I love reading out poems – and this poem loves to be read out loud. But I hate showing unfinished poems. It feels like being partially dressed – and not in a good way. This poem is still under edit. But I wanted to post it as an introduction to this week’s topic: This is my story not yours.
For the love of
For his lovely smell of soap and man,
his wife’s soft hands,
his collar, put just neat, just-right.
For his lovely pills all-sleep, no-thought.
His make-it-straight, his clever-speak,
for his desk and all his tightness.
For his lines and his right-way-upness.
For his bright-shine shoes all fit, just-nice.
For the work all written through him.
For his silence, deep as wood.
His make-it-good, his far-as-God,
his pass-like-cloud, like judgement, God –
for the future swims in his blood like silver,
for the children who swim in his blood.
For lights in lamps and smell of home.
For fires on full and floors washed clean,
for tea in mugs and my own room –
for letting go, for holding on.
For walls that bloom
where he walks.
For his quiet, firm no-scream, no-shout.
No kick, no poking finger,
no hands that burn like star.
For his crossing road, his driving car,
his straight-as-line, his strong his clean.
His wall to lean on, solid-safe,
his freshmint breath,
for the words that fall from him like stone.
For straw in drowning hands.
His hard-as-brick, his lightning strike,
his knowing-what, his bright white shock
his wipe-it-out, his make-it-stop
for the love of God
Exposure over. I’m back into the safe territory of an exploration of the ethics of ventriloquism in poetry: When poets speak in the first person about lives which are not their own, are they colonising other people’s experiences? We may be driven by a desire to give to the voiceless, but when we insert our own feelings and perspectives into another person’s mouth, don’t we subject them to yet another layer of silence?
The poem comes from the sequence I’m working on to accompany the publication of Tom Wood’s photographs of patients in the final days of Rainhill psychiatric hospital. In my interview with Will at the start of the residency, I explained how the people in the photos were interviewed as part of the photography project; and how those interviews were subsequently lost. I described how this loss initially opened up an exciting landscape of possibility to me – a blank page on which I could write my own stories / an empty mouth into which I could insert my own words – and how this was quickly followed by a sense of unease.
As a poet, and as a trainer, researcher and writer in mental health, much of my work is driven by a desire to give voice to stories which would otherwise go untold. Including my own. I was a “hopeless case” on Liverpool’s psychiatric wards. I learned what it was like to be spoken for.
Historically, psychiatric patients have been spoken to and about – and very rarely allowed to speak for ourselves. Through diagnosis and case notes; in medical research and journal articles; in film and television depictions; I saw myself represented in ways which bore no semblance to my own reality and my own voice.
You’re probably familiar with the phrase “round the bend”. A euphemistic expression for the experience of going crazy, it is rooted in the practice of building a curve in the entrance drive of Victorian mental hospitals. In contrast to the straight drives which directed the gaze to the stately homes, the bend kept the asylum and its inmates away from the view of the public. Madness was to be hidden.
In last week’s interview, Choman Hardi spoke about the work of Kurdish artist Osman Ahmad – specifically about his exhibition about Anfal in the Imperial War Museum:
“It was a series of drawings, starting with a simple black line which changed into human beings gathering close and closer together. The people were then moving further and further away from us until the final drawing where they all merged and turned into a black spot. I guess that is what happens to masses of people who become victimised in this way. They keep getting further and further away from us till we don’t see them as human beings anymore. They become a black spot in our history. I tried to steal these people back from this black hole, to give them voice once again. Let them tell their story”.
Tom Wood’s photos of patients, some of whom will have spent their whole lives in institutions, give humanity back to a dehumanised population. By capturing patients in their every day activities, he emphasises their individuality. I want my sequence to achieve the same goal. And I don’t want to silence or misrepresent any along the way.
Nihil de nobis, sine nobis.
Nothing about us, without us. For several decades, researchers, theorists and activists have considered the ethics and practicalities of speaking out on behalf of other people – a task which is closely allied with civil rights movements, identity politics and other forum of political and social change.
