Another Austria: Narrative Threads by Jen Calleja

 Another-AustriaWhen I was first invited to curate the literature side of Another Austria: Writing Fashion what first came to mind – rather unfortunately – was a creative writing-meets-fashion experience that burned me.

I won’t name names, but an independent fashion magazine had asked me for a poem, anything I liked, that they would publish in their next issue. The ‘anything I liked’ part set off a peculiar initial worry, simply because I wondered where it would sit, whether it would fit with the magazine’s other content or seem alien and like a bit of a novelty.

I decided upon a poem of mine called ‘(Taking A) Walk’ – ‘I walk through parks at four in the morning/to wear the same monochrome and warm greys as the city’ – which is a narrative about female agency in public places, particularly at night, but also has colour, texture, and the idea of disguise. I wanted it to appear as two previous poems had in the magazine, on its own page. The previous time I had had poems in the magazine I asked for the illustrations proposed to go with my poems to be replaced by new ones as I didn’t feel comfortable with the depictions of vulnerable, skeletal women placed next to them. There was a compromise. I hadn’t expected to feel so strongly about weighing up the pros and cons of this arrangement; the pros being that you’re reaching a new audience that might not typically read poetry and getting published in a contemporary, non-conventional publication, the cons being that your work is appearing in a magazine used to sell clothes, that has a couple of depictions of women in that you don’t really agree with, that you’re not getting paid to create something that’s part of an industry with money issues.

When ‘(Taking A) Walk’ appeared I was incredibly upset to see my poem reformatted into a thin column beside a vulnerable, chased-looking model; the text letting you know the label and price of her clothes budged up against my poem. My poem had become ‘content’, a textual flourish to advertise a jacket. It had lost its tone and was now being read in my head by this harassed-looking girl.  The editor didn’t see what the problem was.

The first poet I asked to take part – again, I won’t name names – also had a bad feeling about the project. On paper it unnerved me too. They said that getting paid (paid!) to write poetry (paid to write poetry!) about fashion (poetry about fashion!) didn’t sit well with them. I could understand it; it could turn out like the poet in one of Sam Riviere’s poems that’s getting paid to write poems about whatever anyone wants based on factual information provided by the buyer, or the invite from a shampoo company looking for female poets who would write poems about their shampoo for an advert that Amy Key posted on Twitter. And what’s fashion? Surely not the subject-matter for literature.Sabinna

But really fashion and literature is not a strange match. Clothes have always been a big part of what creates a character whose face will ultimately remain out of focus in comparison to that jacket, that hat, that dress. Who will deny that fashion and style have always been important to the ‘author’ or the ‘poet’; who hasn’t cooed over what great literary figures of the past and present have worn in photos and on dust jackets? And the money thing: maybe it’s an usually unpaid writer’s instinct to think; is it a trick? What’s the catch?

I wanted the writers I commissioned for Another Austria to feel safe, the boundaries had to be clear; the prose and poems created were not going to be ‘advertising copy’ or ‘content’ used to help bolster the collections, no matter how extraordinary the collections are. I wanted to avoid giving the writers too much information so as to avoid their writing propagating the designers’ mythologies around their collections, but of course, I couldn’t foresee how these mythologies in certain instances inspired the writers.

Fashion uses narratives to contextualise the lifestyle (past, present, or future) that the clothes may allow the wearer, which is predominantly used to sell them to a particular audience. The writers envisioned new personalised lives for these clothes based on what they saw in them, not what they were told to depict. They were also completely free to undermine and critique the fashion industry; take popular music, TV and computer games as their focal inspiration; only write about a single colour; and fall down the rabbit hole of associations because this project was, after all, about one set of artists feeling inspired by another set of artists.

Tonight’s performative reading will be where all the art forms involved – literature, fashion design, performance, literature in translation – will come together harmoniously. I just have to make sure Alex MacDonald doesn’t steal one of Katharina Perkhofer’s suits.

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