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AccessAbility Arts interview (Emilie Lauren Jones)

Welcome to another AccessAbility Arts interview! I'm delighted to be able to shine a light on the fantastic work being done by inspiring women, multicultural groups, LGBTQIA+ community members and disabilities in the sphere of art and accessibility. This time, I spoke to my wonderful friend and superb poet, Emilie Lauren Jones. Emilie has performed across the UK and internationally. In 2021, the year Coventry became UK City of Culture, she became the city's first Poet Laureate.


Emilie has performed alongside poets such as Simon Armitage, Roy McFarlane and Hollie McNish. Her poetry has been featured on local and national radio, including BBC Radio 3, 4, 5Live and 6 Music. Her poetry has also featured on national television including Sky Arts (as part of the Unlocked series of short films) and BBC4.


Her poems have appeared in magazines including 'Under the Radar' and ‘HCE Magazine’, and anthologies including 'The View From Olympia' (Half Moon Books), and 'Places of Poetry‘ (One World Publications). Plus award winning anthology 'Bloody Amazing' (Beautiful Dragons Collaborations’), and Saboteur award nominated anthology 'Elements' (Fawn Press).


She facilitates writing workshops for adults and young people, and also enjoys visiting schools, care homes, community groups (and anywhere else!) to share her love of words. She has delivered sessions in person and online for a variety of organisations including NAWG, Arvon, Writing West Midlands, Positive Images Festival, Wilderness Festival, BBC CSL and more!


One of the commissioned poets for UK City of Culture 2021, she took parts in events across the city including the Show Windows Project, Community Connectors and the BBC's Contains Strong Language Festival.


During lockdown, Emilie worked with international concert pianist Mikael Petersson to create 'Healing and Hope', a collaborative classical music and poetry show, which is now available for venues to book.


In January 2022, Emilie worked alongside Ivor Novello winning composer, Nitin Sawhney, on his creation Ghosts in the Ruins, celebrating the 60th anniversary of Coventry Cathedral.


In 2020 and 2021, she represented her city in the Coventry-Cork Poetry exchange. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Birmingham, was part of the 2020/21 Nine Arches Press 'Dynamo' scheme and is part of the 2022/23 Room 204 programme with Writing West Midlands. She was Artist in Resident for Methodist Central Hall, Coventry From September 2022 - May 2023.


A strong believer that art and creativity are for everyone, she is passionate about making poetry accessible to a wide audience, this is reflected in the projects and commissions she takes part in. As someone who is neurodiverse herself, she believes that seeing the world in a slightly different way is something to be celebrated!


If you're on social media, give them a follow. All social media: @emilielaurenxx. Website: http://www.emilielaurenjones.co.uk/


Here is the interview


DK: Congratulations on being named Coventry's first Poet Laureate! How does it feel to hold this position during such an important year for the city?


Emilie: Thank you! It was a real privilege to be given the title and the platform to champion poetry in Coventry for these two years. I’ve had some brilliant opportunities and made good contacts so I’m confident that I will be able to continue having a positive impact once I pass the title on as poetry will continue to be my full-time job. It will also be good for the Coventry poetry scene to have a new local Laureate every two years as it keeps the role fresh.


DK: You've performed alongside some impressive poets, including Simon Armitage and Hollie McNish. Can you tell us about a particularly memorable experience or collaboration?


Emilie: I loved collaborating with Liz Berry for the BBC Contains Strong Language Festival, we wrote poems inspired by London Road Cemetery, one of the best-preserved Victorian cemeteries in the country. I loved exploring the history and stories from the cemetery and I learned a lot from Liz who was really open about her approach to poetry, we had some great conversations. We finished the project by leading a poetry walk and reading the poems out to the audience in the specific locations that had inspired them. The first time I performed at an open mic night was also a great experience. It was at Fire & Dust and Raef was really supportive, the headliner was Roy McFarlane who took the time to speak to me afterwards and encouraged me to keep going, it gave me a massive confidence boost.


DK: You offer poetry critiques through Christopher Fielden's website. What do you enjoy about this aspect of your work, and what do you hope to achieve by providing feedback to other writers?

Emilie: I love it when someone feeds back on my work, it makes such a difference as it’s always easier for an outsider to point things out and ask questions. It makes me see my own work in a different way and makes it easier to take a poem to the next level. I hope that I offer that to other poets through my critiques. I often find that one of the most important feed back points is for me to tell the poet what I think their poem is about, they can then take decisions based on whether they feel it is coming across they way they want it to.


