5+1 Questions for Lily Blacksell, First-Year Poet And Performer From England

BY Michael Juliani, November 4, 2015

Lily Blacksell (‘17) began her MFA studies in poetry at the School of the Arts this fall. Blacksell moved to New York City after studying at the University of Birmingham in her native United Kingdom. Her poems, often para-narratives of relationships and city life, are written into the excited space congealing page and performance. After performing her work in New York for the first time at one of the Writing Program’s student-run Gallery readings, Blacksell answered some questions about her poetry and her transition to New York.   

When did you start writing and performing your poems? What first pulled you towards performance?

I have written poems since I was little. At my school, there was a poetry festival where students read their poems to an audience and a judge. It was the highlight of my year, seven years in a row. As a teenager I went through a stage of writing poems that were meant to be read, either aloud or in your head, in accents. I had poems for an Australian accent, a Yorkshire accent, an American accent... It was weird. Maybe I was still working out my own poetic voice at the time. Or I was showing off. I still use accents in some poems. I’ve got a clearer idea of my voice these days, but it can get boring and limiting.
'Performance poetry' (that leaky-umbrella term), was introduced to me at university. I went to the University of Birmingham in the U.K., and Birmingham is a great city with a thriving poetry scene. I competed in slams, read at open mic nights, and wrote a piece of spoken word theatre (essentially a twenty minute poem with some blues music and a lot of in-depth detail about Jack White... I’m very fond of it but it needs editing).

I play the saxophone and I love theatre, so poetry’s musical and performative aspects have always been important to me. It can look very nice indeed on the page, but it can sound even better out loud. This gets said a lot, and it's not particularly useful when you're reading in the library, but poetry started as an oral tradition and it's good to keep that in mind.

What aspects of performance do you find especially elevating and satisfying in your poetic practice? What about difficulties?

There are definitely difficulties. At slams, I have been given feedback like 'I want to read your poem' or 'I need to hear it again'. These are usually intended as criticisms - slam poems should be easily accessible and understandable, more immediate. I try to take them as positives, though. In an ideal world, I'd like my poems to work on the page as well as the stage. I get frustrated by the distinctions drawn between those two outlets.

For me, performing is a way of communicating. All writing is communication, of course, but the relationship between performer and audience feels different from that between writer and reader. I often, but not always, learn my poems off by heart. My saxophone teacher also encouraged me to perform from memory. It can be scary and it can be unnecessary. It does change your relationship with what you're conveying though, and who you’re conveying it to. If you're not looking at the page/reading, then where are you looking? What are you doing with that freed up bit of brain? I've done some stand-up comedy in the past. That's an art form with which you're aiming for a specific, audible response (preferably laughter rather than heckles). It's important to interact with the audience on some level. Whilst there’s a thrill in making people laugh, I really like the fact that poetry audiences are open to other emotions and responses. I can’t really put it better than the late, great James Tate, who said ‘I love my funny poems, but I’d rather break your heart. And if I can do both in the same poem, that’s the best.’

Do you compose your poems on the page or does your writing happen more in your head/out loud before you write it down?

I start my poems on the page, but the way things sound is a key part of my editing process, and the inspiration for a poem will often be something I've heard and replayed in my mind. I also edit poems as I’m memorising them. I recently interviewed a wonderful poet called Liz Berry (read her work!). She said she records herself reading her poems, and listening back to them is the best way to discover if a word, or some punctuation, or a line break is not quite right.

You performed your poetry extensively in England. What was it about Columbia and New York City that attracted you to pursue poetry here?

I decided to do pursue poetry at a graduate level because I want to be the best writer I can be. I would only be preaching to the choir if I listed the Columbia faculty members and alumni who I have read and admired and still do. I am so grateful and happy to be here. That certainly goes for New York, too. It is renowned worldwide as a great place for performance poetry (and writing in general, and comedy, and music, and theatre...). It feels like a good city in which to be a slightly-indeterminate-but-definitely-ambitious artist.

You recently read in New York for the first time, at one of Columbia’s student-run Gallery readings. You performed poems you recently wrote about your new environment here in the city. Can you describe some of the new sensations and perspectives you’ve had while living in New York City?

I had a great time at Gallery! I realise I am not the first person to write about New York, or about being new to New York. I have mostly been writing from a place of heightened self-consciousness and hyper-awareness of my surroundings. Whenever something has gone wrong recently (part and parcel of a new country/city/home/university/washing machine etc.), I’ve tried to laugh it off and/or write it down. Actually I’ve just been writing everything down. I think I’d have written the same sort of poems in any new city, but New York offers so much to write about! It’s less a case of making observations than being bombarded with them. It might be a phase that I’ll write through; I might keep going for years. At least until my visa runs out.

Is there anything else we didn’t ask that is important to know or keep in mind?

Poetry means different things to different people, and different things to the same people. In the future, I may disagree with some of what I've said here. Some people may disagree with it now. I think that's a good thing.