The first copies of PATIENCE, our collection of art and poetry by older people in hospital, are about to be delivered to us. It's a book that's taken much labour and considerable love, so we are in a state of anticipation. Various poets, artists, medical practitioners and (most importantly) patients have very kindly made responses to the book and we will post these on the blog over the next weeks. Scott Thurston at Salford University wrote an overview piece, taking up themes and questions raised in PATIENCE. We felt that Scott's sensitive and insightful essay would be a good way into the debate...
‘take pills like new ideas’
(acceptance, chpt 5)
This latest offering from arthur + martha is a collection of poetry, text and artworks based on older people’s experiences of ill-health and hospitalisation. Divided into five parts, its structure is based on the five stages of the ‘cycle of grief’: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. What is remarkable about a+m’s approach is that they use a whole host of techniques associated with innovative and experimental writing in order to frame people’s experiences. The results are simply extraordinary. In these works, the notion of writing and creativity as ‘therapeutic’ does not do justice to the seriousness and the ambition of the project, which is experimental in the truest sense. The diversity of the approach is key. In one strand of the project, creative work emerges from the charged objects of the everyday: medicine boxes getting a makeover by acquiring new labels like ‘take one glass of sunshine a day with water’ or ‘all’s well that ends well’ – the latter on medication for trapped wind relief! In another strand, it is postcards – pictures of famous buildings cut out and stuck on the reverse, creating a new space for words – in another (‘Lost and Found’), text is appended to actual objects – poignantly the label ‘Lost – your husband or your wife’ is attached to a tiny, empty chair.
Aside from these text-objects, there are many poems in the book – some co-authored and often produced using collage and/or cut-up techniques. Ron Miles’ ‘The Old Grenadiers’ is a particularly effective poem which opens:
'you’re 96 years
an old Grenadier'
(anger, chpt 2)
A stoic meditation on ageing, Miles’ narrator has ‘pain’s / red medal round my neck’ but is still able to conclude: ‘though new-fangled ill / this old dog’s prouder still.’ Elsewhere, Allan Whittaker and Frank Wigley offer a collaborative work, juxtaposing accounts of football history with a patient’s current predicament in a poem called ‘Football’ which is shaped like one on the page. Thus the story of the Busby Babes and their fate in the 1958 Munich air crash leads to some striking reflections:
'you’ve got to be determined to stay alive otherwise this world will see you off falling
into chaos somebody needs to mop the world nurse sort the ends out I’m sat in a
chair thinking literature I cant express god’s fire in the head'
(bargaining, chpt 3)
What is most impressive here is how the innovative techniques employed lead to a genuine creative opportunity. These poems show that an approach to creativity that recognises and utilises language’s physicality and malleability, immediately makes a connection between body and art object. By bringing creative practice closer to embodied experience, and breaking habits – of thought, of feeling, of experiencing – along the way, it is clear that these authors find new ways to express complex physical states that might be hard, or impossible, to achieve by other means. Illustrative of this, a group poem entitled ‘Now My Genius is Gone’ mourns the loss of creative autonomy but simultaneously finds the means for its recovery:
now my genius is some worthless song
I use a lever a little
and it comes back.'
(bargaining, chpt 4)
The personal empowerment resulting from this approach is testified to over and over again in these pages. Another group poem, entitled ‘A Kingdom’ argues ‘a body case / can’t case your mind’ and identifies the meaning behind the central pun of the title:
'when you’re in pain
teaches you something
(acceptance, chpt 5)
Raymond West, the author of two excellent poems in the book, also comes out fighting in ‘Overcome’:
'have a bout with life
live to the full
an incurable disease'
(acceptance, chpt 5)
There is much more to admire in this beautifully-produced book: terrific photographs of the authors – including an impressive double portrait of Violet Gamble – and a series of text-images entitled ‘our needs are very small’ which link writing with images of wards. There are also several highly informative interview-articles from the perspective of various practitioners – care assistants, nursing sisters, a diabetic nurse, medical directors – offering insightful reflections on their experiences alongside more detailed accounts of working with dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
A key message emerges in this book about trust – not only the trust to be won by care practitioners and creative workers such as arthur + martha, and to which end their creative strategies are invaluable – but also the trust to be granted to those older people in care contexts. As Stephen Watkins argues, the expectation of dependency that many of us have is one to be resisted, otherwise care can too often slide into control. As Watkins puts it:
'You mustn’t become dependent before you really need to – and also when you are dependent, you still should be allowed to make choices, be trusted to take risks.'
(bargaining, chpt 3)
It is clear from the breadth and verve of the work of this book, that a trust in risk-taking has been fully embraced by everyone involved – in this way fulfilling the experimental essence of creativity.
Dr Scott Thurston
Scott Thurston lectures at the University of Salford where he runs a Masters in Innovative and Experimental Creative Writing. He co-runs The Other Room reading series in Manchester, edits The Radiator, a little magazine of poetics, and co-edits The Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry with Robert Sheppard. He has published three collections with Shearsman.