I’m watching the acclaimed TV series The West Wing at the moment. The characters frequently have to change their plans or meet earlier deadlines at short notice. Similarly, I’ve recently had to make tough decisions about what to tell an audience.
A week ago, I attended a poetry event called Interconnected Issues jointly run by the University of Dundee’s LGBT+ Society, Feminist Society, and Mental Health Society. I expected simply to be a punter watching a line-up of poets, but the organiser called on people to stand up and read. Regular readers know I’m a big fan of performing my work, so I didn’t wish to pass up the opportunity. On the other hand, I hadn’t prepared anything, plus I’d already finished a red wine and my first rule is never to drink before a performance.
With encouragement from my friend Ana Hine, I stood up to read Sir Madam. Although it fitted the theme of the evening, I was scared to read this one because it tells the life story of a character who is either intersex or transgender – it isn’t made explicit. As I’m neither of these, I was worried that an LGBT audience might take offence at my portrayal.
However, I’d tested it out at last year’s Dundee Literary Festival where it received a positive response from the general public. If there was any anger at Interconnected Issues, I didn’t hear it. Encouraged by this, I cobbled together three other pieces that were not as risky to be read later that evening. One was from memory, one was a draft from a notebook, and one was read hipster-like from a phone screen.
As I’d already broken my no-alcohol rule, I decided to order another wine. This led to me peppering the rest of my performance with a little more personal detail than I intended, albeit related to the content of the poems. Yet it’s also rewarding to leave yourself figuratively exposed on stage and let it be infused into your work. I’ve heard it described as making the personal into the political.
The first time I heard that phrase was at a weekend poetry workshop in Edinburgh. On the final day, I climbed Arthur’s Seat to watch the sunrise and came down with the idea for a short poem about a character on a cliff who intends to jump but changes their plans when they’re captivated by the sunrise.
I was looking for a title and I’d just heard about the suicide prevention charity The Semicolon Project, so it was named Semicolon. In a poignant parallel, it was reported last week that its founder Amy Bleuel had died.
I have no mental health conditions myself, but Semicolon is one of a few pieces where I’ve found the subject creeping into the narrative, particularly where I’m looking in from the outside. In February, for instance, I took part in a Q&A with Dundee Contemporary Arts after making a poetic response to one of the artworks on display.
My piece, called Surprise Attack, had already been written. The artwork was a pastiche of the Commando comic books but with Army mental health policy in place of the dialogue. Studying the pastiche helped me to finalise my poem after well over a year of redrafting.
I’m finally pleased with Surprise Attack, while I believe Sir Madam needs more testing, Yet both pieces have shown me that a little personal exposure can bring a rich reward.