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Spells in the Present Tense and the Transformative Power of the Occult

An event at Somerset House to launch Ignota Press’ first book, the anthology: Spells: 21st-Century Occult Poetry

On Halloween, the cavernous tunnels of the Deadhouse, a winding crypt-like space in the underground depths of Somerset House thronged with those gathered to celebrate the launch of Ignota Press. The rough brick walls illuminated purple, atmospheric music from DJs Lia Mouse and TTB, and an intoxicating heady aroma of incense filled the corridors. Founded by Sarah Shin and Ben Vickers, Ignota derives its name from the mystic Hildegard of Bingen’s lingua ignota (unknown language), with the aim of defining it as one ‘that makes possible the reimagining and re-enchantment of the world around us’ through books and events that traverse poetry, technology, and speculative mysticism. Their inaugural publication is the anthology: Spells: 21st-Century Occult Poetry, edited by Shin with Rebecca Tamás, which brings together 36 rising and established voices across 160 pages to explore themes of ‘justice, selfhood, and the transformative power of the occult.’

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Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry, 2018, book cover. Courtesy: Ignota Press

Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry, 2018, book cover. Courtesy: Ignota Press

The launch event included readings from Spells by poets Amy Key, Daisy Lafarge (who also noted that Hildegard – a medieval nun, mystic, and philosopher – was the first woman to pen a description of female pleasure and orgasm), Rebecca Perry, and ‘Bhanu Kapil’s spectre’. Kapil is a poet and practitioner who works with transcendent practices and healing magic, often translating historic rituals to contemporary spaces. ‘I think of Joanna Macy's “work that reconnects” and the way that ritual allows participants – readers? writers? – to locate themselves “at a point outside of time.” Beyond time,” she wrote to me, ‘And from that place, to remember – in communal ways, non-verbal ways – what it was like to live on the earth.’

The evening programme also centred around ‘NIGREDO’: a trance-like ceremony that involved moments of speech, singing, and the sound of the gong, devised and led by musician Nicole Bettencourt Coelho. In our exchange, she cited Greco-Egyptian traditions, ceremonial ritual, and astronomical movement as influences, expressing how magical thinking is the ‘point at which all things intersect’. Rituals operate as a celebration of liminal space – often a communion between the past and the future – and a blurring of spiritual and psychic boundaries, by deconstructing consciousness and an individual sense of self. ‘Ritual is not only about attaining something,’ she continued, ‘it is also a means of escaping existing narratives. Finding the pulse that exists in all living things. The raw vitality that every human being shares as a uniting principle.’ Or, as Francesca Lisette writes in ‘Ecstasy (Dispersal),’ ‘Each reading is a ritual. It is also a performance … the body is more than a frame. It is a vibration.’

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Main image: Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry launch party, 2018. Courtesy: Ralph Pritchard

Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry launch party, 2018. Courtesy: Ralph Pritchard

This vibrating energy and raw vitality is a guiding force throughout the pages of Spells. The anthology seeks to encourage societal and spiritual transformation, focusing on how the occult (hidden or occluded knowledge) has offered survival within the oppressions of racist capitalist patriarchy over centuries. Survival is a radical act, with magical potential, as Jen Calleja’s ‘The Gift’ states: your intention must always be to save your own life.’ Talking about her editorial vision, Shin notes, ‘we consider occult poetics as providing a pluralistic magical language; one capable of producing metaphors and symbols that can hold the contradictions of trauma, identity, gender, sexuality and kinship.’ Poetry in the anthology is conceived as a magical discourse with talismanic properties, something to hold close in difficult times, and offering both healing and liberation. ‘Following #MeToo’s revelations of the enormity of rape culture,’ Shin continued, ‘the esoteric is becoming visible in the popular imagination as a sacred space away from everyday experience of sexualised violence and harassment.’

Lafarge agreed, ‘if there is a current ‘generational’ interest in the mystical, its motivations are ethical, existential, and tactical, during carnivalesque world politics, environmental collapse, and the rise of the Right. The identification with occult ways of being isn’t so much escapism or self-indulgence as an alternative to total despond, depression, and anomie.’

In their introduction to the anthology, ‘The Broken Open’, the writer and activist So Mayer expands further on Shin and Tamás’ notion of poetics as an enchanted discourse: ‘This isn’t about God making the world with the Word. It’s about the witches who’ve been remaking the world, unmaking the mess he made … To be a witch, then, is to know words … Make no mistake: when we encounter such voices – feminist, queer, decolonial, dis/abled – there is magic at play beyond the ordinary.’

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Moongate. Courtesy: Lando and Optigram

Moongate. Courtesy: Lando and Optigram

These spell-poems work together to forge a space of collective care, vulnerability, and generous sense of feeling. In ‘Camisado’, CAConrad writes, ‘poetry is the opposite of escape / but makes this world endurable / how the smallest puddle / reflects the entire sky’. These words iterate Mayer’s invocation of poems that ‘reorder [history], reorganise it into new lines that reveal the obscured … slow us down, dance us to their rhythm, turn time from a line to a circle’. The domestic and the quotidian are often cast in new light: shrines are built in bathrooms, or attention is paid to quieter moments of self-care and preservation, through cooking, on buses, making lists, watching YouTube.

Spells opens with Kaveh Akbar’s prayer for self-love – ‘my gurgling internal devotion / to myself’ – and throughout the publication, this desire for selfhood runs throughout. As Kayo Chingonyi’s incantation later puts it: ‘Did no one tell you / naming is a magical act / words giving shape / to life, life revivified / by utterance, / so long as proper care / is taken to pronounce / the words correctly / thereby completing the spell?’ To read this collection, and to conjure these poetic spirits and listen to what they have to say, is another kind of ritual. The polyphony of these voices, images, and incantations offers an opportunity for the reader to leave the confines of their own narrative for a moment, and to see the world anew. 

Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry is out now from Ignota Books

Main image: Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry launch party, 2018. Courtesy: Ralph Pritchard

Philomena Epps is an editor and writer based in London.

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