We’re back! Episode 121 is now available to download wherever you get you podcasts.
For this episode I’m in Walthamstow, east London talking to experimental poet and artist Astra Papachristodoulou about the importance of collaboration and the visual look of words on a page in her practice. Astra is pretty determined not to be restricted by conventional definitions of what it is to be a poet and happily exists on the boundary of different media, so it was interesting to hear why she’s so keen to introduce rules and constraints into her writing.
Below is a transcript of the episode, minus the poems that Astra reads. If you’d like a complete transcript then click here.
Transcript by Christabel Smith
Host: David Turner – DT
Guest: Astra Papachristodoulou – AP
DT: Hello, welcome to Episode 121 of Lunar Poetry Podcasts. My name is David Turner. It’s been a while since we last talked. How are you lot doing? A lot has been happening since episode 120, back in November 2018, including me and my wife moving back to London from Bristol. I say London, but it’s actually Walthamstow, which is almost the countryside. Taking the break from releasing new episodes also coincided with the end of the funding I was receiving from Arts Council England, so one last thank you to them for their support.
This means I’ve gone back to my previous life as a joiner, a furniture maker, and if you like early 20th-century, modernist furniture, made from curved plywood, then check out the company I work for, Isokon Plus. I mentioned the move and going back to full-time wok because it’s relevant to the shape the podcast will take in the future. Realistically, I’m only going to have time to release episodes quarterly. I might be able to turn around some shorter, bonus episodes, but I think a new one every four months is what I can manage around life, work and my own writing, without it becoming a burden.
I hope that while I’ve been away, you’ve all been supporting and listening to our companion podcast, A Poem A Week, produced by my wife Lizzy, in which poets read their own poems or a favourite by someone else. If not, you can rectify that straightaway, innit? You can find that series wherever you get your podcasts or over at our website, lunarpoetrypodcasts.com, where you can also find a list of over 50 poetry podcasts, produced in the UK and Ireland.
Also on the website, you can find a full transcript of this episode alongside over 80 more episodes, link in the episode description. For today’s episode, I’m in conversation with an experimental poet, performer and artist, Astra Papachristodoulou. We met up in Walthamstow last month to chat about the importance of collaboration and the visual look of words on a page in her practice.
Astra is pretty determined not to be restricted by conventional definitions of what it is to be a poet and happily exists on the boundary of different media, so it was interesting to hear why she’s so keen to introduce rules and constraints into her writing. I was actually quite nervous in the build-up to recording in such a long break, but I am very happy to be making episodes and chatting to you through your phones, tablets and computers again.
If you like what you hear, then do me a solid one and tell your friends, family, colleagues, etc. Word-of-mouth recommendations are still by far the best way for podcasts to reach new listeners and I say this, not for my own benefit, but for all the wonderful guests that have featured on this series. I’ll be back at the end of the episode, but for now, here’s Astra with a couple of poems.
[Download transcript for poems]
DT: Thank you very much, Astra. Thank you for joining me on the podcast today. I’m going to start off with a question I haven’t asked in many years on the podcast. When this series first started a long time ago, listeners will know the first question in every interview was ‘Why poetry?’ We stopped asking that because it felt like it became too gimmicky, even though it threw up some really interesting answers. Just knowing a little bit about your work and having chatted to you a bit before, I felt like it was a good start for our conversation. So I just wanted to ask you: ‘Why poetry?’
AP: So it’s interesting. I don’t know if we’ve talked about this before, but I did my BA in Theatre Studies at Surrey, but I’ve always been fascinated with writing. As a child, I started writing small, one-act plays when I was at high school. At one stage, one of them as well at school, which was cool, and when I came to the UK to study theatre, I just had that fascination for writing and working in a theatre environment in the future, but I realised that theatre relies a lot on teamwork and you’re dependent a lot on the help of others with staging and I find I enjoy working alone most of the time.
So I felt like poetry worked for me in that way. You know, I get that inspiration at 3am. I bring my laptop, I write and it’s a solitary activity, which you can then share if you want to. With collaborations for example, you can use that writing that you produced alone and work alongside someone else and get that piece of teamwork, which I think is very important. Or you don’t and you just go and share it by yourself, which is fine. Either way, but personal preference, I chose that path because it worked for me.
