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Interview | Ted Hodgkinson at the Southbank Centre

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We stopped by The Southbank Centre to chat with Ted Hodgkinson about the upcoming reopening of the Purcell Room and Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Both fantastic spaces for literature, the Southbank Centre are celebrating their reopening with readings of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.

Ted talks to us about the importance of these pieces and their connection to their star-studded readers.

For more information on the readings click below:

Things Fall Apart, 15th April 

The Golden Notebook, 22 April

Poetry London Summer Readings: Rachael Allen, Andrew McMillan, Vahni Capildeo and Emily Berry

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Poetry London’s summer launch opened with an impassioned speech by the poet Karen McCarthy Wood, who is a trustee on the magazine’s board. The magazine is known for its support for ‘new and emerging poets’, Karen says, noting that one third of each issue is devoted to poets who have yet to publish a first collection. New names are featured alongside those of ‘distinguished writers’, and Poetry London also completes important work through its mentorship schemes and reviews. As a charity, it is dependent on the funding it receives from the Arts Council England, who have promised to match any donations made by members of the public who would like to support the magazine. In the current context of arts cuts, these donations are ever more necessary, and Karen urges the audience to consider taking out a subscription. ‘This is the end of this pragmatic part of the evening’, she announces. ‘But not quite the end – think of it framing the whole evening!’

Martha Kapos, Poetry Co-Editor of the magazine, offers a further frame for the evening, introducing the poets who will read. ‘We have quite a line-up’, she says, citing some of the highlights in the published magazine, including Ocean Vuong, who features on the cover, and Mark Ford, Martha Sprackland, Anita Pati, and others. It is often the newer or unknown poets who come up with ‘some of the most exciting work’, and Martha references Ella Frear’s poem, which is titled ‘After the Lie, Donald came in a vision to Donald’, as well as the Syrian poet Riad Saleh Hussein, who was arrested in 1982 and died in ‘ambiguous circumstances’. She then turns her attention to Rachael Allen, who is our first reader. Rachael is a ‘rising star amongst the young poets published by Faber in the Faber New Poets series’, Martha notes, with ‘intense, exuberant, skillfully constructed’ poems. When she read for Poetry London four years ago, Ahren Warner, the Poetry Editor, commented that she is ‘the real thing’. Quite an introduction, and when she steps on stage, Rachael hopes that she will ‘live up to it’. After reading a quote from the horror writer Thomas Ligotti – another frame for the evening – she plunges into her reading of ‘Kingdomland’. Eyes shining, back straight, she tilts forwards as she reads, her black outfit merging with the dark curtains behind her. The poem has an incantatory feel to it, with its repetition of the word ‘impassable’ and reference to a ‘superstitious wife’ who ‘throws salt’. Rachael’s level tone means that the clearest indication of the poem’s denouement is her silence, although it feels as if the words stretch into the pause after she reads: ‘The glass and salt my petulant daughter, / the glass and salt my crooked pathway; impassable glass and salt’.

‘I’m a hypochondriac’, Rachael notes with a smile, and the next poem she reads is a clever play on her tendency to google possible ailments and symptoms. These include accidental iron overdose, fizzing feelings around the ankles, and the side effects of donating marrow – all of which intrigue and amuse the audience. Later poems address ‘the position of the animal in our society’, with Rachael explaining that ‘as well as a hypochondriac, I’m a vegan’. The poems are visceral, questioning why we eat some animals and not others, and are heightened by Rachael’s intense and unwavering style of reading.

Andrew McMillan, the next poet to read, has made ‘an astonishing first appearance on the scene’ with his award-winning debut collection Physical, Martha asserts. His poems have been praised as exhibiting ‘tenderness, candour, sensitivity, and vulnerability’, and he launches his reading with ‘Martyrdom’, a poem remarkable for its haunting repetition of the word ‘father’. On stage, his posture is relaxed, one leg balanced behind the other, and he informs the audience that his reading will focus on newer poems. He also speaks of his experience as a gay man: ‘I’m part of a very lucky generation of young gay men – I was born in 1988 and came of age post the worst of the AIDS crisis’, although this period of history has nonetheless cast a ‘shadow’ over the gay community. ‘Blood’ is a poem that deals with this shadow. Other poems delve into childhood and ‘how we might grow into our physical selves’. Andrew refers to the ‘awkward moments after PE’ at school, reading his poem ‘Things Said in the Changing Room’. His lilting way of reading makes him easy to listen to, and he gestures as he reads. Sharon Olds has been a particular poetic influence, he says, citing her collection Odes as a source of inspiration for some of his own writing. ‘To the Circumcised’ takes Olds’ idea of writing odes to things that normally wouldn’t be addressed in a poem and runs with it, inquiring into the foreskin’s fate after circumcision. This is followed by ‘Praise Poem’, which lingers on the words for different body parts, and ‘Clearance’, a visceral poem on sex. Andrew relates how when he gave his new book to Helen Tookey, hoping for critical feedback, Helen ‘walked back into my office on Monday morning and just said, “Oh, your poor mother!”. . . I’m thinking of using that for the epigraph to the whole book!’

