On July 1st the Norwich Pride Portrait show opens at St Gregory’s Church of Art, Pottergate, Norwich. Inspired by this I’ve worked on a series of self-portraits, 3 done, another on the way. I’m not interested in what I look like, but what represents me. And then I thought I’d like to try and represent someone else – but who to choose?
I’ve chosen Peter Tatchell. I haven’t always admired him, to my shame. When I was a closeted younger man, I used to wish he would keep his big mouth shut and stop rocking the boat while he and others were demanding queer rights. But gradually, over the years, I’ve mended my ways. Nowadays, even when I don’t agree with him, I admire and respect him for his views and his courage in facing down bigotry and inequality.
Peter has spoken out on a host of topics, including AIDS, Animal Rights, Asylum, Civil Liberties, Disability Rights, Free Speech, LGBT Rights, Murder Music, Pornography, Religion, Sex Education, and Social Justice.
I have decided to auction off this painting in support of Peter Tatchell’s human rights work, with all the money going to Peter. The bidding will end at 5pm on July 30th 2011, the day of Norwich Pride itself. You can donate direct to Peter via his website. http://www.petertatchell.net/
Results of the Living Poem, devised by Vince Laws, Trudy Howson and the Out Write crew, held in St Margaret’s Church of Art, as part of Norwich Fringe Festival, 15-28 May 2011. In bold are the questions asked, followed by the public responses.
What have you been? I have been…
A bucket of broken glass. Crimson on a brilliant white sink. Overly affected by other people. Let down. Burnt, held underwater until I drowned, born many times, made breathless by love, strangled, fucked every which way. Lady Gaga’s egg. Worse. Younger. A guilt trip and a smile at the same time. Dirty underpants, burnt custard, lipstick on piano keys. Loved, hated, jealous, jealous of, disappointed, amazed. Blessed and happy. Loved. Laced up with acid in a green opal fruit… Here before. Alive and happy a long time ago… Other places and spaces. A life model, a crispy noodle extractor, a factory operative, a bus conductor, a student, a shelf filler, labourer, sheet metal worker, unemployed, agency worker. On the edge. Lost to myself. Loved. Lad. I have been without the dog today. To the edge and back (time after time…) I have been here!
What Did Earl Grey Say?
I use to make coffee. What happened to my face? Fuck I’m good! PG Tips taste better! Is 100 enough? I saved the emperor’s life and get a cup of tea!! I’ll be really pissed off if I end up advertising tea? Keep calm and drink tea! White or brown? Any cake? I love tea me. Hmm, personally I prefer coffee! I love coffee. Actually, I quite like it with a dash of milk. Two sugars with my tea please! Holla. “Ciao bella!” Racist. Stick it on the money. Cuppa? By jingo that’s good tea! Is the Queen coming? Lemon sucks. We do have to keep it clean don’t we? How on earth did I get here on the front of a box? I secretly wish I was Baron Beige. It’s not the entities in your sensory environment that are to blame. It’s your disingenuous response.
What do you believe in?
Phil Good equality The Lord Jesus Creativity God! In love (and cake) the Gods FHate Myself TRUST Karma Nufink Om The moment Love is art! Everlasting geometry. Equality. Cows. Honesty Friendship love Being the best I can be the past Football shopping cheese mouldy myself redistribution of wealth myself Honeycomb Hope Reincarnation creativity The Buddha Life A spirit and soul. In the forces of nature and mind. Happiness Food In nothing because the only thing I believe can’t be true! Me. My Nan and Grandad Only I can achieve my dreams farmyard sheep!!! Love. Makin’ Loove (sex) love and hateness and hart broken things because everyone has it TRUST! Cool you too. Cats are from another planet. Myself BAAAAAAA! The world of Spirits The Universe holding on smiling. Enjoy the little things. Small things make all the difference. I believe in Nature. Art No religion! A gift of G_O_D Divinity.
What Mistake Did You Make?
Not trying. I never make mistakes. Hard to say. My attitude problem. To think love was the answer to everything. Not loving myself. Pretending to be someone else.
“It is when you think you pass love
That is when you meet your last love
And you love them like you never did before.”
- I did and sometimes wish I hadn’t.
