Interviews

Every Line Has Two Sides: An Interview with Ed Firth

Ed Firth’s work hovers between the disciplines of graphic design and draughtsmanship. Bryon Fear talks to him about zines, facial hair, and the joy of connecting directly with people through his work.

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Ross / Rubber Legs / Turned Away   (Click images to enlarge)

Ed Firth is a rising star of illustrative art. His current work is a series of portraits featuring (predominantly) gay men sporting big beards and elaborate moustaches. As in the photographic work of Blake Little and Jonathan Daniel Pryce, Firth is also preoccupied with documenting this fashion for impressive facial hair. His drawings are perceptive, distinctive and enticing. Using bold yet sparse lines, he not only captures his subject’s likeness, but also nuances of expression that pique an almost voyeuristic curiosity in the viewer for they reveal more than mere exterior, but offer a glimpse of something more personal.

Last month he assembled his first solo show at 31 Fournier Street, an untouched Georgian terrace home-cum-exhibition space that boasts Tracey Emin and Gilbert & George as neighbours. Displayed throughout two rooms – a small drawing room and an anteroom that is home to a remarkable library of books predating the 1970s – the work was perched on bookshelves, mantelpieces, doors, easels and walls embellished with silver-leaf, distressed by age or perhaps artifice. It is remarkable that Firth’s quintessentially modern and largely unframed drawings were able to hold their own in such grandiose surroundings.

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Ed preparing his exhibition at 31 Fournier Street

A week (and one acquisition) later I returned to number 31 to interview Ed about his work that has been sought by collectors from all over the world – it has been featured on sites such as AccidentalBear.com and name-checked on the website for the American Mustache Institute. As we escaped the heat at 31 Fournier I recalled something that had stayed with me from our last conversation, when Ed admitted that “everything changed for me a couple of years ago once I realised that art was about connecting with people”. Ed nods and recounts how at school he used to make little storybooks, which were quite short, “and sometimes a little saucy in parts”, and how he would rush home each evening to do the next issue because the next day a queue of people would form waiting to read it, each grabbing the book from its previous reader. “I guess I had forgotten that what I really enjoyed was that connection. I was drawn closer to that group of people and I got a sense of appreciation for the art that an artist creates.”

Our conversation turns to Pound Shop, Ed’s self-published zine, and a wry smile breaks beneath his waxed moustache as he talks about these ‘little’ books connecting him with his current audience – the parallel is not lost on him. “Again, with the zine I have rediscovered that sense of connection, this time with people all over the world who buy it.”

And his audience is worldwide. A buyer in Mexico reached out to him via his Instagram account and news of the exhibition gained interest from buyers in Sweden & Belgium. “It’s really nice when people get in touch out of the blue purely because they’ve seen your work. It happens on Instagram, you put something up there and quite quickly the work can accumulate ‘likes’ and you know that people are looking at it. More than praise, more than the nature of what is said, it’s the fact that you’ve actually established a connection with these people.”

A little like the difference between performing on stage as opposed to film, I suggest: the former connects you immediately with your audience.

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Stance / Long Face 3

I also note that portraiture also connects the artist with the subject on an even more personal level. Grinning he laughs, “Yes, there is the satisfaction of people being delighted … or appalled by what you’ve done!”

This is a double-edged statement. In his recent exhibition he admits there are three or four pieces that were done without the subject’s knowledge. Ed works predominantly from photographs sourced from the Internet. I recall once seeing his Facebook status update that declared: im in yr fasebooks, drawin yr linkd frendz! Often, he doesn’t actually know the people he has drawn, but in this instance through word of mouth, the subjects in question heard about, came to, and bought their images at the exhibition, “which was another interesting way of connecting with people … that some people might find a bit stalker-ish,” he notes with a laugh.

And for Ed there is a sense of freedom as an artist in not knowing the subject, “because there is no pressure on you to make it flattering you are free to explore if you find something grotesque that you want to draw – you can follow that whim without fear of censure.”

We speak further about his source material, which is sometimes found on Facebook, “friends of friends, or on Tumblr, sometimes on appreciation of male beauty ‘sites or something a bit saucier. Or perhaps I will see a picture that has something in it that I want to capture; some movement in it that I want to follow, or experience drawing on the page. I’ll see a challenge in an expression – smiling and laughing are much harder than anything else. To try and capture a smile without people analysing it further or finding it creepy. In a picture, if you draw someone laughing you have to get just right, otherwise it just looks sinister.”

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Lollipop / Basilio

Ed’s style sits somewhere between the disciplines of graphic design and draughtsmanship, and his work has been likened to cartoons and also caricature. When interpreting his subjects’ features, he explores exaggeration to a certain degree and for this reason caricature as a label can be applied, but it’s a term that through association belittles the skill with which his portraits are executed. Also, unlike most caricature, which is largely irreverent, Ed’s drawings do not deride or mock his subjects; but rather the exaggeration here exemplifies what is attractive and alluring about those he draws. There is something inherently respectful about his approach and when I express this, it strikes a chord with him: “I feel there is something Totemic about them and having a sense of presence, an imposing presence. In the exhibition a lot of them were positioned quite high up and looking down on the viewer.” The stylistic elongation of the faces add to this totemic sense that his images possess.

I wanted to know more about the maturation of his drawing style. “I used to draw with an airbrush, and I would create these long lines, with some detail at either end – connected by a thin line that doesn’t seem strong enough to hold the two areas together. So delicate it’s like a tension wire on a bridge that has to hold all of this weight. Thin lines that are the difference between something and nothing. So, I’m fascinated by lines and draughtsmanship, much more than painting.” I find Ed’s use of line fascinating also. It is deft and precise. These images have a sparse simplicity that conceals the evolution they have undergone, and it is far from a simple process, as Ed explains: “Each line has two sides, not so much in the pencil drawings perhaps, but the finished digital drawings have been meticulously crafted, so that both sides have something to express.” He goes on to explain that each image is drawn, redrawn and redrawn again in a process of refinement; an exploration of the lines and shapes that form a face, and how they can be distilled and translated into something that becomes identifiable as a work of art and one that can be attributed to him. It’s a style that excites him, because he has felt that until now he didn’t have a style that was particularly distinctive or one he could claim ownership of.

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Marine / Lawyer Books

In Firth’s earlier works, this approach often affects the whole composition with extraneous background detail discarded in favour economic use of line and colour. The images become dislocated and isolated and this is a conscious decision to avoid artifice or that which isn’t integral. I noted that his more recent work includes a sense of location, bringing something new to his work that wasn’t there before, a sense of narrative. Why is this figure in the sea? What brings this other to a library? Firth’s style alone evokes the tradition of the graphic novel, and these later images could be single panels from a greater story arc. When stood before them, several potential narratives are invoked. I wondered if this was something he was now actively exploring. “I do think these images have more to give. For example in ‘Marine’ there was no boat in the background, there was another guy, but that didn’t fit the composition I wanted. So I added the boat in. Have you seen the film Dead Calm? When I put the boat in, it then seemed to have something of that film about it. The possible danger. And of course the sea is red … This distant white vessel; what does it signify? Saviour or a graveyard? So there is a tension there and as you say more of a narrative.”

With such a strong graphic nature to the images and with the introduction of a stronger sense of narrative, it would seem that the natural progression would be to animate the work. Ed has a background in animation (he was a VJ for seven years) and the characters already have such a sense of life about them that you half expect them to move anyway. In the same way Opie has animated his digital work, would that be the next step I asked. “Next I want to create lenticular prints. It something I’m very excited about doing, you can create them using between 5 and 25 frames, so something quite brief and simple can happen, and that’s more interesting to me, more so than creating traditional animation.”

This doesn’t surprise me. Firth’s work is suggestive and offers a glimpse of narrative rather than delivering the whole story – the viewer is presented with these moments of “enigmatic suggestion” as he calls them, and is left to interpret them as they will – which is of course a more esoteric and satisfying experience.

You can see Ed’s work at his Edinburgh Fringe exhibition Men & Ink at Wallace’s Art House, which runs from August 16-30.

The limited edition zine Pound Shop Issue #2 will be available from August 8, online and from Gay’s the Word, Tate Modern and Foyles.

You can follow Ed on his Instagram, Tumblr and Facebook accounts. He accepts commissions and prints from the exhibition are available.

 
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Celebrating 40 Years of Gay Switchboard Ireland

Gay Switchboard Ireland turns 40 this year. Andrew Darley talks to Tony Cooney about how the service has diversified to meet the needs of its users, and mental health in the LGBT community.

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 (Click images to enlarge)

Gay Switchboard Ireland, which offers confidential peer support for the LGBT community, celebrated 40 years of their service this year. Originally called Tel-A-Friend, the LGBT helpline began in 1974 when members in the community saw a need for help within Ireland. Since first answering the phones that year, Gay Switchboard Ireland has continued to grow, diversify and reach out throughout 40 years of social change. In the last year they answered 2,761 calls, which emphasizes that no matter how times have changed in terms of LGBT visibility and access to information, the Gay Switchboard is still an important touchstone of support. It offers information and support on a vast range of issues around LGBT issues including; questions around identity, coming out, mental health, sexual health and social information. It also takes a strong stance that it is not simply for people who identify as LGBT, it is also for family and friends who may need education and advice about their loved one. The group is run and delivered by trained volunteers who come from the LGBT community that they support. Andrew Darley spoke to Tony Cooney, former Director and current Training Coordinator of the service, about how the service has been diversified to meet the needs of its users, the issue of mental health in the LGBT community and what it is like working in Ireland’s oldest LGBT support service.

First of all, congratulations on Gay Switchboard Ireland celebrating its 40th birthday this year, you must be thrilled. Can you tell me about the work of the service and the ideals that are at its heart?

The idea for this service in 1973 when the Irish Gay Rights Movement got together to do some activism for the community. From there, two strands developed: one was community support, from which the Gay Switchboard developed, whilst the other strand was activism, which brought about the National LGBT Federation. They first started taking calls some time between March and July 1974 with just three volunteers on the team. Yet when they started they couldn’t use the word ‘gay’ or even advertise in the phonebook or promote it as a gay helpline. That’s how the name Tel-A-Friend came about, despite the company name being Gay Switchboard.

We currently have 42 volunteers working with us and by the end of this summer we will have another 13 people fully trained. We’re a confidential helpline support service for the LGBT community. Everything is kept completely confidential. It’s this ethic that has kept us going for so long. People know that they can pick up the phone and speak to someone about what’s going on in their lives with a feeling of security. Also, people who use the service do not necessarily have to be LGBT to ring. You could be family or friends of someone and it always remains confidential. Our ethos is peer support: people from the community, supporting the community.

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Obviously the service has grown substantially since the days of Tel-A-Friend. Has this growth been a case of ‘supply on demand’?

Very much so. It took a couple of years to find its feet. The first national advert in the Irish press was in 1978. Figures went from 388 calls in the first year to over 3000 the following year. There was a huge demand for people who didn’t even know what ‘gay’ was. A lot of married people called at that time who just needed that support. In 1979, 30% of calls were suicidal calls. So that gives an indication of what people were having to deal with. It was illegal to be homosexual. One in three people were those who were suicidal or with suicidal thoughts which was quite serious.

Then in the ’80s, the AIDS epidemic hit. In 1984, call rocketed to nearly 6000. People were in panic-mode over AIDS. It got to the point that the people working in the Switchboard went over to London to speak with relevant organisations to see how they could help and what they could do on the ground since it was such a stressful time. There was a drop in the ‘90s to around 5,000 calls a year and for the last few years averaged about 2,500 calls per year. You’d imagine that after 40 years after the service first started, there would be no need for it, but we had 2761 calls last year, so the issues may have changed but people still need support. While there has been great progress for LGBT people, it’s still not as easy for some people, especially those outside of the big towns and cities. If you’re living in a little village or you’re living on your own, you might not have access or information about the community so it’s not as easy to identify as LGBT.

Over the years, in what ways has the service been adapted to how the community engages with it? Has there been any lightbulb moments where you seen a gap in how you could reach further?

