackbird’s beak
silent in briar
the river must be frozen yet
out in the darkness
take me back
|IV||I know when I leave
your dark flight
will beat my bounds
|V||the whistle of a blackbird
above another urban dawn
|VI||three blue-green eggs
which to prefer, new life
or the promise of it
|VII||blackbird and woman
the perfect marriage
of blossom and thorn
|VIII||our figs are ripe
the blackbird says
|IX||driving in low light
by a blackbird’s swoop
|X||dusk in the orchard
where a vigorous shadow
is knifing fruit
|XI||a blackbird scolds
and she breaks off
her homily, and puts away
|XII||a man, a woman, a blackbird
winged bit players
in a pantomime
|XIII||many black birds,
Note: Anna writes of the European blackbird, Turdus merula, which is in the thrush family, rather than the North American species, which are icterids. For further information on this common British bird please see here.
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Sound of the blackbird by inchadney at Freesound.org (Creative Commons Attribution licence)
Anna Dickie started writing poetry in her late forties and has been published widely. Her first pamphlet Heart Notes was published by Calder Wood Press, and last autumn Imprint, a collaboration with fellow poet Irene Brown, was published by jaggnath press. Her poem “Snow” has just been anthologised in Not Only the Dark, a book in aid of Shelterbox, a charity providing worldwide disaster relief, and she recently took part in BBC Radio 4’s Poetry Workshop with the poet, writer and broadcaster Ruth Padel. She also performs with a poetry group called Poetrio.
by Anna Dickie
This is a photograph of an origami flower made from an old gardening book. The flower was a gift; I don’t know who made it. But I’m grateful for the opportunity to participate in a chain of translation: from idea to paper, paper to form and form to a solarised photograph.
Hill’s Vest-Pocket Flemish-English/English-Flemish Dictionary
Published, London 1917
A spent volume,
bound in frayed vermilion.
Left behind on bare boards.
Inside, on a flyleaf:
The Briton Abroad Series,
Indispensable to every traveller.
I thumb what must have been
Great Uncle John’s lexicon.
Eye picking out an alphabet
that lips can barely form:
Aanbruisen, to rush on, to foam
Cipres, m. Cypress
Eeheid, f. unit, unity
Flikken, to patch, to mend
Geklep, n. tolling, peel (of bells)
Hunkeren, to long for
Insmeren, to grease
Kankerbloem, f. wild poppy
Leeuwerik, m. lark
Maan, f. moon
Nok, f. ridge,
Opwekken, to rouse
Pel, f. shell
Raap, f. turnip
Snipperkoek, m. gingerbread with orange peel
Toon, m. tune, tone, voice
Uur, n. hour
Vlasbaard, m. (fig.) beardless boy
Wapenstilstand, m. truce, armistice
Zaad, n. seed
Anna Dickie lives near Edinburgh in Scotland. She started writing poetry in her late forties and has been placed in a number of competitions. Born in West Africa and educated in Scotland, she is married with one university-aged son. Anna has had two pamphlets published, Peeling Onion and Heart Notes, published in 2008 by Calder Wood Press.
In 2009 she co-edited the Economy issue of qarrtsiluni. She performs with two other Scottish women poets in a group called Poetrio.
As the global economy has struggled to find its way to recovery this year, we decided to take a much-used word and ask artists to play around with its meaning and implication so that the word economy could be re-envisioned. We challenged contributors to send us interpretive and imaginative explorations of this one word — and our challenge was met with a rowdy, triumphant and eclectic mix of poems, flash fiction, visual artwork, and video poetry.
As editors, we had the difficult and stimulating task of selecting work we believe depicted the word beyond its stereotypical associations. We sought out submissions that weren’t so much about the news of the word but about its heart and heat. It has been a real honor to read through, select and then present the brave and beautiful work in this issue of qarrtsiluni, which engages its audience to read and think in new and wonderful ways.
