Mental health issues can cause a number of unexpected side effects. Quite apart from the day-to-day effects of one’s illness, those suffering from mental health issues also face discrimination from employers, friends, acquaintances and so on. Sometimes in subtle ways, for example, the ‘he doesn’t ever go out, so we won’t ask him to come’ spiral of isolation; sometimes out and out prejudice – such as being docked wages for attending counselling sessions when other illnesses are unquestioned and undocked. I don’t suppose this is any kind of news. I don’t suppose this is any kind of shock. It happens and probably anyone who knows anyone with a mental illness will have a tale or two to tell.
However, I find myself in a peculiar position. From the other posts in this blog, you’ll be aware that I fancy myself as a poet. I’m studying for a PhD in Poetry, in fact. Other people seem to think I’m okay too as I have had some poetry published by people other than myself (Thank you, London Magazine!). A source of great pride! But…
Poetry is a difficult world to break into. It’s niche, so not exactly unexpected, but I question the method by which poets achieve success as discriminatory. On approaching various publishers over the last few years, I’ve had a similar and disturbing response. To paraphrase, they won’t even look at my work until I either have a solid record of gigs behind me and/ or turn up to the publishers poetry events to ‘get a feel’ for the publisher (which I can adequately do by reading their books) or sometimes perform for free at a few of the said events after having previously attended a few – which of course you have to pay to attend.
Here’s the thing. Poetry isn’t a pyramid scheme. It isn’t a reward scheme. It doesn’t come with Nectar points. Swelling the publishers’ coffers on the off-chance of publication is, to my mind exploitative. That this seems to be a model for publication is, frankly, horrifying. There’s a growing trend within the arts that ‘art’ is a free commodity. The artist must do other things in order to make money – a recording artist, for example, will record an album and make nothing on sales, downloads or streaming (legal or not) but have to gig extensively in order to survive. This is quite the opposite to how it used to be when gigs were showcases for the latest album which then generated sales.
That’s almost by the by, but here’s the thing. I write poetry to look good on the page. My words are carefully chosen and placed to produce a visual effect as well as a verbal one. Some of my sentences contain phrases that are pretty much unvocalisable (I don’t think that’s a word, but you know what I mean). A recent poem, for example, ( A small portion of which can be found here ) documents the inability to take action because of the constraints of geography. Part of the full poem is shaped, part in morse code, part onomatopoeia. It is without a doubt a poem – I know this as it got me through my PhD Major Review – but is not performable. Even if it was, then another problem rears its head.
I suffer from agoraphobia, social anxiety, bipolar disorder. Trying to coordinate and manage those enough to be able to do a performance is pretty much untenable. Sure I could take a gig, but I might not be able to make it on the day. I might make it to the venue then crash. I might just stay at home and hide. This isn’t the kind of attitude that endears you to promoters, but it is entirely out of my control. I write. It’s what I do. I didn’t decide to do this to be onstage. Quite the opposite. I chose writing because it meant I would not have to put myself into these social situations that would pretty much ruin my health.
The problem remains. I know my poetry has worth, but I can’t simply get a publisher to put a book out without the back up of a fanbase who have seen me perform. Schmoozing and ego, it appears, are essential.
My career as a poet has stalled before it’s started simply because don’t write that kind of revelatory, confessional poetry, though. Mine is more pastoral, landscape driven. Akbar teaches and performs and is, frankly, inspirational. But I am not him. My way of coping with my illness is to write about the things I want to see, or on the rare occasions, I leave the house, about the landscape, seascapes and folklore I see embedded in the psyche of the town or country. It’s much less personal.
But it’s no less valid.
I mean, I *could* rattle on about growing up in Thatcher-era Britain as a queer living in fear of clause 28, unemployment and AIDS, but how predictable… these are things that are/were part of my life, but they are not what I want to write about. And it’s frankly discriminatory to expect me to do that. I am more than my queerness.
Many people have said, “You just need to play the game” and ordinarily this would be the right thing to do, but again, I’m not in a position to play the game. I’ve been told I must play hockey and been given a rugby ball and a sofa to do it. A good friend and stalwart of the local poetry scene once told me that my poems were too short. His experience of the scene was that poems to be performed should be longer, have hooks, repeated phrases… something an audience can recognise. One particular poem of mine was singled out as being a great one to perform, but it needed to be five times longer. I completely understand his reasoning and totally accept that this is the way the scene works. I don’t have a problem with that as it’s a scene that needs to exist. It would appear, though, that the poetry scene is not for me. I can’t just artificially manufacture 500% more poetry for the sake of performance. I might be able to make it engaging, but the poem in question said what I needed to say. Anything more would feel like padding. Anything more would lack integrity. Knowing that would make its performance impossible as I’d have no faith in it.
Most of my poetry is designed to sit on the page, not to be spoken aloud. To speak it would be to diminish its impact. However pretentious that may sound, the shapes of the words on the page have a bearing to the meaning of the poem and something you simply cannot do verbally. Well, I suppose you could with the aid of an interpretative dancer throwing some shapes, but you take my meaning. I have to wonder whether poets like Tomasso Marietti attempted to perform ScrabRRaang!
Or whether it was left on the page.
Did ee cummings perform, say :
Or was it’s place purely on the page? Simply by reading these poems aloud, a hugely important element is lost and while I don’t claim anywhere near the brilliance of either poet, my work often sidles alongside this tradition.
So how, exactly, does one perform this sort of poetry?
Given the restrictions of agoraphobia and the absurdity of performing the unperformable, where does my poetry go from here? Do I play the game and write crowd-pleasing stuff to the detriment of my already fragile sanity? Do I carry on unnoticed? Do I give up?
To me, it’s clear that mental health is not taken into account as far as the insistence of performance is concerned and yes, I do feel discriminated against. The scene discriminates by frowning on anything other than ‘expected’ poetry – slam being the extreme example of this. On the few occasions I’ve attended slams, I’ve been depressed about how identikit it all is. It seems to be a forum for point-scoring by constantly going on about how woke you are. That has its place, but it’s not what I do, nor is it what I want to do; nor do I have an affinity with it.
I fear I’m treading quite heavily on ‘poor tortured artist me’ territory, but I think my frustration and anger is justified. I write damned fine poetry and it’s being denied an audience because I don’t conform to the accepted ‘norms’ of the poetry scene.
The frustration is tangible…