Lit at Ladyfest Ten: Interview with Sophie Mayer

3rd Nov 2010

Lit at Ladyfest Ten: Interview with Sophie Mayer

With only two weeks to go before Lit at Ladyfest Ten commences, we asked Sophie Mayer a few questions…

Tell us about yourself and your work?

I work with words, mainly in the tradition of poetry, but always pushing against it, bringing in the body: my new collection of poetry is called The Private Parts of Girls (due out from Salt next year). At the moment, I’m experimenting with art criticism, graphic novels, stage drama and silent performance art (as a disruptive Emily Dickinson at the launch for Stress Fractures: Essays on Poetry), but I always come back to a wonder at words, and to ongoing poetry projects including a queer science fiction novel in prose poems that begins with Menstruation, a short poem wondering what would happen if men suddenly had periods, too.

What can we expect from your event at Ladyfest Ten?

Bring an open curiosity rather than expectations! I find that whether as a participant or a facilitator workshops are always what you make of them. Through a trawl in your imaginary dressing up box (and DVD stack), some loving care for your feisty younger self, and some unfettered and expectation-free experimentation with words and voice, the event will unleash everyone’s inner Ladyfest, whatever that means to you!

One of the main aims of Lit at Ladyfest Ten is to promote and celebrate writing by women. What advice would you give to women finding it tough to carve out their own niche?

That it is tough. That’s not an illusion or your imagination, it’s tough to make art, and tougher to be seen and heard if you’re a woman, especially if you’re making art that’s challenging…but you’re not alone in the struggle. For a long time I had a real “Are you my mummy?” approach: always looking for a mentor – an older woman writer – who could, and would, hold my hand and open the path.

I learnt a lot from writers I met in person and on the page, including that mentorship is a lot to ask, especially from a writer who may be working full time and raising children as well. But I also learnt that, if you’re committed, it can be a two-way process, and sustaining for both people. And that having a group of supportive emerging writers (and artists, musicians, etc) around me (whether in person, by phone or online) is better still!

It’s easy to feel very protective of your work and your niche, because society encourages us to compete (particularly for patriarchal attention, e.g. from publishers and critics), but there are open, generous people out there who will talk you through the dark times and celebrate your successes (and lend you books). Find them through libraries, women’s groups, Facebook, poetry readings… and hold onto them. We need to fashion a new women’s network that can take on that deadly old boys’ network that makes the struggle so much tougher.

What has your experience been as a woman working in your field?

It’s been mixed, in terms of personal interaction and critical reception. My publisher, Shearsman, is hugely supportive of experimental women’s writing in English and in translation, and I think their list has really shaped and galvanised the reception of that kind of work: Infinite Difference, their anthology of experimental poetry by British women, edited by Carrie Etter (and including some of my poems) has proved to be one of their bestsellers this year! So that has been very encouraging. They are open to unsolicited submissions and committed to fast-tracking experimental women poets.

I’ve also published two non-fiction books on women filmmakers and I’ve found publishers supportive but less of a readership and critical context. Having researched 1970s radical arts (including feminist publishing and performance) in the UK, it feels sometimes like the market is winning and alternative spaces and conversations – in terms of formal experimentation and marginalised communities – are disappearing in favour of a conservative homogeny.

For example: we are struggling to find funding to continue Chroma, which is the UK’s only LGBTQ arts magazine. Many writers I know also teach, edit, write grants, curate festivals, organise conferences, host readings, translate, engage in online forums: working all the time to engage and change the conversation around literature and the arts. Within these conversations, gender politics are often operational, with a male avant-garde traditionally hostile to the claims of other forms of alternative voice.

So even within a small community there are often complex and frustrating arguments and even harassment, especially if, as a woman, you explore sexuality and the body. So I think it’s incredibly important (and also very time-consuming and exhausting) to keep making and challenging and enlarging context and community as well as creative work itself: to start small presses, magazines, and of course festivals like Ladyfest!

How important is sex, sexuality and gender to you and your writing?

As a woman, I have no country (but language), to paraphrase Virginia Woolf. Sex, sexuality and gender have been paramount to me as a reader ever since I rejected The Hobbit on the basis that it was “all about boys” (I was seven). So it’s through the writing of women, about women, and specifically about slippery ideas of difference, that I understand the world – and shape the surface and depth of my writing.

I believe in Hélène Cixous‘ claim that writing comes from the body, and speaks of the body. When it does, it speaks out against silence – and for me, particularly the shame-silence around embodiment that is expressed in both the censorship and commodification of female sexuality in our culture. I’m currently working on a series of poems about an imaginary ceramics sculptor, and digging my hands into metaphors about the female body as vessel, as mud, as elemental, as hollow, as enfolding – and also thinking about the ways that sexual experiences might indirectly emerge in the language of an artwork, in its form rather than content: a poem that sprawls on the page, for example, or that moves in waves…

For our audience who might not be able to make it to Ladyfest Ten, what authors and projects are you into at the moment that they can investigate instead?

That’s a terrible/wonderful question to ask a writer-teacher-critic-bookstore clerk… I was very excited to discover the essay collection Feminaissance when I was in the US this summer, and in fact the entire oeuvre of Les Figues press, which published it. I’m on a bit of translation kick at the moment, too, and enjoying meeting, through their dedicated translators, poets like Aase Berg, Cecilia Vicuña, Veronica Volkow and Dorothea Rosa Herliany.

I’ve just finished reading Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, which is by far the strangest and funniest Virago Classic I’ve ever read. I always look out for those green spines (and the black-and-white spines of the Women’s Press) at second-hand bookstores: that’s an ongoing project. I’m also dedicated to defending Andrea Levy‘s and Emma Donoghue‘s claim(s) to the Booker: The Long Song and Room are both utterly brilliant, major novels whose command of voice dazzled me.

I’m looking forward to seeing The Arbor, Clio Barnard’s film about Andrea Dunbar, the author of Rita, Sue and Bob Too. It’s exciting when contemporary women artists pay imaginative, heartfelt and intelligent tribute to earlier women artists whose place in history is precarious. There’s lots of exciting film work from British women at the moment, like Self Made by Gillian Wearing and Perestroika by Sarah Turner. I’m also looking forward to recording for Andrea Brady’s The Archive of the Now, and recommend checking out the other poets collected there and on the fabulous Poetcasting.

Thanks so much to Sophie for taking the time to answer our questions – and for giving us a boatload of fantastic references to go and investigate! Sophie will be running the Return to Oz: Re-writing Our Heroines Workshop on Sunday 14th November as part of Lit at Ladyfest Ten. Have you got your tickets yet? We can’t wait!

Post by Alex Herod