DT: It’s interesting to hear you talk about the appeal of being able to work alone, but having seen you almost exclusively perform as part of a collaboration with other people, I suppose there isn’t a conflict there, is there? It might to seem to some people that it’s a contradiction, but in the initial work and initial writing, it’s nice to have that freedom to work alone and not have the restrictions of having to meet up and be part of all these things.
AP: With collaborations, especially with poetry, I find that it’s very rare that people would intervene with your work. It’s usually people bringing their works together and not really intervening with each other’s writing or each other’s practice because you have a lot of collaborations with music, with visual arts, etc, so it feels a bit more organic this way, especially if you like having control over your work, which I personally like.
DT: I don’t want to guide the conversation too much, too early, but we may come on to definitions of poetry a bit later on and what it means to be a poet and write poetry, but at this initial stage, if we ignore those wider questions, in your own personal work, your own personal practice, do you see yourself as a poet that collaborates? Or do you see yourself rather as an artist that collaborates with other artists and you just happen to have already written poetry? Because the performances I’ve seen you in don’t seem to be that rooted in a regular poetry tradition, in this country at least.
AP: I don’t see myself as one thing, to be honest with you. With each collaboration, it’s like I have a different facet. Most of the time, I see myself as a poet working with someone else. It often happens that I work with people from different disciplines, like recently, one of the performances you attended at the Poetry Café was with two great musicians, Oliver Fox and Sean Tomlin.
So most of the time, I see myself as a poet working with people from different disciplines, but there are times I act as an artist, especially when it comes to visual poems, because I work around visual poetry a lot and I see it more as art, rather than poetry. For example, when I take part in exhibitions, I see myself more as an artist than a poet. It’s the beauty, especially of experimental, avant-garde poetry, the definition is so broad, you don’t have to feel pressured to squeeze into one box.
DT: I’ve got something else I want to lead on to, but as a follow-up question, after you finished your BA, at what point did you find this avant-garde slash experimental scene? You’re quite heavily involved with collaborative projects with the same artists and writers and that happens naturally to everyone, we all find our own little niche. What do the kids say, you find your tribe on Twitter or whatever? How quickly did you find that and did you feel you could have done the same thing within theatre, or did it have to happen within poetry?
AP: I think a lot of it depended on the tutors I worked with in both of my degrees. I really didn’t feel that my tutors in theatre connected me to a wider network outside the university, whereas as soon as I joined the MA of Poetic Practice at Royal Holloway, it was under the leadership of Robert Hampson, who is fantastic, by the way. He was, I think, the key who introduced me to people like Steven Fowler, who I work with regularly, and that network of avant-garde poets.
I know a lot of poets that have stumbled across the scene, but it’s really hard for it to happen organic[ally] without someone grabbing you by the hand and showing you the ropes and introducing you to this network.
DT: Coming back to what you mentioned before about visual poems and how that’s a big part of your work, I’ve interviewed quite a few people as part of the series whose visual work is as essential to them as their written work or their performance work. It’s obviously a very hard thing to talk about in an audio medium, so on the podcast, we tend to, not brush over it, but it’s hard to explain what you mean without really lengthy descriptions of what a poem might look like.
I think it’s worth talking about because you started by reading two fantastic poems from your pamphlet Astropolis through Haverthorn Press and they are very, very visual and concrete in style and structure and it would be a shame to have any readings and have that book in the room and not talk about the visual structure in some way. Maybe you could explain what the book is, first of all, and how it came about? I think that might give some insight as to what it looks like.
Usually, along with the transcripts that accompany the episode, there are always transcripts of the poems, but maybe I should add images instead, so whoever’s listening could also go over to the transcript now and bring up the pdf and see the images of the poems we’re talking about, it might be useful.
AP: I started developing Astropolis while I was at the Poetic Practice course actually. That was my final creative project. It’s supposed to be songs from a neo-futurist opera and I was inspired by the Italian Futurists, who I stumbled across while doing the course. They were fascinated with technology and I think technology today is a very vital part of our lives, more than ever. I started researching the neo-futurist term to see whether there were any echoes of the Italian Futurists today and I didn’t really find anything solid in poetry, either a book or someone who focused their practice on that particular movement.
So Astropolis is really an experiment of visual poems that try to define what neo-futurism is and although technology plays a very important part of the project, ecology plays just as important a role because I think now, with climate change, technology can be used in a positive way to try and help reduce some of the ecological damage. I try to express that notion through responding to smart buildings, so neo-futurist architecture.
