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From me and of me

A conversation between poet Erica Gillingham and artist Anna Stiles

This year our poetry editor Erica Gillingham published her debut collection 'The Human Body Is a Hive' (Verve Poetry Press). Named after its title poem, the collection is about Erica’s journey with IVF treatment. To mark the occasion of her first publication, Erica contacted artist Anna Stiles and commissioned an artwork. Here Erica and Anna talk about that commission, the artwork that resulted and the place that art practice occupies in both of their lives.

Erica Gillingham (EG): So, we’re here in Leyton in London, and you and I are neighbours. That’s how we met.

Anna Stiles (AS): Sunny Leyton!

EG: In sunny Leyton on a June afternoon. It’s been a year that we’ve known each other.

AS: It’s our anniversary. [laughter]

EG: So, Anna Stiles, will you please introduce yourself?

AS: Well, I describe myself as a graphic artist and that involves illustration and murals, a little bit of animation, and sometimes art installations. I've always been drawing, to be honest. I guess it's in my blood. I say that I'm self-taught, but really my dad taught me to draw. He was a graphics teacher, and by the time I was going to school, he'd basically taught me a lot of the basic principles of technical drawing, like 3D shapes, shading, isometric drawings, things like that, perspective. I guess there was innate interest, which he nurtured.

I'm passionate about detail, observation drawings. I really enjoy the collaboration process. Music is a massive inspiration. I like the freedom that drawing gives me, and I like to start with a hand-rendered, hand-drawn piece and then mostly use digital for colour.

EG: That's great to hear about your dad. One of the things I was curious about was when you started to create artwork professionally, because, to relate to your process, I've been writing poetry for as long as I can remember and though it was nurtured in different ways by teachers, my mom encouraged me, particularly. But I've also made choices about when I've put my work out there and decisions around when not to for periods of time. When did you decide to start kind of putting your work out there for either paid work or just more publicly? What prompted that?

AS: Oh, it might be a bit deep. You can tell me if it is.

EG: That's okay. I'm up for the deep.

AS: It was in 2009. Before that I did a degree in French, so there was a period where I wasn't creating anything, I wasn't drawing anything as such, I was studying. Then, I spent a year in France in 2004-2005, and I had a lot more time and space—headspace—and I went back to drawing. Then again, really quiet on that front until I went traveling in 2009. And, it's so personal, but you can tell me if you think this is too heavy.

EG: Nothing is—it's up to you what you want to share.

AS: So, when I was traveling, I basically started to have panic attacks, 24-hours-a-day, my every waking moment was like a long panic attack.

EG: Wow.

AS: And far from home, I think it was quite frightening and I didn't know what was happening, and, for whatever reason, I was just really, really called to start drawing again. It's not like even a calling to do it, it just felt like something I had to get out of me. And then a friend came and visited us—she was working as a designer at a publishing house—she saw my work and she said: You've basically made a portfolio.

EG: Wow.

AS: And I didn't really know what she meant by that, but I felt encouraged by her.

She said, Keep doing what you're doing. You're building a portfolio. When you get back, you should submit to publishers and you can do illustration. This is illustration, what you're doing.

And I was like, Oh! It was strange because coming from a family where there was art and graphics, it had never occurred to me—the path of illustration—you know, studying French, doing something that I felt was quite academic, but then being left to my own devices, I went down a more creative route. So, I don't know what it was about that period in my life that made me start drawing again, but that was what I felt I needed to do.

And then later, as I've worked on my mental health and I've had CBT it's become apparent that drawing is a way to stimulate the vagus nerve. When you're in a fight or flight mode, a really good way of coming out of that and coping with anxiety is to stimulate the vagus nerve. And drawing is one way you can do that. You know, for some reason, for some people it's prayer, it's yoga, it's singing. For me, it's drawing, that kind of automatic pattern and mark-making. I think that comes directly from that.

EG: Mm hmm.

AS: So that's the really personal description of how I came to put together a portfolio. It really wasn't a considered or career-driven decision. It wasn't a cold, clinical decision that I made. It was something that, I guess, was a mixture of feeling that I needed to draw and then happenstance that my friend encouraged me. She was so encouraging, and coming from her, because it was something that she was doing professionally, it buoyed me, really. It made me feel like, okay, this is something I can do.

EG: Absolutely.

AS: And then the first published book I worked on was 2010.

EG: Wow. So quite quickly then.

AS: Yeah. And then I haven't looked back.

EG: That's amazing.

AS: I still love doing the illustration. I still love having the briefs. I still love working with an art director or a publisher, and with the author in mind. It's such a nice thing to do. You feel privileged to be doing that because it's something that someone's worked on and poured their heart into. That's how I felt when you gave me the commission for your poetry collection. You were sharing something very personal, very intimate in your life, and you trusted me to be inspired by that. And I really was.

EG: I want to come on to that in a bit, so hold there. But first I want to go back because it sounds like for you there was an almost physical need to draw that was related to your mental health, but that it also sounds quite vocational. You know, some people talk about how they were called to do something or to be something. And for me, poetry is a type of vocation because it's something that I've always been interested in and always done. But it's also something that I can't help but do when I give myself the time and space and the permission to do it.

I had stopped writing poetry when I was in a more academic track, I’d decided to move away from poetry for time, but there was a moment in my postgraduate work where a friend said, You know, you're really struggling with your thesis, and I think you've forgotten that you're a poet. You need to remember that you're a poet and look at this project through that lens.

And so I just approached redrafting my thesis like I was editing a poem, and it totally worked.

AS: Of course.

EG: And then when we were going through the IVF treatment, which is what the poems in my pamphlet (The Human Body Is a Hive) are related to—or half of them are related to—it was another friend who was like, Well, you know, you should be writing about this. You're a poet, that just makes sense.

And it hadn't occurred to me either!

AS: Isn't it so funny? [laughter] Isn't it? What do you think that's all about? Do you think it's a level of introspection where you're so in your head about something, you almost need someone to help you zoom out to see the bigger picture?

That's one thing I wanted to ask you. To me, it's so brave the way that you discuss fertility treatment, and I really admired that. Hearing you read this particular poem aloud, the title poem, ‘The Human Body Is a Hive’, I felt there was such a warmth there and such a sense of wonder. I really admired the bravery that you had to kind of step out and say, This is my story, because it is so personal. I think it's hard to do that.

But are you ever scared?

EG: No, it just has to come out. That poem was written in this, almost, fevered rush, where I couldn't grab a pen fast enough. I don't always keep a notebook by my bed, but I did at that time, and I was just scribbling. It was 11:30 at night and I was reading my book to go to bed and this thought just occurred to me—this relationship between the queen bee's reproduction and the process we were going through. we were right in the middle of it. It was a two-week period where you are in the IVF [in vitro fertilisation] process, from starting the drugs to the surgery and then the fertilization, the embryo transfer, all of that. It's super intense.

So, we were right in the middle of that. I was reading The Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings by Helen Jukes and was just like, Oh, wait, I'm not alone. The queen bee does this, which is such a ridiculous thing to say [laughter] but it was all I could think about, and it just had to come out as a poem.