I started in 2008. In the mid-’00s, Switchboard advertised a seven day service but only had six or seven volunteers active. They had 30 or so volunteers but most of those shifts were not being covered. In 2007, the service was brought back to five days and I came in as a training coordinator. I trained 16 people and from there we were able to rebuild the service and grow every year. Sine then we’ve gone from five days to a seven day service. We also opened up a face-to-face drop-in service in collaboration with the Gay Health Network. We also provide e-mail support. So we’ve idenitified the needs in community and aimed to meet them.

When and why did you want to become involved with a service like this?

I used to be a volunteer with Samaritans. I was quite involved with them doing training and prison visits and I took a break. I was then approached to do some training and recruitment for Switchboard. I just thought to myself that if I was doing the training, it would be better if I was answering the phones, too. I wanted to have the experience of knowing what it was like so then I ended up volunteering. It’s been absolutely wonderful being able to diversify the service. The partnerships with other organisations has given us a little of funding that we need without having to look directly for it.

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Have there been any challenges you’ve faced and had to overcome in getting the Switchboard to where it is today? Funding is probably one of them by the sounds of it.

Funding is probably our biggest challenge. Partnership work can be difficult because people will have different expectations of the service. Sometimes there has to be compromises to get to a point where it works for everyone involved. In terms of the drop-in service, that took about a year from the initial idea to when we opened the doors to people. A large part of that was teasing of issues with different partners. If you stick with it, it does work if everyone can see what the benefit is to the community. We look for a two year commitment from volunteers and we had a problem with the retention in the past. But we’ve overcome that with ongoing training and getting volunteers more involved. People join to be there for the community but they also join for other reasons. We try to accommodate that without diminishing what the Switchboard is about.

There has been significant research and evidence on mental health within in the LGBT community. Obviously a service like the Switchboard would be an outlet and a source of support for these issues. Do you feel these needs are being sufficiently met within the LGBT community?

It’s a loaded question but in short, probably not. There’s research evidence out there that indicates that LGBT people are seven times more at risk of taking their own life or thinking of suicide. The new Irish LGBT survey will hopefully identify needs of mental health needs within the community that may shape policy. We’re open in the evening but there’s a need for fuller services. Your mental health links in with your sexual health. The Gay Men’s Health Clinic here in Dublin is only open two evenings a week. That needs to be expanded so people can access it and get the treatment and information they need. If you’re not there before a certain time the queue is out the door. That impacts on someone’s mental, sexual and overall health because they’re all interlinked. If the services are under-resourced for any of those areas, it’s going to impact on their lives.

I’ve often thought about this in terms that it’s hard enough coming forward and opening up about personal issues and afraid that no-one will understand. Then being LGBT too, it’s almost as if it’s a double-stigma can manifest. Would you agree with any of that with any of that?

It’s constantly having to come out all the time. The idea of telling people you’re gay before you can get help or progress isn’t right. That links in with minority stress, meaning the stress put on LGBT by society at large Nst that anyone is pinpointed or picked out, but overall society sees LGBT as lesser and as a result people’s mental health can deteriorate.

I was at a conference on LGBT domestic violence and 26% of gay women reported domestic violence, and 23% of guys reported it as well. I thought that was really, really high. And that’s only the people who have reported it. There’s the people who are the victims, but there is also the perpetrator. I’m not condoning the perpetrators but they have issues as well. If they’re LGBT, they have that battle from day one when they’ve identified their sexuality and sometimes that can come out as aggression and violence. It’s one thing to look after the victim but the perpetrators need support as well, otherwise they’ll just keep doing it. We’re starting to see an increase in calls around this issue, the correct term for it is IPB i.e. intimate partner violence.

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Polari’s tagline is “about life, not lifestyles”. We’re dedicated to looking at culture and the world around us from an individual queer perspective. I’m wondering whether you’ve considered how mainstream gay scene culture and media may feed into endorsing a certain lifestyle that people feel they need to buy into to feel validated and accepted?

The gay scene isn’t for everyone. It can be absolutely hard for people, especially if you’re coming out. The perception is that the only gay life is the bars and that’s where you go to meet people. If that’s what you want to do, that’s fine; but if it’s not, it can be hard to find your niche within the community. We do get calls from people who are comfortable being LGBT but the bars and clubs are not for them and they want to know what else is there out there. We would signpost them to groups, events or organizations that might suit them and what they are looking for. Last year I won a scholarship in Berlin to do an LGBT empowerment through the medium of art course. It was a really uplifting and enlightening to see. Whatever you wanted they had it, even painting butterflies in the park naked. I just thought it was brilliant.

Do you think then that there needs to be more of a focus on individuality in the gay community rather that fitting into or aligning into a certain LGBT stereotype?

Absolutely. The LGBT community go on about being victims but equally we can be just as hurtful and racist and damaging to people in our own community when we see someone who’s overtly camp or outside of what we perceive to be the norm. I think we can be as vicious as the rest of society. The LGBT community needs to have a good look at itself, to not forget what we have had to put up with. Acknowledge and accept the differences out there. I see this with the Trans community. I’m ashamed and embarrassed by some of the things gay people come out with because at the end of the day, we’re all people and we’re all entitled to live our lives the way we want, without judgement.

Adolescence for LGBT people are the formative years when people may begin to acknowledge and experiment with their sexuality, which can be exciting. But a common experience is that it can be a terrifying and painful time. I’m wondering if you think that adolescence today has been affected by the visibility and discussion in culture. Has it made it easier for LGBT people or even encourage some to feel it’s okay to come out even younger?

Yes is the simple answer to that. It’s easier for kids to come out to the point where so of them don’t have to come out, they just be themselves. They don’t have to come out, they’re just happy being with their friends and they don’t have to live a separate life to the rest of their classmates. But as with all progress there’s going to be repercussions. There are still people out there who won’t understand or will bully and put stigma on people.

I wish there were services like this when I was growing up. I remember when I was 17 or 18, I knew there was something different about me and getting called names in school because of it. You react to that and you internalize all that. Hopefully with education and the mainstreaming in art, television, music and culture, it’ll open it up more.

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In what ways do you plan or hope for the Switchboard will expand and move forward in the future?

Two weeks ago we appointed our first ever female director, so I’m no longer the director. It’s now Maria Keogh which will be a huge positive for the service. This will be good in raising awareness. While the Dublin Lesbian Line is there, women don’t reach out the same way men do on the phones. Hopefully, having a female director will raise visibility and awareness. We’ve also started running a personal development courses in collaboration with the Gay Men’s Health service, which is a six week workshop to help build self-esteem and assertiveness. Also, for the first time ever we’ve submitted a statutory funding application to provide a live chat service, a chat forum. Most young people won’t pick up the phone and ring, we get very few young people. But they’ll text and instant message morning, noon and night. That’s the next line we’re going to go down in terms of expansion.

From your professional and personal experience, what advice would you give someone who is reading this that may be doubting or struggling with their sexuality or identity in general?

I’d say take your time. You’re not the first one who is going through this so there is support out there, please reach out. Don’t be afraid to say whatever it is you want to say and be who you are. Reach out because there is always going to be someone who will take you through it and you’ll get there .

 —

For more information about Gay Switchboard Ireland please visit their official website

 
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Snapshots of the Past: An Interview with Saint Etienne

Saint Etienne celebrate a quarter century in pop in a gorgeous new photo book. Polari Magazine talks to the band about collecting the pictures, the appeal of London, and performing for charity as the follow-up act to a bunch of clowns.

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 Photograph by John Stoddart  (Click images to enlarge)

Saint Etienne and cafés, they just go together, don’t they? Like Lea & Perrins, Highbury & Islington, or Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, the band and cafés have felt inextricably bound together in the imagination ever since their breathtaking second album opened with a tribute to one of Kentish Town’s finest, the elegiac Mario’s Café (“a cigarette, a cup of tea, a bun…”).

So it’s fitting that Polari Magazine meets the band on a sunny Friday morning in a shady eatery, tucked away in the maze of streets behind BBC Broadcasting House. We’re here to talk about the launch of a new limited edition photography book, a covetable and really rather gorgeous artefact that takes a chronological journey through (virtually) a quarter of a century of the band’s adventures in pop.

In it, Sarah Cracknell, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs – Britain’s best pop band of the last two decades, lest we forget – transform from wide-eyed cultural magpies to sophisticated custodians of all that’s still thrilling and vital about pop music.

From Paris to Berlin to Malmö, Dublin, Brighton and Norway there’s the element of pop globetrotting you’d expect from an internationally recognised band, but what is striking is just how much the book feels like a kind of story of London too - with locations across the city as various as Holland Park, Hampstead Heath, Piccadilly Circus, Leather Lane and even London Zoo, to the penultimate shot of the three members on the balcony of the Royal Festival Hall.

Before we get on to talking about the book – and over the clatter of cups and saucers and the occasional hiss of the café’s Gaggia – Pete, Bob and Sarah are in fine fettle, chatting about sugar addictions, holidaying in Spain, rare Diana Dors singles from the early ‘60s, and the rapid gentrification of Peckham, South London. They’re all funny and smart and sweet and, frankly, we could sit here all day just listening to them – but we don’t have all day, and when the publisher’s PR taps his imaginary watch to tell us we had better get a move on we’re off …

So, how did you get involved with the project and publishers First Third?

Bob: It was all very natural, really – I suppose we knew a lot of people involved with the publishers, like Fabrice (Couillerot) who put it together and Lora (Findlay) who did the design. Lora we’d worked with before on Tales From Turnpike House. She designed the cover for that.

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 Photographs by Joe Dilworth / Phil Nicholls

And where did you start with 20 years worth of pictures?

Sarah: I had a box somewhere – a number of boxes actually - and I just started going through them. I mean, there were tonnes, whole packets of photographs which I went through - like five packets just to get that one picture. And Martin (Kelly – the band’s manager, record label boss and Mr Sarah Cracknell) had a great big box of the press pics.

Bob: And some of the press libraries we had access to, so we went through all of those.

Was it quite emotional looking back?

Sarah: I found it emotional, yeah, but in a really joyous way. It was just really, really great. We laughed at a lot of pictures. It made you kind of go back and look at the time – and it made you think, “You know, we did a lot”. And I think we enjoyed most of it – or all of it, really. Apart from Chessington World Of Adventures …

(The band all laugh really heartily at this.)

(Intrigued) What happened at Chessington? Was it a gig?

Pete: Er, kind of, yeah! A charity thing.

Bob: With, what’s her name, Judith Chalmers …

Sarah: We were on after some clowns. Some clowns doing songs from Grease I think. And then it just went from bad to worse. Everyone left! As soon as the clowns finished everyone left.

Pete: It was meant to be a fun day, a fundraiser. I remember they got really angry with us because they thought we were going to bring loads of people with us who had loads of money.

Sarah: A coach load of fans.

Bob: And the media!

Pete: Oh yeah, they were like, “Where’s all the media?”

Sarah: It was ’94. Bob wasn’t there … Lucky Bob!

That’s what happens when you do things for charity!

Pete: I know, it brought us to the brink of downfall …

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 Photographs by Paul Kelly / John Stoddart

One thing we loved about the book was the outfits – how the fashions and styles change but it’s still always Saint Etienne.

Sarah: Funnily enough I think that the clothes I was wearing were one of the things that I remembered most. I’ve still got a lot of the clothes … in another box.

Pete: My clothes start to fit a bit better as the book goes on. We had slightly more money and I could buy clothes that actually fitted me.

Did you ever employ a stylist?

Sarah: A couple of times. For my solo record (1996’s Lipslide) they got me a stylist and she got paid a fortune – something like 600 quid – to take me into shops where I chose what I wanted and she just paid for it. I thought, “I could do that!”. And we did have a really nice guy once who got some really nice suits for us.

Pete: We used to hate it when people brought along clothes for us to wear.

Bob: Mmm. Until we realised we could just pick our own clothes.

Pete: I remember the stylists used to come and put hair gel on us.

Bob: We did those photos for Elle - remember those? And we were wearing quite good clothes and we were quite pleased with it but they’d given all our faces a green tinge. Funnily enough, they didn’t make it into the book!

Was there a favourite outfit? Was there anything you looked at and thought, “I look brilliant in that?”

Sarah: I wouldn’t go that far, but I did quite like the gold cat suit in the ‘Pale Movie’ video. I found that in a market somewhere. It was really cheap – like a fiver or something.

