Last year I got called in to the Job Centre during a long period of illness. “I see you are a magazine editor,” the person behind the counter said. “I was,” I explained, “but I don’t want to do that any more. It’s too stressful.”
“What do you want to do?”
“I want to be a poet and an artist.”
I fully expected to be told to stack shelves. “We can help you with that...” And they did. First I saw a Shaw Trust adviser, and then I was passed on to an InBiz adviser, who helped me to develop a business plan to sit alongside my artistic plan.
I’m currently on Employment & Support Allowance, claiming the lower rates of DLA, in receipt of Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit, and since earning £20 for a poetry performance last October. I’m registered for permitted work, and allowed to earn about £92 a week.
I’m trying really hard to get to a point where I can support myself, and so far have earned money performing, selling poetry pamphlets, encouraging others to write or consider adult education, and as a creative practitioner in a Norfolk High School. I did apply for one Arts Council grant but found the paperwork and process so stressful and daunting I don’t intend to do so again just yet.
Being HIV+ my energy levels are not what they were. I have to pace myself, and being self-employed allows me to do that. Suffering depression means I struggle with social situations, new places and people, and travel outside my comfort zone. That said, I’ve challenged myself to perform in various venues, and I’m just starting to consider performing further from home.
I consider myself a prime example of someone who is willing and trying to stand on their own two feet, exactly the kind of person David Cameron, Nick Clegg and the progressive coalition government claim to be supporting. What I need is the security of support and the opportunity to work at my own pace and within my own limits.
What I’m getting is the worry that my DLA will be discontinued; that my Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit will be reduced before I can support myself; and the message that those of us at the bottom of the economic heap deserve less than those at the top.
Worst of all, I have to admit it’s all my fault. I voted Lib Dem.
This is what you did to my head,
You turned my whispers into lies,
This is what you did to my heart,
You turned my kisses into knives,
This is what you did to my hope,
You turned my wishes into sighs,
This is what you did to my art,
I was living in Brighton, when Father’s Day came around, and in my house I’m the Daddy! Neither my boyfriend nor my dog sent me a card or said a word all day, so I went for a walk in a huff. Badger was just a 3-month-old pup then, and this is what happened…
My Father’s Day Gift
I took the dog for a walk feeling a touch sorry for myself,
Father’s Day sun was touching the Downs
and no one had said a word that much mattered.
But then Badger saw rabbits today, for the very first time -
he knows the burrows they bore
the warmed hollows where they sit,
he’s chased their scent, and he’s tasted their shit -
oh yes, Badger saw rabbits today, and they didn’t scare him a bit!
He flew for one, dead ahead, along the mown alley -
and like skittles from bowls they scattered.
A beaded curtain of bunnies parted to left and to right
before he finally fell from flight and grabbed at empty ankles
where nettles thistles and brambles now hid their harey inhabits.
Breathless he lay - gasping - in the last of the light of the day.
And as Nature’s theatre took its curtain call
across the valley where Whitehawk Estate
lies like a lake of earthy hues,
I looked, certain of no more than views,
to be treated to a comic encore, as Foxy-Loxy sticks his ‘ead up
not twenty yards or more.
And I look at this fox, and I think to myself
“You are a handsome fox,
my god mate, you are a *fuck-off fox!”
And this fox turns to me, with a look that says it all
Later as we recall to the near-nuff same spot,
three middle-aged shoppers are wandering home
and delight in Badger’s play.
It’s all I can do to stop myself saying,
“For the very first time - Badger saw rabbits today!”
Across the road to the home run
I’m already elated when a sunset’s created
and I’m elevated ever more.
A sunset that doesn’t even begin
to dim against a compost heap and an upturned chair.
A sunset that can safely sink
behind the chain link fence that keeps its public at bay.
A sunset that won’t be outdone yet - then grudgingly gives way -
because for the first time, the very first time
Badger saw rabbits - my god mate,
what a *fuck-off Father’s Day!
I’d never heard of the Human Library until I was asked to be a ‘book’ in February as part of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans) History Month. As it happens, that event was cancelled, but I liked the concept so much I went on the training course and held a Human Library within a 2-week art exhibition I curated in May/June. Instead of borrowing a book, visitors borrow a Human, and sit down with them and chat for 30 minutes.
Titles at my event included Wiccan Priestess, Evacuee from Nazi Germany, Humanist, LGBT Christian, Owning a Guide Dog, Ex-Addicts, New Traveller, Science Fiction Fan, and Police Community Support Officer.
The idea began in Denmark less than a decade ago in response to another mindless knife attack on the streets. How could different groups of people be brought together, be given the chance to sit down and talk and ask anything they like – in other words, be given the chance to dispel their own prejudices?
