Saturday, 9 September 2017

Kaos of life comes in all different types

Life in Order, by Stewart (detail)

Observe yourself when the mind is viciously dismantled
As the plummeting connections descend from fields above
Defences fail and life falls into a dark disarray 
Observe yourself when the mind is viciously dismantled
Wondering why others are reluctant to be impressed
Pain remembers when they land you with truth
Observe yourself when the mind is viciously dismantled
As the plummeting connections descend from fields above.


Writing poems is a gamble, like any art you've no guaranteed outcome. That is what gives it the possibility that it'll surprise you, and with surprise comes new understandings. 

The two poetry sessions I've run at Tom Harrison House felt like even more of gamble. THH is a centre for veterans who are trying to find a way out of addiction and are going toe to toe with some serious life issues, so personal stakes are high. But these people are in no mood to pussyfoot. The group have been facing their problems square on, and in doing so they've opened themselves to change. This was their second session with me and once again they plunged into writing with the zest of people who feel they've nothing to lose.

We started off by talking about personal armour, the layers of protective mechanisms we all build to keep the bumps of life at bay. It was a fascinating discussion about self-protection, because the people talking had such deep experience of physical armour and of psychological attack. One man is a firefighter and he described the danger of being over-armoured, that you becomes lulled into feeling invincible when your in the middle of something that might kill you. Another man described a similar over-protection, but this time identified psychological manipulation as armour keeping people at bay. As a contrast, for Stewart and Alan, armour is the strength offered by other people, community, the support they need to keep well. 

And so to the poems. This week we wrote about three words: chaos, order, safety. Crisis and resolution. And I offered three poem forms: tanka (an old Japanese form), triolet, or free verse. A wide range of people, a wide range of responses. We will post all the poems on the blog in the next while, but let's end today with this from Stewart: wry and heartfelt, it measures the precise weight of his armour.

3 nights awake, powder fuelled
3 nights watchful: looking seeing staring
3 what when why
3 days dead sleep, dreamless pitch darkness
3 times unlucky, wives' tears tell tales.


Life in Order, by Stewart

Sunday, 3 September 2017

I am one animal

Human, by Fatima. Berlin 2017
The arthur+martha international outreach project Heaven-Proof House is a collaboration with refugees in Berlin, devised by Phil. It is supported by the British Council/Arts Council England.

Phil writes:

I am getting ready to go back to Berlin, and my thoughts are turning to the many good people I met there and the friends I made over the last year, during HEAVEN-PROOF HOUSE. One of the last interviews I made in Berlin was on a scorchingly hot day, in a huge hostel at the edge of the city. In a subtle way, it broke my heart to hear this story. Nasir is angry and sad, and tries desperately to find something good in a bad situation. This isn't a war story, its about what comes after a war you've had to flee, the nuts and bolts of being completely dispossessed, of home, of self-worth, even of language. And starting again...


First I want to say there are many, many good things about Germany and we have been shown much kindness. But you ask me if this is home.

Home? Hier ist alle leuter. In one small room sleep six people. Plates dirty. We have 20% people sick, don't want to eat this... stuff. All is shit. Some people have been here more than two years. La Giz say we don't have da heim for you. All of us need psychologist, psychiatrist. No one here feels good.

People need work, here there is nothing. Essen, schlafen. Deutsch for two or three hours in the day. Open the book. Nothing else to do. But we don't speak good Deutsch because we don't meet German people so we can't learn. The important thing is to listen to the sound. We make friends, but we can't invite them here. No visitors, no besuchen. Here we speak Arabische, Farsi. 

I'm from Afghanistan and I have seen many things. But in my life, I've not seen this before. Hundreds of people in one place, six people sleeping in one room. The rooms are dirty, the toilets all dirty.

When I eat this food, I have a pain in my stomach. What am I to do?

I have been three years in Germany, nine months in this place. I know people who have been here over two years. It makes you crazy. My heart is sick with this. We go to which way? I think we will not find a nice way. This is not Europe, this is not democracy, this is a jail for me. For three years, four years, five years live here, inside this camp? At start all is ok. But I see my friends change, their voices get loud, talk not nice. All this pressure. 

We come to be strong in Germany. We don't want to be on La Giz. I want to go to a job, I want to pay my life. This is so hard until we learn German. 

