Among this year’s Taylor Wessing photography prize shortlisted entries, the portraits that draw me most are those that frame and articulate the offguarded moments of people, revealing the poetic quality in off-stage, everyday rituals. James Russell Cant’s picture Heather and Her Friends captures a candid moment of teenagers fascinated by online contents: the hypnotised looks in their eyes, coupled with the clever manipulation of light coming from the computer, reflect people’s attraction to mainstream consumption, to readymade information… I am also very fond of Maru, a piece by Annie Collinge, showing a close-up portrait of a young Japanese girl. The character’s permed hair and flushed face combine with the inquisitive, dreamy look to conjure an impression of youthful adventure and self-fashioning, emphasising the power of individuality in a fast-paced, indifferent cosmopolitan society. It is definitely worth checking out the artist’s remarkable portfolio on her website, especially Scottee and The Underwater Mermaid.
Kamil Szkopi‘s portrait, Jenny, offers a refreshing interpretation of the offguard moment of a fashion model. The pure blue background is strikingly effective, and frames the model’s introspective and expectant gaze. One can find an interesting dialogue between this portrait with Alice Pavesi Fiori’s Lola Smoking, an impressionistic painterly piece that focuses on self-narrative and history. Hilary Mantel‘s portrait by Michael Birt, however, is slightly disappointing. A lucid image of the Man Booker prize winner posed on the beach of Budleigh Salterton, Devon, the red hat, bright lipstick and chic cape are too distracting, making the portrait appear rather upstaged and deliberate.
The Ventriloquist by Alma Hasler, which has won the fourth prize, stands out as a strikingly original piece, with the unsettling intimacy between two people with identical haircut and similar facial expressions.
The winning portrait by Ruiz Cirera, a 28-year-old London-based Spanish photographer, features a woman in Bolivia seated in front of a kitchen table, looking directly at the camera, her gaze tinged with curiosity and uncertainty, her left hand partially shading her lips as if showing her reluctance to be photographed. While I find quite a few of the other portraits in the exhibition equally well-composed, this realist portrait requires an active response from the viewer, and conveys authenticity as a piece of photojournalism.
I also adore the texture and storytelling in the work Christopher and Harriet by Laura Cooper. The self-assurance and expression in the young girl’s face against the home setting is powerfully rendered. There’s something in her inquiring, precocious look that generates mystery, and makes one curious about her childhood dreams and experiences.
Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2012 from 8 November 2012 – 17 February 2013 at the National Portrait Gallery, London.
images courtesy of National Portrait Gallery
I’ve been tagged by the very talented poet Kirsten Irving to give this interview for an expanding blog project called The Next Big Thing. You can read her interview here!
The idea is to post mine and tag other writers to do the same on 9 January 2013.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I suppose the writing follows from Summer Cicadas, my previous book, even if the two books are quite different in style and voice. I’ve always been trying to understand what it’s been like to emerge from our families, childhood, education and impressionable years, being a product of where we came from, and yet choosing to be who we want to be. I grew up in a rather conservative Chinese community where there’s a clear sense of what’s good and what’s not, and that superstitions make up reality. I ate steamed fish with ginger slices and I would avoid going out on ghost festival day. When I came to England to study and to work, I felt that nothing’s the same anymore: I needed to modify my beliefs or make up rules as I went along. I think the book is a response to the tectonics of growing up, and the need to understand what’s going on.
What genre does your book fall under?
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
I’d love to see poems turned into films, for poetry has a very sensual and cinematic quality to it. I’d love to see Faye Wong or Tang Wei play the female protagonist in some of the poems set in Asia, say ’2046′ inspired by Wong Kar Wai’s movies. Norah Jones or Lea Seydoux for the more sensual poems such as ‘Entwined’: their faces express such strength in character, such vulnerability. Yu Aoi will be great for ‘Roppongi Hills’.
