The Pitfalls of Using Other People’s Voices in Poetry

The young poet said he hoped to write about female, Muslim refugees, though he was not female, Muslim or a refugee. “I’ll ask them about the stuff they do that everyone does, like playing table tennis and stuff…”. His voice trailed away, as the section he’d put on the form began to look more like a blatant bid to tick a funding box than to have a cultural conversation. 

There are pitfalls in writing about other people in your work. I’ve been thinking about how not to fall into them.

Most of the workshops I run, whether that’s poetry or comedy or radio, involve people writing and speaking their own words. That, for me, is where the excitement and power lies. When people are using their voices they will use them elsewhere too. It means that when a project’s aims are a bit woolly or don’t quite fit with my values then I can still think that there has been an unleashing of voices which can critique and resist and protest and dialogue. Lots of funders will say they like this. Even if they don’t really.

Perhaps it means I’m sometimes too optimistic about the possibility of those voices being unleashed elsewhere. There are so many leashes now. Schools which have less space for creativity, creative workplaces which are hard to enter if you’re not rich. But it also means I look at arts and creative projects which claim to hear the voices of participants with a sceptical eye. I don’t get verbatim theatre and shows which are based on the words of “community groups we worked with”. Not really. In many cases, they seem to take the words of others and make cultural and economic capital out of them for directors and actors (I know not ALL of it does this, and it can be a way to tell stories that otherwise wouldn’t be told).

However, I risk being hypocritical. I’m always going on about hearing the voices of others in my projects, and I wonder how often those voices get lost. In order to try mitigate this, I was guided by a particular methdology when I did a project for Hull 2017. It helped me be clearer about what I was trying to do, and the traps I might fall into. I shared it with the writers I was working with. I had been using it in my PhD too and I’m going to briefly detail here in case it can give any other writers and performers food for thought.

Dialogical performance is a tool used by in performance ethnography (and laid out by Dwight Conquergood). Ethnography is a tool used by anthropologists, among other close observers of culture. Users of it acknowledge that the culture (ethno) they’re studying is both re-constructed and constructed in their writing (graphy) of it. It’s a novelistic, journalistic way of doing social sciences; which is why it appeals to me. Performance ethnographers basically, in extreme summary, perform their fieldwork. Both so that it becomes bodily and visceral and can be felt by a live audience, and so that it gets out beyond only sitting in notebooks or universities. Some people have argued that stand-up comedians can function as performance ethnographers- highlighting and querying the rules of their culture. It’s therefore logical to argue, as I have, that performing poets can too. Again in extreme summary, critical performance ethnographers don’t just go “Here is a reflection of how this culture works” they also go “Here is how power works in this culture, and we would like the oppressed and marginalised to have more of it, including by participating in speaking and writing about it in order to shift it”. They recognise performance as what Conquergood called a “moral act”- even, or especially when it says that it isn’t one. That seems to fit well with the approach of many poets to participatory arts projects.

Conquergood says that ideally dialogical performance is a conversation with the other. You don’t pretend you’re not there, with your own voice which is filled with ideologies and biases and sensitivities; “It’s all about them!” but you don’t dominate. “Instead of speaking about them, one speaks to and with them” as he says.  You’re aiming for a central place between identity (“I just get them, we’re the same!”) and difference “I’ll never understand their alien-ness”). Also between commitment (“I will save them!”) and detachment (“They’re on their own”).

He lays out the four positions you can occupy at the extremes of those poles:

The Custodian’s Rip-Off

It becomes all about you. “There’s great material here” you think as you selfishly plunder and appropriate stuff that isn’t really yours in a spirit of using things (and words and people), rather than genuine inquiry.  Conquergood gives the example of a cultural group who performed a Hopi Indian dance “To preserve it”, despite the objections of Hopi elders.

The Enthusiast’s Infatuation 

Too much identification with the other, here. “Aren’t we all basically the same!” you cry as you dash in for a short time, with a superficial appreciation of the Other, which belittles them and their genuine differences from you.

The Curator’s Exhibitionism 

Making the difference of the other into something stuck and flat. Conquergood says this is like the “Noble Savage” attitude of anthropologists of old who collected their artefacts in order for people to marvel at their astounding weirdness. It puts you and them into a different moral universe and suggests the twain will never meet.

