Why I Do What I Do

I probably inherited the creative gene from my maternal grandfather. He was a writer, photographer and political dissident in the former Soviet Union. He wrote for an underground newspaper and spent time in prison because of his views. Every birthday and Christmas he would send me a card with a specially written poem. He encouraged me to read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn at an early age. After his death in 1974 my grandmother gave me his camera which contained a roll of exposed black and white film. Years later I developed the film in my home darkroom and found images of myself as a young adolescent. It was a spine-tingling moment, alone in the dark watching the images slowly materialise and seeing myself the way my grandfather saw me. The images were faded and decomposed because of the length of time they’d spent inside his camera. They had aged, they had scars – like myself.

In the beginning was the word, according to the Gospel of John in the Bible. We experience and interpret the world through language. We write the words and the words write us. I’ve always associated writing with the desire to make the world a better place. It’s a way of getting inside someone else’s head, a chance to see life from another point of view. Writing has a therapeutic value but it’s much more than that…it leads to greater understanding and tolerance between people. It is a powerful tool for personal and social change. Writing can break down barriers, build bridges.

As a disabled woman I have been marginalised by a society that treats people as disposable commodities within the Capitalist machine. Throughout history disabled people have been ignored, silenced, treated as if we are stupid, useless. Alas, the ‘does she take sugar?’ attitude persists even in the 21st century. Disability is the last great taboo which feeds on society’s fear of death, illness and impairment. This is an issue which affects everyone, disabled and non-disabled, because we all age, sooner or later our bodies start to let us down and no-one is ever perfect. We live in a society obsessed with superficial appearances, it’s a kind of body fascism and it creates a lot of misery.

Creative writing and art have given me an equal voice. They have empowered me, helped to counter the negative stereotypes of disability that underpin mainstream culture. Visual arts and writing are two sides of the same coin for me. I often incorporate text in my artwork through collage and photography. I enjoy unexpected juxtapositions. I tend to use abstract and surreal imagery and a lot of colour in both poetry and art. They are just different ways of communicating my unique experience of the world. In recent years I’ve focused more on poetry as it feels purer, more precise. It satisfies my obsessive compulsive streak! Poetry works through the construction of images, as well as metaphor, rhythm and rhyme. And there is the important visual element of words typed on paper, black on white, the shape of the poem on the page. Concrete poems, ekphrastic poems, black-out poems, cut-up poems, acrostic poems all rely on our visual sense.

I am often asked about my working methods. Like many writers I keep a journal. I try to write every day even if it’s just a few words. Ideas and phrases frequently come to me at night and I record them on my phone otherwise they are lost. Sometimes the first line of a poem will take root in my mind and I can’t rest until I’ve put it down on paper. Once it gets a hold on me I can’t let go until it’s finished. Stephen King said that when he’s writing it’s as if he’s just a channel, a conduit for a story that already exists in a mysterious parallel universe. I agree. Like King I believe in what the psychologist Carl Jung named the collective unconscious. Creative people and mystics are able to tap into universal images and stories that we need in order to navigate our path through a complex and difficult life.

There have been many tines when creativity has literally saved my life. I survived several long hospital stays trapped in a bed alone in a small room because I had paper and pencils. I was able to make my mark on a world that seemed to have forgotten me. I have a vivid memory of drawing a vase of anemones on my bedside locker when I was in intensive care at the age of nine after spinal surgery that left me paralysed. Looking at those delicate flowers, the pastel colours, the shapes and recording them on paper reminded me of the beauty of the world beyond the horror and pain of the hospital.

We all need art, we all need stories, we all need to survive.

Photo by Angus Mackay

Hope is a Four Letter Word

Discuss…

“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” – Desmond Tutu

“I think it’s a mistake to ever look for hope outside of one’s self.” – Arthur Miller

“He who has health, has hope; and he who has hope has everything.” – Thomas Carlyle

“To live without hope is to cease to live.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“The miserable have no other medicine but only hope.” – William Shakespeare

“Hope is a waking dream.” – Aristotle

Do you believe in hope? Please share your thoughts.

image by the author

Mortality

We follow the signs, white on blue
autumn clouds shifting. Slings
and arrows show one way to exit.
We follow the twisted pitted road
down the line. We avoid potholes,
broken tarmac, pines felled by storms
littering the verge. We drive slowly
around those tight bends. The road
south unspools an old home movie.
In Golspie the doors burst open,
the sun breaks gilding the moss,
the dry stone walls, the sycamores.
The paramedic with kind eyes
wishes you breath. Magic
moss crumbles gold dust
between your fingers until
only the scent of earth remains.

photographic image created by the author

History

Everything is more beautiful in retrospect.
Sometime between the sepia past,
the grey today and the flash of tomorrow
truth slips away unseen, a tangle of electric
eels squirming in an underground stream.

We look back and see only clear skies
and carefree picnics but never the cold.
We look back and feel only tender kisses
and the soft caress but never the blows.
We look back and remember nothing.

