The commission was for me to produce texts to be displayed on umbrellas which were to be hung in Grassington Market Square for the duration of the festival. The idea was conceived by Bryony Pritchard, Visual Arts Director of Grassington Festival.
Bryony interviews me about the process of making the umbrellas
Bryony: 10 brollies. 10 poems. How did you find creating so many poems about brollies for the festival?
Becky: I thought it was going to be tough. What can you say about brollies? I thought initially. Yet I discovered that there is so much history and mythology around umbrellas that I fell in love with the subject and could easily have come up with ten more.
Bryony: What interesting facts did you unearth in your research? Any surprises?
Becky: So many surprises! I found out that umbrellas had been used as a weapon against villains in Victorian England, that they are one of eight holy symbols in Buddhism and that in some areas of Eritrea annual rainfall is substantial. The first emperor of China saw the umbrella as important enough to protect the terracotta chariots that accompanied him to the grave. It seems that even in heaven it rains!
I was also pointed to a fantastic twitter site that retweets tweets about broken umbrellas. Some of the pieces were inspired by images and tweets found there.
Bryony: What were the challenges? Anything learnt?
Becky: We felt that we wanted most of the text to be big and bold so the key challenge was to produce very short pieces. I learnt a lot about umbrellas!
Bryony: Site specific- creating poetry for the outdoors installation – what was that like?
Becky: The site impacted significantly on the content of the pieces. I wanted experiencing the brollies to be a fun experience for festival-goers and wanted each one to offer something different so I chose to write about a range of umbrella-related subjects in a variety of forms and tones. I knew they were going to be seen by a varied audience and wanted to offer something to families as well as poetry aficionados. So, swinging from the marquee, you will see flash fiction, free verse, a limerick, a kenning and more.
I had been writing with the umbrellas in mind but, placing the words on the brollies, made us find another dimension to them (literally). We discovered with some of the pieces that you could read them in several ways, for example by starting at different points. Sometimes, because the presentation was non-linear and because of limitations of the panels of the umbrella, the form needed to shift and pieces had to be altered. It was a very interesting process.
The First Emperor (free verse)
I am the first, the shining unnameable.
Born of a king and a concubine,
life has been a conflagration of books
and learned men, prophets, usurpers.
It has been a wall even the vermillion bird can see,
empires of clay, the search for the eternal.
Yet it is the elixir of death I take onto my tongue,
and though I rot in mercury promises,
they dress me, bring food I cannot eat.
Even in heaven it rains,
Time for a shade that will not weather.
There once was a
brolly from Limasol
who decided he must
be a parasol.
He considered a train,
turned his back on the rain,
booked a flight
to the Costa del Sol.
The Parasol (free verse)
Oh, to keep company
with violet-scented ladies,
to dapple their shoulders
and spin between white-gloved hands,
skirt the secrets they keep
with their callused maids,
bury them rib-deep in whalebone
then breathe them out one evening
beside walnut bookcases,
let them waft from tassels
into seance rooms, unsettle ink pots
pulse rates, futures.
When you must be there on time and you’ve missed your bus and your hair is fluffed with rain, the last exhausted flap of this inside-outted brolly will remind you, if you let it, that we all have days when our spokes go awry.
Superstition 1 (quatrain)
within my folds
are goblins hid,
open me inside
and out they fly.
Never ever pick up a dropped umbrella.
Little shade, upturned flower,
what would we do without you
when it starts to shower?
– multiple purveyors
The Umber Umbrella (flash fiction)
The umber umbrella passed a place where scaffolding upheld a building. It was impressed and then depressed. ‘My bones are metal too’ it said ‘and all I hold up is nylon.’ Forlorn, it allowed a gust of wind to turn it inside out.
‘No,’ its owner said, turning it back the right way. ‘You hold up the sky.’
Thanks to Anna for the photographs, to the tech team and volunteers for re-inforcing the umbrellas and hanging them from such dangerous heights, to Sad Broken Brolly and contributors and to Grassington Festival and Bryony for all they did to make this happen.
The umbrellas were popular with festival-goers and poets who described them as word chandeliers and requested them for everything from weddings to everyday use. Read about them here.