Poet and founder of NEO by Lena, Lena Aisha, discusses the creative influences and processes behind her poetry, and shares how NEO came into being, in our August interview.
Can you tell us a little about your collection ‘Bones of Eden’?
Bones of Eden was my first publication. In truth, it was a very hasty decision to create it—I compiled the poems in the anthology over the space of a month. For the reader it comes across, I assume, as a very mild bildungsroman in poetry form. But for me the importance of it was never the content, rather the compilation. It was the first time I’d ever collected my thoughts into one cohesive body of work, and I feel as though having done that, I’m now more prepared to create longer, more complex pieces of work, and I’m starting to realise my dream of being a published author.
Are there particular subjects you’re drawn to when writing?
I think I’m very drawn to the themes of love, happiness, beauty and growth. Much of my work is an examination of how these themes fit into the human existence and I tend to write stories about my own or a character’s experience navigating through life.
Who are your artistic influences for both your poetry and writing?
Stylistically, I’m influenced by a lot of Romantic writers—fiction writers such as Enid Blyton and JK Rowling shaped my perception of the craft when I was younger, but as my work has developed I’ve noticed that my influences have also changed. I’m now very drawn to writers who explore grandiose themes (such as love, life and nature) with a personal sensitivity and poetry—writers like Thoreau, Emerson, Rumi, de Botton and Khalil Gibran.
In terms of the content of my writing, my influences range across multiple disciplines. I find myself echoing the ideals of theatre practitioner Antonin Artaud in one line, and in the next expressing notions that are rooted in Stoicism or other similar philosophical schools of thought. I’m interested in a lot of different topics, and I suppose that they each find a way to influence my own work.
Have you any literary projects in the pipeline?
Yes! I’m currently working on my debut novel, which is as daunting as it is exciting. The story is an exploration of the four main types of love that the Ancient Greeks identified (Agape, Philea, Storge and Eros). I’ve found that modern stories are very centred around the last of these, Eros, which is the passionate romantic love we see focused on far too often. With this story, I’m trying to present a more holistic view of love—one that I find encompasses all aspects of the human experience.
I’ve always been a ‘publish the first draft’ kind of person (out of laziness or egotism I’m not sure), but with this story I want to tell it as well as I can, so it may take months or, more likely, years to complete. I’m in no rush.
How do you approach your writing? Do you have a vision for the piece you want to create or the story you want to tell before you begin, or is it more spontaneous?
My writing process differs from piece to piece. For stories and longer pieces I usually start with a theme or a message that I want to get across. That is the epicentre—everything else (the plot, the characters, the scenery, etc.) branches out from that.
With the novel I’m working on, however, it began with a very clear vision of the main character in their home—I knew their name, their occupation and their story arch a year before I began writing the book. This period, from the idea’s manifestation to its actual inception, allowed an organic growth that I’ve found to be invaluable.
My poetry, however, is very spontaneous. My poems are all very emotion rather than plot driven, and so how I’m feeling is always my starting point. I’ve never made myself write a poem, rather when I feel as though I have something to say (even though at that point I have no idea what it is), I put pen to paper and let my words do all the expression.
Have you found that having feet in both the literary & visual canons has influenced your work in either field? Do you find the two complimentary?
Absolutely! Like many of the Romantic writers I look up to, my work often employs visual cues, metaphors and similes (mostly from Nature). I’m also an avid (albeit very amateur) photographer, and so have a very keen eye for beauty. This constant observation of the world translates into image-heavy stories and poems, which I think is now my personal style.
You mentioned to me previously how Dominique Loreau’s ‘L’Art de la Simplicité' influenced your approach to consumerism. What was it about her approach to life that most struck you?
It was the idea of “decluttering” that really struck me, and how, without even noticing it, most of us are “burdened by our possessions”. We all (hopefully) go through a spring clean every year where we chuck away things we haven’t used in eons. But we still hold on to a plethora of pieces we do not need, be it for sentimental reasons or purely because we’re hoarders.
Loreau’s book helped me realise that the clutter we accumulate can have an enormous impact on our life—one that is almost imperceptible because it is so gradual. The book details the importance of living a minimalist lifestyle and how the order it brings can counteract everyday feelings of stress and anxiety and improve our self-image and overall quality of life.
How do you fulfil this philosophy through NEO?
The philosophy of minimalism goes hand in hand with the concept of quality. When you have fewer possessions, the little you do have tends to be of greater quality. That is what I’ve tried to bring with NEO. I have and still am trying to create a compendium of high-quality pieces.
How did NEO come into being?
I think I fell into the fashion industry quite coincidentally. I was looking for ways to apply Loreau’s teachings of minimalism in a new project and at the time found myself very drawn to the sartorial world. The two combined to create what you see now.
Have you any particular influences in the visual arts, in fashion, photography or otherwise?
In the visual arts, I’m very drawn to the works of photographers Yousuf Karsh, Richard Avedon and Steve McCurry. I think it’s the way they were and are able to capture the essence of the human spirit in a single frame, with Avedon’s portrait of Ezra Pound being perhaps my favourite photograph of all time. In the more traditional world of painting I’m influenced by the works of Friedrich (whose Wanderer Above The Sea of Fog is currently my favourite painting), Erte and Goya. Their work can evoke emotions and inspire certain moods.
The films of directors Behn Zeitlin and Richard Linklater are also influential in my story-telling, as both create movies that examine the human experience with great rawness and sensitivity. Fashion-wise, my personal taste is quite eclectic and varies from season to season, but I do greatly admire the Parisian sense of style, especially Caroline de Maigret’s, and English fashion director Sarah Harris. Two fashion-houses that I’m also very drawn to are Chloé and Philosophy di Lorenzo Serafino.
As you can tell, I have a wide range of artistic influences, but I suppose the common theme running through them all is, first and foremost, an examination of the human experience, and, secondly, a focus on individuality and self-expression. These ideals are ones that I share, and find to be the foundation of every one of my endeavours.
Additionally, Chimamanda Ngozi and Tracy Reese are two artists that motivate me to be successful. Their influence comes from their reaching success not just as women, but as women of colour, and in doing so breaking down barriers in a world that is often prejudiced. They’ve inspired me to forge my own path and hopefully be the impetus for others to do the same.