Monday 7 December 2015

6000 miles from home

We have to bomb, you say,
because they throw gay men off buildings.

He was white, and drunk, the man in the bar
who denounced my friends for kissing
and muttered something bitter
as he saw me leave the loo,

and the people most upset by this
were my American friends, reminded
that they could've been fired in Missouri
if their love had been uncovered,

and so moved here, 6000 miles from home,
to live and die free.

The bad guys throw gays off buildings.
You're the good guys: you only
escort us to the door.

All that cliche heartleap stuff

All that cliché heartleap stuff:
it happens when I hear you’re coming over,
when my phone vibrates and it’s your face I see,
and I think  how  banal
 that  this  thing
should  be  happening
to  me.         

When you let me lay my head on your shoulder
I wanted to take myself outside,
quote my own poems at my puddle-reflection,
put a water pistol in my mouth
and beat myself about the head
with a printed PDF
of  The  Romance  Myth,
saying  you  are  not  the  kind  of  girl
who  falls  for  this,  remember,
and also I didn’t.

When you kissed me on the lips before you left
I didn’t know where I should put the stress:

the kiss,
the leaving.

Monday 30 November 2015

Telling our lives in their words: Casey Plett, Imogen Binnie and the Never Mind the Hormones Tour

A bit of disclosure: this post is going to be partly about the night the awesome Never Mind the Hormones tour came to Newcastle, and partly about the Supreme Awesomeness of the books by that tour's featured authors, Casey Plett and Imogen Binnie. However, due to my scheduling commitments over the summer, I have not yet finished reading Binnie's Nevada, so I am almost certainly going to spend more of this review gushing in an embarrassing, fangirlish manner about Plett's A Safe Girl to Love. This is in no way a reflection on the quality of both because what I have read of Nevada so far is Supremely Awesome too. Both are great books, in fact in my opinion they are in fact Great Books, and you should go to the Topside Press site and buy both books right now. In fact, as they make ideal Christmas presents for anyone in your life, either trans or cis, I suggest you buy multiple copies. Your mum can thank me later (it won't be the first time).

July. I'm sat on a rooftop in Hammersmith telling a fellow poet about one of the most painful experiences of my life, not so much as therapy, but because a book I've been reading has finally given me a framework in which to think about that experience, and a lot of others too. That book is Casey Plett's A Safe Girl to Love, and what I am trying to impress on my fellow poet is that reading this book is a revelatory experience because it keeps punching me in some deeply personal places with how real it is, how much it chimes with my experiences as a trans woman in ways that nothing else I've read ever has. From the horrible thing that happens to Sophie in 'Other Women', through the much nicer thing that happens to Lisa in 'How Old Are You Anyway?' to the painfulness of getting make-up tips from your ex in 'How To Stay Friends', this is a book that feels like it was written for me. And for so many other trans women I know too: whenever I hear a friend's father talk to her on the phone in his Missouri drawl, I can't help but be reminded of the way Lizzy's dad speaks to her in 'Lizzy and Annie' - the accent may not be the same, the phrasing may be less crude, but the sense of a father accepting his daughter, at once one of the smallest and the biggest things there are, is there. And so many other things as well: the fact that women can be chasers too, the fear of going to parties, the poetry of drifting in a swimsuit and it not being a big deal...I can remember exactly where I was when I read each of these moments, because they took my breath away so much that I had to close the book (metaphorically speaking: I read this on a Kindle) and take a moment to compose myself.

I think the reason this book moved me so much was the fact that I am so used to seeing the trans experience presented through the lens of polemic, through journalism and blogging and activism, Hell, through my own writing - and that polemic is usually aimed at cis people. One way or another we always seem to be justifying ourselves to them: our right to use the right bathroom, our right to use words like cis, our right to simply fucking exist - and what is so goddam exhilarating about reading this book is it does none of that. This is not a book which aims to justify the ways of the trans to the cis. This is a book which says, quietly but firmly, fuck cis people: these are our stories. And it tells us those stories, it shares them with us, and we realise we're not alone.

I was alone pretty much everywhere I read these stories: because I spent a lot of time over the summer and autumn criss-crossing the country on various forms of public transport, I was usually surrounded by cis people in small metal boxes while reading them. But I didn't feel like the only one in the room when I read them, and that's what makes them so powerful.

So it was a huge honour to host both Plett and Imogen Binnie, author of the game-changing novel of trans experience Nevada, for the Newcastle leg of Topside's Never Mind the Hormones tour, and a pleasure to get together a group of local trans (and trans-allied) artists to read at said event. The rest of this post will, I'm going to be honest, just be unapologetic gushing about how fucking great that night was, interspersed with photos of people performing (all of these photos were taken by me, so apologies for the poor quality in advance).

