Me being interviewed about making a poetry podcast…

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I was interviewed over the weekend by the lovely folk at Nothing in the Rulebook about this here podcast, how it started and why it has developed into what it is. You can read the interview here if you so wish.

In the interview I explain a bit about how the podcast started, how it’s changed and what my motivations are for carrying on with a project that doesn’t always fill me with complete and utter joy 🙂

Oh… and I also talk a little bit about my mental health… surprise!

David xx

Episode 111 – Jackie Hagan and Nuar Alsadir

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Good morning everybody! How are you all? I’m very pleased to say that episode 111 has just gone online. It’s in two parts, part one is me chatting to Jackie Hagan and part two is a short chat with Nuar Alsadir recorded in front of a live audience back in February at Verve Poetry Festival in Birmingham. The episode can be downloaded via SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, Acast, Overcast… and hopefully anywhere else you download your podcasts! Here’s the episode description, followed by a full transcript of the conversation:

Part one

David Turner talks to poet and playwright Jackie Hagan talk about Jackie’s new play, ‘This Is Not A Safe Space’, which she’s just started touring. The play, presented by Unlimited and Big Feast, is based on interviews with over 80 people and in it, Jackie examines the impact of benefit cuts on disabled people and others on the margins of society. Perhaps predictably, considering the theme of this work, we discuss class – a lot. More specifically, when the idea of class entered Jackie’s consciousness and the effect it had on her gall bladder and mental health.

Dates for ‘This Is Not A Safe Space’:
23 and 24 March 2018 at the Attenborough Centre in Leicester as part of De-Stress Fest
25 March 2018 the Alhambra Theatre in Morecambe
29 March 2018 at the Creation Space in Basingstoke
30 March 2018 at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield
17-21 April 2018 Camden People’s Theatre in London

Part two [00:58:33]:
David Turner is in front of a live audience at the Verve Poetry Festival in Birmingham talking to Nuar Alsadir about writing for an imagined reader and treating our notebook and pen as tools of the trade.

Transcript

Intro:

 

 

DT:      Hello, welcome to episode 111 of Lunar Poetry Podcasts. I’m David Turner. I hope you’re well. This episode is in two parts. Coming up at the end is a short conversation with Nuar Alsadir, recorded live at this year’s Verve poetry festival. More about that later, so stick around until the end. First up is a chat with poet and playwright Jackie Hagan. Jackie is originally from Skelmersdale, just outside Liverpool, or Skem as it’s known locally and throughout this conversation.

 

We met up in a function room in Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre to talk about Jackie’s new play, ‘This Is Not A Safe Space’, which she’s just started touring. The play, presented by Unlimited and Big Feast, is based on interviews with over 80 people and in it, Jackie examines the impact of benefit cuts on disabled people and others on the margins of society. Perhaps predictably, considering the theme of this work, we discuss class – a lot. More specifically, when the idea of class entered Jackie’s consciousness and the effect it had on her gall bladder and mental health.

 

We also get onto what it’s like to be a working-class person moving in poetry and theatre circles, though we did also attempt to imagine what it must be like when the tables are turned and middle-class people are surrounded by scallies and Herberts. Jackie and I are both bipolar, so steel yourselves for tangents aplenty. Before I forget, if you’re looking to hire a function room in Manchester for an event, the folk at the Royal Exchange Theatre are very helpful and really accommodating and rent out rooms very reasonably.

 

I wouldn’t recommend recording a podcast in the room I used though. As you’ll hear, the acoustics are very sharp, but it’s a great space for meetings and you’d fit a killer Iceland-based buffet in there. You can catch ‘This Is Not A Safe Space’ at the following venues: the 23 and 24 March 2018 at the Attenborough Centre in Leicester as part of the De-Stress Fest, 25 March 2018 the Alhambra Theatre in Morecambe, 29 March 2018 at the Creation Space in Basingstoke, 30 March 2018 at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield, and 17-21 April 2018 Camden People’s Theatre in London. I’ll list all of those dates in the episode description.

 

This episode was only made possible with the aid of funding from Arts Council England, specifically their south-west regional office. If you’d like to keep up-to-date with everything that’s going on with this podcast and our fledgling A Poem A Week series, follow us at Lunar Poetry Podcasts on Facebook and Instagram, @Silent_Tongue on Twitter or go over to lunarpoetrypodcasts.com, where you can also download a transcript of this episode.

 

I’ll have to take a run-up to this bit. Download and subscribe to everything we’ve ever done over at SoundCloud, Stitcher for Android devices and iTunes for Apple users. Oh dear, that’s boring. Please do us a favour and tell your friends, colleagues and loved ones about us. It’s the best way to help us reach new people. If you want to make us really happy, head over to iTunes and leave us a lovely review. I feel a bit dirty now so as a palate cleanser, here’s Jackie Hagan. It might just be the first time she’s been introduced in that way.

 

 

Conversation:

 

 

JH:       Hiya, I’m Jackie Hagan. Where many of you have got a tube of meat, I have got a steel pole. I’ll let you figure that out for yourself. I’m from Skem and I’m a writer, performer, playwright. This poem is called ‘I Am Not Daniel Blake’ and it’s about all the things that us council-estate people do that piss people off.

 

We do not have permission to reproduce this poem.

 

[0:07:58]

 

DT:      Thank you very much, Jackie, thank you for joining me on the podcast. I really love that line and image about Schrödinger’s scratchcard and buying yourself hope. It’s really nice. It’s quite odd to hear that poem read in this room we’re sitting in. It’s luxurious, oak-panelled.

 

JH:       The plushest room in the world.

 

DT:      I believe it’s the former executive suite of the Royal Exchange, the boardroom.

 

JH:       It’s very brown, isn’t it?

 

DT:      Very brown and trying to be imposing, but it’s not very imposing anymore.

 

JH:       It feels like a headmaster’s room in a boarding school or what it would look like on the telly.

 

DT:      We will definitely have to imagine what that looks like on the telly, the pair of us. We were chatting briefly before we started recording and you mentioned you were from Skem. You mentioned it again there. It seems like a natural place to start after that poem.

 

JH:       Totally. I love Skem. It’s an overspill town from Liverpool that was built in the 60s because there wasn’t enough social housing in Liverpool. They just kind of picked people up and plopped them there. It’s actually in Blood Brothers, that’s where they moved to in Blood Brothers and they’re made up. They’re like: ‘Oh my God, look at all this green!’

 

At first, it was one of them Utopian new towns, but the people who designed it were up in the air, they weren’t down on the ground, you know what I mean? They had the best intentions, but they fucked it up really. It just became people fighting, you know? You know what happens when people don’t have enough money and resources and are all repressed and everything, they just kick off. So it became like that.

 

I didn’t know that I was working class when I was a kid, because it just never came up in conversation. There’s no class system really in Skem. There’s just people with slightly nicer shoes. Everyone’s poor. I had slightly nicer shoes, so I thought I was fine. Alan Bennett says this so I’ve stolen it off him: Skem’s like my inheritance because, my God, a lot of what Britain is, is flavoured with Skem. You’re not going to get an actual inheritance, so you may as well get some of it, you know?

 

I’ve told you this before, but the audience don’t know this, it’s studied on the Geography GCSE syllabus now as a failed social experiment, which I think is amazing, but in the bigger picture, it’s not. My source for that was a fella in a pub so it might not be true.

 

DT:      Surely these fellas in pubs must always be believed.

 

JH:       I get most of my information from there, then most of my history comes from Blackadder.

 

DT:      So was it a shock when you discovered you were working class?

 

JH:       Yes. I went mad. I don’t mean I kicked off, I mean I went mental. I went to university and it took me two years to figure out why I wasn’t fitting in. You act differently. The whole class thing, it’s not just money, is it? There’s loads of cultural differences I hadn’t cottoned on to. You might think ‘Oh, what a stupid girl,’ but I do live slightly in a different dimension in my head. Just stuff like you meet someone, you’ve never met them before, you slag off whatever’s going on around you to bond, rather than being lovely. I hadn’t learnt that yet.

 

I mean, my dad died at the same time, so that’s not handy, is it? I burnt down a kitchen and ended up in a psychiatric ward and it just went on for ages. It went on for about a decade. But it was horrible. It’s awful finding out that other people have had loads more opportunity and stuff. They’re like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going skiing in a minute.’ It’s like, ‘Fucking hell, I’m going to my job.’ So yeah, it was awful.

 

DT:      Having chatted briefly before, I think we’re from fairly similar backgrounds. But I was born in Westminster in London. We lived in Housing Association, but we lived behind the Houses of Parliament basically, Old Pye Street off Victoria Street. You could walk to Big Ben in two minutes, you could walk to Buckingham Palace in about 10 or 15 minutes, so growing up, you couldn’t escape the difference.

 

JH:       And it was looming over you as well.

 

DT:      I’ve got no concept of what it’s like to suddenly find out, but it seems to be just as insidious and damaging even if it’s slow-burning. I can imagine the extreme shock, or try to imagine it because I think I had a similar thing when I was first diagnosed. I knew I had mental health issues but when I was first diagnosed with being bipolar, that appeared to send me crazy, having to face up to this truth about yourself. You may have been aware of it slightly, but it hadn’t been forced upon you to accept it. Suddenly it was just dropped on you.

 

JH:       It’s like the world is suddenly a different colour, isn’t it? You’re suddenly seeing everything anew. Like at the end of a story when you find out the twist. I’ve been diagnosed with a lot of things in the mental world. You get a button now that’s settled on bipolar for the minute, but actually, I want to go off on one about that. So women and girls get diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Loads, it’s loads higher than for lads. Lads hardly ever get it. It’s a bit of an umbrella term. It seems to be that you’re put into that category when they don’t know what to do with you. You’re just being a pain in the arse.

 

One of the big traits is that you are manipulative. I think this ties in with loads of other stuff. Being manipulative, obviously doctors just say that is a bad thing, but if you’re in a world where the person, or the system, has got what you need, that doesn’t have to be food and shelter, it could be validation. There’s loads of stuff we need. Or love. So if you can’t get that, well, you’d be manipulative. It’s a smart choice, isn’t it, in terms of class stuff? You’ve got to go about things in odd ways. Your body and mind are always trying to heal themselves, but sometimes things get in the way and so whatever trauma, or your immune system is just a dickhead, like mine is, and so your mind will do something.

 

I have, as a common hallucination, I hear applause, which is really nice and really egocentric. That’s like mental health gone right. The body goes about it in funny ways. My body produces far too much collagen. You’d think that would make me have nice lips and stuff, but it’s really damaging. I just think that manipulation is an interesting thing.

 

DT:      I definitely notice the difference between women in my family that have been diagnosed with similar conditions to mine. The term manipulative was never used for me, but I saw it used for women. I think there is a definite issue with people’s motivations being questioned as to why you’re asking for help.

 

There’s a big issue, I think, with mental health services in this country with men always being able to find redemption through asking for help, in a way that isn’t available to a lot of women. The motivations behind why you might be seeking medication or therapy. Validation is seen as not being completely on the level, in some ways. You must want something else, or you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.

 

JH:       It’s all so old-fashioned, isn’t it? I know society clings on to old stuff, but mental health services are way behind aren’t they, what are they playing at? I have had good psychiatrists, I just think some of them could be a bit… It’s a surprise, isn’t it, that they’re not better at people and interaction with people, seeing as they’ve chosen a job that’s to do with people and psyches. I think they should do all the psychiatrist stuff you do and at the end, if they ask horrible shit, which they always do, and you become a bit monotonous and stoic and robotic about telling them horrible answers about things that have happened in your life, but I think it would be nice if they sort of looked you in the eye at the end and said, ‘I’m really sorry that happened to you.’

 

I think that would change appointments loads. I don’t know, I guess it might be about boundaries or something. I’ve had ones that have said that. I had a really cool one who drove an orange Beetle and had long ginger hair and a pin-striped suit, so obviously I fell massively in love with him and started giving him presents, then I wasn’t allowed him anymore, which was awful.

 

DT:      Obviously, the people of Skem played a big part in the writing of that poem you just read. How much does your work feed through those people?

 

JH:       It feels weird saying ‘those people’. Yeah, totally, but I don’t want to slag off Skem and say everyone’s an ‘alcy’.

 

DT:      But I found that to be quite tender. Even though you were talking about those sides of things, it wasn’t exploitative.

 

JH:       Yeah, but some people would be like, ‘I haven’t got a big massive telly,’ and all that. You need the whole show that I do to genuinely try to change opinions. If people from Skem listened to this, they’d be like, ‘what a cow.’ I think I’m from a bit of working class that’s different. My God, the words working class and middle class cause bloody chaos, don’t they? Because obviously, there’s loads and loads of different levels. I’m just opening a bracket and not going off on one, I’ll close it.

 

My boyfriend’s from Southport and he set up the free newspaper in Skem, so it was dead handy, because he knew what Skem was, because it’s quite a weird, isolated place. It’s not just working class. Obviously, I’ve never come across as middle class somehow. Just because he knew what Skem was, that helped. I think I’m from quite a poor version, we’re not aspirational. In no way would my mum want to be middle class, that would be like the worst thing in the world for her.

 

I clung on to my working-class identity so much at university, you know with lager and lard, all that sort of stuff, that I had to have my gall bladder out. Lager, lard, Angel Delight and repressed class fury isn’t good for your guts. Now I’ve opened too many brackets here, haven’t I?

 

DT:      I think it’s completely the right thing to bring up, that in that term ‘working class’, that is not one group of people.

 

JH:       I’ve got it, it’s all right. Sorry, that was like going ‘shut up’, wasn’t it?

 

DT:      Tell me to shut up, that’s fine. Just because I own the microphone doesn’t mean I should be allowed to just carry on speaking.

 

JH:       There’s a version of working class, maybe on the level where Peter Kay was, where you don’t want to be middle class at all, you’re not aspirational, you’re just about getting by. Also, the way they put us across on Benefit Street, we’re not like that either. You do nice things. You’ve got a bloody bin with nice red fringing on it and stuff like that. Yeah, I think I’m from a version of working class that’s not often seen, so I have to put all the bad things in, because that’s what people are pissed off about. I’m not going to put the nice, red, fringed bin in, because that’s not what needs to be explained. They don’t care about that. Skem’s [INAUDIBLE] everything, the end!

 

DT:      I might put out two versions of this interview. One will be five minutes long where you just wrap everything up succinctly, then we’ll put out an extended version.

 

JH:       This is the first question, isn’t it!

 

DT:      That’s alright. You mentioned this poem is part of a larger show, so it might be a natural thing to talk about that.

 

JH:       Yeah, so the show is called ‘This Is Not A Safe Space’. I’ll come to the title later because it’s nice to talk about that, but it’s not the biggest thing in it. I did a couple of shows before that, but it took a while to build up to actually talk about this stuff. I went round and interviewed 80 people on benefits, disabled, people on the brink and just working-class people as well. And people who had interesting things to say about class, because I think being working class, then being shoved into a middle-class environment because that’s your job or whatever, is a bizarre place to be in.

 

In the arts, you have to like drag up as middle class to get through and network and things. I’m really, I’m going to say steadfast instead of stubborn, I think that’s nicer, about not doing that, but I do see how that holds you back and how people perceive you as frigging lairy and unprofessional and stuff like that, and it’s just rubbish. So this show has real voices from the interviews put in so you hear them and the spotlight’s on these voices. The stuff is brilliant, beautiful, heartbreaking and funny. Dead funny. Then I speak in between about various things.

 

At the start, I give you not a warning, but a thing I tell you, like I do know that middle-class people have problems too. I want to make people relax. Even though it is not a safe space, it’s not about going, ‘middle-class people, we hate you,’ because that’s not useful. This idea, which is constantly everywhere, that middle-class people have had everything handed to them on a plate, or there’s no problems if you’re middle class, that just totally invalidates someone’s struggle or any sort of suffering or you know, just hard graft to get where they are. It just ruins it so we can’t have a conversation about class.

 

I try to put that on another table – it’s all funny, by the way, it’s a comedy show – put that on another table so we can talk about class, but what I don’t do is talk about definitions and I’ve realised that is just as in the way, so maybe I’ll do a few poems about that in the future.

 

DT:      In what way do you mean ‘definitions’?

 

JH:       That thing I was saying about working-class and middle-class terms. They get in the way. Imagine whatever, Facebook, or you’re at a pub table on Christmas Day if you’ve got a family with lots of different types of people, and as soon as you start talking about class, everyone starts shouting at you what their class level is. We all have to set out where we are, and guilt is edging in, it just becomes a bit like when you ignore a homeless person because you haven’t got any money or energy to do it.

 

I could definitely do a comedy version of that, an outline of a middle-class person, an outline of working-class people, what we all think it is and if it’s light enough, we can get all that stuff on the table and go, ‘look we’re just people, let’s try and figure this thing out. Let’s try and figure out the attitude thing.’ When I say the attitude thing, I mean like class isn’t just about money, it’s about expectations and what you could be. Are you factory fodder or are you headed for something like this room that we’re in now?

 

And opportunities given to you and are you perceived as a human? The biggest thing, and I do address this a bit in the show, but I’d like to really unpick it more in future because I’ve realised how fucking big it is, is this idea that if working-class people just would work harder, then they could become middle class. It’s like ‘Why give them anything? They just need to work harder,’ forgetting the fact someone is working as hard as they can. Or if you feel society is looking at you as not being worth much, how can you have any self-esteem yourself, how can you fight against all of that when you’re knackered? Obviously, the problem is much more complex than ‘just work harder’. That’s just a way of not making yourself have to deal with this massive problem we’ve got in society.

 

DT:      It’s really poisonous, isn’t it, this idea that in order to be accepted, and to improve yourself, you have to redefine yourself? You can’t be accepted as being working class, you have to climb that ladder, be aspirational, seek to achieve something. It feeds into the idea, ‘don’t complain about your low-paid job, get another job,’ as if that’s an opportunity or a possibility for a lot of people.

 

JH:       As if you’ve got time to do that as well, just go to 30 interviews this week.

 

DT:      It came up on Twitter recently. Sabrina Mahfouz wrote a long Twitter post about how she’s constantly asked what it’s like being a woman of colour – I think I’m remembering this bit right – child of a migrant, working within theatre and working in the arts. No one ever asks her – and this was her reason for the post – no one ever asks her what it’s like being working class in the arts. That’s what she sees as being the real barrier. The general gist was that the class barrier she faces feeds into all of those other issues. To her, that’s where it starts.

 

JH:       Yeah, totally. I get – I’ll give away the answer to the riddle, I’ve got one leg – I’ve got one leg so I get invited to loads of diversity things. The way I said loads then. I do appreciate those things, keep booking me, but yeah, loads of talking on panels and stuff like that. I get invited on the leg ticket, so I go and I do a few gags about the leg and then I start talking seriously about class because no one’s ever, well they have now, because I haven’t shut up about class for a year and a half, and I’m not going to shut up about it. It’s like I have to say the word first because it’s an elephant in the room that no one really cares about as well.

 

It’s nice, I’ve got a really good gaydar for working-class people who’ve had to drag up as middle class to get by. I can spot you. It’s great because often we smoke. You can go out and just be working class together for a minute and it’s a delight.

 

DT:      This has come up quite a lot in conversations, mainly because I’m the one leading them and it’s just my experience…

 

JH:       Yeah, and you’re good.

 

DT:      But one thing that doesn’t get spoken about that often on the podcast, mainly because we’re talking about people’s work, but I’d like to pick your brains a bit on it. We’ve just discussed what it’s like to be working class in a very middle-class scene, especially poetry and theatre. Out of all the arts, it’s probably only then contemporary dance that could get any worse for a working-class person. How is the other side of the coin when you then come home as an artist?

 

JH:       I thought you were going to say what’s it like for middle-class people being in a room full of working-class people? Because that’s hard.

 

DT:      That’s what I’m hoping for in a future conversation because I’m very aware it can be equally as isolating and exclusionary.

 

JH:       Part of it’s not knowing the etiquette isn’t it, and people being wary of you. On the question you didn’t ask, when I went round in the interviews, my sound man is a fucking gorgeous human, dead lovely, he’s a big fella, you can’t miss him, I think he probably says he’s middle class, but in Skem, he’s really perceived as, ‘ooh, get you,’ but less camp than I just did. So in every interview I had him next to me, holding the mic, trying to disappear. He’s surprisingly good at disappearing, so yes, it was like oh fuck, this is going to be interesting.

 

I mean, people are fine. I think it’s when people are in a group situation that they have to do that bravado thing. I understand. I love bravado. I think it’s heartbreaking, but I love watching it and writing about it. But on a one-to-one… I’ve run out of steam there. So what’s it like going home? Oh my God, me going back to Skem now, so it’s been quite a while, I don’t mean… I go back to Skem all the time, I’ve been this arty-farty wanker for quite a while now, I said the word ‘integral’ in front of my extended family four years ago and that’s been my nickname ever since. So it’s a jokey, nice, constantly taking the piss.

 

I mean, also I’ve got loads of mates who are not into arty stuff, who are just normal, well to me, normal, working-class people. Very working class. I just forget and I come out with stuff, like I’ll say ‘aesthetic’ at the Labour Club or something like that, so yeah, I’ve got plenty of people around me, reminding me.

 

DT:      Do you ever catch yourself really ‘estate-ing’ it up?

 

JH:       Oh yeah, Christmas Day, my accent went all over the place, then I felt like I was being too posh. But I was doing the dinner that day, so it was already stressful, you know? I still really want to impress my mum and our Mike, my brother, it’s the performer’s personality, isn’t it? You just want to impress your family all the time, so you do it by doing gigs above pubs when they’re not even there. I dunno if it’s like I’m trying to fit in, I’m trying to remember me as Skem and I’m going ‘all right there, lad?’ I also want to impress them because I’ve done all this shit, so I’m like, ‘oh yes, the aesthetic of my new piece…’ I’m bonkers in Skem.

 

DT:      We’re now getting around to 2018’s version of what is now an annual event. This happened a year ago. I’m really happy for it to have happened to the series, but we’ve been shortlisted for a British Podcast award which is a great thing, the only independent literature podcast to be nominated in 13 categories, I was really made up about it. I’m really close to my aunt, my mum’s sister, I tell her everything. The look on her face! She knew it was really good, but she had no concept of what it was. We were talking earlier, not only is it an arts-based thing, but still in a medium that people still don’t quite understand what a podcast is. They know it’s sort of like the radio.

 

I’m hyper-aware of not questioning the reason people don’t engage with the arts, they can do what they want with their life, it’s not a failure on their part, but it’s funny that I do what I do, it sits in two areas that people don’t have any idea about. Doubly obscure. Word got around the family, because it’s on social media and stuff and family members follow the podcast stuff on Instagram and Facebook, everyone was really pleased this thing had happened, but no one understood what this good thing meant and what it was about. It was really funny. I found myself going, ‘it don’t matter, it’s just some old bollocks,’ but I don’t mean that, I only said ‘some old bollocks’ because I was down the pub.

 

JH:       Flippancy is a very working-class thing, isn’t it? You’re not allowed to care or be passionate. You can be passionate about football.

 

DT:      You’re allowed to mention a thing once, it gets the reaction it gets, then you drop it. You can’t keep bringing it up. But I found that one thing that sort of linked me, or tied me back in, even though my life was becoming more engrossed in poetry, this art form has taken me further from what I felt my roots were, but that isn’t actually what’s happening, that’s just what’s in my head. But I thought, as long as I go to the pub still on a Sunday and have a chat with the same people, it’s still alright. But I’ve stopped drinking now so I can’t go to the pub and I’ve lost that tie.

 

It’s this idea of what have I got to continue to do to still be alright in people’s eyes. I think the reason I’m thinking about it is because I’ve noticed a lot of people who clearly aren’t working class within poetry sort of dropping their H’s because the pressure’s there, because that’s where the funding is. The funding is there if you’re from a, whatever the Arts Council think is marginalised. There’s also the issue around people who are working class but don’t necessarily look or sound it, that problem they have. I’ve spoken a lot with Josephine Corcoran who runs And Other Poems, who grew up in a low-income household, a Catholic family with loads of kids, and next to nothing growing up, but if you met her, she sounds really middle class. It’s just the part of the country she grew up in, she doesn’t have a particular accent. I was really surprised when she told me about her upbringing. I’d completely pre-judged.

 

I think it’s really good to know that funding is going towards platforming whoever we consider to be marginalised, but it’s sort of forcing us to wear our identity as a badge and that’s not always that positive. Do you think this work around how we identify as working class has a finite period? Is the aim to continue to identify in this way or is the aim to reach a point where it doesn’t have to be spoken about?

 

JH:       Personally, I won’t want to make art about the same thing all the time. Something else will piss me off. Bound to, isn’t it? Do you know what, you get mascot-ised, you become like a token thing for whatever it is you’re going on about. I don’t mind doing that even though it’s shit, but I’m happy to do that if it means I get to do whatever show I want. I was the token disabled person for ages. I’m a bit sick of that. I think you just do it until you’re going to cry sick out of your eyes and hope you’ve done something good in that time, I think.

 

DT:      How do you manage other people’s expectations of your work? Do you physically withdraw for a while? Presumably you’re not creating work that’s that different, it’s still your voice, it’s just about how you emphasise particular parts of the work. Do you physically have to withdraw from performing in order to come back and redefine, in order to avoid the same bookings?

 

JH:       Do you know what, I’ve just gone with intuition. I’ve got a producer who tells me what to do. He seems to know what he’s doing. I don’t think this is a good thing. I don’t think people should aim to do this, but I just kind of ‘rrrrr’ until I burst. I’m not as clever at managing it.

 

DT:      The main reason I ask is because probably quite a few people listening will be thinking the same thing, because of the way funding works. Just because there’s a pressure on all of us I think, where do you earn your money? You very rarely earn money through book sales or ticket sales. A lot of the R&D is Arts Council-funded, a lot of the tour costs are Arts Council-funded. There are other funding bodies, but it’s mainly the Arts Council and the process of going through that application is just a series of ticking boxes. It’s not to knock, I think there’s a lot of really great work that comes out of the Arts Council, but-

 

JH:       I think you should credit funders slightly more. I don’t know how to say this without going ‘I’m awesome,’ so just be aware I’m trying not to say that, but they do also just choose good work, don’t they?

 

DT:      I think it’s more the middle layer. I think the funding bodies do a really good job of spreading money out, but then there’s the pressure on producers, I found that pressure, of then trying to direct a project to be representational rather than diverse but then hit those diversity quotas. That feeling then filters down to the participants of the project, that’s a natural thing. If I take myself out of the production role and put myself in more of a writerly or artistic role, how do I avoid the pressure of being the writer with bipolar? Because I’m so clearly defined by that and I’m happy to talk about it, you drive yourself into those boxes almost, don’t you?

 

JH:       Yeah, my mate’s show was sort of about this. Sophie Willan, she’s dead good, she’s not a poet, she’s a comedian, about the way you get branded as different things. I think I’ve been lucky in the fact that the things I’ve wanted to go on about are the things the funders want me to go on about, it’s just accidental. That doesn’t mean it’s not like sophisticated work… people just love a bit of Skem and I do as well. People love disabled people. They don’t, society hates us, but funders like us.

 

DT:      I’m really glad you brought up the false leg, because on an audio thing, I don’t know how I’d visually tick that box.

 

JH:       It’s normally got little lights on and stuff like that. It’s a new leg and it’s shit and it’s not getting decorated until it starts to behave. It’s horrible, green with a big bulbous thing on it. Yeah, I’ve got a big false leg and I don’t mind, I quite like it actually.

 

DT:      I’m going to send that two-minute clip to the Arts Council in my evaluation. See? Since we’re talking about funding, maybe we should talk about the Jerwood, is it a prize or a commission? Congratulations, by the way.

 

JH:       It’s a fellowship. Like Lord of the Rings. They give you loads of money. So to put cards on the table, they gave me 15 grand.

 

DT:      Along with Jane Commane and Raymond Antrobus?

 

JH:       Yeah and 15 grand is like, what the fuck? Someone did say to me, ‘You do know that to some people, that is not a big massive lot,’ and I was like, ‘Fuck off!’ Still, my God. For me, what that meant was, this is like that bit on The X Factor, like ‘poor me’ because I’ve got one leg because I’ve got systemic sclerosis which is an autoimmune disorder, which is life-limiting, so it’s like you die sooner, which is like ‘oooh.’ I’m not blind, I’m not going to go through all the things I haven’t got, but my eyes are shit, that’s what I’m trying to say and my hands don’t work.

 

I’ve got loads of shit wrong with me basically and chronic fatigue and that, so what the money meant was I don’t have to run around the country doing workshops and panels and all that stuff. I do love doing that stuff, but I need a rest. I need to just frigging sit down for a minute. I do a lot of stuff for free, I’ve done over 1000 workshops for free. So that meant I could have a rest, which was just amazing. Also they give you mentors, pay for mentors, so I’ve got Clare Shaw, do you know her? You should interview her, she’s dead good, from Burnley, she was the second biggest baby every born in Burnley. You should get her off that fact. She’s amazing.

 

I feel embarrassed now because she’s my mate as well. She’s mentoring me, kicking me up the arse, so I’m writing a new poetry collection, and Henry Normal because I’ve got a sitcom with him as well. It’s what, in the tube?

