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Vanessa Place, disturbing the peace
Poet and lawyer Vanessa Place is headed to the Instal Festival in Glasgow this weekend. The Scotsman interviewed her about her work as both an experimental poet and as a lawyer defending sex offenders:
In recent years, Place has brought the two sides of herself together. She has written about her legal work in The Guilt Project, an honest, passionate book in which she addresses head-on the way in which she believes the US legal system has failed sex offenders. And, even more controversially, she has brought material from the courtroom into her literary activities.
“For a long time I kept my two worlds very separate,” she says. “But what I started to see was there was actually a lot of poetry in what I was writing legally, in a pure sense.” That has led to a series of works she calls Statement of Facts, in which she reads verbatim from the records of sex offenders and their victims testifying in court.
It’s not for the faint-hearted: a woman calling 911 to report rape, dialling the numbers with her tongue because her hands are bound; another describing how she was raped herself, then forced to watch the rape of her small daughter.
Place believes that what she is doing is not prurient or exploitative; the information is anonymous and is already in the public domain, though she is “challenging the idea of what poetry is”. “I hoped by reproducing these texts, I could present people with the raw events. I hope what my work does is remind people of that power of language.
Language, at a core level, is there to make you feel something, make you think something.