Bringing Art Home - an interview with photographer Supriya Sunneva Kolandavelu

I decided it was time to interview some photographers and find out what drives them to take pictures, Supriya Sunneva Kolandavelu, who brings to her work such a fresh and generous eye, talks about her own photographic journey.SONY DSC

What or who got you in to taking photographs and did you ever study it ?

My wonderful friend Craig Thomas, who is himself a self taught photographer, is a big inspiration for me. I borrowed a camera from a friend and later met up with Craig after getting Skype counselling on how to work with a camera. Craig was fast and eager to get me on track. He shared with me his wisdom about photography as well as taking me on several 'at home with Craig and on the road' workshops where he taught me what he could get into my stubborn mind. From there I was able to practice photography on a professional level. I have always had the eye but perhaps lacked the instrument to practice it until the last two years.

What sparks your imagination and inspires you ?

I think influences are all around me. I do believe that not only do I detect happiness through my own happy heart, but also evoke situations around me in which mirror my present mode, being happy. The same goes for sadness. When I feel sad and uncomfortable, I will in the same way provoke situations around me, so that I can have the space to express that feeling. I think that in order to express sadness, and relate in that way to other people's sadness, I have to allow the sadness to take me over. If I want to provoke happiness, I will have to provoke it within myself first.

What are you working on now ? I have a vision for creating projects that are produced by the public. I like co-operation rather then competition.I want to bring art home and encourage everyone to invest their time in healing themselves and their environment. I think sites like kickstarter or indigogo.com provide interesting possibilites in terms of getting a budget for a project, along with other sites where people exchange their skills for supporting their (and others) projects.

What have you learnt with your photography over the last few years ?

Being young and quite new in this area, the last couple of years have shaped me in many ways that are still appearing. Being behind the camera teaches one to remove oneself a little more, and to watch without interacting. That in itself has been a great lesson for me.

What matters most to you, how a photo looks or how it how it makes you feel ?

I get caught up in the moment, forgetting time and everything around me. When I realiced that the most beautiful things I have witnessed have happened when I was fully present I started wondering where these wonderful things came from. Nothing else was occupying my mind, for the moment to be good I have to be in it. I have to forget everything else but this moment, and notice it for what it is. If I can see it, it can be beautiful.

Can photography heal ?

I believe human feelings are connected up like a wire. I believe we have within us the healing power in which we tend to seek elsewhere, as all art comes from within.

How well can photography depict the truth and/or expand our knowledge of a world we do not know and have not seen ?

A great artist requires a great spectator. Wisdom comes from going away from oneself, only to come back to see what was always there but lacked an eye to look through.

Finally, please complete this sentence 'I love taking photographs because... I love taking photographs because it provokes a stillness within me and with an attentive mind, listening to my soul.

Seeing the World - an interview with photographer Rob Covell

I decided it was time to interview some photographers and find out what drives them to take pictures. Below is an interview with my friend Rob Covell. Rob has a deep humanity in him and an abhorrence of social injustice. As well as his great work I also admire him for sticking to his principles which he talks about in more detail here.selfportrait

What or who got you in to taking photographs and did you ever study it ? 

There have been a few factors, and I guess I don’t really explore the reasons until you ask me like that. 4 years ago I went to the Caribbean with my partner and took a cheap bridge camera and I couldn’t stop taking pics. That certainly sparked an underlying need for me to take photos. A year later I saw some beautiful photos on Flickr of a model, and I just thought how I’d like to take shots of my partner like that. The bridge camera was not allowing me to take control of the photos, so I bought an entry level DSLR. I’m self-taught plus whatever info I can cadge off other photographers.

What inspires you ?

My influences are really my passion for the things I photograph. I know little of the wider art form, so I couldn’t really name you many famous photographers that inspire me. I actually just like going through magazines or websites and will suddenly see a photo I really like. But as I said, for me photography is about capturing my passion, or the passion of the subject…or in some cases both! I see photography as a means to convey something, rather than just photography in itself. That also extends to issues in the world that I care about, where perhaps my photography can help give publicity or fresh angles.