 

DT:      Yeah, cos it’s not in the can yet, is it? It’s in the tube before it ends up in the can.

 

JH:       It’s sort of quavering at the start of the tube. So that’s what Jerwood is. Joy Francis runs it, she’s just one of them people, you talk to her for five minutes and it changes your life. We were talking about, I feel like I’m not doing as much here, because you’re nice. You know on a radio thing, I had to do loads of gags, all whistles and bells and it was like a persona, a bravado, acting a bit stupider than I am and she saw that and she was like, ‘all that extra, you know you don’t have to do that,’ but she put nice things in, like ‘you’re a smart cookie, I know you already know this, so you don’t have to do that.’ It was like, ‘oh, I’m a smart cookie!’

 

So yes, they’re just dead good and it was so much validation for me because I thought I was crap, so it sort of added to the role. I need outside sources because I haven’t sorted myself out yet, to keep telling me I’m good.

 

DT:      I follow the Jerwood Foundation quite keenly and I know quite a few poets and writers that were up for that, that reached the shortlist.

 

JH:       I saw people coming in for the interviews and waiting and it was like, ‘ooh, what am I doing here?’

 

DT:      It’s a really big thing.

 

JH:       Some people will hate me now.

 

DT:      Maybe at the time.

 

JH:       Thanks!

 

DT:      No, but it ties into that idea that for a lot of people on the shortlist, £15,000 is a huge amount of money, but I think it’s important to talk about the fact that for a lot of people, it isn’t much money. The first lot of Arts Council funding I got was £13,000. £3000 of that went straight on equipment, so I was left with 10 grand to pay other people, some for me, but most of it was for travel. I couldn’t believe it, I’d never seen that amount of money in my bank ever, it was insane, but when you think about it, it meant I was working for about £2.20 an hour. It’s not much money for the amount of work that goes into the project.

 

It wasn’t why I wanted the funding, it wasn’t to turn it into a job, it was to make it happen and give me more time to focus on it, but one issue around the funding, it’s not the problem for the funder, it’s the idea that more needs to be done to realise how desperate a lot of people are for this money, because it’s the only thing that’s going to pay your rent, allow you to remain as a full-time artist. Sometimes the attitude of some funding bodies is we’ve done a really good thing, we’ve given £3000 to this person, pat ourselves on the back, and you think it’s still not really going to do much.

 

JH:       Artists On The Brink. That should be a podcast, shouldn’t it?

 

DT:      I think that’s pretty much what this is anyway. The main reason I was asking about mentoring is just yesterday, I had a meeting with a young producer in Bristol and I’m going to be using some of the Arts Council funding to start a mentoring scheme, to help someone else start their own podcast. I found someone that’s, similarly to me, from a low-income background. I’m suddenly thinking I now need to pretend I know what I’m talking about, or at least look like I know what I’m doing because I haven’t actually spent much time explaining to people my process around the podcast. It just sort of happens. Now that I’m in a position where I have a responsibility to sit down with someone, and…

 

JH:       There’s all the electric cable part of it to explain, and whatever that means.

 

DT:      How not to hang yourself with your own cables whilst interviewing someone is the main thing.

 

JH:       Yeah, but it’s the talking to people. You do it differently.

 

DT:      What role do you see yourself in as an artist? Do you see yourself as mentor?

 

JH:       Even just on the bus, I’m being a frigging mentor because I get asked. I’m not slagging off all these people, but I’d say I get five messages a day on Facebook asking ‘How can I get my work published? How can I be in the place you are overnight?’ I also don’t like the thing ‘overnight success’ because I have grafted my fucking arse off. It’s been 12 years. I’ve hardly said no to a gig, until I got ill. That’s the answer, often. If you love it, work your arse off. There are things you can tell people about publishers, I can do that. I think that’s got missing somewhere because people see Kate Tempest and stuff like that and say, ‘I’m as good as them, why aren’t I there?’ Or, ‘I’m better than them.’

 

It’s four types of inspiration isn’t it? It’s like watching people who are way, way better than you and becoming really despondent, watching people better than you, like the normal type and you’re like, ‘whoa, I really want to do this now,’ watch people who are shitter than you and being like, ‘oh fuck this, this whole art form is crap,’ to people who are shitter than you and going, ‘yeah, I’m going to do this!’

 

DT:      There’s this other podcast called The Comedians’ Comedian, and similarly to this, it’s just chats, quite relaxed, but there’s always a question about ‘how did you get started in stand-up?’ I would say 95% of his guests, and he’s had a lot of people on, would say, ‘I went to a stand-up night, and thought everyone was shit and I could do better than this.’ There’s a particular type of ego that leads you to want that kind of validation from the audience. That’s probably a natural segway into asking you what your relationship is with the audience and what kind of validation you look for from your work.

 

JH:       It’s changed loads. I think I’ve become a tiny bit of a grown-up around that area. To begin with, it was totally, ‘look at me, look at me, I’ve got something to say, I feel like no one else is saying this, look at me, I’ll do a little dance for you,’ which is the same as say, every time I’d get a taxi or something like that, it was just how I lived. I think it’s a bit bipolar and I think it’s a bit the youngest child, that seems to be a thing. Some people didn’t get enough attention as a kid, but with me, I got a lot of attention as a kid, I was on stage and stuff. My mum’s bipolar as well, so I had this flamboyant… I feel like the 80s were like cerise and electric blue. When I came home as a little baby in a Moses basket, because that was all the rage, they put it in the middle of the floor, they turned the telly off and they looked at me instead. That was the role.

 

So to begin with, it was all about that. I’d love it if people came up afterwards. And then it sort of changed. When I was doing the leg show, ‘Some People Have Too Many Legs’, I sort of, maybe did it too early because it was like, I was writing it when I was in hospital and didn’t know if I was going to die or not. I was clinging on to it a bit, but I think it was a good show. People were coming up afterwards and they’d tell me all about stuff. My life at that time was 100s and 100s of people telling me their story and it can kill your brain a little bit. It’s like empathy fatigue, especially when it’s a thing you’re trying to process and you’re doing on stage every night.

 

So then I started wanting to be on my own a little bit. Then with this show and then with the play, it was weird because it’s a play and you’re not in that, you’re not present, I wasn’t there half the time. Then with this show, my mind, it’s like I’ve finally thought about it in a considered way. People clap. Wonderful. People have to clap, that’s the tradition in life and people join in, so I’m kind of like, ‘OK, that’s what happens at the end.’ If they’re like ‘wooo’ then OK. But also this show, the fact that it’s not a safe space and I’ll go there. It’s not the type of show you go ‘woo hoo’ about, it’s the type of show you go ‘fucking hell’ and sort of leave and ruminate over. I hope.

 

The other reaction is people come down crying, going – sorry, I sound like I’m saying I’m amazing – but some of the reactions are like, ‘I’ve never felt myself represented on the stage before,’ except we don’t really say it that way in working-class land. It’s that sort of sentiment and that is lovely. I fucking love that. It is a little bit exhausting and makes me feel like, ‘shit, I’m in a position of responsibility, OK, let’s fucking bring it,’ but now I’m like fine.

 

I can’t see… People laugh when they’re happy and clap. There’s no noise that people make when they’re inspired. That’s a joke. I was trying to do it deadpan. I don’t mean that, I just mean it’s in their own heads. It’s more of a big-picture relationship with the audience. If people hate it as well. I just want to start a fucking discussion about class, so that was a very long answer.

 

DT:      No, it was perfect. I was just going to say to the listeners, if you want to go and make a noise for being inspired and be involved with this discussion about class, you can check out ‘This Is Not A Safe Space’. We’re not going to mention dates, because what I will have done is mention the dates that are still available in the introduction to this episode, so you should already know the dates and venues. It sounds great. People should definitely get along to see it if they can. Follow us or follow Jackie on Twitter and the other places we exit now, in the ether.

 

JH:       Are we still doing the thing?

 

DT:      Yeah, it’s fine, I’m really professional, I just slipped into it.

 

JH:       I thought you were just talking. And the sitcom.

 

DT:      And the sitcom as well. We exist online.

 

JH:       And the kids show.

 

DT:      We haven’t got round to that. People need to check you out online.

 

JH:       I still don’t know if we’re doing it.

 

DT:      Yeah, it’s still happening. Thank you, Jackie.

 

JH:       Thank you, David.

 

 

 

Part two [00:58:33]:

 

 

Host: David Turner – DT

 

Guest: Nuar Alsadir – NA

 

 

Intro:

 

 

DT:      You stuck around. Thank you. Next up is a short conversation with Nuar Alsadir. Late last year, I was completely made up to be invited to record some live interviews at the wonderful Verve Poetry Festival in Birmingham. I was lucky enough to go along to their first event last year and it remains one of the best literature events I’ve ever attended.

 

The organisers, Stuart Bartholomew and Cynthia Miller, asked me to come along and host four 15-minute conversations with Sandeep K. Parmar, Roy McFarlane and winner of the Verve Poetry competition 2018, C.I. Marshall. And of course, Nuar. The loose idea for the conversations was to ask each writer about the role that live literature events play in their writing, but as you’ll hear, it quickly fell apart. But in a good way.

 

Instead of editing them together into a single episode, I’ve decided to put them out as sort of bonus tracks at the end of this and the next three episodes. It seems like the right thing to do, though I might regret it. Sometimes, you just have to make a decision and stick with it, right? Up now is me and Nuar talking about writing for an imagined reader and treating our notebook and pen as tools of the trade. Tell your friends about us.

 

 

Conversation:

 

 

Hello, everybody. Welcome to Lunar Poetry Podcasts at Verve Festival in the wonderful city of Birmingham. I’m joined for the first interview in a series of four this year by the fabulous Nuar Alsadir. Nuar is a poet, writer and psychoanalyst. Her collection ‘Fourth Person Singular’ was shortlisted for the 2017 Forward prize for Best Collection. I was going to say this interview wouldn’t be as shambolic as my reading earlier. It might be. We’ll start with a reading please, Nuar.

 

NA:      Sketch 27. A man entered the subway car at Borough Hall, was about to sit, but just as his knees began to bend, the train jerked into motion. He stood up as though regaining composure after a brief humiliation, as though it were somehow shameful to be subject to gravity’s impersonal force, caught in its grip, an object controlled by physics.

 

DT:      Thank you very much, Nuar. This is the most intimate stage I’ve ever stood on. It’s almost like being on a milk crate. I have to remember that for the majority of the audience for this, it will be in audio and descriptions of where I’m standing are of no use to anybody. The series of four talks we’re doing for this weekend, I was asked by Stuart and Cynthia to provide an idea of what we’d talk about. I suggested that, because we’re at a literary festival, we would talk about the importance of those festivals to the individual writer, so we’ll begin with that question, Nuar. I’m excited for the answer, I sort of already know… What role do these types of festivals play in your development as a writer?

 

NA:      This is my first festival so it’s to be determined.

 

DT:      When writers do this to me on the podcast, it’s my favourite thing. Just to leave me floundering. I do have to remember there are people watching me so I can’t bask in it for too long. You were saying before that you’re usually more isolated, did you use that word?

 

NA:      Reclusive.

 

DT:      How does that inform the way you write?

 

NA:      I think it informs it completely. I don’t know how to answer that question, that’s so hard. I am reclusive, so I write from the reclusive space that I occupy and the work is coming from an internal space where I’m addressing an imagined reader that understands me. What Bakhtin called the ‘super addressee’, someone whose complete understanding and goodwill is part of how I imagine them.

 

DT:      Did you at any stage of your writing development design a reader in mind to write for?

 

NA:      Yeah, I think I always have a reader in mind that I’m writing for, but it doesn’t necessarily match up with a person in the world, so when the work goes into the world, whether at a festival or in publication, it’s going to reach readers who are real people in the world and not just my imagined reader. And I go… because I can’t control who’s going to read it and how they’re going to read it, but I think when I’m writing it, I have control over my addressee, who I’m imagining as I’m writing.

 

DT:      I’m looking at this wonderful… I was going to say sea. Fishpond of faces in front of us, it’s quite an intimate room, it’s not that big – I just find it hard, how you would ever write without looking at these people, and how this is your first experience.

 

NA:      This is my first time looking at the audience, actually. I was blocking them out.

 

DT:      This actually came up in a conversation with Caroline Bird, which will become Episode 110 of Lunar Poetry Podcasts. We were talking about the idea of an imagined reader that you might be writing for. How do you avoid the safety that comes with designing that reader yourself? How do you challenge yourself?

 

NA:      Why would you want to?

 

DT:      OK.

 

NA:      Why would you want to imagine an unsafe reader? What would that do to your speaking, writing self?

 

DT:      Isn’t it natural for most people to eventually move towards the safe zone?

 

NA:      I don’t know if I can speak for other people, but why would you want to do that in your writing? I’m not quite sure. To imagine judgement or criticism, I don’t know how that would be a goal, or helpful.

 

DT:      I think more that I was wondering how you maintain that reader as being… pleasing that reader, how that becomes a challenge or stays a challenge if this person’s imagined in your head. Because it would be easy to imagine them being really pleased with what you write as well.

 

NA:      I think that if you’re not worried about pleasing the reader, if you’re worried about or concerned with being understood, pleasing isn’t really part of being understood. I feel like pleasing the reader is about narcissism and wanting to be rewarded and to win, win in the eyes of others and I feel like I write out of a very different space, where I’m trying to communicate and connect. If I imagine the reader to be someone who in my mind is alive and feeling and attempting to hear me and see me and understand what I am expressing, then hopefully it’ll be universal enough that it will reach the universal part in other people who weren’t part of my imagined reader, but have some core of universality and humanity in them, which hopefully the work will reach.

 

DT:      Do you have any other writers you share your work with, obviously we’ve established that you don’t necessarily share it with live audiences, but do you have other writers you share your work with in order to maintain that sense of universality?

 

NA:      Well, this book, ‘Fourth Person Singular’, when I wrote it I actually didn’t show it to anyone until I was done and then I showed it to one friend, who’s a writer, and my editor and that was it. Then as it went through production, there was an intern at Liverpool University Press, who was a senior there, Natalie [INAUDIBLE] and she worked on it as well. That was it.

 

DT:      I’m finding it hard to completely process it, because most poets I talk to claim to be reclusive, but you’re really seeing this one through. You live the life. Would you be able to explain a little bit more about the process behind this collection? About the form that it takes, and the structure.

 

NA:      It’s largely a book in fragmented form, so there are some fragments that make up a long poem in the beginning and then there are a few lyric essays and some what I call sketches, which are actually written in a sketch book, but they’re verbal sketches as opposed to drawing sketches. Then there’s an autobiography in footnotes, which is something that had come to me in a dream. I dreamt I wrote my autobiography and the pages were blank and the text was all in footnotes.

 

It kind of took its own form, but I also was writing it in a short period of time because I’m a massive procrastinator and I was coming up against the deadline for the book, I had a little over a month and I had to write it or miss the opportunity. I kind of went into an isolated space and I didn’t do anything else while I was working on it. I think it comes out of an enclosed state of mind and time period. Sometimes I look at it now and I almost don’t remember writing it. Although I recognise it as mine, it’s sort of separate for me.

 

DT:      I find it interesting when writers talk about moving into writing in sketch books, freeing themselves from lines. Is that a conscious decision or did it reflect this idea that you’d seen what the story might be?

 

NA:      I’m actually really obsessed with drawings and notebooks. When I go to museums, I try to find the drawings of the artists I love. I feel like they’re really intimate and I love when the drawings have places where something has been erased and it’s smudgy and you can see the layers of the process. That’s what I love to look at and to contemplate. I think in some ways this book was really my attempt to make the work I would like to read and that I enjoy. Even if it’s visual art or writing.

 

DT:      Do you sketch as well?

 

NA:      No. I used to make pottery, that’s the closest I’ve come.

 

DT:      I’m a furniture maker. I carry sketch books around with me, but I hate drawing, it turns me inside out because I’m really bad at it, basically. I’m still obsessed with this idea of creating images. I think that’s what first drew me to poetry. I was determined to create images with my words. I was still trying to draw it in a way.

 

NA:      That’s really interesting. Heidegger actually has this moment where he talks about a carpenter and he says that if a carpenter wants to make something with wood, the carpenter can have an idea in their head of what they want to make and then the idea goes from their head to their hands. But once their hands touch the actual wood, the wood has its own volition, the grains go in a certain direction. It can be wet, it can be dry, so in touching the wood, an idea then has to be altered, so the idea has to go from the hands back to the head and be altered.

 

So an idea should always move in two directions, from the head to the hands, then from the world back to the head in order to be adjusted. If you’re really writing something to have it work in the world, you have to also be listening and taking in what the world is telling you.

 

DT:      That’s really fascinating. I think it sort of ties in with my obsession about the right type of paper and the right type of pen.

 

NA:      I have that same obsession.

 

DT:      What’s your pen of choice?

 

NA:      At the moment, I’m really into those Le Pen pens. They’re really thin, fine-pointed pens.

 

DT:      Why anyone would want anything other than a fine nib is beyond me. You can leave if you have anything above a fine or micro nib.

 

NA:      And they have some great blues, French blue, Peacock blue. I think they call it Peacock, I call it French in my own mind. I like that colour. That’s what I’m into now, but notebooks, I’m having a hard time with. I keep trying, I have to switch it up, I can’t keep writing into the same notebook. I feel like I go through phases, in the same way that my process, sometimes it’ll work for me to wake up at 5am every morning and write first thing. And then it’s almost like I exhaust that and it doesn’t work anymore, then I have to change it up and develop a new process.

 

I have to do the same thing with paper and pens. I’m in between notebooks. I’ve been trying a few, but I’ve realised that what has been working is no longer working and then what I thought would work really doesn’t. I think I had an idea of what I was going to write next and I felt like it should go into a certain notebook, but then it’s not right.

 

DT:      I can’t believe we have to stop now. It’s very frustrating. I could go on about pens and paper forever. I’m holding a small notebook in my hand now.

 

NA:      What do you have there? Describe it for the listeners.

 

DT:      I’m not going to because it’s horrible and I’d have to mention the brand name.

 

NA:      Moleskine.

 

DT:      As if anyone’s listening from Moleskine. We’re going to finish with a reading.

 

NA:      I’ll read another sketch. Sketch 64. Pleasure and disgust, the border of desire, of aesthetics, where beauty and the uncanny meet. Is this the brink one must always live on, bear and bare? The vulnerability necessitated in feeling alive. When I’ve bared myself, I feel a compulsion to send out a flurry of signals to adjust the reception of others, to scramble the image that may have been momentarily revealed of me.

 

DT:      Thank you very much, Nuar. Thank you, Verve. Give yourselves a round of applause.

 

 

 

End of transcript

 

 

Interview with Caroline Bird – Episode 110

LPP Caroline Bird

Episode 110 of Lunar Poetry Podcasts with Caroline Bird is now available to download on SoundCloud here, iTunes here and on Stitcher (and hopefully anywhere else you download your podcasts). We met up in south east London to chat about her wonderful latest collection, In These Days of Prohibition. The conversation took covered truth in poetry, confront shame and guilt and whether we’d all be better off if poets admitted when they don’t understand poems.

There is a full transcript available to download here or a transcript, minus Caroline’s poetry readings below.

 

 

Transcript:

Episode 110: Caroline Bird – 19/02/2018

 

Transcript edited by Christabel Smith – 19/02/18

 

Host: David Turner – DT

 

Guest: Caroline Bird – CB

 

 

Intro:

 

 

DT:      Hello, welcome to episode 110 of Lunar Poetry Podcasts. My name is David Turner. How are you lot doing? Before I introduce this episode, I’ve got some great news to share. Lunar Poetry Podcasts has been awarded a Grant for the Arts by Arts Council England. This means that everything we release in 2018 will be funded by the money we received in this grant. We’ve got some great guests lined up for this year, but rather than listing names now, I’m going to suggest you go over and follow us @Silent_Tongue on Twitter or Lunar Poetry Podcasts on Facebook and Instagram or over at our website, lunarpoetrypodcasts.com, where you can also download a transcript of this episode.

 

Getting this money means I will be able to get around the country to interview people, rather than waiting for poets to come to Bristol. The funding will also be used to develop the new A Poem A Week podcast, in which we bring you, you know, a poem a week. As with all Lunar Poetry Podcast episodes, A Poem A Week is available to download or subscribe to via Soundcloud, iTunes for Apple users, Stitcher for Android users and hopefully, anywhere else you get your podcasts from.

 

There is also an exciting third project in the making. I can’t talk about it at the moment. If you follow us on social media or on the blog over at our website, you’ll find out as soon as we make it public. Another initial use of the funding and, I’m really sorry to any of you that aren’t interested in any technical stuff, but I’ve used the money to buy some pre-amps for my microphones and invested in some new editing software, which should mean this and all future episodes should sound clearer and louder than those in the archive, which is great for those of you listening on public transport on your way to work, or with toddlers demanding milkshakes and yogurts.

 

For those of you that are interested, I’m now using Reaper to edit audio files, which I’m pretty happy with. It’s much better than Audacity, which I’ve been using so far. In this episode, I’m talking to poet Caroline Bird about her latest collection, ‘In These Days of Prohibition’, out through Carcanet Press. I met up with Caroline at her home in South-East London to talk about how the collection developed and how the writing and editing process was different from that of her previous four collections.

 

I’ve been waiting a long time for an opportunity to talk to Caroline, after seeing her chair a conversation at the National Poetry Library a couple of years ago. I really love ‘In These Days of Prohibition’. I can’t recommend it highly enough, so I was excited to sit down and have a chat with Caroline about it. Also, having been lucky enough to travel the country and speak with hundreds of poets, very few people are spoken of as fondly as Caroline by other poets. She’s definitely in the same category as Jacob Sam-La Rose and Malika Booker in that respect, so it was great to be able to sit down for a couple of hours and find out for myself why so many poets regard her so highly.

 

In this conversation, we cover the usual poetry staples of guilt and shame and denial and how all those things get in the way of us loving ourselves. You know, the usual cheery stuff. I’m going to stop talking now. Before I go, if you enjoy this conversation or any of our other 109 episodes, please do tell your friends. Word-of-mouth recommendations are invaluable to us. After a few months of being a little bit sporadic in uploading episodes, the Arts Council funding will guarantee that there will be an interview uploaded once a month for the rest of 2018. Tell your friends that, eh? Here’s Caroline.

 

 

Conversation:

 

 

CB:                   Eye Contact

           

       See PDF transcript for poem text.

 

 

DT:      Thank you very much for joining us, Caroline.

 

CB:       Thank you.

 

DT:      We’ll start with a brief introduction about yourself. I’ll have to find a new phrase for that, because I keep saying ‘about yourself, by yourself’ but I think people know what I mean.

 

CB:       I think it’s clear. It’s the beginning of our chat, so it makes sense in context. I’m Caroline Bird, I am a poet and a playwright. I have five books of poetry published and my most recent came out about six months ago, it’s called ‘In These Days of Prohibition.’

 

DT:      I’m going to slide it across the table because I really love this book and the main reason we’re chatting today is because of ‘In These Days of Prohibition’, out through Carcanet. I had a Twitter conversation recently with Jane Commane from Nine Arches and we were talking about – I think it was Raymond Antrobus who instigated this conversation – trying as much as possible to read poems in chronological order, reading collections from start to finish and trying to get a sense of what the poet wanted.

 

Then the whole conversation started about people dipping in, especially if you’re in a book shop and you don’t know who it is, it’s natural to dip in, and I agreed completely with Raymond’s point, because of the editing process I’ve been through with this, I’ve talked to a lot of editors about the compiling of books, but also had to admit I never do it myself. I’m too greedy, too impatient. But this one, I started and just sat at the table and read it, handed it to my wife Lizzy and she did the same thing, and you could see the look on our faces, the tension was building up as we wanted to talk about the poems to each other. I really loved this book, it’s fantastic.

 

CB:       That makes me really happy. It makes me really, really happy that you read it in order because I think that’s so important with poetry books. You wouldn’t start a novel and just open it in the middle and go ‘I don’t know what’s happening,’ because you know there’s going to be an arc to it. Even though generally there’s not a narrative for a poetry book, definitely thinking about it in terms of the journey of one poem to another, and the poems also have a kind of chemical reaction to each other, they start speaking to each other. It’s such a long process, putting the order together.

 

What I do is I lay all the poems out on the floor or sometimes on the walls, like that scene from ‘A Beautiful Mind’ when it’s like, ‘ooh, he’s gone mad,’ and then I kind of pounce on the poems, like, ‘that one needs to go there, that one needs to go there.’ This book was especially ordered, because, this sounds clichéd, but I was crawling towards some kind of hope, but I had to go really, really dark until I could get there. The last few poems of the book, I actually wrote last and the book couldn’t finish until I’d found them. I think it really is important to read books in order, otherwise you’re not actually experiencing the full book.

 

DT:      You mention about the final poems being written towards the end of the process. How natural is that? Obviously, not every poem is written in the order it’s gone into the book, because that wouldn’t be an editorial process.

 

CB:       It would be a chronological process.

 

DT:      Actually, I’ve got a really fantastic collection by Anne Sexton at home, which is more like diary-entry poems. It’s an exercise in just laying out stuff in chronological order and I think it’s interesting to see why that doesn’t necessarily work. Even though it’s a fantastic book, it does highlight, there’s a statement by Anne at the beginning that says that this isn’t the right way perhaps to lay out a book, but it felt natural because of the emotion at the time.

 

Who helped you through that process? Is it something you do yourself? One of my favourite poetry pictures is a photograph of Tom Chivers and Melissa Lee-Houghton walking through ‘Sunshine’. It’s laid it out on the floor and I really loved that aspect. Did anyone walk through those poems with you?

 

CB:       Not with this book, no, actually. It was quite a personal process. Obviously, my editor and my publisher helped me go, ‘are you sure about that line? Maybe this needs to be swapped around,’ kind of the forensic bits afterwards. But in terms of the order, I think it’s also because it’s quite personal, so it’s in three sections and originally, I gave each section a really crude title. The first section was called something like ‘Intoxication’ – I knew this wouldn’t be the final – no, the first section was called ‘Inebriation’, the second was ‘Intoxication’ and the last one was something like ‘Redemption’ or something really, really crass and crap.

 

It was just so I could know, in these broad strokes, the worlds that I was treading on in each section. Then afterwards, those horrible titles got replaced with epigraphs. The first was a quote from John Ashbery which says, “Suppose this poem were about you, would you put in the things I’ve carefully left out?” which I love. The second section was a quote from a Leonard Cohen song that says, “Is your passion perfect? No? Do it once again.” The last section was from a James Tate poem which goes, “But we still believe we shall come through it. I signal this news by lifting a little finger.” That expressed what I was doing in each section, with a lot more subtlety.

 

DT:      That’s really enlightening to hear. It’s something you don’t see much from collections, shoving your work in, as it were, and talking about it, but you do need those stage directions for yourself almost, don’t you, in the writing and editing process? At least even if those titles are now hugely embarrassing to you, they are a really good insight of what your basic narrative, drive, was through the book. I really like that idea about what you were talking about, the last title being themed around redemption in some way. I really loved how the book aimed towards a feeling of wanting redemption but didn’t expect it through the creation of this book, because a lot of books do expect that just by compiling something, redemption will come from that.

 

CB:       Yeah, I had to stumble on it because I didn’t feel it. So much of the book is about shame, you know, shame around addiction and shame around fucking up a relationship and cheating and you know, letting yourself down and all that stuff. Often, writing poems, there’s an element of self-punishment to it sometimes. You’re not always writing to make yourself feel better, sometimes you’re writing to underline an insult that you have towards yourself, but then the poem will speak back to you as you’re writing it and often is kinder to you than you are to yourself.

 

DT:      It’s funny how different events and talking to different people, seemingly disparate, come together. I saw Luke Kennard last week in Bath and he was talking about adding character voices, or second characters, in order to question himself as a writer. Something just linked between what you said there and these voices, feeling this feeling of overwhelming guilt throughout the whole book, but it’s not a sorrowful attempt at seeking redemption. It’s quite an honest attempt at showing how you can feel guilt, but not necessarily continue to carry it.

 

You don’t have to push aside the guilt to move on from it, you can accept it. But there’s something interesting that you just said there about having this nagging voice and showing up your own failings, which Luke uses this other voice to do. He finds it necessary to use this other voice, but you seem to be able to use your own voice very well.

 

CB:       Well, I think that’s a new tactic with this book, or rather, I shed a tactic that I had in my previous books, where there’s a misunderstanding that poems that are surreal are somehow not personal. Actually, sometimes they’re so personal that you have to wear three masks in order to say what you want to say. It’s almost like being on hot sand and it hurts so much, all you can do is dance. Definitely my last collection before this one, everything was still so raw, I couldn’t write poems that were directly speaking to pain. They had to come in from an angle.

 

So there are poems that are all about the same stuff, but I would write about a woman who thinks she’s Nina from The Seagull, who ends up going around supermarkets, saying sorrowful things to people at fish counters. Then the poem becomes so odd and sprawling. It’s the same feeling but it’s like wearing three masks. Then with this book, I thought, ‘I have done that, so maybe the next angle is a little less angled and if I just make my mask a little bit thinner, what will that do?’ Probably in the next book, I’ll be completely impenetrable, but yeah, for this one I decided to occasionally look myself in the eye and occasionally end on a line that wasn’t a swerve.

