FEELINGS, the literary soiree with film and music returns for its second outing at VogueFabricsDalston this Thursday. Promoter Sophie Robinson talked to poet Jennifer Cooke about her first collection, the difference of performing and reading poetry and issues of gender and sexuality in her writings. Your first collection, *not suitable for domestic sublimation, just came out from Contraband press. Tell us some more about it…
JC: The poems in the collection were written over a 6 year period, a period when I moved from Brighton to Loughborough to Leicester to London and the collection feels to me as though it reflects those places, sometimes specifically (one poem is the reproduction of an over-heard conversation on a train from Leicester to London; one, ‘Congelatine’ is specifically about Loughborough and mentions places in the town such as the canal and the social club), and sometimes less directly and more privately since certain poems remind me of the locations in which they were composed.
Overall, I’d say the poems address issues of political protest; my work context (I’m an academic, and Lecturer at Loughborough University); gender and sexuality; my hatred of discourses of self-improvement, which always appear overtly moralistic; as well as some other, more miscellaneous topics (there’s a poem or two about the financial crisis, for instance, and the final poem is about cancer).
Do you enjoy performing your work?
JC: Yes. It’s different every time, which is intriguing, from my point of view. Even when I don’t give what I think is a good reading, it’s interesting as to why. And sometimes I give good readings for no reason intrinsic to the poems themselves but through the dynamics of the context. For instance, I also launched this book in New York recently, and I felt the reading went really well, but that’s in part because my delivery was so different to the American poets reading that night, who mostly gave very measured, restrained and quiet readings of their poetry, so it was the contrast that worked for me.
How do you think hearing the work in performance differs from reading it on the page?
JC: It can completely change someone’s experience of the work. Occasionally there are poems I’ve seen on the page where I’ve been fairly ambivalent in my response but when I’ve heard it performed, it can take on a new dimension, and I can find elements in the work that I hadn’t been able to appreciate before. Then again, some people are terrible readers of their poetry. There is a ‘poetry voice’ I loathe, a kind of lilting, soft, Anglican intonation which I find immensely irritating since it often flattens everything into a pattern, with a tendency for the intonation to rise at the end of the line until the end of a stanza, when it falls. It’s aurally predictable. And reminds me of contexts in which I was bored as a child and could nothing about it (e.g. church sermons, school assemblies).
Would you describe your poetry as political? How (or how not)?
JC: Yes, insofar as it is sometimes ‘about’ political events or issues, such as ‘Snapped Songs of Velleitie’ which was about the Student Protests of 2010-11, or ‘Steel Girdered Her Musical’ which imagines a revolution. There’s a poem, ‘Drinking It In’, which is in part about the representation of drinking in the press, and how the response of the media to public drunkenness is very gendered and classist. But does my poetry intervene in the political realm in any significant way? I can’t see that it does or hope that it will, except, potentially, as part of a wider arts movement which attempts to eschew mainstream or popular assessments of what is of cultural value.
FEELINGS is a queer-friendly and queerly orientated event. Much of your work engages with issues around gender and sexuality. Could you talk some more about the dynamics of this in your poetry?
JC: For me this is a question primarily about lived experience, not really about poetry, although I think that poetry has a specific way of being able to represent experience which is different to narrative fiction. Anyone who makes non-normative choices ends up inevitably having to explain themselves to others at one point or another. Audre Lorde, the poet and activist, talks about how mainstream society makes the responsibility for awareness of (racial, sexual, socio-economic) difference and discrimination fall upon the one who is already aware, because they are the ones experiencing it, to educate those who are not – and who often don’t want to know what it is like not to be them. As if people who suffer and put up with discrimination and incomprehension don’t have enough on their plates already. In relation to art forms, it is really difficult for narrative fiction to escape the function of having a ‘moral’ (however oblique) or of telling redemptive stories that make us feel better. Even novels that are trying not to do this are still in communication with the same strictures through the very process of trying to break away from them. Poetry is different. Because it can be fragmented, it is useful for expressing experiences of lived contradiction, of ambivalence, of difficulty and it is a place where explanations don’t need to be given. Which can be very refreshing.
‘Steel Girdered Her Musical’ is one of my favourite bits of the book. Tell us more about it…
JC: It’s a series of 12 poems which were created in conjunction with a composer, Adam Robinson, who made all the music from musical music and from various kinds of pop rhythms (sometimes slowed down to such a speed you’d never recognise them). We will be putting out a CD to go with the book at some point. The poems stage the possible impossibility of a revolution starting at South Mimms Service Station, which is on a junction between the M25 and the A1 (M) as you head north out of London. The poem’s evolutionary female leader (the kittenista) is born from a bloody egg on the plastic tables in the service station and the poem continues from there, veering in and out of information about the history and contexts of protest, the history of South Mimms service station (incredibly, there is such a history), and also the poems try to pose some of the contradictions I find most politically pressing and sticky.
Which poets have influenced your writing? How and why?
JC: The list is long, and perhaps not very interesting to anyone but me. Even though I know this is a conventional question, it is one I find very personal and also one where it is almost impossible not to lie. The poet I might name today as a big influence may not seem so to me tomorrow. I love poetry which makes me passionately want to write poetry (what a grand narcissist I am!). But I also love any writing that plays with language, so a book like Alice in Wonderland is of probably equal importance as any poet’s work.
Is poetry important? Why/why not?
JC: Yes! Of course! The arts generally are important. Who would want to live in a world without music, painting, poetry or sculpture? The very strangeness of the fact that art forms can move us to tears or alter our whole conception of a space or an experience: this is extremely valuable.
Jennifer Cooke will be reading at FEELINGS on the 12th July, along with poets Alan Hay, Connie Scozzaro, Joe Luna and Nat Raha. There will also be short films from Warren Garland and The Everyday Cosmonaut, and a sad disco DJed by John Lee Bird.
Jennifer’s book, *not suitable for domestic sublimation, can be purchased from the Contraband website