Sunday 21 June 2015

Interview: Kevin Nolan and Susanne Wawra - Schizo-Poetry (Fragments Of Mind)

Kevin Nolan Susanne Wawra Schizo-Poetry Fragments of Mind

Info: Susanne Wawra is a visual artist from Germany living in Dublin, and also a poet, Kevin Nolan is a musician living in Dublin who is a poet also, Schizo-Poetry - Fragments Of Mind is a collaboration of 15 poems each, Wawra's appearing on the left leaf and Nolan's on the right. Both Nolan and Wawra designed the books cover and it was published by Shine, a national organisation dedicated to upholding the rights and addressing the needs of those with mental illness, with the help of CEO John Saunders. My questions were merely the springboard for Kevin and Susanne's thought-provoking and interesting responses and I think you'll agree both of them have eloquently captured their passions and the driving force behind the compilation above.

You’ve each contributed 15 poems to Schizo-Poetry – Fragments of Mind, can you tell us how this collaboration came to pass and how you both came upon the idea of basing your writings on the theme of colour?  

Kevin: The work came to pass with a great dollop of hard work seasoned with a smattering of cubist-shamanic-like inspiration, and of course a good man (John Saunders CEO of Shine) who believed in us and our idea. One element of how it came together is mentioned on the dedication page of the book. It reads, ‘Dedication to-  the summer of 2013 and in particular Monday July 22nd of that year’. This refers to the year the book was written and also in particular the day myself and Susanne got together and mapped out the entire schema for the book in ‘Peperina’ which is a little coffee shop in Rathmines, Dublin City, not too far from where I lived at the time. 

As for how we both came upon the idea of using colour as a motif. I have kept a filing cabinet in my studio for many many years now where I keep all manner of things, from unfinished (yet-to-be-finished) works to newspaper reviews and clippings, to my endless list of  unpublishable literature, to my vast collection of obscure words, to my even more endless list of rejection letters, to dead leave percussion instruments, to my 200 song backlog, just everything. I guess, it’s a little like a witches cauldron from which I cast my works. Anyway, in there was an envelope and in the envelope there was many lists of words, words for love, attraction, limerence, adoration, words for killing or elimination, words for forms of classical, modern, traditional, and Latin dance, and words for obscure or unusual colours and colour combinations.  

So, when I told Susanne about the obscure colours, she immediately loved it, as she gulped down her coffee and jotted down all our ideas for the book. Then as if not even thinking (or as if she had been thinking of it for some time) she suggested ‘Fragments of Mind should be the subtitle!’ And so it went with the building of the schema for the book, it was almost messianic, in that it all came together one evening in that little sunlit coffee shop on the 22nd. Susanne was extremely good at filtering our ideas into something fluid. And colour-wise we can never think of her without thinking of the eye, the visual and perception as she is a visual artist.                                                                              

Susanne: I was immediately intrigued by using colours as starting points. It also reminded me of one of my favourite German poets, Else Lasker-Schüler. She was an Expressionist writer and laid major emphasis on colours.  Her main colour of expression was blue, it is found over 50 times in her poetry. In Schizo-Poetry, we also take on two different kinds of blues, ‘Glaucous’ and  ‘Smalt’.

For me, with a colour, there comes a mood, a feeling: apricot sweetness, blue cleanse, yellow warmth, black despair. I felt so at home in the metier of colours, it’s like having a palette of paint in front of me. I dipped my pen into the colour and pushed it about the page.

Kevin, you move between your music and poetry with gusto, seemingly determined not to allow one to overtake the other in terms of your output of both, while poetry is bonded to music through lyrics, do you feel when you’re focusing purely on your poetry that there is a separation between the two? Does music influence your poetry in any way?
Kevin: It may seem like that but it took eight years to write and record my debut album Fredrick & The Golden Dawn and my next aphoristic novel and album may take some time before they are ready to be released to the world.    

My poetry and music mature at different speeds, one sometimes overtaking the other and vice versa, and there is definitely a separation between the two. Presently, I feel poetry and lyrics for songs are very different mediums for all sorts of technical reasons, but I’m hoping this point of view will change in me sometime soon as I would love to find a way to merge the two. I’m hoping to work with Peter Murphy (The Revelator Orchestra) on my second album which will involve spoken word. 

