STREET ART PHOTO BY SUE DEAN

A pandemic epic

poetry, Whisper to me alone

#WhisperToMeAlone is a twitter stream of pandemic poems and songs, which give tiny glimpses of homeless and vulnerable lives, in rooms, on streets, isolated in hotels…

Phil Davenport and songwriter Matt Hill have worked with homeless and vulnerable people since May, to make the WHISPER poems and songs, over the course of many phone calls. The songs include recordings of phone calls, impromtu performances and snatched conversations.

“These conversations have gradually turned into a wide ranging poem of many voices, many experiences combining into a remarkable song cycle. All of WHISPER is full of life, full of humour and determination, in the face of this disease. And it’s inspiring, it’ll give any reader or listener the strength to keep on and learn from what’s happening around us. Sometimes life’s biggest lessons come from unusual teachers.” (Phil Davenport)

(Main image – Manchester street art, photographed by Sue Dean)

The project will be tweeted on 15 October and exhibited at Bury Art Museum next year, alongside an an embroidered quilt stitched with participants’ words HERE COMES THE SUN.

Poems, art and songs from WHISPER TO ME ALONE will be tweeted daily at from 15 October onward at https://twitter.com/whisper2mealone

WHISPER TO ME ALONE is funded by Arts Council England and partnered with The Booth Centre and Back on Track in Manchester. Photography throughout the twitter poem is by Sue Dean. Other contributors include members of the Inspiring Change Manchester group, associated with SHELTER, and MASH (a charity providing non-judgemental services to women working in the sex industry). Visual tweets were designed by the poets Tom Jenks and Nathan Williams.

Philip Davenport is a poet who co-directs the arthur+martha organisation with artist Lois Blackburn. For the last decade they’ve collaborated with Manchester’s homeless community. During the pandemic WHISPER TO ME ALONE has resulted in poems, songs and an embroidered quilt. Matt Hill is a songwriter who explores people’s experiences to co-write songs — with prisoners, asylum seekers, people experiencing homelessness, and others.

Riding the tsunami

poetry, Whisper to me alone

WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers words and art from people who have experienced homelessness — and the insights of other vulnerable people in Manchester during the pandemic. Here’s WHISPER writer Anastasia:

I’m riding the waves at this very moment. It’s a Tsunami this one, but I’m not drowning. In the past I’ve hit the bottom of the ocean. This time I’m able to observe it, I am in it and at the same time outside it. Yes, I’m riding the Tsunami.

When you drown you panic, try and flap your arms and legs. But the best thing you can do is be still, stay calm. You know inside yourself that the waves will ebb and flow away, just like the clouds passing over our heads.

I see lockdown positively, it made us humans stop. Although it’s causing distress and isolation, a feeling of losing grip on reality, our whole notion of what is normal has been turned on its head – and actually that’s good. I think the positivity will continue, there are less cars for instance. Venice, New York, London, two weeks into lockdown the skies over those cities were bluer.

I’ve seen people become kinder, considerate. Customers in shops used to be demanding and rude. When I see shoppers now, they’re more appreciative, they’ve got to queue, they’ve learned patience.

It all went sci-fi. People panicked and many of us wanted to flee …

At first everyone’s reaction was panic: our personal lives and the lives of our nations, how we work, how we think, how we view things — it all went sci-fi. People panicked and many of us wanted to flee but we couldn’t because there was a lockdown and so you have to stay and face it.

But for the others, panic gradually changed into something else. Perhaps the word I’m looking for is acceptance. “I can’t flee, I’m in my house. I’m going to stop crashing about and be still in the storm. I’m just going to breathe.” Sometimes it’s all you can do, just breathe.

Then when they started lifting lockdown, the world got angry. Now they’re saying you can have some freedom, now they’ve taken all it away again. You hear the jailer come and you hear the key turn and you feel trapped.

The world is moving through a storm just like I move through my storms. People are coping. Yes, there’s been violence and despair, but also care. Support for one another gets through, like those little phone calls that mean so much between people. The world’s realised flailing and fury doesn’t work. You feel you are drowning and everything has been stripped away in the terrifying waves. But slowly, appreciation of life, of nature, of connection, is dawning. And sometimes a sense of freedom. That’s when you know you’re riding the waves.

Anastasia

The arthur+martha project WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers words and art from people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of other vulnerable people in Manchester during the pandemic. The project centres on writing made during phone calls and in journal-writing, art and song, plus an embroidered quilt. The Manchester photos are by Sue Dean. Words and images from WHISPER will soon be shared on the forthcoming twitterstream https://twitter.com/whisper2mealone

This project is funded by Arts Council England and partnered with The Booth Centre and Back on Track in Manchester.

