Lenni Sanders

Interview with Kim Moore

I’m delighted to be interviewing Dr Kim Moore for The Poetry Business as part of my digital residency – a fantastic poet and one of the organisers of Kendal Poetry Festival, which took place last month. Kim’s previous work includes ‘If We Could Speak Like Wolves’ (2012) and ‘The Art of Falling’ (2015) and her second full-length collection ‘All the Men I Never Married’ comes out this year with Seren, which I cannot wait to read. I saw Kim perform a reading of her ‘Poetry and Everyday Sexism’ PhD thesis over Zoom a few months ago and just thought it was so innovative and brilliant. Its format is similar to a choose your own adventure. Through a series of polls, the audience votes on what they want to hear next. Over the course of the reading, through the web of connections between all the pieces of poetry and creative-critical non-fiction, they watch (and participate in) a piece that by its nature will be different every time. One reason for this interview is that I felt very inspired by Kim’s work to try and make a piece of digital poetry that uses a choose your own adventure format, which I will be sharing as part of this residency. Watching her performance was deeply moving – bearing both fuel for collective anger, and solace and solidarity. I’m very grateful to Kim for talking to me, about ‘Poetry and Everyday Sexism’, and her work more broadly. This interview took place over email about a week ago. Kim’s reflective and generous responses offer a great insight into her writing, its themes and forms.

I’m very excited to hear that you have a new full length collection coming out with Seren this year, ‘All the Men I Never Married’ – could you tell me a bit about this book? I believe that the poems, which are numbered and tell the stories of interactions with different men and boys, are the poems that, in your creative-critical thesis, are interspersed with your critical prose.

First of all, I just wanted to say thank you for inviting me to take part in this interview with you – and I’m really looking forward to reading the content that you produce during the residency.  All The Men I Never Married currently contains 50 poems, all of which apart from the first which is a kind of preface are just numbered.  As you say, the poems are drawn from the creative-critical part of my PhD thesis and at the heart of each poem is an interaction, or experience with a man or boy.  In my PhD, I wanted to examine my own experiences of sexism and what happens when you put the white space of a poem around that experience.  The strange thing was that the things I was thinking of as just silly incidents that didn’t really mean much began to change as I was writing about them, and ‘sent’ myself back there.  I started to question my own definition of them as ‘silly’ or as ‘nothing’. When I turned them into a lyric poem, they suddenly began to present as being quite dark and upsetting!

Perhaps the best example of what I mean is when an ex boyfriend sent me a friend request on FB. I couldn’t believe it when I opened it up and realised it was a guy who had stalked me and ended up being kept in a police cell over night and cautioned for it when we were both 17.  I hadn’t really thought about it for years, but I could still remember it vividly.  At the time I was shocked he’d got in touch but also found it funny that he would dare – so the poem I wrote is in rhyming couplets with a fairly strict metre – which I think is because I was trying to find the funny side of it when I was writing it.  But the content – when I wrote out the content I realised it was a terrible story! This guy called fire engines out to my parent’s house in the middle of the night, he slashed my dad’s tyres, put stones up the exhaust of his car (I’m not sure that detail made it into the poem) and it came to a head when he started to send threats by text.  It’s something that sounds much worse than it feels – I remember at the time I was traumatised by it, and by the way his friends closed ranks and made it seem like I was the one in the wrong for finishing with him.  But now, from a perspective of years later, it’s as if I can’t feel that pain, and my over-riding instinct is just to laugh about it, to laugh it off. So I wanted to keep that rhythm and the metre because it fits with one of the coping mechanisms I’ve always used to deal with gender-based violence, which is humour.  I also know from my perspective now of being a feminist and writing and thinking about this stuff for a long time that there is nothing funny about it – that so many women put up with this kind of behaviour which can get worse and end up with actual violence or death instead of just threats to carry it out.

That’s a very long answer to your first question! But the other side of the poems and the book is this realisation that I was also writing about female desire and how female desire is allowed to exist in the world and in our bodies.  I didn’t realise that I would be doing this and this is one of the themes that emerged later, when I started to write down audience responses and reactions and realised that just writing about exes (plural) was still quite shocking to some people – that a woman would do that, or be open about it.  So in that sense, female desire and sexism started to become entwined and entangled around each other. 

Poetry and Everyday Sexism is so interesting in the way it involves the audience. Looking back on when I saw it, I feel like there were some difficult choices, or choices that make the audience reflect on why they want to hear about certain things. There are times where it is the audience’s choice, from a number of choices, that instigates a discussion about a traumatic subject. That the audience says ‘I want to hear about this’, and then you tell us about it. I think this is something that’s really significant about the form of the piece, which raises questions about the specific interaction of disclosing something to a listener, intimacy between audience and performer, and perhaps the balance of power as well.  (Of course as it’s a written thesis as well as a text for performance, so all of these questions apply to the relationship between reader and writer too.) I would like to hear more about what you think about this? 