Anna Dickie writes:
Our entire collaboration took place by e-mail; we’ve never spoken face-to-face or by phone. Early on, by way of background, we had the idea to write introductory biographies/impressions of each other. These we’ve included at the end.
I selected two images, one of a place and one of a thing, for Lucy to respond to. And as Lucy writes often about the countryside, I chose a city shot for the place, as I wanted to see her take on something urban.
I like to use a Lensbaby lens for cityscape, as it provides interesting distortions of buildings and people, so my “place” image was a duo-toned shot of the Playfair steps in Edinburgh, a long set of well-worn steps that lead up to the Old Town.
The “thing” choice was a black-and-white shot of an old goatskin wine sack hanging from a post on a farm high up in the levadas of Madeira. (Country people there still use goatskins to store wine.)
Lucy was more generous than me in choosing images for me to respond to, sending me five images: a moving carousel, a French country house and grounds, a stack of old terracotta floor tiles, a war memorial, and a bride and groom walking in a beauty spot to have photographs taken.
I was immediately drawn to the country house shot — black and white and beautifully framed by a sinister ivy-covered gate — and the colour image of the wedding couple.
I then thought of Wendell Berry’s poem, “Country of a Marriage,” which I think is a rather smug, comfortable, male view of a marriage. And that got me wondering if I could subvert Lucy’s two photographs into a single image that had the feel of a French film still, and then write a poem in the voice of a bride that had something of the mood of the photograph. I tackled the images first, but try as I might I couldn’t get the couple at the angle I wanted on the path, until I had the idea of flipping the whole country house shot horizontally using Photoshop. This worked really well, as it put the gate pillar on the left opening up the scene, and when the couple were added in it put the bride on the groom’s right, making her seem the more powerful figure who was doing all the talking while he took on a rather hangdog expression.
After that I applied some dodging and burning to the image, to bring out the light on the trees and then applied some digital “film grain” to make the shot more atmospheric.
With the poem I borrowed some of the word choices from the original to create a completely new poem about a woman whose thoughts about being with this man, in this place only crystallise on the day of their marriage.
I’ll leave it for Lucy to say what she thought about the result.
Lucy Kempton writes:
I read Anna’s poem first, and was intrigued by how she seemed to have woven the narrative possibilities of the two photos together. Then I looked at the picture in the attachment and was astonished — it gave me a shiver like seeing a ghost! The figures sat disturbingly in the scene, but at the same time seemed to belong there. Yet I had never envisaged combining the two images in such a way. I was struck too by how the spike in the gate seemed to be about to impale the woman, like pinning a butterfly.
Then I read the Wendell Berry poem, which I didn’t know. I also thought it had a somewhat self-satisfied tone, an assumption of knowing what the woman concerned thought and felt, of the unarguable universality of his own perception, though of course my reading of it was by then coloured by Anna’s poem! But I was very taken with the “he-said-she-said” character of her response, the piquant counterpoint of the woman’s terser, diverging point of view, the sadness of the voice, and the atmosphere of place it captures, the “broody woods” and “fickle orchards.”
While I think Anna’s poem and the composite image she made can each stand alone and without reference to the Wendell Barry poem, the synthesis of the three elements makes for something more. I’m delighted with how she saw the potential in the two images together, then drew on a further outside source to make such a clever, moving piece.
My second choice was Lucy’s image from Normandy of some old terracotta floor tiles left stacked outside in some scrubby grass. I worked with this to create a text overlay on the image, a short poem in the form of sequential questions, rather in the style of the nursery rhyme ‘The house that Jack built’.
However, though pleased with what I produced, we eventually felt that both of our the secondary pieces, the “Floor Tiles” and the “Playfair Steps,” made the overall submission unwieldy, so we concentrated our efforts on the major poem and picture combinations, and decided to submit the others, both in text/image overlay form, to Postal Poetry.
