Harry Giles is a writer, performance artist and game designer whose first poetry collection Tonguit has been shortlisted for the Forward Best First Collection. leoemercer talks to them about experimentalism, populism, and accessibility in the arts.
How did you get into writing / being an artist?
I always did write. Since I could write, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing creatively. It used to be mostly stories, and around age 19 it switched to mostly poetry after watching Luke Wright’s Poetry Tent at the Fringe and thinking “I want to do that”. It wasn’t just Luke, but also all the other writers he programmed. I saw so many different types of performance poetry, and loved the way all these different people played with words, and the direct connection they could make to the audience. I wanted a piece!
As for being an artist, it’s a bit more circuitous. I’ve sort of been feeling my way forward by instinct and chance for the past decade, and only felt like Being An Artist was my job in the last couple of years. I was always doing creative stuff, and as an undergrad fell in love with directing theatre. I was spending more time doing it than anything else, so I thought maybe I should do that. I studied that as an MA at East 15 and then totally failed to find a directing job. So I fell into doing my own solo performance, because I still wanted to be performing. Meanwhile, I just kept writing. Then I got a half-time job in environmental management (that was my undergrad) and built up my artistic career while doing that for three and a half years. Then in 2014 I cut myself loose and decided to try and live off writing and performing alone, and since then it’s mostly worked out!
Which other writers have been most important to you along the way, and how?
I started out as a straight-up “performance poet” and then diversified as I read and watched more widely. In Scotland, Jen Hadfield and WN Herbert are big influences on me. They both combine playfulness, intellectual rigour, and a very sensual and aural approach to language. I like Kei Miller a great deal for the same things. Historically, Edwin Morgan is sort of my idol. I love the way he combines experimentalism and populism. And I think what I’m doing now can be sort of described as a contemporary version of his experimentation and attitude to audience. I’ve moved away from performance poetry in the high-speed-personal-narrative-passion way of doing it, but while I was doing it, Kate Tempest and Andrea Gibson were influences.
Now that I’m also playing with electronic literature: Emily Short, Porpentine Charity Heartscape, Katie Rose Pipkin, and a lot of folk around those crowds. I’m interested in an uncompromisingly artistic electronic literature that also has wide popular reach, and interactivity as a way of telling rich and complicated stories, stories that you couldn’t tell or spaces you couldn’t explore in a static text.
There’s a wide range of experiments in your work. Is there something that consciously underpins them all?
The easy answer is that there’s not necessarily a big overarching project, and that I just sort of follow my nose into what’s interesting. And that’s true as far as it goes. But I think what I’m interested in generally is maybe the idea that everyone speaks multiple languages, and that a language is a system for producing meaning. The system’s fuzzy and evolving – not always coherent – but it is describable as a set and separate thing. So I like to identify a given language and then try and get inside it. How does it work? How does it produce meaning? How can a piece of writing expose the workings and limits of a language? Where’s the beauty in that? Where’s the politics? For example, Scots is a really obviously politicised language, situated within a clear historical and geographical context, and you can’t write in it without being present to all of that.
But in Tonguit, there’s also things like exploring the language of the government questionnaire, or of management, and trying to expose and criticise how those work. While We Are Rain we could describe as trying to get inside and exhaust the “language of rain”, if that’s not too abstract.
[For the Twitter-bot While We Are Rain, Giles programmed a twitter account to post regular tweets of ‘ambient sound’. Each tweet is created from a bank of possible syllables which repeat, inserting new syllables, spaces, and linebreaks at unexpected times.]
I suppose what I’m against is just assuming English, seeing English as this somehow neutral thing with which you can express anything. It’s not, it’s a political language system, with its own limits and potentialities. And there are also many Englishes.
I’ve started wondering whether this approach is at all influenced by my neurology. My diagnosis is Aspergers (or, these days, “high-functioning” (horrible term) autism spectrum disorder), which has meant a lifetime of observing behaviour systems and trying to understand how they work so that I can function in them.
Is there a particular insight this has led you to want to share?
I’m a bit sceptical of thinking I have any particular insight, though there’s definitely a strong tendency to want to study social systems intensely in order to cope with them. I think for me it’s more that, as with most aspies, social understanding and self-insight comes from intellectual analysis rather than instinct. I learn how to behave (and how I behave) from rigorous observation rather than instinctively knowing what to do. So developing a strong ability to articulate who and how you are (and how you see other people) is a survival skill! And then, if you’re talking about yourself clearly and honestly and with generosity, you’ll always find some sort of audience, because so many other people are looking for self-understanding. Also, because “being myself” is so impossible in social situations, I reserve a lot of the emotional rawness and honesty for writing online. Text is where I’m safe to be myself!
It’s also the contradiction of performance. I hate parties, I just can’t cope with them. The noise, the stimulation, all the interactions – I have to try to understand to cope. But I love performing for an audience because I’m in control. I can be with a bunch of people without it being a threat. That reverses what most neurotypical people experience. It’s always been easier for me to be open on a stage or a page than in an interaction. That said, one-to-one I can be very soppy and rare. My friends know this, but I can put up a lot of front, with a lot of coldness and irony, when I’m in a larger group.
In the road to getting a diagnosis, and since getting a diagnosis, I’ve been trying to look at how social systems – whether that’s “the theatre industry” or “a political meeting” – assume particular sorts of brain, assume particular ways of being in the world. And I’ve been taught a lot about this by physically disabled friends. E.g., if a theatre has a stepped entrance and no ramp, that excludes and disables a wheelchair user in a really obvious way. And if most professional events happen in such venues, the industry as a whole excludes wheelchair users.
