Ladybeard co-founder and Dazed Beauty Contributing Editor Madeleine Dunnigan talks to Grace Atkinson, the poet who turns selfies into stanzas
Grace Atkinson sees poetry everywhere: in ‘the products we buy, the cars we drive, the brands we wear’ and, even, in selfies. As the title of her forthcoming collection - Portraits from Kylie Jenner’s Instagram - suggests, Grace takes images from the icon’s feed and transforms them into lyrical, delicious and sometimes disturbing poetic sound bites – or as Grace puts it: "it’s as if the act of writing them has turned them into something almost pornographic."
Each stanza Grace writes is a reflection of a selfie, and Grace chooses to post them on her own Instagram account, but together they make up a single, ever-evolving poem. In that sense, Portraits from Kylie Jenner’s Instagram is an ongoing work that mirrors the subject’s endless feed and Grace's own obsession with it. Featuring celebrity culture, the female muse, self-surveillance, Grace’s work tackles big topics in bite-sized forms, making us rethink the way we look at each other and ourselves, and why we can’t stop looking at Kylie Jenner.
Hailing from East London, Grace is studying an MFA in poetry at The Manchester Writing School. She has published work with Draft London and has poetry forthcoming in Poetry Salzburg Review. Here, we spoke with her about her poetic process and the similarities between taking a selfie and writing a poem.
How did you come to writing poetry?
I was drawn in by its immediateness and found it was able to tap into certain semiotics that prose couldn’t. Poetry is a story, but shorter. With poetry I can read a whole story in just one bus stop, I can read a whole collection between my mum’s flat and the pub. I can read it on an advert on the tube, or flick through it on my phone. It gives instant gratification and, at the same time, can have a slow-burning impact on our thinking and perspective. In the collection I’m working on at the moment, I’m writing about language and art, about relationships and identity, and how it all fits within a contemporary landscape. I am interested in the things that seem menial but make up our lives.
Why did you choose Kylie Jenner as a subject?
Kylie Jenner is on social media every day. I wake and go to sleep to her, I see her more than my pervy neighbour, more than that advert for Clear Blue pregnancy tests.
My friend once explained how Kylie Jenner was the least popular out of the Kardashians until she got her lips done and then, suddenly, she became everybody’s favourite. The plainness of that celebrity superficiality sparked an immediate fascination for me, but ironic interest quickly became a very genuine and pleasurable obsession with that Keeping Up world.
Jenner always comes across as most honest on her Instagram – as if she’s giving us a genuine insight into her day-to-day life. And that’s all I want when I watch this stuff really, and maybe that’s why Jenner is so popular in general: she satisfies a very common desire to be a part of a made-up, celebrity world.
Then again, maybe Jenner’s popularity comes down to the thing that first caught my attention: her lips. Jenner turned the ‘worst’ part of her into her moneymaker. She went from the ’deadest one’ to the ‘fittest one’ in two years and now has an empire based around what was once her biggest insecurity. I imagine that’s an appeal for a lot of young women. The Kardashian/Jenner craze is a birthmark of this generation. Their popularity says a lot about how young people view the world and view themselves.
What is your writing process – from image to poem?
I think of each stanza like a written reflection of Jenner’s selfies. I selected each image based on how they initially captured my attention - what Kylie was wearing or how she was positioned in the photograph. Once I had chosen one, I said what I could see out loud. I often start by observing immediate things, like Jenner’s clothing or positioning, and then move on to more obscure surrounding details. I was trying to mimic how we all would study an image.
Can you talk more about your role as a viewer of these images?
I had been thinking about a lot of stuff in my day-to-day life: about surface, flatness and art, about the act of looking, and my own role as a perceiver. I feel very aware of my own gaze when I look at images like this, of what I’m internalising, and what I’m projecting onto the subject in the photo. I was also thinking a lot about selfies. I think our rhetoric towards selfies can often slide into scrutiny more than other photos. I guess it’s in the explicitness of the subject’s agency, as if the fact that they took the photo themselves gives us permission to analyse their decision to do so. We think they are saying ‘I know I look good, so good I want you to see’, and we internalise the standard that they are presenting to us as ‘good enough to show’. We then project those standards back and pick tiny holes in our own and each other’s image. I think these internalisations and projections damage how we treat one another, and restrict perceptions of ourselves and in this sense the process of looking can be violent.
What do you think gets lost in translation between image and poem?
I’m more interested in the similarities between poetry and image rather than the differences, that’s why I boxed them up as if they were framed. There is something concise and immediate about both which leaves space for a more instinctual, unconscious language. As a generation, we’re obsessed with image, and social media has meant that our mode for communication has become much more visual. It’s like we’ve gone back to painting hieroglyphics on walls. There’s this article by John Naughton that asks whether the rise of Snapchat means that image will one day replace language, which I think is far-fetched, but interesting. I guess one main difference is that my hand as ‘the artist’ is made more visible. We’re immune to the artifice of these selfies but, by writing them up, their content becomes seeable again.
What do you mean by ‘content seeable again’?
I’m interested in things that encompass the private and the public simultaneously and in some of these descriptions, the act of writing them up has turned them into something explicit, as if this hugely public image becomes almost pornographic. Obviously in things like ‘Lying topless and on her front’ or ‘Her arm is bent at the elbow and her hand holds her breast’, but even more in how it forces the reader to trace Jenner’s body. Maybe it’s about ‘watching’, as if by writing the image out the reader is not ‘looking’ at Jenner’s body anymore but is ‘watching’ it instead. We watch Jenner’s body and it is as if something that should be private is exposed.
I love your poetry because it offers us snapshots of Kylie Jenner but reimagines her as a kind of lyrical muse. Can you talk about the role of the female muse in contemporary culture?
Kylie Jenner would actually make quite a nice lyrical muse, she could use a lip kit as a flute maybe? The Muses in ancient Greek myth were nine ‘goddesses of inspiration’, which implies that they aided the creativity of others but were passive in their own right. This resonates with how we use the female image historically and today – in films, adverts, magazines, and all over social media. I wonder how many people actually choose their life insurance based on the visual of a beautiful, young widow dressed in her long black ‘widow cape’.
With things like that, it can feel like the purpose of the female figure is to serve. With selfies however, while the image is arguably the same, some of the agency is put back in the hands of the subject, Jenner is the skilled artist of her own image. But this agency becomes complicated in relation to the spectator, who holds agency too. Even further, what happens to Jenner’s agency when her image is made into a poem? Did I, by writing it up, become the one arranging Jenner’s body? Or do we as readers? I wanted the poem to sit uncomfortably in this tension between the artist and the consumer.
Grace Atkinson is currently working on her debut poetry collection,'Portraits from Kylie Jenner's Instagram'