Having already received Anna’s photos for me to work with, I noted she had selected one image of a place and one of a thing, so I tried to follow suit. I tended to favour black and white in my choices, though not exclusively, perhaps rather influenced by knowing that Anna has a fondness for it. Unable to narrow down to just two, I sent two “places” and three “things.” Among these were the black and white photo of a chateau in the countryside hereabouts, which, with its heavy flaking iron gates, shady drive and general shabbiness has always epitomised for me a kind of melancholy hostility and otherness (the owner has, I learned later, something of a reputation for misanthropy and reclusiveneness).
Then I added the odd, quickly taken shot of the bride and groom in formal wedding dress, whom I’d seen being photographed in an area of quite lonely, empty coastal marshland, a place which seemed a strange, slightly surreal choice for this. I had kept the picture, feeling it had some potential I couldn’t quite identify, and threw it in at the last minute for Anna as a kind of wild card. I’m glad I did.
I’m glad that we just sent each other the images with little by way of explanation. We didn’t agree to do this, it was just how things worked out, but it meant that we were free to interpret the images any way we pleased.
I also think it’s interesting that despite trying to coax each other towards other ideas/images our strongest pieces came out of the subjects that are closest to our hearts — and maybe that is a useful lesson to learn, that you can challenge yourself with new things, but ultimately you will always come back to what truly moves/interests you.
Anna sent me the photographs of the Madeiran goatskin, an extraordinary object the like of which I hadn’t seen before, and the mysterious one of the Playfair steps in her beloved Edinburgh with a shadowy figure at the top. I printed the photographs so that I could keep them around for a time and look at them frequently, and mull over the ideas and associations they suggested. The prevalent things in my mind about goatskins were the biblical reference to not putting new wine in them, together with a curiosity as to how they were made watertight enough to hold wine at all, and, by assonance, the word “goatsong,” the translation of the Greek word tragoidia — tragedy, the origin of which remains opaque. I did a little research, and eventually a combination of ideas surrounding landscape, tragedy, wine and the life, death and final fate of a goat produced the final poem.
Unable to settle, I also attempted a more formal version in two Sicilian octaves; I thought Sicily seemed quite appropriate for the subject even though the goatskin was from Madeira! I sent them both to Anna, who chose the first version, which I was generally happier with too.
After she had read it, Anna, who knows I enjoy making double or multi-exposure collages, tentatively suggested a wine stain might add something to the goatskin image to go with the poem. She was a little apologetic about leading me, but I was cheerfully open to the suggestion, and set about sloshing some ropey old cooking Chianti onto various light coloured surfaces (no oenophile sensibilities were hurt in the making of this picture). I made the collage using Picasa’s multi-exposure collage function, then tweaked the levels somewhat, still in Picasa. However, it was still rather faint and had lost detail, so Anna, who always knows how much more can be got out of an image without ever compromising its integrity, further improved it using curves in Photoshop. She even made a funky little grid of the wine stain and the Chianti bottle photos I sent her later.
The intriguingly named Playfair Steps sent me off on a trail of research on Edinburgh, which triggered some associated memories. The short poem arising from that, like Anna’s roof tiles, we removed from the final cut, and, in text-on-picture form, submitted elsewhere, as mentioned.
I was walking down from a long levada walk towards a welcome drink when I spotted this poor old goatskin hanging from one of the posts they use to support the grape vines that surround every homestead on the island. This particular homestead was almost in ruins and a passion flower had crept in and taken over the post and most of the surrounding area. I knew right away it would make a great black and white shot, particularly due to the texture in the cracked skin and the worn string. Our driver for the day picked up a new goatskin full of wine to deliver to relatives, and it was much less appealing, as it looked and felt like a large stuffed intestine.
I was touched and amazed by the rigour of Lucy’s research, and the number of ideas that my image evoked. I also liked how she tapped into the timelessness and the history of the object, which was what struck me when I saw it. And when I saw the finished pieces I was forcibly struck by just how well she’d captured the life, death and spirit of the goat.
