Andrew interviewed Joolz Denby in 2005, the year she was nominated for the Orange Prize for the book Billie Morgan. Andrew has known Joolz for over 15 years, and has interviewed her many times. He says of this interview, ‘This is one of my favourite interviews with Joolz. It gets to the point and I like that in an interview. The first time I interviewed Joolz was in the 90s, I was doing a spate of performance poetry interviews with the likes of Say So, Rosie Lugosi, John Helgley and the late Dike, for such magazines as Flux and The Big Issue. They weren’t great interviews, as I was young and inexperienced. Though no interview is great, this interview does cut to the crux of what Joolz Denby does, great writing’.
Joolz Denby Interview by Andrew Oldham
Joolz Denby is an internationally acclaimed, internationally award-winning author, poet, spoken-word artist, illustrative artist, broadcaster and photographer. She has worked for the last 25 years with the legendary cult band New Model Army and currently manages upcoming young band New York Alcoholic Anxiety Attack. She curates Arts Council funded exhibitions on topics such as elective body-modification and the artwork of New Model Army for which she is responsible. She is considered the UK’s premier woman spoken word performer. She has never been afraid to push boundaries within her work, and is well documented in her political views. In recent years, she wrote the award winning and critically acclaimed Stone Baby followed by Corazon, both published by HarperCollins. Her most recent novel, Billie Morgan, published by Serpent’s Tail, was short listed for The Orange Prize for literature in 2005 and the CWA Dagger In The Library Award. Aesthetica has been a fan of Joolz for many years and we are delighted to talk about her latest ventures.
You work in a wide range of mediums such as television, radio, public commissions, but what gives you the most pleasure?
‘Writing, closely followed by drawing, the photography. I get quite a lot of fun out of stuff like embroidery and knitting, too. I like the public commissions because on the whole, they’re quite difficult and as I’m lazy, it makes me work so I get good results. I expect this question contains the unspoken follow-up question; which medium do I like least? The answer would be working in television as it is at best an uneasy medium and at worst a destroyer of societies. American First Nations call it the ‘dead-eye’ for good reason’.
How do you feel you differ as a poet compared to the Joolz performance artist of ten years ago?
‘I was never just a performance artist. I always believed very strongly the work had to be as good on the page as it was on the stage. Because I have a certain facility for drama and the presentation of that work, many people automatically dismissed the written texts as being of no value as the English distrust anyone who’s good at more than one thing. However, though it’s true a good actor can emote the phone book, a bad poem is a bad poem no matter what you do with it. I couldn’t have got the reactions I did and do if I had written crap. These days, I am better at everything I do, because I have dedicated my life (and still do) to learning how to improve’.
How do you feel the world of poetry has changed since you first started?
‘It’s got worse and worse. The final blows came when the government offered grants to persons calling themselves poets who satisfied criteria which had nothing to do with the great force of poetry itself and the proliferation of sub-standard ‘creative writing’ classes. Those good young poets – such as Toby Martinez de las Rivas from the North East – must struggle even harder now since so many people are put off poetry, and especially poetry readings, by terrible work read by people with no talent for reading aloud and no desire to learn how to improve in either field’.
Why did you turn to crime writing? What intrigued or inspired you first when you started?
‘I’ve always written about other people’s lives and often those lives which have become involved in what is termed ‘crime’. I don’t write police procedural novels or forensic thrillers but rather stories of how you can be in the wrong place at the wrong time and your life just gets shredded by circumstance. Or fate. Call it what you like. Characters fascinate me, the plots are fairly simple in themselves’.
What effect did being short listed for The Orange Prize for literature have on you, your work, and your connection with your readers?
‘On me – it was very stressful, personally. On my work – no effect at all. On sales – they went up a 1000% and more. On my connection with my readers – I just get even more correspondence than I did before. All in all, it was a fascinating experience, but not in a literary sense’.
Billie Morgan differs from your earlier novels in tone; your heroine is hard talking, abused but unstoppable on the streets of Bradford. Where did this gruelling tone come from, and where did this anti-hero come from?
‘I don’t recognise the novel I wrote in this description. I don’t think the tone is gruelling at all, though of course the events in the story are often described as dark they are no more than happens in any city anywhere; and Billie is often very funny though she does speak as she finds, as they say in Bradford. I suppose I write as I find, in that case. There are plenty of ‘Billies’ out there, women who have suffered, made mistakes, aren’t rich or well-connected but who are brave, enduring and full of love’.
Your novels still contain a lyrical language. How hard is it for you to differentiate between your poetic tastes and your prose needs?
‘Not at all difficult. I don’t make a lot of difference between poetry and prose, it’s all story-telling and the pleasure of using language well and beautifully’.
How important do you feel politics is in writing and music, and what kind of message do you really want your readers to take away with them?
‘I don’t want my readers (or the viewers of my visual work) to take any message away. I don’t care to preach because I don’t care to be preached at. My politics are so interwoven with my life and art that it isn’t necessary to labour points or write polemic. I can’t imagine why anyone with half a brain thinks politics are separate from art or music, or anything. Everything, everyday, every possible way, everyone’s life is entwined with politics whether they like it or not. How can anyone not be interested? Only a fool abdicates from understanding their life and the structures and progression of the society they live in. Apathy means powerlessness and to be powerless willingly because you think being interested in politics is ‘uncool’ is simply idiotic’.
How much of your own personal history do you draw on?
‘In Billie Morgan I used my early life and experiences in the biker gangs of the 1970’s as material, but on the whole, I tend to keep myself out of my work. Maybe 25% of my written work is about myself, less in the visual work. I don’t find myself that fascinating to be honest. I’m much more interested in other people. And animals’.
Finally, what do you have planned in the future?
‘True North – a photographic exhibition and installation at Bradford University in June 2006, The Body Carnival an exhibition of elective body-modification practices, the new novel, Borrowed Light, the novel I’m writing. Wild Thing, prison work, more poetry and short stories, an album with my words set to music by Justin Sullivan and Ty Unwin, touring with New York Alcoholic Anxiety Attack, taking One Family – One Tribe; an Exhibition of the Art and Artefacts of New Model Army, working with the Illuminate Festival, performances in the UK and abroad, working with my students. Knitting scarves for Xmas presents’.