We couldn’t think of anyone who better embodied the Arts than the very talented, eloquent and insightful Pele Cox. Having previously held the title of poet in residence at the Tate Modern and the Royal Academy of Art and now the author of the Mistress Account as well as the curator of numerous salons and events, Pele is currently bringing her creativity to the business world. We can’t wait to see what she does next!
You are too kind! Well, circumstance and experience led me in these directions. When you are a child of artists which I am, or any field in fact, you often want to take your thinking to a more radical place. I have been thinking for a long time about the ways in which the arts have been connected over history and I try to write scripts and give performances with these connections in mind.
Have you always had an interest in the written word as a form of expression?
I was born into an artistic family in 1970’s North London. My father was a well known sculptor, my uncle John Cox, an opera director. It was his Glyndebourne production of The Rake’s Progress that he commisioned David Hockney to design the sets for.
My father had a one man show at Tate Britain in the 1980’s (there was only one Tate then!) and I was a studio child: at the weekends, my sister and I were given a blank piece of paper and charcoal and left to draw on the hard studio floor while my father worked. We would spot my father from time to time at the top of scaffolding, in white overalls plastering his pieces: ‘it’s all inside waiting for expression,’ he would say to us. We were taken out of school in 1980 and driven around Italy for a year where my father showed his work and quarried the ancient marbles of Italy for his sculpture.
All this was quite overwhelming for a young girl. I must have turned to text and the page and books perhaps because they were a portable escape: I had Bosch’s Garden of Earthly delights on the wall above my bed from about age 4 and I think it scared me a little! Books and poetry are more filtered forms of expression, words are expressive AND manageable: no paint splatters or marble dust!
Poetry and art – how do these two things fit together?
When I was Poet in Residence at the Royal Academy of Arts I didn’t want the focus to be my poetry. I wanted to reflect how poetry had been an influence on the thinking of some of our great Artists. My first piece was an investigation into Van Gogh and his connection to poetry- it was very strong. Finding out about his love of poetry was like striking gold. He loved Keats, Christian Rosseti, Longfellow, Shakespeare. He said ‘Poetry, books and art have always been the same kind of thing for me.’ I developed a script and performance that explored this connection and how it may have influenced his thinking, his brushstrokes across the canvas. I did the same with Degas and Hockney – all who were showing at the RA during my time there.
I came to realise how much artists right up to the present day were influenced by the Romantic poets: Keats, Byron, Shelley. I couldn’t resist but ring the director of the Keats Shelley House in Rome and ask if I could curate an event about the Romantics there. ‘Unbound’ was born: a site specific performance. The whole script was drawn exclusively using their poetry and letters. I didn’t write a word of my own, I was painting a canvas/performance with their words, and their words were the brushes and the paint.
Have you always wanted to be a poet?
Poetry has always been my default: my mother used to write poetry and she would read us Tennyson and old epic poems as bedtime stories. Poems have been the songs of my internal world and I haven’t wanted to let go of that in terms of my creativity. Partly because Poetry is a core medium, like painting or music, just because it is text and page led, it doesn’t make it is less exciting, or accessible but it is a very humble form and hasn’t been exposed culturally the same way as art or music. One might think it exists only in books and forgotten songs but if you look closely, it presides over many other conversations and dialogues and connections. Every corner I look around: art history, performance, song, the individual voice, especially in times of extreme love and extreme war, poetry is at the forefront, binding it all together. I think in many senses it leads the way because it is made of language: the closest thing to speaking and thinking that every human being has.
How does one become a professional poet?
I think that my life as a ‘professional’ poet began when I got a place on Andrew Motion’s Creative Writing MA at UEA. That really gave me a deep understanding of how one might function internally and externally as a committed poet. Andrew was a sensational teacher. We’d turn up at seminars having tried to write poems in the style of great poets. He would say ‘Go away and write like yourself.’ And that takes a lifetime.
Tell us about the creative process – how do you get inspired to write?
Poets are writing all the time even walking down the street things can come to the surface. Pen and paper are the last part of the process. I’d say that is definitely true in my case. For me pivots around how I look and experience the world outside. When I finally pick up my notebook – the poem tends to come out a bit too quickly- so the poem is definitely already written!
Have you ever encountered any discrimination as a woman in the arts?
The only time I have been discriminated against in the arts was by a woman.
Following the success of your events at the Royal Academy and the BAFTAs what have you been up to? Tell us about your upcoming projects.
I am writing a book and have a literary agent, which is a wonderful thing after years of writing my poems in small, dark, unfurnished rooms (metaphorically speaking of course).
I have also become very interested in creativity and business – helping people to find expression and creativity at work by looking inside themselves and therefore becoming more effective members of their teams and therefore the teams becoming more effective.
If you think about art deeply, live with it as you might live with another person- have a private conversation with it; think outside the box about it; stay true to what it is telling you and not compromise; then you see it is in everything and it is in business. And creativity and business, like art and science are very joined together- I think it is important to stay aware of that- it benefits both processes.
You have also just released a book of Poems – The Mistress Account. What has the reaction to the book been like? Was it hard to write about something so personal?
The reaction to the Mistress Account has been very interesting and has garnered lots of respect and shock! The book is a small self published edition but I was asked to write a feature for the Sunday Times which included the poems. It was humbling to be emailed by people who had been moved to respond. Some wrote saying I shouldn’t have written it; others emailed to say how grateful they were that I had shared my experience. I think my favourite phrase from a reader was: ‘Jaw droppingly accurate.’ Poets are there to push boundaries and it is very important as a writer to become a voice, to have a voice, however unpalatable the subject that comes might be- like a matador to a bull, you need to tackle it. So when I was asked to write the piece, I engaged with the challenge, wrote only from my perspective and tried to be as true and lyrical as I could.
And now… some quick fire questions:
The 3 things you really believe in: Books, Conservation, Expertise
Favourite poem: The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot
Most inspiring piece of art: Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez later reproduced by Pablo Picasso