Themes of mythology and mental health meet in Imogen Stirling’s immersive storytelling piece The Boulders We Carry, created with sound artist Sonia Killmann. The piece – which will premiere at Manifesto on 4 October – is based on the mythological King Sisyphus, doomed to endlessly push a boulder uphill as punishment for his efforts to cheat his own mortality. It symbolises life’s futile and repetitive struggles as well as touching on the perceived absurdity of the human condition.
I met Imogen in a café in Glasgow’s West End on a wet September morning to discuss her pitch for the festival. We talked about myth, magical realism, and the need for a poetic revolution in schools and society.
Although she grew up on the East Coast, Imogen has made Glasgow her home. “I find Glasgow an endless source of inspiration,” she says. Her work often explores the realities she perceives in the city, examining the disparities of wealth and privilege that haunt this and all cities. “In a way, it’s sad that this is a piece about Glasgow and it’s so much about struggling. But that’s a prominent feature in this city, and it’s one you see every day.”
I ask her how the Glasgow in this piece relates to the real Glasgow. “I think my work presents a slightly hazy, magical version of the city. I don’t want to be too heavy-handed with it. I’m playing with magical realism a lot.” Like the myth it emanates, Glasgow is a lens to examine some core truths of the human condition.
Imogen pitched to explore the festival’s theme of ‘revolution’ with a play on words. The revolution in this piece begins in the circular motion of the boulder pushed by the ill-fated Sisyphus. This repetitious movement allowed Imogen to ritualistically explore something in her own mind and that she perceived in others. “The movement of the boulder is usually seen as something futile,” she tells me. “But actually, I think there’s something really soothing in it. For somebody like myself with a really busy brain, the mundanity could be really calming.”
Imogen’s previous work, the critically acclaimed Love The Sinner, excavated similarly ancient terrain by examining the seven deadly sins. It used representations surrounding the sins to delve into the complexities of human nature. “The whole point of those sins is that they’re so stereotyped. I wanted to explore them in a more human way. I like the challenge of taking a stereotype and moving as far away from it as possible.”
I’m curious about this use of myth and classical subject matter, and how she goes about researching her pieces. “There’s something really soothing about that process of taking ancient stories and identifying the human condition within them. Realising that the things we might be feeling or struggling with are not unique to us. They’re part of something ancient.”
There’s a line between inspiration and creation, and Imogen’s work isn’t afraid of crossing it. She embraces the freedom to interpret and adapt these myths in ways that resonate with contemporary audiences. “It’s nice to take what you want from them but know you’re doing things in your own way.”
In Boulders, these creative departures are managed by merging art forms and blurring genre distinctions between poetry, music and visuals. Imogen tells me she often feels frustrated that she is often referred to simply a poet. “I”m always seen as a poet who just works in theatre. Why can’t it be theatre-maker? Or performer?”. This dedication to hybridity and collaboration is at the heart of her work.
Music, in particular, plays a significant role. She is an accomplished singer in her own right, and often draws on background pieces to accompany and explore her words. “One of the big drawbacks of narrative form and spoken word is that they can be really wordy. Sometimes you zone out a bit. So I love bringing music and soundscaping into my work as a way of not getting too overwhelmed with words. For me and for the audience.”
Boulders is her second collaboration with sound artist Sonia Killmann, who previously worked as the live musician on Love the Sinner. “Sonia’s work is very ambient. It works really well with the spoken word. This is the first time we’ve worked together since the inception of the piece. We’re experimenting a bit, and I’m not sure how it’s going to work.” But that’s the joy of experimental and collaborative pieces. Like the mythic subject matter they crack open, the creation is partly in the reaction of the audience themselves. What could this myth mean for them?
At the heart of everything Imogen does is the belief in the radical potential of art to enact change and passion in society. She feels particularly strongly about the way poetry is approached in schools. “I could talk all day about how poetry is perceived. I remember being at school and just not understanding anything in our poetry modules. That is a stereotype that’s continuing. When I go into schools and say we’re going to write poems, kids often feel like they need to write about something really worthy. But you can write about anything. Your dog. What football match you went to.”
She believes that poetry is wrongly seen as an intimidating or elitist art form. Her workshops encourage participants to appreciate a diverse range of poetry, rap and music. “I think it’s important we show people as broad a spectrum of poetry as possible. That way, people can pick and choose what is relevant to them.”
As we finish our coffee, we talk about an upcoming project in Edinburgh, which will be performed at the end of November. While the details are yet to be announced, there will be some crossover with the thematic journey of her work to date.
As the café gets louder, we chat over our shared love for Rebecca Lucy Taylor’s Self Esteem project. I learn that she’s heavily inspired by Kae Tempest, but respectfully differentiates her own work. She loves the music of Arlo Parks as well as the “genuine punk energy” of powerhouse poet Salena Godden. She is an artist with a varied and eclectic set of inspirations and passions. Hers is a revolution of words, where everything resonates with the radical potential of collaboration.
Kirsty Strang-Roy is a Talking Heads volunteer currently living in Glasgow. When not chasing her two tiny children, she is working on a young adult novel and is interested in the use of myth, magic and the landscapes around us. Tweets (sparingly) @KirstyStrangRoy.