Sarah Gonnet interview: Alliterati speaks to the poet and playwright about feminism, mental health and staging her upcoming plays
Sarah has been experimenting with various forms of writing over the last few years. Recently she has been writing a lot of arts-orientated journalism for The Guardian, The Journal, Luna Luna, Sabotage Reviews, Screenjabber, PANK, and essays on female artists for The Bubble. Her poetry has been published in PUSH, Jotter’s United and The Cadaverine. She is also working with Survivors Poetry towards a pamphlet and one of her poems was chosen as their ‘Poem of the Month’ in July. IRONPress working with Red Squirrel Press have published one of Sarah’s short stories- Impulse– in their collection Short not Sweet. Sarah also writes plays: “Compulsion”, a play about outsider artists, is to be professionally produced by Alphabetti Theatre in August. Sarah is currently curating a collection of feminist poems, essays and art which aims to reclaim and re-define the word “cunt”. The project will take the form of handmade book, from which all profits will go to a local women’s shelter.
Sarah, for those who aren’t familiar with your work – can you tell us a bit about the type of thing you write?
My writing spans a wide range of styles. I drift between journalism, poetry and writing short stories as well as playwriting. I am also fascinated by the process of combining different styles of writing, and as a Fine Art student, visual art also. The themes I look at in my writing depend on what I’m interested in at the time. I’m a very obsessive person and these obsessions with books, films, art movements and particular people all show up repeatedly in my writing. Currently I am obsessed with Outsider Art and cave paintings. I’ve also been reading a lot about the relationship between Anne Sexton and her daughter Linda. Sure enough all of these have been taken on as themes in my writing at the moment.
When did you first start writing properly?
Writing is something I did on and off throughout childhood. However, the beginnings of me taking it seriously were even more humble. During a period of illness – I suffer from Bipolar Disorder and psychosis – I found myself in a psychiatric hospital. For the first six months I was there I did nothing but draw. I went through oil pastels and acrylic paints like anything. I was sticking these images up on the walls, literally being absorbed in my own world. I began writing at that point to add a narrative to the world. I wrote stories and poems about the strange creatures and scenes in my pictures. This was of course all pure fantasy, and I would never show anyone the work I produced in that period. However it was important as it gave me the creative confidence to then later turn my writing around and use it to explore my reality – the system of illness and treatment that I have experienced over the years, and the people around me. This writing became my first novella – Dull Eyes; Scarred Faces, which I published when I got out under the pseudonym Azra Page (my nickname for my madness).
Are there any poets or authors who particularly influence you?
There are a massive range of writers who influence me. I find that reading is vital to writing (it’s quite a simple input and output if you want to reduce it to that level) so I try to read four books a week, and maybe review a further three. Experimental writers such as Sarah Kane and the poet P. Inman are big influences on me, and I read a high volume of experimental poetry in general to review. Those kinds of books are bizarre because they are more like a piece of visual art than a poem, and they are particularly potent for sticking in your head because of that.
Samuel Beckett is one writer that I repeatedly return to. Reading him taught me that theatre can be weird and inventive even though modern theatre is way too often captured in two categories: carbon copies of Alan Bennett; or carbon copies of Shopping and Fucking. Experimental Theatre is now often termed Fringe Theatre, which isn’t a bad thing, except when this is used as a reason to reject it.
The ideas in psychiatrist R. D. Laing’s writings on mental illness also permeate through my journalistic and creative projects.
We know you primarily write a mixture of both plays and poems. Do you dabble in prose as well? Which genre would you say dominates your writing?
I’ve written maybe six novels, but they’re all unpublishable. For me the experience of writing a novel – the complete immersion in a place, atmosphere and character – is more important than the end product. So I have many novels handwritten across an array of notebooks. Eventually I will write one intended for publication, but at the moment my novels are private documents. However my short stories have been published by a few journals, and one in an anthology from Red Squirrel and Iron Press Short Not Sweet, which came out last year.
Would you identify as a feminist writer? What do you think about labels like this?
I write for an American feminist magazine called Luna Luna, and my colleagues there are massive influences on me and have taught me a lot about living as a feminist. I definitely believe in the basic principle – that women should absolutely have the same rights as men. However beyond that I regularly change my views and the different groups and factions of feminism I follow. I have been badly treated by men in the past so it is often difficult to remain impartial to the subject and sometimes I get very angry about it all.
Sometimes I do write feminist pieces, for example my short play Aftermath which was recently on at Alphabetti Theatre – its entire focus was the interaction of two women on the stage.
Tell us about your upcoming plays! What have you been working on and when will they be staged?
I have a few plays coming up at scratch nights but the main play I have in production at the moment is Compulsion. Compulsion is due to be on at Alphabetti Theatre in August as part of their Alphabetti Soup night. The play takes on the story of Tom, a man made up of amalgamated biographies of outsider artists such as Henry Darger, Richard Dadd, Mary Barnes, Adolf Wölfli etc. Outsider artists are artists who practise art outside of the gallery system and many of them are compelled to create due to mental illness. I heavily identify with them due to my own early experiences of being creative in the same way. So although this piece takes on elements of various true stories, it is also intensely personal to me.
I also have a few other plays on in Scratch Nights. In May I have one called Neil on at Northern Stage’s First in Three night. It’s quite a different thing to what I usually write- the play is about a man who manages to clone a Neanderthal and tries to train it to think like a fully evolved human.
Then there is Box – an experimental piece that will be put on by the Once Upon a Tyne Company over the spring. Box is essentially a family drama but that of a highly twisted family! The main character is a woman who has never had the chance to grow up as she has spent her entire life hidden inside a box.
Can you tell us a bit about your writing process? For instance, what inspired you to start off with these particular plays; do you tend to begin with a full plot outline, or simply a couple of characters?
I usually start with something instinctive like a scene or a character that comes to me immediately. Then I plot the piece out and fill in the gaps. I usually make a plan at some point and then abandon it! To write creative pieces I have little rituals – I always write in my shed and I have plenty of music on CD in there so I can choose something that fits the mood of what I am writing.
Will these be the first plays you have had produced professionally? Can you describe the feeling of watching other people take your writing to life on stage?
I have had a few plays in scratch nights, and more coming up, but Compulsion will be the first professional production of my work.
I always find it difficult to watch my work being performed – it’s entirely a self-confidence issue however; all the directors and actors I have worked with have been very talented people. I find it easier to watch during rehearsals, and in the end that is the point where your words are transformed into something physical.
Is there anything else we should look out for?
I also have a pamphlet of poetry coming out over the summer called Voices with Survivor’s Poetry. Last year I published a collection of poems, illustrations and plays called Catharsis again under the name Azra Page. Catharsis and Dull Eyes; Scarred Faces are both available on Amazon.
You can read more of Sarah’s work at https://diaryofanautodidact.wordpress.com/
Look out for her upcoming play Compulsion in August 2015 at Alphabetti Theatre’s Alphabetti Soup night. You can also catch Neil at Northern Stage in May and Box at Once Upon a Tyne sometime late this spring.