Fann Street Wildlife Garden Residency

Mixed Borders Online Anthology published by The Poetry School, editors Julia Bird and Sarah Hesketh. Here’s the link to the Mixed Borders anthology. The poems were written as a result of the poetry residencies in London Parks and Gardens. My three poems are: Dead Nettle in the Fann Street Wildlife Garden, Perennial Cornflowers in the Fann Street Wildlife Garden and Three Visitations.

Writing a collective poem

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a line of poetry

As part of the Fann Street Wildlife Garden residency, I was in the garden during the two days of the London Open Squares and Garden weekend. Previously I’d had my own solitary reflective time in the garden to compose. But now I was interested in the responses of the visitors.  I asked them to contribute to a collective poem by writing reactions to the garden on luggage labels which they then tied to the ‘line of poetry’ (garden twine knotted between elder trees).  When I typed out Saturday’s labels, I found there were 110 contributions. I don’t know what the correct term for this kind of poem is – should it be collective, communal, or a collage of contributions? A liturgy of luggage labels?  How to begin with all this material? Some contributors naturally used the same or similar words. I counted the most popular (14 x concrete, 14 x birdsong, 15 x wild, 9 x oasis and so on). This repetition made me think a sestina would be a useful form. I’ve cheated a little and used rather longer lines than I would think really wise in a sestina.  I’ve managed to use most of the words but may have to write another poem for Saturday. So apologies to a few people (especially Scarlet and Spike who talked about the great smell of the flowers – I haven’t been able to get that in yet, but I will try to include it in another collective poem).

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Visitors on June 13th 2015

On Saturday June 13th, the Red Arrows flew over us and a fox ran right through the centre of the crowded garden and out through the railings. What I enjoyed most, however, were the chats with people about the garden and about plants and insects.  We made contact through the luggage labels but it was the words floating between us that also informed the poem.

Sunday’s collective poem is now written. I chose to write a sequence of five x Sevenlings ( a form devised by Roddy Lumsden). There were fewer contributors though similar comments were made, but somehow the mood of the piece is rather different – an interesting outcome from the experiment. Maybe something of the individual nature of each day enters into the poems.

Dora, OGSW volunteer
Dora, OGSW volunteer

Fann Street Wildlife Garden Poet in Residence April- June 2015

This residency was organised by The Poetry School and the London Parks and Gardens Trust. The residency began with an excellent training day in April led by Julia Bird and Sarah Hesketh. The Poetry School allocated poets to various parks and gardens in London. The residencies culminate in the Open Squares and Garden Weekend on June 13th-14th.  I was delighted to be given my first choice of Fann Street Wildlife Garden. Working on site is something I love to do. Maybe it is the feeling of freedom in escaping a desk and a computer or the excitement of feeling connected to the world in a physical rather than virtual way.

Fann Street Garden is run by residents of the Barbican who have developed the site over the last ten years with generosity and sensitivity to the location. Through their persistence and gift of regular voluntary time, the garden has gained acknowledgement as a key site among the green spaces and corridors of London.  On the edge of the Barbican estate, rather than at its centre, the wildlife garden is moving testament to the persistence of nature and of people. The buildings in Fann Street came down in the blitz, and this site was left wild, full of the detritus of an exploded community and the various types of earth left by the building of the Barbican. Ten years ago, the residents transformed the garden.

When I visit in May, cowslips are going to seed. Bluebells are flowering. Ox-eye daisies bud in the grass. There are campions, dead nettles, tormentil and jack-in-the-hedge and swathes of red valerian, as well as some new budding vetch. A scented syringa vies with the stink of the foxes’ den in the cottage garden. Bird cherry dots fall like confetti into the small pond, into my hair and are caught in the cupped leaves of kingcups. I sit among nettles and buttercups listening to blackbirds, who are on nesting business, while a different kind of London growth continues in the renovation of the old YMCA. Builders clang and drill, but I find a peace and meditative space among the bird song, which operates at a more distinct register. As the once communal YMCA transforms into private apartments, I find both communality and privacy in the garden.

During my visits, I see foxes, squirrels, wrens, sparrows, chaffinches – and of course, people, who kindly leave me to write. My first poem comes from contemplating a clump of perennial cornflowers near the hole of  the foxes’ den. The cornflowers remind me of my grandmother, who knew London before the blitz and before the First World War. She may have seen this street as it stood, before the bombing in 1940. The cornflower connects us across centuries and acts as a form of memory. Then I discover that all my ideas for poems here play around the communal and the private, the historical and the individual.

I had researched the history of fan making, because Fann Street was the site of the early eighteenth century fan maker’s guild.  I’d also thought of possibilities connected to the Fortune Theatre and the fact that surely Shakespeare walked and worked this way. However, despite my thick file on these elements, it is the garden itself that enters my imagination. At two ends of the garden, there are still open cellars from the blitz. The flowers are growing from the earth of destruction but also from reconstruction. The residents have built an insect hotel and identified the provenance of some of the found bricks. Plants are selected to encourage insects and birds, pollination and breeding. In an apparently wild space, there is much attention to detail, from squirrel proof bird feeders to the careful selection of plants that enhance the opportunities for cross-fertilisation and variety. Residents and the gardener even arrange for the grass to be scythed rather than mown to maximise wild flower growth. Fans and fripperies fell away from my mind (though they may well return). I listed every plant, tree and bird that I knew and realised the riches of this garden. A wild white rose with an open flower (better for bees than a double rose) blooms and wilts in one week but offers a lovely scent and future seeds for birds. Here there is room for the transient and the persistent. The hidden pond is like a small secret but not to the two fat mallards who somehow materialise at eye level and smash into the space breaking up the reflection of the flats in Tudor Rose Court.

Over the road in the Golden Lane estate, another communal group has organised a mixed orchard of damson, pear, apple and quince in containers. And two chairs. So one can sit across the road from Fann Street Wildlife Garden in a pot grown orchard and contemplate its theatre from the outside of the fence. But inside the garden there are no barriers for the pigeons who swoop down, in low long curving flights. Curious and bold, they hover over my notebook and fly right at my face, as if trying to see what I’m writing. They stalk me hoping for scraps from my bag. Here they are safe from acid ledges and rotten feet. I watch them looping in and down and round  and lingering by the bird feeders as planes fly between the Barbican towers, and plane trees along the edge of the wildlife garden carry on their city growth. The garden goes with me now in my notebooks and in my imagination. I take it with me to Cornwall for a week. I dream of the ducks apparating in front of me by the pond. I linger at the edge of the ivy grown cellars wondering who lived there before the war and what they would make of the foxes, squirrels, birds and solitary bees that now haunt the ghosts of their houses and work places. There’s so much material here, but the garden opens in a few days’ time, and let’s hope my fine tuning and selection of subjects can somehow do justice to this wild space in the city. I’ll be giving away a poem, reading some poems developed from the residency and working with visitors on a communal poem. Here’s the link if you would like more information:

Many thanks to the Barbican residents and  my contact, Paula Tomlinson, for letting me into the Fann Street Wildlife Garden and making me feel so welcome.