William Blake & the Doleful City of God: 2 – London, England

Adriana Díaz Enciso. Photographer: Teresa EspinasaIn the first post in her series marking publication of her Blakean novel, Ciudad doliente de Dios, writer and translator Adriana Díaz-Enciso shared her unexpected introduction to William Blake on a family shopping trip from Mexico to Texas. Adriana now continues the story, recalling her adventures breaking into Blake’s world — and Blake’s London: attempting to understand the writings, images and vision of a man she felt to be a free spirit with an instinctive leaning to the force of excess in art. “He overwhelmed me, fascinated and provoked me. I wanted Blake. But I didn’t have him.”


At some point, I thought that maybe if I translated him, I would manage to break into his world. I therefore translated his early series of poems to the Seasons. The translations were published in a poetry leaflet, to the editorial board of which I had been generously invited by older and much wiser poets than me. Its name was Magia Menor, after Borges’ verse, “To write a poem is to work a minor magic.” It was beautifully printed, a work of love, and I wish that my copies had not been lost when, many years later, I left Mexico. I would like to read those translations of mine now, even if I fear they weren’t that good. The fact was, in any case, that I still hadn’t managed to fully grasp Blake.

When I had moved to Mexico City, several years after those first translations, I once thought that the only way through was to translate the whole of Blake’s poems. I never got to start. It was such a daunting venture… After all, one of Mexico’s most deservedly beloved poets, Xavier Villaurrutia, had made a humbler attempt with The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and who was I to try the harder stuff?

Still, I kept on pulling my Penguin edition from the shelf and reading, until it was so battered I had to replace it with another copy, this time with Elohim Creating Adam on the cover. Wondering what it was that this poetry kept on withholding from me, I was nevertheless convinced that it was of infinite value.

Beginnings of a Blakean novel 

For a while I let the matter rest… a bit. But I couldn’t forget altogether that Blake’s work was waiting for me. When in 1995-6 I was writing lyrics for Babel, the third album by Mexican rock band Santa Sabina, I thought the album required Blake to make a brief appearance, and this materialised in a kind of ‘sound collage’ of his Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Baudelaire’s Les Litanies de Satan and a text of my own. And I read on. Slowly, I was getting closer.

Then, around 1997, I started making notes for what would then be my third novel. 

Its subject would be a question: what is the meaning of human pain? I was then reading lots of what we may call hermetic writings: Paracelsus, works on alchemy, Giordano Bruno and Frances Yates’ work on him and the Hermetic tradition. This reading material obeyed a longing. Like so many others before me, I was looking for a transcendent meaning of human life. I also wanted to know whether the seemingly inexhaustible pain endured by humanity could be lived and understood in such a way that we could rise above it and find healing in wisdom and compassion so great that they would escape description.

There was a strong Christian element in my wondering, via Julian of Norwich, St Theresa of Avila and other Christian mystics, though I was also eagerly reading Sufi sages such as Ibn ‘Arabi, Rumi, Al-Ghazālī, and Henri Corbin’s works on both Avicenna and the ancient Iranian mystic tradition, with its archetypal Celestial Earth and the imaginal world. I couldn’t fail to see the evident coincidences between the concept of imagination elucidated by Corbin and that of William Blake.

The Christian preoccupation can partly be explained by the fact that I was raised a Catholic, attending a nuns’ school from age seven to 18. I had always been drawn to the figure of Christ, and I guess that I sincerely tried to be a fervent Christian, but soon the Church itself stood in my way. Its motions seemed empty to me, devoid of the mystery of serious ritual. Also, as my social awareness developed, I found the obvious link between mainstream Catholicism and power in Mexico; how the Church, save few exceptions, had become allied to the most conservative and un-Christian mores. I quietly stepped out of the Church, but I wanted to be fervent. I kept on being fascinated by Christ, even if the literal interpretation of his being the son of a divine Father was always hard for me. What took a hold on me was that most beautiful symbol of a god who becomes human to share man’s pain (rather than atoning for his sins). The more I read Blake, the more I agreed with his unique vision of Christ.

Soon, the idea started to take root in me that this novel should have the work of William Blake as its foundations.

Then, on 22 December 1997, a horrid massacre took place in the village of Acteal, Chiapas (a state in South East Mexico), when 45 indigenous people — including children and pregnant women — who belonged to the pacifist group Las Abejas were murdered by a paramilitary group while they were praying. The horror of this attack shook the country, and I couldn’t stop wondering whether such extreme suffering, and the impunity which followed the crime, could be just an occurrence in an indifferent universe; whether there was no transcendence, no redemption, no meaning.

