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 email@example.com
This week Trish Wheatley and I have been busy making plans for new projects on DAO, getting ready to for DAOs tenth anniversary in April 2014. As one of the projects we hope to develop is a poetry prize, I thought I'd add a quick post on the first Outside In poetry event hosted by Pallant House Gallery on the 12th October.
Simon Jenner penned a review of the event last week, but for those who were in attendance [and those who weren't] who wondered at the words of the wild and invigorating performance of the legendary Dave Russell, I thought I'd post one of his genius poems from his collection Prickling Counterpoints.
Dave gives so much as a performer with a rare quality of complete and utter uniqueness, mixed with a humour that is beyond all ken. I know because I've been set free by clinical psychiatry without a facile solution in sight.
I never go to gypsies to find out about my fortune,
I've cast off superstitions of the past;
I am a product of an era of built-in obsolescence
Where relationships are just not made to last.
My world is morning-grey; I have learned to live with it,
That's a promise that to myself I vowed;
Because I've been set free by Clinical Psychiatry
And no facile solutions are allowed.
The highways of your mind are quite forbidden to pedestrians,
That's tough on me – I'm trying to be naïve;
When it comes to making statements from the bedrock of my feelings
It's the tongue inside my cheek I must believe –
You see, I read you up in books before I ever saw your face
And now it's just your ambiguity I see,
And as I wander through those labyrinthine depths of inner meanings,
I think the only one I'm talking to is me!
I hoped my being lonesome might place me on a pedestal
But now I see I'm in a lonely crowd
Of people all set free by Clinical Psychiatry
And no facile solutions are allowed.
We're half-past liberation; nothing's right and nothing's wrong –
There's just a big complex of different points of view,
And my vast array of paperbacks has so broadened my outlook
That I make all the allowances for you.
Yet you still seem to be present as a sensory phenomenon
and this poor superego can't be proud
Because I've been set free by Clinical Psychiatry
And no facile solutions are allowed.
I happened upon a recording posted by Jim Clark of Dave back in 1997. I'll be ever indebted to Dave for his song Microscope with its ever useful instruction on how to attain the binoculars of wisdom. To be astounded and amazed click on this youtube link... and remember to make sure you have your microscope with you at all times
Another day, another poem, dragging through the ether. There are lots of twists and turns down the mental health road; no easy solutions, just lots of conundrums and silence scattered with unhealthy, stigmatising epithets of goodwill and brave wishes.
Love and Possession
Me and my shadow
kick an old leather football
back and forth across
a blackbird infested
patch of grass
inside the compound.
A wire mesh looms above us;
the taunts of twittering suburbia
are held by the rhythm of each thud;
the same old line tossing the
old argument back and forth.
Do love and need ever exist
I make it through the reality check
and land on a bench dedicated to
Shirley 1943 – 2009;
a bunch of dead dream flowers
lie gaffa-taped above a memorial:
“I am the gentle sea breeze”
love and possession held fast
by stark yellow-black lines,
long after the last sod
has had its final say.
© Colin Hambrook
I am pleased the way that the blog section of DAO has taken off in the past few months. Having the opportunity to publish work continues to be a pleasure that I am very grateful for.
When you've grown up with the idea that you need fixing in some way it makes parenthood even more of a challenge...
This baby place
and a way of holding
the little finger
as if grasping an invisible
cup of tea
at a garden party.
you transformed lives;
brought the seemingly
eager to climb rocks,
when even crawling
I grew several
heads in a bid
face for self-belief
as a father.
Love was easy
in the woods
of our soft
fall into you -
a place of stories
plain as pudding -
not like now,
shun a mans' suit;
without hands or feet;
and barely a mouth
to describe the new
to grow into the gap
© Colin Hambrook
In the 1990s I put together a visual arts exhibition called 'Dreams of the Absurd' which got shown in various galleries in the UK and abroad.
It was an extension of a series of large-scale paintings, prints and writing about experience of mental health issues. During research I did whilst still at college I connected the work with the representation of 'madness' within the history of art.
I've been trying to get back into making and showing my own work since the those days... With encouragement from other artists engaged with DAO I'm putting tentative feet back in the water...
So here is a poem that relates to my experience of growing up in a psychotic household and dealing with issues of psychosis personally from a tender age...
On Healing my Childhood
On RD Laings' fit of promise
I gave you a magic potion, hidden
in a steaming plate of baked beans.
You held your demons in suspension
for a while. I hoped you would find forgiveness
in the small hours and learn to be kinder.
Building a time machine with sticky
back plastic, you concocted a
spell; attempted to undo our births.
I put a band-aid on each moment that hurt you;
went to the moon for help, but couldn't find
my way past the myriad of therapists
who crowded the path to the place of no pain.
The universe exploded with nazi meditators
surrounded in light oozing from every orifice.
