All posts by katefoxwriter

I'm a performance poet, comedian and writer.

12 Days of Lockdown. 4.

Lens

Anybody else get worried

watching people on telly 

standing too close together

they ask.

People want an explanation

of how quickly being socially distant

became their new lens.

We’re wired to notice

what is dangerous 

and therefore important.

I don’t have a new instant overlay

for the world though, now spiky virus cells

circulate like planets

I was always clumsy and elliptical,

unsure of the correct orbits

how close was too close,

how far too far.

I fix instead 

on another left glove on a branch

singular as a vernal star.

Twelve Days of Lockdown 2.

Remnants

Nostalgic for everything,

even rubbish feels like excavated evidence

of the pastimes 

of a former civilisation

 

remnants of us waiting

or abandoned like one of those villages

flooded to make a reservoir.

 

We are being smoothed,

swirled, carded, caught up

despite ourselves.

 

As if we could control

what the elements shape

or resist making relics

out of our need to escape.

 

I responded to Colin Potsig’s photographs of his lockdown walks with poems inspired also by my own.

 

Twelve Days of Lockdown: 1.

A project in which I responded to Colin Potsig’s beautiful lockdown walk photographs with my poems (& vice versa).

Stump

Like a punch from behind,

a tooth breaking off at its bloody root

leaving you with a shocking black gap

like waking up at your own snore

gasping for air

the upending of the world

when you put your foot

on a step that isn’t there.

It’s alright to tell us this had been

foreseen for years 

in plans, models, rehearsals

that’s not how we were struck,

that’s not what froze our core

like the siren of the alarm clock,

a white bomb glare.

So tell us again 

about what always grows back

about slender shoots growing 

from blasted stumps,

green fishing rods into the future,

tender rebuttals to the torn out page

that used to be tomorrow.

Here is destruction we can bear to look at,

here is hope we can borrow. 

Instead of a Funeral

In my show about Northern women, I talk about how important it is to remember people who might get erased from history, and about how my stepmum Rosemary always made sure to write me, as an illegitimate daughter, into the family history, although she herself was now suffering with dementia.

One of the most extraordinary ordinary women I know has died and she won’t have a funeral. Rosemary Reynard was my stepmum. Which is a title which covers over the story of how actually, I’m one of twins that her husband fathered when he had an affair with his secretary, my Mum (it was the seventies, what can I say). Rosemary loved pub meals out, doing the Yorkshire Post crossword, routine, Marks and Spencers, cleaning, neat numbers in rows, turning plugs off at night, her family, saying “kid” at the end of sentences, two glasses of sherry before tea, and me.

 

She first heard about my existence when her husband had briefly left her for my Mum while I was an embryo. The week in a rented flat didn’t go well, and he went back to her. The next Rosemary heard of me was when she was on her wedding anniversary trip to Jersey and I was being born, alongside my brother; “There’s two of them”.

Then she and Norman went round to my Nan’s house to offer to bring me and my brother up. My Nan and my Mum gave them short shrift. There was a gap for a while, she brought up her much-loved son Andrew, worked part time doing the books in a petrol station, laid the table every night for the meals she made of “chicken in the oven” and meat and potato pie and chicken and salad and braised beef and enjoyed being part of her own, and her husband’s extended family life, though was one of the quieter members.

Move ahead seventeen years and a letter arrived from me, saying I thought her husband might be my Dad. “It’s like a book” she said. And “There must be no more secrets” he said. We all met for a Sunday dinner in a pub and liked each other straight away. I would go round to their house and play rounds of gin rummy and eat chicken in the oven and learn the order of tea, starting with Sherry for her and “Cinzano and lemonade in a long glass?” for me and always ending with taking the lace table cloth up and the green undersheet and helping dry the pots.

We visited Norman in hospital together and when he died two months after I met him she said I should have been in the front row at the funeral “with us”.

She wanted to make sure I knew I had a home, a “base” when I was university. I was living in a bedsit full of mould at the time and home and safety and cosiness in a way I’d never known was “milky coffee” on the pink settee before bed after a bubble bath in her spotless green bathroom.

