Ep.125 – Stephen Lightbown (and the last from me!!)

Ep125 Stephen LightbownSo, the time has come for me to step down as producer of this wonderful series. It has been an amazing six years and I can’t believe I’ve managed to squeeze in so many poets (over 200!). The conversations have been wonderful and illuminating. I feel supremely lucky to have had this opportunity.

But now I hand the reins/mixing desk over to PJ to steer the podcast into the future, which I’m sure he’ll do brilliantly.

I’m so happy I got to sit down (virtually) with Stephen Lightbown for my final and 125th episode of Lunar Poetry Podcasts. It’s been great to watch him develop as a writer and organiser of events and leader/instigator of discussions around accessibility to poetry.

We started off by chatting about his debut collection Only Air (Burning Eye Books, 2019) and his desire to write about his personal experiences as a wheelchair user and finished off by talking about  accessing online poetry events during the UK’s COVID-19 lockdown.

Below is a transcript of the conversation with the poetry readings redacted but if you’d like to read a full transcript then you can download one here.

The episode should be available wherever you get your podcasts but if you prefer to use a desktop computer then follow this link to SoundCloud.

David Turner xx

 

 

Transcript by Christabel Smith:

 

Episode host: Peter deGraft-Johnson – PJ

Conversation host: David Turner  – DT

Conversation guest: Stephen Lightbown – SL

Introduction:

PJ:       Hello, ladies, blokes and non-binary folks, welcome to episode 125 of the Lunar Poetry Podcast. As the more, keen-eared listeners will have noticed, I am not David Turner. Not to worry, though. He’ll be back at the end of the episode to say a final goodbye, as he steps down from hosting this incredible podcast, which I’m happy to be taking over.

For now, allow me to reintroduce myself. My name is Peter deGraft-Johnson. I usually speak fast, drop my Ts. Some of you will already know me as The Repeat Beat Poet, but here, with you, I’ll just be going by PJ, for the interests of levity and brevity. That’s PJ, like pyjamas, not BJ, like certain sexual acts or thatch-headed prime ministers.

In this episode, David speaks to the Bristol-based, Blackburn-born, NHS worker, activist for wheelchair users and fantastic poet, Stephen Lightbown, about his debut poetry collection, which is a reflective, gritty, uplifting set of poems entitled Only Air, which was published by Burning Eye Books in 2019. They also discuss performing, watching and joining in with poetry, purely on digital platforms, as we’re still in this extended Corona season.

The pair also talk about how Stephen grew to write extensively, but not exclusively, about his personal experiences as a wheelchair user and challenging the restrictive norms of how we view, or more likely ignore, people with spinal-cord injuries or differing accessibility needs. It’s a brilliant interview and you can find more of Stephen’s work @SpokeandPencil across social media.

You can also find a full and free transcript of this episode on our website, www.lunarpoetrypodcast.com, alongside all the previous episodes and their accompanying transcripts too. It’s very useful if you like to read along with the poems. On the website, you will also see our poetry podcast finder for UK and Ireland, which is a database of nearly 100 other poetry podcasts that you can use to scratch your poetry itch, including the remarkable A Poem A Week, heralded by Lizzy Turner, which I have also appeared on.

It’s a brilliant show, but  I am slightly biased. All links will be in the description, of course. Last but not least, a bit of good news. Back in April, I applied for an emergency Covid grant from the Arts Council England, to continue the great work of this podcast and thankfully, that application was successful. So we will be releasing podcasts regularly towards the end of summer and in autumn.

You can keep up with all the latest Lunar Poetry news by following Lunar Poetry Podcasts on Facebook or the newly launched Twitter account @lunarpoetrypod, alongside subscribing to us on SoundCloud, Podbean, Stitcher, Acast, Apple Podcast, Spotify or wherever you go for your quality podcasts.

I’m on ‘Repeat Beat Poet’ on all platforms if you would like to contact me, but for now, I’ll leave you for the last time in the incredible, capable hands of David Tuner and Stephen Lightbown.

Conversation: 

SL:        

[We are unable to reproduce this reading here. To read this poem download a full transcript here.]

DT:      Thank you very much, Stephen. How are you doing?

SL:       It’s good to be here.

DT:      We’re coming towards what feels like the [end of] most intense period of Covid-19 lockdown in the UK, but we are still observing social-distancing rules and we’re talking via FaceTime on our Macs. So it seems strange to say nice to be here because we are both not here.

SL:       I’m not even two metres away from my laptop.

DT:      We’re all here, but not here. It’s a Saturday morning, we’re doing what is to be my 125th and final recording and this is only the second I’ve ever done not sat in front of someone, but it’s all going to be fine because I know Stephen really well. I should probably clarify that we are friends.

SL:       We are.

DT:      This happens quite a lot in poetry. You meet people, become friends with them, I never expected to consider so many poets friends, but here we are, five years in, and there’s a whole bunch of them.

 

SL:       And friends because of the podcast because we first met at Verve Festival. I’d been listening to the podcast and connected on social media and you came up and said hello and it blossomed from there.

DT:      One more, final caveat and this is more for the listeners. We’re going to be touching on some topics today and because we are friends, I may ask some questions with far more informality than I would if I didn’t know Stephen. It’s important to say things like that because sometimes, when you drop in on friends’ conversations, lines of questioning can seem a bit glib or insensitive. That isn’t for you, Stephen, it’s purely for the listeners.

SL:       Understood.

DT:      So you just read a poem there from a book and you should tell us about that book.

SL:       It’s one of the poems from my debut collection, a book called Only Air, which came out last March 2019 through Burning Eye Books. It’s a book that charts my experience of 25, 20 really, years of when I started writing poems about my life as a wheelchair user. I had an accident when I was 16. I was sledging in the snow.

I thought it would be a good idea to sledge backwards through some trees, also when it was dark. There were lots of things I probably should have been thinking it would have been a good idea to avoid. I hit a tree and spent six months in a spinal unit. Now I’m a paraplegic, full-time wheelchair user.

About 15 years after the accident, someone bought me a notebook and I started to jot some things down and that led to me going on a poetry course with Malaika Booker which led to me writing a poem, A Letter To My Legs, as a way of saying, I’m really sorry for kind of ignoring you for the past 20 years because this strange, detached feeling that I had with parts of my body that I couldn’t feel anymore.

Malaika suggested there might be something in that in terms of writing more poems on my disability and my chair and how that feels. I’d wanted to get into poetry as a way of getting away from that, from writing about anything but my chair, as an escape. In this notebook, when I flicked through the early pages, I’m writing about how much I enjoy baked potatoes and hedgehogs and football and all sorts of weird stuff.

 

Actually, I went home, started writing and couldn’t stop. Then four or five years later, I had all these poems and just felt like they wanted to fit into some kind of collection. I didn’t know what else to do with them, but I wanted to share them.

DT:      What was the timescale of [moving from] writing for yourself to thinking about an audience?

SL:       It was quite quick really. I didn’t even start showing an interest in poetry until my mid-30s so I was late to this really. I didn’t consider myself a poet at the time, I was just writing stuff down and they all rhymed, they were all daft. I didn’t read poetry and the ego in me said I didn’t need to read poetry, I didn’t really like poetry, I just liked writing it, but then I’ve always been a bit of a show-off.

That’s also why the accident happened, because I was showing off. I’ve always had that in me from a really young age, being extroverted and wanting to be the centre of attention but also wondering why I wanted to be the centre of attention and shying away from that at the same time. It wasn’t that long after writing these poems that I started to think…

I’d just been through quite a big break-up and I was going on dates and I was that annoying person who would read poems to people. I look back now and actually die inside because they were terrible. I was performing them at that point. I think I was using these first dates as a way of trying to create an audience and get some feedback. The feedback was that there weren’t many second dates.

I was in London and a lot of this stuff was around. John Hegley was doing a regular thing at the poetry café. You could turn up and he would read some poems and you could read a poem back. I went to a Poetry Stanza group in Greenwich, but then amongst writing these poems, I was coming up towards the 20-year anniversary of my accident and I had the idea to write 20 poems for 20 years.

I wanted to produce, put them into a little pamphlet myself and give 20 of those pamphlets out to close family and friends. So 20 poems, 20 years, 20 pamphlets. I had that then in my non-poetry life, one of these dates worked and turned into a marriage. I changed jobs and moved to Bristol. Moving to Bristol completely consolidated my love for poetry. I guess that’s where it took off. There’s a fantastic poetry scene in Bristol, but it feels quite compact at the same time.

There’s lots of things to go to, lots of things to listen to, people were really willing to share and talk and things like that. Quite quickly, I started to absorb a lot of information that led to conversations with people. I was able to read more, which meant I was building a bit of a profile in Bristol and then I was approached by Burning Eye to see if I had a manuscript.

Really, from someone buying me that notepad and writing poems about baked potatoes and not reading anything else, to the book coming out, was about seven years.

DT:      It’s very natural for people who get into writing poems as adults, there’s a period where the poems are almost diary entries and you’re writing to yourself and working out your emotions, then there’s a transition, sometimes a sharp leap. For some people, it’s smooth and long drawn-out, you don’t really notice it, but you move from diary entries to deliberate communications with audiences. You’re not talking to yourself strictly anymore, you’re talking to other people.

SL:       That’s right. The first poems, personally, I personally felt were quite cathartic. They were like free therapy because I was able to articulate thoughts that I was having and anger and resentment that built up from being in the chair. That enabled me to put this stuff down on paper and question it, question whether or not I actually felt like that and move beyond that initial anger and draw out why I was feeling angry, what it was making me feel that way.

I wasn’t doing it for any other reason. For me, it was a purely personal learning process. I’ve spoken to other poets who say, it’s not cathartic because it’s an art form or whatever, but for me, the art-form side of it, the performing side wasn’t coming into it at that point when I was writing these particular poems, because I found that poetry, the succinctness and ability to use different forms and the way to play around with language was giving me a platform to challenge the way I thought about things, more than if I was just going to write prose or pure diary entries, which I had been doing before.

I’d kind of had bits of therapy in the past and they didn’t always work for me because I felt like I didn’t want to stick at it. I’d have three or four sessions and be like, right, done, I’m sorted, I’m all right. One thing that did stick was to write a positive diary, so write a good thing, ignore everything else that happens in that day. Even if the only thing that someone does is make you a cup of tea, write that in as a diary entry.

I was flicking through this stuff, I’d stuck at it for about a year and I was, actually, there are some positive things in there, but doing that made me think more about how I actually fit into the world. I started to think how society and societal things about not being able to get on a train without asking for assistance. I was like, actually, this is all right, me understanding this, but this is bullshit, this stuff shouldn’t be happening.

I then found I wanted to use it as a way of changing perceptions, try to challenge the norms people had. I made a conscious decision. I thought, I can go and read poems at open mic night and write about whatever, trees or love or rainbows or whatever it might be and that would be fine, I would be a poet in a wheelchair that wrote about those things. Or I could make a conscious decision to be a poet in a wheelchair that talks about those things that probably not that many other people are talking about on that open mic if nowhere else.