What projects and photography you are working now ?

I’m working on a sports photography project and also looking to expand my fashion portfolio this year. I also want to get into wedding photography and really strengthen my overall portfolio.

Can photography heal ?

There is no question it can heal. For me personally coming off a recent illness, the relaxation and distraction photography has given me has been invaluable mentally. As for the subject… if I can take a photo that makes the subject see themselves in a positive light, say for example someone who doesn’t like their photo taken, and they are pleased with what they see… I guess that’s a mini-healing, or reconciliation with self. I love it when someone sees something about themselves that they like in a photo, particularly when camera shy.

In what ways is photography exploitative of its subject matter ?

I think this is a very deep and important question, with no doubt many perspectives to it. I personally avoid taking photos of suffering, eg. If I’m photographing a marathon, and someone hurts themselves, I find it gratuitous to zoom in on their agony. That extends wider to those photographing more serious human suffering, eg. In war zones. If what you photograph can make a difference to the subject’s plight, then there is an argument for the invasiveness of some photography. If it’s all about the photographic award of the shot, then I have a problem justifying it. I regularly photograph protests against Deaths in Custody, and I’m very wary of how raw the emotions are of those who have been bereaved and unjustly treated. It’s a responsibility not to step over a line in conveying what needs to be told, and putting out a family or loved ones personal desperation.

Another angle on this is the exploitation of women. I have strong views on how women are portrayed in the media, and at the same time my photography has recently moved into the realms of fashion/models, although this is not exclusively female of course. But I feel a personal responsibility to what I maybe portraying in my pictures and to the subject. I won’t manipulate photos for example, and I won’t use a shot that the model doesn’t like. I firmly believe in re-addressing media/social perceptions of what is feminine and what is beauty and that’s something I hope to develop.

Finally, please complete this sentence 'I love taking photographs because...' It helps me convey what I see and what I love and lets me see the world with new eyes.

Divine Symmetry - an interview with photographer Craig Thomas

I decided it was time to interview some photographers and find out what drives them to take pictures. Below my good friend, Vermont based photographer, Craig Thomas shares what inspires him. SONY DSC

What or who got you in to taking photographs and did you ever study it ?

I am self taught and got into it after a great catastrophe. I find it very healing. I had been used to working in groups and am very highly motivated, I find the solitude of photography much more appealing and it also makes me much more effective in my output.

What sparks your imagination and inspires you ?

I find classical arts very inspiring - my work seems to fit the music of Beethoven, Vivaldi, Bach et al. I am trying to achieve a similar 'epic' quality in my own work. I am also heavily influenced by the arcane arts. My research into divine symmetry has led me to the world of alchemy, hermetics, science and ancient cultures.

What projects are you working on now ?

Right now I am working on a book out here in Vermont, I have collected a large body of work on my three year journey. Now that i find myself in a new country with a new life it will be helpful for me to have a way to show people 'the best of'. I love displaying my work in print more than any other medium.

Film or digital ?

Digital for work as it makes life very easy and inexpensive but ultimately film is the master, nothing beats it.

What matters most to you, how a photo looks or how it how it makes you feel ? I was watching an interview with Nan Goldin the other day and she said, unsurprisingly, that when she was shooting it was all about how she felt. The composition and artistry was the second stage, when she got the negatives back. In a sense she gets in very close and then removes herself.

I have no attachment to the work i create itself, to me it's the innate nature of being a photographer - collecting flattened moments of a reality distilled through my own thoughts and feelings. If a photo gets stolen take a better shot. If I lost all my work somehow, shoot it all again. I find that my ability and perspective increases rapidly so i often go back an re-edit work.

As for actual shooting, it's all about the knowing and the trust that I'm letting the events infront of my camera unfold. Framing for me is important but there is also a moment in time that I'm looking to capture. That's the moment when my subject let's their guard down for that split second.

Can photography heal ?

