Interview: ‘Poets in Vogue’ with Sarah Parker and Sophie Oliver

Step into the Southbank Centre’s Poetry Library and you will find a unique exhibition exploring the relationship between text and textiles via the work and lives of twentieth-century poets – from a towering installation dedicated to Edith Sitwell, to reconstructions of items worn by Anne Sexton and Audre Lorde and imaginative poetic stitchings inspired by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and Gwendolyn Brooks. These creative installations – fashioned by curators and researchers Dr Sarah Parker and Dr Sophie Oliver alongside dressmaker and textile conservationist, Gesa Werner – are a testament to the power of collaboration. As poets, the writers featured crafted not only lines of poetry but also public personas; a type of self-fashioning through the marriage of language and design. We spoke with the curators to find out more:

In the exhibition ‘Poets in Vogue’, you use a variety of techniques to relate the materiality of fashion to the materiality of the page – what can be learnt by pairing text and textiles together? 

SP: One of our ways into the exhibition was thinking about formal comparisons between dress and poetry. Both poetry and fashion operate through creating – and re-creating – formal patterns. For example, we thought about fashion rhythms and poetic rhythms in the case of Stevie Smith. Although her work, and her personal style, appear at first glance quite simple and childlike, the more you look, you become aware that something is ‘off’ and out of kilter. Almost every photograph of Smith shows her wearing a neat shirt collar, sometimes paired with an eye-shaped brooch. It struck me that this sense of repetition combined with strangeness carries across into her work; her poetry often employs rhyme and repetition, but the rhymes are slant rhymes, the repetition makes words increasingly unfamiliar, even meaningless, as in the case of the poem ‘Pretty’ (displayed alongside collars in the exhibition). 

Gwendolyn Brooks uses poetic form in an intricate, skilled manner, so it made sense to think in terms of the materiality of words and the transformations that take place in her poetry. Brooks often emphasises the wonder hidden within the mundane, and the way that words can catalyse this transformation. That’s why her typewriter literally blossoms in the installation, into a ‘fabric reading’ of her work.

Photo Credit: Pete Woodhead
Repeating patterns of Stevie Smith’s collars.
Photo Credit: Arnaud Mbaki

SO: Brooks wrote about flowers all the time. And clothes. They both were about metamorphosis for her, which had a political aspect as well as an aesthetic one: her central subject throughout her life were African-American people on the South Side of Chicago, whose lives – often poor in material terms – are rich in everyday forms of beauty, whether clothes or flowers. In ‘The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith’, which we include through a ‘material reading’– an interpretation of the poem through fabric and clothing imagery – Brooks wonders whether that transformative beauty is comparable to what she does with words in her poetry, or what any artist does with their material: Smith’s elaborate zoot-suit style (he ‘designs his reign’) is compared to Brook’s own art. We took this idea as a central way of bringing text and textiles together: to think of poetry as an art of remaking and refashioning.

But ‘The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith’ also shows that this kind of transformation – this beautification – comes at a cost for women, for example – that it can turn them into images to be consumed. So the relationship between the materiality of words and that of clothes is a political one as much as a formal one. Brooks is such a good poet to show this dual aspect: a late modernist who is invested in cultural comment as much as aesthetics, often in tension. 

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha was another crucial figure in the exhibition to make this point about the politics of materiality: a poet-artist-filmmaker who used fabric and words as material in her pieces, whose body was crucial to her practice but never straightforwardly displayed. Just as she never admitted the straightforward legibility of language, which is of course not transparent. Cha’s use of fabric and dress in relation to her Korean-American identity shows the way words as material can be disorienting, they conceal and cover. 

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Aveugle Voix, 1975
Photo Credit: Pete Woodhead.
A fabric-adaptation of a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks.
Photo Credit: Pete Woodhead.

The poets featured in the exhibition seemed to be highly aware of their iconic image – how did you translate this into your own visual representations of their work? 

SP: We wanted each installation to reflect the particular aesthetic (sartorial and poetic) of each individual poet, rather than treating them in a uniform manner. It wouldn’t make sense, for example, to play Edith Sitwell subtle and minimalist, since her personal style and her work are so elaborate, over-the-top and deliberately theatrical. 

