The spirit of community and togetherness is something that really stands out when looking at the schedule of events for Half Moon Festival and the stunning range of innovative collaborations between different artists taking place across the weekend. One example of such collaboration is Cell, which premieres on the festival website on Saturday at 5pm. Cell is a project which fully embraces the possibilities which lie within the digital, connecting artists remotely and across mediums as they respond to poet and activist Kathy D’Arcy’s poem (from which the project takes its name). Illustrator Emer Kiely and electronic act Gadget and the Cloud respond to the poem through their own work, and along with audiovisual artwork and video design from Cormac Dowdall and Alec Delany, the project brings a collection of voices together in, as stated on the website, ‘an exploration of gendered experience through art’.
Ahead of the festival weekend, I spoke to Hayley Douglas, the producer behind Cell, about their experience with putting the project together, digital collaboration and adapting in order to move a festival online. I also talked to Kathy D’Arcy about bringing her poem away from the page and seeing the artists’ responses to her work. We also spoke about accessibility and fighting for equality in Irish poetry.
Hayley Douglas (Producer, Tús Nua Productions)
University Express: What inspired you to put a project like Cell together?
Hayley Douglas: When we were initially putting the festival programme together, when the festival was going to take place in real life at the end of April, I was really interested in the activist work that a lot of artists are doing. That was how I initially got in contact with Kathy D’Arcy because she had launched and been involved with a movement called ‘Wake Up Irish Poetry’, which was all about the gender inequality in Irish publishing and in poetry especially.
The other elements were really just working with the artists we had and seeing what was possible. I’d been working with Gadget and the Cloud, who was initially meant to play our big closing party for the festival, which was going to be a cool DJ set which was going to be an initiative with Angry Mom Collective in a way of giving women a break in spaces they don’t normally get booked in. In moving the festival online, I was trying to find a way of keeping those artists on board. I basically had the idea to try and commission some artistic responses to Kathy’s work and then that’s when we got Emer Kiely on board to do some visuals. Then it just grew from there, and now it’s grown to having five different artists involved. It’s been a really fun project to work on because it really feels like it’s embracing the digital, remote collaboration that’s happening in a lot of artistic spaces at the moment.
UE: How did you feel seeing the project come together?
HD: It’s actually been such a long process to bring all of the elements together. I think a lot of people are all over the place in terms of how they’re handling things right now so I was really conscious of that and didn’t want to push it along too quickly. Really in the last few weeks it’s all just kind of come together. So we started with the poem that Kathy had already written. I think the first work that I saw after that were Emer’s illustrations, which are fabulous and such a completely different take on the poem. Then I got Kelly’s sound design and audio piece, which is again fabulous. With all of the different elements I wasn’t really sure how they would be, but then when I did get to see and hear them I was completely enamoured with them. We’re still finalising the video and visual element but it’s been really exciting to see it all come together.
UE: We’re seeing so much innovation in terms of digital collaboration recently, with everything that’s been happening in the world.
HD: Absolutely. When we were initially putting the festival together, ‘collaboration’ was a word that we seemed to keep coming back to. I think that with Cell, the kind of collaboration that has taken place wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t happening digitally and remotely. So it’s interesting how the mission of the festival and our goals as producers to promote collaborative work has been pushed forward into another layer just from it being an online festival where those remote collaborations have to happen.
UE: What have you taken away from the whole experience?
HD: I think it’s an interesting way to start out producing to be honest, just because it’s so different from what the norm has always been. The festival was really 90-95% ready to go when we had to pull it all back down and really reimagine what we wanted to do. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think that’s a really really positive thing to get to do and to get to do so early on when the stakes aren’t as high for us. We’re not CEOs of organisations, we’re not putting together a year-long programme of work. We have the opportunity to just make something happen for this festival. It’s really nice to learn to let go of ideas that you really love and rethink them. The whole ‘Kill your darlings’ thing!
