Facilitator, mentor, and writer Jacob Sam-La Rose and poet and curator Rachel Long discuss the merits, importance, and challenges of establishing, maintaining, and participating in creative communities.

The following is a transcript of a conversation between Jacob and Rachel, edited lightly for readability.

J: Had you been involved in creative communities before Burn After Reading (BAR)?

R: I’d been part of a few writing groups in the past and was undergoing a master’s around the same time but Burn After Reading was the first place that really felt like a hub. A truly creative space where we could exchange ideas, practices; where we could be pushed creatively, and challenged. It was incredible to have like-minds, and also opposing like-minds, in the same space, and each of them being valued.

J: Fantastic. I was going to ask you to say something that might help anyone who doesn’t know BAR to appreciate what BAR was. But you’ve captured the spirit of what it was trying to do and what it meant to some members of the community. One of the really interesting things about many of these kinds of community initiatives is how different people can gain different experiences of it, or even enter a community with different goals, different outcomes in mind. And some people enter that space not having an explicit outcome or intention, just knowing that there’s something valuable about being in a space with a body of other people, and maybe some people figure out what the value of being there is as they go through the experience of being there. 

BAR was an experiment for me. At that point I’d already set up a few different community initiatives – Barbican Young Poets had been running strong for many years, Roundhouse Poets before that, The Vineyard, The Foundry – I’d experimented with a range of different community models, communities of practice, different ways of bringing groups of people together and I think BAR was an attempt for me to say: how can I empower a group of people, whose work I appreciate, to come together? And I was trying to figure out how to make it not about me. It was about saying: what is it that you want to do, and how can we empower you to do that? And that raises this notion of one of the values of community, which is a sense of communal power or amplification. When you operate individually and there are things that you want to make happen, it’s like shouting into the wind sometimes. Whereas, when you’ve got a body of people and you become incorporated in some way and you’re recognised as being a part of something, for better or for worse, more people start to sit up and take notice. So if we’re starting to talk about the value or importance of community, that’s an awareness of mine: being able to empower and amplify the considerations of the individuals contained therein. As well as all the other good stuff, in terms of collaboration, in terms of fellowship and validation, in terms of support through the challenges we face as writers and creatives. There is so much of what we do that is necessarily individual. Our artistic practice as writers doesn’t actually depend so explicitly on other people being present. As a writer so much of what we do is us sitting down and just digging deep into our own psyche, our own mind, or figuring out how it is we interpret the world that we face. And I think community’s a lovely way to balance that kind of individual effort, that individual work.

R: You said that you didn’t want it to be about you, you wanted to let it be like: I’ve set this up but it doesn’t have to orbit around me…  Do you think people really understand that within late capitalism? Do you think that we artists, supposedly more lateral thinkers, are still always looking for a leader? And, if so, do you feel that leader/support can sometimes be leant on too heavily?

J: Yeah. I think there’s something about the cult of personality that feeds into this. I think there’s something about, again, not knowing exactly what it is that you want from a community or what it is that you can contribute to a community. I think there’s a certain sense of not necessarily taking responsibility for the role that you play within a community – all of which makes it so much easier to say: here is a person who is willing to do the work. It’s like: cool, here’s the train, let me just jump on board. There is no doubt that managing the needs of a body of people within a community, in addition to the administrative requirements and practical concerns, is hard work. 

R: It is hard work.

J: And it takes a lot from us, and I say ‘us’ particularly bearing in mind the person I’m in conversation with. It draws a lot from us. And it is an easier path to say: I’m going to get involved with what that person is doing, and then even critique as passenger. And I don’t say that as criticism, I say that as [a way to acknowledge that] it’s easier to, again, make reference to the map when you’re not the person who is driving and steering at that same time, right? So yeah, I think that does happen. 

There is part of this work that is perhaps about ego. Let’s be very real about that, but I think that if you are truly invested in creating a community – and, again, whether you’re trying to transcend your own limitations or your own sense of ego, or if you are simply trying to be smart and look ahead – if you are invested in the future of your community, you will look towards it existing without you. Personally, I don’t want to think that without me things that I establish can’t go on. I would love to know that I can set something up and that I can leave things with a degree of automation or investment or self-sustenance so that they can continue. Long term. So that 20, 40, 50 years down the line, when I’m really not coming out for a workshop tonight because I’m done, I’m tired, I need to just sit down and watch Netflix… when I’ve served my time, when I’ve reached the end of all of that, to know that things can still continue and that space that’s been established can continue serving different generations of people, you know that’s the long term goal, for me, when I think about the kind of community efforts that I try to establish. 

Not everything lasts that long, and some things come to an end – all of these things are organisms, right? So some things will last for three years, some things will last for six months, some things will last beyond the future that we can imagine but I try to kind of seed the things that I get involved with, with some sense of them being able to carry on beyond me. 

R: I think ‘seed’ is a beautiful way to put it. Like you said, some things just don’t last that long, for various reasons, and I want to talk to you too about what you think the obstacles and the challenges are to creating community and why maybe something you wanted to last for a very long time only lasts a certain amount of time.  But ‘seed’ is really beautiful I think because seeds get dispersed, and so whatever you’re still sowing, I think, I hope, that the work does flourish, but perhaps not in the ways that we imagined or exactly the spot where we thought that seed would grow.

J: And that’s part of the joy of it.

R: (nods heavily) Yeah. 

