28th Nov 2019
Dear Conch! Thank you so much for the coffee. Question 1 scared me so I’m gonna start with 2 if that’s ok!
I liked poetry as a small kid because it rhymed. My granddad was an English teacher and I remember him gifting me books of children’s verse, and also, weirdly, my mum had an affair with Brian Patten in the 90s and he gave me his anthology ‘Gargling with Jelly’ which I loved. Also my parents are Russian and Irish and when I was in either country they would hand me stuff to read in a site-specific, “here’s some heritage”, way – Yeats, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Patrick Kavanagh, Marina Tsvetaeva, Anna Akhmatova (which I’ve kept doing actually, when I’m away somewhere I really like reading the literature that’s been written from that place). I then had one of those inspirational English teachers at sixth form who was so cool and I sort of just wanted to be her when I grew up. She introduced me to Plath and Shakespeare’s sonnets and I guess taught me to read/see poetry in a way I hadn’t before (once I saw her in the big Oxford Street Topshop at the weekend, which I was obviously thrilled about, and said hi, and she told me off for saying hello).
My taste was pretty pedestrian though and I didn’t explore much poetry that hadn’t basically been presented to me in education. I then had a resurgence of interest in poetry in my baby 20s when my partner Tom introduced me to loads of contemporary poetry, to Archive of the Now and to the poetry festival SoundEye in Cork (I don’t think I really knew what a ‘chapbook’ or ‘pamphlet’ was before that?). He started writing poetry and became mates with a group of poets in Edinburgh (including Sam and Jo Walton, Lila Matsumoto, Mike Saunders, Colin Herd, Iain Morrison, Anne-Laure Coxam, Nick-E Melville, Jane Goldman) and we used to travel through from Glasgow to go to poetry readings and poetry workshops. I guess I started reading and writing more seriously because I was a bit jealous and thought if he could do it, I could too. Plus it was a way of hanging out, sharing stuff with friends and being part of a community.
I feel like a bit of a fake at the moment re. poetry. I gather phrases and lines in my phone over months and then occasionally sit down and work on something solid over 2 or 3 intense days. I’ve got a prosey-poetry piece that I’ve been working on for a while which is about mother tongues, language acquisition, bilingualism and talking non-human animals. I keep thinking it’s finished but (I guess because poetry is not my “career”, or something?) I tie myself in knots about publishing anything, thinking: who needs to hear this crap, maybe I should just write it for myself, share with pals, what’s the urge to show it off to the world, ETC. Anyway, maybe it will see the light of day sometime!
I think the project that means the most to me is ‘Paul Bright’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner’. The premise is a bit giddy/quite hard to explain but basically we imagined that there had been a radical theatre director in Scotland, Paul Bright, who had staged James Hogg’s novel (Confessions of a Justified Sinner) in ‘episodes’ between 1987-1990 and then disappeared, and we, in 2013, had come across his archive and were recounting to a contemporary audience the story of his adaptation of the novel. In reality this meant we had to go and make the original episodes, as if they had been made between 1987-1990, in order to create the archive and then present it.
The show was sort of about unreliable narrators, archives and about how any tellings of life are in some way fabricated, and about the history of radical theatre-making in Glasgow and Scotland during the late 80s/early 90s. But actually Dee Heddon one of my university lecturers summed it up in a way that has always stayed with me, writing that the production was ‘an epistolary work – a love letter to theatre: to the written, oral and mythical histories of experimental theatre … to what happened, to what might have happened, to what will happen … to playing and experimenting, to youth and changing the world and making the world anew’.
I guess what I love about Dee’s analysis of it is that that was my experience of working with Untitled Projects. I met them in my last year of university and collaborated with them for the next five years, and the way we developed productions, shared what we were reading, what films and TV shows we were watching, partied together, was so wonderful. I think part of it is probably nostalgia for my 20s, and it was also the first sort of ‘creative family’ I had found, so it was very formative for me and I do feel overly sentimental about it. But, regardless of the sentimentality, in the making of that production in particular, we were so invested in creating work together and in caring for each other and I feel very privileged to have been a part of it.
I think going back to university was a bit inspired by making this piece with my friend Claire Healy called ‘There They Carved A Space’, which was a sort of performance-film-lecture that looked at our relationships to spaces we’ve lived in, the history of land enclosure, current privatisation of cities, regeneration and protest in the UK. Making theatre was super great but I was working part-time in other jobs I hated in order to pay my rent and I was really interested in the research I had done to make the piece with Claire, so I applied for funding to do a Masters and PhD at UCL which I was lucky to get.
The Masters was in Urban Studies, and it was honestly one of the happiest years of my life. It’s a bit naff but I’m (still) embarrassingly drawn to stuff that I guess can be grouped under ‘psychogeography’. I love reading literature that cartographically maps onto places I’ve been to, and I still really love Patrick Keiller and Laura Oldfield Ford’s work. I think in part I enjoyed the masters so much because I was buoyed by change, I’d come back to live in London after 10 years living in Glasgow, and also it felt like a year where I was able to synthesise all these interdisciplinary (for want of a better word) interests in my life, plus studying when you’re older is generally, I think, better.
Broadly speaking my PhD project looks at the spatial dynamics of ceremony and protest in the UK. When I studied theatre I got really into performance studies, which is a relatively recent academic discipline that basically sees all of social life as constructed by performances processes. When I was little my dad often took me and my brothers to look at big events that were happening. I remember we were driving back from somewhere and took a detour to watch Windsor castle burning down in 1992. In 1995 there was a milk miracle when statues of Hindu deity Ganesh started to drink milk, we lived in Brentford and my dad piled us into the car to drive to a temple in Southall to see it happening. And when there were big royal events in London, or a big court case, we would go and look at them. Anyway, I think I developed an interest in how events happen and how space is changed when these events happen. So, in my PhD I’m using three case studies to think about the relationship between politics and performance.
Sometimes I feel like an interloper in the social sciences, but then also I think I’m probably too social to sit in a library and work on one author for three years. For my PhD research I’m using interviews as a research method, which is a) not that different to how one might develop a performance piece and b) is both the most nerve wracking but also joyful thing imaginable. People have been so generous with their memories and I find the whole process very moving. (And also obviously I spend a fair amount of time not doing enough work, and feeling shit about not doing enough work, so it’s definitely not all great!)
I have recently been excited by this Jack Spicer poem Tom showed me the other day ‘A Second Train Song for Gary’ that I keep going back to re-read, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s ‘Dictee’ recommended by Nisha Ramayya, a series of blog posts that Lotte Lewis recently published on the poetry foundation that gave me loads to think about in relation to poetry, politics, places and friendships, Christina Sharpe’s ‘In the Wake: On Blackness and Being’ recommended by my (impossibly generous) PhD supervisor Tariq Jazeel, Helen Cammock’s art, a visit to Georgia with my friend Evelina, the birds that have just started to come and feed off the two bird feeders I put up on the balcony a month ago.
Obviously lots of things causing a lot of people concern, at the moment and always, but in lieu of a list of everything shit – if you live in London and have a spare half day a month/every two months can I encourage you to sign up to the NELMA accompanying scheme - find out more about it here: nelmacampaigns.wordpress.com.
THANK YOU FOR THE EXCHANGE! <3
Emilia Weber is a writer, researcher and sometimes performance maker based in London where she is undertaking doctoral work at UCL. Her pamphlet Familiars is published by Sad Press.