Tag Archives: Kathy Acker

Sex and Subversion on the Stage

Field & McGlynn

Hannah Silva in Schlock! Photo: Field & McGlynn

After showing an excerpt of my new solo show Schlock! at CPT’s Festival of Feminism there was a post-show chat entitled ‘Sex and Subversion on the Stage’ with Maddy Costa and Chris Goode. I’d like to write more about the things we touched on in the future. For now here’s some thinking that the evening triggered.

Brief context: Schlock! is written by splicing together and changing (subverting) two texts. One is already subversive: In Memoriam to Identity by Kathy Acker, the other is Fifty Shades of Grey.

Chris asked me why I wanted to have this discussion first… out of all the possible discussions we could have about Schlock!

I think the reason is because sex and subversion was at the heart of my work when I started writing more seriously, about ten years ago. But at that stage I didn’t have the craft to write in a way that anyone found publishable, and it terrified my audiences – on more than one occasion I was asked if I worked in the sex industry… I suppose because there is still an assumption made that the ‘I’ uttered by the poet-performer is somehow an honest one, that it is their ‘I’. Audiences weren’t to know that I enjoyed playing games with the ‘I’ in a similar way Kathy Acker did in her books (and unlike Kathy I’m way too timid to enter that world in reality). But still, my work then was too raw, and too derivative. It’s an interesting paradox that Kathy Acker has a very distinctive (and easily imitated) ‘voice’ as a writer, and yet she was against the notion of a writer’s voice (seeing it as limiting, God-like, male). She rejected the idea that a writer must ‘find their voice’ and instead she chose to copy other, multiple voices.

When I was twenty I read an interview with the porn star/performance artist Annie Sprinkle. It included the line ‘fist fuck me up to the elbow and massage my heart from inside’. The closest I’ve ever got to fist-fucking was watching it on a late night TV show. There was a lot of shit involved… and no poetry. But that line makes language itself into an act… language becomes material and physical and bodily… Language isn’t just something our bodies emit… it can enter us and shift our insides. Reading Sprinkle and Acker as a student I was excited by lines that shocked me because that physical shock jolted me out of my habitual patterns of thinking. I realised that writing that shocked wasn’t cheap, wasn’t gimmicky, but could be beautiful, and could change notions of beauty itself. Shock made language strange, which made it new; it showed me something I couldn’t have imagined. Acker’s writing delighted me, her books graffiti over all those still ubiquitous fixed notions of what writing is and should be…

In an interview Kathy said:

I’m looking for what might be called a body language. One thing I do is stick a vibrator up my cunt and start writing — writing from the point of orgasm and losing control of the language and seeing what that’s like.

I can’t imagine a writer saying this today. Maybe it was different in the punk of the Eighties. It’s hard to know where Kathy’s book writing finishes and her identity writing starts… because there is no dividing line. Her interviews read like her books. Her project was building and disturbing identity. Her best material was her own body.

Our post-show chat made me re-consider the performer-audience relationship. I realised that when I enjoy a performance I feel in control, I feel a sense of power, as if I am holding everyone on my breath. Performing is about breath. About controlling the breath of others. Moving them with your breath. Holding breath in the air. It’s very sexy.

During the best performances I can sense that the audience has consented. Consented to being controlled, to being dominated, to being taken, even when they don’t know where exactly it is we’re going… which doesn’t mean they lose control, of course not, and this is why performing might be more true to a BDSM relationship than Fifty Shades of Grey is. The audience have utter control over me too. The contract is very simple. The air can shift at any time.

 See Schlock! 

8th Nov: Aldeburgh Poetry Festival

12th Nov: mac birmingham


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Writing process blog tour


I got tagged by the brilliant Julia Bird to take part in a blog tour about writing processes. It’s the questions that are touring so no long train journey for a change… Here are some previous responses….

Julia Bird

Katy Evans Bush

Anna Robinson

Gemma Seltzer

A B Jackson

Adam Horovitz

and looking at them will take you to others…

What am I working on?

I’m working on a new solo show called ‘Schlock!’ – which comes from the Yiddish word ‘shlak’ and means something cheap, shoddy or inferior. – A risky kind of title, but in theory it refers to the literature that I’m working with rather than the quality of my performance. The schlock I am using to make Schlock! is Fifty Shades of Grey. I’m ripping out pages, scrunching it up, doing searches for sentences that contain the word ‘pain’ or ‘love’ or ‘hurt’ on my Kindle version. I’m also working with Kathy Acker’s novel ‘In Memoriam to Identity’ and the project is influenced by her writing methods and writings about the body. It’s been commissioned by the (very brave) Aldeburgh Poetry Festival for November and is produced by Penned in the Margins.

