Imogen Stirling is Paisley Book Festival’s inaugural writer-in-residence, as the festival goes digital for 2021. As well as hosting online workshops with Renfrewshire community groups and writing her own response to this year’s festival theme, ‘Radical New Futures’, Imogen has curated three festival events. We spoke to the Glasgow-based poet, theatre-maker, musician, and educator about what we can expect.
How did the inaugural writer-in-residence come about and how does it feel now that you’re in the role?
I was involved in the Paisley Book Festival last year and have followed its story since. The residency was advertised through an open call and appeared to me as an unexpected golden opportunity amidst a strange and difficult year, so naturally I applied right away! Being offered the position was an absolute privilege. Its focus on creativity and community comes at a time when both are lacking in the world, so it’s been a real source of positivity.
It’s been a full-on few months and I’m so looking forward to seeing everyone’s hard work pay off when the festival begins.
You’re very active in the digital world, and obviously that’s increased in this year of disruption. What do you think is the best way to encourage people to get involved with creative outlets online?
Despite our lack of in-the-room liveness that real world events bring, I think people are naturally drawn to digital happenings due to the widened accessibility they offer – lower prices, no need to travel and, in some cases, the ability to watch when it suits you. That’s particularly good for festivals and for me, there’ve been few opportunities where I’ve been able to attend multiple events without having to worry about expense or time commitments.
Of course, watching from home cannot match the live experience. So I try to create as much atmosphere as I can, with dimmed lights, a drink, and turning my phone off – not letting the excitement of the event be undermined just because I’m not in a venue.
How have the creative writing workshops with community groups gone? Any overriding messages coming out, and what can audiences expect from the finished curated product which you’ll present?
They’ve been a treat – working with groups who don’t consider themselves ‘writers’ often rids the sessions of expectation, lending a unique open-mindedness to our communication. I love seeing people astonish themselves when they produce writing they didn’t imagine themselves capable of.
Honestly, some of the writing produced has blown me away with its poignancy, depth, and wit. A strong sense of compassion is emerging from everyone’s writing – real, genuine care for the people around them and recognition of the collective hardship being experienced by everyone right now. But also gratitude, with acknowledgement of small fortunes and appreciation for those things and people seeing us through.
The finished product will be bursting with optimism, resilience, collective spirit, hope, and a demand for better. It will show the shared priorities and aspirations from those across generations and backgrounds.
When do you know you’ve composed creatively strong prose personally, and can you feel a shift in participants as they progress?
Intricate rhyme and musical rhythm are both integral to my writing, so content aside, I know my work is strong when I can read it aloud sounding rich, satisfying and fluid. I then need to test it with an audience or listener, ensuring that the emotional impact and narrative of the piece remain clear and supported rather than compromised by structure.
Creative shifts during workshop sessions are definitely evident and often appear the first time a participant feels confident enough to share work they’ve written aloud. That boldness to take an idea from mind to paper, then paper to vocal group sharing is a brilliant thing to observe. Some workshop participants prefer to share writing post-session, emailing it to me separately. I love seeing the pride with which they introduce the writing, indicating which new techniques they’ve incorporated and why.
Your ‘Big Night In’ will digitally recreate the feeling of a cosy pub gathering with pals. How much collaboration (if any) will there be between you and the other guests, and how familiar are you with their work?
I don’t envisage there being much collaboration – I’m more interested in offering each artist a platform to share their words, specifically during a time when those platforms are still sparse. Rather than trying to recreate a sense of jostling conversation, I’m keen to set the tone of that feeling, usually later into the night, when friends take it in turn to share a story with company – holding attention and assuming their stage.
I’m a real admirer of each artist’s work. I suppose it’s a bit of a self-indulgent event on my part really, to be able to bring together three people whose words I love listening to so much! Each artist impresses me in their ability to both capture the attention of a large crowd and also perform with an intimacy perfect for smaller gatherings. It’s a difficult balance to find, but Dean, Iona, and Morgan master it.
Your event with Sarah Grant sounds fascinating. Can you elaborate on the idea of ‘Radicalism in Stillness’?
2020 was a strange year in that, despite the world going through unprecedented anxiety, turbulence and fear, this bizarre trend to measure our productivity, creativity, and proactiveness emerged amidst it. Focus seemed to turn away from self-care and instead homed in on what we were doing and how much of it.
I’ve always admired Sarah’s emphasis on talking openly about mental health, specifically regarding creativity. Throughout 2020, she frequently acknowledged the pressure she felt to be ‘achieving’ during the pandemic and made it clear that, despite the fact she did still appear to be producing content, there was a lot more going on behind the scenes. I’m interested to chat with her about how choosing to stand still when the world is pushing for movement can be a bold, defiant, radical act.
You’re also going to be debuting a new piece of creative work inspired by Paisley Book Festival’s theme, ‘Radical New Futures’. Is the piece finished yet or are you going to soak in some of the festival itself ahead of committing pen to paper?
Half-and-half, really! The writing itself is complete but how that writing is being presented is still being crafted. The writing’s definitely been influenced by the variety of people I’ve worked with throughout the workshop sessions and I hope I’ve managed to capture something of their colourful, diverse voices in my own piece.
When it comes to free writing versus commissioned work, do you notice a difference in your approach? Is it harder or easier to spark the creative flames in either context?
It can really vary. Free writing is probably the one that’s initially easier to approach because it’s something that’s genuinely important and exciting to me. But then the scope is so wide that I’ll often find myself overwhelmed by the potential strands, which can act as a real writing block. Commissioned work comes with restrictions, directions and parameters that can actually be immensely helpful to channel and focus creativity. I think one feeds into the other and I’ve worked out the kind of writing style that inspires and pushes me, which will always bleed into and influence the commissioned content I create.
Paisley Book Festival runs 18th till 27th February
Writer-in-Residence presents… – 21st February at 5pm
Imogen’s Big Night In with Dean Atta, Iona Lee, and Emme Woods – 22nd February at 9pm
Radicalism in Stillness: Imogen Stirling in conversation with Sarah Grant – 26th February at 7pm
Main photo credit: Sarah Grant