The British Council International Literature Showcase at Writer's Centre Norwich: March 18th -22nd 2015
I was very privileged to be invited to this gathering of writers and curators from around the world, led by the British Council and Writer's Centre Norwich. The conference essentially sought to make the kind of bonds, and offer a space for exploration of ideas, that actually underpins everything I've tried to do with the Enemies project. So while I naturally felt very much at home with the ideas, there is always the sense that my work curatorially is so responsive that it might be considered ephemeral, and so such an invitation really felt like an extraordinary privilege and a validation of sorts. More than that it was an opportunity to meet like minded people doing very similar things to me, in very different ways, and to learn while testing my own formulations and opinions about how we might be creative with language and then perhaps deploy that process to the benefit of other people. You can read lots more about it here. http://www.writerscentrenorwich.org.uk/thenorwichshowcase1.aspx & check out the amazing list of delegates.
I popped over from London, amidst bleary eyed participants who had flown in from Brazil, Argentina, India, Pakistan, Georgia and Dundee, and had the chance to present three things on the first day of the showcase. The first was a very short introduction to the Enemies project as part of an event called 5x5, where everybody was given 150 seconds to introduce their work. It was a vital beginning, and far superior to the normal 'stand up and tell us about yourself' procedure. There was nearly 50 presentations over those three hours, pretty intense and fantastic.
The second was to be part of a panel on digital literature and technology, alongside Bill Thompson, Annette Mees and Tom Abba. This was a great opportunity to speak about something I'm passionate about, something that has profound and essential consequences for both the content and the overall structure of language orientated art.
I won't rehash what was said on the panel, it can be seen in it's entirety in the video embedded here, and in the podcast version below too. All I will say is that in a wider context this was very much a moment where I found myself having to make a choice between giving my real opinions, many of which I have kept quiet about for sometime and have in that respect been hard won, rigorously thought through, and then having to mediate people's possible perception that I am essentially combative, or being more measured, and in so doing, emphasising my actual preoccupation with human interaction over aesthetics. I went with the former in this case. I'm not 100% sure why. I reject the notion that when you are on stage, on a panel in this case, you are to play a character of sorts and things get embellished. It is more I have come to feel quite torn between my desire to stress how focused I am on developing community and collaboration, as all people at the ILShowcase were, and how much I actually I think unconsidered and patronising artworks are getting in the way of this. I feel very strongly now, as the years go by and my involvement in literature is less and less new, that we have, in poetry, set ourselves a paradoxical task. Telling people poetry will improve their lives while trying to lure them in with the lowest common denominator version of that poetry. Poetry which actually isn't poetry, but a speech, stand up comedy or hip hop. In this case, on this panel, the notion of technology, and I almost spoke entirely in theory, is a way of getting beyond this simplification and reaffirming that poetry is meant to make people grow, it is meant to challenge what they already know to be language and meaning in language, and that we cannot achieve that if we forget that process inherently requires attention, dedication and intelligence. These are not elitist ideas, but they frighten many as being so. I think therefore, increasingly, I have a responsibility to voice this opinion, as long as it is given with respect and is well thought through. Many people were extremely supportive of me doing so on this panel. Others, I think, and can understand, were a bit put off.
Thirdly, in the evening, Jonathan Morley hosted a literary lock in, where I got to share some of my work with the attendees alongside Bill Manhire, Sasha Dugdale, Patience Agbabi and others, people I've been interested in and never read alongside before. It occurred to me that it'd be proper to read, but also to do something beyond that, that interrogated the boundaries of my sharing work with an audience when that audience are all creative practitioners, that offered a concrete engagement with us as a community in that room, and that actually offered my poetry in a more permanent way than words heard in a passing moment. Moreover, my comments on the tech panel that the book, that is the paper object, would probably be obsolete in the future (quite a prosaic statement I think) was met with some shock made me think if I did indeed take a hacksaw, bought locally from Norwich Market, and cut up my book, in order to give it to the audience, page by page, there might be a wryness to that gesture.
