Sunday, 23 February 2014

Notes on My Third Meeting

I am almost 32. There was more
speaking during meeting today. My mind
was a garden shed full of sharp tools
and inside, a kid 
spinning a red balloon around his head.
Outside the window, a wood pigeon
perched in the same wintered tree the entire hour,
statue-still while the wind blew
all the bare surrounding branches about.
One Friend stood up and read Advice 29:
Approach old age with courage and hope.
As far as possible, make
arrangements for your care in good time,
so that an undue burden does not fall
on others. Although old age may bring increasing
disability and loneliness,
it can also bring serenity, detachment and wisdom.
Pray that in your final years you may be enabled
to find new ways of receiving and reflecting God's love.
That man sat down, and minutes later, another
spoke the Serenity Prayer: God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change
the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
A third Friend, after some moments' silence, reminded me
that though we are not all elderly, we might ask ourselves:
How old is your spirit?
Remember you are never only your untrustworthy body.
While your body ages, your spirit yearns to and can remain
young. In the silence I discovered my soul had grown old, 
angered, crippled by politics, injustice, the pressure
ulcers and blisters on the balls of my Spina bifida feet.
A fourth Friend read us Advice 19: Rejoice in the presence
of children and young people in your meeting
and recognise the gifts they bring. Remember
that the meeting as a whole
shares a responsibility for every child in its care.
Seek for them as for yourself a full development
of God's gifts and the abundant life
Jesus tells us can be ours.
How do you share your deepest beliefs with them,
while leaving them free to develop as the spirit of God
may lead them? Do you invite them to share their insights
with you? Are you ready both to learn from them
and to accept your responsibilities towards them?
The fifth and last Friend to speak 
quoted Damaris Parker-Rhodes (1977): There is a part of us
which from childhood is absolutely alone.
When we fall in love we imagine
we have found an ultimate assuagement of loneliness.
This is not so.
In a true marriage or a near friendship
what in fact is found
is a companion in loneliness.
And then, I swear, my eyes still closed,
I heard a child behind me hurtling into the hall
shouting: Mummy, 
look what I made! Others followed her in,
one boy was squealing, and the room erupted
with laughter. I opened my eyes,
and you won't believe me, but out the window, I
suddenly saw a squirrel run through the branches
of the same tree the wood pigeon was in, and then
another squirrel chased him around,
through, and between the branches
for a few seconds until
they, and the bird, had disappeared.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Crip/tography and Contemplation: Maybe Hope Still Burns?

(The tl;dr version – Click on the video at the bottom of this spiel-rant. Sharon Betcher compares Crips to zombies and suggests that we might symbolically, theologically, inherit the earth. Cool, I think you’ll agree.)

I’ve been feeling a ‘prompting’ (that’s what I would have called it when I was absolutely certain of the origin of my hunches) to more seriously couple my action / activism with contemplation / meditation, a coupling that Richard Rohr, founder of the Centre for Action and Contemplation (and other ‘New Monastics’) recommends but also – if we’re honest – that Jesus demonstrated in his life and death. I've been wanting to start following the contemplative way as a thing in itself instead of a trendy optional add-on to ‘contemporary’ Church, with its endless ill-fitting business models. I've been feeling defeated. I've been finding it impossible to believe in God. It began as the gradual realisation that I can’t associate ‘certainty’ or ‘assurance’ with faith any more, but neither am I satisfied by the endless abstractions that progressive or ‘emergent’ Christians tend to love mulling over, sometimes to no apparent end: ‘journey’, ‘mystery’, ‘unknowing’. However poetic and beautiful and necessary it is to come to terms with those, they couldn't be the foundation of commitment. I needed a middle way: not an on-the-fence way, but a way that I could wheel for a while without drunkenly veering into a ditch. But I could meditate. I could contemplate. To do that, I didn’t have to use words. Good, because I didn’t have any (not that I could speak, anyway; is writing prayer?).

Why has it suddenly occurred to me, again, that Jesus was a political and theological radical, an active(ist) contemplative fervently committed to a social justice that might free the oppressed, topple the establishment’s tables, put the last first? Someone that, like Nelson Mandela, I can’t help but admire and maybe even follow, even (or especially) on my most angry and depressed days? Even on those days when I can’t help but stare at the fact that Christians have so often been complicit in the same fascism as government; so often mirrored the world’s Social Darwinist / eugenics agenda in their Prosperity theology (yes, even if you don’t think you were influenced by prosperity theology, if you were a white Christian in the UK, you were). I couldn't escape it. It was everywhere. It was there every time somebody said that if I just confessed my sin, I could get up and walk. It was there when, at every healing meeting I ever attended, I dreaded the altar call because people surrounding me would constantly whisper “Are you going up to get prayed for?” and if I answered “No. I’m fine actually”, they'd look at me with shock, surprise and sometimes all-out disdain, like I was displeasing God for being proud, not ashamed, of how I was born. If God is God, she doesn't make mistakes: that was my inner conviction. But the battle cry that able-bodied people constantly shouted, like the baying of a crowd carrying torches and pitchforks, a pack of wolves snarling and howling around me, was: “Heal the sick and save the lost!” I couldn't escape at least one of those categories, maybe two: if I wasn't ‘lost’, I was still 'sick' until God would choose to bless an able-bodied person with the spectacle of witnessing my physical healing.

