Elspeth Williams, writer and curator, reflects on visiting Southampton’s free experimental poetry series Entropics and interviews its creator Dr Sarah Hayden.
Held in Mettricks Old Town, a coffee shop in Southampton’s city centre, Entropics is a series of experimental poetry readings which ran weekly through February – April 2017, and returns on the 24 October 2017. With support from University of Southampton’s Department of English and funded for two years by the University’s Education Enhancement Fund, Entropics was created, organised, and curated by Dr. Sarah Hayden who joined as a lecturer in 20th and 21st century American Literature and Culture in January 2016.
I first attended Entropics in April with poet Redell Olsen, having heard positive things about the poet and the event and hoping to write a blog post on the experience from the perspective of a first time audience member. At the risk of blowing my cover as a seasoned English Literature graduate I will admit that the thought of experimental poetry is something which I (and perhaps others) can find fairly intimidating. I wondered if without the opportunity to pick the work apart with a pen and a highlighter I would be able to enjoy it, or even ‘get it’ at all. However, this was not the case. The poetry was followed by audience questions for the poet and an open discussion. While people were slow at first to speak, the discussion opened up by Sarah, the poet, and other people in the audience quickly cultivated a comfortable setting for more to jump in.
Though tentative at first about what to expect, and slightly nervous attending on my own, I found Entropics to be relaxed yet enriching and kicked myself for not going to earlier sessions. After an interesting chat with Sarah before I went, I left feeling like I had a lot to write about. However, when I sat down to write I kept thinking of questions to ask her, and wanted more insight into the process of her setting up Entropics and what she hoped it would achieve. I quickly found myself deep in a cyber-stalking session of Sarah (it began with her Univeristy bio, and ended with her twitter). With an impressive background researching and lecturing in Literature, Visual Culture, Art, and the intersections between them – as well as co-organising and co-curating arts and culture events such as art/lit festivals in Cork, Sound Eye and The Avant – I soon decided that, firstly she is what I’d like to be when I grow up, and secondly that I couldn’t write the blog without an interview with her. A couple of weeks later, we met on the Avenue Campus café to discuss Entropics and other aspects of Hayden’s work and interests.
From the outset of our conversation, I got the sense that what lies at the forefront of Sarah’s intentions with Entropics is encouraging accessibility, to the arts, to new experiences and new ways of thinking. Stating that it exists for ‘everyone and anyone’, her hope is that Entropics will enhance the experience of live literature for both staff and students within the institution, but also for a much wider public and she hopes those audiences will mix. Reflective of her background, one thing which also seems intrinsic to Entropics is a desire to blur the boundaries between disciplines, and bring together academic, artistic, and literary audiences, specifically enabling access to them for as broad and diverse an audience as possible.
An unusual structure compared to a typical poetry reading (which would often feature a series of poets reading a small number of texts in twenty-minute slots), each Entropics session features one poet who reads for two thirty-minute blocks with time for questions and discussion at the end. Sarah explains that the intention is that by the end of the reading audiences will feel ‘sufficiently comfortable, and sufficiently curious to ask questions in a welcoming warm space’. I found that extending the time listening to the poet and hearing a wider selection from their work enabled audiences to enjoy and reflect on the poetry and their own responses to it without fervently attempting to analyse it. Providing this time is important to Sarah, who says:
‘Often it’s difficult for audiences who aren’t already familiar with the poet to become attuned to a poet’s voice, to their register, to their concerns, to what interests them. I wanted people to have time to sort of settle in to the performance. To listen to a wider breadth of work—to something that they might not normally encounter.’
Each Entropics event is also framed nicely by the accompanying blog, with a page on each poet which includes an introduction to them and their background, and an interview. Providing great insight into the poet and what directly or indirectly informs their work, this material supports another point of access to the often abstract poetry and sets you up to experience it in greater depth whether you take a look before or following a reading, and in Sarah’s words ‘breaks down the anxiety of not knowing what to expect’. Through the interview questions posed to the poets, you also end up with a list of recommended material to read/watch/listen to, so I would say it’s definitely worth a read.
Sarah’s inclusion of allotted time for questions to the poet, open discussion, and the blog, highlights her interest in maintaining a somewhat critical experience with Entropics. She told me about a session with poet Peter Manson, at which Ellen Dillon—a poet and PhD student who is writing on his work—was invited to read a short paper to the audience between Manson’s two performances, and says it’s something she’d love to do again. When asked about the benefits of marrying the critical and the creative at an event such as this, she again notes that it gives people multiple points of access and enriches the experience for students, as well as the rest of the audience.
As our conversation progresses, many of the questions I presented to her about the purpose of Entropics and her other activities revealed the same concerns. A large emphasis on accessibility but also, through this and through the inclusion of a critical slant on the event, a desire to keep questioning, pushing, and blurring what we believe to be pre-existing boundaries. Sarah says she thinks it’s important to attend to contemporary poetic and artistic practices – ‘it means we don’t get stuck eulogizing cultural events and practices of the past while ignoring what’s happening now.’ When asked about feedback she has had from students, and other audience members, what she seems excited to tell me is that students have all kinds of different responses and ‘many of them hadn’t realised that poetry could be like that […] it expanded their idea of what literature could do and broken open their idea of what poetry was about’. Whatever people take from Entropics, it should be intellectually and aesthetically new; ‘I don’t want it to be comfortable necessarily, I want it to be a strange and enriching experience.’ Throughout Entropics, there is a gentle encouragement to look a little further but through a critical frame, one which does not flatten the work or reduce it to one reading which, Sarah rightly insists, would be destructive.
A commitment to creating a space for open dialogue and expansive thinking unites her research, literary, teaching and artistic interests. Given the political chaos the world has been experiencing in recent years, as well as major cuts to funding in the arts and access to education, and a baffling nostalgia for retrograde attitudes to human rights and ideas of national identity, I asked Sarah what her response to the current political situation is. She did not disappoint and responded brilliantly:
‘The writing and thinking that I find most exciting is that which is most curious and most open to engaging in what it doesn’t already know. I think that is an ethical position, a political position, as well as an aesthetic choice […] it is important not to shut things down or create artificial borders. Not closing ourselves off is the only reasonable way to respond right now.’
Entropics has attracted a wide audience already, with members of the public, students from various disciplines beyond Literature and Art (such as a group of regular Biology students), lecturers and other staff members, and it intends to provide a space and experience for anyone to enjoy. The series will return on the 24 October 2017 with poet Samantha Walton (read her brilliant Entropics interview here ahead of the event), and Sarah promises the line-up for the rest of 2017 is shaping up to be as diverse and exciting as the last series. Confirmed poets are working across different genres and media, and responding to contemporary issues in culture, politics and poetics. Sarah implores anyone curious to come along, and to say hi when you do!
The line up for 2017 includes Samantha Walton, Vahni Capildeo, Nat Raha & Linus Slug, with more to be confirmed for 2018. Have a look at the Entropics blog to find out more about all the poets, past and future.