The Skeptic’s Copout 

The skeptic wouldn’t be doing a poetry project involving the words of others, one would hope, because they are both detached and entrenched in their difference from others. They’re probably just conducting Brexit negotiations or something.

I was going to write about how I tried to use dialogical performance when I worked on the show Queens of the North with the writing collective “Women of Words” from Hull. But maybe in another blog. Except, just to say, in brief, I felt that I, as a non-Hull woman, was not going to be the best person to capture the voices of women of Hull, even though I’d proposed it as a project following on from my work at the Women of the World festival in the city. (Possibly I sometimes fell into the “Skeptic’s Copout” position). But I thought that if I facilitated other women writers from Hull, then together we could speak with and from Hull. We also went off and spoke to particular groups we were interested in (For example, Vicky spoke to female boxers, Cassandra spoke to the partners of oil rig workers, Michelle spoke to foreign students, Julie spoke to Mums of children with disabilities) and came up with pieces which included our and their voices). I would say I facilitated the show, rather than directed it, in a dialogue with all of us as writers and performers. It was also a dialogue with the city and with past and present. Lynda for instance, used her past in a Hull girl band to tell a story of the city in which that sixties story is now being told as history.  It became a dialogue with the audience who would both have identified with and felt a difference from some of the stories told. It stirred strong emotions for them and there was a standing ovation at the end- so they were very committed! But I think we also built in enough spaces where audiences could reflect in a more detached way about the issues that have impacted the women of Hull.

Of course, we still will have fallen into various pitfalls. Also, of course, not everybody associated with a piece of work might be operating in the spirit of dialogical performance (“Women? Northern ones? We haven’t got enough of those. Let’s get em on!”). But I think we did manage to find a middle space so that as well as a performance, we were holding a truly intimate conversation.

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Nightingales, #MeToo and Poetry-World

Myself and other poets have spoken recently about younger women poets asking us “Was this okay?…” of things that clearly weren’t. My story is sometimes confusing and fragmented but the “This is not okay” moments have become clearer to me now I have written them down. I am not talking about relationships that implode and cause awkwardness which is particularly acute because the poetry scene is so small. I am not talking about clumsy advances by poets who overestimate their attractiveness to their fellow word-weavers. I am talking about (mainly but not exclusively older,male) poets who serially abuse their power and experience in poetry-world in relation to (mainly but not exclusively younger, female) poets.

Sometimes we know more than we know. I used to tell the story I am going to tell now as a love story or as a coming of age story. But all along, it was a story about power, and deep down I recognised this. In jokey emails soon after I met the man I sometimes called the Miserable Poet, I began mentioning the myth of Philomela. She was a Princess of Athens and her brother-in-law King Tereus raped her. She then wove this story into a tapestry and sent it to his wife, her sister. In fury Tereus cut out Philomela’s tongue (In some versions, he cut off her hands). The sisters join together to get revenge and Tereus ends up unknowingly eating his son in a pie. Philomela is then transformed into a nightingale (in some versions, a swallow) and continues to sing about what Tereus did to her. The myth is recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and pops up everywhere from T.S Eliot’s The Wasteland, to a Margaret Atwood novella and a Timberlake Wertenbaker play. It is a story about male violence and female power. It is a story about being silenced and resisting this, as well as one about transforming traumatic stories into other forms and the power of speaking out together. Surely Philomela is the muse of the #MeToo movement.

One translation of Metamorphoses has her vow:

Still my revenge shall take its proper time,
And suit the baseness of your hellish crime.
My self, abandon’d, and devoid of shame,
Thro’ the wide world your actions will proclaim.

T.S Eliot recounts how she speaks even when the world finds what she has to say unpleasant:

The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king
So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
“Jug, jug” to dirty ears.

Having the Philomela myth as a sort of reference point is not really a good sign for a relationship. It’s like having “Smack My Bitch Up” as an “Our Song”. At some level I recognised that this man, seventeen years older than me, was dangerous. However, I didn’t have a conscious way of describing how. On the surface he was charming and engaging. People liked him. But some recognised patterns in his dealings with women that troubled them. One friend called him “The Vampire”. I had just started doing poetry open mikes. He had been in the scene twenty years. He ran a magazine and a small publishing house, promoted gigs and made a full-time living as a poet. He told me I was a real poet. Booked me for a gig and asked me to run two of his workshops on a primary school project.