Fifty carcass

I’ve been commissioned to write a short monologue by Women and Theatre, an organisation based in Birmingham. It’s my first writing commission in Birmingham since moving here last summer, and I’m honoured to be working with such an inspiring organisation. Women and Theatre have been making theatre for 30 years and the monologue I’m writing is one of a series of pieces focused on women who have been in their particular field for thirty years, my field is business, and so far the women I’ve interviewed for the project couldn’t be more different to each other, so I’m considering writing several characters within the one monologue…..

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Of course we do all write differently to each other, but we also all borrow from each other, themes and forms and styles and sentences are recycled. Perhaps with my work the first stumbling block is ‘genre’. I’m not sure poets write in ‘genres’ …I like work that sits between genres and disciplines and I’m interested in wearing a word like ‘poet’ and making it mean something a little different than it did a hundred years ago.  But basically I like playing with words and the sounds of them, so that makes me a very typical kind of poet.

Why do I write what I do?

I write about things that I find interesting, or disturbing or shocking, or that I don’t understand….or maybe just because I enjoy playing with sound… I don’t tend to write from personal experience. Perhaps I need a bit of distance.

Someone once described a poem to me, it was an idea of a poem, and I can’t remember the exact description, just a sense that words would morph into new words and meanings would be broken up and transformed and then come back together again. I often try to write that poem.

At the moment I’m working with Fifty Shades of Grey (that book about a virgin who doesn’t want to be hit) because reading it makes me feel very sad and I only almost know why. I’m working with Kathy Acker’s novel because when I discovered her books in Dartington library years ago they were unlike anything I’d ever read, and I was really excited by her work in spite of (or because of) the lack of coherent narrative. I remember sitting somewhere strange and reading it. Behind something, on the floor, like it was illegal. Probably because I was supposed to be stacking shelves at the time. For a couple of years I wrote like her, now I’ve shaken her off so I think I’m ready to let her in again.

How does my writing process work?


I’ve never been very interested in when or where or with what when it comes to writing. But. That all changed when I got an hourglass (leftover prop from Sadie Jones tour). So, what I do now, is kill my internet connection through MAC Freedom. I realise it is pathetic that I paid £7 for willpower but best £7 I ever spent. Then I turn the hourglass and force myself to work for an hour. After that I get a cup of tea. In terms of the actual writing….I have many ways around it….I spend some time copying and cutting and pasting…I get some words on a screen and then see if I can make other words out of them…I explore sounds out loud and it makes me happy when a word  transforms into another, sometimes I think of writing as composing and I make poems out loud, using a loop pedal to layer sounds and words and meanings. I like the way the loop pedal interferes with linearity. With playwriting it’s a bit more organised and I have to make myself play difficult games with structure and narrative. Recently I’ve tended to splurge a mess of text that comes from various places but explores a particular problem…then I enlist David Lane to help me see it more objectively and organise my thoughts. Occasionally I’ll just sit down and write a poem.

organising splurge with David Lane

organising splurge with David Lane


I’m tagging two poets who I don’t know lots about but want to know more: Andra Simons who I met for the first time at a recent event for Archive of the Now. He’s a Burmudian poet based in London and his work tips into visual art and performance art and sound poetry. I’ll host his responses here. I also tag Emma Bennett who is pretty cool and can make her voice into birdsong….go to her website and have a listen. 

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The Shit/La Merda

‘A text for naked voice and naked body’ photo: Valeria Tomosuolo

Summerhall. Edinburgh Fringe

The Shit/La Merda performed by Silvia Gallerano and written by Cristian Ceresoli

[contains spoilers, although I’m not sure anything can prepare you for the live version]

In The Shit, words might be sung, yes, but the chant never emerges. Invective remains and prevails, so does the howl, the body that shakes out its personal story in an unbroken flow of thoughts/words rendered as sounds (then etched into memory). Shrieks. The deafening din of screams that have been choked. Appeased. Imploded. (Ceresoli)

It’s dark and it’s raining. We stand in the rain outside the ‘Demonstration Hall’ to the sounds of a woman warming up her voice. Which is already inhuman.

The first thing is the space. It’s concrete, stone, an old lecture hall, students perched high up, but it also feels like a building from childhood novels, in the middle of nowhere, strange owl creatures might appear, perhaps there are blood stains in the concrete.

No – but there is a naked woman perched on a high stool. The height makes her small. Her eyes are wild, her lips are red…her hair is in bunches. She’s quietly singing the Italian National Anthem. Perhaps her nudity is the first thing we notice, but later, it’s her voice and her words that take centre stage.

