Poetry Tag with Marisa

So Marisa is doing a poetry tag Q&A thing, and asked me a few questions about what I write/why I write it, etc. The results are here:

What am I working on?

My Edinburgh Fringe show Asking Nicely. It’s all about permission: how, why, when and where we ask for permission – with a feminist/sociological slant. It all started with one poem I wrote two years ago called Permission listing small acts of badass in women. I wrote it because I was trying to explain to a (straight, male) friend of mine how differently women held themselves in lesbian bars: their posture seemed prouder and more confident. The best way I would explain it was “it’s like they’re not asking for permission anymore.” He asked me “are women usually asking for permission?” and I realised yes, we absolutely are. I wrote a poem about confident women not asking permission to be themselves

Then when I first performed the poem it was just after Margaret Thatcher had died. The MC, just looking for a link to the next poet who had a load of material about how horrible Margaret Thatcher was, said “What about that Thatcher, aye? She didn’t ask for permission.” I was really, really pissed off to hear my nice poem about confident women being compared to Margaret Thatcher (who I loathe) but I started to see he wasn’t wrong – it’s just that permission is complicated power-dynamic stuff. If you’re the person running the country I think you should ask for permission – often and lots. So that kicked it all off.

I’ve been planning the show for a year. Mostly panicking, some writing. I take in school bullying and that Eleanor Roosevelt quote about “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent”, there’s one poem about intersectionality, a fair bit about my own neuroses. I’ve been reading widely and bouncing ideas off anyone who’ll listen.

I’m doing my hour-long show for ten consecutive days. I’m really nervous because I’ve been up to the Edinburgh Fringe a few times, and I’ve seen what it’s like when a show isn’t going to well or isn’t getting the audiences in. This show is all mine, all my own work, so it’ll be all on me if it bombs.

I don’t think it’ll bomb – I’ve done a couple of previews with really positive results – but it’s been very strange having a huge framework that my writing has to fit. Previously I just wrote about whatever moved me whereas with this it’s been trying to plot a trajectory and then writing the pieces to fit it.


How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Oh Jesus, I’m not sure what genre I am in the first place. I’m based in London and the UK scene has a huge mix of styles. My stuff tends to be heartfelt but also a bit funny. I use a lot of assonance and alliteration to make it flow.

I think my biggest influences are probably stuff from North America. I’ve been absolutely blown away by the likes of Andrea Gibson, Catalina Ferro and Shane Koyczan. I’m not as close-to-the-bone as they sometimes are, but I draw a lot of strength and encouragement from that sometimes brutal honesty. In the UK I think we’re culturally quite scared of public displays of emotion. I heard Shane Koyczan talking about UK audiences coming up to him after a show saying “that poem was hard dude, you nearly made me cry” and he was just astounded: “Why didn’t you come on that journey with me? Why were you fighting it?”

Speaking sociologically it’s a negative politeness culture in the UK, compared to North America’s positive politeness culture. In America you’re polite by being friendly and sociable “hi, how are you, can I help?” In the UK you’re polite by staying out of people’s way – not making eye contact, not ‘bothering’ each other by interacting if you don’t have to, and not talking about your feelings. My mom’s from New York, so I grew up kind of straddling the two cultures a little bit, and I think my writing reflects that.

I think my poetry is more emotionally open than a lot of the scene – and I’m getting moreso as time goes on. But at the same time you don’t want to spill your guts on stage if the audience isn’t with you on the journey ‘cause then you just feel terrible – like you’ve read out your diary to people who think you’re a jerk – so it’s a gentle coaxing. Hard truths in amongst some lines that will get laughs.

Why do I write what I do?

Instinct, ego, and it’s cheaper than therapy.

Ok, serious answer – I’ve always been creative in quite a lot of ways, but writing seemed to be the one that fit best. I’m quite noisy and opinionated and writing gave me a soapbox to talk about anything I wanted. I did creative writing at uni (where I met you!) but I only discovered the UK performance poetry scene when I came home after university, and I got hooked on it. I’ve always loved things like stand-up comedy, and when I ran into the odd performance poet on a comedy bill something clicked. The first UK poets that blew me away were Tim Clare and Sophia Blackwell. I wanted to be both of them.

In terms of the things I write down – some moments just follow you home and you want to analyse and untangle them. One of the centrepieces of my show is about a holiday I went on with a bunch of friends when I was 19. One girl, every time we passing around food, or drinks, or anything else, kept saying “oh, could I have some of that too?” pre-supposing we were going to leave her out. Over the course of this short vacation this one little phrase, and what it implied, started make me think quite unkindly about her. Coming back to it nine years later – when I know I’ve self-sabotaged with my own neuroses a bunch of times – I could understand the dynamic a lot better. I felt like things had come full circle and decided to write about it.

A lot of my writing seems quite full-circle: I like to round thoughts off and tie them up with a little bow. Some feedback I’ve had is that this is a great thing, some feedback I’ve had is that this is too safe. I’ll try leaving things a little more rough around the edges to see how that fits me, but at the moment: that’s where it is.

It’s taken me years – growing in my own confidence as a writer – to be able to talk about stuff openly. When I started out it was mostly sarcastic feminist rants and very formulaic end-rhymes. One of the last gigs I did a stranger greeted me when I came off stage with “can I hug you?” I was astounded and so touched that I’m creating that kind of openness these days.

How does my writing process work?

Usually a lot of jotting down notes as stuff hits me – I text myself bits and pieces – and then at some point I’ll hash out a first draft.

Initially I’ll think I’m a genius and then that notion will just vanish and I stare at it thinking “what is this crap? God I’m rubbish” but you have to edit through that – be analytical and give yourself permission (there it is again) to make mistakes, work on them, and not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

One of the best tips I ever had about editing was to record yourself reading it out on your phone and then listen to it on your headphones as you walk around. If you think of reading something off the page or reciting it as ‘driving’ then listening to it back is like being a passenger. You can see more of the view and work out what could be improved more. I’ve also found walking about is one of the best ways to give myself enough space for the ideas to bubble up.

And of course: workshopping stuff and getting feedback from other poets whose work you respect and admire. Other people will find your blindspots, help you sandpaper off any rough edges, and tell you where that thing you thought was obvious doesn’t make sense to anyone else. I’ve had the benefit of some really brilliant, talented writers. I won’t name names because some of them don’t want the publicity, but I’ve been really lucky in finding them.

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