National Poetry Day-Change Poems

It will look like I’m everywhere today as I was one of twelve poets commissioned to write a poem about their local area. The theme? Change. Can’t think of any national situations in which that’s particularly relevant at that moment…

I haven’t got an actual gig though today, though I’ll be doing radio interviews. I’m off to Kent for the Deeds and Words Festival at Tonbridge School & was booked to be at Swindon Poetry Festival on Sunday but they cancelled the gig as they’d underbudgeted.

My National Poetry Day activities change every year. Depending on where I’ve been, who thinks of me, who’s got money & how around I’ve been (higher profile doesn’t necessarily lead to consistently more gigs for a jobbing poet like me though. I’m not a poetry superstar, but I’m probably perceived as too expensive to invite along to your local open mike). I therefore have to not take it as a litmus test of how “well” I’m doing as a poet. That lies somewhere else in how happy I am with my writing and performing. And I’m currently having a post-PhD second wind. I know what I want my next collection to be/do. I’m getting better at balancing what I want to write with what I think can get a platform or an audience (and currently knowing I need to say “sod it” to thinking about what the market might want which is a luxury I can only afford because of my work as a jobbing poet.

Anyway, poetry and people are always in flux.

Here’s a link to my NPD poem, some of the other videos from poets and my article.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/59G10GNqQmPtw3swTxN7bR9/national-poetry-day-bbclocalpoets-celebrates-12-exciting-new-poems-on-the-theme-of-change

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On Boredom

Maybe nearly everything in my life is because I have a lower boredom threshold than most people.
I will not talk about the neurotransmitters norepinephrine or dopamine next, interesting though I find them. I will not talk about running around a classroom as a little girl because I didn’t do that. I sat quietly. Running about from boredom was for my twin brother and we divided roles up with an instinct for balance we wouldn’t be credited for.

When English lessons became the reading aloud of set texts and Cider With Rosie, Measure for Measure and Juno and the Paycock were rendered in a babel of uncertain voices, I read ahead to stave off the overwhelming feeling I would die if I had to hear words at this speed any more. This was fine until it was my turn, or I got more than a book ahead.

Me holding off a feeling of boredom similar to the relentless needling ache which made the hummingbird tattoo on my upper arm one November afternoon in Newcastle usually looks like me reading a book, or a phone screen. Sometimes it sounds like me talking very fast and interrupting my own thoughts to disagree with them. Sometimes it looks and sounds like me saying words under a spotlight with an energy that means dopamine and norepinephrine fire in other people’s brains and they think they like me.

Society seems to be worried that the internet means it’s attention span is too short, but it could reassure itself by hearing most people speak on a platform, or by standing in a post office queue and seeing how many people are not tapping their toes or each other.

In a college room that would look the same now, on a playback device that would look very different now, I heard a three minute BBC local radio news bulletin and a one minute commercial radio news bulletin. The BBC bulletin contained some unnecessary detail about a council bin collection problem. Time slowed down even more while I heard it, though perhaps I should reflect on the fact that I can’t remember anything that was in the commercial radio bulletin. I went to work for it anyway. Commercial radio. Even though the level of pay and job security was about half of that of the BBC. But I could read the news without tapping my toes impatient for my own voice to be over.

I went out into a new world in a succession of radio cars, mostly Audis and VWs, until they took them away from the news room and gave them to the advert people. So then I stopped going to press conferences and recording accents I didn’t grow up with and lived more for nights of poetry and interpersonal conflict and cigarette burns in the back of my wrap dresses before the smoking ban.

Sitting in a staffroom with trays of Cadburys Fingers and copies of the TES on low coffee tables I zoned out while I was telling a teacher about the poems I would get her Year 5s to write and woke myself up by suggesting instead that we get them to imagine they were in the “Poetry Idol House”. A couple of projects with loud and joyous finales and banners in the school hall later, I worked out how to get them to write poems about things other than the thrill of imagining we were in the Poetry Idol House.

I thought doing a PhD would be as boring as filling out a form or conjuring a date from infinite possibilities suggested in an email, but it was a succession of new tasks and ideas and reading. It was like swimming rather than running for two hours with only endorphins flooding in, and no joint pain afterwards. It was a shiny, slim-fit jacket round all the intense brain activity that would otherwise disappear into Thirsk’s mackerel sky and I am naked without it.