Sometimes we wrangled over words because she wanted me to say “home” and “love” and I couldn’t for a long time. But there was home and love. And sometimes her loneliness and need for company was something I had to find a distance from, and underneath it was something I needed, that would anchor me in a way I never had been.

She loved me visiting and hated me going. She hated any change or going. We went for pub meals on Sundays, we had milky coffees, I helped with the odd Yorkshire Post crossword clue. She went to my graduation and took me up to my journalism course every day. She was the honoured guest at my wedding and listened to my poems on the radio and I’d ring her afterwards and she’d tell me I talked too fast.

After her heart attack in 2011, when I stayed at her house for a few days and rang my husband so he could talk me through how to make her omelettes, she slowly lost the independence she loved. The driving, the going out, the sameness. The past two or three years of her vascular dementia have been difficult and then more difficult. She was still herself but often not there. “I feel sort of yonderley” she said. “She always remembered your name though” said her neighbour John who did so much to care from her “Even in hospital at the end”.

When I saw her in hospital on March 11th, I thought it might be the last time. She reached out for my hand in the telly room and we sat like that for a while. “Your nails are a mess” she said, looking at my chipped green sparklies. I couldn’t spring her out of the ward no matter how much she begged and I just had to hope that she would feel better with cleanliness and routine again in a care home.

She wasn’t on her own at the end- care workers and paramedics were there. I hope somebody held her hand. This ordinary woman who loved exceptionally.

Floor

Her neighbour says when he found her on the bedroom floor
she thought she was in the playground in Baildon
and her Mum was coming to fetch her,
that I should try getting her to talk about the past

I had been trying to stay
in the ever-shorter present
where an apartment in Mallorca still is,
sunrise over the sea
on Christmas Day,
one of the years we went away
so we didn’t have to not belong
in a room of people with the same eyes.

There’s a photo on the telly stand of
our slide down into an Austrian salt mine,
the two of us laughing
as we sped down the polished wooden rail,
feet in the air like toddlers.

I have been avoiding knowing the Sunday
when me and her and my father
met for the first time,
has gone.

That day she said “I could write a book”
because of the seventeen years
I had only been imagined
and she rewrote every other story I’d been in

about the illegitimate baby,
the standoffish girl,
the Runaway in the paper,
the Troubled Teen,
the Black Sheep, the Scapegoat
too clever for her own good

to tell the one about Norman’s daughter
she just clicked with straightaway
who he was over the moon to meet,
the first story of me
that felt right.

But that story has disappeared
along with her pillion rides up Baildon hills
on Norman’s motorbike
when she was seventeen

and dancing in his arms to a big band
in the hall near the Alhambra

and the ashes she scattered in the daffodils
while I stood by one grey February day.

I can keep them though,
along with an image of a playground
where a dark moor is rising into the sky
and a girl is reaching out her arms
waiting for her Mother to take her home.

Acclimatisation

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I know “strange” times is popular, but I prefer “weird” times.

I went back in the sea today. Glittery panda hat, neoprene gloves and socks, swimming costume, and swam out and back across Cullercoats Bay. I walked in slowly, lulled by my warm feet. I splashed water up onto my chin and shoulders.  I hugged my arms across my chest and lowered myself in.  Then the cold hit my chest as if it was heat, as I stretched my arms out into a breast stroke. The sun was making a golden trail along the surface of the waves. The stone arms of the harbour wall held me as I crossed between them, but I could look out and see the expanse of blue and white ahead of me. Freedom, it felt like.

It was only when somebody else said it that I realised I’d been in trauma “fight or flight” mode the last couple of days of the New World of Weirdness. My strongest urge was to go walking and swimming and camping in Scotland and not encounter a soul. I wanted to be with people but I also wanted to be on my own. I feared abandonment, but wanted to run. Boring old traumas resurfacing. I also had grief. The grief I’ve been sitting in (not always consciously) since ending my marriage in September. And moving away from my home and dog. And my Step Mum passing into the stage of dementia where she barely recognises me. And other stuff I’ll write about one day.

