Strange Echoes: a six-day convening celebrating the influence of poet and writer M. NourbeSe Philip

The Institute of Contemporary Arts presents Strange Echoes, a six-day convening curated by poet Olivia Douglass celebrating the life, work and influence of poet and writer M. NourbeSe Philip. For further information and tickets, please visit the ICA website here.


Strange Echoes enunciates questions of race, silence, politics and poetics. Collectivity, language and belonging are themes and concerns that persist throughout the convening.


sweet-thang got to chat with Olivia Douglass (who we interviewed in 2018 ahead of their debut poetry collection, Slow Tongue!)


Olivia Douglass by Theodora Ndlovu

Over our Google Meets call, Olivia tells me that they just stopped mid-essay for this interview. (They’re in the middle of completing their Masters in Creative Writing at Oxford). Olivia currently wears many hats as an interdisciplinary creative, and this is a testament to the experimental nature of Strange Echoes, an event that invites multiple creative forms - poetry, installation, film, audio and live music. We delve into what Strange Echoes aims to do as a convening, the importance of engaging with the work of Black British writers, and how it relates to the work of M. NourbeSe Philips.


What does curating this event mean to you?


I hadn’t previously identified as a curator; the word is new to my practice in a way. I’ve been producing and programming for a while, but there was something about curation that was new to me. In that way, I had the freedom to improvise and follow what felt intuitive, letting my relationship with NourbeSe’s texts lead the way. Curating this convening meant finding intriguing ways to invite others to create, celebrate and extend their relationships with her work. On a personal level, it felt like a way of honouring NourbeSe and all that she continues to open for me.


Engaging with her texts feels very conversational, so the curation needed to reflect that feeling of conversing and communing with others. We waited two years to put it on, and despite many events going digital during the pandemic, I was adamant that it needed to happen mostly in person, that we needed to be able to gather. Alongside the events, Shenece Oretha’s new installation at/Tribute gifts us this place to go throughout the week, describing it as ​​ ‘both a meeting point and a listening site’.


I love this concept of ‘listening’ - not only as an individual act but also as a collective experience. The event itself closes with NourbeSe transforming the ICA theatre into a ‘listening room’, can you tell us more about this?

I’m very lucky to live in a house of incredible artists, which has given me insight into other creative worlds. At an album launch party that one of them took me to, we were laying on the floor in a dark, hazy room lit by a floating ‘moon’, surrounded by shadows of other people. I remember thinking how beautiful it was, and how important it is to create spaces to just listen.


I was also reflecting on the ongoing past. About the many examples where NourbeSe, who describes herself as a ‘disappeared’ poet, shows us times when she hasn't been listened to when she has been silenced. So many mistakes and unnecessary harm are caused just because people don’t listen to each other. I like how listening asks for our attention differently. So I decided that there needed to be a listening room within Strange Echoes and that NourbeSe had to be the person we are listening to.


So not only is listening something that the people who come to the event will experience but there is also a back story to the concept of listening and being listened to.


Strange Echoes takes place within the installation and I like the idea that the events are talking to the installation and the installation is talking back. I wanted everything to feel responsive and polyvocal in the way that NourbeSe’s work is. So I based the composition of Strange Echoes around the practice of call and response. I think we are so used to consuming artists’ work, but I wanted to provoke a different type of engagement, not just for the audience but the artists involved as well. The methodology I put for myself was to create calls, so I delved into NourbeSe’s work, and from each text, phase or interview, I created a call for artists to respond to. For example, Frontiers of Silence responds to the themes of ‘Silence(s)’.



Called to Respond, Shenece Oretha

What do you hope to do after this event?


Go on holiday! [laughs] But seriously, what I’ve most enjoyed is the collaborative aspect of curating this convening. I’m in awe of all the artists involved. I feel so lucky to be on this journey with them. Moving forward, I hope that this convening is an added impulse to the culture of Black experimental writing in the UK and that we are provided with even more resources, infrastructure and care for us to keep doing our thing. Strange Echoes recognises young Black writers and our abundance, and so I also hope that some people who come will be inspired to write!


Strange Echoes has motivated me in expanding my practice and so after the events, I will be completing a new poetry collection, exploring my vocals and developing some script ideas.


~


Strange Echoes opens with a screening of Frontiers of Silence, a short film series directed by Douglass featuring poets Courtney Conrad, Esther Heller and Ebun Sodipo, followed by a conversation between M. NourbeSe Philip (who joins on Zoom), Shenece Oretha and poet Victoria Adukwei Bulley (22 Feb). Workshops will be led by Professor Joan-Anim Addo (23 Feb) and K Bailey Obazee, founder of PRIM, a digital platform for queer Black storytelling (26 Feb). A spoken word night hosts poetry readings by Olivia Douglass, Latekid, Abondance Matanda and Kareem Parkins-Brown, all accompanied by a live band (24 Feb). Strange Echoes will be closed by M.NourbeSe Philip whose live voice will transform the ICA theatre into a ‘listening room’ (26 Feb).


For further information and tickets, please visit the ICA website here.


Olivia passed on so many reading gems during our talk, so here is a list of books and essays to read if interested!


  • Blank: Essays & Interviews - M. NourbeSe Philip

  • Freedom Time: The Poetics and Politics of Black Experimental Writing - Anthony Reed

  • Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women and Queer Radicals - Saidiya Hartman

  • In the Dream House - Carmen Maria Machado



Interviewer: Zoe Thompson
Read more about her here