I realised I was going to those events, I wasn’t seeing people like me, I wasn’t hearing poems that I could connect to on a real, personal level. I could connect to people talking about, I dunno, love of football or something, but I didn’t really see anybody talking about… There were poems about mental health, poems about the body, relationship with body and occasionally, poems about disability, but nothing specific to me about spinal-cord injury and being a wheelchair user.

I made that conscious decision that was what I wanted to write about. I didn’t mind if I was pigeon-holed.

DT:      So we’re 13, 14 months on from the publication of Only Air and as you say a very conscious decision on your part to talk about your experiences as a wheelchair user. It’s hard to separate the person I know and the memories I have of them from the writing and sometimes I transfer their personalities onto the writing and read a lot into it because I know the people. That whole idea of a journey through writing and so much of it starting from anger reflects a lot in my own writing process and that of others.

As you were saying, there’s a lot of writing about mental-health issues and certain forms of disability, class and other subjects where you might feel your body or you as a person are not always welcome in the world around you, and there’s a natural transition. The healthy thing seems to be you realise that your own body is not the issue, it’s the fact the world around you won’t allow it to fit in. Now you’ve had time to reflect on the book, do you find it’s been successful in that?

SL:       I think so. One of the things I try to do, as well, quite quickly the anger poems moved to one side. I then made another decision that I wanted to normalise my life in public. I wanted to talk about the things everyone else was doing that people maybe didn’t think I could do, like relationships or having a job or going on holiday, doing those things people maybe don’t assume are fairly normal things to do.

Quite a lot of people have come up to me and said afterwards, I’d never even thought about that before, I’d never thought what it would be like for someone who can’t feel half of their body to lie in bed next to someone who can feel all of their body, that person who can feel all of their body stroking your legs and you’ve got no idea that’s happening, ;but that’s a real, intimate moment you’ve shared and I feel privileged to be let in on that and know a little bit more.’

Also I think my wife and I both reflect on the fact that people are inquisitive. I’ve had a lot of time to get over it and get used to people asking me really random questions. For my wife, who’s still fairly new to this, we’ve been together for four or five years, I can’t remember. Keep that in because it won’t make a difference, she’ll find something to shout at me about in this anyway, it might as well be the fact I can’t remember how long we’ve been together.

She is still getting used to people saying really random questions about our relationship and why she’s with me. She’s like, well, he’s got a Northern accent, that’s what I liked about him. But he’s in a chair. She forgets and that’s really good for us, so it annoys her when it’s the first thing people think about. For me, I thought I may as well answer some of these questions because I know people in the audience are thinking them.

If I’m sat over there, reading a poem about something else, I know people are thinking, how did he have an accident? Was it a car crash? Part of me thinks I might as well own that information. The book has helped in terms of me just being a bit more OK about what I’m prepared to share and not share, but also I think it has enabled other people in similar situations to come up and say thanks, I’ve read that book and that really resonated with my life.

DT:      You mentioned you were happy when you first started reading [poetry] to be pigeon-holed as disabled writer because you were firm in that you wanted to own that and you wanted to be representative of voices you weren’t hearing at events. Was it the audience interaction afterwards that helped you realise you weren’t only appearing as that?

I hate to make it seem like a solitary pursuit because it’s not. You spoke about going to writing groups and moving to Bristol and there being a community, it isn’t an isolating thing, but it can feel isolating because you’re with your own thoughts all the time. It isn’t until you meet readers or read at events and you hear from audience members that you realise how open your own writing is. It’s not just about that singular subject, is it?

SL:       That’s right and you’d think you’d be writing about one topic and read a poem and someone comes up and talks to you about that poem and says ‘oh my God, that really resonated with me, that poem about your dad’. I was like, that was a poem about my dad? Oh, right, fair enough. I didn’t realise that was a poem about my dad, that was a poem about me being a child and this, that and the other.

You can write a poem. What you can’t do is dictate what people take from that poem. I think that’s one of the joys about this. I’ve not had many reviews of my poetry, but the ones I do, I’m really intrigued when people say I really like the way you put that line after that line. I’m like yeah, that was a happy accident. I don’t know how much thought goes into this. There’s an element of craft, but also, I think I’ll take that praise where it comes.

It’s quite nice to be considered to be a poet. There’s always that imposter syndrome that sits in this sort of stuff, that feeling that maybe I’m only being asked to read because of the chair and I’m reading something that might me, ironically, stand out in a group of other poets all talking about similar issues. I learnt to go with that.

There’s always something to fight against. Equally, there’s always a way of thinking, do you know what? I’ll just take this door that’s been opened or this opportunity and I’ll just go with it and make it work for me.

DT:      In the time we’ve known each other, it’s like you’ve been on an X Factor-like personal journey to find this balance in your writing, where you can simultaneously embody personal feelings around access and representation and being labelled by other people as one thing and how restrictive that can be. Ironic and really fucking annoying, you can be talking about matters around restriction and lack of representation and by doing so, you’re labelled as one thing and then restricted in another way. You seem to have come quite a long way in finding your own balance with those things.

SL:       Yeah, definitely. Before I wrote poetry, before I used it as a thing that consumed and filled my time, I liked doing endurance sporting events. I would do marathons and triathlons and long-distance swims. I would really throw myself into the training. I’d get really wound up and the competitive side of me would come out. That was basically to prove to people I could still do this stuff.

In my career as well, I progressed quite quickly in my day job, chased promotions and moved around the country trying to get these jobs. I was thrashing myself, all to prove I could do these things. I wasn’t going to be held back by my chair. Coinciding with writing the poetry was I had a few injuries and an illness, I then wasn’t able to train as much as before, so the poetry filled that time.

The more I wrote, the more my wife said I was becoming much more chilled out, like I was finding much more peace with not having to constantly prove people wrong. Finding that balance of being happy to be on stage and say this is who I am, this is what I’m talking about and I’m not bothered whether you are impressed by this or not, I just want to talk to you about it, that balance really helped.

I wasn’t really bothered if I was pigeon-holed or not. I don’t know if I would consider myself a political poet in a sense. I’m not canvassing for change all the time, I’m not wanting people to go and lobby their MPs, but weirdly, I’ve been asked to write more think pieces on some of this stuff, outside of poetry, or talk about this stuff.

I think if you can be true to yourself and true to your experiences…. Also, I think I would be setting myself up for a fall if I felt like reading my poems to 10 people was going to change the world. It’s not. But if it makes one person in that room think slightly differently, or maybe doesn’t sprint across a car park to ask someone they see getting out of a car in a wheelchair if they need help, then that’s great.

That’s all you can hope for really and I think it helped me manage my expectations about the book. Not everyone’s going to win a Forward prize. Not everyone’s going to sell thousands of copies and be asked to do Nationwide adverts or opening festivals and all that sort of stuff. That doesn’t mean your poetry doesn’t count. It doesn’t mean there’s not a place for it and it doesn’t mean that even if you don’t have a book and all you’re doing is scribbling on Post-It notes, that’s absolutely fine.

DT:      I’m going to disagree with something you just said, maybe because I don’t think you’re giving yourself enough credit. I’m in agreement that reality is if you’re reading to relatively small audiences, it’s not going to have wide-ranging impact because logistically, it can’t. But your energy and the way you look at poetry has had an effect on the organisers of events. I would argue that will have far-reaching impact.

The way you talk and enter discussions on social media will have a significant impact on other writers with a wide range of access needs. I think it’s important for listeners to know that most people that know you would disagree that it’s not having an effect.

You mentioned you weren’t seeing or hearing people with spinal-cord injuries. Obviously, a very narrow view would be to say most poetry events are held in basements or back rooms of pubs and it’s hard to get into them, but that lets people off from doing something about it.

SL:       I agree. I’m happy to be challenged in the way you just did because again, whenever you embark on something new with a disability, there are new ways to then be frustrated at the injustices you face because I was focused on not being able to get on public transport or a beach to go surfing.

Now I’m in poetry. Right, now I’m going to get annoyed about the fact I can’t get in venues or if you can get in, there’s no disabled toilet, or if you can get in there and have a pee, actually you can’t get on the stage and you’ve got to sit in front of the stage and no one can see you. You’re right in the sense lots of events are held upstairs in pubs, downstairs in basements in quite small venues.

I’m also pragmatic enough to appreciate there’s not much money in poetry and a lot of people putting events on are doing it out of goodwill. They’re doing it at a loss and venues are expensive. You’re not selling tickets at £20 a time and 200 people are turning up. You’re getting £3, £4, £5 a ticket, maybe 20 people are in the room and you’ve got to pay travel expenses for your headliner and a fee and maybe the venue is secondary.

I’ve heard people talk before about ‘why would I? I would not want to ever be contacted by somebody with a disability about putting an event on, so why would I put an event on that’s accessible?’ I get it’s the right thing to do, but it’s going to cost me more money and no one’s going to turn up. Well, no one’s turning up because they’re not seeing people. It takes time to do this stuff.

Equally, the time it takes to get people in your audience, your event might have stopped because maybe you got bored or things have moved on or you moved away. There is a cycle to these things that’s really difficult, but actually, I think it’s hard a lot of the time because people are consumed with you putting that event on. They’re not necessarily having the brain space to think about actually, some of these things are quite straightforward.

It’s not that hard to think about. I was contacted to read at a new event that was starting. They said, it’s in this venue, the venue’s fine, it’s accessible, there’s a loo and all that sort of stuff, but the venue have said they’re going to bring a stage in. It’s a temporary stage, are you happy to sit in front of it?

I was like, the venue doesn’t have a stage, you’re going to bring one in for the night, why bring it in at all?  It doesn’t need it, you’re only going to have 15 people, they’re all going to see us, you don’t need to be onstage. They were like, oh yeah, good point. I’m happy to have those conversations with people to talk about stuff.

I’ve been talking a lot about conscious decisions, but when I did the launch for Only Air, I wanted it to be as accessible as possible. I sometimes go to talks when they want to talk about accessibility and poetry and I get there and  realise what they’re talking about is whether or not you can understand sonnet 67 that Shakespeare wrote because it’s written in a language that’s maybe quite difficult to understand, it’s not talking about things we ‘get’.

I’m thinking OK, that’s accessibility in one form, that’s not the accessibility I’m thinking about. Before we even get to that, we need to think whether or not I can get into this venue to hear this poetry. That is a conversation that doesn’t happen enough in poetry circles. There’s a lot of focus on whether or not spoken word has a place alongside page poetry and are we still able to celebrate poetry that was written 100 years ago and who’s on what shelf and who’s won what award?

The actual reality is the fact there is a whole part of our population that is not allowed into poetry events and no one seems to really mind that much. I think that’s pretty disgraceful. There is a lot more we can do about that. We can get onto that when we talk about lockdown and how that has helped in some ways. But yeah, I made a conscious decision that I wanted to make my nights as accessible as I could make them.

I say that because I realised very quickly that I only knew about access and disability in terms of my own personal experiences and actually, I was very naïve when it came to other things. I was devastated when I realised other people were coming to my events who had disabilities different to me and my event wasn’t accessible to them. I was like, I have made you feel like I feel when I go to events and I’m not having that.

DT:      This is my point about not doing yourself down when talking about your own impact. One of the most positive outcomes of that event was your ability to talk openly and honestly about the areas you felt you’d failed in. It’s only through us as a community talking about our own mistakes that anyone else can learn from them. How else will you know unless people have told you?

