Tag Archives: art

Helpless, Helpless, Helpless in Anti-Heroin Chic

An uncomfortable silence, after our fight. Prairie yellow comes the moon while it’s so quiet we can hear the clouds rushing between us and the stars as you drive the rental down the highway to somewhere or another, I’m too worked up to remember now. Prairie yellow moon, and I pick a CD for keeping us together. Your hand on the leather of the wheel, mine on the buttons, clicking through. I want this one, I say, holding Neil Young by my fingertips. Fine by me, you say.

A new, very sad story in Anti-Heroin Chic, a magazine that defines itself in a beautiful ‘About‘ page:

” ‘Anti-Heroin Chic’ meaning that what is beautiful is what is broken, that our imperfections, our exiles, our exclusions, are what define our humanity most, not the polished surface or the Instagram culture which encourages us to dissociate from who and how we truly are. There is a seat for everyone here at the table.”

The story itself is based on the Neil Young song ‘Helpless’, so I recommend a listen before, while, or after reading.

There’s also a beautiful version by one of my favourite artists, Perfume Genius

This is my last piece of the year to be published, my last of the decade. I started the 2010s off in New York City with D, struggling to get by and with a book I’d written that no one wanted and another on the way. Things, as they tend to, have not always gone smoothly, and this, for us, has been a decade marked by loss, frustration, unstable employment situations, and at least ten flats we moved into and out of due to cramped conditions, mould, or rent hikes. All this is to say nothing of the wider world’s veering into political mire and climate catastrophe.

Still, we are here. You are too. I’m now a part-time lecturer in Creative Writing at Glasgow University, with somehow four books published. That one of them was published at the exact, explosive death of its publisher and is now out of print is just one more thing that marks the journey of writing. I’ve travelled to many countries and been lucky enough to do that with help from various literarily-minded funding bodies. I’m grateful to the many magazines and journals who have supported my work, and to all of you for reading, here. I know that all art is made of petals, something faint and frail and not always significant to those who encounter it. It’s a hope for connection, a method of speaking (in petals, yes, in a whisper or a yell). As a reader, I have come across so many books, stories, poems in the last ten years, and they have each of them shaped me, anchored me to this world and its changes. Paintings too, sculpture, film, and music. Whatever we have, or don’t have, we will always have the words and visions of others, and that’s something to keep us, tend to us, through the hardest, leanest of years.

As for the 2020s, who can predict the course of even one single life, among billions? But I have some hopes, as you do, I’m sure. Next year, I am flying out to Kerala, in India, to take part in the Mathrubhumi International Festival of Letters 2020, thanks to funding provided by Scottish Books International’s Author International Travel Fund. When I return, D and I are moving into our first house together, a semi-detached place on the edge of town, with a garden, and from the street at least a view of the hills. What happens next? It’s enough to say, it’s still happening.


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Dreaming Singular Instant Dreams

Being a big fan of Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky’s polaroids (which you can see some of here) and of instant pictures in general, I’m posting some of my own snaps here, taken in Scotland and in Canada (around Banff and BC) and one in the north of England.

While Tarkovsky is in another world, I still enjoy the process of taking mine, on a camera bought the year I was born. I wish the film was cheaper – £18 for a pack of 8 makes this an expensive hobby, and one I can only indulge in after birthday and Christmas gifts of film. But once I have them, they are there, haunted the way these images always are by a sense of their fragility and uniqueness, though now of course with a scanner they are not quite that –

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Polaroids + impossible places

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I’ve had a chance to scan some of my Impossible Project pictures – a little bit wonkily and imperfect, which I think I like better than having them as they are in real life.

The above image is Peyto Lake, just off the Icefields Parkway in Alberta. It is in real life light-leaky and streaked. I have a more true-to-colour version but why not this reality rather than the smoother one?

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The Athabasca glacier, and the sun dominating everything, washing away all the blues and whites. I’ve been thinking of how my conception of my time in Banff – now at an end – will be held together by these photographs. By the work that I did while there – though most of that was early drafting of the third ms, and so will be erased in necessary corrections and deletions. All I’ll have is my limited perception, filtered through digital pixels and the hard, blocky, colourwarped images on Polaroid.

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(Bow River, frozen one morning near the Hot Springs marsh)

Of course, I’m lucky enough to have experienced Banff with others, so we can meet up and compare memories. Still, that’s bittersweet, isn’t it. We say we put things behind us. The past is in our blind spot, though it is all we have time to consider.

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(the Arthur Wheeler hut, image melted on the hut’s woodstove)

We can alter, we generally do alter what happened. A consolidated emotion comes to dominate what was a series of ups and downs – ambiguity is more frightening when it curls off the past like a mist. We want the solid, and not to have that – takes a certain bravery.

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Here are the woods on the way to my studio, though they were never that colour, never sliced with a thin white line (which is a digital glitch, not present in the physical photo). The woods were never like this, and they are like this, purples and light on snow, with animals in the treetops, with nothing captured here.