 

One of these things is about final lines. Generally, if a poem felt painful to me, the penultimate line would have the emotion in it and the last line would be a look away or a punchline or a laugh or snigger, like the pendulum swinging off. With these poems, a lot of the time I decided to grab the pendulum while it was bang in the centre and end there and see what that did. I’m not saying that either way of writing is better, it was just new for me.

 

DT:      It’s interesting to hear that conscious decision. I don’t tend to make notes before I interview people because it spoils the flow of conversation, but I did put down a first and last line, mainly because going back to a conversation with my good friend Melissa Lee-Houghton, it’s something I don’t really agree with. We were having this discussion about the importance of a good opening line. I think this book has a fantastic opening line and a half, which is brilliant, which I won’t read because I won’t do it justice.

 

I’m going to spend five seconds looking for this, because there was a last line, just because you mention it, that I really felt did exactly that. It ended with a bang and a pop. From ‘The Fear’: “Last night in bed, your arms hurt like a jolted seatbelt.” I don’t know whether I’ve taken what you said in the wrong way, but it did feel like deliberately, that couldn’t go anywhere else. You can’t go anywhere from that point. It’s so beautiful. It really sums up those feelings of guilt associated to loving someone and inflicting yourself on them, which seems to be a common theme here.

 

People that have dealt with addiction or any kind of mental health problems, it’s something I’ve dealt with in the past, in dealing with my own bi-polar, the guilt. I can’t think of a better way to put it than inflicting my own shit on someone else’s life because it is unfortunately a huge consequence of falling in love with someone and them falling in love with you.

 

CB:       Yeah, it is a recurring theme, feeling undeserving and all that stuff, but there’s also a recurring theme of denial, because denial is really imaginative. Think about all the things we say when we’re trying not to tell the truth. A lot of the first half of the book plays around with that and plays around with the links between denial and imagery, so the first poem in the book, to tell you a little preamble about how it came about. So in my early twenties, I went through a series of unenjoyable adventures. I ended up in a rehab facility in the middle of the Arizonian desert, right?

 

When you get to these places, you’re given a questionnaire and it had all of these very frank questions about how I’d been treating myself, suicide attempts and all this stuff. Obviously when you get to one of these places, you’re in the least honest place mentally that you could be and you are so shifty inside your own mind. I went back to my room in the rehab and I translated this questionnaire into a poem, right, so I think a line about psychosis became, “Have you started to look at pigeons like they know something?”

 

A question about suicide became, “Does the ceiling occasionally ripple?” I translated the whole thing and then the counsellor found out that I’d been doing this to all of the worksheets, I’d been creating all these surreal poems and he called me to one side and said, “What are you doing?” and I was like, “well, this is how I understand the world, I’m a poet.” He said, “It seems like you are not partaking in the therapy, you are deflecting by writing.” He took my notebooks away from me and my poetry books by other people that I’d brought and forced me to be alone with my thoughts, which was horrendous.

 

He accused me of using poetry to hide from myself. Then a couple of years ago, this was like a decade later, I remembered that, what felt like an accusation at the time of using poetry to hide from myself and I thought, ‘I think there is some truth in that.’ Just in the way you have this desire to confess things but not to tell any of the facts, especially when you’re writing, for want of a better word, surrealism, or hyperrealism. You’re putting this mask onto the pain and presenting it to the world and you’re dealing with the unspoken all the time.

 

Maybe there’s an element of, if you’re constantly dealing with the unspoken, there is an element of not speaking it to yourself either. So that was part of the reason why, with this book, I wanted to be conscious of that, so some of the poems are evading, but they’re conscious of the fact they’re doing that. There’s one about these four girls who are trying to find Buddha in the middle of the desert and they’re searching for this temple and they think it’s going to solve all their problems and make them be clean forever. Then they get to the temple and decide they can’t smoke in there so they’re not going to bother. Then the poem ends on a kind of, ‘what can we learn from a little fat man anyway?’ It ends on a little swerve.

 

That’s a little bit what I’m talking about in terms of denial at the end of a poem. Sometimes, a poem will get to the door of the temple, if you like, and it’ll go ‘It’s alright, see ya’. So I wanted to write poems about denial, using… Do you know what I mean? I’ve talked myself round in a spiral, but as the book goes along, I think it starts to shed that tactic and use surrealism to tell the truth, rather than to skip around it. I wanted to prove that counsellor wrong and go, ‘Do you know what? I can write like me and reveal myself as well as hide. I can do both.’

 

I suppose deciding to do that, the by-product was, of course the shame starts to get eroded because when you decide you are good enough to disclose, you start to be able to look at yourself more in the mirror.

 

DT:      That’s the point, isn’t it? It’s OK to both be evasive in your writing and confrontational, as long as it fits what you’re writing about. I think with the four women in the desert, that swerve fits perfectly because they’re all there evading what’s wrong.

 

CB:       Of course. It doesn’t make sense for poems to be relentlessly honest all the time in an easy way, because people can’t do that. People can’t be always simply authentic, whatever that means, and put all their cards on the table in every poem, because it doesn’t reflect how life is.

 

DT:      It’s actually something I’ve been speaking a lot about on the podcast and with poets in real life. One of my main gripes with spoken word and poetry slams is this pressure to be honest and confrontational, because you end up with what you’re saying there. If there’s a pressure that you have to write in a certain style, it won’t fit every poem you’re writing. It’s a danger for every writer to feel, ‘this is my style.’ I either make a joke out of everything… Because it’s like your personality, if you’re the kind of person who makes a joke out of everything, you won’t deal with everything. If you’re the kind of person where everything’s just laid out there, it won’t do you much good either, being the opposite. It’s all about, situationally, which suits.

 

CB:       Yeah, also I think there’s a slight misunderstanding of the word ‘honest’ because no one is relentlessly brave. That’s kind of an oxymoron. If you can do it all the time, then it’s not bravery, is it? And some subject matters, talk about form fitting content, the pain is clearer in them if they are more evasive or held more lightly, like it’s on fire. If you communicate a very difficult truth in a very simple way, what you’re saying is I’ve got to a place where this is easier for me to hold and to look at. Sometimes, that does happen.

 

In this book, I have a few poems where I feel like I’ve got enough distance from what I’m talking about to hold it at arm’s length and talk about it plainly, but that’s not going to happen all the time. Sometimes, you’re going to be in the midst of it and things are going to be flying around your head and the poem’s going to reflect that, the poem’s going to be the opposite of emotional recollected in tranquillity, it’s going to be emotion recollected in a room full of constantly slamming doors and horns going off, you know? That’s going to reflect that kind of truth or sometimes, a poem’s going to be about denial and as a result, it’s going to try to trick you every step of the way and not let the audience in.

 

Poetry is about attempting to be honest. Who knows when you’re being honest anyway? Sometimes I write a poem and think, ‘OK, I think that’s what I think,’ and the next day I’m like, ‘what a load of shit, what a load of bollocks,’ and then that makes you write the next one, because you’re kind of constantly going, ‘that thing I wrote yesterday, the river has changed since then. I need to step into a different river now and create a new poem.’ That perpetual hunger and that perpetual feeling of not really having grabbed the air properly, makes you keep writing.

 

Whereas I think if we put this expectation on poets to feel like they have to be truth-tellers, they’re more likely to write poems that feel false. Human beings aren’t truth- tellers. I mean, there are a few people where you’re like, ‘Oh my God, you are uncannily sorted.’ Sometimes I’ll meet a poet like that and hear their work and I’ll go, ‘all right, I believe you, you are rare,’ but most people aren’t like that.

 

DT:      No and I think the danger comes when assumptions are made about certain poets and collections being completely honest.

 

CB:       The word is very strange.

 

DT:      I find this expectation for poets to be honest to be completely…

 

CB:       What does honesty mean in that context? Does it just mean being plain about stuff, because actually that’s not going to capture the full difficulty of being alive all the time, is it? Neither is being relentlessly difficult and obscure, either. I’ve used the word ‘relentlessly’ about six times in the last five minutes, forgive me. When I get passionate about things, I start sounding like a wanker. I say ‘relentlessly,’ ‘constantly’ and sometimes I say ‘inherently’ so forget that.

 

I think it’s confusing because sometimes I’ll teach teenagers and they feel they’ve got to go to the most dangerous subject matter, but they’ve got to find answers in their poems and they feel a huge burden of responsibility, not just to the piece of paper and what they’re discovering on it, but to a future audience and to other people who may have experienced similar problems, that they feel they should be speaking to. They have all of these burdens that they bring to poems and it stops you being able to be liked and to play.

 

You need to be able, when you’re writing a first draft, to take your pain or whatever you want to write about and juggle with it and look at it from all different angles and mix it around like a Rubik’s cube and split it open. You need to be able to be careless with it and reckless and rash. If you feel like, ‘Oh my God, this is the truth and I’ve got to treat it like a precious object made of glass and skin,’ then you’re going to lose your sense of humour, for one thing, and you’re going to be careful and carefulness is something I think you want to reserve for like your sixth draft, or your seventh draft, not your first draft. But that’s not their fault, it’s this weird thing we’ve got going on now.

 

DT:      I used to do a lot of improvised stuff on stage and I really enjoyed making stuff up as I went along, but it was the process of getting deeper into editing this series and looking for people and thinking of conversations, it made me really careful. My writing became really stunted and it took me a long time to get back to being able to play around with things and start throwing ideas at paper. What I began to do was just write diary entries, try to forget about the act of writing a poem, then pick parts out and shave things down and try to add to them. I really relate to that statement, I think you’re completely correct in saying there is a pressure to be honed immediately.

 

CB:       Yes, whereas you need to have a big block of marble at first to be able to make the sculpture out of it. You might read a poem and it’s the most delicate, beautiful, sculpted, but it doesn’t – I’m not going to speak for every poem, sometimes poems do come out like a blaze of lightning and just appear – but most of the time, they don’t start like that at all. I think if you know what you want the poem to be, or what you want it to say before you start it, you’re going to limit the discovery process.

 

You want to be able to just hang out in the privacy of your own imagination, like randomly opening doors and boxes, and also, not to think anyone’s going to read it. If I knew that all of these poems were going to be read, even though obviously I do want them to get published, when I was actually writing the poems, each one I would say to myself, ‘This is just for me, no one’s reading this one,’ otherwise I wouldn’t want to write it.

 

There was this feeling when the book first came out, when I was out on stage reading them out and thinking, ‘God, this is very personal,’ I’d go, ‘Well, why did you put them in a book, you twat?’ If I’d written them with an audience in mind, it would have changed what I said.

 

DT:      I’d like to talk about that some more, but can we have a poem before we do move on?

 

CB:       Yes. I’ll read a little sonnet called:

 

 

To Be Explicit

 

See PDF transcript for poem text.           

 

DT:      I love that so much. I’ve been sharing it with so many people. I just, yeah…

 

CB:       Thank you. I don’t often read it because it’s just… filthy.

 

DT:      Yeah, but when else can you read it other than on an educational podcast? Tell me if I’ve made a wrong assumption, but do you find it odd that people pick up collections like yours and read poems as statements rather than starts of conversations? Maybe that’s where this desire for honesty comes from, because they feel like you’re telling them something rather than asking of them.

 

CB:       Yeah, definitely, I have a poem upstairs on the wall called ‘A Fragrant Cloud’, written by James Tate. I must have read it thousands of times because it’s outside the bathroom and every time I read it, it takes me somewhere else. I get something slightly different from it and it’s never stopped doing that. For me, that’s because it’s alive. When poems are working, they’re like people. You meet them on different days and they change, according to who you are on that day and what mood they seem to be in and how you’re perceiving them and what you’ve learnt since you last saw them.

 

They don’t have a fixed message to them. That’s why poems use imagery as their main form of communication, because they work on a dream level and you can talk about the things in between the stuff we pretend to know and add pictures to the wordlessness. The idea of a statement doesn’t quite fit into that. If you can paraphrase a poem, there’s no point writing it. Have an article or a great quote or something. A poem, you want people to dream it, then wake up from it, then go, ‘ooh, what did that mean?’

 

Of course there’s an enjoyable element to people trying to figure it out, but only if they don’t think there’s a fixed answer. I think often the reason why people feel conned by poetry is because perhaps us, as poets, we haven’t quite made it clear that we find difficult poems difficult too. I don’t understand what John Ashbery means, but I enjoy the poems; I understand the mystery of them, I enjoy the mystery of them, I understand that they feel like experiences and they change, but I don’t solve them in my head.

 

I think we don’t say that enough. When we read these really obscure poems, it’s not like we’ve figured out a code that we haven’t let anyone else in on. So of course people are going to be looking for statements in poems if we’re not taught to enjoy mystery. We’re not taught that in schools, are we? Poems are often taught like crossword puzzles.

 

I saw this horrible thing on the internet a few days ago where a mother posted her son’s homework and it was to write a sonnet and it was a graph of 14 lines, with boxes for each word and how many syllables should be in each box. I just thought, ‘oh God, that actually looks like a crossword puzzle as well,’ and that would kill poetry for you, if you feel it’s a butterfly that’s got to be nailed to the wall or that somehow you’ve got to start with something incredibly clever and then translate it perfectly into a poem that can then be decoded back into a statement when actually, poems are much closer to dreams. We know that all our anxieties and passions and yearnings are inside it but we can’t quite locate which bit communicates what.

 

DT:      What can we do as poets to change that? One of the problems I find in art galleries is if you over-explain things, it’s taking away the point. In trying to make things more accessible, often you remove the mystery, which is part of the magic. Do you have any feelings of, what can be done in order to make it- not more accessible, I suppose that is what I mean, but that’s not quite the right word. What would make it more approachable to people?

 

CB:       It’s about us talking more about what we don’t understand. That sense and narrative conclusions is something we put onto the world, rather than something that is naturally there. Actually, at the core of most things is this eternal question of ‘what the hell?’ Remember when you’re five years old and you look at your own hands and suddenly think, ‘Oh my God, I’m me, looking out of my own eyes.’ You still haven’t figured out the mystery of eyeballs, and it gets so freaked out in this magical way of thinking about consciousness and, ‘I’ll never be anyone else or inside anyone else’s head and this is so strange.’

 

Then as we grow up, in order to function, I think we put the filters on ourselves as blinkers and we don’t access the strangeness all the time unless we go off the rails or fall off something. We stop remembering that we all felt like that and that we are all terrified of death and we all can’t remember how we got here and we all don’t know what’s in the sky and all of these simple, child-like questions, ‘whys’, They were never answered, we just stop asking them.

 

If we can tap back into that, which everyone feels; poetry is, I think, could be properly enjoyed by everyone, not by changing what it is but by us changing this expectation of sense, that everything has to be decoded. For example, every night everyone dreams and we all know that somehow our brains have this surrealist painting alter ego that translates our days into essentially these kind of strange art films, but then we wake up and we forget about it and get on with our normal day. But we spend half of our lives in this place of mystery. If it was allowed more that you can read a poem and go, ‘I’ve got no idea what that’s about but it reminds me of having no idea what my relationships are about or having no idea how I feel about this,’ then we could enjoy it more.

 

So often, I’ll read poems by my favourite poets like, for example, James Tate or Selima Hill and I still could not tell you in plain words what they mean at all. There’s this poem called ‘I Take Back All My Kisses’ by James Tate and it starts with the line, “They got me because if the forest has no end I’ll go naked.” I remember reading this when I was 13 and thinking, ‘Yeah. That’s how they got me. They got me because if the forest has no end, I’ll go naked too.’ I don’t know what that means in plain words. I just know that I understood it in the centre of me somehow. Don’t know, don’t know how.

 

DT:      I spend a lot of my time reading what is self-titled as experimental literature and sometimes, my wife will pick up what I’m reading and say, ‘I don’t get it, it makes me feel stupid,’ and I completely get that and I keep trying to remind her that the only difference between her and I is that I don’t let it make me feel stupid. That’s not like I’ve got some control over what I’m reading. But it’s really interesting you made the point about being a child and viewing yourself. I still distinctly remember reading encyclopaedias as a kid and not understanding anything, but really enjoying phrases and the language of it.

 

I think that’s what’s taught out of us isn’t it, often, in school? That we lose the sense of finding beauty in the rhythm of words and it becomes a logic puzzle to be solved. I think in that part, if you can’t get the logic or the mathematics or the algorithms behind it, of course it can make you feel stupid because you’ll feel like you failed at something. It disempowers you from the ability to say, ‘well I just don’t like that. I’m not an idiot, it’s just not for me, I’ll move on and find something else.’

 

CB:       Exactly because as much as I enjoy a mystery, there’s a lot of poetry that I don’t enjoy the mystery of. It won’t hit me on a deeper level, but it doesn’t make me think, ‘Oh, I’m never going to read a poem again.’ Just like when you’re a teenager and you listen to music and flick through songs on your iPod – not that I had an iPod, but I don’t want to say Walkman.

 

DT:      Mini disc player?

 

CB:       Sure, sure. Who had one of those? You just feel like, oh, that doesn’t speak to my ears on some level. You just trust your instincts because you know that you’re allowed to have taste and that’s a part of being a person. The music you don’t like is just as much you as the music you do like. That is very clear when people are young. The same should be able to be said of poetry. You’re allowed to hate 98% of it because the 2% of it then you’ll love with a total passion. It’s not a judgement call, it’s just what speaks to you.

 

You’re allowed to go into a library and flick through books or just read the first poem and instinctively read more or instinctively not read more until you find something. There’s an image at the end of Donna Tartt’s book ‘The Goldfinch’, where she says that when art speaks to you, it’s like a man in an alleyway kind of going, ‘pssst! You! Come over here!’ and handing you a secret scroll or something. It feels like no one ever has discovered this poet before. The secrecy of that and the frisson of it, most people have had that with music, but it’s also wonderful when you have it with a poet.

 

DT:      A less literary way of putting it that immediately sprang to mind is Art Brut’s song ‘My Little Brother Just Discovered Rock n Roll’. It’s really great because I’m 19 years older than my sibling Tiegan, and to see them go through a process of discovering music, that I’ve been through, and realising that’s why my dad laughed at me for certain things. Going back to this idea of making things more approachable, I really do wish a lot of poets would share more their discarded drafts with an explanation as to why they don’t work. That’s a really invaluable insight because the act of discarding drafts that don’t work and discovering what isn’t right for you is equally as valuable as discovering what is right.

 

It’s this whole thing of going through and just deciding what the 98% of your own faults are not right to be put down and maybe that could be part of explaining. If you can explain what you didn’t want in a poem, it’s as good an explanation as to what was left and give people the space to interpret it. It may be a way to explain what the process was to building that thing without revealing the magic behind it or pulling the carpet out.

 

CB:       I do agree with you. I also would not want to do it myself because all of those previous drafts, that’s when I’m in the privacy of my own imagination.

 

DT:      Sorry, I think not previous drafts to poems, but completely discarded poems. You’re still showing the working up to something and it would perhaps remove some of the sheen from it, but we’ve all got poems when it’s like, ‘that’s just not gonna go anywhere.’ It’s still a difficult act to share.

 

CB:       I agree that it’s really important to talk about failure. One of my favourite poets is called Wislawa Szymborska. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999. She stood up to collect her Nobel Prize and said, “I don’t know anything about poetry. Inspiration comes from a continuous ‘I don’t know.’” That’s a direct quote from a very long speech about how every time she starts a poem, she has no idea what she’s doing. That not knowing and really starting from nothing is one of the hardest things to do because actually, we’re so scared of failure that even if we think we’re just writing whatever comes into our head, often we’ll be guiding it.

 

It’s a bit like staring at a clear pond. You know that somehow, just by staring at it, you have to make objects lift to the surface and you’ve done it before somehow, but you can’t remember how you did it, but you’re not sure if you can do it again and most of the time, we’ll try and cheat. We’ll get out our handbag and go, ‘Well, I’ll just throw a few objects in first, just to make sure there are some in there,’ then you’re writing a version of a poem you’ve written before or you’re pre-empting the discovery and it’s not going to be magical, but there’s always that element of creating something from nothing and sometimes, the poem is going to be an absolute mess.

 

Sometimes, one little object’s going to rise to the surface of it and you’ll get a dribble of two good lines and then it will all sink back under. There’s no guarantee and so the failure has to be part of writing. There has to be a whole book you didn’t write or a whole book you didn’t show anyone for the book you end up publishing because otherwise, it wouldn’t be a process of discovery and you wouldn’t be taking any risks. You’d be trying to write a successful poem and that’s always going to be awful, isn’t it?

 

DT:      It scared the life out of me the first time I spoke to someone who’d been published a few times. I wonder who it was, maybe Melissa Lee-Houghton, but this idea of me saying, in terms of volume, ‘When do you feel you have enough to show to the publisher?’ I think this person said, ‘if you think in terms of 100, 120 poems.’ I was like, what? The point of whoever this poet was, was that you’ve got 50 or 60 to go in a book, and another 50 or 60 that just didn’t quite work out, but you can’t just be thinking you’re going to knock out 60, or however many poems that go into a collection, that’s not how the process works. For every one that might work, you’ve got maybe one and a half that don’t, if not more and that doesn’t even include the various drafts.

 

CB:       Sometimes, I’ll have a poem and I just can’t finish it for whatever reason, or I’ll keep writing the final lines and they will just feel false in some way, like they’re not making the poem come to life and I won’t know why, so I just have to put it in a drawer. Maybe it’s because I haven’t lived whatever it is or thought whatever it is that I need to be able to come back to that poem and know who it is.

 

If we go back to that metaphor about you need a big block of marble to make a statue out of. If that first draft is a big block of material and then you’re sculpting it into a face, that’s what the poem is, and you’re going, ‘who are you? What do you look like?’ Then you’ll get to the seventh draft and you’ll see a face staring back at you, but somehow you don’t recognise them yet. You might have to go away for six months and then you come back and you just slightly make an alteration to the nose, and then you’re like, ‘ah! There you are! You’ve been there the whole time!’ When you finish a poem, talking about discovery, it’s a feeling of recognition, something you didn’t know you knew, often, or someone where you’re like, ‘oh, I’ve met you before!’

 

DT:      Someone said recently a poem should teach the author something they didn’t realise they knew and I think it’s a beautiful point. I’ve often found things I’ve written that I’m most content with, I feel they couldn’t be in any other form. This is probably an important thing to talk about as well, how often… you don’t always know yourself, not only how poems you like by other people work but you sometimes don’t completely understand why something you’ve written has come together. Everything is a line in your life. I spoke to Helen Mort about this, ideas germinating in her head and she was very open about how slow her writing process could be sometimes and how a nagging feeling will eventually work its way forward and become something, and sometimes it will become a poem.

 

I was reading something recently about how to be a good conversationalist and apparently, you should have callbacks, and that’s why stand-ups put it in their shows. And I’d like to finish on something which ties in to the beginning of the conversation, because we were talking about writing process. Was there any pressure build-up reaching your fifth collection? Not towards the publisher, because they’ve obviously got faith in you, but expectations of audience and expectations you might put on yourself as an artist?

 

CB:       I think there’s two sides to it. There is an element of relaxation, having written five books, because it makes you think it’s probably not a fluke. I can probably do this and I’ve probably written enough that people think I’m a poet even if they don’t like anything I’ve written, I’m allowed to teach poetry courses and teach teenagers and pass that on, so there’s a safety in terms of the job, as safe as being a poet can ever be. It’s an unwise profession from the bank’s opinion certainly. But then there’s the secret side where you go, ‘I don’t know if I can write another poem. I don’t know if I’m going to get better, I don’t know if I’m going to get worse.’

 

There’s no certainty in terms of what’s going to rise to the surface of that pond. All I know is I want to keep changing. I feel secure enough in the fact I can’t escape myself, to know I can experiment with different approaches and it can still sound like me. I’ve got no interest in trying to recreate what I’ve done before.

 

I’ve got, in terms of prizes and things like that, you do end up wanting those things after the book is finished and it’s quite scary to want it because no one goes into poetry for the money, the fast cars and the fame, that doesn’t make any sense, so it’s bizarre when you feel that need for recognition in yourself. It feels ugly.

 

I hope that won’t become a major part of my head. I’m far from perfect so I’m sure it will drag me down at various points, but genuinely the best bit of writing still for me is mid-poem when I’m hooked in, I know it’s going somewhere, it’s a bit like windsurfing, when you’re in the harness and the footstraps and you’re just hanging on.

 

Obviously, you’re still having to use all your skill and muscle memory, but also, you’re planing, you’re going somewhere and there’s the excitement of that discovery and not knowing what image your next image is going to generate. Or the exciting bit when your mind is super-alert to language and you find yourself seeing words on signs and in books and writing them down, and going, ‘I can use that and that,’ and being in the middle of the broth.

 

I just want to keep on finding new ways to feel like that. I think teaching is really important to help with that. When I was 13 and first went on a poetry course at the Arden Foundation and found fellow poets who also wrote in secret and we realised we could be a secret society together, I felt so honoured to be able to be a part of that world and be able to read poems and have them speak to me. Even though I couldn’t watch an 18 film, I could read ‘Howl’ by Allen Ginsberg and have access to all this rage and bitterness and loss and regret, and I felt so grateful, I felt like this could save my life.

 

Throughout my whole life, even when everything else has fallen away or made no sense, poetry has been the one constant that has always made sense to me because there’s no expectation for it to make any sense. So I want to hang on to that sense of fucking hell, I’m so lucky, and the only way to do that is to keep on teaching and sharing that. It’s bizarre, isn’t it, when you’re passionate about something and express it and on some level, it’s not quite communicating the full extent of your feelings?

 

DT:      I think I’ve interviewed more than 120 poets and I’ve never spoken to someone so obviously enthusiastic about poetry. It’s made me feel emotional actually, it’s really beautiful.

 

CB:       It’s weird because being enthusiastic feels really unsafe because it’s so uncool.

 

DT:      I don’t think you’re ever more vulnerable.

 

CB:       Exactly. When I do slip into that place of thinking about achievements and whether or not I will be recognised, I go into the opposite side of myself. You go into that kind of, ‘I’m sitting back in a chair, let me tell you about poetry now.’ For me, that’s not where the love for poetry came from at all. It came from the leaning in and not knowing anything. So if I start feeling too relaxed, too established, too any of those things, I’m going to stop being able to do it. I’m going to lose the only bit of myself I’ve always thought was worth something.

 

It’s bizarre. I wonder how many other professions have the potential downfall enclosed in the success, this idea that once you start thinking you can do it, you will stop being able to do it. That’s the closest I can get to an answer.

 

DT:      Sorry, I’m just nodding like a doe-eyed Disney princess. I’m in love with what you’re saying, I think it’s amazing. I think it’s the perfect place to stop. It’s hard to move on from talking about things like that. Thank you so much. It’s been really wonderful talking to you. I was worried I’d built you up a bit too much in my head, having read this collection so closely to interviewing you. We’re going to finish with a poem please.

 

CB:       I think I’ll read:

 

Megan Married Herself

See PDF transcript for poem text.

 

DT:      If anyone heard wailing in the background, it was Caroline’s cat. We have completely unreasonably asked him to be quiet for an hour and 20 minutes. Thank you so much, Caroline. It’s one of these occasions when I can’t understand why everyone isn’t making podcasts and chatting to people they really like. Thank you.

 

 

END OF TRANSCRIPT

Ep.109 – Byron Vincent

Byron Vincent

Episode 109 is now available online at SoundCloud or via iTunes for Apple Users and Stitcher Podcasts for Android users. David Turner is in Bristol chatting to documentary-maker, performance poet and director, Byron Vincent. Byron talks about the role that slam poetry played in his development as a writer and how it allowed him time on stage to shape his writing style. The pair also discuss writing as a mental health service user. Byron reads two poems: (00:40:35) – ‘Wot’ & (00:42:50) – ‘Citroën DS’. A full transcript can be downloaded here or a version (without poems) is available at the bottom of this post.

Transcript edited by David Turner

Host: David Turner – DT

Guest: Byron Vincent – BV

 

 

Introduction:

 

 

DT:      Hello welcome to episode 109 of Lunar Poetry Podcasts, I’m David Turner. Happy New Year, at least we all hope it’s a happy one, eh? Today’s episode was recorded on the 18th of December last year, but these things take time to edit and release. Also, with the podcast, it doesn’t seem like there’s anything worth putting out over Christmas because everyone’s busy or so it seems. Today’s episode is with the wonderfully talented Byron Vincent, we met up at the Workhouse Kitchen in Bristol to record the chat.

If you’re in Bristol and you’re looking for something good to eat and a coffee or something, or juices and all the other stuff that cafes do, you should pop along there, it’s really good.

I met up with Byron just before he went to perform a gig and we chatted about class, mental health, trauma… I think we might have chatted about some lighter stuff as well but I can’t quite remember. We laughed a lot, so it must have been funny and I’m sure it wasn’t just the laughter of two ‘service users.

