If you are in England or the united Kingdom you’re going to hear alot about “Made In England. It’ll launch soon as a television series of documentaries broadcast to the nation . Alongside the documentaries is an active website to be launched sooner. Many of the programmes are presented by artists. The entire project is an Arts Council/BBC collaboration. At the time of bidding and proposals, some months ago now I’d been approached – circled – by various independent television companies. That is when I first heard of Made In England.
The next time was about a month ago or less. I received an email with the subject header Made In England requesting a commission for a poem to be placed on a BBC website on the theme Made In England. The email had the bold header An Arts Council Commission? At this point should have forwarded it immediately to my projects manager Gil Lloyd of Artsadmin. I didn’t. The email enthusiastically outlined the terms “the subject matter is very free and we can discuss what you might like to say. The fee is XXXX. If you are interested, I can send you a fuller brief”. I mailed back. I was interested. The brief arrived. The deadline set. The commission on.
A commission rollocks through the brain filter system like water through undiscovered caves. I’ve got all my safety gear on and I’m lowering myself in, in search of the crack of journey where the idea finds light and flows outwards to the next part of the journey, intuition, discovery and belief are alongside. A week or two passes. Oxygen is running low. Soon I’ll be deadline. I follow a trail and a rush of fresh air carries a clear idea. Quickly I think to myself. Delete this corny paragraph before anyone believes finding poems is so easy. The next part of the process is how can I make this happen? Like any poem, how can I make what I’m starting to see in my head appear on the page?
The words “made in England” would build be repeated into a matrix of contours becoming an image of my head giving the effect of a three d model. The contours would be made of many lines thus: madeinenglandmadeinenglandmadeinenglandmadeinenglandmadeinenglandmadeinengland. The manipulation of the text would form lines like contours that would shade dark and light in the form of my face. It is sort of difficult to explain but I expect Pin Art comes close to it, as seen here.
Though it comes close, it’s also nowhere near what I mean. But you might be getting the idea. It’s a Shape Poem and shape poems have an history in commissions. See the poem Rain which is part of my Poems as Landmarks project. http://www.lemnsissay.com . The idea with the contours is particular to the technology that would display it, a pure reflection of the place where it would be read: online. It also has an echo of the recent dynamic BBC indent which angered so many people, where a white face on a black background had words scrawled upon it in black ink until the entire face became virtually submerged in a sea of blackness. As here
But neither is it like the above. The words are not handwritten nor do they submerge the face but are type written – the face is after all a Product – and accentuate the features. The text is manipulated to outline the the structure through contours, shade – in black and white. madeinenglandmadeinenglandmadeinenglandmadeinenglandmadeinengland……….
I was made in England, born 1967, months before Enoch Powells infamous rivers of blood speech. It’s potent: A black man, his features made up of the words made In England. And as for inspiring others to write, I could see how use of words in such a way would allow other people to use their own ideas for shape poems. The more I researched the more the idea emerged. That’s the beautiful thing about creativity. All art makes something out of nothing. It is Alchemy. Now I had to find out more I had to find out who could technically help me produce this. More exploring. I was ready to explore the outside, boots on: I was ready to open the door and step out into the mist, into the pretentious misty mist like mist.
So I spent the next week or so searching for how to do it and who could do it. I called friends and colleagues, people in advertising, computer wizards and was nudging closer to finding the designer that could achieve the effect. The more people I spoke to the More specific the job. It’s beyond photoshop and it looked like it would take my fee to pay for a computer artist – so be it. In for a penny in for a pound. I started to see the piece and the possibilities: This could be the next book cover, or at least it would be included in my next book.
But it was proving a challenge to find someone who could translate the idea into pixels. I lit on the thought of asking the commissioner if she might be able to suggest someone. I wrote to her. In reference to the poem being a head, in the subject line of the email I put “Bring Me The Head of Made In England”. In the email I extrapolated on the idea and asked if she might know someone that could help further translate the idea to the screen. The idea was spinning and the momentum was gathering inside of me.
