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: What, for you, is the difference between a community and a collective? And, second question to add to that, do you think – bearing in mind the point in the conversation that we’ve reached – is there more of a sense of active investment in a collective, or do we think that collectives are still subject to the kind of cult personality, one true leader?

R: Double question! The difference, to me, between a collective and a community, and I do remember having a conversation with you about this when I first came to you with the idea of Octavia, you said: why a collective, why not community? Or the other way round. And only now do I think Octavia might have benefitted from being a community rather than a collective. Because the difference to me is a collective meant that it’s closed, it meant that there were seventeen women that I invited to be part of Octavia and then the door was closed. Lots of other brilliant black women and women of colour poets would come up to me and be like: Octavia’s amazing, can I join? And I’d have sometimes awkward conversation with them, trying to basically explain why I made it a collective, why I decided to ask seventeen women into a room and close the door. I’ve challenged myself to have other more community-based offers around Octavia; open workshops other womxn can come to rather than just those that are in the collective.

J: I mean, that is actually a really interesting model. So, you have a core collective that is the core of a larger community effort. That could be a really interesting model to work with.

R: It could be, but the energy to do something after I was already quite stretched by doing lots within the collective meant the idea even of putting on regular offers for a wider community just was, not beyond me, but…

J: Energy is finite. We get into this work because it’s important to us and we are in some way fuelled by a lot of it, not all of it, but everything costs. And it is easy to run out of energy for ourselves if we are not careful and, again, if we are not honest about – and this isn’t to say that you haven’t been honest, I’m just saying in a kind of general sense – if we’re not honest about our reasons for doing the work that we’re doing, we can find ourselves doing work that doesn’t actually sustain us. We can find ourselves doing work that takes from us but doesn’t put back in any way, shape, or form, or in the meaningful ways. And I think we have to be really careful about that. Burnout is a real thing for community leaders, and there’s always this expectation… 

R: …you do not get tired. 

J: You don’t get tired.

R: You don’t get annoyed.

J: You’re a font of inexhaustible energy, you have immeasurable patience… 

R: Oh, immeasurable.

J: You’re not supposed to get angry… you’re not supposed to get upset… 

R: No mistakes.

J: Yeah, no mistakes. And this goes back to that notion of the vulnerability that we were talking about and how it is that people depend, and need, perhaps, something stable at the centre of all of these efforts. And to acknowledge the humanity of the people who are at the centre of these efforts can be really challenging – can be a healthy thing – but can also be a challenging thing in terms of what people’s expectations are, and perhaps that’s something that we need to shake up. Particularly in this age where we’re challenging so many things.

R: A benefit of having a collective over community, I feel… not a benefit, necessarily, but something that I found beautiful and that’s why I did lean towards it, was that you could concentrate the effort. But then the flipside of that is: who doesn’t get that space and that time? It’s a hard one.

J: Well there’s always a limit on the number of people that you one can work with, right? So, you’re not talking about a cast of thousands that you’re affecting with any one effort, you’re talking about a finite group of people. Necessarily, for something to be meaningful with the kind of finite resources that we have to work with, decisions have to be made. The reality is we can’t work with everyone but we have to celebrate the work that we can do.

R: And how much we pay mind to how one person going to work with another and how is this group going to work, how will they challenge and complement each other? And that’s the other reason why I leant towards collective, I thought that if it was community and it’s endlessly open then I can’t manage, for want of a better word, all those different personalities that come in that actually could not be good for creating a community. 

J: And that’s a very real thing. If you don’t have some sense of control of the borders of your initiative then there is always the danger that someone will come in with, or a body of people will come in with, a contrary vision, something that’s contrary to the principles of the community that you’re trying to support or establish. That might in some way contradict the good work that you’re trying to do. That, in itself, is a value judgement. They might just be different. 

R: Yeah, might just be different… 

J: And I do constantly question myself. Can I run Barbican Young Poets as a facilitator myself? Yeah, sure, of course I could. Do I absolutely enjoy and gain so much from working alongside Rachel Long? Without doubt. And it keeps me honest, it keeps me learning, it allows me to step outside of what it is that I typically do and see things differently. And I think there’s always something about that, not self-doubt but being able to kind of question [myself], even with my grey-bearded old self now. There are ways in which we solidify our perspectives and our thinking on the ways that things should be. And communities are living things so communities’ needs will shift over time, and if we are the ‘leaders’ of these kinds of initiatives we need to stay alive to those shifts. It is a bit of a juggle in that regard.