More generally, the story goes like this: the rich / able just happen to climb, and the poor / disabled just happen to fall: the LGBT person, the woman, the Crip, the person of colour. That’s just the way it is! The crash test dummy being paraded by my government during this ‘time of austerity’ is the same one who has been dressed in priestly vestments all of my disabled life in the Church: who can ascend the Hill of the Lord? Not you, leper, with the unclean hands and blemished, broken body. That’s just the way it is. The same crash test dummy but now dressed in a suit: who can our society afford to keep alive when ‘everyone is feeling the pinch’? Not you: your access, your equipment, your life, is too expensive. That’s just the way it is. Every day, I force myself to read these conversations and debates trying to measure the quantifiable worth of my life, because I want to stay informed. But the more informed I become the more I realise that throughout history, this crash test dummy is so quick at costume changes (mixed metaphor time!) that in every context where hate is spoken, and the dummy is lynched against a tree or starved or locked away in an asylum or murdered in a government-sanctioned cull, you might never realise he’s the same dummy underneath until you strip him of his clothes. Received wisdom says that God looks past our sins and sees Jesus within us: to that I say “BURN EVERYTHING.” This dummy is not Jesus.

Or is she? Maybe this dummy, who was crucified, was all of the oppressed? Maybe she was all of us, in our various costumes? Maybe, when God looks at me, she doesn't see Jesus instead of me in the sense of Perfection instead of Brokenness, or Perfection instead of Sin (the received Wisdom). Maybe, when she looks at me, she sees staring back at her the frustrated, angry, reactive, ‘irrational’ face of Jesus replying to his detractors, foes and defenders of the status-quo: “You’ve seen it written… But no, I say…” (to the Pharisees and Sadducees); “Get behind me Satan!” (to Peter, who, again according to ‘received wisdom’, was infuriating because in spite of having everything constantly explained to him, he Just. Didn’t. Get it. Jesus isn't calling Peter “The Devil” here, I don't think – not in the red, horned, cloven-hooved, arrow-tailed sense – but, I think, using the word to mean ‘adversary’, ‘antagonist’, spanner in the works of my calling, defender of the status quo that I’m trying to affect and change without people like you constantly shouting me down). Maybe, when God turns to look at us, she sees that Jesus: the same Jesus who, through our defeated silence, still turns to her and reactively snipes back: "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" Jesus the Non-violent Radical, the Active(ist) Contemplative.

I've had this sense for a while that I'm slowly being taken by the hand back to some sort of faith through my disability and LGBT activism (from instigating and co-editing Poets Against Atos online, through to shouting down into the canyon that is Facebook and Twitter). This candle has been burning within me ever since, as a teenager, I first read of the L’Arche Community in France, a monastic community which, since its founding by Jean Vanier in 1964, has carved out a spiritual-disciplinary way of life inclusive of people with learning (and other) disabilities. At my age, over the last several years, I’ve been assimilating that early lighting of the candle with my knowledge of the Disability Civil Rights Movement, and the Crip as a political and social figure with his/her own battle against societal oppression. I always knew we weren’t wallflowers. Always. And all my life, I've been trying to put a name to that conviction.

So tonight (as I’m writing the first draft of this post, it’s 1:35am), I was surfing the net, reading on various civil rights movements, then -- after wondering what part 'God' played in some of them -- various liberation theologies. African-American theology was where I wanted to start, because that (along with Latin American liberation theology itself) seemed to me to be a movement entirely comfortable with radicalism and anger in the best, most effective sense (unlike church). Then I looked again at queer theology. Then again at feminist theology. Then I asked myself: is there a Crip theology? I knew much had been written by the L’Arche Community, and elsewhere, about disability and theology, so there was some thought around it: Nancy L. Eisland’s The Disabled God: Towards aLiberatory Theology of Disability, a book I read as a teenager, was the first depiction of God I ever encountered that made any kind of sense whatsoever. And that disabled God has been my God ever since, at least, the only God I would share with others without some embarrassment. But, because the ‘Crip’ figure is so powerful to me (so socially and politically engaged, like ‘queer’), I was curious to see whether anyone in Christian theological thought was using it.

