This year’s theme for National Poetry Day is truth. Have you ever had that gut-twisting feeling when someone has lied about you? And those lies have made other people see you differently; treat you differently, maybe even hate you? That’s kind of where we are. We live in the age of lies and the age of lies is also the age of hate. The low level hate that happens on buses and in classrooms and board rooms and the loud hate that rallies and waves banners. Telling the truth isn’t just about having your say, it’s about understanding where the hate comes from, talking about what it does and passing the shame back to the haters and away from the victims.
Hate leaves a mark beyond the moment and what poetry of witness does it it registers that mark, the wound the hate leaves. Not the statistics, not facts – something that is and beyond truth: the wound on the individual and by extension the community.
In August I delivered a workshop called The Poetry of Witness as part of my Book of Godless Verse project, at Book Corner in Saltburn. I’d like to share the notes and activities with you here, to celebrate National Poetry Day, and to encourage you to work with words to tell your truth.
If you write something as a result of this I’d love to share it via this blog page. Please send all submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject heading: POETRY OF WITNESS by the 31st October.
In the preface to her 1968 collection of essays, “Men in Dark Times,” Hannah Arendt wrote: “Even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination.” Today, in our own dark time, Arendt’s work is being read with a new urgency, precisely because it provides such illumination.
Hate and extremism thrive when we collude with the darkness, so let’s throw some light on our world right now.
Can writing make a difference?
Here is an extract from Tough by Tony Walsh (Longfella) from the Common People Anthology, published by Unbound this year, showing that the power of writing is to bring people together.
They don’t like it when our writers can ignite us into fighters
But it’s tough, we’ve had enough and we are coming.
Let’s take this as our mission in our writing for this task.
Walsh is talking about how writing brings people together in the cause for change. But it’s just as important for writing to spark personal revolutions as well as political, here is Jeanette Winterson on the power of writing and its impact on her private revolution.
I had no one to help me, but the T. S. Eliot helped me.
So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is.
It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.
Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
So let’s just agree now that language, especially poetry can do the job of witnessing these chaotic times, it can deliver a political message, it can deliver an emotional message, it can deliver a private message, it can help the writer, it can change the reader. It can witness that wound. That’s what language does.
Activity 1 WHAT TO WITNESS?
How Do We Find What We Want to Say? And How Do We Say It?
Here’s a headline from the Huffington Post:
Chancellor Philip Hammond has faced a backlash after dismissing the idea that vast numbers of British people live in dire poverty.
Hammond hit out at a report by UN special rapporteur Philip Alston which stated one fifth of the British population – 14 million people – live in poverty.
The Chancellor told BBC2′s Newsnight: “I reject the idea that there are vast numbers of people facing dire poverty in this country.”
He said: “I don’t accept the UN rapporteur’s report at all.
Here’s what the BBC said:
The UN report cites independent experts saying that 14m people in the UK – a fifth of the population – live in poverty, according to a new measure that takes into account costs such as housing and childcare.
According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1.5m people experienced destitution in 2017 – meaning they had less than £10 a day after housing costs, or had to go without at least two essentials such as shelter, food, heat, light, clothing or toiletries during a one-month period.
Published last month, the rapporteur accused the government of plunging millions into poverty, in some instances with “tragic consequences”.
Here’s The Guardian:
Multimillionaire Hammond lives in a different world to the rest of us. He displays a brutal complacency about the scale of poverty and human suffering his austerity programme has created,” John McDonnell shale chancellor said.
The chancellor said
John McDonnell said
The expert said
The report said
£10 a day
Who is the real expert on poverty?
Did any of the news papers ask someone living in poverty what it’s like to live in Britain today? Someone with a name?
Poetry of witness restores authority to the author – to the one who experiences not the one who observes. Poetry of witness asks what happened and what does it feel like.
Here’s what award winning journalist Jon Snow said after the Grenfel disaster:
The Grenfell Tower disaster taught me a harrowing lesson – that in increasingly fractured Britain, we in the media are comfortably with the elite, with little awareness, contact, or connection with those not of the elite.
The media are on the wrong side of the social divide.
Here’s an extract from author Kerry Hudson’s Lowborn: a memoir of growing up in poverty in Britain.
In her opening chapter Hudson simply lists the raw events that characterised her life until her 18th birthday.
1 single mother
2 stays in foster care
9 primary schools
1 sexual abuse child protection order
5 high schools
2 sexual assaults
My 18th birthday
There’s something very powerful and poetic about the list form – about what it states and what it doesn’t say. By holding back hudson allows the events space to make an impact. It’s not statistics. It’s what happened. They have left a mark – a wound.
Activity 2 LIST
List five things you’ve experienced or seen that have left a mark.
Hudson goes on to outline what terrified her the most about writing her truth and why she still had to write it.
• What are you afraid of writing about?
For me it was always about the shame of my mother’s mental illness and my mental illness. Later when I suffered from post natal depression, it took me so long to seek help because of the guilt – how could I have a beautiful child and still feel this way? How can it still be happening?
• What do you need to write about to free yourself from the ‘tyranny of silence and gnawing shame that comes with voicelessness?’
Activity 3 WITNESSING, BEING INVISIBLE AND BEING SEEN, SEEING AND NOT TURNING AWAY
There are moments that we witness, moments that happen to us, to someone close to us or nearby us and what happens is so unutterably wrong we can’t find the words. But it hits us. The adrenaline the rage. It never leaves us. We replay it in moments of fear and shame. We wish we had done / said something. That’s what this section is for – to capture those moments, to witness the injustice and say it, out loud without shame.
