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These are the voices that want to be heard

Feature

Isobel Colchester is Chief Executive of Poet in the City, Artistic Associate at Kings Place, which promotes live poetry events throughout the UK

For me, Venus Unwrapped opens up an opportunity to explore the way in which the disempowered can exert ownership over language, and to challenge the way in which gender is experienced.

We at Poet in the City want to interrogate conventional interpretations of the Venus myth, its positioning of bodies, gender and sexuality; we want to showcase work which owns that narrative and shifts the balance of power.

In collaboration with Kings Place, we commissioned Lavinia Greenlaw to write a new poem on the idea of Venus – her poem, Venus: a manifesto – is a striking response to the myth, exploring women’s artistic practice and the idea that women have been held back from fulfilling their endeavours not only by society but also by themselves. The poet looks at how the mythic Venus is born of ‘sea foam’, and plays on the idea that this matter created by ‘agitation’ exists at the margins.

When thinking about gender, these margins have been a space of immense strife and creativity for artists, forced there by an unequal society. For me, there is something really powerful about a strong identity which is also ungraspable: the creation of new agency through fluidity. Boundaries shift or are ignored altogether in order to create something completely different; the Venus narrative is reclaimed.

‘this is less a statement about a new ‘canon’ and more an opportunity to ignore the idea altogether’

Our first event of the season is a collaboration with Faber celebrating the publication of the second volume of Sylvia Plath’s letters. Plath is a poet and a woman whose life has been seized upon and distorted by academia and the public alike. This evening will be an opportunity to hear from the poet in her own words. Even though she was a celebrated voice at a time where men owned the canon, interpretations of her work were still disempowering, subjecting her to gendered definitions and judgements. Her life continues to shape-shift with the tides of public opinion, yet still she speaks to us and still she evades us – we’re hoping to stop the stream mid-flow, and listen…

We are excited to present Dean Atta’s Black Flamingo Cabaret as part of Venus, a show exploring black and queer identity. Through feathers, flamingos and general fabulousness, Dean and his guests will challenge gender stereotypes and the expectations placed by others onto bodies in a gender-defying celebration of self-expression. When Dean first discussed this idea with us, he was keen for the show to appear in an unexpected venue for this kind of work, and we agreed. The opportunity to carve out new spaces is what programming in Venus Unwrapped has to be all about – our arts spaces must have flexible walls, and constantly be subject to redefinition by the artists and audience; access and agency are so often gendered issues.

Our final event, Women in Frame, centres on artist Claire Eastgate to celebrate her portraits of 28 amazing contemporary women poets. Claire’s project highlights the abundance of diverse female poets writing today, defying previous eras in which women poets were excluded. For me, this is less a statement about a new ‘canon’ and more an opportunity to ignore the idea altogether – rather than being told who to listen to, what does it mean to hear the voices who want to be heard?

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