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Q&A with Joe Kriss, Project Manager at Wordlife

Formed in 2006, Wordlife has evolved into one of the leading advocates for literature in the Yorkshire region. Wordlife started as a response to the lack of live literature events in Sheffield and since then has developed a programme across Yorkshire and beyond, including events, publications and bespoke projects designed to bring new audiences to literature.

We spoke with Joe Kriss, Wordlife’s Project Manager, who gave us an insight into their recent project combining poetry and new technology…

Can you tell us a little more about Wordlife?

Wordlife is a literature organisation based in Sheffield that runs a range of projects designed to showcase original writing to new audiences. We’re part of a wider not for profit social enterprise company called Opus Independents that as well as Wordlife also operates a free magazine in Sheffield called ‘Now Then‘ and a politics festival called ‘Festival of Debate‘. We started out in 2006 running an open mic night in Sheffield University. We were writers in the city looking for opportunities to perform and develop our work. Over the years we expanded our events arm and started to devise new projects and apply for artistic commissions across the country. We currently operate regular events and projects in cities such as in Sheffield, Manchester, Hull and Wakefield and regularly work with a range of partners such as universities, literature festivals and other arts organisations.

Wordlife recently celebrated the history and culture of making in Sheffield through poetry and digital-poets-in-residence; can you tell us about this project?

There’s a great enterprise in Sheffield at the moment called the ‘City of Making‘ that is supporting a range of cultural activities in Sheffield. They advertised an open call for submissions for arts projects along the theme of ‘making’ and it felt like a great opportunity to work with poetry and new technology. We’d worked on a few large scale projection projects before and knew how effective they could be. We’d also started a partnership with another local organisation called Epiphany VR who specialise in looking at community and art projects that include Virtual Reality. We put together a bid that would appoint four digital poets in residences in four locations that were strongly linked to both historical and contemporary making in Sheffield. The work they created was turned into one poem film that was projected at a public event onto Weston Park Museum and one 360 Degree video that can be experienced through a samsung VR headset or through youtube.

How was technology incorporated in each of the projects? And how did this impact the work?

The outcomes of the project definitely affected the material each poet came out with. They wrote in a different way to meet the digital outputs than if the outcome had been just a booklet or performance. We put together an initial brief for each piece of work that had some general outlines for how the work would be used. You’d have to ask the poets directly how they interpreted this in the work but poem films definitely lend themselves to more visual imagery. There definitely seemed to be a partiality for more narrative led pieces from the poets for this form. The 360 Degree videos needed a different approach. We asked them to think of the camera as a character or friend who they are directly addressing. We also wanted them to think about what the poem should say when the audience can physically see the location that the poem is based in. Most of the poets specifically mentioned visual points of reference in the poems which I think helps guide the audiences view when looking at the work. Having worked with poetry and film for a while now, it feels like there are three distinct genres of ‘poem films’. One of which is a series of cutaways of moving images with a narrative voice, another which is animated/illustrated work which could be projected and the third being these 360 degree films.

360 Degree Film Poems

Made in Sheffield by Charlotte Ansell

Dark Matter by James Giddings

Large Scale Projection Film Poems

Gav Roberts & Marsha Balaeva – 1996 – Abbeydale Brewery 

Gevi Carver & Annie Watson – Four Equal Parts – Hope Works

Had the poets-in-residence experienced working in these forms before?

We’ve worked extensively with Gav Roberts and Gevi Carver before, and they’d both worked on an initial set of 360 Degree videos we had made as an initial pilot to explore how the form would work. It was a new experience for other two poets, James Giddings and Charlotte Ansell.

Can you tell us a little more about why you chose to showcase poetry in this way?

Working with poetry and new technology definitely reaches new audiences. The novelty of both large scale projection and Virtual Reality/360 Degree Films means you immediately engage with a non poetry audience who might not choose to experience poetry in book form. The projections, simply put, are massive. It’s great when you have the experience of interrupting someones everyday who happens to be walking past at the right time. It also feels like it is now its own growing genre of work, it’s not just filming poets, but working collaboratively with them and the filmmakers to create something interesting across both forms. Poetry also lends itself well to being shared on social media, the increased shortening of attention spans isn’t something to be celebrated but a short 2-3 minute piece of work gets a great response online.

What has been the response to the work so far?

The response has been overwhelmingly positive which is a credit to the poets and filmmakers involved. It also feels like we’re just beginning to see the potential of this type of work. There are a lot of signs that Virtual Reality will be ubiquitous in the next five years although I do wonder whether it will ever successfully adapt to sustaining audiences attention for longer pieces. However there are a lot of big corporations betting that it will so we will have to see!

Finally, what’s next for Wordlife?

Wordlife has expanded massively over the last two years with our growth from more traditional literature outreach work in terms of events and workshops into a digital sphere. We’re about to release a piece of work funded by Manchester Met University called ‘Writing Manchester’ which is a digital writing map of the city that uses the google map engine to place markers across the city. These markers host information such as local readings and literature organisations but we’ll also be adding work that is written specifically for the map. These pieces of writing can include hyperlinks, youtube videos, image galleries audio recordings, so it’ll be interesting to see what writers come up with while generating content for the website.

We’re also in early stages of planning another large scale projection work, literature outreach work in Hull and an AHRC bid for a digital storytelling project using apps. We’re about to be showcased on the International Literature Showcase website supported by the British Council and Writers’ Centre Norwich so we’re hoping that we’ll have some international collaborations in the coming years.

To find out more, visit Wordlife’s website:

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