Rommi Smith: Women Authoring Change

By Hedgebrook Staff

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Categories: Women Authoring Change,

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Rommi Smith is a poet, a playwright, and a Hedgebrook alumna. We asked her about her work as an activist and about being a Woman Authoring Change.

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Tell us about your work as a writer; do you write in multiple genres/forms?

Yes. I’m a poet, playwright, performer, (sometime) singer, theatre-maker, lyricist, librettist, educationalist and academic.

I’m honoured to have been awarded numerous prestigious residencies: Inaugural Writer in Residence for the Houses of Parliament; Inaugural Poet in Residence for Keats House (former home, now museum, celebrating Romantic poet John Keats); BBC Writer in Residence for the Commonwealth Games – and of course, a Hedgebrook Fellowship and an Elizabeth George Award.

In my creative practice, I often work with musicians to fuse text and music; exploring the rich possibilities inherent in the dialogue between the two, or more, forms. I’m fascinated by creative hinterlands: the twilight between forms; when one thing isn’t just itself, but meets another at a creative crossroads – there, each is able to see the other under the mirror of a new moon.

In the rehearsal and live performance of my text: the combination of my use of metrics; the concentration of assonance in a poetic line; and the presence of music as a collaborator, means that the performed text can lean from speech into not-quite-song, into song and then back into speech. This can’t always be ‘set’ in a rehearsal space; things change in live performance. They key is rehearsal, repetition and developing trust in the creative process: you have to be able to trust your collaborators when there is improvisation in the frame and you’re not quite sure how a piece will be or sound in live performance. It’s what I find exhilarating, as a word-smith, about working in partnership with music: the shape of the text changes. The poetic line, of course has its own music, but the presence of literal music and musicians, re-shapes the cadence of the line, illuminating new meanings and intentions for the delivery of the text.

Rommi_Smith_sm2An opera singer told me when I was preparing to write my first libretto: “if you want emotion in a performed text: take care of the vowels”. I keep that advice close in my writing; to be aware of what’s happening with the vowels within the poetic line.

I’ve formed an all-female trio (Cole, Molloy and Smith) fusing spoken and sung poetry with double-bass and piano. Both musicians are classically trained, but also gifted Jazz improvisers and so I’m learning much more about: borrowing from the improvising tradition: nothing being a mistake; the text being an instrument calling and responding to the other instruments.

I’ve had the pleasure of teaching creative writing, (as a lecturer and writing mentor), at range of institutions and universities: masterclasses for Theatre Masters’ students at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, London and English and Jazz Masters’ students, as British Council Poet in Residence at California State University, Los Angeles.

I’m proud to be poet coach and featured in the multi-award winning, and internationally acclaimed, film: We Are Poets. The film follows the lives and journeys of a group of young poets from Leeds Young Authors, whom I had the privilege to mentor. Their quest was to compete at Brave New Voices’ poetry slam championships, in the US.

Teaching is cyclical: I learn as much as I give. I adore working with early primary school students, where a sense of wonderment at the world is still palpable and hasn’t, yet, been jaded by examinations. Why is the sky blue? What is love made from? How did the story get its beginning? These are all questions I’ve been asked in primary classrooms – and which we’ve then used creativity to answer. Childhood makes each of us poets. Adulthood has to work to keep that spirit there.

 

Do you consider yourself an activist?

Absolutely.

To be an artist, right now, in the UK, is to declare oneself an activist. The very act of creativity is on trial – and every artist is a witness for the defence of the existence of the arts. We are seeing an unparalleled onslaught of government-led funding cuts, leading to: the removal of arts provision in schools; the loss of whole arts subject areas within some schools (music, for instance) and the decimation of arts organisations providing longer-term artists’ residencies within schools. Every arts organisation and artist is having to work so much harder to justify its, or their, existence. The pressure is immense.

I fear we are witnessing a class-based regression within the arts: a system where, for an artist to exist means that they must either receive patronage (as writers historically have from royalty, or gentry) – or, be wealthy.

