Applauded by booze bums misfits electric cool aid kids old skool hipsters social pariahs swanky pants literati the great the godless and a stray Siamese kitty. Viola spits and howls poetic fire. Pulp that pulsates and prosody that burns holes in the page. Destroying cup and saucer verse as we know it. A bitch slap in the face of stuffy traditionalists and a wail of protest in the ears of smug fat cats. Now rebel yelling live and direct from the jumping apple NYC.
Listen to an audio version of Viola’s bio here.
Scott Thomas Outlar: First off, Saira, I’d like to thank you for taking some of your time to answer these questions. I’ve enjoyed your poetry for a long while now, and so it’s an honor to feature you in a Showcase Spotlight here at 17Numa. Let’s start off with something simple. When did you begin writing? Has it always been a serious pursuit for you, or was there a certain moment/event that really set you along the path you’re travelling now?
Saira Viola: Thank you sincerely for taking an interest in my work. It’s funkalicious being here. I began scribbling short stories and poetic bibble babble as a child when my family and I were uprooted from our home and we were forced to leave Africa for the more austere shores of Britain. It was a stiff starchy London when we arrived. One grey eyed morning my mother sent me off to school dressed in my school uniform, but unbeknownst to her I’d smuggled my emerald green shimmery bikini and flip flops into my satchel. I thought if I take my beach stuff with me, I might be able to play in the sand. Before morning assembly I changed into my bikini and sat cross-legged in front of the entire school with my woolen coat half buttoned up and my bathing suit on show. The headmistress frog marched me out of the assembly hall, made me stand with my face to the wall and rapped me on the knuckles with a wooden ruler. Then my mother was summoned from work. I remember feeling much better when I put pen to paper. I’ve always been curious about the world. Growing up I was always asking questions: ‘Who lives on the moon?’ ‘Can butterflies talk?’ ‘Why are we standing in line?’ With writing I find you have the freedom to a certain degree to create your own answers, make up your own realities. Mostly I write because it steals the crap out of the day and because it spanks my soul.
STO: Bravado is cool when it can be backed up. Your writing proves that point in spades because it takes a certain set of steely guts to work up the nerve to coin your own style. You did so with “sonic scatterscript”. Can you elaborate on what this technique means to you, and how you conjured it into existence?
SV: I used to be a lyricist for a punk band Suburban Acid. One hot night in July after we’d run ramalamadingdong in one of those uber-cool hip and howl bars, we headed over to Chateau Marmont. One of the band members had a John Belushi obsession, and after about twenty minutes of haggling we managed to get a couple of standard guest rooms. My polite British accent seemed to do the trick. Anyway, later that evening after raiding the mini bar and snacking on American candy, I had a dream about Jim Morrison, Sam Cooke, and a mermaid named Fizzbit. Jim Morrison had gold dusted hair and was running barefoot in a rainbow coloured field. Sam was serenading beautiful, ethereal, wet-skinned Fizzbit on a stretch of beach rock, while she was smoothing her flame coloured curls with a magic comb made of tortoiseshell that fluted random lines of Bowie songs. They were speaking in tongues and sitting perched on huge lotus leaves in a circle. When I woke up I dashed off several verses. Each sentence had a tidy brevity to it. I used a combination of assonance, alliteration, word play, and rhythmic references to popular culture and art using song- rap and lyrical beats. That morning I spied a well-known American glamour model in the lobby and wrote: ‘She was a wiggle and giggle chick with a slut bomb pout and Jenna Jameson bounce.’ Sonic Scatterscript was born.
STO: From what I’ve read of your work, you show no semblance of fear in tackling subversive subjects. You take political opponents head on while shaking both fists against the injustices observed in this oft-times wicked world. What motivates you to tackle those nooks, crannies, and corners of society that many writers would just assume shy away from?
SV: In response to a question about the politics of Guernica, Picasso said: “What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who only has eyes if he’s a painter, ears if he’s a musician, or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he’s a poet – or even, if he’s a boxer, only some muscles? Quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political being constantly alert to the horrifying, passionate or pleasing events in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. How is it possible to be uninterested in other men and by virtue of what cold nonchalance can you detach yourself from the life that they supply so copiously? No, painting is not made to decorate apartments. It’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.”
What is true of painting is equally true of writing. Politics continuously shapes us, consciously and unconsciously. Political and economic forces beyond our immediate control determine the kind of life we have, the quality of air we breathe, the type of food we eat, where we live, what school we attend and even how many of our dreams will slip by and how many we get to make true. And to a large degree it’s such forces that have shaped my life and my thinking. When we moved to England we had to start over. I was a foreigner and routinely hammered for it. Made to feel like I didn’t belong. But I found solace in writing and was welcomed by counter culture rebels and outsiders. Regular stints volunteering at soup kitchens and homeless shelters taught me how poverty stigmatises and demonises. Denied access to everyday services because you can’t provide an address. Many homeless people will struggle to vote, rent a car, get medical care, or open a basic bank account. Even slapping a deuce will be a daily challenge if you’re homeless. Will you use the public highway as a toilet or be allowed the privacy and courtesy of a restroom? Your very being is under threat. And you’re forced to exist in a twilight world. But you can’t afford to just sit back and rattle a cup for change. You have to be sharp and nimble to survive. Poverty can steal your identity and rob you of your humanity, so it’s an issue I feel we have to tackle as more and more people become victims of a corrupt financial system that’s ostensibly rigged against them. Through literature, poets -writers- can find ways to confront these issues and use the power of language and all the treasures of creative devices to air these topics. I also pen quiet stuff too. I’m energised by the lyrical drama of nature and all its pulsing energy. I’d like to think I’m open to writing about a whole kaleidoscope of different experiences and ideas, and I’m still exploring and experimenting with language.
