Interview _ Lydia Towsey

Lydia Towsey is a poet and a performer. Her previous commissions include: Freedom Showcase (Literature Network); Spoken Word All Stars Tour (Poet in the City); Beyond Words, U.K. tour of South African poets (Apples and Snakes); and, Three the Hard Way UK tour, alongside Jean ‘Binta' Breeze and Alison Dunne in 2014 and Jean Binta Breeze and Shruti Chauhan in 2015.

Poet, Performer and Spoken Word Artist, Lydia Towsey.
A Decibel commissioned artist, in 2008 Lydia Towsey was one of 50 international artists in residence at Stratford Theatre Royal.

Previously shortlisted for the Bridport Poetry Prize, she has spoken and performed everywhere ... from London’s 100 Club, Roundhouse and the House of Lords, to ... Plymouth University’s Zombie Symposium.

Her work has been featured in publications that include the magazines: The London Magazine, Hearing Voices and Magma Magazine; and the anthologies, Hallelujah for 50ft Women (Raving Beauties, Bloodaxe, 2016), Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015), Welcome to Leicester (Dahlia Publishing, 2016) and within Candlestick Press’ 10 Poems about ... series.

Lydia is currently UK touring the stage show of her collection, The Venus Papers (Burning Eye Books, 2015) produced by Renaissance One, supported by Arts Council England.

In addition to her practice as a poet/performer, Lydia works as a producer, specialising in literature, health, women and excluded communities and works as part-time Arts in Health Coordinator for Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust. She plays the ukulele, keeps a cat and is the chair/co-ordinator and rotational compere of WORD! - the longest running spoken word night in the Midlands, nominated as ‘Best Regular Spoken Word Night’ in the 2017, national Saboteur Awards.

In this interview, Lydia Towsey talks about the work she is doing.

How would you describe your writing?

My creative writing focuses on poetry and developing work for the page and performance.

I'm particularly interested in narratives surrounding gender, politics, woman and culture - from popular culture to counter culture and the other… to ethnicity and notions of national identity. I enjoy using humour, satire, wordplay, the fantastical and both visual and performance based techniques and approaches to explore these areas.

Who or what has had the most influence on you as a writer?

Who - undoubtedly, Jean Binta Breeze - who I was lucky enough to meet at an early point in my writing career and fall truly, madly, deeply in friendship and fan-girldom with. I was in my mid-20s and experiencing challenging personal circumstances. Jean taught me to look outside of myself and combine the personal with the public. I think of poems of hers like “Ordinary Mawning” pegging out the washing, while America bombs the middle east… now, with new resonance, of course.

Who, also - Scott Bridgwood, my life partner, figurative painter and key creative collaborator. Our work frequently crosses over, and has done so most recently in The Venus Papers. In this, I’ve developed my research in collaboration with Scott, drawing on his knowledge of figurative art and incorporating my work as a life model (within our relationship) to write around these and other experiences/areas of knowledge. He’s always the first person to hear a new poem and the closest thing to a Witch Doctor I’ve found.

Another big influence - around 10 years ago undertaking and completing an MA in Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent University, specialising in poetry and screenwriting. In doing so I was able to develop formal craft, technique and writing processes, which I’ve drawn and built on ever since.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

I began training as a visual artist, initially undertaking a Degree in Critical Fine Art Practice at Brighton University. Though ultimately not a path I pursued, I think I take quite a visual approach to my writing, from the arrangement of text, to style and content. In the case of The Venus Papers, the writing has been at least in part ekphrastic, directly responding to a painting.

Writing about Venus, I’ve also drawn on other backgrounds, specifically the past experience of anorexia, from my late teens through to my early 20s - with this naturally making me interested in such issues as mental health, body image, the media and cultural/societal pressures to conform.

Writing about Venus - as ‘everywoman’ but also ultimate traveller, I’ve also been motivated by my cultural background. Like many people in the UK, I come from a family of immigrants, on my father’s side mostly Hungarian Jewish, though my Great Great Grandfather was Mexican, his wife American - and there are people from/of other places and cultures too, my mother's Welsh. At the same time I'm English and a descendent of the British Empire and therefore implicated in a story of colonialism and post-colonialism. Given all that, a lot of my writing is interested in this question of cultural and national identity, its historical resonance and unfolding contemporary narratives - including Brexit and the current European refugee crisis.

I often write about my own experiences, so everything from being a being a zombie fan (long story), becoming a mother, working part-time for the NHS and keeping a cat - have made it into my work.