After a brief intro from myself and Cat Fitzpatrick, Topside's Poetry Editor, the first to read was Mica Hind, one third of Newcastle's excellent storytelling oufit The Moss Troopers but also an excellent writer herself. Having Mica read at this event was really important to me because seeing her read at a local poetry event made me literally feel as if I wasn't the only one in that room:

Mica Hind
Next up we had Juli Watson, host of the AMOK radio show on Pride Radio North East and half of Newcastle Literary Salon, who read a new poem as well as two other poems of hers I totally love, 'Queen of Cups' and 'Filling the Void':

Juli Watson
It was great to host two local trans writers who hadn't performed before too, in the shapes of Ellen Mellor and Natalie V Sharp. Both more than gave a good account of themselves, Ellen reading a space travel story which I really hope she'll submit to Topside's forthcoming speculative fiction anthology, and Natalie doing a set of sharp, punchy poems which managed to cover chasers, sex and dysphoria in five minutes and fit in a Love and Rockets reference, which is the kind of thing which is always going to go over well with me:

Ellen Mellor
Natalie V Sharp
And then I read something. Given that I spent most of the night in a state of low-grade panic (this is the first time I've ever organised a gig), I didn't have the presence of mind to give someone my phone to take a photo of me reading. So, here's a video of me doing the poem I read. Because it was filmed over a year ago and before I went on blockers I look an absolute shambles, obviously:

After that, Cat got up again to introduce the Topside talent. I can't remember if Cat did her poem 'FUCKING AMY' at the start of the night or during this segment, but either way it was a brilliant exploration of the tensions of being a trans woman in a relationship with another trans woman. And so I am going to include a video of Cat reading said poem...

and I am also going to post a photo of Cat wearing the crown she wore for the Newcastle gig, because it is a most excellent crown:

Cat Fitzpatrick (with crown)
After that Beth Flanagan read two fantastic pieces, one about breast cancer and supernumary nipples, and the other an indictment of transphobia in Portland's queer scene which had me wanting to punch the air:

Beth Flanagan
And then the Main Event, as it were. Plett read excerpts from 'How to Stay Friends' and 'Other Women' and both were brilliant. I think I speak for everyone in the room in saying we'd all have been happy for Casey to read loads more (I personally would have liked her to read the entire book, though this would have both taken us past the event's advertised finishing time and been a gross abuse of her human rights):

Casey Plett
That's equally true of Imogen Binnie's reading too. Binnie opted to read a new story, rather than an excerpt from Nevada. Said story, which blended supernatural elements with a disquisition on nineties video game Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, had a final sentence which was so perfect, and packed so much complex emotion into a few words, that I urge you to read it as soon as it comes out. This was definitely another air-punch moment.

Imogen Binnie
I've rambled a lot in this piece; hopefully somewhere among all this you can see how important this event was to me. On a selfish level, 2015 has been an absolutely pivotal year for me and my writing, and I think this event, and discovering Topside more generally, is going to have a huge influence on where I go from here. And more generally, I am so made-up about the fact that Topside EXISTS, that a corner has been turned in trans literature and it is now no longer about them, the cis people we need to justify ourselves too: it's about us. These are our stories. Fuck cis people.

Saturday 28 November 2015

Howl of the Bantee blog UPDATED

Yes, after an absence of many months, the blog for my Edinburgh show Howl of the Bantee has been updated to cover the reprise of the show I did this month at Dogstar Brixton, and my thoughts on what I've learned from doing the show in both London and Edinburgh. Read it here.

Tuesday 17 November 2015

Of love and rice and water pistols - some thoughts on my Public Address piece - Part Three

(STOP! This post is a sequel to this one, describing the genesis of my Public Address piece, 'Shotgun Wedding', and this one, describing its evolution in response to some constraints we ran up against - so if you haven't read the previous two posts, you may wish to do so now. If you have, then read on...)

We ended the last post just prior to the first performance of the Public Address tour at Alphabetti Theatre in Newcastle, and with me somewhat concerned that without the fake blood we'd used in our test run, the piece might not have as much of an effect on the audience. It's fair to say that Alphabetti had concerns themselves - the clean-up after the test run we'd staged there had been a nightmare, with ketchup sticking to surfaces and attracting pests. This meant that the tour, for me, started with something of a first as, to assuage the venue's concerns, I spent a good couple of hours prior to our tech rehearsal duct-taping dust-sheeting to the stage. Frankly, I felt like Dexter:

By the end of all this my knees had taken a pounding from crawling around the hard stage, we still needed to rehearse and - for logistical reasons, a stage covered in rice being tricky to clean up - my piece wasn't going to take place until the end of the show. So there was a lot of nervous pacing around backstage for me while the other performers did their thing. Everyone at the first gig was uniformly brilliant, as people were throughout the tour. This, of course, only raised the stakes for me because it meant that if my weird live art/performance poetry mash-up bit went down like a lead balloon it was only going to stand out more - and I was going to have to do it four more times, as well...

The first order of business, though, was to get reasons from the venue audience. I'd been asking people in the run-up to the tour to give me things their partners had done that proved their relationships either were or weren't love, and had got a lot of these online, but I wanted to collect reasons from the audience at the venues too. I was a little nervous doing this on the first night - it seemed very like flyering, which I'd found a not exactly pleasant experience in Edinburgh over the summer - and we were up against it for time, but I managed to get people to fill in a couple of cards. Then, it was time to start the show. All the performers took the stage for a brief introduction, and then we each did our solo sections, so all I could do was wait.

Any fears I had that the Newcastle audience might not go for it with the rice-throwing and firing of water pistols were dispelled when I began asking people questions during my introduction to the piece. A forest of hands shot up for both my questions - 'Who, here, has ever been in love?' and 'Who here has been in a relationship which has gone terribly, terribly wrong?' - and one member of the audience, fellow poet Rowan McCabe, was so enthusiastic in thrusting his hand up for the second question that I asked him it, even though I'd also taken his answer to the first. Clearly excited, the audience members we selected to provide physical feedback in response to the reasons we'd collected got heavily  into doing exactly that: Newcastle was one of only two venues on the tour where I didn't know if I could physically  take the pressure during the performance. You see, for all that I'd wanted to ramp up the violence of the water pistols, the fact is that water is water, but having dry rice thrown at you fucking hurts. 