The prospect of running a poetry workshop in a school sounded exciting and terrifying. I’d never even been in a poetry workshop in a school, unless you count that time a student teacher got us to write haiku and I elongated “It’s snowing” over seven syllables. This would be my first proper poetry work. In at the deep end, but I thought I could do it. I’d only been doing poems for a year or so, starting off in open mikes and then getting more and more paid gigs. This seemed like an exciting step into a new world. We’d also both been invited to join a poetry group called the Poetry Vandals. A kind of rock band, or maybe awkward indie band, of now seven poets who performed in pubs and at festivals all over the North East and beyond.

Aged thirty I’d been coasting as a radio newsreader for a few years. Suddenly now, I knew lots of creative people. In fact, I was one of those creative people. I was using my voice to speak my own words instead of news bulletins in which Tony Blair, Brad Pitt and the Angel of the North competed for the minute’s space I had on the radio to sum up the world in a way which wouldn’t put anybody off the dance tracks or carpet adverts. I had what seemed to be the makings of a new way of earning money, somewhere to practice being a poet and better, I was part of a group. Scott, one of the other members affectionately called it a dysfunctional family. To me, it was a community and opened doors to an even wider community of writers, performers and musicians. After living in a bedsit while doing my A-levels, then working long, unsociable hours as a radio journalist and not having much outside the job throughout my twenties, suddenly knowing people outside of that was heady and joyous. People who also liked words. Who would talk about them and perform them and share them with others. People who liked my words. Finally, I was living. Many people feel like this when they join poetry communities. They are spaces where people find they are accepted for first time-spaces where vulnerable people feel safe.

Me and the Miserable Poet stayed up all night talking after a gig. Something was happening between us. I fell in love with him like I was falling in love with this new world opening up. Nothing could happen between us. He was married, though he said he was practically separated. Even I, with my very limited romantic experience beyond two long-term boyfriends, knew this was a red flag. We emailed, we had coffees, one chaste kiss. He said he would like to publish a collection of my poems. I was doing lots of gigs at the time for free or small fees. Enjoying trying new things out, finding my voice. He wrote a review of them for a local music magazine. Said my performance was “patchy”. This was the first time I’d been publicly reviewed. I asked him why he’d said that. I thought I’d done alright. He said one of his friends had wondered why people were saying such good things about this new performer. He didn’t want to seem biased. Anyway, I had been patchy. This felt wrong. But I don’t heed this other red flag.

Then he stormed out of coffee with me after a disagreement that was apparently about the value of poetry slams. He told the poetry group he was leaving because of this disagreement. He didn’t reply when I asked him what had happened or about the workshops I had been scheduled to do. I was devastated that I had offended him and that we weren’t in touch. So much so that I didn’t really register the way that this had impacted on my burgeoning new career and my place in this new and supportive community. Or that the promised collection of poems would never happen. Actually, because on the whole the community is supportive, it didn’t impact on that element at first. Beyond the gossip and the whispering. People saw something as simple or as complicated as two adult poets having a bit of a thing. Like me then, they didn’t consciously read who had power and who didn’t. I was still doing radio news shifts but poetry had become my life now. The city was refracted through poetry and poets. I teamed up with Karl, another of the Poetry Vandals and we started running workshops together and applied for a big Arts Council grant. We’d help other people find their voices too.

After a few months, Kevin got back in touch. He said that he’d stormed off because he loved me. I was genuinely stunned. I decided I was now the heroine in a tragic love story. We were mythic. This helped me not notice some other red flags that started flying. I began to heed wiser voices who said to keep away from him. But I became more interesting to him when I was withdrawn. He invited himself onto a Poetry Vandals trip abroad to perform at a festival. We were all surprised and perturbed. They thought his presence was something to do with me, but he said it wasn’t. I have written before about what happened there on the night of my thirtieth birthday. He was sad and behaving erratically because he had moved out of his marital home. As well as thinking I’m in a tragic love story, I have a saviour complex. I follow him to his hotel room. He asks me to lay down, to take my clothes off so we can just cuddle. I believe him literally, as I believe most things he says. It will take years before I recognise the way he ignored my “No”s was yet another abuse of power between us. In this instance there is a name for this abuse of power- it is called rape, but I don’t know this yet, despite the Philomela references in our emails which had already been screaming out from my unconscious. The next morning we met for coffee. He says we’re soulmates of the brain. Years later I will say in a comedy show that even I recognised this as code for “I do not fancy you at all”. A month later we meet up back in Newcastle and he says he has fallen in love with somebody else and will be moving to where she lives, though not to be with her.