STO: There is also a certain lyrical quality to the way your verse flows. Do you listen to music while you write? Who are some of your influences and inspirations?
SV: Yes, music is an integral part of my work. I think in rhyme and verse, which can be a little distracting if I want to play with free verse forms and shape sentences using other techniques. For me the mighty polymath Gil Scott Heron, novelist, political activist, poet, singer, songwriter rapper, is a huge inspiration. The way he fused funk, soul, jazz and blues with rhythmic spoken word to rail against social injustice, nuclear war, racism, Vietnam, the Nixon administration – still resonates. A genius-political funketeer. He was a trail blazer a word – wit innovator and his influence can be still be felt today. I do have a very broad musical palette, from classic blues to Amazonian bee buzz. It very much depends on the mood and vibe at the time: Mickey Champion, Wu Tang Clang, Unitas Quick, Marvin Gaye, Elvis, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Public Enemy, NWA, Mozart, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Prince, The Clash, Bowie .
STO: I’ve only asked about your poetry thus far, but you are also a gifted fiction writer. Can you speak a bit about your mystery/crime novel, Jukebox? What can new readers expect to find within its pages?
SV: Jukebox is a free-wheeling crime fiction inspired by real events. It tells the story of Nick Stringer, a young debt ridden London lawyer who dreams of rock stardom. Forced to make a Faustian pact with his crime boss uncle Mel, Nick sinks into fraud and murder. Either he must fight to get out or take over as boss. Uncle Mel, despite his predictable machismo, has a legion of demons to contend with – notably his feelings for transsexual glamour model Mimi Deepridge and the challenges this raises for his Jewish faith. Readers can expect a darkly comedic exposé of London’s bloated belly of greed, with plenty of sex sleaze and a backstage pass to London’s criminarti. But honestly it’s best summed up by crime critic and Brit journalist Andre Paine: “Jukebox is a dirty, delinquent satire with plenty of scabrous humour, but it also holds up a mirror to a society obsessed with the wrong kind of celebrity. If you can get into its rhythm, Jukebox is a compelling crime caper.” It’s available now and published by Fahrenheit Press: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jukebox-Saira-Viola-ebook/dp/B06WVN5XC3
STO: On a more somber note, your friend, mentor, and avid supporter, Heathcote Williams, passed away recently. A powerful tribute that you penned in his honor was published at International Times. Is there anything else you’d like to share about the influence he had on your life and in your development as a writer?
SV: Heathcote wasn’t just a feisty leopard of literature. He was a swirling, whirling, counter culture wizard who lambasted the establishment for decades and used every artistic weapon in his talented arsenal to provoke, agitate, and inspire. He was a hero spearheading the London squatting movement so homeless Londoners had a place to live, setting up the Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Agency and creating ‘the anarchist country within a country, the free and independent republic of Frestonia’. Heathcote encouraged me to be bold and take risks with my creative endeavours but he was passionate about the need to champion the rights of those who were ignored. I was stunned on first approaching him just how accessible he was. In a world of exclusivity VIPs and sliding scale celebrities he was completely available. He was generous with his time and his contacts and did his level best to help me and others. I found it extraordinary, given that publishing is such a tough racket to break into, that he would actively contact people on my behalf and bluntly ask them to assist me. Not everyone in creative circles is that magnanimous, and ordinarily such contacts are jealously guarded. Heathcote often expressed his disapproval to me of this prevailing attitude, and he practiced a more inclusive approach to blossoming talent. He used to write his personal email address on letters and packages, and if you wrote him a letter he would reply personally. He never delegated that responsibility to an assistant or third party. He was a genius- but gentle and humble. He never had that ‘celebrity tag,’ although he oozed charisma and was so warm hearted that people were hypnotically drawn to him. Heathcote had a wonderful sense of mischief and would often regale me with stories of the famous and infamous as we jousted over words and collaborated on different works. He was prolific. An honest, kind man who wanted to change the world through his exploding artistic palette. He has left us with a broad eclectic body of work, and I urge all of your readers to acquaint themselves with his incredible legacy. He is guaranteed to inspire, shock, and mostly electrify.
STO: Thank you again for your time, Saira. As the calendar flips into the latter half of 2017, what are you most focused on for the remainder of this year? Are there any projects that have you particularly excited at the moment?
SV: The rest of the year I’ll be working on my next novel, hawking my screenplay, polishing off the latest poetry manuscript and collaborating on a theatrical adaptation of one of my novels. I’m also excited to be involved in a grass roots reading initiative for disadvantaged children. Reading is a passport to other lands, a magic carpet ride to a better way of life. Everyone should have the opportunity to read. Finally I’d like to say keep listening to the music. Even garbage cans talk in the rain. Poetry books available to buy from UB books here: http://undergroundbooks.storenvy.com/products/17543624-flowers-of-war-saira-viola