What’s important is to avoid a situation where it becomes incumbent on the person with access needs to have to tell you how to solve these things. Just so listeners know, I hosted that launch and recorded it and whilst we both feel if we’re going to say an event or project is accessible, we are both very proactive in saying what does that mean?

Suddenly on the night, we realised neither of us had any expertise in how to use an induction loop, which is a system which enables a microphone link to hearing aids for anyone who’s using them in the audience. We found out halfway through the event that it wasn’t working because neither of us had really thought you might have to check that.

Unfortunately, in a lot of circumstances, you need a hearing aid to test it. It’s only through being willing, or not too overly embarrassed by admitting that publicly, that other people might think oh shit, I’ve never thought about that either.

SL:       That’s right. I was gutted about that, but I didn’t want it to spoil the night, particularly for the people in the audience that didn’t work for. Being able to have a conversation with them and come to a solution, which is where I gave them a copy of the book and the poems that were going to be read out, so they could follow, it was by no means an ideal situation, but the feedback I got afterwards was they appreciated that and we have continued the dialogue since then about what worked and what could be improved at different events.

I have no problems with making that mistake. I have a problem with making that mistake again going forwards. I can’t beat myself up for not knowing something, but I can try and make sure that doesn’t happen again and try and use that, as you say, as a way of helping other people figure stuff out.

I think this is where I feel I’ve grown as a performer, or someone who’s interested in poetry because being fairly new to poetry, you go to a workshop and someone will say right, you need to read every day. You go to something and someone will say have you read this poem by X? And you’ll be like no, I haven’t, I’m a terrible poet and you go away and buy that book.

I’m forever buying books without ever reading them because I’m spending more of my time reading other books. Before I started this, I thought sonnet was a song by The Verve, I didn’t realise it was anything else. So I could spend all my time reading and learning about form and poets or trying to learn about putting on events and talking to other people about events and trying to make them accessible.

Again, it’s about that balance. I want to grow personally with this art form I’m choosing to get into, but also, I want to spend a lot of my time that is consumed by poetry, in terms of sharing it and allowing other people to share their poems. I’m not bothered if I never read another poem again if it means 50 other poets with disabilities can read their poems and talk about their experiences, because I think that’s important.

A lot of people think they’re not sharing their poems, they’re not able to get open mics, so maybe they think their standard of poetry is not up to that of the people who are able to read poems 20 times a week. It’s a slower, longer process to hone your craft and get to a standard where you maybe feel you’re growing. It takes longer because the events are fewer and far between.

DT:      This is a good point to take a second reading, then we’ll visit the invisible digital world of poetry events.

SL:       Given it’s lockdown, I was thinking of things I’ve missed during lockdown and one is cinema, so I thought I’d read this poem. It’s called;

[We are unable to reproduce this reading here. To read this poem download a full transcript here.]

DT:      We obviously now exist in a world where physical access to any space is heavily restricted for everyone. I think we’re over the worst of able-bodied people on Twitter complaining they can’t get anywhere, as though it’s suddenly a new phenomenon that some people might not be able to get to certain spaces. This goes across many industries and sectors. Obviously the arts sector already had some experience of digital events and streaming.

A lot of artists have led the way in making sure events can be continued online on platforms that are being used fresh for these sorts of things, like Zoom, Instagram Live. You’re a poet who’s embracing Instagram Live and you’ve got these Instagram sessions weekly.

SL:       Lockdown has been a really interesting time. I caveat all this conversation, like I have with everything, these are my personal experiences, I’m not an expert on anyone with a disability that may have their own experiences of lockdown. I fully appreciate I’m lucky in the sense I have a partner I get on with, I live in a nice flat, we’ve not been short of things to eat.

It’s not been particularly traumatic for us, but it’s been really interesting. At the start of this year [2020], I had five weeks off work. My body had given up on me, I was not able to get off the sofa, I was physically tired and every part of me ached. I had five weeks off where I didn’t really leave the house. I’d gone back to work after that period for a couple of weeks then lockdown happened.

I felt I’d done my warm-up, I was ready to go for lockdown, I knew what to expect. I have tried not to get frustrated at people saying this is really hard, I’m struggling with isolation and the difficulty of not being allowed out because equally, I’ve seen lots of people with disabilities say this is not a new thing, welcome to our world, this is what we have been experiencing all our lives. We have long periods stuck inside.

Again, I think well, I’ve had 25 years to get used to not getting out and not being able to get to stuff. It is scary and worrying and frustrating, I can see why anxiety and mental-health problems would come along quite quickly if it’s not something you’re used to. I didn’t go straight from a 16-year-okd who was playing football all day, riding my back every day, to being a wheelchair user and just crack on and think there was nothing wrong with it.

I was pretty angry and beaten up for a few years while I came to terms with that, so I think it takes time to get our head around anything that challenges the equilibrium, which is what’s happening at the moment. Any kind of normal that anyone had has been challenged to a degree, pretty much. There are people, early adopters in some sense, who embraced that and thought whatever I do, whether it’s fitness classes, poetry, film reviews, whatever it might be, let’s stick that online, let’s get that contact out there, because it’s giving people something to do.

Also, it’s given me an outlet to be able to do these things. Either that might be monetary because you’ve had an income dry up or it might be creatively or it might be to alleviate boredom, like I’ve watched pretty much everything on Netflix and I can’t sit and watch TV anymore, I have to do something that’s connected with people.

What I’ve been really interested to observe, coming back to the conversation we’ve had about accessibility, and this isn’t just poetry, as someone who likes going to the cinema, there are at least five or six cinemas in Bristol of which only half are physically wheelchair-accessible. I moved to Bristol thinking it was this amazing musical hub where I was going to be discovering new bands every night, then realised maybe three-quarters of the venues are not accessible to wheelchairs, and seeing lots of these things that have previously said to you we’re in a really old building, we’re really sorry we haven’t got the funding, we can’t put a lift in, we’re up a flight of stairs, so it’s not accessible, all of a sudden, they’re online streaming gigs by Zoom.

So you think so you were accessible, you found a way to be accessible. You’re not doing this to be accessible, you’re doing this because you don’t want to lose that income or lose out on putting content out there and you want to still exist so you can exist when all this is over. I’ve gone through many different emotions over the last few weeks of actively not joining those sorts of sessions because I’m like why should I join you now, just because you’re online?

Then I was like, no, no, I’m going to join these sessions and I’m going to let them know I’m going to tweet about them and scare them. I’m going to email them and say I’ve been able to join your session, you weren’t accessible then, you are now, make sure this carries on afterwards. Then there’s another balance in the sense that it’s hard because I get what it means for artists and performers because people are struggling for income and lots of this stuff, people are doing for free.

I really hope it doesn’t end up being at the expense of things in the real world once this is over. We still need to be out there, we still need to be in venues, we still need to feel that hum of an audience. You still need to feel that adrenaline of sitting in front of someone and reading poems or performing or playing the guitar, whatever it is you do.

Equally, I think there’s a world where both can co-exist. We’ve proved now that you could put an event on and live stream that for people who can’t connect and come to your event. You could put an event on where you’ve got seven people reading at an open mic and three people Zooming in and you put them on a screen because they might not be able to make it, they might have an illness, they might have a physical disability that means they can’t get into your venue.

Equally the same for performers. I’ve shied away from going to read in places around the country because travel is more expensive and it takes maybe two days out to do something, I can’t just drive there and drive back that evening. Accessible rooms in hotels are more expensive, or hotels with accessible rooms are more expensive than bunking down in a YHA, something like that.

Now it means I could headline an event in Newcastle and not have to leave home and I think we could be richer for it. Just in lieu of having anything else to do, I’ve started using Instagram Live to share some poems. What’s been really interesting, we spoke at the start about being able to sit in front of an audience, a physical audience, in my chair, and be a disabled poet.

I now exist in a three square of someone’s device and I’m white, now middle-class, straight bloke in my 40s on a screen and every 10 seconds, I feel I have to say yeah, I write or read my poems about a wheelchair user. I realise all this stuff I’ve been trying to get away from, this idea that I feel like part of me is missing. The bit you can’t see in the screen is the bit of me in my chair and I’m like shit, I didn’t realise that, this is annoying, but good at the same time.

DT:      Your point’s interesting about some larger organisations conflating accessibility with their desperate wish not to become irrelevant. Just to make sure you’re permanently on people’s lips is not the same as becoming accessible.

When you told me the other day about how you now feel the pressure to keep reminding people logging into Instagram Live that you are in fact a wheelchair user, suddenly made me think about whenever I go to open mics and have the opportunity to read one poem. You think, I’m going to read that one about psychosis or suicide or being in a psychiatric unit and then you think shit, do I have to set this up and say I’ve had all this lived experience?

I was also thinking about how much effort you have put, like a lot of performers, into how you use your body and then suddenly, for so many of us, we’re unable to do that in the confines of a video screen. Especially when streaming from a phone.

There’s the horrible advert that keeps playing on the TV about the new Facebook webcam you put on your TV because you can get more people in. It’s actually quite a fair point. As a performer, you’re used to people having this wide range of vision and suddenly, you’re restricted to this little box. It doesn’t mean we can’t perform within this space, it’s just suddenly we’re having to think about it.

All this effort you’ve put into how you present yourself on stage, you specifically, that’s out the window because people can’t see you.

SL:       That’s right, but I’m trying to maintain some of that. I still put on my poetry performing clothes. I bought clothes last year when I was doing the launch. I thought what is the persona of the person? so I bought some more loud shirts than I would normally wear and I’m still putting those on, I’m doing my hair, which is quite fun.

I’m learning to style hair that’s 15 times longer than it’s ever been in my life, but I’m still dressing that box behind me. I’ve put things there that people might subconsciously see. It’s a bit of Derren Brown going on in all of this, where I’m placing stuff in there that I want people to see.

I’ve got a little tiny Lego version of me that sits in a wheelchair. I now put that behind me and I’ve had a poster made of me in my chair and that sits behind me when I’m doing these readings as well. There’s a way of being able to play some music on my laptop that kind of feeds into the Instagram Live, so I’m playing with the form a bit. In a way, I’ve done in putting the launch together, I’m learning at pace and absorbing and dipping into other things people do.

That’s the other thing. Apart from my mum, who’s dialled into everything so far and is commenting, I’m like thanks, Mum, this is the equivalent of sticking me on the fridge, like you get to put a strong-arm emoji on Instagram Live and I love you for it, thanks very much, you’ve got people dipping in and out and it throws you a little bit, in the same way you might be midway through a poem and someone stands up and walks out to go to the bar.

It’s trying to recreate these things and go with that and not be thrown by it. Also, talking to people as they’re commenting, or acknowledging people that may be there. I think it was the first one I did, I just treated it like it was a poetry night. I pretended to be the host, the open mic support act and the headliner. All I did was put a pair of glasses on, a hat, whatever it was.

It was like we could play around a little bit more and be creative in this space we’ve got given. Also, I’m still learning by fast track the accessibility of these forums. One of the things I’ve been frustrated by is still around what is accessible for me might not be for someone else. Personally, I think I’m going to struggle when lockdown ends because I have never felt more connected to the world.

