Zena Edwards: Comfortable With the Uncomfortable

Zena recently joined Apples and Snakes officially as a Consulting Artistic Associate. She has been a long time friend of ours so it is great to embark on this journey together. We will share more of our work with Zena over the next few months. For now, here’s an introduction interview so you can get to know her a little better.

“After many years of working as a poet for Apples and Snakes, I’m pleased to become a part of the team. And with the help of Lisa, Creative Director of Apples, and Janet, our Digital Marketing Officer, I’m able to present my first blog for the Apples website. Thanks Janet for helping me with the audio of the blogcast!”

This blog has been recorded for you to so hit play, sit back and listen. The music to this blogcast is a collaboration between Zena Edwards and Jon Speedy Band.


What was your first experience with Apples and Snakes?

1993 was my first gig with Apples when it lived at The Covent Garden Community Centre and this was  perhaps one of my first paid gigs too. 

I had been performing for about 2 years prior, on the more underground spoken word scene in south and west London. I belonged to a youth black poetry collective called The Rhythm Writers at the time and I met them when I did the lighting for their first shows at The Oval Theatre in Kennington. 

I was really into having music as accompaniment back then and was playing a lot of percussion too – Djembe, shekere, other percussion toys. I was also into movement so had choreographed some moves around the stage too. My theatre background inspired me to do that kind of work all the way back then.

This first gig with Apples had all of these elements. I came with an awesome percussionist from Ghana, Issac Tagoe. It was an exciting time to get invited, as I felt ready to be challenged by a spoken word scene I never even knew existed until that gig.

What made you want to join Apples and Snakes as a consultant role?

I was happy to join Apples because I’ve seen Apples as an organisation championing poetry in performance take this really organic journey. Apples has been responsive and pioneering at the same time and I recognise that this is quite a hard space to occupy. It’s a transition space, a bridging space, an uncomfortably shifting space. I, however, am comfortable with the uncomfortable.

My work over the decades has been very varied… I have travelled internationally and quite extensively as a poet, theatre-maker, musician, as a cultural advocate for social change,  as a mentor. 

With my life experience doing activism work around youth engagement, race and, over the last four or five years climate and environmental advocacy, I feel I have a lot to offer Apples. And I want to offer this knowledge and experience for a couple of reasons:

Apples has supported me over the years and Apples’ shift towards a much more hands on radical route that challenges itself to be more and do more than just host poetry events and put poets in schools really piqued my curiosity.  But it also ignites my conviction while stimulating my creative marrow.

The consultancy position opening up reveals that Apples is ready for a reset (post-Rona 2021) in tune with a climate that is hungry for things to be done differently, and I’ve arrived into an organization ready to be at the forefront of some difficult but necessary conversations. I’m keen to see how these conversations can impact the literature sector too. Anything is possible right now and I appreciate how Apples want to lead the charge.

We’re genuinely thrilled to have you here with us. What gets you excited when you think about the next steps with Apples and Snakes?

Apples is really evidencing itself as ‘artist-centric’, looking at artist’s well-being, equality, equity and inclusion, it’s artist development program has upped its game and Apples is adopting a reflection process that a lot of organisations don’t have time for. All important stuff for the health of the team and as well as the artists they support.

From an artistic perspective, I’m keen to explore how we can support the legacy of the poets we work with. So cross-generational exchanges of ideas and experiences in poetry excite me. So does the up and coming climate and environmental agenda. Pretty much all social justice work comes under environmental work and poetry can really join the dots, by making large themes accessible. Apples has a great show coming up, Cece’s Speakeasy, so watch this space.

Now you’re part of the team, what’s at the core of what you’d like to do here?

I’m about ethos evolution in general. I would like to be able to help Apples fulfil its manifesto and mission statement. It’s changed and any one person, collective or organisation that is self-reflective and open for evolution is someone or something I can align with. It speaks to sustainability and longevity as well as a willingness to adapt to the needs of those they say they support. Change takes time and Apples is putting systems in place that make the words in its mission statement really practical and achievable.

With all projects, achieving real change can be difficult. What do you feel will be a marker of success?

I feel a marker of success will be how the artists Apples is working with feel about Apples’ support. This might sound very self-centred because I’m an artist but poets are more than just poets. They are social commentators, mentors, community engagers and representatives, teachers,  space creators and space holders, caretakers,  therapists…Lol! I say all this because this is what poets and poetry at a grassroots level have been known to be to people all over the world for millennia and it disheartens me how, sometimes the role of the poet is diminished to “entertainer” at events that aren’t poetry gigs, or “babysitter” or “crowd control” when we go into education spaces. 

I especially take umbrage with the implied hierarchy we find in the literature sector when the ‘written versus spoken word debate arises. It’s such a waste of good airtime, when we could be taking poetry into the 21st century in terms of evolving the role it could play in society.

What makes sense to me is that each project Apples initiates has a very distinct role to play in response to any seismic societal shifts happening in the world. The arts and culture sector itself has an important role in the mental health and well being of a country, a city, a neighbourhood. When we see a project’s impacts and the legacy it leaves rippling through a  community it is a marvel to witness.

So say we are to start a gardening, poetry and food project. To know that you have effected a change with an enclave of marginalised people in how they think about where their food comes from, how it grows and how we storytell it through poetry, is to understand the gift of the art form and how you serve it.

Also I think we have to be clear on what “change” is, and that is something defined by the communities worked with. I believe the bulk of the work of a project is the brokering of the relationships and partnerships. How Apples listens and responds to the artist working on the ground as well as the residents or participants, will also mark the success of a project. Active listening responds directly to what is heard and it’s such an effective methodology to achieving deeply resonant work alongside the practical.

Apples and Snakes evolves like all teams but the legacy will live on. How would you like to leave your mark?

I want to know that I did well, that I broke some rules and innovated a collaborative process that is mutual and equally reciprocal between artists and organisation.  I love collaborating and celebrating successes.

I think there are great grown-up strides that can be made in the spoken word sector to prove that it has matured and not that it’s just become commercial, watered down or monotonic. And I would like to be a part of evidencing that maturation and building upon where we go next.

Has anything surprised you since joining Apples and Snakes?

There is an incredible tension of pace that the organisation moves at. I’ve seen this before. But it’s been interesting seeing Apples do it though. It makes me think of how the humble snail probably experiences time. To a human, a snail moves incredibly slowly, when in fact, from the snail’s perspective, it’s straining forward at a sprint! Or the paddling duck analogy – so much going on behind the scenes!  

All work and no play… you know the rest. If you had to plan a sit-down meal with us, what would that look like?

You’d be eating with your fingers, I do know that.

There’s nothing like eating with your hands as the ultimate leveller. 

It would be homey food. Probably spicy, seasoned with pimento, nutmeg, tumeric and chilli pepper. And mainly vegetarian with some fish somewhere in the mix.  A nice crunchy salad with the sweetest and reddest baby plum tomatoes. I will say, for me, deserts are the main meal too. With a nice rum or whiskey of your choice for that after-dinner afterglow.

Share This