The most important thing for me was to control the concept, that is not to let my normal exuberance and desire to stimulate an aesthetic response that isn't necessarily gentle, get in the way of the actual act. That is to say I wanted it to seem like an act of community, or giving. I asked the attendees, once the torn pages were disseminated across the room, to read at the same time, with me, to collaborate, and to form a cacophony. They did so, some with real gusto (thanks Luke Kennard), and this seemed the lasting impression, rather than the moment I unveiled the hacksaw from a blue plastic bag, with unspecified purpose, in the upstairs of a Norwich pub.
Furthermore it was wonderful to hear Sasha Dugdale read, someone whose work I've followed for some time and whose editorship of Modern Poetry in Translation is to be admired, and Bill Manhire, who really evidenced his understanding of his own aesthetic, his medium, his authenticity. His clever, witty and pointed style in language and delivery really showed powerfully why often less is more, and melodrama is less engaging then quiet reflection. I especially loved his found text poem made up of banal visitor book comments at the South Pole.
After such an intensive day I was so delighted to sit back and gorge on what was to follow. It began, at the time of the solar eclipse with a work I have been awaiting for quite some time. Hannah Silva's Shlock. It was astounding frankly. Were I to heap upon it all the superlatives I felt, it was seem cloy so all I will say is that this is a work that evidences everything I had tried to convey the day previous - experimentation from what is considered the norm out of necessity. Immensely complex ideas and issues rendered in equally complex and multifaceted artistic means in order that the original notions behind the artwork, in this case death, sexuality, disease, femininity - not be lessened, squashed into mediums where it cannot be contained, only presented as less than it's original state. Hannah's intelligence as an artist lies here, but more than that, and something where she far outstrips her peers and I, is in her technical mastery. She is able, in this show more than any other of her works I have seen and admired over the last few years, to control the physical, the sonic, the linguistic and the technological. This was a 30 minute version of an hour long show. I do not know how she was able to use conceptual art performance, sound poetry, complex tech and equipment, dance, sign language, all at the same time, without a single flub or missed beat, and still convey the pounding heart of the work. Just extraordinary, and to see it at 9 in the morning, and to see its power ripple through the crowd, I felt so envigorated. Check it out http://hannahsilva.co.uk/performance/schlock/
We then were treated to another set of readings and panels, some fascinating discussions on community and engagement, with Stella Duffy and Dan Gorman amongst others, and then a panel entitled the Shock of the New, which raised some valuable ideas but was perhaps outside of what I would take that term to mean. None the less the point was to stimulate, to engage those in attendance in discussion, to spark their conversations and idea, and certainly this was the case. In the evening we all had the chance to see Jeanette Winterson and Helen Mcdonald in conversation, and certainly having been one of the few hundred people reading Helen Mcdonald's avant garde poetry, which was first published by Etruscan books in 2001, this was a great chance to enjoy someone's deeply deserved success and recognition.
The final day gave me a chance to see the city of Norwich a little further, generously guided by the brilliant poet and academic Jeremy Noel-Tod, who really knew the ins and outs of the literary history of the place, and its quirks. I returned to the body of the conference for a workshop led by Sarah Thelwell on the business of the creative arts, adapted for literature, followed by a workshop. It was undoubtedly useful information, and forced the participants to qualify really what they wanted to achieve with their organisations, whether that was expansion and monetisation, or specialism and collaboration on the ground level.
With the kind of curatorial expertise one would expect from organisations like Writer's Centre Norwich and the British Council, we were given lots of facilitated time to develop the personal connections that are absolutely necessary for any real potential collaboration on this day. The organisation of the ILS was amazing, not a single missed beat, tech hitch, every event (of which there was many) was well organised and mediated, the program full and engaging but never demonstrative. And the setting was so beautiful and comfortable. I had an enlightening and uplifting final afternoon really conversing with relentlessly energetic and open people from Harare, Mumbai, Lahore, Tbilisi, Buenos Aires and on and on. If links are forged with these places, be it through the Enemies project or otherwise, that will be a beautiful thing for me, but that really didn't feel relevant to the moment of sitting before these people and hearing, through their work, about their lives and the place literature had in their desire to grow as people and share that growth with other people. A wonderful week.