Digital Poet-in-Residence Nasim Rebecca Asl interviews Helen Bowell and Jasmine Simms of Dead (Women) Poets Society.
Jasmine Simms and Helen Bowell are in the business of resurrecting the dead.
Through their live literature organisation Dead Women Poets, dozens of people come together at regular literary seances to learn about women writers of the past and hear their words. Selected poets channel the spirits of these women and bring them to life in their own work.
“Our events have an academic element to them, an element of lecture and an element of poetry reading. But they don’t feel like an academic lecture. There’s an element of poetry reading to them but isn’t just poem after poem after poem” explains co-director Jasmine Simms. “The ones we’ve liked best have been the ones where we’re at a bar and people can get drinks.”
“We really try to make it not just like a serious academic lecture”, adds fellow co-director Helen Bowell, “it’s fun as well. It’s just someone who’s writing now being genuinely enthusiastic and excited to tell you about someone who was writing before. It’s really engaging.”
“What I’m proudest of with our audience is that – it could be more diverse in other ways and we’re always working on that – we really don’t get just poets. We get so many people that have never been to a poetry event before.”
Established in 2015 by Helen and Jasmine along with Sarah Fletcher and Katie Byford while they were all still at Durham University, DWP began its life as a one-off event for Durham Book Festival. It was an instant hit.
“It was completely sold out. There was a queue all the way down the street to try and get in. There was just something about the branding I think – it was a lesson in branding for me!” says Jasmine.
The branding in question are the iconic illustrations by artist and friend of Jasmine’s, Lily Arnold. The illustrations of poets taking part in DWP events are small drawings of their faces, intended to mimic small portraits of dead people. Each one is unique, and Lily’s drawn them all.
The group had struck gold – there was something about the formula that really captured the imagination of attendees, and it’s been popular ever since. While people may flock to see headliners like Caroline Bird, Rachel Long and Helen Mort, the audience is introduced to writers that may have not featured on school syllabuses and may be completely new to them.
“I think people appreciate the fact we dig up the female canon and uncover invisible poets, and I think there’s more and more of an appetite for that.” says Jasmine. “But I think the people who love it most of all are the poets. As a poet you usually get asked to read your latest collection a lot. That can get quite exhausting, especially when you pass the year point and you’re no longer a fan of your latest collection!”.
While in-person events are a mainstay of DWP, they moved their Arts Council England funded tour online during the pandemic and worked on a different sort of project – a collaboration with Modern Poetry in Translation. Helen and Jasmine guest-edited the Autumn 2020 magazine. Only translations of the poems of dead women were accepted. The issue featured translations of poets such as the first recorded poet, Mesopotamian priestess Enheduanna, to Sappho, and the more contemporary Noémia de Sousa.
“We had a lot of first-time translators, which feels really important for the idea of bringing in more diversity of human life.” says Jasmine, who laughs as she continues: “If translators are just university educated, white, foreign language students then you won’t have that”
It’s this opening of the poetry world to new people that Helen’s especially happy about when it comes to DWP. “It’s probably the thing that I’m proudest of, in terms of our audience, that it’s not just poets. Poetry can be so insular, and people get so het up about tiny things in poetry. It’s fun and exciting that we’re able to reach audiences who wouldn’t normally consider themselves poetry fans”.
Helen’s thoughtful as she continues speaking. “It’s maybe starting to deconstruct the idea of ‘poetry is really hard’ and just for a certain kind of person. Because it’s just people chatting about other people’s lives and how they wrote.”
She’s excited as she talks about the changes she’d like to see to the curriculum. “Americans don’t really study anything before Whitman, so they don’t have this idea of poetry having to be about daffodils, or a sonnet, or rhyming. My new theory is that if none of us learned anything before 1900 until GCSE people would be so much more on board with poetry”.
While the two laugh off the idea that poetry will one day appeal to the masses in the way that music or comedy does – “it’s never going to be primetime TV” says Helen with a smile – they do want to broaden who DWP and the poetry it contains appeals to.
“it’s the thing we talk and worry about in DWP the most isn’t it”, Jasmine says and Helen nods in agreement. “I don’t like to say we want to be more diverse because what does that mean? But we don’t just want white audiences for instance”, she laughs.
Their next venture is trying to take the success and lessons from DWP and apply them to the musical world. “We’re going to hopefully match some composers with some dead women poets’ texts and see what happens”, says Helen, while Jasmine adds with a giggle “To classical music with a small c. I guess that world of song-writing and composing is only attended by musicians the same way poetry events are usually only attended by poets”.
The final séance in the Dead Women Poets Arts Council England tour takes place in Leeds on 23 September and will feature Malika Booker and Lizzi Hawkins. The dead women poets they’re resurrecting are yet to be announced – but Helen and Jasmine know who they’d most want to speak to if they could commune with the dead in an actual séance.
“The obvious answer is Sappho”, says Helen. “It’s just so fragmented. But would I want to be the person who ruins all that and says ‘okay guys, I’ve actually spoken to Sappho and this is what she meant?’”.
Meanwhile, Jasmine’s answer is a little closer, historically speaking. “I’ve always wanted to meet Stevie Smith. She’s not dead that long ago – I’ve met people that’ve met her and that’s partly why I want to meet her. She was such a maverick. I feel like she’d do something weird. Sappho is a more sensible answer, from a historian’s point of view.”
Helen smiles as she cuts in. “I guess the cleverest answer is that I’d like to commune with a dead woman poet who has been forgotten by history. Of which there will be thousands”.
And while some dead women poets may well be forgotten to time, the work Dead Women Poets are doing and the events they are holding help the memory of many more live on.