Inaugural poet in residence Pele Cox, the John Murray / Keats-Shelley Memorial Association Creative Writing Resident, reflects on her two months spent in Rome at the BSR.
I’m back now- looking out over the Clee Hill in Shropshire. ‘Was I ever in Rome!’ I think as I walk out past the sheep and drive up to Ludlow through the lanes littered with oaks and hedges. Two months is not a long time and it is green here, replete with grass and low barns- ‘how full of stone Rome is,’ I think. The counterpoint of the UK to Rome in October, now living in its opposite as Christmas comes. I think, our relationship, our trajectory with the place is metronomic, relationship as rhythm and music – Stephen is right about footsteps. Every night I dream about the BSR and wake up and hear everybody like I’m still there, I think, the sheep can’t compete with that and this year the BSR will be my nativity.
Of course, like the canary going down the mine of return – and being the poet in the mix – I wonder whether it is a dreamlike state being at the BSR? How it is constellated internally after one gets back ‘Home’: how do the cube of green shutters, the gravel and statues lilting as one walks to the long wooden tables for sustenance stay real and coexist with the idea of return. All the time Rome whispers, ‘I will not leave you,’ after all it is the ‘Eternal City.’ But can this travel? Can it sustain itself, find its realism and gravity after an easyJet journey back to what is even more familiar, more inscribed? Well what can I say to this apart from write out the last line of Lou’s performance –‘it’s always there even when you can’t see it.’
While at the BSR I ran a series of weekly poetry workshops. One was on the subject of Dante and we really got our teeth into it. Every week I asked participants to bring a poem according to a theme and this week I asked everyone to bring a canto and image from Inferno. It was very interesting, not just because of the ekphrastic nature of the gesture, or because we were sitting there incanting ‘abandon all hope all ye who enter here’ and grappling with an epic with little time but because there were more salient parallels to the theme than I originally thought: Dante alludes to a dreamlike state, being half asleep in the lucid mechanisms -almost hypnagogic, he finds a soul to be guided by, a great thinker and poet who takes him into a terrain, a meta reality where things that are hidden or not realised are suddenly writ large – the first cartoon? Maybe. But to me more a place of symbolism, release and awakening. Each choice made was a guide to the individual, bringing the text into the room. As a reflection not just of themselves but their work, the direction of their study, the essence, in a way, of these trajectories. Perhaps Rome became our Virgil and becomes a place where we find a ‘language’ that can unpeel us and gives us juice, gravity – the privacy of our skin and brains inscribed against the stone, a message to ourselves. I realise now that is one of the reasons I wanted so much to be at the BSR. Poets live on the edges and sometimes they are given the chance to bring the edge in.
I was anxious to open up a room in this way, I have done this a lot in London but to do it in Rome with my adored and respected peer group of whom I was in awe, made me a little nervous! And I want to write about everyone but Paloma’s quiet dedication, John’s passionate sincerity and Kresho’s power of understanding, Dom’s kooky alert wit with his subject, Alice’s support – I cannot shake. Most of all Josie- who writes very good poetry herself , and used poetry in her work for the Mostra -would stand at the window with a cigarette and read her work. It still weaves through my memory: Josie reading to us the poem by Pasolini about Gramsci’s grave…which is at the protestant cemetery where Keats is buried.. it came over us like a performance piece as the sounds of Rome moved through the open window of the BSR.
Of course this feeds into an idea of collaboration, which I am passionate about. And to work with Lou True on a piece I had written before I came was a treat. I had tried to produce it in London but couldn’t find a space or an actress to perform it. It is testament to the BSR that it has these things available on a plate. Something from England woven through the heart and mind of the BSR, through the heart and mind of an actress whose luminosity and openness is testament to the idea of the potential of poetry and poetry in performance. Our piece was an inscription, a palimpsest set against all the living inscriptions and lectures that happen in that space, like all the words spoken there: the lecture theatre as vital space, it reminds the world that the BSR, like Rome, is hot, a living, organic thing. A cultural conductor, an instructor.
Lou brought the canto of Beatrice to the poetry workshop – and after we had seen her perform we knew why. I thought what I had written had ‘life’- but Lou’s performance gave it that paradisal quality of truth-telling: as Keats says – ‘truth is beauty and beauty is truth’. I know the audience (and Keats) would agree – this idea was running through Lou’s veins when she set us alight that night and this to me is a metaphor for the power and potential of the gift of those spaces – between us, inside that square courtyard, the bell, the director, the people, the staff, the visitors – and the lecture theatre – I suppose you could say this was our lecture on the emotion of experience: drawn through my experience; the gift of that space, the audience and Lou. And ‘production’ is a simple thing if you have talent at your fingertips: the work was already there and we were given the resources thanks to Tom and Christine. We had quietly just rehearsed it each week and Lou learned the poems on the plane on her way to and from London. She would arrive back and we would go through and through it until it was right – poet and actress. The week before the performance we had paced the basilicas on Piers’ pilgrimage tour and we rehearsed the lines – as we walked along the cobbles, up the Basilica steps, outside with Lupin, past the confession boxes, past the Bernini statues staring up at the ceilings… Lou took these basilicas into her performance and those spaces were running through the poems as the lines came into her and out of her during the performance. I’m sure I could hear the churches’ echo in the spaces of the applause.
The BSR is a fabulous space – and is a standard bearer for culture in the UK – an engine of thought, with a simple agenda, no corporate creative idea, or political agenda, all mantras allowed in. It is historic and contemporary, as a simple structure, a template, it can act as a leitmotif for being. So I must thank all of you so much for being so open to my project, for being such inspiring participants and friends in the spaces. Thank you to Christopher Smith’s vision, the Murrays, Giuseppe and Stephen for ‘getting it’ and letting me do the things I wanted to do, and also to Tom. Keats-Shelley House, of course was and always will be the setting off point for me – I wrote tweets during my residency there, in the spaces between, on my walk from the BSR through the Borghese Gardens to the KSH. Giuseppe is an inspiration, the lecture he came to see with me was about glass, I think how fragile this all is- how it is kept safe in the footsteps.
Text written by Pele Cox (John Murray / Keats-Shelley Memorial Association Creative Writing Resident). Click here to watch the talk Pele delivered at Keats-Shelley House.