“Perform Like Your Words Deserve to Be Heard”: An Interview with Gee Middleton
At the recent Penzance Literary Festival, “The Poetry Point Presents” showcased the work of five young, emerging poets from Cornwall. I was kindly granted an interview with one of the performers, Gee Middleton, also a graduating third year. Gee opened the show with five heartbreakingly confessional poems, hitting what those who know her say is her signature performance style: accessible but tough, intimate but expansive. I spoke to Gee about her experiences as a performer and a writer.
MC: So, how do you prepare for a performance? Any pre-show rituals?
GM: I can get quite nervous prior to performances so often I just make sure I have a little time to wind down: I make sure I do yoga on those days, which may or may not help, and I spend time talking to friends of mine who have come to listen. I also like to read and listen to some of my favourite poems, some Maya Angelou, sometimes some Whitman. It really helps me to ground myself in the things I'm inspired by.
MC: What advice would you give to a first-time performer?
GM: Perform like your words deserve to be heard. I guarantee if you've got something to share there will be someone somewhere in the audience, willing to listen. Find them and share a connection with them whilst you read. So many first-time performers - or even in fact 100th time performers - stand on a stage like they don't deserve to be there. If you can trick yourself into feeling like you belong there by believing that someone out there will love your work even more than you do then that makes it much easier.
MC: Does every person have an innate ability to write? Or is there a degree of selectivity in the art of poetry?
GM: I think every person has the experiences and range of emotion necessary to write, and to me the greatest thing about poetry is the huge degree of variations in styles and genres and even the poets within them.
What holds a lot of people back from writing poetry is this pre-conceived idea of rules that are imposed upon it: that it has to sound like the content you studied at GCSE, that it has to have a rhythm and rhyme, or indeed that poetry is something only angsty teenagers write. Having introduced friends of mine to things like the Word Zoo, I always found them surprised at what poetry could be.
Whilst I do believe that there is some skill to writing, it would be beyond me to say that it's a skill I have always possessed: it's definitely just something I always worked on and I definitely got better for reading great poetry. Often my poems have been team efforts too, with the editing process aided by someone much more skilled than me.
Not everyone can write a sonnet, and not anyone can write modernist free verse or imagist or impressionist poetry. Not everyone can perform well or even has the confidence to. Not everyone has the same cultural references but I do believe that with a little time and attention to practice and progress and editing, everyone has a little poetry stuck somewhere inside them.
MC: Has studying for your degree in Cornwall, such a scenic part of the country, provided fresh inspiration? Or is there a special place you always find yourself retreating to?
GM: Cornwall is endlessly inspiring to me because I have always felt very drawn to the sea, and there are certain places I always go to write when I'm feeling stuck. I've always struggled in cities because I feel most at home when I'm by the sea and really not so at home anywhere else and I think I draw a lot from that in my writing.
However, when it comes to place related poetry I've always been more inspired by America and the grand romanticism associated with it, but really I think that's less about the place itself and more about the fact that I've always been drawn to American poetry and draw lots of inspiration from it.
Despite this, I'm trying to write more about Cornwall before I have to move on and leave, and am spending as much of my summer exploring and adventuring as possible.
MC: I read an article recently that stated, “poetry is the new rock ‘n’ roll”. Rock ‘n’ roll enabled an entire generation to rebel, and find themselves amidst a society that, ultimately, disregarded their existence. Does poetry have the potential to do this? Is poetry a form of rebellion for young people?
GM: There is always an attitude within art that calls for change and has no tolerance for injustice. People who find themselves disenchanted with society often run to art for comfort or for a place to express that. Whilst I won't go too deep down a political rabbit hole here, times of great political dissent inform times of great artwork.
I find that spending time at the Word Zoo, or listening to great politically, socially and culturally motivated online inspires me intensely, teaches me about the struggles of people from different walks of life, and helps me to feel less alone with the things I myself struggle with.
I don't know yet if poetry is as pervasive as rock and roll was, but I know that it definitely has the potential to touch the people who surround themselves with it in a very similar way.
MC: Throughout your poems, such as “Champagne and Lemonade”, you express extremely intimate thoughts and feelings about your sexuality. Does poetry lend a voice to minority communities?
GM: Whilst I can only really speak for my own experience, I know many people who find that they have trouble really expressing themselves unless it's through art. Art has been a home, for a long time, for members of the LGBTQ+ community and other minorities.
I'd like to believe that poetry has a place for people from every minority and every walk of life. For me, and for many others, you will always be welcomed by your talent and willingness, not your skin colour, sexuality or subject matter. Having people lend their ears for the 10 minutes I perform can be the most heard and the most accepted I have ever felt, and I hope that others feel the same way.
MC: Is language a restriction, or a form of freedom?
GM: We are all working from the same words and we are all trying to make something new from those. There are, of course, poets who work to break down language, and poets who seek to push language to its utmost lengths. Personally, I often struggle to express myself as eloquently as I wish I could off the bat, and I find great satisfaction in taking the time to put language in patterns that perfectly express what I have to say. Certainly, we can 'limit' ourselves when writing with form and rules for our own writing but many poets find that this does the opposite of restrict them.
Personally, I find the utmost freedom within free verse and the open-ended nature of language, and the fact that there is never a requirement or a rule for what I have to say or how I have to say it.
Gee Middleton is a tender twenty-something living in Cornwall. Interested in how she relates to the world around her, she considers in her work what it means to be human. With an affinity for stars, self-love, and kindness, poetry is her love letter to humanity and her way of exploring her place in the universe.
Gee’s debut EP Syzygy is out now. Her follow-up EP Estivation is due for release Autumn 2017.
by Max Colbourne