Friday, 31 March 2017

Safe Spaces are for Children

What happened to February? My attempt to write on this blog at least once a month went awry and, with only 28 days in the month, February’s entry is over a month late. Perhaps I was too busy enjoying the romance of Valentine’s Day, or preparing myself for my Lenten Penitence. Either way, I’m sorry (to my regular readers) for my irregular posting. I make no apologies, however, for my art.
Speaking of Valentines, I had an interesting reaction to some of my poetry when I was performing at a certain Jazz venue in town, a few days after the celebration of all things ‘romantic.’ I recited two poems based on Jerome Kern songs – ‘Just the Way you look tonight’ and ‘All the things you are’ – introducing them by singing parts of each song either before, during, or after the poems.
The audience seemed pretty appreciative – I’d given them both poetry and music – and my fellow-performers continued the gig with songs about death, hatred, broken love-affairs and general misery. (Ah – jazz!) My poetry, it has to be said, focused on themes of how love doesn’t always work out the way we want: sometimes people are not compatible; other times we fall into the same mistakes, like the familiar chord progressions of a popular song.
At the bar, having claimed my free drink (we poets will do anything for a beer) a woman came up to me and said, “What was that all about?” Introducing herself, she apologised for being slightly drunk, and then re-phrased her question. It wasn’t that she’d misunderstood the poems, but rather that she disagreed with the sentiment. She and her (second) husband had been happily married for ten years, she told me: “Can you justify what you’ve written?”
“No,” I replied: “I won’t ‘justify’ what I’ve written – but I can put it in context, if you like.” I explained that I was presenting a realistic view of love and relationships, and not the saccharine, Valentine, Clinton Cards version. I pointed out that the poems were from a sequence called The Olive Box – a sequence that charts the story of a relationship, from the heady days of new love, through the development and subsequent demise of the partnership.
She was disturbed by the idea that someone should write poetry about both sides of love – its glories and failures; its highs and lows – despite the fact that she was on her second marriage.
“But is this stuff...” (she pointed to my pamphlet lying on the bar next to my hard-earned pint) “Is this about your own experience; is it true?” Now there’s a question! I told her that as a poet, a performer, an actor, a singer – as an artist – I pool upon my own experiences and transpose them into art, into fiction. I may then have trotted out the usual stuff about art being a lie that helps us to understand the truth. And I may well have told her it was ‘true.’
“But it’s entirely fictional,” I assured her. “And if my two poems have made you question the nature of relationships, then I’ve done my job.” She was apologetic about having confronted me so aggressively – Dutch courage was mainly to blame – and I assured her it was fine. “I’m glad you came to speak to me: your reaction is entirely valid, and I appreciate it.” That said, I never said the obvious thing which was: why are you not disturbed by all the songs performed this evening about fucked-up love and relationships?
It seems that music – even with its punchy, powerful lyrics – can wash over people, but bare words (whether on the page or the stage) can really get to the heart of the matter. While I don’t agree with Shelley’s infamous claim that ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,’ it’s somewhat strange that it's among the performance poetry circuit that I have heard most mention of ‘trigger-warning’ and ‘safe-space’ rhetoric. Or, bullshit.
Since when was poetry or drama, with its subversive, discursive, and sometimes abusive narrative, meant to wrap listeners or readers up with cotton wool? Only, perhaps, when the trite rhymes of Valentines cards are sealed with kisses, and received with grimaces. If you want to engage with art – whether complex poetry, challenging theatre, mind-boggling fiction, or mother-fucking rock-and-roll music – then get out of your molly-coddled safe-space and pull the trigger.

