A5 book, 52 pages, 2021; by Sammy Playford with artwork by Roxy Topia and Paddy Gould
Bigfoot. Niche podcasts. Hot Takes. The Tunguska event of 1908. These are just some of the elements swirling through Sammy Playford’s publication There’s Always Things Falling Out The Sky, a collaboration with artist duo Roxy Topia and Paddy Gould. Pitched as ‘part children’s book, part psychedelic headspace’, the illustrated front cover sets the fantastical tone. Bigfoot’s right ear pokes out from undulating, thick hair rendered in lush purple, red and orange hues. On the reverse cover is a left human ear, complete with earbud and hooped earrings. This duality suggests a synergy, or kinship, between beast and human. Inside a long-form poem draws us into Playford’s headspace via a stream-of-consciousness text that flows across the pages, framed by Topia and Gould’s corporeal illustrations.
Playford’s poem begins with an occupational therapist telephone interview that she is forced to attend by her employer. Playford works full time for a delivery company; she hates it. The poem swiftly diverts us down a rabbit hole of magic and ritualistic conversations. ‘An earbud in the earlobe’ signals a new line of thought or rumination on a podcast she is listening to at work. The podcasts range from cryptozoology (the study of mythical creatures whose existence isn’t yet proven) to working class histories. They serve a dual purpose of fuelling Playford’s creativity and spirituality while drowning out the drudgery of work.
The result is a textual cacophony of thoughts, emotions and theories swirling within Topia and Gould’s harmonising illustrations. These pen drawings manage to frame the text without being overbearing. Each full-page illustration riffs off the symbolism of cells and membranes to create a sensation of the text travelling through the head, like the film Fantastic Voyage (1966) on acid. Occasionally the flow is disrupted by a double page illustration. One shows a green tentacle dangling from an alien spacecraft, which uncoils to sloppily spell ‘ur a vessel now’on a disembodied tongue. Could this represent the capitalist drudgery of selling your labour to survive? David Graeber argues in Bullshit Jobs (2018) that the advent of professionally unsatisfying and spiritually empty jobs is at odds with the liberating promise of technological automation. Why do we persist with a hegemonic system that demands an unnecessary forty-hour working week?
It feels important that Playford’s poem crystallised during a residency where she spent time in woodland at twilight. A residency offers time for ideas to flourish and connections to be made; it takes a lot of energy to safeguard your creativity in an environment you hate. Last November, Topia and Gould invited Playford to a remote residency at their Pinks Sands Studio in Birkenhead to unpack her love of cryptozoology podcasts. Playford spent time in the woodland and completed the first draft of the poem for There’s Always Something, culminating in a live performance from the woods in Bristol that was streamed on Instagram (some performed with musical accompaniment by fellow artists Sarahsson). The influence of the residency is clear through Playford’s use of ritualistic conversations with aliens, faeries, and Bigfoot as textual devices to amplify the paranormal.
Legendary cryptids such as Bigfoot, Yeti or the Loch Ness Monster (wonderfully anointed as ‘Dinosaur Ghost’ by Playford) have long captured the wider cultural imagination. Each year Scotland generates over forty million pounds from Nessy-related tourism. However, cryptids are also symbolic of fear and ‘otherness’ within normative societal structures. In recent years cryptozoology has been embraced within both queer and transgender popular cultures, a development that Levi Hord suggests ‘feeds off of the historical, digital, and individualistic concerns of contemporary queer existence’.1 Throughout the book, Playford’s references her identity as a transgender woman, including why she relates to cryptids within this context. There’s a simmering anger underneath the surface of her writing; occasionally boiling over as the disparate elements collide.
There’s Always Things Falling Out The Sky is a deeply personal work that is an act of self-protection and rallying cry for the importance of creativity and imagination against the crushing realities of capitalism. While it took me several attempts to pierce the density of the poem, the illustrations establish a bodily relationship with Playford’s words, strengthening their impact for the reader, and vice versa. A mind map on the homepage of Playford’s website also unpacks some of the ideas reverberating within the book. But this overwhelming complexity feels like the point. We all get hopelessly lost in our own thoughts, blurring reality and imagination. As Playford asks at end of the poem, ‘it might all be in your head but how many heads is ur head home to?’
There’s Always Things Falling Out The Sky is available to purchase here. Sammy Playford read from the book for the Cambridge Literary Review on 24 September 2021.
Roxy Topia and Paddy Gould’s exhibition Pause for Living was at CBS Gallery in Liverpool 9-26 September and at Pink Sands Studio in Birkenhead 18 September to 8 October 2021, by appointment.
Jack Welsh is an arts producer and writer based in Liverpool.
- Levi C. R. Hord (2018), An Unknowable Wildness: An Analysis of Cryptids as Queer Cultural Iconography. Access: https://ir.lib.uwo.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1007&context=undergradawards_2018
Published 07.10.2021 by Lara Eggleton