What else do the headlines miss?
Who else do they not see or create space for on the page?
Here’s the BBC in 2017
Andy Murray corrects journalist’s ‘casual sexism’
Andy Murray has corrected a journalist after he said Sam Querrey, who knocked the British player out of Wimbledon earlier, was “the first US player to reach a major semi-final since 2009”.
The newly-deposed Wimbledon champion reminded the reporter he was only talking about male players, as there had, of course, been considerably more success for the US on the female side of the sport.
Since 2009, Serena Williams has won 12 Grand Slam tournaments.
The focus was on sexism. Serena Williams had not been seen by the journalist. This was shocking. On a deeper level, the media backlash focused rightly on the feminism issue but missed the intersection of sexism and racism.
The representation of the Williams sisters in global media is very problematic.
The Guardian: Murdoch press has strongly defended Knight and his cartoon. The executive chairman of News Corp Australia, Michael Miller, said criticism of Knight “shows the world has gone too PC”.
The editor of the Herald Sun, Damon Johnston, has said it had nothing to do with race or gender.
“A champion tennis player had a mega-tantrum on the world stage, and Mark’s cartoon depicted that,” Johnston said last year. “It had nothing to do with race or gender.
The press council ruled it was not racist.
Did anyone ask a black woman how it felt? To be made invisible? To be represented in that way as the angry black woman stereotype, the racially identifiable bodily features grotesquely exaggerated.
How does injustice happen, how does hate seed and how does it grow? Like this – it grows when the wrong people are asked if something is wrong. It wasn’t the press councils call to say it was wrong or not. He emotional impact was missing.
In Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine, lays down a very personal account of the experience of being black in America, ‘being treated as if you are not absolutely normal’. It is addressed to you, the reader so that you can feel it too, the slights, the hurt, the invisibilisation. The lived reality of racism. She describes the emotional impact of having to live with and stay silent about moments of casual racism that happen daily:
Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs. Like thunder they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx. Cough. After it happened I was at a loss for words.
Rankine very effectively uses lyrical prose to drive the message home about how it feels to be invisible even to friends. Rankine finds a place between poetry and prose, memoir and essay to tell her story her way.
By telling your story in your way you are insisting on taking your place back within the community of humanity.
In her 1951 work, “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Hannah Arendt wrote of refugees: “The calamity of the rightless is not that they are deprived of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion, but that they no longer belonged to any community whatsoever.” The loss of community has the consequence of expelling a people from humanity itself.
Activity 4 GETTING PERSONAL
1. Think of a time when you have personally experienced / witnessed a moment that stinks, when you felt the adrenaline and your heart racing with the disbelief that someone just said that to you, treated you in a way that was unforgiveable – because of your gender, class, race, religion, physical appearance or ability. But for whatever reason you were unable to do anything or speak out
2. Now free write, retelling that moment in the second person, capturing how you felt in your body and the details of the moment and the impact of the silence.
3. If you had to live the moment again, what do you wish you had said / done differently. Free write this.
FINAL ACTIVITY – THE THINGS WE CARRY: THE PERSONAL AND THE POLITICAL
How do we write in a way that is true but hits harder than headlines, experts, facts and figures. How do we write in a way that witnesses the moment of wounding in an intimate and powerful way?
How do we silence the expert observers, zero in on the millions and make it about one person. So that this becomes about the lived reality not the cold hard fact.
And how do we do that to evoke empathy rather than pointlessness of pity.
How do we find the personal and trace it back to the political?
One way in is in the story of the things we carry with us.
The key is to link personal and political and the things we carry with us everyday, the things that are precious to us that we dare not leave behind tell that story.
Here is an extract from my 2016 poem A Stranger’s Case, commissioned by the Durham Book Festival for The Book of Godless Verse:
When you pack you try to pack
only the things that belong to you
but somehow you end up taking the door.
You fold it up as small as it will go, into a paper boat,
ready for the flood. Your mother gives you
her green tiger from under the stairs,
your granpa’s chess set, the seed cup for the birds,
shoes your father wore only twice.
The pieces tick inside your bag
with the same tock as your mother’s clock
with all the things you never said back.
The tiger purrs, flexes her claws.
The things we take with us when we have to leave home are the most telling of all.
Leave means to ‘leave behind in the earth’ from the germanic, from Greek – to stick. Leaving involves pulling away from what remains, being stuck and looking back – what we were cannot travel with us but still we try – not knowing what is ahead.
• If you had to flee your home, with no warning, just get out, what five things would you take with you.
• Choose one object.
• We are going to explore the personal and the political story of the object.
• How was that object made? Who made it?
• Where does it come from?
• How much did it cost?
• What is it made from?
• What does it mean to you?
• Was it a gift?
• Who would you give it to if you were going to die? And why?
Example – a lipstick – if you absolutely cannot go anywhere without your lipstick what does that say about who you are, what you need. Add to this the story of how lipsticks are made. Who makes them. In what conditions?
Blend these answers together into a free verse poem.
By witnessing this world as it is, by telling it as we experience it, we react to history not become victims of it – we make power. The trick is that we don’t just get the luxury of becoming martyrs we get to survive and to map what that survival looks like so others can follow. There are many ways to write this kind of truth. Hopefully you’ve got a glimpse now of the different kinds of writing that can do that and still be poetic and daring. Writing that sees the wound the way a mother would to heal it. Not to report it. Not to study it. Not to record it. But to heal it.
That’s the power of writing.
‘What is poetry which does not save / Nations or people? / A connivance with official lies, / A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment … Czeslaw Milosz from The Witness of Poetry.