Storm Angus, My Brother and Me

Last week marked twelve years since we lost my younger brother, Michael. Grieving is a confusing and arduous process which I’m at a loss to interpret or predict a lot of the time, and it can become more difficult to recognise and relate to as years go by, but still, there it is.
Here is something I wrote on the subject – its not a poem exactly and is certainly not editted into perfection, just an exploration of how it can be to miss someone.

Storm Angus, My Brother and Me

The prologue to this
is that I sat on trains all day.
Brighton to Oxford and back –
a nice meeting, poetry
and dreaming spires and all that,
but
a wet Saturday full of trains nonetheless.

Delays and confusion and low battery
and dashing up and across and down
station platforms,
sweating and cold.
Beeping and gasping.

The context is
that next week is my late brother’s birthday.
And I’m thinking on it, of course
every minute,
even when I’m not thinking on it.

My skin wonders
my teeth
and the tips of my fingers wonder

what and where and how he would be,
this birthday.

In the lead up to this,
my train was slinking finally towards the sea
and Brighton was an oil slick,
black, wet
opalescent.

I would usually go straight home,
nine times out of ten.
I’m a home bird.
Our flat is dark and damp at night
for the mushrooms to grow
and so as not to frighten the death watch beetles.

We like it that way, my husband and I.
He sleeps earnestly,
and holds me in place
so that when sleep comes, I’m ready.

But the train was airless and bright
not soft anywhere,
and I was awake with it
and fancied the prickle of cheap white wine in the veins
and a beautiful friend, a dancefloor
our warm alive skin touching.

So I said to the barmaid
please can I have a really big glass of cheap white wine?
and I danced and counted the good feelings –
getting into the pub and out of the rain
fun music
glad to see gorgeous friends
warm husband to go home to
socially anxious but came out anyway
etc

I concentrated on really feeling the good feelings.
Said to my brain, it’s ok
to let them sit next to the bad ones.
They’re all fine.

And about one thirty I head homeward
out into the rain.
The wind is pouring down St James Street.
I mean
clouds of leaves
whooshing around me and the other sailors
like we’re snow globe people.
And so much water
I’m wet in seconds
it has blown up my sleeves and
down the neck of my coat.
I remember how close we are to the sea,
how she could swallow us if she wanted.

I’ve got my wine coat on though
so it’s like watching it in a film.
Up close,
but untouchable
I look right at it.
I watch it gulp and spray and rush
and feel nothing much, except awake,
and I think of the phrase
          eye of the storm.

And then
no warning
a burst of sorrow
comes spilling right out of me.

Operatic and expectorate,
it takes me by surprise. I suppose
my heart made it.
Feels like it came from there.

The storm whipped the cover off me,
or something
and here, it turns out
is the grief
this year’s wellspring.

And there’s nothing like being the drunk girl
crying in the street
to remind yourself
that when all’s said and done
this is a seaside town full of drunks and runaways
and you’re one of them

with your sadness snapping at your heels
and a storm to call you out on it.

I ride the night bus home like a woman in a film
face all tears and mascara.

At a loss
with just 5% battery life
and my last-generation iPhone
for repose,
I fumble at the screen
ask google for the last word of the evening –

Grief is a natural response to loss,
it tells me
you have to feel it.

mikey-011a

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No thank you, I don’t want to write a poem for your Christmas advert.

I am a poet, writer and performer, and I was recently approached to write a poem. And perform it. For a TV Christmas advert. For a nationally recognised company.

I said no (thank you). In the conversations I’ve had since turning it down, it is a decision which lots of my artistic peers, friends, and husband have immediately understood and agreed with, but to which lots of other people (mainly members of my family, but some friends too) have reacted in more of a ‘why have you passed up on such a massive opportunity, you lovely idiot’ kind of way.

I can see both sides, I really can. I was conflicted about it myself in lots of ways, and in the end I just went with my gut. So I wanted to write a little bit about the decision, in a way that addresses both sides, and takes a look at it all holistically.

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First of all, I want to be absolutely clear that these are just my thoughts on what I want to do with my art, and I’m not interested in passing comment or judgement on any fellow artists who have produced work for adverts. Indeed, I have close and dear friends who have. All I can say is how I feel about my own situation, right now. For instance, I honestly might have jumped at it, if I had children or dependents to support, or if I didn’t have other freelance jobs that I love (I also run sensory workshops for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities).