To steal. 2 trust the wrong person. Wasted too much time on people who really weren’t worthy of it! I poured orange juice in my tea (and then added milk!) I poured orange juice in my cereal. That Burger King was good for me. To change for another’s sake and take my castel wall down – to be misused. Saying No when I should have said Yes. To trust those who will inevitabley betray me,
Let me down and leave me. To hope that someone else could take responsibility for my own happiness. To forget to be joyful and trust (for a short while!) Going out with Edward – Sorry. I was going to eat a firecracker. Going out with Jordan. To slip out of my mother’s cunt breathing. I was so nervous on my driving test I got in the wrong car at the test centre (still passed). Have not fell in luve yet! Doing drugs. I didn’t become an artist straight from school. I’m now 46! I once put my cup of tea in the fridge and went off to drink the pint of milk. I got angry. That I did not take opportunity by the hand when it was there. I made the wrong choice and now I’m crying full time!!! I gave everything I had just to get my heart broken and my ass kicked. To not let love in. Believing Pepsi was better than Coke. My roots show up in pictures.
I fell in love with a rat who saw a gerbera as an exploding universe! There are no mistakes!! Too many mistakes to mention – the trick is learning from them. To let my head rule my heart. I fell in love. To endure a job which was making me ill for too long cos people (family) wanted me to. My mistake was to think your mistake was my mistake and to apologise for it. To love others more than myself. Rise above the emotional plane.
What makes you different?
Optimism and a belief in the good in people. Myself. My personality. My time and date of birth. If someone needed help I would help them! Nothing but my separating mind… I dream about haunted bathtubs. OCD about spelling and apostrophes! And I write stories about giraffes and cows. Me. My morals. I hate myself when I’m happy. My unique DNA. My genetic make up. My humour.
Personality. My ego. Who are “We”? My sometimes overwhelming desire to work out what someone needs and then try and give it to them. Vive la difference!
What makes you the same?
Drunk. My genetic make up. Just because I nod doesn’t mean I understand. In Norwich, I’m three steps. Love. I hurt. I love food. I’m not. Blood and guts. Human experience. The gift of life.
Choose your words. What are the cruellest? What are the kindest?
You are nothing to me. Your dead to me. You are utterly useless. When I see you I light up – you always make me happy! You are utterly useless. Will you marry me? I love and accept you exactly as you are now. Will you love me for a while? Aren’t we amazing?! ARRRR! I bleed thoughts if you cut me. I hate my father but I love my mother. That thing I hate about you is what I hate about me. Can I help you? Blossom is wonderful. I wish we never met. You are nothing. I forgive you. Popacatapetal. I want you but not your children.
I was commissioned to write a poem for a wedding. Here it is.
Would you care to dance with me
through tunnels of trees and
lime leaves so sharply green
I fear for our safety?
Take me by the hand and
let’s enjoy a long slow waltz
old fashioned maybe
but far from false.
Would you care to dance with me
beneath boughs and
across a floral veranda?
Any dance will do
if it’s danced with you -
a foxtrot or a samba.
Would you care to dance with me?
Lead me to the floor and
embrace me ever more
in a flung back tango -
love at a dangerous angle.
Following in your footsteps
until I had to catch my breath.
Would you dare to dance with me
on a bed of fresh lime leaves?
Yes, yes, yes.
Vince Laws May 2011
It started as an idea. What would happen if you asked people to add words to a poem? Or substitute words? I’ll find out on Saturday 14th May when The Living Poem is launched (7.30-9.30pm) at St Margaret’s Church of Art, St Benedict’s Street, Norwich, as part of the annual Fringe Festival.
In fact I’ve been allocated such a generous space there will be 6 Living Poems, with the public invited to answer the following questions:
What do you believe in?
What mistake did you make?
What makes you different?
What makes you the same?
If you send me the answers to these questions, I’ll add your voice to the Living Poems.
If you’ve written an ’I am’ poem, send it in and we’ll display it on the ’I am’ wall.
The Living Poems will be in situ for 2 weeks, until Saturday 28th May, and will presumably grow and change and ’live’ over that period. There’s a Private View on Monday 16th May (7.30-9.30pm) which is anything but private, all welcome, free.