One of the earliest and most fundamental goals of the feminist movement was to “find voices” for women (DeVault, 1999). For many researchers, their primary aim is to give voice to groups of people who have been marginalized and silenced within institutions, communities, societies. Bogdan and Biklen (1998) describe giving voice as “empowering people to be heard who might otherwise remain silent” (p. 204) – or who have been silenced by others. When silenced people are “given voice” in research and literature, their humanity is reclaimed; their experiences and perspectives made available to others; their lives begin to exist within the dominant discourses that once excluded them.
But whose voice is it really?
From The Little Black Boy’ by William Blake:
My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child:
But I am black as if bereav’d of light.
I love William Blake; and I love the intentions and the messages of this poem – committed as it is to the essential equality of all people; in direction opposition to the existence of slavery. But knowing that this was written by a white man, who can read the line And I am black, but O! my soul is white without a sense of unease? Blake’s intentions were impeccable; and the little boy is a fiction; but can a white person speak a line like this in the voice of a black person without silencing them at the most profound level?
However well-intentioned we are, we are subjective human beings. Limited by our own bodies and brains and perspectives, we cannot help but write as ourselves; with our own worldviews; our own experiences; our own cultural norms and political values. When we write in another person’s voice; and have them speak thoughts and experiences which are not theirs; when we have them express cultural and political values at odds with their own; their voices are lost just as completely as the Rainhill transcripts.
As Ashby (2011) says, “Regardless of the intentions of the researcher [and poet!], hierarchies of power and privilege are re-inscribed when the researcher [and poet!] presumes to give voice to someone else”.
Qualitative researchers and poets alike, we bring our own perspectives to our work. It is not just the subjects’ experiences and feelings that are being brought to light; it is our interpretation of those experiences and feelings. Whilst qualitative research – and poetry – provide readers with access to the world of people they would not otherwise know – while it allows their stories to be told – the subject never actually tells their own story.
A desire to “give voice” can assume some troubling “truths” including the fact that “it assumes that the person or group being researched has no voice and therefore, needs someone else to bring their experiences to light. It denies that these individuals have their own voice and can (and do) choose to exercise it” (Ashby 2011).
This is not the case for the communities that Choman Hardi speaks for. And I am proud to belong to a writing community which, through – too many organisations, workshops, forums, festivals, journals, and inreach programmes to name – devotes so many resources to ensuring that as many people as possible are given the opportunity to find their own voice in poetry. In schools, hospitals, community groups and pubs I have seen this process happen, and it is magic.
In last week’s CAMPUS debate, Anne Heathcote said: “I believe speaking on behalf of the silenced is better than doing nothing, especially if we do it in the spirit of “If not me, who?” And maybe essential, at least for ourselves, and hopefully for others, if we have been one of the silenced and then have found our voice”.
As poets representing other people, we hold a power, and power must be open to question, and it must be used reflectively.
But it must be used.
Escaping Kanitu, March 1988
For Najiba Ahmad and Fatima Muhammad Amin
Everything began to end that winter. Inch by inch
we withdrew, stopped at Kanitu, prepared for the caves –
baking bread, boiling meat, sorting through clothes.
Then someone screamed: “They’re coming”. We left
the bread on the saj tray, the meat on the kerosene heater,
the clothes in their bundles and fled. What thick rain-
storm! You could not see one meter ahead. From the land
the government was oppressing us, from the sky God.
And you know how it is in the cold country, when it rains
in the valley it is snowing in the mountain. We started
the climb, bombarded by clumps of snow. People threw
their things away- stiffened blankets, useless weapons,
bags of bread, books, photos in their pockets. A wounded
peshmarga zipped himself up in a sleeping bag and said:
“Goodbye”, the flakes rapidly covering him up. A couple
who carried three children on their backs, abandoned one.
It was a boy, was he 4 years old? He didn’t sway, too numb
or dead? Everyone looked strange then, the look of death.
Four hours later people were freezing. We gave up, started
pulling away. Then I saw the bodies everywhere. The one
I will never forget was my cousin’s friend, who’d died
standing, his eyes open, stuck in snow up to his chest. I called
his name, asked my father to take him with us. He said that
somebody will get him out, that we needed to keep moving.
He didn’t want to say the man was dead, one of the 84
who passed away. At the bottom people had lit a fire with
abandoned things. A child they’d given up on, started
weeping after her jaw thawed. Then I started to pray.