Above photos from the Plymouth Public Address performance, courtesy of Greenbeanz Photography

The rice got in my hair. It got in my mouth, and I had to pause to extract grains of it before continuing (I found that if I did this in as deadpan a way as possible, it got a huge laugh from the audience). It got in my eyes: being hit in the eyes with rice is painful enough, but I only later found that the glitter confetti we'd mixed in with it could have been a more dangerous proposition - glitterbomb recipients like Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich have argued that the practice is dangerous because glitter can, theoretically, scratch your corneas - so there was an element of real physical risk involved in this, I guess. Or maybe Gingrich and Huckabee are just massive wimps.

(It wasn't lost on me that, during the London and Southampton legs of our tour, another famed glitterbomb recipient, Germaine Greer, was complaining about people protesting her being invited to speak at universities in the UK. Three of the theatres we took Public Address to - The House at Plymouth University, the Bloomsbury Theatre in London (affiliated with UCL) and the Nuffield at Southampton Uni - were university theatres. So while transphobic glitter-victim Germaine was complaining about not getting to speak at universities I, a trans person, was visiting universities and actually encouraging people to glitterbomb me. Which is kind of ironic, I think...)

I do know, because they told me, that some audience members were mindful of the possible damage they could do to my eyes, and tried to restrict themselves to throwing rice at my torso instead. This wasn't really what I was after, and, upon being told as much after the Southampton gig, I resolved that at the final show in Birmingham I would make an especial effort to give the audience explicit permission to go as wild as they liked with the rice (or, as I put it on the night 'I want you to really fuck me up'). The Brum crowd more than delivered:

Fucked up gooood after the Birmingham performance
In general, people went for it in pretty much every venue where I performed the piece. Newcastle and Birmingham were easily the most enthusiastic audiences when it came to getting physical: I've written above about how in Newcastle I genuinely wasn't sure I could continue, and there was a similar point during the Birmingham gig when I found myself looking up at Hannah Silva in the tech booth in desperation, thinking something had gone wrong and the piece had to be overrunning - to allow me to transition from the randomly chosen reasons to the poem I'd written for the piece, Hannah had put together a soundscape which would run underneath the action, which contained an audible cue for me to shift into the poem at roughly the seven-minute mark. This soundscape was roughly the same as the opening soundscape for the show, and during the Brum performance, as I was pelted with rice, I became convinced that the two soundscapes had gotten mixed up and we'd gone on way longer than seven minutes. And then the gong came in, and I realised I only thought  it had been going on longer.

It was also interesting seeing what  caused people to hurl rice, and what got them firing their water pistols at me. I'd wanted many of the reasons to be ambiguous, and they were. Of particular note was that a lot  of the acts of violence described ('because you choke me', 'because you slap my face', 'because you pull my hair' etc) were greeted with very enthusiastic rice-throwing in Newcastle, and got me drenched when they came out in Birmingham. I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions about the relative kinkiness of both cities.

Plymouth performance photo courtesy of Greenbeanz Photography
If Newcastle and Birmingham were the most enthusiastic cities when it came to getting physical with the rice and water pistols, that doesn't mean that London, Plymouth or Southampton held back that much. And there were other ways in which audiences got involved beyond just throwing and firing stuff at me. Southampton, for example, was where I got the most reasons given to me by the audience at the venue. Partly this was because we had an interval between the open mic that formed the start of the Southampton gig, a special edition of their local poetry night, 451, and our performances, which gave me an obvious point to solicit contributions, and also because, by this point, I'd honed my patter enough to explain what I was up to.

London performance photo by Suzi Corker for Apples and Snakes
The conversations continued after the performances as well. Although I was covered in rice, not being covered in fake blood meant it was relatively easy to shake off the stuff, which meant that rather than having to stop for a post-gig shower, I could chat with the audience at the bar (even if I did keep picking bits of rice and confetti out of my hair while chatting). The Newcastle, Birmingham and Southampton audiences were keenest to hang around and talk - perhaps because in each of those venues we were plugging into something usually used by the local spoken word scene, while Plymouth and London, especially, were more theatre crowds, and so more inclined to head off after the show. Lots of discussion centred on the reasons, and people's responses - two people in two different venues let me know that reasons which the audience had received favourably were actually ones they'd intended to stand for the opposite of love, for example - but a number of other topics came up. An audience member in Newcastle saw my performance as akin to sacred clowning - allowing myself to look ridiculous to facilitate the audience confronting some deep stuff - although another audience member likened the act to 'a kind of poetry bukkake' (link very much NSFW). Interestingly enough, a chat with an audience member after the Southampton gig suggested this might be closer to the truth than I'd thought - the custom of throwing rice at weddings is a survival of a Roman custom in which wheat  was thrown, to symbolise 'fertility', so in a sense the rice stands for sperm. Not  something I'd been conscious of in developing the piece, but if the sheath fits...

London performance photo by Suzi Corker for Apples and Snakes

Speaking of wedding customs, you may notice that there's a change in my outfit in the above photos. My initial outfit for the Newcastle and Plymouth shows was a black top and leggings - a little goth, but I thought black would really make a nice contrast with the rice.