I haven’t blogged for ages and here’s the reason why: I’m in the process of writing A Very Queer Faust!
Yesterday we recorded the first 10 minutes, today that was edited and sound effects added. First broadcast on Sunday 27 February 5-6pm, as part of Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Trans History Month, it is now available via podcast at www.futureradio.co.uk. The podcast begins with a children's story.... then me interviewed by Kate Roma... then 10 minutes of A Very Queer Faust.
In my play, John Faust, is an HIV+ depressed queer conceptual poet, driven to despair by poverty – well they say write about what you know! Faust is on a beach at sunset, filling his pockets with stones so he can walk into the sea and end it all, when Diabolos himself appears, and after much reluctance Faust bargains away his soul in return for perfect health, the chance to double all benefits, a best selling book, a chat with the Pope, and a quick death.
I’ve been drafting and re-drafting and getting closer and closer to the finished play. I’m not there yet but I will be by early May when I go on an Arvon theatre writing course with some of the best people in the business. I hope that will give the play its final polish.
Meanwhile, I’m in a precarious position myself financially. I’ve been on benefit, due to lack of energy and depression, but I am feeling better and I am trying to make a living for myself as a poet and artist. I am absolutely certain that my mental health is vastly improved and strengthened by my choice of career, and so I have no intention of stopping that.
However, after a year of ‘permitted work’ in which I’ve made a loss of £1,600, (i.e. I’ve subsidised my benefit with my credit card so I can attend courses, network, perform, campaign, volunteer, build a website, pay a book keeper) I will only be allowed to earn £20 a week on top of my benefit, or get a job.
The current government is keen to say there is support for people who want to get off benefit. I am in the throws of finding out if that is true or simply empty words. I’ve been asked to lead creativity workshops with adult literacy groups, something I’m sure that I’ll enjoy, but that would bring me in more that £20 per week. Should I cancel them, work unpaid, or take the money and hope my expenses keep my earnings below the threshold?
Of such dilemmas are drama made!
EAT THE POOR Recipe 1
Scapegoat Curry: Ask your local Lib Dem or Tory butcher to cut scrag end of poor person into bite-sized chunks. Pepper with insults. Fry until no longer red, then set aside. Tip the chilly winter sauce into the pan, add slander, diced threats, chopped benefits, and reduce forever. Serve cold, topped with a banker’s bonus. Enjoy.
EAT THE POOR Recipe 2
Stuffed Student. Ask your local Lib Dem or Tory butcher to fillet a student as near to the bone as possible and truss oven-ready. Now stuff with debt. Be firm, remember - you’re stuffing for Britain. Stuffed Student takes longer to bake than Millionaire Minister but if sliced thinly rewards with the delicious drip-drip of profit for many years to come. Eat with a runcible spoon. Enjoy!
EAT THE POOR Recipe 3
Mental Mousakka. Ask your local Lib Dem or Tory butcher to do a mental’s head in and disturb its brains. Mince, just for the fun of it, then set aside close to the edge. Now finely chop benefits, fry, stew, scramble and throw everything in the air. Separate the mental from the benefits with layers of paperwork and half-bake until completely frazzled. Enjoy!
[NB this is a particular favourite of mine after having my benefit cut from £110 per week to £65 per week without warning on the say so of a nurse in an office, despite a sick note, support from my GP and Psychiatrist.]
EAT THE POOR Recipe 4
OAP Pudding. Ask your local Lib Dem or Tory butcher to cut the tongue out of a pensioner and rub a pinch of salt into its wounds. At home, scrape the years they gave into a pot and set aside the carcass. Line a well-buttered ‘Banker’ style basin with hard-earned pastry, stretched to the edge. Press in your pound of flesh. Seal the pastry edges with a firm, repeated pinch. Freezes easily. Enjoy!
EAT THE POOR Recipe 5
Cripple Kebabs. Ask your local Lib Dem or Tory butcher to cut a cripple down to size, throw away any capabilities, then tie securely in red tape. At home, leave to chill over night, in a marinade of uncertainty. Now skewer - cripple, vegetable, lemon - and repeat. Carefully remove any zest, and grill. Grill again, and this time turn up the heat. Enjoy!