For me photography has created the single greatest healing experience I have had, and continues to do so. I found that reviewing my work gives me a great sense of where I was at at the time of shooting. I then remember the story of the shoot itself, so as well as analysing my work I can also analyse myself at the same time. I find the more at peace I am with myself the better my work. These two things are congruent in creating focussed and strong work.

Finally, please complete this sentence 'I love taking photographs because.....

...it helps me answer questions in a way that nothing else can.

The Language of Movement - an interview with photographer Kim-Leng Hills

I decided it was time to interview some photographers and find out what drives them to take pictures. The compelling image below is by Kim-Leng Hills whose personal story is an inspiration, as is her work. Kim Leng Hills

What or who got you in to taking photographs ?

I was about 16 and was working my way towards being an illustrator,  I was obsessed with drawing and had just been accepted at at the century old Byam Shaw School of Art. I loved observing people, situations, life, everything around me. I'd get my friends to model for me, and I'd see if I could draw them as precisely and quickly as possible using inks. My Dad gave me his 1970's Cosina SLR and I would sneak out of school to go venturing with a friend of mine round the whole of North Kent, photographing onto Ilford film as we went. When the film had been processed, I'd then turn them into illustration infused images. Drawing over photographs with inks.

I also had an obsession with Jackson Pollock. I used to take the train to London to sit at the Tate and stare at 'Summertime Number 9A' seeing if I could find something new about it the longer I stared at it. I loved how Pollock would devote his mind into the language of movement and lines, completely creating ground-breaking work that had never been seen before. It was seeing a black and white photograph captured of him by photographer Hans Namuth that triggered my passion for Photo-documentary. As soon as I got my first debit card, I bought a Hans Namuth photograph of Jackson Pollock painting in his barn.

What sparks your imagination and inspires you ?

MUSIC! My Dad worked on the pirate radio station, Radio Caroline, and as a child I grew up listening to a wide variety of music and playing the piano, violin and the guitar. If you'd asked me who my favourite band was when I was 7, you would've gotten "The Mamas & Papas, Queen, Holst, Elgar and Debussy" as an answer. In my head, they all went together. So music has always been there as a lifeline for me throughout my entire life.

My Dad. As I've grown older, I've discovered more of his work he's kept hidden and not really shouted about. Turns out he loved making his own films and had produced a series of super-8 films of life in Malaysia when he'd met my Mum, and had put his own music to the footage. His photographic work is also incredible. Finding gems like these that have allowed me to learn more about my family over the years has definitely inspired me to keep going with my own work.

I could list a vast number of Photographic artists who inspire me, but if anything, its the people that I meet who inspire me the most. I teach full-time at the moment too, so surrounding myself with 11 to 18 year olds is one of the most inspirational places I've had the joy of being in for 12 hours a day!

The last exhibition you saw that you'd recommend ?

The last Photography exhibition I went to was Tom Stoddart's 78 Perspectives at London Riverside last Summer. Each image either made me want to weep or gave me goose-bumps.  Photo-documentary can create a huge impact when used in the right way. I ended up orbiting this exhibition for about an hour; the work was mesmerising and most definitely life affirming.

What projects are you working on now ? 

Currently, my life revolves around teaching full-time at a new Creative Media secondary school in London. On the weekends or evenings, I'm working on composing the score and sound design for a new theatre production by Alex Gwyther called 'Our Friend The Enemy' based on the Christmas Truce.

Photography-wise, I am often over in Devon with EarFilms helping document the development of their beautiful story-telling company.  I co-run a non profit organisation known as Art Is The Cure.

What has photography taught you ?

That photography can start mass community projects, and is an excellent way to challenge yourself. Through photography I have achieved dreams I've never thought would happen, such as making a book with Kevin Spacey and Steve Lazarides, meeting and working alongside Eddie Izzard, or giving lectures for the Tate Galleries.

Film or digital ?

Film. It's organic. The process of having to develop your own prints connects the photographer to the entire 'way' of photography. Generations miss the opportunity to know what it's like to have to wait. I teach students that once upon a time, we used to have to wait a week before we could see our images.

What matters most to you, how a photo looks or how it how it makes you feel ?

