Ruby Lawrence

Creative multidisciplinarity

Tallulah Howarth and Ruby Lawrence in conversation

12 February 2024 11:37 

I loved listening to a hypnotic snippet of your new song Time is Not a Crime on your Instagram, the lyrics of which describe time as a ‘thing that passes by’. This got me thinking about temporality and creative practice in general. As a multidisciplinary artist, do you experience different temporalities when working across different mediums? Do you find that certain forms allow you to do certain things with time? There’s also the practical matter of how comparatively quick it can be to write poetry. As Audre Lorde articulated, this ties poetry to class through the possibility of it being created amidst full-time work, childcare, and so on – it costs nothing to make, a poem can be scribbled on the back of a receipt on a bus journey. In this sense, I guess different forms of art make their own unique and multi-faceted demands on us as makers. Any thoughts? Whilst you’re at it, could you give me (and readers) a run down of the various mediums you create from/play with, as an artist? 

13 February 2024 13:02 

A lot to sink my teeth into there! This is also something that has been crossing my mind a lot lately. Specifically, that time is such a thing of privilege.  Whilst a poem can be a quick-fire form, I think of Mary Oliver’s need to spend abundant time walking in nature for inspiration, asserting we should “never hurry through the world / but walk slowly, and bow often.” I think of my own invaluable time spent introspecting, quietly contemplating – perhaps this is not a skill that is widely taught, or accessible to those in the throes of crisis? Some have no choice to but to ‘hurry through the world’ and have a low reserve of the attention that is so helpful in writing poetry. Whilst it isn’t specialist equipment like may be necessary for other art forms, I think that the time for quiet contemplation – almost akin to prayer – is not afforded to everyone.  
But maybe that depends on what sort of poetry you write; feisty radical, protest poetry can be immediate and responsive. Maybe the poem does what it needs to do when it’s first released onto a page with a sense of catharsis. For me, a poem can take years to write (sounds melodramatic, but bear with me.) In some cases, an idea will come to me fully-formed and I will know what I want to articulate and how. But often, individual lines or images come to me which I build up in a bank ominously called ‘The Document’, before jigsawing them together as and when they make sense. So these images become quite embedded in my subconscious and how I view the world – I have phrases kicking around in my head that are just waiting to be used.  
Sometimes my poetry endeavours to be pictorial, framing the scene to transport myself back in time. I’m fascinated by archives, having volunteered at a couple, so this crops up in my writing. There is such a wonderful scope for a multidisciplinary approach in this idea. I’ve recently been loving looking into photopoetry. I find these are two forms that complement each other so well. If I ever think “Damn, I wish I’d brought my camera out”, I can capture the image in words. When I was at a gig watching the legendary Roy Ayers, I refrained from filming on my phone and wanted to be present instead. So, I was, and wrote about it later. A lot of that is about me wanting to capture an event or moment as ‘objectively’ (or true to my own experience) as I can and to preserve that feeling.  

My main creative outlet is poetry, and is the subject of my Master’s at Newcastle University, but I also enjoy singing, moving my body, photography, making music, painting, sketching. I’ve dabbled with pyrography and spray painting. I love the use of the word ‘play’ here! It’s whatever takes my fancy really. Some projects I’ve worked on include recording a riot grrrl EP about fungi, a self-portrait photography series looking at the body as a landscape, and essayistic writing on how dancing can be a personal revolution

When we had a brief chat on the phone, we spoke about the creative medium being secondary to the idea you want to transmit. Is this what it means for you to be multidisciplinary? Can you describe that process or journey of deciding which medium is best to communicate a certain idea? Tell us about some projects of yours that mean a lot to you. 

15th February 2024 11.20 

Poetry as preservation of feeling is fascinating; that makes me think about language as affect, the way in which certain works/words emanate particular affects. I’ve been mulling over mirror poems recently – as in, poems about mirrors, and the way that they emit a profound sense of estrangement – of misrecognition. Plath’s Mirror blew me away – in it a mirror describes itself as ‘The eye of a little god, four-cornered.’ Then I stumbled upon Rachel Eliza Griffith’s Mirror, in which she continues this feminist-mirror-poem-legacy superbly with the line ‘You immaculate bitch of glass […]’. Both are interested in the difference between the reflected image and the reality of being a body in the world – interested then, to some degree, in refraction, translation. Which leads me back to your words on photopoetry (Griffith’s book Seeing The Body just to happens to be photopoetry!) – it’s really interesting that you’ve been moving between the two modes when seeking to preserve the feeling of live experiences, such as gigs. Are you curious in the potential of presenting your work in this way – images and text, linked somehow? Or perhaps this is something you’ve already experimented with? 

