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

The above poem I Wrote Your Name in the Sky extemporises on a piece by Jessica Blade, which itself is a Bible adaptation: "Behold I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me."

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.