August 11, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Interview with Hannah Silva by Charlotte Deverell
1. How long have you been writing poetry?
I started writing poetry when I was about ten. I was taken out of a rough middle school and home educated for a couple of years. My mum had a book called The Ability to Name Cats by Sandy Brownjohn and we went through it cover to cover, starting out with word play, then simile, metaphor, I’d write poems to particular exercises and forms. So that was a pretty amazing education now I think about it! I went along with it all for a while. Then the rebel streak set in and I’d try to subvert the exercise, find a way around it, break the rules. Then came teenage angst poetry phase. Then I stopped writing poetry for a while and wrote three novels, then started with poetry again at about nineteen/twenty. That was when I began working with vocal techniques and performance. I studied music until I was twenty, and went to the Amsterdam Conservatory for a year. When I gave up music I started to explore ways of applying the articulation techniques I’d used with an instrument to my vocal performance. Breath, the placement of the voice, articulation, intonation (melody), rhythm and compositional approaches to writing play a large role in my current work.
2. How did you get your work published or heard? Did you confront any difficulties?
Publication is not something I obsess over. It’s well known that most poetry collections are lucky to sell a run of 500. I reach more people through my performances. There are advantages to being published, people take you more seriously – in many circles I don’t really exist as a poet as I’m not published. But my work doesn’t suit that form. I’d like to do something really innovative with a first collection, but I don’t have that desire to see my work in print that many people have. Once it’s in print you can’t change it and people can judge you by it.
My main focus has always been performance. I got my first invite to perform in London through posting my work on myspace – Anthony Joseph saw it and invited me to La Langoustine est Morte. From there more invitations came. But it took a long time, and I still don’t perform regularly. Penned in the Margins (Tom Chivers) has been a big supporter of my work from early on, and in 2010 I did a national tour with the spoken word organisation Apples and Snakes, who are supporting my current show, Opposition.
I’ve always struggled to get my work published, initially because it wasn’t good enough and I sent it to the wrong places, then I realised who accepted my work and who would always reject it, so I just sent stuff to the places I knew liked my kind of thing. But to be honest I’ve never focused on poetry publication. I very rarely send a poem to a magazine or competition, I stopped sending things altogether for a few years. It’s just in the last year I’ve had requests for poems from three anthologies, so I’ve got more coming out in print now.
4. Do you think about public reaction and interest when you write? If so does it affect what you write?
I feel that thinking about audience response and the market can censor a writer before they’ve even started. I also think you can’t second guess audiences. Audiences are much cleverer than we often give them credit for being. So I don’t think about the response to the work when I’m writing. However that doesn’t mean I don’t care about audiences. As a playwright and performing poet I am always aware of the audience’s role in a particular work. I care about them, and consider the ways they are going to experience my work. But that usually happens instinctively, or it happens once the work has been written. As a writer, I think you just have to write what you need to write, and worry about the other stuff later.
5. Do you think your work would be as effective on paper as it is on stage? Or if it was a purely auditory experience? how do you edit your work particularly your movements in relationship to the text?
I don’t write for paper, my writing doesn’t work on the page, which is tricky as that is what people often judge. When I’m making a show like Opposition I spend little time working on the text on the page, it’s all about trying it out in performance. Initially I was interested in working with movement and spoken text/meaning separately, and then putting them together to produce new meanings. With Opposition I needed the gestures to emphasize the meaning/vocal delivery a lot of the time. I took gestures from politicians and inflated them to extreme levels; I used images when working on the physical material such as the idea of a puppet, or a laughing clown.
I’m currently working on a radio play about marathon running with Colin Teevan and I’d like to do more work for radio. I’d also be interested in working on sound installations. It’d be great to collaborate with sound designers, composers and musicians on a purely auditory piece of work.
6. Why did you write about the current political and financial situation?
I was angry about not being able to get angry about politics, if that makes sense. I was angry about the fact that I didn’t care. Angry that I didn’t care passionately about one of those politicians winning the last election. I wanted to find out why I was so unengaged in politics. What was it about the way these men (men) were talking that resulted in them not actually saying anything? Why was nothing they were saying resonating with my life? With…living? This prompted me to investigate rhetoric, watch a lot of youtube clips and to look at the structures of political speaking, past and present. The language of politics was my way in.
7. What keeps you writing and sharing your work in a society that listens less each day?
I suppose it is the same drive that makes some of us writers/artists. We can’t stop can we? We can’t stop making work and pushing it further. Perhaps no one is listening, perhaps it makes no difference to anything at all. Perhaps we’re only doing it to indulge our strange need to do it.
I make work because I have to, but I also make it to be seen – and getting it seen is my biggest challenge. I agree that society is listening less. It is definitely listening differently, and it’s harder to get people to take a risk on work if they don’t know what it is they are buying. On the other hand, the reach of my work is slowly expanding. My blog is getting more and more views – although that’s more my rants than my creative work. I love it when people respond to my blog, or my performances, and engage in a dialogue with me. This year quite a few students have been in touch to ask about my work, so that’s exciting too.
8. You’ve mentioned you are busy working on new material. What is your biggest influence at the moment?
I am currently finishing writing a play Hunger, and I’ll start developing it further with actors in the Autumn. I’m also just starting a new project called ‘Thanatophobia’, which is an opera I’ll be writing the libretto for in collaboration with the composer Joanna Lee (through a Jerwood Aldeburgh Opera Writing Fellowship). With the opera, and also with the next play I want to write, I’m interested in taking some of the formal constraints we use in poetry (I’m thinking more Oulipo than sonnet) and working with them in a play – giving characters and worlds different ways of using language.
In terms of influence on the subject matter, I am trying to understand something about social media. I’m trying to understand its addictions, what people use it for, what it does to our emotions and the power it might have to manipulate society.
9. How would you label your poetry? (Are there any genres, styles or movements you particularly identify with?)
I’d rather not label my poetry as I don’t think it fits any one label. But I understand people have to label something in order to talk about it. I think you can talk about my work by referencing two worlds where voice and language play are central: Sound poetry and contemporary vocal music (such as Luciano Berio’s Sequenza for voice). I identify with writers like Gertrude Stein, Kathy Acker and Sarah Kane because they questioned everything, played with form and language and always tried to push their work forwards.