Anthony Hurford shares his experience of Survivors' Poetry / 21 July 2013
I’ve always loved poetry, but have been woefully bad at knowing that, not to mention getting to know it. In fact part of my survivor journey has been about realising I love it and how important it is to me. Mad eh? Some people around me dismissed it and my liking for it, and most of the people that didn’t seemed quite clear that it might be beyond me – not everyone - but then it gets complicated, my lack of connection to it may be part of how I came to be a Survivor.
Anyway, I did start to get it. Then sometime after my surviving the mental health system began I trained as a counsellor, basically in a very Person Centred department (outrageously closed by the University it sat in shortly after I completed) and informed by other humanistic approaches – there is a lot that could be said about the link between such therapy and poetry. This is one of the very best things I ever did and easily my most satisfying educational experience. Totally unexpectedly whilst I completed my research I found I could not sleep one night until I had written down a line that had come to me and then I started to play to make a poem. Not great as a poem, some nice lines, a bit of a pastiche of a poem from someone that was pretty badly read of poetry and had not given a thought to poetics; I’ve never been able to change it, to make it more publishable or acceptable or refined. When I completed my research I made straight for my first poetry class, everything seemed possible. Then reality hit, ill health returned.
This is where Survivors’ Poetry came in. When my confidence to attend classes in person fell, the SP online Forum was a lifeline I came to grasp more and more firmly. Whilst I had felt full of creativity that also diminished, I don’t think I wrote anything for a year at one point, but I could check in with the forum, read others attempts, and I started to share some poems I had already written.
Having come to writing poems via counselling and my mental health experiences lead me to value creativity and just that act of attempting – damn the results, damn what is seen as good poetry, just try… sometimes I need to remind myself of this. As my poems become refined I want to remember that, what it means, self expression, despite and sometimes because of.
Earlier this year I wrote a short piece summarising my few poems that feel quite complete and said that in some ways my were a dialogue with myself about ‘what is a poem’… and again I don’t really want to know the answer to this. I hope I never do, but I can be tempted to start to feel I have an idea. (I just learned the term ‘wind-egg’ yesterday, from Wikipedia, not from actually reading about Socrates… but I like this strange phrase, it does exactly what it needs to – wind-egg being a theory or feeling). So when I have an idea I think it’s probably a wind-egg - the poem is in the feeling perhaps, beyond 'wind-eggness'. Survivors’ Poetry is of course a great reminder and force for the importance of this self expression – and it blew on the flame of my own writing during my struggle, still does.
The feedback I got on the forum from Simon Jenner, and the exchanges and example set by fellow Survivors were a lifeline – and also not only as a writer that struggles to write authentically, as seems our lot, but struggles to write authentically about stuff that really a lot of people would prefer is not said. Despite all my counselling and support through my friends in that field, the forum, the example of others and the recognition of others helped me see that it is possible to be open. The only drawback about the forum is that sometimes people are slow to respond, at present the traffic can be small, and I think given the nature of our issues a lot of us are reluctant to say much in response to others. But when we do interact, when you are a long way from any groups, it is so helpful, sustaining. Get the hint?
I’ve mentioned Simon Jenner’s feedback – his short responses to some of my poems (silence to others can speak volumes at times) consistently got my poems in an encouraging and generous way. My experience of groups had never given me such full attention and detailed reaction. In fact I may not have so openly started to examine some very personal issues if it had not been for Survivors’ – for all my counselling training.
More recently I sent Simon some poems he had not seen and having learned about their mentoring scheme asked if he thought applying may be a good idea. He and Survivors’ were positive and I gave it a go. Part of this also came from a decision. I’ve never tried to publish, to do so is part of myself testing out some of my fears. I can still be unsure. But then I have made very slow progress – I tend to write when something really hits me. I am bad at sitting and trying. Simon has been patient, so have Survivors’ in general.
It was good last August to be able to meet him and Roy Birch and Andrew in the office (I live some way from London and am remote from Survivors’ groups). Simon has continued the listening he had done with my poems to listen to me in many a phone call and my discovery of poetry. He’s encouraged that reading which I have worked quite hard at widening (and by attending adult education classes (a massive thank you to the North East Centre of Lifelong Learning in all of this and their literature and writing courses. It is sad that this excellent scheme has been given the chop just in the last two weeks). Simon continues to encourage me, to listen and talk in a way that is rare to find.
We’re aiming at a pamphlet – part of me will still believe this when I see it, this is not the sort of thing that happens to me. I am a good part of the way there and growing further into writing more. Much thanks to Survivors’ Poetry for providing a forum for others as well to say things that are often so hard to say even in supportive groups. Here is a poem I put onto Survivors’ forum and took down saying it was rot, to have Simon post it back and set me right about that, in a generous way.
Sometimes I feel
my lines uncover
That I stop
where sanity begins
Now that’s clear
let me begin