Interview: Joolz Denby
16th Aug 2010
She has performed as a spoken-word artist at arts, literature and music festivals along with theatre and cabaret venues around the world for over a quarter of a century, worked as an artist, editor and designer for New Model Army, and published numerous novels and poetry collections, including Billie Morgan in 2005, which was short-listed for the Orange Fiction Prize.
These days however, she’s focusing her time and attention on projects outside the traditional sphere of the publishing industry, such as photography, tattooing, and her own independent press. I caught up with her to find out more:
FBS: Unlike many novelists, poets or illustrators, you work across a variety of media and formats. Which do you find the most fulfilling, and which the most challenging? How do these different disciplines and skills inform each other?
JD: Learning to tattoo was the most challenging, given that if you write a novel badly you aren’t going to mutilate someone for life. But it’s a good honest way to make a living from my art that leaves me beholden to no-one for some grant or bursary, so I am very free about what I can do as no-one can tell me what I ‘have’ to write in order to qualify for Government money or publisher’s advance. I have always written and drawn since childhood, the two things go hand-in-hand to me and I have been able to achieve excellence in both fields. I’ve won writing prizes, the illustration work for New Model Army got a gold record from EMI, and latterly the tattooing; I’m booked up four months in advance and have clients who fly in from Europe and America. In the end, the two disciplines mirror each other – they’re both all about narrative. I am really continuing a very old tradition of the artist as polymath or Renaissance thinker, not tying myself to specialisation because that’s what society wants in its artists these days, so they’re easily pigeon-holed. This has of course hindered me terribly in terms of mainstream ‘success’ because, oh my God, where can they ‘put’ me? Horrors – I’m not in genre! It makes me giggle.
FBS: Your first poetry collection, Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know, was published by Virgin Books in 1986, almost 25 years ago. How have your creative aims and priorities evolved, and how has the publishing industry changed during that time?
JD: Well, it sold 15,000 copies which for a poetry book was pretty good, and nigh on impossible today as British poetry has been almost destroyed by slams (which are nothing more that He Who Shouts Loudest Wins) and grants which encourage neurotic self-examination as poetry. Poetry is a great therapy but it’s not therapy if you want to do it properly – it’s a paean – a tempered fire – a work of art that’s been shaped and polished until it shines like a mirror with truth and beauty. Not a fashionable view, I know!
The publishing industry is what it is – an industry, nothing to do with art. I know this because I’ve worked with record companies all my adult life and there’s no difference between the two; it’s just another incompetent, corrupt, short-sighted bunch of corporations trying to make money while its employees try to save their jobs at any cost. Round and round and round she goes, where she falls, nobody knows. It’s all chance if you get on in either industry. I’ve had £50,000 advances, won and been shortlisted for major prizes, and now no-one will publish anything I write – c’est la vie. I’ll put my books out myself under Ignite Books, the small press I’m doing to showcase some obscure stuff like the lyric poetry of Justin Sullivan and the performance-based poetry of Steven Pottinger. Like I said, I like to be free and I don’t like people telling me what to do.
FBS: Most people know you for your spoken word performances (and your association with NMA). What is it about your performances that make them so memorable? And what advice would you give to others wanting to do the same?
JD: I worked very, very hard to improve my vocal delivery and still practice recitation nearly every day. My voice is a tool to get the sense of the words across but that does not let you off writing poetry that also works on the page. If you want to achieve what I have, be prepared to be a student all your life, take voice lessons, dramatic coaching, stagecraft seminars – anything. Then do as many gigs in as many different venues as I have world-wide, from dank punk clubs to pubs, to working men’s Clubs, to the Albert Hall and famous concert venues. It’s always all about just how hard you’re prepared to work, how much you’re prepared to sacrifice and how well you can control your ego. Give it a go – you never know, you might be brilliant if you try.
My association with New Model Army and lately New York Alcoholic Anxiety Attack are amongst my proudest achievements – in the case of New Model Army I have been their sole artist, designer and lyric-editor for thirty years (they celebrate that anniversary this year) – a superb band, fabulous poetic lyrics, passionate music and they still sell out big venues all over the UK, Europe & America. They are a genuine force and phenomenon in music, so let’s hope the young band they mentor, New York Alcoholic Anxiety Attack, will do the same. My advice would be : don’t give up with your work – whatever anyone says – just read everything you can by anyone at all voraciously and keep writing/drawing/singing/knitting/carpentering/jam-making/dancing. Good luck.
Interview by Jane Bradley