Literary Spotlight. Keeping it Fresh for Posterity. Helen Eastman in Conversation with Sue Burge

Dr Helen Eastman. Photo by Anna Watson

HELEN EASTMAN – KEEPING IT FRESH FOR POSTERITY

I’m delighted to have been able to pin down the human dynamo that is Helen Eastman for this wide-ranging and generous interview.  Helen has so many roles, she’s a true creative, and someone who is more than prepared to give back to her community in so many ways.

Helen, so lovely to be able to discover more about you!  Could you tell us a little about your background and how that motivated you to start Live Canon?  How would you define Live Canon in its early days and how has it grown since then?

My first degree was in Classics and English (and I’ve got a doctorate in Classics), but vocationally, I trained as a theatre director, at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA).

For the first few years of my career I was working as a freelance theatre director, with new writing and political theatre, but then I ended up doing a lot more work with physical theatre, opera, and even circus. In about 2006/7, I suddenly realised it had been a long time since I’d directed any text (and a very long time since I’d worked with verse text).

Around the same time, I had a chat with the artistic director of Greenwich Theatre, James Haddrell, about how brilliant it was that spoken word had exploded as a genre, but how that meant that a lot of new work was experienced in performance while older work was read on the page; that can make it harder to experience both together. I had this idea of performing some of the ‘back canon’ as though it was fresh new work. James liked the idea and set aside some time in the theatre for a series of performances, which we called the ‘live canon’. I pulled together an ensemble of actors who were up for learning a lot of poetry and we got on with it. Some of our early performances featured Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley, Vita Sackville West, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, the War Poets and the Metaphysicals (Donne, Herbert etc).  The series was really popular and other theatres asked us to tour it, and then various museums, festivals and other venues got in touch too. And that’s how ‘Live Canon’ was born.  Five years on, we’d also added the publishing house, started to run courses, conducted outreach in schools and libraries and become a slightly sprawling poetry organisation that had sprung out of the liminal space between poetry and theatre.

 

I love that idea of the liminal space! How do you keep all the different aspects of Live Canon going?  Do you have a team?  What have been the challenges?  Any memorable highlights/events?  

Live Canon has no permanent employees and no regular funding. The team are all freelancers with multiple strings to their bows and we keep it going through sheer determination, and the commitment of lots of remarkable people.

The biggest ongoing challenge is fundraising and making sure we can pay everyone fairly for their time and work.

There are so many highlights. If I had to pick a few – our collaborations with the Victoria & Albert Museum, our season at the Boulevard Theatre, an eccentric bilingual gig at Abbey Road recording studios, a gig on the wrong end of Broadway, taking over an art gallery in Nine Elms (an area of London with massive inequality) for two months and plastering it with poetry, the annual thrill of the winner announcement for our international poetry prize… and the regular every-day thrills of getting to publish brilliant words by brilliant writers and pop their books into envelopes and send them out into the world.

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What advice would you give to writers hoping to be published by Live Canon?

It is advice I would give about approaching any publisher.  Do a bit of research, read the poets that we publish and see if you think you’d like to be part of the Live Canon ‘stable’.  

Then get in touch with your work and give us the opportunity to read it. We are always looking for things which are so exciting that we think ‘this has to be published. We have to get this to readers’. Don’t be cross if we are slow to respond. We are a tiny team, with no regular funding and we have to fit in reading unsolicited work around everything else, but we are trying our best.

We run a competition for individual poems and one for pamphlets and one for collections (not just first collections), so that can be a good way to introduce us to your work. We have different guest judges selecting from these competitions, and it feels important to make sure there are different viewpoints and different poets selecting the work each year.

 

You are so inventive Helen!  I loved your 154 project where 154 poets responded to Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets and your lockdown idea of pairing artisan chocolate with poetry books that could be sent as gifts or for Valentine’s Day and Easter.  Do you have any other quirky future plans you can share or any past ventures which surprised your audiences with their inventiveness?

Thank you, that’s a lovely question. We love to find new ways to engage readers into poetry, and encourage people to make poetry part of their day. One of my favourite projects was a collaboration with Westminster University and their #disruptyoureveryday mission, where we hung poems in the windows of a store on Oxford Street – the UK’s busiest shopping street – in the run up to Christmas. People just paused, mid shop, and read a poem. And that felt like a really exciting way to get our poets’ work to completely new audiences.

We do have a big project brewing that builds on this idea.  It’s a bit under wraps at the moment, but we’ll be making it happen in 2023.

Photo by Anna Watson

Definitely a “watch this space” moment then! As well as publishing, you are also known as a director of theatre, film, TV and opera.  What excites you about this world and how has your approach to your work changed since coming out of lockdown?  What crossover skills feed from this world into Live Canon?