Plymouth performance photo by Greenbeanz Photography
Before the London and Southampton shows, however, Hannah suggested that we should dress up a bit, to give the audience more of a feeling that they were at a show. I don't have a lot of really smart stuff in my wardrobe to be quite honest, so I cobbled something together using jeans, a purple top, and an old men's suit jacket I still have in my wardrobe.

It only occurred to me after  the London gig, the first I did in this outfit, that said old men's suit jacket was in fact the jacket from the suit I got married in, back in 2006. Which seemed curiously apt, for a piece called 'Shotgun Wedding', which explored themes of love and its opposite, of what is and isn't love, and how you know. I'm divorced now - my ex and I are still good friends, in fact I visited her in Birmingham after our gig there - and the elements of the poem I end the piece with are drawn from both my marriage and my other longest romantic relationship. When I wrote on this blog that there are ways in which this piece is a tribute to all our lovers, I included my own.

But it wasn't just about me, of course. In many ways, that's been the most satisfying thing about this piece: all those of you who contributed reasons, whether online or in person at venues, those of you who got up from the front row and threw rice or fired water, all those who sat behind them and shouted your own choices (or in one case very visibly mimed a gun): this has been your piece as much as it's been mine. I set out, in this piece, to create something that stepped away from the poet-as-prophetic-orator, dispensing strong truth to the audience dynamic, and I think I've achieved that. This hasn't just been a performance, this has been a conversation, and it's been one I'm honoured to have had with you. Thank you, all of you, for your time.

Of love and rice and water pistols - some thoughts on my Public Address piece - Part Two

Content note: this piece discusses, inter alia, the process by which I decided what type of water pistols to use in my Public Address piece, 'Shotgun Wedding', so there is quite a bit of discussion of toy guns of various types. If this is likely to be triggering for you, you may wish to skip this post.

Okay, so this post is a little  late. It was meant to go up the day after the first post about my Public Address piece, but rather inconveniently the day I published that I came down with the first bout of tonsillitis I've had in about a decade, and it floored  me. And then after that there was the final Public Address performance in Birmingham to prepare for, and other things and, so, here we all are.

Anyway, in the first of these posts, I told the story of the genesis of my piece for Public Address: The Soapbox Tour. At that point, the piece, called 'Blood and Confetti (or possibly Rice)' was a performance poetry/live art mash-up that involved me reading out things people's past or present partners had done and inviting an audience to hurl either a rice/confetti mixture or fake blood (in the form of red food colouring or ketchup fired from a squeezable bottle) at me to indicate whether they thought these were acts of love, or of its opposite. In this piece, we're going to look at how this became the final work, 'Shotgun Wedding', and then tomorrow in a follow-up piece we'll look at what I've learned from getting out there and performing it in front of actual audiences. 

Covered in rice. But what about the blood?

At the beginning of September, I and all the other poets involved with Public Address attended two days of production meetings for the show at the Free Word Centre in Farringdon. Going into these meetings, I already knew that one element of the original plan was going to have to be dropped. Sugars in the ketchup we'd used as fake blood had attracted pests to the theatre where we'd done our dry run, Alphabetti Theatre in Newcastle (sorry about that, Alphabetti folks). Apples and Snakes were concerned about this causing problems for the theatres on the tour, so ketchup was out. This was a disappointment: I'd liked the ketchup precisely because I hadn't  liked it, if that makes sense: one of the things I wanted to explore in the piece was the challenge of performing in circumstances that would make it harder for me to perform, harder for me to fall back on 'slam voice' and high status performance tactics. I wanted to make myself appear abject in front of the audience, and then I wanted to see if I could claw my way back from that abjection and still perform a poem to end the piece. And when the ketchup hit me, I hated its sliminess, the way it matted my hair and soaked into my clothes. There was something humiliating about it: maybe I was recalling that scene in Whip It  where Juliette Lewis squirts red sauce into Ellen Page's face, but it seemed way more abject than cochineal (our other blood substitute). Still, at least we would still have the food colouring to fall back on. Right?

Juliette Lewis and Ellen Page, sans ketchup. 

We ran further test runs of the piece during the production days, using plain water in the pistols to keep the Free Word Centre relatively clean. And it was after these further tests that our Director, Hannah Silva, dropped what was, for me, a major bombshell: due to concerns from the theatres, we weren't going to be able to use red food colouring either. We already knew theatrical fake blood was a no-go, as it can be toxic when it gets into one's eyes or mouth - and we knew from the first test run that this was going to happen. Fake blood, in any form, was out. We had guns, we had water, we had rice and confetti: that was what we were going to have to work with. So, like Keanu in The Matrix, I decided we didn't just need guns: we needed lots  of guns. 

We also needed guns that looked realistic, because I'd decided that if we couldn't use fake blood we really had to amp up the violent, intimidatory factor of the weaponry. This led to one of the weirdest research odysseys I've ever gone on in my writing life. Did you know, for example, that you can get a replica AK-47 water gun? Because you can (or at least you could - they all seem to have sold out, as you'd expect, really). It comes with a magazine  and everything. 


