Image of Cecila Knapp with photographer Phil Poleglaze at South London Gallery.
Cecilia Knapp is Spread the Word’s Young People’s Laureate for London, working to engage young people in poetry throughout the capital. In her latest blog she reflects on her residencies at South London Gallery, Young Roots and shares some of her new poems.
I stumbled across the photographer Phil Poleglaze by complete accident, while investigating the archives of the South London Gallery. And it’s no wonder. He’s off the grid, in many ways. No social media, no website. I assume he has no mobile phone as when I tried to get in contact, I was given a landline number (those relics!) When I asked him how it felt having so few pieces of himself scattered across the internet, he said simply; ‘It’s happiness.’
In the 1980’s and 1990’s, Poleglaze, a freelance photographer, frequently captured events at the South London Gallery. Over the course of a decade, he photographed hundreds of moments inside the gallery; community meet ups, gallery visits for older local residents, workshops with schools, exhibition openings, private views, gigs and more. The pictures show the people who make the gallery rather than a specific focus on the art itself and illustrate that community, diversity and participation was a core principle held firmly at the gallery’s heart. In the archive, there are photos of, amongst other things, an early eighties graffiti show, ‘Black Perspectives’, an exhibition showcasing work by Southwark-based artists of African or Caribbean heritage; ‘Ireland – The Right to Know: an exhibition of drawings, paintings, photographs, posters and work in other media on the subject of Northern Ireland’; ‘Along the Lines of Resistance: An exhibition of contemporary feminist art’ and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The photos are full of movement and life; small, intimate and un-posed interactions taken sensitively and expertly. Poleglaze is a master and distilling a lively mood into a still, black and white image.
I discovered these images during my residency at the South London Gallery, one of four residencies I will complete during my time as the Young People’s Laureate for London. Over eight weeks, I spent time with the gallery’s brilliant young curators, ‘The Art Assassins’, creating poetry that they made into a zine, designed and curated entirely by the group. We called the zine ‘Honey Locust, Baby’ a tribute to a new tree planted outside the gallery, the species of which is a ‘honey locust.’ The planting of the new tree, and the felling of the huge old oak which used to stand outside the gallery (it had become diseased) struck us as very symbolic and poetic and was the subject of much discussion and writing during the course of my residency.
We used Poleglaze’s photos during a couple of sessions as a jumping off point for some writing. They were an excellent way to delve into the past of South London, and subsequently, the present; our own lives and how we as individuals relate to and feel about these images. Of course it also got us thinking about the future. What will a future South London look like? With the gallery being so rooted in community, it feels as though it stands as one of many symbols of South London itself, so this question and concern arose a lot.
One of the things I wanted to do during my time as Young People’s Laureate, and throughout my residencies, was to open up poetry to more young people as something they feel entitled to, to read and to use in their lives going forward in whatever way feels good to them. It was a joy to sit in a circle in the beautiful gardens of the gallery each week with these young people who hadn’t necessarily considered poetry as an outlet before. A lot of them use visual art and design to express themselves, so it was amazing to travel from this aesthetic position over to the realm of language, whilst also incorporating a visual aspect; Phil Poleglaze’s photography. It was interesting to note, that although these young people tended towards creativity already, they still initially found the world of poetry fairly impenetrable and difficult, a preconception I find in a lot of the groups I teach. We spent a lot of time trying to disrupt that, to give each other permission to write in our own voices. And it paid off. The poetry they wrote was full of their unique identities, personalities, voices, questions and uncertainties. Their poems were true advocations for creativity.
When we eventually managed to get in touch with Phil Poleglaze, he was surprised to hear of the project, having so little of himself online. He was keen to know how we found him and when we told him it was through the gallery’s archives; he arranged to come down and see us (he lives locally.) He generously shared his memories of the 80’s and 90’s, talked us through his pictures and eventually, took my picture on the same Pentax he was using at the galley over 30 years ago.
He was a true character. All the photos he takes, he posts to his subjects or clients, rather than uploading them onto the internet, so that the work he makes is one of a kind, a refreshing contrast from the ubiquity we are all so accustomed to in the digital age. It was inspiring to learn of his rejection of an online presence or persona, and the peace of mind it affords him. After I left him, I challenged myself to stay off Twitter for a day. Regrettably, I think I managed about six hours.