Each of the poems is trying to embody the structure of that building. So there is a play between architecture and poetry, but it is a project in progress and I would like to explore that notion a bit more, hopefully. I’m starting a PhD in September in neo-futurist poetics, I think that will give me that space to explore Astropolis a bit more and hopefully come up with an even larger work of visual poems.
DT: One thing I’ve noticed through reading your work and seeing your performances is that there are a lot of imagined and fantasy worlds you’re writing about. We’re not going to talk about Space just yet, I’m going to save that for the second half, but was it necessary for Astropolis to have a very real root for each poem that existed in this world, in order to talk about what an imagined future might be?
AP: I think that in order to explore what the future might hold, I have to look back at the past and the buildings hopefully help with providing that past element in the work. The book really plays with the past, the present and the future and this is one of the elements I thought might help build that three-dimensional space for the poems.
DT: I thought it was a really interesting hook as well, to use what are, at the moment, ultra-modern and brand-new buildings, but placing them, because the book is written at what point in the future?
AP: So 2092.
DT: 2092, so then they suddenly become historical artefacts, even though to us, they are ultra-modern. It was an interesting starting point and as a bit of further clarification, each poem uses a different building from around the world. Why do you think that ecology and the environment play such a big role in the work of avant-garde writers at the moment? It seems to me that environmental issues are reflected far more heavily in the experimental writing I’ve seen than in more mainstream stuff.
AP: That’s an interesting question, actually. Straightaway in my head, I’m identifying all these really interesting, experimental poets, who work around ecology, like Sarah Cave or Julia Rose Lewis. Probably, it’s because of the form of experimental poetry, although a lot of these writers don’t focus on the visual element. I do think the form of concrete poems helps express notions a bit better.
DT: Do you think it feeds into this attraction to collaboration as well? I’m highly aware I might be accusing mainstream poets of not caring, and that is not what I’m doing, but perhaps through that desire to collaborate with other artists and be part of a wider community, it’s quite natural that it then links your work into thinking about being part of a community. Your practice itself is not…it seems to be with experimental writers that their practice is very rarely inward-looking, which is quite in mode at the moment, it’s quite fashionable for more mainstream poetry.
AP: I agree with you, in a sense. Straightaway, I’m thinking of the European Poetry Festival, the last one that happened in April. There were quite a few poets that performed collaborative pieces around eco-poetry. All I’m thinking is Vilde Valerie Bjerke Torset for example, that literally pulled apart pots of Basil, which was quite an interesting image. I definitely think these outward notion of collaboration probably helps target subjects that concern us all and affect the community. Climate change, that multiplicity of voices is quite beautiful. That’s probably why you see more eco-poetry in avant-garde poetry at the moment. Maybe. That’s just my idea.
DT: Now would be a good time for a second reading.
AP: I’m going to read an extract from my neo-futurist manifesto, which was commissioned by Sidekick Books and was developed for their No, Robot, No anthology. It’s amazing, please go get a copy.
[download transcripts for poems]
DT: Two initials points come into my head. Because we said we were saving the reality of Space and what exists outside this planet until the second half, we should start there. As we established in the first half of this conversation, or at least established our own beliefs between the two of us about the proliferation of ecologically-minded poetry within the avant-garde and how we writers, because I put myself in that circle of writers as well, if we’re concerned with our place on this planet and amongst other human beings, your writing seems to take a leap outside that atmosphere, and consider where we are all sitting in the galaxy and wider universe, I was wondering, as I started the conversation with ‘Why poetry?’ maybe we should say ‘Why space?’
AP: Because I think Space is the next stage and it is going to happen at some point, I don’t know when, but it is going to happen, moving to exo-planets and many scientists, like Stephen Hawking, for example, he was the one that predicted human race eventually moving to exo-planets, which is quite a fascinating idea. I really wish I lived at this point where we were packing our bags and moving to Mars. I wouldn’t mind the location, it’s this exciting space, planet in Outer Space. How would you feel about moving to Space?
DT: I don’t spend that much time thinking about Space, but I got a bit distracted during your answer. I was at a talk recently, hosted by the fantastic writer Isabel Waidner, and they were talking about how during the 80s, splits between different kinds of literature became drawn out via class and educational divide and how sci-fi was seen as a lower form of writing and how it was deemed that was what you would write if you failed at university, imagining what it was like.
