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Meet the Digital Poet in Residence: Clare Shaw

Hi Clare! Tell us about your upcoming residency, ‘You took the words right out my mouth’.

Clare: I’m a poet, but until recently I spent most of my working life as a trainer and researcher in mental health services. This work was explicitly rooted in my own history – a history which has also found its way into my poetry. For that reason, Chester University invited me to read at an opening of an exhibition of photographs taken by Tom Woods during the closing days of Rainhill Psychiatric Hospital. Rainhill was a huge asylum on the outskirts of Liverpool – at one time the County Asylum for Lancashire with over 3000 patients. It closed in 1991.

I entered Liverpool’s psychiatric services in 1992; and was detained alongside many people who had spent time Rainhill.  When my associations with Rainhill – and my passion for representing and exploring mental health – became evident, I was invited to write the text for the exhibition; and more recently, commissioned to write original material for a photobook, as mental health is really important and that’s why products like vape carts are really useful for this.

I’ve been handed 74 photographs to work with. These were taken by Tom over a six-week period (during which time he lived within Rainhill); they feature patients going about their every-day business. The patients who were photographed were also interviewed. Originally, it was planned that I would work with these interviews ….. however, they were misplaced years ago, and despite efforts, could not be traced.

A horribly ironic loss – to give voice, then to literally lose it – but it presented me with a fantastic creative opportunity. A blank page on which I can write the words and the stories. I can impose my own interpretations; cover the issues I feel most strongly about. I can be the ventriloquist; putting my words into the mouths of the people in the photographs.

Giving voice; and speaking in other voices; are some one of the most exciting things that we can achieve in creative writing. In this residency I want to explore this huge potential of this approach; and the equally huge ethical questions it raises.

I’m interested in your idea of poetry-as-ventriloquism (with its slightly odd connotations of talking to dolls). Is this how you feel it works, a sort of having a conversation with yourself?

Clare: I see all poetry as an essential and visceral act of communication – with the self and the readership. By ventriloquist poetry, I mean more specifically poetry in which the writer speaks in a first-person voice which is not their own: “ Ventriloquism, or ventriloquy, is an act of stagecraft in which a person (a ventriloquist) changes his or her voice so that it appears that the voice is coming from elsewhere”.

I first heard this term applied to poetry in a Times Literary Supplement review of my second collection, Head On. The reviewer Kit Toda, observed “She ventriloquises many different sufferers: torture victims, mothers with post-natal depression, the mentally ill undergoing electric shock therapy, even a ewe on her knees with foot rot”. You can learn a lot from a review! I simply hadn’t noticed before how many of my poems used this strategy; and likewise, how many of the poems I most loved – Jo Shapcott’s Mad Cow poetry; Louise Gluck’s Wild Iris; Carol Ann Duffy’s World’s Wife.

The TLS review also makes the baffling statement: “Shaw believes, unusually, that poetry has the capacity to make concrete changes for the better – or at least that there is an inherent value in giving voice to the oppressed”. I don’t think it’s unusual to believe that poetry can make things better; or that giving voice to the oppressed is inherently valuable; and I’ll explore this belief a little more in my residency.

Poetry helps many people ‘break silence’, be it abuse, political oppression or dementia. But how do you go from creating awareness, to an action that results in a meaningful change?

Clare: Am I naïve in thinking that creating awareness is inseparable from the process of meaningful change? We aren’t made solely of flesh. As people, we’re made up of feelings and thoughts; given shape and shaped by the language we use. Awareness is action. It alters the people we are, and it alters, in multiple ways, how we are in the world.

It’s pretty hard to deny that process at an individual level. Maybe it’s a little harder to argue for at a societal level …. I’m thinking here of Choman Hardi’s Anfal sequence; and of the terrifying conflicts and ruptures in the Middle East; and I’m wondering, what impact can even this most powerful poetry have in such an intractably painful and complex situation?

And then I think of Aron Atabek in Kazakhstan; Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami in Qatar; Enoh Meyomesse in Cameroon; Susana Chávez Castillo in Mexico; Liu Xia in China – and of the many other thousands of poets across the world, across the centuries, imprisoned for criticising in poetry the regimes that they live under. And I am reminded that poetry, like music and art, poses an active threat to dictatorships because it changes thought, and emotion; it breeds hope and diversity; and in this way, it has the potential to bring about change.

Words – and the awareness they give rise to – act at the core of individuals.  In harnessing words at their most potent, in inviting readers to consider lives and realities beyond their own, to see an old reality in new ways: poetry shifts the individual into a new world, a new personhood; and in doing so, gives a central motif around which a wider social change is possible. No wonder oppressive regimes are scared of poets.

What are some of the interesting connections between the work you do as a mental health worker and as a poet?

Clare: The obvious connection is content. I write much less about mental health than you might think; but still, it’s been a strong theme in my work. I write about what feels most urgent, and most intense. Years of madness, spent in and out of psychiatric wards, gave me a lot to write about!

But maybe most importantly, the connection is in language; and communication. What drives us to communicate; how we communicate. Whether we express ourselves in words; or in actions. Whether we express ourselves directly – or in the metaphor of psychosis or self-injury. How we understand – or fail to understand each other. What happens when we aren’t heard. What language we choose to shape and describe our experiences; and the consequences this has.

