Izzy Roberts-Orr and Sarah Walker run a blog called ‘Throwdown – this is not a showdown’, where they are writing something, anything, every day in 2014. Throwdown is online at throwdownwords.com
How did the idea for throwdown come about?
We were at a party at the end of the year, on a hot night in North Melbourne. Our friendship group has this tradition of each listing our personal highlights and lowlights of the year and then talking about our hopes for the year ahead (which is kind of lame but the best). Izzy was about to go overseas and had decided to do a 365 project, to write something every day for the whole year that she was going to be away. She talked about wanting to set up a blog, to force her to write every day, to improve by constant production. Sarah, a little tipsy on cider, said that she’d been thinking about wanting to write more poetry, because she didn’t make time for it. They agreed on the spot to set up a blog together. A few days later, driving in Sarah’s car, the idea came up again, and in the sober light of day, it still seemed like a great plan. Our friend Bek suggested we call it ‘Throwdown’, and demanded that we compete throughout the year. We liked the name, but had no interest in being competitive, so we added the subtitle ‘This is not a showdown’, to remind us and our readers that the pieces are meant to be read together, but not against each other. We also liked the idea of being able to have an ongoing conversation, despite being on opposite sides of the world.
You’re both poets, so how has the pressure to write something everyday for one year influenced or changed your work?
(Izzy) I guess the thing about us is that we’re not just poets. One of the hardest things for me this year has been the fact that throwdown is far from my only writing project. I study, work, volunteer, make art and have been travelling for the majority of this year. It’s hard to make time to write as it is, and sometimes I find it frustrating to sit down to work on the new play or article or spoken word piece that is blossoming in my head and have to figure out what to write for throwdown before I feel I’m allowed to work on my other creative projects. For me, a separation is created between the writing that is allowed to be throwdown and the work that needs to not be published before it is edited. The best thing about writing every day has been pushing the limits of my creativity to find something that feels fresh and inspiring (at least to me) every day. It doesn’t always work, but by trying I’ve ended up creating about ten times the amount of good work as I have *waiting for inspiration* in any year prior. The worst thing has been trying to fit a daily commitment into the weird haphazard and unscheduled life of a freelancer, traveler and commitment-aholic.
(Sarah). I never considered myself a writer. I suppose I still don’t – I’m first and foremost a photographer, so it always feels somehow like a betrayal to be writing the thousand words that my shots are supposed to say. The discipline of the project has been great for me in terms of forcing me to experiment with style and content. In the past, most of my writing was done when I was sad and/or drunk, and it was usually about boys. Boys and loneliness. Most of it was also what you’d loosely class as ‘poetry.’ It’s been quite exciting to play around with writing prose, with writing strange lists and transcribing interviews and finding new and odd ways to use words.
The Women Who Inspire Each Other:
Izzy Roberts-Orr and Sarah Walker
Some of the poems are quite personal, I know this is part of the art, but how does it feel to know that strangers are reading these thought online?
(Izzy) I’m less fussed about strangers reading my work than people I know. For half the year, I was away from the man I love and a lot of my work reflected that in a very public but sort of secretive and personal way. Those feelings are universal if you’re a stranger. They’re pinpointable, taut and painful if you’re not. What actually irked me more about the personal nature of some of the work was when I felt that it wasn’t good art. Of course there were going to be days that I couldn’t get out of my head, or construct something more interesting than what is basically a cathartic diary entry, but it still felt frustrating to think that what you put out that day is potentially self-indulgent or just not that fun for the reader.
When I first started writing plays, I remember my Mum coming along to see something I’d written and being a bit freaked out about the person she’d raised because it was morbid, sexual and violent, which isn’t particularly representative of the way I interact with the world around me but is something I see in the world that I’m interested in artistically. However, more recently we were sitting in a reading of a play I wrote in which a teenage girl brutally assaults her mother (me suddenly remembering this maybe wasn’t the play to invite Mum to, wondering what she’ll think) and when we walked out afterwards, she turned to me and said ‘Well done. That was really interesting, engaging and truthful. I’m proud of you.’ and I felt like I’d finally hit the point where people I care about can separate me from my work. It was a bit nerve-wracking too, to find out that my partner’s Mum was reading the blog before I’d even met her – I was a little worried about what she’d think of me…but then again, she knows her son and his work is certainly pretty dark too.
(Sarah) I didn’t realise that my mother read the blog until I posted a quite personal poem about my father, and she got quite upset about it. She didn’t understand why I would write something that raw, or why I’d put it online. I had to explain that while it came from a true place, a lot of the content was fictionalised, and that conversation was a tense and difficult one for both of us. I’m used to putting quite personal work online with my photography – lots of nudes, lots of intimate work, but there’s a sense of performativity with photography. The viewer kind of knows that there’s some theatricality to the image, that it’s a sort of storytelling. Writing can often seem totally honest. It’s harder to appreciate, as a reader, where the line between truth and hyperbole and drama is. Words can turn a small feeling into something operatic, and sometimes you forget that people might be reading this, thinking ‘God, is that what she’s really experiencing?’ Strangers reading the work feels fine. But I have developed a new appreciation for how my imagination running away with me can confuse and hurt the people I love.