Byron has recently had quite a long break from doing spoken word stuff as he’s been away working in theatres and on the radio, with documentaries and such. It was good to chat about what he’d been doing and why was coming back and it was really good to see him at the gig afterwards.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have that much time to chat because there were some travel issues with Byron getting into Bristol so we ran out of time a little bit. To save some time we didn’t record any poetry readings but Byron kindly recorded a couple of poems and emailed them to me, so they’ll come up at the end of the interview. So, when the chat’s finished stick around for two poems. Links to Byron and Milk and as much as possible that’s mentioned in the chat will be in the episode description.

As usual if you want to find out more about what’s going on with the podcast go to ‘Lunar Poetry Podcast’ on Facebook or Instagram, @Silent_Tongue on Twitter, or http://www.lunarpoetrypodcasts.com where you can also download a transcript of this episode and just about all the episodes in our archive.

One bit of news for 2018 is that myself and my wife Lizzy have started an accompanying podcast to run alongside this series called ‘a poem the week’ in which we’ll bring you a poem a week. So far, episode one features Byron Vincent reading his poem ‘Wot’ which will come up at the end of this program. Episode two is me reading a fantastic poem by Susanna Galbraith called ‘to’ which features in the latest issue of The Tangerine Magazine. You can find all those episodes over at SoundCloud by searching ‘a poem a week’ or following the links in the episode description or following a poem a week, all one word, on both Facebook and Twitter.

I’m quite excited by this little side project because it will return me and Lizzy back to why we first got interested in poetry and that was the individual poems themselves and really the whole basis of running this podcast was to just provide a platform for poems and for people to share their work. Whether it’s the author themselves reading their work or that week’s host.

As usual, if you like what we do, whether it’s this Lunar Poetry Podcasts series or the new a poem a week, do us a favour and tell your friends. It really helps. It works better than any other form of advertising and we’ll love you forever. That’s enough from me… well here’s some more of me but least Byron’s taking up most of the space. Cheers.

Conversation:

DT:      Hello Byron. How are you doing?

BV:      I’m really well thanks.

DT:      Thanks for joining us.

BV:      Glad to be here.

DT:      I was going to comment on the weather outside but it’s really misty through the windows so I can only presume it’s still cold.

BV:      Yeah, you can feel it, even though you can’t see it.

DT:      We’re meeting up in Bristol, because as regular listeners will know this is now where the podcast is based, but maybe we should just talk a bit about your connections to the city and why you’re here doing the gig?

BV:      So, I’ve got a lot of connections to the city, I came here in about 2005, I think, and in fact the very first week I was here I went to a poetry night at Bristol Old Vic. There’s an old guard of Bristol poets who I love to bits, Julian Ramsey-Wade, Lucy English, Rosemary Donne. I went to a slam and I’d never been to one before, I didn’t know what it was that I was attending. I just saw them and thought, “maybe I’ll have a crack at that” and very quickly became immersed in the poetry scene here.

I’m not a mad fan of slam poetry, by the way, but it was really good for me at the time, just to give me a little bit confidence, get me out on stage. I went through my little ‘derivative phase’, as everybody does, of looking at other people and soaking it up like The Borg. It was useful and handy and has led to a career.

DT:      It’s a really welcoming space if you want to just get onto a microphone isn’t, it?

BV:      Some might argue too welcoming! But, yeah, it is very welcoming and Bristol is a very friendly town and [it had] those gigs in very rough pubs where you would have to shout over bar fights and whatnot. I think it’s become more civilised since then.

DT:      It’s a shame, isn’t it?

BV:      Yeah, it is a bit.

DT:      South London used to be like that. I remember a gig we did and the pub was still rough enough to get some really angry comments from the bar. Even that place has changed now, that’s completely gone. I quite like it when people tell you that they don’t want you reading. If that’s not what they want, they should be able to tell you to tell you.

BV:      Well, I’m very strongly of the opinion that you shouldn’t force poetry on people that don’t want to hear it. It’s cruel and it’s not fair. Throughout the many years I’ve been doing this, I’ve seen that happen a lot. Just as an aside, once for a popular poetry organisation that shall remain nameless, that used to have a lot of wacky ideas about where to send its rota of artists. They would always put you into positions that were soul destroying.

There was a place in London called, Shunt, I don’t know if you remember it was under London Bridge. It was this vast array of catacombs, it was a nightclub. They put me in a ‘Britney Spears Mic’, they had Helen Mort standing on a podium, I can’t remember who else was there… Molly Naylor was there, sat on a shelf. They made me stand on the bar like Tom Cruise in Cocktail, literally preventing like a ten-deep bar from getting their drinks with the power of poetry.

Can you imagine this sea of really drunk people really angry, that they’re not getting a drink, and me in a ‘Britney Spears Mic’ sort of trying to do iambic pentameter or whatever? It was just a nightmare. A lot of that used to go on.

DT:      Actually, that was the particular problem in that pub when we did that night, was that the woman that ran the boozer and she told people to please be quiet while people were reading poems and that she would serve them in between poems. People just lost their shit, because… of course they would, it’s their local.

BV:      You can’t prevent people from their booze in a local boozer without causing some kind of resentment.

DT:      For how long did you the slam gigs for and how long did it take you to find more of a natural home?

BV:      I did slam for a couple of years because… To explain all of that… My personal background is, I didn’t go to school much. I was kicked out of school at 15, I wasn’t very literate when I left school because I’m dyslexic. So, moving into a world where… I performed before but not to the same extent. Moving into that poetry world…. I didn’t really know it. I’d read bits and always soaked stuff up and I was a fan of reading but I wasn’t writing anything like [the poetry] I enjoyed. I was writing for performance and I still do, my favourite poets and my favourite poems have got no or little relationship with my writing.

So, I did that for a couple of years and I didn’t really know what I was doing, I was probably performing for the wrong reasons. I was enjoying the gratification you get from a kind audience and the attention I got. I never called myself a poet but other people were and that was gratifying to me because of my lack of, well because of my personal history. Because I, very much so, was told that I was thick and wouldn’t amount to much. So, on a very superficial level it was gratifying.

DT:      Bits of that resonate with me and I think and [while] I do agree and get what you’re saying and it’s easier when you’re not the one saying about yourself. But I would counter that with saying that it’s not all superficial, is it? There’s a very important role that those gigs play in making you realise that literature could be part of your life. If you’ve been told previously that it shouldn’t be or, in your words, “you’re too thick” to engage with it.

BV:      Yeah. I’d always written poetry, even when it was a dyslexic scrawl that looked like smashed spiders on a page. I’d always written poetry and then in the early 1990s I did get up and do some stuff at [music] gigs but it was very angry. I was straight off the estate back then and I was carrying a lot, so it was really of that political ranting lilt with a smidge of surrealism because I can’t help that, I can’t curb it. [Then I started] experimenting with who I wanted to be and what my voice was.

But that world of slam poetry is [just] three minutes of entertainment and it creates a certain voice, you know, it pushes a certain voice. I never had ‘slam voice’, thankfully but I did fall into a couple of cliché coffins, you know. But it’s a process, getting better at writing, in all forms and it did help, it certainly helped me in terms of getting up in front of a crowd.

DT:      It’s really odd, there aren’t many art forms where you’re thrust in front of a microphone and now video cameras and camera phones to be forever on YouTube at such a novice stage of your career as it were. And younger writers starting out now… so many spoken word gigs now are filmed as standard, even the open-mics. I just can’t help but wonder how they’re going to have a chance to get past that [developmental stage].

BV:      Personally, anything that was written more than two weeks ago is my juvenilia, that’s the way I see it. It’s binned. It’s been a long and evolving process and some of the early stuff… You know what, now I’m so far away from it, there are gigs from ten years ago that I couldn’t watch at the time or relatively closely after, because my cringes would get cringes. [But] I saw a couple and yes, they are of a type of performance that I wouldn’t do today but, you know, I’m not as embarrassed as I used to be about them. They’ve got a lyricism and a charm.

DT:      Do you think it just takes time to accept that that’s part of the process and you have to go through that embarrassment?

BV:      I think so. I’m far enough removed now and I know who I am and what I want and what I’m attempting to achieve and all of the mistakes I’ve made have been a part of me getting to that place so I’m less uptight about it, you know.

DT:      What’s that comedy rule that trauma plus time equals funny? Maybe you just need time to pass or maybe there’s so much to be embarrassed about that you just have to let some of it go?

BV:      [Yes, I agree] otherwise I think I’d just be overwhelmed by embarrassment if I let it bother me.

DT:      I just reconcile myself with the idea that I’ve done far more embarrassing things outside of writing that this is just the tip of the iceberg and [the writing] doesn’t matter!

BV:      Well yes and because of the nature of a lot of the work I make both in and out of art, a lot of the documentaries especially and a lot of the autobiographical ‘arty’ stuff… my life’s an open book, I don’t have any secrets. I’ve got a Wikipedia page that tells the world I’m a bi-polar, former heroin addict, so I can’t wander the world shamed by my past. It wouldn’t work for me.

DT:      I read [in public] for the first time at Poetry Unplugged where a lot of people in London start, currently hosted by Niall O’Sullivan that and it’s been alive for 20 years. Mainly because if you Google spoken word or poetry gig in London it’s the first hit and it’s every Tuesday and you can go and slink around at the back come up. But I’d been in… the most recent time… spent some time on a secure psychiatric ward and been encouraged to write as part of that and I came out and saw someone doing some performance poetry and thought, “shit seems great, I wouldn’t mind trying this as a way of communicating.”

I think the reason I like watching you… I’ve seen you live once but I like watching your videos. I like the way you bridge… you categorise it as oversharing or your life as an open book while adding elements of surrealism to it and the daft elements. I found it really difficult, I couldn’t add those elements at the beginning and it felt really, raw.

BV:      Yeah.

DT:      I think my question was supposed to be, was it a conscious effort to add the humour or surrealism?

BV:      You know, political poetry is usually pretty awful and mine was no exception. I was just angry and I felt like I had a right to shout that at crowds of people and that imposing some kind of rhyming structure on it made that acceptable and it doesn’t. In fact, it makes it worse. So, I’m very conscious of this and the second time around, you know, I was very conscious of anything that came out of my mouth and I wanted to be sensitive that I had an audience in front of me. I was overly sensitive about that at first and I went too far the other way and was avoiding things that I wanted to express.

Then I got to a point where I couldn’t do that anymore, to just get up onstage and not say the things that I needed say. So, when that happened I went through a process of trying to make… and it was rocky, I made some bad stuff and some things I’m not very proud of, but it was essential because I really wanted to get to a point where I was making things that meant something. Which in itself is a cliché and I feel a little bit sick just saying it out loud, but also, we’re in entertainment.

Primarily, everything I do is supposed to have this little journey where people have a feeling, and that might be laughter or it might be warmth and then it’s flipped into something that means something else and that transition is the important bit for me. Usually these days it’s fear and love, in its most basic form, you know, we’re all just to some extent these frightened, destabilised people and I’ve got a lot to say about fear. I’ve got an anxiety disorder and I’m diagnosed with a panic disorder as well. I collect diagnoses like Pokémon, I have loads of them.

I believe that fear is responsible for all the terrible things in the world, anger comes from fear generally and trauma and all these things that cause great ills in society. I want to share… we all go through these things to some extent, so I want to create a sense of that through language in some way and then say, “it’s all right though because we’ve got people, we’ve got each other”. And I know how crass and cheesy that sounds but I would be being disingenuous if I told it any other way because that really is what I’m trying to do. So, I have to just fess up to it now I think rather than be cool and cynical about it.

DT:      I’ve spoken a lot about this with… do you know Emily Harrison?

BV:      Yes, via social media.

DT:      I’m quite good friends with Emily and we talk a lot about both being diagnosed bi-polar and we seem to have spent the same amount of time in hospital and have got fairly similar backgrounds… This idea of trying to speak truthfully which is partly being open and honest and I’m really open with people about my mental health issues and those of family members without being oversharing regarding other people’s private life. I think the only way anyone is ever going to get understanding of this is if we all talk about it and we all share it.

But how do you how do you share it in a way that doesn’t fall into the accepted narrative of how does Emily put this? ‘The Good Survivor’, or something like that. As if the only way you can be accepted with a mental health issue is if you’ve overcome it somehow and you haven’t lived with it or embraced it and I think that’s what I found hard putting into my writing is how you then show…

BV:      Because audiences want to feel safe and people want to feel safe but I kick against that and there’s a reason why, there’s a lot of… I did a panel [talk] the other day and the Being A Man conference at the Southbank Centre with Jack Rooke hosting it, who is another poet and spoken word performer. There were four of us on the panel and we all kind of agreed that it’s great that men are talking more about [their mental health] because that has been a hindrance in the past.

It’s great that people are talking more in general about their mental health and feel free to do that but just having conversations isn’t enough and I feel strongly… I work as an ambassador for some mental health services and I’m not quite sure about how I feel when things are going awry and I do feel things are going awry in that we have this very sanitised view of what mental health problems are these days.

Stick somebody ‘a survivor’, I hate all these terms, next to a celebrity, somebody who is… you know it’s past tense but. It’s not marketable, is it? Poor mental health is a messy thing and it’s a cruel thing and it’s upsetting and it’s disturbing and it’s awful but it’s never sold as any of this by the charities. Of course, I understand why, they want to market things in a way that will get them money so that they can put that money in a good place and that’s not a bad thing. But in terms of the art we make, we don’t have to fall into that category, nobody’s saying we have to. I want to tell the truth because without that, what’s the point? What’s the point in talking about it all? So, I do talk a lot about the smelly guts of it.

DT:      I think that’s what surprises me, that more people that talk about the issues don’t also use surrealism because the two things go hand in hand, I feel. There’s no disconnect, I think, in your work that it becomes…

BV:      I’m glad you say that. It’s all part the same thing to me and part those little arcs on stage that I’m trying to create they do mirror to some extent the little arcs I have when I’m not very well. You know, a journey up to mania and then the big crash back down, I might reverse it for this stage.

DT:      Yeah. I suppose it depends what my mood is as I’m watching [your work] or listening to it but a couple of times it has felt like someone’s recorded something from my head. That internal dialogue I think is really important but I would say also that this ties a lot into class as well because I think a lot about working class roots and how that can be expressed within an extremely middleclass art form. But this idea that to be working class is to be miserable through your art and to be mentally unstable is to be constantly miserable and that isn’t my life, that wasn’t my life growing up.

There was a lot of trauma of growing up, but my family also laughed a lot, I had a great time, at times, growing up. There was a lot of shit going on around it but it’s just that this accepted narrative isn’t recognisable to me.

BV:      Because it’s not our narrative, we didn’t write it, that’s why. Especially with class… and another thing! Especially with class, we [the working class] are ever more ostracised from the public conversation. We are becoming economically ostracised and culturally we’ve been ostracised, demonised as well, scapegoated, for decades now. You look at the 1980s, right, watching an advert and there’d be some northern working-class voice representing what it means to be salt of the earth, trustworthy and reliable. Now, when you get that same voice it’s only ever represented puking in a Faliraki gutter or fighting in the street or doing something that is related to this ‘Benefits Street’, angry, stupid low-culture-narrative.

I’m all for redressing that because it’s not ours, we have become a cliché but we’ve been painted that way. Most literary fiction is some Uni lecturer disappears to the Isle of Arran to have a big think about something there are never any working-class stories. I’m really excited at the moment about people like Jackie Hagan, do you know Jackie Hagan? And what she has to say on class.

I’m putting together a book of essays… I robbed of the idea of Nikesh Shukla… about class and I’ve got some great people, Jackie’s one of them. There are loads of good people, the full spectrum, you know.

I’ve had my run-ins with the sharp end of underclass culture but you know if you’re a third-generation drug dealer from a Peckham estate or if you’re a lollipop lady from a Hebridean town, you’re both working class but the only thing that you’ve got in common is the fact that your voice has no cultural capital, you know. We’re a broad church, the things that we have in common, generally, are… well the one thing that we have that unites us that relates us to poetry is we have a really incredible inventive use of language. Slang is working class and it’s constantly evolving and it’s a beautiful and brilliant and clever thing.

DT:      I don’t think we’ve got time to go down this route too far but… slam poetry plays no part in my writing. I don’t go to slam events, I don’t take part but I do spend a lot of my time defending it because I find a lot of the criticism is hugely classist and a lot of the criticism thrown at slam poets is based around the use of language and the themes that they’re talking about.

But, the other side of that and one thing I do worry about with slam is that the more the BBC and other media channels pick up on it, the more that trauma narrative is rewarded. Because you are rewarded with performances at the Royal Albert Hall or prizes or the chance to get on the telly and adverts. It seems prevalent [to me] that the only narrative that the BBC can understand is one of trauma because, “of course that’s what you’ll be talking about because you’ve grown up on some estate in whatever city around the country” and it does worry me that that’s what’s going to be picked up on. And whilst that’s a huge and important part that people have got a chance to come and talk [openly] about trauma, that is not the only thing that happens that these poetry events and I do worry about those two sides of things.

BV:      Yeah. I think you’re right to worry about it because, you know, they are the people that are commissioning the programs and there’s a culture of head tilt, “let us let us explore your sordid past”. So, there does need to be a balance to that, it’s really important and it’s good that you’re thinking about it and that people out there are thinking about it. And more important than thinking about it is making work to counteract it, which people are doing.

DT:      Absolutely, I see it all the time. It’s just the annoying thing is and this is just the reality of all art forms… I know lots of promoters that are spending their whole life building something up and should the BBC… I don’t mean to just keep picking on the BBC… but should they just choose to come and make a half-hour program on TV, that is what would be seen by the vast majority of people and that will be taken as what this art form is. I think it’s a shame that so much good work gets ignored because it can’t be packaged into the narrative that’s wanted by those producers.

BV:      Yeah.

DT:      But I also know Radio 4 producers in Bristol who are doing a really good job of trying to show the breadth and depth of poetry in this country and they’ve only got a certain amount of time because there’s only so much poetry that you can get on the radio, never mind the telly.

BV:      It’s not the money spinner I hoped it would be, poetry.

DT:      We were lied to Byron!

BV:      Where are my riches? Where’s my rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle?

DT:      Actually, talking about the radio, I suppose that’s quite a good point to talk about the documentary work that you have done and most recently was the fantastic programme, ‘The Glasgow Boys’ maybe we could just chat about how these opportunities come up? Do you feel like that’s a complete diversion in your career or is it still part of what you do as an artist?

BV:      There’s always been an element of autobiography and there’s always been an element of talking about myself in public, so I guess not in that sense. You know, I am addressing a lot of my own personal history and I feel very lucky, in a way, that I get to address the stuff that I’m passionate about in documentaries on the radio.

DT:      You’ve recently come back to spoken word after having a break. Has that mainly been working with charities in these organisations and radio producers?

BV:      Yeah, for five years I’ve been making theatre. I direct theatre, I work a lot with the BAC [Battersea Arts Centre], I’ve worked with a youth company Homegrown and directed stuff there. I’m currently working on several plays and I made radio… bits and bats… you know, I’m a sort of jack of all trades, master none really. That’s my thing. Again, it comes a little bit back to personal history, I never really had a proper job, I’m 42 now and I don’t really know where my life’s going or what I’m supposed to be doing.

I do enjoy the work I make, I really enjoy it and I do feel privileged to be able to do it but it’s not any real coherency to it. You know, I’m going to make more documentaries and some people know me from making documentaries, some people know me for doing spoken word stuff. But who knows what will happen in the future?

DT:      This is partly thinking about [class]… I’m always worried that… Part of being diagnosed as being bi-polar is always wandering around wondering when people are going to find me out and that this [metaphorical] curtain is going be pulled back and everyone’s going to go, “oh yeah, we knew it was bullshit all along”… but it’s really heavily ingrained in the writing [process] as well…

But I wonder if it’s also tied in with the fact that I didn’t finish school, I was allowed back to do a few GCSEs and then I went and did the carpentry apprenticeship, so I’ve got no literature background other than I read all the time and I love literature. But I think because I didn’t do A-levels and then I didn’t go to university and I didn’t choose literature in that way, I don’t feel pinned to it either. Does that play into how you define your career?

BV:      Not only do I not feel pinned to it but I don’t feel like I belong in it, either and I feel that way about a lot of things. Less and less so, I guess, as the years go by but there’s still an element of, “what am I doing here?” If I’m sat in Random House [Penguin Publishing’s main office] or something, I get giddy but also trying to play it cool. Though, almost everywhere I go I feel like that because I feel like an interloper in most places.

DT:      Yeah that’s definitely something that resonates with me. I suppose the reason I jumped into podcasting was because I didn’t really think about whether I had a background in broadcasting or journalism because I was already pretending to be a poet so it didn’t matter if I pretended to be something else.

BV:      That’s exactly how I feel.

DT:      Maybe because I served an apprenticeship, I’m very concretely a tradesman, I’m a carpenter and [because of] that working-class hangover I still find it hard to introduce myself as anything else. Even if I’m at Random House or if I’m meeting the Arts Council or meeting a group of publishers. It’s funny, if we do a roundtable introduction, I always feel like I should introduce myself as a joiner or mention the fact I’ve got a City & Guilds certificate at home.

BV:      But, that’s the thing, I’ve never done anything real so I don’t [even have that]. My friend Karen McKlusky calls it the ‘terror of error’, the fear of failure or the feeling that I’m supposed to succeed at something. Nobody expected me to do anything good, you know, so everything’s a bonus to me. So, I don’t have fear of failure, so there are positives as well. I am able to throw myself into a situation that might intimidate other people because I don’t have any expectations about the outcome.

DT:      Maybe because I don’t have any training in journalism or broadcasting I find myself, rather than asking questions I make assumptions and then allow the guest to completely knock it back… but in my mind, it seems like that constantly battling and trying to prove yourself as an artist, is almost the same thing as trying to work with ‘at risk’ people. When you’re working for a charity and trying to engage these people in something.

When I’ve been feeling well and I’ve been involved with outreach programs and just gone to talk to people, there’s a similar thing going on in my head that I feel at literature events where I’m trying to convince that person I’m part of what they’re feeling.

Perhaps what I’m trying to say is, does this sort of background help you when you’re trying to then engage with people.

BV:      I know what you’re saying about… You know, you may have been in a position yourself where you’re sat around in a room with some mental health professionals, trying to convince them you’re sane, whilst drugged. I’ve been in that situation and I’ve been in a lot of situations in my life where I’ve had to ‘fake it till I make it’, kind. That’s a real skill, I think, or I hope it is because I use it a lot. I’ve had to use it, I’ve had to pretend that I wasn’t a broken, underclass, former recidivist, you know.

When I first started turning up at venues and engaging in conversation with people about things I knew nothing about and had no cultural connection with and listened to people’s prejudices as well, because they didn’t really know where I was from and what that meant. Yeah, all of that helps, being a lateral thinker and being able to communicate in a way that is hopefully in some way engaging to an audience is exactly the same skill as telling a psychiatrist that you’re fine to get out of hospital.

DT:      On the other side of that as well… because, definitely the amount of times I told youth workers school psychiatrists or whoever they were claiming to be at the time that I was fine and nothing was happening at home. That definitely plays into… I used to do a lot of improvisational stuff on stage… You know, I can get up and tell a story for five minutes, that’s easy. I could stand up for much longer if the open-mic slot allowed.

But thinking directly about The Glasgow Boys documentary. How does that, if in any way, does that allow you to engage with people. Does it at all help you engage with people afterwards or are you relying purely on the fact that you understand part of what they’re going through?

BV:      It’s funny, I’ve got quite severe social anxiety and doing The Glasgow Boys, I just really enjoyed talking to those lads because it’s easier for me than talking to people in the world that I actually live in. So, in that sense it was very easy and they’re very open, you know, because of the journey that they’re on, they’re very open and empathic communicators. They don’t really have many secrets and that bravery in the way that they communicate, I respect it and I try to be that way.

So, actually in that situation… and we’ve got a shared history, we’ve got a shared trauma and that’s a bond, you know. I didn’t have any issue talking to those guys, but other people… I mean get me in a group dynamic in a situation that I don’t understand, and I don’t really understand most situations, and I’m a mess. I’m much better one to one, yeah. But, yes, I can skip around things because I learnt those skills you know it wasn’t unusual for me to lie to a social worker when I was younger.

DT:      This whole series which has been going for three years now and is basically based on me wondering out loud how anything connects in my own life and just trying to bounce those things off other people.

BV:      I enjoyed it… Sorry, to interrupt… There is a correlation and a serious one in terms of the art and those interactions and that is that I really enjoyed that fantasy space that I was creating and the narrative of what I was imagining at the time and going anywhere. It was like I was creating an avatar and I could put that person wherever I wanted to put them and they had a great life. So, there is a correlation there because it’s not just writers that have had difficult pasts, I think we all as writers enjoy creating universes that we might like to exist in parts of or even ones that we’re terrified of.

DT:      Yeah. I suppose then maybe it’s natural for some… As we were saying, not every writer comes to writing because of some form of trauma but it is probably a form of escapism for everyone, especially the live stuff and story-telling nights are almost pure escapism. But I suppose, maybe for people that have experienced that kind of trauma, for a select few then having the opportunity to tell other people’s stories… You know, if you’ve gone so long without a voice yourself… and this is a big part what the podcast exists for is because I felt for a long time I didn’t have a place to speak and it’s nice now that I’ve got the opportunity to hand the microphone over to other people.

BV:      Yes, and that’s a good thing. I’ve got a real strong belief in the power of stories and to relate it back to The Glasgow Boys, I went into… I arrogantly demanded a meeting with the Commissioning Editor at Radio 4 and went in and said, “This is what I don’t like about radio 4. It’s always some middle-aged, privately educated white guy goes into an environment, deconstructs the situation academically. Talks about it as though it’s an academic situation even if it’s a deeply personal situation to the people they’re living in, and what I want to do is I want to enable people to tell their own stories”.

“You know we can get artists in, we can get writers in to empower them and get them to tell their own stories in a way that will benefit them culturally, spiritually, economically, the whole lot. So, they are improving their lives with their own stories”. And he nodded his head and was in agreement through it all and I was like, “I want a six-part strand”…

And he was nodding his head and at the end he just said, “Yeah. No, no. I agree there’s a lot of that and we need to change it but you’ve never produced anything in your life. You’ll have to work with somebody”. So as a compromise I got one thing and I got to work with a producer, who I love and is a great guy. But that’s my aim eventually…

I love telling stories and I’ll always do it but I’m really really really really interested in empowering other people to do that. And I think you know marrying writers as mentors with people who’ve got a powerful story to tell…and by that, I mean the right writer as well, it’s got to be somebody you absolutely gets it and who is empathic and not exploitative and not coming in with their own agenda, other than to do a nice thing, to do a good thing. Then I’m all for stories that advocate for people, you know, that advocate for people whose voices have been silenced in some way. So, I’d love to do more stuff around that.

DT:      I think that’s a really nice place to stop.

BV:      Okay, great.

DT:      We’ve run out of time anyway and you’ve got a gig to go to tonight. We’ll give a quick plug to Milk which happens regularly in Bristol so if you’re visiting or if you live in Bristol and you want a regular poetry night to go to then check out Milk, they’re on the social media. But thank you Byron, thank you for joining us.

BV:      It’s been an absolute pleasure, thanks for having me. Continue reading “Ep.109 – Byron Vincent”

Knowing your place.

 

Earlier this week I listened to a fantastic Radio 4 programme, Where Are All The Working Class Writershosted by Kit de Waal and produced by Mair Bosworth. The programme is still available on the BBC iPlayer and incorporates a number of writers chatting about how working class identity informs their writing. It led me, via the poet Andrew McMillan’s Twitter account, to discovering that Kit, Andrew and a number of other writers had contributed to Know Your Place (Dead Ink), a collection of essays about the working class by the working class.

I really recommend listening to the Radio 4 programme (which can also be downloaded as a podcast here) and getting hold of a copy of KYP which, I hope, will be available as a paperback soon as the hardback is a little pricey. Check your local library first, perhaps?

Anyway, these two things pushed me toward writing about something I’ve been wanting to/avoiding for a while now…

I lived in a council house as a kid, passing only four GCSEs (a in English Literature), serving a City & Guilds carpentry apprenticeship and obtaining no further qualifications beyond my NVQ3 (Bench Joinery). All of which is pretty unremarkable considering my working class background and where I grew up but seem almost exotic to a lot of people that I now meet as the Founding Editor of the fantastic Lunar Poetry Podcasts. Even today someone at a reading group almost choked with surprise when I mentioned my background was in carpentry and could they please clarify what they’d meant about the structure of a creative writing degree course.

I’m not going to go into how common it is for people to completely disregard the amount of time, dedication and hard work that goes into becoming a skilled Joiner as it would take too long, plus, wind me right up! It is, however, important to point out that some people choose careers that involve manual labour because they want to rather than it being the only path available to them.

Ever since I started LPP inOctober 2014, I’ve fought the urge to focus solely on  interviewing writers from working class backgrounds. (I believe, strongly, that they need more opportunities to be heard and that established platforms should be doing far more to support and promote w.c. writers.) But making LPP w.c.-centric would have been problematic and not only because I don’t feel in any way qualified to be defining what it is to be w.c. outside of my, relatively, small circle of family and friends. It would have also been problematic because it would have suggested that we are somehow different and in need of a special arena to talk in. As if we’re unable to hold our own alongside those that had grown up with more opportunities and we can only engage in dialogue with ourselves.

