Tag Archives: Alwyn Marriage

An early adventure in computer poetry

In 1977, Robin Shirley, who had been a post-grad at UCL when I was an undergraduate, invited me to be part of a project creating computer-generated poetry, and then performing it to jazz accompaniment. Sunflowers, the group for performing the work, comprised Randy MacDogroup in the sunnald, a fantastic jazz saxophonist and flautist; the actor and musician, Gus Garside; poet and crystallographer Robin Shirley; and me. I was lecturing in Philosophy at Surrey University at the time, but was also a poet and musician. The  biographical notes that appeared in the programmes for some of our performances are at the bottom of the page, below the sample poem.

me in lecture theatre

I was young and fancy-free, and didn’t really take the project terribly seriously, though I was happy both to help create the poetry and also to perform the jazz. However, the whole thing took off, and before long we were receiving invitations to perform in various places, including one performance for BBC Radio, and one at a major computer conference.

By the time we moved on to other adventures, we had yards and yards of computer print-out of poetry, a number of photographs and some good newspaper cuttings and reviews. Then … it all disappeared, and for over 30 years I couldn’t find the files in which these archives were stored.

Then, a few months ago, I was approached by Jerome Fletcher of Falmouth University, who is doing some research into electronic literature in the UK between 1960 and 2010, to ask if I could provide information about Sunflowers. This led to total immersion in some of the boxes that were stored upstairs at home, and to my delight I was able to unearth at least some of the material. Hence this blog, to share a slice of history. Unfortunately most of the newspaper cuttings have not yet emerged, and the photos are rather faded; but this page should give a taste of what we were doing.

The general idea was to feed phrases into a computer that would make sense in whichever order they tRobinhen came out, and for each phrase we had to determine what the probability was of its occurring, and the possibility we wished to allow for that phrase to be repeated. The skill, obviously, was in choosing the best phrases to feed in; and some of the results were strikingly good. The computer programme we used was devised by Robin using the ICL 1905F computer at the University of Surrey.
It was called Bard 0, Robin Shirleyand was followed by Bard 1D and Bard 2S.

Randy on flute

GusRandy larger

 

 

Gus

 

 

The one cutting that has turned up was in the Computer Bulletin in March 1979, and in it John Lansdowne, reviewing our appearance at the Computer Arts Society, writes: ‘It says much for the quality of the poetry and the way it was presented by Robin Shirley, Alwyn Marriage, Gus Garside and Ranald MacDonald that they were able to give two consecutive 40-minute performances to enthralled audiences of all ages. The poem for three voices, May Carol,was especially well received, and I look forward to hearing the Wheel of Seasons cycle in full on some occasion when I’m not trying to run a computer art show at the same time.’
me on electric guitar
An early version of The Sunflower Suite had been performed at the 1973 Edinburgh Festival, and as well as developing that further, we created otme on keyboardher works during our time together, including ‘Pavan for the Children of Deep Space’ and the extended group of poems in the popular suite ‘The Wheel of Seasons’. We then took all these works and jazz improvised to them, using sax, flute, guitar and bass guitar, keyboard, voice and various percussion instruments. It was all good fun.

 

Randy and me on our headsRandy and I decided to stand on our heads to celebrate the upside-downness of the world.

Sadly, Robin contracted hepatitis on a work trip to Egypt, and died far too young. Without his drive, the group drifted apart. If anyone knows Ranald MacDonald or Gus Garside, please let me know.

With apologies for the poor quality of the photographs, some of which were actually scanned from tiny contact prints on our home scanner. I think it’s worth preserving them for their historical importance – and for reminding me of what I looked like when I was young!

Sample poem from the Spring section of The Wheel of Seasons:

Flow

A girl is dancing, singing after her tears, dreaming of the sea.
How many springs are feeding the river
reaching further into before?
Crustaceans waiting for the end of primrose conversation,
we are borne along, breathless, to inevitable growth.

There is a growing urgency.
How many springs are feeding the river,
eddies of doubt, stagnant pools of rejection, reaching further into before?
The present is opening into the future,
old, young, dancing, dying, dreaming of the sea.

Eddies of doubt, stagnant pools of rejection,
lines of love etched deep on chalk and clay,
reaching further into before, swirling in triumphant confidence;
in the changing, in the compliance, is the growing.
A girl is dancing, singing after her tears.

