Mapping the A-Z: Interview with Eileen Pun – Poet, Artist…

The entire process has been incredibly interesting and worthwhile, particularly as a fledgling map illustrator. It has been a way to become reacquainted with the Cumbrian geography and landscape. I also loved doing a close reading of the book which helped me to appreciate Cumbria for its cinematic qualities and history, and introduced me to a number of films that I otherwise wouldn’t have known about.

Eileen Pun was born in New York and now lives in the Lake District where she works as a poet and artist. Her poetry has been published in various anthologies, most recently, Ten: The New Wave, Bloodaxe Books (2014). She studied Politics and International Relations at Lancaster University and is a former literature intern at The Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere. She has also worked in publishing at Carcanet Press, Manchester and The New World Press, Beijing. Her wonderful map drawings: ‘Withnail Map’ and ‘Ten of the Best’ from the new book:  An A-Z of Cumbria & The Lake District on Film (Hayloft Publishing Ltd, October 2016) are her first published illustrations. Here, she talks in depth about her multi-faceted creative life and how she became involved in the A-Z project.

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Capture the Flag Game, Map of Grasmere Areas of Play – Pencil & Ink

How long have you been based in Cumbria & what attracted you to the area? Although I was born in the United States, England has been my home for the last fifteen years and my base whenever I’ve done any travelling. Apart from a handful of years studying in Lancaster and Manchester, I’ve mostly lived in Cumbria, in the Lake District. My connection to Grasmere feels the strongest. When I was a student at Lancaster University, I was drawn to Grasmere, mainly as a beautiful place for fell-running or hiking. It wasn’t until some years later, taking on live-in work and volunteering at The Wordsworth Trust, I realised how important the entire region is for its poetry, literature, art and conservation. I’ve never found anywhere quite like it. Straight from my door, I could be running on the fells in the morning and sitting at a poetry event that same evening. Many of my deepest friendships are with people who love the outdoors, writers, artists or Romantics at heart, and feel similarly about the area. I’ve found it almost impossible to consider living anywhere else.

How did you become involved with the A-Z book? The round-about way of getting involved in the A-Z delights me almost as much as drawing the maps themselves…I had no idea David was a closet writer, working on the A-Z manuscript, until our mutual friend Dr Will Smith put us in touch. From what I understand, he already had the notion of representing the films across a map of Cumbria. Will showed him a map that I illustrated and produced for the participants of a massive ‘Capture the Flag’ event I hosted for one of my birthdays!  Over dinner at Will’s house, (lovingly cooked by Dr Polly Atkin, fellow poet and my dear friend) we had a lovely evening discussing the A-Z project and some ideas for the illustrations. We both agreed that books with maps have a certain je ne sais quoi, and shook hands over dessert. All projects should have a start in life like that!

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Unused A-Z Sketch Ideas Ambleside & Windermere: Pen on grid/line paper

Some days later, I created several mock-ups and sketches, ranging from pencil drawings, ink, and coloured pencils. Like other collaborative projects that I’ve been involved in, this early phase of ‘how to shape things’ was both exciting and challenging. We easily settled on the pencil drawings, but there were other considerations that weren’t so straightforward. After realising that a map showing all of Cumbria would not be able to highlight specific film locations as first intended, our next idea (though in hindsight quite ambitious) was to produce something more like a working A-Z, of sizeable scale, in order to display most (or all) of the films with an artistic representation within its filming location. An undertaking that would involve about 20 pages of map drawings, pinpointing about 50 sites. Considering how much I love maps and creating them, I was hugely excited about it all, however large and daunting. The ‘Withnail and I’ map (the frontispiece of the book), was actually intended to connect with other maps across the region…Eventually, we had a stroke of genius, that proved a better solution: a map of Cumbria showcasing the top-ten films highlighted in the book. This hugely reduced the workload and also gave the manuscript a better chance of publication. Narrowing the extent of my contribution to the project also helped me to focus on a handful of films and work more quickly. It was good timing too. During all of this, I received news about a travel and a writing scholarship, and I suddenly needed to put effort towards organising a half-year trip to China!