Hear you in terms of the importance of quiet and introspection for creating poetry. I need a lot of rest in general, especially after getting Covid back in 2022 which seems to have taken a long-term sledgehammer to my immune system. I find that my better poems come after a long period of doing nothing, even if they are poems that are not especially ‘quiet’ in themselves. That being said, I do love how quickly a first draft can arrive – like your approach with ‘The Document’, I do a similar banking, usually when I’m on a train, bus, or in a loud café. A swimming pool café is ideal – it’s the echoing noise I’m after. The motion (of the vehicle) or the wrap-around noise do something to my consciousness; my mind is comparatively loosened up. I do way less of the analysing that can stop words in their tracks. Then, a few weeks later, I’ll sift around in this bank and see what’s going on. What are the key differences (if any), for you, in your experience of writing lyrics for your music, or poetry? Is there cross-pollination between the two?  

To answer your question about multidisciplinarity, for me it’s usually a desire to explore something that comes first, then a tug towards a certain mode of expression. I’m not always sure what determines the direction of that tug. As an example: I’m interested in gestural movement and the inter-speech sounds that people make – the stuff that’s usually considered as ‘filler’ – and I had written down a few list poems that reel off loads of these kinds of sounds. I felt that the lists were complete, but they seemed a bit dead just as text. So I evolved one of the lists into a performance piece which I tried out at a scratch night, where I took on a slightly neurotic yet shambolic and excitable persona who tried her best at mimicking all the sounds. I knew I wanted to generate some collective sounding, so then I instructed the audience to mimic every single sound just as ‘I’ had done. The result was far more committed and hilarious then I anticipated. This sparked a question for me, which is why is mimicry so funny? Not mimicry intended to mock, but the concerted mimicry of genuinely trying to copy, done over and over again. I have the same ruminations about repetition in general – i.e. what are the generative possibilities of repetition, for an audience and for a performer. Pondering this birthed another piece where I play an alien who is trying its very best to mimic the gestures and interspeech sounds of poets at poetry readings. I knew I wanted to get my body more involved this time and achieve a real precision of (repeated) movements, some very small and subtle, so filming the piece felt like the best way to capture, in an almost clinical way. Film-as-form then opened up opportunities to play with an old-school BBC-like voiceover and kitsch credits – filming and technical editing skills coming from my partner, who is also an artist. I still have not answered the overarching question about mimicry, but it’s propelling me onwards – I’m doing a Clowning Course next month, and hope to secure some studio residency time at some point where I can have space to move properly.  

So I guess it’s the curiosity I have about repetition and mimicry (and my draw to them) that is the propelling force, in this example, and means more to me than the projects themselves. Movement is a place of return for me. One of my parents is a dance artist and so I was raised from quite a young age to spend a lot of time around dancers and people moving their bodies as a means of creative expression. I attended dance classes throughout childhood and adolescence as well, and did a lot of youth theatre stuff, and my first paid writing gigs were for theatre scripts. So the body as a site of performance, an originator of movement and a pre-verbal landscape (to use your word) feels grounding and familiar for me (unlike writing, which can feel somewhat alienating). The ability to explore through and across different mediums (for me that would be writing, performance/movement and moving image), discovering what each one allows you do, is what interdisciplinarity means to me. It’s a kind of flexibility that I’ve only come to appreciate in recent years, as I used to fall foul of notions of ‘specialism’ and ‘purity of discipline’ that I now see as myths in service to capitalism, which demands artists to market (categorise) themselves. Which is to say, for about five years I kept on trying to commit to one medium then ending up feeling lost, sad and bored! Took me some time to figure out that this was not because I was working with the ‘wrong’ medium, I just wasn’t creating the conditions that best suit me. Don’t get me wrong, some of my favourite writers just write, and I can see what that focus has allowed them to achieve. 

I’d love to hear more about what ‘body as landscape’ means to you? Lastly, do you enjoy performing live – I’m thinking of your recent gig in Berlin…if so, why? How do you feel? 

27th February 2024 11.25 

I’ve never come across Griffiths’ poetry before and interestingly found my way onto Guernica Magazine in which she shares an earlier draft of her poem ‘Mirror’. There’s one beautiful section I wish she hadn’t cut out in her editing process: 

We don’t touch / or forgive each other. I behold myself / inside of a desire where you don’t ever / want me twice. 