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(fireplace in the Wheeler hut where the other image was burned. A book, an empty or full cup of something)

Whatever I’ll remember, or whatever others will share – in a few weeks, in a few years when we meet again – there are these spaces. The Banff Centre’s official slogan is ‘inspiring creativity’, but for me I think it’s ‘leaving room’. I could get waffly here – oh, go on then. Think of the different sorts of room I could mean. Space – being a void, a scary thing. Room to think. Room as containment. Ambiguous room with no clear measure. Imperfect, capable of warp and glitch. And I am glad of it.


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Open Studios at the Banff Centre



On Wednesday the Creative Futures crowd opened their studios to the public, and on Friday the wonderful themed residency, Dizziness of Correspondences, opened theirs. I’ve decided to fuse posts and showcase a little of what was shared.   The first up was my studio – a collection of works posted on the walls and on top of the piano (excerpts from Flesh of the Peach and some concrete poetry on a landscape theme), and some origami poems:


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(photo credit: Amy Dryer)


These required audience interaction, of course. Some of them opened to reveal lines of poetry, another invented past lives, and one cursed the user with various Greco-Roman spells. I had a realisation a few days ago that I want to make a chapbook on fortune and magic using some of these origami patterns alongside flash fictions (such as Boy Cyclops, also on this theme).


I also read two extracts from Flesh of the Peach. though in this picture you can only see some of who came to listen – the whole place, as with every studio, was packed:



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(photo credit: Amy Dryer)


I had been horribly nervous beforehand. An Australian writer who is staying at the Banff Centre, Mary-Rose MacColl, passed on some excellent advice – ‘fall into the reading’. I took it to mean diving into a very temporary meditative state, just focusing on the text itself and not getting tangled up in the presence of the crowd. Afterwards, several people came up to me with kind words and requests to read the novel, and I had a drink and got to enjoy everyone else’s studios.



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(photo credit: Amy Dryer)


Here’s Playwright Stef Smith at her studio, having given a short performance with two others, as well as reading a poem dedicated to the Banff Centre experience. It went down very well with the audience. In fact, her poem is going to be featured on the Centre’s radio station come January. Links to that later.


Next up was David Cooper‘s exhibition.


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(photo credit: Amy Dryer)



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(photo credit: Amy Dryer)



I really love David’s pictures of mountain landscapes – hopefully he is going to have a show in Glasgow some time in the next few months.


Lastly, Karen Vaughan‘s studio, showing her photographs and screen prints. Unfortunately, there are no pictures (unless anyone has any they’d like to forward on?). But the work was excellent (as you’ll see if you click through her name to her website), and the venue perfect for the after-party. This only ended after all the alcohol was going (not that long, with so many people), and we all went out to the on-campus bar, Maclab, to round off the celebration.


Now for the Dizziness of Correspondences! I can’t possibly talk about everyone – there are 15 people on the residency – so I’m just going to show a few people here. You may have noticed the photo credits under each picture here are all to an Amy Dryer, and she is our first Dizzy person:




(photo credit: Amy Dryer)



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(photo credit: Amy Dryer)


Amy is a visual artist as well as a photographer. Her paintings were begun outdoors – in some pretty cold weather – and then brought in to be finished and abstracted.


Elsewhere, unreadable writing marks the abstraction of thought. Her overall project as part of the residency was to explore the breaks in communication which happen with a mind suffering from dementia. Perhaps my favourite part was her sound installation, which consisted of her voice reading out a script which across three recordings grew more and more echoey and distorted.


Here’s work from Ryan Mathieson‘s studio:






Bright, bold, distorted, eye-wrecking, dizzying – I can’t really do it justice in these photos. But here, anyway –


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Ryan and I did an art swap – I gave him one of my Impossible Project Polaroids, and he gave me two light-streaked photographs of the dark woods, which I intend to have framed as soon as I can.


Veronica Slater is next: marvellous colour and shapes (you can see I’m not an art critic, but I was entranced by her work, so maybe that’s enough):


IMG_2693 (shown in photo: Ryan Mathieson)



As we meandered around looking at all the art it was fun to bump into various artists and talk about their impressions and their own pieces.






Beautiful crimpied ceramics with impressions from maps made on the outer sides. Veronica is based in the UK, and I hope I’ll be able to see more of her work quite soon.

UPDATE: I have another artist I’d like to feature here, who works in fabric and performance, Maria Flawia Litwin:



Maria was working outdoors a lot while on this residency, going out into the National Park to film her art, interacting with the landscape on a level both tender and destructive (to her art, I should say, not the landscape)


This is a video of the destruction of one of Maria’s earlier pieces – an unravelling of wool which, on snow, looks like blood and tissue.