Music, over any other mode of expression, be it poetry, film, the novel, visual art, experimental dance, sculpture and even the famed Ostrich dancers of Africa, you name it, it is music that influences my writing above all.

It must sound strange, Remy, to hear a poet say he is not first and foremostly influenced by poetry, and to tell you the truth it sounds strange to me too, but to quote some lyrics which need no introduction ‘I pushed my soul in a deep dark hole and then I followed it in’. Throughout my twenties and teens I read everything I could possibly get my hands on. I feel now that I have been the reader’s reader much like the poet’s poet or the musician’s musician. I’ve been the cheering fan behind the goal posts for a long time and now I wanna cross the scaffolds, break down the fences and set foot on the field and be a player. You see, I’m not saying I don’t still read but now it’s a different type of reading (Roland Barthes once in his book Image Music Text spoke of the readerly text) and also my definition of the word ‘influence’ has changed somewhat. I guess I’ve ceased to be a fan and am now more an artist. So yes, music has influenced my poetry a great deal, the likes of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Kate Bush, The Tindersticks, Hair Dryer Sounds (YouTube), Coltrane, Ken Nordine (Colours), Leonard Cohen, Rhapsody in Blue, Jack Kerouac with Steve Allen, Stravinsky, Lydia Lunch, Brian Eno, Einstürzende Neubauten, Varese, Debussy, Steve Reich and Don Van Vliet amongst many others.

Looking back on your time in primary and secondary school in Dublin did you have a love for poetry from a very young age and did you find the content of the curriculum engaging, do you recall any favourite poets that you first came across during that time? I personally always found I preferred the English poets, Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ or Tennyson’s ‘Choric Song of the Lotus Eaters’ stand out a bit more than Kavanagh’s ‘Stoney Grey Soil’ for some reason!

Kevin: This is a picture of me at 7 posing as a writer. I remember this photo well, me pretending to be thinking deeply of something to write and crossing my legs on a high chair in the evening summer light outside our holiday caravan in County Wexford.  In primary school I don’t remember either loving or hating poetry. I knew there was something very special about books and writing but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. My father, a big reader, romanticized literature, he would often read to me as would my mother. I remember listening to audio books before bed, too.

I remember one audio book, a cassette tape, where a little pot cooked so much porridge that it filled up a whole house, read by Barbara Windsor. Also I mustn’t neglect to mention Roald Dahl, who I loved, ‘The Witches’, ‘Revolting Rhymes’, ‘Danny The Champion Of The World’. Dahl had us all either frozen in terror or in fits of laughter in the primary school classrooms of St Mark’s in Springfield, Tallaght, Dublin City.   

Secondary school was an entirely different story, after an initial year in a class for boys with dyslexia. I launched into ‘On The Road’, ‘No One Here Gets Out Alive’, ‘Under Milk Wood’, ‘The Outsider’,  ‘Tao Te Ching’, William Blake, ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’, ‘Speak, Memory’, ‘Journey To The Far East’, ‘Steppenwolf’’. ‘William Rose Benet - The Reader’s Encyclopedia’ was an especially dear book to me. These were defining books for me, really there’s too many to mention. I had no internet then so books where the only way of finding out about these matters. I was kind of a precocious kid but with no aptitude for precociousness.

To my memory, the only author I had any time for on the secondary school curriculum  was Shakespeare. For one, he was the only one I could understand and also the perfection of form bewildered me.  He was so prolific, he kept looking for perfection with those sonnets just like Van Gogh with his Sun Flowers. When I was studying Macbeth in my teenage mind, I somehow married the end scene, when the forest seemingly is moving toward the castle and the a man not of woman born comes to fight Macbeth, with Climbing up the walls by Radiohead. I imagined Macbeth as he went mad, that he was climbing up the walls of the castle with fear, like the saying. In my mind, Radiohead’s song and album was the soundtrack to that play and I would listen to it while I studied.  

I remember many many occasions sitting at the back of English class, drawing and correcting everything the teacher said about poetry as she said it to the classmate sitting beside me. So you see, I was kind of a difficult child to teach. Although I read them, around the time the poets you mentioned came along, Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ or Tennyson’s ‘Choric Song of the Lotus Eaters’ most of the time I was far far, far away from the classroom antics, lying in a football field with a few friends manically chattering about this new poet we’d all heard of called Arthur Rimbaud.  