Coming very much from a working-class background, it surprised me because I had no interest in sci-fi or anything like that at all, but it’s also interesting to think about those class distinctions between experimental and more mainstream literature. I think what I’m concerned with is that I’m not against moving somewhere else, I’m just hoping we haven’t messed things up so much that we have to. It brings up ideas of what utopia might be and whether there’s just no chance of that, here.
It does seem for a lot of experimental writers, this idea of imagining some sort of utopia seems to weight quite heavily in people’s work and that’s maybe reflecting the damage and why they’re so obsessed with the damage that’s happening now to the planet.
AP: It’s been a very popular subject. Straightaway, I’m thinking of Burning House Press and how they recently published an issue edited by Paul Hawking, which was around the future and space. There were some really lovely contributions to that issue. With No, Robot, No! anthology, there is a very big selection of writers concerned with the future, I suppose. I don’t know whether the political situation at the moment gives you an extra incentive to try and imagine how things are going to be in the future.
Obviously, with my work, I’ve gone too far away from the immediate future. That is hopefully something that concerns a lot of people at the moment and might be interesting for readers out there.
DT: The second thing I was thinking as you were reading that, whilst I put myself into the same writing tradition as you, one thing I’ve never been able to get my head around is why the avant garde are so obsessed with manifestos. Even using them like a crux to build an idea around, regardless of whether you believe what you just read is an actual manifesto that you wish people would follow, this idea of being instructive as to how people should think about the world around them. I’ve always found it quite strange, this openness and the liberalism that’s inherent in experimentation, but then it often comes with a list of instructions.
AP: Yeah, probably because a lot of conceptual poetry is a series of instructions. I look back at myself and the way I produce some of my poetry, by setting rules and going out there and following those rules to the very end. That’s probably why. A lot of avant-garde artists do like restricting themselves to a box, to be able to then escape it, in a way. I’m not speaking for everyone, that’s just my experience. I love instructions and I like a good manifesto as well. I’m not saying that my manifesto is good, but it’s interesting, it’s a form of prose I really enjoy.
DT: You definitely see the attraction you have towards constraints in your writing come through your two pamphlets from Sampson Low, Almost A Dream and Almost A Nightmare. It might be a natural point to start talking about those two small booklets as well. I’m not going to explain your own work to you. Maybe you could tell me and the listeners about the form and the structure and what role musical theory and notation play in how these two booklets were put together.
AP: So I would say with both Almost A Dream and Almost A Nightmare, they are what I call collaging poems. Not all of them. The one I read on A Poem A Week last week, Heliolatry, it was a bit more language-focused, but a lot of the others are comprised of lines, which most of the time I have Googled or noted down. The restriction I set around those, to answer your question, so with Almost A Nightmare, I try to focus around language, about the Moonlight Sonata, the third movement, then text around the Great Fire of London and then sexual texts and try to extract language from sources that were discussing these three themes and bring them together to create something hopefully unique.
With Almost A Dream, I was a bit more free in the process of making them and although a lot of them are collaging poems, their sense of instruction wasn’t as strong. But I think a great example of what you’ve just said was a book that’s going to be published by Guillemot Press in September called Stargazing, which I have restricted myself to a small window of a set number of lines and the whole book is comprised of ‘aperture’ poems, which fall into a very simple, clean square and that’s probably the most restrictions that I’ve set to myself. Usually, although I set a list of instructions while creating poetry, nothing was as restrictive as these aperture poems.
DT: So that square you’ve decided to restrict yourself to, is that a void into which you’re writing or are you using that open square to select smaller pieces of writing from a larger body?
AP: A lot of the writing within that square space is supposed to be part of a larger text. It’s a bit like a black-out poem in reverse, if that makes sense, but metaphorically, it’s supposed to be a window through which you watch the sky at night and the way then the stars start to come together and create images, so I think the form works with the content because the poems are around the story of Icarus and Daedalus, which many of the listeners might know about. Yes, I do think form helps bring the content alive.
DT: So this next book is your own little poetic telescope, is it? You’re scanning the sky with it.
AP: That’s a great way to describe it, yes.
DT: I really like that, I’ve always been attracted to artworks where the majority of the work is obscured and you can only view parts at a time. It’s quite interesting this point, also, I suppose that’s ultimately where the whole conversation is revolving, it’s nice that it’s come up at this point, how much of your work is informed by the form and that it’s not only a very interesting way to display the work at the end, it’s a vital part of the construction of the work as well.