And it was then that, fifteen years after finding Blake in a shopping mall in Texas, the meaning of his prophetic poems truly opened its gates for me. Acteal would become a pivotal point in my novel, and by then it was clear that the book would draw on precisely those poems which had eluded me for so long as its main source of inspiration. Their characters would be the novel’s characters. That was the beginning of twenty further years pondering on Blake.

Acteal. Collage by Adriana Díaz-Enciso 2018, with Press photo: Cuartoscuro
Acteal
Collage by Adriana Díaz-Enciso © 2018, with Press photo: Cuartoscuro

I took Blake with me, briefly, back to the USA: in the Spring of 1998 I was granted a writing residency at what was then called Ledig House International Writers’ Colony, to write the Blakean novel. I carried with me my Blake, my hermetic books, my grief over the multiplied bloodshed in my country, and my pondering. It was in the idyllic landscape of upstate New York where the first draft of the novel was finished. I don’t remember how many weeks I spent there. Six, perhaps? I had never before had such a chance to concentrate on my writing with no distractions, surrounded by nature, sharing the findings and the pitfalls of the process with other writers from many different countries. I remember those weeks as one of the moments in my life that Satan cannot find. 

A week in New York City followed, the novel still close against me while I sensed that my brief sojourn in heaven was quickly shifting into something less luminous.

Blake’s London calling 

I returned to Mexico City, which seemed burdened with the weight of violence, and enveloped in my own sadness as I confronted the collapse of my marriage. A nearly fatal pneumonia put a stop to work of any kind for a few months, and the end of 1998 passed by in a kind of blur marked by loss, grief, and the minutiae of convalescence. By January 1999 the doctor declared me out of danger, and that’s when I decided to leave Mexico, as suddenly as the other changes in my life had taken place. The answer to where I would go was obvious: London, of course, that “Human awful wonder of God.”

It was London because of all the literature by Londoners or set in London that I had read since I was little; it was London because of Virginia Woolf, thanks to whom I had been driven to take my writing seriously; it was London because of my beloved Charles Dickens, and it was London because of those visionary authors who had transformed it into a city beyond the limits of mundane existence, such as Arthur Machen and, of course, William Blake. I came here ready to start revising the manuscript of my novel, sure that it would be greatly improved by being in the streets that Blake had walked.

Battersea Power Station, Blake's London, by Adriana Díaz-Enciso 2018
Battersea Power Station
Image: Adriana Díaz-Enciso © 2018

My love affair with London was passionate from day one. It was what I had dreamt it to be, what I feared it might not be, and more. My favourite books were alive here, and so was the spirit of the authors who had immortalised the city — some, we could even say, hallowed it. My own literary London included, of course, Blake’s London: Soho, St James’s Church in Piccadilly where he was baptised, his Lambeth and those of his works that they had on show back then at the Tate. Although this was mundane London, thriving on power and greed as it has always done, it was also, simultaneously, visionary London, where the material fabric of reality could be seen through for an equally powerful spiritual force to be revealed. The hardship and loneliness I experienced during those first years in the great city were no reason to leave: I had found here what I often called ‘the mirror of my soul’, and the most fertile ground for the development of my voice as a writer. 

This meant that, as I started revising my Blakean novel, I found it wanting. So wanting, in fact, that I destroyed its manuscript (both printed and electronic). But I kept all my notes. The structure remained, and so did its aim. It was just that I wasn’t telling it right. The years-long process to rewrite it started. It was a painful one: the struggle for survival meant that I didn’t have enough time or mental space for concentrating on such a complex book. Though I did write other books in those years (poetry, short stories and another, shorter novel), I felt grief and frustration because I couldn’t go forward with the Blakean story.

Notes for the novel’s chapters

Notes for the novel's chapters, by Adriana Díaz-Enciso 2018
Notes for the novel’s chapters.
Image: Adriana Díaz-Enciso © 2018

Still, I worked intermittently on it and kept as close as I could to Blake. I attended, for instance, the major Blake exhibition at the Tate, which ran from the end of 2000 to February 2001. That exhibition made me redefine the novel, as my understanding of Blake grew much deeper. My memory of that visit is of going round the exhibition for hours in a kind of trance, shaken by the contrasts between the exquisite beauty of Blake’s pictorial work and its violence, moved by the pathos of his endless struggle and the indifference he faced, and stirred by the way he transformed the cruelty and crassness of the mundane into the beauty and might of a greater reality. His was the way to live a life, the only way for a true artist. I was also struck with more poignancy by the utterly unique nature of his pictorial art and his poetry, inextricably joined together.

