In 2019, there are many questions to be asked about intimacy. Does technology bring us closer, or push us further from each other? Is intimacy rare, or is it all around us, in our communication-centric era? And how are we supposed to begin to talk about intimacy, with so many mediums available to us?
'Close' – a literary newsletter which began in April of 2018 – attempts to answer these questions, while also providing a new platform for woman and non-binary writers. Funded by the London Arts and Humanities Partnership, curators and editors Ellie Jones and Bryony White (both PhD candidates at King's College London) approach writers with a brief which asks them to explore intimacy however they wish, and then send the results straight to subscribers' inboxes every month.
So far, over the course of ten letters, these results have been astonishing. From a musing on the internet written by Booker-longlisted Sophie Mackintosh, to poetry by some of Britain’s most startling and distinctive voices – including Mary Jean Chan, Nisha Ramayya and Rebecca Tamás – via an email exchange about queer intimacies between Amelia Abraham and Tom Rasmussen, the project has held a light up to intimacy and inspected some of the many colours it throws off (in the interests of transparency, I should say: I have also written for 'close').
In providing this sort of work directly to readers for free, what 'close' does feels rare and special in a sometimes inaccessible and over-commercialised literary landscape. I spoke to Ellie and Bryony about the project, the many ways of interpreting intimacy, and working with woman and non-binary writers. Below that, we've also excerpted two poems from the fifth 'close' letter, by Helen Charman and Daisy Lafarge.
VICE: Hi Ellie, hi Bryony – how did you start 'close'?
Ellie: I'd been writing a lot about intimacy in an academic sense, so I think I just tweeted, "Is anyone interested in this, would love to hear other people’s thoughts on the way artists explore intimacy." I think I said, "Would anyone be interested in making a zine around the theme of intimacy?" And Bryony replied straight away, so we were like, "Let’s do it."
Bryony: Originally you were like, "Let’s do a zine." We knew what the topic was going to be, but we spent ages talking about the form, and that became really crucial to it. And then I thought, 'What about a Tinyletter?' It's a really easy platform to use, and it goes to the inbox – we spoke about how that has an intimacy to it in and of itself. It's funded by the body that funds my PhD research, the London Arts and Humanities Partnership, and we went to them and basically said "We're two academics and we want to reach out into a more public space with some of our research questions, and see how we can explore those with other writers, in a more non-academic setting." And that was crucial. I’d read this book edited by Isabel Waidner, Liberating the Canon, and we were thinking about working against the grain of normative publishing and trying to do something a bit more diverse.
I know you said a little bit about having written about intimacy in your academic work, but how did you decide what the subject matter would be? Why do you think that intimacy in particular is ripe for exploration?
Ellie: Weirdly for the two of us, we both entered new relationships around the same time. So I’d been thinking about it not just in my academic work. I became quite obsessed with how intimacy is embodied in objects – particularly when I worked on the Queer British Art exhibition at Tate Britain in 2017 – because then how can that intimacy be exhibited? Those preoccupations, tied with seeing someone new and opening myself up again – it was a personal thing, but when I tweeted it out, I’d become sick of my own thoughts about it. And also – we’re both naturally drawn to artists who explore intimacy, and I think I touched on that in our opening letter, which we wrote together. I mentioned Frank Ocean, Frank O’Hara, Louise Bourgeois.
Bryony: For me, at a time when queer bodies are being more regulated and codified than ever – and those bodies have always been regulated by legislation and things like that, and that’s what my research looks at – I was sort of interested to see how that was being written about and thought about by other writers. I think a lot about queer domesticity and how intimate lives are regulated for queer people quite a lot, and obviously the thing about intimacy is that it’s always your own. How do you know other people’s? It’s almost like a call and response, because every time we do a piece the writer will come to us with a new exploration of the topic, which attempts to respond to these questions that we were asking in the first place.
Bryony: It clearly is of the moment too, like if you think about the Modern Couples exhibition at the Barbican. There is a real emphasis at the moment on trying to think of intimacy as a form of collaboration, and a resisting of individualism. And intimacy is a really ripe thing for that, because it automatically resists ideas like, "I am an island."
Ellie: In this hashtag Brexit moment.
You publish women and non-binary writers exclusively. Why did you make the decision to do this, and what do you think the effect of it is on the project?
Bryony: I guess because those are the people we’re interested in hearing from, right? From the beginning we felt it was key that we offered a real platform. We wanted good quality writing, and we wanted to pay our writers, and that was the very ethos from the start.
Ellie: Yeah. It’s also really fun for us to group people together who haven’t been put next to each other before, which we do with poets especially. You get to encounter writers in a way that you perhaps don’t elsewhere, like in a poetry collection or something.
Bryony: And it’s the proliferation of voices that’s really important. Because quite often you’ll get: "A Woman" on "A Topic". But we’re saying, "Actually, there are hundreds of women and non-binary people who could speak on this – let’s hear all of them." And they’re all different, and they’re all specific.
Where do you see 'close' on the contemporary literary landscape?
Bryony: I think in a world where literally everyone is publishing books, and publishing is becoming more and more of a capitalist, commercialised endeavour – and it’s always been that, but at the moment I seem to go on Twitter and everyone’s publishing a book – there’s something quite nice about the Tinyletter. It’s not quite like a magazine, it’s like that in-between stage.
And you’re not asking people to buy anything.
Ellie: What I find interesting about it is that a lot of established writers have Tinyletters – Sophie Mackintosh is a good example, but there are loads of others. And within that I feel like there’s an implicit hierarchy, whereby the Tinyletter might be seen as their personal work, compared with their books, which are their published works. Whereas we’re placing an emphasis on that personal form, and forefronting that instead. It’s almost drawing attention to a form that is often considered less than.
To me, a newsletter somewhat continues on the early internet tradition of blogging.
Bryony: There was also something we liked about the diaristic form. The diary and life-writing are such intimate forms, and I think it allows writers to experiment when they’re not necessarily allowed to experiment, if, say, they’re working in print.
Ellie: Also, Jesse Darling is known as a visual artist, but they contributed this amazing personal essay about their identity. You don’t get that when you go to their show at the Tate. And obviously, you should still go to the show, but the 'close' format means you get a different side too.
Bryony: It’s also intermedial – Zarina Muhammad of The White Pube used her piece to hyperlink to videos with music you could listen to while reading. You can’t really do that in a book, or whatever, so there’s something nice in the way that it reaches out to other forms. I also really liked Tom Rasmussen and Amelia Abraham’s piece, because it was a conversation, and that kind of format is great: it was enacting intimacy as well as discussing it. It’s really nice seeing people pick it up in loads of different ways.
Literary writing can be quite inaccessible. How do you try to make ‘close’ open to everyone?
Bryony: My dad is the Tinyletter’s biggest fan. Part of The White Pube’s art criticism is dehierarchising and deformalising all the bullshit theory and esoteric language and stuff, and when Zarina’s piece came out, my dad was like, "I really enjoyed the piece. Once I got over my Victorian values, I really understood what she was doing and I really liked it, and I could see the way she was using the language she was, and why she was doing that." Obviously every Boujie Lit Woman in London is probably reading it, but it’s nice that it’s reaching other people too.
Ellie: And also the fact that it’s digital, and it goes to your inbox, so you could read it sat on the Tube. It’s like scrolling through Instagram, and I think doing it that way makes it a lot more accessible.
'Love and Rayleigh' by Daisy Lafarge
You can subscribe to 'close' here.