Jamming with Shakespeare

This week at BCU we had a visit from the Sonnet Man, aka Devon Glover, a New York based rapper who performs Shakespeare in his own unique way. Sonnet Man’s approach is to perform some of Shakespeare’s sonnets as hip hop, with backing tracks, to demonstrate how amazingly flexible the sonnets are, and how well they work in performance; he uses Shakespeare’s own words, but follows this with a ‘breakdown’, which summarises the sonnet in his own words, perhaps picking up particular relevance – to emotions, to everyday lives – which might appeal to his audience. It’s fascinating: Sonnet Man’s performance really is Shakespeare as you’ve never heard him; the brilliance of the simple iambic pentameter, the punch of the alliteration and rhyme, really comes out in this approach. The way in which music, rhythm, poetry and emotions work in the sonnets is very clear. (I have to confess, though, that I’m probably not his target audience, and probably didn’t enjoy it quite as much as some of our students!)

I was interested by the way Devon Glover weaves in his life story – from Brooklyn, looking for a way to better his life through education – as a way to tell the stories of the sonnets. Initially he struggled with Shakespeare, he says, until suddenly it all came to him – through rapping. (Apparently he also teaches maths this way). The way he meshes the apparently opposing cultures of hip hop and Shakespeare is inspiring, and I can see how this would appeal to a lot of people who might not ‘get’ Shakespeare otherwise (though I’m afraid it hasn’t really worked the other way round and converted me to rap), but the performance of Sonnet 17, for example, as a spur to believing in yourself and your own abilities, is bound to inspire. From unsuccessful love affairs to death to academic achievement, Sonnet Man covers it all, and very well; it feels real, somehow, not contrived (‘updated’ performances of Shakespeare can often be rather embarrassing), and I saw its appeal even if I didn’t really feel it myself. Devon Glover makes a great case for the universality of Shakespeare, ripping it away from its middle-class, middle-aged, white British, RP-speaking enclave, and I liked that.

One of my favourite pieces was Hip Hop Hamlet – watch it here:

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Poetry Reading

Anyone is welcome to attend this free poetry reading, or to submit a poem to read! It’s being organised by some of our great students in the School of English at Birmingham City University – Olivia Hodgson, Rick Hughes and Jack Warren – and it should be a really good evening!

 

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Gothic at Christmas

I have written about visiting Strawberry Hill House before, but when I visited this week with students taking my Gothic module, the house was beautifully decorated for Christmas – perhaps this isn’t very Gothic, but it was done with some atmospheric touches (Christmas hats on statues, little knitted robins, etc) that I’m sure would have appealed to Horace Walpole’s sense of humour. The house is always a wonderful place to visit, and it was great to take students there: the module begins with Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and how this (rather daft) novel starts the behemoth that Gothic literature has become. (You can read my students’ module blog here). The guides did a great job of exploring how Walpole’s fascination with early Gothic architecture was translated to his house and then to his writing. Here are some photos of the day.image1

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Books, music and art at Port Eliot Festival

IMG_1976The Port Eliot festival is one of my favourite events of the year. Held in a beautiful country estate in Cornwall, it’s a weekend filled with books, music, food, gin and general jollity. It’s impossible not to find something to inspire you, and although it’s exhausting having so much fun it’s also inspiring (and I came home with a large pile of books to read). I even heard some comedy I found funny – Shappi Khorsandi (I don’t usually enjoy comedy). There are always small tragedies of the writers you don’t get to hear because they clash with something else you simply must do – but I’ll try not to dwell on that! I won’t test your patience with a rendition of my notebook, but instead will just go through a few highlights. First, music. I went to a singing workshop run by the Chaps Choir, where we sang gospel songs, a Finnish reindeer call, and a great arrangement of The Magnetic Fields’ ‘The Book of Love‘. I love to sing, and this has really inspired me to go and find another choir; I haven’t stopped singing since (especially as we got to perform the song in St Germans Church on Sunday). The singing was also inspired by hearing Fishermans Friends, the Port Isaac group who sing sea shanties (and drink beer and laugh whilst singing). I love the shanties, and sing them with my son, who would have loved their show, which had everyone singing along. We also heard Stealing IMG_1985Sheep, and the Unthanks, who were great in concert (‘The Testimony of Patience Kershaw‘, with its socio-historical roots, especially appealed to me).

The writers I heard included Rachel Holmes talking to Shami Chakrabarti about her forthcoming book on Sylvia Pankhurst. I’ve bought her previous book, on Eleanor Marx, and even had a quick chat to her about the nature of feminist biography, and the Pankhurst book should be a good addition to the canon of works on the Suffragettes. Next, I listened to Laura Barton talking about music and sadness – how we bring our own sadness to music we listen to, but how music can also be a way out of sadness, a concept echoed by Matt Haig the following day, talking about reading and writing as a way out of depression, perhaps because it forces us to IMG_1990externalise our emotions and make connections.

