Hand Over Mouth Music – In Conversation with Janette Ayachi

Janette Ayachi’s dazzling first collection moves between remembered and imagined spaces as she celebrates the world’s variousness, and the energies and exhaustions of the body. Revelling in the many voices she might find for herself, Ayachi locates herself in both her Algerian and Scottish roots, her relationships with her family and lovers, her own motherhood, and an equally joyful but more precarious exploration of desire. Hand Over Mouth Music is one of three new collections published by Pavilion Poetry in 2019, and to mark the occasion we have the below interview with Janette, as well as a new poem from her collection.


Interview Transcript:

If you had to sum up your book in one word, what would it be?

JA: If I had to sum up this book in one word it would be ‘celebration’.

Could you tell us more about what inspired the poems in your collection?

JA: Life inspired the poems, life’s entire delight and tragedies affect my prose. I believe we are autobiographical human beings. In this collection I grapple with love, sexuality, family, femininity, culture, birth, identity, and transformations as creative catalysts, and of course in this case the restrictions spurred therein by not being able to voice these truths because of my traditional upbringing. I feel more inclined to have insight or foresight or hindsight and always of seeing the themes in essence of things that have directly affected me. That is my inspiration. To tune in to what has coloured my vision from a woman’s perspective. I wanted to let life speak. Usually a poet’s first collection is their earliest poems but this collection came about from a reduction of two oversized manuscripts. The wonderful Deryn, who had long since been an idol of mine and pin-up in the landscape of literature, handpicked the completed contents from hundreds of pages of poems. We kept the title as the main root, and much like flower arranging – clipping at stems, standing back for perspective, our faces deep in pages of leaves for months with heroic air snips, palm presses, it was such a somatic experience. The collection became a bouquet of flowers and I had been planting and harvesting since graduation. Poets are always harvesting.

Edinburgh has been described as having an electric art scene. How far would you say living there has contributed to the development of your work?

JA: Edinburgh has been hugely beneficial. The poetry scene – and I almost wrote party scene in my notes because my experience is exactly that – it is alive, electric, eclectic, and multiplying in its plight to showcase some of the cities unheard of or hugely celebrated voices in unison, hand in hand. I mean I felt this the minute I moved here to study a masters in Creative Writing at Edinburgh University, and even a decade after it has just accelerated. There is a slipstream of events and organisers that have structures throughout the capital to support writers and artists and musicians, and help them provide a platform for exhibition, sharing, and development. It feels as if the city is fast paced and constantly rethinking new ways to light up and inspire us. I feel very lucky to live here.

Where are you planning poetry readings of this new collection and for you, what is the importance of reading your poetry at such events? Do poetry readings denote a different experience to reading poetry on the page?

JA: I’m reading at the Scottish Poetry Library tonight (audio recorded in March) with George Gunn and Leyla Josephine on a Neu! Reekie! – one of those super event organisers I was talking about earlier – tour with a few Irish poets for St. Patrick’s Festival Ireland. It’s a poetry trail ending in Dublin next week. I have performed with the Loud Poets already this year for LGBT History Month and for a pop up feminist art event and I will be reading at the Edinburgh International Book Festival after I launch this collection. It’s all very exciting, but reading my work is very important to me. I never write specifically for the stage but love the alchemy that takes place when we lift the language from the page and it inhabits a new shape as it morphs into voice. To stand back and watch it straddle a different direction when dressing it in performance can be very interesting. Often writers while we push our books out on a helm to engage with our audience, but one far out at sea, and aside from reviews and anonymous emails, you never really know how the poems themselves are being received or even read at all. There is something of the voyeur and mischievous in me, and maybe the perfectionist, that quite enjoys delivering directly in person, a passion to convey perhaps rather than to provoke. Also, if you have a tendency to enjoy trance-like activities like playing music, or dancing, drawing, things that embrace transcendence similar to reading or listening to others read, things that lift you out of yourself and attune you to something larger, live performance offers an immediate reaction and even a mind interaction whether or not it was one that you wished for. Still you can gauge what poems work and what poems potentially need work just by airing them out to an audience. Sometimes it can be part of the editing process, juggling back and forth between drafts based on the way it sounds and then fiddling with the technical aspects of line breaks, iambics, the concrete image. It’s become part of my practice actually, part of the ritual of polishing a poem. Rhythm and sound is everything in the delivery. The words become a movement: we communicate with our living analogue body and sometimes the meaning inherits a whole new realm, a whole new force. I have learnt that you don’t separate the body and soul in life, you will offend them both if you do. I have once read a writer’s awful poem on the page but found myself left in awe after hearing it performed well, and on the flip side I have read incredible poems on the page yet felt them somewhat destroyed after being diced at by a poor speaker – too quiet, too nervous, too fast, too stuttery, too spitty, too lacklustre. So when a good poem finds a good costume delivery to dance in, it’s quite something. It’s a challenge.