Both. When I photograph something, the image will come across a hell of a lot stronger if I've connected to the subject in the first place. It's why I love photographing live performance more than I do Fashion or Commercial. If the subject is interacting with the camera, if they are in their element, a moment where they're staring off into space, or reflecting any essence of themselves, then the image will be powerful. Technique can dance around how the subject 'performs', with practice; the technical side of things becomes second nature, and your brain and fingers and doing everything without you having to think about it. All you care about is coining the Decisive Moment as Henri Cartier Bresson so perfectly put it. The most powerful images can often come about completely unexpectedly.

Can photography heal ?

The notion to 'heal' can possibly mean to resolve something, or to perhaps create a sense of inner peace or calm. I strongly believe that photography can do that. For a start, it makes you stop, shut up, and just look, right? It makes you study something in detail and it also evokes some form of emotion.  Take a look at Tom Stoddart's work for example; it's shot with the purpose of finding beauty within the pain. Then there's someone like Gregory Crewdson who will get an entire neighbourhood to create a photographic scene, working with these people for however long the project takes.

Photography has helped me face my own self-doubts. During times of great suffering I have picked up my camera, climbed mountains and battled hail storms. It has taken me to where Ansel Adams found his inspiration, made me really stop and look. And feel. And put the camera down.

In what ways is photography exploitative of its subject matter ?

I remember when I first started working with the incredible teens at Teens Unite Fighting Cancer. These amazing people were dealing with life-limiting illnesses and teaching me so much about life and what they go through every day. Then there were strangers I met on the street, be it workers or the homeless. I was constantly inspired and wanted to begin a guerrilla project of plastering their faces on walls during the night, so that when the people of London awoke, they would suddenly see faces of ordinary people looking over the city. I wanted to share their stories and call it "Invisible Heroes". I had the backing of ITV in collaboration with my organisation Art Is The Cure  and it was one of the first projects [my Director] Rich and I wished to do about 3 years ago, but eventually fell through simply because of the idea of 'exploitation'. I  wanted to show the fact that we all struggle, we all have our stories to tell.

How well can photography depict the truth and/or expand our knowledge of a world we do not know and have not seen ?

Take Jeff Wall for example -- how he cleverly gets actors to re-enact scenes, or to create false moments, but photographs them in such a way that they seem genuine and/or following what conforms to a Decisive Moment. It simply underlines the fact that we can so easily take a photograph as truth regardless of it being manipulated. I am constantly fascinated by impermanence and the fact that everything is constantly changing. Photographs can be said to capture 'evidence' of what something looks like, or once looked like, in order to educate us of what is 'fact' and what is 'fiction'. Because we can see it, we tend to believe it.

Finally, please complete this sentence 'I love taking photographs because.....'

I love taking photographs because I love going into another world and feeling a part of me become 'freed'. When I first started getting into photography, I realised I fell in love with being able to spot things other people usually missed. It's why I loved Street Photography so much. I could easily walk around unnoticed and capture things with a telephoto lens, or a fixed 50mm, and get images of situations or moments that no one else had realised was going on. Then when you look at the image for even longer, you suddenly notice other parts about it too. I think part of me is drawn to capturing the human spirit; what keeps us alive, what keeps us buzzing, and how we treat ourselves and each other. Maybe that's what draws me to photographing the devastating and beautiful aspects of human life. From professional dancers, straight through to famous artists, or a random act of kindness.

 

Looking at Daylight - an interview with photographer Aaron Graubart

I decided it was time to interview some photographers and find out what drives them to take pictures. First up is New York based photographer, Aaron Graubart, whose immaculate image you can see below. AaronGraubart

What or who got you in to taking photographs ? Are there any specific life events that drew you to it initially ?

When I was a small child, David Attenborough’s “Life On Earth” TV series and accompanying books made me want to be a wildlife photographer. My first photographs were taken with my fathers camera in the garden, trying to photograph plants and insects. My first successful photograph was of a friend’s dog, Wilbur,  lying on a bed on a white blanket. I was struck by how the sunlight coming through the window lit the folds in the blanket. I guess I’ve been taking essentially the same photograph over and over again ever since.