UE: That’s a brilliant analogy! What advice would you give to someone who sees Cell and thinks, ‘I really want to go into producing these kinds of projects’?
HD: It’s actually pretty simple I think, just bite the bullet! I think we have this idea that you have to be amazing to be able to do this, or you have to be really well connected. To be honest, I think you can grow so much at anything you turn your hand to and you can become well connected, get those contacts and networks. It’s about having that self-belief to say ‘You know what, if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out,’ and not being so caught up in being super successful at something.
I found reaching out to artists to be one of the most rewarding things because you get to discuss those ideas, even if they never come into fruition in the way you thought they would. You get to have those really fun conversations and be involved in that process, which is something that never happens if you don’t give it a shot. If your idea isn’t amazing, that’s okay. Not every idea is going to be the most exciting event to have happened in Irish arts and culture that year, but it will resonate with audiences in some way. Often I think they’re the more fun projects because there’s less at stake in them.
UE: Is there anything you’d like people to know about Cell before watching it?
HD: It is quite a challenging piece. I would say to audiences not to be afraid of that. For art of this kind in general, not just Cell, you’re absolutely entitled to have an opinion on it even if you don’t feel qualified to talk about it. Those opinions are still valid. Approach it openly. Most of all, listen to it with headphones!
Kathy D’Arcy (Poet and Activist)
University Express: How did you get involved in Cell?
Kathy D’Arcy: So Hayley contacted me ages ago, back when things were normal. Initially we talked about doing a panel and maybe some performances around feminist activism in Irish poetry like the Wake Up Irish Poetry movement, as well as the piece that I wrote for my Creative Writing PhD, this very long poem exploring the silencing and erasure of women’s voices from the canon of Irish literature.
Then lockdown happened. But Hayley and the team at Tús Nua are so creative and so interested in supporting artists and allowing art to be disseminated in Cork during this crisis that they came up with an idea for presenting the work online. Hayley put me in touch with Emer Kiely and Kelly Doherty [Gadget and the Cloud] and we all worked together to create a kind of multimedia online presentation of a piece from my long poem.
UE: Normally when people think about how a poem is communicated and received, those ideas can be confined to poetry reading events and the written text. What does it mean to you to see your poem responded to through music and visual art?
KD’A: It was interesting because this has always been my plan for this piece. I suppose I had been moving away from the page for some time and from simply reading to a more performative way of being a poet because I have huge problems with the way the Irish poetry world is controlled and the kind of power dynamic abuses that happen within it. But also I think the work I write works better off the page. It’s very very long, very performative. I wanted to do more performative, more multimedia things with my poetry, especially things that involve motion, journey, evolution, transformation.
I was already starting work on turning my poem into something more physical and more multisensory when Hayley contacted me. So this has been the best opportunity ever to work in collaboration with artists because I’m really only starting that journey myself around things like sound production and everything else. The artists are fabulous. It’s been really amazing to see how the poem can come off the page and I have so many ideas as a result of this project as to how to bring the rest of the work forward.
UE: That’s amazing! On that note, what have you learned or taken away from this experience, working with these artists?
KD’A: As a poet, you don’t often get to see much reaction to your work full stop, especially when you’re an experimental feminist poet. But to get artistic responses to your work is absolutely amazing.
I guess one of things I learned which is very profound for me is that what I’m trying to say is coming across. I can get that back from the work that Kelly and Emer have done that the things I’m trying to say, the story I’m trying to tell, is working. The artists’ responses are helping that story to be told in a richer way. If a poem is translated into something else, like another language, a performance, a piece of art or a piece of music or sound, it brings more meaning to the writer and to the reader and to everybody. So I think the layers of meaning and understanding and truth that are coming out of it are really mind-blowing to me.
And have you ever collaborated with someone without meeting them? I found it really fantastic. I’ve done a lot of collaborative work in the past. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s difficult, and it’s always very intense and very intimate. I wouldn’t have said that collaborating online like this wouldn’t have been as intimate or as productive, but if anything it was moreso. We managed to work in a much cleaner, more straightforward way. This is a method of collaboration I’ll definitely hope to be using in the future.