Then I found this wonderful talk on video by Sharon Betcher called Crip/tography: Disability Theology in the Ruins of God, given at Harvard Divinity School. It's an hour and a half long. It’s fairly academic. It explores whether the Post-Apocalyptic genre in cinema and fiction might reveal something about Crips and their place in theology, faith, and the re-imagining / rebuilding of hope. It’s political and aggressive, as well as tender and loving and funny and… I need it right now. On a day when I’ve also been formally introduced to Stevie Wonder’s run of classic 70’s albums for the first time, with their recurring jubilant praise to God coupled with a rage and satire against systemic racism and the capitalist greed that maintains it, I need this. Since the devastating death of Nelson Mandela, I've needed this. Maybe someone else will find it interesting (if you’ve got this far and you’re still reading, you probably will, to be fair). Maybe someone else needs this as much as I do. I don’t know. But it gives me hope, and hope is something I’ve not felt in a long time.

I’ve also remembered, or freshly discovered, that faith – whatever else it is – is an act of hope and imagination. I have no time for the word ‘belief’ lately. It means nothing to me anymore. It’s a watered-down version of ‘know’, and atheists and agnostics figured this out a long time ago. If you ‘believe’ something, you have no evidence for it other than your pride and big booming voice, and the ability to shout down someone who doesn't have your pride or your big booming voice. ‘Trust’ is better; it’s an active word. To ‘trust’ God implies you are actively seeking an ongoing relationship with the Divine; it’s not just dry argument, and doesn't require 'knowledge'. It’s about love. But I still find myself having to pretend I ‘believe’ in order to ‘trust’. And ‘belief’ is just the younger cousin of ‘knowing’. But can I imagine? Can I say ‘I don’t believe that God exists. I imagine that God exists’, purely because it fulfils me to do so and gives me hope? I think I can, in as much as faith is ‘hope’ and ‘imagination’. That’s what I do in my poetry, the writing of which transforms and shapes me as much as I hope it does a few readers. So I don’t believe that God exists. I imagine that God exists. The rest is concrete, and perfectly visible to the naked eye: anti-hate / anti-fascism, love, liberation and social justice.

Two quotes from the video:

“Should these intuitions of the post-apocalyptic sensibility constructively inform liberal theology in the ruins of God, ‘Crip’ becomes the possible ‘Yes’ to life, to vitality, a possible figural pivot for some kind of faith, a rune stone thrown hoping that therein we might discover what makes leading a life now possible. Criptography, this disability theology in the ruins of God, considers what theology might be, and do, among the damned and damaged in the winter of the worn-out and wrecked relics of commodity capitalism, and God – in the ruins, that is.”

“It’s not unknown for Crips to throw chaplains out of the hospital room.”

Monday, 13 January 2014

Something Like a Leviathan

I will not be the gist you find
when you cut
into the whale-gut of the Zeitgeist.

You with your
necropsy knives don't understand.
I am flat-tired
of being the subjects of your discussions: 

Christians, on whether (or not) I sin by simply existing,
an abomination even before the beginning (because I define 
decay for you, don't I?
Don't worry, my blemished body will not be offering
up your Sunday's priestly sacrifices).

Atheists, on when, and at which intersection, 
society, armed with Brother Darwin,
will find me too crippling on the economy
to keep alive. (Smack your
Sharpie marker somewhere along this timeline,
says the sociology teacher.) 

So say you don't think of me
as disabled again. Well then, when
you slice open this rant piece 
by blubber-piece
you won't mind I didn't think
of you as critic.

And to think, your teeth have always been
sharper than my baleen. Go on -- cut again.

Friday, 17 May 2013

FreshFriarFairAir: a review of Stephen Nelson's 'YesYesY' (Little Red Leaves textile series)

metimes I snow ear snare
               sneer at the des
                                        crip t(i)on

o fan object
                   not st
raight f or ward ly 'poem' as

pure poetry. Butt hen Ire ad

o bey obese base save serve

(t ex tile   co lo ur   (c)raft)

so me thin gas
love ly as St
                   ephen Nelson's

wh y(e)t he
                ion ex ists.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Press, Open: more notes on Lever Arch

Lever Arch (The Knives Forks and Spoons Press) will soon be here. It's a purgatory: me flexing tools and reminding myself / learning afresh / destroying what they can do. It's me forgetting how to write a poem and reteaching myself; showing all my working-out like a good maths pupil. There are poems about disability, faith, love, (non)nature, (dis)place(ment), 'queerness'. If you can't tell where one theme ends and another begins, it might be about intersectionality. Here are three other inspirations:

