JL Williams and Catherine Street | In Conservation

about, artists, JL Williams

For our final week of In Detail, we have been talking to JL Williams and Catherine Street, discussing their inspirations, creative process and the different ways in which their projects  take place.

A lot of your work is performative. When did you first start to become interested in Spoken Word? Are there any Spoken Word artists who you particularly admire?

JL Williams: I once saw the poet Michael Longley read at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and he was asked at the end of the event whether he thought poetry belonged on the page or on the tongue. He answered that he thought poetry was (pointing to his mouth) first oral, then (pointing to his ear) aural, and then for the page. This rang true to me.

In my experience, poetry comes as emotion, sound, observation, reflection, story, image. I hear the words and write the words that form in my head so I can remember them and share them with people who aren’t in the room with me. If people are in the room, then I am eager to share the work by reading out these written down words, or sometimes even singing them. I don’t separate the two (written/spoken) in the act of creation. I don’t think of some of my work as specifically for the page and some as specifically for performance, and I would not call myself a Performance Poet or a Spoken Word Artist. Performance Poetry and Spoken Word are diverse categories, and there are artists I admire and cultures associated with these forms that I enjoy very much. I respect these categories but in my own performance and curatorial work I strive to break down divisions between the written and spoken poetic word. I find it more rewarding and creative to think of how we share poetic work in a fluid and responsive way… what does the poem desire? What does the moment desire?

Catherine Street: I’m not sure that what J and I do or what I do solo could strictly be called spoken word but I guess spoken words are our medium , I’ve also done a lot of live work with no speaking and that’s how I started out with performance in 2005. I came to use the spoken word through writing – I was doing a lot of writing as part of my visual art practice and looking for a way to present it in a gallery setting. I was blown away by J’s poetry and her presence as a performer so I asked her to work with me on a project in 2012 that was firstly at Generator projects in Dundee and later at new media scotland. We found that our ways of working were very compatible although quite different. In terms of other artists, I really love Tim Etchell’s spoken durational works, also Ruth Barker is amazing; the playwright Sarah Kane also comes to mind.

Could you expand upon your collaborations with other artists? Have these emerged from preexisting relationships, or do you seek them out?

JL: Collaboration has been such a rich vein of exploration for me, and I suspect it began when I was very young and lucky enough to be part of an experimental creative learning programme in my school system that encouraged innovative and collaborative learning rather than more typical ‘kid taking tests at a desk’ elementary school teaching methods. I was also fascinated by theatre and its collaborative nature from a very young age and wrote plays even before I wrote poems.

My partner, James Iremonger (https://opul.tumblr.com), is a musician and composer (as well as a scientist) and weaving music and poetry together has always been part of the conversation that we are having in the world. My collaborative relationship with the artist Catherine Street (http://www.trg3.co.uk/stuartdfallonyahoocouk/) came very naturally and has been a beautiful experience. After seeing me read one of my poems she asked if I would help by reading one of her texts at a show at Generator in Dundee, and we decided to do some writing together as well for that performance. It was a very natural creative working relationship from the start, and we have been pursuing that exchange and dialogue ever since, most recently as part of the TRG3 Residency programme at Talbot Rice.

Working with other people in this way helps me to get out of the container of my own consciousness and it always feels like a learning experience. I invited the filmmaker Roxana Vilk (http://roxanavilk.com) to write and perform with me a few weeks ago, which was amazing as Roxana brought a rush of energy into the work that took my breath away – including singing and speaking in glorious Persian. I also created a new piece with the poet Iain Morrison (https://permanentpositions.wordpress.com) in which we took the ideas of opening, a musical structure and the exploration of the sound of singing glasses as starting points for the writing. Each new collaborator brings their own background, ideas and voice to the mix and it moves me to consider the generosity that takes place when these are shared and freely offered to the work.

I worked with Sophia Hao, the curator at Cooper Gallery in Dundee, to create the feminist writing project ‘content work produce form’ (https://groupcriticalwriting.dundee.ac.uk/content-work-produce-form-a-collective-writing-project/). The success of that collaboration led to a writing collective called ‘12’ in which the same writers (Tessa Berring, Anne Laure Coxam, Lynn Davidson, Georgi Gill, Marjorie Lotfi Gill, Jane Goldman, Rachel McCrum, Jane McKie, Theresa Munoz, Alice Tarbuck, Karen Veitch, JL Williams) are creating a year-long text that we will share publicly in 2018.

All making is a collaboration between the artist/writer/creator and the world/the work/the audience. The best of what people make comes from the origin within them, an authentic place of their being in the world. That’s what I try to connect with when working with someone or responding to a piece of art or someone else’s creation – the energy coming through the work from that place within. I aim to connect to that and make something with it, which hopefully then connects with someone else reading or hearing or looking, and which moves on into them. It’s that real energy flowing through the work that communicates.

