In which I interview one of my favorite authors, and we discuss wolves, tattoos and the power of landscape. Sarah Hall was born in Cumbria and lives in Norwich. She is the multiple-prize-winning author of four novels: Haweswater, The Electric Michelangelo, The Carhullan Army (published in the US as Daughters of the North) and How to Paint a Dead Man; a collection of short stories, The Beautiful Indifference, original radio dramas and poetry.
“Later, when I knew her better, Manda told me how she’d beaten two girls at once outside the Cranemakers Arms in Carlisle. She said all you had to do was keep hold of one, keep hold of one and keep hitting her. No matter what the other was doing to you, you kept that first one pinned, and you kept hammering her, so the free-handed bitch could see you were able to take a flailing and still have her mate at the same time. It’d get into the lass’s head then, Manda said, what it would be like when the mate got put down, and you went to batter her next without a silly dog on your back making you slow. Chances were you wouldn’t have to fight them both. And if you did,that second one would be so fleart from you being still upright after her best, undefended go, she’d forget any moves she knew.”
I’ve been silent on social media and generally keeping my nose to the grindstone while working on the launch of Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4. A little shamelessly, here’s some of the coverage I’m most proud of: the BBC News at Ten, a New York Times feature, NPR’s Morning Edition (with one of my favourite writers, Sarah Hall) and this great article from the Globe and Mail. If you’re in LA, we have an event tonight at ALOUD, and tomorrow we’re in Seattle, in May we come to NY, Boston and Washington DC. We’re also doing events across the UK this week and through the summer and around the world with the British Council. Here’s the full event list. Phew. Hope you can join us!
In the latest Granta podcast, we have an incredible trio of creatives discussing ethics and photography. To kick the evening off, I did a dramatic reading of photographer Darcy Padilla’s diary of The Julie Project. I would love to know where you feel the line is drawn between photojournalism and exploitation.
About the event and podcast:
Photojournalists bear witness at the front line of human experience. But when does photojournalism become exploitative? On the Granta Podcast this week we bring you a recording of an art salon at the Hospital Club London, which featured a presentation of ‘Julie’, a photo essay by Darcy Padilla featured in Granta 122: Betrayal and a dramatic reading of an extract of Padilla’s journal about her work. Granta artistic director Michael Salu, photographer Afshin Dehkordi (BBC, artistic consultant to the Brighton Photo Fringe and festival director of Bread & Roses Centennial) and Daniel Campbell Blight (writer, curator and talks assistant at the Photographers’ Gallery) then explored the relationship between subject and photographer, the cultural and social significance of controversial imagery and the responsibility the media should take when selecting images for publication.
I think what I find so fascinating about Rich Ferguson is his absolute ease with his being.
I think what I find so fascinating about Rich Ferguson is his absolute ease with his being uncategorizeable.
You see Rich, you think hey, it’s ok to be a storyteller, so long as you’re a musician, and the work looks like poetry when it’s on the page. And you got the hat (always the hat), so you are probably a spoken word guy.
And meanwhile the words come at you like it’s just a conversation among folks, but then it’s like he’s talking thunder.
Bob Holman’s introduction to your poetry collection is so spot on. How do you know Mr Holman?
I’ve known Bob Holman for some years now, since the 90s. I can’t remember exactly how we met; all I can say is that I’m so glad our paths crossed. He was extremely instrumental in helping me to share the stage with Patti Smith at the Knitting Factory in NYC. I’ll always be indebted to Bob for that. He also had me help him co-judge a Jewel poetry contest (yep, we’re talking Jewel the songwriter). Back when she came out with her poetry collection A Night Without Armor, she’d asked Bob to judge a poetry contest she’d created as a way to promote the book. Bob asked me to assist him.
At the time I was working a drab office job. Once I’d agreed to help judge the contest I began receiving poems emailed to me from all over the world. We’re talking everywhere from Perth, Australia to Perth Amboy, New Jersey. My days became a huge juggling act of trying to get work done while reading poems from tortured teens and housewives all over the world. Some of the poems were quite humorous and would make me laugh out loud. Others were so bad, so maudlin, I’d practically be yelling at my computer screen. Since I was never that engaged in my office work, my boss became suspicious. He’d occasionally come over to my desk to make sure I was getting my work done. I got very good at flipping between screens—from a dreary poem about bulimia to a spreadsheet or piece of correspondence. Ah, the things I’ve done for poetry and Jewel.
But back to Bob: he’s really been such a dear friend and true mentor over the years.