After a short break and a few words from Sam Buchan-Watts, the new Reviews Editor for Poetry London, it is time for the next reader. Born and schooled in Trinidad, Vahni Capildeo now lives in the UK. That ‘straddling of two cultures’ informs her work, Martha believes, and she cites Malika Booker, Chair of the Forward Jury, who notes of Measures of Expatriation that ‘When people in the future seek to know what it’s like to live between places, traditions and cultures – they will read this’. Vahni’s work goes even further than this, Martha asserts, ‘to place the language of identity under scrutiny’, questioning words themselves. Vahni begins her reading with ‘Interventions Around a City’, before reading another new poem, ‘A National Literature’. She emphasises each word, and while her performance of the first poem is quieter, the second showcases her skill in building and dissipating intensity as she reads. At one moment she cries out, and the reading speeds, containing flashes of anger, before easing again into a slower pace. ‘I promise it gets more cheerful after this!’, Vahni says, regretting that she had not brought her own circumcision poem along to complement Andrew’s. ‘The Brown Bag Service’ further highlights Vahni’s talent with voice and performance. Her eyes spark mischievously as she reads, parodying the language of customer service to the delight of the audience, who hang on her words. Vahni also reads ‘Utter’, the title poem of her 2013 collection published by Peepal Tree Press: ‘Night drinks salt water from a bucket, draws / a sleeve from the sea, spills hand across mouth. / Night hands back the bucket to sailor. / Night, blue-shirted, wades arrhythmically’.

Emily Berry has also published work ‘to great acclaim’, Martha says. Her second collection, Stranger, Baby, is ‘self-aware but bleak, self-mocking, comic, and at the same time intensely moving’. Emily begins with a piece she wrote a year ago, which was published as a limited edition pamphlet by If a Leaf Falls Press, edited by Sam Riviere (who also published Rachael’s poem relating to hypochondriacal tendencies). Sam ‘must be dealing with a lot of material about anxiety of one kind of another’, says Emily wryly. Her own poem emerged from ‘a series of anxiety dreams’ about her cat going missing, and before she reads ‘Aurora’s Escape’, she notes that ‘one thing you need to know is that Aurora is a cat’. The poem is pierced with moments of humour, so that a cat with a basket across its body is ‘literally hampered’, while at another point the speaker regrets not saying goodbye to the ends of her partner’s hair before he has it cut. Emily’s delivery is serious and crisp, so that the funnier parts of the poem seem almost shocking in comparison. She then reads ‘Sign of the Anchor’ from Stranger, Baby, with its captivating images (and sounds) of the sea: ‘I stood at the dangerous shore / Sleeves rolled to my shoulders. / My fringe lifted in the wind in a long salute and I pushed it back. / Live your wish, Live your wish, said the sea’. Her poem ‘Aqua’ also addresses water, and as the speaker ‘praised / it slightly a feeling / of daughterliness / came over me’. After reading her ‘state-of-the-nation’ poem ‘Remains of the Day’, written after the referendum result a year ago, the evening ends with a flood of people leaving the room, talking energetically about the poetry they had heard, and clutching copies of Poetry London.

By Suzannah V. Evans


Poetry London Summer Readings
Kings Place, Wednesday 7 June 2017

 

London Literature Festival, Southbank Centre

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An evening at the Southbank Centre is always going to be enlightening and entertaining – this is never more true than during the London Literature Festival, which runs 5 – 16 October. This year, it featured events with Margaret Atwood, Louis Theroux, Richard Dawkins, Iraqi science fiction and a reading of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine with Christopher Eccleston, all focusing on the theme of ‘Living In Future Times’.


H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine reading with Christopher Eccleston, Nikki Amuka-Bird and Emma Hamilton, 5 October

To mark the opening of The London Literature Festival there was a reading of H. G. Wells’ early science fiction classic, The Time Machine. Acclaimed actors Christopher Eccleston, Emma Hamilton and Nikki Amuka-Bird, were accompanied by internationally renowned organist James McVinnie, playing the famous Royal Festival Hall organ, to give a eerie and marvellously performed reading.