I am dialling into fitness classes and poetry events and readings and workshops across the world. Not once have I had to ask anybody if this Zoom is wheelchair accessible or can I read at this event? I’ve just turned up and done it, dialled in. Snuck in at the back, whatever it might be. I’ve realised actually, when you’ve been allowed out, I go back out and my frustrations at the world have been ramped up again because I can’t get in a shop or this bit here is inaccessible.

I feel really connected. At the same time, I’m aware that if I had a hearing impairment, maybe it wouldn’t be so accessible because people aren’t looking at the camera. If they’re reading off a page, they’re looking slightly offscreen and it’s more difficult to lip read. You can’t caption it in real time, the software doesn’t allow it. Zoom, you can’t spotlight two people talking at the same time, so it would be really difficult to have somebody reading and somebody doing BSL.

That is a really, really simple flaw that wouldn’t be that difficult to set up. One of the people I’ve been talking to, someone that signed at one of my events last year, I’ve been talking about whether or not we could do a split screen on Instagram Live and she will sign in real time as I’m doing that. That’s something I’m hoping to do and really looking forward to doing.

I’m not bored of reading my own poems, but I’d like to use it as an opportunity to talk to other poets about their experiences and talk to publishers about what it’s like to be a publisher in lockdown. If you were an event person previously, what was that like? The 12 people that dial into these things, it’s the same thing.

Holly McNish has hundreds of people dialling in and watching her stuff, but actually hundreds of people go to her events when she reads. When I go to read at open mic, it’s just 12 people in the room and I’m really happy to cater to those 12 people. It’s difficult to get out of that mindset to compare yourself to people. They’ve got 25,000 on their Instagram, I’ve got 1000. I love these 12 people that are coming in all the time and joining in.

You’ve just got to be open-minded and go with it and hope some of it carries on afterwards. The other thing that’s really interesting is I worry about when we’re allowed back out again and venues start up again, poems we’ll see in the real world again, I worry poets with disabilities will get left behind. We’ve been writing a lot about isolation and being on our own and what that means and not necessarily having the platform to be able to do that.

Next year, probably, we will be so bored of hearing poems about people writing about isolation and what that means, but I know there are lots of people with disabilities who’ve said they’re struggling to find the time to write because they can’t pay for a carer to come into the house. Their physical needs are more demanding because they’re not getting the care they need from being able to go to a GP or hospital or get people to come in and look after them, physiotherapy-type stuff.

That sense of having that space, maybe not everyone’s writing. That’s OK if you’re surviving and looking after yourself. So there’s going to be another element of catch-up. By the time we come to put some of this stuff down on paper about our experiences of lockdown, everyone might be bored of hearing about these experiences. There’s always something to be thinking about and being mindful of that is really important.

DT:      I’ve been thinking a lot about yes, being able to access events digitally is infinitely better than not being able to access events at all, but it’s not the same as being able to access events physically. I’m hoping this isn’t seen as an easy way out for organisations to claim full accessibility. It’s brilliant because it will allow performers to perform.

If we can accept that performers have the ability to stream and join events and have the technology, it means you could be headlining in Sydney from Bristol. That would be an amazing thing. It’s good for the environment, it cuts costs of events down. If people are happy to accept seeing someone on a video screen, then why not do it? None of this considers audience members and getting people together physically.

One of the things that has come up consistently through conversations on this podcast about access is what you miss out on as a writer or artist if you’re not able to hang out with other artists at the end of events and how much you miss out in terms of publishing and performance opportunities. Abi Palmer, who’s been on the podcast a few times, has spoken a lot about how disconnected she feels when she’s unable to physically be with the poetry community.

That still exists when you’re able to read digitally at events because you log off and you’re gone from the conversation. If we enter a world where digital events become much more common, I do hope some thought is put into how that social space is recreated.

SL:       Completely agree. Before we did this podcast and I was doing a bit of prep, I put something on social media and said what are people’s experiences of this and how have people found it because personally, I found it good in some respects? There were things I hadn’t realised. If you are neurodivergent, physically in an audience, you can take cues from other audience members and that’s not as possible, watching on a screen. It can be really tiring and fatiguing and attention span can be difficult because you’re dipping in and out of the screen, from what I was told.

I was like, of course. What we can do at the moment is our best but we can still continue to get better. We have to learn. If we just plateau out and keep banging out Zoom events and Instagram Lives, there also has to be a way people get paid. Just because you’re sat in your front room in front of your bookcase doesn’t mean you’re not sharing your own poems and putting effort into putting that together, you’ve not spent a good couple of hours not being able to eat and getting nervous and sweaty.

That energy, that adrenaline, that comedown afterwards still exists. In some respects, it’s more weird because as a performer, you’re not taking cues from anyone. You’re looking at yourself and you’re thinking that’s really weird. How often do you sit and read a set to yourself and not get any cues back from the audience? I grew as a performer by getting feedback from people.

That feedback, it’s easier to think you’re doing a terrific job because you put a video up and you’ve got 27 likes and three comments that say that was great, thanks very much. You think yeah, this is brilliant. It’s artificial in that sense. Nothing will ever replace being physically in front of an audience and existing and talking to other poets.

I think we can be a bit cleverer, we don’t have to keep churning out poetry readings. More conversations and thought pieces. I did a workshop this week with Roger Robinson and I thought it was brilliant, it was two hours of him talking about how he puts a book together. There’s a writing exercise in there. I could have done without the writing exercise, I just enjoyed listening to him going through his process about how he’s written his books. More of that.

Poets have mentioned how in Zoom, you can use the classroom format, go into break-out rooms and have smaller chats. I’m part of a writing group you set up in Bristol, which is still going strong. We did a writing workshop this week, there were 15 people and it’s really difficult. By the time you’re number 15 on that list, you’re saying I’m not going to give feedback because it’s the same as everyone else is giving.

Just eking our way through this, step by step, day by day, and trying to understand, but there’s a really good opportunity to understand. I’ll be really gutted if I never get to be in front of a live audience again and spend some time with people afterwards, talking about I really enjoyed your set, thanks very much, how did you pull that together? Learning in that real-life environment.

DT:      I think that might be the perfect place to stop. We’re going to take a third and final reading. It’s suddenly hit me this is the last time I’m going to say goodbye to someone. I’m glad it’s you. We will fade out straight after the poem, so I will take this opportunity to say thank you very much for coming on and being my final guest. I may pop up again, in some way, in the future, if PJ will have me, but this is firmly the final time I will be producing anything. So thank you, Stephen.

SL:       It would be remiss of me not to say thank you on behalf of every poet you’ve spoken to as part of this podcast series. You’ve done a tremendous job of giving people a platform to talk about poetry and their experiences. Through your podcast, I definitely felt I was part of a community that I didn’t know existed. It’s been a real honour to come on and be the last person to waffle on about poems also. Thanks very much for that.

DT:      If it’s made you feel part of something, I don’t think I could have done anything more. Anyway, we’ll take the poem.

SL:       I’ll give a little intro to this, if that’s all right. There are two lockdown connections to this poem. First of all, it was written during lockdown in a workshop through Spread the Word and Rachel Long, which I really enjoyed. Also, it’s part of a series of poems I’m thinking about for a second collection, which I was writing before lockdown, but strangely enough was about what would happen not to me, but I’ve invented a character of someone who’s a wheelchair user and wakes up one day and realises he’s the only person left alive in the world and what it would mean to be isolated outside of the house, isolated in the world as it would be in this new version of life. Each poem is the title of the day, set over a year. This is;

[We are unable to reproduce this reading here. To read this poem download a full transcript here.]

Outro:

DT:      Well, that’s it. Six years. Pretty crazy. A final thank you to Stephen Lightbown for his time. I suppose this conversation revolved around how we get as many people into the poetry room as possible, whether in real life or as part of these increasingly common online events. I hope the past 125 episodes of this podcast have been an entry point to these spaces and discussions to some of you.

All I ever wanted to do with this project was hold the door open for others. A huge thank you now to all of the guest hosts who have helped me offer such a wide range of episodes and, of course, to the more than 200 poets who have appeared in one way or another since 2014. None of this project would have made any sense without you lot, though. When the first episode went out, Pat Cash, I was simply happy with more than 20 people listening in.

It blows my mind to think 10s of thousands of people worldwide have stopped by at some point and spent time with me and my guests. I’m going to miss doing this a lot, I think, but it also feels right to go. Plus, if there is every going to be proper progress made improving the diversity in representation of the arts in this country then those currently holding editorial and publishing roles, I just need to get out of the fucking way.

It’s not enough to simply give platforms to under-represented artists. They need to be allowed control and to make decisions too. So this is me getting out of the way. Lots of love to you lot.

End of transcript.

Ep.118: 4th BIRTHDAY SPECIAL EPISODE

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To celebrate the fourth anniversary of Lunar Poetry Podcasts (01/10/2018) I chat to Abi Palmer about how and why LPP began.

We discuss how the podcast has evolved since October 2014 and the changes made because of growing audiences and funding from Arts Council England.

As with any episodes where my own life experiences play any significant part, the role of my mental health ‘struggles’ and working-class background feature heavily in this conversation.

We also talk about the brand new anthology of poems by 28 former podcast guests, ‘Why Poetry?’ (VERVE Poetry Press), out now in bookshops nationwide.

Below is a transcript of the conversation, minus the three poems I read during the episode. If you would like the complete transcript you can download the here.

For more from us:
lunarpoetrypodcasts.com/
twitter.com/Silent_Tongue
www.facebook.com/LunarPoetryPodcasts

Order ‘Why Poetry?’: The Lunar Poetry Podcasts Anthology here: vervepoetrypress.com/product/why-poetry/

For more from Abi:
abipalmer.com/
twitter.com/abipalmer_bot

Episode music is an original composition by Snazzy Rat. You can find more from Snazzy here:
snazzyrat.bandcamp.com/
www.facebook.com/snazzyrat/

 

TRANSCRIPT:

Producer/Guest: David Turner – DT

Host: Abi Palmer – AP

Introduction:

DT:      Hello, welcome to episode 118 of Lunar Poetry Podcasts, my name is David Turner. Today’s episode is a very special one as it celebrates our 4th birthday. Celebrates four years of podcasting, celebrates 118 episodes recorded in eight countries, celebrates 13 hosts and well over 200 poets in our archive and, ridiculously, it celebrates over 30,000 times somebody pressed play on an episode.

As many of you will already know, we have published an amazing anthology, ‘Why Poetry?’ through our favourite indie publisher VERVE Poetry Press which is out now in bookshops and also available through the publishers themselves for £9.99 – link in the episode description.

In the process of putting the book together Stuart Bartholomew at VERVE asked me to write an introduction to the anthology which made me feel really, really awkward as I’ve always tried to put guests and their work before me and my opinions. A compromise was reached and we decided that anthology contributor, author of the book’s beautiful foreword and bloody good friend of mine Abi Palmer would interview me and the transcript of that recording would form an extended introduction weaving its way through the 28 poems and quotes from the contributors in the book.

