Interview with Ruth Jenkins, Spoken Word Poet & Textiles Artist

It is wonderful to welcome Ruth Jenkins onto my blog, talented spoken word poet and textiles artist. I first met Ruth a couple of years ago through activism circles. She is now part of my writing group and is rarely to be found without some yarn or a spindle. Listening to Ruth delivering her spoken word poetry is also a special experience, her hands beating time to an internal rhythm. I am fascinated by the link between her two artistic disciplines and and how they intersect. Ruth also lives with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a challenging condition which she says is helped by being creative.

Fieldfire

1) What came first, the textiles or the writing? What was your journey into both of these crafts?

Stories and crafts have always been a part of my life but never a focus in a big way until recently. I haven’t had any formal education in either textiles or poetry beyond school. As a teenager I wrote really bad poetry and short fantasy stories but never shared them very widely. 

It wasn’t until Uni that I started messing around with yarn when one of my housemates taught me how to crochet and knit. We weren’t a house of typical students, the four of us spent a lot of time crocheting together and watching costume dramas. Around this time I fully started understanding the impact we were having on the planet. I studied International Development and though I understood the science of the issue it was a lecture on human rights and climate change that really brought it home. The lecturer didn’t mince their words  and said something along the lines of 4 degrees of warming equals a human extinction event and every point of a degree above 1.5 degrees means more people suffer. This made a big impact and made the crisis something I couldn’t ignore though I didn’t act on it properly for years.

The catalyst for learning to spin came from a rubbish lecture in my final year about how development was a business and we should just keep our heads down and not rock the boat, this didn’t sit well. Me and a friend processed this by siting in the chaplaincy centre and drawing a little idyll where we could live without having a negative impact on the world. It was a yurt with vegetable gardens, compost loos, solar panels and a wind turbine. Along with the drawing were lists of skills we wanted to learn. At the top of my list was spinning, it was the only thing that I could think of where I could take a craft through from the raw material fairly easily, removing the negative impact of fast fashion. The year after graduating and when chronic fatigue was at its worst I started to teach myself to spin and loved it. Now a decade later I’m running my own business teaching others how to spin in a way I wish I had had when I was learning.

Creating textile art from the yarns I make is fairly new things and it came about organically when I became an environmental activist with Extinction Rebellion in 2021. I suddenly got confronted by grief about what we are doing to the world all over again and needed an outlet. A simple loom I’d had for ages and not used seemed to be the answer, I have been know to sit for days just weaving in response to extreme weather events. Weaving fabric seems to be a good way to capture landscapes and somehow make massive things like wildfires tangible to me. And the process of making and its tactility in particular felt like an important way of expressing my feelings. 

My journey with poetry is a little different, during lockdown I started reading a lot more poetry than ever before and wanted to explore writing it a little. When lockdowns ended and I started my journey into activism I was suddenly having really big life changing experiences that were challenging me in so many ways. Writing poetry seemed to be the way to process and document these experiences. It was a way of explaining my own emotions to myself sometimes as well. This was particularly the case after my first rebellion, The Impossible Rebellion in August- September 2021. After two weeks spent drumming with the XR Rhythms band I did not know who I was when I returned home. I felt like I had lost or let go of a lot of a previous identity and needed to rebuild it. Poetry helped me do that and so did having a safe understanding community to share my poems with. By the time I was sharing my first poem on Lambeth bridge during April 2022 Rebellion I knew I wanted to keep writing. Norwich Writers Rebel came along last summer at just the right point and it’s been so inspiring hearing others work that responds to the same things mine does. 

At The Big One for Biodiversity

2) What are your greatest inspirations in your textiles and writing?

Because I’m really new to textile art and poetry, I don’t look to other artists or writers for inspiration. I am inspired by the people, and events around me. I explore lots of themes in my work: activism, the climate and ecological crises, extreme weather events, place and our relationship to it. But friendship and community are my biggest inspiration. I feel so incredibly lucky to be constantly inspired by my friends. They are such caring and creative people who pour so much energy into trying to make the world a better place to live in. Often doing a lot of thankless tasks at a cost to themselves and constantly pushing outside of their comfort zone without expectation of being able to change anything. But as a community we are able to hold space for each other to support each other and find ways to be regenerative. In my poems I wanted to tell the stories of these people and the experiences we share. To tell the stories of how as a community we are shaping different ways to live in the world. Now my textiles are also drawing closer to that aim as well. 

3) How do your textiles and poetry compliment one another?