I bought at the Tate Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Blake, which became a soul companion through my lonely explorations of Blake’s London. It brought home the dimensions of Blake’s struggle in a world that failed to see, to feel and understand; a struggle which was therefore of art and of the spirit, for he knew they couldn’t be separated, and a struggle for transcendence, for the ultimate liberation of man through his imagination, which was ultimately divinity in him. Which other artist had spelled out our ultimate nature so clearly? Ackroyd’s biography guided me through further readings of the prophetic poems, so that my second Penguin copy was now starting to look as battered as the first one.

Some years later, seeing the actual copies of some of Blake’s illuminated poems in the quiet of the Prints and Drawings Department in the British Museum left me in tears: no reproduction will ever be able to show the exquisiteness, the nuances, the delicacy and otherworldly beauty of those pages. You can sense in them, fully alive, the love, the care and the faith with which they were created. 


Notes

Adriana Díaz-Enciso is an author of poetry and fiction, as well as a translator. She was born in Mexico, and has been living in London since 1999. She has been a Trustee and Secretary of the Blake Society. Work she has written on William Blake can be found on her website: diazenciso.wordpress.com.

Cover Ciudad doliente de Dios, crop, Adriana Díaz-EncisoAdriana’s novel, Ciudad doliente de Dios (Doleful City of God), is published in Mexico by Alfaguara, a Penguin Random House imprint, in co-edition with the National Autonomous University of Mexico. You can catch up with the first post in her series about the writing of the book — William Blake & the Doleful City of God: 1 – McAllen, Texas.

In her next post for Finding Blake, Adriana moves deeper into Blake’s London, and her novel takes shape as its characters seek their answers on the borders of the mundane and the visionary, visible and invisible.  

Finding Blake, Looking Back and Forwards

Six months on from our website’s launch, Finding Blake creator and driving force, filmmaker James Murray-White offers this update on work to date and to come, focusing on those elements which will form part of the full Finding Blake film next year.

 


I wanted to update all our many readers and subscribers with what’s going on with Finding Blake, particularly since the great ceremony in August to unveil the new gravestone at William Blake’s burial site, which had been a big event to focus on. It was such an experience to be there on the day, with so many Finding Blake supporters and other Blake devotees!

The Lark, watercolour over traces of black chalk
Artist: William Blake
Source: The Morgan Library & Museum www.themorgan.org

I’m now wading through the many wonderful hours of footage I have. You can see many of the clips at the Finding Blake films at a glance page in our Bleakean Archive. Some of the highlights for me include: 

Finding Blake, documenting his new memorial

I have great memories — caught on film — of visiting Jordan’s Mine to see where the stone was cut; accompanying master letter-cutter Lida Kindersley as she chose the stone; being with her in her workshop for much of the process, as she bevelled the stone, then drew the letters for the inscription — and then the lovely long, slow process of the letters being cut. Amongst all that, there is an interview with Lida about Blake, talking from the heart as she cuts the letters that would soon mark his final resting place!

Leading wonderful interviews

Finding Blake has brought us opportunities to meet and talk with so many fascinating people with a shared passion for Blake:

  • Poet David Whyte, giving it to us from his heart in the depths of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (a special day that really felt like we had Blake on our shoulders!);
  • Psychotherapist Carol Leader, talking to us from her consulting room in London;
  • Writer and priest Malcolm Guite, in his study at Girton College, Cambridge;
  • Rapper Testament, delivering his powerful reflections on Blake’s influence on him, speaking on the streets outside a London theatre;
  • Blake Society chair Tim Heath, talking about his passion for Blake in Blake’s only surviving rooms in London

Participating in Blakean events

We’ve filmed at a number of talks by leading experts in different fields, including:

  • Carol Leader’s stimulating lecture in Oxford on Satanic Error – the value of William Blake’s mythology for clinical practice and everyday life;
  • William Blake, Biblical Prophecy and Jesus, a pair of talks in a Cambridge church by Reverend Malcolm Guite and Reverend Christopher Rowland, both vicars with an interest in exploring Blake from religious perspectives;
  • the Unveiling Ceremony itself, with all the wonderful speeches, candle-lighting, and personal responses, including an as yet unidentified African song, by the grave!

