January2009, Interview with Sara Wingate Gray

Interview by Becky Hunter (Durham, UK) with Sara Wingate Gray (Leipzig, Germany), conducted on Skype, Monday 17th November 2008.

Sara Wingate Gray, aka the Itinerant Poetry Librarian, describes herself as a writer, artist and independent research scholar. One of the Guardian Newspaper’s Top 15 Inspiring, Creative, Dynamic Women in 2006, she has performed and toured with The Poetry Cubicle, ‘an artist-led, not for profit, interactive performance space and poetry organisation’ since 2002, and in 2006 set up the project entitled ‘The Itinerant Poetry Librarian’. This world-travelling, free poetry library has made it possible for members in San Francisco, USA, and Vancouver BC, Canada, to read poems collected by Sara on her travels in Hungary, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Belgium amongst others. 

The project also facilitates her research interests, which include library and archive science, live art installation, field recordings and digitization, and the ephemeral nature of sound. In 2007-08 Gray was Visiting Research Scholar at The Poetry Center & American Poetry Archives, San Francisco.
Becky Hunter: Can you explain to me how you view these different elements of your practice – writing, art and research? Are the boundaries quite blurred?

Sara Wingate Gray: I started out from quite an early age, writing, being published and being involved in publishing. All the other things that I did alongside my writing - organising events, creating things, happenings and installations - I saw as part of the writing; other people assumed that they were secondary to my writing, but I knew that they went hand in hand. I guess because people couldn’t really put a finger on exactly who I was or what I was doing, it was easier for them just to say, ‘Oh she’s a writer…’ When I put some time into thinking about it and looking back at the things I had done, the things that were almost innate to me, I realised, fuck, actually I am an artist. We’ve shifted the nature of what an artist is: in twentieth century language it’s quite specific to the visual arts, whereas really the concept of an artist referred to someone who was creative, which might encompass all of the art forms – theatre, writing, the visual arts, etc.

BH: Did anything help you on the way to realising that you could be or do all of these things at once? Or was it something that you got to through your own confidence?

SWG: It was predominantly through my own perception. I’d allowed other people to decide and shape what I was capable of. Because I was quite successful and capable in those things, there wasn’t any reason necessarily to look outside of the box. There came a point where I thought, this isn’t challenging me… That was really frustrating, and maybe for a time that frustration was held in me. I dealt with it by doing more and more creative things: playing in bands, writing, making events, all these different things… It came from a level of frustration that built up, but it came out in a burst of confidence in myself saying, ok, in order to get over this frustration and develop your artistic self you should just believe in yourself and have the confidence to go and do some great artistic act and then it grew from there.

BH: One of your research areas is ‘the existence of poetry and sound in an ephemeral context.’ Can you explain some more about this?

SWG: It is to do with the transitory state, physically, literally in the sense that the stuff that I’m interested in collecting for the archive is gained in these transitory moments of the library. Also in the metaphorical sense that poetry and sounds, because they are effectively either spoken word or vibrations in the air, they have an element of ephemera because they disappear. Once I have spoken and my voice is silent, the words disappear. I’m interested in how that could be a metaphor for how things are in the world and also in the literal sense that if I want to archive this [poem or piece of sound], I have to make a physical recording of it. A juxtaposition is then at play between capturing a sound that is ephemeral – making a physical record and archive of something that technically in its original state can’t exist, in the sense of being in an archive; it can’t exist as a preserved object, by its very physical nature. I find it fascinating from a sound archivist level, and as a metaphor of the library practice itself.

BH: When you’re collecting poems, you interview poets and writers as you are travelling?

SWG: That’s something that I started by doing it as an act in 2006… I spent a smaller amount of time doing that in 2007 and I haven’t really concentrated on it at all in 2008. Purely in practical terms it’s physically impossible for me to do all the things that I want to do… I still do recordings of poetry and sound when I am able, but it’s more that I’ll remember to take my device with me and I’ll hear something that day. Or, I’ll be around and about in a city and I will hear a sound that I know I can go back and get that day, and I’ll go back and get it.

BH: Can you give an example of a sound that you could go back and get later?

SWG: Yes - probably about 200 yards from where I’m situated right now, there’s a building that is being redeveloped. There’s a giant hole that goes through the wall, an air vent. When I was walking past one day, in the daytime, because of the people working inside, you could actually hear, very slightly, the sounds of the people who were working inside, but it was a very eerie sound because it was going through all the vents in the building and then being forced out this larger vent. It was an amazing sound, and came back the next day and recorded it… and I came back in the night and recorded the night version of it too.