When thinking of Sitwell, I immediately thought that I wanted something huge, hanging from the ceiling, like a looming big top at a circus. I also thought about how Elizabeth Bowen once described herself as a ‘high altar on the move.’ I wanted to re-create that sense of ironic majesty and absurd theatricality that she embodied in her life and work.

Both Sitwell and Anne Sexton also have audio of their poetry readings with them to capture their theatricality. Sexton’s live performances were a huge element of her public appeal. They were also controversial, as Sexton was sometimes accused of blurring the lines between professional poet and provocative diva on the stage. Sexton chose to wear the same red dress for the majority of her live readings, including her last performance of 1974, from which the recording is taken. 

A reconstruction of Anne Sexton’s red Reading Dress.
Photo Credit: Pete Woodhead.

Dame Edith Sitwell display.
Photo Credit: Arnaud Mbaki

SO: Hearing the recording of Sexton’s last reading, as well as reading the excerpt from ‘The Red Shoes’ on the wall and looking at her red reading-dress, we hope visitors get a small sense of what a Sexton reading was like. We’ve even reproduced her stance in a photograph I found in Goucher College’s archive: she stands with her arms reaching up, to embrace her audience. The long slit in her red dress would have revealed more of her body in these moments. These readings were consummate performances – as were her poems, despite her label as an autobiographical, ‘confessional poet’ – and her dress played its part. If you think of poetry as an expanded practice that includes poetry readings, clothes are one aspect of that. 

We love how the poet’s you commissioned – Amy Key and Jane Yeh – used techniques such as ‘cutting up’ Vivienne Westwood speeches and ‘weaving’ intertextual references throughout. Can you say a bit more about how the techniques of poetry relate to the making of clothes?

SO: Amy Key said something interesting about this in a Vogue piece on the exhibition by Rosalind Jana:  “For both clothes and poetry, the cut is everything. For example, the form a garment creates when worn – is it sharp and contained or is it bold and voluminous? Is it tight or loose? A poet might be thinking of the form they want to use – is it unconstrained by pattern or does it need structure and rules to guide it?” The cutting and weaving of older material that Amy and Jane Yeh employed also points to the way that all writing – but perhaps most especially poetry – reuses (and rejects) set forms as it fashions something new.

Sarah and I are also both really into Annie Finch’s writing on poetry and form. She doesn’t write about clothes per se but she has this idea of ‘the body of poetry’, and once you start to think about poetry’s relation to the body, dress becomes a correlate: a way to bring definition to, or cloak the body of poetry. Poetic style and form as a way to style the body, into different shapes, poses, attitudes, and as a way to connect one body to another. 

SP: Thinking in terms of clothing and poetic form, it was particularly interesting to encounter Sitwell’s original gowns and see how they were made. We were lucky enough to get in touch with someone who owns three of Sitwell’s dresses, including the gown Sitwell wore in George Platt Lynes’ photograph of her as Lady Macbeth. When we ‘met’ this dress, Gesa sketched a pattern from it which forms the basis for the amplified gown in the exhibition. While doing so, she remarked that although the fabric was an old-fashioned ornate brocade (curtain fabric actually), the cut was super-modern. This immediately made me think of Sitwell’s poetry, which is chock-full of decadent ornamentalism combined with avant-garde modernist techniques. Her poetry and her dress echo each other.

Sylvia Plath’s skirt is the only ‘authentic’ piece in the exhibition, with the other pieces representing creative responses to the poets’ styles (or, in the case of Anne Sexton, a reconstruction). Could you talk us through the process of researching, designing and making these creative reinterpretations?

SO: All our research began in the National Poetry Library itself. It’s a free exhibition in a small exhibition space and it’s right there in the library, which is a busy place well-used by poets young and old, along with other visitors. So we wanted the show to relate to the Library’s collection, which is the largest collection of modern poetry in the world: all of our poets are well represented in it, by images and ephemera as well as by their work. But there were also useful constraints: we don’t have museum conditions, many display cases, or a huge budget, so borrowing more garments than the Plath skirt would have been difficult. And we quickly realised that there were visual and intellectual benefits to representing the other poets in less conventional ways. As you say, the Sexton is a reconstruction (the garment no longer exists), so we used archival research, anecdotal evidence, photographs and conversations with someone who had photographed her in the dress – along with Gesa Werner’s expert knowledge and skills, which was quite literally indispensable – to reconstruct it. 

