Heather Wastie writes poems, songs & monologues. This blog began with her oral history project with people who worked in the carpet industry in Kidderminster. Her carpet industry related pieces appear on this blog and in her book http://blackpear.net/authors-and-books/heather-wastie/
It wasn’t easy keeping quiet about filming for Great Canal Journeys last May! But now the programme has been aired I can share this lovely photo of Kate Saffin and I with Sheila Hancock – all of us managing to conceal that fact that it was a miserable, cold day! The programme features tales of the so-called ‘Idle Women’ whose stories we tell in one of our Alarum Productions shows. Click on the photo to go to the Channel 4 website and watch the episode.
This coming weekend, there are two chances to experience my new solo piece The Idle Women Story – a combination of short pieces about the wartime trainees, some of which you may have seen before if you’ve been to an Alarum show. But this new version includes some recently unearthed letters from one of the women and also some of the men, written whilst considering whether or not women were capable of handling working boats… As well as my online performance, there’s a fascinating live dance interpretation by Hannah Warren. Kate will also be performing live in her solo piece The Mary Rose: a boat of ill repute which is all about a brothel on a boat! The live shows are taking place, along with several others, canalside in Rickmansworth. My online show can of course be seen from the comfort of your own home. Click the photo to go to the event website.
At Alarum Productions we were lucky enough to secure an emergency grant in 2020 to help us through a difficult time, when the pandemic curtailed plans to stage live performances. One of the many facets of our Arts Council bid was to look at ways of making our work more accessible. We decided to commission RAW to add BSL (British Sign Language) translation and subtitles to one of our videos, and the one we chose is a performance of my poem Histrionic Water, filmed at Debdale Lock on the Staffs & Worcs Canal.
When I first approached Alex from RAW he wrote back: ‘There’s some very strong, visual English language and I’ll need a bit of time to work out the best signs’. Then when the edited film arrived, I was taken aback by how much the expressive movements of the signer, Gary, added to the meaning behind the poem. I was mesmerised and feel privileged now to have this new dimension to one of my pieces. I asked if RAW would be happy to share an insight into the whole process, and what came back is fascinating:
Alex Vann from Real Arts Workshops (RAW) was delighted to get the call from Heather Wastie from Alarum Productions, to add British Sign Language and subtitles to the film of her wonderful poem ‘Histrionic Water’.
Alex is hearing and signs to level 6. He sometimes does communication support work in education and has previously added BSL to films and live performances. However, when it came to this project he asked his partner, in business and in life, Gary O’Dowd, to do the signing. This is because the words of the poem are so expressive and visual that it made sense for a native Deaf BSL user to perform the poem.
Most people who have studied BSL will quickly learn that it isn’t just about doing things with your hands and arms. Rather, it uses the whole body to communicate – facial expressions in particular – and it was felt that a Deaf signer would convey this with maximum authenticity.
When it came to translating ‘Histrionic Water’, it was vital to Alex and Gary that a Deaf audience would understand what it meant. It wouldn’t do just to translate the English straight into hand gestures, like other forms of communication – Makaton and Sign Supported English for example. It had to go further and tell the story and almost act it so that a Deaf audience would understand not just the words but the meaning. Alex and Gary worked on translating the poem on paper first, and Gary practiced and practiced until the poem flowed.
Filming was problematic because Gary obviously can’t hear the poem so Alex had to use hand signals and pointing to sections of the poem off camera. Even then – trying to match the timing of the spoken word was near impossible. So they shot it in small sections, in front of a greenscreen, and Alex had the unenviable task of ‘stitching’ the pieces together in video editing software to match the film of the poem. There are some fades between the signed sections because one thing BSL must do is flow – and not jump from one sign to another.
Initial feedback from Deaf audiences is very encouraging:
“What a beautiful poem: powerful too. I’m intrigued to take a walk on the canal.”
“Wow, brilliant BSL translation, You ought to join ‘See Hear’ on TV!”
“Brilliant, fantastic translation. Love it.”
“Love it. Very impressed.”
“Very awesome, wow.”