In the pouring rain we listened to Owen Sheers (whose book Resistance I have bought but have yet to read) talking about his new book, I Saw A Man, which I bought for my husband, as well as his diverse other projects including a film-poem commemorating the disaster at Aberfan. His comments on Welshness and poetry – that poetry is well-supported in Wales, perhaps better so than in England – interested me. As a complete contrast, we also heard Luke Wright performing his poetry; he’s a great performer, with poems about parenthood, suburbia, politics and failed dreams.

The biggest draws of Saturday were Sarah Waters and Simon Armitage, speaking to packed marquees (the strange angle of the photographs indicates that I was on the floor directly in front of the stage!) I enjoyed Waters’ talk, as I enjoy her novels (though her latest, The Paying Guests, is probably my least favourite). She talked about her research, the periods in history she is interested in (she plans her next novel to be set IMG_1982in the 1950s), and her apparent obsessions with houses, mothers and daughters, gender and class. In The Paying Guests she wrote about the Twenties because it was a period she knew little about, and intentionally undermined the stereotype of the Roaring Twenties, instead focusing on the class conflict and quieter lives of those bereaved after the war. Her interests are often in ordinary lives disrupted by extraordinary events, rather than extraordinary characters. I’m interested to hear that The Little Stranger is to be made into a film and The Paying Guests a TV series.

Simon Armitage, recently elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford, has a refreshingly down-to-earth approach for one of the most famous (living) British poets, He talked about his books Walking Home and Walking Away, in which he walked first the Pennine Way and then the South coast, ‘testing poetry’, as he put it – giving readings along the way to support himself, and asking what payment people felt he deserved; though he is an optimist about poetry, he felt that he should take poetry to people to see their response, and on the whole he seems positive about this (again, I have both books but haven’t yet read either!) The extracts IMG_1983he read are not only poetic but humorous too, and suggest that both in the people he met and in the landscape itself he found, unexpectedly, a strong and positive sense of Britishness.

I managed to catch some of a conversation between the sculptor Alice Channer, Nicholas Serota of the Tate, and Chris Stephens, focusing on Barbara Hepworth, the subject of an exhibition at the Tate currently. I was particularly interested in Channer’s comments about how Hepworth makes a solid, hard material look somehow elastic, as though she has changed its very nature in the process of her work. The relationship of people and places to sculpture is something the exhibition has encouraged me to think about too, and the three of them in conversation on Hepworth were inspiring.images

Finally, I was especially inspired by a discussion between Philip Marsden and Tim Dee. Both nature writers (or travel writers), they discussed, among other things, how we use language to construct nature, poetically, socially, historically, and these days politically and ecologically. This is, of course, to nature’s complete ignorance of it: a blackbird has no idea it is a blackbird, or that we have all kinds of cultural connotations of blackbirds; it just is. Obvious but needing stating, I think. And the naming of nature is itself a colonial project, they suggested, implying our dominion over it in a way which is uncomfortable. I’ve only recently become interested in ‘nature writing’, so was fascinated by their discussion about ‘the new nature writing’ – particularly around the resurgence of interest rising-groundin it which is, perhaps, stemming from our disconnection with nature in the modern world, as well as a desire to capture what seems to be a vanishing world (though both of these have been the impetus for much nature writing for centuries). It’s also politically motivated, very often, though, raising awareness of the changes in ecosystems, threatened species, etc; we are looking into the abyss. I’ve bought Marsden’s book Rising Ground, on the ‘spirit of place’ in Cornwall as a way of thinking about how we connect to the landscape more broadly, and how this gives both individuals and cultures meaning. It’s yet another book I can’t wait to read!

Exhibition Review: Fashion on the Ration

imagesI’ve been very excited about Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style at the Imperial War Museum. 1940s fashion is one of my secret passions, and I have a little collection of dresses, shoes, hats etc; I’m not sure why it appeals to me so much, except that the clothes suit me and I find the period interesting. The IWM do a good job of explaining the way in which fashion changed in response to wartime; both rationing and changing cultures (women working in manual jobs, for example) affected clothes. Fabrics, embellishments and other materials such as metal and plastic used in clothes was restricted, so styles evolved which owed a lot to ‘make do parachute silk underwearand mend’ – altering clothes or completely making them over (such as cutting down a man’s suit to make a dress, or a wedding dress to make underwear). Fashion, and appearance generally, was considered very important despite the restrictions: looking good was seen as a way of keeping up morale and showing that the British weren’t being beaten; a Yardley advert of the time said: “To work for victory is not to say yardleygoodbye to charm. For good looks and good morale are the closest of allies.” And this isn’t about unaffordable, movie-star fashion: this is ‘street style’ – the focus is very much on ordinary women, their clothes, and their unpublicised heroism.