Also, I’m absolutely not against the concept writing commercially. Last year I wrote an article for Demetre Fragrances about how unusual scents can be useful in sensory interaction with people with PMLD (my beloved other work). I wrote the article for the company in exchange for them sending over a whole load of their crazy perfumes for me to use when working with my clients. I was happy to write a factual piece for a commercial company in exchange for goods that I needed. (In fact I would do pretty much anything to get better resources for the people in my sensory sessions, but that’s a different article entirely!) What would be the difference in writing a poem for a TV advert? I’m not sure exactly. I’m not sure if I can formulate an explanation that would resonate with everyone. I just know that, for me, that is not the place of poetry.  It is not the role that I want poetry to play.

Poetry, for me, exists to pioneer the intangible. The only thing I really hope to do when I write is to find a way to say something which is difficult to articulate in our day to day lives and conversations. To touch on the things which we struggle to say, either because they are too scary or delicate or complicated or raw to address in the everyday. Why? Just because. Because we need it. Because as Nina Simone said ‘it is an artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, to reflect the times’, because as Clarice Lispector said ‘at the end of the day we’re not trying to change things, we’re trying to open up somehow’.

And advertising feels like the opposite of that. It is about identifying our weaknesses, insecurities, fears and most treasured memories, and using them as ammunition to trick us into buying things. Don’t get me wrong. Writing good advertising copy is a clever and complicated craft.  I respect it, and I am fascinated by it. You won’t a find a bigger Mad Men fan than me! But as complicated a pursuit as it might be morally, the art of writing advertising copy is at least honest in its intention. It is writing to sell stuff to people. Or to convince them that they want something, that they need it, and that their lives will be better and fuller and happier and more content once they’ve parted with the cash. But writing a poem, or being ‘guided’ by the ad production company to write a poem, or straight up saying a poem a that I haven’t really fully written myself, on an advert, and then pretending that it is my real art work, something that I’ve created to search for truth, but is actually just for advertising purposes… what is the point in that? It’s not good honest copy, and it certainly wouldn’t be good honest poetry. The idea of it felt dishonest on a lot of levels, and that made me uncomfortable.

The company themselves are not evil. I’m a lifelong customer, in fact. They’ve been good to me. I recommend them to friends. But they are not whiter than white, what large corporation is? They advertise in The Daily Mail, (please see  http://stopfundinghate.org.uk/) and have made business moves recently which I question the ethics of, especially in their apparent lack of support for NGOs working in support of Palestine. And at this point, I feel that a company’s ethical outlook would need to align in a pretty ironclad way with my own, if I was going to give them my art to use as advertising.

It turned out the fee was a lot of money. I don’t want to throw figures around, partly because (I imagine) someone is going to end up taking them up on the offer, and the agreed figure will be between them and the tax man, but also because they did not disclose the fee to me, but to a fellow writer whom they also approached, so it’s not my information to share. But suffice to say, in the town where I grew up, it would have been enough to put down a deposit on a house.

It’s tricky to write about money, because on the one hand – here I am, aged 30 and (despite considering myself to be totally middle class) delaying having kids because we can’t afford it. Or discovering (after a recent short stay in hospital) that I haven’t made enough national insurance contributions in my entire working life to be entitled to any sickness benefits. And this amount of money could have changed all that. On the other hand – the money doesn’t feel that important. I am lucky enough to be fit and healthy. I could have more financial stability if I gave up writing and performing and chose to do a different job. But I don’t, I choose writing, and the fiduciary nothingness that goes along with it. That’s my bed and I’m lying in it, with or without advertising offers. What I mean is – the fee from this advert is not the only way available to me out of my relative poverty. I could work in a call centre and make more money. I choose not to because I love writing.

