Interview: Vanessa Place, lawyer and performing poet

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As a lawyer, Vanessa Place defends sex offenders, some of society's most hated criminals. As a performing poet, she reads verbatim the harrowing experiences of her cases' victims. It's a combination that doesn't always go well with her audiences.

On Friday Vanessa Place will be lecturing and performing at Instal, Scotland's annual festival of "braver new musics" – a rather more sympathetic audience, I suspect, than the one she usually faces. Place spends her days in the courtrooms of Los Angeles, addressing judge and jury as an attorney who specialises in representing convicted sex offenders at appeal.

The two might be hard to reconcile: the writer and critic, rigorously committed to experimental work and to enriching the dialogue about it, and the formidable lawyer who has chosen to defend some of society's most hated criminals. And it's hard to reconcile either of them with the soft-spoken, articulate woman who talks to me down the line from Montreal, where she is giving a poetry reading.

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."

There are a wide range of reactions. People burst into tears, walk out. Some say they feel like throwing up. Some wait afterwards to chastise her. "There was a woman in London this past summer who became quite upset, she was sobbing in the bathroom for some time. Afterwards she confronted me about how I felt about having done that to her. I told her I hadn't done anything to her, she had had a reaction to a piece of writing. I'm holding up a mirror, making people look at their own reactions."

What, then, of her own? She writes frankly about her feelings about what she does in The Guilt Project, acknowledging that the people she represents are "very bad men". "I can go in and out of being affected by it," she says. 'It is always the most quotidian things, the smallest details, which are the most moving, where the distance between you and material evaporates."She is frequently asked: "How do you live with yourself?" Her usual answer is: "I don't." "Like everybody else you exist in many different ways in your life, I don't necessarily live with myself as a defence attorney all the time. But having said that, it would be irresponsible of me not to feel guilty. One of the challenges of being fully human is to accept all the parts, including the part where you refuse to live with the monster that you are, but you have no other choice."

Yet her choice of work is motivated by strong ethical principles. If the legal system is to have any integrity, she argues, everyone, including convicts, must have access to the same due process of law. In The Guilt Project she contends that those appealing a sex offence conviction – demonised by society before they reach the dock – often do not. In the worst of cases, the system itself is on trial.

A daughter of a military family, Place says she always loved writing, and describes her decision to go to law school as "a failure of imagination". She worked for a time as a prosecutor, but found the pitch of good (victim) against evil (criminal) too simplistic.

"What started to become obvious was that I was ethically and intellectually very interested in the lowest of the low. I was willing to take the cases, which was of huge benefit because a lot of attorneys aren't. I was temperamentally able to stand them. I also found them fascinating." In particular, they were interesting because they showed how irrational society becomes in the way it deals with them.

Having written "in secret" for years, she started to publish and perform some of her work. Her books include Notes on Conceptualisms, Dies: A Sentence (which consists of a single sentence 50,000 words long) and La Medusa, a multi-persective portrait of Los Angeles. Her performative works range from playful to challenging; one website describes her as "sexy, like a hand grenade".

She was initially reluctant to take time out from her creative writing to pen The Guilt Project, but was persuaded by her partner. It is a passionate argument for fairness and humanity, suggesting that "a society can be judged by how it treats its most despicable members".

"I was giving a talk recently in LA about the book and someone in the audience said, 'I have a hard time having sympathy for sex offenders.'

That's not what it is about. It's simply about having decency. You have to treat the guilty with the same fundamental decency as you would treat the innocent – otherwise there's no point. Abraham Lincoln did not think African-Americans were the equal of Caucasians, that wasn't what motivated him. It would be nice if he had, but he didn't. But he can still be a great man because he insisted on parity of treatment."

•Vanessa Place will give a lecture, Notes on Conceptualism, at Glasgow Film Theatre, Friday 12 November, 11am, and will lecture and perform her own writing at Tramway in Consequences and Complicities of Conceptualism with Mark Sanders on Saturday 13 November at 2:30pm as part of Instal10.

Not your average festival:

The tenth Instal festival, which takes place at Tramway in Glasgow from Friday until Sunday this weekend, promises "three days of un-average musical ideas" including performance, discussion and action. Highlights include:

PASCAL LE GALL

Decribing himself as an "ex-percussionist" this Frenchman now performs with just a turntable and some teach-yourself-foreign-language LPs, picking apart conventional ideas of improvisation and composition. Saturday 13 November, 4:35pm

CATHERINE CHRISTER HENNIX

In the 1970s, Hennix used a combination of mathematics, quantum physics and Eastern thought to produce "Hallucinogenic Ecstatic Sound Experiences". This is a rare chance to hear a legendary pioneer of experimental music. SATURDAY 13 November, 10:25pm

HOUSE

In May, Jean-Luc Guionnet, bottom right, and Eric La Casa, field-recording artists and composers, spent time with people in Glasgow listening to music in their own homes and creating "instant compositions". Now musicians and actors will listen to these recordings and make their own interpretations.

Sunday 14 November, 5pm

• Instal10 is at Tramway, 12-14 November. For more information visit www.arika.org.uk

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