Twisted Velvet Chains was one of those wonderful serendipitous discoveries. I have the ever fabulous Roz Morris to thank for introducing me to its author, the writer and musician Jessica Bell, through her Undercover Soundtrack series.
When you read her fabulous answer in the interview below describing the difference between honest and factual writing you will see at once why I connected with her work straightaway. Here she talks about her novel, String Bridge, her new project, Muted, the connections between music and literature and the nature of the confessional.
She also talks about Twisted Velvet Chains, a stunning collection of poems about a woman growing up with a bipolar, addicted musician mother. The poetry is, of course, lyric and musical, but its greatest quality is an intimacy and intensity that makes it almost impossible to read, but ever so slightly more impossible to look away from.
DH: Looking at the description of your project Muted as well as String Bridge, it seems to me you write a lot about being trapped—be it within a physical situation, a set of preconceptions, or in the case of the character in Muted, within oneself. Is that fair?
JB: Absolutely. But to filter this notion even more, I’d say my work is more about self-inflicted trapping. We are all trapped within the confines of what ‘society’ expects of us, yes? But as a result, while trying to liberate ourselves from preconceived expectations, our very own bubble within a bubble is created. And no matter how much we try to fight routine, be it something banal or extravagant, our days still end up being about what we “must” do. Sounds quite simple and common really, but when you are looking at it through the eyes of a character that fears routine as much as murder, it becomes so much more, especially when layers of regret, guilt and depression seep in.
DH: And the arcs of your work would correspondingly seem to be about attaining, or reattaining freedom. What to you are the most important areas in which that freedom/captivity struggle plays out in modern lives?
JB: Continuing on with the idea of routine, sometimes even enjoyable ones can get too much to handle, can’t they? Every one is trying to break down some sort of wall. Even it’s something as simple as “I must cook dinner by 5 p.m.” I think it’s common to rebel against “having” to do things because our deep instinct is to have a choice. And this struggle for freedom in my work is more about realising, after all, that we aren’t trapped. It’s just a matter of one’s mindset. As I said in answer to your first question, it’s self-inflicted. We can choose. But because we feel guilty for choosing, for whatever personal reasons associated with it, we prefer not to, and therefore remain trapped. It’s one big vicious circle. So, the struggle in my work, and in many people’s lives nowadays I believe, is escaping from our own preconceived ideas, and learning to let go, just a little, and take a moment to breathe; to see how simple life can be if we let it.
I have to add that I hate playing by the rules too. But at the same time, breaking them can sometimes scare the shit out of me. I guess that’s an aspect of my own personality that goes into all of my work in some shape or form, whether literally or symbolically: the push and pull of primary and secondary expectations. But sometimes there is no exit. Sometimes it’s just going to be a never-ending struggle. Sometimes we just have to accept that. And in the end, that’s life, yes?
DH: From what I can see, violence is always there alongside the everyday in your work. I often feel we have a way of presenting things in culture as sociological or psychological problems in a bid to make major injustices—such as the curtailing of people’s aspirations and dreams—seem more palatable, and criticism of them seem less reasonable. I think we need to be reminded more often that these are acts of violence that need to be taken proportionately seriously. Does it make any sense to place your work within that context?
JB: Any violence that appears in my work comes from a very organic place. What I mean by this is that no-one ever sets out to be purposefully violent, or to inflict pain onto someone out of retribution, for example. All violent acts in my work stem from repressed emotional triggers. They are all expressions of pain, and harm the instigator a lot more than the receiver.
I haven’t made much progress with Muted yet, so I can’t really tell you if what I’m saying is relevant to that story, but it certainly is for String Bridge and Twisted Velvet Chains. The violence in these two works gives the reader a balanced view, I hope, as they don’t just explore how it affects the victim. I think it goes against our moral grain to feel sorry for someone that is “doing something wrong”. And I like trying to blur that line.
DH: Tell me about Twisted Velvet Chains. As a confessional poet and a publisher of confessional poetry it leaps out of the page as a must read.
JB: Twisted Velvet Chains is a collection of poems which follows the experiences of one woman growing up with a bipolar, drug addicted, gothic musician mother. Each poem represents specific moments of their life that embrace vivid rich imagery, and illustrate the turmoil of emotions both experience while together. The collection is divided into four parts that flow one into the other from childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and post-death.
A lot of people believe this collection is autobiographical. It’s not. My mother and I did go through a few tough times when I was a child, but nothing at all to the extent which is represented in this collection. In addition to that, she is very much alive and we have a great relationship.
I’m often asked how my poetry can be so brutally honest and not be real. As I said to a TVC reviewer recently, there is “… a difference between ‘honest’ and ‘factual.’ In TVC, I’ve really amped up the ‘tragic’ quality of the poems and although the content stems from ‘real’ feelings I had at some point or another, they do not necessarily stem from the events in the poems. Notice I say ‘stem from’ real feelings. As writers we have the freedom to embellish. There’s that common saying, ‘Write what you know.’ Well, what I know is what it’s like to feel so depressed you don’t even want to lift a finger. I also know what it’s like growing up with rock musicians as parents. I also know firsthand what it’s like to be a musician and perform in front of an audience. I know that when someone is suffering from Valium withdrawal, the symptoms mimic the symptoms of bipolar disorder. I also know what it feels like to hate everyone in the entire world as a teen—teens tend to feel that way, and teens tend to exaggerate those feelings, too. I know what it feels like to love, to hate, to envy, to regret, to feel so passionate about something that you don’t care what is going on around you. Put all these ‘experiences’ together, and wham, you’ve got something that is ‘honest,’ but not necessarily ‘factual.’”
DH: Music-poetry-prose: A continuous spectrum or are there boundaries, however blurred?
JB: Most of the time they pretty much smudge together and feed off one another. I really couldn’t produce what I produce without having each skill. The only boundary I’ve experienced is regarding my own emotional satisfaction when writing music vs. literature. I’ve always said that writing is my oxygen and music is my carbon dioxide. I need them both in the air I breathe, but with music, I’m happy to breathe it out again. Once I get my fix, I’m good. But with writing, I need it all the time to feel emotionally fulfilled. I think this is because writing gives me a high, but music, for some reason, makes me depressed.
DH: You cite PJ Harvey and Patti Smith amongst your influences, who pour themselves into their work in almost an act of self-emptying, and that is clearly happening in your work before String Bridge. Did you find the added scale and sweep of writing a novel provided you with a distance from your work that other forms didn’t afford, or did it draw you in even more?
JB: I put every possible essence of myself into every word I write whether it be poetry or prose, so suppose I’d have to say neither. When I say ‘myself’ I don’t mean autobiographical elements, I mean that I write from an honest place. I want my readers to ‘feel’ as well as be entertained, when they read my work. And to tell you the truth, I sometimes work myself to tears to get to that point. Sounds melodramatic, but if you look at it like an actor getting into character, it doesn’t sound too strange. If I’m not feeling it, my readers certainly aren’t going to, are they?