In the writ(h)ing tentacles of the Verse Kraken: fairytales, the Tempest, writing on skin

(Sorry for the title – I couldn’t resist…)

So, a lot has been going on for me lately, but in this blog I’m going to write about one exciting thing in particular – Verse Kraken.

Verse Kraken describes itself as a ‘journal of hybrid art’, and the first issue was launched on Thursday at an event in London. The editors, Tori Truslow and Claire Trévien also organised a three-day residential writing retreat, at which I had an absolutely amazing time (and wrote an incredible amount of fairytales).

So – first off – if you want to read the first issue of Verse Kraken, the online edition is here. Each issue collects responses to three ‘spurs’: in this instance, a silent film version of The Tempest, a short fairytale about a girl transformed into a fish, and a photograph of the heavily-tattooed Maud Wagner. Collaboration and hybrid forms are encouraged, and the use of spurs rather than a single theme allows a lot of variety (translation and adaptation are amazing things for creativity!) while also retaining some amount of cohesion. My own submission – a visual poem about how bodies and skin can be ‘read’ (and misread), inspired by the Wagner photograph – didn’t make the cut, but considering the high quality of the magazine, I don’t feel bad about that. (Although if anyone can think of another publication it might work for, please drop me a line!) At the launch, we also got to see the offline edition – rather than a traditional magazine format, it’s a little box of treasures, with text and image individually presented as tiny booklets and prints, and a CD with the audiovisual contributions. It’s a lovely way of organising the pieces – like the online hypertextual version, it allows the reader to browse without having a particular order dictated.

Dana Bubulj and me, with our ephemeral tattoos (and a rather nice shadow effect).

Dana Bubulj and me, with our ephemeral tattoos (and a rather nice shadow effect).

The launch event featured readings from the first issue, as well as some more interactive elements. James Webster offered temporary tattoos with kraken-themed fragments of poetry on them, which proved immensely popular by the end of the evening – see attached photo of me and Dana Bubulj showing off our newly-decorated skin! (I’m currently really interested in the poetics of skin, and writing-on-skin and art-on-skin as ways of changing how the body is read, so this was an unexpected treat for me! The temporary tattoo is still around, and last night at the FWSA Conference 2013 (where I was performing with Lashings) I had a few people wondering whether the words across my chest were ‘real’ or not! I’m sorry to have missed Claire O’Callaghan’s paper at the conference, as it sounded like it had interesting things to say about tattoos as ‘challenge’/ ‘provocation’ with regards to the male gaze… But anyway, I think a post about skin is something for another time!) The Verse Kraken launch also held an ‘ekphrastic poetry/art challenge’ with a physical copy of the first issue as a prize: audience members were invited to treat the readings as ‘spurs’ of their own, and spend the interval creating responses to them in a different form. I was very pleased to win this, with my response to James Webster and Dana Bubulj’s ‘Bound’ (a curse-poem about the imprisonment of Sycorax, based of course on the Tempest spur). For posterity, here’s the piece of five-minute flash-fiction that won me a box of kraken treasure:

My father said, “don’t go out at night. The wild woods on this isle would set you shrieking. The trees there whisper, tendril-torn, gnarled like ancient flesh. In one of them a witch sleeps.”

My father said, “the howling sobbing child you think you see is but a wraith. He is the substance of your bad dreams. But still, upon this isle, dreams may have teeth. Stay safe. Stay in the cave.”

My father said, “no need to touch the books. They are but dusty-dry sheafs of words that have nothing to tell you. Your grubby hands might stain them; and besides, they are not yours to read. I may show you some pictures if you are very good.”

My father said, “dear girl, if nothing else, you will be safe.”

All the words I knew were the ones he had stuffed into my mouth. But my dreams beyond language dragged me from my bed, our cave, the safe side of the isle. I awoke scrabbling at the roots of a crooked tree. My fingers ran with blood – nails torn, the bark bleeding too. In speech without words, the witch was calling me, and I would come.

I whispered to the knotted trunk, “I am here. Teach me.”

I didn’t give it a title at the time, but retroactively I think ‘Miranda’s Dream’ works as well as anything else. Like Webster, I’m very interested in the backstory of The Tempest – probably even more interested in it that the contents of the actual play! During my MA year I wrote a 15-minute script (in iambic pentameter!) which explored that backstory – it was going to be put on as part of the ‘Shakespearian Shorts’ show put on by the university drama society, but unfortunately cast illness prevented this from happening. The Tempest is definitely something I want to come back to, though – I think that looking at the interactions between Prospero/Miranda/Caliban/Ariel are really fruitful for thinking about the divide-and-conquer methods of kyriarchy. I’m very excited by Sophie Mayer and Jacqueline Wright’s film project, The Storm, which is coming out of their Verse Kraken piece ‘How To Curse’ – a lesbian Caliban! (Oh, and while we’re talking about female Calibans, here’s another recommendation: Kate Tempest, ‘What We Came After’. Kate Tempest is one of the first slam poets I ever saw, and I adore her work. This video is less loud and raw and ragged than her live performances – qualities which I absolutely love – but the poem remains incredible.)