This brings me neatly onto today’s episode. The resulting recorded interview turned out to be a pretty good record of the history of the podcast and a very good explanation of why I started it in the first place. Most remarkably for two people that talk as much and as tangentially as me and Abi it actually made a lot of sense. Now as embarrassing as it’s been to edit an interview in which I’m the guest, I’ve been assured by some regular listeners that there will be some interest in this episode. If though during this episode you feel it’s all a load of insufferable self-centred nonsense then rest assured it won’t be happening again and we’ll be back to normal next month.

One important note about the anthology is that my wife and co-editor of the book, Lizzy Turner and I have pledged to re-invest all money we make from sales back into transcribing the podcast throughout 2019. Our Arts Council funding ends next month and we can’t be sure we’ll ever even apply never mind receive more so buying the book will directly support keeping the series as accessible as possible. As always you can find a full transcript of this conversation over at lunarpoetrypodcasts.com

I’m going to be back in the middle of the episode with more names of poets featured in the book and to read another poem from it. But as a taster here are the first 14 poets in the book: Helen Mort, Sean Wai Keung, Lizzy Turner, Grim Chip, Paul McMenemy, Donald Chegwin, Abi Palmer, Travis Alabanza, Anna Kahn, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Nadia Drews, Nick Makoha, Harry Josephine Giles and Keith Jarret whose poem ‘Granddad’s Conspiracy of Yams’ I’m going to share with you now;

 

To read this poem download the full transcript here.

Accompanying that poem is a quote taken from episode 61 from way back in February 2016 and it begins with me saying to Keith: Something I’ve thought about a lot is why people ask, “what are you trying to say with your work?” and not, “what are you trying to ask with your work?” To which Keith replies, Exactly! I’m full of loads of opinions but I’m not exactly full of answers! The more I respond to what’s going on around me, the more questions I find.

 And aping all good stand-up comedy sets, there’s a call back to that later in the episode. Here is me and Abi, we join the conversation shortly after she asked me what motivated me to start the podcast.

Conversation – Part One:

DT:      So back in the spring of 2014, that’s when I first read at a poetry open-mic night, at The Dragon Café, which is a mental-health support group. Then the following week, I read at Niall O’Sullivan’s now legendary Poetry Unplugged. I suppose between then and the summer, I was attending as many open-mic nights and poetry events as I could and because I hadn’t had much exposure to poetry, but I was just desperate to know more.

I wanted to know why people kept coming to these nights. I felt like every time I’d seen an open-mic with 10 to 20 to 30 people read, there were at least two people every night I was desperate to have a conversation with. I wanted to ask them these questions, things I was wondering, and I didn’t know enough about poetry, so there were gaps in my knowledge, and I desperately wanted to ask these people these questions and there wasn’t the space to do that.

Once I’d befriended a few poets, early on I met Sean Wai Keung and Anna Kahn they were probably the first two ‘actual’ poets to come and talk to me at an open-mic night and we started having these conversations in the intervals, I don’t think either of those two smoke, but I have this image in my mind of people huddling round with roll-ups outside poetry events, having these conversations.

Once I started being, not allowed but invited, by other people, I just thought it was ridiculous if other people didn’t get to share in those, because I realised immediately that I was lucky to be allowed into these conversations and, for reasons we’ll no doubt talk about, there are huge amounts of people that can’t access those conversations and I wanted them to be as public and accessible as possible. I felt like if I started this project, the slightly more selfish thing about it, was that I could get poets to myself for a couple of hours and just bombard them with these questions.

In lieu of me having any literature qualifications, I failed my English Literature GCSE and haven’t done anything in terms of literature since I left school, it felt like this could be my own, personal, Creative Writing MA. I acknowledged straightaway that was quite a selfish thing to do, but I reconciled my conscience by making these conversations public, no matter how silly or foolish or naïve I sounded at the beginning.

AP:       One of the things you said has come back to me in various forms over several years, that at some stages during the process, you presented yourself to me as somebody who didn’t much care for poetry, so my favourite David Turner quote ever is ‘My name is David Turner and I fucking hate poetry’. That is from a review, where you reviewed a night you really enjoyed. So my initial impression of you was someone who was intensely passionate about something that you were also intensely objective about and trying to be quite neutral in your approaches to these conversations.

I guess something that’s interesting about what you just said is that you went into it attempting to extract information back out from people and have access. Something that’s always fascinated me about the podcasts as a series is the range of voices you get and the diversity of types of poetry. Could it be a fair assumption that the conversations are the bit that’s always interested you?

DT:      It’s funny, part of me is slightly embarrassed that I used to so proudly go around saying how much I fucking hated poetry, but it was true and it’s still true, but it’s true for slightly different reasons now, the deeper I’m in it. When I first wrote that sentence down, I wrote it on several reviews that I did for Lunar Poetry Magazine, back in 2014, which was another reason that the podcasts started, because I was writing reviews of poetry events and spoken-word nights. One thing that led me to have these conversations was that the word count, although it was generous, up to 1500 words, which is exceptionally long for a review, it wasn’t long enough to talk about the things I wanted to talk about.

Going back to the point of, ‘I fucking hate poetry’, I hated poetry with air quotes, what it stood for, how exclusive it could be and how if you said you were into poetry, in most people’s minds, it was a very, very defined and narrow thing. I chose not to put air quotes around it, because I didn’t want it to seem tongue-in-cheek or like I was trying to back out of it and didn’t have conviction, because I really had conviction.

I hate poetry in the same way I hate fine art and I love fine art. If people ask me what I mean, I don’t understand how they can’t see how closely the love and hate are interlinked. What I think has changed now about what I hate about poetry is slightly different, because if you view what I said early on was a rejection of the established idea of what poetry is, I have to accept that now, four years into running a poetry podcast, I am establishment, not that I’m an established voice or opinion, but I am as established as anything I would have rejected at the start.

What I hate now about poetry are still those things about refusing access to certain people, still this defined and narrow view and all along, my motivation has been to meet people, because I find most people I meet intensely interesting. The conversations I have, I don’t ask facile questions, I don’t ask things I don’t actually want to know about people. I really want to know these things and I think everyone, as much as possible, deserves to have their say about this thing they love.

This is what I mean about not being establishment, I am a gatekeeper, because I run a series and I choose who comes on. I want to be as generous a gatekeeper as possible because whilst it’s very noble to say ‘let’s smash the system and remove all gatekeepers’, all you’re doing is setting up a new generation of gatekeepers and with every blow to the establishment, you just set up new little cliques and fashions and groups. Basically, I was just trying to reject that, I suppose.

AP: That goes back to this idea, you’ve mentioned in the past that when you started up Lunar Poetry Podcasts, you wanted it to have the feel of a zine, so a few aspects of that have been really interesting as a listener. Can you talk about what you mean by that?

DT:      My main motivation at the beginning was content over production values, to a certain extent. It was equally at the beginning as much by design and wish as it was by financial circumstances, because unfortunately with podcasts, you can’t start unless you have a microphone and a recording device and access to the internet to upload it. That doesn’t mean you can’t start an interview series, because you could have a tape cassette recorder and you could walk around and meet people, but how you distribute that becomes an issue.

Within that, the thing I loved about zines was because there was no motivation for financial gain, it was just about a subject a person loved and putting out the cheapest and most accessible version of that conversation, opinion, idea, drawing, image. I really loved that and really wanted to embrace that. I suppose one reality of making a podcast is that very lo-fi interviews, I’ve been going back through some older interviews in the course of putting this book together, and Christ, there are some shockingly bad recordings in terms of quality and it’s all my fault.

You do at some point have to accept that if you want to reach as many people as possible, which is sort of the idea of the zine anyway, is that you have to embrace the fact I probably needed to up my game production-wise. I needed to get new equipment, look towards spending some money where possible, to make the conversations as widely accessible as possible and whilst it’s nice to have a little bit of atmosphere in a conversation, it can’t be inaudible.

AP:      So, your role as a podcaster and primary interviewer, it sounds like you wanted to ask a lot of questions and get access and democratise that access to some extent. Has that changed in any way?

DT:      I’ve realised that what it means to make something accessible is not what I envisaged at the beginning. In exactly the same way as what I was rejecting in the term ‘poetry’, or the idea of poetry, the idea of what access is, is far broader than I imagined at the beginning, because most of what you’re talking about when you’re talking about access are not things I experience myself.

I’m able-bodied, my hearing is deteriorating, but I still have pretty good hearing and I’m white and cis-gendered and I’ve learnt along the way how insulting it is to claim you’re making something accessible when it’s not to someone and how disheartening and upsetting and one of many, many repeated blows that person receives in their life.

I suppose that goes back to production values as well. I probably at one point felt that if I just made something, just transcribed an episode, that would make it accessible and of course, it goes a long way, but it isn’t what that is.

Can I say, I’ve also learnt how to shut the fuck up? Because that’s very hard!

AP:      It’s a really interesting thing, my next question is, I noticed that when you’re the interviewer, you do put parts of yourself into the podcast without ever having performed a poem because you find common ground with people, despite the fact you have a really diverse range of performers. The conversations seem to flow very naturally a lot of the time and yet, you’ve got this range of poets, not from one particular scene, but from a range of scenes, the widest diversity of styles, of genres and of backgrounds of poets I’ve seen in an organised poetic structure, which it is, ever. How do you know what you’re looking for when you choose your speakers?

DT:      There is one very, very easy answer and that’s if I ever hear anyone, or overhear anyone talking about how they consider their work, pretty much it’s a green light to come on the podcast. I made a very conscious decision right at the beginning that two things would happen: I wouldn’t read my own work, promote my own work, and I would not only have people I liked on the podcast, because it would have run for about 10 episodes, then stopped.

That doesn’t mean to say I’ve had people on that I hate. The beauty of what poems and poets are is they’re so wide-ranging, even if you don’t particularly find anything in someone’s work, if you sit down long enough to talk to them, there will be areas where you will find overlaps in interest. So that’s the main thing I look for, someone who considers the process of what they do. Outside of that, there is obviously the selfish element where I’ll choose someone whose book I really love, or I’ll see them perform and think ‘I have to talk to that person, I love their work’.

AP:       I’ve had the privilege of being involved in one of those round-table discussions, where you basically put a group of people who’ve never met each other in a room together, sat in a corner, did the sound and let them talk. You said you sometimes let people do the choosing themselves, in that particular instance, did you do the choosing?

DT:      I had a Skype conversation with Harry Josephine Giles, who was the host of the ‘Access to the Arts’ episode that you were a guest on. I allowed Harry to explain to me what they felt was important to that discussion and I allowed Harry full editorial control of the conversation, then we spoke about possible guests and I suggested a few names. Out of those names, we decided to invite yourself and Andra Simons.

The reality of putting together an episode like that means there are financial constraints and logistical constraints. Harry lived, and still does, in Scotland, so the choice was for me to travel to Scotland and have an all-Scottish, local-to-Harry line-up, made up of poets, or for Harry to travel to London and us find poets based down there. That was the option we chose. There have been other episodes where ‘Poetry in Schools’ for example, Jacob Sam-La Rose had full control invited Miriam Nash and Keith Jarrett, I had no say in that, nor did I want any.

That’s the thing, I suppose, I’ve had different roles in the podcast and I am host, editor and producer, sometimes all at once, sometimes I’m just one thing.