When you come here at night time, after 11pm you will see something different. In sleep time is a bad smell. We have nowhere to put our shoes, our sandals, so they stink. After two or threee hours, boys come here in the big room and they play games on their phones. You see them lie on the benches out here. I ask them why and they say, "It smell so bad, I'm not sleeping."

I have a sickness. The important thing is doctor  is not one nice place to be a sick person. I have three doctor papers, they say I need to go somewhere different. But the social say no, if you want to go somewhere different go back to your own country. They say they don't have no other place. They tell me, "This is not my job. Go and speak with Merkel."

I see how they look in their eyes. I think I am one animal. We need a chance, a chance to do something good. Something strong here in Germany, to help them and show them. But we don't have one chance.

In Afghanistan we have people with no house, no money, begging. "Give me one Euro!" This is the same. What can I say? I sleep in da heim and the Giz pay for me? I go to a party and people ask me what I do. What can I tell them? I live off your taxes? 

I have been nine months in here...

Interviewed by Philip Davenport

Berlin, 2017

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

In our defence

It's a bland upstairs room, in an ordinary house. A circle of chairs, nothing on the plain walls. Outside the window is a grey Liverpool afternoon, leaking typical slightly despairing British light onto us.

But the men in this room are full of purpose, and hope. I'm at the Tom Harrison House, a recovery centre for service veterans who have substance abuse issues. The small group of men share camaraderie for the length of their 11-week stay here. They are here to admit that they've got issues with substance abuse and need to find a way out. 

Like many people who've been in wars, they carry away a residue. The dust of experience, memory, PDST, call it what you will.

I'm introduced to the group by PJ, who is their mentor through the period of weeks that they attend the course. They look at me warily, they’re in the midst of some serious life-changes and they don't really want to mess about with poetry. (“I mean, I thought poetry - what the fuck?” as one of the group members later said, with a disarming grin.)

PJ is in equal measures charming and challenging. He jokes with the group, encourages them endlessly and also confronts them with their particular truth. “Every person here has an addiction that they need to own and get past.”

During the course of the next two hours everyone in that room will look me in the eye and say, “I've got a problem…” They are all tough-looking guys, solidly built and possessed of that strange calm shared by people who have seen a lot and gave up being shocked a long time ago.

I tell them about the arthur+martha project Armour. We talk about the weight, the terrible weight of armour, whether it be physical armour, or mental armour. As we chat they tell me about different armour types. We talk about the old Kevlar bullet proof vests, the helmets that are designed to spin away bullets. They describe the vileness of wearing nuclear fallout protection, sealed into a charcoal lined suit, with an oxygen mask, sealed in with your own smells, your own self, unable even to communicate unless you've got radio comms in your mask.

I'm here for two hours only, to run a poetry workshop. Normally, in the arthur+martha workshops, people take awhile to open up and describe the deeper layers of their lives. Here, because the men were already in the midst of open discussions and therapy, they plunge right in. 

We've used the Japanese tanka form for this project, a type of love poem. Using a love poem to describe the opposite of love introduces tension - and tension is surprisingly productive. This was where the surprise lay,  people retold their stories as poems and in doing so they re-heard themselves. I won't share the poems this week, but will say that they were searingly honest and glimmered with humour. As we came to the end of the session, the group were grinning at each other. 

“Never written a poem before,” several people said. But these pieces weren't just a technical exercise, they were a gesture of courage and connection. They overthrew defensiveness and they let in life.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Your name in the sky

I wrote your name in the sky, in tears 
(this is something I don't normally do).
But the wind blew it away. 
A soldier, me, taught to be emotion-free 
I wrote your name in the sand 
of experience 
the crap life brings. 
Don't never want to experience what I have
but the waves wash it away.
With my background I attack
with my family I block, it’s defence.
Gentle will always overpower strength:
I wrote your name in my heart 
and here it forever will stay.


We are saying goodbye to the Booth Centre, and goodbyes can be hard. In the afternoon of our last Armour workshop at the Booth Centre, Phil led a poetry writing exercise. Two of the group hadn't created a poem before, and there was apprehension, but taking the process stage by stage, bit by bit, people wrote, shared, confidence grew. There were tears in the eyes of one man as he wrote. 