What sparks your imagination and inspires you ?

Paintings, Drawings, Books, Films, Looking at daylight and how it behaves, rarely other photographers.

Film or digital ?

The important thing is the image - how it was made is irrelevant to me.

What matters most to you, how a photo looks or how it how it makes you feel ?

If a photograph isn’t intensely beautiful (whatever that means) it is unlikely to make me feel much of anything at all.

Finally, please complete this sentence 'I love taking photographs because.....

I love taking photographs because it makes me feel useful.

Scratched Out - an interview with Dean Atta

I spoke to Dean Atta about the making of Scratched Out. As well as a writer and performer he also runs workshops. It's clear how much he wants his students to succeed. You 'sold' this to the Lyric without them actually having seen it - did your theatre company have a clear idea of how they wanted the show to be from the beginning?

From the beginning we wanted the show to be as authentic as possible. The story was very clear but we each had our own sense of the characters. R&D Productions is myself Dean Atta, Tracey Duodu and Richard Hale. We are three unique individuals all with different talents and life experience. Embarking on a project like Scratched Out we felt close to the story and characters in different ways and for different reasons. We opted for more unknown actors with their vocal and rapping ability taking precedent over anything else. I think we made the right decision, the cast really connected with their characters and with each other exactly how we believed they could.

How much of the process was collaborative, can you tell me about it. For example did you respond to the needs of the story with the lyrics or did you write the lyrics first?

The lyrics were my job, the music was Richard’s and the dialogue was kind of up for grabs. Tracey came into the production team after script was written and help us move from script to show, focusing particularly on choreography and styling. However, Tracey was also involved at the very beginning in a scratch performance of the show for Richard’s MA in Musical Theatre at Mountview Academy last summer, in which a group of actors, including Tracey and myself, workshopped and improvised a 20 minute piece based on stimulus given to us by Richard. He received a distinction for this part of his MA and Paul Clements the Principle of Mountview said we must carry on writing the full piece. At the same time the Lyric Hammersmith were interested to know what else I was working on outside of my work with young people, and Scratched Out seemed the most fitting project to bring to them.

Did you find that as a performer and poet yourself the actual lyric writing came relatively easily to you?

I have written a few plays and monologues in the past and in my own poetry there are narratives threads and characters, but it was real a challenge to combine lyric writing and storytelling and keep the seven voices in Scratched Out distinct and at no point slip into my own style. I think I did really well because you really wouldn’t recognise these lyrics from anything you’ve heard from me in the past. I was heavily influenced by the creative writing workshops I run with young people at the Lyric and in schools and youth clubs across London, I felt it was my duty to tell the stories of these young people I had met and worked with over the years. I tried to ignore newspapers and other media. At no point did I want the show to become preachy, stereotypical or boring. I became slightly schizophrenic whilst writing this show, but I really felt like I knew each character inside and out, there is so much more to each of their stories than we could present in the 60 minute piece that you saw.

When I was watching it I felt that to retain integrity there had to be a senseless death, which brings me on to my next question. How important is it for performance poetry and music to raise difficult issues in today's culture and do you think it can make the changes we seek?

Words are intellectual and music is visceral and combining the two has the ultimate impact. It takes a certain type of person to go to a performance poetry show and just listen to people talk. But almost everyone listens to music. I have realised this even with my own work and my debut CD Reason & Rhyme (on which two of the five tracks are produced by Scratched Out composer Richard Hale) is music and spoken word combined, and this is the way forward for me. Being a part of Scratched Out has taught me a lot about myself as a writer, my fellow artists as colleagues and my audience - who want to believe that change is possible. But the change can’t happen on the stage, screen or stereo - it has to happen in the schools and on the streets!

On the Out - an interview with Bob Boyton

I interviewed writer and one time esteemed alternative stand up comedian, Bob Boyton about this new play 'On the Out'. On the Out is the second in a trilogy about fictional ex-boxer Bomber Jackson doing his best to survive in a post-Thatcher Britain. In person Bob possesses a wry intelligence giving the impression that he's taking in a lot more than he allows you to know. I asked him about Bomber Jackson and where the idea came from.