For me, all these art forms are about telling stories and communicating thoughts and ideas. As Emily Dickinson would put it, telling all the truth but telling it ‘slant’ – finding the right slant or angle from which to express each truth. Sometimes, for me, the right way is a play or a film, and sometimes the right way is a poem. I think because I cross between art forms a lot in my work, I have the privilege of matching content to form with a wide palette of genres.

On a practical level, my work in theatre and film has given me the skills to produce live poetry shows and events, programme poetry into theatres, and make poetry films.

 

Could you tell us a little about your own writing?  It seems so varied, ranging from librettos to academic articles! 

It is! I write a lot of lyrics and librettos – across quite a diverse range of musical genres – classical music, musical theatre, pop music (I’m currently mentoring young artists studying popular music at a conservatoire). I write plays. I write poetry when I can – I recently had some time as poet in residence on the Poetic Science project at Southampton University, which gave me the space to get some new poems written. I love finding the right form in which to write an idea, and try not to be afraid to try new genres when I need to.  For example, I had been trying to write something about the politics of helium use for a long time, and suddenly I was asked to write words for a choral piece for the BBC singers and realised that was exactly the right form. Also, a work I thought would be a site specific opera piece became a web series in lockdown, and now it feels like that was always the right medium for it. And the theatre piece Planet Protectors evolved into a kind of online escape room eco-adventure and then developed back into a live show for festivals. 

 

How do you make time for your own creativity, which is, at the same time, your livelihood?  Do you have any advice for others who might be struggling with this kind of creative time management?

Good question! I actually find it quite helpful that I have to write to support my children and pay my bills because if I’m dithering over whether something is good enough to send, or finished, I just say to myself ‘that’s got to be ok, you have to finish it, because it’s a job and you need to get paid’ and that helps me push past insecurities and just finish things.

When I did my PHD I was supervised by Prof Edith Hall, who is a brilliant and prolific academic and passionate feminist. At the start I think I was fantasizing about having time to read and ponder and think for days in the library, and she gave me a stern talking to, because realistically that wasn’t going to happen in the mad juggle of parenting and earning and studying. She encouraged me to do all the ‘thinking work’ first while washing up/cooking /commuting, then made me make a really detailed structure for the whole PHD, so that whenever I then had an hour available, I could get something written, even if it was only a paragraph. She taught me how to write within the life I was actually living, and not to fantasize about another life with way more time! I apply that to everything now.

 

That’s such a good mantra, and she sounds an amazing woman to have as a supervisor.  You seem to be an artist who is very concerned about current affairs and have the ability to weave these concerns into your work.  Foreclosure Follies, for example, was a multi-disciplinary project which aimed at finding new ways to focus on fairness in financial markets.  Could you tell us a little about this aspect of your work?  Maybe a little on how your work responds to the climate crisis and also a little about the Ukrainian Cassandra project?

For twenty-five years, I’ve been concerned about the climate crisis, about injustice, and about social inequality and those concerns are always part of my work because that is part of who I am. I also believe in the arts as being an invaluable way to bring people together to have the important conversations and that joy is an essential component in helping people find the energy and solidarity to make change. So a lot of the work I make brings people together, in joy, to face up to the big challenges of our age. I’ve gathered people to think about climate crisis through plays, opera commissions, poems and events. One such show is Bicycle Boy, a musical for families which is genuinely powered by bikes – the audience have to get on them to keep the show going. It has toured to arts festivals, music festivals, theatres and schools. The most recent incarnation has been touring for five years. 

One of the issues with climate crisis is that we find it hard to imagine overcoming the issue – it can feel insurmountable. That’s where we, as artists, have to step up and help people imagine a future sustainable world to move towards, positively.

Foreclosure Follies grew out of a chance encounter with a brilliant economist and lawyer, Prof Janis Sarra, when I was a visiting artist at the University of British Columbia (Vancouver). She realised that Live Canon could get people to think about the issues that concerned her in the wake of the financial collapse in a very different way. It led to us co-creating a cabaret show with CEOs of banks, corporate judges, and economists, and performing the show to an audience from that sector (as well as the general public) in financial districts around the world. We could raise questions in different ways. Sometimes when you make political work you can end up in an echo chamber where your audience or readers already feel the same way as you. That was definitely not the case with Foreclosure Follies!

Our collaboration with the Ukrainian Institute has been extraordinary and humbling. A new translation of ‘Cassandra’ by the iconic Ukrainian playwright, Lesia Ukrainka (1871-1913), had won their translation prize and they wanted to make a production happen (the first in the English language). It felt urgent, politically, and a really important time to be amplifying Ukrainian literature. Putin’s attack on Ukraine is territorial but also cultural – an attempt to quash a national identity. Ukrainka’s work had always upheld the dignity of the Ukrainian language – often disparaged as being less suitable for ‘high literature’ than Russian. They wanted to make it happen, but at the same time were really stretched responding to the grass roots need to support displaced Ukrainians as they arrived in the UK (they set up a massive language school from scratch). So that’s where Live Canon could step in and make sure the production happened.

