The Poetry Can Stand On Its Own – Poet In Residence interview

As the deadline for this year’s open call for Poetry and Spoken Word approaches, we speak to Hidden Door’s poet in residence Alyson Kissner, who will be putting together this year’s poetry programme. We chat about about themes, process, and how the format of this year’s festival opens the floor to more possibilities than ever. 

“I didn’t need a set career or an elaborate show to hold space. The poetry can stand on its own”

This year, the poetry and spoken word programme will feature stripped back performances, just a poet and a microphone, which will form an integral part of the journey through the venue that each visitor will travel.

“We have platformed some truly amazing acts in the past,” says Alyson, “poets who have heightened their pieces with bread making, pole dancing, light cues and music to spectacular effect. I’ve been dazzled by these shows, but our team is hopeful that this year’s simpler 20-30 minute format will act as encouragement to newer poets, as well as a testament to the ways that a reading itself can be engaging, impactful and just a good time”. 

Hidden Door prides itself on platforming the best of new and emerging talent, and across the board this year’s open calls have been our most inclusive and accessible yet, opening the door of possibility to performers and artists who may not feel like they have access to a platform like this.

This was Alyson’s personal experience of Hidden Door, and something she’s really keen to emphasise.

“I was eager to participate, but I felt intimidated. It seemed like I needed some big, never-been-done-before idea in order to apply. I was also not very established as a poet, and I didn’t believe that a festival of Hidden Door’s quality would be interested in my work as it was.”

Acknowledging the time, effort, invariable rejection and countless barriers to publication and exposure, Alyson says her experience of Hidden Door helped her to discover that those things weren’t actually necessary. “What I didn’t realise at the time was that I didn’t need a set career or an elaborate show to hold space. The poetry can stand on its own”.

This year’s theme is “Environments”, a concept with a huge amount of scope for interpretation. “I’ve been thinking a lot more recently about the natural world” says Alyson, “A part of my journey as a poet has been reflecting back to nature, grounding myself in coastal landscapes, as well as thinking about my daily environments; the homes I occupy, my domestic routines, and the ways I’ve been contained. I feel that so much of selfhood and self identity is made through contact – in our connection to what is exterior, in how it influences our internal perceptions.

“When the world around us reacts, we learn who we are. I think there are many ways to respond to the theme of Environments, and I’m interested in the ways other poets have found themselves reacting with or against the settings around them. I’m also interested in reading about poets’ relationships with nature, language and place, rewilding and reflections on climate change”. 

The former Scottish Widows building (or as it has become known for Hidden Door, “The Complex”) is an amazing environment in itself, and the stripped back nature of this year’s performances will give poets a chance to work within the space itself, with its huge hexagon shapes and its multiple levels, winding down deeper into a fantastical rabbit hole of artistic discovery, providing, as Alyson puts it, “a totally unique experience for artist and audience”.

For Alyson, this meeting point between Artist and Environment is crucial to the writer’s art.

“Writing as an action is mostly solitary, but if you’re going to publish or take your work out of the box, you’re going to make contact with others. What meaning is made in that intersection and the act of transmission?”

The interpretation of that meeting point is what makes the performance; “How do you want to use the physical space, the physical body and breath to best express your ideas? When you have direct access to your audience, where do you respond or hold back?”

And how can a solitary writer make that leap to performer, where they may not have encountered their audience so physically before?

“I think the most important thing to remember is that this is your art and your time. You are allowed to inhabit that platform as you feel is right for the writing. Ask yourself what ways you want to explain what’s already on your page, and don’t let the extra step frighten you. Although the contact point between author and reader is more immediate when they become an audience, your work is the same and you have always been connecting”.

The Poetry and Spoken Word Open Call for Hidden Door 2023 is open until midnight on 3rd February.