AP:       How do you juggle that?

DT:      It’s really hard. It happens more naturally now, but I don’t think it’s necessarily any easier, it just suddenly becomes habit. It’s still exactly the same amount of energy. The nature of a single host/editor/producer-based podcast is that you have to be present in the conversation, aware of background noise, make sure your guest is comfortable, the recorder is on, still on, still on, listen to your guest, do not stop listening to your guest.

Make sure the recorder is on, listen to your guest, then and only then, do you get to think about what questions you might want to ask. I don’t make notes generally, I like to go in and for it to be a natural conversation. I don’t know how relevant this is, but I liken it a lot to the improvised stuff that I used to do, in which whilst you’re improving in the moment, you’ve probably got an idea of what your middle and end point is to be, then you improvise within that, so I will have an idea of who my guest is and what they might want to talk about, might not want to talk about, which is also important, then how they want to talk about it. Then it’s all about getting from the starting point to the middle point to the end.

AP:      That’s a really interesting thing. I keep coming back to this idea of the podcast and its relationship with zine culture. In that as well, even in the role of editor/producer/host and having to juggle it all and put it together and do it like a series of, not a collage because it’s a linear interview process, but that thing where from start to finish, you’re assembling a production, an object that goes out into the world, you’re collaborating with somebody else and it feels like a collaboration when you’re listening.

It’s a two-way conversation, it requires both people, sometimes it’s a multiple-way conversation, but it feels like there’s a democracy to it that doesn’t always exist for instance in a poetry performance, where you have to sit quietly and watch one person and read the room as to whether you clap at the end of the performance. Then the next person who’s been chosen goes up and then you get an interval when you’re allowed to talk for approximately five minutes and then you sit back down.

It’s not that. You’ve created a platform that’s far more democratic. I like the podcast as an object for poetry because you can pause it, you can move it around. Has the podcast format been important to you?

DT:      I’m really glad you brought up the term dialogue, because that’s what I wanted. I wanted to avoid too many things I’d seen at spoken-word nights. The reason I don’t read my own work, or out of 116, 117 episodes, the reason I’ve only read a poem three times on the podcast, and that’s in very special circumstances, is because I didn’t like going to events where the host would read the first three poems of the night and centre themselves and detract from the guests. I really didn’t like that, so I rejected that idea.

My main editorial thought when I’m in a conversation with someone is I’m not actually in conversation with my guests, I’m in conversation with the audience, which as the audience have steadily grown over the last four years, so has my awareness of that obligation, because I do see it as an obligation. If you’re demanding an hour or an hour and a half of someone’s attention, you need to bear them in mind. You have to centre the audience.

Hopefully I’ve always been able to give people enough time, it hasn’t always worked out like that. Too many podcasts, too many people are involved with projects that are basically just producing a monologue. I’ve definitely been guilty of taking over conversations too much, talking too much. It’s really hard to shut up if you really like someone or if they’re sparking ideas at you.

It’s also hard if someone’s very shy. It took me a long time to learn how to bring someone out of their shell rather than talking over the top of them to fill in the space.

AP:       That’s something I’ve admired, knowing you, because we’re both talkers. It’s interesting to listen to you and watch you step into the professional role and take space.

DT:      It’s a performance.

AP:       OK, so it’s a dialogue and a performance at the same time. That’s very interesting. What have you learnt about your audience?

DT:      That they’re really loyal and really, really exceptionally broad-minded, because they seem to equally stick with any guest I put in front of them. It’s amazing to think hundreds of people tune in. Most of my audience must not know most of my guests because I don’t necessarily know people before I get to talk to them. There are a lot of people who’ve been on the podcast when I haven’t really known much about their work.

People continue to listen to back episodes and I can see through the stats that most people stick with most of the episodes. One thing you learn is about people’s listening habits, how people return to subjects and return to episodes. Not everyone shares their identity through the devices they listen on or the software they listen on, but I will see through my stats service that they have returned three or four times to a particular episode.

It’s really nice. That’s the exact difference and why I love podcasts over radio, because there’s a pressure to be live and be present for the radio, a podcast serves the same purpose as a journal in that you can lay it down on the table and come back to it when you’re ready. Another thing I’ve learnt about my audience is that it’s global. Right from the very beginning, I’ve had people in Malaysia, India, Australia, America, Argentina. Apart from the two polar continents, there are listeners on every continent, which is insane and it’s really beautiful to be able to give a poet the opportunity to communicate with those people.

I do get properly emotional if I think about that side of things, it’s too much to comprehend then I end up being glib and sarcastic to not cry. It’s just too much. I cannot get my head around it.

AP:       And they’re strangers.

DT:      Right from the beginning, I expected friends to listen for a while, family members out of a sense of obligation to listen for a little while, but what? Would you give people 10 episodes? That’s too much to stick with it unless there’s actually some meat there.

You do have to avoid as a podcaster the evil that is an over-reliance on your statistical analysis through whatever hosting platform you use because that is just numbers and it will drive you insane and it’s very unhealthy. But what it does, one of the few positives it gives you, is you can see people come back and that there’s a natural ebb and flow of the way people interact with the thing you make, which you’ll never get, for example, from a collection you release. If you’re an artist, you don’t get this information.

You get sales information, but you don’t know how many times people have picked up your book. I know how many times a good percentage of my listeners have picked up the podcast, it’s really fascinating and sometimes, all-consuming.

AP:       I’m very aware that you’ve spent a lot of time providing platforms for speakers from a really diverse, not in terms of content, but of who they are. You’ve provided a platform for some very difficult conversations that aren’t happening in many places in the arts. Can you talk to me a little bit about that, how you’ve increased the diversity of your podcast?

DT:      If anyone asks my advice on how to run a successful podcast, an interview-based podcast, and that is that you have to listen to your guest, because if it’s just a list of questions, the audience will know that you’re not, the guest will know and everyone’s interest will wane, including your own. If you’re going to have conversations around difficult subjects…. These are not difficult subjects per se, these are subjects that are very emotive to people and when they’re done wrongly, they are very, very painful to the people they affect.

It just seemed the natural thing for me to do and I can’t believe that more organisations don’t do it. Some do it very well, but a lot make a lot of mistakes. They don’t listen to the people they’re trying to address. If you want a very, very simple example, if you’re trying to talk about access for the hard of hearing to an audio production such as a podcast, you cannot have that conversation unless it involves primarily someone that is hard of hearing.

I mean primarily, to give them full editorial control and to give them the platform, not give them the chance for a soundbite, not give them a chance to give you enough opinion that you can then chop up and frame your own editorial viewpoint, it’s to give them the microphone and let them talk about how that’s affected them. Also, an extension of that, to acknowledge that it is a single person’s experience of the world and that every other hard-of-hearing person listening to that or engaging with that conversation will probably not have experienced it in quite the same way. There will be a lot of overlaps, but they will have their own experiences.

That’s why Harry Giles was invited to our Access to the Arts. That’s why Khairani Barokka was invited for Access to Publishing. That was why Paula Varjack was invited to talk about artists being paid, because all three of those people already made it their point to publicly talk about these subjects.

That means you’ve got somebody whose informed about the subject. It also means you’re not burdening that person to come up with a whole episode for you. Essentially, once they leave, you profit from everything they’ve done. That was another thing, I didn’t want to be profiting from everyone else’s experiences because that is unfortunately what a lot of organisations do as well. By virtue of the fact of you seeming accessible, you bask in the glow of your own accessibility and I don’t want that. I want something to be accessible and I don’t want the credit of that conversation afterwards.

I do want to be known as an accessible producer because I think it’s the right motivation for life, professionally and personally. I don’t want to be the one that takes the credit for any conversation somebody else has led or contributed to with their own experiences.

AP:       Something you did at the end of the first year of Arts Council funding was to publish publicly on your website a list of stats of the demographic of speakers you had and where the money went, an honest breakdown of exactly where it went. It was notably diverse in some areas, you talked about where there was room for improvement. It was the frankest summary of how an Arts Council budget had been used that I’d seen. What was your intention in doing that?

DT:      My intention was to instil some sense of accountability in other producers. If we just talk about the demographic of the guests and hosts, for example, it was a very, very hard thing to put together because it took a lot of trust that my guests and hosts knew that I wanted that information for the right reasons, not to make myself look good because you could twist that information to any purpose you want.

Also, it’s not a very nice thing to say to someone they’re invited on first and foremost as a writer, then a follow-up email saying ‘could you please identify yourself in all these different ways so that I can prove I’m doing what I’m doing?’ That took a lot of trust on the part of the people filling out the surveys, which were all anonymous. I waited until everyone had submitted their information before I looked at the results and they were all collated, so I don’t know who identified in which way.

The main motivation was to then turn around and say ‘this is what I set out to do’. I tried to frame it that way, that this is what I set out to do, these are the areas where I think I achieved those aims, equally these are the areas I felt like I failed, or had fallen short, I don’t think I failed in any area, but I did fall short on a lot of things and I tried to highlight what I’d learnt along the way. Like we said earlier in the conversation, a lot of the things I was asking of myself to do as being accessible and having some sort of representation in the whole series, I was far more aware of those things by the time all the questions had been answered, then it was too late to revise the questions, so I was stuck with quite a narrow view.

Although it is wider than a lot of organisations have asked, it was still quite narrow in what I subsequently learnt. The biggest thing I learnt from having an amazing group of hosts and guests come on through these round tables, particularly the round-table discussions, but also the individual one-to-one interviews where we talked about similar subjects and themes, like accessibility and representation, is that every single one of those guests and hosts stated the fact they accepted that mistakes would be made, it was how you then faced up to those mistakes and if you were just honest and held your hands up to say well, we need to improve in these areas, people can live with that.

Everyone knows everyone makes mistakes. There is a pressure on you then to not continually make those mistakes. Although sometimes you learn more and more about people and certain themes and subjects, it can become daunting and almost terrifying to think if I fuck this up, people are going to be really upset, but similarly, the more I learnt about people, the more confidence it gave me to face up to things. People really respect that.

AP:       When you talk about how you interview people, how you don’t necessarily come with a script or agenda, there’s a vague outline but it happens live, it sounds like the same sort of thing has happened with the conversations around accessibility. You’ve had to listen and adapt the conversation as you’ve learnt more. Would it be safe to say it’s been a user-led experience?

DT:      I would say as much as possible, yes, but as part of accountability, it would be wrong for me not to say I have to accept it’s not a user-led experience, because I’m still editing stuff. It’s a collaboration, where I aim as much as possible to have it, even it if ends up 51%-49%, in favour of the guest or audience, that’s better than nothing. Ideally, I would aim for more like 80%-20% with my final 20% being just the mechanics of editing and putting something out, I don’t think you can actually achieve that.

That’s what’s led people to engage with the series, as participants, is I acknowledge that right from the beginning. All people want to know is you’re going to do your best to present them as they want to be presented, but the only way they could be properly represented, or presented, is to give them their own show. I give them an episode, but they don’t get the show. They get the platform for the time they’re on it.

It’s important to acknowledge that because it gives you a more realistic idea of what it’s possible to achieve. If you go around saying ‘Look at me, I give everyone this platform’, you’re making it about yourself and centring yourself as a gift-giver and we don’t want to go down that fucking route.

