Updated: Nov 4, 2020
Neil Bartlett, author of The Disappearance Boy, talks to Nathan Evans about Threads, his poetry/photography collaboration with Justin David.
Your work is very much the result of partnerships - word and image, thought and feeling, writing and snapping. And I know you're in a partnership in life too. Can I ask how you juggle the need for solitary concentration on your work, and the equal and opposite need for cheerful collaboration?
Ha! I’m sorry to report that the collaborations—though always fruitful—are not always cheerful. There were times during the making of Threads when I think we could cheerfully have throttled each other, perhaps with that rope we used for the portrait in the book. Now did that end up at his place or mine…? You see, I think the secret to our partnership’s longevity is that we don’t live together all the time: I usually spend half the week in my shed in West London and the other half with Justin in Dalston. When we’re apart, I can be as solitary—and indeed grumpy—as I want. When we’re together, I try to keep a lid on it. To somewhat mixed results. The results when we collaborate are rather more consistent, as I hope Threads will attest. It should be said that half the poems in the collection are about how much we love each other, in spite of and perhaps because of our oppositions.
Speaking of word and image; in THREADS, which came first? The idea for the picture, or the idea for the poem?
The poem. Sometimes by a not insignificant period of time. For instance, the first in the collection was first written when I was, really, just a kid. The image in which it sits—conjuring imagery from Justin’s own childhood—was created over twenty years later. In truth, I think I've written better since, but in combination with the photograph the assemblage becomes more than the sum of its parts. In other spreads, the genesis of word and image was much less distant: The Seven Ages Of Queer Man was written just months before the book went to press and the image was—I think—created before the words were fully drafted. That one was a particularly cheerful collaboration: the photos feature Justin in a range of extraordinary guises. I was on facial hair and make-up duties. I seem to remember the row over the beard, in particular, was incandescent. Which is perhaps why we chose that name for our imprint.
Romance and realism; night and day; drama and laughter - how important are balance and contrast in your work?
Very. In all my work. My directing strategy is simple really – make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, leave ‘em thinking. Works (almost) every time. I love that contrast between laughter and tears, laughter and thought. Often, they’re two sides of the same thing. When I was making mainly cabaret, I became frustrated by the need to keep people laughing. Of course, I would always sneak some tears or thoughts in. But things seemed out of balance. Equally, I don’t think I could take myself entirely seriously for too long. I can just about manage for the length of a poem, but when it comes to a full-length dramatic work… In my play SwanSong, which had a reading starring the sublime Lavinia Co-op at the King’s Head Theatre last year, the humour arises from its realism—two old queers in a care home—but so too does its romance. They get it together. Underscored by a flagrantly operatic soundtrack to ensure there is not a dry eye in the house.
You've been at it for a few years, and I've been at it for forty. How do you think we're doing with queer culture in this country?
You’re very kind – it’s twenty years if it’s a day. And—I have to say—you wear your forty years very handsomely. I think c