One of the poems in the collection, Lawrencium, looks at the history of a chemical element. What inspired you to write on this topic and do you think that science and poetry naturally compliment each other?

JA: I think poetry naturally compliments most things, but I am of course bias. Yes, poetry and science, I did have an appetite for it. Lawrencium was actually born out of a commission for an anthology published in Berlin. It’s called My Dear Watson: The Very Elements of Poetry. It’s a great title, isn’t it? It sticks with me. It contained poetry which chronicled a cohort of poets each embracing an element from the periodic table and wrapping it in poetry. If I was not prompted for this opportunity I doubt I would have written it but it proved fascinating. The language of science is gorgeous but who would have thought that the elements themselves are animated with history of their origins and infiltrated with adventure as they shape shift under experiment in the various soft hands and stern eyes of scientists. I also learnt that this year is the 150th year anniversary of the periodic table so I’m happy that Lawrencium has put on his tie for the occasion.

You’re currently working on a new non-fiction novel, Lonerlust. Could you tell us a little bit about this?

JA: Lonerlust. I have never typed up so many words before. I mean I have an impressive hoard of notebooks and scribble but this is a 40’000 word novel of tight travel memoir, divided by different places I have visited around the world. Each country or city invoked a different way of writing, as memoir or journalling so often invents and allows. For example, Copenhagen Diaries is studded with narrative and story as I engaged with the people there and I inserted myself into their everyday, yet in other places when I didn’t speak to anyone for days it reads more like a long, incantational, confessional prose poem as last month I tailored extracts to fit performance and it became one big breathy stream of consciousness set where I’m saluting adventures in the art of being alone in a new geography and in a kind of lament to know one’s self, poetry is invoked. Lonerlust is honest personal stories about searching for connections with landscape, culture, and human experience: exploring one’s self across the lonely planet.

Finally, talking of new projects, what are your aspirations for your work in the future?

JA: Ah, that question. You know, I would like to work more with committing – not committing, that sounds extreme – registering some poems to memory so I can perform more often without the page. This can be rehearsed in bedrooms without stutter but the fear of it disappearing on stage out of one’s ear is fathom fold terror at the time. My first gig at the Edinburgh International Book Festival was called Voices in the Dark and it involved myself, Andrew McMillan, and Catherine Smith reading a twenty minute set in the cold dark. Under the pressure I was surprised it went well and that I didn’t forget any lines and freeze up. Instead I felt like I was channelling for the first time, but I saw nothing and no one saw me except my shadowed outline on the pulpit. I’d like to collaborate more. I like the theatrical aspect of two poets reading together, voices in duet, writing apart. It personifies the life of a poet: out to play and be inspired, then retaliate back to isolation to write. I would also love to collaborate with some filmmakers again and make more film poems because of the aesthetic visual beauty of it all. I just love how it combines the moving poem with the moving image.

Find out more about Janette’s new collection, Hand Over Mouth Music on the Liverpool University Press website.

Follow @PavilionPoetry on twitter for updates on the 2019 collections, and announcements of readings and events. 


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