Middle ‘introduction:

DT:      Hello, I hope you’re enjoying the conversation so far, as I said at the beginning don’t worry if you’re not… it won’t be happening again!

Due to us not planning to publish this conversation in its entirety it did break down a lot and there were also toilet and tea breaks, most of which I got rid of through the magic of editing but this little break here, well nothing could save it.

I thought I’d take this opportunity to thank VERVE Poetry Press for giving me the opportunity to put together ‘Why Poetry?’ and for that opportunity to allow me to work so closely with my wife Lizzy. It’s been a wonderful if very consuming experience. I’ll also use this space to give you the names of the other 14 writers in the book, they are:

Luke Kennard, Amerah Saleh, Khairani Barokka, Joe Dunthorne, Zeina Hashem Beck, Kim Moore, Rishi Dastidar, Sandra Alland, Giles L. Turnbull, Susannah Dickey, Mary Jean Chan, Leo Boix, Roy McFarlane and Jane Yeh. It’s a pretty stellar line up.

Before we re-join the conversation, I’m going to share another poem from the book by Nadia Drews, this is called;

To read this poem download the full transcript here.

And that’s accompanied by a quote from episode 86 back in October 2016  in which Nadia says: Music and politics are the things that have shaped anything that I’ve put on paper. I was brought up by my mother who has had a lifelong commitment to socialism […] In middle age, what I’m still trying to act on are those impulses from my teenage years. I think the world is rotten to its core and I believe that music and other art forms, like poetry, can play a role in lifting people’s spirit to change it.

We re-join the conversation just after Abi has asked me what effect receiving funding from Arts Council England for the first time had on the way I produce the series.

Conversation – Part Two:

DT:      I can’t say anything other than it revolutionised everything I did. It made all the ideas I had possible overnight. It was amazing. The Arts Council have their flaws and the application process is littered with issues and problems, but there is no way I could deny the positive effects having that money suddenly had on the project because it meant I could go and talk to the people I wanted to and it didn’t matter if they were in Northern Ireland. I could travel to Belfast, travel to Leeds and dedicate a whole episode on poets who also worked as playwrights and have an episode specifically about poets as playwrights in West Yorkshire.

I could only have dreamed about having such a niche subject, which turned out to be a really rich couple of conversations. I couldn’t just wait for people to come to me in London.

AP:      And you’re taking your audience with you when you turn up. You’re opening up a world of poetry that isn’t just London. Even as someone based in London, the Yorkshire theatre episodes are interesting, in knowing there is a niche scene out there which as a listener, you wouldn’t have been able to access. It’s hard enough just in London, sometimes, just to get out of the house. As a disabled listener who can’t get out of the house, sometimes the Lunar Poetry Podcasts can be a lifeline.

You get adopted into a clique and then can’t show up enough and that’s a disgusting part to me about the creative scene in a country that has some arts budget. It’s disgusting to see how many decisions around who is allowed in and who isn’t is based on who turned up at the right pub on the right day. That comes with a whole host of problems, so having a podcast that’s managed to avoid those pitfalls is exciting. It stops it being lonely and being about anyone’s gang.

That’s leading me to the next question, you have identified on the podcast as someone from a working-class background and also someone who’s had mental-health obstacles and you talk about that very openly. I wanted to ask how that has affected your access to arts, how was that for you growing up?

DT:      I’m lucky that I come from a household where both my parents read a lot, mainly romance novels and horror novels, so I was surrounded by books. It goes back to just because you identify in some way, your personal experience will be different to those that identify in the same way. Whilst it’s a very valid and true narrative that for some working-class people, the only reading material was a newspaper on a Sunday, that is not the case…

Just because you’re working class, it doesn’t mean in any way you’re unable to engage with the arts. What it probably does mean is you engage with a very particular type of the arts. The same could be said of middle class and above. It’s just there probably is a stereotype and it’s definitely one I encountered, that poetry is trying to be too clever and if you are into poetry, you yourself are trying to be too clever and that is aspirational and that can be really poisonous when identifying strongly as working class.

As I said earlier, I failed my English Literature GCSE and went on from school to serve a joinery apprenticeship, so became a joiner. I did, for three months, do half of a Fine Art foundation course. I broke my elbow falling off a scaffold and couldn’t finish the course, but I was offered places at Wimbledon School of Art and Goldsmiths to read History of Art, but I turned those things down. The reason I mentioned the fact I failed my English GCSE and didn’t go to university is because I was having, both times, borderline emotional breakdowns.

That’s how my mental-health obstacles have impacted the way I interact with the arts. They have physically stopped me interacting with life and by extension, the arts, because my mental-health obstacles, specifically for me bipolar type 2, has incapacitated me at times, has disabled me physically and mentally and emotionally for obscenely long stretches of my life. It stopped me engaging with anything, never mind the arts.

I wrote a lot in my late teens. In my early 20s, I used to write reviews of art exhibitions I went to for my own amusement. I’ve always been able to generate or form ideas in my head through a dialogue. I’ll either talk to myself or write a conversation with someone else and that’s come out in reviews as well. Then I had a really severe emotional breakdown, I suppose I was about 24. It was the first time I ended up in hospital. It was only a short stay but it was a big thing to happen.

I stopped writing at that point. I didn’t write again until I was 33. The spring of 2014, I was admitted to the Maudsley psychiatric hospital in South London and I spent five weeks there. In there, I was encouraged to write. I had issues with compulsive and impulsive thoughts and I was encouraged to write these down because I couldn’t articulate them at the time. I’ve never really had any problem talking about my mental-health state, but at that time, I was emotionally exhausted and couldn’t articulate it. So I was encouraged to write these things down and when I left, I had these notebooks of lists, of phrases and sentences, which looked like poems but didn’t read as poems.

This is one of the things about this being a journey, or an education, for me in poetry. I now know that they are just found poems, ‘list’ poems. I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t know what these things were that I was writing. Going back to the start, I then went and saw an open-mic event at the Dragon Café, which was a support group I attended and I saw someone read a poem. It was one of the few times in my life where it really felt like a lightbulb had gone off in my head.

I realised that what I wanted to do was talk to people and that perhaps there was something in this medium that would allow me a way of articulating a truth about what I was feeling, but communicate in a way that wasn’t centring myself and was accessible for other people to recognise aspects of it. Having spent five weeks in that hospital, a secure psychotic specialist ward called John Dickson, it taught me very, very plainly that not everyone that goes through those things has the ability to talk about their experiences afterwards.

I sort of came out of that feeling as though I had an obligation because if I ever felt I could talk about mental-health problems, then I probably should. I suppose the last four and a half years since coming out of the hospital, what I’ve been trying to learn along the way, is what was an appropriate time to share those feelings in conversations. What is the right way of talking about your own experiences that would allow space for other people to talk about themselves?

I haven’t found the answer and I am probably unlikely ever to find that answer, because of course it varies from person to person, experience to experience and moment to moment as well. Again, it goes back to your motivations. If you’re seeking that, people will probably sense it and trust you more.

AP:       That’s a really beautiful way of addressing a destabilising experience and also it really resonates for someone who also has to physically check out of a scene and come back in. I think having a physical record of the conversations you’ve been having since 2014 and the learnings you made that in a way, does enable other people to track that journey, that’s a really valuable thing to have.

DT:      Something that’s suddenly fallen into place in my head is that when I first started interviewing people and Lizzy, my wife, was my main co-host, mainly because we were both happy to work for free on this project, and we didn’t mind, because poetry had become our life anyway and it wasn’t an intrusion to have these conversations. Early on, the first question would always be ‘why poetry?’

I’ve sort of stopped asking that, or I do ask it, but in more nuanced ways and I try to tailor it to each guest, but it was really important for me to find out why would you be doing this? Why are you here, sharing these ideas, to what aim, to what end? Because there’s a really strong link with your mental health, because there’s nothing more poisonous than wondering what the fuck you’re up to, but questioning what you’re doing, questioning your own motives, because that can really eat away at you.

You’re absolutely right, it was really nice to look back on this archive of evidence of what I was doing and why I was doing it and when I came out of the hospital – I’ve never really thought of it this way – but I needed something to do. I needed something to fill my time that wasn’t destructive. I needed a space where I could talk about those destructive things, because that’s what my poetry is. Not that it’s destructive, but it is facing up to these hard things in my life.

I think this project, this series, has given me a way to keep shouting into the void that is the internet: Why poetry? It really could be: Why anything? It’s the why that’s the important bit. I don’t understand why people listen, why people come on as guests, I don’t understand why I’m doing this, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s happened and I can’t say it isn’t happening, because it’s there, isn’t it?

It’s a very real thing that’s happened in my life, a very real thing that’s happened in my life that my mental-health issues and my predilection to look at more negative things in my life and focus on them, I can’t turn this into a negative because it hasn’t been a negative.

AP:       The Why? question is almost every poem ever written, isn’t it? What you’ve got is a series of Whys? framed in different language. When people are reading their poems and you’re having different Why? conversations with each guest, that’s what a poem is, isn’t it? Different ways of having the same conversation and using language to explore this big, existential hole we’re in. Why do we need arts funding? Why is it so important that in this country, we have access to things that aren’t solid fact?

I think the politics of the podcast is also an interesting aspect. An interesting thing about poetry is it’s something that’s lorded by both the left and the right wing in different ways and it’s held up as this high art, but also this waste of time.

DT:      This has been the most productive waste of time in my life. I think we’re really lucky as humans in the West that we are afforded a space to waste our time and it should be embraced. It’s difficult, sometimes, if you say to a poet ‘It’s really great you’ve got a way of wasting your time’, people take it personally, as if you’re saying it’s not any good or there’s no point.

It’s the very thing with how we view what art is in the West because it’s a very Westernised view of what this kind of artistic representation is, but it is what you do in your spare time and this is why class politics is so important to me, because not everyone is afforded the time to play around.

Not everyone is afforded the time or permission to waste their time, whether that’s because they’re from a background where it’s heavily frowned upon and they’re judged for what they’re doing, or they physically can’t engage with something, or they are not allowed to identify their own gender or sexuality in public. Or – and I suppose you have to be open-minded – they’re not also allowed to write a love poem to Theresa May. I don’t know. As disgusting as I imagine that piece of work may be, it’s important that someone would be allowed to do that. You can’t deny that person this shit they want to make.

AP:       I was going to say a really profound thing, but I’m suck on that love poem now! I was just thinking about the luxury of self-expression linking to the luxury of self, that’s what it is, isn’t it? The luxury of being allowed to be exactly who you are, even if that is a love poem to Theresa May. The only way we’re going to answer the Why? questions which lead to language around, for instance, the new language, the fact that non-binary is a recognised term, is a new experience for a lot of people. The fact there are words for certain types of trauma, certain types of experience. If we didn’t play with language and create space for questions, we wouldn’t have the language to identify what’s actually going on in our lives.

DT:      Politically, if you see campaigns about other governments and other regimes, to varying and horrifying degrees of punishment, very often what we’re complaining about is denial of freedom of expression and it’s really poisonous for people. It’s so destructive to somebody’s being to be denied the chance to define themselves and express themselves the way they want to and if I can play any role in allowing someone to express themselves in the way they want to, I view that as more important than anything I might write myself or any chance to be published or lorded as a podcaster.