Excerpt from 'Smalt', Kevin Nolan (click to enlarge)

Susanne, among other talents you have grown up with art, and it has become an integral part of your life leading you to take up studies in Ireland’s best known art college NCAD, do you feel it has a definite and tangible influence on your poetry?

Susanne: Art indeed has a tangible influence on my poetry. Some of my poems start with a visual anchor from which I then write. An example would be the first poem ‘Flavescent’ in this collection. It starts with looking at the sun with eyes closed and engaging with this yellow, treating it as palpable paint. I like to take visual stimuli and then run away with them, I play around and abstract whatever the first image was that initiated the poem. In this regard, I am very visual. 

Generally though, I feel that my art, mostly painting and video, and my poetry are quite different modes of expression. The overlap is working with images in both, otherwise I use them in different situations. Writing for me is a little more direct, it pours straight out. My painting and video often also start from written notes, ideas, bits of text. As Plutarch said, ‘Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks.’ 

You grew up in Germany and have lived in Ireland for a few years now, you mentioned in an interview in The Irish Independent 2 years ago that you’ve grown a fondness for life in Dublin, how does youth culture in Germany compare to here when it comes to the arts in your opinion, has any difference between the two struck you in particular?

Susanne: I grew up in a very remote rural area, a tiny village on the fringes of a forest, the Thüringer Wald. Youth culture in a small, insular place like that is confined to hanging out at the bus stop or the football field until you are old enough to ride your own moped to the next country town to do basically the same there. 

I was a teenager in the 90s, I hated the music they played in the discos and the boys blasted out of their cars. My passion was Britpop, from its mass onset in 1993, Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Radiohead. I knew them via my English pen pal Fiona and embraced that whole culture. I gave my mother a hard time of not being born in England, I did not want to be German. 

So my own youth culture was very different to what the common peer would have engaged in. Things got much better culturally when I left for Leipzig to study English and Communication & Media Studies. A big city, lots of things to do, bars, gigs, clubs, nights where they played my music. 

It is not surprising then, that I went to live in an English-speaking country, of which I share a somewhat common ground in terms of the music, films and TV shows I surrounded myself with, only in a different country. Dublin is the best place to go to concerts since every artist stops in Dublin for their European tour. Also, I feel I am so much closer to it all here, for example, you get to see Irish film stars in plays at Olympia theatre, Brendan Gleeson with his sons Brian and Domhnall, Cillian Murphy and Stephen Rea.

The title of this collection of poetry is a reference to the travails of the human mind, both of you have openly talked about your struggles with depression in the past, how therapeutic is the creative process of music, poetry and art in managing and containing these unwelcome feelings?

Susanne: Both art and poetry are very therapeutic in moments when I am experiencing emotional distress. For me, creating seems to be an existential need. It helps to put pen on paper and give the pain some room to manifest in written word or a drawing. Already as a child, when I wasn’t feeling well, my mother made sure I had something to draw or paint with. It is a form of self-soothing, something I find comfort in. In my depths of depression, I also felt the need to make a mark, to show that I am there, in moments when I was losing myself, crippling from mental turmoil. 

Here is a photo of me drawing with ink in my hospital room. It started with an abstracted portrait, my face divided into pieces, to show how torn apart I was. During my two month stay, I created a whole series of those called Face It. Other psychiatric patients agreed to get their portrait done because I told them that through abstraction they wouldn't be recognizable. For me, it was a way for people to show their face yet remain anonymous. Hidden behind a web of lines and shapes I felt I could attempt to portray the pain, the troubles and the sense of crisis that was often written on their faces. As a whole, the abstract portraits of mental health sufferers were a comment on social stigmatization.  

As for poetry, it has helped me immensely to write, to try to put into words what I was feeling and experiencing. I have tackled the topic of my mental ill health in a substantial amount of my poems and so it is not surprising that Schizo-Poetry contains a poem called ‘Melanic’, meaning blackest black, in which I am personifying depression. However, I have poems on the other side of the spectrum, too: hilarious and playful, such as ‘Rubious’, in which a ‘Missus Dubious is getting all too curious’. So I feel that our book is covering everything from dark to light, taking into account our past struggles as well as the glorious moments in life.

