What Can All Writers Learn From Poetry

February 28th is going to be a busy day.

It’s a real honour to have been asked to speak at the inaugural London Author Fair, where I will be leading a workshop called “Reading Out, Reaching Out” that looks at what all writers can learn from the world of poetry. I will, of course, upload my slides and notes for you once the workshop is done, but I wanted to give you the official blurb here to give you an outline of two of the key areas in which poetry leads the way – performing your work to a live, or a digital, audience, and collaborating with people from other branches of the arts.

I will be high tailing it from the Author Fair to Chipping Norton, where I will be performing at the ticket and press launch of this year’s Chipping Norton Literary Festival, where I have a show, The Age of Absinthe, with the wonderful Claire Trevien. I was asked to write a piece for the festival blog about the inspiration for the show, and I thought this an apt place to republish that as well, as it makes many of the same points about the importance of creating a sensual space for audiences.

The Age of Absinthe (event itself 26 April, book tickets here!!)

From time to time an underground culture percolates into our consciousness whose tones and textures are so real we feel them etch themselves into us like lifelines of jazz running over our skin. For me the two subcultural worlds I picture when I close my eyes and give myself up to involuntary sounds and colours and scents and conversations and steadily rising currents of ideas popping away at porous surfaces ready to explode are the Paris of the Fin de Siècle and the New York of the late 60s and early 70s.

What is it that wraps these two moments around each other so closely? It is easy to think of the slow, sleazy addledness that infuses the air of both with the sick sweet smell of absinthe dripping through sugar cubes, of heroin bubbling into syringes. But that is only wallpaper, a horror that has become needlessly romanticised until it has hidden something that touches us more deeply.

Zodiac girls postcard

These times, these places, are the wranglings of collective troubled souls in the face of a once certain past that blurs before their eyes and becomes a shapeless future they fumble in the smoke-filled darkness to form. On the one hand we have a flight from industrialisation and the strictures of aesthetic conformity out of whose consumptive bohemian whirl would emerge, in Art Nouveau, Romanticism’s last desperate attempt to strive for Beauty in an increasingly ugly world. The Great War, a stripping of innocence and a laceration by the fractured shards of Modernism loomed before them. On the other hand we have a last besieged pocket of artistic hope struggling to create a wall of ever greater extremity against the approaching pincer of Consumerism and Communism, the slowly unravelling sounds of the Velvet Underground and streams of twisted consciousness of the fading Beat generation before everything collapsed into the nihilistic singularity of Punk.

With The Age of Absinthe, I have attempted to capture the essence of these moments in our cultural history, to transport the audience to a place where art is the vital, urgent part of the soul and the exquisite heroism of its defence in the face of a world where its value is eroded to the verge of vanishing is the most valiant pursuit we can undertake. I wanted to create an island of absolute, immersive, fully sensual beauty, somewhere that would, for an hour, transport people to a different time and place.

Claire Trévien is a wonderful Anglo-Breton poet whose first full collection The Shipwrecked House was the only poetry book long-listed for last year’s Guardian First Book Award. The title poem was also highly commended for the Forward Prize. What I love about Claire’s work is her ability to combine a gentle, playful, experimental lyricality with the most incisive and incredibly dark turns of phrase and theme. She is also, which is why I’m so delighted she is involved in this event, at the forefront of the blurring boundaries between poetry and other sensual experiences. She co-hosts Penning Perfumes, an event that has now had two packed out national tours, the second of which benefited from an Arts Council grant. It pairs poets with anonymous scents they must use for inspiration, and perfumers with anonymous poems they must use to create new fragrances, and is a perfect example of sensual immersion. She also constantly pushes at the line between poetry and art with her project Verse Kraken, which asks poets to respond both to multiple media, producing poetry online and in intensive writing retreats.

My own influences are often from non-written art forms. For many years I have worked with the photographer Veronika von Volkova and the model and artist Katelan Foisy to produce works that evoke the exquisite sadness of lost friendship through words and images. Many of the poems I will be reading at The Age of Absinthe have arisen from those collaborations, which reflect Katelan’s place in a New York cultural scene whose roots stretch back to the days of Andy Warhol and the birth of punk.

Reading Out, Reaching Out

SKIN BOOK pic-page0001
(I will be talking about collaboration with artists and musicians. Expect more of the wonderful photography of my long-term collaborator Veronika von Volkova)

I was a novelist several years before I was a poet. And a headstrong and opinionated self-publishing novelist (at a time when it was very unfashionable to self-publish) to boot. I had also spent years drifting around the music and art worlds, where those strong opinions on what made a successful relationship with an audience fermented and distilled and perfumed, no doubt, other alcohol-based metaphors. By the time I launched my debut novel, Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, in 2009, and then launched the work of the literary/experimental collective Year Zero Writers onto the world in February 2010, I had a very clear idea of what writers should be doing. For my launch, I worked with the brilliant local musician Jessie Grace, splitting the event between readings and songs, and I took a leaf out of the book of my friend James Rhodes, the pianist, and provided a visually arresting and informative programme. And for the Year Zero launch, we took over Rough Trade in Brick Lane, alternated writers and bands, and worked incredibly hard on creating collectible posters and programmes in conjunction with the American artist Sarah Melville.

design by Katelan V Foisy

(New York-based artist, model, writer, publisher, and photographer Katelan Foisy produced a striking poster for our event at the Poetry Cafe)

It was only in the summer of 2011 that I realised this was less what writers do and more what poets do. At which point, I decided poetry was my natural home. Since then as a writer I’ve oscillated between poetry and prose, but I’ve always worked in close conjunction with people in other forms of the arts, and I’ve always made live reading an absolute cornerstone of what I do.

(Sarah Melville’s beautiful poster for a night of multiple media)

From staging an all-day art and poetry installation with New York artist, writer, model, and publisher Katelan Foisy, to performing poetry to the music of electronica band To The Moon, to a long-term collaboration setting my poetry to the images of Canadian photographer Veronika von Volkova and even running a successful touring show, The New Libertines, for the past three years.

(Jessie Grace of Superhand, whose music complements a lot of my writing perfectly, and with whom I have had the pleasure of working on many occasions)

I am increasingly hearing people say, on the writing conference circuit, that live readings are essential to building a fanbase as a writer. What I want to do in this workshop is look at ways to make your readings and talks more engaging. I also want to look at how you can use collaboration with people in other fields of the arts both to push yourself creatively, and to expand the community around your work by bringing new art and music lovers to your work, and by bringing new literary fans to the work of those who collaborate with you. Let’s face it, most of us don’t just love books. We love music too. And art. And film. And probably people who like the books we do overlap considerably with people who like the art and music and film we do. And that’s the case for our readers too. By collaborating with people in other arts whose works we love, both partners in the collaboration can bring wonderful new discoveries to their fans.


2 thoughts on “What Can All Writers Learn From Poetry

  1. I love what you wrote about collaboration, the feeling is so elavated as soon as you let your poetry,music, photo,anything and everything, intertwine. It feels to me like a heartbeat that is so strong it gives the universe a shake.
    I hope one day I will get a chance to see you perform live, that is, once people understand that a part of me does and will forever live in London, and let me go merge with it 🙂

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