Bob: There was a stylist we had who was really good – Mark Anthony. He was great. He really knew what we’d look good in. I felt like I was in The Ipcress File the way he dressed me. It was around the Good Humor time. I ended up buying most of the clothes he chose for me.

Pete: And quite early on we got some money to buy some Paul Smith suits, didn’t we? And some shirts. That was the picture with the mirror.

I love those shots. They were from 1994, for Select magazine, weren’t they?

Sarah: Yeah. That shoot we were in a hotel in Holland Park. I can’t remember what it’s called. The photographer asked me out on a date afterwards. He was really nice doing the shoot, but then afterwards he asked me out, which made me feel a bit funny about the skimpy outfit I had been wearing. I thought, “Oh perhaps I shouldn’t have worn that!”

Pete: He asked us all out!

Bob: But I really love those photos he took.

Saint-Etienne

 Photograph by Joe Dilworth

How long did they take? An average photo session?

Bob: Well the one in the hotel in Holland Park was a long one …

Sarah: It really depended on how many costume changes there were. The Pierre et Gilles shoot with Etienne Daho was hilarious – a whole day of make-up and all for one set-up, wasn’t it? It took twenty-four hours and they just did one shot – all day preparing for that one shot.

Looking through the book it feels like London has always been pretty key to your story. What made for a good Saint Etienne London location?

Bob: Occasionally we’d pick the place. I mean, London Zoo, we must have picked that because we were feeling a bit perverse that day. I remember I got really upset …

Sarah: Yeah the Zoo was quite depressing in those days. And I was a vegetarian.

Bob: Before it was done up. Sad tigers and things …

Pete: The old days … of performing bears!

Sarah: It isn’t anything like as depressing as that now. And anyway I’m not a vegetarian any more -

Bob: And Leather Lane, I suppose, that was where the Creation and Heavenly offices were. Quite often the location would be down to circumstance. And there was more exciting stuff going on in odd bits of London back then. It wasn’t all concentrated in the east.

Does London still matter to you so much?

Sarah: Yeah, oh yes. I’ve moved out of London but that’s purely about needing more space for family and stuff.

And it definitely does [still matter] – and I’m waiting for the day when my kids are gonna be drawn here – ‘cause they’re bound to be aren’t they? I expect it’ll have that same magnetic pull as it did on me … and then they’ll be gone. (mock tears)

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 Photographs by Rachael Cassells / Joe Dilworth

What’s your favourite shot in the book?

Sarah: I really do love the ones in Berlin, the bowling pictures. There’s something about the colours in them.

Pete: And we’re not posing. They’re really natural.

Sarah: The photographer, Rachael Cassells, was great. You’d do something and occasionally she’d say “Can you just do that again?”

Pete: I really do like – though Sarah’s not in it – the V-Sign picture in Tufnell Park, just because we look so young in it and it reminds me of just starting out.

Bob: (joking) I think, um, our most recent work is the one I’m happiest with. No, I really like the early Joe Dilworth ones, probably the ones on the boat. There’s probably not a standout photo but they recall just really good memories and again, it was that thing about wandering round random bits of London, round the back of King’s Cross … 

And on that note we’re out of time. The Gaggia hisses again and the PR taps his watch again to signal it’s time to deliver the band to the BBC round the corner, where they’ll be interviewed for 6 Music. Later that night Pete and Bob will DJ on the concourse of the newly relocated Foyle’s bookstore and the band will attend a screening of How We Used To Live, their new cinematic collaboration with Paul Kelly. Meanwhile I make my way to the Tube, clutching a now-signed copy of the book – “With lots of love from ‘The Et’”. Swoon.

Saint Etienne is available from First Third now.

 
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Getting Go: An Interview with Cory Krueckeberg

Getting Go is a film about making a documentary about a go-go dancer. Writer and director Cory Krueckeberg talks about the trust that’s necessary in such a project, and the ways in which we look not for the real but the ideal in a culture dominated by social media.

Cory-Krueckeberg

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Cory Krueckeberg’s new film Getting Go: The Go Doc Project explores that moment when our deepest desires become a living reality, and that age-old warning, “Be careful what you wish for”. The film follows university student, Doc, who has developed an intense fixation with a local New York go-go dancer, aptly named, Go. His obsession leads him to rouse up a strategy to create a documentary about the performer in order to get closer to him. To Doc’s surprise, the flirtatious dancer – played by real-life dancer and artist Matthew Camp – agrees to take part in the film. What’s more unexpected is what happens when the two interact as well as the impact they have on each other’s lives. Andrew Darley spoke to Getting Go’s writer and director Cory Krueckeberg about the layers within the film, the trust needed to create it, his homage to Andy Warhol and the separate lives we lead on the Internet.

What drew you to the world of go-go dancing?

I really wanted to do something inexpensive and fast which looks like it didn’t cost very much money. I started with this concept of wanting to make a movie about a guy creating a documentary about somebody. I started thinking about different things like if I was that character what would I be interested in. The initial idea was New York nightlife so I did some research. As I dug deeper, the persona of a go-go dancer was fascinating to me. I started searching for a person who was multi-faceted and not just a go-go dancer. I wanted to find somebody that this wasn’t all they were about. I needed someone who had depth. I happened upon Matthew and that’s when the real idea came together. Something clicked. It was this process of looking for an idea for a subject that also becomes Doc’s in the film.

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Matthew Camp in Getting Go, the Go Doc Project

Did you conduct much research into the world or look to any sources for insight?

Not really. Once I had the concept I started writing an outline. I started doing it based on Matthew and what we talked about. I made the whole process of making the movie the same as the way Doc does it in the film. Admittedly, I didn’t know a whole lot about go-go dancing but there isn’t a lot to learn either, other than who the different people are and the politics behind it. We actually shot this film while the clubs were open so we had to ask permission from the go-go dancers who are on the platforms if they would get off so we could shoot on it.

What was the rationale behind using a documentary narrative to tell the story?

My partner Tom and I make movies together. Together, we have a very specific aesthetic. There is a lot of gay film out there that looks really low-budget. I knew that if I was going to do this and only spend $10,000, I needed a concept that made the fact it could cost $10,000 feel authentic. Not just that we made a cheap movie. 

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Tanner Cohen & Matthew Camp

How were the characters cast? Did you have them in mind from the beginning?

Once I discovered Matthew, I contacted him online. I emailed him the same message Doc sends in the movie and his response is the same one in the film. When we met up, I wanted to make sure that he had some sort of charisma that would hold up on camera. Some people who are interesting and great in person can fall completely flat on screen. We did some improv on camera and he was engaging and appealing. After that I wanted to find a filmmaker for the character of Doc because I wanted this to be as meta-cinematic as possible. I searched for someone but couldn’t find anyone. One day, I was talking to Tanner Cohen, who was the star of our first feature, Were The World Mine. He said “I’m not really a filmmaker but you should consider me”. He came in and met Matthew and they hit it off.

There are some intensely sexual and intimate moments in the film. I wonder what the dynamic was between you, Matthew & Tanner? Did you have to build up a certain level of trust?

We didn’t make this like a normal movie; it was literally me and my partner, Matthew and Tanner. We just had the camera and we didn’t really have a schedule.

I kept saying we should the big sex scene first, but Matthew said we should do it at the very end. So we shot it at the end. We got together, we drank some bourbon and I choreographed it a little so that the camera would see what we wanted it to see and not what we didn’t want it to see. I literally set up the camera, closed the door and they did what we had planned out. I told them to take three or four minutes so that I could get a good edit. They were in there for 20 minutes! When they shot the scene, I think they felt a sense of freedom because we weren’t in the room and the door was closed they were in there by themselves.

Getting-Go-Matthew-Camp-Tanner-Cohen

Go starts out as stridently confident and flirtatious. In one of his first scenes, we see him stripping in the street. Yet, when we are brought into his apartment, we see that he is quite artistic and in touch with his surroundings. Also, the interviews he gives reveal a very deep person. Was your idea to build up this image of person and then dissolve any assumptions and preconceptions about him?

I definitely used preconceived notions of who a go-go dancer may be. For me it was more about creating a dynamic between two people that had a push and a pull. I pulled a little bit from both their personalities and my ideas to create two characters that are opposing. The more you go into somebody the more complicated they are. Gradually you start to build an image about him. A major aspect of this piece is the façade that we put on which links in with the homages to Warhol in this film. Who are you when somebody turns a camera on you? 

What was the intent of interpreting Warhol’s Eat, Sleep and Kiss in this film?

As a writer it may be out of the lack of confidence. I sometimes want to try and find something in existing culture to ground the project in. With Were The World Mine it was Shakespeare and in our last feature Mariachi Gringo, it centred on the culture of mariachi in Mexico. With this, it’s along the lines of your first question, I wanted to make this to feel sophisticated and not cheap. I spent a lot of time brainstorming. Once I met Matthew and found that he was an artist we talked about what if he inspires Doc in some way to look at art and explore the art world. So I thought about artists who I could funnel some interesting ideas to give Doc a view of culture as well as mirror the other themes I was working with.

Warhol seemed to be perfect because he made so many films in his time. He was the birth of reality television, just setting up a camera and inviting interesting people to analyze how they behave with no narrative. That’s originally what I envisioned this film to be. I thought it might’ve been more experimental than it ended up being. With the Warhol homages, the idea was to fold in a layer of culture through referencing the male gaze and our obsession with celebrity or people that are different than yourself. Andy was already thinking about that, which is what I wanted to this film to be about.

Getting-Go-Matthew-Camp-Tanner-Cohen

There is an explicit emphasis on the importance of the male body and physicality in the film. On a general level, do you feel individuality is sometimes lost within the gay community?

Definitely I think that’s one of the main pieces of what we were trying to do. Matthew has a certain body and what’s interesting about him is that for 10 years he has been this nightlife personality with this big persona. People want to photograph him and invite him to events. The first thing they want him to do is take his shirt off. He is a exhibitionist so he does get off on it. He’s gotten to the point that he wants to do these strange mutilations to himself. He wants to widen the bridge of his nose with silicone. He wants to look like an alien which I’m not entirely sure why. He hates the fact the gay community is so militant in the way they portray the male body to be. He wants to push himself in the opposite direction for being the ideal for such a long time.

Yet this theme goes beyond the gay community. I was struck by this most at a film Festival in Tokyo. It’s a gay film festival but the audience is very mixed. It’s more of a cultural event that all people from different walks of life come to the screenings. This theme really resonated with them; the idea of being like everyone else. It makes up a huge part of their culture in Japan. The idea of being yourself and stepping outside the box resonated with them on a different level.

For me, the film is about how the idea of someone or something is more pleasurable than actually having it.

I guess that’s the moral of the story for me. Doc doesn’t imagine that this is a real person he is going to get to know. He just imagines that Go is an object on his computer. Then when he becomes involved in his life things become a little stickier. It’s just becoming so much easier now with social media, nobody really talks to each other anymore. People use Facebook or you text and then when you see them in person you’re always trying to put on the façade outside of your home, outside of your comfort zone. You can create this whole life yourself online and never really let anybody know what’s going on with you. I think it’s a major theme in the culture of the world going forward.

Do you feel there was a sense of uncomfortableness, or manipulation, in how Doc gets Go to agree to the film?

I think he’s too naïve for that. Tanner and I talked about this a lot. Tanner is very different from the character in that respect because he was worried that he would come across as not pure because Tyler isn’t that way. For me he was just caught the moment. I didn’t have any bad intention behind it.

Getting-Go-Matthew-Camp-Tanner-Cohen

Although the film is about Go, it’s also very much about the story of how Doc grows into his own sexuality and identity. I know he is openly gay from the outset but you can see that he doesn’t really own it. How do you think his character grew up?

Go is definitely a major stepping stone in his evolution. He’s young and he doesn’t know what to do the rest life. He has dreams but he doesn’t know exactly how to achieve them or what to do with them. I think he was starting down this wrong path. He is also like a reflection of what I said about social media earlier. If you can get out from behind your WebCam, from your computer, from your phone and get into the world and experience the world, your life will be much more fuller and richer. Go gives him some to courage to step out from his little apartment and meet people and be a part of something that’s going on down in the street. That’s his biggest growth. 

What is next on the cards for you?