The Tarot

The first thing I looked at was the Tarot. I'm interested in the idea of exploring 'what's on the cards' not so much to predict the future (I don't believe in fate or predestination), but to reflect on and explore the past and present. Events create themselves by chance. Poetry isn't a camera; it doesn't just freeze, mono-angled, on another event, or picture, and comment on it. Poems are always new events for the reader, made of bits-and-pieces of old ones. That's what deja vu is. So the book ended up as a Tarot of 'visual text', with five suits instead of four, with no art other than front and back covers (I'd originally planned to illustrate the suits, but decided against it -- I don't think you can so easily separate exegesis [drawing meaning out of] from eisegesis [putting meaning into]). The other thing left over from my initial dabble into the Tarot idea is the occasional appearance of The Fool, either as himself or as a sudden injection of bathos in the poems. He hopefully keeps them from becoming too sincere or sentimental. There's a lot of play to counteract the darkness (I enjoyed the fact that this old European card game, made purely for leisure, gradually became loaded with symbolic, esoteric and occultic meaning, all thanks to a priest obsessed with the 'hidden things').

"Open Field"

Charles Olson's 1950 essay 'Projective Verse' was the main practice of the Black Mountain Poets, one of whom was Larry Eigner. He had Cerebral Palsy, and the formal presentation of his poems reflects that disability (in retrospect, he never announced it -- was it because he felt the literary world wouldn't accept him if he did?): his laborious speech, with plenty of breath and pause, and his struggle to type on a heavy-keyed typewriter, are reflected in short snatches of fragment and syntax, and quick changes of subject and diction.

My own disabilities, Spina bifida and Hydrocephalus, are hopefully present in some formal / aesthetic choices I make. Hydrocephalus ("Water on the Brain") presents various cognitive / psychological difficulties which are hidden to others but a daily reality for me. For example, because parts of my brain were damaged at birth, other parts have had to overcompensate for the loss. Those parts tend to concentrate on emotion, feeling, imagination. I often have to find emotional 'bridges' into dry and logical tasks, like admin, form-filling,  or trying to read a map or a train timetable. These can drive me into an unfathomable panic. Finding those 'bridges' can mean the difference between me completing a task or giving up.

In "Open Field" poetics, the page is thought of as an infinite compositional space without edges (like on a DLA application: if there's not enough room, just staple more paper to the form...). So some poems are stretched across the page, with white space instead of punctuation. A few poems spill onto the next page, sometimes by chance, but sometimes as that page break creates a point of emphasis, acts like another 'stanza break'. My interest in scale ('page as field' is such an interesting phrase and idea) is also there in the poems, where an arch is a defining aspect of a church building; a lever is part of a well. But both are part of the file's mechanism as well. "Open Field" lends itself well to landscape, so I've taken inspiraation from the radical landscape poetry in (for example) The Ground Aslant (Shearsman), once or twice using my local landscape (Hengistbury Head, Bournemouth Beach).

The pwoermd ('poem word'), the one-word poem. Poets like Stephen Nelson inspired me to play with not just the form and ingredients of poems but the composite parts of words themselves. And sometimes I'll split a word in order to create two words (dropping the latter part(s) of a word to the next line), which might shed more light on the poem -- two words for the price of one. If this interrupts the reading, good; I'm trying to look at where (in a poem / in life) we should pause and think, and whether it's always where we're told to pause and think.

The Contemplative Tradition

No matter how my faith has changed and developed as I've grown, the contemplative (or 'monastic', or 'mystical') tradition is probably the one 'stream' that's most often passed through my 'bullshit detector' without making it go off. At its best, it's pure, clean, genuine. It reaches the Divine, 'the other', directly rather than having to go through several walls of human paraphernalia to get there. It says: 'Come to me, all of you who are weary...', and delivers on that invitation, meeting the receiver at his / her most depleted and depressed. The contemplative mood / tone, whatever it is, hopefully offsets the displacement, panic and anxiety that are also part of this book. The 'Keep Calm' meme has been interestingly prophetic. Being calm is more vital than ever.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Lever Arch

