Rachel Long: Walking the SPINE of London Libraries

Rachel Long, SPINE Festival 2016’s Poet in Residence, takes to the blog to share her experiences of roaming London libraries, and creating a specially commissioned poem…

It was an honour to be invited to be this year’s SPINE Festival Poet in Residence. This meant that rather than being stationed in one library, I had the freedom to spread the SPINE Festival programme out on my bed like a map and plot a route of things to see and do in as many London libraries as I wished – the only constraints being time and travel from one exciting activity to another.  The hard part was being practical, editing down all of what I’d red-penned – which was pretty much the lot. There was such variety; from Mysterious Beasts to Manga, Fairy-tales Gone Bad to Film and Animation workshops. I was spoilt for choice, and already excited about what sitting in on all of these sessions would inspire for my own culminating response-poem.  Having a chat with SPINE Festival organiser-in-chief, Nicky, really helped me to make a more feasible shortlist of activities to see across fourteen London boroughs. Together we whittled a timetable that challenged what I usually experience in my own work as a poet and facilitator, for example, selecting theatre, dance and animation over the creative writing workshops. My timetable would take me to libraries in areas of London that I, though born and bred in the city, had never been to.

I did manage to sneak one writing workshop in there, and kicked off the festival with What Makes a Story Scary? with award-winning children’s author, Frances Hardinge at Wealdstone Library in Harrow. A large table under a high window was transformed into a story-séance through the recounts of recent nightmares and confessions of deepest fears, the scene unsettlingly lit in the late afternoon sun and backdropped by the legs and wheels of the busy high street. Simply recording some of these fears made a promising draft for a list poem:

‘A demon, a poster with a lady on, a mirror, that face in the glass, all sorts of things that I am trying not to prey upon, dolls, swivelling, a tiny mouth moving, falling, hunger, reactions of a sister, being six years old again, forgetting, remembering, when Sebastian died, fever, glass eyes, dogs, dogs
with human skin, dragons, a room, your room? My room.’

My SPINE Festival Friday continued on this scary streak with Fairytales Gone Bad with Joe Coelho at Wembley Library. This was a special invited schools performance. It was wonderful to witness the great links being made/upheld between local libraries and schools. Joe’s performances of Zombierella and Blood-Red Riding Hood were fantastic. There were guts being pulled like a string of sausages from a waistcoat, the fairy godmother as Death and wearing a rose in her hair (the poetry in that!), and the ugly sisters sawing off their own feet with scissors to marry the zombie prince. The invited schoolchildren, all dressed as their favourite characters for World Book Day, squealed, delighted by the liberal squirting of blood and gore. Sitting at the back with the teachers, it was beautiful to hear them also laughing and urghhing along too, all wrapt in the re-telling of the tales we all grew up with.

Cloaktales_5After lunch, I dashed from Wembley over to Leytonstone for a Theatrical Dance Workshop with choreographer, Annarita Mazzilli. I’m not much of a dancer. Not since the ice cream and leotard incident. This was the closest I’d been to a dance studio in years. I was warmly welcomed to the library and given a helpful run down of all the things that had been happening since the beginning of the festival – from videos of pop-up dance performances between bookshelves to the illustrated feedback forms by children who’d taken part in the dance-theatre workshop. I was then taken down to the studio and introduced to Annarita and to the young dance enthusiasts who had already started to perfect a sequence they had made up mere minutes before. I was moved by their timing, the shapes the body can make and its response to music, to the instruction of the teacher – which quickly becomes part of the music. I found simply recording their movements in relation to Annarita’s words fascinating, their pace and flourish translated onto the page and mimicked the movements happening in real time.

‘Empty stage. Counting. Kick the sun. Cartwheels (pronounced ear wheels). Melt and catch her. You can go round each other. Before you roll. Freeze. Bent knees, finger-stars to floor. All sip blue and green water. Re-bind ponytails. We’ll talk costumes later. Stage. Crescendo jump. Again. See-saw leg. Spin clasping bees. Come back. Surge. Flash of belly. Remember to breathe, Ladies. She’s strong. Put your weight on each other. Girl’s power. Eight years you’ve been friends. On a see-saw. A little bit more. Head on shoulder. Hip-to-hip. Lean. A moon under arm. Palms to pits. Let’s do it once without, once with.’



By Saturday, I couldn’t believe it was the last day of the Festival, so much had happened, and so fast. So sitting down on the floor inside what I can only describe as an enchanted forest coaxed indoors with touch-me walls of furry squirrels, silk deer, gold flowers, giant toadstools and felt owls sleeping in the nooks of trees – all lit by stars orbiting Sutton Library was one of those cases of ‘this is exactly what I needed’ only I didn’t know that it existed. The Whispering Smith Puppet Show & Woodland Animals Craft Show was popular, all three of Saturday’s shows sold out, and from watching it I could see why. Not only was the set/tent intimate-feeling and completely immersive, the show itself was an array of puppetry genius – there were rod puppets, hand puppets, shadow puppets and even stencils projected. It was also expertly sound-based which worked well for all ages. Little hands were clasped throughout the show in excitement, and parents braved pins and needles to kneel with their children.

photo (22)“I liked the making of the dreamland and also the making of the rooms. The session was very interesting and the children were able to use their imagination.” – Teacher of SPINE Participant

My last SPINE library visit was Charlotte Bill’s Film and Animation workshop at Ealing Central Library. I’d been looking forward to this workshop because of Charlotte’s animation work with lost and found things – the items that people leave on public transport, at libraries, in waiting rooms. I noticed through a lot of my own work that I have an interest in what is left.  I arrived to a floor-dragon made of coats, a man made of baseball caps and umbrellas for legs. There was a little girl behind the camera with Charlotte animating the flame coming out of the dragon’s mouth, and making the umbrella man dance. This was all projected onto a huge library wall which the children could watch and feedback on how they next wanted to animate their film. They were all so involved it took them a while to notice that I had joined them. When they did, I asked them questions about the things they had made, the things they had lost and what was most precious to them. Their answers were pure poetry and were all duly noted for the response poem.

‘I found it exciting because it was animation. It was exciting because I was free to do it.’  – SPINE Participant

In many ways this was a perfect workshop to end my residency with; witnessing young people learn and create from the things left behind by others – the same way that knowledge is imparted by artists in residence to their participants, and performers to their audience. There is legacy in it, and real hope for what will be future-made from the things each person took away with them from any one of the activities that happened within their local library as part of SPINE Festival.

You can connect with Rachel on Twitter | Find out more about Rachel here.

Spine Festival 2016 took place from the 3-5 March, giving children, families and young people the chance to experience loads of FREE arts and literature events in local libraries across London! For more information visit the SPINE blog page or check out the SPINE Festival 2016 film. SPINE Festival is produced by Apples and Snakes in partnership with library authorities across London. #SPINEfestival2016.