Iona Lee: 'When I started I was just a teenager writing poetry, and I’m still that, really.'

Iona Lee was born in Edinburgh and brought up in East Lothian. She discovered as a seventeen-year-old that she could use performance poetry as a means of getting in to pubs without her age being challenged. She is a student at the Glasgow School of Art, and in 2015 became the Scottish Slam Champion. She is currently being mentored by Salena Godden, and is crowdfunding her first publication Late Night Philosophy.

I noticed that Nordic poetry involved a lot of landscape, and Brazilian was political, and Quebecois was very sexual.

What was your experience of representing Scotland at the International Poetry Slam?

I’m not much of a slammer. Slams to me are still a new experience, and I’m confused by them at times. Everybody was really lovely. It was really cool hearing poetry in original languages. I’ve discovered I really like listening to Finnish poetry, but I’m sure a lot got lost in translation.

Did you work with a translator for the competition?

I suggested that my mum translate it, because she is fluent in French and she knows my work well. However the slam organisers were adamant that they wanted to do it. From what I gathered you have a team of people, and you send your six poems, and they were translated when I arrived.

For me, I did not mind so much, as I loved listening to the different languages. Because it was a slam there was a lot of similar content, ‘change the world’ and the like. However it was interesting hearing the different styles and humours. I noticed that Nordic poetry involved a lot of landscape, and Brazilian was political, and Quebecois was very sexual. My favourite was Japanese, which was incredibly surreal. It translated very well.

What has been influencing your poetry recently?

I’ve always liked reading. I have a folk musician for a father, who studied English at Oxford. He told me to read Gododdin, ancient Finnish Scrolls, as well as John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

A lot of my gigs are with musicians, and many of my favourite poets are musicians. My favourite poets are Tom Waits and Patty Smith. I definitely like collaboration. I’m very excited when there is a poetry show with animation for example, or puppetry with spoken word.

I have been working with a jazz pianist, and we’ve been thinking about forming some kind of band. There hasn’t been a female Tom Waits, and I like the idea of giving that a go.

Tell me about what it was like to put together Late Night Philosophy.

I was in London with Salena Godden, and she introduced me to John Mitchenson, a publisher with Unbound. The vibe I get from him is that, because it is a crowd-funding publishing company, they feel a duty to try and find lesser-known names that might not have been published otherwise.

I’ve been writing pretty much solidly since I was 17, and I wondered how many poems I had. After collecting them all, I realised I had about 40. Now that I look back, 17-20 is quite a time of change, especially in terms of poetry.

When I started I was just a teenager writing poetry, and I’m still that, really. The difference is that someone has asked me to put it in a book. I’m 20, and I don’t really have a right to have a collection, but Thomas Chatterton had three volumes published, and he died when he was 17.

What other projects are you interested in working on?

All of last year I was very scared to write, and this was because there was an audience listening. I was thinking about what would the audience want to hear, and what would be entertaining. It is great to go back to paper and have something in my hands.

I am studying illustration at university. I don't really see myself as a poet so much as a storyteller. I love stories and all the ways they can be told, and so I feel like telling them visually and sometimes through poetry. I hope to go on telling stories in as many ways I can think of, whether that is on the page or stage.

Iona is crowdfunding to publish her first collection, Late Night Philosophy, through You can follow Iona’s work through her website,

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