I’ve spent some time wondering what it was that made the stream of consciousness narrative that followed so compelling. It wasn’t just the sense, but the sound. The voice as an extension of the naked body; the unrelenting hammering of words and meanings that bleed into each other. She remained on the high stool throughout. The vocal stream only punctuated by monosyllables: “Yes” and “Me”, are the jumping off points for long vocal dances. The text breaks down at the end of each section, and gradually breaks down throughout the whole piece. In the beginning the sentences are endless, by the end they are a series of monosyllabic words.

Meanings circle, images reappear, she opens with a story about railway tracks, she says she would jump, she says it would take a lot of courage, except she’s using the second person, so is it herself she is referring to? Later she says he…he, her father must have had a lot of courage to jump.  We discover her father is dead, and that this is how he died. His death is beneath the surface of everything she says. She skims over the kind of lines that we don’t often hear in the theatre…‘starving little midgets’… and “Have you ever seen a spastic reading the news?” There’s no censorship here.

I know bigness. So big you can see its material. It’s so big that when the feeling happens down there, you can’t tell what’s going on in there, what’s going on in there. Everything becomes lost. It can be anything, it and what goes on in there, and as long as you don’t die, you survive…..This is what sex was. Death, then sex. I didn’t recognise it at first. This is when I learned that I can close my eyes, fight however I have to, and survive.  Kathy Acker, In Memoriam to Identity

It is a musical text. The music is in the punctuation, the syllables, and the voice. It’s a strong, brilliant voice, but it’s also uncontrolled, with too much vibrato. I thought, it can’t be uncontrolled because she can’t control it; she’s too good for that. And later this was proved when she dipped between two registers: a deeper, chest voice without vibrato, then back to her penetrating higher register, or ‘vocal mask’. She jumps back and forth between the two voices. It was virtuosic.

– I wonder about the sound though. Her voice echoes in this space. With the microphone and amplification on top of the natural reverb, the words merge into each other and are hard to hear. And this is a text I want to hear the whole of. The microphone has become a part of her physicality, a part of this work. But in this venue, I’d consider losing it, or just switching it off…

And what about the body? Meat on stage. Meat me me me me me meh meh …merda. Or at least, that’s how it sounded. This ‘me me me’ happens at the end of each movement, it is the shitting out of all the experiences and words up until that point, it is the body turning itself inside out, rejecting everything, or it is the rape, the howl. The word ‘me’ transforms, it becomes ‘meh’ – which of course, is the same phonetically as the ‘meh’ sound in ‘merda’. – The Italian version comes through…the same phonetic transformation would work in the French version ‘La Merde’, however ‘The Shit’ – phonetically, doesn’t work in the same way. Which is a reminder that this version is a translation. And that Gallerano performs this text in three languages.

And truly
must it be reduced to this stinking gas,
my body?
To say that I have a body
because I have a stinking gas
that forms
inside me?
Antonin Artaud, To have done with the judgement of God (1947)

In this play there are no boundaries between childhood, sex, the body, food, shit, fame, and politics. Not just in the sense that people often talk of a ‘politics of the body’, but Italian politics…just glimpses, fragments of things her father told her, there are no differences in her world. A sentence can begin with the topic of food and end with a rape “you wouldn’t think a handicapped guy could have such a tight grip” begin with body hatred and end with the revolutionary anthem, or the world cup, or VAT, or dolphins.

What the fuck is reason in this life, a life of disease and sex show? Perhaps I had become too polluted, not down there, but socially, as everyone becomes, to be pure even down there in the blood  Kathy Acker, In Memorium to Identity

She tells us that the flag is the male sex. Her words narrate a transformation of the body, or a consumption of the body. Is it out of self-hatred, or out of a desire to somehow become her country, to become what people want to see, or to become something of what her father once was? Whatever the answer, her vision is distorted. Her voice narrates, but is also a channel for this strange swallowing of the self.

I want to attempt a terrible feminine. The cry of the revolt that is trampled underfoot, of anguish armed for war, of the demand for justice.
It is like the groan of an abyss that is opened: the wounded earth cries out, but voices are raised, deep as the bottom of the abyss, voices which are at the bottom of the abyss crying.
Neuter. Feminine. Masculine.

In order to utter this cry I empty myself.
Not of air, but of the very power of sound. I raise up in front of myself my human body. And having cast on it ‘THE EYE’ of a horrible measurement, part by part I force it to reenter me.
Artaud, For the Theater and its Double (1931-36)

She tells us how her father once took her to an aquarium. There she learned that male dolphins rape females, and that a female octopus eats her own limbs. And we discover that the returning themes of her life – rape, the consummation of her own flesh – were born from these childhood memories. She tells us that a woman must transform her body, must submit to men, to get anywhere. A fantasy of escaping her life is blurred with a rape in a warehouse  – she resists the rape because it’s ‘thanks to the Resistance Movement that Fascism is over and our country exists, yes” and the movement descends into the howl of ‘me me me meh meh….’