I'm currently working on a new collection exploring Englishness and so far, featuring all of the above. Later this year I'll be poet in residence for Literary Leicester and Arriva Buses - thinking about my dad's former occupation as a bus driver, so again working with personal material, but linking it to a broader context.

Lydia Towsey's The Venus Papers (Burning Eye Books, 2015) takes, as it's starting point, Botticelli's 15th Century painting, 'Birth of Venus' where Venus is depicted arriving on a shell at a Cypriot beach, and goes on to imagine Venus transported to the 21st century.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer so far?

Developing and touring my first full length collection, The Venus Papers, published by Burning Eyes Books (September 2015) and funded by Arts Council England. I first began writing Venus material, six or seven years ago, so the body of work has had a long gestation period and evolved a lot to take in many influences, personal writing breakthroughs, ideas and experiences. Seeing all that come to fruition has been enormously satisfying.

As a whole, The Venus Papers is about how we look - at ourselves, each other and the world - and how others influence the way we do so … from marketing and the media, to representations of women, the (fe)male gaze and the political machine.

The title sequence takes Botticelli’s infamous 15th century painting, "Birth of Venus", depicting Venus, Roman Goddess of love and beauty arriving on a Cypriot beach. It then relocates her to a UK beach in the 21st century and asks what might happen if she were to arrive here, now. So, there are poems like “Venus Walks into a Bar” … “Venus gets a job as a Glamour Model” … “Venus in Primark” … “Venus at Customs” and so on …

Botticelli’s Venus was the first recorded example of a female nude painted and exhibited life size and in many ways the medieval blueprint for every cover girl to come. Against this background and through the eyes and perspective of someone arriving as an outsider, naked and vulnerable, both show and book engage with society, politics, culture and identity ... re-framing familiar contemporary situations to try and look anew.

The tour is produced by Renaissance One and continuing until the end of 2017, with our next dates taking in Wiseword Festival, Canterbury; The Royal Albert Hall and JW3, London; Lancaster Literature Festival, and more.

WORD! - the poetry and spoken word night you chair and compere with fellow committee members, Tim Sayers, Pam Thompson and Richard Byrt - has just been shortlisted in the 2017 Saboteur Awards as the UKs "Best Regular Spoken Word Night".

Tell us about WORD!, its place within the local literature scene and how you feel about the nomination.

WORD! is the longest running spoken word night in the Midlands - est. circa 2001 by Apples & Snakes, and delivered independently by a voluntary committee/organisation since 2008. The night is formed of an open mic, plus booked act(s) and takes place at The Y Theatre, Leicester on the first Tuesday of every month, compered by members of the committee, Pam Thompson, Tim Sayers, Richard Byrt and I.

We take a diverse approach and programme across gender, age, cultural background and style.

Over the last year we’ve presented powerful local voices like Toby Campion, Shruti Chauhan and John Gallas, alongside artists from outside the city - including Mark Pajak, Malika Booker, Jean Binta Breeze MBE and Rosie Garland.

We’ve also programmed exciting local collectives - from a Writing East Midlands literature project, with refugee writers at City of Sanctuary - to a showcase from Project LALU, a group of female ukulele players, writing bilingually and committed to cultural cohesion and wellbeing.

Our open mic is generally busy and attracts both established and emerging voices from near and far. We aim to create a democratic and safe space, where a range of voices can play together, from the acclaimed, to the emerging and/or previously voiceless.

For many years the only spoken word night in Leicester, in more recent years it’s been exciting and energising to see the emergence of many other local literature projects - from our sister nights, Pinnng…K! (particularly open to LGBTQ+ audiences) and Moonshine Wordjam (led by WORD! and Bootleg Jazz and particularly focused on women and diverse artists) - to a range of other initiatives, connected and unconnected to us. In all cases, our work now also involves the voluntary distribution of a regular newsletter, praising, promoting and further supporting such other activity.

WORD! is the longest running spoken word night in the Midlands and has been shortlisted in the 2017 Saboteur Awards as the UKs "Best Regular Spoken Word Night".

What effect would winning the Sabotage Review “Best Regular Spoken Word Event” have on WORD!?

Winning the accolade of ‘Best Regular Spoken Word Event’ in the UK, would of course be a dream. It would really help in our current endeavour to secure public funding - and in doing so substantially grow our work and make it possible for us to reach even more people. If nothing else, being nominated has greatly impressed our cats/mothers/significant others - and provoked us to Instagram!

We find ourselves on a brilliantly inspiring shortlist - so can only hope to follow in our football team’s footsteps, be fearless and ‘do a Leicester’.

If we win, we’ll ask Gary Lineker to present the next WORD! … in his boxer shorts.

