Maz Hedgehog on performance, fantasy, and imagined history.
Maz Hedgehog is a performance poet and spoken word artist based in Manchester. Her work draws from history and fantasy, weaving the two together to play with ideas of cultural heritage and mythology, and they how they might be reshaped by perspectives that encompass a greater diversity of experience. Maz performed her work for an audience of Edge Hill students at the launch of Issue #7, where this interview first appeared.
So Maz, you are (as the biography on the back cover of your chapbook says) a black bisexual poet. There’s often a conversation around art from people within marginalised groups about how they choose to present their identity in relation to their work. Some female poets and black poets might consider being described as a ‘female poet’ or a ‘black poet,’ to be a reductive classification of otherness; while some might feel that to not acknowledge these identities would be to erase some aspect of their perspective. Do you feel that you are actively making decisions about the way you present your identity in your work, or is it a natural consequence of embracing your own perspective?
I think it's a mixture of the two. My marginalisations are a really important part of who I am, and I do want people to know that the words they're reading come from someone who is black and is bisexual. I don't tend to write autobiographically, so the only way you're going to know is if I tell you (especially in the case of my sexuality). I also want to call out to people in my communities, and tell them I’m here. It can be hard finding black queer voices in the arts, so I want black queer people who come across my book to know that they might be able to find something of themselves in the pages. So in that sense it's a conscious, almost political choice. On the other hand, my work is born of queerness and being in the diaspora and growing up as a queer British-Nigerian kid. So it just makes sense that what I write will be heavily informed by it and so declaring it feels much the same as declaring my influences. I don't know if I'll do it all the time, or forever. But right now, the descriptor makes sense for me.
The collection features quotes from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, and your work is interacting with Spenser’s in a way that is at times a response, a rebuttal, and sometimes a continuation. How would you characterise the relationship between the two works, and how do you anticipate readers reacting to your work differently depending on their knowledge of the original poem?
I would call Vivat Regina a response to what the The Faerie Queene represents. Spenser’s epic poem is about cultural legacy and, in a lot of ways, about Englishness itself. It’s an overtly political work, designed to curry favour with Queen Elizabeth at a time that Empire was just beginning. Vivat Regina is a critique of English cultural memory and imagined history. I wanted to pick apart some of the politics in Spenser’s work and some of what Queen Elizabeth (and English queens in general) represent.I selected each quote to provide additional context to the narrative. The final one in particular is used with a nudge and a wink, as this bid for sympathy comes from the biggest liar in Book 1 of the epic poem. (Whilst the Queen doesn’t have a name in Vivat Regina, whilst I was editing I called her Fidessa in my head, because I found the quote so perfect for her character). For those who are familiar with The Faerie Queene, I’d like them to use the quotes for context and link what happened at that point in the epic poem to what is happening in Vivat Regina.
It’s interesting that you mention the political purpose of Spenser’s work, appeasing a queen and a political establishment. How do you think your response functions in relation to that idea? Are you sending a different message to an establishment, or are you addressing a different queen?
I don’t think of the work as addressing anyone in particular. I didn’t write at anyone, so much as I tried to articulate some of my distaste/fascination with the way history and culture is politicised and remembered in England. I’m talking to myself, and to other people who’ve been marginalised in the construction of ‘Englishness', especially queer people and people of colour. A kind of “all the glitters is not gold" commentary on what Spencer (and countless writers, artists and folklorists since) thought being English/British means.
You’ve also described yourself as a fantasy poet. It’s interesting to see a genre term that is usually applied to fiction used by a poet. What does the term mean to you?