Salon

Here’s a poem for those of us suffering bad hair days in lockdown and missing our mask-less trips to the local salon:-

 

Asymmetric is the new black, she purred
into the forest of mirrors, a rainbow
Janus, her two faces receding into infinity.
Kate was so blown away by herself, it hurt

in the forest of mirrors. A rainbow
beyond the rain-tumbled glass arched
a January sky, the crumbling walls and
For Sale boards of a deserted Main Street.

Beyond the rain-tumbled glass arched
a customer, bobble-hatted and doubled
against the wind like tumble weed rolling
towards a make-over with 15 percent off.

A customer, bobble-hatted and doubled
in need of a break-fix miracle-treat curl
please height-riser mega-sleek moisture
me rich airy-builder with no yellow matrix.

In need of a break-fix miracle-treat curl
Kate unholstered her scissors, quivered
her combs and twizzled her natural bristles.
On hearing of Sue’s new marble jacuzzi

Kate unholstered her scissors, quivered,
chopped, snipped and razored Sue’s golden
locks to the floor and with a chameleon smile
Asymmetric is the new black, she purred.

 

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Photo by the author

 

 

Your Poem

The passage of one life is like a poem,
the end an echo of the start; a solitary
fight to enter this world, darkness
to light. The bloodying of white
sheets observed by strangers in a room
with thin curtains, mirrored in the final
stanza only without felicitations.
You hope you die before you get old.

The romance, the action, the clues lie
in the middle section of your poem,
an exposition on your main theme;
a search for happiness, love, money,
acceptance, fluffy cats, fame, red hair,
a good shag or prize-winning dahlias.
You hope you die before you get old.
Whatever floats your boat, baby!

By stanza seven you learn you are not
a boat but a desert island, unexplored.
You hope you die before you get old.
You sit on the shore watching the murky
tide of water and wait for the Ferry. Angel
whispers in your ear. It is the jade game,
the sky is not the same blue, the sun holds
no heat and no one will ever truly get you.

In stanza nine the diminishing begins.
Your body shrinks (except for your nose).
You shape-shift, spend more time looking
down and back. Chins multiply but hair
and friendships fall away. Downsizing.
You hope you die before you get old.
You can’t piss in a pot no more.
You can’t recall names no more.

You hope you die before you get old.
The passage of your life is like a poem
structured by repetition, rhythm, rhyme,
recurring motifs and metaphors exploring
a theme (same shit different day). The arc,
the meaning of your story remains hidden
to you (although strangers see) until
the moment God turns over your page.

 

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Photo by the author

Falling

the fall begins
at conception
a slow decline
unnoticeable
slippage seven
ages in one
arbitrary                        miscarriage
accidental
cancerous
murder                         by fire water
dis-eased
melancholy
can’t remember         faces no more
the brutality
of old age
can’t piss                  in a pot no more
or a swift
acceleration
choosing                   an open window
irresistible
gravity calling
200 mph
a dislocation                  of ghost limbs
hot wind
shape shifting                    hair aflame
till you hit
ground zero                             running
the red light

 

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Image created by the author

Notes on a Pandemic

There’s a pandemic but no one is dying. No, they are all ‘sadly dying’. The adverb ‘sadly’ is now inevitably coupled to any mention of death.  Journalists, broadcasters, politicians and other famous figures have all succumbed to this trend – feigning sympathy for the deaths of unknown people as a way of distancing themselves and their audience from the grim realities of dying. It’s particularly hypocritical when UK politicians use this phrase as their lackadaisical response to the Pandemic has caused many vulnerable people to die unnecessarily. People in care homes, health workers, essential workers, disabled people and the elderly have been thrown under the bus due to lack of Personal Protective Equipment and not enough testing for the virus.

The public are struggling,  not so much with social distancing and isolation but with this close up encounter with their own mortality. Uncomfortable, terrifying, unfamiliar. Death is one of the remaining great taboos in Western societies. Many people go their whole lives without witnessing a death.  Death is hidden away in hospices, hospitals, care homes and the third world. Even in the midst of this pandemic I’ve been surprised how many intelligent people are convinced they could not possible die of Covid 19. They think they’re too smart, too fit, too wealthy, too young or immune because they had a bit of a cough over Christmas and eat a lot of yoghurt.

’Dead is dead’ is a phrase my father used. It sounded harsh to me as a teenager but my father knew there was little room for sentiment when it comes to dying. We are all born to die. Sooner or later, one way or another. We are flesh and blood.  My father lived through Holodomor in the USSR, World War 2 and life as a refugee. He certainly knew about death.

We do not help ourselves by hiding away from the truth. The way we use language is important.

Here are some alternative phrases and colloquialisms for dying:-

pop your clogs; kick the bucket; drop dead; snuff out; expire; breathe your last; depart this life; dead as a door nail; launched into eternity; gone to Davy Jones’s locker (drowning); pushing up the daisies; one’s race being run; shuffle of this mortal coil; peg out; hop the twig; slip one’s cable; close one’s eyes; give up the ghost; pay the debt to nature; cross the Stygian ferry; to go aloft; last gasp; the swan-song…

 

Here’s the marvellous Leonard Cohen’s take on the inevitable with his powerful song Who by Fire:-