We have two projects in the works. The first one is a musical that was off-Broadway in the ’90s called Hello Again based on the Schnitzler play La Ronde. It’s basically 10 scenes, with two actors in each scene; it’s kind of a cult favourite. We have some of the financing in place so I think we maybe shooting out in the fall. But also I’ve written a script based on this happening in Harvard in 1920 referred to as ‘Harvard Secret Court’. It was basically a witch hunt to expel as many gay students as they could find in the spring of 1920. It wasn’t brought to light until 2002 when a file was found in the Harvard archive. There has never been a major film about it, just a couple of plays. I’ve been researching and looking at all the documents and files and the people’s lives. This one is a much bigger budget so it take a lot more time to develop. I’m excited about them both.

Given that the majority of your films have dealt with LGBT themes, in what way would you like to contribute to queer cinema?

The first queer film that I ever saw that I remember was Parting Glances. I was obsessed with that movie and it was a part of the new wave of queer cinema. If you look to the beginning of what we consider queer cinema now, for the past 10 or 20 years we have this great divide between highbrow gay movies and other queer cinema which is populated by inexpensive, unsophisticated films. What I hope to contribute most is just is an interesting point of view.

I’m a storyteller. The aim for me is to create the definitive version of that movie. For example, I don’t want there to be another movie about a guy trying to make a documentary about a go-go dancer. To me, it’s all about doing the definitive idea the best way you possibly can. Also I want to bridge the gap between queer cinema and the rest of cinema. We had a meeting in LA last week about the Harvard Secret Court script. The first thing to developer said, who is gay, said “We need to find out how to make this more palatable for a straight audience if we are ever going to achieve a commercial crossover”. I replied “Why don’t we try and find a way of having a gay point of view universal, instead of trying to force a universal point of view onto every project.” It’s crucial to maintain your own identity so when I say I want to bridge the gap between queer and mainstream cinema I want to gay stories with a gay point of view but make them something the mass audience will want to see and not just a gay audience.

Getting Go: The Go Doc Project is out now via Peccadillo Pictures. For more information about the film, visit the film’s official Facebook page here.

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Speaking Words: An Interview with Walter Thomas Beck III

In the fourth of a series on queer performance poets, Laura Macdougall talks to Walter Beck about how performance poetry is an electric force that is returning the art form “to the bars and the gutters”.

Walter-Beck

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Walter Thomas Beck is a queer activist, writer, poet and gonzo journalist. He grew up – and still lives – in Indiana, and has been writing regularly since 2005. His poetry has been featured in numerous magazines such as AssaracusYes Poetry and Off The Rocks and he is also published by Writing Knights Press. Beck began his writing career as a music journalist, and his love of music continues to influence and infuse his poetry. In 2012 he released an album (No Stone Left Unspoken) under the name Neon Signs, in collaboration with Miearth.

As both activist and poet, Beck is no stranger to controversy, regularly occupying a place at the forefront of picket lines and being banned from open mic nights for his daring performances.

www.facebook.com/WaltsMadhouse

You say you want poetry to be ‘alive and dangerous again’. How do you define spoken word? Do you think of yourself as a spoken word/performance poet, or a poet, or neither of these? Do you think it’s different for every practitioner and every audience member?

Every poet is different in how they define themselves, some take the banner of spoken word, some take the banner of performance poet, and others take the banner of various art movements. That’s the thing with poetry – since it’s an extremely personal art form every poet is different in how they approach it and define it. The same goes with an audience. Even though I’ve been doing live gigs for the last eight years, I still don’t know how I’m gonna go over with a crowd.

For me personally, I consider myself a performance poet as well as a written poet. My live and recorded performances are a separate entity from my written material. You take a piece like ‘Hopes of a Young American Poet’, the written version was very well received when it was published in my first chapbook Life Through Broken Pens and in Issue 08 of Assaracus. But the recorded version, which I did with noise/industrial artist Miearth, transforms it. It becomes almost a new piece entirely. To put it in music-terms, my recorded performances, live or studio, are “alternate mixes” to the original written versions.

You say your youth and anger led you into poetry. This seems to be the case for quite a lot of spoken word poets. Why do you think this is?

You’re never as righteously angry as you are when you’re young. I’m twenty-seven and yes, I can still get up on a stage and kick out the jams. But it’s different than when I was nineteen and just starting to write poetry. My anger now is muddled and colored by growing up. I can’t just say “Fuck the government!” now, I have a long list of reasons why I would say that. When I was a teenager,  I had my reasons to say something like that, but they took a backseat to the raw flash bang of young holy madness. When you’re a kid, you just wanna turn your amps up as high as they can go and burn everything down.

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You actually studied poetry. What is the relationship for you between the written word on the page and when you perform your poetry out loud?

I have a mixed relationship with academia and poetry. I must give credit to one of my professors, Dr. Matthew Brennan, who really opened the doors for me. When I first took his class, I was writing really raw poetry – it was all free verse, one stanza, not punctuated. He saw that I had talent, so he pulled me aside and said, “Walter, this is good stuff, but let me show what you can really do with it.” He showed me various forms, styles, and really allowed me to take my work further.

At the same time, academia can stifle poetry. If you want to create an audience for poetry, you have to take it beyond the classroom.

When you read my work on the page, it’s colored by your own voice and interpretation. With a live performance, you’re seeing my interpretation, my vision. It’s still colored by your own perception, but you can see a bit more clearly what was going on in my head when I first composed the piece.

What do you feel when you’re performing? What’s the difference between writing and performing, for you?

I feel alive when I’m performing. One of the best shows I ever did was back in 2007, it was my first live gig in Terre Haute, it was at some open mic night at Indiana State University and I worked myself into such a frenzy that I was literally pouring sweat on stage and about two seconds away from passing out cold. It freaked the holy shit out of the crowd, even my buddies were worried that I was gonna be sick. But it was beautiful.

Writing for me is also a physical act, when I’m feeling the muse working through me and typing out the work, I’m jamming along to the music I have on.

Do you think poetry has taken over your life? This was something most of the other performance poets I spoke to definitely felt.

Hell, yes. When I go to work at my day job, I keep a notebook and pen with me in case inspiration hits. On my smoke breaks and lunch break, I read poetry. When I’m home, I’m usually tinkering with new pieces or sketching out ideas for live performances.

This is what I do, I am a poet. It is my living. The day job puts gas in my car, gets me cigarettes and whiskey, but poetry is the reason I get up in the morning.

Spoken word is very political – and it certainly is for you, as you talk about gender, sexuality, identity, the economy, sex etc. – why do you think this is?

I think all art is political. The purpose of an artist is to make a statement about society and isn’t social commentary politics in its purest form? My poetry and performances are often strongly tied in with my work as an activist. I can burn on a stage, on the page, and on the picket line with equal fury. I’m living in this world, I don’t live in isolation, and therefore what happens politically affects me. I have a deep personal stake in the struggle for queer equality. As a working class writer, I have a deep personal stake in the state of the economy and how the working folks are getting screwed daily. I wake up every day affected by these things, so why not write about them? It connects on a broader level than if I just lounge around and stare at my navel.

Walter-Beck

You’ve mentioned how much of your inspiration comes from music. How do you conceive of music when you’re performing? How do the music and lyrics work together, and do you think it is still then spoken word poetry, or is it something else for you?

I’m heavily influenced by music. I said in an interview I did a little while back that I didn’t think of myself as a poet, but rather a frustrated musician who found the computer keyboard to be my instrument of choice. A large part of that for me is my background. Before I was a poet, I was a musician. I played drums in a garage rock’n’roll band. I never played in a big band, you know, we played a few gigs, cut a couple of demo tapes, and that was pretty much it as far as my music career went.

But I still carried my music background into my poetry. As a drummer, for me there’s a real rhythm in writing poetry. It’s one of the main reasons I prefer typing my work rather than writing it with a pen. Sitting at my desk and working on new pieces really isn’t all that different for me than when I sat behind a drum kit. It’s just a bit of a different set-up, the rhythm and riffs are still there.

And it goes beyond just the poetry itself, my live performances are heavily influenced by music. I saw what somebody like Alice Cooper did on stage, with the blood and the make-up and said, “Why can’t I do something like that with my poetry?” I’ll be honest, I find a lot of live poets to be boring as hell; they get up there, read their work, get a little polite applause, and then leave. I don’t dig that, I want my audience to see something they won’t forget, even if they hate my performance. So I brought a lot of rock’n’roll aesthetics into my live show, started breaking out a bit of stage blood, some outrageous clothing and learned how to work myself into a frenzy at the mic. It’s rock’n’roll. I’m still waiting to do a gig where the audience goes apeshit and starts a mosh pit during my set; that would be one of the ultimate compliments from a crowd.

As far as whether or not it’s still poetry, if you’re speaking it, it’s poetry. If you’re singing it, it’s music. What I do sort of straddles the line between the two.

You’re based in a small city in America. How is your poetry received there? Are you aware of the UK spoken word scene? What do you think (if any) are the main differences between the UK and the US in terms of spoken word?

The reaction locally to my work has been a bit mixed; I haven’t gone over well in the few local venues I’ve performed in. The coffeehouses around here seem to be populated with hipsters, you know, guys who wear Ramones t-shirts ironically and consider bitching about something on Facebook to be social activism. So my work and style is too heavy for them.

On the other hand, I’ve performed several times as the opening act for our local showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the Rocky crowd always digs me. I’m in the shadow cast where I’m lovingly called “The Fudge Packing Bard” and I always look forward to a Midnight gig with a crowd of my fellow freaks.

When I was living in Terre Haute and going to Indiana State University, the local poetry scene was great and still is. Terre Haute is where I cut my teeth as a live poet; it’s where I did some of my biggest and most shocking performances. If you want to see my home stage, go to Coffee Grounds on Wabash Avenue on the Third Thursday of every month. Those people there are my poetry family.

You know, honestly, I’m not familiar with the UK poetry scene, although I do have a few records by John Cooper Clarke. If they’re full of raw passion, let their souls bleed a bit on stage, and can work a crowd into a right frenzy, they’re my kind of people.

Do you think spoken word as an art form is quite inclusive of minorities compared to other art forms?

Poetry is the most democratic art form out there, if you have something to say and a means to say it, be it on stage or on the page, you already have your foot in the door. Race, religion, sexuality, whatever, it doesn’t matter; the door is open, if you have the heart for it, run through it and open your mind.

One of the best poets I know out there today is a guy by the name of Raymond Luczak. He’s a deaf gay poet and that cat speaks louder with his hands than just about any poet could with a mic. Watch some of his videos, his hands are singing pure, unfettered blues.

Everybody has something to say and a story to tell, we all have passions, dreams, heartbreaks. Poetry is the tool that allows everybody to speak.

Walter-BeckWalter-Beck

What do you think about the role of social media in relation to spoken word? There are videos that go ‘viral’ but, to me, those ones can often seem quite tame. Though perhaps that’s to be expected… Do you think that any sort of exposure to spoken word is good, even if it is not as hard-hitting as it could be?

Social media is a blessing to poets. Our work spreads faster and quicker than it ever could before.

It enables people who might not be exposed to poetry to see it for the first time. One of the most common things a poet will hear is that “poetry is boring”. It’s only boring if you’re reading stuff that doesn’t speak to you. With social media, you can find a poet who will shake you to your very soul.

Technology has allowed us to break completely from ivory tower of academic poetry and bring back down on the streets, back to the people, back to the bars and gutters. It’s the new frontier and it will bring a poetry revolution.

You’ve been banned from open mic nights (and other places) because you don’t hold back, either in terms of the content of your poetry or, as I’ve only been able to read about, your actions. What’s your reaction to this? Do you feel very much part of a more ‘underground’ movement rather than more ‘mainstream’ (if we can use those words).

My work has been controversial. I’ve been banned from venues. Once I was threatened with a defamation lawsuit when a former boss of mine got pissed because I called him an asshole in print. As a journalist, I’ve had my work censored when I worked for the Indiana Statesman.

I think it’s great, I have no regrets or second-thoughts about the controversy I’ve caused as a poet and performer. First off, it’s great publicity. You know, you get banned from a venue, word spreads, and soon everybody wants to see what this wild freak did on stage. The “banned” performance I did at Indiana State which happened back in October 2008 was one of my breakthrough shows. The people organizing it were stunned at what I did. I got up there shirtless with “WE DIE YOUNG” scrawled on my chest in stage blood, my hair and beard were braided and dyed, my beard was blue, and my hair was half red and half green. I’m up there in ripped jeans and engineer boots, just barking fire into the mic, doing pieces about revolution and booze, total punk rock hedonism.