Slyvia Plath’s skirt, on loan from The Second Shelf.
Photo Credit: Sophie Oliver
Asymmetrically printed caftan,
after Audre Lorde
Photo Credit- Pete Woodhead

SP: A key element of our research process was to explore the poets’ own writing about clothes, whether in letters and diaries, in journalistic articles, such as Sitwell’s advice on ‘How to Wear Dramatic Clothes’ in the Daily Express, or in autobiographical writings, such as Lorde’s Zami and The Cancer Journals, in which she explains her decision to refuse prosthesis and to emphasise the asymmetry of her body after a mastectomy. This informed Gesa’s understanding of the pattern and cut of Lorde’s garments, when we viewed her clothes in the Spelman College archives, and it inspired our installation, an ‘Asymmetrically printed caftan, after Audre Lorde’. 

SO: Each time it worked this way: our discussions with Gesa about what she would make were informed by the poetry, the poets’ own words, images of them and our understanding of their complex attitudes towards style, dressing, performance, women’s bodies, and how these relate to writing. Taking this approach, rather than say a mannequin and ‘authentic’ piece for each poet, allowed us to come at this complex subject from all these angles. We didn’t want to present one line of thought: it’s too knotty a subject for that. A distinct kind of installation for each poet let us combine, for example, Brooks’s highly crafted reflections on clothes with Sitwell’s and Sexton’s emphatic presences, and Cha’s use of clothes and fabric to resist being looked at. There’s a story in these different relationships with dress, and we wanted it to be one without a fixed point of view.  

Are any writers or artists practising today who you think are particularly powerful communicators through the language of fashion?

SP: It’s not strictly ‘fashion,’ but I love the use of pattern and repetition in Sonia Boyce’s artwork, particularly through her use of wallpapers. Those repeating patterns strike me as both poetic and political; they are not just decorative ‘backgrounds’ but ways of thinking. 

In terms of poetry, I recently heard Golnoosh Nour perform her poem ‘A Peacock Is a Poem, After Aubrey Beardsley’ and I loved how the textures of decadent fashion come through in both the rhythms and the imagery of the poem. The final lines: ‘A poem is a poem if it’s a valiant warrior, wrapped / in peacock feathers’ is definitely in the spirit of our exhibition, and I think Sitwell (at the very least) would have approved.

SO: I love the Canadian poet Lisa Roberton’s writing on clothes. Her poem ‘Coat’ throws up that idea of giving shape to material, whether in words or bodies or fabric: ‘So vested / I look around for something out of which matter could be formed.’ She also creates texture out of fashion’s language, in a neologism like ‘gownly’. (Jane Yeh does that too!) Roberton writes beautifully about clothes as well, as in this short piece on Issey Miyake. I think in these descriptions of his pieces – ‘the feeling of envelopment’, the ‘garment as shelter’, ‘the emotional and expressive pleasure’, the ‘paradoxical lyricism’ – you can see the poetry of clothes: their capaciousness and expansiveness, their capacity to both give shape to and express ineffable things through material and form.

Words: Sarah Parker and Sophie Oliver interviewed by Jade French and Lottie Whalen

Bios: Dr Sarah Parker (Loughborough University) specialises in nineteenth and twentieth-century literature, with an emphasis on poetry, women’s writing, decadence and aestheticism, gender and sexualities, and visual culture. She is the author of The Lesbian Muse and Poetic Identity, 1889–1930 (Routledge, 2013), Michael Field: Decadent Moderns (with Ana Parejo Vadillo, Ohio University Press, 2019) and Michael Field: ‘For That Moment Only’ and Other Prose Works (with Alex Murray, MHRA Jewelled Tortoise Series, 2022). She has published articles on poets including Edna St. Vincent Millay, H.D., and Iris Tree.

Dr Sophie Oliver (University of Liverpool) specialises in modernist writing by women. Her research interests lie in the relationships between literature and visual cultures, especially art and fashion; feminism and modernism; the afterlives of modernist writing; and philosophies of history. In 2020, she was named a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker and wrote The Essay about Jean Rhys, a dress she owned that now belongs to Oliver, and ambivalent motherhood.