"Bomber Jackson first appears in an, as yet unfinished novel, that I began writing in 2000. I was in an organisation called 'Writer's Republic' set up by the late Linda Smith and Warren Lakin. It was a loose collection of writers and the hope was that we'd become a TV production company.

I was talking to Warren one evening, bemoaning my lack of success and he suggested putting a story of mine to the BBC about a cab driver called Brian with a coke habit. I went home and came up with the first chapter of the novel about Bomber Jackson coming out of jail. I wrote the first couple of thousand words and thought I really like this guys voice. Later I thought this is a character I can really be in".

'On the Out' is the second of the series of The Bomber Jackson trilogy.

He tells me "Bomber is a sympathetic working picaresque working class hero. I worked with homeless people for twenty years and there's a hell of a lot of that in it." Bob admits "Some of it is about my past during my twenties and thirties. There's a homo-erotic episode in 'On the Out' where I'm returning to bi-sexuality as a theme I used to address as a stand-up."

He laughs, "The Scotsman said that I was the Joe Orton of comedy."

I talk to Bob about the difference between stand-up and performing his monologue and how much he draws on his previous experience as a comic "At first it was hard not to play for laughs and not improvise. When I was a political activist I was a bit of a speechifier, you often work at moving the crowd when you do that.

What got me in to alternative comedy was that people were not moving I think partly as a result of the sclerosis of the Communist Party."

I broach the sensitive subject of why someone as talented and perceptive as Bob Boyton is no longer on the stand-up circuit. "I was bitter that I hadn't become famous" he tells me in with characteristic straightforwardness "That's why I left alternative comedy. It may have wrecked my life being famous."

He'd like recognition for Bomber Jackson "Because it's about a homeless drunk but it's not written by a drunken egotist like Bukowski" proof that Bob, unlike Bomber has lost neither his bite or his punch.

Human Moments in Time - an interview with Heather Taylor

This interview first appeared on Metaroar. One sunny afternoon on the South Bank over coffee and cake I spoke to poet, writer, performer and playwright Heather Taylor about her three new pieces Hostage : Bleach : Burn.

Can you tell me a little about how these new plays came in to being?

I wrote "Hostage" first. A friend suggested an actor whom she thought I should meet. When I met him he said to me 'I hear you are political, I'm not political' and that idea, that someone who did not have strong a political identity would end up in this situation, was the initial inspiration for the play.

The play is set in an unknown and unnamed place. It could be anywhere because it's about being held as a mental hostage. It was written at the time when Ken Bigley was killed and there were many questions coming up. The character describes his need to get away from his home country by saying "I'm not here for the money, I'm here to escape". There is a sense of other characters there but the audience does not see them. There were three prose sections in the play originally but they were removed and are now part of a collection called 'Horizon and Back', a collection of my poetry.

"Bleach" was inspired by a friend who was living in a small town in western Canada whose uncle died of AIDS. There was little acceptance of this in the community and I realised that the subject matter also brought to light other issues like adoption rights and gay marriage.

I wrote 'Burn' to conclude the trilogy. The play is about secrecy and was inspired by an incident where Pierre Laporte, a French Canadian, was taken hostage and killed. My main character is called Pierre Laporte Morell who believes that his mother has had an affair with the original Pierre Laporte.

People have asked why I am not performing the pieces myself but I feel that having an actor and director to work with gives a new dimension to the work.

Are there any themes that tie Hostage, Bleach and Burn together?

All the plays are about people who are trapped. It was a real revelation for me to work with a designer. The set appears to be sinking like the characters themselves. Also each piece has a ghost in it, a dead son, uncle and a dead father.

'Hostage' has an English protagonist, 'Bleach' is set in Western Canada and 'Burn' in Montreal - how relevant is a national and linguistic identity to these works?