I travelled to the end of London and back
to find a potent enough medicine to calm your
nerves; put schizophrenia in remission;
denied its existence to release the guilt.
I tried remembering everything you had ever said;
confessed to the time doctor who gave you yet more
electricity in the name of healing. When
you blamed the next-door-neighbours
I wrapped myself in a ball and sent myself to the talisman.
Calling on blood and stone; I found the faces of change
in the place where the gods live and empowered
each memory with a prayer for healing.
You listened to my heart, made promises for every secret
and bound our love to the four corners of the wind
before your white blood cells dried up and died
of largatyl, chlorpramazine, depixol and modicate.
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
Living with disability can get extreme sometimes. For me, living in the wake of so-called 'schizophrenia' has meant a lifetime of juggling the darkest emotions like tennis balls. My relationship with the illness has been a lifelong struggle... one of those things you are not meant to own up to.
It's a guaranteed conversation-stopper. Even within the disability community you are not guaranteed an empowering response. Reference to the illness can be a great way of losing acquaintances you are not particularly keen on in the first place.
The best you can expect is a conversation about how much better the medication is these days... as if the pharmaceutical companies were engaged in quality control of the neurological issues, heart problems and effects on the central nervous system which are endemic to all the anti-psychotics.
In an interview about definition and language on BBC Radio 4s Word of Mouth, Francesca Martinez asked "why not redefine people with schizophrenia as 'overly imaginative.'" In context she meant it as an understatement challenging the media's tendency to capitalise on the instant shock value to be gained from adding the 'schizo' word to a headline.
I saw a great ad at a multi-screen cinema recently... 30 seconds of blurry camera and dramatic sound introduce the oft-used cipher 'schizo' - leading you into thinking you're about to see a trailer for a violent horror movie. And then the image is cut with an ordinary family situation. A middle-aged man addresses the camera, telling the audience how he has lived with 'schizoprenia' for 12 years and has been able to live a full life with support from his family.
There needs to be more responsible open discussion of so-called 'schizophrenia'. As an illness it is all about irrational fear - as effect and as a cipher. Living with overly developed fear responses, is incredibly debilitating and hard work for those around you.
Societies mindless, sensation-grabbing responses don't help. Alison Wilde sent me an interesting analaysis of the nature of fear's companion, evil - in an article on a book titled On Evil by Terry Eagleton in The Independent.
It seems that we've never quite recovered from the boring name goodness and virtue made for themselves during the Victorian period. Despite the banality that accompanies evil; we have become obsessed by painting evil as romantic and glamorous.
During the Thatcher years we saw a reinvention of selfishness as 'altruism', in the desperate game of justifying greed. It set us up for a lot of fighting... and of course, we were the evil ones in demanding that support of our communities was a necessary part of finding strength to lead fulfilling lives.
But our community does continue to thrive... and will continue to thrive as the going gets tough...
Dao has been working with Parliamentary Outreach, Rethink and artist Rachel Gadsden on a project which looks at the relevance of the parliamentary process to people who have been through the mental health system.
We reported on the pilot project Breaking Barriers and are due to film a story about the Rethink Parliament workshop programme, which is being rolled out across the UK until July 2010.
John Bercow MP launched the Rethink Parliament programme in the Jubilee Room on 5 November 2009. He said he felt Parliament had a duty to find ways of listening more to the mental health community; of finding ways to tackle the stigma and encouraging people to engage with the parliamentary process.
He hopes through the Rethink Parliament initiative that Parliament will develop a greater interest in giving prominence to people from the mental health community.
He also stated the law of averages means there will be a number of Members of Parliament with a personal knowledge of mental illness; and that there needs to be more honesty and openess generally.
Rethink chief executive, Paul Jenkins, talked about the theme of the project being about encouraging individuals to ‘find a voice. He said: “If you’ve experienced mental health problems you will be all too aware that you lack a voice. It all too often means poorer physical health; less chance of getting a job; being banned by law banned from being a juror or a company director; and that you will be disqualified from being an MP. You will encounter negative attitudes in the media; from neighbours and family; from the police and from within the health service. Negative attitudes that often equate you with being dangerous.”
He went on to say that “...Rethink Parliament is about Parliament reaching out to people; saying that mental health matters.” He hoped in tackling stigma, the project might inspire more honesty and openness from within Parliament.
There is a need for a voice amongst those of us who have been affected by the stigma and taboo that having a mental health label has imprinted on our lives. I have struggled all my life - as most disabled people do - to find a way of having some power over even some of the most basic choices.
Mental health groups were the first people that Parliamentary Outreach particularly chose to work with, in recognition, perhaps, of how disempowered people with mental heath problems feel.