Alex Vann from RAW said: “We love working in collaborations with other organisations and artists so when Heather got in touch about this project we were very excited. One of our key values as a business is inclusion so making a film Deaf accessible is right up our street. We hope Heather’s film is a huge success and that we get to work together again in future.”
On social media – I use it on Twitter and Instagram – the hashtag #ThrowbackThursday refers to a post which is a reminder of something from the past. This poem doesn’t, strictly speaking, fit that category. I was thinking about the present, the recent past, and lockdown limbo.
Next Thursday, 11th February, 7.00-8.00pm, I’ll be taking part in this online event:
Behind the Tongue and the Talk – panelists talk about their role in the creation of the Black Country edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Tongue and Talk – The Dialect Poets’. Join City of Wolverhampton Poet Laureate, Emma Purshouse, as she natters to actress, writer and series producer Catherine Harvey, poet and playwright Brendan Hawthorne (Poet Laureate for Wednesbury), singer songwriter and poet Heather Wastie, along with dialect expert Esther Asprey. Expect discussion about our local vernacular, with some Black Country dialect poetry and song thrown into the mix.
As you may have guessed, you’ll be getting some poetry and a song from me, plus some canting (which has absolutely nothing to do with being hypocritical, pious or righteous). If you’re from the Black Country, you’ll know what I’m talking about; if not, do tune in and find out! Here’s the link for more details and to book.
‘…the timeless quality of the stories and descriptions of village events make it just as much a love letter to every village community in Britain.’
This lovely review (see below) was published in Towpath Talk (January 2020). I hope it’s big enough for you to read! You can also read it on the Lapal Publications website where copies of the book are on sale.
At this difficult time, I hope these words and illustrations (both in the review and in the book) brighten your day. Wishing you a Happy New Year wherever you are.
Ask two poets to write on the same subject and their poems will almost certainly look quite different from one another. Next Thursday, 19th November, I’m running an online poetry workshop for Alarum Productions with a few tips on how to shape a poem. How long will the lines be? How long will the poem be? Will it be separated into stanzas? Will there be some rhyming going on…? The subject of the poem will be the writer’s choice and anyone who likes to write is welcome. Inspired by poems from published poets, we will write our own words and play with arranging them on the page.
In order to support those on little or no income, one place will be free of charge. Click here for full details and to book. (Kate’s workshop has already taken place so scroll down a little way for the relevant info.)
I’ve published eight poetry collections. Here I am signing copies of The Muck and Shovel Brigade, commissioned by Canal & River Trust for The Ring project in 2018. The photographs in the book are by Max Sinclair (featured in yesterday’s blog about The Battle of Stourbridge) and one of the poems is dedicated to him. I’ve copied that poem below. It can also be seen on a display board alongside the lock at Vines Park, Droitwich.
The waterside his playground, he loved the thrill of Severn barges, the grace of steamers.
Delighted by freeze and frost, he skated the cut to Droitwich, played ice hockey matches at Hanbury Wharf.
At Hawford he watched Italian prisoners fill in the channel, block it with concrete for D-Day tanks, sever the cut,
butcher Brindley’s beautiful bridge, too steep, too lightweight for war.
His beloved canal abandoned, water seeping away, one day he wrote to the Birmingham Mail, and that’s how it started.
Battling the threat of M5 spoil, three hundred thousand tons of mud and soil and a tangle of hostility and inertia,
whether caked in mud, shovelling dirt, or dressed in a suit for persuasion, he knew the value of patience, grit and determination.
I decided to tell this story in a poem when I came across a series of photographs on the Inland Waterways Association website. Since writing the piece, IWA have revamped their website so the photographs are no longer there, but luckily I found a different source. Here’s my favourite. The boat is Vesta, owned by Max Sinclair who is standing at the tiller. Almost in the centre of the shot is a woman looking after two of Max’s children. One of them is Ian, who kindly sent me the photographs.
As you can see the (original) photo caption doesn’t mention the woman or children by name; I’m not convinced they were in mind when the word ‘everybody’ was used either. Most of the photos were taken by Phil Hutchings though Max probably wrote the caption, and, together with the other shots, have an immediacy which draws us into the drama of trying to get these boats up the Stourbridge arm in 1961.
