Sunday, April 4, 2010

Artist to Artist: Jess from After Iris Reads Aloud

Artist to Artist is a regular feature for still life 365. Through a dialogue about the creative process, grief, loss and art, the idea is to learn more about the art you see on still life 365 and the mother, father or family member creating it. In turn, we hope you learn more about your own art, creative process and grief. Artist to Artist a regular monthly feature of this blog space. If you have an artist that you would like to learn more about, or interview, please email me.

For today's Artist to Artist chat, Jess from After Iris and I talked about her latest project After Iris Reads Aloud, as well as creativity, grief and loss. Jess lives in Birmingham, United Kingdom, with her husband David and children Ava and Moe. Jess' second daughter Iris was stillborn May 2008. For work, Jess creates and facilitates drama-based communication and cultural programmes for large organisations. She also owns a family business with her husband: an artisan cheese shop and deli called Capeling and Co. She maintains a blog called After Iris and is currently working on her newest project, After Iris Reads Aloud, where she makes voice recordings of a favorite poem or meaningful piece of writing in the memory of a loved one. Jess takes requests for poetry and writing to be read at her website via her email address: afteriris08 (at) gmail (dot) com with ‘Reading Aloud’ as the subject line. We chatted in real time, and encourage you to ask questions of Jess and her project in the comment section of this post.

Hi, Jess, thanks for agreeing to talk to me today about art and grief and everything in between.
Well, thank you. And thank you for this beautiful project.

I always like to kick off these chats with just a brief overview of how art played a role in your life before Iris died.
I work in the arts, but mainly using drama and music. I've always thought of myself as a creative person. Not an artist, though. Definitely not an artist.

It is hard to see oneself that way, but it is funny, because I see you as an artist, writer, poet, photographer. You explore a lot of different types of art and craft on your website. Besides music and drama, is there one media that you are drawn to more than others?
I would very much like to be all of those things. I guess writing. I think I’m the most consistent with my writing. I kind of wish I could pick a visual medium to focus on, rather than pecking magpie-fashion at anything shiny. I need an equivalent of your newfound passion for needle-felting!

Needle felting is very fun and hard to do anything really emotional with. I think that is why I like it. I find your project After Iris Reads Aloud so extraordinary. I have to say that I have been frequently moved to tears by a poem you have read on there. Did your background in drama and music lead you to starting this project?
Yes. The first piece I recorded was the poem that was read at Iris' memorial in memory of Catherine's daughter Georgina. She really loved the recording, and so many other people said nice things too. Then I recorded a poem that you introduced to me, Angie, ‘Death Barged In’ and the response was kind of intense. From that, I thought that other people might have words they’d like to hear read aloud so I set up the new blog. I think my speaking voice is pretty much the only thing that I am truly confident in.

Well, you have a gorgeous voice. It really is amazing how your voice work can transform a poem into something so dynamic and real, and different than I had read it.
Thanks! It's been a lot harder than I thought it would be.

How so?
I actually have a couple of poems I need to record, but I can't get through them without crying. I love poetry, but it is such a heightened form. There's nowhere to hide. I was hoping to post a lot more frequently, but I find myself mute right now.

Yes, it is just emotion. And reading poetry in memory of those lost must touch on some part of your own loss. I imagine it must be hard when you know the poet, as well. How is reading poetry, especially poetry about grief or that touches on people's grief, different from drama?

I suppose I feel a much deeper connection to the words because they are seeking to explore my reality. There’s always a lot of talk about finding ‘truth’ in theatre and performance arts, and that’s what great performers capture. I think that people with that skill are far fewer than we might suppose so a lot of drama becomes faintly parodic. My own dramatic efforts are definitely guilty of this: I am not one of ‘the greats’ by anyone’s reckoning. But I hope that my poetry reading doesn’t suffer from it too much.

I asked you to read a poem I loved called Lullaby for my Dead Baby by Denise Jallais. When I read that, it hit me so hard, but I truly could not imagine what it would be like to hear it aloud. Then you read it. It was playful and tragic.
I just LOVE that poem. It's so eerie.

