I’ve been working hard behind the scenes developing Dao’s performance poetry presence, applying to produce our own gigs and recommending Dao poets to other producers.
We did a gig last May at DAiSy Fest with Allan Sutherland and Penny Pepper. I'd like to extend a big thank you to the Together! Pop-up Poetry cafe at the amazing House Mill, on Three Mills Island, for hosting myself, Wendy Young and Bonk for an evening of poetry performance.
We performed in the cafe to 30-40 people, many of whom are regular part of Together’s ongoing programme of poetry workshops and performance managed by Sarah Hughes.
It is very impressive what Together! have nurtured in Newham with an ongoing free programme of events, which is as accessible as budgets allow. The Pop-up poetry event had Live captions and a BSL interpreter. I didn’t envy the job of Kris Pryer, particularly when it came to signing my own poetry, much of which is pretty dense, written in a visual, abstract language. Between poems I tell the stories behind the words, to illustrate how the imagery relates to lived experience of psychosis.
It was interesting to get feedback from Kris saying how important it was for the deaf people present to hear the stories in order to get where the poetry was coming from, as much of the words were difficult to translate. And it occurred to me how interesting it would be to work with a Deaf poet to create choreographed piece that fused BSL and English.
Wendy Young’s performance was gritty gut-wrenching stuff! Her words pour out with an equal measure of humour, compassion and cynicism for the kind of world and the kind of people we are supposed to emulate according the values we see in the media, in comparison with real people, and real lives, which are much more interesting and noteworthy. Wendy shines a light into some of the darkest, most unholy places with humour and humility.
Bonk did the final spot with his mate Paul who came along to play some guitar to accompany his raps and rhymes. Dressed as the Clown of Justice, complete with policeman’s helmet with blue flashing light, he presented an explosive set of poetry, talking about his experience of the mental health system. He ended the set with ‘Chameleon’ a raw, shocking evocation of his life story.
The song has an authenticity that sends tingles down your spine. Much of Bonk’s work talks about the benefit system and ATOS. ‘Are You Mad Yet?’ is another favorite, with a direct message on what’s happening politically, annotated by a catchy rousing chorus.
The reality is that the pressure on people with a history of mental health issues is growing steadily harsher. There were some very distressing stories that came through in conversation afterwards of loved ones who have committed suicide under strain of what is happening as the austerity measures hit the weakest, the hardest.
The disability community is under so much stress with the combination of media spin and benefit cuts and the kinds of ventures that Together and other community arts organisations, produce are essential lifelines - even if they have become so much harder to fund that ever before.
There’s more to come at the Southbank Centre during the first week of September. Dao has produced a ‘Special Editions’ event: ‘Perceptions of Difference’ at the Poetry Library in the Royal Festival Hall on Wed 3 Sept 8-9.30 as part of Unlimited 2014. In collaboration with Survivors’ Poetry we’ve put together a celebration of the organisation with sets from two founder members Hilary Porter and Frank Bangay as well as John O’Donoghue (former Chair) and Debjani Chatterjee (patron).
Together! are also producing a set for the Liberty Festival at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London on 30 August, where you’ll have an opportunity to see the talented Wendy Young perform again.
On 11 October a further Outside In event is happening at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester to celebrate World Mental Health Day
Watch this space for further news of poetry events being produced by Dao, and if you are interested in having your work promoted on Dao please get in touch with me, Colin Hambrook, via firstname.lastname@example.org
I finally got around to reading John O’Donoghue’s autobiography ‘Sectioned: A life interrupted’. It won the MIND book of the year in 2010 so has been on my shelf for a while now. The preface hurls you into the author's world as a teenager with a tale of exorcism, after the death of his father, and his mother's subsequent breakdown.
From that point, the use of narrative and the clarity of the storytelling brings alive the people and experiences John lived through, primarily in London, during Thatcher’s reign when there was ‘no such thing as society’. The dialogue in particular gives a vivid portrayal of an array of characters from hospitals, residential homes, hostels and squats, complete with mannerisms and accents.
The writing carried me through from episode to episode of psychiatric incarceration and homelessness, willing the bad luck to end… knowing that a point of turn-around was coming. I was glad John finally found some positive advocacy through MIND. I had some good experiences of the group in Camden in the mid-80s, and then again in the early to mid-90s, in association with Survivors Poetry.
Above all I was deeply moved by the determination, resilience, humour and humility that comes across through all the travails John experiences through psychosis… against all the odds. I was struck by the honesty in the face of those misguided notions that have haunted practices within psychology, where so often damning judgements are brought to bear in the guise of being ‘non-judgmental’ and ‘therapeutic’.