I’m HIV+ and dealing with depression and in practical terms that means I lack energy and I get anxious and I find paperwork and officialdom daunting. I’m on Employment & Support Allowance and Housing Benefit and receive lower rates of DLA for care and mobility. That said, I undertake permitted work, I can earn up £92 per week on top of my benefits, though work has been scarce.
On September 8 I went for a medical assessment as instructed by the benefit system. On September 14, and again on Sept 28, I received my E&SA direct into my account as usual. In October I noticed my bank account was getting closer and closer to my overdraft limit. Finally, yesterday, October 27 I went through my bank statements and worked out what was missing and phoned the DWP.
The nurse who had examined me at the medical assessment deemed me fit for work and so my E&SA has been stopped. I now have the option of appealing or going on to a lower rate, i.e. Jobseeker’s Allowance. No one informed me of this decision, so in the meantime I’ve had to top up my bank account with a credit card.
I saw my GP today and he assured me I am not fit for work, and I am not to blame, and that he will support me as necessary. I’ve written to my Tory MP asking for help and to have the E&SA reinstated. I see my psychiatrist tomorrow, an appointment I already have as she is helping me deal with anxiety. I see a disability rights advisor in a week to make my E&SA appeal.
I’m lucky. I am articulate and have friends who support me. But I feel very much as if the rug has been pulled out from under me. The poem that keeps going round and round in my head is this one:
what does it mean to self-harm?
self-harm is a broad term for many acts that cause personal harm,
from not looking after your needs - to scratching, cutting, burning
or hitting yourself, swallowing or putting things inside you.
why do some people self-harm?
self-harming is a way of dealing with unbearable feelings. You
may be overwhelmed by painful emotions. Injuring yourself
may help you cope.
is self-harming attention seeking?
self-harm is often treated with mistrust. If someone you care about self-harms,
you may feel helpless when faced with their wounds,
and your own feelings may cause you to blame them.
is self-harm an attempt to commit suicide?
self-harm is about trying to stay alive. Many more people self-
harm than commit suicide, and most people don't risk their lives.
Of those who do - killing themselves may not be their intention.
No one should have to suffer physical or verbal abuse for being who they are, regardless of their race, sexuality, faith, disability, whatever. On Saturday 23 October there will be Candlelit Vigils organised by the No To Hate Crime Campaign in Toronto, London, Brighton, and Norwich. The Vigils began as a response to the nail bomb attacks in London some years ago, and are an opportunity for the silent majority to show their support for the vulnerable, and their opposition to the bigots.
I had every intention of joining the vigil in Norwich, but I’ve been invited to perform poetry in Sheringham, Norfolk, at the launch of the Coast Festival, and so, long story short, I’m organising a vigil of my own.
I’m a member of the newly formed North Norfolk Pride and at a meeting, two school leavers told us about the homophobic bullying they had endured while at school in Sheringham.
The recent review ‘How Fair is Britain’ published by the Equality & Human Rights Commission states that two-thirds of lesbian, gay and transgender secondary students report that they have been victims of often severe bullying (17% of those bullied reported having received death threats).
At first I worried that no one else would turn up, but as my friend Trudy rightly said, “If it’s just you and me and a candle, so what? It’s still worth it.”
In actual fact the response has been very positive. People have helped decide the best place to hold the vigil, and offered shelter if wet, flyers have been designed, invitations sent out to various networks, and the Chief Executive of North Norfolk District Council, Philip Burton, has agreed to attend and explain the council’s view on Hate Crime.
I’m not suggesting that North Norfolk is a Hate Crime hot spot, far from it. However it has to be much better to be visible, let potential victims know there is support in the area, and let potential bigots know they will not be tolerated.
Vince Laws is organising a Candlelit Vigil Against Hate Crime on Lifeboat Plain in Sheringham on Saturday 23 October, from 7.30pm, with 2 minutes silence at 8pm, to coincide with vigils in Toronto, London, Brighton, and Norwich. Bring a jam jar and a candle and show your support. Meet in Oddfellows Hall if wet.