After the show, the organizers came up to me and real quietly said, “Um, listen, we don’t want to censor you, free speech we totally support it. But, um, if you could never do that again, we would appreciate it.” It was hilarious, they were speaking so nervously, like I was gonna rip out their hearts or something.

I leaked that I had been banned and next thing I know, I was one of the fastest rising poets in the Terre Haute poetry scene.

Where do you think spoken word is going? Are you excited by the art form, or do you feel that what you’re doing is quite different?

There is a revolution of poetry brewing; people are finding poetry exciting again. Angry kids with notebooks are finding poets that speak to them and they’re itching to try their hands at it. They’ll bring their words to the stage and start shredding audiences. This is the original punk movement revamped, raw artistic passion for the 21st Century.

You’ve recently said you’re taking a break, yet you’re still writing and publishing poetry on your Facebook page. What’s next for you?

It’s funny, just about every time I say I’m going on hiatus or I have writer’s block, a couple of good pieces always slip out. It’s funny, the two poems I’ve composed on my hiatus, ‘June’ and ‘Uisce Beatha’, have been called some of the best work I’ve done all year.

I think I meant I was going more on an inspirational hiatus, my last two manuscripts were based on my day jobs at the time and the second one, Red Ink Sludge is probably the rawest, angriest thing I’ve ever written. And writing stuff that heavy and dark takes a toll on a person. So I’m looking for a new muse, trying to re-invent myself a bit.

As far as what’s next, well soon I’ll be entering the studio with Miearth to record some more material for Neon Signs. We’ll be working on a full-length follow up to our debut album No Stone Left Unspoken and we’ll be recording a rendition of my short historical romance fiction piece “Under the Pale Gray Moon”.

I’m still waiting to hear back from the publisher on Red Ink Sludge, hopefully I’ll be signing the deal on it soon. It’s really a great manuscript and I’d hate to see it end up in the trunk.

I’d like to hit the stage again soon, I haven’t done a live gig since April and I got the stage itch pretty bad. I’m ready to get up there and burn again.

Read Part 1 of our series on queer performance poets here.

Read Part 2 of our series on queer performance poets here.

Read Part 3 of our series on queer performance poets here.

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Speaking Words: An Interview with Keith Jarrett

In the third of a series on queer performance poets, Laura Macdougall talks to Keith Jarrett about performance poetry as social commentary and the importance of safe queer spaces.

Keith-Jarrett

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Keith Jarrett writes poetry and short fiction. A former London and UK poetry slam champion, and World Cup semi-finalist in 2010, he has hosted English and Spanish poetry showcases and co-ordinated festivals in schools. In 2013, his five-star reviewed poetry show Identity Mix-Up debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe festival. Keith’s short fiction has appeared in anthologies and magazines, including Attitude and Tell Tales IV. He currently teaches in a secondary school as part of a pioneering Spoken Word Educator programme, which includes an MA at Goldsmiths. He is writing his first novel.

zoneonetosix.blogspot.co.uk
@keithjlondon

Do you think spoken word is a form of theatre?

Yes and no. What spoken word poetry is, in relation to other performance-based art forms (stand up comedy/ theatre/ rap etc.) and to ‘page’ poetry read aloud, has always been up for debate. Great spoken word poetry is a performance because you form intimacy with the audience in the same ways an actor does: through the way lines are delivered, through timing, pitch, even movement to a degree. Where I would draw the line at calling it theatre is a question of emphasis. For me, it all comes down to the words – and if you take away everything else, you still have a poem. That’s not always the case with conventional theatre. The only people I know who frequently read scripts of modern plays are playwrights.

Spoken word seems to be quite political, or provide quite incisive social commentary. Why do you think this is?

There’s always been a link between poetry with political movements and protest; that it should continue to be the case is hardly surprising. Spoken word naturally lends itself to social commentary; you can take a poem to a rally and repeat it at a poetry night. You can then record it and post it on social media. The more repetitive poems can be catchy calls to action. Spoken word is versatile; I’m not sure whether the chicken or the egg came first, but spoken word audiences – to me, at least – seem socially engaged, and they want to hear words that challenge the status quo.

Do you think social media and social networking have been invaluable in the rise in popularity of spoken word, any more so than when compared to other art forms?

Yes. The three-minute (or so) poem is easy to share on social networks; it isn’t too intrusive to the working day, and I can think of several examples where poetry videos have gone viral. Spoken word, in turn, has responded to social media better than other art forms; perhaps it had further to go. Poets have gone topical – responding to world issues within minutes of stories breaking – and tweeted video links to their poems, put them on newspaper blogs and forums. The poetry video has also taken off in a big way; I’m seeing poems presented with a visual aesthetic that just wasn’t there a couple of years ago, from hi-definition live recordings, to cinematographic rendering and even animation.

Do you think spoken word should be featuring more on the arts scene and at festivals etc? Or do you think this is happening gradually and spoken word will catch up. For example, I’ve noticed that in Edinburgh this year there still aren’t that many spoken word artists on the programme…

Despite gaining popularity, spoken word has kept up its underground status in the UK. Spoken word has embraced popular culture in a way that poetry of the establishment hasn’t. Go to a music festival in the summer and, more than likely, you’ll find a tent full of spoken word performers; go to a literature festival tucked away in a village somewhere and you’ll see ‘readings’ by more established page poets. Not many performance poets are going to pack out halls every night, so not many will fork out the thousands of pounds you need for a successful run at Edinburgh; however, scour the free fringe programme and you’ll find plenty of spoken word poets.

So, in short, spoken word is appearing a lot on the arts scene but there’s still a fault line between ‘low’ art and ‘high’ art. Poetry that appears in a more traditional written format gets read out on the radio; oral poetry doesn’t always get that recognition. But it’s alive and kicking!

Keith-Jarrett

You mentioned at Queer’Say – I think all the artists at that first event did – feeling that spoken word has sort of taken over your life. Can you elaborate a bit? There also seems to be this great sense of freedom to it; what is it that makes you engage with it so much?

Poetry has taken over my life, but it was gradual. I’ve always written as a hobby – diary entries, stories, poems, raps – and when I discovered poetry slams, I was hooked. There’s an immediate buzz from sharing your work on a stage with an audience, and there’s a real sense of community at poetry events. I was gradually given more opportunities to perform, just from being at loads of spoken word gigs, and then, after taking part in the World Cup Slam, suddenly I found myself performing in Poland. And then, suddenly I was doing things, like co-running a workshop and slam in Jersey, and meanwhile building up my confidence on the scene back in London. And then, suddenly, I found myself last year performing my first solo show and putting together a book. Years down the line from the first time I stepped on a poetry slam stage, I’m teaching spoken word at a school and studying again. What was an occasional hobby has now transformed into my day job.

I feel free when I’m writing and performing because I get to be different aspects of myself. I can be reflective, introverted and crave the solitary experience of writing and observing, And then I can also be bursting with energy, with the desire to engage with people, with the need to express myself physically and vocally. I always tell the pupils I teach that poetry is a great leveller – the shy ones are often highly-literate, talented writers, and the louder ones often lack confidence when it comes to focussing on their writing. When you have to both write and perform, you get to be different people.

Are there any particular spoken word artists you think we should be keeping an eye on, queer or otherwise?

I’d have to get back to you on that for a fuller answer!! There are far too many to name, and I’m definitely not an authority on everyone. But I’ve just come back from a trip to the States with Sophia Walker, where we represented the UK at the Capturing Fire queer slam. She’s a real performance poet. She works at her craft and takes it seriously. And it pays off!

Shyla-HardwickThomas-'vocab'-Hill

Shyla Hardwick & Thomas ‘Vocab’ Hill

There are some great US poets. I was blown away by Shyla Hardwick and Thomas Hill at the slam, and of course, the organiser Regie Cabico who has a zany connection with words. Then, UK-wise, two women who are mega popular – and not without reason – Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish, remain favourite poets of mine; their words are accessible, and they’re warm people. Then, some of my colleagues who teach on the same project as me, Raymond Antrobus, Indigo Williams, I could go on… The good vibes of Deanna Rodger… I don’t know who I should be watching, really… You tell me!

What do you think about events such as Queer’Say? Is there a need for them? 

Yes.

I always shied away from doing too many LGBT events, because I don’t need to be the ‘gay poet’ and my sexuality doesn’t always need to define me. That said, events like Queer’Say create a safe space where I’m able to do a full set of poetry and feel I’m in a safe community space. If you are LGBT, you’re constantly coming out to strangers, in a way, even after you’ve been out for years.

And there are places I feel less comfortable, where I feel less represented. Queer spaces redress that balance a little…

Relating to events, do you always know what you’re going to perform in advance, or do you proceed based on the audience’s reaction or theme of the event?

I plan a basic set (I want to start with this poem, and I want to probably end with this poem, and have this related poem somewhere in the middle). Then I have standbys (I’ll do this poem or that poem, and this one too, if I cut down on the pre-amble). And when I’m particularly nervous, I have my go-to poems. And then, if I’m on towards the end of a poetry event, I’ll often have heard a poem related to something I’ve written, so that will get added on. I’ve usually scribbled a rough list on a piece of paper, and, inevitably, I forget to take it with me when I go up on stage.

Related to the above, do you think spoken word, as an art form, is more inclusive of minorities? Obviously working in publishing we’re both aware of the problems women often face, and that’s often discussed in relation to theatre as well. Is spoken word better/worse/the same for women/queer artists/those from other minorities? Have you ever experienced any kind of prejudice?

Spoken word gigs are often full of the nicest people, and the London scene is pretty tight – most of us know of each other and what nights are when etc. and I count spoken word poets as my closest friends, whom I’d trust with my life. Spoken word gigs are also full of poets and people who enjoy listening to poetry, who don’t just come to be entertained but to engage in (what I see as) a community activity. So the demographic (usually) tends to be quite liberal, politically aware, leftist.

All the above is my disclaimer.

Spoken word gigs can be very smug. Artists and organisers see themselves as liberated, liberal, working class (or, at least, allies of the working class), diverse members of society; but they’re no better or worse than the rest of society. The rest of society is divided by class, race, gender, sexual identity barriers. Poetry events tend to divide themselves just the same – and not enough organisers are honest about it. London has an extremely varied scene – no two nights are the same – and there is something for everyone, but I don’t necessarily feel that every night is targeted for people like me and the audience demographic reflects that.

I’m not sure there is a better or worse, however; the good thing about the poetry scene is it’s built from people who read and listen. As long as people are listening to each other, you get to curb extremes of prejudice.

Poetry-Takeaway

How do you approach the performance element of your poetry, given that this is such an integral part of spoken word?

I practice at home; I practice on the street by pretending to be on the phone. I always try to learn the words unless it’s brand new – it makes such a difference if there isn’t a paper barrier between you and the people you’re in conversation with. I see performance poetry as a conversation – and that’s why I get particularly nervous if I can’t see the audience, or if I can’t hear/sense a reaction. I haven’t yet fully worked out what to do when that happens – I’ve died on stage before, because I wasn’t sure if the people listening were with me or not….

Sometimes I stand in the mirror at home and run through a poem. I just make sure it’s something I want to hear and not just read… and then I take it from there.

Read Part 1 of our series on queer performance poets here.

Read Part 2 of our series on queer performance poets here.

 

The next Queer’Say event is on July 4 at the Canada Water Culture Space. Click here to find out more and to book tickets.

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Rising Up: An Interview with Lady Lazarus

Lady Lazarus experiments with sound and its possibilities. Andrew Darley talks to the singer-songwriter about her fascination with composition and the healing that music has given her.

Lady-Lazarus

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After making it onto Polari’s ‘Unsung Albums Of 2013’ with her second record, All My Love In Half Light, Lady Lazarus is now re-releasing it internationally through LebansStrasse Records. Under her moniker, taken from the Sylvia Plath poem, Melissa Sweat crafts ethereal and passionate dimensions in her music. Both her debut album Mantic and All My Love In Half Light encapsulate her ability to capture complex emotions is the simplest of ways. Predominately written with piano, she experiments with sound and its possibilities; creating a swirling mass of chimes on ‘Gleam’ to more leaden tones on ‘Do Not Go Gentle’ which accompany her reflective lyrics. Andrew Darley caught up with Melissa to talk about out why she is re-releasing this album, her fascination with composition and the healing that music has given her; something which she hopes her own music will have on others.

