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> > > Unlimited 2014: Perceptions of Difference: DAO & Survivors' Poetry

4 September 2014

On Level 5 on the Royal Festival Hall lies the Saison Poetry Library: an eclectic crowd gathered to hear poetry from four stalwarts of the Survivors' Movement. Wendy Young was there for the inspiring words of Hilary Porter, John O’Donoghue, Debjani Chatterjee MBE, Frank Bangay the Bard of Hackney! MC’d by Colin Hambrook.

cover of poetry anthology Under The Asylum Tree with a drawing of a black and white tree. A series of  figures move upwards from within the roots, ascending into the trunk

Under The Asylum Tree: one of the gems from the Survivors' Press imprint, on the shelves of the Poetry Library

Colin furnished us with a brief background of this Gang of Four who have each worked tirelessly to bring society’s marginalised to the fore and certainly opened up a valuable training ground for his journey through disability arts. Colin has not forgotten his roots and kept a link with Survivors’ development, going onto set up DAO (Disabled Arts Online) which is carrying on the beacon of light for the disenfranchised with something to say.  

There’s a theory that Shakespeare should be read starting from the end and so here at the beginning is Colin’s final word on the quality of the reading tonight was ‘texture’.

Hilary Porter, a sprite of light worked hard to organise events and writes delightful snippets of life and treated us to poems from her book ‘Don’t Trust the Moon’.  

‘Power’, a poem for her small daughter paddling on pebbles on Brighton Beach is testimony to the ‘power’ of poetry as a preservation of life.  What an alternative to flowers at a funeral?

‘Those Days’ (yes we’ve all had ‘em) summed up succinctly when it all goes wrong!

A few gloomy but lyrical poems like ‘War Baby’ (this woman is so nice she feels guilty for being born in WW2 when so many were killed!) and ‘9/11’ and then – a dash of HP sauce in ‘Meaning of Life’:

‘obeyed bible and procreated when the world was empty, now it’s too full…. couch potatoes proved Darwin wrong’

Ending with her ode to her ‘Arachnophobia’ ‘execute or extradition to the garden’ it was like a friendly aunt was leaving the stage.

John O’Donoghue, ex Chair of Survivors', reviews on DAO and is a ‘fine poet’ with a slick wit (‘how the bleedin’ hell do I know’ when I asked the title of his 2nd poem of the night), so taken was I with his ‘Sectionned: A Life Interrupted’  a biography detailing his journey through the mental health system.

Telling tales of sipping/drinking cool lemonade outside the pub while his broad made dad’s supping stout inside, jogging the collective memory for many a Bash Street kid in ‘First’.  Reminded of Charon the guardian of Hades, John talks of the Ha’penny Bridge crossing the Liffey.

Once in Asylums, now in a University, dishing out creativity rather than being dished drugs in a similar world where green fields are solace. ‘From an Asylum Diary’ documents daily suicide attempts/ window smashed/ dances/ at night drowning in a pool and then ‘Lull’ resonates as he tells of finding a clan, a Survivors family.

From out of the dark, John moved into the light with a jolly tribute to Jonathan Swift and ended with an obituary wrote on a Four Seasons Hotel notepad at the passing of Seamus Heaney ‘The Gift’.

Debjani Chatterjee all round ‘national treasure’ and tribune for the unpublished (‘if they haven’t been published yet they’d better be’ before reading poems by Survivors Gail Campbell's tribute to Kurt Cobain, ‘rattling in a nut house with Cobain in ‘How Things Fall’ and Claire McLaughlin’s ‘I’m too Lazy’… with the exception of making cups of tea (aren’t we all?). Heart wrenchingly we heard how Amita Patel took her own life a few years ago and Debjani read her poem ‘Words from Paper Road’…. ‘left like bird droppings’.

Describing the Indian and Bangladeshi poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, who didn’t speak after 1942 (saw carnage of riots and broke down), as a literary hero, Debjani read an extract from her translation of ‘The Rebel’ which begins ‘O rebel-hero speak, Say: I tower over the highest peak’.