It’s nonsense (or bollocks) that w.c. folk can’t occupy the space that middle class writers do so it must also be true that they deserve a space within the discourse around their art form too. I feel like this series is going as well as any independent podcast focusing on poetry could do and I’ve proven that someone without any academic background can lead or facilitate important literary discussions, yet I still feel uncomfortable if I’m in a conversation with a group of writers that I know all have MAs or PHDs. I feel out of place. I feel like I’m going to be found out. I feel like I shouldn’t be there. I feel like I’ve blagged it and time is running out.

I am, however, getting better at telling myself that the middle class/academics that put me on edge are just better at manipulating conversations and ensuring the focus never strays from their area of expertise. I don’t know when the bastards learn this but it can make you feel really bleedin’ stupid until you realise – it’s.just.people.talking… The way we learn to communicate growing up w.c. doesn’t prepare us to engage in that way and leaves us with two choices. We either bend to fit in or we stick two fingers up and do our own thing.

The identity of LPP owes much more to zines than it does to literary journals. Rightly or wrongly I felt that the only way I’d get the opportunity to be involved in conversations about writing was if I started something myself. The first 76 episodes were produced very cheaply and published on YouTube (the only free platform for that amount of audio content) with black and white graphics and no real firm plan as to how it would all pan out. I’d never met anyone that worked in radio so self-publishing seemed the only option.

I’ll get onto this later but as an adult I’ve worked with a lot of visual and performing artists but still didn’t have any idea how literature or publishing worked. That was until 2015 when Elephant and Castle in south London, where I lived, seemed to tip under the weight of gentrification and it felt like middle class media types were everywhere. Even on East Street! I can remember talking to a woman who worked as (something??) and laughing/crying inside as she couldn’t get her head around how I didn’t know anyone at Radio 4 that could just get some of the LPP interviews on air, or how about – buying a houseboat to live on while I had a crack at a production internship. They’re only £5000!! I went for pie and mash to remove the aftertaste of her advice.

I’d never seen that kind of money and was under no delusion that I would any time soon. Growing up w.c. you know that money only comes in when you work for it and I’ve never had a salary that would allow me to save that much. There are no handouts or gifts. We know our place, especially when daring to try to live in zone 1 in London and work in the arts.

In 2016 I’d finally worked through enough shit in my head and reached a point where I felt I could apply to Arts Council England for a Grant for The Arts and I still feel incredibly lucky that my first attempt was successful. (The feeling of luck still overrides the sense of achievement of having produced something deserving of funding). What is interesting is comparing that original application to one I completed last month for a very similar project. My first attempt is almost apologetic in tone, brimming with an unwritten acknowledgement that I was obviously wasting the panel’s time. It was not my place to be asking for money, that pot of cash had not been set aside for the likes of me/us and that as soon as they were done assessing the application I would most definitely fuck off out of their way so that they could get on with the business of funding the off-spring of their friends.

I will never forget how much effort my ACE advisor put in to convince me (and many others) that we were deserving of that funding too. Though, it did take getting the funding, completing and surpassing the funded project, being shortlisted for a British Podcast Award and signing a series-archiving agreement with the British Library before I started to sound like I felt like I deserved a place at the table too.

Not that I feel completely at home. For instance I still haven’t approached any serious poetry festivals about putting on podcast related events as I still haven’t completely shaken off all of my insecurities about drowning in that type of academic environment. Luckily, I have a healthy relationship with what I believe is the most exciting literature festival in the country, Verve Poetry Festival and we’re currently finalising the details of our involvement for February, 2018.

It’s taken me over 20 years to start getting my head around accepting and embracing the contradictions that come with growing up w.c. and choosing to work in the arts. For example, I’m very happy for LPP to exist slightly on the fringes of the UK poetry scene as it gives me more freedom to speak to a wider range of writers but I’ve also been working extremely hard on archiving the entire series with the British Library’s Sound archive, which couldn’t really be more establishment, could it? For the successful working class writer, sometimes getting published or the chance to study at a post-graduate level is just the start of another dilemma; how do they then retain their w.c. identity?

There is a lot of pressure on w.c. writers, poets (artists in general) to be gritty, honest or real in their practice as this fits into the middle class’ narrative of what it is to be w.c. – miserable, angry and vulgar and while we may be all of these things to varying degrees we are also creative, funny, polite, caring and loving. I do worry that part of the BBC’s/media’s current obsession with slam poetry is heavily tied into these stereotypes and that the often traumatic nature of the storytelling at these events feeds into this accepted narrative, even actively rewards it with points, trophies and tv appearances.

The absurd, surreal and avant-garde is off limits to the w.c. writer. I’ve felt, keenly, the guilt attached to wanting to write about subjects purely for the enjoyment of the words or performance. That it was not honest enough to be a true reflection of me. The w.c. are occasionally let in but when they are they’re almost never allowed to play. I do find myself wishing that I could actually have a bit of fun when I’m writing but can’t escape this pressure I’ve put on myself, real or not, to have a proper fucking job and to not spend all my time pissing around with poems.

It’s no accident that I’ve settled so comfortably into an artistic role that involves a lot of bloody work and the promotion of the writing of others over mine. I’m not complaining, by the way, LPP is the best thing I’ve ever done, I just don’t want to kid myself out of facing up to feelings of guilt and shame.

I worked in art galleries for many years, during my twenties, (tellingly) as a technician and played a vital role in a number of major international exhibitions. Even with this acknowledgement I still carried a tape measure into meetings with curators and museum directors in case I was ever asked so what the fuck are you doing in here? and I could point at it in the same way that they would continually (metaphorically) point at their MA certificates(?). The tape measure was my pass.

The guilt (brilliantly!) works the other way too. I still can’t seem to write freely about being a kid and not having a phone at home, moving into a council house after the family home was repossessed or not being able to afford the subs to train with the same football team as my friends. This might seem to contradict the idea that w.c. writers can write about any subject they choose but I’m not choosing in the instance, I’m avoiding the memory of the guilt. Just like a lot of working class artists around my age are having to come to terms with the fact that they’ll never be as w.c. as their parents and don’t feel like they fit in at home just like they don’t at some bullshit networking event.

I’m lucky (possibly) that I went to school until I was 16, unlike my dad who left at 14, I had the option of university and had I wanted to get on the property ladder when I was younger I could’ve done and stayed there. All of these things though pulled me further from the familial identity I’d grown into as a child and adolescent, an identity that I’m now trying to reflect (or not, but deliberately if not) in my own writing.

The biggest achievement for Know Your Place is that the editor Nathan Connolly has managed to show how complex, varied and dense working class identity is. We are not two dimensional characters from miserable soaps, we’re bloody brilliant. We just don’t always realise it.

David. xx

 

 

Back to school… Episode 106

Untitled

So, it’s exactly a year since the first batch of funding from Arts Council England kicked in. Through the funding I bought lots of shiny new recording equipment as well as beginning to edit on a laptop with Audacity. I probably didn’t allow enough time to get used to all of these changes (this is probably a very common story among people getting funding for the first time) and certain things got a little rushed as I tried to keep the series on schedule.

LPP kicked off with a discussion about poetry in schools hosted by the wonderfully capable Jacob Sam-La Rose with Keith Jarrett and Miriam Nash joining him as guests. Between them the three have many years of experience of leading and facilitating poetry workshops in schools around the UK and they speak very candidly and eloquently about how they got into teaching, what they’ve learned along the way and what they wish they’d known when starting out. There are some great tips contained within for anyone looking to get into running poetry workshops themselves and teachers looking to introduce poetry into their lesson plans.

Originally this episode went out in two parts which I’ve now consolidated into one episode, without removing much of the content. A year ago this wouldn’t have seemed possible but those of you that have any experience of editing conversations of this kind will know just how much time you cut off of an episode just by removing the ums, ahs and repetition. There’s still a long way to go but I’ve learned a great deal about all of this stuff over the last 12 months and I think the episode sounds a lot better for having been polished a little.

You can find the episode here.

You can also download a transcript of the conversation as a pdf here or see below.

David. x

 

Introduction:

 

 

DT:      Hello, this is Lunar Poetry Podcasts, I’m David Turner. I’m supposed to be on a break from podcasting but something has been bothering me since September last year. We started our last series off with a discussion about poetry in schools back when we received our first lot of Arts Council funding. At the time, I had just started using some new recording equipment and editing software and looking back I don’t think I did the best job on editing it so I’ve had another look at it. I don’t think I’ll do this with any other episodes but like I said, this one has been bothering me and with kids going back to school this week here in the UK it seems appropriate to revisit the subject.

 

This conversation originally went out in two parts in episodes 77 and 78 so if you want to check out a much longer version you can scroll back through our archive. Jacob Sam-La Rose hosts this discussion and is joined by Miriam Nash and Keith Jarret, they talk about the work they do within schools with poetry education, how they got into educational work in the first place and what they wish they’d known when they first started out.

 

There are lots of great tips here for those already working as educational facilitators or those thinking about moving into this area of work as well as teachers looking to introduce poetry into their lessons. You can find links to Jacob, Keith and Miriam in the episode description if you want to book any of them to teach or lead workshops in your school. Also, if you want to learn more about teaching poetry get yourself over to Jacob’s website as he’s regularly running workshops and seminars about become a poetry educator.

 

Since recording this conversation Keith and Miriam have both released collections. Keith’s, Selah is out through Burning Eye Books and All Prayers in the House by Miriam is out through Bloodaxe Books.

 

As always you can follow what we’re up to at www.lunarpoetrypodcasts.com where you can also download a transcript of this conversation and follow the progress of our latest Arts Council funding application which I submitted last weekend. We can also be found at Lunar Poetry Podcasts on Facebook and Instagram and @Silent_Tongue on Twitter. If you like what we do then please tell your friends and colleagues about us either via social media or you know in person. This original recording was made possible with funding from Arts Council England.

 

That’s enough from me. I’m supposed to be on a break. Here’s Jacob, Miriam and Keith.

 

 

Conversation:

 

 

JSL:      Welcome, this is the Lunar Poetry Podcasts. My name is not David Turner, this the voice of Jacob Sam-La Rose. I have two lovely, lovely human beings and poets with me, Miriam Nash and if we had a sound board you’d be hearing applause right now. And the one, the only, Keith Jarrett. So, for anyone who doesn’t know you guys, I mean shock horror. Someone who doesn’t know your backgrounds and who you are and what it is that you do. I’m going to start with Miriam. Miriam, tell us something about yourself. Who are you? What is it that you do?

 

MN:     I am a poet, I’m an educator, I’m a sister. Important! I’ve been doing… I’ve been working in education with poetry for about seven years. I was introduced to the work by your good self and yes it’s pleasure today to sit around this table.

 

JSL:      Absolutely lovely. I love that sense of the various different roles. Must not forget that Miriam is also a sister very, very important. Alongside all of the other work that is done. And Mr Keith Jarrett tell us something about yourself.

 

KJ:       Hello, I’m Keith Jarrett. I’m also good sibling, I hope, I’d like to think so. I am a poet, I also write fiction and I’m also an educator and have been part of the Spoken Word Education Project for a few years and I’m trying not to count them because time is flying really fast! And that’s just some of what I do but at the moment I am a full-time PhD student and I’m developing my creative work while also looking at research and religion.

 

JSL:      As some of the 13-year-olds I was working with earlier today might say “deep!”. For anyone who doesn’t know what it is that I do. Hi I’m Jacob Sam-La Rose. I’m the current artistic director and lead lecturer for the spoken word education program. I run the Barbican Young Poets program, I also am the artistic director for the Barbican Junior Poets program and we now have a Barbican Alumni poets program.

 

I support a range of different communities and collectives. The Burn After Reading community, for example. A large part of my work is given over to supporting the development of young and emerging poets, as well as being a poet and performer and educator myself. I’ve been working in and out of classrooms in various different educational facilities and institutions and spaces and community spaces for, oh I don’t know. As Keith was saying, perhaps too long to count but something, if I had to put numbers to it something around 20 years now. So it’s a joy to be sitting in this room about to embark on a conversation around the work that we do as poets in education.

 

So, I was having conversations with two people who were shadowing me earlier today and talking about my first experience of running a workshop and of being in a classroom and how it was that I got comfortable with that sense of leading something along those lines. What were your first experiences, how did you actually get into the work that we’re talking about?

 

KJ:       I think I was just asked… If I’m correct, because I can’t really remember my first ever experience of doing a poetry workshop in a school. I’ve done other things, I also taught English as an additional language. And I should have known better but I walked into a classroom and went, “eek, what do I do now? Right! Why aren’t you writing? Why aren’t you interested.

 

So I think I really didn’t know what I was doing in my first sessions. I think I was just called, and it was probably National Poetry Day, and I was asked to go do something and get the kids entertained in writing. So it was a really loose brief and I just loosely thought, yeah I can do it.

 

And then I did a mentoring project which was really about looking at certain pupils at risk of exclusion and so they wanted me to do a workshop where I’d be getting them to write poetry and Rap and using that as a way of bringing them in. Again it was a really wide brief and I was very inexperienced and I cringe, I really cringe thinking about those early days and the time where I’d just sort of hide in the stationery cupboard and think, what am I doing?

 

JSL:      And how was that workshop that you were asked to do around poetry and rap and that kind of expectation. I mean, was it an expectation? How did that sit with you, how did that feel in terms of that sense of please deliver a workshop that relates to poetry and rap for us?

 

KJ:       It actually… The story of that is a bit longer and it came from some mentoring work that I wasn’t very well prepared for either. Where I was working with primary school age children at risk of exclusion and I wrote a report based on that. Which then went out to a number of schools and one of them picked up on what I did and said, “oh brilliant and you write poetry! How about you do something with poetry and rap?” Which sounds good but then I wasn’t really supported. I was on my own, it was, I… Yeah I do cringe.

 

But, at the same time, I see the good intentions behind it. You know, Rap is a part of poetry by it can be a separate discipline and there’s this kind of expectation, “oh, there’s something cool, why don’t you go and do something cool with the kids?” Like, that’ll stop them committing crime and it didn’t quite work out by that. But I did form some really good relationships with young people through realising that I was slightly out of my depth [JSL: right] and then trying to correct it.

 

JSL:      Yeah I have this kind of vexed relationship, essentially I kind of fall on both sides of the divide with regards to the relationship between poetry and rap and expectation around that. I remember the earlier part of my career I did have a period of time where I flirted with hip-hop as a kid. So that was at one point very much a part of my culture but I kind of moved beyond that for my own self.

 

While I still love hip-hop music. I would never consider myself to be an emcee as such and like you I respect that rap is an art form in itself that has ways of working and skills associated. So there is a part of me that remembers a time when there was this expectation because you were of a certain perceived background, “Because you do some stuff with words right? That’s hip-hop as well right? So you say you’re a poet but hey come in and speak to these kids and do some rap stuff with them!” It’s like, not quite that simple. Yeah, I totally appreciate that. So Miriam what are your hip-hop workshop skills like?

 

MN:     I’m occasionally asked if I will rap by a young person [JSL: fantastic!] but I say no because I wouldn’t do it justice.

 

JSL:      I want to be in the room if that ever actually happens.

 

MN:     Although, I am quite good on the Hamilton lyrics. I kind of fell into running some workshops or running a writing group for peers when I was doing my undergraduate degree at Goldsmiths. And through that I met Spread The Word, the wonderful organisation, through that I met the poet Sundra Lawrence and through that I met yourself on a on teaching project, poetry project in schools in Harrow.

 

I wasn’t teaching on that program myself, I was supporting it in a kind of administrative way, which has been another part of the work that I do producing and administering projects for young people. And that was a very formative experience for me, seeing that work and seeing the power of that work and being involved in it but also being able to look at it before I had a go myself.

 

And then I obviously had the incredible luck and the incredible privilege to work with you as one of your ‘shadows’. And I think we worked together for almost the whole year actually. And I remember I worked with you in a number of different schools in a pupil referral units and museums. And so, I really got to see it… Yeah, I was a very, very lucky member of your ‘shadow’ community.

 

Yeah so, I got to see that work happening in some different settings and then some way into that we were both working on a project at Erith School in Kent with the wonderful Doug Bloom. And so, as part of that I ran my first workshop in a classroom on my own but you were there to support that. So, I did have a very supported entry in to poetry and education as a workshop leader which I, you know, think about and talk about actually all the time in my work. Because, part of what I’m able to communicate is that I do this work.

 

Not only the teaching and not only the workshops but you know I feel I am a poet because of the support of yourself and other poets who made it possible for me to even see that this was a job that. However strange and tenuous it may sometimes feel I could see it there and I just thought this is incredible work that I didn’t know was happening. And I was not only shown that but able to be brought into it.

 

JSL:      Listeners I am blushing right now you can’t see this through the airwaves or over the digital streams but yes. Thank you for reminding me of some of the work that we actually did back in the day. I want to celebrate the administrative side of what it is that you’ve done and maybe we’ll come back to that. Because I mean for all of us in the room, we have these varied perspectives so you know, experience of doing this work as teacher as well as poet and facilitator. Experience of not just being the poet in the classroom but also supporting the poets in the classroom and liaising with teachers and venues to ensure that that work happens and to make sure that everyone’s supported.

 

I’d love to come back to some of that a little bit later in the conversation but I also want to pick up on that sense of the support that you said that you had. Because again, I know for me, when I was upcoming and learning my craft and learning what it meant to be a poet at the front of a room that wasn’t a performance space but that was actually a learning space. You know a lot of that I learned ‘on the hoof’ so to speak. There were very few if any actual pedagogical workshops or workshops around the notion or the craft of how you pass your skills on to students or how is that you work with other people in that way.

 

So a lot of what it is that I’ve taken on, I mean obviously I’ve studied since then, but a lot of what I picked up in the early days was just through doing it and figuring out what it was that worked and going into a workshop and saying; “Okay that didn’t quite work as I planned, I’m going to have to rethink that and come back with something different. Why didn’t it work? Okay, let me try this the next time.” But now we have, and I mean this isn’t necessarily accessible for all but there’s more support for these kinds of things.

 

So again, Keith you have an experience of going through the spoken word education program. Miriam you had an opportunity to be supported by not just me but other teachers that you had access to. Tell me something about that experience of the kind of support or the kind of investment in development as an actual craft that you may have had. And what that meant to you in terms of your development.

 

KJ:       I first met Peter Kahn a few years ago and he contacted me via recommendation from someone else, we had a Skype conversation. He told me about this radical project which was starting, which is a collaboration between him, different poetry organisations and Goldsmiths. I thought, wow okay this is very interesting. I’d never heard of anything like that before, an opportunity to do what I’d been doing. By that time my I’d worked in schools doing poetry projects, mentoring projects as well, where I was slightly more comfortable in the classroom than my first experiences of hiding in the cupboard.

 

Going through the process of being in a traineeship almost and then also having that academic backup to it being at Goldsmiths and doing the MA and having colleagues, other people who are undergoing the same process. For me, that’s just been infinitely valuable and I just don’t understand why it hadn’t existed in the way it had before and why there weren’t more opportunities for people to do that.

 

Just even basic things about how you present work and present examples and obviously there’s the teaching stuff of… You know, thinking about people who might have dyslexia or problems with vision or whatever and thinking about how you present your material but then how you demonstrate, how you prompt poems, how really simple basic things which I’d never thought of like; Okay if I’m going to set an exercise for students to do I should have done it myself first and I should have a template poem of my own as well as another example.

 

Things like that, no one told me that until I actually went through that process of training and I thought, ‘wow’. I feel like they were wasted opportunities where I was in schools where actually pupils who weren’t engaged, they may well have been if they got it and if I’d had that, you know, extra background. I’m not saying I’m a perfect teacher or workshop leader and I’m not saying that everyone is going to pick up something from a poetry workshop. But I feel that having that background, having that training has hugely helped me teaching but also generally how present myself to other people.

 

MN:     I think the support that I had was what even got me into the classroom and you know made me feel like I could enter that space. I remember, it used to be so terrifying, I mean the night before I would go into a school… Particularly when I started to go in all on my own, you know first you have to find the school and it’s really early, it’s on the other side of town you know, it’s got several entrances. You know, you have to get in first of all.

 

JSL:      I’m thinking of a particular school in East London that has two different sites, I think that we all are familiar with. And you could be at the lower site and actually realise that your workshop is supposed to be at the upper site or something crazy. Yeah, yeah.

 

KJ:       Ten minutes walk.

 

JSL:      Yeah yeah.

 

MN:     Then you have to find the teacher and you have to be presentable but you’re sweating and you weren’t quite sure what to wear. And finally you get into the classroom. But, so you know that support was really, really important in giving me the confidence to be able to know how to enter into that space and talk to teachers and you know, make sure that I knew what I needed to know and feel that I could ask questions.

 

And I guess even with that support still when I was starting I thought that I was supposed to know things. You know I thought I was supposed to just be able to get on with it and you know that that was a requirement. And you know, if something went wrong I would feel really bad. Whereas now you know I think, one of the wonderful things about having some more experiences you know I think, well things don’t go as planned all the time. And part of your role as an educator is to be able to adapt and see what’s happening and kind of be aware of yourself in the space and not get lost I guess.

 

You know, not get lost among all the ideas of what you think you’re supposed to do because if you’re so caught up in, you know, presenting in the right way. If you’re so worried about getting it right you’re actually not in a position to give support and energy to the students.

 

JSL:      Hallelujah.

 

KJ:       Yeah.

 

MN:     So you know, you need to be able to have that support to be able to do that. To arrive in such a way that, yeah that you’re there for them. I guess every teacher has to go through some kind of wrangling with themselves in order to get there. But it’s so much easier to do with other people.

 

JSL:      Yes. It’s fascinating, the first year of teaching for just about every teacher that I’ve ever, kind of, spoken to or had any kind of interaction with, that first year of teaching is like a hellish experience. While you figure out who you are and how you relate to the work that you’re being asked to do. But then you learn from that incredible kind of, you know, intense period of pressure. And just trying to do right by your students and by everything that you know you’re supposed to be offering them and you come out on the other side of that a better teacher, ideally.

 

There’s so much in what you’ve just said, both of you that I really want to celebrate that… Particularly, three things that come up from what you just said Miriam in terms of our relationships with failure. The notion of being present in any space where we’re teaching and that relationship with improvisation and being able to think on our feet.

 

That thing about failure is such a big thing because we have to be able to hold the possibility that things aren’t necessarily going to work as planned but also we have to balance that against the fact we’ve got these various different stakeholders in the room, right.

 

So we’ve got the students themselves but we’ve also got the teachers or whoever the representatives are of the institution that we’re working in. And they have they all have their various different expectations. So we have to kind of balance that sense of, “well hey, look it might not go according to plan but we’ll do something”. With this sense of, “well these guys are expecting something and these guys are expecting something”, and I’m kind of you know beholden to what it is that they expect!

 

Balancing that can be a really challenging thing, right. So there’s that, there’s that sense of being present in the room. I love that sense of presence and being completely kind of just there, right. Being in the room and alive to what’s being offered and not just following a script. Being responsive, this notion of responsive teaching I love that idea and that’s something that I try and put over to all of the spoken word education students I’m working with now. That sense of responsive teaching being able to shift and respond to what it is that your students are giving you back and how…

 

I mean, the number of times I’ve turned up in a workshop space and what it was that I was told would be, you know, the situation… Or, here’s the brief and you get there and it’s like, this is nothing like what you told me was going to happen. This space is completely different these students are completely different. The teacher who I’m speaking to in the room is saying that actually this is a workshop about, I don’t know, naval history and I thought it was going to be about whatever and we had these conversations, we set it all up.

 

So being able to think on feet is so important and it comes back to that sense Keith in terms of what you were saying around expectation and I’m fascinated by that and I don’t know if you guys have any thoughts on these lines specifically. The notion of facilitating or teaching, there is this expectation of us as kind of creative professionals or freelance literature workers, whatever. That some part of our income will come or be derived from facilitating or working in a classroom environment. And it really comes back to, for me, this question of beyond that expectation, why are we doing this work? Right?

 

Surely it’s not just about the money, it’s not just about I need to be able to earn X amount from this teaching activity in order to be able to survive as a quote unquote poet. Surely there’s something more in terms of why. I mean, why do you guys do this work? Why is this work important? Is it important to you? Why do you guys do this work, what’s it all about?

 

MN:     To me it feels really integral to my work as a poet. Because I feel like writing on its own is wonderful and it’s so amazing to spend time learning that craft and reading and working with other poets. But I think being able to work in education, whatever that means you know, and that really doesn’t have to mean any one particular thing. You know, I don’t just mean working in schools but taking the poetry into different settings. For me that feels really essential to what poetry is, what poetry is for.

 

Yes I have those moments on my own at my desk where I think, yes this is it! But I also have probably even more moments where I’m working with somebody, you know, whether it’s an adult or a young person. Whether it’s someone who has experience or is writing their first poem where there’s this recognition that we’re working with creativity here. And that’s an incredible thing as well, I mean that’s such a privilege to be able to work with people on something that is so personal.

 

Because you know having an audience is about communicating the work that you’ve done but using poetry in education is communicating the process and communicating that wrangling, that learning that you’re doing yourself. I think that’s really important about this work is that whenever I go into a space I’m just reminding myself that the people I’m working with are creators in their own right. And they may not identify as creators at that particular time but they are because we all are, and yeah, so that’s why I do it.

 

JSL:      There’s something beautiful in what you just said that I might come back to after I invite Keith to say a few words about why it is he does its work. But that notion of the relationship between process and product in the settings that we work in and again how a lot of the expectation… Unless you have someone that you might identify as a champion teacher who kind of understands and really does appreciate and really values the work that you’re doing, there’s a sense of, “yeah we want them to write poems”.

 

“All this kind of airy-fairy processed stuff? Nah, nah, nah!” “What we want at the end of this period of time is, we want 30 poems, or we want 10 group poems, or we want this… You know we want the finished anthology or you know…” The focus on the actual product is… You can appreciate the importance but to create space and to actually create an ability, or to allow for that space to focus on the process that can be communicated beyond the session that you’re leading, yeah yeah I celebrate that. Keith why?

 

KJ:       I’m going through a process where I feel really weird at the moment because I spend all of my days, probably about between six and eight hours a day I spend at a computer just transcribing interviews that I’m doing as part of my research. And it’s driving me crazy, in a good way because I know it’s temporary and it’s part of a bigger project which I’m really excited about.

 

But I know that if I just sat on my own writing poems all day and not communicating in other ways, interacting with people, sharing process and sharing how I do things and how different possibilities is just as important as me having my creative time or my time alone to work. You know, with me and my computer or laptop or notebook or whatever it is.

 

I think as much as I crave that a lot of the time and especially at the end of a long day where I’m in a school teaching and I’m like, “I just want to be on my own and work!” I crave that but if that was all that I had to do in my life I wouldn’t be satisfied either. So it’s a weird thing because sometimes I do almost hate it.

 

And especially working in schools and that was another thing with the spoken word educator project, I’m no longer embedded in a school. And you know, after my last day and after really missing some of the kids that I was working with, suddenly, I was like yeah I’m free! I don’t have to put up with all of the pressure that goes into being in a school.

 

I find schools incredibly depressing places. The institutes themselves and the management and the way they kind of work. But, it does something working in there having those challenges having the conflict between the head teacher who wants no problems, no fuss, nothing controversial. The teachers who want results, the kids who want either to be entertained or to do something that engages them. And you who wants to make it different. Like, all of that, and as a creator as well you want to have your own artistic integrity rather than go into some curriculum or you know…

 

So there’s all of these conflicts and that challenges, it creates a lot of heartache and stress and I’d probably have more hair on my head if I didn’t ever work in schools. At the same time there is something so valuable and so rewarding and I’ve also had some of my… Undoubtedly some of my best experiences just being in a school, getting to know pupils who I learned from as well.

 

I have learned as a poet to write, through teaching poetry and being challenged in all of that. Yeah, it’s something that does scare me, I have to be prepared for it. I have to be prepared to teach and it isn’t easy. It feels like some, you know, it’s that expectation, “oh you write, you should teach it as well.” It’s not easy to do it properly, especially in schools. I think working with younger people is a particular challenge. But I couldn’t see myself not working in some form or another with young people helping them to create poetry.

 

JSL:      I think it’s worth pointing out, part of the model of the spoken word education program. Which was as you said that sense of; Okay, for the first year you’d spend that time working alongside whoever the lead on the program was, having seminars around both the craft of writing and the craft of teaching. But then also you’d be in a school one day a week I think it was for you all year, right?

 

KJ:       Yes.

 

JSL:      So you’re in one day a week working alongside Peter who was leading in that year and with the facility… It was kind of on the job training, that facility to try things out, see how they would work. With, again the kind of support that Miriam was talking about with someone like Peter in the room who would be able to feedback to you after you’d run that workshop. But then the second year, once you’ve gone through a year of that kind of instruction that kind of training, the second year you take on a school for yourself. And you’d be in school. Your generation of spoken word educators, you had, was it four-day weeks.

 

KJ:       Yes, four days a weeks.

 

JSL:      So, I stepped into the program and took it on in the second year of the program which is when you guys were just starting your placement. And one of the thoughts I had that I put in place the following year was that, I felt the four-day week… There needed to be a bit more flexibility for people around that…

 

And again, one of the things you were touching on was this notion of balance, right. Being able to balance your needs as working artists between the work that you do in concert with other people. The work that you do in spaces that are filled by other people. The work that you do that it’s feeding into other people’s development but also the work that you necessarily need to do as a writer in that space between you and the page.