What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
Time travels in a bottle, bobbing up and down the vast ocean: time marked with fairytales, taboos, childhood dreams and shaken truths that build our characters.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
More than I envisaged! Some of the poems are more recent, some have drafts dating back to a few years, and they keep changing. I keep coming back to the work, adding and transforming it, changing the characters and the narratives, and above all trimming away. I want to make it easy for anyone to get something out of my work: those who normally read poetry and those who don’t. In time these ideas grow and evolve. Sometimes people I get to know or new encounters would change my mind about the way the poems should travel.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Childhood, dreams, and works of art inspire me. They give me hope, yearning, and strange ideas. Think of a music box with a ballerina, a hot air balloon, games invented by kids, Chinese superstitions, conversation overheard in a local pub…When I was in primary school, there’s a girl in my class who liked to keep a scrapbook full of ghost story clippings from newspapers. She used to tell me those stories when we walked home after school. They used to give me such goose bumps.
When I was writing this book, I come across works of the others that really speak to me — Heaney, Kay Ryan, Simon Armitage, just to name a few — their poems make me understand that there is something very mysterious and global about poetic language, that well-considered words put together with such economy can be shared and understood among complete strangers.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
This is a coming-of-age book, something about being Asian and yet not quite. It’s about what you struggle for, the authenticity of self-beliefs. I’m also interested in how class affects or changes people.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Goldfish will be published by Chameleon Press in early 2013.
It’s new year time when everyone is away, but I think these amazing fellow writers will be posting up their own responses to the questions soon! Make sure you check them out on/after 9 January 2013.
1. Patricia Jabbeh Wesley
2. Rob Mackenzie
3. Nikola Madzirov (soon!)
4. Marisa Sd
I’ve reread this poem and am startled by the building-up of suspense and surprise in it.
It’s aptly entitled ‘Give’ not ‘Giving’, the verb insistent and almost pleading. Beginning with ‘of all the public places, dear / To make a scene, I’ve chosen here’, it makes the reader rather uneasy about what will happen next, and sets up a close relationship between the reader and the homeless which will, later on, become the source of tension.
The voice of the homeless comes across as romantic and confident’. He is ‘under the stars’, and for coppers he ‘can dance or sing’. He can do anything to win what he must. The star motif goes back to Wilde’s saying ‘we are all in the gutters, but some of us are looking at the stars’, a position of surrender and also of hope.
I appreciate the power of the words ‘frankincense’ and ‘myrrh’, and the use of the Christian analogy to persuade the reader that charity has still the same value as it did before, but the two words used in this context have a strangely disturbing effect too. They are strong and glaring, and for a moment I have lost sight of the homeless person and his cause. It might be because it happens at exactly the juncture when the ‘I’ have changed from the homeless to the passer-by who hopes to give. The reader is shocked.
The direct, no-nonsense ending couplet reminds the reader of the imminent need of the homeless and his desperation. Now is not the time for tea or further pretensions. A genuine giver would offer cash. The poem ends with the disgrace – not of the homeless but the giver, who is stingy enough to offer tea instead of practical help.
Some have compared Armitage with Larkin. There is a striking similarity in that both choose to engage in a more down-to-earth, unaffected, accessible language. Armitage is right to point out that some poems require a certain degree of felt empathy before they can be written.
I found a handful of poems on the working class and poverty from the Poetry Archive, and among them, American poet Ted Kooser’s ‘In the Basement of the Goodwill Store’ is a good comparison with Armitage’s ‘Give’, providing a half-comic take on thrift stores and secondhand shops.
These poems remind me of my conversation months ago with a Chinese student, who said that the busking musicians in the Underground are always so cheerful that he never felt they were asking for money. ‘They are so happy offering music to the passengers,’ he exclaimed. I grew impatient. I said that even if they are passionate performers, certainly any or some form of giving would be most welcome if not needed.
Let us not forget that we all live on bread.
Of all the public places, dear
to make a scene, I’ve chosen here.
Of all the doorways in the world
to choose to sleep, I’ve chosen yours.
I’m on the street, under the stars.
For coppers I can dance or sing.
For silver-swallow swords, eat fire.
For gold-escape from locks and chains.
It’s not as if I’m holding out
for frankincense or myrrh, just change.
You give me tea. That’s big of you.
I’m on my knees. I beg of you.