What materials did you use? Nothing fancy. A good stash of plain white paper, a student set of Staedtler drawing pencils that I’ve used for years, blending stick, putty eraser and three trusty Staedtler, Mars micro carbon retractable pencils that I bought specially for the precision detail needed for maps: .3mm (b), .5mm (2b) and .7mm (2b).

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Wushu Fitness Flyer, Grasmere – Brush Ink & Charoal

Have you produced maps or illustrations before? Not professionally, most of what I draw stays in my journals, or has been made for fun, or as cards or gifts for loved ones. I briefly dabbled with drawing commercially by making my own posters for my local Taiji (Tai Chi) and martial arts classes, but nothing more professional than that.

There is something very natural to me about organising things spatially and visually, as in the way of maps. I genuinely don’t feel as though I have a natural talent for drawing, but I do find sketching the details of ‘where to place things’ and relating them to each other deeply pleasing. If some of that joy comes across in the work, it would be wonderful to find reasons to produce more maps or illustrations of this kind for a wider audience, beyond the personal.

Although you have been operating as an artist/illustrator for the A-Z, you also work in crafts and are most recognised for your poetry. Do you have a favourite medium to work in, or does the subject matter dictate your response? I sometimes wish that I was a bit more in the driver’s seat with it all, but I will admit that a lot of what I choose to create depends on my response to external influences. For example with textiles, although I usually have a vague idea about the kinds of clothes or items I want to make…I prefer to recycle materials and use what I find in charity shops or what has been given to me. These materials generally have their own character. Based on a material’s colour, pattern, texture, or weight there is already a strong inclination of how it should be repurposed. Parallel versions of this happen across the art forms. This might seem slightly contradictory, as ultimately the major decisions are down to me. But I like to work with what is there, and in a given artistic relationship I’m probably the pushover!

Anyway, my inspiration doesn’t seem to come without certain fixed aspects or time demands. There is always a real negotiation between my own curiosities, synchronising working with others, deadlines, or making the most of a given environment or moment in time. As for choosing between different mediums, I love having all of the various art forms active in my creative life (said like an impartial parent). Practically, it is quite difficult to avoid neglecting one art form in favour of another, or to find time for creativity altogether. However, if the neglect is prolonged, I begin to feel out of balance.

My optimal scenario is where I have enough time and few pressures to begin my day with a run and martial arts, spend the morning writing poetry, sew most of the afternoon, quietly draw in the evenings and read before bed…which is the life of a dreamer.

What are you working on at the moment? Probably more things than I should be! Last year, I spent more than half a year travelling around China in order to advance my work on a sequence of poems about a historical figure, a Chinese dancer from the Tang Dynasty known as Lady Gongsun. The well known Chinese poet Du Fu (whose work I admire) wrote a praise poem about her and my interest in Lady Gongsun started from there. I hope these will be published sometime next year. During my time in China, I also made an unexpected connection with a Daoist teacher and Chinese author, Hu Xuezhi who was seeking an editor for a new translation of an ancient Chinese philosophical text known as Chuang Tzu. It has been some years since I’ve flexed my editorial muscles, nevertheless, the project seemed a good fit for both.

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Resonance and Transcendence with Great Nature by Hu Xuezhi edited by Eileen Pun & Dan G. Reid

It has been a useful exercise to rejig my writing concerns, thinking more like an editor than as a poet. I’ve also had the added benefit of learning more about Chinese culture and engaging with Chuang Tzu’s irreverent, mind-bending philosophical enquiry. It is quite a marvellous text. This work will see out the remainder of this year. Mr. Hu and I have recently finished a guidebook to the main text which is now available on Amazon. Although poetry and literature are the big heavyweights in my creative life, as previously mentioned about keeping balanced, it has always been important for me to keep active with running and martial arts, illustrating, or making crafts with paper and textiles. I have to admit that over the last year, circumstances have made getting on the fells quite difficult and I’ve been missing it terribly.