 

And I mean the whole thing about the spoken word education program at the moment is a sense of that balance between you as teaching artist and you as poet in your own right doing that work. It’s powerful stuff to hear you talking about that sense of what it actually takes to be in an education institution. I mean hats off to all of the teachers any teachers that might be listening into this conversation.

 

MN:     Yes, they’re amazing.

 

JSL:      All of us who’ve worked in any of these kinds of roles can appreciate and have some appreciation for the work that it is that teachers have to do. You know, crazy hours Monday to Friday plus whatever time is that they put in from their own time, preparing lesson plans and making sure that they’re ready for the next week ahead. You know there is so much that is asked of them and as a teaching artist in a role, if you have that kind of full-time or almost full-time placement. I mean four days a week essentially becomes five days a week.

 

KJ:       Yes.

 

JSL:      Because you’re there and you are delivering work for those four days but your fifth day which is supposed to be kind of time out for you to be writing and doing you. Really becomes, “do I have everything I need for the next week?” And that’s something I think we forget, regardless of whether you’re a spoken word educator, a resident artist or any other program you might be working on. I think one of the things we sometimes forget to account for is that preparation time, it’s not enough for us to just turn up. “Hey I’m here now. Let’s write some poems!”

 

You know there is that preparation time that when we fail to account for [it] we kind of end up bankrupt in terms of time and we kind of lose that… The time has to come from somewhere and we lose that time for ourselves, which is really important. I know self-care is a big thing that I want to talk about in a moment.

 

But Keith I just wanted to come back to something, you were talking about this notion of relationship with students and how that is formed in terms of, I think it was and you can correct me here. But I think it was that sense of what your needs might be in relation to what it is the needs of the students might be. Was it something along those lines?

 

KJ:       Yeah. There are so many different conflicting needs and it’s a bit like you know if you pick up a children’s book in a bookshop. The bookshop isn’t trying to sell to the child necessarily, it’s the librarians and the parents who have the money. But at the same time the child needs to be interested enough to you know… If it’s a series, they’re going to say, “Mummy, Mummy I want the second one” or “Dad I want the second one.”

 

So you’re or my challenge always is thinking you know, who’s this for? It’s for me, but then actually, what does the pupil need, what do I want to get out of them? You mentioned also, like about you know, not necessarily having the same…

 

Having an idea of what a class is going to be like but then having different expectations. When I’m told that they’re a certain ability or you know… I’m told different things about the pupils, or not, again I have an expectation. Oh, okay so this is what the teacher expects of them and so this is what I want to get out [of them]. And I’m constantly challenging myself to, okay I want to get them to be… You know, if this is someone who has never written I want them to write a poem for the first time. So there’s my own ego in this.

 

JSL:      So you set yourself those kinds of challenges?

 

KJ:       Yeah. But a lot of that is my own ego. Whereas, really you know, what is in that child’s interest? Maybe, actually they just need to chill and have some time where this is the first time that they’ve even had the idea that they could express themselves. But then at the same time if this child wants to express themselves but I know that this school has a particular rigid policy and says you cannot talk about gangs, guns, crime. You know they’ve got a whole prescriptive list then I’ve got that challenge on top of it.

 

Okay, what takes priority? Is my own politics going to take precedence over the schools, or what I think might be in the child’s interests? So I’m constantly thinking about that, I think it’s… I was going to say it’s easier but it’s not. When you’re embedded in a school when you’re there more than just once then you can really take on board those challenges a bit more.

 

Along with the preparation there’s emotional work, so you’ve got to factor that into your preparation time. But then you know, if it’s just a one off, you’re flying into a school like… In that preparation I’ve, sort of, got tiny little key points. Okay. let’s try and make sure that they all write ten lines, but at the same time. You know, let’s really get to what I want from that. Is it to be fun? And for them to not be put off by poetry by the end of the hour.

 

JSL:      Do you have these kind of base line… I mean regardless of whatever the workshop might be. Each of you, do you have your own kind of personal manifesto in terms of… For every workshop that I might go into I want to be able to leave these students with an appreciation of poetry, for example. Or I want to make sure that they have this understanding of how metaphors might work.

 

Do you have your own set of, whatever the workshop is, here are three key points that are just a part of my practice when I go into a space that I want to try and ensure that these students are left with generally?

 

MN:     Yes and no. Yes, in the sense of things that I kind of want to be in the room or, kind of, core experiences. But no in terms of, you know, a line requirement or everyone has to write a poem even. The first one is definitely what you said, it’s fun and that’s something that you taught me very early on. It’s like, you need to have fun delivering your workshop. And that helped me a lot in getting through, kind of, the first fear of going into a classroom in the early days just thinking that, “oh fun!”

 

JSL:      So easy to forget yeah?

 

MN:     And thinking, okay you know… So that’s why, you know, it’s relevant, me being a sister because, you know, being with my sisters is that we have a lot of fun. Like, with my sisters I’m probably sillier than with any other people, you know. And so I guess I try and just get a little bit of that. Often, you know, if I’m going in for the first time I won’t know the students. But to try and have a sense of fun.

 

And then I think there’s something else which is very easy to achieve but I’m glad to kind of think of it as a core thing or experience, is that you know, they get to meet a poet and they get to ask them questions. And, you know, obviously I’m going in so that’s very easy, that’s already kind of ticked. But it’s like there gets to be some exchange where they get to interrogate, “what is a poet, what do you do?”

 

So I have to remember never to take for granted that you know, that they will understand what a poet is or what my role is and why I’m there. So yeah I think that’s a really important one. It’s not so much a requirement but I do find myself working with the notion of specificity and using a detail. Almost more than anything else in terms of technique because even beyond you know, thinking about what a poem is I want them to understand how language sticks with us in our minds. And I want them to have an experience of that.

 

So usually that’s going to be an initial session by me sharing probably a poem by myself, maybe a poem by someone else and asking them like what they can actually remember after hearing that in the air without being able to read. Because that’s helpful in every situation in which they’re asked to write in school. You know, even in speech actually, being able to convey something in a way that people will remember.

 

JSL:      Keith, can you add anything to that list? In terms of the things that you… When you know you’re going into any kind of workshop, whatever that workshop might be. Are there any kind of base principles, base considerations? Regardless of what the specific content of that session actually is. Are there any base principles that you generally adhere to in terms of what that experience should offer the students that you’re working with?

 

KJ:       Well my first one is a negative which is just, I don’t want to ruin poetry for them.

 

JSL:      Right.

 

KJ:       And that’s so easy to do. The other one is, connection and something I learned from being in the school where I was for a year was not to write people of. Which is a tough one because I did it in different ways, because I would target… My aim was, initially I really want to go for the… Because of my background in mentoring and exclusion and all of that I was concentrating on the kids who were deemed bad or deemed at risk of, you know, being… Or having behavioural issues or whatever and then also the kids who are super interested and wanted to come to ‘spoken word club.’

 

So I thought okay I’m going to go for those and people in between I wasn’t that concerned about. But at the same time, I mean, looking back that was really naive. There were a few kids that I think I really could have paid more attention to and one in particular by the end of that year she was so fantastic and helped mentor other kids in poetry and was such a great experience.

 

So, my greatest thing even if it’s a one off is to try and take each person on their own merit as much as I can. But then that, you know, say it’s a class of thirty and it’s an hour, that’s not very feasible. But even just to like get everyone to say their names and just to make sure that I get eye contact with everyone. And just to say… And keep positivity going as the bare minimum, never to dismiss anyone.

 

Even when I’m trying to get them to work, even if they are like, ah I can’t be bothered and I know I’ve only got this one workshop for one hour with this person who I’ll never see again. I’m going to keep an atmosphere of positivity that, one won’t put them off but two will make them think wow actually maybe we’ve connected and there’s something… So yeah, in short, to open doors if I can. To keep them open if they’re already open. [JSL: Yeah.] And that’s it in a short… You know if I don’t really know them beforehand.

 

JSL:      Just in terms of my own thinking around the kind of base principles that I like to bear in mind, I try to give over or try and leave my students with some, some kind of technical awareness. Even if it’s one point, some kind of technical awareness or technique that they can use in terms of the craft of writing or in terms of their poetry, right. And that kind of goes towards this sense of, I want to make sure that they’re left with something that exists beyond me.

 

So it’s not just about me being in the room being the poet who’s arrived, who’s giving them this, “hey great experience!” And then disappears for a little bit. But that sense of, here are some skills and it’s not just about me, it’s about your relationship with this thing that we call poetry.

 

I want to try and ensure… And again I had that experience similar to you Keith of being brought in to work with students who are identified as failing or who have difficulties in the education system or whatever along those lines. And for so many of those students and for so many of the other students I work with regardless of whatever their background is or their sense of attainment or achievement, I want to give them the sense that poetry is something relevant.

 

Yeah, something that is accessible and something that they can claim as their own. It’s not just this kind of old dead thing over there… Which also leads into this, kind of, conversation between poetry and it, kind of, comes back to the poetry/rap thing that we were talking about before… Miriam, I’m still keen to hear you rapping… But that whole sense of the relationship between poetry not being cool and the things that are cool. So that sense of… The relationship between poetry and spoken word, for example. And how we brand things as spoken word to make them accessible.

 

Poetry is a broad field and I want to challenge you, I want to push you a little bit. You might say you like this part of that field, which might be defined as spoken word but I want to show you that that’s just one point on a large map. You can travel across that map as much as you want, there are so many different places that you go.

 

We’ve spoken a lot about our experiences, if we were challenging you to offer up any thoughts, any advice to an emerging poet-educator who wanted to do more work or who has perhaps run some workshops but is looking to ‘skill-up’. Looking to figure out how to do better, how to succeed, how to develop their vision of success and what success means in a teaching experience.

 

What kinds of things would you put forward from your own experience that people should maybe bear in mind?

 

MN:     To come back to the notion of support, that we’ve talked about a lot. I think it’s really important to ask yourself, where is my support coming from. It’s easy when you’re starting out, I thought, “okay what do I need to do, to be able to do this work?” To be able to be there to get there and be in that room and be able to handle it.

 

But I, you know, I was thinking about external things. I need to meet this person, make this connection. I you know… But not about the support that’s needed. And you know, we need to ask the organisations that we work with, the schools that we work with for support. And in order to be able to do that we need to have a sense of what that support is.

 

And so I think, you know, the way to get that starting out is to talk to other poets who have been doing it for longer. The others who are just starting out and even by having a small support group, you know, between poets who are working in different settings. Those things are really important.

 

JSL:      So maybe starting something up for yourself if you’re not aware of something that you can join? Just being able to say, “Hey guys we’re doing… We want to do this kind of work. Let’s say we band together and share experiences?” I mean there is so much that’s happening now in terms of spaces that are being set up for people to learn or… I mean there’s the Apples and Snakes’ masterclasses, for example. You know, there are things that are happening but beyond those to be able to kind of create some kind of community or community of practice for yourself?

 

MN:     Yeah, absolutely and just to make sure that you have support… The support that you need wherever that comes from. Yeah it may take a while to fully understand what kind of support it is that you need. I’m really grateful to certain poets that I work with and in particular this year, Jasmine Cooray who… For reaching out and saying, “Okay I’m doing this work, you’re doing this work, some other people are doing this work.”

 

And we don’t have supervision, we don’t have regular supervision which is built into some other professions. And you know we need to do whatever we can to ensure that the organisations that the schools that we work with help us to get that, but we also need to take responsibility for it and give it to each other and ourselves. That’s, something really important.

 

And again, I guess it takes a little bit of experimentation but to try and figure out what kind of teaching work you actually want to do and what kind of work you are suited to doing. And that’s something that I remember you challenging me on Jacob, from very early on. And it’s great isn’t it, as a learner you know years later you sort of have these moments where you think, “Oh this is really really what Jacob meant!”

 

And now, you know I think yes, it is great to go and experiment and I would encourage people to have the support that they need to be able to bring their work into different environments. Don’t feel like you always have to be the person leading it, go and be a shadow. Go and shadow different artists, expose yourself to different practices. Read books. But also you know, all the time be reflecting on, where does it actually work for you, where does it spark for you?

 

You know, for example I think for quite a long time I felt like I needed to be able to do the ‘one-off’ workshops, where you go and do the assembly in the school and then you work in different classrooms. I occasionally still do that work and it can be great fun but, you know, I had this mistaken idea that I sort of needed to prove to myself that I could go into almost any situation that.

 

JSL:      That you’re capable of it?

 

MN:     Yeah and you know, actually I much prefer working on longer term programmes. I think I’m much better suited to working with a slightly smaller group of students over an extended period of time and it’s very valuable to know that.

 

JSL:      There’s this part of the teaching practice, in terms of the way that I conceive it anyway, which is you have to create space for your students to learn for themselves. And in Caribbean culture there is this phrase, “if you can’t hear you must feel“. And again the flip-side of that can’t hear must feel thing is you’re going to learn. You’re going to learn for yourself if you can’t take it…

 

Again, actually what we’re celebrating there is, it’s not just about me telling you what it is that you should know. It’s about you figuring out for yourself in a constructed space, right. And it’s a joy to hear some of that thinking kind of land. Yeah.

 

But also that sense of actually really, genuinely getting that sense of. Well look, there’s a lot teaching that needs to be done in this city, in this country, across the world. Not everyone needs to be teaching the same thing or in the same way, you’re doing yourself and you’re doing your students much more of a service if you’re figuring out who you are as a teacher. What it is that you can provide and yeah great challenge yourself but figure out where you’re best placed and push that. Yeah, love that.

 

Any other tips that we want to pass on any other tools?

 

KJ:       I would just go on a practical level of just making sure each time you go into a workshop you know that you’ve covered the bases of… From as far as what you’ve been told and to try and get that information. So I know generally speaking I’ll try and do a ‘Prezi Presentation’ but that requires the Internet and a projector.

 

So just making sure basics like that [are in place]. Do they have the Internet do they have a projector? There are some schools I’ve been into which don’t allow USB sticks to be used and I didn’t know that until I walked into a school, tried to like… And I thought, “Come on!” and I couldn’t use that. And so then that created a whole different set of problems.

 

JSL:      That’s like your IT department saying, “We’re not going to accept any foreign USB devices because they might corrupt our network with a virus or something so forget that.

 

KJ:       So I get it now but it’s just so annoying because every other place that I go, like a USB is kind of the minimum and with PowerPoint or even Word I could have done something just by accessing the documents that I had. But I had no way of doing that.

 

Then also just knowing if you don’t know the place that you’re going to, especially if it’s a school or something like that. Just knowing who to go to for specific… If there are any issues come up, who do you refer the pupils to? Are you going to be there on your own, is there going to be someone else there with you? And then again, what the different expectations are. You know, do they want you to do turn-tabling with without your consent.

 

So just having absolutely as much in writing as possible as well as on the phone, just having good contact with whatever space you’re going into. And then again just checking my own motives. Obviously it’s lovely, you know, sometimes I have gone into a place thinking, “Great it’s, you know, a couple of hours and I’m getting paid which is nice”. But actually, I’m here to share my experience and my knowledge and my craft. So, just making sure I’m at the right place to do that.

 

JSL:      And I’d jump in and I’d support… In terms of what you were saying about having things on paper so that you can always refer back to them. You know having those conversations.

 

I know again, with all love to the teachers that we work with. We all know that everyone’s busy so we know that sometimes email conversations are delayed because marking needed to be done and so on and so forth. And really you’re the poet who’s possibly only in for the one session or only in once a week or once every fortnight or something like that so there are other priorities that get in the way.

 

But having that conversation via email so that you’ve got that kind of chain you can look through and refer to and if someone says well we thought you were coming in at this particular time and you were needing this you can actually refer back to. When actually it was clearly said and disseminate to this body of people that this is what we needed just in case there’s any confusion. You know having that kind of recourse is, I think a very good thing.

 

Along the lines of paperwork, making sure you’ve got your DBS, your CRB and your public liability insurance and all those kinds of things. Just making sure that you are covered, it’s the kind of stuff you hope you don’t need but if you do need it’s good to have in place, right.

 

And knowing that there are organisations… So for example, I believe that NAWE still does this. If you sign up as a NAWE member you get your you get your public liability insurance and you can do your DBS through them as well. And there are other organisations that you can approach along those lines. There’s an organisation called The Artist’s Network which isn’t necessarily about literature as an art, but yes signing up for The Artist’s Network gives you a fair amount of cover or gives you access to a fair amount of cover for public liability insurance and indemnity, which I found out about when I was running workshops for the Tate Modern.

 

In terms of, again the practicalities… Having that awareness of what the culture of the school is and what the procedures are if something happens. So from simple things like you know… Again we were talking about appropriate dress within a space, knowing that you’re probably not going to be going to school wearing a cap or a hat because in some settings… You know even if you are dressed neatly but still wearing a hat there is actually a school rule against headwear. You know, knowing that before you go in.

 

Whether it is that kind of stuff or whether it’s if something happens in this classroom then a student will… I mean generally you should have a teacher in the room anyway ideally depending on… You know, if you’re employed almost full-time as a teacher or a member of staff then maybe there’s a slightly different thing there. But if you are an artist who’s being brought in to run a short-term workshop then largely you should have a teacher in the room with you as a representative of the school in case anything happens that needs a member of staff to be aware of or to march things through procedures.

 

We all know, however, that there are circumstances where you’ll arrive, teacher will be there for the first five minutes and then say, “You’ve got this? You’ve got this! Great, good, I’m just going to go off down the corridor and just take care of this other thing from the next…” Never see them again. Yeah.

 

So kind of knowing what the procedures are and what’s appropriate. Knowing or having some sense of… If something happens in the room or if there’s a discipline issue then you’re actually going to that office ‘over there’. An awareness of the rules or the regulations or the kind of procedures around disclosure, for example. If something’s said in the room that suggests that something’s going on at home that needs to be escalated? Knowing who it is that needs to be informed of that.

 

Not putting yourself, for example, in a position where you promise, “Okay, no one else will see this material. I promise it’s just you. It’s just on this piece of paper.” But then you see that piece of paper and you’re like, “Wow there’s something happening”. And now I am duty bound to report this or pass this on to someone else who has a responsibility for disclosure in this space. Have any of you had an experience where a student has cried in one of your workshops?

 

KJ:       Yes.

 

JSL:      How did that feel?

 

KJ:       A few times. There was… Particularly under, I’ll call it a traineeship though I was really shadowing Peter Kahn for a while, going into the school. And he developed one particular session that was guaranteed to have at least one pupil cry.

 

JSL:      Right.

 

KJ:       And I’ve since just done it as a one-off workshop and again like with him, they’re balling. It’s quite a generic thing you know it’s, I mean the title is like, “What it’s like to be… For those of you who aren’t”. And there will always be a few kids who will do something silly you know, what it’s like to be a spaceman, for those of you that aren’t. But then will be someone who like, what it’s like to be bullied and they’ll go really in deep and then suddenly the atmosphere in the whole room changes.

 

JSL:      Yeah.

 

KJ:       People are like, whoah and then the tears come and whatever. And it’s brilliant because I feel, wow, something has been opened and accessed. However, it’s how you deal with the aftercare.

 

JSL:      Yeah.

 

MN:     Yes.

 

KJ:       And how that is perceived by the institutions. Some schools and school managements will think that’s a very negative thing, suddenly there are these kids crying and being emotional and it doesn’t fit with the school ethos. Or, things have come up in that which I then have passed on and disclosed, because I do immediately. And this is something, again a big one…

 

Like before the writing process saying look this is your opportunity to express yourself. At the same time you know, things that we say about each other we’re not going to gossip about each other in the room we’re not going to allow certain things to leave the room. However, if there’s something that I’m slightly concerned about, and it’s good to know the name, I might just have a chat with Mr ‘So-and-so’, or Mrs ‘So-and-so’. And that will be good because, you know, the whole point of this exercise is to open up a bit.

 

That said, we don’t want everything to be going outside the room. So if you couch it in those terms generally speaking it works.

 

JSL:      You frame it so there’s an awareness of the fact that if anything does flag up [KJ: Yeah] you may well pass that on to an appropriate person? [KJ: Yes] Right.

 

MN:     I think it’s a really good example that you bring up, you know, this exercise that people can take in a quite humorous or light direction and if they want to they could go somewhere more serious. But I think it’s really important to have those options and to never be pushing people, even without realising, because that’s…

 

You know, we would never try to push someone to reveal something they didn’t want to but if there’s an implicit feeling that in order to fulfil the task you kind of need to dig deep, you may not realise how difficult that might be for certain students. So, to always kind of make sure that writing a poem about football is as celebrated as writing a poem about your little sister’s illness.

 

JSL:      Yeah. So we’re creating spaces for these things to happen right? Rather than saying you must be this way or that way. [KJ: Yeah.] So in terms of that kind of, “Oh you came in and you made the kids cry. What’s wrong with you? You’re the poet was the fluffy stuff about clouds and things!” So there’s that kind of, on one extreme, that sense of doing the light fluffy work. On the other extreme there’s a sense of, “Well I’m the poet. I’m supposed to come in here and then go deep and bring out all of the trauma.” And all that kind of stuff.

 

That notion of creating the space that the students need, I think is so powerful rather than pushing them in any one direction but giving them those options.

 

KJ:       And that’s the other thing, like, where else is there the opportunity to deal with death in school?

 

JSL:      Right.

 

MN:     Exactly.

 

KJ:       Something like that. But at the same time don’t push it. I know as someone who’s been a participant in a workshop that at any given moment there are things that I want to write about and I don’t want to write about. Things that I feel safe writing about, things I don’t feel safe writing about. So like just providing that opportunity to go with it.

 

The other advice is just to allow a lot of air in the workshops to go in multiple directions that don’t force humour and lightness. And that don’t also force stuff that can be really heavy because, I mean… Yes, sometimes I do want to talk about death and sometimes I want to talk about roses and sometimes both.

 

JSL:      At the same time in the same poem, yeah. Where else is there for our students to talk about their inner most thoughts and feelings? Their experiences and their perceptions on the world to bring their insides out in some way in a space that is supportive? For them to kind of stand up and read that work, put forward that expression and to have a class or showcase, an audience in that showcase, put hands together and say, “We hear you. We hear you and we celebrate what it is that you’ve just written and offered.” Those are special spaces they really are yeah.

 

Along the lines of these kinds of requirements and things we should bear in mind as people going in to schools and running workshops and working with teachers and working with students and doing this work. Someone talk to me about the notion of looking after yourself in this, because so often we’re forgotten.

 

So sometimes I run workshops, in fact I run a lot of workshops for people who do this kind of work and I’ll say okay so who are we serving when we’re in a classroom? Who are the stakeholders? Who are we thinking about when we’re running a workshop? And the first thing that most people will say is, the students, obviously students we’re there for the students!

 

Okay, that’s good but there’s more. Okay so who else? Oh! Okay the teachers maybe, because yeah actually some of the work that we do benefits the teachers. We’re supporting their thinking around what poetry can be and how poetry can work. And we’re supporting their understandings of who their students are, they get to see their students in different ways.

 

So yes, the students and the teachers, yes! And I’m like, actually there’s more, “Who else?” Yourself, right. What are your thoughts on that, in terms of that notion of looking after yourself in the work that you do. How important is that for you as a consideration?

 

KJ:       Yeah I mean we’ve kind of skirted around it but one of the big thinkers on, you know, pedagogical theory was Paulo Freire, he critiqued that kind of banking model of education where you know you have the teacher who’s like at the top of the pyramid who’s sort of imparting knowledge and sort of pouring knowledge into these empty vessels the pupils and they must get as much logic as they can.

 

But that top down view not only is hierarchical, not only belittles students and necessarily aggrandises the teacher but it also just ignores the importance of the pupils in some way. As people who already come into the space with a lot of knowledge and a lot of value that they can add. So I know whenever I go into a space whether it’s with adults but more often we have young people that I’m getting something from them.

 

Sometimes it’s just mannerisms and ways of talking. And I’m paying attention to that because I love language so I’m thinking, “Oh, wow they’re saying that in that way. Okay interesting.” So sometimes it’s just that, it’s their sense of humour, sometimes it’s their sense of optimism. I can be quite pessimistic at the moment with politics and everything else. But they’re like really young and hopeful you know, they don’t think the world’s going to end.

 

It’s the humour most of all, especially the so-called problematic kids, even when they’re insulting someone, they’ll say something so creative, I’m like wow. That’s amazing, that’s really great.

 

They’re coming with different cultures and different first languages sometimes. And sometimes if I get it right and if I’m getting things out of him they’ll say, well actually in Turkish or whatever we’ll say this. So suddenly I’m getting poetry. So if I pay attention to myself as a learner and as someone who is soaking up stuff then it changes the whole dynamic. And then you know obviously I’m the adult in the room and there needs to be some respect for authority but at the same time it’s not a hierarchical one.

 

It’s just, I happen to be in control and I’m the one being paid. You are the one who’s forced by law because you are a minor but actually you have value. And I’ll try and be honest about that as well and say look, you know I think what you have to contribute is amazing.

 

JSL:      There’s a way in which you’re also being fed by that interaction, you’re gaining from it. With regards to that kind of ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’ and all that kind of thinking of ‘the bank of education’ is also a guy called John Maeda who put forward this notion of the relationship between traditional leadership and creative leadership.

 

And the model of traditional leadership is kind of analogous to the notion of the orchestra and the conductor where the teacher is or the leader is the conductor and orchestra follows. Whereas the notion of creative leadership was put forward as being analogous with, the jazz band. Where you’re a player within this kind of collaborative space and you may lead some of the standards, you may lead how things are moving, and again you’re responsive and you’re listening and you’re in the mix with things. And again, that notion of being fed rather than just being solely the lead of that kind of experience is a beautiful thing.

 

Is it fair to say that we teach from the heart?

 

KJ:       Yeah.

 

MN:     Yes.

 

JSL:      We have a care for the work that we do and for the people that we interact with, right? So how do you sustain that energy? Where does energy come from and how do you keep that fire and how do you keep some of their energy for yourself?

 

MN:     Well it is a challenge and I think, you know, in many ways… Because the way that I’ve been working in education is quite different to the spoken word educators program where you’re, you know, essentially a member of staff within a school. And there is a great privilege in that role of being able to come in to a space and come out. You’re not carrying all the weight of that institution in the way that the teachers do every day.

 

You know, they engage with that space absolutely every day and that you know… We all see and know the incredible work that that is. If I’m teaching in the way that I want to teach, it is very much from the heart and that can make me very porous as well that can make me actually quite vulnerable in a way, if I’m not taking proper care of myself. It can be very overwhelming to come into contact with this many people, this many stories, and to be that open.

 

And, I know that I have a sensitivity there and that’s part of what makes me who I am and that makes me want to do this work with writing and teaching. But if I’m going into a space and I’m not able to, kind of, fully hold my own then I shouldn’t be going into that space.

 

JSL:      Right.

 

MN:     And I guess the tricky thing with that is like, with any work that we do is that it’s very easy to up a front. It’s very easy to, you know, get good at what you do and be able to sort of go through it without really being in the right mind set to do it fully, in a way that kind of fully respects the students the teachers and yourself.

 

For me, it’s involved a lot of learning about taking care of myself, taking time off when I need to. You need to check in with yourself and say, “Okay, how are you doing? What are you going to do to make sure that this day is okay for you? Okay, you’re actually going to go out for the lunch break and not be in the staffroom where you’ll have to speak to a lot of people. Or, you know, you’re going to arrive a little bit early in your classroom so you get to see that room and just take a breath.”

 

But, you know, what are you going to build into your day so that that happens? And I think it is about these sort of small actions. Oh who am I going to call after my session just to say, “Oh this went great or this didn’t go so great”? So that you’re not carrying everything by yourself.

 

JSL:      Do you have that experience where you kind of pick up and realise that you’re actually in the middle of a period of time where you haven’t been looking after yourself? And all those good things that you should be doing have just fallen by the wayside because you got busy and it became really difficult to keep all of that stuff up and you kind of realise what it is are you actually missing? Have we all had that experience?

 

KJ:       Yeah.

 

MN:     Yeah of course.

 

JSL:      It’s so important, but it is so easy for those things to fall by the wayside. It needs to become part of our practice.

 

MN:     Also it can be shared. [JSL: Yeah.] I think we shouldn’t underestimate the people that we work with, the teachers you know. If you are on a slightly longer term program you can get to know you’re, the teachers that you work with and you know, be able to have a little conversation. A little wind-down afterwards, debrief, “How did it go?” We need those things, we shouldn’t think that we can just function completely on our own.

 

JSL:      We are not machines!

 

KJ:       If you do find yourself in a situation where you are kind of on your own and you do feel you’ve kind of been left to your own devices… Just the basics of, proper sleep and decent nutrition. Especially if you’re like going from class to class, just making sure you are eating properly and sleeping properly. I find that helps and when I start to let that go it’s usually because there’s other things going on and I’m feeling a bit stressed and overwhelmed. And then you know sure enough a few weeks later I am ill or you know something’s not quite right.

 

JSL:      For sure. What is our work worth?