I told my husband that I think we’re mainly together because he’s not boring. Not because he runs restlessly round a field or gambles on dogs or reappears with hospital bracelets or bruises, but because his thoughts and words come from an alert brain and gut.

I am trying to do fewer things because I have been so very busy for years but my brain is buzzing like a trapped bluebottle and most options to keep it awake involve the short-term pain of more boredom. An email chain, a handbook, a contract. So, for now I’ll write things like this and add them to the world’s unsettling hum.

After Olivia Laing

I read Olivia Laing’s Crudo and Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living and I am not them or Kathy Acker or Virginia Woolf or Gordon Burn (whose prize they’re both nominated for, not the former presenter of The Krypton Factor), but I can feel a sudden urge for stream of consciousness. I haven’t swum for days. I had started going under the surface. No more head up breast stroke, eyes swivelling like a meerkat. I was my own pivot. Front crawl, the first new physical skill since learning to drive. Mostly underwater where gold bubbles fell through cloudy river like prizes. The world on mute and only the breath in front of me.

But I used Anti-Fog Mist on my Goggles, just once so as to be like a proper wild swimmer who bought things off Wiggle.com, and my eye became irritated and now is irritated by everything else and is red and puckered and streaming, and if my pancreas or other internal tissues react anything like my eyelid has done to emollients that Doctors and the internet assure me are benign, like E45 or Diprobase or Simple Eye Balm (Whose ingredients list suggests it’s anything but simple) then it’s time for me to imbibe fewer chemicals. So I’m like Wittgenstein only noticing he didn’t like well-done toast in his sixties, except that what I’ve finally noticed is that as well as being hyper-sensitive to people acting in accents that are not their own, I’m sensitive to lanolin, vaseline and chemicals ending in “eth”. I’m as satisfied on discovering this as about anything else that distinguishes me. Though now my skin needs a barrier against it’s new rawness to the world and it turns out Vaseline won’t do and the coconut oil success might only have been temporary. I’ve never found it too easy to let things get inside me before.

The other eye though still looks out smug and white and clear and says we can gaze on this without any trouble; whether it’s sun sparkling through giant hogweed on the banks of the Tees which, because of the Tees Barrage, has no tides and is thus like a long, thin lake, or on news headlines about the world burning or on the reddening cheeks and firm gaze of a Swedish woman who stood on a plane until others stood with her and said somebody being sent to die was more important than getting somewhere safe on time.  The voice of the English man trying to take her phone, telling her not to make a fuss was recognised by those watching the video, as the voice of every English man who has used a Corby trouser press, telling his daughter not to make a show of herself whilst Europe looks on at very English men and women trooping in and out of lobbies like Trumpton characters, appalled at the show they are making.

But I am not one-eyed Tiresias either or whichever acceptable Greek myth gives a street poet cultural legitimacy. And the poets are removing their sunglasses and other eyewear to ask whether it matters that a publisher is erratic or is a better word eccentric. Is it part of their charming character, the obsessiveness required to run a small press when poets photograph their square-shaped poems for free to millions, to provoke and write hostile contract clauses or repeatedly threaten to withdraw themselves or their website, whichever is currently in most trouble. Why, some poets ask, would we require anything other than a man who will change his profile picture for ours for we are flexible and fluid. We are Giddens’ ideal mobile labourers. We will not be reading the characterisations of us as exploited cultural labourers from a man who is Hayley on Coronation Street’s brother. And with one eye half-closed I read the biographies of writers who don’t live in a place where job descriptions like “Ethical fashion model” would be laughed out of them and where the word “colloidal” silvers pages. Though I weary of the obligation to be just eccentric enough and just down to earth enough.