All My Love In Half Light was released in 2013. Why have you decided to re-release it now?

LebensStrasse Records contacted me and were interested in putting the record out worldwide on vinyl, CD, and digital with some bonus tracks, so I thought it was a good opportunity to have an international release. It’s been great because the record is reaching more ears now and is in places as far flung as Japan and Australia. Plus, who can resist the lure of vinyl?

Can you talk me through how the songs came together, in terms of their writing, recording and production?

The songwriting came very naturally and almost as a diary of sorts, as Picasso talks about painting, since they happen in real time. For a length of several months, I spent nearly every day at my keyboard, honing the songs for the record. The only song that came far before this period was ‘Lapsarian’, the lone accordion song, which I wrote when I was still living in Georgia. Recording and production happened simultaneously working with Jason Quever from Papercuts. I basically produced the record with Jason’s help and he recorded and engineered the album.

The album appears to be about relationships and love in all its forms. It opens with the lyrics about loving commitment (“Before I say ‘I Do’”) but towards the end of the album it’s almost the polar opposite (“When I gave you my heart, you tore it apart”). Are these songs about one relationship in particular or about several in your life?

It’s about numerous relationships, romantic, sexual, and otherwise in my life. And it’s also about self-love. The record was my way of purging the ghosts and scars of past romantic trials and focusing more on what I want. Complete love for myself, and not settling for anything less than true romantic love. Lucky enough, not too long after writing the record, true love came around. I really believe this conscious effort of spiritual and emotional housecleaning that the act of making this record provided, was in part, a catalyst for this very healthy and loving relationship I’m in now. And for my improved self-love and worth.

What does the title of the album mean to you? Why do you feel that title fit the whole body of work?

I wanted a dramatic title; it almost sounds like a soap-opera title to me. And I wanted to denote a kind of grand reveal and showcasing of these struggles, while still articulating the futility of romance and of loving yourself at times. That it cannot be fully realized. All my love, no matter how much I try, might remain in half light. Not full on. While the album is much about romance, it’s also about how an artist shares and occludes these truths, and how my own artistic visions are not totally all out in the world just yet. Getting there. 

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Were you more confident then writing All My Love In Half Light after your first album?

Much more confident, and the songwriting became more focused, too. The songs lean toward a kind of dream folk-pop coming out with a bit more clarity from the more reverb-heavy Mantic; melody is more essential, and my singing is pronounced. Touring and playing live, and improving my awareness of keys and piano all helped with this. 

Both this album and Mantic largely feature piano as the sole instrument, which you taught yourself to play. I imagine that was quite difficult? How did you come to choose that instrument?

I love how grounding the piano is. What a beast of an instrument. It’s like an elephant—you can’t just cart one around. I love how powerful and thundering it can be, and still so elegant. I couldn’t do what I do with a guitar. It wouldn’t be as pretty and strong, and I need both of those elements in my songwriting. Actually on Mantic, it’s all keyboard, except for two songs (‘Half-Life’ and ‘Twilight on a Steinway’). All My Love In Half Light features about half on piano, half on keys. My songwriting now is even more piano-based. That’s definitely where I’m heading. 

Would you say because you did not have traditional music training that the songs you write could be more instinctual?

Indeed. I’ve met a lot of musicians who say it’s kind of a blessing that I didn’t have lessons growing up, that you’re so much more free to explore different structures and just intuit your own music. Intuition is a huge part of my songwriting, both lyrically and musically. I feel free to do what I please.

Lady-Lazarus

Did you have a moment when you knew you wanted to make music or was it always there?

Around age 25 I realized I wanted to learn an instrument and try my hand at playing. Having been a writer and poet for so long, when I sat down to play, the words just flowed right out with the melodies, and that’s how my songwriting began. There were other things that drew me to music, of course; seeing Joanna Newsom and Cat Power perform live, particularly, and seeing kindred spirits in them. Watching one of my younger brothers, Matt, teach himself guitar and drums. And of course, being a big music fan. But mostly, it was this innate and mysterious desire to make music. 

As a new artist, have you read reviews of your albums or are they irrelevant to you? I can imagine they may mess up your psyche a bit, good or bad! 

I read them, and they’re important for my career, etc, but they are not influential on what I do. I have enough of a good artist’s ego to not care too much about what anyone says about my creative work. I’ve always followed my own muse and my own path.

I know you’ve probably been asked this over and over but you took the name from the name of the Sylvia Plath poem ‘Lady Lazarus’. I’m bringing it up because that’s actually how I found your music as it’s one of my favourite poems. What drew you towards that name? Is there a freedom in using a different name to your own?

I admired a good many solo artists like Cat Power, Smog, and Mount Eerie, who went under these poetic pseudonyms or project names. It conveys that the music is far bigger than just the individual. My name, Melissa Sweat, is strong but not entirely poetic, and there is a great deal of personal freedom in using another name. I chose Lady Lazarus for so many reasons. It’s mystique. Feminine power. Allusion to resurrection. Having been through quite a bit myself in life, I related to the idea of someone falling down so hard, and yet coming back again. I relate to the phoenix-like quality of Lazarus. The rising up.

The album opens with ‘Lapsarian’. It’s quite striking as it features accordion, which is subtle used as backing on other songs. What was it about this song that you knew you wanted it to open the album?

‘Lapsarian’ refers to the fall of Adam and Eve, and I thought it was an apt and almost heraldic opening for an album about romantic tribulations and personal triumph. I’m referring to a sexuality so ancient and powerful, that its far beyond our current social constructs of love, sex, and marriage. In the end, I feel I reclaim myself, just as so many women are reclaiming their powers in this day and age.

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For me, one of the album’s most important songs is ‘Goudunov’ which is a gorgeous play on words. Is there a feeling of joy when you capture something very beautiful, yet simple in that way?

Thank you so much! I’m quite fond of that song, too, especially live. I think I’m always striving to articulate the complex and profound into something beautiful and simple in my songwriting. I feel very good when I play that song, and when I get to sing, “I am good enough for the world.” Don’t we all need that?

One thing that struck about me about Mantic was the way you played and pushed the possibilities of sound the piano can make. There are a number of moments on both albums in which it can sound glacial and swirling and then other times pendulous and ominous. Would you say that you are fascinated with sound and its potential, than just songwriting?

Yes, I really am. I think that’s why I relate also to experimental or minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Erik Satie. And I love what Arthur Russell has done. I’m very interested in what the reverberations and overtones of the piano and keys can do, and how you can play with the spaces in between the notes. That space is just as important to me, and feeling the notes and emptiness has always been more interesting to me than playing something on tempo and absolutely rigidly. I need my songs to sound like a real person is playing them. 

Did you find it easier to express yourself on this album?

Honestly, I think it’s always been quite natural for me to express myself in creative forms. I think my powers of songwriting are just becoming stronger.

Are there any artists whose career trajectory that you admire and could hope for your own? Not just in terms of achievements but their integrity as an artist or musician.

Tom Waits is by far my favourite artist and musician. Musically, his songs cut right to my heart more than anyone else’s, and he has such the utmost artistic integrity, sensitivity, mirth, and humour. I love that he has acted, as well, and worked in other fields. I’m writing a novel, a screenplay, and I paint and make art, so I relate to his sense of play and exploration of other creative fields. I’d love for just one of my songs to be as indispensable as his are to music and to the American canon.

Lady-Lazarus

The reissue features two new songs ‘Envy of The Dead’ and ‘Rabbit’s Road’. Do you see the two new songs as a treat for fans who may already have the album or do you see them as an extension of the original album?

These songs were written during the same time period as the album, and had they fit more within the framework of the record, they could have very well appeared on it. So both, really. A treat and an extension or expansion.

It’s been over a year since the recording sessions of the album, has your relationship with these songs changed over time? 

I still love them and love playing them live. I am in a far different place emotionally than I was when I wrote those songs, so it makes me feel quite in touch with how I was, but also empowered to be where I am now.

Have you thought about your next musical direction or record?

Yes, definitely. I hope to have something new to share very soon.

My last question I wanted to ask is about the undeniable emotions that you capture on this album. I wonder if there is a sense of resolve when you write a song like ‘Wonder, Inc.’, for example? Does writing music give you any emotional clarity?

Indeed. Songwriting gives me a great deal of clarity and understanding about my life, more than any other artistic medium I have tried. I have written songs where the melody starts to form, and then something in me unlocks and words come out that seem almost unconscious utterings to me – and then something truly breaks. I hear what I’m singing and how I’m feeling and it’s as if I did not know I was feeling that way all along. I did not know I had unconsciously come to a sort of conclusion or assumption about some topic or experience in my life. Or that something was still bothering me. But inside, mysteriously, things were sorting themselves out. And writing a song distills this understanding for me. It takes me so much further and deeper than where I could go otherwise. Writing songs has truly healed me and helped me grow as a person, and I hope my songs can help others do the same. I hope they connect and give others a sense of not only clarity and peace in their own lives, but of the miracle and wonder of this life.

All My Love In Half Light is out now through LebensStrasse. For more information and updates about Lady Lazarus, visit her official website

 
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Against Cultural Norms: An Interview with CN Lester

Laura Macdougall talks to CN Lester about activism, what it’s like to be openly genderqueer in the music industry, and the issues facing the trans population today.

CN-Lester

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CN Lester is a classically-trained musician and singer-songwriter whose new album, Aether, is out now. Comprised of eight songs, Aether is, like CN’s debut album Ashes, driven by a powerful combination of intensely personal lyrics, CN’s skill at the piano and an ethereal voice. The musical arrangements are moving and immersive, the words deeply poetic – elusive and allusive – offering something new on each occasion; it is rare to find lyrics of this depth and quality. Aether is an album from an artist who is not only an incredibly talented singer and pianist but also someone aware of the power and subtlety of language. It’s an album about relationships, but those relationships include that between performer and audience as well as friends and lovers and, of course, the one we have with ourselves and the self we present to the outside world.

I spoke to CN about the process of making a second album, about their activism (they co-founded the Queer Youth Network and the UK’s first Gay-Straight Alliance) and what it’s like to be openly genderqueer in the music industry, and what they think about the issues facing the trans population today.

How different was the process of making a second non-classical album? Did you find it easier having produced one before, or does it really depend where you are personally? 

It felt lot more relaxed, a lot more playful. I think part of that was experience, and part was the different emotions behind the songs.  

How would you say the two albums Aether and Ashes are different? Do you feel you’ve grown and/or changed as an artist since recording Ashes? I noticed more use of other instruments on the second album, not just a piano; is this something you’re looking into doing more?

I hope I’ve grown and changed as an artist – it would be terrifying to be stuck making the same music over and over. Ashes was very specifically built around the experience of bereavement – it was a quiet album, and I wanted to keep it deliberately small, like an antique miniature. Aether was always going to be a bigger sound – bass and guitars played in odd ways, screaming into the piano body and recording the strings vibrating, breaking out the crockery and glassware and trying them out on the instruments. I’m determined to get a harpsichord on the next album – that and a mandolin. 

Lyrically, your songs are quite poetic. Is poetry something that’s had quite a big influence on you and you find that it does inspire your writing?

Absolutely, although I’m a terrible poet – writing lyrics and writing poetry feel quite, quite different to me. The music comes first and the words kind of melt into that – without the musical framework I’m lost. Even when writing prose it has to come from a musical position: beat, rhythm, mouthfeel and word colour.

Your lyrics are also very open and honest. Is that the only way you personally can approach music? Do you find songwriting a difficult process or something that – in the end – can be cathartic?

Not just music – it’s the only way I’d want to approach life. Maybe it’s having been in therapy for so many years – or maybe it’s because it feels like playing hooky from classical practice – but songwriting has always been an easy process. You just turn your conscious mind off and shake it to see what falls out.

CN-Lester-AshesCN-Lester-Aether

You’ve said in the past that music expresses what we can’t express through words, so how do you conceive of songwriting and of marrying music to lyrics? Is this, for you, the main difference between producing classical albums and albums like Ashes and Aether or are there many other aspects where they diverge?