I also liked the lovely circularity of her idea of the goatskin going back to the mountains.
I did feel guilty about suggesting the wine stain, as I wasn’t sure if it was acceptable for me to suggest a further mutation of Lucy’s initial mutation. Perhaps I suggested it because I was happily cutting up her pictures, but I think it was these words: “the final emptying; a small kind of tragedy” in the last stanza of her piece that made me feel it would be both poignant and shocking to see something in colour, suggesting both the goat’s blood and the wine, applied to the black and white image of the sack.
Drafting — how we both work
I prefer to start most writing with pen and paper. Keyboard and screen always, initially, present too many barriers: mediocre keyboard skills, a tendency to be distracted by things like e-mails and internet, guilt about being glued to a screen too long. On the whole, I simply find pen and paper more sympathetic, a safe, unjudgemental place to simply scribble and scrub out whatever comes to mind. I also like pen and paper from a sensory point of view; I have cheap, usually spiral notebooks of different sizes and carry them about, on my knee on the sofa, on the breakfast table, the kitchen counters, in bags and pockets, along with fineliner pens. I gather there are those who develop similar intimate, companionable relations with their laptops, but I can’t.
However, there comes a point when the sheer volume of dog-eared, palimpsestuous drafts becomes unmanageable:
(Just kidding! This is a multi-exposure collage, a product imitating a process, but it gives an impression.)
And then it’s time to sift them all out,
attempt something approaching what I want to achieve, get it onto the computer, and then tinker around some more: punctuation, line breaks, word changes… One has to stop somewhere.
It occurs to me that with more and more writing taking place exclusively on electronic media, the process becomes increasingly fugitive and invisible, so attempts like this to record it necessarily become artificial re-creations after the fact. We have become aware in this collaboration that a blow-by-blow, unedited record of the process is neither desirable nor really possible. Probably this doesn’t matter. I see it as a little like turning over a piece of weaving to see the reverse side, with its knots and ends and rough bits; you see something of the finished process, not in linear form in the order it was achieved, but dotted about over the surface you don’t normally see.
In addition, on this project, we submitted everything we wrote to one another for editing and suggestions. I have enjoyed this process, including — perhaps most of all — the parts which we ended up leaving out.
I too usually start with a paper draft, however I’m not so organised as to have spiral notebooks or favourite pens. No, my approach is more a case of grabbing the gas bill envelope and some scuzzy pencil from the kitchen drawer to scribble down a line or phrase that’s popped into my head as I haul clothes from the washing machine or peel the spuds.
However, for this project I seemed to go straight for the computer, perhaps because I was re-reading the Wendell poem online, or perhaps because working online made me feel a little more connected to the images, the project and to Lucy.
I must admit to really enjoying working with Lucy’s images, as I felt much more detached than when I edit my own photographs, where I’m already burdened with knowing where the shot was taken, or the mood I was in on the day, or the idea I was trying to convey.
I have also enjoyed our e-mail contact. We both blog, but this project has made it quite obvious just what a presentation of self a blog is. Correspondence, even by e-mail, is much more 3-D.
We probably should have fleshed out more ground rules before we started, but from my standpoint the serendipity of this project has only added to the process.
It’s been fun working with Lucy, and I just hope that shows in our results.
Although our ideas for photos and poem responses came quite easily, it seemed to take a while for us to tune in to each other on how to go about presenting the process, so we digressed and produced quite a lot of tangential stuff not featured here, which was fun anyway. We gossiped, even though we were only communicating by e-mail, which used up time, but, again, was enjoyable. We like each other and each other’s work, which meant perhaps we were reluctant to criticise, chivvy, make alternative suggestions, or weed out anything the other produced, though we did do this eventually, and perhaps makes us slip into mutual admiration mode when talking about one another, which is sincere but I hope not too off-putting.
It’s difficult knowing when to stop adding and adjusting, more so than when working alone, because of the compulsion to keep responding.