 

MN:     It’s that great question that you get asked, you know, if you have some time where students can ask you questions and it’s the first session, there’s usually someone who’s like, “How much are you being paid?”

 

JSL:      Yeah. What is our work worth? So ya’ll have been teaching in various different ways and guises for, you know, a fair while now, right? Do you still have that kind of awkward moment when someone asks you to come in and run a workshop and maybe they haven’t pitched the fee yet and you’re like, “They haven’t pitched a fee yet! At what point do I actually start to talk about a fee.

 

Do you guys still have that kind of thinking, that thought, that awkwardness around asking for monies for the work that’s done? Or asking for a fair set of monies for the work that’s done?

 

KJ:       I can be really awkward anyway with emails and stuff, with conversations even. It just depends what space I’m in but it’s best to be just upfront from the get go.

 

MN:     Yeah!

 

KJ:       On a couple of occasions it’s been expected that it would be free, which is weird. But otherwise it’s good to know beforehand and just… There are polite ways of doing it and I think that comes with the practice of just saying you know… Even having it as part of a list. You know, so what kind of a fee, how long? You know basic because again when they say half a day you know, half a school a day can mean like from 08:00 till 14:00. Which you know, a full school day is only an hour and a half extra, so it’s like okay. So things like that come as part of it.

 

And I know Apples and Snakes and other places do actually say what the kind of expected going rate is so you can find out, you know, if if people are really being insulting by offering you fifty quid for a whole day. And travelling up to, you know, some place where it’ll cost you that much to get there.

 

I know that I do a better job if I feel that I’m not being insulted. You know, I’m being paid a decent amount and I’m expected to turn up and it’s professional and then I behave like a professional. But if they’re sort of just treating it like, you know, it’s a little favour then of course I’m not going to come in… As good as my intentions are my spirit isn’t going to be the same as if I feel I’m doing a professional job. So yeah that’s my rambling answer.

 

JSL:      Miriam, your thoughts on that sense of awkwardness in terms of what it means to have that conversation around monies when it comes to this work? Because you know there is this sense of, you’re an artist you should enjoy doing this! That kind of thing.

 

MN:     Yeah I think what’s tricky about that as well is that, because we generally get paid daily rates and the daily rates may seem high to people who are on a regular salary. And that’s really understandable but it’s just a very different way of being paid. So you know, if your daily rate is £250, £300 this may sound like a lot of money. But when you factor in the fact that you cannot do that work every day, necessarily and that you’re bringing in your…

 

You’re really bringing in your expertise and the job that you’re doing is not something that you can do in an everyday way, you’re actually being paid to come in to do something special. And so you can’t go about your business in an everyday way you know. So I think that it’s really important that that is being valued and understood.

 

And I feel really lucky in that the teachers that I’m working with at the moment. I’ve been having a really good experience with the schools I’ve been working with in the last year. Because I’ve been trying to work more with schools that are delivering long term programs, there’s already that investment and that’s amazing. To be able to work with teachers who on top of everything else that they have to do, are putting on this after-school program. Or making sure that in the incredibly stretched timetable there is time for this thing.

 

I don’t know that I feel awkward but I still don’t necessarily feel great at negotiating on my own behalf and I think that’s something that we, again can easily take for granted. Like, I’m a writer, I’m an educator I know I can deliver a great workshop and I love what I do but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I have all those skills of being a freelance professional. You know, I’m not necessarily great at all the mechanics of that.

 

JSL:      That’s a really important part of it, that notion of… I mean a lot of what we’ve been talking about in this time has been, how we manifest as educators, as poet educators, or artist educators, or teaching artists in educational spaces. But there’s a large part of this conversation that really is about how we operate as creative professionals how we do that work of promoting ourselves, how we do that work of managing the administration and how we do that work of managing the finance of what it is that we do.

 

I mean, we were talking a little bit earlier about the notion of the work that we’re doing of being almost unregulated. As you were saying, there are no supervisors necessarily you’re working for yourself but that also means that you are responsible for setting your pay grades, so to speak.

 

So yeah there’s an awareness of the market that we exist within and what the economy is, right and what a fair rate might be in relation to generally what budgets are available from schools and all that kind of thing. But there’s also a sense in which if you’re constantly going by just what the set rate is… So again for example, we might use the measure of an Apples and Snakes rate which I think is fantastic in terms of an understanding of a baseline.

 

But if we continue to take that as simply the baseline there is, you know, where do you go in terms of, as you grow and develop experience? Are you always going to be at that rate and how is that rate indexed, for example, to inflation? Do you get a pay rise at any point in this career?

 

You know we have to think about how our work can be sustainable for ourselves and how it is that our work, as we consider it as work. How it is that our work facilitates the lives that we live in the same way as anyone else’s work in any other sector or industry will facilitate the lives that they live, you know.

 

Alright, there is so much to speak about, there is so much else that we could talk about but I hope you the listener have gained something from this conversation. I know it’s been a joy to the in this room with Keith and Miriam. Thank you, Keith, thank you Miriam.

 

MN:     Thank you.

 

KJ:       Thank you.

 

JSL:      You are more than welcome and thanks to David Turner and Lunar Poetry Podcasts for making this possible and making this happen. Thank you for listening.

 

 

 

End of transcript.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Episode 105 – Access to Publishing

Access To Publishing - Fin

So, the last episode of the series has gone up online and what an amazing end it is. Khairani Barokka is joined by poets Raymond Antrobus, Sandra Alland and Giles L. Turnbull for a discussion about access to publishing in the UK. Link to transcript here. The quartet discuss the variety of barriers they have faced or addressed during their careers. Taking the recently published anthology, Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back, as their starting point, they move on to cover magazine submissions, live reading, poetry competitions, and the often ‘tokenistic’ approach to diversity within poetry publishing. A description of the header image, also used as the episode artwork, can be found at the bottom of this post.

This episode has been a long time in the planning and I’m just so happy that it’s happened and that it has marked the end of the Arts Council funding I received last summer. A breakdown of which can be found here.

Below are listed some excellent resources relevant to the discussion but first I wanted to list the places you can find the four wonderful guests and gigs they’ve got coming up which I just didn’t have time to squeeze into the podcast introduction…

Khairani Barokka (Okka)’s website can be found here, she can also be found on Twitter @mailbykite. Okka’s book Indigenous Species is available, in various formats, from Tilted Axis Press. Her debut, full-length, poetry collection Rope is due out with Nine Arches Press in October 2017.

Sandra Alland‘s website can be found here, and you can find Sandra on Twitter @san_alland.

Sandra and Okka, who are two of the editors of the anthology Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back, will feature, along with several anthology contributors, at Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh on Wednesday September 27th, from 6:30pm-9pm. Access includes: BSL interpreting, BSL content, projected text of poems, captioned films and audio description. This is a relaxed event with quiet space provided. £4/£3 concessions. More info at scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk

You can also catch Sandra appearing on a panel as part of a film event highlighting the representation of bisexual and queer disabled experiences, for Bi Visibility DayVisibility and Representation takes place Friday 22nd September | 6.30-9.30pm. LifeCare, Edinburgh, 2 Cheyne St, EH4 1JB. Venue wheelchair accessible via lift. Films subtitled, BSL interpreting provided.

Giles L. Turnbull‘s website can be found here. Giles can also be found hanging out on Facebook and Twitter @Bix_cool.

Giles will be reading at Putney Library on the 11th or 12th of October (date tbc, see website) as part of the extended celebrations around National Poetry Day. You can also catch Giles reading at Voices on the Bridge in Pontypridd in October and Abergavenny Writing Festival, 19-21 April 2018.

Raymond Antrobus’ website is here and he’s on Twitter @RaymondAntrobus. Ray is gigging all the time so the best thing to do is check dates on his blog or get in touch via Twitter. Raymond is the co-editor of Magma Poetry Issue 69 – The Deaf Issue due for release in November.

Resources recommended by the team behind this episode:

1. In the podcast discussion, Sandra talks briefly about research on the barriers faced by trans and/or non-binary people in further and higher education. If you’re interested in more details about some of this research being done in the UK, including about people who are trans and also disabled or D/deaf, you can follow Scotland’s TransEdu project as the research is developed. Go to www.trans.ac.uk for more information.

 2. In the podcast the group discusses the excellent accessible content of the online literary magazine, Deaf Poets Society. Find it at deafpoetssociety.com

 3. For people searching for audio content in publishing, San suggests an offshoot of Manchester’s Comma Press called MacGuffin. They have a website and apps that feature text and audio recordings of poetry and short stories. For details go to commapress.co.uk/digital/macguffin/

Artwork Description:

Access To Publishing - Fin

The accompanying artwork is a square image roughly divided into quarters. Everyone supplied black and white pics.

The bottom-left corner is the podcast logo, a black circle on a white background. In white lettering on the black circle is ‘L.P. Podcasts’.

The bottom-right corner is Okka, an Indonesian woman sitting on some tree trunks (in Camberwell), right arm across her knees and looking to her right deep in thought about poetry or maybe dinner (definitely dinner)! Dark-coloured, long-sleeve top under a yellow vest style dress.

Top-right corner is Sandra. The image is shot from above so Sandra is looking up and straight into the lens. White with short and medium-dark hair, eyebrow piercing above the left eye, dark jumper over a checked shirt. Trousers and boots. Walking stick in left hand. Reminiscent of Manchester-based indie band LP covers from the 90s. Photo by Tiu Makkonen.

Top-left corner is divided into two portrait-format pictures. To the left is Raymond, shot from chest up. Ray leans against the edge of a stone doorway. Short dark hair, dark shirt open over a crew neck t-shirt, pendant hanging from a leather necklace. Ray seems to be asking us to buy his latest collection or his latest pop record.

To the right of Raymond is Giles, also shot from the chest up. Giles is sat in front of the architrave surrounding a box sash window and wears a wool jumper over an open-necked shirt. All of which seems to tell us that Giles has thoroughly enjoyed this rural writing retreat and we should all join him next year when the theme is ‘Birch Trees. Nature’s Lampposts.’

End of artwork description.

 

Thank you again to everyone that has listened or taken part in the series in the last 12 months. It has been insightful, exciting, tiring, frustrating but mainly just brilliant. Much love, David.

 

Transcript:

 

Introduction:

 

DT:      Hello, this is Lunar Poetry Podcasts. I’m David Turner. Hello to our regular listeners and anyone who’s tuning in for the first time. Today’s episode is the last one to come out of the funding we received last summer from Arts Council England. A big thank-you to them for the financial support over the last 12 months.

 

I will, incidentally, be publishing a breakdown of what the funding was used for. You’ll be able to find that over at our website from September, so if looking at spreadsheets and pie charts is something you’re interested in, then go over to http://www.lunarpoetrypodcasts.com . where you can also download a transcript of this episode, along with over 70 episodes from the archive.

 

After today’s episode, we’ll be returning to uploading one per month. I’m in the process of applying for more funding from Arts Council England and depending on whether that’s successful or not, I’ll be giving more details about what form the series will take as soon as possible. You can follow the progress of that application by following us at Lunar Poetry Podcasts on Facebook or Instagram and @Silent_Tongue on Twitter, though regardless of the funding application, the series will continue, as will the transcripts.

 

One final piece of news before I introduce the episode. The British Library has chosen to archive the entire series in their national audio collection. This is a pretty big project and will take a few months to process, but it won’t affect the way you access these podcasts. I just wanted to mention it because the archiving of podcasts is still unusual and if you lot hadn’t continued to listen, I wouldn’t have continued with the series and I wouldn’t be sitting on a series that contains over 200 poetic voices, many of them working class and/or from marginalised parts of society. I’m just made up that these voices will now be part of a national collection.

 

So, today’s episode. It was recorded in a space given over for free at the Albany Theatre in Deptford, South East London, by the literature organisation Spread The Word, who do fantastic work. You should check them out. Thank you in particular to Aliya and Laura for their help and advice there. We’ve spoken a lot in the last 12 months about access to the arts and literature and I thought this topic would be the perfect way to wrap up this current series, if you like.

 

This discussion, ‘Access to Publishing’, is hosted by poet, artist, former Lunar guest and friend of mine, Khairani Barokka, or Okka, as she likes to be known. Okka is joined by Raymond Antrobus and Giles L. Turnbull, and also Sandra Alland who, along with Okka and Daniel Sluman, co-edited an anthology of poetry and essays by D/deaf and Disabled writers called ‘Stairs and Whispers’, out through Nine Arches Press, to which Ray and Giles were both contributors.

 

Taking Stairs and Whispers as a starting point, the quartet go on to discuss many of the barriers that writers from marginalised groups face when trying to get published. Talking from personal experience, the discussion aims to give an overview of some of the issues faced by writers all over the UK. This of course is a starting point for further discussion and not a final statement on any subject and an hour or so is not enough time to cover everything and go into enough detail on each particular topic that came up in the discussion.

 

If you have any feedback or would like to get involved in the discussion yourself, then please get in touch with us via social media and our guests will engage when they have time and energy. Okka, Sandra, Ray and Giles all have gigs coming up, which I would like to plug, but that would make this intro even more rambling than it has already become. I will, however, write a blog post listing all this information, which you can find over at http://www.lunarpoetrypodcasts.com.

 

Alternatively, follow the link which I will post in the episode description. That’s probably enough for now. If you like what we do, please support us by telling people. Word-of-mouth recommendations, either in person or via social media, really is the most effective form of advertising for us. Support the arts and literature. Again, thank you all for listening. I can’t believe we now have over 100 episodes. I’ve really enjoyed doing this. Here’s Okka, Sandra, Raymond and Giles.

 

 

Conversation:

 

 

KB:      Hello, my name is Khairani Barokka, I go by Okka, you may call me that. A while ago, David and I had a conversation about interviewing some people we respected and admired, about issues related to access to publishing. Who gets published? What are the barriers to getting published? How do people get published in different ways, and what impact that has on the form of literature, the content.

 

And so, I have the pleasure today of interviewing three other associates. I will be asking all three of them about their experiences and opinions related to this. So first of all – elephant in the room – all four of us have worked on a book that we’re all very proud of, called ‘Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back’, out with Nine Arches Press right now, go buy it. It was co-edited by myself, Sandra Alland and Daniel Sluman and features 54 contributors, contributing essays, films and of course poetry.

 

It is the first of its kind, we think. It’s probably the first major UK anthology of D/deaf and Disabled poets. We’re very proud of it, so go check it out. But this episode will not be specifically about that book, although of course it will discuss issues that we have all written about and addressed in the book, whether directly or indirectly. First of all, I’m going to ask you to introduce yourselves in your own words, what work you’ve been doing, what work you’ve got going on and why you’re interested in doing this podcast in the first place. So, maybe start with you, San.

 

SA:       Ah, no time to think. Hi, I’m Sandra Alland, I also go by San, I’m a writer, inter-disciplinary artist and curator. My work tends to focus on creatively-accessible and intersectional arts and community organising, examining the intersections of things like sexuality, Disabled and D/deaf cultures, gender, gender diversity and variation, and then race and class.

 

I write and sometimes read and perform poems and short stories, I also make short documentaries, usually focusing on D/deaf and Disabled people, but not always, mostly focusing on artists, and I make a few poetry films as well, and also curate film programmes, visual-art shows and cabarets.

 

GT:      My name’s Giles L. Turnbull. The ‘L’ is important because if you Google ‘Giles Turnbull’, there’s another Giles Turnbull whose life seems to follow a bizarrely coincidental route to mine. So I use the ‘L’. I’ve been Blind for nine years now, so I’ve written poetry as both sighted person and Blind person. My poetry doesn’t often touch on the blindness, but I often write in prose about the experience of Blindness on my poetry.

 

RA:      My name is Raymond Antrobus, I am a poet, a teacher and a person. I was born D/deaf, my deafness has gotten progressively worse. I don’t want to use the word worse, but yeah, I have to do hearing texts every six months to make sure it’s where it’s at. I’ve only recently started writing about that, in a similar way to what Giles just said about that not always being at the forefront of what is being written about.

 

I’m really excited about this conversation, because I don’t think I’ve ever sat in a room where’s there’s so much- San used the word intersectionality, and there’s so much intersection here in terms of disability but also experience.

 

KB:      And yes, I should mention that I myself identify, have been identifying for the past six years, as a Disabled woman-lady-woman. As a Disabled woman. I’m Indonesian and it wasn’t until I came to the UK that I got proper medication and accessibility for a lot of things, so this is all new and wonderful for me, it means I get to meet people like you. But yeah, writing about a past that does not involve access to what I do now, publishing and the arts, is something I am continually grappling with as well and I’m doing a PhD at Goldsmith’s about that.

 

So without further ado, let’s get into it. First, I would like to quote a few statistics from our friend Dave Coates, he runs the poetry review blog Dave Poems, that’s davepoems.wordpress.com, and he’s really done amazing work, researching from January 2013 to July 2017, four years’ worth of reviews from The Guardian for one, and then so many other insights that he’s got his data set from eight platforms of poetry.

 

With this data set, he’s discovered that articles written by people of colour are extremely under-represented in terms of overall articles. Only 4.3% of all articles written about poetry books were written by people of colour, a total of 44. The proportion of books by poets of colour reviewed is 8.1% of all books, which is still pretty shocking.

 

The proportion of female critics, or women critics that he’s recorded, is 41.5%, a much lower percentage for particular platforms, and likewise, the proportion of books by female or women poets that have been reviewed is 38.6%. Women critics review men and women almost evenly, but male critics, well, unsurprisingly, I’ve got to say, overwhelmingly review other men. Do better, dudes!

 

All of this, as he says, should remind us of just how homogenous this community has been, which for people outside poetry, they might not know, that the poetry scene is still quite homogenous. And so I think this conversation is important because we’re talking about what are the factors that lead to that, and what is changing right now, what can we do to make publishing, particularly for poetry, more inclusive and accessible, so not just talking about Disabled and D/deaf experiences, but also across gender lines.

 

I mean, there isn’t data here for non-binary poets, I think David has acknowledged, and for Disabled and D/deaf poets, but I’d like to hear your thoughts if you would like to go one by one and say something about what access and inclusion in publishing mean to you. I think I’d like to start with Sandra.

 

SA:       I was thinking about what access is. It can be so many things, but it includes reducing, and ideally removing, barriers, physical and mental barriers, social barriers and that includes monetary and governmental barriers, I think we often don’t talk about those as much, and linguistic and/or communication barriers, participation in all facets of life, and then for inclusion, for me, leads on from that.

 

I always like to think of it as leaving no one behind, so thinking about and acting upon how to make something possible for as many people as possible. Ideally, everyone. Also, within that, destabilising power structures so that the same privileged narratives aren’t happening again and again. And then in publishing, because I thought it was interesting you asked what is publishing, so I started to think about that as well, things like books, journals, magazines, zines, chap books, online things including blogs and all of that.

 

I also started to think about publishing as including grant applications, applications to agents and awards, because these things often have such a huge impact on whether or not someone actually gets published in their book form, whether they’ve had access to those things as well, so they’re sort of offshoots of publishing.

 

KB:      We’re going to come back to so many things you just said, I’m so excited that we’re getting right into the meat of things, especially as I think maybe people listening will like more clarification on the linguistic barriers that may be evident to us, but may not be evident to some listeners. Giles, if you’d like to…

 

GT:      I always think inclusion is probably the most important thing. It happens on both fronts. You’ve got to encourage publishers to publish more of the less published writers, but you’ve also got to get more writers in those areas believing that they can publish. I first became aware of this when I looked at contemporary Blind poets and I Googled it and I found out about Homer and Milton.

 

I thought, ‘Is that it?’ I’m happy to say that my name now appears on a Google search like that, but there’s got to be more than that out there and I think there must be work needed, because I’m sure Blind people are writing poetry out there. They need to know that their route to publication is possible. They can do this. It isn’t, it shouldn’t be, some sort of barrier that they’re going to run up against. Working on both ends of the attack at the same time, the publishers and the writers, is important.

 

KB:      Thank you. Ray?

 

RA:      For me, one of the things that’s kept me going as a poet for so long is I genuinely had this belief there was nothing else I could do. I started more as a performer. I wasn’t interested in publishing anything because that’s not something I saw as available to me. I would write my stuff, I would learn it, and then I would be in front of an audience and the powerful thing about that for me, was because I was D/deaf and had so many different challenges and my confidence was really low in talking to other people, I’d lost almost every job I’d had from the ages of 16 to 20 because of my deafness and so it was kind of like, if I’m going to survive, I have to be a good poet and I have to be able to communicate with people.

 

It’s interesting now I’m at this point where I am publishing books, I am teaching, I am engaging with so many other people, but it’s been a journey and I do feel like I wouldn’t have had to have gone through as much had I seen more examples of D/deaf poets and more access, which is what we’re here to talk about. I hope that makes sense.

 

KB:      It does. It really resonated with a lot of my experiences too, like not seeing examples out there, low confidence, misunderstandings, jobs. So in terms of what Sandra was talking about with linguistic challenges to publishing, I’m really interested in hearing from all three of you about how you finally broke through to a point where you felt the way you wrote was validated in a poetry world that is still largely homogenous and has been.

 

I’d like to start with Giles in particular, because you and I spoke earlier about how you have written as both a sighted writer and a Blind writer, but only became published as a Blind writer and I thought that was fascinating and I’d love for you to speak more about that.

 

GT:      Yes, sure. I’ve been writing poetry since my high-school days, which is going on for 27 years now. For the most part, I was doing it for my own enjoyment. I did it as a way of relaxing after a busy day at work. But as my sight failed and I had more time, and had developed more confidence in my poetry, I decided I wanted to actually get it out there and try and get it some publications. So it’s been about five years since I’ve been published anywhere. It’s different.

 

I can’t comment on what it was like getting published as a sighted writer, because I never was. I guess I can imagine what it would have been. I know what difficulties I face now that I wouldn’t have faced if I was doing it sighted. Technology is usually the demon in this conversation. A lot of websites are not designed with good accessibility in mind. The easiest example is those random-word capture images that validate that you are human.

 

How on earth can I read that? There isn’t any kind of screen capture that will convert it into text for me. There used to be a Twitter app and I can’t even remember its name anymore, you could connect to it and say “I’ve got this capture challenge,” take a screenshot of it and then a human operator on the other end of the direct message would send the capture code back to you in text that you could paste into the box.

 

That was absolutely fantastic, but that’s been gone for probably five years now. There are alternatives. There’s a website called http://www.captchabegone.com, which I’ve never tried, but a lot of places these days, you will often see ‘Get an audio image’ and it will read out a set of numbers that you have to listen to and type them in as you hear them, and they are manageable, much easier than the mixed-up, slightly scrambled words that a sighted person has to deal with.

 

So I approve of that, but I don’t know if it really benefits the publisher, whether it really lowers the amount of spam they get, but it’s difficult, if the website’s not designed right. That’s the most obvious example, but if they’re not easy to navigate, it can take a very long time to read a whole page of a website to find information you want. If they’ve used headings correctly, that makes it easier for a blind person to jump, the screen reader will help you navigate from heading to heading, so you can find the heading you want with the submission information, but if there isn’t, you have to listen to the whole page and it’s hard work.

 

KB:      Thank you. Ray, you were speaking about the challenges of going into poetry and not really thinking about publishing and I thought that was super-interesting. What caused the shift? Do you feel a lot more comfortable now that you’re in Poetry Review, you know that your work is validated? What was that shift?

 

RA:      I think that shift was looking wider at the kind of poet… I think the kind of poet that I wanted to be changed. I was very much, in the first few years, about slam and about live poetry. I felt passionately about that space because again, it was something I had, I could kind of claim ownership over, without too many concerns and I think I looked at the publishing world, because I did have poetry books on my shelf, growing up, but that always just seemed like another world.

 

So I guess that shift might have been when I started seeing other poets who were also slamming. I started touring. I went around Germany and Switzerland, that side of Europe, and I noticed how many poets I was seeing, who are respected slam performance poets, also had books. I needed to see those examples and I think that planted something with me. Then, funnily enough, just as I was coming back, Burning Eye started and Clive from Burning Eye…

 

KB:      The publishing house.

 

RA:      …yeah, asked me, no one’s ever asked me before, ‘do you have anything we could publish?’ I just so happened to have been working on these… The timing was just gold. So I gave him what I had, he published it and it became a book called ‘Shapes and Disfigurements of Raymond Antrobus’. And I’m still really proud of that book, of how so many things came together, including the design, the front cover of the book, was designed by a man who’d seen me read poems, said he’d enjoyed them so much that he wanted to give something back of his own creation and ended up making this cover.

 

So it was just like organic collaboration. Now I’m passionate about making sure that other people who have other different kinds of challenges, including deafness, feel like they can submit, feel like they can become published poets as well as performance poets.

 

KB:      We’re going to come back to that, because I think encouraging other poets and creating more of an inclusive community is something that’s common to all of us. I want to talk about strategies for that later, but Sandra, you’ve worked for years on multimedia, interactive, intersectional experiences. There’s so much I want to ask you about challenges to inclusion in publishing. I know a lot of your work is collaborative as well. I wanted specifically to ask about that.

 

SA:       I’ll add a bit to what Giles was saying about barriers in terms of forms and online stuff, because I also use voice-activated software, trying to get naturally speaking, which I collaborate with! Although that’s not the kind of collaboration you were talking about… It doesn’t work with a lot of online forums as well. I think there’s been a lot of problems with things like Submittable for a lot of different programmes, and apps not working, and then the grants and awards, a lot of this is all online now and the autofill forms are not great and they don’t work with everything.

 

It’s also the socio-economic barriers. They’re assuming everyone is online in the first place. That’s a really huge thing, because there are so many people who aren’t. At my local library in Glasgow, there’s a queue to use the computers still. People don’t have that kind of access. Thinking about that as well. In terms of collaborations, coming back to linguistic barriers, I’ve worked with a lot of D/deaf BSL users and there’s hardly ever call-outs for magazines in BSL and there’s no information.

 

There’s also not audio information for people who are Blind or visually impaired, because not everyone is able to use the assisted technology or magnifying glasses or whatever, so thinking about these different ways of getting into things in terms of collaboration, it’s ensuring there are interpreters so people can have proper conversations and that sort of thing as well. Also, easy English, English that’s accessible to people with learning disabilities, that kind of thing is really important.

 

KB:      I want to speak specifically about the process of submitting. Raymond, you had that wonderful coincidence, Kismet, of Burning Eye approaching you directly. We’ve been working with Nine Arches and Jane, who’s open to these things. I would like to ask specifically about whether you think publishers are conveying themselves as accessible and inclusive?

 

Sandra’s about to burst out laughing, because the process of submitting… I know you talked about Submittable. I want to speak about how publishers… for example, one thing you wrote about in ‘Stairs and Whispers’, Sandra, was this need to tour.  I started out in performance as well, but it was really hard and I kept doing it because of this expectation that this is what poets do, rather than ‘how can I protect myself and do this better?’

 

I want to know if you think those conversations are happening more and more with publishers. If I can add one more thing, I would like to see more people in positions of power in publishing who come from different backgrounds and I want us not to only be ‘submitters’ and ‘the poets’. I want us to be publishers. That hierarchy needs to be more inclusive, I think. Are we still completely outsiders to some extent? Are publishers stating they are more amenable to, quote-unquote, ‘diversity’ – I hate that word – but you know, getting people from more socio-economic backgrounds, racial backgrounds?

 

SA:       I would have to say no. I think people who are from the backgrounds that are being included in term ‘diversity’ are often doing this work, but I don’t think other people really are. There are amazing D/deaf and Disabled publications, Deaf Poets Society, that are doing things that are completely accessible, they’re so amazing, everything they do has audio, they’ve got it all covered.

 

We ensured there was a lot of access on this book, but that was from us working towards it. People aren’t just doing this, I think, a lot of the time. I think people are trying to be more open-minded about including more kinds of people, perhaps, but they’re still not doing the work to find the people and to make themselves accessible to people in general. There are exceptions, of course, but overall things are still kind of bland, I think, to be honest.

 

RA:      Just this week, I found out a friend of mine, Sophie Woolley, who is a full D/deaf playwright-poet, she just won mentorship with Penguin Random House. There are some examples in the wider scheme of things, lots of issues, but there are some things. Even speaking for myself, I’m editing the next issue of Magma, that’s been really interesting to be on that side of the table, to be someone who’s asking for submissions and being someone reading those submissions and curating that space, with everything that we’re talking about around this table in mind. That’s interesting.

 

KB:      So you’re co-editing it with Lisa Kelly and both of you are also in ‘Stairs and Whispers’, which is wonderful. I think the different editorial approach of allowing non-D/deaf people to write about deafness is really interesting and I want to ask you about it. Different to how Sandra, Daniel and I curated ‘Stairs and Whispers’, we wanted it very much only D/deaf and Disabled poets, writing about anything really. Can you talk a bit about how you came to that decision with Lisa?

 

RA:      That was tricky. I think the way in which the compromise with this issue is, like you say, even with ‘Stairs and Whispers’, it’s the first time we’ve ever done this, so it’s the start of something. I can tell you that 22 of those poets are D/deaf without being published and also first-time publications. 22.

 

KB:      Wow, out of how many?