It made me audibly gasp! But her final draft was indeed a condensed and powerful punch of a poem, and an intriguing follow of Plath’s footprints. The intimate look at her drafting process also makes me think of how much is lost when cutting to concision, and also how uniquely we all go about reworking our poems. It wasn’t until recently that I was encouraged to redraft my work as intensively as I now do. I was telling my Squad mentor, Stevie Ronnie, how this particular poem I’d brought with me was on its seventh draft and his reply was “We want to get that up to fifteen, twenty.” What does your redrafting process look like? 

The poem that came to mind for me first in this exchange is the specular (Latin for ‘mirror’) poem, ‘In the Backseat of My Mother’s Car’ by Julia Copus. The poetic form builds towards a central image, and then repeats almost exactly each line in the opposite order. Devilishly cleverly, this central image is ‘the cool slick glass between us’, meaning the car window, with the poem acting as a mirror image reflection. Have you written any poetry about mirrors that you can share with us? 

Briefly, Body as Landscape is a series of self-portrait photographs that I began taking last year. They’re mostly all, quite aptly, taken of my mirror zoomed in closely on my figure or different parts of the body. I’ve found through abstracting the body into undiscernible shapes brings out the beauty in it and can make me feel more comfortable with that self. Breaking down flesh into just shadow and light, avenues, smooth terrains of skin, fields, the valleys of my collarbones, mountains… As of writing this, a piece from Body as Landscape has just been exhibited at Aire Place Studios, Leeds! It was very exciting to see a photo of mine blown up on A3 and in a gallery setting. 

I have experimented with photopoetry a few times, especially when I was more into graphic design and how those elements could work visually with poetry. Most recently, I used some portraits of my friend to accompany a poem about him – but I think this was an example of my overexcitement with new forms, as most of the text was verbatim from an oral history interview I conducted with him. I also incorporated stage directions to allude to his career as an actor. Reading that back now, it’s clear why the final poem was a bit too busy and unfocused. My struggle can be reining it in sometimes – but I also relish that I get to play with all those different things. That is part of the process, not a failure. 

It’s interesting to hear about your optimum conditions for writing. This idea of a ‘wrap-around’ sound loosening up your creative mind reminded me so acutely of EMDR therapy, in which people with relax into talking about trauma because they’re multi-tasking by following a moving object with their eyes. I wonder if your fascination with repetition and mimicry has anything to do with their birthplace in the echoing spaces you like to write in. 

To write lyrics, the main shift away from my poetic learnings was that I am allowed to repeat myself. I have this belief that, in poetry, I should be economic with my words, saying as much as I can with as few words as possible, leaving no room for repetition. I’m actually changing my mind on that approach a little bit since beginning my Masters in Writing Poetry in September – looking at the subtle way that poets like Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop and David Whyte use repetition so effectively. But in songs, it is in fact desirable to have catchy refrains! That was a lesson I had to come to terms with. Otherwise, there are a lot of similarities. Poetry is concerned with rhythm and units of sound, musicality. 

You say that your filler sounds were ‘dead’ as text alone. I love this idea that you’re using different disciplines to bring life to a concept, finding where the spark comes out. I’m reminded of something I heard Ngwatilo Mawiyoo say at the Contains Strong Language festival in Leeds last year: “When language fails me, I move into sound.” I suppose it comes down to communication and what in our toolkit is best equipped to pass on meaning to someone else. You mention working with your partner creatively. Could you touch a bit more on what significance collaboration and connection have in your work? 

Performing – singing and movement – feels much more immediate to me than even performing poetry. There’s a sense that I go into poetry performances knowing that my work is good enough to share, and people can all nod and go “We see that they’re well-written poems.” And as long as I’m calm and present, have practiced committing the words to memory enough, the performance side usually goes down okay. It’s gratifying to hear feedback on poems I’ve written months, even years ago. But when I’m singing it feels like there’s more on the line in the moment. I’m trying to prove my vocal skill to you NOW, and it could crack. My gig in Berlin performing with my friends the Hypocrites was a lot of fun. I’m definitely still having lots of anxious energy before going on stage to sing, whereas I’ve tackled that into submission for poetry performances. With the movement (the band have all studied and work as contemporary dancers. I have not and do not.) I found myself habitually performing inwards to other band members and actually not really breaking that fourth wall to connect with the audience enough. That’s been quite a journey for me, learning to feel embodied and using dance (even just on nights out) as revolution on a small scale. That, too, is intersectional. I never know what to do with myself and my gestures when I’m performing poetry! 