There has not only been grief and loneliness; there has been love. And sometimes joy and exploration. But grief has become a Screensaver. And now it seemed the whole world was joining me in it. In the sense of not being able to picture a future ahead. The terror and possible liberation of that.

But swimming in the cold, cold sea again reminded me that we can acclimatise to anything- and quicker than we think. I could bear 15 minutes in the maybe 8 degrees centigrade of the North Sea in March because I’ve been swimming in cold water through last summer and autumn and a couple of times in January. My body remembers and it doesn’t take me into the shivers of cold water shock. If I keep going in the sea a couple of times a week from now, I’ll gradually build up the time my body can stay in without my hands turning to knives. Minute by minute. I’ll even begin to think it’s kind of warm.

And it made me think about how this crisis will become “the new normal” sooner than we think. We’ll get used to staying in, planning our shopping, managing on less or scrabbling to find out about what support might enable us to stay afloat. We’ll be used to emptier streets and not “popping out” and only one thing on the news and the cancellations.

There can be a downside. For anyone who has ever swum in trauma, it is a state we can ping back to too easily, even when there’s no need. I am acclimatised to that, and to loneliness, to a degree. But I can also sit with some of the strange solaces of isolation, sadness and slowness. The unthinkable can be thought, and become okay or more than okay. The freedom of cold water without feeling the shock every time…

Tips for Parents of Autistic Children (I won’t be giving)

From my small experience of meeting parents of autistic children at events, I gather that some people want tips from an “out” autistic adult. Handy takeaway hints. How do you raise an autistic child? How do you live well as an autistic adult? Part of me wants to respond “Well, it depends on your world view- to take tips from me then you might have to accept some aspects of my world view which might not chime with yours. I tend towards openness, recognition that people can and do develop at different speeds and in different directions, a belief that different styles of thinking and being are important, a recognition that some people need more support than others to live their lives but are still valuable members of society, a belief that humanity is just one part of a rich, interconnected world of beings and things and a faith in the value of kindness, acceptance and unconditional positive regard for others and their experiences. 

Also, a recognition that private troubles are always entwined with public issues and that a world which ceaselessly pursues economic growth at the cost of human and ecological wellbeing is not one to be welcomed, indeed sometimes to be resisted often by people working together to uphold common values of kindness, fairness and love either; by changing society or finding alternative ways to do things. Although I’ve fought my own battles for acceptance, I haven’t fought them as a parent, which involves being far more subject to value systems I may not share than I usually have to experience as an adult. I was trying to think how I might then give tips to the parent of an autistic child, or to an autistic person who just didn’t share these aspects of my values. Try to do it from closer to their position. I realised it would not go well…

  1. Agree to all demands that they should appear the same as “everybody else”.
  2. To this end, pursue therapies and treatments which have not been adapted for autistic people
  3. Or pursue therapies and treatments which are part of a business model aiming to make money from the desire of the parents of autistic child to have behaviours which are as normal as possible.
  4. Interpret signs of distress as defiance, rather than as communication about something in their environment which is upsetting and overloading them and ignore it, or stop them showing signs of distress. 
  5. Do not attend to different ways of communicating with your child- make them communicate only your way. Do not worry too much about what’s going on inside their mind and heart, why would you need to know about that?
  6. Force them to spend time in environments they say they find difficult- noisy, bright places for example. Make them eat foods they don’t like.
  7. Train them in making eye contact with people even if they say it hurts or makes it harder for them to think.
  8. Control their body movements so that they look the same as other people- do not allow them to display the self-stimulating behaviours that would allow them to regulate their own bodily input. Use mockery as a way to make sure your disapproval is reinforced.  
  9. Don’t try to find out why they do certain things. Best just to assume it’s either why you would do them or why most people do them.
  10. Don’t bother enlightening them about the reasons for the social rules that many people follow even if they express bafflement. Ignore “Why?” questions and say “Just because”.
  11. Be aware that research shows this eventually will lead to increased mental health problems and distress and suicide rates- make sure any further necessary therapeutic interventions as a result are not autism-adapted. 
  12. Do not be guided in the things they find interesting, that spark their joy or passion. Force them away from learning about those things. Guide them towards work you would like them to do. Ignore any ideas they have about pursuing careers you don’t know anything about, or don’t think will make sufficient money, or approve of. 
  13. Remind them that the diagnostic criteria show they lack the same feelings and abilities as other people, so that they will feel motivated to change themselves. 
  14. Discourage them from connecting with other autistic people; why would they want to be with other people like them? That’s not how most people in the world are. 
  15. Tell other people you are grieving for the normal child you should have had- let your child know this is how you feel. Do not seek counselling for any of your complicated feelings, that would be a weakness. 
  16. Find a school that shares your values about how children should appear to be just like everyone else.
  17. If they say they’re happy spending time on their own, disbelieve them and force them to spend social time with you or other children. If this tires them out, tell them they are “lazy”. 
  18. Either do not let them develop any independence because you believe they’re so fragile they will not cope with failure or risk, or do not give them any support whilst they try out new things because they have to learn that nobody will help them. Do not attempt a balance of support and scaffolding.