I think that a vital part of all music with words – pop songs, art song, opera – is that the music itself allows us to express the heart of the emotion, the reason why the song is created – and then the words add detail and anchor points to that. Singing other people’s compositions is different, but I find that the more I can feel as though the words I’m singing in opera or art song are my own, the better my performance becomes. I never thought my alt. music would improve my classical music!

You didn’t make any music videos for your first album, Ashes, but you have for Aether and you’ve just made another one with which you invited members of the public to be involved. Why the decision to make videos for the second album?

Money! Ashes was made on a shoestring – the funding campaign for Aether managed to cover the costs of a video or two.

How involved were you in thinking about the feel, image and theme of the Aether video and how did you find the process?

It came about in a fairly organic way. I’ve worked with Fox before, and trusted him to know what kind of mood the song was expressing. The whole of Aether has a fairly underwater feeling to me, so I wanted to be by the sea – everything else just happened as it happened.

What was it like filming the latest video with members of the public and are you excited about making more videos in the future?

Profoundly moving – that people were willing to give up their time and show their vulnerabilities in a public way. 

Despite my fear of the camera, I’m definitely hoping to make more videos in the future – again, it all comes down to money. Damn it.

Is it very different being genderqueer in the classical as opposed to popular music industries? Is the music industry particularly difficult for non-heterosexual artists (as opposed to other sectors of the arts world)?

Not especially different, actually – both the classical and popular music industries are a lot more conservative than they like to let on. Any industry where the goal is to shift product – ticket sales, album sales, product placement – struggles when the ‘brand’ you’re selling goes against cultural norms. I’m hopeful that the way the music industry as a whole is unravelling will ultimately prove helpful to artists of all kinds who weren’t able or willing to be packaged up under the old system.

You’re very active on social media, with a couple of Twitter accounts, Facebook and a very open and detailed blog. You also crowdfunded your albums. Social media and the internet can be a great resource, but they have their downsides, too, and abuse etc. can come not just from those who are transphobic and/or homophobic (or just ignorant), but also from within our own communities. How would you describe your relationship with social media, and what are your thoughts about communities that ought to be supportive actually being exclusive or abusive (if you have experienced this)?

Using the internet as a tool of activism has been something I’ve done since I first started out as a teenager, so it feels very natural – but, at the same time, I like to keep my private life private. That might sound disingenuous, when LGBT blogging and activism often rely on personal narratives – but I don’t feel that sharing some parts of your life online means that you need to share it all. I think one of the problems we have when it comes to inter-community arguments and harassment is that we forget the whole person behind the sliver of persona we see online – we sometimes don’t allow each other to have failings, or struggles, or burdens we can’t see. I think the greatest strength of social media is that it can allow us to really appreciate a stranger as an equal, as a fellow feeling subject – but when it fails there it fails hard.

Writing a proper answer to a question about inter-community criticism is an essay in its own right – for me the touchstone is always that anger never has to mean cruelty. There’s an excellent post on the Nuclear Unicorn blog that says it better than I could – it’s a great read.

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Do you find the posts on your blog difficult to write? 

I’ve been pathologically honest ever since I was little, so I wouldn’t really know how else to be? I have a horror of being misrepresented – I came out in my GCSE English class because I wanted to get it over and done with. That’s what I struggle with most with blogging – that fear of being misconstrued, deliberately or by accident. Maybe that comes back to the compulsion to be honest – I can live with being hated for who I am, but being hated for something I haven’t actually done or said is pretty unbearable.

You are involved in activism, are a role model and are very open and honest about your identity. Has this always been a conscious decision or something you gradually realised was important to you? What projects are you involved with at the moment? 

At the moment I’m focusing most of my trans activism energy on the Transpose series, and writing up my book on gender/sex/sexuality - Transgress/Transcend

I went to an event a few months ago at which Evan Davies claimed that we’re seeing a move away from someone’s sexuality being the most interesting thing you can say about them because attitudes are changing and being gay is just not that exotic anymore. He thinks the trans population is where the gay population was twenty years ago: if you’re Paris Lees, it is still the most interesting thing about you. Maybe in another twenty years when more trans people are in the public eye and the public know more people who are trans it will become casualised, as he sees it has become for gay people. What are your thoughts about this and do you agree?

I don’t think I want to live in a world where the most interesting thing about Paris Lees is her gender history! I think Quentin Crisp certainly had a point when he said that familiarity breeds boredom, but I actually think that getting the mainstream to engage with more interesting parts of who we are is a great strategy for wider acceptance and understanding. How much good has Ian McKellen done, not just by his activism alone, but by being Gandalf and also being gay?

What would you like to see change in the media’s representation of and reporting on the trans community? I’m thinking particularly of Laverne Cox recently appearing on the cover of Time magazine and the opinion pieces this gave rise to, though of course there is a great deal of other coverage, or lack of coverage of such things as violence towards the community and issues of mental health and provision of healthcare in general.

That the media see us firstly as whole people – as equals – not specimens to be examined and discussed by ‘normal’ people. When the majority of the debate centers on why we exist, whether we’re crazy, whether we’re deluded, if we should be ‘allowed’ our fundamental rights, it ends up legitimizing lack of interest in the actual day-to-day problems of living in a transphobic world. If we could start from the basic point that we exist, that we are telling the truth, that our lives are not up for debate, that would be something.

CN-Lester

Following on from this, do you watch Orange is the New Black and, if so, what do you think of the character of Sophia and of the (lack of?) representation of the trans population in popular culture in general?

I’m utterly in love with Orange is the New Black - and with Sophia most of all. It’s so rare to see a trans character who isn’t a cardboard cut-out of stereotypes created by cis people, exploited by cis people, fed back to cis people. I just want more.

I know you’ve spoken passionately about education in the past, and how important it is for everyone to learn about different people in terms of communities, sexualities and genders. What would you like to see happen in and outside of the classroom and in society in general in terms of teaching people about the importance of (non-binary) language, about gender, about eradicating systems of discrimination and hatred. Do you think there is a big difference and/or gulf between homophobia and transphobia?

We could start treating ‘personal and social education’ as a foundational part of the school system, rather than as a doss subject students can sleep through. Not just how people exist in the world, but how we examine ourselves and others, how we process media, how confirmation bias works, how we stereotype each other and how we can challenge that.

I don’t believe there is a gulf between homophobia and transphobia – research into homophobia and transphobic bullying in schools doesn’t demonstrate one. I think it ultimately comes down to gender policing, misogyny, and fear of the other.

How do you feel about Stonewall’s continued exclusion of the trans community?

It’s been pretty shameful in the past – but I have my fingers cautiously crossed for a meeting Stonewall is having with a large number of trans activists at the end of the summer. We shall see.

CN-Lester-Transpose

Photograph © AbsolutQueer

You’re curating another Transpose event at the Hackney Attic as part of London Pride this week. Where did the idea for these events come from? Can you tell us a little bit about what to expect from the evening? 

Three years ago, a good friend was having to deal with a shit load of transphobia in the NHS. He needed money for a new wheelchair. I love curating events so I thought I’d do a fundraising night. It went so well that it’s just kept on going; we raise funds for a different trans/LGBT cause each time.

There are two rules at Transpose: don’t make assumptions, and don’t be a dick. Everyone is welcome – there’s always a lot of baking, a lot of laughter and all kinds of flirting. That and music, poetry, spoken word performance and glorious outfits. It always feels like I’m holding a party in my living room – just that my living room got a lot bigger.

Finally, what can we look forward to from you in the future in terms of your music, and what are you looking forward to?

I’ll be touring the rest of the summer with Aether and taking part in Pride festivals around the country, finishing with a London show on September 11, with The Indelicates and The Mechanisms. I’m just finalizing details for an August live-streamed show, which I’m really looking forward to. I’ve started writing the next album - Coming Home - songs from that won’t be appearing until next year, but I’m certainly looking forward to it. 

I’m trying to find a home for my first novel at the moment, so my fingers are crossed for that, and writing the next one. What with that, and a classical music project promoting works by women composers, what I’m most looking forward to is my first non-working holiday in six years in July. I’m not going to check my email once; it’s going to be divine.

The next Transpose is this Saturday June 28. For more information about Transpose and to buy tickets, click here. You can also read CN’s article about last year’s Transpose here.

CN Lester’s website can be found here.

CN also writes a regular blog here and keeps two Twitter accounts here and here.

To listen to tracks from both Aether and Ashes, visit CN’s Soundcloud page here.

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Speaking Words: An Interview with Sophia Blackwell

In the second of a series on queer performance poets, Laura Macdougall talks to Sophia Blackwell about love poetry, blazing rants and social media.

Sophia-Blackwell

 (Click images to enlarge)

Sophia Blackwell is a performance poet, cabaret vamp, burlesque wannabe, feminist lesbian warrior princess and the author of short stories, a collection of poetry and a novel. Born in Newcastle, polished at Oxford and living in North London, she’s been on the poetry scene since winning her first slam and getting her first paycheque – which was immediately spent on petrol and a curry. An eclectic word-flinger, Sophia does quiet love poems, scary blazing rants against oppression and hypocrisy, and meditative rambles about dancing shoes, tomatoes, reality TV and killing your potted herbs; the stuff of life. She also owns a lot of red dresses.

www.sophiablackwell.moonfruit.com
@SophiaBlackwell

Do you think spoken word is a form of theatre?

Yes, basically. I think you can see this in the rise of longer, more ambitious shows with more detailed staging and concepts. At the Edinburgh Fringe, as well as some small-to-medium London theatres, you can see poets really pushing the boundaries. Poets such as Kate Tempest, Rob Auton, Martin Figura, Molly Naylor and Kat Francois have included more narrative, characterisation, music and props in their longer work and these can make for a more satisfying experience, not least because the final show is informed by a more coherent concept than the traditional performance poet’s twenty-minute set, which they may have designed painstakingly beforehand – or, perhaps, not.

I have written three longer shows myself, one based on the poems of Sappho and two of them based on my novel After My Own Heart, and am currently writing the fourth, so I know that it’s potentially more rewarding for both you and the audience to experience something together for a sustained time period (50-90 minutes) that has a defined arc and an emotional pay-off that you might associate more with theatre than the kind of ‘poetry reading’ you might experience in a library, bookshop, coffee shop or university campus. I find it gets a stronger and deeper reaction from the audience, but this may be because they’ve had to invest more in the experience and can’t drop in and out, as they would in a club.

I’ve always been interested in the intersection between poetic texts and theatre and it doesn’t take too much of a leap to see Samuel Beckett’s shorter works as ‘performance poetry,’ or a one-woman monologue by Eve Ensler as an extended poem. I started performing poetry at the same time I was cast in a production of The Vagina Monologues at twenty-one so I could see where the parallels were.

Spoken word seems to be quite political, or provide quite incisive social commentary. Why do you think this is?

Spoken word has been traditionally associated with ‘ranting,’ for a variety of reasons: one, its place in the evolution of conscious hip-hop or rap (RAP: rhythm-assisted poetry) and the fact that performance poets, some of whom moved on to become comedians (such as Phill Jupitus, Craig Charles) used to support bands in the ’80s, whether they were politically oriented folk artists such as Billy Bragg or anti-establishment punk bands who had their support from ‘punk poets,’ such as Attila the Stockbroker and Joolz Denby. In the world of performance poetry, being ‘political’ can be an easy win, particularly in a competitive slam situation where people choose you as the winner because they agree with your message (which in itself is usually something quite uncontroversial like ‘war is bad’) rather than because you’ve written something good. However, performance poetry does remind us that ‘the personal is political’ and, in practice, locates the performer and the audience back in a world that we have the responsibility and agency to change, which I think is important in a society that consistently distracts and disempowers us, and seems to have little to offer us apart from more distractions. In societies where the government seems complacent, un-relatable and inconsistent, it’s more important than ever. You can see that in the agitprop theatre of the ’80s and you can see it now.

Sophia-Blackwell

 Photograph © Naomi Woddis

Do you think social media and social networking have been invaluable in the rise in popularity of spoken word, any more so than when compared to other art forms?