Earlier this year, frustrated with the difficulties of finding gallery space, I rented a whole church and put together a group of artists whose work I like and we called ourselves The Norwich Dandies. Last weekend the Dandies took part in a Wellbeing Festival outside the Forum in Norwich, promoting the five ways to wellbeing, i.e. Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Keep Learning, and Give, as created by the New Economics Foundation.
Eloise brought all the bits and pieces needed to make recycled chandeliers. I took in a box of magazines, scissors and glue to make collage poems. But it was Dugald and Chrissy’s idea that took off, and in the end we all focussed on that and had a fabulous day.
They brought in a wardrobe of costumes and wigs and accessories and invited members of the public to’ Dress as a Dandy!’ Once dressed, the brand new Dandy lay on our open-air chaise lounge and one or more of us stood at the easel and painted them. Before long, members of the public were queuing up, trying on outfits, and also doing the painting.
Next we opened a Gallery inside our Gazebo and filled a wall in no time. “I haven’t painted for 45 years,” said one chap, before producing a colourful likeness of the rock chick before him. “I love it!” said a woman delighted with her portrait, and in no time she was back with a friend who wanted to take part too.
There’s no doubt in my mind that we connected, the public got active, passers-by took notice, all ages learnt, and the artists gave the sitters their work – result.
The Norwich Dandies are available!
The Politics of Protest
As explained in my previous blog I’m protesting the Pope’s visit to the UK with a visual poem, THIS POPE IS PANTS. BBC Radio Suffolk offered to interview me if I had a Suffolk connection. I rang a friend who owns a pub in Suffolk and got permission to lie and say I could hang three strings of THIS POPE IS PANTS bunting on the pub during the Pope’s four day visit. I got my interview!
Immediately before the pre-recorded interview took place the presenter told me I could make my point but I had to say I was criticising the Roman Catholic Church, not the Pope. I was still considering this new information when the interview started, and went really well until the presenter asked me quite specifically, was my protest aimed at the Pope or the Roman Catholic Church?
I hesitated, I couldn’t lie, my protest is very clearly aimed at this current Pope, not at Catholics, "Both," I said, and then listed my complaints against the man himself. "He’s P – a protector of paedophile priests, A – against abortion always, N – No condoms never, T – trashes lesbian gay bisexual and trans people’s human rights, and S – supports segregated education."
So 23,000 listeners got to hear my protest poem = a result. But by now the pub owner had rung me twice and emailed me once (after I put the phone down on his second rant!) to insist he was mad to ever say yes, when actually he never said yes!
Now I have three strings of THIS POPE IS PANTS bunting and nowhere to hang it. Except I do. Rather than go and stick it on the railings of the Catholic Cathedral in Norwich, or waste time and money taking it to one of the Pope’s gigs, I’m going to hang it on my own home, a tiny cottage in the country, and send out a photo and press release and see where it goes.
You can listen to the podcast of the interview on BBC i-player. The podcast is 3 hours long. I’m on after 2 hours and 5 minutes, after Robbie Williams sings 'Angels.' Exercising BBC balance, as always, my bit is followed by an interview with a Catholic priest.
I’m not very keen on the current Pope. I’ve been thinking how I could protest his visit to the UK (September 16-19) and satisfy my poetic and artistic needs, and here’s the solution: Ladies and gentlemen, I want your pants! If there's a pair you never wear lurking in a drawer somewhere I want 15 pairs to peg on a line.
I will print a letter on each and hang them up so they spell out THIS POPE IS PANTS. The more pants I get, the more THIS POPE IS PANTS bunting I will make. If you want to send me your pants for this project, drop me an email vincelaws[at]googlemail.com and I'll give you my address.
Already I have people sending me pants from various parts of the UK, and dropping off pants in venues in Norwich. The Pope has called me an intrinsic moral evil, a deviation, a perversion – so I don’t feel calling him PANTS is grounds for concern, but I better point out these are my personal views and not necessarily those of DAO.
THIS POPE IS PANTS
P =Protector of paedophiles
A = Against abortion even for the most vulnerable women
N = No condoms Never
T = Teaching segregation
S = inSulting to all Sexualities who don't fit his narrow
definition of normal
I told my parents I was bisexual when I was 16. They said "go to your room."
