Ego and the Artist

January 29, 2015

I’ve been thinking about ego and art lately – how it’s necessary for an artist to have self-belief, to keep going in the face of challenges to time, money…but how it can also get in the way of the work. Attending to Ego – that petulant, unruly child – can distract from the work. In my experience anyway.

A few weeks ago, I saw BIRDMAN or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance – a thrilling, thought-provoking, funny, sad meta-commentary about theatre and the pitfalls of fame, ambition and ego. It was co-written and directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu whose father used to tell him,

‘When you have success, just taste it and spit it out, because it’s really poisonous’.

Sage advice but can you imagine someone spitting out success? Perhaps Alex Garland, who found the attention after the success of his first novel, The Beach so uncomfortable that he gave up writing novels. He turned to screenplays including 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go, and most recently, Ex Machina – which he conceived, wrote and directed. Success makes it easier for an artist to keep practising your art… even if it does mess with ego in unhelpful ways.

A while back I attended Caroline Bergvall’s launch of her project Drift and her residency at the Whitechapel Gallery. I think of it still. Despite the accolades and huge respect for her work over 2 decades of dedication to the craft, and her constant innovation, she seems to fly under the radar. Drift was thought-provoking experience, which gave me a new perspective on words – their limitations and possibilities; on collaboration and open-ness and generosity; on attending to the work rather than the ego; and on social consciousness and responsibility. At one point, CB reflects on safety, and the awareness that ‘I am safe, but others are not safe’.

An insistence on putting the work first is one of the reasons I so admire Mimi Khalvati – for her dedication to the craft and for the intelligence, skill and tenderness she brings to her intricate, carefully-wrought poems.

Perhaps collaboration is the way to keep the Ego from rampant, unsustainable growth. I’m reminded of a BBC4 documentary I saw called ‘What do artists do all day’. The programme followed Akram Khan on a 3-day collaborative project in Seville with Israel Galvan, flamenco dancer and choreographer – which became ToroBaka.
In the documentary, Galvan reflects on collaboration:

You approach things first of all with the idea of sharing … a coming together, let’s call it learning, OK? You might find things out about yourself that you didn’t know existed.

For Khan,

…the comfort zone is a dangerous place to be… Sometimes you have to put yourself in situations where you don’t know where you are… it allows you to look at yourself in a new way… You can become stagnant as an artist. It’s very dangerous to become comfortable in your own success.

This idea of openness and collaboration, of not getting too comfortable, is my resolution for this new working year – so I’m putting ‘Openness, collaboration, don’t get comfortable’ on a yellow post-it in my shed. Next to it is a pink note which says ‘Be more Fun’, and a yellow one that says ‘Finish what you start!’ So I have finally finished this post I started in September. That’s 1. Being fun is tough, day-to-day… I could let the children off tidying their rooms today, even though they said they’d do it yesterday and didn’t, even though the big one’s clothes cover most surfaces in her room, and the smaller one’s floor is strewn with lego and cars and books. I’ll watch the Voice with them instead. That’s 2.

Happy, shiny new Year, dear Reader. May it be surprising and satisfying, fun and not too comfortable… like a carved chair I saw once, that seemed to be made of antlers. A beautiful, beautiful thing.

New Year

January 13, 2014

Aldeburgh sunrise

It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
it’s a new life….
And I’m feeling good

Welcome, bright new year.
It’s the year of the Horse in less than 3 weeks, so I consult my chinese horoscope, which says, ‘It should be a good year – health and wealth abound.’
It also says that ‘working with blood (i.e. surgery, butchery, soldiers) as well as spirituality (priests, philosophers)’ is in my favour.

I should donate more blood, network with the local butchers.

New year is as good a time as any for resolutions. Do you (gentle reader) have one?
Mine is to stretch out of my comfort zone – with work, writing, reading, and all the rest. I’m going to learn to swim properly – like Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer. But without the womanizing or cheezy lines. And without the constant refrain of ‘I drank too much last night’.
Though I did.