What happens after day three hundred and sixty-five?
(Izzy) Publication, hopefully! We’re looking at getting together a collection of our favourite 100 days and turning that into a little curated chapbook from the project so we can launch it sometime next year. Personally, I feel like I will miss the challenge and the obligation for constant creation – I’ve created so much more good work, work that I’m proud of, this year than ever before. I’ve also created a lot of crap but that’s what you have to do to get to the good ideas and the surprises hiding in the deeper recesses of your brain. I’m interested in trialling a weekly or monthly project to give each idea a little more time to germinate and hopefully improve the quality of the fruit. Over the last month or so, I’ve been piecing together notes for a monthly ‘zine’ where I collaborate with a different artist each month to produce something (maybe a publication, maybe a performance, maybe a series of sculptures or sound pieces) to be distributed around the city when we’re done. I’ve really enjoyed working alongside Sarah and I have no doubt we’re artbabe life partners. I’d also love to do an image-based project at some stage in my life, so maybe we can swap and do a photography one!
(Sarah). A break, I think. There’s always a nice sort of decadent pleasure in not being disciplined for a while. Although I can’t ever really step aside from the bootcamp style approach to art – I’ve just set up a new year-long art challenge called The Art Olympics that anyone can be involved with – 12 creative projects over 12 months. It’s online at artolympics.net. I did a project a few years ago that merged photography and text, and I’d like to play with that intersection again. I like looking at the different ways that images and words can be eloquent, in harmony as well as in opposition to each other. Izzy and I are talking about maybe finding a way for both of us to start playing around with these kind of ideas. We’re looking at finding a way to continue this collaboration, because it’s exciting to have someone constantly pushing you to keep creating, keep pushing. Keep exploring.
Describe each others’ work.
(Sarah) Izzy’s work comes from the guts. It’s raw and honest and bloody and sexy and fierce. Like a girl walking into the room with a bleeding lip and a big leather jacket and a wicked twinkle in her eye. It’s formally experimental – she gets very bored with traditional poetry forms, I think. It’s constantly pushing at the boundaries of what a poem can be. In that regard, she’s much braver than me. Her work isn’t polite. It doesn’t let you warm up to it. It just walks up to you and says ‘This is what I think, so shut up and listen.’ It’s often about women being strong. And it’s about love. Love in all its messy shiny glory.
(Izzy) There is real vastness in Sarah’s work. A sense of space, a feeling like how can you ever compact this whole big fucking goddamn huge world into the space of some words. She’s refined that a lot since the beginning of the year. Her writer’s voice sounds more and more like it really belongs to her and no one else has the same combination of vocal chords. Her work is silly, too. Like she’s constantly noticing the contradictions and absurdities of life and just frankly and simply pointing them out, which ends up feeling like a revelation and a lesson. Sarah’s work is like Persephone – half the year it’s dancing barefoot under flower bowers and careening around on a bike with a bottle of wine and a transistor radio looking for laughs, and the other half of the year it’s buried deep in the earth’s belly yelling back at the ancient magma rumbles.
What’s a piece of each others’ work that you’ve enjoyed recently?
(Sarah) I’m fond of this piece. Something about the first line I find irrationally hilarious. I mean, of all the animals in the world, manatees? I like the disjointed, caffeinated edginess of it. That kind of scratchy madness that is the flip side of the happiness of love – that weird tension that comes with having someone take up so much space in your head, in your body.
‘sometimes, I wish we were manatees
you make me feel like doing naked star jumps
I get why people say ‘love is like a drug’
I never sleep or
I sleep all the time because I am tired out
from all this feeling
right now it feels like I am filled with a million helium balloons
and I want to make a high-pitched happy sonar noise, like
eeeeeeee eeeeeeee eeeeeeee eeeeeeee eeeeeeee’
(Izzy) I love how controlled this is, how concise and simple. There’s this underlying uneasiness, a sort of slow-motion anxiety that reeks of stagnation and wanting more. The last stanza really stayed with me and I love the image ‘paints lipstick on her eyelids / and mascara on her teeth’ – it’s like coming unhinged from a certain kind of acceptable femininity, getting a little stir-crazy and wild.
‘everything seems a little less real than tomorrow, she thinks
as she irons her hair along with her shirt
flat out on the scorch-marked ironing board
there is nothing to prove that there was ever a yesterday, she thinks
scoring her sandwiches with the flat of the knife
but not quite cutting them all the way through
I am a hologram lost in a synapse, she thinks
and paints lipstick on her eyelids
and mascara on her teeth’
What’s your writing process? How much time do you spend on a piece, and where does your inspiration come from?
