An Interview with AJ McKenna

Hello, AJ. You’ve had a busy couple of years, it looks like. What have been the highlights, both in terms of your poetry, and personally?

I think the two biggest highlights professionally have been my film, ‘Letter to a Minnesota Prison’, about the case of CeCe McDonald, which was shown at the Royal Festival Hall as part of ‘Architects of Our Republic’, an Apples and Snakes project – and, more recently, working as Deputy Editor at the online LGBT magazine So So Gay, which I did from last spring until I stepped down at the start of this year to concentrate on my own writing. The great thing about that role was the opportunity it gave me to amplify other trans voices, by commissioning work from people like J Mase III, Elaine O’Neill and Jude Enroljas.

– You’re a wonderfully outspoken person, fighting intolerance in all its forms. Do all poets have a duty to highlight the things that make them angry?

We live in very angry times: the news reports over the past week have been enough to confirm that. But equally, they’ve been very interesting in giving us space in which to consider what kinds of expression of anger are artistically worth it. If you look at the stuff that Charlie Hebdo was publishing, there is undoubtedly an anger behind it, but it’s a kind of spluttering, obvious, one-dimensional anger. No-one deserves to die for producing cartoons like that, but equally, they aren’t worth dying for either. If you think about some of the great free speech cases, stuff like the suppression of Ulysses, or the Lady Chatterley trial, or the Howl case, it absolutely would have been worth dying to have produced works like those. They were all to some extent motivated by anger, but it seems to me that they made something out of their anger which is beautiful and arresting and three-dimensional. So I think the question you have to ask is – can I make something worthwhile of my anger? Can I turn it into something which has space in it? That’s what you should ask yourself.

– Can you tell us a little bit about transphobia?

Well, it’s obviously the main thing I get angry about! Transphobia is the irrational prejudice people have against trans people – I don’t want to say it’s ‘the same as’ homophobia is for cisgender (non-trans) gay people, but obviously there are differences. Transphobia is still a lot more casually tolerated in this society than homophobia, for one. For another, you often encounter cis gay people who can be horribly transphobic, which really makes me angry, because you’d think if you understand what it’s like to be a minority you would hope people wouldn’t inflict the same hurt on other people.

– I see you are putting together a one hour show for the Edinburgh Fringe. Can you tell us anything about it?

The original idea for the show was to do an extended version of one of my 20-minute sets, a set which focuses on performing pieces which are inspired by the worst things people have said to me. It’s still based on that initial premise, but gradually other themes are emerging – politics (gender politics particularly), family, my years as a teenage anorexic, and a large helping of what I can only refer to as sex and violence. Hopefully people will find that a heady enough combination!

– Which poems do you consider to be your ‘greatest hits’?

The two poems people ask for most at gigs are ‘You’re fucking dead lol j/k’, which is my anti-banter poem, and ‘My revelation will not be trivialised’, which is a poem I wrote in response to transphobic labels. And the video of mine which has had the most hits on YouTube is ‘The Bathroom Thing’, my poem about anti-trans bathroom panic. So yes, I see your point about being outspoken…

– What aims do you have when you sit down to write a poem?

I tend to write in one of two ways – either something will make me very immediately angry, in which case I’ll write something as a kind of rapid response. Usually with these I don’t really have an idea of where the piece will end up – I’ll start with a line and then riff on it from there and see where it gets me. ‘My revelation’ was written in that way – I’d been annoyed by being referred to as a ‘TV’ and so I started riffing on the phrase ‘I am not a TV’, coming up with ways in which I’m not, which of course led me to think about Gil Scott-Heron and ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ and so I thought I’d carry on in that fashion and…eventually the poem was pretty much written, and only needed a few tweaks thereafter.

The other way I tend to write is that I’ll have an idea in my head which worries away at me for ages, unconsciously, then eventually I’ll find a way into it and come up with something. ‘Letter to a Minnesota Prison’ went like that: I’d wanted to write a poem about CeCe McDonald for a while – indeed I’d made numerous attempts and none of them had really came off. I’d heard about her being wrongly imprisoned for defending herself against a transphobic, racist attack, and I’d initially tried to write a poem about it in the style of that Bob Dylan song, ‘The Ballad of the Hurricane’, but…well, it worked out about as well as you can expect.

Then I was commissioned to do a poem for ‘Architects of Our Republic’, an Apples and Snakes event commemorating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. I had no idea how to proceed with it – in fact I found the commission quite daunting. So I decided to start by reading over the speech – the whole speech, not just the peroration, the ‘I have a dream’ bit, which everyone remembers. One of the interesting moments in the earlier part of the speech is a point when he compares the Declaration of Independence to a bad cheque. The interesting thing about this in the context of the CeCe McDonald case was that one of the key pieces of evidence used against her in her pre-trial hearing was that she’d written a cheque that bounced. So this gave me a way in. I began with ‘Your cheque bounced, CeCe…’ and the poem flowed from there. Then it was just a matter of editing.

– Who are your heroes, both in literature, and more widely?

In contemporary poetry my heroes are, in no particular order, Joelle Taylor, Sophia Walker and Angela Readman. More widely I adore the work of Alison Bechdel, the cartoonist who wrote Fun Home, which was a key influence on my decision to come out; Laverne Cox, who’s used her fame from appearing in Orange is the New Black to help advance trans rights; Fallon Fox, who’s done similar work in a much more dangerous environment as the world’s first out trans mixed martial arts fighter…and I’ve always been a massive, massive Tori Amos fan. I don’t think I’d actually write poetry if it hadn’t been for Tori!

– And who are your villains?

Now that is a much longer list! But you could probably sum it up as Tories, transphobes, and Ukip supporters.

– There seems to be a thriving performance poetry scene in Newcastle. Who are the other notable poets who perform regularly there?

That’d be another long list then! But we are blessed to have some amazing poetry and spoken word artists in the region. There’s Jenni Pascoe, who runs Jibba Jabba, Kirsten Luckins, whose show ‘The Moon Cannot Be Stolen’ is an amazing blend of poetry and music…Rowan McCabe is a massive rising star too, who’s also done an amazing show called ‘North East Rising’. Degna Stone, winner of the Verb new voices award…Amy Mackelden, who…her shows are not pure poetry but as spoken word they’re amazing. I remember seeing a performance of her show the ‘Seven Fatal Mistakes of Online Dating’ which finished with her performing a poem to a random guy on Chatroulette, after which the entire audience gave him a big wave. Such an amazing, risk-taking moment. And so nice, too! There’s Ira Lightman, as well, who I consider Britain’s most avant-garde poet, though he doubtless knows 18 different people doing even more experimental stuff than him. Ask him about the clown t-shirts. There’s Asa J Maddison, whose performance poem, ‘Boom’, is one of the most powerful things I saw last year; Sky Hawkins, Chris Harland…there are loads of us. Just move up here already! All of you!

– What are your plans as a poet for the next couple of years?

There is no plan!

AJ is performing at Stirred in Manchester on Monday 23rd February, Talking Heids in Leith on Tuesday 22nd, and at ‘Do Us Proud’, a special event to mark the end of LGBT History Month in York, on Thursday 25th

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