I am really interested in that space between the performer and the audience, or between the reader and the writer.  One of the reasons I loved Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is because I think she plays with that space and with the role of the reader.  She somehow manages to move us between the positions of being a witness to the racial and gendered violence she is exploring, to also becoming a participant in it.  For me as a reader, this was revolutionary – it made me realise that I am complicit in racism in multiple ways – I have to be because I live in a society that is racist and I have to take specific and direct action to be anti-racist. 

I wanted to do something like this with my own work – we are all moving through this society that is fundamentally patriarchal and some of us manage to move through that society more easily than others – and I wanted to draw attention to our own complicity in that. 

In terms of presenting the reader with difficult choices, or making the audience reflect on why they chose what they did, this was very much at the forefront of mine.  I’m interested in moving away from the idea of the passive reader to an active reader – to a style of reading that implicates the reader and challenges them, and asks them to bring their own experiences and ideas to what they are reading.

You mentioned the balance of power – and this was something I didn’t expect.  I called the options that I gave the audience members ‘desire lines’ – I had this idea that I had made the desire lines, or the links between various sections of prose and poetry and so, although I was given the audience choice and control in what they read next, they were my desire lines, it was my map that they were following.  

What I didn’t predict was that there are always parts of any creative work or book that you don’t read every time. When I’m reading from my first collection, I only read from the poems which examine domestic violence if I feel able to, if I’m strong enough mentally to withstand anything that happens afterwards – questions from the audience for example – good or bad intentioned.  But with the Poetry and Everyday Sexism event, I had no control of what was going to happen next or what would be read next – and there were moments where that was really frightening. I think I’ve done three of these events now and there were times in all of them when I didn’t want to read what I had to read but did it anyway.

An audience member wrote to me after one event and said she felt deeply uncomfortable and as if she was participating in the violence I was reading about – and it was this that actually made me feel better! Not that she felt uncomfortable, but I found it so interesting that I’d succeeded in that moving of the reader from a place of passivity to feeling implicated somehow.  I think that feeling of discomfort is the place for potential change and transformation – which isn’t my idea, I think it’s bell hooks – so for me, that place of discomfort in the reader and the writer is the place I want to get to.

You were recently booked to perform Poetry and Everyday Sexism for the Manchester Game Studies Network. I think it’s so cool to have performed it there – was the audience there predominantly poetry readers already, would you say, or were there people who were definitely coming from more of a games perspective? And what are your thoughts about the relationship between poetry and games?

I think there were probably more academics and people interested in gaming and language in general than at the other two events – although I have no actual evidence to back this up! One of my regrets is that I didn’t think to do an audience survey after any of the events, which was a bit remiss – and it’s something I’d like to develop more of – as I think one aspect of the reading that was missing for me was hearing more about the experiences and reactions of audience members to what they’d heard.  I’m thinking of developing something that is a bit of a larger project around this but I haven’t got very far with that yet- it’s still percolating in the back of my head, but I’d like it to involve audience interaction in the same way as the Poetry and Everyday Sexism did, but also a space for people to respond more and talk about the issues that it raises. 

I think the relationship between poetry and games is really exciting and it feels like an area where there is still so much scope for more research.  Poets like Jon Stone are working in this area and producing some really exciting stuff.  I like that it foregrounds the idea that language is a material which can be manipulated, and again that it asks or invites, or demands that the reader becomes more involved than if they were reading a traditional poem.

One aspect of Poetry and Everyday Sexism that I found moving, and also very interesting as an artistic choice, is that you include poems that are about audience responses to other poems when you performed them live. Often those comments from audience members were very revealing about how they interpreted your poems, and/or how they looked at the world (sadly often in sexist ways}. Will future performances of your thesis include any new accounts of conversations you have had with audience members? I imagine it might be hard to weave any more text into the complicated structure of the piece.

Thank you! I think this is something I’ll always keep writing about, and starting in August, I’ve been given an Arts Council ‘Developing Your Creative Practice’ grant to work on writing some lyric essays.  So yes, it would be great if I can start to document some of the new accounts with audience members.  I’m still in talks with a publisher about producing the thesis and what form that might take, so it may be that I end up adding further sections in there…