(Sarah). I think, on average, I spend about half an hour on a piece. Maybe up to an hour. I write very fast, generally. The first line is always the hardest, but once it’s there, things flow fairly swiftly. Mostly. I get into a headspace that’s half frantic typing and half staring into the middle distance, which makes writing in cafes a bit of a hazard. Haha. I spend a lot of time reading strange articles on the internet, listening to songs I’ve never heard before, waiting for a word or a sentence to jump out and bite me. When I can’t think of anything to write, I find people to look at on trains or cafes or theatre foyers and imagine lives for them. Stories. Sad things. What they do in the dark. I try not to edit too much. Every now and then I’ll get to the end of a piece and decide that it’s awful, delete it and start again. But most of my editing is fairly minimal. Changing a few words, fixing grammar. Not having ever learned a great deal about the technique of writing, I often don’t know what my writing needs in the way of editing, so I just throw it up and hope for the best. That’s a thing for the future – learning more about form, so I know when I’m obeying the rules and when I’m breaking them.
(Izzy) It depends how much time I have in my day and whether or not I’m struck by something on the fly (frantically scratching scribbles onto a notepad on the subway or punching lines into my phone at a gig) but I spend anywhere from about half an hour to two hours on a piece. It’s been a real struggle for me recently as I fractured my wrist about a month ago and it’s my writing hand! That’s definitely impacted the amount of time it takes me to write and I feel like it also impacted the quality of my work (for example ‘Siri says’ was an experiment in using voice-to-text primarily inspired by the fact I wasn’t able to type).
Sometimes I have no idea what’s going to come out and I’m just sort of garbling things onto my keyboard, and other days I have an idea or a line I’m trying to build a structure from. I’m really glad we decided to do themes for the final month, because having a central pin or some parameters and a prompt has really helped re-inspire me for the last leg. I get a little frustrated by the lack of editing sometimes, because often that feels like the key process for making work that’s worth reading. I love that this has forced me to let go a bit, and acted as a reminder that it’s ok to screw up and experiment in a public forum as well as on your own – as long as you’re actually producing work, I feel like that’s winning at what you’re trying to do because you’ll always learn something. I have had time to reflect on and edit some of the pieces a bit more for publication elsewhere, as well as performing some of the earlier stuff from this year to audiences in the UK, and that really reaffirmed for me that by constantly producing, I’m giving myself a good base of work to go back to and edit later. I think the next step is going to be trawling through it all again and seeing what’s worth editing and developing further.
What inspires you about each other?
(Sarah). Izzy’s one of those people who seems to leave a trail of sparks behind them. She’s fearless and endlessly thoughtful and interrogative of the whole world. You can almost hear her brain whirring all the time, ticking away. And I have always loved the way that she loves. She strides into the world with such confidence, and she comes into love the same way, not only with lovers but with friends. She’s constantly finding ways to create romance and beauty without cliché or condescension, and it makes other people want to be more extraordinary to match her. She has that wonderful quality of making other people feel more intelligent and creative when they’re around her. I also love how much of a staunch and totally unapologetic feminist she is. And she’s always been such a great cheerleader for my work, both photographic and writing. She’s great at eliminating your excuses with sheer force of enthusiasm. When I’m around her, I always leave full of ideas and willingness to just get shit done.
(Izzy) Sarah’s a hurricane. A total force or freak of nature, whichever way you look at it. She’s immediately good at pretty much anything she picks up (like that time she started playing cello and I was like ‘I didn’t know you played cello!’ and she was like ‘I didn’t until a week ago’). Her brain is an amazing universe of specialised knowledge and she is endlessly fascinated by the world. I think the curiosity and drive we both have are the things that have maintained our friendship and conversations for so long. Occasionally I get intimidated about the fact that I studied communications rather than going to art school or studying creative writing, but Sarah always reminds me that you just have to do. A degree isn’t what makes you a ‘writer’ or an ‘artist’ (although it probably helps) it’s trying and trying and trying again until you find something that works. Sarah is challenging and inspiring and constantly makes me want to do more and do it better. And she’s silly. We laugh a lot, we do dumb things and that is how we learn. We feed each other’s electricity, like one of those big crackling balls at Scienceworks that makes your hair stand on end. Sarah is rigorous and incisive and utterly insatiable, and I have no doubt she’ll get more done in one lifetime than most people could in three.
Sarah is a professional photographer working in the Melbourne theatre industry, who wrote her first poem because she’d read some of Izzy’s and thought they were excellent. As a photographer, she works for hundreds of companies across Melbourne, from tiny independents to the MTC, Malthouse and Melbourne Festival. Her work is online at sarahwalkerphotos.com.
Izzy is a writer and theatremaker constantly experimenting across a bunch of different forms. Some of her recent obsessions have been with flash fiction, post-dramatic possibilities for performance text and excited or sometimes abject direct poetic voice. Her work has been performed across Australia, in France and the UK and published in The Lifted Brow, VOLTA Creative Writing Anthology, Co/Respond, Catalyst, The Bohemyth and The Voices Project: Out of Place. Her performance poetry has been featured at Sweetalkers, Word is Out, Overload Finals, Eltham Courthouse, Inn Deep (UK) and the High Flight (UK). She’s spent most of the year constantly uprooting herself traveling, testing and experiencing and even though she never really left she didn’t really come back either.
Photo credit: Izzy