I remember a performance in Los Feliz I went to with a friend, who stood watched you intently – the music, the poetry, your gestures – and said “I haven’t seen anything like this since being in the Village in the 60s.” How did the poetry, the music and the performance all come together for you?
Good question. It’s actually been quite a journey for me. As a child, I was always interested in reading poetry and writing, but never really did much with it. I also began playing the drums while attending Rutgers University, and was taking lessons in NYC. One of my teachers—Michael Carvin—suggested that I head out to California after graduation, maybe try out San Francisco. And so, much to my father’s dismay, once I received my degree in Advertising and Public Relations I packed my car (drums, clothes, books and stereo), and headed out to California. My first stop in S.F.: City Lights Bookstore. Until that point, I’d never seen a bookstore quite so magical. The first book I picked up was Gregory Corso’s Gasoline. No pun intended, but that pretty much refueled my love of poetry.
Over the next four years, I played in a band called Blue Movie. We were a scrappy folk/punk outfit. I played drums standing up, sang, and spouted manic poetry from time to time. After the band broke up I moved to L.A. and eventually got another band together, Bloom. In that band, I mostly sang lead. Not so much poetry. There was a lapsteel player in the band, Jett Soto. I loved that guy dearly. The music he’d make on his instrument, I used to describe it as “chainsaw music for angels.” The two of us would sometimes perform as a duo, Fuzzy Doodah. He’d play lapsteel and I’d perform poetry. We did a little touring around the country, even played SXSW a couple times.
Unfortunately, Jett eventually drank himself to death and Bloom pretty much broke up after that. For a period of time, I couldn’t perform spoken word with music. It just hurt too much. Eventually, I worked my way back to it and now have a band together called We Voice Sing. It’s a hybrid of spoken word and music. I’m singing a bit too. Definitely feels good to be singing again.
Are there traditions – poetic or otherwise – that you are writing in or against? I suppose, “Who and what influences you ?”is another way to ask that question.
I don’t necessarily think there are any particular traditions that I’m writing in or against. At least not consciously. There was a period of time when I was highly inspired by the Beats: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, the usual cast of characters. I think a lot of my interest in the Beats had to do with the fact that I’d lived in S.F. But really, over the years I’ve discovered so many great writers in so many styles of writing that I’d never want to limit my writing or thinking to any one particular school of thought.
Tell me about poetry in LA. I remember being aware of a strong spoken word, self-pulished chapbook scene of young, cool men (I don’t remember reading or seeing female spoken words poets) in the early 2000s. Was that a special moment in poetry in LA?
There was a cool scene back in the 90s known as the ‘Onyx Scene.’ It was run out of a coffee shop in Los Feliz called the Onyx. The readings were attended by a wide variety of folks: poets, musicians, visual artists, hipsters, the homeless. Poets Milo Martin and Ben Porter Lewis created the reading series. Its popularity spread like wildfire. It was definitely the happening place to perform poetry. I was fortunate in that Milo would let me read any time I showed up with a new piece of work. Since then, there haven’t been many poetry scenes that have captured quite the same energy. There are, however, a couple events that are still making waves. One is Da Poetry Lounge on Fairfax. Another is run by my friends Brooke Benson and Chance Foreman in Venice. That one is called The People’s Mic. Hella fun.
Eastern philosophy and yogic teachings lace your work. What’s your connect to those bodies of thought. The way they work with your poetry strikes me as very of California, of Los Angeles. Or am I just homesick?
Well, you may be homesick, but I think you’re pretty spot on with your observation as well. Yes, those schools of thought do run through some of my work. I’d classify myself as a Buddhist of sorts (an armchair Buddhist?). There’s a lama that I visit from time to time when he comes through L.A.: Lama Marut. I really enjoy his teachings. To me, one of the many beauties of Buddhism is that the teachings make absolute sense. They’re a recipe for how to live a full and meaningful life. From time to time I also attend Against the Stream—the Buddhist center created by Noah Levine (author of Dharma Punx). I’m also a yoga practitioner, so some of that school of thought occasionally bleeds into my work. With both, I really try not to get preachy. I’m really turned off by that type of stuff.
Actually, that’s one of the things I love about my new collection 8th & Agony. It allows me to showcase some of my spiritual/humanistic work with darker poems, and some comedic pieces as well.
You have an incredible body of videos of your poetry. How and when did you start making those?