As part of each residency I will complete this year, I will write a commissioned piece of work responding to my time there. My commissioned poem for the South London Gallery residency will appear in the zine alongside the work of the Art Assassins, and I include it in this blog for you. I’ve focussed on the new tree outside the gallery, the ‘Honey Locust’ baby which I hope will grow and grow and provide shelter for many South London residents over the next century.
Honey Locust, Baby
the grey belly of the plane
the plump belly of the pigeon
the stench of sweet garden
wet paint and smooth wood
sprays of white flowers glowing
silk fists bursting from grey brick
the circle of our plastic chairs
the circles of our eyes
as yet uncertain of each other
the sun trips over itself
music slumps from
a high up open window
we write in biro leaning
on the soft of denimed knees
we don’t feel the cold
a new tree planted
near the gaping empty plot
where the old one stood
when the rot sets in; a felling
making way for the new
this is how it goes
honey locust baby you are
thin as a newborn horse
thin as these young dreams
underneath the soil
the roots multiply in the warm dark
like corridors to many rooms
early evening and a warm fuzz
summer has arrived at least for now
the trunk has thickened
taken fully by the yielding earth
the leaves a streak of fledgling green
on springy branches
we stand by the new tree
cradled by the buildings
buses glide past full of light
we know each other now
a thread drawn through each of us
having slowly revealed our lives
fish leaping briefly from water
we’re all still beginning
birds on a skinny wire
carry on honey baby
let the years advance
watch us rise and fly
off into our lives driving low
over cluttered dips and peaks
all there is to come for us
as you go on with your business
of growing future shade
like a curtain slowly unhooked
an audience to this road;
New #WriteThroughThis Webinars
Some other things to mention this month. Earlier this year, I ran a campaign called #WriteThroughThis, a series of free workshops and videos to help us find the time to write, access community and reflect, process and express through this strange time. I decided to bring this campaign back in the form of monthly, slightly longer webinars because although the world is opening back up, I still think there is a need to come together and carve out time for creativity and all its benefits. I find working online means more people can access the workshops and find a little community, and a little time for themselves. You can still sign up to the July webinar, and all the other monthly sessions here.
Some things to watch and listen to now. I was lucky enough to be a guest on Radio 4’s Poetry please, which is still available to listen to on BBC Sounds.
You can also watch the third instalment of my series of ‘Knapp Chats’ here. This time I teamed up with poet and playwright Toby Campion for a really interesting conversation where we discussed, amongst other things, the often-reductive demarcation between page and stage poetry. ‘Knapp Chats’ is my series of In Conversation With videos which I’ll be filming and sharing during my year as Young People’s Laureate, hoping to spread the positivity of poetry from a range of perspectives.
In terms of news, my next two residencies will be with The Royal Court (dream come true!) working with a group of young people to create a poetry show. My final residency will be with the mental health charity CALM.
The last thing I will leave you with is this poem I wrote responding to my first Young People’s Laureate residency, with the charity Young Roots and the Refugee Council. I worked with a group of young women who had experience of the asylum system. We were in the throes of lockdown three and had to work entirely online but the project was still such a dream. The group were warm and curious and responsive, generous and creative and wrote the most gorgeous things. For some reason, we kept leaning towards gardens. We used the abundance and beauty of the natural world to explore the positive in our own lives and to imagine a better future for ourselves. I used this principle in my own poem, imagining my dream garden, my hopes.
You can read the participants’ poems on the Young People’s Laureate webpage, but I’ll leave you for now with my poem, inspired by their words.
In our garden
the soil holds and gives,
the flowers are various,
sprayed across the high grass.
Wads of crocuses push through dirt.
Here we are, warm. The air is pink
and tender. There are no tall fences,
large hands, dark suits. Instead,
we plunge wrist deep
into the earth, heated
by the weather and we plant,
women touching shoulders.
Water shoots from rock.
We cup our hands and drink.
We eat until we glow like eggs.
We know what we deserve.
It happens as it should.
Easy sleep, exhausted
from the day. Here, no dark
corners, only the shade
from the heft of clever trees.
Here, our pain is old and shared,
a wooden bowl passed between us.
Somewhere, birds spit song
from their throats and the sea
is near but mild. The sun
comes out over and over
like a reel of film. Shame vanishes
like water dried on a stone.
Here, families stay together.
Here, there are fathers, boys.
And the tea is hot and ready.
Published 12 July 2021