If people would like to, they can vote for us, and across other categories, here. Voting closes at midnight on April 30th.

How did you get involved with Journeys in Translation?

I was working on “Three the Hard Way - Part Two” - a show with Jean Binta Breeze and Shruti Chauhan, touring the UK in 2015 and exploring women, our three generations and continents of origin.

In the light of the ongoing and distressing European refugee crisis, we set ourselves and audiences the question “Who’s your neighbour?” - reflecting on such themes as multicultural Britain, globalisation, inter-dependence and migration. In a country built on both transatlantic slavery – and the free movement of Europeans into the New World – how should we define our responsibilities, where should we draw our borders and who should be entitled to what? We invited people from across the country to respond with poems, uploading recordings or links to text, via twitter.

At the same time and in response to the same situation, the call-out came via CivicLeicester for Poems for People, an anthology designed and planned to gather poems and micro-fictions in solidarity with the refugees - then (and still) receiving so little welcome in Europe and specifically of course, the UK.

Jean, Shruti and I were keen to share the call-out alongside our own, raise awareness and contribute to challenging the hostile political and media discourse growing up around the subject.

In addition to sharing the call, we invited project instigator, Ambrose Musiyiwa and co-editor, Kathleen Bell, to share their own poems in solidarity and speak about the book at our first tour date, Upstairs at the Western, in Leicester.

I went on to submit and have two poems placed in Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) the anthology that came out of the initiative, and have been keenly following the Journeys in Translation stage of the initiative's genesis.

As part of Journeys in Translation, my piece, "Come In" has been translated into six languages so far and I’ve seen it chalked onto the pavements of Leicester as part of one of CivicLeicester’s many activist happenings. I feel very proud to be connected to the project and grateful for its existence.

Lydia Towsey's "Come In" is one of the 13 poems from Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) that are being translated into other languages as part of Journeys in Translation. So far, the poem has been translated into six languages.

Which were the easiest aspects of the work you put into the project?

Unusually for me, I found it relatively easy to write the poems. I wrote both of those featured in Over Land, Over Sea, around the time our government announced it would shelter only 4,000 of the most severely affected refugees - a minuscule number comparative to need, resources at our disposal and offers made by fellow European countries. My feelings were so strong and the issues so specific that I was able to work quickly.

Post Brexit, the rise of racist attacks, and our government’s new announcement, that it will now take only 350 child refugees - the hardest thing is to not give in to despair and feel powerless. I deal with such fears by continuing to write and speak positively around the subject, donate what I can to charities supporting refugees, engage with activism and exercise my voting rights to effect the change I want to see.

Lydia Towsey's poem, "Come In", on the pavement at the Leicester Against War / Leicester for Peace vigil that, since December 2015, is held every Friday at the Clock Tower in Leicester in solidarity with people from everywhere who are bearing the brunt of war and those who are seeking refuge.

What would you say is the value of initiatives like Journeys in Translation?

Journeys in Translation is exciting and dynamic as both a political and an artistic endeavour. The poems and micro-fictions are in response to migration, a politically resonant and urgent subject - but then the words and poems are themselves migrating across language borders, and then migrating between stage and page - then onto the internet, pavements, placards and beyond. The project has great value in its reach, artistry, innovation and activism.

In translating poems over multiple languages and involving even more people, as translators and audience (in conventional and unconventional settings) it has the ambition and power to bring people together and unite diverse groups and communities - something that is of evident value and importance, and particularly so now.

Editor's Note:

Journeys in Translation aims to facilitate cross- and inter-cultural conversations around the themes of home, belonging and refuge.

The project encourages people who are bilingual or multilingual to have a go at translating 13 of the 101 poems from Over Land: Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) from English into other languages and to share the translations, and reflections on the exercise on blogs, in letters and emails to family and friends, and on social media.

So far, the 13 poems that are being used as part of the project have been translated into languages that include Italian, German, Shona, Spanish, Bengali, British Sign Language, Farsi, Finnish, French, Turkish and Welsh. Currently, over 20 people from all over the world are working on the translations. More translations and more languages are on the way.

In Leicester, Journeys in Translation will culminate in an event that is going to be held on September 30 as part of Everybody's Reading 2017. During the event the original poems and translations will be read, discussed and displayed.

Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for Those Seeking Refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) was edited by Kathleen Bell, Emma Lee and Siobhan Logan and is being sold to raise funds for Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)Leicester City of Sanctuary and the Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum.

Copies of the anthology are available from Five Leaves Bookshop (Nottingham).

More information on how Over Land, Over Sea came about is available here.


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