Human Library staff help visitors select a book from the titles available, introduce the book to the reader, and read both the Rights of the Book, and the Rights of the Reader, making the experience as safe and comfortable as possible.
I’m interested in happenings as art, but often the concept is more beautiful than the outcome. The Human Library is such a beautiful idea, and the conversations and exchanges that take place more than live up to the concept. I urge you to check the Human Library website, find the nearest event, and treat yourself to a beautiful conversation.
Everyone is different
And everyone’s the same,
Because we all came from
The same ball of slime.
A long time ago
Before you were born,
Creepies came crawling
Over the lawn.
Some Creepies grew lungs
And some Creepies grew legs,
And some had aerials
On their heads.
Some Creepies swim
And some Creepies squeak,
But all of us Creepies
Are completely unique.
So if someone tells you
You’re not the same,
Nod your head wisely
And remind them, they’re slime.
The silver lining to a prolonged period of depression and inactivity last year was the time to think. I came out from under the duvet of darkness determined to pursue a career as a poet and artist.
More specifically I wanted to perform my poetry in front of live audiences because that’s when it’s at its most powerful. And I wanted to continue exploring visual poetry, taking poetry off the page in every sense.
I became increasingly dissatisfied with the definition of poetry – the idea that it had to be a literary expression of feelings and ideas – it felt restrictive and limiting. “Make it new,’ said Ezra Pound. I subscribe to the view that as an artist, I define what art is.
Therefore as a poet, surely I define what a poem is? If my art can be anything from a painting to a concept, then so can my poetry. The embodiment of my new way of thinking is the declaration: I am a poem.
I was asked to write a poem last October to read at a candlelit vigil against hate crime. I thought about it and decided I couldn’t write anything more powerful than 2 minutes of silence shared by like-minded people in different cities, all opposed to hate. So I recorded the silence and called it Silent Poem, and of course it’s anything but silent.
There’s the sound of the photographer from the local paper capturing the scene, an aircraft passes overhead, wind catches the microphone, someone coughs, you can hear the bleeps of a lorry reversing, a lone skateboarder trundles by, and finally the time-keeper says, “Thank you everyone.”
I ended up with a poem I could neither perform nor make visual. In fact I tried to enter it into the Café Writers annual poetry competition in Norwich, but their rules only allowed for poems printed on an A4 sheet of paper. If that’s not making it new, I don’t know what is. Result!
I was telling a disabled woman I know, let’s call her Tina, that I was about to perform at Disability Pride.
“I don’t get it,” she said, with a frown. “What have we got to be proud of?”
I was a bit taken aback. Maybe it’s easier for me to understand as a gay man because I’ve grown up with Gay Pride events. These events have given the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) community visibility, strength in numbers, a chance to educate the wider world, and yes, a chance to party.
There are still people out there who think it’s acceptable to hurl abuse at queers. Only last week I heard about a man being homophobically abused on a bus in Norwich because he got out his knitting. It would funny if it wasn’t so tragic; that man is now worried about travelling on public transport.
“Oh well I understand that,” said Tina. “I get people following me and doing my limp, like it’s a big joke.”
So why is Pride important?
Let me tell you why.
The bird that lives life in a cage,
Lives no life at all.
The bird that never sees the sky,
Never feels the sun -
Is like the caged canary
That only knows one song.
Imagine! Setting that bird free
Letting it be the best canary it could ever be.
That’s why Pride’s important
And it belongs to everyone,
Because we all deserve to be our best
To see the sky, the sun.
Norwich, once you were canaries,
But now that you have Pride
I can see your eagles soar
Across a rainbow sky.
I got tired of hearing that to suggest the troops come home is unpatriotic. The logical conclusion of that argument must be: Support the Troops – Start Another War.
I first hung this poster poem on the railings of a church in Norwich, stepped back, and listened in. Some people laughed, some frowned and shook their heads, a man of the cloth tutted and hurried past. Three schoolgirls were outraged, “Why would anyone want to start another war?” they wailed at each other. Why indeed?
One woman said to her husband, ”That’s terrible.” “I think it’s a joke,’ he said, reassuring her. “Yes, I know,” she said, “But what if other people don’t realise that?”
More recently I hung the poster poem outside a two week art exhibition in Norwich. It was ripped down a couple of times and I simply put it straight back up. On two separate occasions men came in to tell me how offended they were, that they had friends fighting in Afghanistan, that I was insulting the troops.
“Don’t you think it might be ironic?” I asked. “There’s no irony in that,” shouted the second irate visitor.
Then it went missing – at the same time as international art thieves stole works by Picasso and Matisse in Paris – draw your own conclusions. One visitor I told was sure it had been stolen to order. “It was brilliant! I wish I’d stolen it first!”