On Twitter, autistics cry out to #Takethemaskoff and be their autistictrueselves. That might perhaps in my case be a self which can talk in an incessant stream softened by a Yorkshire accent, which is tamed by sounding like either a parody of itself or of somebody else, as this blog. But it would not be recognised as something underneath an autistic’s mask. For a mask to be recognised as a mask then whatever is underneath it must be recognised as real. I gave twenty minute careers talks on how to be a poet once when Tony Blair’s government was betting on culture to plug the holes left in society by the eighties. In one school, children thought I was drunk. Once I shared a draft poem with songwriters and realised in an autistic world all of my poems would do the equivalent of going into this much ecstatic details over vacuums. Nowadays I can see people visibly recoil or smirk sometimes when I forget to turn myself down. I become off-putting as a small poetry publisher detonating on Twitter unless I do it on stage where it is permitted and can be refracted by an audience. Then I am not a tidal river, only a long thin lake you can travel on.

Notes after Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette

I’ve not yet watched Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette on Netflix because I watched it live in London earlier this year, after trying desperately and failing to see it in Edinburgh last summer. I’m bad at watching things twice, though this would repay it I know. This is a good interview with her in the Guardian. So much that’s rich in it. I’m glad she’s still speaking and adding context to the show for many selfish reasons including;

1. Whenever I talked about my research on resistance and comedy, people would often launch into monologues about Stewart Lee’s innovation with form and I would sometimes say “There are also other comics innovating with form, in a way which plays with the comic-audience relationship differently” and they would look at me blankly, unsure how to cope with the idea that “Held up as an example of innovation due to having lots of cultural capital” and “Innovating” might be separate things.

2. In this interview she says that comedy is a form which is more accessible to people with less socio-economic capital because there are fewer gatekeepers. A strand of class criticism runs through her work and she makes the tension of social mobility visible in her movement between comedy and art criticism. See, look what can be done with comedy as an art form and give it Arts Council funding. (Actually, lots of practitioners from poorer backgrounds I know who straddle stand up comedy and other potentially subsidised forms are savvy enough to source both public and commercial funding and audiences for their work. The boundaries between forms like stand up and poetry and theatre are increasingly porous).

3. That’s why at a crucial point in Nanette I wanted to say “But, stand-up is able to do way more than you say it can, as your show itself proves, so you don’t have to give it up”- but she seems to have concluded that now. This applies times a hundred after the success of her show on Netflix. Stand-up is a brilliant form for people from marginalised backgrounds to challenge stereotypes without necessarily ONLY self-deprecating or minimising their experiences.

4. She’s talking openly here about being diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Condition (or Autism Spectrum Disorder, as the Guardian possibly insists). In the show, HG talks about the importance of stories as a tether and of shame being overcome-able culturally. (Her ASC is not part of her show, which focuses on her experiences of terrible homophobia). It’s still part of ASC diagnostic criteria that you might struggle with humour. Autistic people are still too often punchlines to jokes, rather than authors or subjects of stories which address the complexities of their lives. The fact that an autistic comedian is being so hugely successful with a deeply sensitive, emotional and hilarious show is part of a story which can act as a tether for autistic children and adults (and their families) who are often only hearing about deficits and “can’t”s via the reductive medical model.

5. Her show itself performs anger and tension and refuses to defuse it for the audience so that everybody can go away feeling better. Whilst that’s part of her performance that feels particularly revolutionary to audiences used to everything being wrapped up in a tidy bow of laughter, the interviews and commentary on Nanette demonstrate that she’s also mobilising another affect/emotion that can be revolutionary in stand-up- love. Or if that sounds too soppy – deep acceptance. Her trust of the audience in making herself vulnerable and expressing her previously hidden feelings, including anger, shows an acceptance of herself, but also of them. That can, in turn, help them to self-acceptance around their own traumas. Conjuring love in the room is not seen as particularly revolutionary- but in these times it certainly is. Experts at it include Sarah Millican and Barbara Nice- though love often hovers, unfashionably and unnamed in stand-up settings everywhere.

