But the mermaid has the best stories, myths and documentaries, so the mermaid remains close to our hearts. Which is why Kirsten Tambling and Laura Seymour's new collaborative project Poems Underwater - an exploration of mermaids appeals so much to us. The pair would like others to contribute their own ideas and art to the project and there's certainly no shortage of material: "The mermaid, ancient and imaginary, has real life contemporary resonance with the figure of the bisexual and of the migrant, borderless individual."
I'd like to say we met over a bottle of Kraken rum to discuss the project on the beach as the salty sea air whistled and the waves crashed on the shore... But we didn't, we emailed. Here Kirsten and Laura talk dugongs, sailors and whether mermaids are real or not...
Kirsten Tambling: We were at university together - Laura was in the year above me, but we were both studying English. We spent a lot of time making sloe gin, as I recall. The mermaids were Laura's idea initially - she asked if I'd help with the website and do some pictures, because I'd done zines and things before. But I had always been into sea creatures and sailors' tales - and Disney's The Little Mermaid was, maybe regrettably, a big part of my childhood - so I immediately saw lots of rich stuff to explore here.
Laura Seymour: I'd noticed at university that Kirsten was always doing these amazing drawings all over her notebooks. My brother bought me this beautiful book by Allan Drummond telling the story of the Wildman of Orford, so that's where the mermaid idea was conceived. I immediately thought of Kirsten when I was thinking about getting together an illustrated book of mermaid poems.
What are you hoping to end up with from this project Poems Underwater?
KT: Well, we want to start some conversations about the mermaid figure and some of the things they might represent - we want to get as many different voices contributing to it as possible, across pretty much any creative media. As we've got going, I think we've started to develop some of our own ideas about mermaids, but one of the things we've noticed is that their symbolic significance is pretty much limitless.
We've just started the call for submissions and we'll put as much of the responses as we can fit into a Poems Underwater zine. And then I'm already developing some rather grandiose ideas for an exhibition of work in September - artworks, a poetry reading and the zine launch - which, we hope, will also be in a significant watery/riverside location, so we can think about the project geographically too - sort of a coming round the Eastern coastline of England and going up the river into London, and then opening it out to the project's other voices. A poetry progress, almost!
LS: One of the exciting things about this project is that I really don't know where it will end up. We know that it will end in September with an illustrated collection of poems and other creative writing, but apart from that it's all about contributors taking the myth and making it their own. I'm extremely excited to see what sorts of things people send in.
It would be a shame if the mermaid became nothing more than a Starbucks coffee cup floating on the sea
KT: I'm not really sure what their current reputation is! I suppose they've become quite drippy since Disney, with Ariel's rather pathetic attempt at freedom that's really all about getting married to a nice boy - although I watched Splash! at the weekend and I didn't really know what to make of how sexual Darryl Hannah is. On the one hand, it's quite a tired old 'mermaid = whore' trope, but on the other it does give her some sexual agency that's denied to, say, Julia Roberts or many of the other female rom-com stars of the 1980s.
I suppose one thing we really would like to do is bring the mermaid into the 21st century in a different way, by looking at the questions she raises that remain relevant to us today, for example about disability within an environment and constructions of gender - some of the more meaty stuff. It would certainly be good to look at mermaids outside of that Pre-Raphaelite 'naked girl combing her hair' mould - it would be a start to think outside that context of fish-women saving/drowning/seducing various men.
LS: A better reputation - hopefully! My original motive with the project was due to thinking about the figure of the bisexual. I'd become increasingly alert to various bi-phobic discourses or beliefs all over the place: outdated ideas of being overly lustful, teasing, indecisive, frustrated, and so on. And the figure of the mermaid seemed to represent that; these are attributes that she is often given too, and she's so out of place somehow wherever she goes. We have suggested that contributors could explore these connotations of the mermaid if they want, but I would also love for our project to become a place where the mermaid can shake off these connotations and become at home at last.
Why are you focusing on the East of England? Would you like to spread this out?