I made a new, if slightly rougher version, and put it up the next day. It stayed there, more or less, for the rest of the exhibition. Next time I’ll tell you about my new poster poem – Kill All Extremists.
No Complaints So Far…
I do like firsts, don’t you? Last week was Refugee Week and the giant Fusion screen at The Forum in Norwich screened a whole series of short films made by the participants around the theme of ‘Identity’.
In some ways it’s easier for a poet. I turned up at the BBC Open Studio with my script - the poem Human, something I’d already worked on for a considerable time, honing and crafting - and two volunteers filmed me on the streets of Norwich. Back in the studio, I recorded the poem in one take, and now just had to edit the film to fit the beat of the poem. By mid-afternoon, I was finished.
“Oh you won’t be finished yet,” said the lovely Wendy, ‘you’ll want music and effects.” She put the headphones on and watched Human once and there was a tear in her eye. Powerful poetry needs little adornment. “Let’s see what Gary thinks?”
Gary liked it too, adding only two transitions, so the pictures melted more smoothly one into another. “Pity about the swearing,” he said. “We’ll never be able to show it.”
And there it is, on a 26-foot wide public access screen in Norwich, without a bleep. A small sign at the entrance warns visitors the screening contains some adult language. “It’s all about context,” said Richard, the Fusion manager. “We’ve had no complaints so far.”
You can watch my poetry, film Human on youtube above - but you have been warned…
Late last year, Future Radio, Norwich, commissioned a 15-minute radio play from me. Soon after that, I spent a week in Yorkshire on an Arvon residential poetry course in Ted Hughes’s old house, specifically aimed at taking poetry from page to stage. I was encouraged to fill in the back-stories to some of my more confessional poems. All this together resulted in The Small Frayed Knot.
The title is a line from my poem Diagnosed, which I made into a visual piece by painting the left side of my body red, then lying in the foetal position on a bed sheet, and writing the text in ‘blood’ on the inside of the glass.
I first performed it live on Future Radio on the last day of LGBT History Month (February), and because I wasn’t sure I could cast and rehearse it in time, I played all the parts. This also meant that once I’d learned it, I could perform it anywhere, anytime. You can listen to the podcast on Future Radio.
Meanwhile I sent a copy out to lots of people. The Albany Theatre in Deptford, London, selected it for a rehearsed reading in front of an audience and a panel of judges last April 2010.
Albany Theatre said: “The Small Frayed Knot is like clinging to a stagecoach as it rattles along an unknown track to an unknown destination in excited anticipation. It’s beautiful, spiky, shocking and brave. A 21st century HIV+ queer poet tells his truth.”
I find travel to new places daunting, so I didn’t attend, but a friend telephoned during the performance and I listened in. It was weird, to be honest, but exciting. An Indian chap played me and the rest of the cast were black, so the voices were completely different to the ones in my head!
I went to the doctor’s on my birthday.
He was so embarrassed he’d forgotten the date,
he gave me a terminal illness.
Ever since, Angels have followed me relentlessly,
opening doors and showing me skies
that the living never notice.
If the small frayed knot in my guts comes undone
I will empty into the universe
until the atoms of who I am become undetectable.
I consider stepping under the proverbial bus
but sense my soul already has a suitcase packed.
In defiance, I buy a return and sit upstairs.
There’s nothing brave about living with death
when you consider the options.
If I believe in fate, I can’t cheat it.
Tonight, June 4, I’m performing at the Norwich Arts Centre, at a Disability Pride benefit gig. Tomorrow, June 5, I’m showing visual poetry in the Disability Pride art show at the Forum in Norwich.
One of the pieces is called Human. I wrote it for World Aids Day 2009 and then wondered how to make it visual. I decided to write it out letter-by-letter on my empty HIV and Hep C and side-effects empty medication boxes and bottles. A week before I was due to show it, I gathered together all my empties and started writing with a marker pen. Oops!
I only had enough to get past the first stanza. ‘Fortunately’ my partner at the time was also HIV+ so I added in all his bottles too. That got another stanza done. I even stole the dog’s worming tablet box, but had to admit defeat, and displayed the result as a ‘work in progress’ in a Norwich church and a Brighton nightclub.
I’ve realised that the longer it takes me to complete, the healthier I’ve been, so I’m pleased to announce that Human at the Forum is still short of the very last line!
Human Immunodeficiency Virus, H.I.V.
Human first and foremost,
A maker of mistakes.
The mistake I made,
Was to fall in love.
Make sure it doesn’t happen to you.
I is Immunodeficient -
I catch more germs than most,
Though I prefer to think germs think me
Such an absolutely fabulous host!
V is for Virus,
It contains both I and Us.
We’re all human first and foremost,
And in the end, all dust.