I was just in awe of how you transformed her, this mostly anonymous poet, into a grieving mother.
It definitely has that playful quality, I think. What I try to do, when I read, is not interpret the poem too much, but try and see it happening in front of me as I say it, so it sounds spontaneous and natural. The words choose the tone, if that makes sense?

Yes, which has to be a challenge. It must be kind of difficult to not be too melodramatic. That is the nuance of this intersection of grief and art, I think, not being melodramatic, but being true to the emotions. I often find that people writing about grief they don't know go there, and those of us actually grieving usually steer clear of melodrama.
Yes, I think so. That’s exactly what I mean by parodic. It just doesn’t feel true, does it? It’s funny because I was often accused of being melodramatic in my former life. The fourteen-year-old Jess would have been milking this for all she was worth. I feel a responsibility to Iris to not glamorize her life and death, but to present it in a way that reflects my experience of her.

When people hear about still life 365, they tend to think it is going to be depressing, and down, and they have an idea of the kind of art that happens in this space. But it is very different than that…
Still Life 365 is SO different to that. It's incredibly beautiful and powerful

…That is what is great about hearing you read poetry, it is both sad, but also full of love. And full of life.
Yes, well that is how I feel in my grief. I feel so very full of life. Full up, sometimes.

I like that image. Do you think Iris' death changed that about you?
Yes. It did.

On a practical level I have a lot going on, a lot to do now. My internet habit has grown enormously - I have three blogs now, as well as following about 45 other bloggers (which is small beans compared to some mamas, I know), I also have number of fairly intense friendships predicated on the shared experience of babyloss, which are beautiful and special and very consuming. On a different level I had never really experienced death before I gave to birth to a dead baby. I had never been to a funeral, I still have all of my grandparents. It sounds kind of obvious, but I don’t think I fully appreciated the tangible qualities of being alive: breath, pulse, movement, warmth, until I held my daughter who had none of those things. So in a literal sense, I feel full of life too.

I just want to explore that idea more, but am hedging on how to phrase this question. But I like the idea of being filled up with life in the midst of talking about death.
Well, I'm hesitating a little...I only hesitate because I worry that it veering into 'dead baby as plot device' territory, which is a particular dislike of mine.

And yet that is our life. Our life and art changed after dead babies, yet I have a particular disdain for that too.
Hideously, her death has given me so much. Does that sound awful?

No. I feel that way too. Lucy's death freed me from self-consciousness with my art.
Yes, and that's a huge part of my connection with her now. Art and creativity. That is how she is present for me.

Yes. I love that, Jess. Maybe that is my compulsion to do art this last year. It is my connection to Lucy, even when it is not about grief, or loss, or even her.
Yes, that's it completely.

So, you could say that grief changed the way you engage with art?
Yes. Definitely. I think I stopped caring whether I was any good at it. I don't feel it's made me 'good' at art though. I still think my efforts are a bit rubbishy. I tell myself it's about the process, not the product.

That's what I tell myself too. Thank you so much for chatting about this with me. It was lovely talking to you.
It was so lovely to talk with you, Ang.


  1. Jess, your voice has certainly moved me to tears. Several times. And what's so great about your Reads Aloud blog is we can HEAR you, not just read you. That makes for such a welcome change to just hundreds and thousands of words on a screen. You just jump out at us.
    I loved reading this chat with Angie. Did you chat on the phone? I hope she got to hear your voice as well (and you hers!)
    I think losing Hope has also freed me in a way, as well. I have always been a writer but I have never written about anything I was passionate about (just things that paid the bills).I always said I needed subject matter that moved me and now, with her life and death, I have it.
    So glad I have this space, too.
    Thanks Angie and Jess, my dear friends in life and loss.

  2. Sal - thanks for the kind words! It's a funny thing with the Reads Aloud blog. I kind of worry that it comes across as a vanity project: LISTEN TO MY VOICE IT IS V. NICE! PRAISE ME!!!! MOAR ATTENSHUN PLZ!! So far the only people who have requested poems are people that I'm already friends with, so I worry that it's a bit intimidating or people aren't connecting with it. It's different to writing my main blog because that it for me, you know?

    This conversation was on gchat, but it is lovely to voice/ video chat with other mamas, isn't it? We should get on that! I haven't done it much, but it's been such a joy the few times I have.