As tempting as the AK was, it wasn't right for this project: for one thing, explaining the need to strip the magazine, and getting people to do it, would be a faff in actual performance; for another, as you see in the pic above, like all 'automatic' water pistols, it needs batteries (yeah, like I said, I know my shit when it comes to water guns now) - but more importantly, it has the wrong resonance. When you see an AK-47 you think 'terrorist' (especially in view of the recent tragic events in Paris), you think 'spree killer', and I wanted guns that suggested violence on a more intimate level. I wanted handguns.  And I didn't want any of the complicated, pump-action/catridge-loading models Nerf have added to their Super Soakers range - I wanted something simple enough to recall participants' own childhoods. Point and shoot. Child's play.

At no point was the one-person water balloon catapult considered because, I mean, just look at it.

Fortunately realistic and simple water pistols could easily be had on Amazon, from where I purchased a lot of the kit which would be needed in the final version of the piece. None of these preparations were happening in a vacuum: in Edinburgh, I'd finally accepted the fact that something I'd previously written off as just a bad experience was actually a sexual assault, and for a while I felt it best to not leave the flat if it could at all be avoided. This led to some problems - the buckets for the rice which I initially purchased were way  too big for the job - but these were worked around by the time of the first performance. 

That first performance would answer a crucial question: would the piece, by now renamed 'Shotgun Wedding', work without the fake blood? Would the rice stick? Would it still seem violent even if it was less visceral? Would people get into it at all, or would the piece fall flat on its face? This wasn't a standard spoken word performance: as I'd intended from the start, it was in many ways as close to being a live art piece as it was to being a work of performance poetry. There was a very big chance that it could go wrong. Would it? For the answers to these questions, and more, you'll need to read my next post...

Monday 2 November 2015

Of love and rice and water pistols: some thoughts on my Public Address piece - Part One

With Public Address: The Soapbox Tour now four-fifths of the way through its run, now seems like an appopriate time to open up about the piece I devised for it, 'Shotgun Wedding', about the changes it's marked in my approach to performance, and how I intend to go further in that direction in future. So this is the first in a series of posts doing exactly that!

As I said in my first post about being involved with the tour, I had become fascinated by performance art at the time, and particularly by Marina Abramovic's piece Rhythm 0, in which she stood and allowed the audience to use a variety of objects - including scalpels and a loaded gun - against her. I'd grown disenchanted with the stale format of the poet as prophet with microphone in hand dispensing Strong Truth on the adoring audience, partly because it seems stale and easy to parody, partly because, after many years hanging around the spoken word scene, I'm far too aware of  how many performers, some celebrated, wouldn't merit the prophetic accolades if more were known about what they were really like. It seemed to me that deconstructing this dynamic, mucking it up, and allowing the audience a freer hand and, potentially, a chance to reduce me to a much lower, more abject status on stage than I'd gotten used to, was a project which had both an aesthetic and a moral justification. Too much spoken word was becoming a form of set-piece-driven theatre. It was time to take some risks again, to allow myself to show real vulnerability on stage.

Marina Abramovic's 'Rhythm 0'

I had also become fascinated by the idea that our current concept of romantic love might be flawed and might, in fact, constitute an insidious form of violence against women and LGBT+ people. On an intellectual level I was interested in Dean Spade's idea of The Romance Myth, but it also became clear, in the process of working on the project and dealing with some fallout from my time in Edinburgh, that my suspicion of the idea of love was also, at least in part, a response to some very personal trauma. That may explain why my initial ideas for including performance art elements in my Public Address piece were so violent, involving me being punched, having my hair pulled, and so on. It became clear in the course of the initial discussions that this was a direction we simply wouldn't be able to go in: a work like that would need a lot of preparation, and a lot of administrative hassle. I was going to need to come up with something else.

Another reason that I felt we needed to include some form of violence in the project was the fact that when I talked to people about their experiences of love, so many of those experiences involved violence. As part of my research I asked people two questions about their past or present relationships. Where people were in, or had been in, a relationship that they defined as being a truly loving relationship, I asked: what does your partner do that proves  it's love? And when talking to people who had been in relationships which had gone terribly wrong, I asked: what did your partner do that proved it wasn't  love? These conversations were primarily carried out through Facebook, which has proved to be a much more useful platform for asking these kind of complicated questions than Twitter, although we have been - and still are! - running a Twitter campaign for people to provide their own answers to these questions using the hashtag #becauseyou. I was also lucky enough to carry out follow-up interviews with some of the participants and gather more detailed thoughts from them (this was an interesting experience to say the least, as some participants who were currently in relationships did bristle somewhat when I explained my research was driven by my own deep cynicism about romantic love. I became very adept at explaining that this was just my personal opinion, I in no way wished to shit all over their own hard-won happy coupledom and that I wished them the best in their relationship).

As you'd expect, many of the acts of violence people described - some of which were horrific  - fell into the category of things that proved it wasn't  love, but this wasn't uniformly the case. Some respondents were into BDSM, and for them acts of violence could provide proof of love, rather than its opposite. Some respondents described not violent, but still horrible, things done by their partners as the best thing they could have done for them at the time; others argued the case that some Big Romantic Gestures carried out by former partners were actually non-loving acts because they proved only the gesturer's interest in the romantic consequences of their act, rather than any interest in the actual needs of their partner. Some responses simply didn't fit either category. It was wonderful to see this ambiguity developing in front of my eyes, and I wanted very much to find some way of making the performance which would include this ambiguity, which would give the audience space to provide their own ideas on whether these gestures, boiled down to their simplest formulation, were or were not acts of love. 

