In theory being forced into a situation where time is plentiful, following on from a work schedule that pays poorly and is therefore relentless, should provide the impetus to learn new skills and get things done.
In practice it’s not so simple – we’re not androids. There are days when it feels natural to pick up existing projects or start new things and there are days of sheer exhaustion, when even turning the pages of a book feels too much of a stretch.
As mentioned in my opening column (Introducing Ventures in Lockdown) I’ve been taking part in a Zoom-based Creative Writing workshop called Pop Matters throughout lockdown. More than anything, it’s reminded me (at a basic, primal level) what a joy the creative process can be. Muses for the free writing workshops, the format of which varies week-to-week, have included pop culture giants Dolly Parton, Bjork and Lizzo, with an optional dress code allowing you to get into the spirit accordingly.
Ahead of their latest workshop (based on the wonderful American artist Weyes Blood ) I had a chat with the Glasgow University PhD students behind the workshop, Maria Sledmere and Conner Milleken, about the lines between pop, politics and using art to both escape from, and make sense of a fractured world.
What are your backgrounds and how did you both meet?
CM: We both met in 2018 on a PhD residential trip to Stirling. We’re part of the same funding cohort (from the Scottish Graduate School of Arts and Humanities, SGSAH for short) and we were put into a group to do an exercise and we kinda clicked. Then after that we worked in the same office space and bonded more deeply. Stepping out to chat shit, drink coffee, moan about being hungover, or talk about our research. Since then we’ve only got closer still: in pubs, on picket lines, on Zoom (the dreaded Zoom!).
Where did the idea for Pop Matters originate?
MS: Back in August 2019 we were on a residency on the isle of Cumbrae as part of the SGSAH and we decided to offer a creative writing workshop. We had bonded in the crumbling graduate office earlier in the year over our LOVE of Lana Del Rey, and so decided to make it Lana themed. We started with the idea that people would just free-write to prompts we’d extend from her song titles, and then talk about everyone’s work at the end. It was a really wholesome experience, people really opened up and we had productive discussion about the link between creative practice and critical thinking. So much of the graduate training workshops you go to emphasise like THE AGONY OF WRITING and we wanted to remind people that writing can also be a joy, a warm up, a way of tuning in with yourself and the world.
CM: I think that’s a really important point, about the joy of writing. My writing practice had been something that I’d sort of done on my own (I mostly work in experimental live performance) and so I was in this really joyous part of it feeling like a new discovery for me. This was contrary to the writing for my PhD which can feel like a real slog. It was really important to remind other PhD students that writing could be fun too, and that a creative writing practice could have weight and meaning to it that can benefit your academic writing.
What is Pop Matters?
CM: Pop Matters, for me anyway, is a space for being playful with writing. It’s about encouraging people to foster their own creative writing practice, not necessarily for other people, but for something that makes them feel good and gives them a chance to reflect on their lives. Alongside that, I see it as demystifying and democratising who creative writing (be that poetry or prose or memoir or journaling) is for: it’s for everyone. And parallel to that it’s to challenge concepts of ‘high art’ vs ‘low art,’ that you can’t take pop music as critically seriously as, say, Marina Abramovich.
MS: The title Pop Matters is supposed to be like ‘matters related to pop’, ‘popular matters’ and also emphasising that pop MATTERS – that it’s important and a vital way of tuning into our times and a sense of collectivity and commencement when everything otherwise feels quite disconnected. Our subtitle, ‘a studio for thinking “the alternative”’ riffs of Mark Fisher’s book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? We want to provide a space, virtual or otherwise, for people to really try to think what an alternative to the necessity of neoliberal ideology and subjectivity might be. We like the word ‘studio’ because it emphasises the possibility of play and experimentation and connection. Even though we can’t be physically proximate, encouraging people to dress up is all part of a sense of performance. Conner and I both agreed after the first one that we felt so much lighter.
Did you have a plan for doing the workshop in real life, or did Covid-19 sort of press you into it?
CM: Well after we’d done the first one on Cumbrae, we’d talked about running them regularly for ages. But we were both so busy that it never materialised. At this point we didn’t have a name for the workshops or anything. I was finding it so hard to work on the PhD when lockdown started that I suggested to Maria that we use this as an escape from the pressures we were facing: to actually do something FUN that made us feel good. So in a way, yeah the lockdown did press us into actually doing it.
