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‘Perhaps I write to remember’: Maria Sledmere Interviews Tawnya Renelle

A picture of Tawnya standing at a mic reading from This Exquisite Corpse against a dark background

Partaking in the gift-circulation that is creative teaching, Tawnya Selene Renelle, author of This Exquisite Corpse (Calenture Press, 2019), offers her insight on making memory work for you, experimental pedagogy and the collective pleasures of performance. SPAM’s Maria Sledmere invites Tawnya to expand upon ludic observations, the shape of her emerging hybrid novella, a fresh project’s vanilla prose, visceral scribbling, sex positivity and a collaborative network for artists, Experimental Creatives Collective.

MS: Hi Tawnya! I thought we could start with the basics. What brought you to teaching? Were there any significant early influences or inspirations?

TSR: I think that I have always been a teacher, or at least have been interested in communication of knowledge. I consider even the time I spent working as a nurse at Planned Parenthood in The States a part of my experiences as a teacher. Now that I get to teach something I love and am passionate about it feels like the greatest privilege in the world. Every time I get to talk about writing, being creative, and books I think about how lucky I am.

MS: You’ve recently completed your DFA [Doctorate of Fine Art] in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow. Congratulations! I was wondering if we could delve into your thesis project, a very exciting creative pedagogy textbook. Can you explain how the project came about, why did you want to write in this form? What challenges and opportunities did you experience in pulling the book together, especially within the institutional context of a university PhD programme?

TSR: Sure, my DFA thesis came from falling in love with hybrid and experimental texts during my MFA studies. It was a whole world of books that I didn’t know about and once I was exposed to it there was no looking back. One of the things I noticed in all the research I was doing during my MFA was there were few books that really tackled this kind of writing in a concise way, in a way that not only explained what it is but how to explore it in a personal creative writing practice. With the guidance of Colin Herd and Elizabeth Reeder it became clear that what I wanted to create was a textbook or workbook. I will say that I am lucky because the department at the University of Glasgow is extremely open to experimental work, so I was afforded not only a lot of support, but also a lot of inspiration to challenge form and structures. Though it can be difficult within an institution to be an artist I think it is all about finding the right programme and the right people who are willing to back you up when the project you want to complete is one that challenges and interrogates academia.

MS: I know that bell hooks is a big influence on your teaching practice. I’m interested in hooks’ notion of taking risk and handling confession in the classroom: ‘Any classroom that employs a holistic model of learning will also be a place where teachers grow, and are empowered by the process. That empowerment cannot happen if we refuse to be vulnerable while encouraging students to take risks’ (Teaching to Transgress). How have you negotiated vulnerability and sharing within your writing workshops? Have you seen it being done a certain way by others? What kinds of empowerment do you experience in teaching?

TSR: Yes, I love bell hooks, in many ways I feel my workshops and my DFA thesis are in direct response to Teaching to Transgress which has been a major influencer on the ways I think about education. For better or worse when I am running a workshop, I hold nothing back of who I am and what I have experienced. I think vulnerability and honesty create a learning environment that allows people taking my workshops to express themselves in the same way. Vulnerability seems an especially fitting word as well when it comes to experimenting in writing, you have to be willing to do things you have never done before, things that you maybe were told you couldn’t do, and things that you create yourself. I really feel like I behave much differently than a lot of people I have seen teach and it isn’t to say that how they do it is wrong or the way I do it is right. For me, it just means that my sharing experiences and my vulnerability are an essential part of the process of experimentation in creative writing. In every workshop I am awed by the kindness and generosity from people who attend my workshops and truly learn as much from them as I hope they learn from me. It is no small thing that so many people have not only trusted me with their creative practice, but have invited me and my ideas into their lives. It is something I will never take for granted and will always be incredibly grateful for.

MS: One of the things I love about your practice is its performative aspect. The launch for This Exquisite Corpse, your debut pamphlet [published last year by Calenture Press], was quite a trip - through a ‘poetic sexploration’ exercise you had the audience directly responding to the possibility conditions for confession that your initial reading had opened. It was an incredibly generative process, and rare to have an audience so willing to stand up and perform ad hoc! It made me think of Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology (2006), where she writes about how ‘orientation’ (for example, sexual, racial or otherwise) depends on a contingency of standpoints, of ‘the bodily inhabitance’ of certain spaces — you really brought orientation to the fore in a way that felt empowering, generative of ‘new impressions’ (Ahmed), while dissipating potentially negative affects we might otherwise experience when openly discussing sexual encounters. What other events have you hosted or taken part in over the last couple years? Do you have any advice for making poetry events not only more accessible but also more dynamic, and attractive to a wider audience?

