Spread the Word interviews poet Victoria Adukwei Bulley, who is running our online course Singing the Body: Poetry of the Physical Self, from 25 April – 5 June 2019. We spoke to her to find out more…
Your upcoming course for Spread the Word will explore writing about the body in poetry. Could you tell us a little about how you approach writing about the body, for example in your poems ‘About Ana’, and ‘The Unbelievable‘, and what you’re planning for the course?
As someone who tends to be very comfortable daydreaming, writing about or through my body is a way of reminding myself to be present; a way of grounding myself in the physical experience of life and validating the joys – and pains – of being human. In ‘About Ana’ I am thinking about what it means to be a woman, the expansiveness and risks of this. In ‘The Unbelievable’ I am thinking about the ways that our bodies are sites of history and culture, what it means to feel at home in ones body in a certain place or nation, and what it means to place one’s body next to another body with a vastly different roster of significances.
How can poetry offer different perspectives in which to celebrate / interrogate / explore bodies, away from the dominant narrative of the media?
Poetry has a knack for bringing the out-of-focus into the centre. So often, the cadence and weft of a good poem has to do with the way the poet’s eye attends to nuances, or grey areas, and expresses a willingness to spend time with these – even play with them. The media propels itself by producing narratives with such speed that ultimately the stories – and the people these concern – end up distorted. Poetry isn’t immune to this, but I do think that impactful poems express an intention to sit with ideas. It’s in this practice of taking time to look – and feel – that the appropriate space is made to do justice to the intricacies of experiences or self-hoods that are often minoritised.
We often refer to a writers’ work as a ‘body’ of work, and I wonder what those bodies would look like or feel like if they were physical beings. How would you describe your current body of work?
At the moment I think my body of work is still finding its feet. Which is to say that I’m learning to dance with my writing in continually new ways, and feel that anything could happen. To continue the metaphor, I feel that my body of work is still warming up, stretching certain muscles and learning what feels good, and what doesn’t. This is a brilliant question and I’m going to take it with me as I continue to write.
During the course, participants will read poetry by Amy Key, Evie Shockley and Grace Nichols, among others. What do these poets do with the body in their poetry that inspires / interests you?
There are so many poets whose work I want to include and these are only three, but I love the directness with which Grace Nichols writes, particularly in her collection The Fat Black Woman’s Poems. I like how she engages with both history and myth when it comes to the female or feminine body. Amy Key’s ‘Isn’t Forever’ strikes me for its tender interiority and the sharpness of its images; how these images collectively articulate what loneliness feels like in the body, or how it feels as a bystander perceiving the ways that other people inhabit their bodies. Evie Shockley’s work feels relevant to me because of how, in her poems, one minute the body is just a body and next minute it’s the land, or the sea, or something more atomic or something much more vast.
In addition to your work writing and teaching poetry, you are also a filmmaker. How do the two forms work together?
Working with film is a love as much as a resignation. It’s an attempt to say what can’t be said with words, and in its most simple sense this often relates to colours. If you hear the phrase cobalt blue or fire engine red you may have an idea of what colours these are and perhaps you can even conjure a good image in your head, but this alone does not match up to what you might feel when you actually see something in those colours in real life. I’m still very new to experimenting with poetry and film, but I’m interested in the ways that a mood can be orchestrated by the combination or clashing of words with visual images, particularly when the word-image is not enough.
If you find yourself with writer’s block, what techniques help you start creating again?
I don’t know if I’ve been writing for long enough to say this with my chest but I’m not sure whether writer’s block is A Real Thing™ in and of itself (if so, I think it’s more rare than we’d believe), or one of two things which are not complicated and not catastrophic, just incredibly uncomfortable. The first might be that you’ve exhausted the writing process and you just need to refill. You do this by taking a break and reading other writers’ work, or reading a completely different genre, or maybe even taking the pressure off reading altogether for a moment if you find you can’t read for pleasure. The second would be plain old fear – of saying something that you are not ready to say yet. You try swerve away from that thing and write something else but that doesn’t work either, because your psyche knows better. For this I would say: write what needs to be said, however inelegantly, and put it away. If it pains you so much, burn it. And keep doing that until it’s not so scary anymore and you’re willing to let it live.
Finally, what are you currently working on?
At the moment I’m writing a lot that isn’t poetry and toying with some essays, in addition to editing some film work I made on a residency in Brazil last year, whilst toying with the concept of doing a PhD.
A former Barbican Young Poet, Victoria’s work has appeared in The Poetry Review, Ambit, and tonguejournal.org, in addition to featuring on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour. She won a Society of Authors Eric Gregory Award in 2018, and has held residencies internationally in the US, Brazil, and the V&A Museum in London. Victoria is the director of MOTHER TONGUES, an intergenerational poetry, film and translation project supported by Arts Council England and Autograph. She is a Complete Works Poetry and Instituto Sacatar fellow, and her debut pamphlet is Girl B.