I am writing this story and at some level I can see it is a story of a relationship between a manipulative man at a troubled moment in his life and an overly impressionable person who needed to read more books like “He’s Just Not That Into You” or do therapy or start internet dating. I did all of these things eventually. But the thing that means that it has impacted my life for a lot longer than it should have, is that he was a poet and I was a poet and my working life was in his hands for a while. The abuses of power were played out in an environment that was where we worked, as well as where we creatively expressed ourselves. I am fairly sure he saw himself as an equal co-star with me in a particularly crap, ultimately irrelevant, bit of his own tragic love stories. But what I also now see is the power imbalances. The way he offered me work then took it away. Said he would publish a collection and then didn’t. Reviewed me badly in public. Told other poets things about me that turned out not to be true. Came along to a festival where I was working. Although this sounds like a list of grievances, I have rarely seen or catalogued it this way. I just accepted it as the way things were in a situation where there was no redress and no Human Resources Department for poets.

Some other things happened. This story is already too long and detailed. The power imbalance was no longer the key thing. It was a dysfunctional connection that I still thought could be redeemed. Needless to say I shouldn’t have said yes to his suggestion that he publish my poems about him, alongside his new lover’s poems about him, and his own about both of us (well, probably mainly about himself, to be fair). Needless to say that didn’t happen anyway. For a decade we have mostly avoided each other. Nodded in the street in Edinburgh a couple of times. He has published, without acknowledgment, poems that rewrite at least two of my poems. The poems are in our collections. One of these poems was about the rape. So he literally overwrote and stole my poem about that experience. After a rare sighting of him in a pub in his city, one of my posters was defaced with the word “Liar”. I have avoided countless events where I thought he might be, or where there would be people he tried to discredit me to, presumably in case I ever told the story as a power imbalance. I have since met and worked with many wonderful people in poetry-world but my trust in the “scene” to hear the voices of women like me, to be a supportive space, has been shaken. I have tried to speak out before, but I have never named him before. Now, I am joining the chorus of women who are raising their voices.

We nightingales are transformed into something that does not quite get to have the qualities of rational, human discourse. Our voices are alternately beautiful and terrible. A seductive song of patterns we all recognise. An ugly song that gets bogged down in details and fragments and is dismissible as vengeance. But it is inviolable and it will not stop. It needs to be continuously re-heard and re-translated. It must be recognised as the warning that it is.

Power in poetry is relative. Running an open mike isn’t like running ICI. However, if you are in a position to give or withhold opportunities to somebody else then you are in a position of power over them and should be aware of not taking advantage of this. Because poetry, and other localised creative scenes shade from “amateur” to professional with many grey areas in between, it is hard to talk about professional codes of conduct. But power relationships exist across the spectrum and there are many blurred lines between what for some people is a hobby and what for others is work. Career and financial opportunities can be at stake, as well as, even more vitally, people’s wellbeing and confidence.

I have heard stories of residential tutors serially sleeping with their tutees, of women being pestered with late-night emails, of workshop leaders harassing their students, of mentors inappropriately touching their mentees, award judges making passes at shortlisted poets. The people doing this stuff are usually involved in patterns of similar behaviour. It isn’t usually a one-off, or a love that cannot be resisted. There are many small-scale poetry promoters, tutors, publishers, reviewers and other gatekeepers. Their activities are often unregulated. I am calling on them (us) to sign up to a code of conduct that will be drafted by the poetry community like the one being drawn up by the theatre community in the wake of the Weinstein revelations. I am calling on other Philomelas to keep speaking out and weaving your tapestries. We will hear you. We will believe you. We will help things change.