DK: You've delivered writing workshops for a variety of organisations and groups, both in person and online. How do you tailor your approach to suit different audiences, and what are some of the challenges you've faced in this work?


Emilie: Communication is key, I always take time to check with the organiser what their aims are and who we might be appealing to with the session. I also make it easy for people interested in attending to contact me or the organiser with regards to any access needs so I can ensure that everyone is able to benefit from the session. Challenge-wise, the first time I was asked to run a ‘drop-in’ session I was a little nervous – I was very used to running sessions with a set format and having the chance to discuss poems as a group before setting them off on allocated writing time. Drop-ins are very different to these more formal sessions as people can join at any point and they are often of different ages/abilities etc., also they have usually come to an event rather than specifically for a workshop. Once I’d run that first one I discovered how drop-ins are a great way of pulling in a new audience and the importance of keeping sessions flexible, relaxed and fun. Since that first session, I’ve run many successful drop-in sessions. It’s the old story of the more you do something, the more confident you feel. One of the wonderful parts of this job is the variety of the work, meeting so many different people and finding out a bit about their lives through poetry and workshop sessions allow me to do that.


DK: We all know how important it is to look after our mental health, so tell us, do you have any strategies you use to maintain positive mental health in your daily life?


Emilie: This is such a good question! I’ve always been very honest in my performances that I have struggled with my mental health over the years. I was diagnosed with GAD (Generalised Anxiety Disorder) and Panic Disorder at quite a young age so looking after my mental health is something I have to try and prioritise, to be honest, I think it’s something we should all try and prioritise more! While I will always have to live with anxiety and panic attacks, I can go months or even years between severe bouts of it. I think those of us who live with mental health conditions are incredibly strong people mentally. As for strategies, my main advice (that I try to follow myself!) is to surround myself with positive people and things. A nurse once told me that we have to be careful what we fill our heads and our lives with, for example, if you only read and write dark poetry then that’s the messages you’re filling your brain with. The same nurse actually ‘prescribed’ playing Candy Crush to me as a way to wind down and she was completely right, I often spend half an hour a day on it and find that a good way to relax. I tried meditation but that didn’t work at all for me so it’s about finding what works for you. There are also plus sides to having struggled with my mental health – when I am well, I appreciate life to the full, I find even the small things are joyful, exciting, wonderful and I take pleasure in simple things like walking, spending time with family and friends and seeking out new experiences and places to visit. Also, because I have overcome some challenging times, it makes other things seem less impossible and that transfers into my work-life too – I have never turned down a project/event because I’m worried I can’t achieve it, I always say ‘yes’ then do my best to figure out how to make it happen!


DK : Your collaborative show with Mikael Petersson, ‘Musical Metaphors’, sounds like a beautiful project. Can you tell us more about how the idea for this show came about, and what you hope audiences take away from it?


Emilie: Absolutely! Mikael and I met at my Dad’s church (Abbey Hill URC in Kenilworth) when we were both booked to perform at an evening of entertainment. A few people said we should work together and we didn’t think too much of it until the pandemic hit. I can’t remember how it came up or who emailed who but an email conversation happened and we began discussing how we could merge classical music and poetry. The whole first draft of the show was created over email messages, WhatsApp voice notes and Zoom! The next time we met was for two rehearsals before we performed it at Abbey Hill to an audience of 50 people. After the first two shows we did a bit of a rewrite based on feedback – our theme and show title was originally ‘Healing and Hope’ and much of the poetry focused strongly on wellbeing and faith. While these are still key themes of the show we added in a lot more talking between the pieces and gave it more entertainment value by including amusing stories. We are taking it back on tour from November 2023 and hope people will enjoy it as much as they did during our last run of shows. More information about upcoming dates or how to book the show can be found here.


DK: You've represented Coventry in the Coventry-Cork poetry exchange, and you were part of the Nine Arches Press 'Dynamo' scheme. What do you find valuable about these kinds of opportunities and programs?