Creating original performances

William Blake’s creative vision speaks to many people and appeals to the genius of other creative practitioners and performers. We’ve been very fortunate in the generosity of talented actors in offering their interpretations of the man’s poems on film. 

  • Finding Blake invited actor Matt Ray Brown to read several of William Blake’s poems on location in Blake’s rooms at South Molton Street, London, including Jerusalem, The Tyger, and The Little Black Boy;
  • During our interview with David Whyte at the Ashmolean in Oxford, David delivered his reading of The Garden of Love.

Bringing personal projects into harmony with Blake

During the cutting of Blake’s new gravestone, Lida and I agreed a barter: she would make a memorial stone for my lovely mum’s ashes, and I would film it. What a wonderful trade! I’m editing that project now, whittling down many hours of beautiful conversation and cutting, as well as the sounds of the workshop, and silence too. Naturally, the conversations flowed between Blake and many aspects of creativity: including Lida talking about her late husband David, the master of letters and steeped in the craft’s heritage from Eric Gill and beyond. It’s a lineage that is so present within the workshop today, in the work of Lida and her two sons Vince and Hallam, and expert cutter Fiona (who completed mum’s memorial stone), plus a range of apprentices — and former apprentices who come in to help on other jobs as and when.

So I wanted to share with you here two outtakes from that other project (which might possibly be used in the Finding Blake film but, if not, can happily rest here on our project page) which give another flavour of the creative work:

‘Reaching the golden vein’ outtake 1 from James Murray-White on Vimeo.

‘Bank it up’ outtake 2 from James Murray-White on Vimeo.

Next steps for Finding Blake

So I’m working through all this material, and more, making notes and beginning the edit. And I’m now thinking hard about the third option within the film: either dramatic recreations of some of Blake’s art, or an element of animation, or projection. Possibly a combination of all three!

I’ve always felt passionate that we could bring Blake’s images to life on-screen, in addition to the spoken words and other elements. This feeling has been particularly over the past year as I’ve stood in front of a Blake image, be it in the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge or Tate Britain in London, or at the magnificent show at Petworth House in Sussex; many of these images shine out and dazzle with their bright illumination and their sprite vision.

So, I’m in discussion with several folk on these ideas, and we are awaiting some responses to funding applications, and further discussions.

I have been talking with an institution about possible screenings of the finished film late next year, which I will announce hopefully when finalised. We have agreed to a showing of a rough-cut of the film, or pieces of the film, with The Blake Society, at Waterstone’s Piccadilly, in January. We’ll post about that nearer the time …

In the meantime, I’m back on the edit, and the numerous other projects that consume my days.

Linda Richardson has kindly donated her canvas of Tyger, which she painted with children at a primary school in her village (see her post here with the children’s Bleakean art too!) so that Finding Blake can auction this to fundraise for the project: more details to come soon. We thank Linda for that generous gift.

Blakefest 2018

With Bognor Regis gearing up for its annual Blake-inspired arts festival tomorrow, Blakefest director Rachel Searle shares just a few of the highlights. Blakefest has become a unique cultural experience by the sea, featuring international art, poetry, political discussion panels. As Rachel says, "in all honesty, it's very pleasingly different and eclectic in its approach, and perfectly mirrors the creative magpie approach, showcasing the whole spectrum of art forms."

The presence of William Blake as a resident in my hometown of Felpham has always been a catalyst for me wanting to create a cultural legacy in Bognor, that both honours him but also celebrates new art and contemporary visionary artists, as well as bringing in artists that embrace his rebel spirit and political resistance. We are really excited by the acts we’ve managed to secure this year and the breadth of the programming.

BlakeFest, part of the Big Blake Project, has its roots in Blake’s vision of Beulah, perhaps best understood as a window on earth into heaven itself: In Felpham, Blake penned “Heaven opens here on all sides her golden gates” and the words to Jerusalem. In the “spirit of Blake’s poetic genius”, BlakeFest is a synthesis of original music, poetry and audio-visual art and includes talks on issues of ‘the imagination’ and social justice. Our over-riding aim for BlakeFest is to be an agent of regeneration in Bognor Regis through the exploration and celebration of William Blake.