If I look back on my writing/performing career to date, I think one of the things I’m most proud of are my spoken word/music videos. Six years ago, I began thinking I needed to diversify—bust out from the page and stage—into other mediums to get my work out into the world. Around that time, I was approached by a friend, Gerry Fialka. He heads up a PXL Film Festival here in L.A.
A little bit of history: Pixel Cams were black-and-white camcorders put out by Fisher Price in 1987. They never caught on with kids, but indie filmmakers began using them. So Gerry created a film festival to showcase the films people were making with the camera.
Gerry asked if he could film me performing a spoken word piece. Of course, I was all over it. Our collaboration turned out to be my very first, and one of my most popular videos “Bones“. Since then, I’ve created a number of videos with directors like Mark Wilkinson and Chris Burdick. A few contain music and are elaborately produced. Some are just with me, sitting in front of a camera in my living room, performing solo.
Knowing you and having recently seen a number of exquisite poetry readings, sometimes I wonder should all literary events be poetry readings? I think what I mean is that poetry has such an ability to move from page to performance and across media. It lends itself well to interdisciplinary reading, listening, absorbing. Do you agree, and are there other poets you’d recommend that are working across media forms?
Being a drummer, I’m quite keyed in to rhythm. To me, poetry is all about music and rhythm. That’s one of the reasons I love performing poetry with music. The music allows me to delve deeper into the rhythm of the words. This is also one of the reasons I love attending live poetry events. When I’m watching a performing poet that has a strong command of language and rhythm, wow, that’s really amazing.
As far as poets I enjoy that are working across media forms, one that comes to mind is Saul Williams. I love his work in every form, be it the printed or performed word. I also enjoy Sage Francis.
He and I had a chance to meet and work together on a documentary in South Africa. The doc was created by UK director Jamie Catto. I consider myself very blessed to have performed poetry in Jamie’s last film What About Me? (sequel to 1 Giant Leap). It was actually my “Bones” video that turned Jamie on to my work. So I guess I owe all my good fortune to that Pixel Cam. Thank you, Fisher Price.
New Directions recently came out with four new translations of Clarice ‘Hurricane’ Lispector’s novels. I picked up her first Near to the Wild Heart at Green Apple Books after a Granta event. Everyone is a-buzz with Brazil, it seems. With Brazil at centre stage in our minds (the economy, the Olympics, Granta‘s Best of Young Brazilian Novelists, Litro‘s Rio-focused issue, Two Lines: Passageway‘s special feature on Brazilian writers, the Brazil-focus at the Guadalajara lit fest this year, the fact that everyone seems to be moving to Brazil…but I go on), the many stories of its present and past are coming to the fore. (If you haven’t seen the album preview for the Brazilian musician Tim Maia album re-release, check out the video below.) I imagine sun, beaches, long rainy seasons, favelas, wide and wildly diverse landscapes; I hear about migration, drought, why an uncle kept his TV years after it was no longer in working order, a welcoming spirit of people and place…
After a very contemporary look at Brazil through the Granta edition (and a 25+ event tour, compiling dossiers on the writers, the deftly curated Granta.com Brazil series), Clarice Lispector is a surprising find. I wonder how I could not have found her sooner. Her debut novel, which caused such a stir in Brazil she was nicknamed ‘Hurricane Clarice’ bears all the marks of the novels from Vienna/the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the start of the 20th century through the rise of fascism. Her focus on aesthetics, the amoral, inward-looking main character who is at once deeply involved with her environment and coldly detached reminds me of Robert Musil’s The Confusions of Young Torless (1906), with lashings of Arthur Schindler. A brief Twitter exchange about I wondered if this type of character, language and mood emerged from within Brazil independently of the Austrians. A brief Twitter exchange with Lispector’s biographer Benjamin Moser yielded this: “it seems it was Clarice herself, who both arrived with centralmeuropean émigrés AND grew within brazil. A long story. See bio!” I can’t wait.
On Thursday, I’ll be reading from my memoir-in-progress at this multimedia salon held in a former hospital for cab drivers’ horses. The reading will begin:
Los Angeles in the 1980s, the heart of the dream factory.
When I was a child I wanted to know death. I danced in hula skirts, crawled the lengths of swimming pools, stayed put in the saddle of a bucking horse, dreamt with a hibiscus bloom in my golden hair, but my first memory of childhood is sitting on the cold tiles of the kitchen floor, holding a knife against my forearm.
I did not want to die. I wanted to know what this danger was that I had been warned of and if I had any control over it. I assumed the danger was death. The knife in the flesh, the brush fire, the car crash, the gas leak, eating oleander or jimson weed. Tangled flora bound death and danger.