I’m also going to read my backlog of books in translation (mostly) from and other stories. Last year they sent me Deborah Levy’s collection of short stories, Black Vodka, which I loved. I then read her novel, Swimming Home, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2012. Swimming again. Burt Lancaster said he was swimming home, from pool to pool, all the way to his house. It wasn’t a happy story, though, as far as i remember.
Back to Levy, I discover that she trained as a playwright. I found a recording of a radio documentary she wrote, called The Glass Piano about the true story of a Bavarian princess who believed she had swallowed a glass grand piano – and worried about it shattering inside her. She moved carefully, with difficulty, sideways, though the palace corridors.
As well as imagining how it would feel, to believe as the princess did, Levy talks to psychoanalyst Susie Orbach, ER consultant Dr Fiona Lecky and historian Erin Sullivan, who researched people’s understanding of sadness. She talks to Levy about the connection between melancholy and the delusion about being made of glass.

The more I discover about Levy, the more she interests me.
She says:
In my earliest twenties, I think I believed that theatre could change the world. Later, I discovered that my true interest in the theatre was that it was a place to connect with discomfort rather than prescriptions for how we might live. It took me a while to understand that when theatre uses all the languages that make it a unique form to write for (text, sound, design, lights, the spaces between actors, film and video), it is a place to make visual poetry, a place to show the human nervous system in a state of disquiet…
[Levy, Plays 1]

When asked about why she wrote in different forms (play, novel, short story, poetry, radio documentary) Levy replied that the forms chose her. Stories demand different forms.
In Pillow Talk in Europe and Other Places, she says:

“Be sure to enjoy language, experiment with ways of talking, be exuberant even when you don’t feel like it because language can make your world a better place to live.”


July 6, 2013

‘Ah!’: An Assay

When the Greek gods would slip into the clothing and bodies of humans, it was not always as it appeared – not always, that is, for seduction, not to test the warmth of welcome given to strangers. The sex – like the sudden unveiling and recognition – was not without pleasure. But later, they would remember: ‘The barley soup offered one night in the village of _____, its wild marjoram, scent of scorched iron, and carrots.’ ‘Ah!, and the ones who turned away from us, how their eyes would narrow and wrinkle the tops of their noses.’ ‘The barnyard odors.’ ‘And afterwards, sleep in that salt-scent, close by their manure hoards and feathers.’ ‘Sleep itself!’ ‘Ah!’

For this soft ‘ah!’, immortals entered the world of bodies.

– from After by Jane Hirschfield (Bloodaxe 2006)

I found this (attempt? prose poem?) when looking for paper to write a to-do list. On the back was this, waiting quietly. And how perfect, on this bright blue saturday morning, to consider ‘ah!’, to feel it when reading.

I felt the ‘ah!’ last week, listening to Sarah Westcott reading her poem Owls from her new chapbook:

I carry the owls with me
deep in my pocket or tucked
in the cup of my bra: they doze,
bill dipped in a bib of feathers,
turn janglesome if I forget
they are there when I run for the bus…

extract from Inklings (flipped eye publishing 2013)

All week Sarah’s owls have drifted in and out of my thoughts. I’ve been trying to write a poem about owls for some time – years – without success. About my cousin Dina’s childhood love for owls. Growing up in Pakistan, I remember her surrounded by owls (small stuffed toys, other owlish things). One day that changed and she gave away all her owls. She told me this recently and for some reason it made me feel so sad, this owl-loss.

p.s. I know it’s been a while since my last post… i was determined not to post another sad thing, but sadness lingers like the smell of garlic on your fingers long after you think it should have gone by now.

The workings of Art

March 13, 2013

Dear blog, you shy shape-shifter,

I’ve neglected you. This time it’s not the house, the kids or life’s other distractions – it’s because i’ve working hard on the play! For this, I owe much to Ella Hickson, my mentor, who has not only shown me the way with a detailed map, but also arranged regular checkpoints and fired the starting pistol.
And I probably wouldn’t be able to do this, not now, without support from the Arts Council – I’d be struggling as a badly-paid, inept temp. So thank you ACE, and thank you ME for persevering and continuing to re-apply again and again (and again and again) for funding. But enough about me.

In David Edgar’s wonderful book, How Plays Work he gives us the definition of a play from Doctor Johnson’s dictionary as ‘A poem in which the action is not related, but represented; and in which therefore such rules are to be observed as make the representation probable.’
He goes on to list the three kinds of probability:
Plausability – does the play fit our knowledge of the subject or experience of life?
Coherence – does it hang together internally, do its bits add up to a whole?
Conventionality – how does it relate to other stage plays and other fictions we’ve internalised.