Manchester umbrellas. Photo by Sue Dean

Life going through the cosmos

Here Comes the Sun, Projects, quilts, Whisper to me alone

As sometimes happens in a workshop, todays was a game of two halves. Before the break, a couple of the participants where distracted, sat on the edges of the room, engaged in their own thoughts, and their own troubles. But after the tea break, gradually the atmosphere changed, as the art worker said;

If you leave out clay for long enough, people will pick it up and start making…

Some new people joined the group, and gradually everyone around the room fell into peaceful activity.

Karen Bowen, Project Worker at the Booth

Alongside the clay making workshop, my table of art materials and examples of embroidered suns. Karen, a Project Worker at the Booth Centre, took 5 or so precious minutes to sit and paint, explaining she hadn’t had a chance to create anything for so long, and how wonderful it was to sit and paint. Her work was immediate, energetic and joyful. She took a pack of embroidery materials away, with full intentions to stitch a sun tonight.

For others the process was a slower, more thoughtful one. ‘H’ had gone away after last weeks session with paper, themes and a head full of ideas. Today he arrived with pages of photocopies, the starting of designs of complexity, humour and thoughtfulness. The first thing he showed me was the beautifully written ‘Here Comes the Sun?’ he explained; “It’s the question mark that’s important.” ‘H’s work is never simple, there are always ideas of complexity behind them.

That question mark is so important in these times. Today listening into conversations around the room, I noticed more the undercurrent of unease, a sense of frustration, of mistrust of the government. Conspiracy theories abound. Thankfully the creativity also offered a sense of calm, release, distraction and purpose.

‘H’ design for Here Comes the Sun. ‘There was a science fiction film from the 70s, Demon Seed, the Alien’s DNA- Life going through the Cosmos

I come home tonight with a new collection of wonderful designs to be interpreted in stitch by our volunteers.

‘H’, “The old circular sun is out of date now, we need a new sun, with shapes we are not used to, for The Uncertain Future.

Thanks to everyone at the Booth, and thanks so much to Merida Richards for allowing me to work alongside her pottery session.

It’s not to late for you to join in with the project, our deadline for embroidered suns is 30th October. More details here. https://arthur-martha.com/portfolio/here-comes-the-sun/

Lois Blackburn.

Here Comes the Sun, is part of arthur+martha project WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers words and art from people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of other vulnerable people in Manchester during lockdown. Supported by Arts Council England, partnered by the Booth Centre and Back on Track.

Sun is shining in Manchester

Here Comes the Sun, Projects, quilts, Whisper to me alone

It’s been over 1/2 a year since my last visit to The Booth Centre in Manchester. So much is different, so much the same. The same friendly welcome on arrival, but with temperature checks and contact tracing, and due to current guidance, much fewer people in the centre. The staff and volunteers are well organised, everywhere is sparkly clean, the atmosphere calm and purposeful.

My two workshop visits are to create art and poetry for Here Comes the Sun, quilt, part of the Whisper to Me Alone, project. On a large table, I display a small selection of the 90 embroidered suns that have been made for the quilt, fabric packs and art materials. We’re trying new ways of working with the Sun quilt, a face-to-face and remote working, learning much as we go. One of the beauty’s of the project is how immediate it is to understand- the sun is symbol that is familiar in every culture, it’s approachable and accessible to everyone. The subject matter can be treated as light as a feather, or analysed in depth.

Roy (pictured above) approached his embroidery with his usual gusto, his resulting painting is rich and complex, he’s going create a stitched version next week.

One of the embroideries I brought in to show to the group was designed by Sue Dean, who in happy coincidence was there in the centre. She had previously created a series of sun paintings, which had been stitched by volunteers. She had seen a photo of the finished embroidery, but not the embroidery in the flesh, her absolute delight in seeing the embroidered version was obvious.

For some of our group, there isn’t a safe place to go home to and sew, so their paintings and materials are stored for next week. Others leave with packs of materials, creative ideas and promises to return next week.

And I leave with a belly full of good lunch, and a sense of relief, hope and optimism. It’s the Booth Centre way.

Thanks so much to Merida Richards for allowing me to work alongside her pottery session. I look forward to hearing more about her work with the fantastic Venture Arts next week.

Lois Blackburn.

Here Comes the Sun, is part of arthur+martha project WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers words and art from people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of other vulnerable people in Manchester during lockdown. Supported by Arts Council England, partnered by the Booth Centre and Back on Track.