And I know how exciting it must have been. In fact I was probably there because my mother remembers it. She told me that, while the long line of boats waited behind Vesta when it was stuck under a bridge, she carved up a cake she had on our little cruiser and handed out pieces as far as they would go to hungry people on the adjacent craft. A few years later we had our own 70 foot historic boat, struggling to move it on the neglected canals and determined to do everything we could to get them restored.
I wanted to write a poem which put the photos into context and expressed the spirit and dedication of the enthusiastic volunteers. The piece, as text and video, is on the Creative Black Country blog. It’s also on my YouTube channel. I feel a bit bad that the woman in the middle of the action isn’t mentioned in my poem. One day I’d better have a go at writing something just for her.
Having blogged about the three other artists I commissioned – Alex Vann, Al Barz and Lou Blakeway, it’s time to tell you about my pieces, commissioned by Creative Black Country. Here’s the first:
It was so good to have a creative project to get on with during the first lockdown. My car MOT was due, so I drove to Pym’s garage in Netherton, Dudley which I’ve been using since I first had a car. I was a bit nervous about being out but it was an opportunity to walk along the canal behind the garage in an area which has been landscaped, belying its industrial past. Warren’s Hall, Bumble Hole, Windmill End… this picturesque area has several names, and on this particular day the reflection of the latticed arches and the cloud formations attracted my attention. So I took lots of photos. Here are some of them:
Up to that point I hadn’t decided what I would write about for either of my Bostin News commissions. I knew I wanted to focus on Dudley, and as I took these photos it occurred to me that these three bridges would make a good subject. That’s how I came to write Three Bridges, Four Tunnels.
I used Canals of Birmingham and the Black Country, No. 2 in the Historical Canal Maps series, as well as consulting online sources, to help me learn about the history of the area. Although I had been there many, many times over the years, I didn’t know much about the industry or the full story of why the canal arms which travel under two of the bridges are dead ends. Using the bridges as starting points, I wrote a set of three poems and was lucky enough to be able to commission Lou Blakeway to create some atmospheric linocuts of the bridges to go with them. Click the link above to see the video, the linocuts and the the text of the poem.
As Creative Black Country #BostinNews editor, I commissioned three artists. I’ve already shared work by Alex Vann and Al Barz. The final work is by visual artist, Louise Blakeway.
Lou Blakeway lives in Sandwell. Her work is concerned predominantly with form, space, line and colour. During lockdown she began drawing what she could see in and around her house and recording her immediate surroundings, sometimes making pigments from plants and earth. She shares her art on Instagram through her own page and that of General Office Gallery. Do take a look. I love her work.
When I commissioned Al Barz for the Creative Black Country #BostinNews project I knew he’d come up with something special. Given the theme of Water & writing about Walsall, Al created a poem & video which tells a story created from local history which is very relevant to today. I love his armchair storytelling! There’s a link to the poem at the bottom of this post. Here’s what Al said about the commission:
For Spoke, my monthly poetry entertainment event at Brownhills Community Centre, Martin Hughes has been creating A5 flyers for me and delivering them to my house with a little cartoon of himself on a Post-It. “I’d love to see what more he can do”, I thought.
Sandfields is a historically important part of the Black Country heritage that only came about because of a pandemic. I signed up for its newsletter from David Moore of Lichfield Waterworks Trust a few years ago. They have saved it from being lost forever and I’ve been amazed at the huge amount of restoration work carried out by their team of dedicated volunteers.
When Heather Wastie approached me to be involved in Bostin’ News, I could see an exciting way of bringing possibilities together. A poem from me, cartoons from Martin, and all based on the tremendous achievement of Walsall’s life-saving water supply at Sandfields.
During coronavirus isolation we were unable to have our regular event, so I created SpokeScreen, a poetry video composed of clips from eight local poets in lockdown and a book launch by a Black Country author. The skills developed for that have helped enormously towards editing together “Rising From A Pandemic”, a video combining poetry, cartoons, archive photographs and heritage. Bostin’ News indeed!