What felt more difficult to turn down (and I cannot believe I’m saying this, after years of explaining to promoters and programmers who send emails proposing gigs that don’t pay, but will be ‘good exposure’, that EXPOSURE WONT PAY MY GAS BILL) is the incredible amount on potential exposure that writing and performing a poem on an advert would bring. Getting work is hard. Getting to talk to the right people about your work is hard. I’m working on a new piece of theatre and a new screenplay at the moment, and I know that getting to discuss either of them with the right directors / producers / venues is going to be a bewildering and frustrating process, as always. It is an unfortunate (and sad) truth that the exposure of being featured on something which is broadcast on mainstream TV, and is linked to an established brand, would make that whole process easier. But I just didn’t feel comfortable putting my work into the hands of strangers whose priority is promoting the brand, not my writing, in exchange for that exposure.

The timing of this offer feels auspicious in some ways, as far as figuring shit out goes. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I do this. Why we do this. Why we make things. Does it change anything? In terms of weighing up your life’s net contribution? In my working life, I choose to spend less time working where I can (hopefully) enrich and improve the lives of people with complex disabilities, in order to have the time to make art which relatively very few people ever read, or experience.  The only answer I can find is somewhere amongst the reasons that I turned down the advert – a search for truth, something sacred and beautiful and raucous, and trying to open up somehow. A record of the ridiculousness, of what we are doing here, in big ways and small. Something unpressured and untainted by the shape of the system.

Am I being overly precious and pretentious, in even thinking about my own largely unrecognised work with such importance? Most definitely. But what is the point otherwise? There’s a joke that I hear or say often, in conversations amongst fellow poets working at a similar level to myself – something along the lines of ‘we don’t do it for the money. And it’s a good job too because there isn’t any.’ When we say it, we laugh because of the glee of knowing you choose to do something just because you love it, because it is important to you. But always there is a hint of regret too, because wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was some money involved? If there was a short cut to getting a lump of cash together, so we could buy ourselves the time to really properly produce the work that we dream of? Well it turns out sometimes there is, but it made me feel weird, and I didn’t want it.

On Body Weight and Weddings

(Why I was so happy to be a ‘Plus Size’ bride.)

I’m a woman who wears a size 16 / 18, which puts me firmly into what is described as the ‘plus sized’ bracket, although I’m fairly sure it’s decidedly average. (Seriously, I’m tall and thick and I’ve got plenty of bits that wobble, but I’m pretty sure I’m an average sized person. The High Street refers to 14+ as above average size, which is bollocks). I’m also, incidentally, a woman who got married this summer.

I have been, plenty of times in my life, what the media and fashion industry would have us call ‘average sized’, and definitely even ‘skinny’. Bereavement, escaping from an abusive relationship, work anxiety, heartbreak, mental ill-health – going through all these things over the years has made me thinner, and of course, miserable. My body is this size and shape right now because I am happy and active and busy and hungry, so I eat well. This, in turn, is due to the support of brilliant friends and family and my (now) husband.

Perhaps this is naivety on my part (on the whole I make as much effort as possible to avoid the more insidious messages of the diet and fashion industry for my own wellbeing) but when I started sharing with people that I was going to be getting married, I was completely bowled over by how far-reaching and certain and presumptuous the idea was that, as a woman, I would of course be going on a diet ahead of my ‘big day’. What I mean is, it was such a powerful and clear message, and one that was coming from all directions (films, TV, wedding magazines and websites, some friends and associates, bridal advertising) that I genuinely didn’t even question it at first. My thought process was something like: I probably should make an effort to lose some weight if I’m going to be wearing a dress, and people will be looking at me all day.

wedding-dress-diet

Seriously.

But here is the thing: dieting, for me, is dangerous. It is a narrow, winding mountain path, which I can drive down easily, but it is almost impossible for me find anywhere to turn around, or reverse back up it. Diets are a way of controlling the food I eat, which gives me a false sense of control over the rest of my life. So I control it some more, and then some more, in smaller and smaller portions. Going on a diet whilst doing something as stressful as planning a wedding? Bad idea.

Moreover, there is a bigger picture to be considered here. I suppose it’s great that I have reached a stage in my life where I am able to recognise those dangerous patterns in my own eating habits, and try to avoid them. But then real question is, why is it such an accepted narrative that we should try lose weight for our wedding day? I know for certain that some people will read this and think ‘but it’s your wedding, don’t you want to look your best?’ I know some people will think that, because sometimes I thought that aometimes, too.