J: We’re not able to see everything. It’s not like a business where I say: here is the business plan and this is exactly how things should proceed and success is sticking to those outcomes. It’s not even like the rigid lesson planning that we might expect of some forms of teaching. The joy of the work that we do is saying: yes, I have a plan, yes, I have an intent, but also, I have a desire to be surprised by what it is that happens as a result of pressing the start button on this; I want to discover things through the efforts that I make. I want to know that the people I work with produce things that I couldn’t even imagine, right? If people are just doing the things that I imagine, on the one hand that’s great because I imagine a range of different things, but on the other hand that’s actually quite limited – one person’s imagination defining all.

R: Absolutely.

J: I want to be combinatory. I want to interact with these various different minds and for me to be surprised by the brilliance. I don’t want to be able to imagine everything that can come out of the poets and the writers that I work with. I want to be able to say: yeah, woah, I never saw that coming, that’s amazing, I couldn’t do that, but you guys have done it, that’s great.

I mean it’s a beautiful analogy in terms of seeds and lines of plant life and planting something you thought was originally going to be a rose and then seeing that there has been some kind of passed on lineage that results in a completely different hybrid flower growing somewhere else that you just couldn’t have coded for.

R: Right. Also not knowing exactly what’ll happen in a melting pot; what’ll happen when lots of different things are put together. There are some ideas that I know that I would never have come to without being in conversation with someone else. There are certain poems that I don’t think I could have written…

J: Without being sparked by…

R: Other people, other things.

J: We’ve put quite a few words to the joy and the value of community. You kind of foreshadowed the notion of interrogating the challenges, and I want to put that question back to you. You’ve benefited as a member of a number of different communities and you’ve established communities in your own right. What are the challenges that you’ve experienced or faced? 

R: I’m going to go two steps back before I go forward just to reference the communities that I feel I have come from; communities that have driven my creating of other communities. Burn After Reading, as I referenced, but also The Writing Room with Apples and Snakes, and talking to you a lot before I went ahead and created the space that is Octavia

The challenges and the obstacles I think I have found with Octavia specifically… ego, I think we’ve touched on that already. A real challenge for me was to be able to manage them all, and at once. Even in the practical sense, managing things like emails, dates, setting up rooms, making sure everyone that said they were going to be there is there, and whoever’s not — have I checked whether they’re ok? — whilst also being a very nervous and awkward person, and being like: this is going to go terribly, this session’s going to go so badly, what if they hate the poems I’ve bought to study… Managing all of that whilst also trying to manage other people is… hard.

But I’m very conscious that I’ve used the word ‘manage’ a lot, and I don’t feel that when I set up Octavia I had the necessary skills to ‘manage’ it. I have no management training, I did not do a management course ever, and so a lot of the challenges that I faced I was not equipped to deal with.

J: Just to jump in there and interject: isn’t that so true of so much of what we do? I mean, I know in terms of my creative career, so much of what I’ve done has not been professionally trained or accredited in any way. Any of the facilitation that I’ve been responsible for, or any of the community efforts that I’ve been responsible for, any of that stuff, I didn’t specifically go to an educational institution to train in any of this.

R: I’m glad because otherwise, you wouldn’t be the facilitator that you are. 

J: It may well have shaped me in different ways, for sure. But everything was done from a position of need. And when I say ‘need’, I mean: there is something I want to do and I just need to figure out how to do it to the best of my ability. There are needs in the room and I need to figure out how to serve those needs in the most appropriate way. It was all that. And one of the reasons I offer that up is that in what you just said is a certain sense of vulnerability being offered. We didn’t know the best practice, necessarily, in what we were being called upon to do. And yet there is also a certain sense of honesty and something to be celebrated in the drive to do that work as best as we possibly could. There is some kind of innate sense of what can and should be done in order to create those spaces.  

R: Do people want those who set up the spaces to be honest, vulnerable? If you show those things, arguably, you’re not respected?

 J: Yeah. It’s a really interesting question, and it depends on the gathering of people. Any gathering of people is a dynamic enterprise and there’s no accounting for exactly how something will be received. Some people really do value and cherish a ‘leader’ of a space who is 100% open with them, is transparent about the challenges that are being faced. But then, by the same token, some [people] actually need someone to be the rock, to be the person who holds everything together. And that sense of vulnerability that you might offer actually then offers them a degree of insecurity. Different people have different needs and it’s really hard to account for that. 

And, I guess, now we’re talking about what it is that people might need to bear in mind if they are entering into that sense of leading a space themselves. Being honest with yourself as to what is it that you really want to create. Some people really do want to create a space where people look to them for the answers. It’s not my role or desire to judge that— that can actually serve [some communities] really well. Some people want to create much more of a flat hierarchy. Some people want to say much more: I’m not the leader of this, I may have had the initial idea but I’m putting this out to a body of my peers, kind of almost as a consultation thing, and let’s come together around this idea and let’s do this together. Which is a really wonderful spirit, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, right?

R: Sometimes it doesn’t. Because then it means that every single person has to have an equal… ‘share’ sounds really business-y, but be an equal…

J: Investment?

R: Investment, yeah. Which is also business language but investment can also be a beautiful word. And I do think, maybe it’s the state of things outside these spaces that we create, ours not being an equal society, do we truly understand how to each have an equal stake in something? I’m not sure.

J: No, I think that’s a really important notion to explore: the sense of the roles that we are challenged to uphold elsewhere in life, and how we mirror those roles or trade upon those roles just on the basis of what it is that we’ve experienced up until that point. How we might try to challenge those roles, those kind of preconceived notions of how it is that one should exist within a space. 

Continue reading with Creative Community: Jacob Sam-La Rose and Rachel Long in conversation – Part 2

Photo credit: Amaal Said