If you’re like most people, you have probably never thought much about the word ‘margin’. It hardly comes up in everyday conversation and dictionaries simply define it as ‘the edge of a page’ or, more broadly, ‘the edge of something’. Over the past six months I have considered this word often and in ways I never expected. I have fallen in love with it (as word-obsessives are prone to do) and concluded that my Cardiff-based writers group, MARGIN, was certainly on the cusp of something wonderful.
Each month MARGIN brought together artists and community members at ATTIC, a contemporary gallery concerned with scientific, personal and cultural understandings of the mind. In our two hour sessions we examined artistic work from six different residencies and discussed mental health issues, secrets, privacy, manipulation, and all manner of topics not ordinarily brought up in the outside world.
As a group we officially observed, interpreted, and wrote about art. But in reality we went much deeper than this, using ourselves and our lives as a way to relate to the work.
One of our regular members, Rachel, has been kind enough to share some poems from the first three sessions. These were inspired by Sara Rees’ collages, Amy O’Driscoll’s ceramics, and Susan Adams’ paintings:
Pressing smells into the heavy,
black paper of our albums
I capture butter on hot porridge,
the smell of mum’s coat,
around me as I sleep in the backseat.
Mum would make me burn pictures
Of dad’s whisky breath,
the dribbling farts of our old labrador.
In the dark room I’d let the layers take shape.
then the salt of the October sea,
Then the copper on my fingers
from feeding coin,
into the machine in the end of the pier.
As an old lady I’d wear a locket
containing the scent of leather
in a sweaty hall.
Taking me back to being the shortest,
I snip holes in my pockets
before I’m put out in the garden.
Pebbledash walls are rough against my fingers,
rough as the hair on your chest where I pressed
to check you were breathing.
I crumble it into the pockets of my coat.
In the window you are huffing strong enough
to shake the red velvet curtains.
You watch to make sure I have enough for a trail around the world,
Wiggling my fingers in my piping bag pockets
It won’t last to the end of the street.
The only thing that survived
was the Spurzheim head
shipped out to East London.
It had been swaddled
carefully by the gentile maid,
but so had everything else.
She carefully packed Bubbe’s furs
with tissue wrapped around every button.
Marjoram, koper, parsley stuffed into pockets.
A last breath of home
in the smudge of London’s docks.
Perhaps it was the blank eyes
like the mask of a Pharoah
that put off the light fingered bureaucrats.
Zayde was never sure why he kept the head.
It seemed like a crude way of thinking now,
only used by those ingrates
that subjected him to the indignity
of the metal measurements.
Still, the head’s classical pretentions
seemed to reassure his patients.
He supposed he would need it in the new practice
in London. He didn’t,
and so the head was the last thing to survive.
When Sarah is alone she calls the head grandfather,
and whispers stories in its cold
ears. Her mother settles Sarah in her lap,
feels the bumps of her young scalp.
She ignores the head, its firm black lines
speak of ghetto walls and train tracks.
Instead, she twists together memory
and myth like a challah until the child sleeps.
When Sarah is grown she reads palms.
The dominant hand spits the future,
but the other is a passport of blood and flesh,
She strokes her fingers across the lines
of a map in a palm, stamped into being
with a mother’s kiss.
Rachel’s pieces, and the others produced in MARGIN, began conversations between artists and their community. In nearly every session, the resident artist was there to listen to what we had written, see how their art was translated to the page, and talk openly about the ideas they were exploring in their own work. Often this prompted the group to discuss their own lives in unexpected and meaningful ways.
Although MARGIN in its current form has come to a close – the six artists at ATTIC have finished their work and the group has written about it – I am looking forward to its next incarnation later this year. Cardiff needs something like this and, indeed, all communities do. A safe place to come together with strangers, artists, writers, and friends to discuss the things in our lives that are often left just around the edges, in our peripheries.