Radical Looking with Ben Okri

11 May

So, when I looked into Ben Okri’s book, The Magic Lamp, before his event at the Swindon Festival of Literature, I kinda got it wrong. I thought it was a collection of grown-up fairy tales* with accompanying illustrations.

This wasn’t just a simple error. Nope, this missed the point of Ben’s book.

Ben has an artist friend, the painter Rosemary Clunie. He loved her work so asked if he could borrow a painting for a few months, to live with it. “And then I went into the painting, literally, and came back out with the text.”

He borrowed some more, twenty-five in fact and spent five years in ‘mutual shared dreaming’. He realised he’d created enough for a book, a book whose complimentary words and art ‘massages’ different parts of the brain.

Unfortunately Ben’s intention was to project each painting as he read an extract of the associated story, but technical issues meant he had to do it old school and hold up the open book to the audience. But, no problem: because the Swindon audience is like that and Ben is like that, it led to kindness, warmth and conversation.

Earlier on in the evening, poet Michael Rosen berated the old-modern school way of using exercises to get proficient at language and extolled us to put books ‘at the core’ and start with the book and work your way out. Ben had his own take on this: “We teach people to read books, not go into books. We are taught to look at paintings, not go inside a painting, treat surfaces as depths.” He calls this ‘radical looking’ – “the deeper you look into something, the more of yourself you see.” A better summary of the meaning of art you couldn’t hope to find (and not an economic justification in sight).

At the book signing I shared that when I’d investigated his book, he’d inspired me to rewrite The Three Little Pigs, right off the bat. ‘Will I get royalties?’ he asked. ‘I might give you a credit,’ I replied. ‘What are you going to do with it?’ he asked. ‘I’m going to perform it at the Festival Think Slam next week’, I replied.

And that’s how he is; kind, generous and quietly challenging, familiar and yet unsettling.

His latest book is Rise Like Lions, an anthology of political poetry and lyrics. The Magic Lamp is political too; how dreams can change the world, how we listen to that which talks to us and, finally, respond.

*not adult fairy tales, that would be something entirely different

Ben Okri appeared at Swindon Festival of Literature, 9 May 2018, at Swindon Arts Centre.

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