“I started off with page poetry,” explains Sally, tucking a strand from her bright pink wig behind her ear. “Now I do all sorts of poetry, edible poetry, poetry in tins in the supermarket. My trademark is a poetree – a sculpture shaped like a tree with different objects hanging on it. People can pick an object which inspires a song or a poem and I serenade them on my pink, heart-shaped chaise long. I do a lot of festivals where I’m out on the street, but today it was not…” She drifts off and we both laugh, glancing towards the door where windswept poets are scurrying in out of the cold. “I suppose what I try to do is present poetry in ways that are quite surprising,” continues Sally. “That might be an installation or an interactive performance, or it could just be poems in a book. I wrap up poetry so that it’s delightful.”
Occasionally this can lead to some surreal experiences. “I remember doing a festival in Newlyn once,” Sally tells me. “So we’re talking fish -” she breaks into a cackle and then continues. “Newlyn’s the second largest fishing port in the UK. It’s got a huge fishing business and people love coming to this festival and looking at the fish. So I was actually in the fish market,” she emphasises, trying not to laugh. “I set up my poetree so I could serenade people and this beautiful looking Spanish fisherman came and sat, and I seneraded him. He picked a rose off the tree, and I sang him this song about a rose – he was so lovely, and I was thinking,” – she breaks off to laugh rowdily – “I’m surrounded by fish and burly men! And he’d come from the pub opposite and oh, that was lovely.” She finishes with a giggle, and a slight sigh.
Sally came to installation poetry through a rather roundabout route, with poetry leading into design, leading into children’s books, leading into installations and finally back to poetry. “I was writing really serious poetry,” she explains, “and a friend suggested that I should send my poetry to a children’s book publisher she knew, because he liked poetry. So I designed a card in the shape of an old cloche hat with a poem inside, hoping to entice him. He just ignored the poem and he loved the design!” She shrugs delightedly at the unexpectedness of it, and takes a sip of tea before continuing. “I’d never done anything at all arty in my whole life, but I thought, give it whirl! So I got involved in children’s books and started writing children’s books. I got invited to some festivals - and obviously you have to engage with people. It’s not easy, you know – if you’re invited somewhere, you have to delight them. That’s when I started thinking about the poetree as a little installation. I started developing it as something which could work on different levels, because if you’ve got a family, you’ve got to make sure the six year old’s happy, as well as the clever dad or the grumpy granny – it’s difficult.”
The poetree doesn’t just bridge the divide between ages though. “Once when I was doing the Venice Berlinale, I had a tramp,” Sally remarks. “I’ll serenade anybody, so I was serenading this tramp – and the next minute I had a count!” She explains enthusiastically, “What I do gives me the opportunity to just get to know people in the space two minutes. It’s great! I’d never do that normally, you know. I wouldn’t just go up to a stranger for a talk.”
Viva la poesia
Sally’s taken her poetree to festivals across the Americas and Europe. Has she noticed differences in the approach to poetry in different countries? “Yes!” she exclaims, interrupting me in her eagerness. “Oh my god, yeah! In Havana, they love poetry so much! The taxi drivers love it… I was walking along the street at nine o’ clock, ready to get to the festival on time. This big black guy wanted me to have a drink – a cocktail at nine o’ clock in the morning! I said I couldn’t, I had to get to the poetry festival. And he was like, 'oh la poesia!' Everyone’s very much 'viva la poesia' there, whereas here we don’t get that general vibe of interest and love when it comes to poetry.” She takes another sip of tea. “Festivals do have different vibes, but I would say that South America’s where it’s at.”
Whilst continuing to tour festivals with her poetree and edible biscuits, Sally's hoping to focus on getting more poems down on the page in the coming months. "Poetry comes in lots of forms, and that's brilliant," she muses. "It doesn’t mean you can’t have the books – books are beautiful things, ultimately the most beautiful things. There's something about people discovering poetry where they don’t expect it though. It’s a magical moment."
Read a couple of Sally's poems here.