So, now onto the other exciting Verse Kraken thing – the writer’s retreat. It was the first creative retreat I’d been on, and it was perfect. After a week containing my last days officially working on All About Trans, the debut performance of Fanny Whittington at the Oxford Fringe, speaking at ‘Being Ourselves’, and some high-intensity personal stuff – well, spending three days living in a quiet farmhouse with a small group of creative people was exactly what I needed. It was a perfect mixture of relaxing and hard-working: expressly having no job except from writing seems to be something that really works for me, so I’ll definitely be making an effort to set aside days/weekends again in future. The surroundings were utterly beautiful, the pool was surprisingly conducive to creativity (we all did a lot of thinking about mermaids…), and there was (in my opinion) exactly the right balance between structured workshop time and free time to relax or engage with our own projects. The workshops were very creative, encouraging us to engage with different senses, media, and sources – and there was also a weekend-long project that paired us randomly to work on collaborations. (I worked on a short and spooky screenplay with Jacqueline Wright, of the aforementioned lesbian Caliban project!) I’m unsure how much detail to go into about the workshops – I don’t want to spoil the surprise for anyone who might go on a future one! – but basically, it felt like the equivalent of a full MOT for my writing-brain, with its focus on unlocking as many different ways of being creative as possible.

I think the best thing that I’ve taken away from this retreat is the idea that I don’t need to just wait for inspiration to strike – it doesn’t need to be primarily bursts of late-night manic-creativity where I need to write this amazing idea down now now now – but rather, there’s a tonne of enjoyable ways of getting myself into the right mindset for writing other than those bolt-from-the-blue moments, and that inspiration can be taken from unlikely sources. Or perhaps, the best thing I’ve taken is the reminder that I can write passably good things very quickly – I hadn’t really written poetry or fiction on a tight time limit for years, and those moments of being put under time pressure in the workshops resulted in some things that I’m really quite proud of. (Had it not been for these workshops, I’m not sure how confident I would have been in my ability to write flash-fiction at the launch!)

While I don’t normally post my poetry online, I’m going to make an exception for this next one. In Claire’s workshop on form, we were asked to spend 10 minutes transposing a poem from one form to another. From the poems we were given, I chose Eaven Boland’s long free-verse poem ‘Amber’ – it’s a beautiful autumnal poem about mourning and loss, and it’s readable online at The Atlantic magazine – and adapted it into sonnet form.

This plastic gold which grieving trees once wept,

which I now hold, which in its heart is holding

the feathers, leaves, and seeds which have long slept:

is honeyed sunlight, slow-dripped and enfolding.

What reason knows: the dead have left the living.

Those who have passed shall not be seen again.

Clean gulps of air – the sky, bright and forgiving –

our meetings here have moved from ‘now’ to ‘then’.

Yet in the flawed translucence of the amber,

the ornament that you once passed to me –

the life that froze, the insects, vines that clamber –

all that which breathed and moved is there to see.

Though you are absent from this fine September,

I hold you as in amber, and remember.

Other fruit of the workshops included more poetry of various kinds, a map of my childhood imagination (that was a fun workshop!), some fragments of a short story, and the seed of an idea that became another mermaid-focused fairytale. Unlike ‘The Girl and the Mermaid’, this one – I’m calling it ‘The Mermaid’s Wish’ – is much more of a direct reply to (and deconstruction of) the famous Andersen tale, as well as being about embodiment and the often-coercive nature of gender roles. All of my free writing-time went on the fairytale collection – as well as ‘The Mermaid’s Wish’ I wrote two more stories (plus the collaboration with Jacqueline, which (given its subject) may well end up in the collection too). A bit of polishing after the retreat and I think they’re done – my fairytales project is growing, and I’m really excited about it.

So, basically – many thanks to Claire and Tori for their awesome work on Verse Kraken, which has been challenging and inspiring me (and many others) to new creative heights. Long may its inky tentacles continue to ensnare us. 😉

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5 thoughts on “In the writ(h)ing tentacles of the Verse Kraken: fairytales, the Tempest, writing on skin

  1. That first snippet, the Miranda’s Dream one? It’s amazing. I am completely in love with it. Actually, they’re both spectacular, but now my head is full of forests and witches and dreams. Love love love it. ❤

  2. Pingback: Verse Kraken – issue #2 launch, 3rd April! | Hel Gurney

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