Hailing from West Lothian and now based in Glasgow, Iona Lee is one of the boldest voices of the Scottish spoken word scene. Iona has recently released her second poetry pamphlet, Know Your Space, published by Speculative Books, and is currently working on her first full-length collection. I sat down with her to chat about her career so far and how she has managed to keep creative over the past year.
Where did your interest in poetry begin?
I took part in my first spoken-word open mic one fateful winter’s evening in Edinburgh, about eight years ago. It is not a particularly fascinating story. One day I decided to try it out, and it has been my life ever since. Funny how these small decisions turn out to be monumental on reflection.
I suppose that I’ve always been interested in storytelling, and the different ways that stories can be told. I was raised in a theatrical family and grew up around actors, puppeteers, musicians, theatre-makers – people invested in storytelling and performance. But if you’d told me when I was leaving school that my life would be that of a poet, I don’t think I’d have believed you. It wasn’t exactly my ‘plan’. It wasn’t until I met my mentor, Salena Godden, that I realised what a life in poetry could be. How much fun and how much hard work it could be.
Your poetry explores magic, memory, fairies, womanhood and storytelling. How did this style of writing start for you?
My childhood was spent touring around with people who knew how to tell a good story. My dad, especially, is a font of mythological and folkloric knowledge. I was very lucky to have such a world of stories at my disposal. Tales of the wild wood, the faerie hunt, the non-human world. I also spent a lot of time in nature, and you’re never far from magic there.
This year has been, well, awful. But I was wanting to ask if you were still able to find inspiration to create new work, even with everything going on?
Creative work has been a bit of a slog during lockdown. Cultivating and maintaining any kind of creative flow can be difficult at the best of times, but when the perimeters of your life are brought right in – as they have been – and any novel experiences become severely limited, inspiration can seem a bit of a Moby Dick. I try not to give myself too hard a time when I am feeling uninspired, though. Artists are not meant to be constant ‘content providers’. Creativity takes time, and that’s okay. I’m in less of a rush than I used to be. We must breathe in before we can breathe out.
You recently released a pamphlet through Speculative Books. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Yes, I created my second pamphlet, called Know Your Space : A Creative Journal for the Capitalist Feminist – a very tongue in cheek title, of course. It is intended as a satire of #girlboss feminism; that horrible plastic kind of feminism that capitalism sells back to us through vague platitudes and saccharine affirmations. Speculative Books are sweethearts, and they wanted to publish something of mine. I had this weird idea to make a creative journal that you can read from beginning to end like a poem. Luckily, they were up for it!
I really liked what you did with your second pamphlet. It’s a little different from most other poetry releases, with its DIY feel, and its encouragement to the reader to write and be creative throughout the book, while still featuring original poetry. Why did you decide on this approach?
I just liked the idea of it being interactive. It’s full of instructions for the reader to respond to, like ‘write the non-speaking role’, or ‘colour inside of the lines’, and I wanted to hand it over to people and see what they did with it. The instructions are all purposely conceptual.
There have been some exciting moments and opportunities throughout your career. Is there a highlight that you can share with us?
Yes, I’ve been very blessed. Booked and blessed! I think that my favourite part of this job is the travelling and the people. I have seen the UK race by through train windows, and I have brilliant poetry friends dotted all over. Sometimes we’ll all get to be in the same place at the same time, like the Edinburgh Book Festival, or Glastonbury. And that’s the good stuff.
We have seen a rise in digital events due to the lockdown. How have you found the poetry scene’s transition to online performances?
Poetry has had probably the smoothest transition to the online realm during pandemia. It is essentially just speaking, which is what platforms like Zoom are built to handle. Theatre, comedy and music have struggled a lot more. But still, something is inevitably lost. I feel more like a YouTuber than a poet at present, which is not exactly ideal. I’ve become a professional email writer. I miss that human connection.
Your book launch was held online, with an interactive element that followed. How was that experience?
We launched Know Your Space as a digital event, with a writing and drawing workshop led by me. It was really well attended and the feedback was great. Zoom doesn’t have a smoking area, though!
You took part in some events at the Paisley Book Festival, with a virtual audience. How do you prepare for a gig when you can’t know the reactions of an audience watching?
Online gigs are an entirely different experience. First of all, there’s no audience, really. Sometimes your laptop screen is full of mute faces looking back at you, like animals in well-upholstered cages. More often though, it’s just your own face. It’s a very odd experience actually, and more than once I’ve had the urge to close my laptop mid-poem. You’re essentially performing a fifteen-minute-long monologue to your own digital reflection. Except that part of you knows that potentially hundreds of people are observing you. It’s all very solipsistic.
There are some really striking lines that jump out when hearing the opening poem ‘Know Your Space’ from your pamphlet of the same name. I wondered if you could tell us a little more about a couple of those that stood out for me?
‘The act of being observed is feminine and indeed not an act at all’
The act of observing is coded in our minds as a masculine pursuit. To be observed is feminising. The muse is traditionally a female role, whereas the artist or the writer, the ‘genius’, is male. Women are non-speaking roles, or side characters. We exist in relation to men. Men have told us the world. They are the history-writers, the keepers of the keys and of our stories. I suppose I got these ideas from my studies in art history.
Historically, women have had to be passive creatures. Things happen to us. We are not active participants in our lives. Our domain is chaos, whereas men’s domain is intellectualism, order, authority, sense, God and state. Women are not authorities on life, as we are, somehow, ‘other’. We are what is non-human about the human experience.
That is why you still get posters boasting of an ‘ALL-FEMALE CAST’. You would never get that with an all-male cast, because that wouldn’t be out of the ordinary. A story about men is a story about life and is for everyone, whereas a story about women is just a story about, and for, women.
Can you tell us a your thoughts on the line: ‘the white page interrupted by ink’?
With that line I think I’m alluding to many things. Innocence lost. Silence interrupted by speech. Bed sheets. Books that weren’t written. Taking back power. Words as weapons. Times that you have felt silenced.
‘It is the radical feminist coffee mug, made in China’. Could you discuss this line for us, and the irony that seems to be packed within it?
It is impossible to exist in this western world and be an ethical consumer. Genuinely impossible. Someone is always getting massively fucked over. Especially Mother Nature. But when you buy something with a feminist slogan on it, from a company like Boohoo, or Missguided, or, god forbid, Pretty Little Thing (the world’s most condescending fashion brand) for next to nothing, and it arrives, plastic wrapped in yet more plastic, made in a sweatshop far far away – well, that doesn’t seem particularly radical to me.
When writing poetry that is personal and raw and emotional, how do you make sure you are not giving too much of yourself away, but still managing to be vulnerable for an audience?
It is certainly true that some poems are rawer and more emotional than others, but the thing about poetry is that you are always editing – how much of yourself you want to share, how certain truths are told, how things are framed. You’re letting people in, but you’re choosing what you show them. I find that in my work I am a paradoxical mix of very open and simultaneously very guarded.
There are many things that I have never written about, personal experiences. Sometimes I think, maybe it’s time to write THAT poem. And then other times I think, why? And for who?
This is not to say that writers shouldn’t tackle difficult subject matter. They should if they want to. Many do, brilliantly and bravely. But I think that performance poets especially can feel a pressure to share painful, personal things in order to be considered relevant.
Truth is, you could write nothing but limericks about your bus route home – and it would still be relevant. There is no hierarchy in subject matter, and there is poetry to be found in everything.
Main photo John Mackie