From underwear made from parachute silk to wedding dresses worn by numerous brides, from siren suits (the original onesie) to Utility clothes (well-made but cut to minimise usage of difficult-to-obtain fabrics, and designed by top names), the exhibition explores how British fashion remade itself in the light of war. Many factories which once made luxury objects (lipsticks, buttons, suspender clasps etc) started making bullet cases or other essentials of war, so ingenuity was necessary to keep up appearances. Beetroot juice might be used once all your pre-war lipsticks were exhausted, and stockings were replaced with graving browning and a line drawn with eyeliner (or charcoal, once that had run out). Old clothes were unpicked, unravelled, and carefully crafted into something new, while adornments might include jewellery made from aircraft parts (really!), or crocheted from scraps of wool.images (2)

The exhibition makes a good attempt to include men’s fashion, too, but it’s the dresses and accessories for women which steal the show. Personally I think I had rather hoped for more, somehow – I enjoyed it a great deal but it didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t know (though I was surprised/impressed by the psychedelic mushroom print on this housecoat, right), and many of the items on display were similar to ones I own; but that’s just me, and along with contemporary photographs, and accounts of women who lived through the war, it provides a great story about how fashion – and people – exceeded expectations in adapting to difficult circumstances.

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Gothic exhibition at the Library of Birmingham

_GBP3778Last week was the launch of Gothic, an exhibition of work by students at Birmingham City University. We’ve been working towards this for a while now and the exhibition, curated by Grace Williams, represents some of the fantastic work done by our students as well as offering a fascinating perspective on Gothic in the 21st century. Gothic is endlessly inspiring, it seems, and appears in our arts and culture in very different, unexpected ways, and this exhibition, which includes photography, painting and jewellery, reflects this and the ongoing relevance of Gothic as a cultural influence.

Last week saw the opening event of the exhibition, which was pleasingly well attended, and we ha_GBP3716d the opportunity to enjoy readings of creative writing by School of English students Charlotte Newman, Bex Price and Abigail Cooper. The exhibition itself provides some excellent examples of the way in which artists can reinterpret or be inspired by Gothic themes.

Exhibiting artists include:

Jivan Astfalck, Sally Bailey, Rachel Colley, Alessandro Columbano, Gregory Dunn, Jodie Drinkwater, Joanna Fursman, Anneka French, Bruno Grilo, Ole Hagen, Hannah Honeywill, Shelley Hughes, Sevven Kucuk, Jo Longhurst, Amy Lunn, Paul Newman, Wendi Ann Titmus, Cathy Wade, Grace A Williams and Rafal Zar.

Ther_GBP3700e isn’t space for me to comment on every work included, unfortunately, but it’s fair to say that the macabre and unsettling is a feature of most of the works included. There is jewellery which includes vintage stones, in a beautiful, unusual pendant by Jivan Astfalck, and Rachael Colley’s ‘Sovereign’, a ring set with sawdust and blood, a macabre echo of the hair mourning jewellery popular in the nineteenth century. More traditionally, Jodie Drinkwater’s ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ is a pen and ink drawing of a monstrous figure of a man on the rooftops of a Victorian city, indicating the fear of the unknown which can penetrate the familiar.The beautiful often contains the terrible, as Sevven Kucuk’s ‘Still Life with ApplesGBA_3530 – but no Oranges’ indicates (the title referencing Cezanne); the image of the glowing fruit in an urn-like container recalls Renaissance memento mori, reminding us that decay is present in everything.

The historical echoes of Gothic in the nineteenth century are all around even in this new work. As Julian Wolfreys points out in Victorian Hauntings, the Victorian period is, culturally, what we picture when we think of Gothic:

‘…all that black, all that crepe, all that jet and swirling fog… These and other phenomena, such as the statuary found in cemeteries _GBP3699such as Highgate, are discernible as being fragments – manifestations of a haunting, and, equally, haunted, “Gothicized” sensibility.’

Grace Williams’ print ‘Escamotage’ references a nineteenth century ‘vanishing trick’ in which the female body appears to disappear from under a Persian rug, which both reveals and conceals the female form. Gothic, with its complex relationship to the position of women – historically both reinforcing the subjection of women and simultaneously offering them a freedom as ‘other’, as deviant from the norm – provides a context to the image which makes it all the more disturbing. Wendi Ann Titmus’s mixed media images ‘Intellectual Uncertainty’ similarly disconcert the viewer, blurring boundaries between innocence and the macabre, reality and fantasy, and even fear and humour._GBP3696

These and many other exhibits are worth taking time over, considering how they relate to Gothic and also how they reflect the uncertainties we feel about the past as well as the anxieties of the present. Do go along to the Library of Birmingham and have a look at the exhibition, which is on the 3rd floor and runs until May 2nd.

All images (c) Graeme Braidwood Photography.