I recently read your pamphlet ‘If We Could Speak Like Wolves’ and really enjoyed it. One connection I felt like I noticed between it and your thesis (as well as your poetic voice of course!) were a vividly rendered, anecdotal quality, especially in poems like ‘Hartley Street Spritualist Church’ and its wonderful depiction of a psychic reading, ‘Train Journey, Barrow to Sheffield’, and ‘Picnic on Stickle Pike’. That last one was one of my favourites from this pamphlet, in which the speaker attempts to describe a picnic without mentioning the couple they caught in flagrante, and in the end cannot help but talk about them. I think there is there is such a sense of wit, frankness, and tenderness towards ‘that couple, / middle aged, embarrassed, / hiding their faces in each other’s tight embrace’. I love that final image: ‘the woman was a long necked bird, bending / its proud neck to feed, and the man lay / like an expensive table’ which is so absurd and made me laugh but is also quite beautiful! You describe scenes, people and events with such clarity. ‘Picnic on Stickle Pike’ made me think about the frankness and tenderness in some of the poems from Poetry and Everyday Sexism about women’s sexuality and about desire – I felt like until she is seen, and becomes ashamed, the woman in the poem is in an authentic, joyful moment with her partner. Would you like to share anything about this and who would you say are some other great poets of women’s desire? 

Thanks for those kind words about my pamphlet! You know, that Picnic on Stickle Pike poem started because my husband jokingly did say ‘why don’t you write about this beautiful scenery instead of that?’ which of course made me want to not do as I was told.  But I’m glad that you see the beauty in that moment as well!

I guess those words you’ve used to describe the woman’s desire as authentic and joyful is how I would love to think of female desire and hopefully do think of it more and more in that way, as I get older! But as a young woman, I may have had those moments with a partner, but it was always frightening what would happen after the relationship finished and how desire was used against you – the worst thing was to be called a slag or a slut, and the second worst was to be called frigid! I hope things have changed for young women now but I’m not sure. 

I wanted to write more moments of female desire in the book – and actually they are the poems I find the hardest to read out – which again, is interesting to me, because I think that is what Audre Lorde calls the ‘oppressor within’ – I’m judging myself for those moments!

Poets of female desire – I would say Sharon Olds of course is one of the obvious choices – but in the UK, I’m really excited about some of the new work that I’ve heard from Fiona Benson who is really going into uncharted territory I think – she is writing about female desire in young women, which I think is often just ignored or not admitted to.  Teenage boys are allowed and expected to feel desire – but I’m not sure the same can be said of girls.  There’s a great book by Dorianne Laux called The Book of Men which I think also inhabits this territory. 

And by a strange coincidence, I’ve just been reading Issue 65 of The North and found these three beautiful poems by Rebecca Althaus – the first one, ‘The Worship of Your Body’ I found very powerful.

I’m interested in poets that are using the ‘female gaze’ to write about desire. I’m not really interested in poetry that is replicating the male gaze of subject/object (although I am interested in poems that walk the boundary between making the other a subject rather than an object!)   Jill Soloway (producer of ‘I Love Dick’ and ‘Transparent’ on Amazon) defines the female gaze  as a ‘socio-political justice-demanding way of seeing’, as a way of ‘privileging the body and emotion’ and lastly, a way of ‘returning the gaze, not just in the act of looking back, but to say “I see you seeing me”. 

Going back to Fiona Benson’s poem about the desire of young women – that idea of ‘I see you seeing me’ is scorched through that poem, and I find that very moving and exciting.  

February’s Kendal Poetry Festival, ran by yourself and Clare Shaw, was a fantastic achievement! It had a great line up, and it was so good how you used online features like screensharing and captioning to make the events accessible. Were there any particular events that stood out to you, as favourites? And is there anything you’d like to say about running it?

I feel as if picking favourites would be wrong, in the same way it’s wrong to pick favourite children! Probably my favourite part of the festival is the energy and magic that is created by programming two poets together – that is something I stumbled on in the very first festival – I didn’t understand it and did it almost by accident.  In the first festival I programmed Clare Shaw and Hilda Sheehan together – two very different writers – Clare’s work is powerful, plays with testimony and I would call it ‘poetry of witness’ and uses lots of anaphora.  Hilda’s is surreal, funny, playful but also has this dark undercurrent because she is making fun of the truth of the world.  Together, it felt as if the room lit up. 

So the pairings of the poets are very important for me, and perhaps the easiest moment to see this was in the Fiona Benson and Jay Bernard reading, when Jay read something about vulnerability in response to Fiona’s work, which I found very moving.

I also really loved Jon Stone’s performance of digital poetry and really think he deserves a much wider audience for what he is doing.

I am only just recovering from the festival. I’ve ran three before and this was the hardest one – it was nine days instead of three, it was all online, and I also had a toddler to contend with of course! So I’ve basically been ill since it finished, and am only just starting to feel vaguely human. 

I’d love to hear more about your poetry workshop you’re doing for The Poetry Business in April – what will you be doing?

This is the hardest question of all as I don’t know yet! It’s about writing about other people and the space between us so that’s what the focus will be.  There will be lots of reading of poems and lots of writing and a few opportunities to share back what’s been written during the workshop, and other than that, I need to go away and plan it first.

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