I wanted to explore the prejudices of small town western Canada in 'Bleach', in 'Hostage' there seemed to be a lot of British people who were being held at the time and I wanted to look at this, and 'Burn' I specifically chose something that would include something in French. There is both French and English spoken in Montreal and I wanted to examine that divide. Some of the play is in French but it is not important that the audience know the language. In fact I got some of the dialogue translated for me.

What influence has poetry had on your dramatic writing ?

The stuff I write is very naturalistic. I choose my words very carefully, and I have poetic moments. Some people say that I should have more but I like naturalism. Although I am now playing with different styles.

I try and tell a story in my poetry, I look for a story in a word. I like to be very subtle and that comes from poetry. I trained as an actor and actors feedback that my work very much written with the performer in mind. I deliberately write without stage directions as I want the director to come in and say 'What can I do with this?'

The characters in these three new plays are in very difficult places in their lives where they have no choice - can you tell me more about this ?

I have always thought about the idea that 'where you are from is what makes you'. The only time your metal shows is in crisis, and what happens when you become broken.

Finally, what motivates you to write?

I think this is the story I want to tell, how should I do it? I try and tell those human moments in time.

www.heathertaylor.co.uk

Talking with Lemn Sissay - A Lifelong Project

This article first appeared on Metaroar. Lemn Sissay is a stalwart poet and performer whose work has been enjoyed throughout the UK and across the globe for almost twenty years. Those who have never been to a spoken word gig will know of Lemn. He is funny and serious, truthful and mischeivous, profound and playful. His poems are universally accessible but never shallow. His autobiographical play 'Something Dark' has been touring internationally for the past 3 years. It tells the traumatic story of Lemn's childhood and the quest to find his mother, and birth family when he was 21 years old.

I meet Lemn one cold winter's morning on London's South Bank. The sun fails in its attempt to break through the clouds and the sky is low and grey. Lemn is wearing sunglasses. Two days previously we had talked about his new scratch performance 'Why I Don't Hate White People' on the roof of the Lyric in Hammersmith. Today he greets me like an old friend and I am genuinely excited at the prospect of spending the next two hours with him.

'Why I don't hate white people' is a 20 minute scratch. Lemn shone when I saw it. Twenty minutes went like five and I didn't want it to end. Afterwards there was a Q and A session. One woman in the front row, the wine smudging the edges of her waffling consonants said, in a far back accent. "I want to know about how you distinguish between being African, British or Caribbean."

"Well,' he replied calmly, "I am not Caribbean, I am actually African."

The woman was drunk and undeterred "You see" she continued "I just see you as British" hoping that her colonial spirit would be adhered to at all costs. As other members of the audience asked questions and contributed to the discussion about how and where racism lurks Front Row Woman could be heard echoing throughout the Lyric studio "I mean to me you are British. You just are. Everything about you..." her voice trailed off with another glug of red. Lemn was patient, extraordinarily so. He explained that the day that one can define themselves for themselves is very important both personally and politically. He underlined the point that people can be more than one thing. It made no difference to this audience member.

When I recall this incident over soupy coffee a few days later, he comments "If I had been less articulate in my response what would have been clear is that she wasn't listening to me. It was really important that I didn't bully her, that I didn't get angry with her. So look at all the things I didn't do to at least open my mouth. What I want to articulate is that invisible language between the words that are spoken. I am interested in what happens in the spaces in between."

He continues "That’s what 'Why I don’t hate white people' is about. It’s saying that there are a lot of rules that are established about how you perceive other races before you even had the language to articulate what those rules were. That’s why families introduce religion early on. You have two choices good or bad. All these ideas are stuffed in to your childhood through a series of individuals who then you have a lifetime of relating to."

It is not surprising that Lemn’s clear vision is now getting a chance to be aired. Living many an artists creative dream he is presently Artist in Residence at the South Bank a position of which he is enormously proud. 'The umbrella frame for my job is to inspire and be inspired and one cannot happen with out the other.' he tells me. When I ask him if he is enjoying the responsibility and challenges of his new role, he replies "This is like the BBC for the arts. Jude Kelly has said I want artists here, I want them to develop and grow. There is no better place to be. For me. On earth. Right now."