It was at this point that a conversation with Kirsten Luckins, who as well as being a very fine poet herself also works as the North East co-ordinator for Apples and Snakes, happened, which would prove crucial to the project. Kirsten had seen and been very impressed by Selina Thompson's Chewing the Fat, which involves, among other things, the audience throwing food at her. What if, Kirsten ventured, we give the audience members two things - confetti, or possibly rice, as you'd throw at a wedding, to stand for love, and fake blood, to stand for its opposite? And I read out the reasons people had given, and if people thought something was an act of love, they'd throw the confetti/rice mixture and, if they thought something was the opposite of love, they'd hurl fake blood?

(You'll note, by the way, that I'm being very careful to say 'the opposite of love' throughout this piece. This is because it's hard to say what fits. 'Hate' doesn't quite work as the opposite, because hate on its own is a more complex emotion; violence doesn't work either, for the reasons given above. The opposite of love, I think, can be a lot of things. It can be contempt; it can be indifference; it can be obsession. It's hard to define, but people know it when they see it.)

This was the point at which the piece crystallised, for me. Everything after that became a matter of practical research. At a test run we experimented with the hurlability of various types of confetti and rice (conclusion: glitter confetti is best. Flower petals and paper confetti don't arc : they just fall to the floor) and various delivery systems for the fake blood, including toothbrushes and squeezable bottles of ketchup. Water pistols, which eventually became a key feature of the project, were almost an afterthought: when Kirsten and I were looking around Poundland for as many fake blood delivery systems as we could find, I spotted some water guns in the toy section and asked 'How about those?' Kirsten agreed: they turned out to be the first thing the test run audience gravitated to. And who can blame them? There's something particularly intriguing about a water pistol which appears to be filled with blood:

At the test run, the participants we'd invited went for the water pistols, and the ketchup. They threw rice and confetti, and fired fake blood and tomato sauce, with equal abandon. By the end of the test run, I was a mess.  My skin was stained with conchineal (we'd used food colouring as fake blood - theatrical fake blood is harmful if it gets in your eyes or mouth, and we knew that  was going to happen), my clothes were so saturated with ketchup that they had to be disposed of, and rice and confetti were stuck to my clothes, my skin, and my ketchup-matted hair. I loved it. 

And, as I put the test run, in August, behind me and prepared to go to Edinburgh for my Fringe run of Howl of the Bantee, that was what my Public Address piece was going to look like. It would be called 'Blood and Confetti' (or possibly 'Blood and Rice' - I hadn't decided yet), and it would be an audience participation orgy of fake blood, ketchup, rice and water pistols. But,as those who've seen the final piece will know, this wasn't quite the work's final form. So how did 'Blood and Confetti/Rice' become 'Shotgun Wedding'? What elements did we abandon, and why? And what did I discover as we took this decidedly odd fusion of performance poetry and live art on the road? For the answers to those questions, come back tomorrow...

Friday 16 October 2015

The time I stripped for poetry

I'm at an interesting point in my career as a performer. When I started out, getting on stage and performing my work was enough of a challenge in itself. In those early days, the biggest obstacle I had to get over was my own insecurity, my fear that I was going to fuck up, that I'd never hold an audience's attention. For a long time, I would only perform five minute sets, usually managing to cram in three poems with very little between them before the inner voice saying  people were sick of me chased me off the stage. I remember finishing my first twenty minute set and feeling elated simply that I'd managed to resist that voice so long.

Now, I'm at a point where I can hold that voice off for entire shows. Howl of the Bantee went on for fifty minutes (sometimes an hour, depending on how it was going, to be quite honest). I'm more adept at talking to the audience in between poems: often there are things I do on stage which are more like bits in stand-up than they are like poems, and I improvise a lot more as well. I've gotten better at what the theatre-maker Daniel Bye calls 'meeting the audience'. I'm less concerned with just being able to remember my poems and stay on stage long enough to read them. I've reached a level of proficiency where that simply isn't as much of a challenge anymore. 

So to keep things fresh, to keep things from going stale, I have had to find new ways to challenge myself in performance, new ways of meeting the audience so that gigs don't just become rote by-the-numbers mouthing off. New ways of making myself vulnerable to give the work some energy. And that's how, a month ago, I wound up stripping at the end of a poetry gig. 

The purpose of my disrobing on stage wasn't (just) to titillate the audience, obviously. I'd got the idea from seeing Ernesto Sazerale do a stripping bit of his own when we performed at Queer'Say in September. My set that night finished with a poem I've never truly felt I dramatised properly in performance, 'Rejection:Letters'. It's a poem I've enjoyed doing whenever I've got it out (pun intended) during my shows, but I've always felt it needed something extra to fully work as a performance piece. Interestingly enough, when I recorded it for my YouTube channel a while ago, I opted to perform it on a bed, in my bra and pants, so I always had a sense that some degree of nudity would help: 

It was only after watching Ernesto, however, that I thought actually stripping would add something to the poem. As I mooched around Bethnal Green the next day (I had to stay in London both for Public Address production meetings on the Monday, and because I had a hotel to review on the Sunday), I blocked out the piece in my head. It seemed to me that the logical thing to do would be dress in clothes that allowed me to remove one item per stanza (maybe I ought to say per verse for the kinky resonance).