There is temporary pain in the confluence,
in the changing, in the compliance, is the growing old young dancing dying.
A girl is dancing, singing after her tears
from spring through singing to ocean swell,
lines of love etched deep on chill and clay
dreaming of the sea.

Sunflowers bios

Moor art and poetry

We spent last weekend savouring two of the lesser-known delights of the South West moors. We started on Friday on Dartmoor and then moved on to Bodmin Moor that evening.

H at DelamoreDelamore House is on the edge of Dartmoor, and is of special interest to us because it used to be owned by the same family as lived in the house that now contains our apartment. Although it is considerably grander (our house was the family’s ‘summer house’), there were similarities and common features, including a tholos, or cromlech. tholos

 

‘Brick chair’ by Amy Cooper 

Every year, for the whole of May, Delamore House hosts an art and sculpture exhibition, and we just managed to get there before the end of the month. Both the ground floor of the house, and a stable block across the meadow, were full of paintings; and everywhere we went in the garden we found fascinating sculptures. Peacock, Dot Kuzniar

‘Peacock’, by Dot Kuzniar

 

‘Dancing meadow’ by Nicola Crocker

Dancing meadow, Nicola Crocker figure

 

I really liked this head sculpture, and its companion piece which was a sadder face. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to discover who the sculptor was, so if any of you know, please send me a message.

 

As one might expect with so many exhibits, they were not all of the same high quality, but in general the standard was good, and some works were excellent.

‘Floating glass sphere’ by Sue Smith
Sue Smith, Floating glass sphere

Quite apart from the art, the gardens were exquisite – and this is probably one reason why the month of May is chosen for the exhibition.

burning bush

 

 

 

more beauty

The reason for our visit to Bodmin Moor was that I was reading at the Bodmin Moor Poetry Festival. David Woolley and Ann Gray have been running this excellent festival for the last four years, and have created a very special atmosphere with a stunning line-up of poets. On the Friday evening we had a launch party, then settled down for the first reading, which in terms of quality and excitement set the tone for the whole weekend. The two poets this first evening were Sinead Morrissey and David Harsent, the latest two winners of the prestigious T S Eliot prize, and the festival could not possibly have got off to a better start.

Sinead MorrisseySinead led a very good workshop the next morning. The event sparkled from start to finish, both because of Sinead’s stimulating input on abstract and concrete writing, and also because the fifteen participants all had intelligent, sensitive and lucid contributions to make.

My reading came next, shared with two lovely Oversteps poets: Elisabeth Rowe and Mark Totterdell. We were in a conservatory room at this stage, and the sun was beating down; but both we and the audience stayed awake and everyone was ‘warm'(!) and appreciative.

Logo_BMPFThis was followed by readings by Matthew Francis and Anthony Wilson, which I very much enjoyed. I knew both of these poets a little, but had not heard them read before; so it was a great pleasure. Unfortunately I had to leave after this, as I had another appointment the next morning. I therefore missed a number of other treats. If the programme is anything like as good next year, I recommend that poetry-lovers make the journey to this corner of England, as Bodmin Moor is a festival that is well-worth attending. I shall have to hope that I get another invitation!

The venue for the festival is the Sterts Theatre at Upton Cross, and the theatre itself is a large amphitheatre covered by a giant awning. As the temperature at night was still a little low front coverfor the time of year, we were relieved to discover that the poetry festival actually takes place in adjacent buildings, complete with walls and roof.

We, of course, spent the night in our camper van, where we were both snug and peaceful. As I included some poems from my latest book (Notes from a Camper Van) in my reading, this was appropriate.

Congratulations to Ann and David on a wonderful festival.

Song of the sentimental cow, the cynical sheep and the stubborn donkey

As it has been published in various places, including in my last collection, festo: celebrating winter and Christmas, some of you will have read or heard this poem before; but putting it up as a blog seems an appropriate way to wish you all a very happy Christmas.

festo front cover

Off we go to the stable to meet some of the animals.

Microsoft Word - Cow, sheep and donkey.doc

Celebrations at the Poetry Society

Anyone who knows me will realise that admin and AGMs aren’t my cup of tea; so you will no doubt be a little surprised to hear that I had a very jolly time at the Poetry Society’s AGM earlier this week.