Time travel has long been one of the great tropes of science fiction, but it was this 1895 novella that lodged the concept firmly in the public imagination, popularising the idea that one might travel through time much as we travel through space.

H. G. Wells’ novel is a dystopian adventure and a political commentary of late Victorian England, offering a vision and indeed a warning of a troubled future. Nevertheless, the reading was thoroughly enjoyable, and brimming with an insight into how, in our own unsettled times, the power of storytelling can connect us all.

Nikki Amuka-Bird, Emma Hamilton, Christopher Eccleston will perform a live reading of The Time Machine, Wed 5 Oct in Royal Festival Hall to open Southbank Centre's 10th London Literature Festival. Credit Helen Maybanks
Photo by Helen Maybanks

Margaret Atwood in conversation with Short Story Competition 2016 judge, Erica Wagner, on her retelling of The Tempest, named Hag-Seed, 6 October

Also in attendance at the festival was the Booker prize-winning Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood, who was in discussion with author, critic and our very own Short Story Competition 2016 judge Erica Wagner. The discussion was centred around Atwood’s new novel Hag-Seed; a characteristically skewed re-imagining of The Tempest which is filled with surprises and wonders all of its own. She deftly shows how the tales of Shakespeare are universal even now and adds her own magic and twist of fun to this retelling. Atwood is an author that presents her work with warmth and humour; and that evening was no exception; her and Erica at one point were wholeheartedly rapping out a section of the book!

During the talk, Atwood also spoke of her participation in the project, Future Library. a project set up by Scottish perceptual artist Katie Paterson. Over the next 100 years, 99 more authors – one a year – will contribute a text to the library. In 2114, the 1,000 trees planted last summer in the Nordmarka will be cut down and all the texts made public. The preservation of the written word symbolises how must all, even in times of fear and darkness, preserve our souls. “I am sending a manuscript into time,” notes the author, in a short piece written for the event. “Will any human beings be waiting there to receive it? Will there be a ‘Norway’? Will there be a ‘forest’? Will there be a ‘library’? How strange it is to think of my own voice – silent by then for a long time – suddenly being awakened, after 100 years. What is the first thing that voice will say as a not-yet-embodied hand draws it out of its container and opens it to the first page? I picture this encounter – between my text and the so-far nonexistent reader – as being a little like the red-painted hand print I once saw on the wall of a Mexican cave that had been sealed for over three centuries. Who now can decipher its exact meaning? But its general meaning was universal: any human being could read it. It said: ‘Greetings. I was here.’”

While listening to Atwood speak, one was reminded how there is a strange comfort in consuming her dystopian stories. They are reminders, despite reflecting a dire present, that it’s never too late for us. This inherent hope at least allows people to imagine a better future- maybe they are a kind of litany for survival, that humanity will continue despite our best efforts to destroy ourselves.

Photo: Pete Woodhead
Photo by Pete Woodhead

Screening of Louis Theroux’s ‘My Scientology Movie’ and Q&A with Louis Theroux, Adam Buxton and John Dower, 10 October

Following this year’s London Literature Festival theme ‘Living In Future Times’, a screening of Louis Theroux’s ‘My Scientology Movie’, exploring the religion based on a science-fiction writer’s work, kicked off the second week of the festival. A relatively young audience filtered into the stalls, balcony and boxes of the Royal Festival Hall. A screen hangs; a poster of ‘My Scientology Movie’ by Louis Theroux is projected onto it, complimented by an instantly-recognisable illustration of Theroux.

The lights dim and Adam Buxton walks on-stage to introduce the evening. The film starts, opening with a tweet by Louis Theroux:

‘Open call to any #Scientologists out there. I would love to speak to you for a documentary I am working on. About Scientology.’

The film continues with this borderline sarcastic tone, a tone very true to Theroux’s entertaining and lighthearted documentaries in the early days of ‘Weird Weekends’. Later, in the Q&A, director John Dower explains this was one of their main aims: to give the documentary that ‘early Louis’ feel.

One of the main reasons Dower and Theroux decided to make the documentary rather humorous was because another film on scientology, Alex Gibney’s ‘Going Clear’, came out whilst they were filming. Gibney’s documentary was highly informative and serious, so they decided ‘My Scientology Movie’ had to contrast this.

This is something they certainly achieved. The documentary is structured around actors who play Tom Cruise, David Miscavige and other members of scientology. Marty Rathbun (former Senior Executive of the Church of Scientology) directs a mix of scientology-based workshops, improvisations and the re-enactment of real-life footage, allowing him to visually express what he experienced during his time at the church, both to Theroux and the viewers.