No, I’m not sure I’d be the right person to be able to give those “tips”…

Becoming Autistic

Two vignettes:

The day after my Mum died I had to call someone about a project. During that call I said I was going away to my Mum’s funeral and it emerged that she’d died the day before. The person said “But you sound so cheerful!”. I remember wondering how else I was going to sound, given that I’d been phoning them about a professional project, not for sympathy. The easiest default option I had available in my voice register was “Happy to help”. It would have taken some work and effort to find or perform “Feeling some complicated grief, identity confusion and dread right now”, and wouldn’t have been relevant to the subject of the call anyway.

Many years ago I worked in the open plan office of a radio station. I’m not sure now what the context of our conversation was, but I remember being surprised when one of my colleagues said it made them a bit sad to see me coming in each day and attempting a greeting, perhaps a general “hello”, in such a low-key way that it was generally ignored. I probably wasn’t doing eye contact right and was doing it with a lack of volume or conviction. It was basically a bad performance of “Greeting”. It was unusual for someone to point something like that out to me. It may or may not have made me better at doing “Hello, I’m here” after that.

I thought of both these things when I was in the company of two hundred people last week for the “Autscape” conference. Given that it’s grown year on year since starting in 2005, then perhaps it was the biggest gathering of majority-autistic people there’s ever been.

Coming down to breakfast in the hotel each morning, I’d institute a round of “Hello!”, breezy smiles and “Good mornings” at people I recognised. They’d nod or smile back. Once I noticed one of them was sporting a red badge. Red badges mean you don’t want anyone to initiate interaction at that moment. “Argh! Sorry” I said, then tried to continue my self-berating over the coffee machine so as not to make it about me. One of the many wonderful things about the rules and guidelines for being at Autscape (set out in the handbook and at the “Orientation” session) is that autistic people, as all people, make social mistakes, so to be tolerant around not following a rule- interrupting someone or not noticing an interaction badge or using the wrong pronoun or whatever.

By morning three I had come to recognise that my round of constant greetings was actually a bit tiring and unnecessary. I’d learned a behaviour that works well in neurotypical space but isn’t needed in autistic space. In fact, it might well have been taking my own energy and also using up the energy of people who were already managing hundreds of interactions throughout the day.

When I caught myself doing it, I self-berated internally for being “so neurotypical”, whilst at the same time, recognising my clumsiness mirrored in many people around me, which somehow felt like it was making me even clumsier than usual, berated myself for being “so autistic”.