I was slowly edging closer to seeing what was in my imagination, upon the page. This whole part of the process is very exciting. All art is something made out of nothing. It is alchemy. I’m sure I said that already. How an idea is born is just exciting, tremendous. I had called the commissioner by phone previously and noted a pencil sketch of reticence beneath the painting of a voice. It struck me that I did not know who the commissioner was nor what company they were from, simply that they were between the BBC and Arts Council.
The email reply stopped me in my tracks “I have sent this on to Antonia Byatt at Arts Council England. I am concerned that we may not be able to do what you have in mind – it is so far from the brief”. Immediately I realised that not only had my pride taken a twinge but I was in the tail spin of losing the commission altogether. How had this chasm between creative process and commissioning body appeared within a few lines of an email. “It is so far from the brief”.
And it was at this point of questioning that I realised my central mistake outlined in the first paragraph of this blog. All of this should have gone immediately through to the projects manager. This serves as an example of why I should try to stay away from the administrative strategies employed to make amazing projects happen, unless they clearly account for creative thinking.
Since my time as black literature officer at nineteen years old in Manchester through to my first publication at twenty years old in London, up until the present day, The Arts Council has directly and indirectly supported my development. And I am unsure that any professional poet in England could say they have not been affected by the presence and actions of the Arts Councils literature department. If one connects the dots the effect of the Arts Council’s interventions and innovation are massive. From supporting a venue or publisher that uses poets, to funding entire tours which have gone on and on and out to the world. The arts council is a dynamic player in the development of the writer in the England.
I take this twenty year relationship as a compliment in that I am consistently seeking out innovative ways to express through my writing to challenge and therefore enliven both myself, the audience and the environment. The Arts Council above any one individual champion within it, has recognised this. I have never relied upon this though.
As a child brought up in care whose legal parent was the government. The Arts Council – and I realised this at point of writing – has inadvertently through my adult life gone some way to redress the cost of those memories. Though the latter is not connected with the commission, it somehow is. I was truly Made In England. The government was my parent.
So I arrive at my conclusion. I, it seems, have lost the commission – after whatever discussion happened between commissioner and The Arts Council the result is the commission is no more. The money that I was to be paid is retracted. And the publicity is folded away and slipped quietly under the deadline.
That was not before the next email from the commissioner. News that I could have predicted given the tone of the previous mail.
“I’m afraid it is not going to work for this website commission. The brief did ask for a poem of some sort – it is meant to be an exploration in language. The purpose behind the commissions is to inspire other people to be an exploration in language. The purpose behind the commissions is to inspire other people to explore ideas through writing..”
“there is no reason why your photo could not appear on the website but we need a piece of writing too”
So the idea was neither a poem nor a piece of writing. As I said in my email to the commissioner “I feel like I could write a book on why it is a poem”. This event may give you some insight into not just the successes of what I do, but the failures too. I failed in this project because I did not employ the sytems to deal with the necessary and indeed imperative bureaucracy.
I find myself in the position of the deflated balloon. And we all know what the head teacher said to the radical deflated balloon. the headteacher said ” you’ve let me down, you’ve let yourself down and you’ve let the whole school down”. All I could think was what a title. I hadn’t meant it to, but it had more resonance now. It’s the title of this article which was the subject header of the email which is now the title of the poem.
Aside from the possibility that my idea is just plain shit and isn’t even worth pursuing I should end on a quote from the outstanding report published in January 2008 for the Department of Culture Media and Sport by Brian McMaster. The report is entitled “Supporting Excellence in The Arts, From Measurement to Judgment.
“Risk taking is about experimentation and pushing boundaries in ways which artists and practitioners themselves may not be sure will work. It demands courage, curiosity and desire and a degree of spontaneity. However, these cannot exist in a vacuum. Successful risk-taking should be informed by skill and sense and be managed, but not avoided. The biggest risk, ofcourse, is taking no risks at all”.