While poems progressed, the embroidered and rusted fabrics were laid out on the floor. Members of the group took time out from writing arranged together into ideas for compositions. My original idea was to make a 'finished' Gamberson quilted jacket with the group. However, as ever, the project has progressed and something much looser is emerging, I described it as paper cut-out dress up dolls, (without the dolls or the tags) a front of a garment, indicating loosely a jacket. We tried placing the pieces like a jigsaw puzzle, to fit a giant. 

The composition everyone got most excited by was from Gavin, when he moved the pieces to form a group of  five soldiers, each one taking on a different aspect of emotion. When we looked at them as a group, people saw different things... that one looks like a Roman Solider, that an American Football player, this one's about pain, another hope.. 

After the session a group from the afternoon helped take over my boxes to the car, Melanie and I stood outside the centre, chatting with them over the session. It had been a great day and nobody wanted it to end. 

Sadly this was the last session for a while at the Booth, our thanks as ever go out to all the staff and volunteers there, and yesterday Jessie and Melanie who volunteered. And most of all thanks for all the participants. 

Lois Blackburn

Things we do in life for the better can leave us the worse for wear

The rain thumps my umbrella 
I'm dropping my guard, I can't believe it went so well.
There's no place like home
And knock on the door to tell 
The one who I love:
“Make sure you close the blinds
And continue my journey in the rain.”


Saturday, 12 August 2017

Talking to John

We've had two weeks away from the Booth Centre, for the project Armour. So much happens so fast in the lives of people who use the centre, two weeks here takes some catching up. At the reception desk, we were greeted by Peggy. She explained that the cards and flowers we saw as we came in were for Michael, who had sadly passed away a few days ago. He joins many other people we have met who experienced homelessness, and died too soon. 

We spent much of the morning with John Felix, a documentary film maker (who made two beautiful, sensitive films about arthur+martha projects before The Homeless Library and Stitching the Wars). John was with us to start the Armour film, interviewing participants, filming some of the afternoon session. 

embroidered rusted fabrics, trial compostition

As with our previous experiences working alongside John, people seemed very at ease with him, sharing their stories with candour. Over the course of the day, we started to see the project afresh, through the comments gathered by John. 

Key themes that came up included: People felt safe to reveal their inner selves to the group, a deeper often more vulnerable side of their lives and personality than otherwise would be shared. Many of the group described themselves as having literacy problems, and having problems at school, but that these were helped by the sessions. They felt they had the support to do something new, something that was difficult at times but incredibly rewarding. 

One member spoke about the abuse suffered as a child, but how doing the workshops allowed them to speak about this, and share their story with family and friends. Others spoke about how having the time and space to be creative, to think, was enabling them to see the world differently outside the sessions...

The film will eventually be shown publicly in exhibitions and online, but right now as it develops we are able to see ourselves a little differently and perhaps understand more of the complex lives that this project reflects.

Monday, 31 July 2017

Angels with delight take flight

Armour project 20th July 2017, Booth Centre, Manchester.

Angels with delight... by Peter Twigg

You never know when an idea will take flight and ascend beyond the original thought, carried by other people. Our workshop on 20th July was just such a moment. The Armour project is about self-protection and the many ways we find safety, physical or mental. The project has been running with this idea for awhile at The Booth Centre, working with homeless people, several of whom are army veterans. Today, instead of putting on layers of self-protection, we asked people to imagine what might happen if they were removed. 

I was concerned we'd be asking people too much to take away their protective layers, which are so necessary for survival on the street. But calculated risk-taking is part of what we do, as any artist. I read a little of Sir Galahad by Tennyson, the moment the warrior realises if he is to let in love, he must remove his armour. It was all that was necessary. Soon the tight little band around our table were writing about vulnerability as if it was a taste of freedom. I guess they're tough enough to put their armour back on whenever they wish; but they recognise the relief of being able to let it go.

Lee's text/textile work

The resulting pieces, written as tanka (an old Japanese form of love poetry) were scribed or sewn onto pieces of cloth, to be included as parts in the cloth suits of armour we are constructing. You might say these pieces are idea-armour.

