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Paula Varjack In Conversation With Keith Jarrett

Paula Varjack: What is the most exciting development you have seen in popular culture in the last five years?

Keith Jarrett: I May Destroy You. I mean, that’s the first time I’ve ever heard Twi spoken on TV! And the first – albeit problematic – representation of Black gay culture in the UK, and so many of the nuances within it.

PV: We’ve spoken a lot in our friendship about wanting to have a more visible black british culture represented in media, as opposed to african american culture, how do you now feel about that?

KJ: More than ever, we need to push for more breadth of experience. Up till now, I’ve been concerned that African-American culture was being used as a kind of lingua franca to connect the various Black diasporas we have here… it’s much easier to adopt African-American speech, dress, music etc. cross-culturally, as it often appeals to African and Caribbean and other Black British cultures, and it’s easier to market. I used to see that as a negative thing – there’s so much diversity within Black Britain, that for us to draw so much on African-American culture, what’s going on?

Since the recent increased visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement, I’ve begun to reassess my original thinking. Now I see how it has the potential to reinforce our communities. I’m still concerned about some aspects though. For instance, we have Black History Month in October and schools are still pushing MLK and the Civil Rights movement… and Mandela. We’re not learning enough about Black British History; we’re also not yet seeing enough recognition in the UK for Black talent.

PV: Building on the work you have done across your practice on the theme of faith, and now also through your recent PHD, how do you describe your relationship with religion? and how do you see the role of religion in society today?

KJ: I’ve spent a large chunk of my adulthood trying to come to terms with how much religion is an integral part of my identity, whether I like it or not. Before, I would avoid thinking about where I stand with faith and religion, as it’s the source of a lot hurt, as well as being, for me, a personal language which most of my friends who grew up atheist and/or indifferent don’t fully understand. The PhD – and the spoken word theatre piece I devised, Good Presence – helped me to explore and articulate that better, in conversation with people who I now have deeper respect for.

I see my religious upbringing mostly as the cultural lens through which I’ve learned to take in the world. Even if I no longer believe some of the things I was taught to believe from childhood, I still have that language. I’ve also learned to appreciate all the ways in which it’s made my life richer, from the gospel music that still soundtracks my day to the poetry of the Old Testament which I absorbed as soon as I could read and write.

I’m not sure what role religion should have in society, but like a lot of things in this country, it’s a little under the carpet, along with our colonial skeletons. On the one hand, Christianity underpins literally all the systems and institutions we have, but fewer people than ever actually attend a church in the UK (side-note: I’d love to see an analysis of online church attendance figures now). Meanwhile, there’s an increasingly larger proportion of Black people filling up church halls, due in part to the export of religion through British colonisation. This, coupled with an increase of people who identify as Muslim who also have a recent migration history, has led to a subtle reframing of British and European identity as being more secular, and being invaded by darker-skinned religious folk. Whatever role religion should have in the future, we really need to push against that narrative.

PV: I think of you as equally connected to literature as to performance. Do you feel you need both in your practice? How does one feed the other? Or do they give you very different things? If so what?

KJ: Yes. I’m a writer; I’m also a performer. I need both in my life to fully inhabit myself. Writing gives me the luxury of self- reflection, of introversion, of luxuriating in the exploration of worlds - in fiction - and of wordplay, in poetry. It’s also a mostly solitary practice, and a silent one (I’m not one of those deviants who thrive working in café spaces, although I can read almost anywhere).

Live literature / performance is like the other side of my personality. I have to come outside of myself, think about how I’m communicating in real time. Obviously, I write before I perform, so that comes first; but the performance is a form of writing in itself as I make decisions about how to deliver my creation, and no one performance is the same. Each public iteration of a poem creates a moment that feeds back into how I edit it for the next time, and how I write my next work. Just like teaching, it takes me back outside of my head, which helps, because I have a tendency to be quite anxious and insular when I’m not putting myself out there.

PV: What is your favourite indulgence? (interpret as you will)

KJ: My biggest indulgence is (which I’ve not been able to do this year) is I try and book a trip once a year to Barcelona for a week, or more if I can afford it. I use it like a reset button, and I spend most of the time without my phone, ambling down streets at random, and walking along the beach until my legs get sore. I really enjoy being around people and exploring at a whim without a pre-prepared to-do list, enjoying the solitary moments without being isolated.

PV: Do you have a question for me?

KJ: I was really struck by your 'Coming Out to My Father' piece, and the simplicity of pure acceptance. It's also a very intimate communication from father to daughter. I was wondering, how do you consolidate your personal relationships and your public artistic expression (it's something that I'm constantly battling with in my head)?

PV: As someone who has made primarily autobiographical work to date, this has been something I am constantly questioning. I suppose it started when I was a blogger. Then my principle was, as long as I didn’t use names and identifying details of others I could write what I liked about my own experience. This evolved to I could write as I liked, as long as I would be comfortable with it ending up in the newspaper (which I still apply to some extent, also to my emails). I remember a poet I once saw at Edinburgh fringe who introduced her poem by saying “If you don’t want to be in a poem don’t f*** a poet”. I believed that.

But then I had two experiences that challenged that, involving people I was involved with. The first was following a poetic monologue I had written about a breakup. It first appeared on my blog. The person it was about read the blog, and contacted me to say having our personal story out there, made them uncomfortable. My argument was that the only people who would know it was us, were those that knew us together. The person countered and said the point was *they* knew it was about us. I still didn’t see it as an issue.

Years later I was involved with someone who created a work featuring extracts of our personal experiences. Regardless of it only being clear it was me if you knew, or had been told, I finally got my ex’s point. *I* knew I was in there, and that made me uncomfortable. Since then I have been much more considered as to how I feature experiences of others, at the very least not taking it for granted.

With the coming out to my father piece, part of it feeling ok to make public my father’s letter, is he had featured in my work before and was very familiar with my practices, so I feel confident he would be ok with it. Going back to that poet in Edinburgh, maybe the other big difference in the last ten years has been, my profile as an artist, including the way I make work, has grown in profile. So in my last show, before I even had broached the themes and personal stories I wanted to use with my boyfriend, he had pretty much expected and come to terms with it (I appreciate I’m lucky!)

Keith Jarrett is a poet, fiction writer and educator from London. His poetry addresses issues including identity, race and sexuality and takes its power from a sense of inquiry rather than polemic. He is a former UK Poetry Slam Champion and won the International Slam Championship at FLUPP in Rio in 2014. His debut poetry pamphlet I Speak Home was published by Eyewear in 2015. This was followed by a full-length collection Selah (Burning Eye Books, 2017). Jarrett was named as a Spread the Word LGBT Hero in 2017. https://twitter.com/keithjlondon?lang=en

Cover Photo Credit: Ciarán Frame