Collaborative poetry with JL Williams
Poetry is often conceived of as pure language, mere words on a page. Alongside more traditional work, the US-born, UK-based Jennifer Williams breaks down the barriers between poetry, music and scent. A chat about proustian moments and falling between the cracks
‘Oh, melopoesie! That’s a nice thing to talk about!’ Jennifer exclaims, when I broach the topic. Melopoesie is Jennifer’s term for the blending of music and poetry to produce a complete work, and her enthusiasm for the concept is infectious. ‘The word I think I made up,’ Jennifer explains hesitantly. ‘Maybe someone else made it up before me, so – forgive me.’
'Poetry can be relentless'
She pauses, trying to remember when she first got involved in melopoesie. ‘I started working with musicians and composers a long time ago. When I first came to Edinburgh about eleven years ago, a friend Laura Cameron Lewis and I started a performance art cabaret called SiLENCiO.’ She puts on a slightly mocking, spooky voice before continuing more earnestly. ‘It was a kind of David Lynch inspired cabaret of the night, where anything could happen. Artists of all different sorts could come and show work. It was really exciting. I wanted to have a poetic presence, but sometimes it felt like just reading out a poem was, well, not that exciting compared to someone hanging from the ceiling with fireworks coming out of them!’ She bursts into laughter. ‘I’m not sure if that ever happened exactly but it felt like that – it was always that exciting. So I started working with my friend Martin Parker who’s a composer. He was really interested in live recording and modulation at that time. We did a little thing – ‘ She interrupts herself. ‘I still think it’s one of the best things I’ve done in performance. I had a series of haiku about the minotaur and as I read them out he recorded them, distorted them and started to play them back. Throughout there was this building roar that was actually the words, distorted and playing back, so by the end of the poem I was drowned out by the roar of the poem itself, which became the roar of the minotaur.’
Thoughtfully she adds, ‘I think theatre in its earliest sense is probably a kind of poetry and music in combination. It goes really well together. You know, when poetry is read out, unless you love poetry, it can be a bit relentless.’ She interrupts herself again, as though anxious that this might be misconstrued. ‘I don’t mean to say that poetry isn’t enough on its own because it is, but having music that complements it, supports it in some way or that it’s in conversation with can be really useful.’ Nonetheless she admits that it can be hard to find gigs. ‘It can fall between the cracks, because poetry nights don’t necessarily have the tech to support amplified or electronic music and band nights go, eugh, what’s this poetry thing? But I think it should it be able to work in all these contexts, so if anyone’s interested, we’re available!’ She laughs.
‘We’ is Opul, a collaboration with Jennifer’s partner, musician and composer James Iremonger. ‘We usually make pieces together,’ she explains. ‘There’s not just a piece of music which I stick some words on or vice versa. He’ll write maybe a skeleton of music and I’ll write words that are inspired by the music and he’ll go back and work more music over the words or vice versa. The pieces are made in a weaving process, a dialogue. I like to think that the music expresses the meaning behind the words as much as the words do. That to me is melopoesie, it’s the two working together to express something.’
An underdog sense
Jennifer also runs a perfume blog, where she explains that poetry and perfume are, for her, inextricably linked. ‘It’s funny the places poetry takes you,’ she muses, with an ironic smile. ‘Again, I think it comes from my real interest in collaboration and the way one form can interact with and be a means to explore another.’ She first got into perfume when, together with poet Elspeth Murray, she was roped into a project to help re-launch the perfume line of Lush, the natural cosmetics store. In an excited stage whisper she tells me, ‘I was sent a box of perfumes and told to write poems inspired by the perfumes. And I thought, ‘This is the best thing ever!’’ At the time Jennifer was working at the Traverse theatre, the vibrant home of alternative theatre in Edinburgh. ‘It was quite an intense time. My little joyful thing was a project I gave myself, where I wore one of the perfumes every day and by the end of the day I had to write a poem about it.’
Jennifer grins and continues, ‘I was completely and utterly hooked at that point. Perfume gets treated as something very commercial and materialistic because it seems ephemeral and it can be very expensive. There are a lot of perfumes that aren’t necessarily very nice but get sold quite widely, so I think perfume gets a bad name.’ She giggles. ‘However, there’s a whole aspect of perfume that is properly an art form. My experience is that it goes really well with poetry because scent is something most of us experience constantly, but it’s a sense that we’ve…’ She pauses. ‘It’s somewhat become an underdog sense, we don’t pay it much attention – and yet everyone’s had some kind of proustian moment when they’ve smelt something and they’re surrounded by another time and another world. It’s that level of power, it affects your mind immediately! Yet it’s as though we haven’t found many words to describe scent, so it can be quite hard to talk about. Poetry works well with scent because it gives a kind of smell ‘lay person’ ways to describe these things that perhaps seem difficult to identify: poetry's ability to use metaphor is a great way to approach and think about smell. Going the other way, scent is, in that proustian way, deeply and intoxicatingly sensual. You can sit in one room and be reminded of all the different things you’ve experienced in life. I find it very moving.’