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Rural Running Rhapsody Playlist, CD Cover – Pencil & Ink

This running hiatus has coincided with the absence of my annual/bi-annual ‘running playlist’. I usually trial a number of songs by taking them running with me, and then spend a wonderfully absorbing amount of time finding my favourite lyrics and illustrating a CD cover that I circulate to a number of friends, runners or not. It’s a great project to do over autumn. During a good summer, you only need shorts and sunshine…but a ‘hot’ playlist during the winter months might be the difference between running in the sleet or not! What else? I’m also a keen diarist and serious notebook junkie, as I sketch and write constantly. Over the last couple of years, I have been designing materials for artists and writers as I’ve been finding it increasingly difficult to find well-rounded, multi-purpose, gorgeous, reasonably priced notebooks. A small selection have been sold locally: Sam Read BooksellerHeaton Cooper Studio and Iridium Fine Pens and Stationery. Fingers crossed, a wider selection will also be made available via my website (which is shamefully still under construction) before the end of the year. I’m also super keen to make a notebook specifically for A-Z readers that may want to keep a log about their visits to film locations. I certainly would. So, I have half a mind on this, it would be a fun undertaking and a great way to stay connected to the A-Z project, if time permits…

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‘Little Gatherer’ cover (silk & wool tweed) with travel notebook (20 pages 21cm x 13.8cm) Photo by Jan Bella

Any last thoughts? I think this is a good moment to bring to light David’s lovely contribution to the map illustrations! Over the 2015 holiday period, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens made a fabulous comeback, breaking several box office records in North America and in the UK. At the time I was still in China, living in the north eastern city of Shenyang, and the buzz about the film had even reached a number of major Chinese metropolises. It was mid-January when I received an email from David about an important change to the book. It was decided that Snow White & the Huntsman should be replaced by Star Wars Episode VII on the list of the top ten movies filmed in the region. This change also needed to be reflected on the maps, and the idea was for him to draw an X-wing fighter plane near to Derwentwater and Thirlmere, ASAP. Despite the minor hindrance this situation created, it sounded like good news to me. Considering Cumbria’s size and predominantly rural location, there are a number of quality film festivals each year, and places like The Brewery Arts Centre, or Zeffirellis, have kept pace with national and international box offices for decades. Nevertheless, connection with a major Hollywood film such as Star Wars is further proof there is a strong, ongoing link between the cinematic arts and the Lake District, as well as an affirmation that the A-Z book is timely and relevant.

* Postcards of the A-Z maps (designed by: Sarah Harvey Designs, Kirkby Stephen) will be available on Eileen’s website, as well as selected shops in the Lake District.

Full Bio:

Eileen Pun was born in New York and now lives in the Lake District where she works as a poet and artist. She emigrated to England after studying Politics and International Relations at Lancaster University. She is a former literature intern at The Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere and has worked in publishing at Carcanet Press, Manchester and The New World Press, Beijing.

In 2009, Eileen won the Manchester Metropolitan University and Royal Northern College of Music, Rosamond Prize for best collaborative piece of poetry and music with Carlisle born composer Steven Jackson. Both were subsequently commissioned to write a short chamber opera, The Red Knot, which concerns the 2004 Morecambe Bay tragedy of Chinese working migrants caught by the tide; the piece examines migration, environment and loss.

In 2011, Eileen was selected as an Escalator prize-winner by Writers’ Centre Norwich and also awarded a writing and research grant by Arts Council England. Her work has recently been published in several young poets anthologies, including a showcase of new Black and Asian writing in the UK: ‘Ten, The New Wave’ published by Bloodaxe (2014).

In 2015, Eileen was a recipient of the UK Northern Writer’s Award (England). She also received a Lisa Ullmann Travelling Scholarship (LUTSF) to China in support of her interdisciplinary work in movement and poetry, and was invited to the inaugural Sun Yat-Sen University International Writers’ Residency where she presented her poetry and conducted a seminar for the English Poetry Studies Institute (EPSI).

This year Eileen was invited as a guest reader for a residential to the Ted Hughes Arvon Centre, Lumb Bank for Creative Writing. Her map drawings: ‘Withnail Map‘ and ‘Ten of the Best Films Made in Cumbria & the Lake District’ from, An A-Z of Cumbria & The Lake District on Film, by David Banning (Hayloft Publishing Ltd, October 2016) are her first published illustrations.

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