Putting my poems and textiles together is a new thing for me, though it might have seemed obvious to others. I had written one poem about weaving and others seem to borrow the rhythm of my spinning wheel, but poems and textiles still seemed like very different parts of me. That was until June when I was making my Rebel Yarns exhibition; I was looking at the walls and thinking I did not have enough to fill them and I only had 5 days to create the exhibition. That was the first time I thought to put the two together in the same space. It’s since then I’ve realised how textiles and poetry are both means of story telling, I feel like I can tell different parts of the same story with each poem or piece I create. I’m hoping that I might be be able to link them together more in the future.

4) What is your proudest moment? 

I don’t really have one. The last 2 and half years have all been a blur. At every point I catch my self thinking, I could not have imagined doing this three years ago. My life has changed so much, it shrunk in the pandemic and I was only really interacting with about 4 people. When the pandemic ended I joined Extinction Rebellion and in particular the band and my world started to grow again in ways I did not expect. There are so many moments when I’m astonished by what my life has become in a really lovely way. Drumming in a big march for the first time August 2021, leading the big band for the first time October 2022, performing poems for the first time, being MC for the Carnival For Life summer 2022. Exhibiting my work for the first time this summer. All of it has been the result of being part of the most supportive community I have ever experienced. 

5) Do you have a favourite book or two of all time?

There are so many but my teenage self would not forgive me if I didn’t say The Lord of the Rings. I’m still a big fan of escaping into fantasy books. 

Humankind by Rutger Bregman is my favourite nonfiction book, it gives me hope for the future in lots of ways. It complete debunks the idea that humans are bad at the core, that we would all be running around killing each other without rules or laws and provides lots of evidence to the contrary. 

For poetry my sister gave me a book called She is Fierce edited by Ana Sampson an anthology of female poets and it is wonderful to read.  

6) How does having Chronic Fatigue Syndrome affect your creativity? What ways have you found to manage it?

CFS is a strange thing and my relationship to the condition is complicated. Over the past ten years there are times I have simply tried to ignore it, I’ve resented it and got angry at it. At the moment I am trying to find some better ways of living with it while not being defined by it. Creativity in whatever form helps me a lot. When I can’t do anything else I can still knit.

I have viewed CFS for a long time is as something that squeezes my existence into smaller spaces, shorter distances able to go, shorter days able to function, longer times sleeping. But I try to put what I care about first in the time I have and go with my ebbs and flows of energy.  Being creative even in small ways, in short periods of time has a massive positive impact so I try to prioritise it as much as possible. Unfortunately there is the ever present need to earn a living and working a 9-5 is not flexible enough to cope with ever changing energy levels. I’m trying to work out a more adaptable and creative career path at the moment that will centre my health as much as possible.

7) What advice would you give people who want to try textile art or creating spoken word poetry?

Embrace being a beginner, everyone starts somewhere, it doesn’t matter how old you are or what education or career you’ve had, you can start something new at any point. There is no pressure to do things well then either as a beginner, you’re learning so let yourself do things badly. 

Find the ways to tell your story that you love. I keep doing textile art and writing poetry because I love the process of it. Find the ways that work for you. I also ignore any rules there might be and just start in the way that works for me and pick up any rules or conventions as I go along. I’m telling my own story so there is no right or wrong way to do it.

Lastly, if you can, find a community or a couple of friends to do things with or spur each other on in different creative projects.  

‘We are all crew’ – woven pink boat

8) Where is your favourite place?

I have several from different points in my life. Home is now Norwich and I love being by the river.  But I am originally from Lancaster and I miss hills. There is a small community nature reserve and orchard round the corner from where I grew up called Flora and Forna, there are two lovely walks through it and on to the canal or the river and back home. I used to do one of those walks at least once a week, it is a place where I could think and watch the seasons change, watch the birds or spot hares. There is a point on the path you can see Lancaster Castle and Priory and another where there is a view of the Lake District fells. I feel a deep connection to that place, though I expect it has changed since I was last there. 

Thank you so much Ruth for sharing your work here, it’s been so interesting to learn more about your background with both textiles and writing. To read more about Ruth’s work and to hear some of her poetry, visit her website here.

Ruth is also on social media and you can find here on Facebook here and Instagram here.

Thank you for reading this blog post. Compliment it with reading about a a 93 year old dancing doctor and writer here and an interview with poet Caroline Mellor whose debut collection, The Honey in the Bones, I would highly recommend to one and all.

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