Some people may not believe you and I don’t give a fuck what they think, because I know in myself that is my motivation. That is what I want to do, give people the chance to chat, even if that’s a chance for someone like Donald Chegwin to come on and do his King Prawn poem, something that might seem really stupid to some people, or not stupid, but less important than certain things.

AP:       Also it’s worth acknowledging the experience of Lunar Poetry Podcasts now being archived in the British Library. They’re now a body of literature that’s been collected. What did that mean to you?

DT:      I was hugely proud of that. It, sort of, runs up against my naturally self-deprecating personality, but I really felt I’d achieved something, because it meant these disparate voices were suddenly in a really established archive. It meant that someone like Mishi Morath, someone that doesn’t even class themselves as a poet and in his own words is ‘just an open-micer’ is now in a national archive, which will be, until we’re taken over by the ants, forever preserved.

AP:       Ants love podcasts.

DT:      My aims when I started were to learn to make a podcast, to make 100 episodes, that was completely arbitrary, I don’t know why I chose that, and to be accepted and archived somewhere. I don’t know why that was in my mind. It just felt like that would be… I tell you what, I think it would be that was then my permission to make something and whilst you shouldn’t go through life wanting permission, it is a very real thing.

You do want that affirmation and more than that is the permission to do something. I think that’s why I felt so strongly that I had an obligation to give other people a place to talk, because I felt like I had no right to be here, because of my background. It’s not you can’t be published as a working-class writer, it’s none of those things, but whilst that is now becoming an easier thing to achieve, it is not the accepted status quo in production and editorial roles.

You are not given the permission to run something as a marginalised voice. It isn’t that I don’t feel I can be a writer, I feel I can because I physically write and you’re not defined as being a writer by being published and you’re not defined as a writer through anything other than writing is what my belief is. Taking the next step up, when you’re in some position of responsibility and in control of a project, that is not available to people.

That is still only available to a very select group of people in this country. I think I needed that permission and that kind of affirmation to be able to turn around to anyone who ever questioned anything I’d done and just say ‘well, they think it’s worth archiving’. When I had a meeting with them, they sat down and sold themselves to me, because they knew I had a collection of voices that they hadn’t gotten hold of before.

There are many poetry archives within the British Library and they were themselves surprised that there were so many poets they hadn’t heard of. That made me really proud. I was really happy that day.

AP:       We’ve now come to the point where we’ve got an anthology about a podcast about poetry that is now going to be a collection of poetry. What made you want to put a book out in this form?

DT:      Right from the beginning, I didn’t shy away from the fact I wanted to keep the word poetry in the title, so it became Lunar Poetry Podcasts because when I started, the fashion was to talk only of spoken word and to frame it as a spoken-word project, but I wanted to root it firmly in the act of writing poetry and the tradition of printing poetry on paper because whilst the oral tradition in poetry is much longer and the oral tradition of storytelling is much longer, it was only the advent of the printing press that made any form of literature accessible, because it meant you didn’t have to be sitting in the presence of the person telling the story.

I didn’t want to lose touch with that. It seemed natural to go from the written word to the spoken word to the recorded voice to a digital form, to then return back to a paper form. It seemed the natural thing to do. All of this is pointless speculation without a publisher and it wasn’t until Stuart at Verve Poetry Press said ‘we’ll do it’. I was like ‘yes, OK’ because while I had an idea of what it might be, you may as well just be imagining anything at that point if you haven’t had a firm offer.

Things like including quotes to go alongside the poems was an idea Lizzy, who’s co-editing this book, had. She suggested it would be a really good idea to have them in. I didn’t dismiss it, but I didn’t imagine a publisher would want to go with that idea and then Stuart said he loved that idea as well. It was just a really perfect way to frame the poems, retain another dialogue, not just dialogue through the poetry but retain elements of the dialogue and root the anthology firmly within these conversations again. That was really nice, that something that leapt to Lizzy’s mind immediately, we were able to put that in place.

AP:       I’ve seen the range of writers that are included and some of the quotes you’ve pulled. I was really interested to see some of the quotes are a lot about the diversity of poetic practice, there’s a lot about process, so not just Why? but How? It’s fascinating to read as an external observer who doesn’t know which poem has been chosen from each person and see it framed like that. Has that been a big part of it for you? It was exciting to hear that’s a big part of it for Lizzy as well. You’re a husband and wife team, you married a year ago tomorrow.

DT:      I met Lizzy at Poetry Unplugged.

AP:       So poetry has been a big part of your relationship and the support network you provide each other, I’m also fascinated by and in terms of the dialogue and roles you have. Is the dialogue about practice a big part of the anthology for you? I want to pull Lizzy into that question as well.

DT:      The editorial and production process in the podcast is far more weighted towards me. It’s a project I started and it is identifiably my project. Lizzy has provided a huge amount of physical, logistical support. She is beyond anyone, the person I’ve ranted ideas to endlessly and she’s enabled me to talk things out and given me a space, because I don’t talk about my own ideas that much on the podcast, I need a space to work things out.

We have those conversations over dinner, over breakfast, on the way to work and at night and there wouldn’t be a podcast without her. It would have fizzled out. I don’t think I would have been able to maintain the energy without having someone else involved. When it came to the anthology, I wanted to make sure she was more involved.

I would say the selection first of all, we each wrote down 30 names of people we would invite to the anthology, then we compared them. Any overlaps went immediately into the invitation list, then the remaining five, six or seven, we discussed and debated about who we should add to the list. As poems started coming in, we each read the submissions independently and again, made a top four, depending on how many submissions there were and the ones we agreed upon went in. We’ve got fairly similar taste. Where there were divergences, we discussed them further and re-read them. At some points, we said to each other ‘This person is probably more to your taste and it should be your choice’.

So there were a couple of times where we allowed the other person to choose the work.

AP:       Your invitation to submission definitely didn’t mention anything to do with the poems having to have featured on the podcast. Are there poems that have featured on the podcast?

DT:      I would say maybe two, three possibly. Most people have been really generous and submitted new work. Some people have submitted previously published work and that will all be credited and listed in the back of the book if people want to know. It just seemed natural and in keeping that we said to people ‘all we want to do is give you page space, we don’t want to tell you what to submit’.

It reflected more the desire behind the podcast, to just say we want you to be part of it, but we want you as much as possible…and again it’s about this collaborative aspect that ideally, we would just give you the page space for whatever you want to show, but in reality, you’ll have to submit some work and we’ll see what’s appropriate and what fits. We’d like to have some idea how it’s framed, but essentially you get to choose the four or five poems you submit and it won’t be anything other than the things you’re happy to submit. It’s about finding that blend.

A lot of people that come on, I have favourite poems and there are things I’d love them to read to me, but I won’t request them. I want the person in that moment to be happy with how they’re represented. We wanted to have that as much as possible in the book as well. There’s a huge range of writing. If you think Helen Mort was a guest in episode three back in December 2014 and her work is hugely different, there’s no way of saying ‘Can we have something like what you did?’ but she’s since had another fantastic collection, No Map Could Show Them and numerous other publications. Her way of thinking about writing I’m sure has changed immensely.

AP:       Both being a guest and also listening to the podcast as a collection and a series of dialogues is the sheer number being churned out one after the other and the sheer number of conversations, how they’ve grown, how they’ve evolved and the different shapes conversations can take. It’s a good reminder that art isn’t a fixed object and that we, whether we’re listeners, whether we’re actually engaging with the form that’s being discussed or whether we’re an audience, we’re not finished yet, any of us.

DT:      You’ve just reminded me of a quote I pulled out for Keith Jarrett and I think it’s a really beautiful summation. I had said ‘I can’t understand why people ask you what are you trying to say with your work and not what are you trying to ask of your work.’ His reply was ‘I’m full of loads of opinions, but I’m not exactly full of answers. The more I respond to what’s going on around me, the more questions I find.’ It’s almost so succinct, it makes the podcast irrelevant. It just says what everyone has said constantly for 100-odd episodes.

AP:       I wish that’s what arts education in this country did, I wish it’s what GCSE English did. I’ve tutored GCSE English for years and having to explain to disaffected 16-year-olds that poems aren’t trying to tell you one thing is a constant job. I wish they printed that at the beginning of every GCSE syllabus in every country.  I wish I’d known that when I was 16. The fact there isn’t a locked door. This is the myth of poetry, that there is a locked door and either you get it or you don’t and you’re constantly trying to solve a riddle like Sherlock Holmes. But the idea of poetry being a riddle is so offensive and sad and so much part of education and what’s wrong with aspects of literature education.

DT:      It’s an idea that’s supported and perpetuated, isn’t it? The more that was held up as an example and benchmark, the more poetry was written in that style. By far the biggest regret that most poets had on the podcast is that poetry has been traditionally taught so badly in schools and taught as this exclusive club you can only join if you understand and fully engage or can pretend to, with a very select band of dead poets. That is not a rejection of those poets’ works, but most of those poets are writing in a way that supports a particular type of government and a particular idea of what empire was, national identity.

It’s so easy to imagine why people reject it. That doesn’t mean that everyone will come round to love it, because that’s the world we live in. Some people will never want to engage with poetry and that’s fine, but I do think if you taught something closer to the breadth and depth of what poetry actually is, then more people would respond positively to it. I hope that’s what the podcast has done for some people.

AP:       That’s a really nice point to end it on. Is there anything you wanted to add?

DT:      No, I think we’ve covered everything. We should have done, it’s gone on for a while!

Outro:

Hello, you stuck around. Grab a biscuit as compensation for sitting through me talk for an hour! Thank you so much to everyone that has downloaded/listened-to/shared an episode over the last four years. I’ve really loved having the space and time to talk to you all and share so many wonderful poets with you.

If any of you out there are thinking of starting a podcast I would say just go for it. Bear in mind that it’s a lot of work but anything in which you’re going to pour your creativity into is a lot of work. Don’t let that put you off. Also, don’t listen to anyone that says it costs thousands of pounds to get started, that’s just rubbish. I produced my first 76 episodes using smartphones, tablets and a USB microphone. And if you don’t have those then get in touch with other podcasters, they’re a very friendly bunch and likely to help you out in some way.

That’s it for today, for more from us visit lunarpoetrypodcasts.com, find us at Lunar Poetry Podcasts on FaceBook and Instagram or @Silent_Tongue on Twitter. I’ll be back next month with episode 119 chatting to Bristol poet Shagufta K. Iqbal.

I’m going to leave you with a poem by one of my favourite poets Susannah Dickey which is accompanied in the book by this quote from episode 108, November 2017 in which Susannah says:

It’s not the most important thing, to be published, because it’s the act of writing and what that gives you […] It’s really lovely to feel like you’re getting closer to that stage of producing the kind of material that you really respond to; because, while you like to feel like your work is saying what you want it to, it’s also a really nice thought that someone else might be responding to it similarly, in the way that you respond to others’ work.

Which is quite a nice summation and open-ended question as to why people not only write but try to share their work…

This is;

To read this poem download the full transcript here.

 

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.