Yet, grassroots arts activism always blossoms between the cracks – and its fruits may not be fiscal, (in the immediate), but they will be golden. I’m loving seeing artists’ radical responses to the current socio-economic climate: setting up projects in disused spaces; bartering with each other – their art as their currency. One such project is The Real Junk Food Project, now a global food revolution. The project redistributes ‘waste’ food (which would, otherwise, have gone into supermarket landfill), serving healthy meals from its cafes across the world. People pay for their meals on a Pay-As-You-Feel basis, meaning they pay what they can afford. This is about democracy at the dinner-table: there is food for everyone and anyone. The ability to pay with money is not a decider of a place at the table. People might pay for their meal at their local cafe by donating artwork; cleaning the café windows; offering to wash up, or any other myriad of ways by which they feel they can contribute.

As an advocate for the project, I’m delighted to sit as a volunteer, on the community committee for one of the cafes. Amongst the customers, there are artists, like me, conjuring up arts’ projects over a lunch of conversation. As a result, there are pop-up gigs, art exhibitions and open mics – all Pay-As-You-Feel. I’ll soon be facilitating a theatre project at one of the cafes. We’ll be harvesting the transformative stories of people who dine there and turning them into talking-heads-style monologues. These monologues will then be performed by diners, as part of a mini café-tour.

For almost twenty-years, I’ve worked in therapeutic contexts to utilise creative writing as a tool for positive mental health and, therefore, physical wellbeing. I believe that safeguarding routes to self-expression is imperative for a nation’s mental health: when people mark paper, they are less likely to mark themselves. Libraries are apothecaries. Each book is an element in life’s periodic table. Each word of a poem, or story reacts against the other to produce an effect on the mind and the body.

I’ve witnessed the transformative power, particularly, of poetry. For the last two years, I’ve led a project in a perinatal unit. I work in partnership with women living with pre-natal and post-natal depression and alongside an experienced occupational therapist. To support women in finding a language for what has left them word-less; to show them they are capable of poetry when they have lost trust in their own judgement; to reflect them back to themselves, (not just as psychiatric report) but as poem, or story – is revolutionary and a privilege. We are honoured to have shared the fruits of the work at The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Annual Conference.

 

What impact do you hope your writing will have in the world?

I can’t control the impact of my work in the world. However, I can and do, choose the projects with which to politically engage, or affiliate, myself. I choose to be ambitious about what I want to do with my time and creativity.

I’m passionate about craft and a veracious reader, both in terms of technique and genre. I think, there are close to some one and a half, to two thousand books in my attic-office library and front room! (Since my residency at Hedgebrook, I’ve had a massive reorganisation of them and have just put them all into alphabetical order). I’m an ever-increasing formalist, utilising form’s constraint to express universes of experience, whether it be for a commissioned piece, or a new poem for the collection I’m working on. I hope that readers feel that passionate intensity in my work, listeners too, because I realise that I write for the ear. Robert Frost stated the ear is the only true writer and reader. I work hard to distil the image and write its song for the pleasure of the ear. Having written extensively for BBC Radio: (Woman’s Hour; Poetry Please; Fine Lines; From Fact to Fiction; The Friday Play, BBC World Service etc.) I’m inspired by the intimacy and playful possibilities of radio.

A stranger wrote to me, (via my website), to tell me that he’d actually had to pull the car over to the side of the carriageway during a long journey, because he was so moved listening to a piece I’d written for BBC Radio 4. Against her scientist-parents’ wishes, a Viennese student decided to change her International Baccalaureate options to include theatre, citing my performance at her school, as her reason.

After the film We Are Poets came out and started being nominated for, and winning, awards across the world, I was often stopped in the street. Asked on buses and trains: ‘Err, excuse me, are you in that film We Are Poets?’ this would lead to a deeper conversation and, so often, a confession of regret: ‘I wish I had written poetry; that film makes me want to be a poet’.

 

What’s the best feedback you’ve received from a reader, or listener?

When I was inaugural Parliamentary Writer in Residence, I wrote and performed a site-specific piece: A Guide to the Exhibition, for the formal opening of a major exhibition in Westminster Hall, in the Palace of Westminster. Westminster Hall forms part of the oldest part of Parliament – its ceiling is nine-hundred years old! Henry VIII hosted banquets in the Hall. Its steps are the podium of popes and presidents. This is the Hall where, historically, deceased members of The Royal Family lay-in-state before formal burial.