There will be art, poetry and much more from 7.30 until about 9pm. Yes, there will be a bar in service.
More about the salon below; this month’s details here.
The Light & Shadow Salon is a place for artists, writers and audience to meet and share ideas about the past, present and future of the moving image in all its forms.
The Salon is a place for exchange, interaction and cross-pollination and it welcomes active contributions and interventions from all its participants.
The Salon endeavours to support a structured and informed dialogue around film, the moving image and all that it involves: from magic to science, from sound to the eye, from ritualism to storytelling, from myth-making to hypnosis.
The Salon intends to act as a temporary and ephemeral container for all the work, ideas and people with an independent, radical and idiosyncratic nature, who renounce to find a home in existing movements/institutions but rather embrace the nomadic and transitory nature of art.
The Salon supports individual thought, inquisitive minds and a desire to further knowledge through dialogue and exchange.
‘So when you hear yourself invited to ‘see’, it is not the sight of this eye (of the flesh) that I would have you think about. You have another eye within, much clearer that that one, an eye that looks at the past, the present, and the future all at once, which sheds the light and keenness of its vision over all things, which penetrates things hidden and searches into complexities, needing no other light by which to see all this, but seeing by the light that it possesses itself.’
(Hugh of St Victor)
Kanitta Meechubot is a collage artist who I first encountered in Granta magazine’s Horror issue. In her Granta series, she told the story of her grandmother’s battle with womb cancer through images that evoke Bosch and Vesalius in equal measure. Though layered collage imagery, she traverses the body and inner life tenderly, viscerally. ‘A Landscape of the Mind’ (11 October t0 24 November, The Book Club, London EC2A) is her first solo show.
Tell me a little bit about the show. What are you showing?
‘A Landscape of the Mind’ will reveal a complete set of my new works and some previous works adapted to be related to the theme.
The concept actually continues from the piece ‘Internal Landscape’ from ‘The Seasons of a Soul’ series where I portrayed the ideas of meeting again in the afterlife when lovers died apart.
Then this new series, I recreated the imaginary place of the afterlife from the Buddhist idea of reincarnation. I just imagined when, how and where those apart lovers could be meet again and again in different place and time.
How do these pieces compare to the ones in Granta 117: Horror?
The same method of delicacy paper cutting in form and shape of trees and flora integrated with the forms of veins inside the human body will be used, as usual. For when I see the pictures portraying human’s anatomy, I always relate those blood and veins to the trees. So I personally and secretly found the hidden forest inside us.
For the differences, this series will be less detailed, more minimalized. However, more layers will be put to create the three-dimensional effect and depth. Well, it also means that each layer weave the whole story together. I also explore different kinds of paper which I found them giving the different feelings. For example, the mirror page has been used for the reflection of the viewer’s so that they can see themselves in my imaginary landscape.
However, the context will be very much the same. I’m still interested in love, death and romantic landscapes.
Who and what inspires you?
The drawings of human bodies from some French artists, Jean-Baptiste Marc Bourgery, the specimens of human organs at the Hunterian Museum, and those alike, and rare medical pictures in Wellcome Collection. When I see those veins and their complexities, I wished I could live there. I imagined myself walking inside human bodies as an imaginary forest. Also I like walking in the park or forests and finding intriguing and strange shapes of trees, leaves and branches for my inspiration. You would be very surprised how strange the shapes are that they form. And the movie called ‘Institute Benjamenta’ or ‘This dream people call human life’ by The Brother Quay. When I work, the mood and tone of the movie always in my head. The mysterious and haunting but beautifully direct consist with the sound very well.
You engage with the body in such a dark and tender way. Tell me a little bit about what draws you to this subject matter.
Not only do I love the landscape and the shape of tree branches, I have always been touched by the relationship of my grandparents. My granddad took care of my grandma willingly and lovingly when she had womb cancer. It’s surprising how this small disease could expand in human body and cause so much pain. I couldn’t imagine how sad he would feel when seeing someone he loves in such state of pain. He has been working hard nursing and taking care of her at all time until they are physically apart.
So when connecting those feeling to my origin liking, the passion of trees’ shapes and human anatomy, it just makes sense. I am now living with those passions and feelings. They reflected into my work then.
Kanitta’s illustrations are also featured on the cover of Granta 120: Medicine and inside the issue for Rose Tremain’s ‘The Cutting’.