What is it that makes you so reject me?
Is it the dimensions of my belly?
Then you've never ran a hand around its rim:
it gives in ways that taut and muscled skin
can never do. Don't take this just from me:
come, feel it move beneath you like a captured sea.

For the first verse, I decided, I'd wear a button-down shirt. This would allow me to start unbuttoning it during the performance, which would signal to the audience that something unusual was afoot. I could easily slough the shirt at that point with a simple shrug of my arms, and this would allow me to display my belly to the audience during the parts of the poem where I emphasise its zaftig  dimensions. 

Am I too pale? Would you prefer me with a tan,
turned brown from UV light or bottled sun?
Well, want that if you like: but bronzed-up flesh
won't turn from pink to red with every scratch.
Pale, though, my skin becomes a palimpsest,
written, overwritten with the text
of nights when fingers grasp and grip and squeeze,
and mornings when the eyes and lips that tease
are repaid with flirting slaps and feigned offence.

For the second stanza, I decided, I'd remove my bra. A front-fastening bra would be ideal for this, but I don't have one, and I wasn't going to buy one just for this performance (though I may buy one for future use, not least because the idea of writing off lingerie as an expense for tax purposes has a certain appeal). After experimenting with what  I already have in my wardrobe, I decided to use an unwired, vest-style black bra, partly because there would be less faffing with clasps (the technology will always let you down, as it may or may not say in the Moscow Rules)...

Are you frightened by the vicious things I say?
Know that the angry girl gets put away
when I'm offstage, far from the battlefield:
in the bedroom, this girl likes to yield,
to kneel and crawl, submit and be in awe.
Oh, I'll fight back, I'll call you worse than bitch,
but only to be conquered, to make you punish
 me more forcefully, to take me to the brink of tears
and push me over, so that, with one sob, I'm yours.

...and partly because it would allow me to wrap the rolled-up piece of underwear over my neck, towel-style, letting me do a bit of peek-a-boo work with my nipples and forearms before discarding it toward the end of the third verse.

Or are you put off by what you cannot see?
The part by which you'd damn the whole of me,
consign me to your 'won't fuck' category:
define me male and say you don't do guys,
and say that what I feel is but disguise?
Then I won't argue:
                                can't, with one I only pity
for fixating on the smallest bit of me
(both figuratively and literally).

The poem's big reveal would come at the start of the penultimate stanza, though the reveal would only be partial. On the first line, I would unbutton the denim shorts I had worn for the performance and allow them to drop to my feet before stepping out of them and delivering the rest of the poem topless, with 'what you cannot see' the only piece of me which remained covered throughout the piece (this is one way in which my piece differs from Ernesto's poetry-stripping, as he goes the full Monty). 

If it were something else then I'd try to persuade
you that the meat you'll find on me's the highest grade;
that you could write a sonnet on my skin
and I'd weep sweetly with each lyric beat:
but if you define me by my lack of quim,
call me false or call me incomplete,
you imagine part but don't perceive the whole.
Forget my cock: you'll never see my soul.

What did I learn from the experience? Well, for one thing, that I could  do it; for another, that stripping requires a lot more thought and consideration than one might casually expect. Even something as simple as deciding what clothes to wear and how to remove them required both planning, and trial and error in rehearsal, and I wasn't doing anything particularly fancy - no pole-dancing or complex burlesque moves. Another thing is that once you've started taking clothes off on stage, it becomes something of a game of chicken between yourself and the audience to see how far you'll go: you have to challenge yourself, a little bit, at each stage of the reveal. But this also sets up a dynamic that you can usefully frustrate: once you've dropped the first two bits of kit the expectation in the audience is that you may actually go the whole way, and deliberately not doing that for the end of the piece, leaving the part you cannot see unseen, effectively dramatises the frustration of being reduced solely to a set of genitals. 

It's also a way of bringing the body very powerfully into a piece of performance poetry and blurring the lines between it and performance art, which I've previously blogged about. This is something I'm exploring in a different way for my Public Address piece. There's no stripping involved in that, but in many ways it involves a more radical reimagining of the relationship between the audience and my body as a performer. How so? Well, I don't want to say until at least after tomorrow's gig in Plymouth, so for the moment all I can say is that you'll need to come to one of the shows - and, if you want to sit at the front, make sure your throwing arm (and trigger finger) are in good working order...

Tuesday 13 October 2015

The truth about love?

So, this Wednesday Public Address: The Soapbox Tour  finally begins. And it's fair to say I'm excited about this to a degree to which I haven't felt excited about anything else in my life - and I'm including the poetry film I made in 2013, and the pamphlets I've published, and the album I recorded, and the magazine I helped edit, and the show I took to Edinburgh this summer, literally everything. In part, this is just because of the sheer quality of the stuff on offer. Hannah Silva has put together an amazing show, and I honestly think this tour will have a major effect on how people view spoken word in this country, and beyond. We are really  pushing at the boundaries with this.

But if I'm honest, I'm also excited about Public Address  because working on my piece for the show has been an amazing journey, one that's changed me a lot  as an artist, as a writer, and as a performer. I think on some level it's actually changed me as a human being, too. And that's because I've had to confront something which, as a writer, I've always been rather frightened of, and that's love. 