The other problem is practical and technical, unwanted mutation arising from using different softwares, copying and pasting etc, giving rise to a ragtag array of different fonts and lost line breaks, which needed continual, time-consuming tinkering with. Should have used a Google document…
Our biographies of each other
Lucy on Anna
Anna recently noted that being lately detoxed from an aromatase inhibitor drug, used in the treatment of breast cancer, provided welcome relief from years of low spirits and insomnia following treatment for Stage 3 breast cancer. I was somewhat surprised.
This was the woman I first encountered when I read Peeling Onions, the narrative series she wrote in haiku, which related her personal experience of cancer with strength, dignity and honesty; the woman who produces beautiful, distinctive, bold photos that win prizes and a chapbook of poems that people buy; who participates in poetry readings and workshops and exhibitions; who badgers me to get my photo-editing skills up to scratch and sends me the wherewithal to do it; who undertakes what I would consider to be extreme gardening projects (she once offered to come and stay with me in exchange for cutting all our hedges and teaching me how to use Photoshop properly — I nearly took her up on it but didn’t want to be shown up); who travels to interesting places, supports other cancer sufferers, has a husband, a son, a dog, who finds and shares wonderful videos on YouTube (the Phil Collins gorilla was a memorable one)… I could go on.
So, if she’s been doing all that in a state of depressed sleep deprivation, what’s she going to be doing now she’s feeling better?
I soon found out.
“Do you want to send each other some photos and write about them for qarrtsiluni?” she asked.
Two minutes later the photos arrived.
Several days later, after much poring and indecision, I sent her some of mine.
Two minutes later…
Anna on Lucy
I’m not sure how long I’ve been dipping into Lucy’s blog to read and enjoy her photo essays on life in the French countryside and much else besides.
But I keep returning because Lucy has the rare gift of managing to look at the world afresh each day, enjoying all the small and intimate pleasures it has to offer — like seeing a friend’s new baby thrive, and a water lily bud break, and then combining these two images into one shot of a lovely little waterbaby.
Even when things get difficult and challenging, like recently when Tom, Lucy’s partner, was in hospital, she still manages to record the facts in an open, gentle and genuine way — and this is a real tonic in a world where people seem overly ready to bemoan their lot.
Lucy’s openness to life can be clearly seen and enjoyed in her recent exploration of the ancient poetic form of the ghazal; and some of her pieces have been published in The Ghazal Page, the online journal devoted to that subject.
And I know I’m not alone in liking her work; many others enjoy it too, especially the Handbook for Explorers, a cycle of 50 sonnets by Joe Hyam, matched beautifully with Lucy’s highly interpretive images.
So when the qarrtsiluni submission call for “Mutating the Signature” dropped into my inbox, I immediately thought of Lucy and wondered if she would be willing to work with me.
I dream of waking where neon
blooms, and nightsong is a siren
blare or the rattle of a tram.
I fear a life spent in a gloomy
house, surrounded by a broody
wood, tending a fickle orchard
and shady gardens without end.
I know forest paths like these,
and how well women come
to tread them. I don’t know
what bound me to you.
Lost in the dark I stood still,
said nothing. So forgive me,
as I set you free — of me.
Download the MP3 (reading by Anna)
Hung from a nail in the parching sun, a passion flower
clings and climbs around the post. Forget scripture,
though my sides and seams, once sealed with pitch,
crack and craze, take me, fill me with new wine.
Carry me over the hills and groves, to the summer pastures,
the uplands where once I sprang on rocks and grazed,
to remember, once more, nibbling twigs of myrtle and olive,
bitter and fragrant.
Drink from me there, and I’ll show you, from out of the wine,
dark joy, and bright sorrow, pride and falling from grace,
and pity, and the final emptying; a small kind of tragedy,
a sad drunk goat song.
Poem by Lucy, photograph by Anna, mutated by Lucy, with help from Anna
Download the MP3 (reading by Lucy)
Process notes will appear in Part 2.