Sectioned illustrates a universal truth that so much more than diagnosis and drugs and therapy is needed. What really changes lives is a bit of understanding applied from the right quarters at the right time. Understanding isn’t something you can train anyone to have. Books like Sectioned help, but, in the main, understanding of mental and emotional difficulties are either things people get or don’t get. So often the ability to proffer understanding is equally something that is dependent on a whole set of variables.
Sectioned also illustrates - without falling prey to victimhood - how much the system fails people; humiliates, degrades and punishes like the worst bully. Even some of the worst stories, like being sent to prison for two months for stealing bin bags worth 80p, are told with a humour that makes you question the way society is run.
All those people getting hyped-up in the media and prosecution service about the recent riots would do well to read this book – and maybe think again about the impact their decisions and judgments have on the lives of young people as they react to the urge to ‘make an example’.
Left-wing liberalism has lost its edge recently with all the media hype about responsibility and respect. Even The Guardian seems to have suddenly become a proponent of the Big Society. In its place the class divide has suddenly got inextricably deeper. The same old story comes around as it goes around. Not only do the poor get shafted by all the institutions set up to ‘serve’ but it is done at enormous expense to the taxpayer. Where’s the justice?
‘Sectioned: A life interrupted’ by John O’Donoghue is available from Amazon price £5.99
I try hard when writing poetry… sometimes too hard. Scanning this drawing into the computer somehow gave it an even more oppressive feel. Playing with the contrast made it that much starker.
The drawing wasn't made for the poem, but the mood of the drawing sums up some of the suppressed rage in this poem. There is a central figure in battle with demons and strange fizzing machines rising above him. So many of my drawings express different aspects of psychosis...
In many ways my life has been shaped by the moment the psychiatrist took me into my bedroom, aged ten, and subtly demanded to know all the 'mad' things my mum had been saying, on a promise he would make her better.
He took her away and gave her so much ECT she couldn’t remember her children when we came to see her in hospital.
Held fast in the youth chair;
you are a broken cup
a little more
to pick you up.
burns my skin
reminds me of
that recurring dream
haunting early childhood
a black and white
movie picture of mum
the smell of burning
night on night
They burnt her temple
lobes with their 'all
for the best' ethos
that’s fucked us
I’ve been away for the past week, staying in Dunbar with friends. I thought I’d pop in on the Edinburgh Festival to see what disability-related arts I could find in the theatre section. From looking through the brochure it seems there is some mental health-related work amongst the enormous panoply of shows, exhibitions etc, happening this year.
So I made it into town to see Steve Walter’s An Acute Psychotic Episode (II) – billed as “a good-humoured, confessional, raw, honest, sometimes shocking account of breakdown, setting out to challenge common perceptions.” It did everything they said it would do on the tin – although from personal experience, I wouldn’t have called it ‘shocking.’ In fact, if anything, it impressed on me that maybe there is some hope that we are moving away from the punishment model of psychiatric care, that I grew up to fear and loathe.
Accompanied by singer/ song writer Steve Antoni An Acute Psychotic Episode (II) was a moving and powerful piece of dramatic storytelling. It was deliberately paced to take you on what felt like an urban train ride through the writer / performers’ life-story. It began appropriately with Brain Damage and Wish You Were Here – two songs written by Pink Floyds’ Roger Waters for and about Syd Barrett who died last year after 40 years of being labelled insane.
Steve Walter’s prose was filled with the pacing of hospital corridors and questioning of what happens when you become psychotic; how scary that sense is, of not daring to believe what your own mind is telling you. It is very hard to put into words what that fear is like – when everything your mind and senses are telling you is true, you know rationally cannot be true. Where do you turn? How do you gauge reality? And if you are unfortunate enough to get locked up for having ideas others don’t agree with, how do you contain the frustration?
I felt not a little admiration for Steve Walter as I have personally been trying to write my own life story, in an attempt to make sense of it, for some years. It is not just that the writing down is incredibly painful, if you are totally honest. But there is also the fear of making yourself even more vulnerable, by opening up to others. Even those you think you can trust, cannot be trusted to use your honesty against you. Such is the stigma of mental health.
I feel passionately that this kind of clear, concise storytelling, breaking through the silence – is needed more in theatre, and in the arts in general. I bought a copy of Steve Walter’s book Fast Train Approaching, which contains a lot of the poetry and prose from the theatre piece.
I’d recommend the website Making Connections Matter . Here Steve explains a lot of his search, research, poetry and ramblings on all things from spiritual awakening to a request to hear from others who have had experience of mental illness for a new book in the pipeline.