As part of The Second Life Awards scheme in 2022, the Edwin Morgan Trust partnered with Disability Arts Online to extend their Associate Artist programme into Scotland for the first time and support the practice of poet Ellen Renton over a period of 12–18 months. Ellen explores the role of sight in her work and the writings of others, touching on themes of imagery, the cultural significance of blindness, and the hierarchy of the senses. We caught up with Ellen recently to talk about her artistic practice and the project she is working on as an Associate Artist.
What does it mean to you to be a Scottish poet, performer, and theatre maker?
I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to move between forms and genres with the work that I make, and I think there is something particular about how the arts work in Scotland that makes this possible. Scottish writing, especially its poetry, has a specific flavour: it’s obviously extremely varied in terms of its direct subject matter, but I think that more often than not, you’ll find something inherently political beneath it all. I think that learning about poetry within the context of that tradition has had a huge impact on how I write.
Can you tell us about your debut poetry pamphlet?
An Eye For An Eye For An Eye was published last year by Stewed Rhubarb Press. It brings together poems that were written over the course of several years, with an overarching theme of growing up while looking different and seeing differently. I really enjoyed the process of putting the pamphlet together, the puzzle-ish nature of working out what poems sit well beside each other.
What differences do you find between spoken word and page-based poetry? You released
‘Beginnings’ your audio collection of work, many years before a poetry pamphlet. Was that
because you find spoken word easier to engage with, as someone with limited vision?
Because of my vision, I suppose, that distinction has never been a binary one. For me, there is nothing that only exists on a page, sound is one of my primary ways of navigating the world. I’ve also always found great joy in being read to or in hearing text aloud. I do enjoy the act of crafting shape on a page too – just because I’m partially sighted doesn’t mean that I don’t get great satisfaction from aesthetics, in fact, this is something that I’m particularly interested in exploring. Generally, I want to be writing poems that can exist comfortably in both those spaces.
You talk about the “hierarchy of the senses” can you unpack that a little for us?
The hierarchy of the senses is the idea that certain sensory tools are prioritised differently in specific cultural or social situations. For instance, sight and hearing sit at the top of the hierarchy in contemporary Western culture, but this hasn’t always been the case. At different times throughout history, losing the ability to taste or smell would have been hugely disabling, but since the industrial revolution, losing sight or hearing would now be considered the more ‘serious’. Researching this idea really helped me understand the intricacies of the social model of disability in relation to my vision, and I think that working towards toppling or destabilising the hierarchy can present really exciting challenges when making art.
You worked with Disability Arts Online previously as part of their Covid Commissions. How
was it, making your piece ‘Poetic Vision’ compared to other projects you’ve done?
I really enjoyed working on this presentation, it gave me the opportunity to bring together a lot of different ideas that I had been thinking about for a long time. Often a lot of work and research sits behind a poem and stays hidden, but the talk gave me the chance to bring the two in line with each other and share them in the same context.
Are you developing that work now in the associate artist programme or are you creating
something new? How are you getting on?
My project for the associateship is based on the idea of writing poems about photographs, inspired by Edwin Morgan’s Instamatics. At the moment, I’m doing a lot of research into the connections between photography and sight, and thinking about how these can be explored in text. While it is all new work, it does link back to some research that I’ve done before on vision and multimedia, so it’s exciting to have the opportunity to take those ideas further and create something new with them.