Check out Armitage’s own version of what the poem is about on BBC2 (click here).
Food for thought at the upcoming discussion in Hong Kong Literary Festival on 11 October, 7.30pm, Dr Hari Harilela Lecture Theatre (Shaw Campus) Baptist University. Simon Armitage (author of many collections including Seeing Stars by Faber and Faber), Prof Daniel Chua (Head of School of Humanities, HKU), Prof Lo Kwai Cheung (Professor, Department of English Language and Literature, Baptist University Hong Kong), Prof Hans Lagegaard (Professor, Department of English Language and Literature, Baptist University) and I will be in dialogue on creativity and world cultures. Come along with a question.
Creativity wears its deceptive mask. It looks like thought but resembles athletic exercise, requiring consistent discipline and no-nonsense action.
I have never met a good writer or a good artist who is lazy. No matter where they come from, or what past they have left behind.
There’s no rule nor confine for creativity, but is there a condition that promotes it?
For full event details and other happenings in this year’s festival, check out festival.org.hk. Register for this free event at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Heatherwick has once again shown what imagination is capable of.
Each athlete, each matchstick of talent, shines in the dark. A meeting of world talent in the stadium. A glimpse of the energy that fuels the progress of civilisation. This is how we build a cauldron of fire. A spectacular moment to share. To conceal and incorporate the creative process of the cauldron within the stadium gives the audience a chance to participate and interact with the cauldron sculpture.
I have mentioned Heatherwick’s designs in my previous post. His works have a sculptural, sometimes ghostly quality to it. His sculptures are visceral and corporeal. Similar to his London Bus design and the Seed Cathedral, it is easy to understand and difficult to forget. If you are interested in creativity, I highly recommend Alan Yentob’s documentary on Heatherwick’s design. I am a big fan of sculptures, and think they are very poetic, meditative presences that echo the unspeakable inside us. For instance, looking at the sculptures by Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore in different settings give me the shivers.
What came to mind also is the simplicity in Ai Wei Wei’s Serpentine Pavilion at Hyde Park – a quiet, half-concealed pavilion made of stone and cork wood, reminiscent of those airy pavilions in China where old men like to gather and play a game of chess – at the stone chessboard or table.
The designs of these two architects share some affinities in their desire to simplify and embody truths. They both emphasise the manipulation of material, although in my opinion Heatherwick exercises a more managed, thoughtful approach towards the crafted shapes of his works.
A clip on Dezeen shows how Heatherwick, as a boy, used to make his own Christmas cards. As a designer, he plays with the idea of using the stamps in a different way to create surprise. Imagination can start in very small places, in our familiar territories.
Heatherwick Studio: Designing the Extraordinary exhibition at the V&A from now until 30 September.
Published by Smith/Doorstop by Poetry Business this year, Kim Moore’s newly launched poetry pamphlet draws the reader in with hypnotic power and builds a seamless transition between truth and fable. Watch out for the curious balance between enchantment and danger in ‘The Wolf’: ‘the one who eats chalk to make his words / as white as snow’ and ‘the one who is not / as he appears’. Enchanting one with his language, the wolf, or wolf-poet figure, is so believable that ‘he can take / a house from you’.
Water imageries and wild animals articulate the complexity of one’s mind, the desire for intimacy — intimacy with people and places– and resistance against it. I enjoy the texture and expressiveness in ‘Sometimes You Think of Bowness’ while ’Hartley Street Spiritualist Church’ reminds me, in a strange way, of Larkin’s poem ‘Aubade’, the pendulum swing between devotion to poetry and faith, blurring the divide between the visible and the invisible world.
The title poem ‘If We Could Speak Like Wolves’ postulates an intimate relationship or connection that will overcome mistakes and conflicts. The vivid imagery of wolf bodies and the estuary where one can hear the wolf howls transform the abstract quality of estrangement and make it so much more palatable. The hypothesis of ‘if we could speak like wolves’ deliberately refrains from story-telling. It is as if the poet says to the reader: ‘you have to learn it the hard way.’
These poems mark the development of a sensitive and bold voice, and hold as much beauty as unrest.