It may well be that the best we can expect are small cracks in the barriers which prevent our voices getting through. I think some acknowledgement is better than none. I look forward to finding out how this programme is received by the Rethink workshop participants in the New Year.
On Thursday 15 October Shape held their second informal conversation, led by Michèle Taylor - this time targeted at performing artists. Recognising the current lack of a platform for disabled and Deaf performers to come together to share ideas and talk about prevalent issues, Shape has created an ongoing event where 20 or so disabled and Deaf people can come together to talk openly and honestly.
Michèle set the tone by opening the debate with a showing of Liz Crows’ film about her iconic piece of performance on Anthony Gormley’s plinth, which was created to coincide with Resistance - a moving image installation, which is currently on tour. Liz Crow's performance has now reached the Guardian's Top Ten, which has been selected from the 2400 people who have each spent one hour on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square.
Liz Crow’s performance was deliberately provocative. It consisted of her appearing dressed in a veil which was drawn aside to reveal her in nazi uniform. Significantly the performance took place on the 70th anniversary date of the Nazis Final Solution programme intended to end the existence of disabled people, amongst other minority and ethnic communities.
As well as drawing peoples' attention to a bit of overlooked history, it is truly about making people think about discrimination as it exists in the present day. In conversation, several people said that the atmosphere at Trafalgar Square on the night was electric.
The film gave an opportunity for people to discuss how there seems to be little space these days for people to talk about their experience of discrimination. These are not the kind of conversations that we are having as disabled people any more.
Disability arts became established through the cabaret circuit. It was a safe space for many disabled and Deaf performers to hone their craft in a space where they knew their audience would understand where the work was coming from. It was also a campaigning ground – especially for pushing access issues to the fore.
The fact is that we still live under a cosh as to whether or not we are ‘persons worthy of living'. The more ‘normal’ we can present ourselves as, the more likely we are of getting through the net of who is and who isn’t 'of value’.
I say this from a personal and emotional space. My mother was killed by a psychiatrist - one of the many Dr Shipman-types who inhabit psychiatry because of the lack of accountability that makes it possible for some psychiatrists to basically do what they want to you without fear of any comeback. As a ‘nutter’ you won’t make any sense anyway – so what does it matter if you complain?!
There is a notion that things are different now; that we have acceptance etc. But only six years ago when I tried talking to a GP about my mothers’ death. She told me that if my mother hadn’t died of the medication, "she would certainly have died of the schizophrenia.”
I come from a line of three generations labelled as schizophrenics. I am proud of being a human with a brain split into two halves. The challenge is understanding why people are so scared of a fancy medical word invented with a bit of Latin jiggery-pokery. ('schizo' means 'split' and 'phrenic' means 'of the brain')
The identity debate provided an opportunity to air some our stories. Julie McNamara talked about a Survivors’ poetry gig where she was told by a dignitary that she thought it "marvelous that mentally ill people are allowed out these days to do their own thing.”
The position now is that we don’t see ourselves as a Movement. We have lost cohesion and don’t consistently have the opportunities for conversations about the politics of disability that were part and parcel of the scene up to ten years ago.
Tony Heaton made the statement that we are struggling to get through a glass ceiling. Without critical debate we can’t move on as artists, writers and performers – yet there isn’t a coterie of professional disabled journalists who understand the issues who can write critically about the art and performance.
Mandy Colleran made the point that recently there has been a proliferation of research PhDs around disability performance, but they are all written by non-disabled academics, who cannot ever own the space, or truly understand the voice that the disabled performers’ experience is drawn from.
I think we struggle within the movement to fully grasp each others’ access issues. It can be hard enough to even own our own access issues, let alone moving into other impairment territories. There was a lot of discussion around how certain disability performing arts companies have made choices that have excluded impairment groups – another part of the division which has brought us to where we are.
The real dilemma that we face, is that we are stuck with the fact that people from outside the disability community will more often than not look at us and at our work from a medical model perspective. Liz Bentley talked about having to feel comfortable that what she delivers is going to be understood by her audiences. As a performer fairly new to the Disability Arts scene, it is only in recent years of doing disability gigs that she has developed disability material. Before going on she therefore has to make a decision about her audience and chooses what material to give them, based on a quick judgement.
The politics of disability arts has been diluted by our efforts to move into the ‘mainstream.’ Stephen Hodgkin made the point that we have been colonised by mainstream thinking. We find ourselves struggling with the fact that our voices and experiences are being owned by others with a medical model attitude.
I guess it comes down to motivation. What drives you to get up on a stage in the first place. I can’t attempt to summarise much more of the conversation here, so I’d like to leave it on an unequivocal statement from Katherine Araniello that for me summed up my feeling about why the hell keep banging on about disability arts in the first place. She said she is driven to make the work she makes because she hates the world - with all the stereotypes and tight-fit ways of representing difference as tragedy and loss.
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.