An editor at Abacus once complained, reading a draft of my second novel, that it didn’t have enough flags to help the reader through. ‘We don’t all live inside your head you know,’ he said. Adding, ‘And thank God for that.’ Harsh, but fair.
I’ve told that story against myself for years, but it’s only recently I’ve understood what it means. Only recently I’ve come fully to understand that I’m different from you. My writing, poetry in particular, has become strongly informed by an urge to examine how words make us who we are, and especially in personal relationships, where the difference between me and you matters most of all.
As a performer, writer, teacher, as an autistic (though when younger, I just thought I was weird), I’ve never once had to a 9-to-5 job. Never had a permanent contract. I have, for most of my adult life, taught in universities but always on the periphery, always the maverick, always the one who can be slid from the scale when the financial going gets tough. But I’ve always too been that teacher who gets some fantastic results by forging genuinely collaborative creative communities. Art, it seems to me, is not solitary or institutional but created in relationships between work(s), sometimes even explicitly.
Some artists find this a more fruitful place than others. This heavily tattooed woman no-longer-young but rejecting middle-aged convention, this working-class presence among the middle-classes, this autistic mind in a neurotypical world, is in many ways an outsider, which is no bad thing. It can mean having to collaborate with your own life at its variant points. Certainly it can be an advantage for a writer to be neither fowl nor good red herring but always flesh, and fit in everywhere and nowhere. To be someone who must find the strange connections between things, because their own life involves having to find those in order to be integrated at all. Those strange connections become then a form of sanity.
I was talking last Sunday, over weak tea, with a Regius Professor of Divinity I’d just met, about inclusion in the church. I mentioned that I’d not been to university until I was 26.
Him: And what were you doing until you were 26?
Photographer Steve Armitage and I both grew up in the working-class new town of Basildon, Essex, where I’d been part of an alternative crowd. I’d had no choice really: the mainstream and I didn’t understand or want each other. When we met again, after many years as exiles, Armitage and I discovered or perhaps created a shared passion to document what had happened to the place where we’d been young, where I’d played bass in a goth band called The Hints and he’d been often to see us on a Friday night. ‘New town builds decay at all one rate’ as I say in one of our pieces; ours was a conscious decomposition against youthful memory that we wanted to build inside a balance between his pictures, my words. Into the pictures’ lovingly documented bleakness, I poured what happened to the members of a fictional local band as they, too, moved slowly and at the same time towards death.
Schizophrenic south-eastern soul
That’s not him.
That is him.
That’s not him, man.
We peer at the buffering image:
pudding-basin hair, brown dad jumper,
crazy feet, moving to music we can’t hear,
though I think it’s probably outside his head.
Oh, my wild frontman.
He’d spit green at sentimental and yet secretly
(as though passing a note to Karen Clifton
as though filtering off Dad’s Piccadilly
as though letting my coldsore weep into communion wine)
I hope broken minds don’t hurt too much.
Many of the Basildon pieces have been published in journals, although we envisage, ultimately, a book. That joint project is nearing completion, and we sometimes collaborate on stand-alone pieces or shorter sequences as well. The photos don’t illustrate the poems or vice versa, though it’s crucial that Armitage’s pictures have no people in them and that my poems are narrative/character-based, so are all about the voices. The meaning of what we call our photopoems exists in the relationship. This does, of course, raise the question of who is driving any given piece. What’s the difference between what I see and what I show? What’s the difference between what you see and hear and what I think I’ve shown or told you? Who decides? How do we negotiate? It’s a kind of conversation, constantly shifting. And it’s peculiarly interesting for us as I’m not a visual person at all and Steve finds words difficult, so we fill the gaps for each other. Perhaps defining yourself is always going to depend on others.
I wonder as well if it’s helpful that we don’t see each other very often, and when we do the time is very intense, focused exclusively on work followed by alcohol – and even over beer, wine, whiskey, we talk work, only work. The physical distance in our lives allows this focus without any of the distractions of the domestic or sex or pedagogy, and I would say (for us) makes for more concentrated art. Any fights are about who is more committed, who might be doing more – in other words, who is serving the art – not over who does the dishes, which can never matter to us.
This is a photopoem from a seven-piece death cycle, most of which has already appeared. It’s really about what it means to have death captured by life and defined by it, I think – though Steve talks more in terms of these being the pictures that insisted on being taken and therefore would insist on being written.
He might have spoken a foreign language
I gave birth to a boy without a face.
Your component parts were there –
eyes, nose, mouth, the usual things –
but they didn’t make a face.
Still, I’m not sure why.
Others almost always saw it, too
and tested their humanity on you.
You were a tough marker, man.
That English guy in Limoges –
I saw what he said to you. Didn’t hear
his words or your reply, but I could read
his face. You couldn’t,
your not-eyes soft black pits.
So you smiled without a mouth
shrieked till his real ears bled
speckling his shoulders
and he shivered as though his blood were iced.
It was hardly worth translating.
But France was warm. We gave a local seer
five cool francs to discover you’d be glad
of being special. You ate the soft parts
of crusty bread, had salt on frites. You cared
that the pool was cold and the lizard dead
and one day bit his corrugated tongue
where you learned to ride a bike. Unimpaired.
Later, when you’d died, we went to the desert
and saw a cow corpse who had your eyes.
As often in our joint work, the picture came first though within the context of Armitage seeing with my vision as well as his own; clearly, our collaboration means finding a joint metaphor. Some of his work appears in my collection, Georges Perec is my hero (2015), but that was early in our collaboration and there, we fit pictures to pre-existing poems more literally. But now, his lens intuits what I might see. I should add that he never sets up a picture; despite his work being used on mainstream book covers, he’s an opportunistic photographer, prepared to walk for hours through urban estates or desert terrain to gain a couple of usable shots. I have only once been on a photoshoot with him – except when he did my publicity shots, making me part of the brickwork he so loves – and was wholly redundant: I sat, cold and miserable and full-bladdered, on benches or prowled deserted rows of shops, while he pointed and clicked, distracted by nothing in the detail of what he saw.