Both of these (internal, quite ableist and inaccurate) berating voices are NOT the voice of Autscape itself. It’s strength and sustainability seems to come from recognising that, as well as being a place where autistic people can “be” themselves, it’s also (especially given that at least half the delegates in any year will be newcomers) a space where autistic people can “become” themselves. Experiment with just who this is and might be. See it reflected and responded to in others. Had I stayed another day, I would have tried to do a breakfast without greeting anyone. Put on the red badge and dared to say that I was too tired for interactions for a bit. After all, being officially identified as autistic only two years and having spent the vast majority of my life among mostly non-autistic people, I’m still very much in the process of saying hello to my autistic self…

Heartfelt

heartfelt

bright blue, red, yellow
I can’t stop looking
but then we have to cover it
with white wool

water and soap
turn and rub, press and mould
she says
you will feel when it is felt

the famous writer
tells us my kind
only have feelings for ourselves

I can’t see how the colours
will get back on the outside
will something dissolve?

I had told the front row girl
with the rainbow fringe and eyebrows
they made me happy
and she flapped her hands at my prints
and how things matched

it is cutting in the end.
Scissors along the bottom so the inside
becomes the outside

more pressing and moulding,
relieved to be told
it’s harder than you think
to break an uncooked egg.

 

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Notes from the Hip Yak Poetry School

Notes from a facilitator at the Hip Yak Poetry School (Run by the Hip Yak Poetry Shack for poets in the South West, May 23-6, 2019)

DIY culture. I was born to it. Methodists, cloggers. But often it’s not just DIY, it’s ask someone else and before you know it you’re all Giddens’ mobile, flexible workers together and no one has enough time to stop to enjoy the trees. 

But I miss this, miss these tents of people who “entrain” (join together in unconscious rhythm, as Chris Redmond told us) in clapping, laughing and saying words. In-jokes, the celebration and acceptance of quirkiness, a counter-public.  An alternative to “Zip Zap Boing”, a game for every performance workshop- the Eastenders version. Every game can be rewritten to include an “Oi!” but we get stuck on old tracks. 

The sign inside the flush toilet said it would save water if you felt able to use the dry toilet instead, I never did. Maybe it would have taken longer than four days.

Funny poems used to win slams, that’s how I won them. Not now, apparently. Or do they mean trivial. Me and Scott Tyrrell laughed at the poets who fake-cried at the national slams at Stratford-East in 2005, but they were a coming wave. We stepped outside from the foyer into the guests at the comedian Linda Smith’s funeral. “Look- there’s Jeremy Hardy!” we said. 

Pete Bearder (book on spoken word forthcoming from Outspoken) says that there’s a “crisis of the elders” in the spoken word community. They (we) move on to things that pay or value us. It was good to see grey hairs here. I kept circling back to my first tour in 2010 as if it was the scene of an accident or a crime, and my recent one as if it was a cake I had uncovered before I was supposed to.  

There was a conversation about being tactically old, tactically white, tactically gay, tactically female. In my head I translated back into PhD terms: “Rhetorical marginality”, “Translocational positionality”. In a tent, I felt the feelings of two poets who do not primarily want to engage audience feelings. 

Maya Angelou spoke to me in a stone circle and said I was more engaged when I said “We” can change things than “I” can change them. Bukowski and me worked out I wanted a quiet space and time, as represented by a house with a swimming pool. Kerouac somehow knew I wouldn’t want “To parent” written on my face. I told Adrian Mitchell to crack on, he had a logjam. 

In the past I worked for free to get poets to join a union. I worked for free to get spoken word poets recognised and included in a publishing manifesto against harassment and power abuse in literature. I hoped the top-up would filter down. The calls for these things still come. I’m not in the places that need it so much, or if I am, I’m talking about my matching tights, Brexit, the politics of clapping. I’m not made for the long, slow, thankless slog of activism, though I suppose I’m still here. 

I love the flat surfaces and the musty smell in my caravan. I can see everything I need, nothing gets lost. 

I don’t say that poems about the climate emergency should become part of every stage backdrop, part of the poisoned air we might clean, but not always explicitly. I don’t say that one way to hope is to hope that species left to their own devices will recover from what we’ve done eventually. That the human-animal-plant hierarchy means as little to me as the funny-serious hierarchy.  

People ask “Will I be heard?” and I say “Yes, I hear you wanting to be heard” and they hear me. 