Now, similarly, “getting on” in an art career tends to require a lot of (shudder) networking. This is especially the case in performance and theatre, I’ve found. You have to go to the openings and the galas and you especially have to hang around at the drinks reception afterwards. That’s where people hear about your work, that’s where you make and reinforce social connections. And with the best will in the world a programmer is more likely to take note of and be interested in the work of someone they’ve chatted to socially. But all this is completely impossible for me. I can do it for about twenty minutes, and then I have to go and lie down in a dark room. If it wasn’t for social media I would have no performance career at all. I’ve been able to build some kind of audience and professional interest because I’m good at the internet…
Now, some theatre and cinemas have started doing “autism-friendly” shows and screenings that help deal with the sensory sensitivities of children with various degrees of autism. Things happen more slowly, sudden noises are edited out, children can call out or run around if they need to, &c &c. Once you see something like that, it exposes how utterly constrained most art’s vision of what their audience should look and be like is. Most artists just assume their audience behaves mostly like them and so they end up excluding most of the population because they just don’t think about it. Whether that’s not having step-free access, or showing sexual violence with no content warning, or not having a BSL interpreter, or making the publicity blurb impenetrable to someone without two degrees, or pricing out working class people, or whatever. Adrian Mitchell’s still true comment “Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people” shouldn’t just be about populism but also about a radical approach to accessibility. And that’s just art. Every social system is set up this way. Work. Benefits. Pubs. Policing. Inaccessibility is everywhere. The world is full of barriers privileged people can’t see. As you can see, there’s a lot to say on this…
How do you create works that get around this? What are examples?
I don’t think there is one way to do it right. It’s more about an attitude: Who are you excluding? How could you include them? What would it take to do that? What aesthetic possibilities does it open up? Who does your art or space prioritise and why? The event which really exploded my thinking on this was SEEP, a multi-disciplinary, multiply-accessible art exhibition and performance. So in the exhibition, each exhibit had to have multiple sensory elements. You didn’t just look at them: you listened to a poetic audio description as well, and most had some element of taste or touch or smell additionally. The space itself has step-free access and a quiet space. The performances were BSL-interpreted and audio described. And there was a lot of work around neurodiversity as well, supporting different folk to be in the space. And the result of all of this wasn’t aesthetic restriction but aesthetic expansion: it pushed artists to consider how they could make positive use of all these different elements.
Bringing this back to poetry, some things poets could think about:
Who is going to be able to understand your poem? Are you using aesthetic forms or languages that put up educational and cultural barriers? If so, how can you help people past those barriers? How can you give people a way in? - Does your poem just exist as text on a page? Why? Who else could you reach if there was an audio, video or signed version? What artistic possibilities are there there? If your poem is good, why only give it one life? - How much does your poem cost to find? Is there a way of giving it away for free? (I make way more money doing residencies and giving the results away than I do selling books)
Do you find most art lacking in an ethical focus?
Yes I do! I think many artists are venal, unethical, and boring. I also think many artists are proud, preachy, and boring. There has to be a route in between somehow… My art tends to be driven by urgency and commitment and I struggle to understand why others’ isn’t (though I do also just like making pretty things). But good art only ever comes from people doing what they want to do, by being committed to themselves and what they believe in. I’d rather be a good person than a good artist, but I think it’s not so hard to be both.
I can see you’re into creative commons? How do you see this impacting things?
I’m way too small fry for this to be making a difference yet, I mostly do it out of ethical commitment. But every so often it leads to something nice, like someone remixing my work. or the other day a guy who works in a bookshop asked me if he could print out a zine I made and hide it in books, and I was like, YES PLEASE, you didn’t even need to ask! At the big level, it’s worth folk looking into Cory Doctorow, he’s a real pioneer. But it’s definitely the case that I’ve built an audience by giving a lot of stuff away for free. For poets, the money’s in commissions and residencies and workshops rather than sales, so just give the poetry away when you can. Hopefully publishers will come on board; mine’s been fine with it so far.
How important is accessibility-as-in-popularity to you – i.e., having a wide reach? Do you aspire to “be mainstream”?
This is complicated! I want a “big enough” audience and think too many artists self-marginalise and reach a smaller audience than they could because they’re happy to stay niche. But the type of audience matters too: I’d rather have a small dedicated audience of queers and aspies than a big audience of rich people. And sometimes the more radical your message the harder it is to find a big audience: the trade-off isn’t one-to-one or zero-sum, but there is a trade-off nonetheless. So I don’t know!
Going back to electronic literature, which you mentioned earlier, what do you have in mind for this?
Electronic literature is a biiiiiig field and it’s growing all the time. So a start is just to google the names I mentioned and also get lost in http://collection.eliterature.org/. But the basic point is that “game” is an immensely popular form, and you can sneak in some aesthetically radical stuff just by calling it a game.
Also, if I had one message for poets, it’s this: Just put things on the internet, for god’s sake. And then start treating the internet as a performance and publishing space with its own rules and potentialities. And then get excited about that.
Just to finish, can we have a little 3-book Desert Island Library?
Oh, books! Well at the moment I’m reading Choman Hardi’s Considering the Women, which is largely about the genocide in Iraqi Kurdistan and is ripping me apart with its clarity and directness. (Why can’t British poets write clearly about the violence in their own lives? It’s like we accept political poetry when it’s people from Over There writing it but get embarrassed when we’re implicated.) And Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety, which is about the French Revolution and so is so much more interesting than Wolf Hall, and equally strangely and beautifully written. And Lori Adorable’s zine Girl With The Most Cake, which is a totally brilliant zine about the politics of sex work, that confronts the complexities of sexual violence with real uncompromising depth.
For more information about Giles’s work, please visit their website.