Although the tone of this session was serious, and there were many moments when the group skidded close to tears, it was shot through with humour and a sense of togetherness which softened the hard edges. I particularly enjoyed Phil B's 'grumpy old guy' piece, which starts off with the excellent line "Bog off and get knotted", a sentiment I share, especially first thing in the morning.

"Bog off and get knotted" from Phil B

The day was given great intensity by Lee who worked with us for the first time, leaping into it all with the urgency of someone facing their devils. It was also hugely supported by Melanie Miller, a stalwart helper of our projects who quietly and gently aided people along the way.

Philip Davenport

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Behind brittle barriers

Armour project, Booth Centre Manchester, 13th July 2017

Behind brittle barriers
Guest blog by singer-songwriter Matt Hill 

Here's a question. Is it possible to get a group of non-musicians together in a room for a couple of hours and get them to write a song? I was asked by Arthur & Martha to come to the Booth Centre in Manchester to help them find out. I'm pleased to report that it certainly is possible!

Although none of our group had direct experience of writing songs they were certainly no strangers to creativity and ideas came thick and fast.  We started by thinking about the theme of our song – that of armour and protection. We did some exercises to help us find words associated with armour and words related to how armour makes us feel – safe, secure, protected.

Matt Hill and Christine

To give us some inspiration we spent some time listening to and discussing a song called 'I am a rock' which was a hit song for Simon & Garfunkel back in 1965. The character in the song is someone who has been hurt deeply and is now a loner, without friends, hiding behind a self constructed wall. 

'I've built walls, a fortress deep and mighty,
That none may penetrate.

I am shielded in my armor, hiding in my room, save within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.

I am a Rock, I am an island.'

© Paul Simon 1965

We wondered what might have happened to this person to make him that way? We thought the most likely cause would be a family or relationship breakdown. Those kinds of problems are a known factor in causing homelessness and we found other parallels to the issues homeless people face.

The discussion touched on the extreme vulnerability of sleeping rough, when a sleeping bag is your only armour. We talked about how drugs and alcohol can create an emotional fortress giving a (false) sense of protection. Above all we felt a sense of strong sadness that the person in 'I am a rock' was cutting themselves off from possible support and help. We decided our song would have some elements of positivity about love, faith and support.

‘The whole thing  (‘I am a rock’) is about me. But I am coming out of it. I want to face the music, not run away- to give up on love is to give up on life.’ Karlton

When we came to write our song we zoomed in on the word 'barrier'. A barrier can be something that is put in place to keep people out. But it can also be put in place to offer us protection and keep us safe. We liked that it had two different sides to it. We discussed the implications of this – positive and negative – on people who put up barriers to others.

An effective technique in songwriting is alliteration where several words beginning with the same letter are strung together. We decided to adopt this and went for 'Behind brittle barriers' as our title. We included the word 'brittle' to reflect that emotional barriers can be broken down, given the right amount of love and support.

'I didn't know I had this in me.'  Christine.

After some thrashing out of melody and chords (we definitely wanted the song's music to sound upbeat) we arrived at a finished version just as our 2 hour deadline approached. We then ran downstairs to do a very quick and impromptu performance! (video link) 

As a songwriter I've never worked on a song that was finished so quickly or one that was so truly collaborative. Each person in the group contributed something useful and different and the song reflects that with a broad range of ideas. Above all what I get from the song is a sense of hope – that everyone – brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers – are hiding behind barriers of some kind, but that they are brittle and with hope and faith in each other we can find the support we need.


Gavin stitching for the Armour project


Behind brittle barriers

Behind brittle barriers you can't feel safe
Behind brittle barriers you can't feel the bass
Barriers block the way, push obstacles away
Behind brittle barriers

Cradle me in your arms and keep me safe
Don't let me loose or lose my faith

Behind brittle barriers, behind brittle barriers
People behind brittle barriers

Clashing through conflict (Behind brittle barriers)
Sisters and mothers (Behind brittle barriers)
Encased in emotions (Behind brittle barriers)
Fathers and brothers (Behind brittle barriers)

Behind brittle barriers, behind brittle barriers
People behind brittle barriers

Soul, child, adult  (Behind brittle barriers)
Don't lose your faith  (Behind brittle barriers)
Barriers block the way
Push obstacles away
People behind brittle barriers

Behind brittle barriers, behind brittle barriers
People behind brittle barriers