Interview with Andra Simons


Andra Simons is a Bermudian writer and performer living in London. He co-founded Bermuda’s first open mic night as well as Waterspout Theatre Company. Poetry Film Live met up with Andra in a café behind the Tate Modern in London.

We were particularly interested to talk with Andra about his performance poetry films, his collaboration with the artist Joao Trindade, and his views on accessibility and censorship in his work.

 


Photo by Ajamu


PFL: We began by discussing what video can add to a live performance.

Andra:   I have to fight the instinct to illustrate. It’s about creating another layer, adding another meaning. It may not be intended in the original work, but it may be something intended in the performance. It’s about the multiple metaphors. I find that exciting, that’s the theatrical part. It’s an element of the set. It’s also a bit of poetry as well, especially [the film] Womb Child. I look at Womb Child and think that is the entirety of the poem. I very rarely perform the poem live anymore, I’d rather show the film.


It’s about creating another layer, adding another meaning. It may not be intended in the original work, but it may be something intended in the performance.

 

PFL: How did Womb Child come about?

Andra: Womb Child was inspired by Frank Taylor’s painting ‘Mummy, One of the Eggs Drop an Brek‘. I saw it in a gallery in Barbados in 1999. It was a painting of a little boy standing next to his mother with an egg in his hand. During Performances I began to sing the poem. When I started making films with my creative partner, Joao Trindade, I told him about having this image of being trapped behind glass and not being able to get through. For me it was all about trying to capture that image.

Also during that time I was obsessed with trying to capture my mum’s voice (and still am) and I wanted her to sing. She is not really a singer, but she loves to sing. I love the vulnerability in a voice that’s not trained and theatrically I felt it would work. She was troubled by the lyrics, kept trying to change them. I can now hear her hesitation when I hear her sing some of the sections. I know she was thinking ‘this will reflect on me’. I told her afterwards that people will only hear a mother singing a lullaby. I fell in love with that recording. She recorded it in Bermuda produced by my younger brother and I sent it to Joao.

The other film I use using my Mother was created while she was visiting at Christmas 2012. I had already prepared her before she arrived from Bermuda. I set the camera and gave her a couple of instructions, I left it up to her to do what she wanted to do. She loves to perform. I would love to put a proper poem over it but I haven’t yet found a vocal track that works. But I love it and have used it in many different performances as a backdrop to several different poems. It’s a comforting film, it makes me feel as if I’m performing on stage with my Mother.

PFL: How, where and when did it all start?

Andra: I have been performing now since 1995. I studied and started in Canada.

I studied theatre and after studying transitioned into poetry. It was difficult to place a black male, who didn’t have a Canadian accent, in the theatre landscape at the time. My tutor suggested that one career option was that I may have to create my own work. So I did.

When I started it was performance poetry, then I later described myself as spoken word artist. But over the years I have gone back to saying that I do performance poetry because spoken word has become something else again. It used to be an umbrella term to describe anything spoken, anything from reading from a book, an audio book recording, reading a novel aloud, to performance poetry. Now, in London, it has become a particular style and sound, so I have gone back to calling myself a performance poet because I use elements of theatre. I approach the work as an actor approaches the text and the stage, so for myself I see a distinction.

When I moved to London in 2004, I was telling my Canadian friends that London felt ten years behind Canada, which was ten years behind the US at the time. It was centred around comedy poetry in pubs. I couldn’t picture myself in the scene.

But I have watched the scene here really develop and explode and take off since about 2010 – it is now unstoppable. It is lovely, there is a hungry audience and people want to experience poetry. They may not buy poetry books, but they come out to support live readings.

Bishop in love: What does the daughter of God do when she is not wanted here. When the man she loves, leads her to the gardens of Seven Sisters beneath the oak where he first illustrated the shape of it’s leaves and from that spot pointed out the Holly, Weeping Willow and the blue blooded water bird . It is there that he taught her how to walk on water, when it is frozen. To listen for the cracks beneath the ice. He brought her back to the spot, the spot far from the spot they first looked over the marshlands and counted trains splitting the valley in two. One slice for her and one for you. You took the east, and she the north. That spot she wanted to touch you but knew she still had forty more days of wandering to go. So they pulled at long grass instead and waited for the long hours of summer to close. They’re at the spot far away from the spot , near the fields of Islington. Where you said ‘enter me take down these walls’, with your fingers that once traced the dales, you displayed the curvature of your back and how it mirrored the silver slivered moon, and the fresh orange pegs in the morning or a rusted yet sharpened sickle. What does the daughter of God do when she stands at the spot far from all the other spots, that singular spot surrounded by the peeping Willow, Blue-blooded Fowl, under the oak. What does a girl do, when the man she loves takes her hand and tells her that when he breaths there is silence, that there is no volume of God held within his chest. What does the daughter of God do when the man she loves, kisses her on the check and leaves via the Gate and God, turned down so low, is not there to hear her scream from that place of disavowed complexities.

PFL: Has the poetry scenes in London changed?

Andra: I think there will always be the basic open-the-book-and-read. It has its firm place. It’s a default place that everyone should be able to open a book and read in a small room of six people or a hall of 2000. What has grown seems to be that people want to really hear poetry and all different forms and styles of it.