 

RA:      I’m not sure I can disclose yet how many. It was also very difficult dealing with rejecting a good number of poems, of writing, of material which was credible and important, but didn’t, I guess, live up to the standard of the publication, the standard they were looking for. It was challenging. I’m proud of what we’ve done, but what was really important for me, and I said this going in on this project, is that this cannot be a one-off thing.

 

Going forward, this needs to be a landmark in the way in which access is granted by, this one issue changes the landscape from here on. It’s ambitious. Like you say, we couldn’t take on the entire crusade as it were, it had to be like, ‘I’m going to do what I can with this one thing and begin a conversation or begin an exploration.’

 

KB:      I think that’s all any person can be expected to do. Even if you think it’s a small thing, it’s quite impactful. To do it with heart and to do it properly is difficult, but hopefully, it will multiply. Just seeing how other people are awoken to… ‘Oh, an anthology can be multimedia, oh, there are so many D/deaf and Disabled poets writing, oh, there are trans people writing, LGBTQ people writing, there are Black-Asian minority ethnic poets writing…’

 

It’s funny that people seem to think we don’t exist unless something like this comes out and shows actually, there are so many of us and we have always existed. Giles, when you submit, do you feel like they’re friendly and open to the idea of, a) that you’re a Blind writer conveying your art, and b) that it’s not a charity thing to accept, that the poetry has to be a high standard?

 

GT:      That is true and maybe it’s a reflection on the type of magazines I submit to, but I, probably 95% of the time, feel that the editors are very, very approachable. I have had some experience that they’re not, but most of the time, if I’m having trouble with submitting something, they’ll work around it with me. The bigger problem I have, well, it’s not a problem, but obviously I can’t read a printed copy and probably the number-one guidance thing that editors want is that you’ve read a copy of their magazine.

 

I’d like to do that, but that means I have to ask them, ‘Can I get an electronic format, ideally PDF, because then my screen reader can read it aloud?’ I know it does sometimes feel I’m kind of writing begging letters any time I want to submit something somewhere, but I’m comfortable with that. That’s the only way you can do it. I would like to encourage publishers to think about that and make their publications available in electronic format.

 

There are a lot of concerns about piracy, in the same way there was about mp3 files in the early days of file sharing with bands on the Napster website and things like that. Publishers do say they are aware of pdf copies of their books being shared without being purchased. That is trouble and I want to explore that and talk to publications about ways around that, because it is important, because without that, there’s no way I can read their magazines, but as I say, probably 95% of publishers, maybe even more, are happy and very quickly prepare a pdf copy.

 

Most of the publication process goes to pdf stage before it goes to print, so it’s no big hassle for most publishers, but they’re always really happy to work as best they can.

 

SA:       I was thinking that when people pass things around for free, it’s often people who wouldn’t be able to buy something or wouldn’t buy it anyway, so I don’t think there’s necessarily this loss of sales that everyone feels a bit rabid about. It’s actually in some ways really good for a book to be passed along in that way. It’s the way a lot of indie musicians became known, was people passing things along and saying: ‘Hey, listen to this, hey, read this.’

 

It can only help the publication in the end, unless everyone’s reading it for free, which isn’t the case anymore. People still want a hard-copy book. A lot of people want a designed, e-reader, e-book, they don’t want a pdf. I don’t think it’s going to be an overwhelming thing.

 

GT:      It’s like the whole ethos of public libraries, which are sadly in decline too.

 

SA:       Exactly. You can all read it for free there.

 

KB:      Libraries, yes, absolutely. So another thing I wanted to bring up is higher education and its connection to publishing and the poetry world. I know Ray went to Goldsmiths, I’m doing a PhD at Goldsmiths, I got my Masters from NYU, all not possible without scholarships, but the availability of stuff like that I want to speak to. Also, whether there’s a sort of elitism in requiring higher education, what divides and what benefits poetry in higher education has for inclusion and access.

 

RA:      Actually, I just realised that what you just said earlier about when did I first feel able to publish something, like submit to magazines specifically, and I’d never considered it until Jack Underwood, who was my dissertation adviser, he just read some of my poetry and said: ‘Have you heard of The Rialto?’ I was like no. ‘I’m going to submit.’ He did it for me. He submitted.

 

There’s a picture of him in this room. That guy on the wall took my poems and submitted them to the Rialto for me. They were all rejected and he said: ‘Don’t worry, I could paste the wall with all my rejection slips. Try again.’ Second time I did it, they actually wrote back a note. They rejected it as well, but they said: ‘This is interesting. There’s something here.’ Third time I submitted, I got in.

 

But it was being coached into it and the fact I was coached into it, I guess from within an institution, academia, there is something to say to that because I often felt, again, that those places weren’t for me until I found myself in them through the back door. Even my route into Goldsmiths university, I didn’t even get any GCSEs, I did a whole heap of interviews and written interviews to get in, to make a case that look, I am capable of doing this work at this level.

 

I wrestled with it a lot. I’m someone who’s been very proud of my auto-didacticism and I felt like I’d be giving that up, going into an academic space, but now I’ve gone through it, I’m so glad I did because it challenged so many ideas I had, and myths and narratives I had about where I belong, where my work belongs. I feel like I’ve only benefitted from it.

 

KB:      That’s wonderful. Giles, before this podcast began, we spoke about you potentially applying to an MA programme and your decision to try and go for that.

 

GT:      I’ve never really formally studied poetry. I mean, I’ve been writing it for over 25 years now, and it’s going quite nicely, so I don’t really need an MA to boost it, but I’m in no doubt that studying, spending a year working on it, would make an impact on my poetry, it would change a little bit how I write and give me broader ideas to write about, but there are two other aspects.

 

Everybody always says poetry isn’t a paid job, you cannot survive. You can be a librarian, you can be an accountant, but you can’t really make money from your poetry, and that is very true. I would hope that if I studied a Masters course, it would open a few more doors into publishing kind of roles that I would not have much chance with without it. The third angle to that consideration is my blindness.

 

My big weakness at the moment is my independent mobility. I used to be a lot more mobile when I first lost my sight, albeit it with slightly more sight than I have now, and I want to regain that. I think that living on a university campus, getting out of my room and having to get to classes every day, into the library, interacting socially with other people, would have a huge impact in my life. So it feels like on three strands, it’s a really good thing for me to think about for this coming academic year.

 

KB:      Good luck. Sndra?

 

SA:       I think it’s a difficult question. There’s the socio-economic barriers, there’s people who cannot afford to go to university and there’s not enough scholarships to go around, and coming out with debts of £40,000 these days, it’s an awful lot to put into something like poetry. As well, you mentioned barriers in terms of getting around, that sort of thing, for a lot of trans people, non-binary people, there’s a lot of research being done that people are dropping out of university or not going, because of the social barriers to studying and that sort of thing.

 

If someone decides to transition, for example, and they have to deal with, basically, prejudice around them and changing a lot of things officially, or if they’re a trans person but nobody knows they’re a trans person, they have to show documentation that says something different than their name and their gender that’s on the documentation, these kind of things. Universities are becoming gatekeepers now and this comes into things to do with race, as well, and nationality.

 

They’re checking people have the right to be here, they’re checking people’s genders, they’re checking all kinds of things that are quite problematic and interfere with people being able to study. The mental-health impacts of that are huge, also the economic barriers to it. I think in terms of poetry being studied, it’s great. It’s great to see a lot more people feeling they belong in that canon as well, which is incredible.

 

I do think that with some creative writing programmes, although maybe it’s more on the undergrad levels, is the tendency towards sameness that’s a bit problematic, like there’s a kind of churning out of a kind of poetry that you can just go ‘oh yeah, that’s the programme you studied.’

 

KB:      Speak more about that. What kind of sameness?

 

SA:       Well, it depends on where they’ve studied, but a lot of the time, people are writing to please their professors. They’re writing to please a specific person, maybe just one person, or several, and in a specific way they think is the way, or the university thinks is the way. It’s the same kind of thing with acting courses and things like that. They produce a certain kind of… And you’re not maybe getting that raw writing that happens with people who haven’t been formed in the same way.

 

RA:      That’s not exclusive to academia, that’s general.

 

SA:       That’s true.

 

RA:      I also think what is exclusive to the academia and that sameness is still the required reading list of poets. Really? It’s like John Berryman, yeah sure, and I’m not saying those poems don’t have anything to offer, but when it’s all, when its exclusively that…

 

SA:       That white male canon.

 

KB:      White male straight.

 

RA:      That’s not changing. That’s what’s interesting to me. That’s not changing.

 

SA:       And how often are you seeing Milton taught? Otherwise, you don’t see Nuala Watts on the reading list yet.

 

KB:      Shout out to Nuala Watts, who’s a Blind poet.

 

GT:      I reviewed her pamphlet a little while ago for the Sphinx website.

 

KB:      She’s also a Stairs and Whispers contributor. This  a secret marketing of Stairs and Whispers by the way, we just love our poets so much and she has a fantastic response to Milton’s sonnet on partial blindness.

 

SA:       Again, this is the way people do get started is through Masters, people choose what they study, so that is interesting to have people like yourselves going into that kind of higher education, because then you have different projects coming out that would have normally been produced.

 

KB:      And then you have that gendered term Masters and also the racial connotations of Masters.

 

RA:      Can I just give one subversive thing that happened to me because this is something I’m very open about at Goldsmiths and it was welcomed. Those challenges were welcomed. In fact, I did a whole paper on Frank O’Hara and I chose Frank O’Hara because you know, everyone knows ‘Frank O’Hara’ and I’m not saying he’s not a great poet, he is a great poet, but this dissertation I wrote about Frank O’Hara was basically looking at how his poetics are different to mine, even though we both live in a city, so it’s about the poetics of the city, but it was actually my lowest-graded paper of everything I did at Goldsmiths, but in a very interesting way, a way that was helpful, because the conclusion was: ‘Raymond, Frank O’Hara is bad for you. Frank O’Hara is the equivalent of having cheese in your diet when you’re lactose-intolerant. Because the poems you’re writing, that are directly in conversation with Frank O’Hara, are your weakest poems.’

 

That was an actual…it was great. I was like, wow, there’s such a thing as a bad influence. Reading that is bad for me. It came from O’Hara. I still read O’Hara, there are a lot of poets I read for pleasure, but they don’t influence me. I think it’s a different thing. I enjoy them, but they don’t make me feel like writing.

 

KB:      Wow. Absolutely. Recently, I was on a panel discussing the UK canon, white straight men, not acknowledging the fact that when you’re talking about the UK, you have to talk about Empire, you have to talk about the writing that comes from the colonies and writing from places that weren’t UK colonies but were influenced by English and it’s this whole thing of how marginal or how influential you want to keep people who are scholar-artists, who are women of colour, LGBTQI, to not be niche in university, to really influence what is going on.

 

I mean, the number of women-of-colour professors in the UK is shockingly tiny and I feel like seeking out those women in my life, those people whose experiences resonate with me, has been way more difficult than I thought it would be. I think it also rests on the universities themselves to empower people in higher education who are bringing an interesting quote unquote reading list that speaks to them. In high schools also.

 

Not just universities, we’re talking about the whole education system and going along with earlier, Sandra, you briefly mentioned nationality and one thing I want to cover briefly is the Eric Gregory Awards for poets 30 and under, recently opened to poets of all nationalities and I know myself and a few other people were ‘Aargh!’ because we’re not British, we missed it because we’re heading into the best decade of our lives, we’re in our 30s now!

 

I thought that was a real landmark in terms of ‘Oh, maybe things are changing’. Too late for us. But I think what you’re saying is it’s maybe not changing quickly enough, but what do you say about developments like that, when things are being opening up to all nationalities?

 

SA:       It’s a bit different in Scotland. Things tend to be, even when we voted, did or didn’t vote for independence, it was based on residency as opposed to nationality, and not everything is that way. The Edward Morgan Poetry Award, is a similar one, under 30, but they say you have to be born in Scotland, and/or raised in Scotland, and/or a resident for two years or something like that. So you can just be living there and I think that makes a huge difference.

 

You don’t have to have been living there for a long period of time. But on the same hand, I looked at the list of people who’ve been nominated and most of them tend to be people who were born and raised in Scotland and the last two times they’ve done it, they seemed to be all white faces. So you can change the rules, but it takes a while before things start to filter through.

 

People have to see themselves, or not necessarily see themselves, but people have to feel represented in order to feel like they have a chance and if you don’t have black faces up there or if you don’t see that trans women of colour are getting awards or being nominated for getting awards, you’re going to be, should I submit? What’s the point because it’s going to be the same people? I think that’s something that can be improved from a lot of different levels, just trying to make people feel welcome.

 

RA:      That’s the thing, because even if you do get in, you then question, like wait…

 

SA:       Yeah, is this a diversity thing?

 

KB:      Yeah, am I here as diversity for hire? I don’t know about you, but I have actually been approached by an editor saying: ‘Would you like to submit? We’re trying to diversify.’ I get that quite a bit and I’m like, oh, I’m so flattered, at the same time, it’s is that the only reason why you’re approaching me, because I’m a Disabled brown woman? Or is it because of the quality? When editors approach  people, I think it’s also very important for editors and publishers to think, OK, what is the intention here? Why am I approaching this person? Have I read their work? Do I understand, do I respect and admire their work? Because the main thing is for the work to be recognised as quality, even if it doesn’t fit the award judges’ definition of quality.

 

I think there’s something our silent host David Turner mentioned in an earlier conversation with me – quietly and silently, godfather host David Turner – is this concept of nature writing and awards that privilege this bucolic, pastoral type of poetry and its relationship to race and class. I thought it was really fascinating. When you read award winners, do you think… There’s also the emotional labour that needs to happen, where you think, I’m going to try and burst through and I think my poetry is worth it, it comes down to self-confidence as well.

 

I want to speak about this concept of responsibility because as you have said, the people doing this work to increase inclusion and access, are largely from marginalised communities themselves. We would much prefer to be writing. I mean, I can only speak for myself, but we would much prefer to be writing and editing our own work and of course, editing is fantastic and representation work is important, but it always seems to fall to marginalised groups to do this and I struggle with this, because I don’t necessarily want to encourage students of mine, to be ‘OK, you also have to do the work of opening the road for other people’, I think that’s important but I also worry about the emotional labour that we’re expecting of young poets.

 

Why aren’t people in the mainstream doing more of this work? I guess my question is, do you see that as a burden?

 

SA:       It’s a huge burden. I mean, it’s not a burden because I love to do things for my communities, but it’s a huge burden. For every event I do, I end up doing the audio description, doing the sub-titles myself, doing the stuff other people should be paying for, usually they’re funded organisations, funded publishers, this kind of thing. What I find happens is when they do actually get somebody who says ‘Hey, we’ll cover the access for you’, they’re only doing it for our event, for a D/deaf, Disabled event, they don’t keep doing it for other events.

 

It’s just like we’ve done this thing, we’ve done our D/dead and Disabled moment, we had the BSL interpreter, we got the photo op and then they move on and never do it again. I find that really frustrating and that puts the burden back on us again, because the next time I do an event, well, I’m going to have to pay for it, I’m going to have to do it.

 

KB:      So much goes on behind the scenes that D/deaf Disabled people don’t even take credit for, because we have to ask, is this place accessible, is the event going to be accessible, how far do I have to walk to get there, all these things, invisible labour. I hate using the word invisible for obvious reasons, but labour that’s just not recognised. Ray, you wrote something down, I know you have something to say.

 

RA:      Wow. My response to that is yes, but I’m going to say how I’ve managed to strategise this for myself, so it’s useful. I have a little bit of a manifesto, which is for myself. When I go into a project, including something like the Magma project, including working with D/deaf young people, trying to get them to become published poets, I’m very clear of what it is I want to get out of those experiences. I write them down and try and just focus on that.

 

I think OK, you’re going to get us to do extra work, someone might see you and suddenly your wires are getting crossed and you’re overwhelmed. Okka used the word emotional labour. So much of that work is giving, giving, giving and I constantly found myself coming to the end of so many different projects, with nothing to give myself. We all know that. It’s like damn, I could have written another book, that emotional labour could have gone into my own work.

 

That’s a real thing. I’m at this point now, I’ve got x amount of time, I’m very clear about what it is I’m going to get out of this project, how long it’s going to last and what I’m going to do afterwards. That’s something I didn’t have in place before. I do think we can only care for others if we care for ourselves.

 

KB:      Self-care is so important and so difficult in these contexts. So much giving.

 

GT:      I think the messages about writers from marginalised groups, almost certainly it’s going to start with the people in those marginalised groups. I think what needs to be done is the non-marginalised groups actually listen to those messages and share them so it becomes more widespread. I think that’s one of the biggest things I’m grateful for, being Blind, I’m much more aware of what’s going on in other marginalised communities.

 

I have written poems responding to D/deaf painters and I’ve spoken to the painters about them. I noticed the other day, there was a tweet about Pride week and I forgot who posted it, but there were about four or five LGBTQI poets’ collections. I downloaded as many books as I could find and I’m going to work my way through them and I shared that.

 

That’s what you need to do. It’s not my community, but I want to read that kind of work and I want other people to want to read that kind of work. I am happy to spend that time doing that. If somebody wants me to write about blindness, I pretty much do it at the drop of a hat. Maybe at the moment, I’m not overloaded with those requests. Maybe it isn’t constricting my time, but I give it my priority really, because I think it’s important the world realises that we all need to be more aware of other people’s troubles.

 

RA:      With the Magma call-out, there was this thing that kicked off on Facebook with a bunch of American poets about the D/deaf issue call out and what this discussion on Facebook was, it was actually among a few Blind poets who said that they refuse the idea of blindness as metaphor and they were saying they felt D/deaf poets should refuse that idea of deafness as metaphor.

 

I understood what they were saying. I thought the policing of those ideas, of what metaphors are valid, was strange. It’s interesting you said you would write about blindness at the drop of a hat.

 

GT:      That’s interesting because I did actually send in about four poems for that magazine, though none of them were accepted.

 

KB:      This is a safe space.

 

GT:      That’s not the main point. My point was that I did like that the Magma theme was open to the use of deafness as metaphor, because I wrote a poem about the unwillingness to listen, which was one of the themes suggested in the Magma page and I wrote a poem touching on blindness. Blindness and deafness have quite a close relationship.

 

When the house is very noisy when I’m at home, I wrote a poem about being doubly blind, because I cannot listen to the screen reader when the house is noisy, so I’m doubly inflicted by blindness because I cannot hear what the screen reader is saying. I think it’s great that the Magma thing was open to all and I’m not upset to be rejected. Magma is fiercely difficult to get into. That was my fourth attempt and I was still not successful, so I’ll keep trying.

 

KB:      This is also a mini ‘confront your editors’ session.

 

SA:       I think what’s important to acknowledge too is there’s such a long history of blindness specifically being used as a metaphor.

 

KB:      In a negative way.

 

SA:       Yeah and in a positive way, but just Blind people existing in other people’s poems and books or whatever as other people’s metaphors, or an entire book by, say Jose Saramango for example. Even just the amount of submissions you get in any publication of people saying: ‘I was blinded’. It gets boring.

 

KB:      And ‘unheard voices’ and ‘invisible voices’, ‘the voices of the voiceless’ really get my goat. I think what’s important to recognise is that there is a multiplicity of views within the D/deaf and Disabled community. There’s a multiplicity of views within the LGBT community, among Muslims. None of these are homogenous monoliths. That’s the most important thing. I think when people say ‘the Deaf community’ or the ‘Disabled community’, these are people with widely-different views sometimes. That’s what editors need to understand.

 

SA:       Also, it’s like D/deaf people using being D/deaf as a metaphor is much different than a hearing person using it and in terms of blindness as well, if Giles wants to write all day long about the metaphors of blindness, that’s a very different situation to me doing it.

 

KB:      Because you’re sighted.

 

RA:      One of the things I’ve been reacting to a lot recently is how much the news reports around Donald Trump use Donald Trump as ‘D/deaf to’. An interesting use of word there.

 

SA:       Yeah and he’s got ‘mental-health issues’, this or that, instead of being an evil jerk.

 

KB:      Exactly. That goes along with the use of Disabled and D/deaf people in popular media as always being evil. It’s always the Blind person or the person who has a limp, a disfigurement in some way, their existence is usually justified as being in love with an evil person or being really accomplished in some way, so this idea of the super-crip quote unquote, who has to in some way transcend their deafness and go beyond these challenges. Sometimes I see people who really use that super-crip narrative.

 

GT:      That is one of the biggest grumbles within the Disabled community, when non-Disabled people write characters and they haven’t really bothered to get to know the sort of issues people are dealing with and how they would approach them. We see it in the TV series and film Daredevil, where a blind lawyer can hear a pin drop across the city of New York. We don’t want those kind of stories.

 

SA:       The superpowers of smell, especially, those are big. Back to publishing, these are the things that tend to get published, whereas Disabled and D/deaf writers are not published and then we’re still carrying on the stereotypes.

 

KB:      Or the assumption still stands we can only write about, quote unquote, differences. I personally have had ‘Ah, do you write about being disabled?’ I think: ‘I can write about unicorns, anything I want.’ Do you ask white men: ‘Do you write about being a white man?’ I want to talk about the future. How do the three of you see publishing and poetry, considering everything that we have just discussed? Are you optimistic, pessimistic, somewhere in between? Anything else you’d like to say as we wrap up?

 

RA:      Recently, there’s been quite a change-over of editors in quite a number of major magazines and literary genres, including the Poetry Review. Just a few weeks ago, the New Yorker’s poetry editor is now Terrence Hayes, who is an incredible poet and you can’t overlook the fact he is a black man.

 

So Sandra said earlier about seeing a different set of people in positions of power. We are seeing that but again, we don’t yet know if this is going to have a long-term impact or is it just the season? Is it diversity season? I don’t know. I think I’m optimistic generally because I think optimism keeps me going. Pessimism doesn’t feed me so well, although I think some pessimism is healthy.

 

SA:       I think all the poets being published in these various publications that have been happening, and that sort of thing, has got more and more people contributing, so that’s going to be more stuff. We need changes in how funding is happening in a lot of ways, in terms of budgets for access. There’s often, at least in Scotland, a section to fill out, ‘What are you going to do for access?’ and everyone lies and says they’re going to do all these things for access, then they get the money and spend it on something else.

 

There’s not a lot of people following up  to make sure that people have the access they’ve promised, but also, putting money into that and thinking about access, you mentioned somewhere at the beginning to do with touring. Disabled people and D/deaf people especially really need extra money when it comes to that. We need taxis a lot of the time. There’s learning Disabled people, autistic people who maybe don’t want to be out in public transit, not all of them, but some of them, there’s mobility issues, that sort of thing.

 

Sometimes, if we’re going out of town, we need to stay an extra night, because we’ll be exhausted travelling from Scotland to somewhere, performing, going back to Scotland. I’ve been asked to do like eight-hour journeys twice in one day. It’s absurd. For anyone who’s not disabled, that’s silly. So factoring in those kind of things. One of my biggest pet peeves now that people need to factor in is paying people back their money immediately.

 

Poets are asked to put out so much cash to travel, spend £200 on a hotel for this night, spend £150 to take this and all your taxis and we’ll pay you back in three months. For me, that often means I can’t pay my rent if someone does that and it’s really embarrassing to say that to a publisher. It should just be a given they give you the money. A lot of the time, they already have it, it’s just not already happening. I think that’s something that needs to happen. In general, I do have optimism, yes.

 

There’s a lot of people doing amazing stuff, but I do think more of the work has to be taken on by non-Disabled people, by hearing people and not just in this way of ‘Look at me, I’m doing diversity’, which I think is what you referred Ray.

 

KB:      I think a big part of that is also giving us the reins, like editorship, in terms of writing for the stage, more directors, more producers, so we can tell our own stories, rather than other people’s platforms. You know, ‘we’ll slot you in for one thing, one show’. Giles, what are your thoughts?

 

GT:      My general mood is optimistic. We’ve made a good start, but encouraging applications and submissions from these minority groups is only part one. On the publishers’ side, they need to reach out more to the groups and say ‘look, we’ve got these opportunities we’re looking for’. If you Google ‘contemporary Blind poet’, you don’t find any entries. So are publishers wanting Disabled people and Blind people to submit to their publication saying to the RNIB ‘Can you circulate this among your members? We are holding this publication.’

 

We need to spread the word. If there aren’t that many people who are Blind saying they are a poet, then they probably don’t know about these events. Education is so much a major part of knowing something is out there. The number of people who are losing their sight who don’t know about the kind of technology I use every day. It would be immensely helpful to them. It beggars belief really. It’s all about communicating this message and it involves the publishers as well as the people who are in the Disabled groups.

 

KB:      Thank you. I have two points to that. The first is I feel we should be paid as consultants for our work and actually, I have been a consultant in the past in terms of accessibility to varying degrees of follow-up. Obviously, this should happen more often, because of the emotional labour we spoke of. It’s for free. We advise people and tell people our point of view but we’re not paid for it.

 

SA:       I get four emails a week at least from somebody asking me for free advice, how to make something accessible, and detailed free advice, like ‘would you recommend somebody who can do this or that?’

 

KB:      You have to say ‘no’ often and tell them ‘I need to be paid for my work.’ Initially, some of my consulting stuff was ‘please give me free advice’ and I said ‘Here’s my rate’. You have to start doing that. The second thing I want to speak about is disclosure because I feel as though it’s everybody’s right to disclose or not disclose, however much detail you want about your body or what’s going on in your life or how you identify.

 

I want to encourage people to really be comfortable with not disclosing also. So many writers for me and I’m sure for you as well will come up and say ‘actually, I’m Disabled too, I have this problem’ and they can’t disclose because they feel it would affect their career so I feel reducing the stigma associated with disability is great. Also the right to disclose or not disclose if you want and that’s something that’s tricky.

 

GT:      I agree with that entirely. I am one who believes in identifying as my life’s an open book. I’m happy to talk about my blindness and anything that’s related to my health. I always say ‘I am a Blind poet, I’m not a poet who happens to be blind’. I am a Blind poet. I want people to Google Blind poets and find there are Blind poets beyond Homer and Milton. I’m proud of being blind. I like the kind of person it’s made me.

 

I’ve just signed up, probably a very masochistic challenge, I’m doing a poetry marathon, which is writing a poem every hour for 24 hours. It starts in about two days. I signed up for it and introduced myself in the group and one lady said ‘you’re my new inspiration, my new hero’, because she’s losing her sight, so I’ve had a good discussion with her off-group about how being Blind affects your writing. I like being able to share that kind of encouragement and saying the world isn’t closed to you if you lose your sight.

 

KB:      Absolutely wonderful and I hope people do use the word ‘inspirational’ for you. More, more, we have two minutes before we wrap up.

 

RA:      I would definitely like to co-sign what you said about advisory. I too, on a weekly basis, get emails, very long, energy and emotionally consuming, saying ‘please help us’ but no mention of my time being worth anything. I think they mean well, but I’ve recently got to the point of being ‘look, my time has to be worth something here. That’s so important because I’m going to give you advice and you’re going to go along and hopefully it will be useful, but then how…?’

 

It’s so challenging because going back as well, we were talking about responsibility, because if money meant nothing, if would be yeah, have all of this advice for free that’s going to make you a better and more engaged organisation, but we’ve got to pay our rent and actually, I am giving something to your branding. I am giving something that’s going to help your brand.

 

SA:       It’s usually someone who does have a brand. If it’s someone from the community asks, that’s an entirely situation, if they’re ‘hey, can you help me out?’ Not that I can help everyone. You give advice but when someone has money…

 

KB:      Absolutely. I just want to say I’ve seen a call to be an accessibility consultant, ‘but we will only work with the minimum amount of budget possible to be cost-effective’. I’ve told them, ‘that is not accessible, some people need more things, taxis and interpreters, etc’ so just evolving that point of view from being cost-effective. This needs to be factored into the budget.

 

SA:       Interpreters for social events, that’s something I wanted to say, because people always hire interpreters just to do the event and leave and D/deaf people who use BSL have no chance to interact and it’s such a big part of publishing, the social part of things, where you meet people and they say ‘hey, I’m doing this magazine and blah, blah, blah’. That sort of thing. Making sure there’s an extra half an hour, hour, there, so people can talk to each other.

 

RA:      So something I was reminded of, I was in the States, New York, Baltimore, all of these different places, including we were talking about Deaf Poets Society and I met some of the people that run that magazine out in DC. The main thing that these organisations have are patrons and philanthropists. It’s a very different set-up for the arts in the States and so much of it is philanthropy-driven in a way. Their advice to me, I guess even to us, was ‘you need to find some patrons. Rich patrons.’

 

KB:      Sugar daddies. This whole podcast is going to end on sugar daddies, sugar mummas, sugar gender-non-binary people. We are here. We create art. We need to pay our rents. We want to be valued as human beings in a capitalist system. Please fund us. We’re wonderful people. I would like to thank of all these people. It has been such an honour and such a blessing to be in the same room and talk to all of you.

 

So thank you, Giles L. Turnbull and his father John, who was here, a silent observer, he did a great job raising Giles, I just want to say, dads don’t hear that every day, come on. Sandra Alland came all the way from Scotland. Raymond Antrobus, wonderful, and David Turner, thank you so much for allowing us to hijack this podcast with some good vibes. Thank you all for listening. This has been Lunar Poetry Podcasts.

 

 

 

 

End of transcript.