I cannot resist asking him which writers he would programme for a fantasy event at the South Bank, dead or alive. He answers without pausing for breath.

"Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Isabelle Allende, Khaled Hussein, from San Francisco, oh my god that would be great ! Benjamin Zephaniah. Linton Kwesi Johnson Alice Walker, Toni Morrison."

"Do you actively hunt down looking at new performers and new artists?"

"Basically I see who keeps coming in to my orbit and then I take a look. I don’t find myself inspired by the desperate events where the only desperation is to be successful rather than to say something that matters. I don’t mind if someone writes about a tree but I want to know it matters to them beyond me appreciating it."

We talk about the war in Iraq and the sad fact that despite incredible opposition few poets actually wrote or spoke about it. This frustrates and angers him.

"It's important for us as poets to ask questions that are not being asked and to rail against whatever the popular opinion is. John Burnside said, 'poetry is the ultimate statement against globalisation.' The act of writing itself is the biggest force against this because what you are doing is exploring your individual voice against the adverts, against the globalisation if ideas. And that is a wonderful thing. If a poet doesn't recognise that's what it is, then they are reaching for popularity and flirting with the antithesis of what poetry is."

I wonder how Lemn copes with his notoriety and how he deals with the constant beckoning of the Bitch Goddess.

"Popularity is very seductive but it’s not the driving force that will give you longevity. I don't write to be popular, whether you like me or don’t like me is not where my head is. If I didn't write I wouldn't be alive. The more I do, the more I realise what I have to do. Nothing is the endgame, there is no end, there is no project where you've arrived.

The thing is, fuck everybody, I'm humble only to my work. That's where I'm a boy. I feel like I'm the dresser of the poems and they're the king and I dress them the best I can."

This spring Lemn decided to give up drink. It shows. He cannot contain the enthusiasm of a man released from the confines of alcohol. He jumps up two stairs at a time, looks trim and happy and wants to world to know that he is now free from its clutches, that he thinks clearer and, although this poet's mood still bobs below the surface now and then, he does not have those demon days any more.

"You know that at 40 years old I stopped drinking. I looked at my life and thought what is destructive that you are doing. Alcohol is a venus fly trap. Not drinking is such a wonderful thing, it’s been such an improvement on my experience artistically and of myself and of the world around me."

It is a lot to ask someone to reveal all to a complete stranger. It was not even that I expected him to. After the interview I found myself going through the transcript, wanting to protect Lemn from his audience. I wanted to jump in and say "No don't say that, you are making yourself too raw. Hold back." I kept wondering was there nothing to protect?

Lemn is in full flow now and I am flattered and overwhelmed by his honesty. "I am one step away consistently, in my head, from begging on the street for money. And people don’t perceive that about me. So I have to look after myself, I have to be my own parents and handing all of that responsibility over to alcohol is a very scary prospect. I don’t have any family. I found them and they don’t talk to me because of the play that I wrote about finding them. I don’t have anyone who knew me as a child. Nobody."

His fear of destitution is something I have often heard from those denied the rightful safety of childhood. He lights a cigarette and the tape recorder chugs its old fashioned way to the end of the cassette. It feels like the whole interview is pivoting on this one fact:

"What people forget is that family is about relativity, it’s not about whether they are nice or good to you, and actually you have a life time to patch it up. If you don’t have that oh my god, it’s mind blowing."

I note that whilst Something Dark was highly autobiographical Lemn’s creative concerns have become more about the social world and less about himself directly.

"Creativity is at the centre of what we are as human beings. As an artist you have to fight for the right to do that and it doesnt happen about fighting out there. I knew at twenty two I wanted to write Something Dark. Every time I had a book out, every time I won something there was no one backstage. The more successful I became in my art the more obvious it was that I had nothing. With Something Dark I was waiting for my artistic ability to catch up with when I could personally translate the story without it hurting me. It took twenty years for that to happen."

"When it’s raw, its still a wound." I observe.

He nods "Absolutely and you know we are constantly mending, it's a life long project."