6. I was doing gigs at The Stand in Newcastle throughout 2012 and 2013. Open mike spots, unpaid tens and fifteens, some paid tens and fifteens. I’d been doing quite well as a stand up poet for a few years and had stepped back from the stand up circuit with relief. I’d never done very well there. Some paid support slots and usually a feeling of deep discomfort with how stand up put me in a box and led to me to be a much less interesting, thoughtful version of me as a performer. I could see that performers who were able to talk about men and women as different species and be relatable did well. I wasn’t relatable- but I wasn’t weird enough, or knowing enough then about my weirdness, to play up to it. This was somehow resolved when I did stand up poetry because I could be all of me at once and declaring you’re a poet already says you are coming at some sort of left angle to the world. Anyway, I decided not to do any self deprecating material at all in these Stand gigs. Meanwhile I saw Bridget Christie, Hannah Gadsby and Rachel Mars do shows at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012 in which they all at some point took clothes off (onesies for Bridget and Rachel, standing in a swimming cossie for Hannah). They were telling me that stand up comedy could be self-controlled exposure but I couldn’t quite hear it. Just heard lots of angry young men doing material about rape and how awful women were and didn’t have the craft or binary thinking to deal with it. That’s when I decided to do a show nobody would care about because nobody was listening to me anyway- and my show about not wanting children became my first Radio 4 show and featured on an impending film documentary about women who don’t have kids. So in a very mini-way, I have also struggled to break out of the limitations of stand up as a form- and found a way to do that within stand up. It can expand to fit because it’s not only a commercial form that happens with big shiny lights around it and blokes with jokes, but is part of the folkloric, human need to have one person channel thoughts and jokes and stories in a way which makes them and an audience thrum with something which isn’t just thoughts or feelings, or being told, or listening, but the thrilling, transformational chaos that happens in the third space between.

 

Interview with Hannah Gadsby

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/jul/16/hannah-gadsby-trauma-comedy-nanette-standup-netflix

The Quirking Class Manifesto

It’s okay not to want what most other people want, in the way that they want it.

Applying the word “Failure” is a means for some people to stop other people doing certain things in a certain way.

Applying the word “Success” is a means for some people to keep other people doing certain things in a certain way.

Beware of any communication treating the concepts of “Independent” or “Dependent” as absolutely good or absolutely bad.

You probably do, and did, things earlier or later than other people. Time is relative. We’re all sometimes tortoise or hare.

Your work may look like play and your play may look like work to other people. That’s okay. The boundaries between the two aren’t as rigid as society makes out. Working at play and playing at work is often the key to happiness.

You’re right to be wary of the phrases; “It’s always been done this way”, “Just because” and “That’s just the way things are”.

You may never feel that you belong- but there are lots of places where you can belong by not belonging.

You exist in a place and a time- but there are lots of other places and times, past and future you could live by.

Learning doesn’t only happen when other people tell you they’re teaching you, often especially not then.

A community to value is one that values you.

Sometimes you might need to be helped to have help and supported to have support. (The rare) people and organisations which understand that, may well be your best help. It may take a lot of trial and error to find them.

This manifesto could also be drawn, sung, danced or sculpted or signed;

a translation of any communication or piece of art is always an act of kindness.

Labels can be useful, until they’re not useful;

it’s okay to point out that some of these manifesto points sound like fridge magnet slogans or Instagram poems.

Comedy lets you say two contradictory things at once- and also doesn’t.

Talk about the things that others don’t want you to talk about; money, sex, politics, grief, cucumbers;

it is just as important to learn how to be listened to as to learn how to not be listened to.

It is just as important to learn when and how not to listen as to learn when and how to listen.

If all you that you ever said, demonstrated, practiced, believed, lived, Tweeted, skated, swam, ate, painted, excreted was that there are multiple truths, then you would have been kinder to the world than most people in it.

The thing we call “you” and “not you” are only ever intersections of times and places, but this is one of the insights that is hardest to work into conversations about shopping, football and Love Island. Find the people who will have those conversations.

Autistic on Love Island.

Why did Niall Aslam leave Love Island? Two weeks ago we were only told it was because of “Personal reasons”, now he’s braving the stigma connected with an Autism/Aspergers diagnosis and spoken out to say this was behind his decision to leave. Here “Aah, because of Aspergers” the journalists and commentators are saying, “Yeah, er social difficulties and that” they add. The chances of getting some meaningful insight from them into what this means are about as high as for Adam Collard (the gas lighting one) deciding to train as a Relate counsellor after he leaves the show.