The venue for the evening was Keats House in Hampstead Heath. This is the house where John Keats HouseKeats lived between 1818 and 1820, and where he fell in love with the girl next door – Fanny Brawne. He wrote ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ here, though I suspect it’s many years now since a nightingale ventured this far into North London. The house is now a museum, dedicated both to the memory of Keats, and also to poetry in general, so it was entirely fitting that the Poetry Society should hold its AGM there.

We were welcomed with wine and nibbles, then Sir Stephen Irwin, the Chair of the Poetry Society, gave a very positive report of the last year at the society. It is no secret that the Poetry Society went through a rough patch a couple of years ago, but over the last year, the dedication, hard work, fortitude and good humour of the staff have pulled the society through and brought it back to full strength. All the staff are once again in place, and what  a lovely lot of people they are! The Director, Judith Palmer, who has done so much to bring the society through its difficulties, gave a report of recent activity, and the long list of events and work with young people was impressive.

With the business behind us, we replenished our glasses and then moved on to the poetry reading. Three of us had been invited to read, with an emphasis on celebration to set us thinking about the festive season ahead: R V Bailey, Dannie Abse and me.

Rosie at Poetry SocietyRosie read first, starting with a few general poems before moving on to some of her Christmas poems, which she described, with wry humour, as ‘gloomy’. One of these,  ‘At Maison Miller’, is credentials-fullin the voice of an elderly woman at the hairdresser’s trying hard to be enthusiastic about going to stay with her family for Christmas and knowing she is going to end up feeling sad and lonely. Several of the poems Rosie read, including this one, were in Credentials, the collection of her poems published by Oversteps last year.

Reading at Poetry SocietyI read next, and like Rosie I began with some new pieces, festo front coverfollowed by several of the poems from my collection festo: celebrating winter and Christmas. I thoroughly enjoyed reading to this packed audience of poets who responded with such fantastic warmth and enthusiasm.

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When I was a student I went to hear Dannie Abse reading his work and remember being impressed that a practising doctor could at the same time make a name for himself as a poet. Little did I know that this same poet would be writing and performing his poetry many years later, or that I would enjoy the enormous privilege of reading with him at the celebration of his ninetieth birthday.

Dannie has lost none of his dynamism and charm, and his voice is as strong as ever. It was very fitting that after Rosie and I had been presented with huge bouquets of beautiful flowers, the lights were lowered and a birthday cake, twinkling with candles, was brought to the front for Dannie to blow out the candles before the cake was cut and shared with everyone present. As ‘the icing on the cake’ of the evening, it has to be reported that the cake was delicious.

Thank you to all at the Poetry Society for organising such a happy occasion; and thanks to the lovely audience who made it all so worthwhile. And once again, many happy returns to Dannie Abse on his ninetieth birthday.

Poetry Society 054

Winchester blog 1: July

images-1Earlier this week I made my first visit to Winchester as Poet in Residence for the ’10 days: Creative Collisions Arts Festival’ to take place this autumn. The three purposes of this visit were 1. to sit for a portrait by the artist Michael Weller; 2. to meet the festival organisers in the cathedral; and 3. to meet one of the artists with whom I shall be working in the coming months, to discuss her project.

One of the major aims of the festival is to bring together artists from different disciplines. Over the coming months I shall be working with a few visual artists, but it also seemed like a good idea to agree to have my portrait painted.

???????????????????????????????I spent the morning in Michael’s studio. I’ve never had my portrait painted before, so this was a new and interesting experience. I sat for nearly three hours, with a few short breaks to avoid getting a stiff neck, as I was requested to maintain the same position throughout. An extremely comfortable chair was provided, and some lovely mp3 tapes of poetry. In the company of John Donne, Tennyson, and then Richard Burton’s wonderful performance of Under Milkwood, the time did not hang heavy, and I really appreciated the unusual luxury of sitting in enforced idleness. The only slight problem I had to struggle a little with by the end of a very hot morning was the tendency to become drowsy.

Michael, who paints in oils, uses a limited palette of black, white, cadmium red light, yellow ochre and ultamarine blue, and with those colours produces a whole world of colours and shades. It is strange to sit under the intense gaze of someone for such a long period of time – very different from being the focus of attention when lecturing or reading poetry. Like a medical practitioner, the artist’s gaze is detached and academic. From time to time Michael would take the painting off the easel and hold it to a mirror in order to see it from a different perspective; and he would periodically clean his palette to avoid the colours merging into each other.