I’m involved in a project on Twitter called OUT140, which has collected coming-out stories from the LGBT community, their friends and families, told in 140 characters or less (i.e. a tweet on Twitter). Some participants then made their stories into 12-second films, which were shown on the giant Fusion screen in Norwich, Europe’s biggest public access screen, for 2 weeks in January 2010.
Mother said i wud rather you were a prostitute than a lesbian.
Next, community filmmaker, Shelly Telly, who devised OUT140, adapted it to be shown on 2 old tellys during the Norwich Dandies exhibition in May 2010. We collected more stories and currently have over 200.
When I told my cousin my daughter is gay she asked, "Do Lesbians have wombs?"
Now OUT140 is being shown on a giant plasma screen at the Norwich Arts Centre, while 39 of the coming-out stories have been blown up and stuck on the walls. I chose one story to turn into a piece of text art, a found poem, which hangs in the bar. It reads: Grandma asked Mum if I had a boyfriend. Mum said I was gay. Grandma said has she got a girlfriend then?
I like Grandma’s immediate acceptance and the fact that this short story contains 3 generations of women. I collected used greetings cards from members of the LGBT community and cut them into individual letters. Greetings cards are the invisible threads that join us to our friends and family. I stapled the cards to hanging threads, and hung the piece about a foot from the wall so you can read the shadows.
Rejection, everywhere. Church sed: possessed by demons. Hell. Threw my jeans & LPs away. Wore dresses for Jesus. Kept away from friends.
It’s easy to think that LGBT people have it easy now, everything is legal, society has moved on, but actually coming-out is a very individual experience. Only recently I chatted to a 40 year old gay man who lives at home and cares for his homophobic mother and as a result has never had a partner, never allowed himself the chance to be in love, and won’t do so until she dies.
The difficult part was coming out to me. Being gay made me feel filthy, unworthy. Then meeting Him I realised there is nothing wrong with me
OUT140 is at the Norwich Arts Centre until August 31.
...and one day in the future
at a university lecture
a lass will lift a languid limb
and ask, almost seductively
if you the poet, writing this now
really had the audacity
all those years ago
to write 'work as good as this
got me here
I want to make a visual representation of the poem audacity, above, to go in a gallery window. I’ve cut out postcard letters spelling audacity. I’m going to suspend audacity in front of a mirror so it looks like it’s hanging in the air.
Later… In my head, this piece looks audacious because the letters hang down a long way and are perfectly aligned and give the viewer black letters to the front and bright red reflections, but in reality the letters are likely to be slightly uneven in all directions. Both height and resting position seem important. I’ll do that tomorrow. Do I want to paint the front red too? Or paint them all black?
The question is, and I can’t answer it until I see it – is it a good representation of audacity…. I will see tomorrow…
Tomorrow… I’ve just come back from walking the dog and thinking about audacity. I’m not happy that text in front of a mirror conveys audacity. Instead, I’m going to put a pile of my poetry books in front of the burning I AM A POEM with one copy open at the page audacity appears on. Sorted.
Just that and hanging in the window there’s a love poem Avalanche…. so I’ll put a pile of Small Frayed Knot in the window, with one copy open at Avalanche…. Enough.
I’m right in the middle of getting a window installation together and I thought I’d share part of it with you. I’m treating the whole gallery window as my canvas.
On the windowsill there will be a row of old poetry books. I have cut them into letters that spell, I AM A POEM. I used Ezra Pound for the I because he said, “Make it new!” – and I try to oblige. Other poets cut up include TS Eliot, Ted Hughes, ee cummings, blah blah blah.
I like the shapes the books have become, but it wasn’t enough. At first I planned to paint on trees and flowers, almost taking the piss out of poetry – but that’s not my intention at all. I know damaging books hurts some people, myself included, so I wanted the result to be worth it. I wanted the finished piece to work as a poem.
Flames. The burning of the books. It’s like a metaphor on a metaphor. It’s having your cake and eating it – you get to burn the books but watch them burn forever. I painted these flames yesterday and I’m very happy with how it looks. See what you think. Vince
Vince is one of the Norwich Dandies hanging at the Art Studio Gallery, Upper St Giles, Norwich – launch party on Tuesday 13 July from 6.30pm, all welcome, poetry in the street, beer and cake! Runs until 31 July 2010.
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.