Lastly, could you tell us some of your favourite writers who work across disciplines? 

3rd March 2024 11:38 

I am relishing this conversation – I’ll attempt (and probably fail at) brevity as we’ve agreed this will be the last email from me. 

Adore that line you quote from Julia Copus: ‘the cool slick glass between us’, it’s so vaguely disconcerting. Also, I just read the whole thing and ugh <3 <3 <3 her line breaks. I wrote a weird mirror-image-esque poem around three years ago, when my friend Milly and I were sharing poems with each other on a monthly basis.  

Black Head, Cornwall 
A cormorant slapped its wings on water 
Wings on water, the sound echoed 
The sound echoed, across the bay 
Across the bay, I sat on a rock 
I sat on a rock, the sound reached me 
The sound reached me, I laughed 
        did it reach me because the ocean is like glass today?

It laughed, the sound reached me 
The sound reached me, I float on water 
I float on water, across the bay 
Across the bay, the sound echoed 
The sound echoed, wings on water 
Now you hear my wings on water

I wrote this intending for the poem to begin from the perspective of a human speaker, then move to occupy cormorant perspective, both parties experiencing a boomerang-type return of sound due to the combination of the expansiveness of the bay and the lack of wind. For Milly, the ‘speaker’ transforms into a cormorant, which then made the poem far more creepy to me. 

I’m so drawn to your practice of photographing parts of your body close up! What a way to interrupt dominant gazes. There’s something here too about the care of paying such tender attention, that I find quite moving. This chat of mirrors and body close-ups is all feeling uncannily serendipitous – I recently stuck tiny disco ball mirrors on my midriff for a short silent film called sounding skin (screenshot below)… 

Redrafting is a such an interesting topic. I wish I had something wise or useful to say on it, but the truth is that around half of my published poems so far were not re-drafted very much. This feels bizarre to admit, because it obscures all the hours of labour writing poems that go nowhere, re-drafting poems beyond recognition (also for them to go nowhere), and the pages and pages of nonsense I would never share with the world. But this poem and this poem were first drafts. Then I had this other poem called Folded Calf, which I loved, and had submitted to maybe seven magazines – rejected. After scrapping the verse form and changing it into a prose poem (still the exact same words), it was then accepted by Gutter. Admittedly, the verse form always felt a bit icky to me. As soon it was in prose form I was like ‘ahhhhh, there you are’. So I guess I redraft based on instinct, feelings, the position of the poem within space and then…trying not to kill It. How about you? Do you manage to still feel the life of a poem when you’re on the fifteenth re-draft? 

My favourite kind of collaboration is when an ethics of some kind is shared between people – a level of mutual care and curiosity. Working with my partner, for example, enables projects that require a high level of intimacy and trust from the get go – it’s already there, and we are quite committed to listening to each other, creating time for de-compression/reflection and so on. The people I love collaborating with the most honour this sort of ‘slow time’. You asked a lovely question so I throw it back to you -what significance does collaboration and connection have in your work? 

A poet-painter-writer I’ve discovered recently (whose work I’m loving) is Belgian-born Henri Michaux (1899-1984). His poetry is hallucinatory, uncannilly specific and spatially abstract; much of it also oozes with grief and what I experience as a strong anti-war stance. Here is one of my favourites from the collection Spaced, Displaced (published by Bloodaxe in 1992, translated from French by David and Helen Constantine). It is painfully timely. 

This way this poem collapses the sky into a human head, and back again, in a disturbed/disturbing sort of turning over, somehow manages to proclaim the extreme tenderness of both – a tenderness that has no reliance on a lyric ‘I’ to construct personhood. It’s a tense poem – one I find impossible to read aloud without discomfort and jarring speech. It is devoid of sustained or patterned rhythm, and feels fresh with horror. Its abstractions, odd as they are (who knew the word ‘wisp’ could be rendered so heartbreakingly?), refuse indifference, refuse any kind of looking away. It also bears witness to the ecological harm of war: the fatal scale of its impact on earth and life forms in the widest sense. I am struck by how Michaux treats the atmosphere in this poem – the sky and air are given such weight as elements, they are utterly integral to the whole. Luce Irigaray writes in her essay Sharing Universal Breathing ‘if we were capable of forming every whole while taking air into account, our totalities would lose their systematic and authoritarian nature.’ 

