Edited by Toby Sharpe
Art: ‘Want and Need’ by Olivia Twist http://www.yesoliviatwist.com/
I would like to introduce Paula Varjack’s Letters I Never Sent To You as a text that may be used in an academic curriculum. During my undergraduate degree at the University of Edinburgh, I became involved with the Scottish and UK live literature performance network. Through this scene, I became aware of Varjack’s theatre work, in particular her solo performance ‘Show Me The Money,’ a piece of documentary theatre that explores the economics of artistry under austerity. I was excited for the release in 2015 of her debut collection, Letters I Never Sent To You, especially in the context of her previous work.
In the opening pages of Letters I Never Sent To You, Paula Varjack explains that ‘no matter where you go in the world, everyone’s heard about Ghana’ (19). The tension between expectation and reality is a key theme that Varjack returns to throughout her debut collection, which is composed of both poetry and prose. This tension manifests itself in the characters of the piece, such as the ‘sometimes hipster, part time misogynist’ (22) swaggering in a London bar, or the lament that ‘my life is not / this rich pageant of threesomes / and free sex / although sometimes I wish / that rumour were true’ (94). At the outset, the collection appears to be a roaming tour of race and sexuality in the cityscapes of Accra, Berlin, and London. However, Varjack is keenly aware of the limits of space and language, and how visible and invisible walls are erected. As she wanders through a chic Parisian neighbourhood, she ‘finds [herself] caring less about the authentic. I am here partly for the ideal, the dream’ (74).
The reader repeatedly follows Paula as she walks around a city. These short, anecdotal pieces are reminiscent of Lauren Elkin’s description of the flâneuse, the ‘feminine form of the flâneur, an idler, a dawdling observer, usually found in cities’ (7). For Elkin, ‘cities are made up of invisible boundaries, intangible customs gates that demarcate who goes where’ (286). Varjack’s writing is a contemporary example of the flâneuse as a lived experience, where in pieces such as ‘At Least It’s Not Sunrise’, a tour around the nightlife of Berlin, ends with the group ‘[commiserating], about love and sex and relationships and closure, and I drink my double whiskey far, far too quickly’ (40). However, for Varjack, not all flâneuse[ing] is alike. During the ‘Paris’ section, the experience of being lost is reflected inward, where ‘all I wanted was a space, a disconnected space, a space for myself’ (69) and ‘I am no one here; I have no history. I don’t need a name’ (72)
This tension in walking through the city seems to reach a culmination when Varjack describes visiting Accra. At the end of ‘Oxford Street’ she explains ‘please let me find my way / please just leave me at the hotel to sunbathe. / Please let me get darker and maybe I’ll stand out a bit less’ (54). As a bisexual woman of colour, Varjack is attentive to how city walking is an experience rich with connotations for her experience – some positive, some negative. Varjack explains this best by describing ‘my hopes and impossible cultural aspirations, the desire to integrate, to intersect, and mostly, the failing and failing and failing’ (58). These moments in Varjack’s writing could easily be the subjects of a LGBT writing course or a study in the African diaspora, the latter emphasising the geographical range of Varjack’s collection. I find Varjack’s descriptions of urban artisan communities vivid and refreshing, especially in her highlighting of racism and biphobia in pieces such as ‘Commodity’ and ‘Clarification.’
Walking through a city is not the only experiential challenge that Varjack explores. Her attention is also drawn to the barriers that exist around the language of sexuality and relationships, often emerging in heartfelt and humorous ways. In ‘Brunch Date’ the narrator thinks ‘I want to cut our conversation short / and just scream / WE FUCKKKKKKED / just so I know its real’ (39) while in ‘Dear Straight Girl’ she explains ‘I did manage to tell you / that you looked really good /against that wall I had you pinned to’ (92).
Paula Varjack’s work is often situated within the contemporary performance poetry/spoken word genre, having founded the influential London night ‘The Anti-Slam’ alongside Dan Simpson. As such, Varjack’s writes in a first-person voice identified as her own, described by critics such as Maria Damon as an attempt to write ‘some kind of “realness” – authenticity at the physical/sonic and meta-physical/emotional-intellectual-spiritual levels’ (329). However, it is equally important to recognise Letters I Never Sent To You as a culmination of Varjack’s extensive portfolio of performance art. This narrative written voice has a precedent in Varjack’s live performances, such as in her one-woman show Show Me The Money. In both her performance art and writing, Varjack uses an anecdotal tone that feels close and engaged.
As part of my undergraduate degree, I studied a course in Theatre and Gender. Letters I Never Sent To You would have been an interesting text to introduce to this course, as it is both a debut collection and a culmination of her artistic portfolio. There are important threads that may be drawn between the themes of Letters I Never Sent To You and performance art pieces such as conversations with my homes. In conversations, Varjack stands illuminated by a projected stop-motion animation of a house being drawn, while voiceovers talk about home and belonging. An interesting comparison between Letters I Never Sent, Show Me The Money, and conversations is that the former two emphasise Varjack’s voice as a narrator, whilst in conversations, she does not speak throughout the performance. I believe Varjack’s portfolio would have been a valuable addition to this course, emphasising a multidisciplinary artistry that demonstrates the tension between printed and performed text.
As such, Varjack’s work has a flexibility that may be adapted well to an English Literature course. As noted, a subject of study may be the way Varjack relates to the historical precedent of the flâneuse, particularly highlighting women’s relationships to century cityscapes, alongside Virginia Woolf. An alternative route to introduce her work may be to explore the interdisciplinary strands of theatre and prose/poetry writing, either as an exemplar within a creative writing course or as a primary text for contemporary British writing.
Elkin, Lauren. Flaneuse: Women Who Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London. Chatto & Windus, 2016.
Damon, Maria. ‘Was That ‘Different,’ ‘Dissident’ or ‘Dissonant’? Poetry (n) the Public Sphere: Slams, Open Readings, and Dissident Traditions.’ Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word. Edited by Charles Bernstein. Oxford University Press, 1998 pp. 324-342
“excerpt–conversations with my homes” Vimeo, uploaded by Paula Varjack. Online video clip, 2013. https://vimeo.com/63557381
Varjack, Paula. Letters I Never Sent to You. Burning Eye Books, 2015.
“show me the money preview edited extracts – short”, Vimeo, uploaded by Paula Varjack, April 2016.
About the author:
Frederick “Freddie” Alexander is a writer and events organiser based in Edinburgh. He studied English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, writing his dissertation on Gerard Genette’s narrative theory as applied to comic books. He has organised regional and national slam poetry events, including the UK University Poetry Slam 2014, Inky Fingers, and K/RK. Having graduated in 2016, he has begun working as a freelance writer for Broadway Baby and Flint & Pitch. His day job is at the National Library of Scotland.