BH: When you used to be in bands, was that with a similar interest in sound in an experimental way?

SWG: Yes absolutely. The main band that I was in, technically I still am, was an improvisational, ambient sound-scape band. Every live session we played was an improvised gig. I was from the beginning interested in the idea of sound-scapes, particularly using samples of sound, originally sampled from records, as I didn’t have any means to record stuff at that time, back in 2002. Post those points when we played together I did start collecting sounds, and that is still my role within the band. Because I’m not physically able to be there, I send them sounds or they download sound samples that I have made and they still use them in performances. But you’re right, that is where the seed came from.

BH: Can you say something more about your interest in technology? Downloads, Skype, recording and sampling…

SWG: It’s possibly slightly untypical for a poet or a writer, or whatever you will, but it’s because I did an A-Level in Computer Science. I’ve always had a bit of a geeky tech bent to me: I was on the internet from the age of sixteen, did some basic programming, so it’s something that was always there and it’s remained with me. I’m fascinated by the potential for the applications of digital technologies. I’m lucky that I have a semi-literate computer background so that I can understand some of the more in-depth jargon, and I can do a bit of the tinkering myself… Possibly, those who do get a grip on the tech computer world and who are also artists are in the minority.

BH: Have you collaborated with scientists, in something like the science of sound for instance?

SWG: It’s something that I’d love to do. I can’t say that I have particularly formally, mainly from a lack of meeting people who are interested in such connections. The worlds of science and art tend to keep themselves to themselves. If they don’t it’s because of some of kind of formal affiliation, a research grant, or for funding requirements. Of course there are plenty of scientists and artists who have done great collaborations together, but when they happen in an informal sense it’s because two people just meet each other, realise they have these interests and research ideas in common and are able to work together to solve and explore them. I haven’t met anyone who is on the same line of thought as me - I’d love to meet people who I could work with. Purely doing events based stuff, I’ve worked with a ton of different people and artists and I guess it does come down to this weird separation between the fields: scientists and artists don’t necessarily hang out together.

BH: What exactly was your research project for the American Poetry Archive and what did you take away from it?

SWG: It shifted quite a lot actually, my original idea was to go there because I saw them fundamentally as a really good model for elements of what I was trying to do, or at least at the time what I thought `I was trying to do, which was a special collections archive... I was going to go as a scientist, if you like, and observe, investigate what they were doing, how it physically operated, what the system protocols were, all these kinds of bits and pieces. And then it changed quite a lot because at that time they had been given a grant and were in the process of trying to digitize the collection and it turned out that that they didn’t have any of the resources or skills needed to get that up and running… It was really a great meeting of minds, timing, and chance, which is really everything that I’m about, the ‘library karma’ as I call it… I would go and talk jargon to the computer people and explain back to the poetry people what the jargon meant, and what it meant for the archive, in terms of how we would have to present our data, what would have to be done… It was really helpful to me because it enabled me to expand and develop my own ideas and it became a reality, it wasn’t just me theorizing: it had funding, it was an official project, professional, it happened and I got to see my theories become reality.

BH: Have you got any other stories of the way that chance has played a part in what you do?

SWG: Everywhere I turn, something amazing happens and it’s all down to chance. It happens to me so often that I put it down to what I call the ‘library karma’… When I first arrived in San Francisco I didn’t know anyone or anything, I was staying somewhere that I managed to find on Craigslist on a desperate search. The first thing I do when I arrive anywhere new is I walk the streets, orient myself, and look around for places to start running the library… The first place I walk into is a theatre café; the women is super helpful… I come back the next day and talk to the person I’ve been told to talk to who agrees that I can do the library, pretty much straight away… I turn up on the Friday and a woman in the café, who is also an artist, says ‘Hey, since you’re a poetry library you should probably know about 16th and Mission’, and I’m like ‘What’s that?’. She says, ‘All these poets turn up randomly on the street and start reading things out.’ And it turns out that 16th and Mission is a few blocks from where we were at this theatre, but it was literally round the corner from my house. The one place in this entire city, that is 7 miles by 7 miles, the place that I end up [living] is literally 200 paces from the only on-the-street open mic every week. It’s pretty randomly amazing. 

To find out more about The Itinerant Poetry Librarian see the following links:   http://sarawingategray.co.uk http://itinerantpoetrylibrarian.blogspot.com

Becky Hunter

Becky Hunter is a writer based in London and Durham, UK. She is Assistant Editor for Whitehot Magazine.

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