I see myself, in a lot of ways, as a fiction writer who does poetry. Fairy tales and fantasy novels are very much my bookish comfort zone and that bleeds into my poetry. I want put my work in the context of the stories I love the most, stories by the likes of Nalo Hopkinson, JRR Tolkein and Robin McKinley. For my longer form work especially (Vivat Regina being the first) I approach my writing story first, sketching out a narrative before writing the poems. Often the story changes as I tell it, especially since I tend to write very character-driven poems, but I imagine that happens amongst fiction writers as well. Calling myself a fantasy poet is me saying, ‘if you read fantasy novels or poetry, you’ll probably understand what I’m doing’. Do you see the narrative aspect of your work being something you’d like to return to in a different form, perhaps telling stories of the same world through prose; or is the actual story something which only you as the poet are aware of while the poems are how you chose to tell it? I’d love to return to the world. I’d like to tell the Earl of the Even Mists' and Una's stories in particular. Whether that’ll be in poetry, prose or something in between I have no idea. For Vivat Regina itself, I’d like the story to be easy to follow. The balance between making poetry subtle and layered, and writing an easily accessible narrative is one I always struggle with. I guess readers can tell me how successful I’ve been. Either way, narrative poetry and the world of Vivat Regina are definitely things I want to come back to again.
Outside of your own writing, have you been reading, watching, or otherwise enjoying anything that has inspired or creatively invigorated you?
I recently watched Sweeney Todd at the Everyman Theatre. It’s been my favourite musical for a couple years now and I was really excited to see it live for the first time. I loved the stagecraft and the way they used relatively simple props and lighting to great effect. It’s the kind of show that makes me wish I could work in theatre.
Could you tell us a little about how you found your way into poetry?
My parents always made sure we had lots of poetry books in the house. I grew up reading Robert Louis Stevenson and Alfred Lord Tennyson with my siblings. There was one collection of children’s poems we had – 100 Best Poems for Children – that I was obsessed with. It had everything from Spike Milligan to Shakespeare and I spent ages memorising the Jabberwocky (I still know it by heart) and even tried to learn The Lady of Shalott (that was less successful). I knew right away that poetry vitally important to me and I started writing it when I was 6 or 7. At uni I found my way to spoken word and made my home in it. Vivat Regina is my return to the page and I want to keep playing with both spoken word and page poetry.
You make a distinction there between spoken word and page poetry, do you think you could tell us a little more about how you see the distinction between the two? Is there work in your repertoire that you see as only for performance?
When I’m writing spoken word, I’m writing myself performance pieces. I write thinking about where I’m going to breathe, which words I’ll stress and which ones I won’t. I use line breaks and punctuation as mini stage directions, helping me to remember the rhythm I’ll want to use. It also colours the subject matter and narrative voice; I need to be able to perform the stuff I write and perform it well.With page poetry, I have a lot more space to work. Whether or not I can perform it is immaterial; the voice just needs to make sense on the page. But I also can’t rely on my performance to convey meaning, so the poem has to stand on its own. It has to look write more than it needs to sound write because even if someone reads it aloud, they won’t do it the way I would. I find page poetry much trickier, but it’s still a lot of fun.I don’t really have any exclusively performance pieces; I’ve reworked most of my repertoire for the page. But I do have a couple page-only poems. They’re the ones that I have no idea how to perform. They’re often ones that have more than one voice or rely on line breaks to convey meaning. Rewriting them for performance could be a fun challenge, but I probably won’t for a good while yet.
Do you think the connection with literature which you talk about having from a young age has shaped your perspective as an adult?
I guess, I think about the world in terms of stories. Obviously most things in life don’t have a neat beginning or end, but I tend to think ‘what story is this person/group/institution telling? Where are they starting it? Where are they ending it?’I think that everyone tries to craft a narrative, a way to make sense of the world and their own lives. It makes it a little easier for me to understand people, to empathise with them. I mean, most of my history degree was the process of casting a critical eye over the stories have already told and try to come up with something interesting of my own.Also, I tend to use weird turns of phrase I pick up from books a lot of the time. So, there's that.
Maz’s first major work Vivat Regina was released by Dog Horn Publishing and is available now, and other chapbooks can be found on her etsy store. You can support Maz’s work via her patreon and get information on upcoming performances on her website.