And that is the key to our collaboration, perhaps: my autism means I am interested in detail that others often simply walk past; Armitage, though neurotypical, has a special interest in detail to rival many autistic focalizing eyes.
While Steve Armitage is my main collaborator, I have worked with others. The Voice was commissioned as a performance piece by artist-curator Jane Boyer, in response to the Phantom exhibition in 2017 at the Ruskin Gallery in Cambridge. She’d invited artists to submit a work from their back catalogue, then to make a new piece based on their current response to their original work. In each case, both the original and the response would be shown. In her curatorial statement, Boyer says she wanted ‘all the impossible combinations of things to link and take voice’. Boyer made a cento (work made from the quoted words of others) from the titles of the original pieces, and I responded both to this and – despite my lack of visual expertise – to the art. Then the performance of my long poetic piece was to take the place in a symposium of a keynote address. I knew Boyer only professionally, so my words didn’t come out of a relationship with a person, but with the work alone.
That response wasn’t ekphrastic, but (unsurprisingly I think) my contribution to those combinations of things. My neurodiversity meant being challenged by sensory overload from some of the work, all of which was non-representational but much of which my brain tried to make representational. It was also a class response: a working-class voice inhabiting the privileged art forms of the highly educated. And because humans need stories, what started as a metaphor for my relationship with specific visual art became, subsequently, something else: the first-person tale of two cleaners, Helen and Bill.
Perhaps to offset the shapes and colours and wilfully shifting focus of both the static and moving pieces, I chose to use blank verse: unrhymed iambic pentameter offers the concentration of formal devices with the malleability and rhythms of natural speech. It isn’t directly representational but the ear tries to hear it as naturalistic. Because I was inspired to make the characters neurodiverse but with conditions not the same as my own, I had to move away from the art I’d spent so many hours contemplating (both digitally and when hung) to research, including with generous real people. I’d researched one of these conditions for my third novel Presenting…the Fabulous O’Learys (2017), yet it needed re-research: I wasn’t attempting a generic picture of Tourette’s Syndrome (how could I? I’m neither a Touretter nor a believer in medicalised uniformity) but telling one, very specific, story.
The Voice runs at about an hour, which takes bottle to perform – easy to lose your nerve and wonder if you’re boring them into a coma – but it can feel good to be two people so different from me for such a long time.
That said, neurodiverse artist/poet Harry Dell and I recently performed The Voice as a two-hander; it had then to take on a different vibe. We’re wrong for Bill and Helen both visually and in age, but that’s unimportant because The Voice is about what people do and don’t, can and can’t, say of themselves. Harry is from Cumbria; in rehearsal we found ourselves having to change some Essex lines to make them sound in his voice authentic rather than cod. So Bill’s ‘Helen talked / as if my ears was worth anybody’s / words’ became ‘Helen talked / as if my ears were worth anybody’s / words’ and so on. Bill’s idiolect, sociolect, dialect had to shift; who he is changed. This stuff isn’t cosmetic – Shaw was right that we make value judgments based on how someone sounds. Working with another poet in performance subtly changed the fabric of the piece. Jane Boyer came to see the new manifestation; she also said that originally, me performing as a man and a woman exposed a weird kind of transference, observably a reaction to the visual art; in the version with Harry, it became a no-less-powerful but more public and therefore much less strange piece.
On a personal level, I’ve been Harry’s mentor for years, first at university and then informally, so helped form his words. This complex chemistry added impact to our performance. People have wondered if there are elements of the maternal or the sexual or whether ours has morphed into ordinary friendship; none of that is close to the truth. We think the world of each other but our relationship is based on our position to our work. Even though these days Harry reads for me almost as often as I do for him, that relationship has a definite hierarchical structure. Of course now, he works to shift the dynamic, that question of which of us defines which, as I did with my own mentor – who convinced me at first meeting that poetry is beautiful and true. Harry wrote about this and surprised me by performing the poem at a gig before I’d read it, throwing some of my ‘banned’ words back at me (relate, flow), taking ownership of them. My response is naturally complicated because although a fine piece, it talks about mentoring becoming collaboration becoming overtaking – and I’m not ready to wave him past.
Words I could Never Write (For Gertrude)
How do I tell you that I want your legacy
to be my shadow. My name will leave
lips first while yours is the hipster rebuttal
‘He was nothing without her influence’
‘Yeah, but who are we talking about’
I could paint peace on this and tell you
you’re The Joy to my Jack but
I know it’d mean nothing to you
So here’s our field of blossoms
My Big Boss rank
and you’re patriot shot
Let’s try a stanza for you-
Remember teaching this one
Around an oil drum for a snapshot of
why a list of fish left nothing but frustration
and spite in sequence, three tones
and my friend with blue lips
I hope you can relate to the flow here
because tomorrow is spelled out in metaphor
fear for the rest reaching for my eyelets
Maybe I never sent you arrogance in gold.
The words have sunk in like ink, mind
you’ll be proud when I leave you behind.
The difference between you and me. Between one collaborator and another. Between mentor and mentee. Between pictures and words. Between performance and the page. Concomitance and separation inhabit each pair. The collaborator becomes a contributor to philosophical discussions of identity and difference or sameness and otherness. And when we return to make art as separate entities, we bring experiential evidence of those discussions into that new solo work. I’m a stronger poet for sometimes working with the work of others; I hope those others feel similarly about me. Though not the same. Two doesn’t, despite the reunion of the Spice Girls, ever become one.