TSR: Wow, that is all so kind of you to say! I never thought what I do could be analysed with Ahmed’s writing and so that feels quite an honour. Just before the pandemic I ran an event called Fucking Filthy with a sex positive playwright. It was an amazing event (which we had planned to do monthly as well as take on the road) that we created a for one night performance and an art gallery. Poetic Sexploration has honestly been a pet project of mine for well over 5 years now, long before the collection was every published. I had used it for creative writing workshops with fiction writers as well as hosted various events around my hometown in The States. I really love the way that the night includes audience involvement, because truly for me poetry is about response. Perhaps too this is why I tend to write and perform humorous poetry, because of the ways the audience can engage with the material. Honestly the biggest advice I would have for poetry events is that we begin to merge with other artistic mediums. I love the idea of a salon, returning to the idea that poetry can be gaining knowledge. I guess what I mean to say is I would just love to see more events that have artists, musicians, poets, drag artists, and more! I think this would absolutely attract a wider audience. One of the best events I have ever done was Eat Me and Preach in Liverpool. It is a themed evening with primarily drag artists, but that creates space for a whole host of performances, including poetry. I should also mention [Glasgow’s] Queer Theory which I think does the very same thing!

MS: Let’s stay with the topic of This Exquisite Corpse [which Meredith Grace Thompson reviewed for SPAM earlier this year]. What an incredibly intimate, visceral, exploratory and affirming text, that plays with various forms and offers an uncompromising look at the body, sexuality, grief, drugs, family and friendship. Audre Lorde’s essay ‘The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action’ was in the back of my mind rereading it today, thinking about ‘the reclaiming’ of language, the silences that you break around violence, desire, queerness, class, identity, pain — this collection has volume. I’m interested in how you broach topics of exposure and shame: how do you feel about the confessional modes as a way of working through the contradictions of bodily and otherwise exposure in language? What is the lyric ‘I’ for you? What can it (em)body and/or bear?

TSR: Well, would we even call it an essay? Lol as I do in the ‘essay’. What I will say is there was more space to truly unpack the idea of looking. Where the poetry collection has looking the moments are concise and the brevity of language and the lack of metaphor doesn’t give me nearly as much room to do the playful investigative writing, I am fond of. The essay allows for a method of observing that allows me to not just situate my own experiences of looking but to engage with other writers, pop culture, ideas, etc. Not to say that it isn’t possible in poetry, but for me an essay is a place I feel more comfortable doing it. However, I would argue at the end of the day all writing is observational and forms/structures we create to express observation are suited to it because we create them.

A gilded mirror at a slant against green background, Tawnya is seen in profile in the mirror

MS: I’m struck by the refrain from your poem ‘Shameless’: ‘Remember that time’. Memory and working through processes of recall and archivisation seems important to your work. How do you perceive the relationship between memory and writing: what kind of generative capacities, tensions and slippages does it afford?

TSR: Perhaps I write to remember? Or I write to hold onto remembering? For me memory and writing are interlocked, so much of the work I do, because it is primarily memoir or nonfiction, engages with my life and my memories and experiences of life. If not for memory what would I have to write? I think there will always be a tension there for me, can we always capture what the memory is? Does the memory change when we put it on the page? Is the archive of my memory the only thing that sustains my practice? I guess I am not quite sure and have asked you a lot of questions because in the end I don’t really have an answer.

MS: As lockdown descended this year, you started running writing workshops on Zoom. I was fortunate enough to join you for one on journaling back in autumn. I was struck by the easeful atmosphere you’d created among the students, how you’d made even a virtual space feel lively and collaborative. How has the process of teaching online been for you, and what future plans do you have for the series?

TSR: I am completely indebted to The Stay At Home Fringe for getting me into running workshops via Zoom. I don’t think I ever thought that this is what I would be doing, running courses and building an entire career independent of a university. I have honestly enjoyed it more than I ever thought I would. I love that the online space means I am teaching people from America, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, England, and beyond. It means I have met people who I wouldn’t have met otherwise simply by the limitations of location. It has been a complete learning process to create what is essentially a business, from the marketing, invoices, organisation, emails, and on. Though I will say none of that is difficult when I get to spend two hours in a space with people who are writing and finding new ways of engaging with their creative practice. I have had people tell me that it is a gift I give them, but in so many ways it feels like a gift I get. For the future, I have two new courses coming up in February. I am really excited for both of them because they were completely built by listening to what people wanted. This act of listening and then building curriculum makes me really excited to be a teacher. I am also continuing to offer my consulting services which has begun to pick up. I have read everything from PhD proposals to memoirs to novels to literatures essays. It is really such an honour to get to engage in such a wide variety of writing and be helpful.

