George Ttoouli gives up trying to review Hannah Silva's poetry/theatre work...
Live theatre by Hannah Silva
Date: Wed 23 November 2016
Upstairs at the Rosemary Branch Pub
Deep in Hipster land, London
Time taken to watch: it was a 1hr live show, do the math
Time taken to review: Approx 30min, then a 10 month gap, then a 15min round off.
I’ve known Hannah Silva’s work for a while and have met her several times. She once (possibly twice) submitted work to G&P during our fallow periods, and we completely missed the emails/failed to realise, were curled up in a K-ball crying about our relationships with our mothers/pets/gods/gardens that month. But I did buy her debut from Penned in the Margins, Forms of Protest (who also published me, in case you didn’t already know) and thought it was outstanding. In fact, it contains one of my favourite poems ever (see at the end). So, rest assured, I’m writing from a biased position. But why should that stop me?
I also used some of her recorded performances in my teaching, including a very lovely conversational piece which starts with her arguing with herself: no/yes/yes/no/yesno/perhaps (this was hosted at the now-defunct PoetCasting website, set up by Alex Pryce – if you’re reading, Alex, whatever happened to all those recordings?); and a piece based on listening to mosquitoes while camping or caravanning on the moors during rain (this loosely captures the vocal performance).
Hannah relocated to the Midlands, at some point, and she performed once at a poetry cabaret at Warwick Arts Centre programmed mainly by Jane Commane of Nine Arches Press. (As usual, the Arts Centre failed to understand how to host or promote poetry well, so the series died.) Hannah’s performance included some incredible work based on, I think, a medical handbook for amputees.
Finally, some time last year I saw a 15min preview of Hannah’s play, Schlock!, also at Warwick Arts Centre, along with a medley of other performances. It was obvious the kid’s show in a lighthouse with no semblance of plot or character was the right level of clichéd stupid for that bastion of culture, but Hannah’s performance still completely blew me away and I wrote some excessively gushing comments as feedback, telling them the powers that be they had to pick it up. Of course, the lighthouse people got a children's show run for the whole of the next vacation.
For a while I told myself I should write some kind of review of Hannah’s live videos, gleaned from the internet – her poetry very much has to be heard to be understood. I thought about a review of Forms of Protest, but back then the brain cells were all in service to a hateful god. Herein, then, some reparations. I’m partly going to discuss the differences with that earlier preview. [NB: following a massive hiatus and desire to clear the decks, I've not delivered on most of this. See end notes]
The Rosemary Branch Theatre pub is located right by one of those parts of London where property prices have seen a 60% increase over the past few years due to gentrification. It’s the kind of place, when I was growing up, where bodies showed up in the canal, either through drugs, poverty or crime.
I walked the canal from Angel to the venue that evening and the canal side is now probably one of the most dangerous paths in London. Not because of gangs, drugs, drunks or otherwise, but because of the hundreds of cycling commuters who belt up and down in the post-work dark; and deliveroo riders; and joggers. I whistled at every bridge along the path, to make sure a lunatic didn’t come peddling into the narrow, low-ceilinged arch at top speed, as some of the madder cyclists did along the more open stretches.
So, I arrived at the venue somewhat the worse for psychological wear. This may not have been the best state of mind to be in, given my experience of the preview, the year before. I had actually forewarned friends that the preview had left me with a heavy dose of existential sadness.
The premise sounds far more playful than it should: watch Hannah Silva rip up several copies of 50 Shades of Grey and mash it up with writing by punk feminist pirate Kathy Acker. Hooray! you might think to yourself, someone’s finally done a number on that misogynist crap. But no, that would be the easy response and Silva’s work has, in my experience, never taken the obvious path. In fact, the one thing that appeals most to me about Silva’s poetry and performances so far is her ability to deviate from expectations.
Schlock! extracts all the most upsetting parts of EL James’ book, the parts in which submission and dominance speak to a complete failure of love and respect between people. Through subtle edits and substitutions, the sub/dom violence of James’ book extrapolates into parent-child relations, into multiple contexts of male-female relations. Against the more directly feminist quotations from Acker, Grey becomes an everyman-representation of patriarchal oppression.
Silva goes further with the material taken from Acker, however. Far from being an obvious bash of feminist sloganeering, the show veers primarily toward autobiographical material in which Acker treated her struggle against breast cancer, her double mastectomy and death. Again, through substitutions and sleights of performance, the material expands to encompass a kind of everywoman identity, through which the violence of patriarchy and the vulnerability of the female body enter into an ur-dialogue, casting the struggle into grand narrative terms, as a kind of epic-heroic battle.
The preview show very much delivered on this, in all its sadness, violence, fear and despair. The space was also bigger, so the show lacked the intimacy of the run at the Rosemary Branch. With brevity to boot, that preview left me despondent, pessimistic, about the nature of male-female relations. Thankfully, the full hour show at the Branch was far more emotionally and tonally rounded.
By the looks of things, I abandoned this, and most things, early December 2016. And I don’t have the will to pick it up again properly. The show was schlocking, to be blunt. Silva sat in the middle of the stage, as the audience filtered into the poky, hipster-narrow rows, staring at us and smiling as she picked up bits of paper, ripped them with her teeth and spat them into the air. Kind of like I imagine a literary workshop with a psychopathic Kathy Acker fan might go, perhaps.
The warmth of the deaf-signing was also memorable; at one point, Silva communicates how Acker and she stole from other people’s words to construct their own books. It was natural, meta, very forgivably silly, amid some extremely dark material. In fact, in hindsight, I seem to have a memory of two Hannah Silvas on stage: the mute one, signing, and the one channelling voices, a kind of high-pitched, highly-strung everyvictim. Notably, the latter was the voice that channelled the sub/dom material, while the former seemed to step back, almost like a de-conditioning, to try and make the space safe again.
I’ve tried a few times to engage with Silva’s work in writing, but I can never quite do justice. What Forms of Protest does so well out loud, the page doesn’t quite carry. As with a lot of experimental work, you have to hear it out loud and carry that back from the world into your subvocalisations. I’ve thought about collating a page of all the video and audio performances I can find of her work and embedding them here, but that also is difficult, because two of my favourites were on poetcasting.co.uk, which sadly no longer exists. But here is a brief description of some of Silva's pieces which have stuck with me:
One was set to a recording of rain on a caravan roof on some blasted moors and was basically an imitation of a mosquito flying around for several minutes, using her infamous 'double-tonguing technique', learned from too many years playing recorder. The other was a conversation between herself and herself, which starts with lots of ‘yes/no’ in dialogue/argument. The first maybe hits like a punchline, but, as is often the case with Silva’s work, that is where the piece gets started.
Another piece I saw live, involved a remix and deterioration of the standard author bio: “My name’s Hannah Silva, and I’m from …” It draws you in, makes you think you’re just being talked at, and then starts repeating, skipping, folding, breaking. I’ve based a few poem-attempts on that since.
There’s one more, which I use repeatedly in teaching, and come back to when I’m sick of the world. Here’s the video, because talking about Hannah Silva’s poetry is too much like dancing about architecture.
Gaddafi, Gaddafi, Gaddafi by Hannah Silva from Penned in the Margins on Vimeo.