On the next day we took the longer route. My father
tied us up on mules. Near the border Iranian cars picked
us up. We arrived in the first village, got out of the car,
fell to the floor, could not stand on our feet anymore.
Even now the frost doesn’t leave my hands and feet alone,
cripples me on cold winter days. The doctors say it is psycho-
logical. Do they mean that when I strain to stand, to hold
a spoon or open a door, I am just remembering my old pain?
If not us, then who? If Choman hadn’t written this poem, who would? Choman’s Anfal sequence draws directly from her doctoral research – in which she interviewed several hundred women survivors of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaign against the Kurdish people. Undertaking this work had a dramatic impact on Choman’s life: in terms of her health and wellbeing, it cost her dearly. As well as the burden of a heart which is good to its core, Choman is driven by a shared identity: as a Kurdish woman driven into exile by Saddam’s regime; as part of the diaspora of Kurdish people forced to flee from oppression and murder in Turkey, Syria, Iran; as part of a world community of Kurdish people – particularly women – who too often live in poverty, without access to literacy and meaningful education. It is the finest of poetry; and it does not read to me as an act of theft. Why? What marks the difference?
In 2009, I received this email from Carol Ann Duffy: “can you write a poem about Iraq, from any angle, one of your finest, soon?” An emphatically worded request from one of the best and kindest writers on the face of this planet – to write my finest poem, about an intractably painful complex situation. In seven days. No pressure then. I have not been to war, or been anywhere near a war. I have nothing to do with the army; I do not love a solider, I have lost no-one to war. I have never been to Iraq; I could not begin to populate the voice of an Iraqi person, or a soldier. That experience was too far from my own.
The only voice that remained open to me was to speak directly from my own experiences; as a way of acknowledging experiences I hope I will never have. I drank a lot of coffee and a lot of wine. I didn’t get much sleep. I wrote as a new mother, and I finished “It could have been” – which was then published in the Observer. Shortly after writing this poem, I met X and Y for the first time; two artists / writers/ musicians seeking asylum in the UK following the violent state repression of the Iranian uprisings in 2009. I can’t use their real names, because of the risk this might present to their families still at home in Iran.
X is a writer; Y is a filmmaker. Both had presented the Iranian regime in a critical light, and as a consequence, were facing the likelihood of imprisonment, rape, violence and death at the hands of the regime. Both had fled with fake passports, and for this “crime”, both were imprisoned for several months in British jails. Both had their applications for asylum rejected on the grounds that the Home Office did not believe what their evidence.
At the time that I knew her, X was not a fluent speaker of English. Though most of her work remained untranslated in the original Farsi; a friend helped her to produce some direct translations of the work. As literal translations, they did not work well. So I collaborated with X, working with the direct translations – and also with the transcripts of an interview – to produce poetry of publishable standard. In a sequence of poems entitled “An interview with X and Y”, I spoke directly in their voices, sticking to the rough structure of the original works, and, checking with X as I wrote.
I did this not just because they were great poems which deserved to be read; not just because this was a story that needed to be told; but to establish X as a credible writer with an audience; so that she might appeal against the decision to return her and her husband to torture and death in Iran. I was supported in this by some fantastic poets like George Szirtes, Claire Pollard, Jackie Kay and Simon Armitage. Yes, I occupied a privileged position, and it was a privilege I received some criticism for. But it was also privilege I was trying to turn to the good.
Poetry is a kind of power. It’s a power we can use for ourselves. It’s a power we can use on behalf of other people. Power should always be used responsibly.
But it should be used.
Writing ethically in other people’s voices – negotiating the possibility that we silence or misrepresent those people – is not an easy process. But I believe we have most success in negotiating that process successfully when we are actively aware of those difficulties. When we reflect on our power, and make all attempts to represent people honestly, authentically, in all the messes and contradictions of our common humanity. When we draw on from the human wellspring of shared identity, shared experience; and when we are willing to submerge ourselves in the reality of their experiences – and our own emotions – whatever the cost.
Its my final post next week, and I’ll be making full use of it to consider how we might do this. I’ll reflect on exactly that – how we speak from the gut, from emotion and shared experience; with a visceral honesty. Without compromise. And how doing so lends our work a passion and an authenticity which will steer it through the most stormy ethical waters.