Slam poetry has really taken hold at the moment. I am personally a little frustrated with it, because I have been along side and sometimes within it for over 20 years now and I keep hearing the same or similar rhythms, and because I know where that rhythm comes from. On of these sources is the brilliant Saul Williams who found wider fame in a film from the early nineties called Slam. Williams had a particular rhythm that in its one way was related to rap and poetry performance out of the 70s. He was part of the New York performance poetry scene and which was rich with variety. But by the late nineties his rhythms were assimilated into the scene, although he himself has changed and grown.

The rhythm in spoken word lulls you into somewhat of a trance, which can often mask lack of content. I am not saying it shouldn’t exist, but I think there needs to be more variety and that variety comes from individuality. I try to find something that is in me, the way I want to pose and/or frame something, I tried to teach this to my students at Greenwich. I would tell them that you need to find your own voice, to which part of your voice is also your own cadence, then you can exaggerate and expand that for performance.

PFL: When you write, do you write for performance?

Andra : I used to, now I write for the page. I love figuring out how the work is going to take life on the page. I love that experience. After that draft I figure it out for performance, which may require another edit. The final drafts come out of revisiting the poem on the page and again after examining what I learned about the poem during performance.

PFL: Tell us about your work with Joao Trindade.

Andra: At the moment I only collaborate with the fine artist Joao Trindade. I’ll have ideas and we try to capture a small poetic moment, knowing that it is possible that a poem may be voiced over the film. But I don’t think about which poem at this point. It is about images that we might have. Joao will co-design then film it and edit it.

I start with the visuals. I may then record two or three vocal pieces on my own and see which one works on top, but not selecting or writing for the film at that point, instead choosing what feels good and sounds good after the film’s complete.

Theatre is collaboration. As a writer you are alone. I struggle with that, as I work best when I’m able to bounce my ideas. When I was in Bermuda I met up with friends who were also writers, artist, musicians, teachers, and activists. Every day we read work and discussed the world around us. There was so much creativity coming out of that period. In London, I’ve met other writers, but I don’t have that same level of consistent sharing and critique. With Joao I’ve found a good fraction of that.


I start with the visuals. I may then record two or three vocal pieces on my own and see which one works on top, but not selecting or writing for the film at that point, instead choosing what feels good and sounds good after the film’s complete.

 

PFL: Accessibility is important in poetry film as well as in live performance. For instance in poetry film, the sound level at a screening may be too loud and that can bring obstacles that lead to exclusion.

Andra: I have been thinking about that same thing. I am ashamed to say a couple of years ago it wasn’t something I thought about much at all. One of my really good friends has brought it to my forefront. She politely asked if I had subtitled my film. I never have to think about the volume, as I tend not to work on anything that’s really loud. But I do think about the images that may be disturbing, either the visual images or the language. I question whether to put warnings on it. I tend to go more with having the person who introduces it to say something about it. It has mostly been subtitles and audio description that I have introduced to my work.

The piece that I have that is audio described is Bishop in Love. There is a subtitled version and underneath it has a description of me. So if someone was going to describe it to someone else they can read that the person in this is wearing white and they are drinking a liquid etc.

PFL: Would you ever consider not using certain visual images in your work?

Andra: I would rather put a warning than to censor. I don’t want to feel censored. It is not about controversy, it’s about giving other people permission to say they can, and you are able to, and that you’re free to speak.

In Bermuda I started an open mic night which is still billed as Bermuda’s first uncensored open mic night. In Bermuda there is a culture of self-censorship, there was always a sense of, not just conservatism, but that there may be a big brother eye, especially for black Bermudians. If you were pushing against something you could feel it. A real common example from the not too distant past would be: you bought a house and you may do something publicly or supported something like a march or trade union, and then you get a letter that your bank wants to foreclose on your or your families home. That was a common story in Bermuda and that created a culture of fear, fear of not saying what you feel. I and others were writing and reading not just political poems but raunchy poems too and I personally would open each night with a new poem and people liked to hear other people speak their truth, how they saw the world. It really did change the scene there. The venue changed from a place where people would shyly ask permission to speak to their lived experience into where they unashamedly commanded it.


When I work with video, I don’t look at the footage because THEN I would censor …

 

When I work with video, I don’t look at the footage because THEN I would censor – I don’t like how I look but I accept it, Joao takes it away and works his magic and I get a perverse bit of joy knowing I’ve made myself vulnerable in that small way.

 

June 2017


Andra Simons is a Bermudian writer and performer living in London. He co-founded Bermuda’s first open mic night as well as Waterspout Theatre Company. He was recognised by the Bermuda Arts Council for his contribution to the Bermudian cultural landscape with a Founders Award in 2010.

Andra published his debut collection The Joshua Tales (Treehouse Press) in 2009. In 2012 he represented Bermuda for The Southbank Centre’s international festival Poetry Parnassus.

As well as Creative Writing Visiting Lecturer at the University of Greenwich (2009 – 2015) he has performed at numerous festivals and events. His poems have been published in various publications in the UK and internationally. His work is often inspired by his place of birth and other places he has called home while also exploring queer identity within those worlds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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