Thank you for this exchange! Could you share a poem of yours that speaks to some of the topics we’ve explored? And something you love from another interdisciplinary artist?  

7th March 2024 09:21

I think this exchange is about as tangential and representative of our practices as it could be haha! I’ve enjoyed where it has meandered and those moments of serendipity we’ve found in our shared interests. That’s more likely to happen when you find lots of things interesting, I suppose.

Your poem, Black Head, Cornwall, is like the textbook example of why my predisposition against repetition in poetry is wrong. It’s a rhythmic chant, it’s meditative. It’s the sound of the waves lapping. The word ‘now’ really does invoke the image of a transformation into the cormorant. So beautiful Ruby! Thank you for sharing.

Here’s a recent one of mine, written about the national flower of Palestine.

This is a poem that I redrafted a lotttt. It proved difficult to revise because the subject is delicate, important and urgent. The ongoing subjugation of Palestinian people occupies my mind often, in vast and messy terms, so it was a challenge of craft to distil my thoughts suitably.

In my first draft, I used blunt and grisly language (“Brown bodies in freezers, cemetery of numbers.”) and, in turn, the poem was almost Brechtian in its didacticism. There was no real angle in, it was just an expression of horror. I asked myself questions about which linguistic and narrative spaces were appropriate for me to inhabit. Characterising the victims of this apartheid or their family members was off the table; this felt like a boundary I daren’t cross from my position of privilege and relative ignorance.

Sylvia Plath once described her poems as “not about the terrors of mass extinction, but about the bleakness of the moon over a yew tree in a neighbouring graveyard.” I considered writing about the soil of Gaza. Around this time, I happened across the idiom, “say it with flowers”. Frustrated with my current drafts, I took it as a direct instruction, researching the national flower of Palestine. How could I describe the texture of a thing that I have never held? I played with perspective shifting; looking at the flower, then becoming the flower – redrafting as ‘I, Faqqua Iris’ and using first-person pronouns throughout.

So, in this case, the redrafting process didn’t ‘kill’ the poem, but was instead a puzzle of sensitivity to solve that I enjoyed spending time with. More generally, I really like being playful with the format and visual layout when redrafting, following through on “what if” questions; What if some of the font was a different size? What if the page was a room the reader could walk around? What if the shape of the poem spoke to its theme? They’re all learning curves, even if you don’t stick with that material in the final poem.

The epigraph in Faqqua Iris is a quote by one of my favourite ever artists, David Wojnarowicz. He was a writer / painter / musician / film-maker / photographer extraordinaire, situated in the East Village in the 1980s and its devastating relationship with AIDS and the queer community. To me, he epitomizes this polycreativity of not having to choose one discipline and stick to it.

All of his work is worth checking out (I’m thinking of his tender photos of Peter Hujar, his collage work, his vocals in 3 Teens Kill 4) but here’s an excerpt from his memoir ‘Close to the Knives’.

“When he lifted away from my chest I saw his eyes, the irises the color of dark chips of stone, something like the sky at dusk after a clear hot summer day, when the ships are folding down into the distance and jet exhaust trails are uttered from the lips of strangers. (…)
In loving him, I saw a cigarette between the fingers of a hand, smoke blowing backwards into the room, and sputtering planes diving low through the clouds. In loving him, I saw men encouraging each other to lay down their arms. In loving him, I saw small-town laborers creating excavations that other men spend their lives trying to fill. In loving him, I saw moving films of stone buildings; I saw a hand in prison dragging snow in from the sill. In loving him, I saw great houses being erected that would soon slide into the waiting and stirring seas. I saw him freeing me from the silences of the interior life.” (Pages 23-25 of Close to the Knives, David Wojnarowicz)

I guess a nice place to end on is that question of collaboration. I enjoy performing poetry with jazz musicians, I’ve recorded a couple of tracks with Ferg’s Imaginary Big Band and improvised with other friends live– I’d love to do more of this. At the start of my Masters, we did some work on the collaborative form of the Japanese renga and this was a welcomed change from the sometimes-insular process of writing poetry. Of course, you’re wanting to connect with a reader, and if I feel happy with a poem its usually because I am sure it will resonate with someone. I think maybe that is a measure of ‘success’ or the readiness of a poem.

I’ve found this collaboration between us so rewarding. You brought up some questions I’d never have asked myself and I feel the complete stranger to collaborator pipeline was really fun to walk down with you! Thank you.

Tallulah, signing off.

Find out more about Ruby Lawrence and Tallulah Howarth here

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