Urban Words

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The Literature Lounge at Covent Garden Poetry Cafe is one of my favourite nights and at the most recent episode, it was my privilege to meet author Sarah Butler, whose brilliant and much fought over debut novel Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love will be published by Picador in 2013. Sarah is the driving force behind an incredible project, Urban Words. I’m delighted that she agreed to talk about it here.

1. There are so many wonderful things about Urban Words I’m at a loss where to start – any hints?

That’s very kind! As the name suggests, I’m interested in urban spaces, and words, and more specifically in the relationship between them. How are spaces/places created through language, narrative, stories, descriptions? How are narratives influenced by place? I have your next question in sight, so am going to incorporate that here: 2. People, places, words – which comes first? As I say, for me the intrigue lies where these things intersect. I’m a proponent of the idea that places are ‘made’, or are at least heavily influenced, by the people who live in/use them. I’ve always been interested in how we tell each other (and ourselves) stories in order to make sense of things (and to entertain) and perhaps to locate ourselves, to find ourselves a place.

Two anecdotes:

A. When I was at secondary school we studied Brighton Rock by Graham Greene. The novel had a profoundly unsettling effect on me and for years I thought Brighton was a dark and dangerous city. I now have my own relationship with Brighton which involves no darkness or danger (I’m not suggesting they’re absent from Brighton, just from my personal experience of it). This experience of knowing a place through a novel, and then knowing it through personal experience highlights, for me, the power words can have in shaping perceptions of a place.

B. Five years ago I had to leave a house I had invested in heavily (time, money, emotion) because of a relationship break up. That experience highlighted my personal fascination with place and home, how and why we connect (or don’t) with specific places. I’ve spent the five years since that experience writing a novel (called Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love, which will be published by Picador in Jan 2013) which draws on these themes. I think for me, narrative and language have been a way to really explore and unpick my own relationship with place and home.

2. I can see a lot on your website about regeneration. It seems important to keep the balance between words that reflect a particular place and words that change it, and Urban Words seems like a particularly good way to ensure that change, or the aspirations involved in change, moves organically rather than through imposition…

Absolutely. As I was trying to get at with my Brighton Rock anecdote, I think that the stories we tell about a place have a profound impact on how that place is viewed, and perhaps experienced. This can be negative – so places are designated  as ‘run down’/ ‘sink’ etc. and that story acts to reinforce that negativity. Or they can be positive.

For me, regeneration is in a large part about telling a new story about a place. My concern is about who is authoring that story. So a lot of the work I try and do is to find ways for other voices to come into that mix. I could go off on one about grand narratives and multiple conflicting voices, but I might not!

3. Which leads me to your role – to what extent are you essentially an amplifier for a community’s voices, to what extent are you more like editing software clearing away some of the fuzz to make it clearer, and to what extent are you a producer bringing your own ideas to a project, and are you aware as you work of the different roles?

I am very aware of the different roles, and I struggle with it to be honest. I think I’ve developed my thinking in the last couple of years, and moved from trying to be a conduit and effacing myself in the process, to being more ‘honest’ maybe, and recognising my own position and role as ‘writer’. It depends on the project too, what I’m trying to do, or what a commissioner wants.

I’ll tell you about 2 projects to give 2 different models. Home from Home  involved creating texts to sit with portrait photographs to build up a picture of Elephant and Castle (in South London). I interviewed people and created texts entirely from their own words (so transcribed and edited). I had a hand in the curation of those texts, but the words were entirely those of the interviewees, all of whom signed off their text.

In Tideline I used a similar interview method, but then created a series of poems (which now sit on waymarkers in the local area) from those stories. Each stanza reflects a story I was told, but I am much more present as ‘author’ in this project.

4. You work with partner organisations and projects, which gives what you do an official context. I’m interested to know if this ever leads to a tension with a community’s voice…

I’ve learnt that what a writer can’t do in these kinds of projects is claim to speak in the name of a community (or an organisation for that matter). I don’t think that’s honest. In fact I don’t really think there is such a thing as ‘a’ community’s voice; that assumes a community is a single, coherent subject, rather than a mix of conflicting voices. There is a tension though, absolutely – the challenge is to negotiate it and maintain your integrity and freedom to write honestly and from the heart.

5. What can individuals and communities do if they are inspired by your work?

Use it as a springboard for their own work maybe? I developed a web resource a few years ago now called A Place For Words. It has tips about setting up projects and also a whole host of case studies from across the UK (by a wide range of writers) which will hopefully provide additional inspiration.

6. Liminal spaces – these are always the most interesting parts of a city or any other space. They fascinate me in two particular ways – the way two or more communities can occupy the same physical space and almost never touch (Shaftesbury Avenue and its water margins absolutely fascinates me in the way Chinatown, Theatreland, Soho’s gay village, and the sex industry co-exist almost oblivious to each other); and the way they offer us traces – the jetsam of communities “on the other side” we never actually see but have to infer, rather like archaeologists. Which is a long-winded way of asking you about the way liminal spaces can help us discover our own identity. I wonder if the communities we see there, the traces that catch our eye as “other” tell us about ourselves by telling us what we perceive we are not, and whether their strangeness might give us a way of understanding the alienation the communities that leave those traces feel when confronted by us and our own traces – whether, even, our reaction to “others'” use of the city and estrangement from it might make us more sympathetic in our own use. Bringing that ramble back to Urban Words, it seems that you do something of vital importance in leaving marks that people will find alienating as well as those which reach out.

That’s really interesting. I do hope that some of the work I do will challenge people’s ideas not only about a place, but also about themselves. I think one of the dangers of ‘regeneration’ is that it opts for a single, easy story, and whitewashes/ignores the complexities and smaller histories of a place in order to achieve its aim. Making these traces, as you call them, more evident, is one way of questioning that. And on the individual identity front, I think that one of the most exciting things about cities is that they are filled with diversity, with those you consider ‘other’ (or maybe you don’t consider them at all), and like you say, these traces that ask us to stop and consider other identities and other experiences of a place are important and, I think, what make cities endlessly fascinating and challenging places.

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4 Responses to Urban Words

  1. Anne Stormont (writeanne) says:

    Fascinating interview, Dan. Your questions were minimal but led to Sarah offering informative insight into her writing and into her thoughts on ‘place’. A lot of what Sarah says here resonates with me – specifically when I think of my home town of Edinburgh but also in how Skye, where I’ve lived for quite a long time now, can be viewed/written about. Thanks both for another excellent post.

  2. Dan Holloway says:

    Thank you, Anne – “place” is such a wonderful subject. Skye and Edinburgh are both very evocative places, and conjure very specific images but I imagine they’re very different from the way you, having lived there, think of them

  3. Sarah Butler says:

    Hi Anne, I’m glad you found it interesting. I am endlessly fascinated by ‘place’ (as you’ve probably gathered). And I *love* Skye. We went on holiday there a couple of times when I was a kid and it’s always stayed with me as somewhere really magical.

  4. Ashen (Pia) says:

    Inspiring interview. Places make a timeline in my memory. When I focus on a place, certain lights, smells, sounds, and many, many stories are brought to life.

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