I think all art forms have benefited from the rise of social media, and in particular it has had a democratising effect on the art world; you don’t have to rise through the traditional ranks if you’ve got something good. I saw this when I was doing a project with Cuban hip-hop artists. YouTube completely changed the game because you no longer had to get together the money and prestige to go to the Buena Vista conservatories; you just had to film yourself rapping and put it on YouTube. It’s not just Cuba where artists have resorted to guerrilla strategies, partly as a result of finding themselves being pushed into a corner by the gatekeepers. Spoken word artists, particularly those who can’t make it out to gigs all the time and live in other parts of the UK than London have been using YouTube to spread the word and grow their fanbases. I’ve seen artists like Hollie McNish and Mark Grist make serious leaps in the size of their reputation and audience purely through the medium of video. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these aren’t London-based poets and that Hollie has other commitments – work and motherhood – that mean she’s had to be creative. Dean Atta’s online poem ‘I am Nobody’s Nigger’ went viral and secured him what you’d call a ‘traditional’ book deal by the end of the week. I think overall we have a long way to go, but most performance poets I know are aware of this and are committed to rethinking how they make use of social media.

Do you think spoken word should be featuring more on the arts scene and at festivals? Or do you think this is happening gradually and spoken word will catch up. For example, I’ve noticed that in Edinburgh this year there still aren’t that many spoken word artists on the programme…

Naturally I would say that I think it deserves a higher profile, because I love doing gigs and I want to do more of them! I think the problem is more that people aren’t yet quite confident in defining what performance poetry, or spoken word, is. If I had a pound for every time I heard someone say ‘I’ve never seen anything like that, I thought it might be awful, but it’s great,’ I could retire by now. Well, maybe not retire. Buy a Vivienne Westwood dress or something.

I think we have made great strides over the past ten years. There are always people questioning that in the media and talking about the ‘page vs. stage’ debate. For 90% of us, there isn’t a debate. We do both page and stage and we just keep working and get on with it. I think the big difference is that we don’t take ourselves too seriously and we don’t think we’re too special to have to engage with our audience in a broken-down pub, or spend time we don’t really have promoting our own work; unless we’re millionaires or have a big publishing deal, it’s not like anyone else is going to do that for us.

You mentioned at Queer’Say – I think all the artists at that first event did – feeling that spoken word has sort of taken over your life. Can you elaborate a bit? There also seems to be this great sense of freedom to it; what is it that makes you engage with it so much?

Yes, the first time I performed a poem I knew my life was going to change. It’s not often I’ve felt that strongly about anything. Everything just fell into place from that point on. It hasn’t always been an easy or practical life, but it’s a scene where I met most of my friends and most of the people I love; people who are genuine, who are creative, who are willing to make sacrifices in order to make the kind of lives they want. There’s also the joy of being validated, saying something that you thought might just be specific to you and seeing people nodding and agreeing or calling out to you like a revivalist church. The writer Cheryl B, who died in 2011 and was an integral part of New York’s arts scene in the ’90s, said that performance poetry took her to her ‘awesome place.’ I don’t really have anything to add to that.

After-My-Own-Heart-Sophia-BlackwellMen-and-Women-Sophia-Blackwell

Are there any particular spoken word artists you think we should be keeping an eye on, queer or otherwise?

If I was going to choose some established artists, I’d say Joolz Denby (still amazing) Benjamin Zephaniah and Buddy Wakefield. From the ‘already established’ in the UK I’d say Kate Tempest and Polar Bear. People you may not be familiar with but who are definitely worth looking out for: John Osborne, Warsan Shire, Jay Bernard, and Sophia Walker.

What do you think about events such as Queer’Say? Is there a need for them? 

That’s a tough one. Whenever I organise an event that’s female or queer-focused I always get the backlash ‘Why not something that’s focused on straight, cis-gendered, financially secure white males, eh?’ I think they are necessary because, as you say, not much of the poetry was queer-focused but the show’s title means we don’t need to explain ourselves or ‘out ourselves,’ to the audience, or decide not to do so. This is an issue for queer artists that straight ones probably aren’t aware of. Also, think of all the parts of the world where we couldn’t do something like Queer’Say; why would we not make use of that opportunity when we’re lucky enough to live in a society that allows us to? Out of politeness?

Relating to events, do you always know what you’re going to perform in advance, or do you proceed based on the audience’s reaction or theme of the event?

I do allow the theme to influence what I perform every time, but if there’s something I particularly want to do, I tend to find a way to work it in! I place my poems against each other to get what I feel is the best contrast of light and shade, shortness and length. The only time I deviate from that is when someone does a poem that I don’t agree with, or consider misogynistic or ill-informed, or when someone’s done a poem that’s a long moan about things they don’t like, I then do something happy to piss them off. That’s something I learned as a slam poet; if you don’t agree with something, you’d better make sure you’ve come armed with a fully prepared rebuttal that will get the audience on your side, otherwise don‘t bother. I personally don’t like it when poets faff around with their set lists, asking the audience ‘Do you want one about love, or about cheese? Or my angry one about politics?’ I want one you’ve chosen with your audience in mind, so stop wasting my time.

Related to the above, do you think spoken word, as an art form, is more inclusive of minorities? Obviously working in publishing we’re both aware of the problems women often face, and that’s often discussed in relation to theatre as well. Is spoken word better/worse/the same for women/queer artists/those from other minorities? Have you ever experienced any kind of prejudice?

I’ve experienced people who don’t know what to make of me, as a high-femme, cis lesbian who’s also had relationships with men. To be honest, I don’t really blame them. I think the poetry scene is more forgiving than the stand-up scene, but it does have things in common with it: there are less women, the bills for big shows are usually designed with three men and one woman in the line-up which makes you, by default, the ‘token chick,’ or it’s an all-queer or all-female event, which as I’ve said are necessary but have the negative side of seeming ‘worthy’ or existing only because we can’t cut it alongside straight white men, which really isn’t true. When I perform I bring all of me: my theatricality, my history, my vulnerability. Other people can choose what they want to bring, but this is all me. And I think people honour that, which is why I haven’t faced too much prejudice, or rather, the prejudice I’ve faced has been insidious and not openly expressed; which, of course, is the same in every industry.

How do you approach the performance element of your poetry, given that this is such an integral part of spoken word?

I work at the physical side of it; the business of memorising, working out gestures, trying to use more of my whole body. Costume has always been an important part of performing for me; if I’ve come straight from work I always make sure I’ve changed part of my outfit, even if it’s just my shoes. That’s how I signal to myself that I’m ready to go on stage and I’m able to slip into a more exaggerated version of myself that can be read and understood more quickly. My look, and my attitude, has always been a showgirl’s, and there is a layer of polish – clothes, makeup – but rather than this detracting from the show, it’s part of it. I like to play with gender, and I like to make the audience do some work, but I never lose the awareness that I’m there to entertain them. That’s all it comes down to in the end.

Read Part 1 of our series on queer performance poets here.

 

The next Queer’Say event is on July 4 at the Canada Water Culture Space. Click here to find out more and to book tickets.

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Speaking Words: An Interview with Nick Field

In the first of a series on queer performance poets, Laura Macdougall talks to Nick Field about blending physical theatre, music and spoken word.

Nick Field

 (Click images to enlarge)

Writer and performer Nick Field creates evocative, bittersweet and richly lyrical performances. Warm and funny, but sharply incisive, he has taken his work to major events, venues and festivals. His residencies and commissions include Keats House and Latitude Festival. His debut solo show The Cosmos, The Cosmetics has toured internationally and his second Adventure/Misadventure played a full run at Ovalhouse in 2013, where he was also Artistic Associate.

www.nickfieldpoetic.co.uk
@nickfieldartist

Do you think spoken word is a form of theatre?

Speaking as someone who came to spoken word from a theatre background as a playwright, I would say not inherently but there are potential cross overs, and certainly cross-over artists. Spoken word for me is an element of the theatre I make along with music and physical theatre. What I love about working with it is that I can use it with a flexibility that enables me to move between having the audience in stitches to evoking sensations and experiences of travel to material that is moving and thought-provoking, as I do in my current show Adventure/Misadventure. The exciting thing about using spoken word as part of my practice is that it is possible to create a whole world in a theatrical way on stage and take the audience on a journey using crafted words.

Spoken word seems to be quite political, or provide quite incisive social commentary. Why do you think this is?

There tends to be a directness in spoken word, it is often unmediated and so one of the great things about it is that it comes with the investment of political and social engagement. Also there is the opportunity for people, and sometimes people who are less represented in mainstream culture, to speak directly of their experiences, and this can make the personal elements in the work political. Because of the immediacy and simplicity of the form it’s possible to be very responsive to political events or to a social context, even as they are happening.

Do you think spoken word should be featuring more on the arts scene and at festivals etc? Or do you think this is happening gradually and spoken word will catch up. For example, I’ve noticed that in Edinburgh this year there still aren’t that many spoken word artists on the programme.

Last year I played to a huge audience at Latitude Festival with a spoken word set, and that is quite representative of how the profile of the form is raising, but I think audiences and programmers are still learning how to engage with spoken word, and as a form it’s still quite bound to the cabaret-style format. But there are certainly more inventive ways of presenting and producing spoken word coming through and that will hopefully bring wider opportunities and more diversity in how artists work with the form. Really it’s up to artists to think out of the box about how they make and show their work for things to move things on, and at Edinburgh the really interesting people doing stuff with spoken word probably won’t be found in that section of the programme.

Nick-Field

At the first Queer’Say event, all the artists mentioned feeling that spoken word had sort of taken over their lives. Do you feel the same? There also seems to be this great sense of freedom to it; what is it that makes you engage with it so much?

I don’t personally feel it’s taken over my life, for me it’s part of what I do as a performer and writer, and not the whole story. I don’t consider or call myself solely a spoken word artist and I wouldn’t want to tie myself to a particular form or a scene that surrounds it because I find that is artistically limiting. For me it was a great way into performing, having been mainly a playwright up until about six years ago when I started doing open mics, and I really like that openness, there aren’t many other opportunities for people to step into performing their work in public. I love the form, and I really do think there’s a freedom in it both for the performer and the audience, but I quite quickly started to find the scene and the expectations of spoken word creatively restrictive and my practice developed into other areas.

What do you think about events such as Queer’Say? Is there a need for them? (Not that all of the poetry performed as part of the event is necessarily queer-focused.)

I think these events are really important. For queer artists in spoken word and performance poetry there are still challenges in getting heard and featured, even if the work is not necessarily queer focussed. The disappointing thing about how queer artists can be perceived in a wider sphere is that their work is only relevant to queer people, and this can be a real barrier to getting a wider audience or being programmed at events that are not queer focussed, particularly when there are such talented queer artists working in spoken word who are making work that is about human experience, not only queer experience.

Relating to events, do you always know what you’re going to perform in advance, or do you proceed based on the audience’s reaction or theme of the event? 

If I’m doing a set at a spoken word event I put a lot of thought beforehand into the pieces I’m going to do because I still want it to be a layered and textured experience for the audience. This tends to depend on the kind of event it is, the context and what I think will appeal to that audience. I like to play as much of a range of events as possible, I love the challenges of working with different kinds of audiences, I’ve played a range from very reverent events where people listen intently and you can go very deep and layered, to festivals where people are recovering from the night before and want immediate gratification and as a performer that’s when you have to learn to read and respond to the audience and choose the material wisely, it makes the experience so exciting and live for everyone.

Related to the above, do you think spoken word, as an art form, is more inclusive of minorities? Is spoken word better or worse for women or queer artists, or those from other minorities, or is it about the same? Have you ever experienced any kind of prejudice?

I think this is a complicated area, but then when isn’t it?! I do think that spoken word/performance poetry does offer opportunities for people from minorities to voice their experiences. I’ve also had the benefit of wonderful support from organisations and individuals working within the form who never saw my sexuality as an issue and were just interested in working with me as an artist with a unique voice, and they enabled me to push forward with my work. So from that perspective it’s been great. On the flip side I have experienced and witnessed homophobic prejudice on the scene and it is one of the few art forms that still really needs to have specific events for women and LGBT people for their work to be properly represented, which is one of the reasons my work has diversified beyond it.

You can see Nick perform at the next Queer’Say event on 4th July at the Canada Water Culture Space. Click here to find out more and to book tickets.

Read Part 2 of our interview series on queer performance poets here:

 

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