Recently, I had the honour and the delightful experience to speak with Kandace Siobhan Walker, award winning-writer, filmmaker, and a recent recipient of AZ Mag’s Creative Fund. Kandace is funny, honest, insightful, and inspiring. Our interview touches on themes of creativity, inspiration, artistic practice, and craft, winning awards and her new short film Cleaning Ladies. I was refreshed by our conversation and motivated to take my art more seriously and to leave the world better than I found it.
How would you describe yourself?
KW: I guess I generally try to avoid describing myself because I’m probably my harshest critic, not just in terms of work.
You know, when you have a job interview, and they say name, your positive qualities, I’ll call my mum or a friend and I’ll say, name three good things about me so I can write it down for this job interview.
But okay. I guess how do I describe myself? I would describe myself in terms of what I do. I write and I make short films sometimes. I read I play a lot of video games, mostly just The Sims and Animal Crossing. Also, Skyrim I basically only will play open-world games — they are just the only ones I like. So yeah, video games books and politics. I consider myself more a student of politics than someone who’s very involved in it.
I love that and your honesty. I think a lot of people tend to kind of throw around the words activism and activist very quickly.
KW: Oh, yeah being Black online and say one political thing and people are like ‘oh, so tell me about your activism’. I’m like, my activism? No, there’s no activism here. Like, I just read and retweet people and I’m Black, that’s it. Over the last year I’ve had a lot of people ask me ‘will you say something more about your activism’, or someone wanting to include me on a list of Black activists in the UK. I was like not me, I made some Instagram slides, and I just tweet crazy sometimes if I’m mad enough I will @ someone, but it’s not activism. One reading group does not an organiser make!
Let’s just jump right in, what inspires you? Where do you find inspiration? And what do you do if it proves to be elusive, or hard to reach?
KW: I guess, other artists and other writers. Generally, when I was a bit younger, I felt like inspiration had to come from, you know, [gestures with hands] you were just like, you know, like a poet in the woods. Like you just sit and commune with the universe and [your] thoughts. Then you would spontaneously think of something amazing and then produce work that way. But actually, I found a pretty foolproof way of making new work, even if I feel like it’s not good at the end of it or I don’t you know, publish it or anything.
It’s like reading something or watching something, engaging with something in the same medium that you want to work in. Yeah, that’s a pretty consistent way for me to get started on a new project. So usually, if I want to write some poems, I just pick up a poetry book or read some poems online. You know, go and check out what’s new and cool. What are the kids reading these days? [laughs] So yeah, I think, I’ve kind of moved away in the last couple years, or so, from the idea of trying to kind of glean information from life or my own life. Because that’s obviously material. I find, sometimes, you know, something happens, we’re like, wow, now I’ve got to write about that — I’ve got to capture that. But that in itself is not really enough for me to write. Sometimes I start to write and I’m like, nah, it’s missing substance I need to go and research. And like, flesh out the idea. And books are just kind of undefeated so far [laughs].
So, who are some of the people that you’re reading, watching or listening to right now?
KW: I always go back to Danez Smith. Whenever I’m kind of stuck, especially with poetry, I think I wouldn’t be a poet if it wasn’t for them [laughs, we then have a joint moment of stanning Danez Smith]. I mean, I always go back to Frank O’Hara as well as another poet who when I was very young, you know there is some work you engaged with that you’re like, wow, I love this. But also, I can see a way through this to make work. Some art, you look at [and] you’re like, wow, that’s great. And it seems like the process of making it seems very inaccessible and something that you could not do. And then [with] other artists, the work also shows you a way to create.
Recently I’ve been reading a lot of Charles Simic who’s an image poet, and a lot of the time, they are quite short and very compact. Harmony Holiday, I have recently been reading a lot of her poems, and I just ordered a book, by Taylor Johnson who is an American poet. They had a book out last year called Inheritance there was like one copy left on Amazon. So I am really excited for that to arrive!
I read a lot of theory as well. I guess a lot of my work, regardless of genre, it’s usually like an idea. Like a political idea, or a social idea. That kind of is the central force of the work. So, I will go to theory that’s related to the project. So, like the Cleaning Ladies [film], I was reading this book called Becoming Human which I love. It’s by Zakiyyah Iman Jackson who is an American theorist. She’s working around the idea that humanity is not necessarily an accessible category to black people. I think a lot of that conversation has [previously] focused around, do we try to redefine the human? Or do we move beyond the human? And I think she’s like, you can’t really do that in colloquial language, like a human is just what we are, [it’s] how we describe each other. So, beyond the semantics of it, like what does it actually mean to move beyond [the term human] or to redefine [it] or to inhabit [it]. And I really found it interesting. So, that was one of the books that kind of informed the poem in the film. Yeah, and then otherwise, I read a lot of history, as well, that, I kind of dip in and out of because I find it hard to sit down and read a whole history book.
ON CLEANING LADIES
It’s not very often that I engage with short-form content particularly audio-visual poetry that makes me think deeply, this had a weight to it. You’ve got a phrase in the film…Animal-man
KW: I think that partly comes from the introduction to Becoming Human. It includes some phrases that were actually taken from another author. That book is out of print and when I was making the film I couldn’t go to a library and check it out. Like levels of man, but within the human, you know, like, Black people kind of necessarily have to be human, to make white people’s humanity matter. And, saying that it’s not necessarily accurate too. I think a lot, a lot of discourse positions, white humanity in opposition to a black animality when actually the separation between like Black people and animals is quite important because it’s another level of degradation. When you look at the history of slavery in the history of colonisation, that, you know, the kind of distinction between the way Black people are treated and the way animals were treated. If people are animals, doesn’t that collapse of that distinction? What often comes up in historical documents is that they’re [Black people] being treated worse than animals which then sets them apart from animals. Also, that the slavery abolition movement recognised that. Like, they would have to recognise that black people were humans and that opponents to abolition recognised the humanity of Black people. And that it was necessary for them to do so. In order to, further, I guess valorise or enshrine the value of their own white humanity. So, kind of questioning those distinctions that often happen I guess, like mainstream discourse or like popular discourse, [about] blackness and animals.
