Interview with Amy Neilson Smith: the artist with it all going on (4 events to be precise)!

a juicy, fully fleshed neurological explosion

Hi Amy, can you please tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m a performance artist, poet and Sensory Poetry Educator, who loves human connection through all our amazingly diverse senses. I’m excited by exploring our connection to each other through the multiple searching tentacles of metaphor! Metaphor opens the gateway to human communication, taking us looking from the outside – with a detached perspective, to an internal personal one - immersing ourselves in a fully sensorial three-dimensional world. If I say “I’m excited to see you” – you learn a static fact. If I say “earthquakes fizz to the surface of my skin when I see you” – I open up my world to you.

How did you get into the world of senses “fizzing to the surface”?

I trained as an actress at Central School of Speech and Drama, becoming obsessed with sensory ‘method’ practices – stepping into my character’s shoes, as far as was humanly possible. I’d consume the food they ate, wear the fibres they’d wear against their skin, listen to the music they filled their minds with. And a decade of dance training created a heightened sensitivity to my body in space. My poetry is often reviewed as a ‘sensorial human experience’. I still always put on my ‘sensory-suit’ when stepping into character.

I hear you’re pretty busy with the festival? What are you up to?

Yep! I was involved in five events but had to sadly give the In Sight Theatre workshop to the Artistic Directors Roma Brown and Zara Jayne to lead, as it now clashes with the final times of the Royal Academy Performance on the Sunday.

The four (only!) remaining events are:

My awesome students’ from my Poet-Residency at Joseph Clarke School, centre of excellence for visual impairment are performing sensory poetry on Thursday at 2pm. This is by private request only, if you’re visually impaired, live or care for those with these needs, or are engaged in the research field of visual impairment in the arts or education, I’d love to hear from you!

On Friday at 4.30pm, I lead a sensory-metaphor seminar at the Open Senses Symposium at the University of London – ‘An Alternative Logic – tasting a new perspective’, with fellow poet and performer Zara Jayne.

On Saturday and Sunday, I perform in Umweltern at The Royal Academy of Art, a site-specific immersive performance, leading blindfolded audience through a journey of voices and their poetic-echoes within the architecture of memory and their inhabited surroundings – devised by Bittersuite and Juri Nishi. I’m particularly excited about this one as the audience experience a highly personal performance, two at a time. There are numerous performances each day leading blindfolded audience members into the very skeleton of the building itself!

Next, I feature in a part of the film documentary devised by Kate Dangerfield (BFI, and supported by Sense), handing the camera over to students at Touch Base, a centre for adults with complex needs and visual impairment, showing us their perspective of the world and their connection to their sensory landscape. This will be discussed by Kate at the Symposium on Friday and screened at The Trampery.      

And the other event?

The event I’m no longer in therefore, but would still really recommend is the In Sight Theatre immersive storytelling workshop on Sunday at The Trampery: ‘Word on a Plate’. They have a fully inclusive ethos! This workshop is created using audience members; they will give you the skills to be writers yourselves, munching on titillating tastes in this live ‘creative process’, whilst simultaneously writing from the food’s’ point of view! To further tempt you: there will be a sensory taste and metaphor audience-interaction, with delicious bites to digest your metaphors!

Sounds like you’re a fully invested Open Senses artist, how did you get involved?

I was introduced to the ‘sensory magician’, Stephanie Singer, Creative Director of Open Senses and Bittersuite. I’m developing The Spoken Word Education Program (Artistic Director: Jacob Sam-La Rose) for visually impaired students, as part of my master’s at Goldsmiths University. The program had yet to be developed for deaf/blind students or those with complex needs. My obsession with the sensory world, devotion to poetry as an art form, and background in teaching SEN were finally given the opportunity to harmoniously merge. I first developed my research project Children in Action (tutored by Michael Rosen and Maggie Pitfield) using taste, synaesthesia and smell to develop a metaphorical sense of colour. I’ve edited/collated an anthology of the students’ sensory poems – ‘A Blind Bit of Difference’ (Alba Publishing), due for release this year. I wanted a platform for them to show off their talents!

What else are you looking forward to seeing at the festival?

As I’m in four events, there is little time for me to see much else! But I will be celebrating with everyone who has been involved or attended the festival each evening and cannot wait to meet likeminded people who also buzz off their senses! I also can’t wait to listen to all the other ideas bursting at the sensory-seams at the Symposium! This promises not to be a dry inaccessible experience stuck on seats, but a juicy, fully fleshed neurological explosion!   

Why do you think this is important in London right now?

Due to the current political divides erupting all over the world, I think we’ve never needed to awaken our senses and sensitivity to others, more than now. It’s also at the most developed point of technological history that phones, screens, and the anonymous, often de-humanising, 'voices' of social media, have in many ways brought communication (real-life “there's a person in front of me talking” communication) to a breaking point. We need to come back to the tactile present. Instead of phone-filming a moment - live, breathe, smell, touch, taste the moment for yourself. Bring a friend to share the present moment. I hope Open Senses spreads globally, and brings us back before there are robots leading spiritual workshops in temples that are empty, but live-streamed to us in our virtual reality bedrooms. This festival is a sensory 'reboot'. People will be given new skin with which to breathe.

Excellent! And what’s next for you (after you’ve had a brief chance to rest)?

I'm in early discussion with Dr Tereza Stehlikova (Senior Lecturer at Westminster University and leading the Journey to the Interior, in assisting developing a new MA – exploring embodied theory/ expanded practice of ‘moving image’ and potentially utilising sensory art practices as the teaching/ methodology. I'm continuing to develop the Spoken Word Education Program for visually impaired, deafblind students and those with complex needs - I plan to spread this internationally. Blue sky options on the horizon, I hope one day, that all schools are sensory schools, allowing children to grow through momentary stimulation. Not stuck at desks! Rudolf Steiner describes children as 'whole sense organs' - why can't state education start opening their senses to these inspiring philosophies? I'm going to play my part in awakening this consciousness.

If that’s not enough, I'm excited to return to Maison Gai Saber, France, as Poet-in-Residence in June, writing my new collection ‘Splintered Boards.’ I’m buoyed up by Michael Rosen’s glowing review of Joseph Clarke students' anthology ‘A Blind Bit of Difference’:

“This is an explosion of a book; feelings, thoughts, memories, hopes, attitudes and more whizz through the air and land in our minds. I feel privileged to read it. Please read it too and share your favourite poem with someone. These young people are poets!”

I'm excited about circulating this nationally in libraries so other children can share their viewpoint, and to approaching other visually impaired schools to keep working on this exciting sensorial project! 

To find out more including getting an invite to the Thursday Showcase, you can email me for more details or else simply come say hi at the festival!

Great stuff and finally, three words to describe how you feel about the festival?

Full of BEEEAAANS!!!!

I guess you’d need to be to have the energy to do all that! Can’t wait to join in!

Start your own conversation @OpenSensesUK #OpenSenses2017, this conversation initiated by Natasha Blok.