As a whole, the evening was informative, daring, but was also scattered with entertaining moments which bring a classic ‘Louis’ humanity to a very serious subject.

Photo: Pete Woodhead
Photo by Pete Woodhead

#LLF’s 10th Birthday Event, 10 October

Up in the Weston Roof Pavilion, poets and literature lovers alike met to celebrate Southbank Centre London Literature Festival’s 10th anniversary. The event was attended by John Agard amongst others. and was centred around speeches by Senior Programmer, Literature and Spoken Word Ted Hodgkinson and Artistic Director Jude Kelly. They spoke about the futuristic, science fiction theme of this year’s festival, reviewed some of the events which had taken place so far and thanked the staff for their hard work. Behind the backdrop of the London Eye, the OXO tower and the other glistening lights of the southbank’s skyline, Southbank Centre staff and LLF guests cheered, celebrating the fine production of one of London’s most important events.

To read more on this year’s London Literature Festival, read our interview with Senior Programmer, Literature and Spoken Word Ted Hodgkinson.

Photo: Abi Lofthouse
Photos by Abi Lofthouse

 

By Lucy Binnersley and Abi Lofthouse


Artwork by Harriet Cheney, Southbank Centre

‘Living in Future Times’
Southbank Centre
5 – 16 October 2016

An interview with Southbank Centre Literature Festival’s Ted Hodgkinson

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Artwork by Harriet Cheney, Southbank Centre

This October, Southbank Centre will host its 10th Literature Festival, ‘Living in Future Times’. Beginning with a reading of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, the Festival will trace paths of thought from the worlds of sci-fi, scientific research, philosophy, music, poetry and contemporary fiction in a series of workshops, talks, and shows exploring questions about time and the future of humanity. “I guess it’s natural that when you’re reaching a milestone like 10 years, you’re both looking back and looking forwards” says Ted Hodgkinson, Senior Programmer for Literature and Spoken Word at Southbank Centre. As Hodgkinson and the Festival’s diverse programme suggest, “looking to the future is always a way of reflecting as well”.

Timely within the Literature Festival’s own history, ‘Living in Future Times’ is a theme with a clearly urgent relevance to pretty much every field of life at the moment (post-Brexit we are all unsure, if not unhopeful, about the future). But the ways in which the literary might be brought to bear on these pressing issues is what Hodgkinson brings it all back to: “it’s a great time for literature”, he says, adding that, in a world fraught by social conflict and insecure about its future, there are works of fiction offering an inkling of what might be to come. Its timely entrance comes as 2016, the year of literary commemoration (Shakespeare everywhere and anywhere), enters its final stages, and starts to look forwards as well as backwards. It comes, too, as we commemorate futuristic visions from the past: 150 years of H. G. Wells (who will feature in at least two of the Festival’s events), and 500 years since the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia, in The British Library’s current display Visions of Utopia.

‘Living in Future Times’ will encompass the future of literature’s own temporality, too — time as experienced by a reader. ‘The Future of the Short Story’ will consider form and length at a time when there is both a growing desire for brevity in what we read, and a counter-pull back to long form writing. The Festival is concerned with the future of literature as well as the futures created by literature.

For Hodgkinson, the Festival is not so much a celebration of science fiction as of all great literature’s ability to project a reader into a possible future. “It seemed to me that in the literary world at the moment, the writers who I keep coming back to — as a reader and as a programmer — are those who are looking really intently at the present, and in so doing giving us a glimpse of the world yet to come.”

The writers he cites are giants of contemporary fiction: Don DeLillo, Naomi Klein, Kazuo Ishiguro, David Mitchell. “These people are giving us a sense of the present with such intensity that it has the feeling of insight into what might be happening next”.

I am reminded of Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, in which he posits that any movement forward — in time, or on the various byways that book traces throughout the British Isles and beyond — must also be, by necessity, an acknowledgement and retracing of what has come before. Past tracks make the walker’s present passage a possibility.

Hodgkinson courteously thanks me for weaving Macfarlane into the conversation. “That is a beautiful book that deals with physical byways which are themselves narrative stories that get passed down.” (Hodgkinson’s own way of expressing these thoughts has something of this double-movement to it, progressing through reflection.)

“There is a sense in which any kind of story is a form of time travel”. Or perhaps a literal journey, as Macfarlane suggests. Beyond futuristic writings, Hodgkinson suggests the Festival will reflect most meaningfully on literature itself, and its inbuilt potential to uncover glimpses of the past and future through a heightened attentiveness to the present. It is a medium alive to the inevitable interconnectedness of those three categories which we like to think of as discrete.

