When I was around 15 or 16, I heard a track on Radio 2. It was unlike anything I’d encountered before.There was no singing, yet it wasn’t recognisably rap music. Rather, someone was speaking words over an acoustic funk groove, telling us that The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. At this point, I knew nothing about Gil Scott-Heron and I didn’t understand the majority of his references. Nonetheless, in a little over three minutes, it had shown me something that I didn’t know could be done with words, a relentless stream of passion. When I was at university, I bought the album featuring the track. This was a good 10 years or so before I started to write poetry. But together with the first two albums by The Streets, my mind was stretched in a different direction. Fast forward to the present day, and I’m more selective about what I enjoy and more critical of what I hear. However, these eye-opening moments still happen every so often. Last week, I went to an event in Birmingham held by Out-Spoken Press. I’d initially heard about this through Harry Josephine Giles, who rotated the book while reading from it. I bought it afterwards, and I could see why. The words curled, or were set vertically, or were occasionally run together in a massive heap, whereas it would never have occurred to me to do anything other than start a new line. Birmingham is a more multicultural place than where I’m from, and racism is something that Anthony Anaxagorou tackles head-on, just as Scott-Heron did in the 1970s. Meanwhile, Ollie O’Neill spoke frankly about her experience of Britain’s mental healthcare system, a common theme among poets. Unfortunately, neither of their books are published until next year, so I’ll have to wait. However far my writing career goes, I don’t want to turn into one of these idiots who think they know it all and who stop learning or who taking constructive criticism on board. I want these moments to keep happening to me, the ones that hit me like Gil Scott-Heron did when I was a teenager.
On Thursday, I spoke at an open-mike night jointly held by two groups from the University of Dundee: the Feminist Society and the LGBT+ Society. I’d spoken at the previous one and enjoyed the experience.
There were a number of fantastic readers who tackled a range of themes. I have a few poems on the subject of gender, but I instead opted for another topic: mental health. However, it was around me looking at the health of friends and acquaintances and being unsure exactly what to do.
Two of the poems I read were ones I’d last performed around a year previously. When I’m reading them from the page, I don’t really feel their impact. It’s only when I say them out loud that it hits home what they actually mean.
An interval was called after my set. I had people come up to me and say how much they enjoyed my work, and that was much appreciated. By this time, I was almost in tears, which is not like me. But I steadied myself, stayed until the end, and left the event ready to write more poetry.
That’s the feeling I want after every event.
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.