MS: What do you miss about being in a physical classroom? What advantages does Zoom teaching have over IRL?

TSR: I will say I miss terribly the energy that is created when people are in a room together. I still feel it in Zoom, but it is different, it is less palpable then it is when a group of writers sit in a room together. I miss hearing pens move across pages as everyone writes together. It is the visceral experience of it I think I (along with many others) long for. I have already had people asking if I will be hosting things in person when I can and the answer is of course Yes! Teaching online has opened up a well of ideas and plans and projects and when the time comes we can see one another in person I will so look forward to building those spaces IRL.

MS: You’ve been working on a new website, ‘Experimental Creatives Collective’. Where did the idea for the space come from, and what do you hope it offers people? How do you envision it being used and by whom?

TSR: Yes! I am so excited for this. Many of the people taking my workshops have wanted a space to connect with one another outside of Zoom. I created a group on Facebook but it just didn’t feel right. Things get lost in the deadly algorithms and it felt like there wasn’t enough room for us to share and connect in all the ways that might be possible. So, Experimental Creatives Collective is something I have been working on to create a space for creatives across all mediums to connect. It is a place where people can post information about events, workshops, funding opportunities, collaboration opportunities, and more. Essentially a place that is primarily for creatives to network and share information and resources. My hope is that everyone and anyone who would enjoy a space like that finds it useful. When people join up they will have topics they can post in, groups they can join, they can follow people, chat with people, share their artwork/writing/projects. Honestly I am really excited and I think in lots of ways it will grow and develop as people sign up and give me feedback about improving it and I can’t wait for that moment!

You can find the Collective here.

MS: What single piece of advice would you give to someone about to embark upon a creative writing workshop programme, or share their work in such a space, perhaps for the first time?

TSR: Just go for it! I think education is changing, the ways we learn, the reasons we seek out knowledge. If you have an idea, chances are at least one other person is going to want to embark on a workshop that explores it! I guess the biggest advice is don’t take it personally, what I mean by this is sometimes people don’t show up, sometimes only 3 people register, and all of that is ok. It isn’t about your idea or your ability as a workshop facilitator! Also, sorry to plug again, but I am going to run a pay-what-you-can workshop on this very topic in February!

MS: As if you’d not achieved enough this year, I heard you’ve finished a novella and are now working on a novel. Care to elaborate on these projects? How does prose differ from poetry for you?

TSR: Yes, well, the thing about writers is we write, I honestly have too many projects always floating in my head. The novella is really quite experimental and so for the most part feels just a further extension of all the work I do. I have been calling it experimental memoir because although it is fiction it is based on my life. It is also an interweaving of the work of Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin. I also (fingers crossed) hope that after publication it is something I can stage. So really, it combines all those elements that most of my work does, which is to say it is hybrid and experimental. The novel is a whole new thing for me because it is just straight prose and rather vanilla to be honest. So far there are no sex, drugs, swear words, lol. I think in large part the novel was something I have begun working on to make it through the long dark winter days and living alone.

MS: Final question: what are your winter inspirations? What have you been reading/listening to/watching?

TSR: The best part of creating new curriculums based on the themes people want to see means I get to order myself a bunch of new books! So right now I have been reading The Archive Will Not Restore You by Julietta Singh, Just Us by Claudia Rankine, Index Cards by Moyra Davey, and The Body in Pain by Elaine Scarry. Truthfully in terms of watching I have been binging shows that I can relax too because by the time I hit the end of the day my mind is usually shattered. This means revisiting old favourites like Schitt’s Creek and finally getting around to watching Outlander. Though with that said, I do try each week to watch at least a few documentaries from my ever growing ‘To Watch List’ the last few weeks it has been Circus of Books, Jewel’s Catch One, and What Happened Miss Simone?

Funny thing about listening is that I have always felt my brain is full of books and writing that I am total crap with music. This means I often have to search lyrics from a song in order to find the name of the band, lol. Lately I have been listening a lot to Sylvan Esso, Mountain Man, Gillian Welch, The Staves, Laura Marling, and First Aid Kit, I guess there is nothing like a beautiful female voice singing mostly sad songs when I am walking around the park in the middle of winter.


Published: 19/1/21


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