    Do you think writing about Hope has changed how you write about other stuff? Do you approach the freelance work you've had differently?

  3. Hey jess

    thank you for giving this interview, and thank you, Angie, for doing it. It is really inspiring to see other forms of expression made "tangible". I leant a lot about using the voice as a means to be creative. Up until now I was just in awe now I know a bit more. Thank you.

    I'm also fascinated by your conversation about the subject of death/milking a subject or rather NOT doing that... a idea that never really crossed my mind, at least not in those words.

    Wonderful interview. Thank you both.


  4. forwardtumble - I reckon that the concept of 'milking' tragedy only applies to people who haven't really experienced grief. It's nothing I've observed reading other babylost parents. The reason I worry about it with reading aloud is that it's other people's words for the most part, so I'm having to imagine what it's like inside someone else's experience which lends itself to being a bit 'over-the-top' and/or 'dead baby as plot device'-esque.

  5. forwardtumble - that is to say, when I was 14 I led a life of blissful privilege, materially and emotionally, so of course I sat in my bedroom listening to Nirvana and crying about how dreadful everything was. Now, not so much. I do wonder sometimes if other people think I'm 'milking it' though. Like they wish I'd just stop mentioning Iris, or they think I do it to elicit a specific response.

  6. Jess and Angie, thanks for that lovely interview. Very interesting to read and get an insight into your creativity...

    Some of you projects on "Reads aloud" were too hard for me to hear. I had read the poems before but to hear them spoken with your beautiful voice, was sometimes just too much. So intense, so touching, so shattering... I can't listen to them at all times, I need a slighty thicker skin on some days to be able to dive into. And they go right to my heart.

    I have a written piece in my virtual scribble-book which I plan on translating and have you read it. It's harder than I thought, so we'll see how well that turns out.

    I was sitting over my idea for the traveling journal yesterday and was surprised (shocked actually) because I came up with the same conclusion I read here: "Hideously, her death has given me so much."


    Off to a crafty easter-sunday!
    Thanks for sharing....

  7. myskytimes - It's weird isn't it, Petra? I started doing all of this stuff to try and heal, and now it seems to be doing it's job I find myself resenting that. Like it's an insult to Iris, or something (yes, I'm completely illogical).

    I would absolutely adore to read something for you and Sky. Whenever you're ready, I'm here.


  8. A lovely interview. So good to read more about how you come about doing things, and the background and how that motivates an artist. I feel similar to myskytimes - sometimes the poems read aloud are too much to try and listen to on certain days. So powerful and intensely beautiful and true. I'm thankful for your words and voice.

  9. Great interview! It is so nice to learn a little more about everyone through these interviews. It is amazing how hearing words out loud lend more emotion to already emotionally charged poems. You do a lovely job at it though. Thank you for your gift.

  10. Thank you Jess and Angie.
    Jess, I can never put into words how much the poems you have read aloud mean to me. I'm incredibly glad you decided to start the 'Reads Aloud' blog. Even though you make me cry with every single post! Good tears though. x

  11. Curls O Fred - Thanks so much. The whole process of reading and recording is so intense that it's interesting to hear that they are quite hard to listen to at times. It makes sense to me that they are. The poems people have sent are so powerful in themselves and the fact that they have so much meaning... it just really gets me.

    Amy - I love these interviews so much, it was nice to be interviewed but it's even better reading other people's responses. I'm looking forward to reading yours when you do it.

    Cath - You and me, always with the good tears! Thank you for all of your support, always. Love to you my friend xx

  12. Jess, in answer to your questions: Do you think writing about Hope has changed how you write about other stuff? Do you approach the freelance work you've had differently?

    Um, the irony is, now that I have my subject matter I am passionate about, I don't think I have ever written anything about Hope or my grief I am truly proud of. I stress over the words more. Everything always sounds better in my head. I guess because I know with this story, words will never do it justice.
    I have been more proud of work I've done for the newspapers and organisations I have written for. Funny that. But yeah, since she died, I have approached my freelance work a bit differently. I think the blog has made me a better writer. It has given me more confidence with my expression and turn of phrase. And I just don't care as much, but in a good way though. If that makes any sense.
    The conversation here has been fascinating. Thanks everyone!


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