KT: I think it was primarily a convenience thing, since Laura's based in Cambridge and I'm in London, but all those locations have something special about them that I think pulls in some aspect of our own process - the strangeness of Orford, with its World War II connections, and the religious connotations of the Longstanton baptismal well. But our own process is really just a springboard for other ideas though - it's by no means the be all and end all of the project. We'd love to see ideas from different parts of the country, pulling in lots of different voices and experiences - we're certainly not claiming to speak for everyone.
LS: Because it was the Wildman of Orford that started the project off, I began looking for other places nearby that could be similar sites of boundary-crossing or hybridity. We have been to Longstanton and Orford, and the third place weâre going (top secret at the moment) is a bit grim but also quite magical too. But we totally want to spread it out, there is no limit to how the contributors can interpret mermaids.
What's your favourite mermaid myth/fact you have learned so far on this project?
KT: It's maybe a bit predictable, but I love the history of the Starbucks logo, featuring a melusine â a melusine is a double-tailed mermaid figure, who usually has legs on land, but turns into a mermaid in the water (or bath). In the original engraving it was nicked from, the melusine/mermaid's tails are more like legs, with a bit of woman-flesh in the middle, and it's actually pretty sexually explicit. Starbucks obviously couldn't handle this, so they almost made her look like she was wearing trousers - the scales extend right up to her hips, with the result that she became all sealed up and therefore no longer sexual. Even that wasn't enough, though, because then there was too much boob on show, so they cropped her again and again until we get to the current logo, which is really just a gesture at a mermaid. I think Martin Kratz, who we interviewed about his mermaid libretto, had it right when he said it would be a shame if the mermaid became nothing more than a Starbucks coffee cup floating on the sea.
LS: The Wildman of Orford remains my favourite. The tale has been embellished over time, and in many versions (like Allan Drummond and James Dodds' beautiful illustrated poem) he is terribly tortured by the inhabitants of Orford. When Kirsten and I were in Orford Castle there was a little placard saying that even when he managed to escape the fisherman who had captured him, some stories say that the Wildman swam straight back up to their nets and let them take him again. There is something incredibly dark about that. I also secretly love staying up late into the night reading the bizarre sub-genre of internet fan fiction that has developed about him, particularly fan fiction where he is actually a total babe, and once dredged up from the ocean becomes a teen heartthrob at an all-American high school...
Let's get serious here. If you could...would you like to be mermaids?
KT: Oh gosh I don't know - over the last few weeks I've been thinking a lot about how powerless they are on land. I've been looking at some photos of Ann Blyth as a mermaid in the 1940s, during filming for Mr Peabody and the Mermaid, and she's being carried from scene to scene on a stretcher because of her massive tail. I suppose if I could have the deal Darryl Hannah seems to have, of walking on land, that would be ok. I have quite a morbid fear of sharks though. Would that be a problem, do you think?
LS: We've both been thinking a lot about how mermaids find their environments disabling: not because there's anything 'wrong' with their bodies but just because people use, mock, reject, or harm them. I'd love to be a mermaid - if only the world was different...
Do you secretly think or at least hope mermaids exist? (I know I do)
KT: I like to think they do - although didn't someone say recently that what sailors thought were mermaids were actually dugongs? I do really like the idea that mermaids are always portrayed as these uber-sexy man-traps but actually if you followed them being all -ooh, mermaids' you'd come face to face with an enormous dugong. That pleases me.
LS: They do! Mermaids have always existed as partly metaphorical creatures: it's woven in to their flesh. In the Renaissance, for example, people who were secret Catholics after the Reformation were sometimes described as mermaids because they hid their true nature beneath a veneer of normal humanity. So in that sense, anyone who has a sense of living two lives or having two natures is a mermaid.
For more mermaid shenanigans, essays, poems and images take a look at Kirsten and Laura's site Poemsunderwater. You can contribute your own mermaid stories, artwork or poems to firstname.lastname@example.org for inclusion in the project. The deadline is 1 June 2013, you can fine more information here.