R: Yeah, there’s such a risk of getting comfortable, then only doing the thing that is comfortable. You just create your own bubble, that you maybe worked very hard to create, but you don’t know what’s on the outside. If that stops being relevant or that stops perhaps meeting some of the very complex needs, as we said, of a living, breathing group of people then it will just become…

J: It will die. At some point. But again, just to celebrate the other side of that, all things are of a time and some things will extend much longer. I mean, look at how long the Nuyorican Poets Cafe has been going and everything they’ve achieved over there, the kind of work that Cave Canem’s been doing…

R: Malika’s Kitchen.

J: Malika’s Kitchen. Some things extend far more than we might have imagined when they were initially established, but some things are part of a time. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. 

R: No, maybe we do also need to – we, maybe I just mean me – let go of the fact that if something doesn’t last forever or for a respectable amount of years, whatever that even is…

J: Whatever that is. Yeah, it kind of comes back to the notion of: what is success? Is it only successful if it lasts for five years, or ten years, or twenty, or if it is a six-month thing but passionate and intense and many other things come out of it, is that not also success? I mean, again, BAR existed for, what? How long?

R: I think three. Three years.

J: So relatively short, but there are some amazing things that came out of it.

R: Incredible things. And completely shaping of so many people’s careers now who are also doing incredible things for themselves and also for people who are part of the poetry community, and wider.

We’ve talked about time a lot. When I was talking about BAR I was going to say, BAR pre-dated this language of ‘emerging’ poets, I think. I feel it did… 

J: I think BAR came to the fore at a point when that language was really being challenged. I think the term ‘emerging’ had been coined, but I remember through BAR’s run some of the members challenging what it is that ‘emerging’ actually meant.

R: Yeah. On that then, or around that, who do you think needs creative community the most?

J: Whoa. That’s a really interesting question: who needs creative community the most? One of the reasons I find that such an interesting question is that most of us, if not all of us, can benefit from some sense of creative community. Yeah, don’t get me wrong, some of us prefer solitary writing lives…

R: Do you think the people who feel like they need solitary writing lives need community the most?

J: Not necessarily so. That would be a nice, tidy parallelism but no, not necessarily so. Some people actually need to be distinctive, individual, and need to do their own things, and that serves them. And I’m making no comment on what the quality of their output might be as a result of celebrating their individual lives, I’m just saying that that might just be what they need. And trying to force them into, or push them into, some kind of sense of fellowship, they may not feel comfortable doing so. 

That kind of takes us back to the question of what it means to be a member of a community and how many of us are actually truly active. Some programmes that are defined as ‘communities’ people approach as courses: here’s a way I can skill-up. And again there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that per se, we just need to be honest about it and to be aware of it.

R: Does somebody who wants to ‘skill up’ make a good community member?

J: Not necessarily so. I’m fully invested in the notion of learning and growing, so I’m fully invested in the notion of someone approaching something from one perspective, partaking in an experience and saying: I didn’t know that this is the way it was going to be but now I know, whoa, I am so here for this. And, in fact, that kind of optimism is, I think, a part of my practice. If I didn’t have that sense of optimism, things might well be different and yeah, it goes without saying, I’d be much more cynical. But no, I trade on a basis of the notion of change, I want to see change, otherwise why am I doing this? Why are we doing this if we don’t want to manifest some sense of positive change, both for the individuals that come together to constitute the communities that we work within but also the wider sectors or cultures that our communities are part of, right? I think there has to be some degree of optimism at the heart of all of these kinds of efforts, or what are we doing? Why are we doing it?

I think that’s a good full stop.

Jacob Sam-La Rose is widely recognised as an indefatigable facilitator, mentor and supporter of young and emerging poets. He has worked with Apples and Snakes for many years, including as Artistic Director of projects such as Word Cup and Shake the Dust, the UK’s largest national youth slam, and Lead Facilitator of The Writing Room 2019, a creative community for young writers aged 18-25. www.jacobsamlarose.com

Rachel Long is a poet, curator, and founder of Octavia Poetry Collective. Rachel has a special interest in curating creative spaces for womxn & girls. She has led womxn-focused workshops, and is co-tutor on the Barbican Young Poets programme. Amongst other formative programmes, Rachel came up through Apples and Snakes’ The Writing Room. www.rachel-long.com 

Photo credit: Amaal Said