Excerpt from 'Melanic', Susanne Wawra (click to enlarge)

For people like myself perhaps who would be unfamiliar with it, it would be interesting to know is there much of a poetry movement amongst young people in Ireland at present, are there any peers in particular that you admire and could recommend or places where people who would like to take a greater interest in poetry should frequent, regular events etc.?

Susanne: I would say I mostly mingle with visual artists, I am not too familiar with other writers. I have experience in organizing and curating exhibitions and would be more involved in that scene rather than participating in readings or writing groups. I am more of a passive poet in that sense, an observer. The national organisation Poetry Ireland is quite good to get an overview of what is happening in Ireland. Also, reading Irish publications like The Stinging Fly, Galway Review and The Moth keeps you in the loop. 

Kevin: Well, much like the making of my album; artistically I live quite an insular life. The most interesting poet I can suggest that you read is Susanne Wawra. I never was a part of anything like a poetry group or readers club; call it cowardice, or maybe I was protecting something which I believed I had, but wasn’t really sure if I had it in the first place. Either way I was gonna find out by myself. 

I can name a few Authors I know, respect and feel an affinity with outside of Schizo-Poetry. They are Pat Deeley, Dave Lordan. Then there’s Rob Doyle and David Noone. Dave Lordan is kind of a movement onto his self. I was very impressed with a poetry reading I was at in Lilliput press house some time ago and there’s a very interesting webzine called Colony which you should check out. Colony published a huge series of my poems, entitled The Hot Press Haikus which you can see on my website. But really and embarrassingly my insularity leaves me with very little to say for this question.  

Reading through this beautiful collection of poems a variety of themes and settings stand out, urban / countryside, love, happiness and despair and also a wonder of nature, when you were both composing each set of poems were they recent or past experiences or a mixture of both, memories and real-time observations?

Kevin: I think I speak for both myself and Susanne when I say, they are a mixture of both, memories and real-time observations. My good friend and great poet said to me after I finished my first book Vibrations Of The Soul in 2012, ‘Kevin, three years work went into that book and a lifetime of experience’. 

I later thought about what he said. I thought about how accurate a statement it was. Everyone has a relationship with the language they speak; a relationship with the language they use to express their feelings about their relationships with people. It’s like a friendship; each word like a person and this friendship, as Pat says, lasts a lifetime. For it is language that the poet uses to explain his/her experiences. Martin Buber once said there is an infinity to everyone (i.e. every word), the extents of which we will never fully know. Jacques Derrida said somewhat in agreement with Buber, that the meaning of a word is always deferred infinitely rendering it ultimately unknowable. For many people (as it was with us) when they read Schizo-Poetry, they will have started a new relationship with these obscure colours, (Flavescent, Amaranthine, Melanic, Ibis etc.) even though the content of the poems are very familiar. So in my opinion, every poem is a culmination of a lifetimes experiences (just as Pat said to me that day) no matter how authentic it is to the present moment, this is definitely true of these poems. 

Susanne: I agree with Kevin, the poems in this collections are a mix of musings and experience, with a good helping of surreal or dream elements on my part. As we wrote for a specific colour, we only showed each other our poems when completed. Interestingly, you can find some parallels in them, “Melanic” are both about depression, “Ibis” are both with the speaker sitting in front of a house engaged with nature. Even for me as one of the writers, it is truly intriguing how every set of poems carrying the same title works side by side. 

Where can we purchase a copy, will you both be performing the poems together soon, can we expect another volume in the future?!

Susanne: Copies of Schizo-Poetry can be purchased via my website, they are signed by both authors, or through contacting Shine - Also, we are talking to bookshops in Dublin at the moment. In terms of performing the poems, we are planning a reading in St. Patrick’s Hospital, Dublin, with John Saunders from Shine. We thought it would be great to read in the place where Kevin and I initially met through poetry.

Also, to keep up to date with Kevin’s poetry and music just visit his website

In terms of future collaborations, we are currently setting the foundations for an aphoristic novel written by Kevin and illustrated by myself. Considering poetry, I am compiling a manuscript of about 50 of my poems I would like to get published. Also, there is always the chance we get so excited about an idea or concept for another volume of poetry together that we just have to go for it.

**Sincere thanks to Kevin and Susanne for putting considerable effort into this interview and for kindly sharing their poetry and thoughts.