I especially love working with artists and in art galleries, and really appreciate how Stuart Fallon at Talbot Rice has been embracing poetry as a valid form to include in exhibitions. Poetry is a type of art that can be looked at alongside painting, sculpture, drawing and film. Its content, context and formal structure allows it (in text, audio and performance) to earn its space in the gallery.

Collaborating with other art forms helps me understand more about poetry – for instance, it was very interesting working with the choreographer Jack Webb (https://www.dundee.ac.uk/djcad/exhibitions/events/dance-and-poetry/). I enjoyed thinking about how he uses images to build a dance piece, and comparing this to the way a poet uses images to build a poem. Most recently I’ve become fascinated by the idea of working with an architect on a poem-building/building-poem.

CS: I have had collaborations with artists Kate Temple and Greg Sinclair. With Kate it was very much through our pre existing friendship; our relationship was very much the core of the work. We had lived together for a time and then she moved to London to study so whilst we were apart we  sent each other a shared sketch book back and forth, and the ideas in that became the basis for collaborative installation work, video, sound works and drawings. We again ended up sharing a flat together when she was back in Edinburgh and organised a series of ‘happenings’ or exhibitions with invited guests. With Greg – a musician and theatre maker- also a good friend – we came together through shared interests in repetition, pattern and endurance.

I wanted to ask about the Opera you wrote. I was so interested to read that you wrote an opera. How did this project come about?  

JL: I was lucky enough to be selected for the Jerwood Opera Writing Programme 2014/15 (https://snapemaltings.co.uk/music/jerwood-opera-writing-programme/). 10 writers and 10 composers were brought together for three residential weeks over the course of a year, and on these intensive weeks we had a variety of exercises to complete and visits from experts in the field. We worked with professional opera singers, conductors, designers, musicians and producers to learn the intricacies of opera creation and ultimately staged short pieces in a final production. It was such a wonderful, immersive experience and helped forge strong relationships with other artists interested in the form. I am now friends with a wonderful composer called Samantha Fernando (http://www.samanthafernando.com), and we are developing collaborative and operatic projects.

Also on the course I met the composer Lliam Paterson (http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/culture/music/ones-to-watch-in-2017-composer-lliam-paterson-1-4332610), who recommended me to the new opera company The Opera Story (http://theoperastory.com). They commissioned me to write a libretto based on the story of Snow White, but using older, darker stories which pre-date the Disney version many people are familiar with from childhood. It was a potent narrative to start from, and the company was brilliant at supporting the creative process.

In a typical operatic process, the writing comes first and then the libretto is handed over, and the other work – the setting by the composers, the design and staging, the rehearsals – all happen with very little input from the writer. This collaboration was very different from the ones I am more accustomed to where I am in close contact with my partners throughout the project.

This meant giving up a certain level of control and trusting in the others involved, but there was an exquisite and unusual joy in travelling to London to see the opera for the first time, having not been very involved in the process for some months. It was as if the entire drama, music and scenery that had been running through my head when I was writing the libretto had been magically conjured – though of course it was not magic but the incredibly hard work of many talented people.

Some contemporary opera companies work more collaboratively throughout the project, and I suspect if I had been based in London I could have been more involved along the way, but it is good to have these different experiences. We need to be able to give the work away, which is what we do when we give it up to the minds of readers and audiences.

Following on from a review in The Observer (https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/feb/26/snow-opera-story-echo-rising-stars-philharmonia-salonen-tansy-davies-review), a theatre company in Brussels contacted us and asked if they could stage the libretto, partly translated into German, and performed as a theatre piece with music. That will be taking place in October and I hope to travel there to see the work take yet another form.

Could you tell me which of your performance pieces you have most enjoyed creating?

JL: Each is a new joy to create and has its own emotional body and intellectual skin.

Whether I’m writing for the page or for performance, on my own or with others, for sharing in an art gallery or on an operatic stage, each time it’s the act of bringing these new creations into the world and the hope they will connect with other human beings that is so stimulating and makes life, for me, worth living.

CS:  I think in the collaboration with J it would be the performance we did for the Alice Neel show at Talbot Rice for art late – we started writing only about 2 weeks before the event so the writing was very rapid and fresh. We also had a great audience on the night and the work was really fun to read as it had a lot of expression and humour to it. We did it twice over in the same evening which was also interesting.

In terms of my solo practice it would be a series of hour-long semi-improvised performances as part of the show Muscle Theory at Reid Gallery, GSA. It was an opportunity to see how the work evolved over time and the relationship with the audience was quite intimate.

To explore the work of both artists, click on the links below to browse their artist websites:

JL Williams


Catherine Street


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