Iona Lee has long been at the forefront of the live poetry and spoken word scene in Scotland, as well having her work widely published in various journals, anthologies, and other publications, so to say her debut collection Anamnesis has been eagerly awaited is an understatement. SNACK spoke to Iona to learn more about the poems, what inspired them, and how it feels to have the collection out in the world.
Anamnesis draws on your life and times. How do you feel about sharing those with readers?
I don’t feel particularly precious when it comes to sharing things about myself. However, I don’t exactly striptease my soul for the titillation of others in my work. Maybe one day I’ll get a bit more confessional, but for now, I’m more interested in things like dreams and magic and memory than exploring my own personal psychology or traumas.
Now that these poems are collected, how do you reflect on them?
With the love and fear of a mother watching their soft, sweet child walk off into the world unaccompanied. With the deep, visceral embarrassment of a regretful ex-lover. With pure hungover confusion and no recollection of how any of this happened. And with a calm, measured and mature distance. I have moved on. These are a time capsule.
You have a way of articulating memories and thoughts which engender empathy in others. Is such relatability important?
Empathy is what poetry is all about: relating things to other things. It’s an attempt to transcend the void and to know the absolute unknowable otherness of everything.
Does the form a poem takes on the page arise from the content?
Sometimes. I have a poem in the collection called ‘Clink’, which is a contrapuntal – a silly word which basically means two poems in one that can be read separately or together. It felt like the right form for the subject matter, an emotional affair I once had that never came to fruition. There’s another called ‘Lullaby For the Ferryman’, in which I attempt to use the words on the page to illustrate the setting – a fishing boat on the ocean. But generally, I just write in free verse and follow the rhythm of the words and see where they take me. If the words might one day like to take me to a sestina or an epic in dactylic hexameter, I would be very grateful.
What influences your work outside of poetry, or is there no distinction?
I’m just generally interested in everything. Especially the natural and the supernatural; magic; memory; the digital; history; language; the uncanny. I have a degree in illustration and a masters degree in philosophy. I make and play music, and I write and read and perform, and do storytelling, and I draw, and I go on walks in order to notice things. Poetry is always out there somewhere.
The poem ‘The Black Cat’ is also a song by your band, Acolyte. Do you make a distinction between writing lyrics and poetry? And is there more music to come?
Poetry is not literature; it’s music. John Glenday said that to me once. I’m always thinking about the sound of words, their rhythm and percussion. They are euphonious things, and I tend to lead with words first –that’s why writing for music can be so freeing. A melody does a hell of a lot of emotional work. Music cuts through thought and digs deep down into your amygdala, and so to pair poetry with melody means that you don’t have to tie up your poems in a tidy bow. You don’t have to play the omnipotent poet imparting wisdom, which I find rather dull, or come to any concrete resolution. You can just let the words be. They can remain open-ended, existing in the liminal space that music creates. And yes, there is more music to come! We were thrilled to receive some funding from Help Musicians UK, so we will be recording our debut EP in October.
Do you approach poetry differently when you perform, as opposed to on the page?
Poems for the page and poems for the stage, as they are sometimes called, are not mutually exclusive. They’re more like sisters, with different interests and skills. Spoken word plays with time in a different way – you can hold an audience suspended in the anticipation of a pause. You rely on punchlines, both comic and emotional. A stage poem disappears once complete, whereas the poem on the page remains and can be reread. There’s nowhere to hide with a page poem, which is why I find releasing a collection so daunting! It feels more vulnerable to me, which might be counterintuitive. as most people find the concept of reading poetry alone on a stage to be intimidating. But in that context I feel more in control of an audience’s potential interpretation of my work. I’m relinquishing that perceived control with Anamnesis.
Now that Anamnesis is published, is there any sense of moving on or starting over?
I worked on Anamnesis intensively for one year, but in a way, I have been working on it for the past ten. All my best stuff so far is in that book, and so yes, it does feel a bit like a new beginning. Which is both freeing and terrifying. The process of writing is an organic one. Poems are living things, until you print them. Then they become fossilised. I need to start planting some new idea seeds.
Anamnesis is out now, published on the Polygon Books imprint of Birlinn Ltd. Buy a copy here.
Iona will launch the book at Summerhall (Edinburgh) on Thursday 28th September, with special guests Salena Godden, Hannah Lavery, Nikki Kent, Leyla Josephine, Hailey Beavis and Colin Bramwell in an evening of poetry, spoken word and music. Tickets here.
Main Photo Credit: Laura Meek