Debjani referred to John O’Donoghue and Jonathan Swift, read a ‘small’ poem about a ‘small’ postcard from Lilliput and ended with a pretty ‘Star Haiku’.

Talking of stars, Frank Bangay was not named so for no reason, surely it was written on the cosmos that Frank would Bang a gong, get it on and make the world a better place starting in Hackney!  

He is a trooper of a man whose humanity and humility shines through his personality and his words.  He talks of rhythmic pigeons turning into doves – a call to be strong in ‘Wings’.  Treats like his stories of 1960s London and moving from old abode to a balconied high rise in an ode that tells us how ‘there was more room to swing the cat’.  Likable and warm, the great Frank Bangay threw out his arms like a preacher at the lectern and shouted out ‘Greedy Men’ and ‘Journey through Corridors’ a protest at being labelled and having a go at do-gooders (and so say all of us!!)

And in the end, Amen, to ‘Comfort Eating Blues’ a superb and rings-a-bell message about abusing our bodies with good old greasy grub incorporating a ballad about fruit and salad (yeah we’re all bored with that!).  Accompanied by Natasha from Core Arts (who annoyingly only learnt the tune and practiced slide guitar two weeks ago!) it was a rip-roaring blues driven singalong ending to a ‘textured’ tapestry of a night.

Please click on this link to the Poetry Libraries online catalogue to search for details of Survivors' Press publications and other titles by survivor poets


Dr Debjani Chatterjee MBE, Patron of Survivors’ Poetry

6 October 2014

It was not just a privilege for me to perform my poetry, translations and poems by three of my mentees at the Saison Poetry Library, alongside three stalwarts of the survivors’ poetry world. It was also a most memorable and enjoyable occasion. The fact that the evening was to celebrate Survivors’ Poetry and ten decades of Disability Arts Online made it doubly special. And what a celebration it was! The whole event, ably MC’d by Colin Hambrook, had a warm and friendly glow about it.

Chris McCabe, Poetry Librarian

6 October 2014

It was a wonderful evening. In fact it was the range of the whole evening that was remarkable, every poet was very distinct and had found different ways of articulating their experiences though poetry. It's very unusual to have an event of so few poets which can suggest so much about the possibilities of poetry.

Claire McLaughlin

10 September 2014

The evening was a powerful experience for me. It increased my understanding, I hope, of how difficult and challenging so many aspects of life may be for mental illness survivors, and what a powerful and enabling outlet poetry may be for some, and how Survivors’ Poetry fosters this healing, imaginative connection. It gave me new thoughts to think, and new perspectives to consider.

The poets gave us a wonderful variety of entertainment, from John O'Donoghue's excerpts from his long poem about Jonathan Swift's dialogue with twelve other British poets to Frank Bangay's gleeful Blues number, from Hilary Porter’s tender, domestic vignettes to Debjani Chatterjee's dramatic monologue about the ten-headed demon king Ravana - Rama's monstrous enemy in the Ramayana epic. It was a warm-hearted, enjoyable evening, full of talent and interest.

Colin Hambrook

9 September 2014

It felt a real privilege to recreate the atmosphere of a Survivors Poetry gig from the mid 1990s in the Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre. Chris McCabe, the poetry librarian was very welcoming and introduced the event referring to survivors’ poetry as a genre within poetry that is being recognised more and more.

McCabe mentioned Robert Lowell the poet who spent time in the same Northampton Asylum where John Clare was incarcerated. Later, during his performance, John O’Donoghue’s poem Lowell in St Andrew’s, Northampton re-imagines Lowell recalling the words of ‘I am’, feeling the presence of Clare beside him. O’Donoghue’s poem is a tender appraisal of the strength and endurance of poets to face life and reflect it back to the world, head on.

I loved the performances of all the poets; I was left with images of Debjani Chatterjee’s warriors, Hilary Porter’s daughter commanding the seas and Frank Bangay’s descriptions of the mental wards of the 1980s.

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