???????????????????????????????At the end of the morning I was shown the portrait. That, too, was a new experience. It is something of a shock to suddenly come face to face with oneself, and for some reason which I haven’t quite fathomed yet, it is very different from looking at a photograph. After my initial dumbfounded response, I realised that it is a very good portrait, and I actually like it. I’d be interested to know what other people think of it. Michael reckoned that I looked ‘reflective’; but I wondered what else anyone could look if they sat still for three hours. One can hardly grin at the artist for all that time!

Michael would like to do another portrait of me, so we arranged a date for later in the summer. This is likely to be rather different as I’m due to have my ‘annual haircut’ before then! The paintings will be displayed in the cathedral during the festival.

10 days header banner

I went on to the cathedral, where I met the organisers and curators of the festival: Trish Bould, Angela Peagram and Jo Bartholomew. A ceramics exhibition was being mounted in the cathedral, so there was quite a lot of noise and activity. It is an exquisite building, and I’m thrilled to be working there.

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I mounted to the triforium with Sue Wood, who is one of the artists I shall be working with. Sue’s piece is a sound installation called ‘Listen’, and her intention is to provide a space and incentive for people to sit and listen to the sounds of the cathedral. We spent some time discussing how Sue’s piece will work, and how much she should be present and/or visible while people experience the artwork. I have started writing a poem about her installation, and this, too, will be on display in this space in the triforium during the festival.

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Bath time

Royal Crescent 5 cropped

Sue Boyle cropped

I’ve just returned from Bath, where I was involved in various events at the Week of Good Poetry organised by Sue Boyle. Before I go on to describe my stay in Bath, I’d like to congratulate Sue on her wonderfully efficient yet relaxed organisation of the festival, and thank her for inviting me to take part.

Unfortunately I was able to go to only the second half of the week, so missed readings by R V Bailey, June Hall and Anthony Fairweather. I did, however, manage to get along for the presentation by Wendy French and the Lapidus team on Words for Wellbeing, in which they talked about their work with some of the unwell and disadvantaged.

Saturday was fairly busy. It began with a joint presentation on publishing by Patricia Oxley, talking about getting published in magazines such as Acumen, and me talking about how to go about attempting to be published by Oversteps Books. The audience was interested and appreciative, and fully understood the difficulties faced by poets trying to make their mark.

Patricia & William cropped

I enjoyed working alongside Patricia, and we agreed afterwards that as we complement each other so well we should do joint presentations again. In this picture she and William were not, despite appearances, on board a ship, but were sitting in the sunshine in Bath Central Library.

Peter Charters, Jeremy Young and Ewan McPherson did a group reading of Poems of Faith and Doubt. There was more faith than doubt, but that is not necessarily a criticism of what was a lovely reading. This was followed by a reading by William Oxley himself, which I was glad to introduce. He read poems under the title of ‘Places of Spirit’, and this was of particular interest as his new book, ‘Isca’, had just been published. This he calls a ‘coffee table book’, as it contains poems about Exeter by William alongside lovely photographs by his son-in-law.

me in flight cropped
My own reading was in the afternoon, and I was given plenty of time to include both serious and humorous poems. Once again, the audience was warm and enthusiastic, and it was good to be introduced by William.

I stayed with some lovely friends in Bath, who welcomed me warmly and made me feel completely at home. I also took the opportunity to explore Bath, which I didn’t know.

Rooftop-2011I had decided in advance that I would love to swim in the roof-top thermal baths, so duly presented myself there on Friday morning. The price of a ticket for a swim nearly sent me racing for the nearest river, but having looked forward to it for so long I decided to close my eyes and pay. The swimming pool was really warm, and it was, indeed, extremely pleasant to float around in warm water with a view all over Bath.

Street through arch 2

There was much to explore, from the Georgian terraces and the tiny streets to the magnificent abbey.

Bath Abbey 1 Bath Abbey 2

The other great beauty and fascination of Bath was more arboreal than architectural, for the whole city was like a giant arboretum, with every park, square and crescent adorned with the most beautiful trees. I’ve included a couple of photos of trunks that caught my attention, and one scene from the Circus; but I could have pointed my camera in any direction and made a record of yet more delights.

tree trunk in St James's Square 2 tree trunk in St James's Square

Trees in the Circus

On the sending and receiving of Christmas cards

I enjoy sending and receiving Christmas cards, and can cope with quite a wide variety of tastes in the ones I receive. I particularly enjoy the home-made ones, and some people clearly put a great deal of effort and skill into producing their own cards. I also appreciate receiving news from old friends from whom I hear only once a year, in those much-derided Christmas letters.

