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.

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