I was to perform there.

Nervous doesn’t even begin to describe it. However, I also knew, in my bones, that this was about claiming the moment. A Guide to the Exhibition honours the unsung Africans who jumped, or were pushed, to their deaths in the Middle Passage, during Transatlantic Slavery. There is much that heart and brain and tongue had to articulate. The poem takes key inspiration from the artist, Ellen Gallagher’s seminal painting, Bird in Hand, then exhibited at Tate Liverpool, as part of a major retrospective of her work.

That May afternoon, Westminster Hall was a sea of parliamentarians and celebrities. In and amongst the solemnity and champagne, was my mother: a woman who left school at fifteen, after a Secondary Modern education which engaged her to respond to essay titles such as: When I Have My First Child.

My memory of performing the poem is all breath and blur: my name being called; my brief announced; walking to the top of Westminster Hall steps; standing to face the crowd; hearing my own voice, sonorous against the brick of History’s house; seeing how densely packed this magnificent hall was – a hall lit, quite literally, by the outbreath of angels. Within its nine-hundred year old wooden ceiling are carved, floating angels, their mouths resplendent with chandeliers: electric in our era; candlelit in previous ones.

A Guide to the Exhibition responds to the architecture of the space, ricocheting to the back of the Hall; its echo a refrain returning to be met with a whisper. In the poem, I ask the audience to look, to notice what is there, but to sense what is not. I invite listeners and watchers to be united in moral outrage at this truth of our history – with all of its contemporary aftershocks.

‘..for we all wear a dark wreathe,

   at the centre of each eye

    woven from this loss’

Historian and scholar, Simon Schama, tapped me on the shoulder, afterwards:

“I don’t usually cry at poems” he said,

“tonight I did.”

That Schama, (a revered scholar of the brutalities of the Transatlantic Slave Trade), was so moved, touches me deeply.

At Cromwell Green, on the Parliamentary Estate, I said goodbye to my mother.

“Proud of you.” she whispered, tearfully, inside our embrace.

It isn’t Romantic of me to write that the dusk was deepening peach. It was. The dusk was peach at Cromwell Green. Five years later, there is the ultimate, physical Goodbye I would have to learn to accept I’d have to say to my mother. Inside the cold room of grief, it is these moments and their words that matter – and keep us warm.

 

How is sisterhood global and creative?

This question takes me back to a feminist studies elective, during my undergraduate degree. It reminds me of Robin Morgan’s landmark book, Sisterhood is Global!

The need for sisterhood is everywhere. Sisterhood has to constantly reinvent herself in response patriarchy, or oppression, wearing a different guise, yet striding down the streets of a different era. And creativity is, of course, the mother of all invention. I’m thinking, here, of the Arab women bloggers, writing about their lives in the form of a prose-come-poetry, each sentence singing like a desire-line through the political landscape.

Hedgebrook, too, is symbolic of how sisterhood is both global and creative. Women writers arrive from across the world to meet at the Hedgebrook crossroads. Women, in all of our differences, uniqueness and symmetries. There, we are able to see ourselves, our writing and each other in the mirror of a new moon.

Hedgebrook is a magician with time. I left Hedgebrook five months ago. Yet, Hedgebrook’s immediacy is ever-present and not just because I open my laptop to a montage of images taken during my Fellowship. In some cases, I met fellow writers for just three days and yet my connection with them was profound. I felt like I had known them for years. You learn a lot about the energies of yourself and others when you tune into your creativity and tune out of distractions. Kekla, Kathryn, Sara, Sonora, Sally, Cynthia, Amy, Bonnie, Laurie, Suzanne, Shontina, Rebecca, Karen, Mayda, Shruti, Bahar, Glenna and Rana – and many others; a litany of women writers and activists whom I feel blessed to know from Hedgebrook. This is a sisterhood with whom I am proud to have remained in contact, since the Fellowship.