AP: Yes, 100%. Form for me is sometimes more important than content. Maybe it’s because I have an inclination towards visual art. Inclination’s not really the right word, probably a taste for visual art and the aesthetic is very important for me. I usually try and marry those two flavours of form and content.
DT: It’s nice to come across a person’s work who’s clearly happy to live on the boundaries and intersections of two ways of working and not being afraid of… You hear a lot from artists about not wanting to be pigeon-holed between one thing and the other, but that’s not quite the same thing as being happy to live in the gaps between as well. I think sometimes that can be considered as a negative view or interpretation of your work, or somebody’s work, but it’s quite nice when you see people fully embrace it like you do with your work. It’s visual and it’s literary and it’s performance and what comes out at the end is what it is and it’s nice to see you stand by it and be quite proud of what it is at the end of it.
AP: Thank you. Yes, for me, it’s very important to keep yourself open to things. I think with the restriction of performing visual poems, with your question, that popped up in my head straightaway, some people may be wary of creating visual pieces because if they’re strong performers, I think that freedom of expression sometimes opens doors you didn’t know existed. What I found with my visual work, at first my worry was how do I perform these?
At the launch of Astropolis last year, actually it was last year to the day at the Peckham Pelican, my worry was how do I perform these poems? I have to fill a 15-minute reading slot and how do I do that? That opened a whole door of me thinking of creating object poems and bringing those on stage, rather than me trying to extract some of the lines from the visual poem, which wouldn’t really work because the form was just as important as the content for those poems.
It opened that door for me to think of object poetry and the use of props to be able to create that same aesthetic that you’re trying to portray on the page. I would definitely encourage people to think of form as well, because it’s quite liberating.
DT: Something I’ve been thinking about a lot with my own writing is how to embrace the contradictions in what I think about because it’s quite interesting, in the last 10 or 15 minutes hear you talk about your love for instructions and constraints and finish by talking about freedom to use props and do whatever you want. I think it’s nice to come to a point where you realise that these contradictions are integral to what you do.
I think I’ve spent a lot of my writing trying to define one way that I think about things and that just isn’t true, that isn’t how I live my life. I don’t have one way of thinking about anything in life, I don’t know why it should be part of the way I write as well. I’m not going to say too much more because I’m going to end up plugging my own writing and that’s not what I’m here for. Unfortunately, we’ve come to the end of the conversation. Thank you so much for joining me, it’s been really fascinating.
AP: It has been and thank you so much for the invitation, it’s been great.
DT: We’re going to finish with a third and final reading.
AP: Since we’ve been talking about restrictions in writing and we mentioned Stargazing, which is going to be out by Guillemot Press in September, I thought I might share with you some of the poems from the book.
DT: Hello again. You stuck with us to the end. Grab yourself a biscuit as a reward, or a cookie or whatever. That was the wonderful Astra Papachristodoulou. Do yourself a favour and go and see her perform if you get the chance or at the very least, check her out on You Tube. If you’d like to get yourself one of the pamphlets, you can buy Astropolis from Haverthorn Press, both Almost A Nightmare and Almost A Dream from Sampson and Low. As you heard at the end there, her latest will be Stargazing, out through Guillemot Press later this year. Astra has a fantastic page on her website, dedicated to her publications, so I’ll link to that in this episode description and I’ll also link to the next couple of things I’m going to mention.
As we’re talking of experimental poetry pamphlets, my wife Lizzy and I just published a collection of 10 poems by me and 10 accompanying illustrations by her. It’s called 10 Cups of Coffee and you can get yourself a copy through Hesterglock Press.
If it’s of interest, I was recently interviewed by Naomi Woddis for her show The Two Of Us, in which she talks to writers and artists about how they manage their mental health. We chatted mainly about how writing poetry and producing this podcast both impact and help my mental wellbeing. I really enjoyed the chat, but I think I will always remain too embarrassed to listen to the recording. You can do that for me. Let me know what you think.
I think that’s it for episode 121. You can continue to follow us on our website, lunarpoetrypodcasts.com, at Lunar Poetry Podcasts on Facebook and Instagram, @silent_tongue and @apoemaweek on Twitter.
Until episode 122 and the autumn, be good to yourselves.
End of transcript.