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.