I wanted my body to be mine. Deep in me I didn’t want it to be theirs. Something in me was revolting. Something in me was screaming, ‘No. No. No.’
So just as I was learning about my own body, I learned this kind of revolt.
No one was going to touch me but me. That’s how all of me felt with a scream. But it didn’t matter how strong I felt it cause the slimy man lifted up my right breast and looked at it… Kathy Acker

In the final movement she eats a dolphin, (she eats the rapist?) she goes to the toilet…(not literally, this is all in the narration) there’s a repeating phrase ‘in my shit’. Everything up until this point fragments and collides with ‘in my shit’.  She shits her life –her father, all the food, the cripple-rapist, her fears, the army, her youth. And then she tries to take it back. The consumption of her shit becomes the consumption of her nation. The Italian anthem returns, another scream, she tells herself to jump….

If only one could taste one’s void, if one could really rest in one’s void, and this void were not a certain kind of being but not quite death either.

I have only one occupation left: to remake myself.
Artaud, From the Nerve Meter (1925)

The Shit/La Merda is intense, dark, searing, powerful, raw. It is satirical but not in the way we usually understand the word. With its collision of the body, food, sex, and rape, it is also an intensely female play, but is written by a man. This is what would be born from a brief, violent meeting between Artaud’s vocal and physical screams and Kathy Acker’s fucked up cut up texts.

Gallerano is an astonishing actor, but don’t let that mask the fact that this is an astonishing piece of writing too.

photo: Valeria Tomosuolo

They brought forth in me the image of that scream armed for war, that terrible subterranean cry.
For this scream I must fall,
It is the scream of the wounded warrior who brushes past the broken walls with a drunken sound of glass.

I fall.
I fall but I am not afraid.
I give up my fear in the sound of rage, in a solemn roaring.
Artaud For the Theater and its Double

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Preamble to writing about two shows at Summerhall, Edinburgh Fringe

I saw lots of lovely shows at the Fringe (yup, I’m back home already). Lovely, compassionate, honest (Mess), sweet, cuddleable (Blink), makes-you-think-and laugh-in-a-gentle and warm-way (The price of everything) inventive-with-props-and-excellent-if-you-like-that-sort-of-thing-which-I-don’t-much (A real man’s guide to Sainthood), very well written, insightful and ‘now’ ‘new writing’ (One Hour Only), not very ‘now’ but with good bits  ‘What’s he building in there?’…

A couple of very well crafted enjoyable, intelligent, higher budget productions:  Bullet Catch and Mies Julie.

Most – apart from Morning, which was disturbing and unsettling in a way that I greatly enjoyed – were cute, lovely, nice, funny, compassionate, honest, homemade, sincere, fluffy, feel good, playful, a little bit moving, considerate to audiences…

….so two shows I saw at Summerhall really made an impression. The Shit/La Merda and Puppet. The Book of Splendour were none of those things.

What do we go to the theatre for? As many different reasons as there are theatregoers? As many different responses to theatre as there are theatregoers…

People want to enjoy themselves, and (apart from Morning), you will enjoy yourself at all the above. I recommend them all. Especially Morning. And especially the other two that were in my top five.

Morning by Simon Stephens/Lyric photo by Marc Bremmer

Maybe you go to switch off, to have a rest, a bit of entertainment.  I do that by reading novels and watching TV and films. Where the seats are comfortable.

I want to enjoy being in the theatre too, but we may not agree on what constitutes enjoyment.

For instance when I was a student I enjoyed reading novels by Kathy Acker and watching videos of Grotoswki’s Akropolis and films by Tarkovsky–which may explain a few things.

So I’ve already made myself sound pretentious, next I’m going to sound naïve…I also want theatre to change me, to get into my subconscious, to give me enough images and enough space to be able to weave my own narratives through the work, I want to be on the edge of my breath, and the edge of my seat, I want to be physically engaged by it, I want to be disturbed and impressed and overwhelmed by …

You get the idea. – And as I also make the stuff too, I don’t want to feel that –how come you’re getting all that support when you’re not that good and I’m better and I’m struggling – thing. I want to feel that – you’re bloody incredible I want to be that good and I’m going to keep struggling – thing.

One reason I am drawn to these two shows more than the British ones is the aesthetic, the actors’ craft, the stagecraft. A post-Grotowski post-Kantor aesthetic rather than a devised theatre imitating Forced Entertainment and Lone Twin cute style… Actors who have been training for hours every day for years to get to where they are physically and vocally, opposed to the standard fare of recent graduates who’ve never really done any kind of prolonged training, but have spent quite some time messing around with props.

to be continued…

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