Features Interviews

Iona Lee: Glaswegian poet, artist and performer

Iona Lee is a poet, artist and performer based in Glasgow, Scotland. She has been involved with spoken word since she was 17, winning the title of Scottish Slam Champion in 2016. Iona’s work has been published in the Morning Star, The Skinny, House of 3 Anthology and the #Untitled2 Anthology. She also fronts a band called Acolyte.

How did you find poetry? Or did poetry find you?

An amazing poet and friend of mine called Salena Godden found me one morning under a rock near Musselburgh, drinking whiskey and smoking fags. She told me that I might as well become a poet because then I would have an excuse. We joke that she pushed me in to poetry, but I prefer to think of it as a friendly nudge. I think she saw that mad and twinkly thing in me that makes good poetry. I had always loved writing and reading and performing, but I thought that you had to be an actor to perform. Acting is what my parents do so I had no intention of doing that, thank you very much. I thought that all poets were old men, and that they sat by fireplaces and published books. There is a certain amount of that, but there’s also a fair amount of free wine and fun people. Whilst I’ve always enjoyed poetry, I think I fall more and more in love with it and what it can do as time goes on.

You front a band – do you have a different process for writing songs and poems? What, to you, is the difference between them?

Music says things that words can’t. I could sing you two notes and that would let you know a thousand things. It goes past the think-y bit of your brain and straight in to the feely bit. Because of this, lyrics can afford to be simpler than poetry – less metaphorical. I write music as part of a group so it is a collaborative process. When I write poems I’m normally alone, creeping around my flat like a gremlin. It’s a far more introspective and solitary process for me.

Can you tell me some of the musicians and poets that inspire you?

Where do I begin? Musically my tastes are very eclectic. People like Patti Smith, Tom Waits, Ian Dury, Marvin Pontiac, The Fall, Serge Gainsbourg, King Missile – the ones who blur the boundaries between poetry and music are the ones I find the most inspiring. I was raised on folk music and I use a lot of the stories from traditional balladry as inspiration for writing poetry. I love world music – I love a Bulgarian folk song, a big group of women shouting, that kind of thing. Poetry-wise I love Wendy Cope, Clare Pollard, TS Elliot, Hera Lindsay Bird, Roger McGough, Gerard Manley Hopkins… I think, with any art form, there is a temptation to imitate, so when a writer has a unique voice and an original take on the world, I’m there.

How do you know when a poem is finished?

Some poems will flow from you in one creative ejaculation, but others are like puzzles to be solved. I know that a poem is finished when it all gracefully slots in to place, and I understand what it is that I am trying to say. Writing a poem can be a bit like doing a cryptic crossword backwards. So, maybe it’s a bit like writing a cryptic crossword.

You’re an artist across a variety of mediums – what do you do when you have creative block?

I tidy. I make tea. I have a shower – anything to get my mind off of the creative block itself. I have, on average, about seven cups of tea a day.

The music industry is famous for its inequality towards women. For example, only 22% of the winners at the 2018 Brit Awards were female – do you think that is reflected in the poetry world?

This is, of course, a complex issue that requires a well-thought-out answer. I did a wee social media shout out asking for my peers’ opinions and the feedback was varied. I am very aware of the fact that I am young and relatively new to this old game, as well as being white and straight, and so my experiences will be different to those of other female poets. But, after reading everyone’s comments and having a wee think, I’ve tentatively formed some kind of opinion.

The worlds of page poetry and stage poetry are linked, but are also quite different, and I don’t feel that I have any authority on gender equality in published poetry. In performance poetry, things seem to be relatively good, gender balance-wise. This is for a number of reasons, but one major reason has to be older female poets holding the door open for the young ones coming in. This is reflected in all marginalised groups, we benefit from the fight that our predecessors fought and we must remember that. That is not to say that we should become complacent.

As my “mentor” Salena put it: ‘Twenty-five years hard labour down the poetry mines means not much really, you still have to clock in, fight for your space, protect your heart, try not to take things personally when your work is overlooked, keep your head down and keep working and reading and learning.’

As with all things, it is an intersectional issue. Age has something to do with whether people want to hear your stories, how sexually attractive you are, what social class you come from etc etc. I would say though that most of the best known poets working currently are female, and I suppose that must say something.

When you perform, you have a distinctive voice and performance style – is this something that came naturally, or did you develop it over time?

A thing I’ve sort of worked out over the last few years is that, as a performance poet, you are playing a version of yourself. So I had the raw materials of “me” already there, but you hone them in to some form of stage presence over time. ‘But Iona,’ I hear you say, ‘we are all playing versions of ourselves all of the time.’ And to that I would say, what a keen observation, hypothetical reader!

In April 2018, Iona released a book of poetry with Polygon New Poets – available here: https://www.birlinn.co.uk/Iona-Lee-Polygon-New-Poets.html

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