We take our shoes off and put them back on as many times as children. I worry that some need spoilers because we are opening gateways and not everyone has valves or can work out when they will be needed, without more information. Matt Harvey, whose kindness lasts like limestone and makes people cry, tells me about the Archimedes screw, which lets water through weirs slowly. 

There have been, and will be birthdays, we marvel at how Liv is conducting us, at how she is an oak and are relieved (or I am) when someone else offers to take on the task of something like a strategy that has been imagined by us in our final yurt gathering. I think I have heard all this before, I think all of this is new. On twitter, separately, someone suggests in not so many words that poets telling other poets how to make a living as poets is a Ponzi scheme. 

Slipping away to swim in a bath-hot pool was a need not a want, and easier to assert now than at the time this weekend reminds me of most. The time I call the “Yes-phase”.

I spot neuro-siblings (some of them) and we slip into a different language briefly, unnoticed. Other groups are doing this. Remember how we are belonging by not belonging, I want to remind everybody. The service station on the way home was a mistake. Liv says our souls will come back to us after we’re home, they’re following more slowly on camels…

Autism and the Arts Festival (University of Kent): 10 Things I Learned

A blue line was painted on the floor to link all the buildings used as venues at the Autism and the Arts Festival. The organiser, the heroic academic Shaun May had hoped for something more like this:

Not Actual Blue Line

but it ended up more like this (though with more waves, diversions, paint splashes and corrections). I wish I had photographed it. But I was so busy. Doing events or interviews for a podcast made by me and Joanne Limburg about autism and literature that I think might just be the best thing I’ve ever helped make happen, or chatting to people. Or relaxing by walking through bluebells, or eating.

Not Actual Blue Line Either

I still seem to have some brain left. Which is surprising after three days. So, whilst thoughts are still fresh, here are some things I learned/thought/found out as a participant, chatter and audience member:

1. Autistic joy is a key component of autistic creativity. It’s a glint, a shine, a glow, an intensity. It powers writing, pictures, music, novels, not to mention inventions, discoveries, analysis…

2. There’s lots of it about. Many of your favourite things exist because of an autistic person following what makes them glow.

3. Autistic creativity is full of folds, bends, diversions. It makes unexpected connections and gleefully crosses boundaries, genres and conventions. It can be completist. It can see the whole of things as a shape and insert interchangeable parts.

4. It’s nice to see it without it being framed by doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists talking utter bollocks about it or the people producing it.

5. Autistic voices are getting louder and more public. I don’t think there’d have been a strong demand to turn a gig with loud clapping into into one with silent clapping even two years ago for example. (It happened at the gig I was doing with Robert White for example. I was glad).

6. Autistic people seem to vibrate and hum at a higher, faster frequency than non autistic people and are sensitive to this. (See also moves between slow & fast). That means there are more very calm and very frenetic patches of energy throughout autistic space. It can be contagious. Some people are calm-seekers, some are frenetic-seekers, some oscillate. (I’m a big oscillator with a veer to calm). There was enough space for everything to coexist.

7. Many autistic people said they felt much more relaxed in social gatherings than they normally would (I did).

8. There are so many hidden histories yet to uncover about autism. The whole “Mothers being dubbed mentally ill because they were trying to get help for their daughters” thread is terrifying. Co-occurring physical conditions like POTS & EDS are still under-recognised.

9. Dislocations-physical, mental, emotional, spatial are likely to be a feature for autistic people. These dislocations occur on other axes too. Sometimes obscuring, sometimes clarifying. No one is “just” autistic. They are from a place, a time, a class, an ethnicity, a gender. They share dislocations with others who are dis-located-which may allow the forming of bonds, or may lead to double, treble, quadruple dislocations…

10. These burgeoning, fragile, necessary autistic spaces may be the foundations that can help explorations to, and with, allies, companions, partnerships. However power imbalances within and outside these spaces must be acknowledged and respected. Being able to be there was a privilege not available to all. (That shouldn’t be taken to mean that the path to being there wasn’t differently hard for so many of us). It is always better to be done “with” than “to”. Luckily autistic people (can have) strengths in clear, direct, honest communication. What could be more useful (& endangered) in a post-truth world?