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Abigail Parry: The National Videogame Arcade's Poet-in Residence

27 June 16 words: James Walker
"I'm amused by the perception of poetry as a vague, airy-fairy thing, all fine sentiment and swooning over the daffodils. Poems have always felt quite dangerous to me"
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photo: Louise Clutterbuck

So you’re a poet…
Yes, I’m a poet. I still feel a bit of a knee jerk resistance to saying that – it seems to carry a certain pretension, or presumption. Isn’t that strange? I can’t think of another career that carries the same cache of professional coyness. I write poems. Obsessively, and whenever I can.

Why the coyness?
I’m amused by the perception of poetry as a vague, airy-fairy thing, all fine sentiment and swooning over the daffodils. Poems have always felt quite dangerous to me, and very precise. A poem’s a spell – something that directly influences how someone else thinks or feels – and when it’s good, it hurts.

What do you do when you’re not hurting people?
Puzzles, riddles, games, gaming. Anything that involves some kind of cognitive sleight of hand – I’d put poems in that category too. Making things. Reading. Learning. Circus tricks, physical skills. Things with a beat. Anything sugary or spicy. Essentially, I have the appetites and habits of an anthropomorphised alleycat.

You were a toymaker for seven years…
I made circus toys – hula hoops, devil sticks, staffs, fire equipment, and so on. I have to be careful, when people ask me about this, as if I don’t enunciate carefully, the person asking will go away believing I made sex toys. Sometimes I don’t find this out until years afterwards.

Both sound glamorous…
My toy making career amounted to me bent over a workbench, sweating, and howling obscenities at power tools. That, or slicing my fingers open with pipe cutters. The work was gruelling, but hugely enjoyable because the part that wasn’t shouting at tools was all problem-solving. On one occasion, I assembled one hundred or so twirling ribbons before trying them out and received an eye injury, and a lesson in elementary physics. I’d managed to produce a batch of ribbons that behaved like bullwhips, each one capable of producing a sonic boom. I had to scrap the lot.

Presumably this is what led you to take up the less dangerous career of a circus skills coach?
Er… I was supposed to be studying for my undergraduate exams, but every time I looked out the library window I could see a boy spinning poi on the grass. Within half an hour, Kant, Hume et al were abandoned, and I was outside learning the three-beat weave.

When I get into things, I tend to get into them obsessively. I don’t think a set of poi was out of my hands or pocket for that entire summer. I had a bar job in London Bridge, and would take my breaks in the empty market, thwacking the tails of the poi against the ground to count the beats. I started picking up other toys – devil sticks, hoops, staff – anything you can spin round or set on fire. I met a group who ran workshops and toured a circus stall at festivals throughout the summer.

They asked if I wanted to work a festival that weekend, and I said yes. That was it – I fell in love with the people, and the life. That was me running away with the circus. I spent several years on the circuit with them, selling toys and teaching workshops. For the most part, this meant showing people the basics, which was relentlessly lovely. A person who’s just got a hula hoop going for the first time is really happy.

How did you get into poetry?
Things changed in 2008. That was the year the whole world wanted a hula hoop, which meant it was boom time for me. I couldn’t make them fast enough. I came away from the season with a bit of spare cash for the first time in my life, I thought, “Well, if you’re serious about this writing lark, now’s the time.” I applied for an MA at Goldsmiths and stayed on to do a PhD.

How did an MA help? Surely it meant staring out of more windows…
It was an excellent kick up the arse. I’d spent my life writing in a vacuum, treating it as an intensely private activity. Suddenly I was expected to show the stuff to other people, and welcome their judgement. Shudder. It was also revelatory to discover how workmanlike the process of writing is. It’s a craft like any other, and you learn by study, by practice, by trial and error – and by producing some god awful shoddy material along the way. I tentatively started publishing under my own name during the MA and, shortly after finishing, I won an Eric Gregory Award.

Now you’re the poet-in-residence at NVA. Is there a link between poetry and gaming?
I hope so – if not, my doctoral thesis was a colossal waste of time. Poetry often gets lumped in with other forms of literature and, judged under those lights, it doesn’t compare very favourably. It tends to come off as wilfully obtuse, or irritatingly elliptical. But you wouldn’t accuse a game of being obtuse because you can’t complete it on the first run, and the same applies to a poem. Poems don’t give up the goods on the first reading – you have to revisit them, approach them in different ways, and experiment with interpretations.

Other than conquering Mario, what else do you do at NVA?
It initially involved my wandering in, making myself at home, and eating my own body weight in cheese toasties. Now they’ve involved me in their own projects, such as the annual game design competition they run in conjunction with the British Library. The competition invites higher education students to respond to the British Library’s digital resources by gamifying them, or making them interactive; this year, the theme is Shakespeare, to tie in with his anniversary. My role in this is to make the competition more accessible to students from a non-tech background. The greater part of the work of the residency is running workshops or making poems that behave like games, and games that behave like poems.

Such as…
The first of these was Room Escape­, a textual maze built using Twine, an engine for interactive storytelling. It presents a sequence of poems that requires player interaction for the reader to proceed. It’s a means of highlighting and showcasing the kind of textual resistance one finds in any poetry – here, that resistance is translated into a game mechanic.

How have you made poetry more accessible and interactive to the wider public?
Over the Easter weekend, for example, I turned the centre of Nottingham into a gigantic treasure hunt, with lines of poems hidden in contextually appropriate places, and invited participants to find them. It turns out a city-wide treasure hunt takes quite a lot of work, so it’s frustrating if one of the days of the weekend is knocked out by poor weather.

Do you work alone?
I collaborate with Jon Stone, a fellow poet, also dedicated to the poem-game crossover. He’s currently studying towards a PhD in poetry and video games at UWE Bristol, and is the person responsible for digitising my love of games. We’re currently making digital ‘translations’ of poetic forms, where playable game-worlds stand in for the text. We’re working on a sequence designed to be read on touchscreen devices, which make use of the possibilities afforded by the medium. We’re aiming to create work that encourages engagement with poetry on its own terms. That, or we’re conducting a heroic experiment in colliding an overlooked medium with a terrifically popular one. At the end of the residency, the NVA will be hosting a two-week exhibition of the projects we’ve completed, together with my own work, and we’ll be showcasing the work of others too.              

Rats Alley Games
Game City Poetry

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