DH Lawrence famously said that happiness writes white, meaning that it's hard to write about happiness without being bland. For a long time I've felt the same way about romantic love as a poetic subject. It seemed old-hat, played-out, trite. I would read stuff like Roz Kaveney's sequence of 'muse' poems and think "why are you wasting time on this? It's already been done, and anyway 'muse' is a horrible thing to call a person" (no criticism here of Roz herself, who I rather like - or indeed of the poems themselves, which are good - I just never got why she writes so obsessively about that particular subject). I would go to poetry nights and hear people reading love poems to their partners in the audience and think how uncomfortable I would feel if someone did that to me (again, this is no reflection on the quality of the poems, many of which were very good indeed).

The poetry I was most comfortable producing was oppositional. Occasionally, I could be celebratory, on very odd occasions I could even be funny, but I seemed to do my best work, for a long time, by pointing myself at something I very much did not like, getting a good lyrical run-up, and beating seven shades of rhetorical shit out of it. Perhaps the ultimate expression of this aspect of my practice is the poem which originally formed the climax of my Edinburgh show, in which I fantasise about literally torturing  a misogynist:

I'm not repudiating any of that, by the way: I still feel that poem expresses something important about the anger many women feel at the violent double standards of our society. And there's more where that came from. But, despite the 'soapbox' theme of this year's Public Address  tour apparently being tailor-made for a ranty feminist shouter like me, there was one thing I was sure of when I began thinking what to write for it: I wanted to write something that would ask  questions, not answer them and ram said answers down the audience's throat. It wasn't that I didn't believe  in my answers, rather it was that too often those answers were exceedingly obvious. Of course  transphobia is bad. Of course  misogyny is bad. Of course  homophobia, and racism, and UKIP, and bullying, and groping people's tits in the woods, and voting for the Tory party, are all bad. But that's obvious. Where are the bad things that aren't  obvious? The monsters that hide in plain sight? What if things we take for granted every day are bad?

What if love  is bad? Or, to put it more precisely, what if the concept of romantic love which we're fed on a daily basis by our culture actually covers for an insidious and subtly gendered form of violence, which has a disproportionate impact on women and LGBTIQ people? What if love was the monster, all along?

This is the question I set out to answer in my Public Address  piece, and it would have been easy enough to climb on my rhetorical soapbox and deliver some kind of angry rant dissing the very idea of love but, again, that would be answering the question, instead of asking. So...I asked. In person and online, in Newcastle, in Edinburgh, in London, wherever I could I asked people, again and again and again, to give me evidence of love. To tell me things their partners did that proved  their love was real. And equally, to prove the opposite: to give me specific things ex-partners had done that proved the relationships that failed weren't  love.

Is it love because you Googled it yourself?

And people answered. And they shared things about themselves that made me smile, that horrified me, that moved me literally to tears. And as I read those answers, and tallied them, and wrote them out in lists, on index cards, I began to think, more deeply than I ever have before, about my own past relationships, my own sexual and romantic history. Some of this was painful. Some of it was beautiful. Some of it, too, has gone into this project. Some of the answers you will hear me read on stage in Public Address  are my own. And some of those answers are very, very recent.

Because, weirdly, while working on these bizarre enquiries into the nature of romantic love, I found myself becoming involved with people again. Having relationships with people. Even dating. The theoretical became the practical, and fed back into the theory, in a way that I hadn't expected it to.

There is an easy, happy ending to this, a romcom ending. The artist with a deep suspicion of romantic love decides to make it the topic of her research. She asks people to prove it exists. Quite by chance, this sends her off on a whirlwind of romantic encounters and, in the end, despite her protestations to the contrary, she finds True Love.

"You had me at 'define love in an operational sense'." 

That hasn't happened. Thank God. For one thing, the romcom conceit of the cynic finally being won over to belief in True Love is the major thing that makes me so distrustful of the concept. For another, it's just so bloody boring. 

That ending hasn't happened because it would be an answer, and I am no longer sure that the question which I set myself can be answered. But I suspect the reason for that isn't necessarily that love doesn't exist: I suspect it's because it's such a big concept that it's hard to pin it down. I think love is a possibility space, and it takes different forms, and some things which can look a lot like love are really violence, and some things which can seem a lot like violence actually are love, and plotting everyone's answer to which is which would take a scatter diagram the size of the sky. But I'm going to try and do it anyway.

One of the best things about researching this piece has been the conversations which have came out of it, and the things people have shared with me about themselves, about their past relationships, and the things it's encouraged me to share about mine. And in a sense, one of the oddest things about this project is something I only saw tonight, as I was finishing up the cards I'm going to use in my performance, on which I've written the answers people have given me so far.

Ain't they pretty?
And that is that there is a sense in which this project has a memorial aspect. Some of the answers people have given me are about relationships they're in now. Some of them are about past relationships. Hopefully, the relationships people are in now will last, but who can be certain? At one point, the relationships which went wrong, that provided evidence against love, were thought solid. At the end of the day, these answers are snapshots of moments in peoples' relationships, some of which were reasons to give up, and some of which were reasons to keep going. And what does it take to keep going? And is it worth it? Is it heroic, or deluded? Is loving another the supreme act of faith, or a pathetic surrender to delusion?

I don't know. I do know that I've been privileged to have this conversation with everyone who's been open enough to provide me their answers (and there is still  time to give them, if you haven't yet!), and I'm looking forward to continuing that conversation, in a different way, at the Public Address  performances. This is a piece for all your lovers, and for all of mine, and all their lovers too. I hope it does them justice.