Now, I don’t know Niall and I’ve only watched one episode of Love Island (I didn’t inhale, but I could see a slippery slope of addiction beckoning if I carried on), so I really can’t speak for him, but I can give some insight into why being in an environment like Love Island might be hard for an autistic person. This point of view is important, because while we’re getting some of the cliched medical criteria in the stories about his diagnosis, we’re not getting the insights built up by the many actually autistic people who are finally getting their voices heard about the daily realities of life on the spectrum (I would recommend the #actuallyautistic hashtag on Twitter as a good starting point here). These insights would tend more to point to sensory sensitivities and things like autistic burnouts and social hangovers, which aren’t even mentioned in the descriptions of this way of processing and experiencing the world which have been written by psychologists and psychiatrists.

Many of the doctors still believe that an autistic way of being is not as normal or valid as a non-autistic one. They’re not that interested in the inside view or feeling of being autistic. Along with the stigma associated with the diagnosis, which Niall is bravely confronting by being open about it, an autistic person who only hears the medical view of the condition (Perhaps when they’re diagnosed as a child as Niall was), is less likely to reach the self-understanding necessary to live well as an autist. It’s partly why the suicide rate for autistic people is NINE TIMES that of the general population.  Anyhoo, that’s a rant for another time. I’m just going to suggest some reasons why the Love Island environment would be hard for an autistic person and hope that this also adds to some people’s understanding of the condition (I struggle with the word condition, autism is more about how someone’s brain and body is wired, it’s not separable from them and it’s not one single thing. Language around this stuff is hard).

  • The noise! Loud voices echoing across the pool, twenty people all talking at once and  shouting about the “Do bits society”, the bleep of the phone. It would basically do your brain in. Lots of  autistic people wear noise-cancelling headphones when they go out into public spaces.

 

  • Smells. I imagine there were sometimes choking clouds of Lynx and Elnett to walk through before a re-coupling. Partly, I jest, but basically it would have been a very intense sensory environment and that all contributes to overloading an autistic brain. Also tastes- I imagine the housemates don’t get that much say over what they eat and when. Many autistic people have food preferences and sensitivities.

 

  • Social overload. This is the biggie. This is not about social competence- Niall, for example, clearly made good friends in the villa who were devastated that he left- it’s about the energy cost of actually talking to people, reading their body language signals, working out what to say etc. For non-autistic people this stuff is their native tongue- for autistic people it can be like speaking a foreign language, even if they’ve learned it pretty well.  Autistic people talk about “Social hangovers”; a sort of brain fogged, exhausted feeling after doing lots of socialising. It’s one of the reasons that working environments can be difficult for autistic people. They’re fine getting on with tasks in their own way and time, but then socialising, whilst often enjoyable and desired, uses up lots of extra energy. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of downtime or alone time in the villa and this would be necessary to recharge batteries. It’s also a setting which is ALL about talking about relationships, feelings, emotions and trying to read the signals of others. Do-able, but flipping heck, hard work for anybody.

 

  • Lack of control. Autistic people experience the world as very intense. They don’t all have rigid routines and can enjoy spontaneity BUT you’d need to have some sense of control over your environment, down to things like where you slept and who with. It would be good to know what was going to happen on a daily basis and when to some extent. The world of Love Island is at the whims of producers who can suddenly introduce twelve new housemates or a jaunt out to that car park or  get you to go into the hut and spill your guts. I’ve noticed that some reality shows do have very structured environments and routines which can be great for neurodiverse people (I suspect ones like Fame Academy/Strictly/Splash etc where you’re learning a skill and then have to perform at a certain time can be quite good) but there would be a constant high stress load around the not-knowing.

 

That is not to mention any additional mental health or low self-esteem issues which can go alongside autism when you’ve spent your life recognising that you don’t quite fit and trying to work out the rules that other people seem to know instinctively.

In future, I’d think an autistic contestant on Love Island would need at the very least, their own room where they could have as much time as they needed to relax, recover, decompress from sensory and social overload and reenter the fray in order to shine to the full as the very splendid “rainbow fish” they are. Hopefully they would also have had chance beforehand to get to know and accept their true selves and their needs, with the help of other people who understand, accept and support them. Self-Love Island, if you will…

Free Speech A Problem For a Council

A Shocking Reason For Losing A Gig This Week: Giving a quote to a local paper two years ago, when asked, saying that councils shouldn’t charge libraries business rates. Yes, really.