With just two days to go before Fit to Work: Poets Against Atos is launched online, this is to say how pleased I am that my second pamphlet, Lever Arch, was accepted yesterday for publication by the generous, risk-taking and experimental The Knives Forks and Spoons Press. So many writers I admire have been published with them (some of whom we're featuring in 'FTW', as it happens) that it's a real boost. Naturally, the manuscript will probably not stay exactly the same from now until publication (do they ever?) but to give you a hint, it inadvertently asks more questions than it answers: how do I further explore and develop in terms of subject-matter and form (there is minor deconstruction, breaking language apart in order to figure out how to build it into something else); where am I 'travelling'; how do I get there if I don't know what 'there' is or even 'here'; and, most crucially, what is a poem anyway? (There was a point there when I just plain forgot; I was 'winging it'.) So the pamphlet's a bit of a purgatory. But whatever 'experimental' means -- and I have a different (inadequate) answer depending on the day -- The Knives Forks and Spoons was the perfect place for it.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The Next Big Thing

I was tagged by fantastic poet and all-round nice guy Matt Merritt to take part in the ongoing blog project The Next Big Thing. A writer answers a series of questions on an existing or forthcoming book, and then tags four other writers to do the same thing on their blog (or other Internet venue of choice!). You can read Matt’s interview here. I’m shockingly late with mine, but better late than never, right?
Where did the idea for the book come from?
Fit To Work: Poets Against Atos is an online ‘rolling’ anthology that I’m editing, as we speak, with Sophie Mayer and Daniel Sluman. The idea has been gradually becoming more concrete over the last year or so. It's a culmination of the seemingly endless news articles, experiences of good friends and colleagues, and petitions and campaigns which I’ve come across over the last two years. Countless individuals and organisations (including in the poetry world) have protested the Coalition’s welfare reforms already, but I felt it was time that specific attention was given to Atos, the firm employed by the government to assess disability and capability for work on behalf of the DWP.
Under the government's witch hunt for ‘skivers’, Atos has been wreaking havoc. Our message: end the Atos contract, end it now, and, if the system was broke in the first place (I have my doubts), at least rethink the reforms directly and negatively affecting the disabled and sick. The poets contributing to FTW are joining a protest which has been relegated to the disabled community for too long. On one hand, the damage is being done among the disabled and the chronically sick; but on the other, an intelligent, nuanced and compassionate welfare system is something we, the people, should be rallying to protect. We can’t afford to dismiss any kind of oppression as a ‘special interest group’ concern. Oppression is everyone’s issue. I guess the project is part of my ongoing need to see whether poetry can make something happen.
What genre does your book fall in?
Poetry and political protest writing, in a similar vein to other political poetry anthologies, like Emergency Verse: Poetry in defence of the Welfare State, The Robin Hood Book: Verse Versus Austerity, Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot, and Binders Full of Women. I wanted to include both known, practicing poets, and people who wrote as a hobby but were directly affected and wanted to speak out publically. I also wanted to build myself a bridge from the ‘poetry community’ into the disability arts community, since the anti-Atos voice screaming the loudest is (naturally but frustratingly) that of disabled and chronically ill people.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
I might find some way of answering this question when I know which poems we have. Fit To Work: The Movie. I’ll definitely keep it in mind.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Cripple-poet-editor gets angry, and gathers an army of other poets to sharpen their tools, don their anon masks, paint their signs and go on a proetest march.
How long did it take to write the first draft of the manuscript?
We created a Facebook group, to gather an initial number of submissions to launch with, before Christmas. The deadline for that ‘first wave’ is February 15th. But as it's a rolling anthology online, it will hopefully be an organic and evolving process with updates made to the site as we go along, as more people want to get involved. We’ve already had great support from Disability Arts Online and are working on eventually having an e-book or print book to represent the project.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I’ve already answered that, probably. Erm… OK, how’s this? The Triune Muse of Anger, Despair and Hope.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Being online, I’m hoping that these poems will be accessible to various audiences, particularly disabled people who use assistive technology and software to read books. That’s something a lot of the e-book vs. print book debate has missed, I think. Ultimately the debate shouldn’t be about what shape a ‘real book’ is, but how many people are able to access literature, and, in this case, who is given a voice to protest and who is made to sit up and hear it. And the book isn't all explicit angry-punk-protest; there will also be exciting and beautiful approaches to poetry by disabled people, and about the disabled body and experience.
Is your book self-published or represented by an agency?
I'm probably repeating myself, but it will begin life as an online ‘rolling anthology’, eventually becoming a database of those ‘fit to work’ against ruthless welfare reform, but specifically Atos’ part in it (and by extension, all outsourced private firms helping to contribute to the problems as reported by, say, Panorama). We are looking into the idea of eventually having an e-book and / or print anthology, possibly representing a selection of the best of the work we featured during FTW’s online incarnation. Or we might just chuck everything in. We’ll see.
The writers I'm planning to tag are:
Charlotte Henson
John Clegg
Maria Gornell
Ben Parker