Interview: John Kinsella
Salome Wagaine talks to the Judith E Wilson Fellow about the upcoming productions of his plays, student poetry and the creative environment in Cambridge
Although the primary reason I find myself talking to John Kinsella is the upcoming performance of Plough Plays in Grantchester, the main impression one gets of the current Judith E Wilson Visiting Fellow is that he is constantly occupied with a number of projects: May Week also sees the premiere of Ecumenical at Churchill College Chapel, preceded by the launch of the Wide Range Chapbooks featuring new poetry primarily by Cambridge students. Indeed, on his website, Kinsella is described as a ‘poet, novelist, critic and journal editor,’ a description which only hints to his prolific output.
The choice of staging Plough Plays, which consist of three short plays, two set in Grantchester, the third western Australia, in June may seem odd given plough plays tend to be performed at the start of the agricultural year, but, he feels, it “creates a conversation” between the two settings. Kinsella is an advocate of what he has called ‘international regionalism’ which is about ensuring that regional intergrity is maintained, but kept up alongside an “international conversation.” Rather than focussing on “barriers and exclusions” Kinsella’s work seeks to “highlight difference by showing we have connections” be it on a small-scale level within the Cambridge community, or whether we branch out an engage in a dialogue with residents of other places up and down the country and across the world.
Grantchester has “special meaning” to the writer, originating from his daily morning cycles in the nineties from Churchill to the village. That it is an “intimate place” will work in the plays’ favour, as they are based on Mummers plays, which were traditionally performed house-to-house, there being a direct appeal to every audience to which they were performed in order to receive payment. The shape of the plays, which take in broader social concerns of gender and respect for the environment along with the more “soap opera-ish [and]corny” devices, hints towards the timing of the staging being appropriate, the end of the academic year often being an opportunity for Cambridge drama to embrace the more exaggerated aspects of theatre.
Indeed, this heightened sense of performance seems to be something Kinsella is interested in. Ecumenical is a play he describes as “seriously odd” given its use of choreography, masks and robes, which will tackle with “all the things you can’t see but you wonder about.” Moreover, unlike some, he doesn’t see a clear line between the performance poet, and those poets whose work is primarily to do with the written word, considering his own readings to be relatively physical. Moreover, Kinsella has worked on verse plays since he was a teenager and loves poetry in drama as he sees it as a “bonus,” as evidenced by the work of Shakespeare, Marlowe and others.
While some of his work is performed outside of Cambridge (the final of his radio play Forest Trilogy which takes a look at the process of colonisation over an extended period of Australian history will be airing on BBC Radio in the new year, for example), much of his drama have had student productions, often by the Marlowe Society. Kinsella is clearly a believer in active participation in arts and politics and as well as this states the he likes “risk-taking and people to be passionate about what they’re doing”; he highlights one of the things he likes about the Marlowe Society is that they have such passion. Their Lent term production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Arts Theatre was one both he and his nine-year-old son both greatly enjoyed, the latter getting “so caught up in…the liveliness” of a performance that relied heavily on physical movement, that he could not resist leaning in to get closer to the action.
For the previous two terms, Kinsella has held a series of poetry workshops, the culmination of which will be in a reading and launch of sixteen chapbooks, only three of which not being the work of current Cambridge students. It is a project that as his time as Judith E Wilson Fellow he has clearly enjoyed, the poetry that has been produced he feels is “superb.” Indeed, he has high hopes for the group, feeling that some may go on to become the noticeable poets of their generation “in all sorts of ways.” What links both the poets and those involved in the theatrical side of things, Kinsella suggests, is the overall atmosphere within Cambridge. He identifies an “environment of creativity” where “energy and enthusiasm” have an opportunity to develop, a fact that can be seen by virtue of the fact that, for many, the end of exams marks an opportunity to get thrown into one or more plays, the May Week theatre programme this year being a promising and diverse one.
A key element to Kinsella’s attitude towards both his writing and politics is a rejection of what might be called conventional notions of ownership, as evidenced by him considering his “life’s commitment” land rights in Australia. He believes neither in property nor in copyright, a fact which is hinted at both in the content of his work, and also in the manner in which he writes. The plough plays he has written explore a “real tension between the natural world and the constructed human world” and, as is the case with the theatre he has written, he does not know much about the nature of their upcoming production. Theatre, for him, is about the act doing of theatre, and he holds a “strong belief that directors and actors own the play, not the writer” an attitude which no doubt will have provided a satisfying opportunity for director Fergus Blair to stage as he sees fit. Although the plays performed this May Week were written alone, Kinsella does much of his work with other people: a collection of poetry he worked on with Louis Armand was published recently, to be followed in October with a similar collaboration with Drew Milne. “If I had a choice between writing on my own and collaborating, I’d collaborate,” he says, as it provides an opportunity to “defetishise texts,” given that, after an extended period of bouncing work between one another, it becomes incredibly difficult to discern who came up with what.
I leave Kinsella’s office anticipating the poetry reading, as well as being just as intrigued as he seems to be in finding out how his plays will come to life.
The launch and reading of the Wide Range Chapbooks will be held at Judith E Wilson Studio on 13th June at 7pm, Plough Plays performed 14th-15th June at Grantchester Meadows, while Ecumenical is at Churchill College Chapel on the 24th