What an interesting rabbit hole to go down and then what a beautiful piece of art that has come out of it, talk to me a bit about the visuals.
KW: So, the visuals, I guess, I went through a few different ideas. I picked animation, which I just wanted to try my hand at. I like drawing, I can’t really draw but I like doing it. I’m a big fan of animation. And then discovered while I was researching, basic drawing animation techniques, at the same time trying to figure out an idea for the film. One idea was going to be an aquarium, like a house that was an aquarium that’s filling up. And I was like, I cannot animate hundreds of fish. Like, I won’t make it. I have practical and technological constraints, [which] kind of made it more interesting to figure out, because I knew I wanted it to be a certain level of, I guess like cohesiveness not like too rough so that kind of was a fun challenge. I knew that I wanted to make something pretty that moves but not filmed with a camera. I didn’t think about the actual practical side of making an animation until I got the grant, and I was like how many frames per second? [laughs]I was able to ride on the idea of how pretty the animation would be until I had to sit down to make it. So, yeah, I spent some on the grant on some courses for basic animating.
What were some of the visual influences for the project?
KW: I guess I was inspired by a lot of illustrators. [Kandace looks up the project’s Pinterest board]. I was looking at a lot of illustrators who illustrate for corporate media, but then I went to look at their personal work, that kind of flat design style that you see in a lot of corporate media, that’s just the corporate style. But a lot of those illustrators, they use those elements in their personal work, but with more detail, more experimentation with colour and form and things. I was also drawing off the idea of the human and the human as like an ontological category.
So, the statues and the artwork is the same medium that you would find in a museum changing the subject of the statues. Yeah, I guess I tried not to think too hard about the kind of visual symbolism because my area of expertise is writing words. So, I went for fairly simple, I think, visual references. I wanted there to be a balance, like a lot of poetry films are either a representative of the poem, the poem as a script. So, you either get like a representation or they’re like the film as a performance or they’re an abstract film. Or like a film of found footage or something. And I want it to be something slightly different to that. Where the visuals told a story that was another layer on top of their power more like underneath the problem rather than kind of being directly representative or kind of in opposition to.
ON WINNING AWARDS AND VALIDATION
Talk to me about what it feels like to be the winner of many awards. What’s it like to be validated for your craft? [Kandace is the recipient of the AZ Creative Fund, the White Review Poet’s Prize, 4th Estate Prize]
KW: It’s very nice to win awards, I like to win things. I don’t like sports because they’re competitive and because I’m competitive it brings out the worst in me. Also, I’m not very good at sports so I’m not a very gracious loser. I have a process for things where I enter, then I try to forget all about it. I didn’t manage to do that with the 4th Estate one, I remember they said they’d get back in X amount of weeks and they didn’t. I was like checking every day [laughs]. I like winning, I hate losing things, I hate losing awards that I haven’t even entered, you know every year they announce who’s won the Nobel Prize and every year I’m like it isn’t me for the Peace prize…rude! [laughs] It’s nice to win things because it means a panel of people, readers and judges have looked at your work. Especially, if it’s something I’ve followed like the 4th Estate Prize or the White Review for a few years and knowing the work that’s come out of that, that I’ve really enjoyed personally, that’s just really nice. I think that for a lot of writers and artists we don’t get that really often, outside of being maybe at a workshop or at uni. Where you have people, who are engaging with your work on the level that you produced it, you know what I mean. People who are like reading and producing work in the same landscape as you so that’s really validating. Especially, when you’re working in a medium that can be quite isolating, where to do the work, you have to sit down on your own, and make it on your own and not necessarily in a collaborative way. You’ll be working on it on your own and think is this good anymore, I don’t even know, I want to stop. So, for someone to go ‘it’s not terrible actually’ that’s nice, also it’s nice to win money because I need to buy outfits and I also have rent and bills to pay.
ADVICE AND UPCOMING PROJECTS
Any advice for an upcoming creative?
KW: I would say read widely regardless of your medium, read widely, engage widely, understand the things that don’t work for you and why. That will help you understand the work that you do want to make, better. I’m recently really leaning into the idea of taking my work seriously, the work I make even when I’m stressed about it. I’ve got to treat it as seriously as I would being at a job when your manager asks you to do something. Just out of respect for myself, and if it is work that I’m making for someone or work that’s going into the public domain, just respect for the people that might engage with it, as a minimum. Resist the very popular self-deprecating image of the artist as someone who’s [gestures laissez- faire] haha I’m-an-artist-it’s-not-a-real-job. It is, it takes up actual time, it’s a craft and it takes work, if you don’t take it seriously, you’ll be trapped in this idea of the divine poet, where you’re sitting on a mountain, waiting for inspiration to strike you. I think generally people who work like that are dissatisfied. I was dissatisfied with the work I made when I thought I was this inspiration generator [laughs]. Engage widely, and care about the world — PLEASE.
I hate to ask this question, but it’s the one everyone asks: what’s next for you?
KW: I have a pamphlet that is going to come out with Bad Betty Press next year. I’m working with a guy, who runs an indie press in Turkey called The Poet’s House, so he is going to publish some of my poems in Turkish and illustrate them next year.
Keep up to date with everything Kandace Siobhan Walker via her website.
Watch Cleaning Ladies below