 

What’s next Helen?  Anything bubbling under?

Next up is a collaboration with UK poet Glyn Maxwell on a searingly political rewrite of some patriarchal Victorian poetry, performed by Maxwell with members of the Live Canon ensemble. That feels pretty Live Canon. Politics, poetry, performance and (to quote John McGrath) a ‘good night out’. 

 

Thank you so much, Helen!  If you’d like to learn more about Helen’s work and Live Canon’s latest then see below:

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Dr Helen Eastman is a writer and director, and the founder of Live Canon. She is an associate artist of the APGRD at Oxford University and teaches creative writing (poetry and playwriting) across the M.A. and undergraduate programmes at University of Westminster. She has recently been poet in residence on the Poetic Science project at Southampton University.

Helen trained as a theatre director at L.A.M.D.A., after graduating from Oxford University in Classics and English and has a doctorate in Classics from King’s College London.

As a librettist she has written commissions for Hackney Music Trust, W11, The London Children’s Choir and Aldeburgh Jubilee. Many of her poems have been set to music.  She has recently written ‘Climat’ for Montpellier opera which premieres in 2023.

Recent theatre writing credits include: The Price, Ever Young (W11); 147, Chefs (Sheffield Crucible); She Sells Sea Shells, Don’t Tell Me Not to Fly (Underbelly); Hercules (Chester); Toybox (Hackney Music Trust); In the Night Garden Live (Minor/ CBeebies), Bing Live (Minor/ Acamar); Foreclosure Follies (Symphony Space, New York and world tour); Bicycle Boy (Without Walls, Brighton Festival, GDIF); The Nutcracker, Alby the Penguin Saves Christmas (Reading Rep), Dear Father Christmas, Father Christmas and the Icicle Bicycle (Oxford Playhouse). 

Helen has directed work for companies including English Touring Opera, Cork Opera House, Opera Theatre Company, City of London Festival, The National Theatre Studio, Circus Space, RADA and Delphi International Festival and her work has been seen at venues including Trafalgar Studios, Soho Theatre, Birmingham Rep, Warwick Arts Centre and Glasgow Citz. From 2010 to 2016 she was guest director of the triennial Cambridge University Greek play. She has also worked as a casting director in theatre and television, most recently the BAFTA-nominated Moon and Me.

Helen co-founded Barefaced Greek with Mairin O’Hagan to make short films in ancient languages. The first three films, which she directed, were installed at the V&A museum in London. 

https://www.heleneastman.co.uk/

https://www.livecanon.co.uk/

Sue Burge is a poet and freelance creative writing and film studies lecturer based in North Norfolk in the UK.  She worked for over twenty years at the University of East Anglia in Norwich teaching English, cultural studies, film and creative writing and was an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing with the Open University.  Sue is an experienced workshop leader and has facilitated sessions all over the world, working with a wide range of people – international students, academics, retired professionals from all walks of life, recovering addicts, teenagers and refugees. She has travelled extensively for work and pleasure and spent 2016 blogging as The Peripatetic Poet.  She now blogs as Poet by the Sea. In 2016 Sue received an Arts Council (UK) grant which enabled her to write a body of poetry in response to the cinematic and literary legacy of Paris.  This became her debut chapbook, Lumière, published in 2018 by Hedgehog Poetry Press.  Her first full collection, In the Kingdom of Shadows, was published in the same year by Live Canon. Sue’s poems have appeared in a wide range of publications including The North, Mslexia, Magma, French Literary Review, Under the Radar, Strix, Tears in the Fence, The Interpreter’s House, The Ekphrastic Review, Lighthouse and Poetry News.   She has featured in themed anthologies with poems on science fiction, modern Gothic, illness, Britishness, endangered birds, WWI and the current pandemic.  Her latest chapbook, The Saltwater Diaries, was published this Autumn (2020) by Hedgehog Poetry Press and her second collection Confetti Dancers came out in April 2021 with Live Canon.  More information at www.sueburge.uk

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Published by darcie friesen hossack

Darcie Friesen Hossack is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers. Her short story collection, Mennonites Don’t Dance, was a runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Award, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading Evergreen Award for Adult Fiction. Citing irreverence, the book was banned by the LaCrete Public Library in Northern Alberta. Having mentored with Giller finalists Sandra Birdsell (The Russlander) and Gail Anderson Dargatz (Spawning Grounds, The Cure for Death by Lightening), Darcie is now completing her first novel where, for a family with a Seventh-day Adventist father and a Mennonite mother, the End Times are just around the corner. Darcie is also a four time judge of the Whistler Independent Book Awards, and a career food writer. She lives in Northern Alberta, Canada, with her husband, international award-winning chef, Dean Hossack.

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