The programme of events reflects this broader focus: stories and talks from far and wide — refugees, academics, scientists, playwrights, mathematicians, journalists, economists, mythologists, and cultural theorists — which touch on the present and future condition of humanity. Will those stories give us reason to feel sanguine? “It’s not about presenting a rosy view of the future. Simply saying what happens next doesn’t relieve the burden. The act itself is hopeful — even if the work is dystopian”.

Look at H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine. Wells was responding to something latent in his own times, says Hodgkinson: growing inequality in Victorian England. But the hopeful ability of the writer is an imaginative leap beyond this state of affairs, a projection into the distant future which enables not fanciful invention, but an exploration of what the present might develop into.

There is something superhuman about this ability, not unlike the possibilities science fiction excites us with (time travel, bodily transformation, cloning). Atwood, too, had that hyperawareness to “subtle shifts in language and tone in the present” that allows The Handmaid’s Tale to feel, in Hodgkinson’s opinion, incredibly prescient. “Particularly regarding the [American] election which we have on the horizon. She was ahead of the curve.” To write about the future you have to be an excellent reader of the present, attuned to its tremors that might become seismic in the future. That imaginative leap can occur in both directions, past and future; on 6th October, Atwood will speak at the Southbank Centre on her new novel Hag-Seed, which re-imagines The Tempest.

Returning to Wells, Hodgkinson draws a line from The Time Machine to “the divided world in which we’re living now — it’s a future warped by inequality, a species so divided it takes on different physical characteristics”. Like these writers, the Festival will ask questions of the future through talks exploring the here and now. ‘The Good Immigrant’ will ask ‘What it means to be a person of colour in Britain right now?’

Known for his imaginative projections of the future, Wells was also interested in folklore and its attachment to place. Reading ‘Mr Skelmesdale in Fairyland’, originally published in The London Magazine in 1903, it is striking how the transformative power of the landscape — and its legendary past — brings Wells closer to Macfarlane’s view of time and place than that of science fiction. It is a story that takes the mythical tales of a real place seriously (Wells wrote it after visiting Aldington Knoll, and suggested in ‘Mr Skelmesdale’ that the place harbours an entrance to fairyland). The mind is both spiritual and physical for Macfarlane – at once capable of transcendental imaginative leaps, but dictated by its physical surroundings. Those leaps are provoked by, indeed within, the landscape itself. In ‘Mr Skelmesdale in Fairyland’ it matters where the vision happens, and the place itself anchors the narrative.

We are talking about Macfarlane again, and his interest in the dawn of the so-called Anthropocene. Does the term mean anything to Hodgkinson or the Festival? “It does. It’s so interesting that we are now living in an era that has been totally defined by humanity as opposed to nature. We’re kind of creating our own circumstances. Epochs don’t come along very often, as it were. I think it’s an exciting prospect to think that we are now entering a phase in which we are the central defining force in our environmental ecosphere.”

Exciting for literature more than humanity, perhaps? I think on balance I’d say that we are probably living in a great time for literature — and I don’t know whether that means we’re in a great time more generally! Probably not. We need stories in times like these.”

Hodgkinson’s personal enthusiasm has been clear throughout — by the sounds of it, the Festival is his brainchild — but when I ask how he feels about the future, there is a thoughtful silence: “Yeah… interesting.”

“Probably one of the reasons I was keen to look at this theme is because it’s a question that preoccupies me a great deal. We seem to be living through a period of quite dramatic change and I think whatever field you look at — whether it’s politics or the arts — is seems that we are reaching points where people are saying ‘the old system isn’t working’.”

“You don’t necessarily come to literature for answers. But you come to share in asking questions, and to be in a space in which you’re given permission to ask those questions. I think it is about the action of collectively asking together.”

He has a wonderful faith, if not that all will be well in the future, at least in literature’s ability to show us what might be coming up.

“The thing that makes me hopeful is that even in these very dark imaginings there’s something quite beautiful about the writer’s ability to project us further forward than we think we can go.”

Perhaps, too, it’s about being rooted in a deeper time than the immediate past and future. There’s something assuring about Macfarlane’s acquaintance with geological time, his unimpeachable sense of being accompanied as a path-finder — by people, both dead and alive, old stories, rumours, and marks of endless geological change. I am left pondering whether literature has that special capacity, like paths, to take a reader down a way connecting past, present, and future times. If the future is a foreign land, strange and unexpected, we may take hope from literature’s ability to retrace a path back to our starting point.

By Alice Troy-Donovan


Artwork by Harriet Cheney, Southbank Centre

‘Living in Future Times’
Southbank Centre
5 – 16 October 2016

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