However, many years ago I found I couldn’t find any cards to send that actually expressed what I wanted to say about Christmas. I love the visual arts, but found that all the beautiful pictures of the nativity, the sages from the east, the shepherds and angels, didn’t actually express the deeper truth of incarnation for me. They decorated or embellished the Christmas story, rather than going to the heart of it. The one exception to this is portrayals of the Annunciation, because in those it often seems as though the artist is struggling to express the inexpressible – a task familiar to the poet.

John Donne 120Hugh and I therefore started to design our own cards. Some of these used words, such as short biblical texts or, more usually, a few lines from one of the great poets. In this one we chose some of the beautiful words from John Donne’s sonnet, Annunciation. As you can see, the Annunciation theme resonates with me in both the visual and the literary arts.

Others leapt out into symbolism that I found meaningful, but which I know puzzled some of our friends and family members. My own very favourite one, in particular, was simply a beautiful gold circle which expressed my thoughts about God perfectly. I’m afraid to report, however, that on that occasion my mother thought we’d taken leave of our senses. Unfortunately we don’t seem to have saved one of these cards in our rough and ready filing system, but I’m sure you can picture it.

This one extended that idea into an image of humanity and divinity meeting in the incarnation.

Circle 120

These two were less challenging in terms of their theology  holy 120   God with us, 80

Gradually it became clear that if I wanted a Christmas card to express something significant to me, I had to write a poem that actually said what I wanted it to say. So the tradition of writing a poem each year for our Christmas card began.

Snowflake 160

This early one, Snowflake, was set painstakingly using lettraset. The poem was written years ago, but still seems to be popular.

Then there was this very short one, spiraling out into the world:  In the beginning 120

Years passed, and the number of Christmas or winter poems increased. Some were serious and reflective, others were light and humorous. There have been several Christmas trees and snowy offerings, reflections on the nativity, including talking animals gathered around the manger and even, following the great Christmas Day Bible reading, one entitled Logos.

Soft as a feather 120A couple of years ago we used a poem of mine called Soft as a feather falling. I wanted a line of white feathers to go down the side of the card, so we set off on a wild goose chase to find a source of feathers. Eventually we discovered a friendly duck farmer who was only too pleased to give us bagfuls of white feathers. As we didn’t want to risk spreading avian ‘flu around the country, we microwaved them before sticking the onto the cards. This worked well, except that it made the kitchen rather smelly for a few hours.

When Anne Born, who was Managing Editor of Oversteps Books, invited me to submit a poetry collection in 2007, I included a couple of my Christmas poems (Touching Earth). Anne later suggested that I should put a collection of these specific poems together in a separate collection. That was put on the back burner when Anne became ill and persuaded me to take over the management of Oversteps from her.

This year I decided to follow Anne’s suggestion, and festo was published a few months ago. The past few months have consequently seen a fairly hectic schedule of poetry readings, and it’s been great to include quite a number of poems from the new book as I’ve travelled the length and breadth of the country.

front cover snapshot smallerPlenty of these other poems are included in festo.
Apparently some of our friends and family members
have collected our Christmas poems as they’ve appeared,
so they won’t necessarily be needing to buy the book –
though actually there are also quite a few poems in it that
haven’t been used as cards.        

About half of our Christmas cards are now being sent by email. This is something of a green initiative in terms of saving paper and ink, but also ensures that the cards arrive quickly, and it allows us to include links to web pages and blogs. If it really is the poem that people enjoy, rather than grappling with the problem of where to hang their Christmas cards, then presumably this will be welcomed. If anyone who has received an e-version this year would prefer a paper copy next year, please let us know.

Then, of course, I had to sit down and write a new poem for this year’s card.

Dipping my toe into blogging

Image 

This blog will include both information about and samples of my own writing, and news about my work as Managing Editor of the poetry publishing house, Oversteps Books Ltd. In the more immediate future it will take the reader with me on a long sea journey to New Zealand, where I’ll be appearing at various poetry events in February 2013.