Poet in residence: Interview with Iain Morrison

Arts Ambassador Gabi Gurycz chats to John Hansard Gallery’s Writer in Residence Iain Morrison

What made you want to become a writer? Are there any specific moments where you realised this was what you were going to do?

The word writer isn’t one I often use about myself, funnily enough. And it’s interesting to hear it offered back to me as a perception. Of course I am ‘writer-in-residence’ at John Hansard Gallery at the moment and so must be able to consider myself a ‘writer’ enough to have imagined myself in this role. I think if I feel a distance between my idea of what I do and the word writer, it probably has something to do with the word ‘poet’ getting in the way. I’ve noticed that poets have one of the only genres within writing practice that somehow resists being described as ‘writer’.

I have been creative for as long as I’ve been anything independent minded, I think. I have memories of Mum helping me to write down stories before I could write them myself. I always wanted to make my own version of a thing. I went on to study music at Cambridge University, specialising in singing and composition.

In about 2008, with another performer/writer called Leiza McLeod, I made a theatre piece about the experiences of women writers of the Beat Generation, called Gimme the Beat Girls.

Gimme the Beat Girls (2009)

This experience of reading poetry, and some prose, that cohered to convey a shared experience that wasn’t really being voiced except in the writing, must have catalysed me. It was when I moved back to Edinburgh, my home city, shortly afterwards, that I met a circle of writers and it started to be that most of what I was producing was poetry.

Why is writing important to you? You have been John Hansard Gallery’s writer in residence the past few months. What did that entail?

It probably follows on from what I was saying above, that it seems a way of thinking through experience, both for the writer themselves, and for the reader coming to what’s been written. For me it’s a space to untangle and to calm my perceptions by allowing a dialogue with my thoughts, externalised as words.

That’s what’s at the core of my John Hansard Gallery project, Gallery Notes. The writing I’m doing over the course of a year starts in each instance as note-taking. I have been going into either public or private situations in the Gallery where I have listened to the voices being heard and written down my thoughts mixed in with fragments of what I’ve heard. This is a process that relates to the way writing ‘untangles’ perception for me. Writing becomes a sort of pearl-making, finding a way so spin our understanding around new strangenesses.

Jane Birkin and Iain Morrison at the staff club, Highfield Campus, May 2018. (Photo from Iain’s Blog)

The context for my residency is that John Hansard Gallery has been moving from it’s Highfield Campus site to a new building in the city centre. I’ve made five or six visits to Southampton now, of varying lengths. On each visit I’ve made some time to write at either the old or the new site, or in related parts of the university. I’ve taken time to draft my notes into poems. I’ve captured film footage from the outsides of the sites as well which will be edited with the texts of the poems to make film-poems which capture the passage through the year for the gallery and its team and audiences. So far I’ve presented work in three public events, with more on the way in the second half of the residency.

I’m particularly looking forward to working on a final publication, now that I can see more clearly what shape it will take. Most of the writing has been done at this stage. 

 What do you think connects art, writing and the city together? How does it relate to Southampton?

Southampton is clearly having a good cultural moment. At the official opening of the new gallery in May, Sir Nicholas Serrota, Chair of Arts Council England, talked about how despite the overall pot of public money shrinking, investment for Southampton has been going up. It’s clear from conversations with Louise Coysh (Associate Director Arts and Culture) and others within University of Southampton, that it’s proud of the strong, public-facing arts institutions within its bounds. Being a writer in residence in a gallery, embedded within a university, within these wider civic and national structures gives a good starting point to use writing as a way of interrogating the connections and energies between all these layers.

I’ve always find the impact of space really interesting in how it shapes writing. Has writing on different sites, the old John Hansard Gallery and the new impacted your writing?

I’m interested in whether you’re thinking about space in terms of privilege, as in which spaces writers have access to write within. From that point of view I’m exploiting the potential of the writing residency at John Hansard Gallery to take full advantage of the access granted me to situations a writer wouldn’t normally be allowed into: staff meetings, the gallery before it’s open to the public, event and group structures within the university.

What is  being done to enhance the links between writing, art and culture in Southampton which the opening of the gallery has shown are so vibrant and important? 

The So:Write residency programme (myself at John Hansard Gallery, Nazneen Ahmed at Southampton Libraries and Dinos Aristidou at the Mayflower) organised by Southampton-based organisation Artfulscribe has I hope shown some of the possible ‘business’ that writing

can get up to when it’s let loose in different communities and cultural organisations. It’s great to hear that further residencies – for no doubt with as varied writers – will also be coming up in the year ahead. I feel I still have a lot to learn about the interactions between the different scenes in Southampton, but luckily for me, I still have a good few months of engagement left!

ARTIST ROOMS: Gerhard Richter is open at the John Hansard Gallery 12 May-18 August 2018.

Iain Morrison is writer-in-residence at John Hansard Gallery, part of SO:Write [https://www.so-write.org], a literature project led by Artfulscribe. 

Visit Iain’s blog at https://permanentpositions.wordpress.com/tag/iain-morrison-poetry/

Arts Ambassadors is a paid opportunity, supported by the Careers and Employability Service’s Excel Southampton Internship programme, University of Southampton.

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