In this, Maria is covered in a woolen cocoon, and in this guise wanders over and through the landscape, sight marred, having to touch everything to find her way. I hope I’m doing her work justice – again, I insist that the only way to really experience this is in person.

It was a fantastic and overwhelming afternoon – art should be overwhelming I think. Challenging and shaking and wrecking you. I hope I’ve managed to share a tiny bit from the two residencies and days, and inspire you to seek these artists out. Click on their names for a start, leave comments and questions here.


Thank you very much to the Banff Centre for providing the setting and means for the whole thing, and to the landscape and the people most of all – audience and artist, artist-audience, who made this something truly special.


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I’ve been off away the past few days – first on Sunday to Lake Louise. I’d like to have one of those old Canadian Pacific  Railway paintings of the lake – it being a kind of arena of magnitude and textures and all kinds of whites and blues. I suspect that each image would include the Chateau Lake Louise, a thing not exactly to my taste. To me it looks a little like a cross between a prison and a yellowed wedding cake left out by some giant Miss Haversham. But beyond that, the landscape is something else.




It seems to me in the face of things like this – a wall so high that it stuns you, makes you pause – that art will never be sufficient. I suppose that’s why I try to focus my attentions on the smaller, fragmented, unlikeable, un-magestic. Or when I try to write of place, I do it with an acknowledgment that my perspective is limited to the limitlessness. Two little blue-green eyes squinting through white to rock that is older than humanity. Silence. Or taking what you can and stretching them until they break, break down. And in the space you hope others will find what you could not or could not bring yourself to write.

Up beyond the wall and the lake is the plain of the six glaciers.




I like the sky best here – though it made me dizzy. Always while I’m here in Banff I’m struggling with the task of making – how to make when I am struggling even to be. To exist without a sense of vulnerability, incorrect response. English is a language where ‘to be’ is writ into everything. There is a mountain. There is a glacier. Without another verb, the thing cannot. Be. ‘There, mountain’ is not possible without being a sentence fragment. But I’m always on the verge of fragments with this – white, ancient, and myself – small, shaky, falling over in the deep snow. So how can I settle myself long enough to make. Writing is. Writing escapes. I take a picture. It is insufficient. It just about is, and that’s all.






Perhaps my perspective is more limited than others. Perhaps my approach is through the deep snow, where others see a path (or make it themselves). Sometimes I laugh and dust myself off. Sometimes this is not a metaphor and at other times there is no is, just pages of failing, and shaking my head at my foolish self.



But for now I think, for me, it is a necessary imprecise process. that there is no make, only try – whether I knock myself for six doing it or not, that is all. I’ll fail and fail to make. I’ll make myself a missionary of my own failure and bittyness, weird takes.



Tomorrow I’ll be back again, perhaps in a lighter mood, with photos of the second trip I took. Off to be uncertainly still, for now.


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One good bye and one HOOORAY

My very last post is up on Necessary Fiction.


Go over there and click on all the writers (for info on Chris Rice, you need only her wonderful piece, here)


So it is goodbye, and I’ve had an incredible time. I hope some of you have enjoyed reading my posts – if you haven’t got round to it, they are all archived here. Take your time.


I also have two announcements, one sad, one happy:


Sad, first: my agent Drea and I have parted ways. I was very sad to let her go, but circumstances are tough right now and I think it was the best decision, for her and for me. I look forward to reading work by her authors in the future.


It’s never nice to share bad news , so I put off talking about it for some time. But now I have a piece of good news to share, which balances things out:


I have just learned that I’ve been accepted for the Banff Mountain Residency this winter! Four Scottish artists are heading out to Alberta! In a month! And I am one of them!


OK, breathe. I have a wonderful multi-step project lined up for the residency, alongside goals for novel number three, which I have been to frantically busy to work on for close to two months. I am so grateful to the Banff Centre for choosing me, and – that’s it for the moment. Watch this space!


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Little boats


Writers and artists are in the business of making little boats.


By that I mean, of building things they then send out into the world. Mostly, of course, art of all kinds, but sometimes rafts connected to same. Efforts to send their work out into the world, or to directly aid them in making further art.


That is what I have been up to, all the week long. A few days ago I posted a link to the Creative Futures Banff Mountain Residency. Just go and look at the website and the Leighton Artists’ Colony Studios and see how gorgeous the landscape of Banff looks. Icy, wintry air and slabs of mountain and claddings of snow.  It would be a marvelous opportunity for me to work in solitude in an environment relevant to this next novel of mine – which now has a working title, by the by: The Library of Endings.


I don’t know what my chances are, just that working on the application felt good. Necessary work. Physical exertions, requiring attentiveness and an interrogation of my methods that I might not otherwise have engaged in. So whether I get it or not, the little boat sails off from me, out, watertight as much as I could make it.


Next on the cards for me is a September residency over at Necessary Fiction. I’ll post signs when I have things up there.


What have you been working on?


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