Emilie: I’ll split this answer into two if that’s okay, as they are two different opportunities and both are very valuable to writers. Firstly, I am very fortunate to have been part of two mentoring scheme: Dynamo with Nine Arches Press and Room 204 with Writing West Midlands. Both of these schemes are open to writers/poets from across the West Midlands. If you’re in the West Mids then definitely consider applying or just checking out these two amazing organisations, we’re lucky to have them. If you’re not in this area then I would highly recommend searching for other mentoring schemes to apply for as they are invaluable. Both Dynamo (specifically for poets) and Room 204 (open to writers of any genre) offer you so much more than just a year of support. To give a basic run-down of what schemes like these consist of… in the initial year, there are one-to-one sessions offered with professionals who support writers, there are chances to meet with other writers and attend group mentoring sessions, you are given the opportunity to discuss your hopes and plans and offered practical advice for how to achieve this. I also received help with applying for funding and free/reduced cost access to high-quality workshops/events aimed at professional writers. You also get added to closed mailing lists which help you stay up to date with call-outs and further opportunities. Once you have been through the year of mentoring you continue to be kept in touch with opportunities and the dialogue remains open between the poet and the organisation – I have a great relationship with both organisations and continue to ask for advice and attend their events. Equally, both organisations have recommended me to organisations and I have received work as a result of this. Exchanges are very different to mentoring scheme but also make for a wonderful experience. I have been fortunate to represent my city as part of the Coventry – Cork Poetry Exchange and the Coventry – Dresden Writers Exchange. Sadly, my trip to Cork ended up being via Zoom as I was the poet for 2020 but I still hope to visit Cork in real life one day! For the Dresden trip, I was able to physically work out there for a week. In both cases, I got to meet local people and creatives and gained a unique insight into the life and spirit of the cities. It’s very different to taking a holiday because you get the opportunity to participate in the local events, to spend quality time with residents and to be told about the stories from those who occupy the city. It’s a very special experience. It’s also really valuable to perform and run workshops in a different country, it highlights how it doesn’t matter where you live, we are all creatives but equally, it’s very valuable to meet people whose lives and cultures are slightly different to your own.


DK: Poetry and art can be a great tool for society and looking back at history. What do you think is the power of poetry - or any art - and what role do you believe artists have in modern society?


Emilie: Ooh that’s a big question! Poetry and art hold immense power and significance in society, you only have to look back through history and whenever something important happens, the artists are there! Poets, storytellers and other artists have always captured the ‘everyday’ too, which is something I believe is important to capture. There are so many positives to poetry/art, without going into huge detail, I’d say the main benefits range from the ability for the poet to express emotions, to preserve cultures, comment on society, to inspire, educate, connect, entertain… as a reader, poetry can create empathy, understanding and joy.


DK: You've talked about the importance of making poetry accessible to a wide audience. How do you go about achieving this goal, and what are some of the barriers you've encountered in your work?


Emilie: I have a firm belief that poetry and the creative arts are for everyone. Whenever I run sessions, I give people the opportunity to tell me how I can best help them access the sessions. I’ve worked with lots of different groups and individuals and it’s amazing what people can achieve during a session. While I can’t list all the different scenarios I’ve covered as there have been so many, I am yet to find anyone who is totally unable to access poetry in some way, whether it’s through sound, images, touch or speech. If I’m aware of what people need then I can think of ways of making it possible.


DK: As someone who is neurodiverse, how do you think your perspective and experience inform your poetry and creative work?


Emilie: Seeing the world in a slightly different way is a definite advantage when writing poetry and many people who are neurodiverse are very creative – there are many of us working in the arts. I also find that it can help to instil confidence in others who also have dyslexia/dyspraxia as they see me doing poetry and think ‘if she can do it, I can do it.’ I’ve met lots of people who think they ‘can’t write’ or don’t enjoy it because they struggle with spelling, once we realise that the actual creative ideas are the important part and that spelling can be fixed later, it gives people the freedom they need to create and to enjoy it.


DK: And lastly. We all need to relax, chill, and switch off sometimes. So how do you relax?


Emilie: Spending time with family and friends and also animals (either my furry family members or those in the wild!), watching quiz shows (definite guilty pleasure! My current favourites being Richard Osmans House of Games and Only Connect), going for walks around the local park, playing board games, swimming, reading and going on day trips when possible (anywhere from nature reserves and wildlife parks to galleries and National Trust properties!). Do whatever brings you a bit of joy!


If you have liked this interview and would like to see more interviews, please feel free to contact and share your thoughts. Also, if you know anyone who fits the category, and you think they'd be interested, let me know 🏳️‍🌈

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