He then moves over to the director Peter Brook, who outlines the two fundamental elements of any work of art. The first is concentration: by reducing the chaos and redundancy of the world and eliminating what doesn’t interest them, artists draw attention to what does interest them. According to Brooks, ‘Shakespeare seems better in performance than anyone else because he gives us more, moment for moment, for our money.’
The second element, according to Brook, is pattern. ‘Brook is convinced that there are rules of proportion and rhythm (like the mathematical Golden Section or the rule of three) which are more fundamental than taste or culture, which touch us because they are the expression of natural laws. So that, like concentration, rhythm draws attention to essences and relationships we’d otherwise miss.’
So, continues Edgar, ‘music is a concentration of the pitch of normal life organised by melody (change over time), rhythm (repetition over time) and harmony (things happening simultaneously). Similarly, painting organises the formless clutter of the visual world into echoing or contrasting colours and shapes. Drama borrows the patterns of other arts (the rhythm of dialogue, the balance of a stage picture) and – through the more abstract rhythms of emplotment – adds some of its own.’

Last weekend, I saw Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind at the British Museum. Wow. And yes, Art matters. It mattered 40,000 years ago, enough that a sculptor spent 400 hours working on a single sculpture… over how many months, years, in between seeking shelter and food and trying to stay alive?

What a cozy existence I lead in comparison. I resolve to picture my growing debt, those numbers, as some shadowy, mythological creature as I work in my warm, lit-up cave. To ignore it would be foolish… and no doubt its presence makes me work harder.

The three aims of life

January 10, 2013

In the beginning of Ararat, Louise Gluck’s 1990 poetry collection, there is a quote by Plato:

“…human nature was originally one and we were a whole and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love.”

I’ve also been rereading The Complete Kama Sutra, which began as research for my courtesans story, to answer the question ‘what did they do exactly?’. In the introduction, the translator, Alain Danielou (also a French historian, intellectual, musicologist and Indologist) writes:

Eroticism is firstly a search for pleasure, and the goal of the techniques of love is to attain… infinite delight. The refinements of love and the pleasures that include music and other arts are only possible in a prosperous civilization, which is why the Kama Shastra, the Art of Love, is linked to the Artha Shastra, the Rules of Prosperity and the Art of Making Money.

And if love doesn’t last? I’m thinking aloud… wondering how often a woman without husband or children can feel confident of her place in the world. Perhaps if she’s fortunate and determined.

According to the Vedas the three aims of life are Virtue (dharma), Wealth (artha) and Love (kama). These were meant for men, but let’s include women.

So I’m going to think about pursuing virtue and wealth. And perhaps love – not infinite delight, not at the moment (I’m in the library) – but the other side of love: the thing which is always shifting and changing colour.


May 28, 2011

I’ve read that conkers placed in a corner of a room will deter spiders, placed in a drawer, they will deter moths.

There are poppies in the walled garden, and irises in tatters. Not the blue ones, the paler, larger yellow-pink ones.
Reading Autobiography of Red this morning, slowly because i’m nearing the end, and on page 118 “…Geryon’s head went back like a poppy in a breeze…”

On my walk I was thinking of Ai Weiwei and something he said on Twitter in 2009:
“If there is one person who is still not free, then I am not;
if there is one person who still suffers from insult and humiliation, then I do.”

There is a moment when something shifts and a peaceful silence turns to an emptiness.

Pina Bausch and rain

May 11, 2011

Last night I saw Pina in 3D at the Ritzy. Beautiful, sad, playful, serious. Full of truth.

I felt I was lifted up and put down somewhere else.

In the film, Pina Bausch says something like ‘some situations cannot be expressed [in words, in anything]… merely evoked.’
Often, what dissatisfies me about my writing is ‘why is it so spare, why not more?’ Perhaps that’s why: words can evoke an image or a feeling or a situation, but what’s most important is what’s not there, but is hopefully/somehow communicated to the reader.

I have often thought of a poem as the tip of an iceberg. Perhaps if I think of Pina Bausch, I might feel less dissatisfied. Perhaps.
I feel so grateful to her, for her vision and what she worked so hard for, the striving.
Important that it was Wim Wenders who made the film. He has the same tenderness for human-ness, also strives for the same things.

I am holding on to the memory of the dancers in the rain, in the water.