Before the main programme

While the main programme starts tomorrow, there is a question-time style panel debate tonight. Building Jerusalem is a public meeting, being held as part of BlakeFest 2018 at Chichester University, involving talks and a panel discussion exploring the relevance of William Blake’s poem/hymn Jerusalem, and wider philosophy, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Britain’s potential role in finding a solution to it. The event is an inter-faith and truth-seeking initiative and there will be no promotion of ideological or religious views that favour one faction of humanity over others. 

Building Jerusalem was inspired by the community poem – ‘We’ll Do It’ – crafted by Stella Bahin during her time as BlakeFest’s Poet-in-Residence. For me,’We’ll Do It’ reveals the heartbeat of Blake’s Jerusalem in the people of Bognor Regis today. With Blake’s own visions of both Beulah and Jerusalem, the idea of an inclusive inter-faith panel discussion emerged. This was followed by a sobering trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank. The highlight of the trip was meeting Dareen Tatour who used her precious last hours of freedom to give us a tour of her beloved Nazereth.”

Blakefest: music, poetry and talks

Our daytime programme starts at midday on Saturday with local and national talent. And the South Downs Poetry Festival has converged with Blakefest this year, curated by local bard Barry Smith — placing jazz and poetry alongside each other, weaving in and out of the musical acts throughout the day.

In keeping with Blake’s anti-establishment spirit of personal freedom, the acclaimed 1970s pop icon Lene Lovich headlines in the evening, with second headliner the All Things Must Pass Orchestra; led by Alex Eberhart, this is a celebration of the music of visionary Beatle, George Harrison. 

Mikey B Georgeson has been a major mover and shaker with BlakeFest, in capacities ranging from musician, exhibition curator, speaker and generally inspiring those around him. This year, he brings his Silent Disco, an art installation called An Actual Occasion and then performing as Mr Solo: an eclectic range of original, very individual, material taking inspiration from Bowie, the Beatles and Blake. A riveting and highly eloquent performer, this promises to be another highlight of BlakeFest 2018.

Vincent Gray will be unveiling and available to discuss an exciting possible sculpture for Bognor Regis, Albion Rose. Vincent recently completed a Keats sculpture now permanently installed in Eastgate Square, in Chichester.

The evening event at the Alexandra Theatre is being opened by a talk on Blake and the 60s by the accessible and scholarly Tobias Churton. The internationally-recognised and respected Churton, a very erudite orator, will be shedding light on Blake’s enduring contribution to our culture, focusing on the resurgence of his popular influence through the 1960s which still resonates across the arts, philosophically and spiritually.

Jamie Leeming will headline an afternoon set of live music sessions. He’ll also be accompanying the Southdown Festival Poets, culminating in Sasha Dugdale’s vocalising of Catherine Blake. Joy: Poetry & Jazz features Sasha Dugdale, Niall McDevitt, Naomi Foyle, Barry Smith and Jamie. The genre-crossing compositions of Jamie Leeming — with strong roots in the jazz tradition, but with folk-influenced imagery and textures  — meet the Blake-inspired words of South Downs poets!

Ciaran O’Driscoll and Margaret Farrelly with John Davies (aka Shedman) can be trusted to bring their lyrical Celtic music and humour to the afternoon. Probably the biggest contemporary name in Irish literature, Ciaran has won several awards and formally recognised by the Irish Arts Council as making an outstanding contribution to art and literature.

Alongside the wonderful musical lineup, free Silent Disco and performance poetry, there will be a graffiti art exhibition and bitesize talks on: Graffiti, Ginsberg and Blake; Blake and the Divided Brain; Female Revolutionary Figures

There is also an event in William and Catherine Blakes’ Cottage on Sunday and a guided walk.

Bognor Regis is a town poised at the brink of regeneration following similar projects in Margate, Hastings and Liverpool, with proposals including a major ‘William Blake Theatre’ — channelling local culture and arts to enrich their current heritage and touristic allure.


Notes

BlakeFest 2018 is taking place over the weekend 14th-16th September with the main focus being the all-day Live Music Festival on Saturday 15th at The Regis Centre/Alexandra Theatre from noon onwards. The Fringe Events on Friday and Sunday have limited numbers and payable separately.

The event is sponsored by Chichester University & Chichester Observer

You can find more information and booking details at the Blakefest website. This video shows events from last year’s festival.