However, Hedgebrook is not only a sisterhood, but a motherhood. I felt ‘fed’ spiritually (and literally), by artisans in nurturing: Denise, Cathy, Vito, Julie (O’Brien), Julie, Rio, Anne, Carol and many others. I kept finding glimmers of my mother everywhere.

For the first four weeks of my Fellowship, I saw the same deer every Saturday. Each time I saw her, she grew more confident and, I, a little less fearful. I come from a matriarchal line of women who sense the unseen and to whom it would not be strange to sit over tea and cake and say: “I saw a ghost this morning”. I saw the deer as a sign. At Amy’s suggestion I read up on deer medicine. The words sang in me. Sometimes, the thing you need will find you. Evie is the research librarian (par excellence), at Hedgebrook. I seriously felt that my research had gained its own PA in Evie: articles, books, speedily dropped off at the Farmhouse for collection. I felt Evie cared about my book as much as I did. An absolute gift. And our friendship continues, despite the ocean’s width.

One brilliant facet of social media, is its facilitation of dialogue and community across time zones. Through the Hedgebrook Alumnae Facebook Group and The Hedgebrook Alumnae webpages, the Hedgebrook hearth-fire continues burning, long after the physical goodbye.

 

What does Hedgebrook mean to you?

Being awarded a place at Hedgebrook felt like winning a lexical lottery. The odds of winning the actual lottery are probably higher! In addition, it was both absolute honour and golden affirmation to receive The Elizabeth George Award.

Hedgebrook is noun, metaphor, and verb. There is Hedgebrook the noun, the physical space, where I fell in love with forty-eight acres of green possibility. I walked into a forest of feminist heritage and felt myself grow taller: I read journals written by Gloria Steinem, Dorothy Allison, Honor Moore and Ruth Ozeki. I saw my first shooting-star and wished upon it. I had the privilege of being hosted by Elizabeth George at her beautiful, ocean home. In sunlit conversation she, generously, shared insights garnered from years of accolade and craftswomanship. I heard the music of late-night coyote-song and learned to be unafraid of it; took walks in the darkness. In fact Glenna, one of my fellow writers, walked with me to Cedar Deep around midnight. There, she pinned on my bravery medallion. Whilst confronting a fear, I saw what I hadn’t expected: the way the moonlight made corridors of the trees. I saw how the noun, holds a mirror to the metaphor and gives rise to the verb.

Those corridors of moonlight reminded me that all creative paths, however unknown, or dimly lit – will illuminate the way home. However lost in a creative process we may feel we are, we will always craft a path to Somewhere. I started to allow myself to get lost in the woods and took what was illuminated, back to my creative process and writing. I started to see the Hedgebrook woods as a deliberate, architectural metaphor – not one spun from happenstance.

The verb of walking in the woods, led to a further understanding of Hedgebrook’s literal and metaphorical gifts. I understood that inside my own creative process of crafting story, I am my own:

  • woodcutter (the one who rescues the story),
  • wolf (the one who is vital for the story to be told, but who can also sabotage it)
  • red caped girl, singing through the unknown (the protagonist who carries the vulnerability of the story in her basket), and pursues the journey because of her love and hope to see the thing she loves most; the grandmother (the wisest of stories).

In applying to Hedgebrook, I was seeking the gift of writing time without the ‘guilt-strings’ of day-to-day distraction playing in my ears. Hedgebrook was just that – and much more. Hedgebrook allowed me to hold the wholeness and the potential of my book; to fall in love with its research; to sit down and face the ‘wolf’ lurking within the process – without running. I brought ten years of passionate research into the sacred space of Waterfall Cottage – and saw alabaster ideas rise in the intensity of that heat. Poems arrived which I had been struggling to write.

Hedgebrook taught me to make peace with ‘the wolf’, to understand that wolves are, so often, misunderstood allies, teaching us the borders and boundaries of fears. I learnt that I was not alone in the forest. Just like me there were other women, kept warm by the bright red-cape of an idea, carrying the vulnerability of the story, on the journey in search of their grandmothers.

 

About Rommi Smith:

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Rommi Smith is a poet and playwright. She has held numerous prestigious international residencies for organisations ranging from the British Council, to the BBC, The Florence Nightingale Museum to Parliament.

