Anna Kiernan was interviewed by Phyllida Bluemel during the Atlantic Press and Tiny Pencil exhibition last year.
Anna is an arts consultant, mother and Senior Lecturer in Writing at Falmouth University. Anna’s new book is an Atlantic press published poetry chapbook, in collaboration with Illustrator Harriet Lee-Merrion. Anna’s other books are Voices for Peace (Scribner), Bit on the Side (Parthian) and a book about cocktails and literary drinkers (Barnes & Noble). She also runs a creative training and inspiration business wearethread.com
We asked Anna some questions about the project and her approach to creativity:
Tell us a bit about ‘Pick me Up’.
Pick me up is an illustrated chapbook, which means it’s a short collection of poems. I used to write poetry and then I stopped for about 10 years. I started again last year andPick me up is how it turned out.
What brought about the collaboration with Harriet?
I bumped into Steve Braund (who runs the MA in Authorial Illustration) at Woodlane this time last year, the time of the summer degree shows. When I asked Steve whose work I should look at for at the show, he mentioned Harriet’s. I went and looked and loved it. Her style is so literary and intelligent and unique.
What is it about Harriet’s work that suits your words?
Harriet’s work literally expresses my words visually, using references I don’t always know but which match my intentions. With some illustrated books the pictures are regarded as add-ons, but we approached this project on an equal footing, so that words, illustrations and form combined to tell a story.
Tell us about the working relationship with Harriet.
Harriet is brilliant to work with – sensitive, hard-working, generous – and she listens very carefully.
Do you see similarities between poetry and illustration?
I do. I used to feel ‘closer’ to photography because of thinking of photography and literature as being comfortable bedfellows. But poetry and illustration can be very complementary. The words and pictures in Pick me up are intense vignettes. More shots than pints, I hope.
What did you learn from this collaboration? What were some of the challenges?
The collaboration reminded me that I love collaborating with creative people and particularly talented people who hold themselves lightly. Harriet is very open to ideas and quick to respond and we formed a very constructive creative dialogue, through different formats. The challenges were not great, but it might have been helpful to have been able to meet up a couple more times, since working in the same room often results in so much more getting done so quickly! And of course there’s the buzz, too.
In making this book, I was reminded that even the smallest publications require a lot of thought and planning.
How did working with an illustrator from the very beginning, subverting the traditional text-then-image format, affect the way that you wrote?
One of the poems in particular, ‘Epitaph for the unrequited’, was written in response to Harriet’s interest in the Victorian Secret Language of Flowers. It took a while to come to me, but basically it was written to Harriet’s very gentle brief (i.e. She didn’t tell me to do it but talked about her interest a few times, in such a way that I knew she’d like me to think about the idea too!).
Three of the ‘subjects’ of the poems are artists or imagined artists or draw on artist’s work – ‘Richard Westall’s Sister’ (also wife of the nineteenth century artist William Daniell), Winifred Freeman in ‘Epitaph for the Unrequited’ and Rachel Whiteread in ‘The Beaten Track’. So in that sense, this chapbook is infused with artists and therefore had to respect the voices of artists, as it were. What was more interesting for me was working with Harriet as someone else who doesn’t seek the limelight but is very self possessed. I found that inspiring but I’m not sure if that is specifically answering your question.
Do you think it’s important that small independent presses like Atlantic Press and Tiny Pencil exist? Why?
Because they are unique, special, and run by hugely talented people who work because they believe in what they do and who make beautiful objects, art and books that enrich people’s lives.
Do you think the role of the material book is changing?
Yes. It’s having a bit of a moment. There is a revival of interest in the book as a material, textural object. Also, in the book as an artform. Gill Partington at Birkbeck is doing a lot of good work on this, and I met lots of brilliant artists and academics at the ‘Perversions of Paper’ workshop last Friday at Birkbeck who were deliberating about just this subject.
To me, the work speaks from a definite female place – was this something that was important to you and Harriet?
It is a quietly feminist collection, yes. The first work I saw by Harriet included had illustrations of women such as Frida Kahlo and Virginia Woolf. The heads were filled with words. I loved this historic, literary/visual representation of iconic women.
Pick me up is partly about representing a biological determinist notion of women from a feminist perspective – what does it mean to have a baby, to look after children, to be assigned the role of ‘wife’ (in the early nineteenth century, for instance).
This exhibition celebrates the medium of pencil – and the unlimited creativity that can stem from the most humble of media. Do you think there are benefits to creative constraints? What kind of constraints do you employ in your writing?
Constraints are enormously important – without constraints, how can we experience the joy of freedom, for instance? But in terms of writing, constraints take many forms. Style for instance is vitally important for jobbing writers – to be able to adapt their style and voice to different contexts.
But the thing about pencil comes back to the idea of focusing exquisite attention on something and doing it very well. It’s about stepping outside of the excessive and incessant demands of digital communication to return to some form of the real. It’s about slowing time and being authentic.
In terms of my own constraints, the main one is time. I feel as though have no time because I have two small children, a job and a business.
Did anything surprise you about the process from initial idea to finished book?
I was surprised at how organic it was.
What next? Would you work with an illustrator again in the future?
YES. I love working with artists.
Imagine you’re an editor. If you could pair up any writer, with any artist (living or dead) in collaboration – who would you choose?
What a cool question. A book by the poet John Burnside. And maybe a new illustrated version of Wide Sargasso Sea. And Walter Benjamin’s ‘Unpacking My Library’ illustrated by Picasso. I would like to see illustrated editions of those for a start, but I’m not sure who should illustrate them all. What do you think?
Interview by Phyllida Bluemel, Photos by Davitt Steed