Having been booked to host Hambleton District Council’s awards since last November, I was told with a week to go that they were going to “take a different approach” and have them hosted by a local radio dj instead (they did not have one booked) and would still pay me £250. (I pay my taxes to them-they’re effectively wasting my own money). The award hosting consisted of delivering a script. I was also to perform two poems.

I asked why, as I couldn’t see a reason for such a decision & was eventually told I could ring the council chief exec who had made the decision after seeing that I was hosting. It was suggested to me, off the record, that it was the Conservative council leader Mark Robson who I stood against in our ward as a Labour candidate six years ago who actually demurred. The chief exec (six days later) has finally told me that because I was once “highly critical” in public of the council’s policy on charging community libraries business rates, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to host the community awards.

This despite the fact that the comment consisted of one sentence a few years ago solicited by the York Press when it asked several writers about the policy. (I said it was a “slap in the face” to struggling libraries). http://www.yorkpress.co.uk/…/14957435.Top_authors__anger_…/…).

This despite the fact that since then I have worked in partnership with HDC on several projects to promote poetry and poetry audiences, hosted their sport awards and done work on a voluntary (& sometimes council supported) basis for Thirsk Clock, Thirsk Community Care. Thirsk yarnbombers and been involved in running literary events in Thirsk in partnership with the White Rose Book shop for several years at minimal rates, in order to promote a stronger audience for literature in the community.

As a professional poet who works for all sorts of organisations with divergent values to myself (not that my own local council has divergent values given that theirs are apparently to be open, fair and respectful. I reject the reason belatedly given, (though if it really is that, then god help anyone who ever criticises a council policy. Or is a Labour Party member doing work for a Conservative-run Council).

I will continue to be a proud member of my community & will be donating my (wastefully duplicated) fee to Thirsk Clock and Thirsk Community Care.

Chief Exec Justin Ives is on Justin.ives@hambleton.gov.uk If this concerns anybody else.

I am livid, hurt and concerned about the implications of this for people who do work for councils.

 

Justin Ive’s email:

Dear Kate

First let me apologise for my lack of availability as I am on annual leave for two weeks from Wednesday.

I can assure you the my decision to appoint another person to host the event was in no way connected to your gender, political alliances or abilities. It was brought to my attention that in the past you had been highly critical publicly on the Council’s policy concerning community libraries. Although it is of course your right to comment on any of the Council’s policies, given that this was the Council’s Community Awards ceremony I felt that it would be more appropriate for another person to host the awards. However, I realise that you will have spent time preparing for the event and therefor I paid your fee in full.

I trust this fully explains the reason for my decision.

Regards

Justin

Sent from my iPad

 

EDIT: Have now found the context in which I gave this quote, and exactly what I said. Highly critical? Really??

 

Hi Kate,

I hope you’re well. I’m writing an article about the reaction of writers to the soon-to-be volunteer-run libraries in Hambleton district being told they must pay thousands in business rates. The six other district councils in North Yorkshire have exempted the volunteer-run libraries from paying the charges. I thought you and Alfie may be interested in this, particularly as one of the affected libraries is Thirsk.

For further details:
http://www.thenorthernecho.co.uk/…/14930020.Council_under_…/

I’d be interested in hearing your views.

Regards,
Stuart
Stuart Minting | Reporter

Hi Stuart,

Thanks for sending this.

Happy to be quoted as saying that the decision to charge rates is a slap in the face for those volunteers trying so hard to keep these vital libraries going in the face of cuts. Libraries are one of the few places where everyone in a community can go for information and inspiration. They’re accessible, necessary and have benefits far beyond just being a place to go and borrow books. They’re somewhere young people learn to be part of a wider community of readers and somewhere older people can go to stay connected to the community. I appreciate that councils are struggling to balance the books but these volunteer run libraries need all the help the council can give them. If other councils exempt libraries then so should Hambleton.

Could say more.
Having to rush this a.m.

Have passed on to Alfie-he writes regularly in Thirsk library.

All v best

Kate