As comedian, Jonathon Pye, asked in a recent video, why are people so afraid of language? According to Pye’s reading of the Salford Public Space Protection Order, “Swearing in public is on a par with drowning animals,” In which case, if reading poetry on broken relationships requires a trigger-warning, I might as well jump off a bridge.
(But not, it seems, in Salford.)
To be afraid of truths, of complex emotions, of questions that have no black-and-white answers, or of situations that challenge what it is to be human is to be afraid of life itself. Life’s a piece of shit... live with it. Because if you don’t accept or believe that life is complicated, when complexity hits you – whether in the words of a poem or song that makes you feel uneasy, or a piece of information that disturbs your comfort-zone – you won’t be able to cope.
I’ve quoted Stephen Fry on this blog before, and he again has nailed an idea to what this little rant is about. He calls this cry-baby culture ‘infantilism.’ The notion that to say the word ‘rape’ in public makes the orator a rapist is absurd, and deeply worrying. Yet people want to be molly-coddled, or to molly-coddle their own behaviour lest they cause offence. We protect children because they are vulnerable. But when we become adults, we must protect ourselves...
How? By allowing our maturity of thought, experience, and understanding keep us open to the rich divisions, diversions, and emotions that the human experience has to offer. People need to know that nothing is simple; nor is anything handed us on a plate. (Little food is eaten that way these days anyway.) Perhaps, to put it another way, as Fry does at the end of this short interview, what people need to do is this: just grow up!