UE: With this digital era and in terms of how it can help collaboration, do you think it can make projects like this more accessible? Not just to people who read poetry but to those who want to make poetry themselves?
KD’A: I absolutely do. I think it’s something that we’ve all been learning, not just about the arts but about how we react with each other. I’m in a lot of activism and I go to a lot of meetings. Most of those meetings happen in Dublin. Obviously since lockdown all of those meetings are now online and have become much better managed and we’re realising that specifically people with disabilities, women with small children, people who can’t afford transport, all of these people suddenly have equal access to these meetings and to these activist organisations.
I think the same thing can be said for art. Again, the same barriers exist. Some people can’t get out of the house, they’re minding children or they have different abilities or they have economic issues and barriers that prevent them from getting to where the art is or where they can make the art.
I think that we’ve all learned and come a long way and seen how easy it is for us to work together online to create and disseminate art. I think we need to keep moving forward with that. We cannot go back to prioritising face-to-face meetings and events over the kind of online participation that almost anyone can access.
UE: It has been fantastic seeing how a festival can be put together online.
KD’A: I have to say, I think the Tús Nua team are showing other more established festivals and arts institutions the way forward. This is incredibly radical and incredibly progressive and I hope that other festivals take note and notice how much work and creativity has gone into bringing this festival together online.
UE: What would you like for people to take away from experiencing Cell?
KD’A: I hope that people understand what it is that I am trying to say and the story I’m trying to tell. I guess if it makes people think a little bit about the history that’s presented to them in school and in college, the artwork that’s presented to them, the poetry, the literature and to go ‘Where are all the women?’ then I would be really happy about that.
UE: It would be fantastic to see more of the diverse voices that are out there in Ireland represented within literature.
KD’A: That’s where literature grows. Literature doesn’t grow if it’s the same white dude with a beard writing the same poem over and over again. You need different voices. I don’t just mean women; I mean migrants, people of colour. Our poetry and literature industries in this country are in huge trouble as regards equal representation and nobody cares. That’s something I feel very strongly about and I hope we see more discussions about that into the future.
UE: Beyond Cell, for those who feel their voice isn’t represented within Irish poetry, do you have any advice for getting into poetry?
KD’A: I’ve been part of two movements recently that have sought to have this conversation. One was the Fired! movement. We had this pledge that people were supposed to sign so they would make good faith attempts to have gender representation. We gathered a ton of education onto that website about forgotten women and women in poetry in Ireland. It’s been archived now so if you go to The Pledge Archived you can find the website there.
Something that was very hard for me as a young woman was having nobody. There seemed to be no heritage when really there is an amazing heritage behind all of us as women writers. Try really hard to find out about your heritage, because you’re not alone and you’re not the first one. Another great recommendation is Eavan Boland’s Object Lessons. That was a fantastic book for me as a young writer.
At a festival a few years ago I asked Edna O’Brien if she thought things were easier or harder now for women writers. She put up her tiny fist and said ‘You have to be a warrior!’. That hasn’t changed. I don’t want to be pessimistic about it but I don’t want to be dishonest about it. You have to be a fighter and fight on.
The other thing is to find the women. Read the women. Interact with them online. We’ll keep building up our networks and supporting each other that way. As regards poets of colour and migrant poets, we’re still only at the beginning. It’s really a crappy environment for those writers at the moment. But there are those of us out there who are talking about this and trying to make that conversation happen and trying to make that conversation broader.
Lastly, the Wake Up Irish Poetry website is still live and there you can add your name to a pledge which demands that the Arts Council and the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht address sexual misconduct, bullying and harassment appropriately within the sector.
Cell will premiere on the Half Moon Festival website at 5pm on Saturday the 27th of June as part of a weekend of events.