MS: Conner was supposed to be performing in his own show, GAYBOYS, in April and I’d been organising various events for SPAM Press and a conference, Beyond Form, that got cancelled, so we had this excess energy that needed channelled in the early stages. And when lockdown began, there was this flurry of creatives scrambling to produce something that would keep us all connected. I’d been at a couple of Zoom events for the Stay-at-Home! Literary Festival and had the inspired sense that a workshop on Zoom would be feasible. I’d just finished teaching an eight-week creative writing course (evening classes) and I wanted to offer my students, friends and comrades from all walks of life a chance to have a go at some easy, lowkey writing when everything else felt pretty fraught and impossible. It’s been nice to channel energy into work that has a manageable, week-by-week feel, rather than the endless deferral or proliferation of other projects we’ve both got going on.
Much of the joy (that I’ve taken certainly) from the class has been the escapist nature of it. Is that something you’ve intentionally tried to create?
CM: I think so. Like I said for me, I was finding it really difficult to adapt to lockdown. Doing a PhD and working in the arts there’s a real problem with productivity which more often than not it translates into becoming someone who is high-functioning: most of the time that’s out of financial necessity. When you work freelance or you’re competing for the tiny fraction of permanent, decent-paid jobs, you have no choice but to keep working, to keep spinning the plates. It felt important to me to have something that I could do with other people that was light, fun, had a critical thinking part to it, but that was unassessed, and untethered to “my work,” “my job.”
MS: Yeah completely what Conner said. It’s escapist in the sense of providing that space, but also not completely detached from reality in that we always try to invite people to reflect on what’s going on through the changing themes of the workshop (anything from momentum to generosity and self-love), without these feeling didactic or prescriptive.
A lot of the chat I had with creatives around the start of lockdown revolved around how hard it felt to create. Given everything that was going on, how futile it seemed. Is this a conversation you’ve had with other people – or yourselves?
MS: Absolutely. It’s natural to feel helpless in that we’re not on the frontline, dealing with food security or saving lives. For me these debates are intrinsic to what I do: my PhD is on the anthropocene but I’m coming at it from a creative angle that hones in on ‘the everyday’; I’m not involved in coming up with solutions per se, but trying to attune to ways of addressing these issues at their multiple scales and effects. I think it’s important not to fetishise crisis, upheaval and difficulty as ideal conditions for producing ‘good art’, but at the same time, in a way what we’re working on has never felt more necessary. What would we be doing at home, in lockdown, if it were not for the culture industry? What makes life worth living?
CM: I think we probably have talked about it. I’ve definitely found it harder to make work (especially performance because I don’t have access to any space). I’m also involved in my trade union and so it’s felt more critical right now to focus on that work. But I’ve carried on writing throughout it. Again, I think that’s what I wanted the workshops to be: to turn the focus of creative practice away from consumable output to be something that’s for you, something that you do because it does something good for you.
Creative writing is perceived as quite a personal thing, and it can be quite intimidating feeding things back to peers in a room – do you think that even in a post-Covid world there will be a future for this sort of Zoom workshop?
CM: I think there is a future for it post-COVID. We’ve tried to structure the workshops so there’s less of a focus on critical feedback. Maria put it so eloquently earlier: the focus is on us writing, on ourselves, but proximate to each other. Sharing the work is something that we celebrate and come to generously rather than about us critiquing our work: that’s not really what it’s about.
MS: We wanted to give people the chance to share work but not to dwell on feedback, because we want it to feel light and ‘of the moment’. Giving feedback is actually a really specific skill that is honed through practice, and it takes a good facilitator to structure a workshop to keep that discussion productive: we weren’t too comfortable on trying this out on Zoom from the start, since this was our first experience using the technology really. It might be that in the future we could have more informal ‘showcase’ events for people to read their work out, or put on a night (with music? Gosh I miss live music).
Pop Matters runs most Thursday nights from 5-7pm GMT. For security reasons the zoom meetings aren’t ‘open to the public’ in the conventional sense, but follow Maria (@mariaxrose) and Conner (@cnnrmllkn) on Twitter to find out when things are happening.
Weyes Blood, inspiration for the latest Pop Matters workshop