It is so difficult, in the face of messages coming from every angle of the media (and our own selves, sometimes), to remember and accept the idea that our bodies are ever changing, evolving vessels for us to live in, and that we are allowed to feel good about them whatever shape, size or state they happen to be right now. My body is this shape, at this stage in my life, because I don’t spend much time thinking about what it looks like. I eat food and drink beer and go dancing and camping and hiking with my friends and my family and my husband, I work hard and write poems, and I don’t have much time to obsess about every line and shade of my silhouette. This is simply the way my body is right now, nothing could be less complicated.

There will, no doubt, be hard or sad or stressful times to come in the future, and maybe this will cause my weight to fluctuate again. Maybe my weight will fluctuate just because I’m a 21st century woman, and my work and life and lifestyle changes from year to year. The point is, I don’t want it to matter. I don’t want it to mean anything. I don’t want any value to be placed on the shape that we are, or are not. And for me, making this idea into a reality meant starting with my own wedding day.

Last thing. Obvious but important – most of the diet, fashion and beauty industry is basically negging on us, like a desperate night club sleaze. And it’s working. They have got us believing that our entirely average, healthy bodies are ‘plus-sized’, ie ‘above average’ size, to keep us feeling like outsiders; meek and subservient, and buying into their narrow concept of what beauty can be (both idealistically and financially).

So I didn’t going a wedding diet. I was what wedding magazines would have us believe is a ‘plus-sized’ bride. Right now – the dimples on my arms, and the squashy bits of flesh by my armpits, that catch the light in photos? The rolls of my belly which hang over the waistband of my leggings? The second chin that pops out to say hello when I’m laughing? They are all bi-products of me being happy. They are me looking my best. And I hope the photographs of my wedding day to document that happiness.

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Me and my husband and all my chins having a great time gettin’ hitched at glamourous Doncaster Registry Office. (Photo by Duncan Stokes.)

 

Note – of course there are exceptions to the insidious wedding industry media that I’m complaining about! It’s not all bad. I loved apracticalwedding.com and thefeministbride.com

Early notes from Skriduklaustur, East Iceland. May 2016

Early notes from Skriduklaustur, East Iceland. May 2016.

It is so quiet here. I woke up in the night because it was so quiet that I though something was wrong (city girl)

And there is so much daylight, almost a midnight sun

It is a bit like dreaming awake

I saw a young wild reindeer at the side of the road, with furry antlers, and looked him in the eye

There are geese in the fields, they came from England too. They are puddling about in the fields, waiting for the snow to melt so they can go up into the mountains to nest. Puddling and honking and waiting

There so many different birds that I’m not used to, and all the birdsong sounds so lovely and strange. I notice birdsong now, because Sam likes it, and that is one of the things about a marriage

Sometimes the water smells of sulphur

The land is so beautiful, but parts of it feel gloriously unwelcoming to humans, like it wasn’t ready for us. As you walk along sometimes there are whole stretches with very few grassy banks or flat stones that say come and sit here and look around, instead the mountains tell you to keep walking and breathing, so you do

All the grass is dry, the rocks are dry and hot, but there is water everywhere. Obvious when you think about it, snow running off the hills. It carves up the earth and the stone into islands, and you have watch your step

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BRAND NEW short film of my poem Bit Red

Today is an exciting day because I can share this video for the first time! It is a short film of my poem Bit Red, imagined into visual form by film maker Zoe Alker.

I’m so pleased and proud of how sensitively and realistically it follows to poem’s theme of exploring how difficult it can be to talk about sex, and the kind of sex we want to have. I don’t think we live in a world yet where, especially for women, it is comfortable and natural to discuss, explore, express, articulate, explain the particulars, details, specifics of what kind of sex we would like to be having (or not having). I don’t want to say too much on the matter because its a poem not a socio-political statement, but hopefully poems can start conversations.

I’m so excited and nervous for people to see it. Please take a peek.The actors are Bryher Flanders and Harry Gould, and they are so brilliant.

THANK YOU TO THEM, and also to Zoe Alker, Ryan Sharpe, Georgia Ingles, Jamie Bell, Isabel Macfarlane, Chlo Edwards, Jack Cookson and Cat Wright for making this totally gorgeous and sensitive film!