Rommi was Poet in Residence for the Commonwealth Games in Manchester and Poet in Residence for BBC Music Live. She has written for and performed, extensively, on BBC Radio, featuring on programmes such as: From Fact to Fiction, BBC Radio 4’s Afternoon Drama, Poetry Please, Late Junction, The Verb and Woman’s Hour. Rommi’s contribution to a Woman’s Hour feature on Blueswomen was a selected for Weekend Woman’s Hour.

Rommi was appointed Parliamentary Writer in Residence – the first such appointment in British and Parliamentary history. Inaugural Poet in Residence at Keats’ House, London [former home, now museum, celebrating the life of Romantic poet, John Keats], Rommi also served as British Council Poet in Residence at California State University in Los Angeles. Whilst in residence, she directed a brand new piece of theatre about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in collaboration with English MA students and the University’s Jazz Orchestra.

Rommi teaches creative writing for a wealth of organisations and institutions, including: The International Schools Theatre Association; The ARVON Foundation and The Poetry School. She mentored Masters’ students on the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama’s Theatre course.

Rommi features in the documentary We Are Poets. The multi-award-winning film follows the lives of young poets from Leeds Young Authors, whom she mentored to attend the Brave New Voices poetry slam championships in the USA. Brave New Voices is widely recognised as the biggest and most prestigious poetry slam championships in the world.

She is delighted to have acted as a consultant/advisor to Yemeni civil rights campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Tawakul Karman, during preparations for her speech to Parliament.

Awarded a prestigious Hedgebrook Fellowship in the United States, Rommi is a recipient of the Elizabeth George Award. Learn more about Rommi at www.rommi-smith.co.uk/.

 


 

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2 Comments

  • Glenna Cook
    4:36 PM - 23 April, 2015

    Dear Rommi,
    I loved reading your piece. It told me much about you that i hadn’t known before, and it brought back beautiful memories of Hedgebrook, especially of that night we entered the dark woods in search of Deep Cedar Grove. I remember how we stood in the darkness, hearing our own breaths and heartbeats in the silence, and I said, “Now, let’s turn off our lights.”

    At first, you were afraid, but when you did, you saw that the darkness was not complete. We could see a soft illumination through the spaces in the trees. Walking back, I said, “Now, you are initiated into the sisterhood of the dark woods.”

    What you didn’t know was that I, too, experienced a mirror image metaphor. This old grandmother, comfortable in a dark woods, was sometimes afraid of the light. You, and the other women at Hedgebrook, led me into the daylight, where my writing was able to speak a language that had been suppressed for a lifetime. I am so grateful for that.

    I will take this opportunity to tell you that I recently became aware of another beautiful, black poet, Tracy K. Smith, who received a Pulitzer Prize for her memoir, “Ordinary Light,” Check out her classy last name.

    Happy memories,
    Glenna Cook

  • Rommi Smith
    2:51 PM - 5 May, 2015

    Dear Glenna

    thank you for your beautiful reply. It’s really lovely to hear from you again..

    Thank you for sharing what you do. I wonder if there is a creative ley line that we touched at Hedgebrook? There’s a sense of symmetries of experience. I’m touched to be among the group of women, by whom you felt supported, in walking into the daylight of the world. I remember your poems and the privilege of hearing them. They are powerful. and frank testimonies; bright glimpses of an unraveling poetic memoir.

    In reading your reply, I’m reminded of Marianne Williams’ book: A Return to Love: reflections on the principles of a course in miracles. There’s a particular quote from Williamson’s book which has resonance with what you share:

    http://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/1239848-a-return-to-love-reflections-on-the-principles-of-a-course-in-miracles

    Yes, I know of Tracy K. Smith’s powerful work – and thanks for mentioning her; a sisterhood of Smiths!

    Warmest best wishes

    Rommi

    PS Thanks for your poem. I’m looking forward to reading it. I have been, and am, rushed off my feet with a commission deadline, due mid-May. I really want to be able to read your poem and do it justice, in terms of a reply and feedback. I will email back as soon as I can. Thanks for sending the poem.

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