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Moving On

Some years ago I got a birthday card from a friend. We had previously been in a relationship which had ended, I guess, because of my mental-health problems. After I had come out of my darkest place, we were back in touch, and the change in me was clear and palpable.
This friend wrote: “I’m so glad that you are doing so well, you sounded so cheerful – it made me very happy but sad that I haven’t been around to see this exciting change in you.” And as a post-script, added: “Do NOT wear black on your birthday.”
So today is my birthday, and I’m not going to reveal the colour of my clothes... although I must confess that I was on stage at my regular Monday night venue late last night and told this story before performing. As it turned midnight, I couldn’t hide the fact: I was dressed in customary black.
“It’s my birthday,” I told the audience: “I can wear what I want to – or cry if I want to.” Then I made further apology in advance of reading the poem. Most of my work is purely fictional; taking elements of my own experience and transposing this into art. But yesterday I read an extremely honest and personal poem. Here it is.
Talking Cure
Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation. – GRAHAM GREENE
Maybe it’s just me, but I find it best
not to speak out about being depressed.
This stuff about mental illness stigmatised...
it’s more it’s not adequately recognised
by so many in the ‘caring’ professions
who haplessly dole out fake medications:
I don’t want placebos or panaceas, I just
want someone to talk with whom I can trust.
And so, I forgo the eight-minute appointment
and deal with my illness with an assortment
of coping strategies – some work, some don’t –
if you want me to share them, sorry: I won’t.
Sometimes I find it best to stay at home
and tough it out (or deny it) by being alone;
or I force myself to attend an event...
afterwards, I’m pretty glad that I went.
But I’m sorry; I don’t want to talk about me
or my state of health while I’m in company.
I’m sure it must be pretty commonplace
for depressives to put on their ‘brave’ face.
If all they can do is a hypochondriac moan,
They might as well give up and stay at home –
after all, it’s properly British to say
when asked, how are you? “Oh: I’m okay!”
This is my problem – not, I’m afraid, yours,
but I’ll share it, at great risk of being a bore –
the de-stigmatisation of depression has meant
that, unlike other illness, disability, ailment,
you have to be ‘open’ and come out and say
(and yes, the same can be said if you’re gay)
“I’ve had depression since I was at school:
See Me, I’m a one-in-four statistic, that’s cool.”
If my depression’s called ‘high-functioning’
I guess it’s because I refuse to let a thing
essentially in the mind stop or prevent me
from living my life, such as it is, fully.
So I self-medicate with alcohol (sure, not ideal –
at least you don’t have to accept how you feel –
although next day, you’ll probably feel worse:
it’s a mixed blessing, or in other words, curse.)
And then there are days when no drugs work,
but a zero-hour contract means you can’t shirk;
when getting out of bed’s a genuine struggle,
and it’s more than just your head’s in a muddle:
your limbs are so heavy, it feels like you’re drowning;
your whole face, not just eyebrows, is frowning;
when you finally manage to put some clothes on,
it still doesn’t feel like you’re where you belong.
You could attempt what’s called a walking cure,
but can’t face opening your own front door.
Perhaps you could have something good to eat...
but the fridge has been empty for over a week.
When you finally drag yourself to the shops,
everyone keeps giving you dirty looks
(so it seems, anyway) but don’t stare back –
they’ll take offence if your demeanour is black.
Okay, yes, I don’t wear the brightest of clothes,
but the reason for this is... well, nobody knows
as I don’t air my private life publically,
and prefer to dress slightly less colourfully.
I also ‘suffer’ – if you’ll permit me to share this –
from high metabolism. Sure, it’s not an ‘illness’
but it does make life hard when you can’t face
eating, and end up fainting all over the place.
So you make yourself something healthy to eat,
then see it solidify in front of you on the plate –
after all, when you feel like a piece of shit,
what’s the point of eating: you don’t deserve it.
Your life’s in a mess – and so is your flat:
there’s junk-mail and un-opened post on the mat;
you’ve purposefully put off any sort of tidying –
that’s a word only two letters longer than dying.
But this is just morbidity, not depression,
and suicidal thought’s all passive-aggression:
you don’t want to die – ‘it’s a call for help’ –
oh come on, snap out of it: get over yourself.
There are plenty of other forms of self-harming
besides death, some which are quite alarming.
However, I won’t elaborate on my own path
to self-destruction or it’s catastrophic aftermath.
And why? Because I don’t like to talk openly
about it, or treat it in any way medically;
nor do I wish to use my wordsmithery
as a poor excuse for so-called therapy:
if that’s what I’m after, I go to my therapist –
it’s a bit more expensive than getting pissed,
but what’s wrong with being a little bit poor
in exchange for an efficacious talking-cure.
Well, that’s all I have to say on the matter,
except – perhaps – to say it’s true that a
good walk, jog, sing, swim, or bicycle-ride
is a far better a strategy that staying inside
with the curtains shut and houselights, low –
it’s as hard as hell, as well I know – but go
out and get some sunshine on your skin:
it’ll boost your endorphins with serotonin.
There’s a lot to be said for the power of laughter
(as long as you don’t find yourself crying after)
and friends, or loved ones, or good company
who make you smile, or for some, family,
are the best people to surround yourself with,
even though you’ve lost the will to live
or can’t face the world: it might be enough
to survive another day embraced by love.
I have a postcard that sits in front of me  
when I write, produced by a mental health charity,
which reads, ‘my friends were great when I
wasn’t.’ A lesson I haven’t forgotten, not will I.
I’ve said enough, I don’t want to talk any more –
although, as I’ve said, talking is the best cure –
if you want to come to terms with mental health,
for your sake and others’ don’t keep it to yourself.

Despite this being predominantly a live music bar, the audience listened attentively to my poetry. Afterwards I told them about a time when I performed at another music venue where I also sang bits in between my poems. A man at the front seemed to be enjoying my work – he even sang along – but afterwards when I thanked the audience for listening, he said out loud: “Thank you for stopping.” What a dick-head.
The same didn’t happen last night; instead, the host of the event appeared on stage with a tray of muffins with lighted candles and a card that had been signed by everyone in the bar before I’d even arrived. I did not leave the stage with dry eyes!
This is why it’s so important to keep going. An act of great kindness goes a long way to diffuse the attitudes of those who would rather hurt than love. I still refuse to talk about my private life – my age, sexuality, or personal problems – in public because these are not things I wish to be judged on.
I don't intend to announce my past difficulties and, frankly, would be happy if others didn’t either. I punished myself enough in the past.
It’s my birthday today. I’m moving on.