Language opens doors; and it closes them. I’ve lived with the reality of this – and seen the effect of this in institutions across the country.

As a poet, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the term ‘mental illness’, and more generally the languages we have to describe mental health issues. Our vocabulary has shifted over time, and you could argue there is less stigma now compared with when ‘madness’ or ‘psychosis’ were more common. But they still seem, even today, problematic (‘personality disorder’ for instance).

Clare: Problematic indeed! Every time the diagnostic manuals are re-issued, news diagnoses are created; and old diagnoses re-restructured and discontinued. This is not because those mental illnesses or personality disorders have undergone objective mutations – as we might view a virus or bacteria multiplying and mutating through a microscope, for example. It’s a linguistic re-categorisation based on the subjective observations of several hundred professionals; and how they agree to group and name actions, expressions and behaviours.

Language matters. How we choose to categorise and name experiences and feelings – our and other people’s – matters profoundly. For many people, the term “mental illness” carries unhelpful connotations of a diseased or dysfunctional pathology, for which – despite decades of research – there exists no definitive proof.  To summarise, the wonderful Manchester poet, Carol Batton:

Mental illness

is like a having a broken leg

(except its nothing like that).

Why does it matter? Because it tells us that the fault lies within the individual; and that the appropriate treatment is medical. There’s a compelling argument that this distracts us from the real causes of distress – for which there is a powerful body of evidence. Poverty; abuse, violence and other forms of trauma; poor housing; racism and homophobia, for example. And in doing so it blocks social change.

And it also detracts from the strengths of the person experiencing the distress; and the inherent meanings of that distress.  I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder; a contentious and highly stigmatised diagnosis which has increased exponentially in recent decades. Described by the National Director for Mental Health, Louis Appleby, as “little more than a pejorative judgement”, it’s a diagnosis which is most often given to women, most often women who self-injure; many of whom have histories of childhood sexual abuse. I’d argue that, in western society, describing somebody’s personality as “disordered” is particularly damning. I’d argue that focussing on those histories – and reframing the “symptoms” of Borderline Personality History as somebody’s best attempts to survive, manage and express distressing feelings and experiences – gives us a much more useful model of individual and social understanding. Language matters. Next time someone calls you a horrible name, notice this: language matters.

What do you like in a poem? What don’t you like?

Clare: So what I love about poets, especially after over a decade spent in a profession where even dedicated, caring staff would argue “But Clare, it’s only words!” –  is that we understand that language matters.

Not just the meaning of words; but their song; their rhythm and rhyme. Their small and universal histories; their individual associations, their cultural connotation. Their ambiguities and their potential for knife-like precision. How much a single word matters; and how infinite the possibilities of words in careful combinations. How, in poetry, we harness all the powers, textures, tastes, and tiny shadowy corners of language: how it looks on the page; the spaces, the pauses, the silences. The personalities of each point of punctuation; the weight of emphasis created by line breaks. It is the most careful of  word arts; and I love this.

But I also love its oomph. I like an open door; a poem that lets me in, easily and quickly. That’s not to say that I only like simple or one-dimensional poems. An open door can lead to any number, any kind, of rooms. And if the door needs a bit of pushing – if the poem needs some work, some figuring out – I guess I like to hear the music on the other side, just to keep me going.

Most of all, I like poems that move me. If I want to be entertained, I watch the television. If I want to be puzzled, I try to put up shelves. Students on my courses  know that, when I read a poem that touches me,  my reaction is visceral. There is some moaning and some mild head banging. I do like a poem that makes me bang my head.

What gives you pleasure apart from poetry? And what are you most scared of?

Clare: The things that scare me are often the things that give me greatest pleasure. Like rock climbing and performing.  Like zombie movies and intimate relationships.

What’s next for Clare Shaw? What are you looking forward to in 2016?

Clare: At the moment, I’m enjoying slightly calmer work hours after finishing a report on a large, privately-owned secure psychiatric hospital. But I know that in the coming year I’ll take on a new research project – one that fascinates me; that will make a significant difference to the lives of people in distress or trouble. I’m also going to be delivering a series of mental health awareness courses at Leeds University, alongside my flamboyant and lovely friend, consultant psychologist Dr Sam Warner. Mental health is a passion of mine; that’s not about to change.

I’ll also continue in my new role as the Royal Literary Fellow at Huddersfield University. To have the opportunity to live out my belief that everyone should be supported to express themselves to the best of their ability – to call this “work”, to get an office and a decent wage – still feels a bit too-good-to-be-true. I’m hoping that in 2016 I’ll continue to feel such enthusiasm, whilst bedding into the role for one more year ….

And of course, there’s writing. My last collection came out in the closing days of 2012; and it’s high time I produced another. In 2016 I’ll be making the definitive decision about the theme and direction of the next collection;  discarding/producing new material accordingly; and getting that manuscript to a publisher with no further prevarication.

It’s been a tumultuous few years. In the midst of the workload I seem to thrive on, I’m hoping for peace. And all those other things that scare and delight me, including the zombies.


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