The feel good factor

Here Comes the Sun, Projects, quilts, Whisper to me alone

Hands sanitised, masks on, socially distanced, we sat and talked, we all took small steps together out of lock-down, a lock down state of mind as much as a physical one. ‘S’ explained how nervous she’d been coming in on the bus, going into the unknown- for all of us, it was the first time in a group workshop for many months.

Phil and I have enjoyed keeping busy working since the beginning of lock down, connecting with people, finding ways to support creativity via postal packs, the phone, and on-line. Today was something different, something very special, creating work for the collaborative quilt ‘Here Comes the Sun’, part of the Whisper to Me Alone project. The host venue was Back on Track, it’s an inspirational Manchester charity that supports people who have been homeless or had mental health problems.

Our theme is the sun, a symbol of hope and re-starts, of warmth and comfort, of gift giving, as one participant described; “The feel good factor”.

A seemingly innocent and simple theme, it still leaves plenty of room for the imagination: “You don’t see dawn in the city, you don’t see sunrises, the blocks get in the way.”

Then the joy of putting our ideas onto paper started, the artistic play. I took in one of my favourite materials, oil pastels and ‘Brusho’. Brusho is a fabulous highly pigmented watercolour powder, you mixed with water, or sprinkle. The magic of creativity with your hands soon took over, creating a hushed room, heads down concentrating, the outside world disappeared.

20 fabric packs were laid out for our group to choose from. One at a time we walked with favourite paintings in hand to find the fabrics that matched the colours, texture and mood of the paintings. One of the group had experience of embroidery, the others- this was something new.

There is something beautiful about the simplest of stitches, running stitch, it’s where most of us start off when we learn to sew, it’s probably the stitch that you started with at school. When you’ve got the right needle and a rhythm going, there is something almost mediative in the repetitive nature of stitching. Then comes; choosing colours, textures, thread thickness, stitch size, pattern- when written down or spoken these creative decisions are complex, however when we make them, they are often instinctive.

The group left with their hands full of threads, fabric and paintings, and full intentions to return in a few weeks for our follow up session. Returning to share and celebrate their sun embroideries, and welcome new participants to the making of Here Comes the Sun.

Thank you so much to everyone who came along to my first group session of Here Comes the Sun, and to Back on Track, who as ever made me feel so welcome, and everything so easy for me.

Lois Blackburn

Here Comes the Sun is part of the project WHISPER TO ME ALONE. It gathers words and art from people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of other vulnerable people — in Manchester during lockdown, using journals of writing, art and song lyrics and phone conversations. The poems, songs and artworks will be launched as a twitter poem later in September. Supported by Arts Council England, partnered by the Booth Centre and Back on Track.

Singing melodies into a mobile phone

poetry, Whisper to me alone

Songwriter Matt Hill:


For the last few weeks I’ve been writing songs from the remarkable work that has sprung from the WHISPER TO ME ALONE project. I’ve been presented with poems, spoken word pieces and other sets of beautifully-expressed words.  My job is to try and find the music in them, to tease out melody and emotion and to find my own connection to the words so I can sing them convincingly. 

As a singer and songwriter my job is all about finding connections. Songs that connect the singer and the listener. Melodies that connect the head to the heart. When I’m co-writing with people I am used to having that connection eyeball to eyeball, like I have done on previous arthur + martha projects like Moving Panorama https://arthur-martha.com/portfolio/moving-panorama/. But in a time of Covid-19 those usual connections have been severed. 

Instead I’ve had to delve deep into people’s words, looking for meaning and expression. Phil Davenport from arthur+martha, who is leading WHISPER, has been there for the creation of the words and so he’s been a valuable source of information. Phone calls have been made to speak to the writers themselves so I can find out more about their lives and the words they’ve written. 

Those phone calls have been an adventure I wasn’t prepared for. I’ve spent time singing melodies into a mobile phone with people I’ve never met. Along the way I’ve been schooled in Norse mythology, learned things I didn’t know about garden wildlife and had some wonderful nostalgic trips down memory lane to a Manchester that was free and easy and not locked down. I’ve even picked up the guitar and strummed down the phone, attempting a remote jam session. But whoever I speak to we always acknowledge just how weird and strange these days are, as we sing and laugh down a phone line, despite having never met in person. Both of us trying hard to find that connection. 

Matt Hill is a singer-songwriter and a freelance creative artist who uses songwriting as a way to connect with people.  matthillsongwriter.com The street art photograph at the top of this blog is by Sue Dean, taken on her mobile phone.

WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers words and art from people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of other vulnerable people — in Manchester during lockdown, using journals of writing, art and song lyrics and phone conversations. The poems, songs and artworks will be launched as a twitter poem later in September. Supported by Arts Council England, partnered by the Booth Centre and Back on Track.

A river crying

poetry, Whisper to me alone

My last Whisper workshop at the Booth Centre, a remarkable place which offers advice, activities and support to homeless people in Manchester. I’ve been here on Wednesday mornings for the last five weeks, making poems with people. As they take part in the arts activities, I work alongside, writing down the stories they tell me. Sometimes it’s easier for people to talk while their hands are busy with sewing, or pottery.

This week I spend time with S, who wakes up with a poem in his head pretty much every day. He told me that his grandpa was a singer and so he is used to words carrying more than every day meaning, they can also be music, love tokens, or religious texts.

For S, the Psalms from the bible are everyday reading. I’m not a religious person, but I grew up with the Old Testament and the Psalms in my ears, and their subtle rhythm runs through a lot of what I write, even now.

S told me that he often has a phrase running around his head and he’s got to write down, to quieten it. The line that he showed me is the refrain in the poem down below, the crying rivers. As we spoke, of the conversation broadened out to the world he sees around him right now. For him, the pandemic is a biblical plague, a visiting of justice.

I read the poem below to him and he said, “Exodus. It means come forth.” And so that became the title.

As I’m finishing up this blog, I’m sat in the Booth by the piano. The place has been cleaned up ready for tomorrow and there’s a quiet buzz of conversation between two of the volunteers. Someone is whistling and banging a mop bucket. Outside, the rain is droppping in biblical amounts and I wait for my moment to cycle home.

Exodus, come forth
 
First will be last
And the last first
Whatever is for you
Receive it
The lonely rivers cry to the sea
Wait for me, wait for me
 
Don’t hold onto
An argument like it’s yours
Let go
It has no worth
The lonely rivers cry to the sea.
 
I don’t think the world will ever change
There is evil, destruction
All of King Pharaoh's
plagues
The lonely rivers cry to the sea
 
Do you remember the first stars in the sky?
Remember your first step on the Earth so fair?
Say you don’t remember, but you were there.
 
Lucifer will rob you blind
Will feed you on death
The plague of frogs of locusts
Leave them behind
 
Let my people go
Let go, it has no worth
 
The lonely rivers cry to the sea
Wait for me, wait for me.

"S"
Photograph by Sue Dean, 2020

I’d like to thank Merida Richards for allowing me to work alongside her pottery session — and for being so encouraging of this collaboration.

The long twitter poem Whisper2meAlone will begin transmission soon; it will include excerpts of the poems and writing from the project as well as songs and hand-drawn emoticons.

The arthur+martha project WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers words and art from people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of other vulnerable people in Manchester during lockdown. The project centres on journals of writing, art and song lyrics. The treated photo is by Sue Dean.

Swan-building

poetry, Whisper to me alone

When my brothers and sister and myself were little, mum would sit us round the kitchen table with bits of cardboard and paper and paints. We’d splash away together, making pictures, or building space rockets. It was her method of crowd control, it stopped us from arguing and getting into mischief. Mum would be there keeping an eye on us, while making the tea. 

They were some of the happiest times I ever experienced; a feeling of purpose and a feeling of belonging.

That memory flashed into my mind during the ICM workshop I was invited to last week. They’re a group of artists who hook up together every week to be in each other’s company while they create artworks. At the moment they meet on Zoom, because of the Covid restrictions.

The group was led by Dylan, who suggested swans as this week’s theme. (It’s important to know that Back on Track and ICM are based in the wonderful Swan Building, in Manchester.) While people drew swans, they chatted in a gently distracted way and I wrote down the sentences that jumped out, arranging the words into a poem. It was a wonderfully peaceful way of working together, full of little anecdotes and jokes and all the while the drawings came alive on paper.

Last swim of the day. Group visual poem 2020

Maybe because my own recollection of childhood was sparked, I particularly noticed people’s stories of their childhood — their encounters with swans, geese, and of course the ugly duckling story. Somehow the poem reflects the journey of the ugly duck, the journey we all make forward from childhood, trying to reach our full potential. 

After the poem was written and read back, Dylan was kind enough to make it into a visual poem of a swan, which you can see above. What you can’t see, but can only imagine, is the sweet-natured atmosphere of this group, who welcomed me into their little gang and for a while treated me as one of the family, while they made art together. 

Swan lovers. Anonymous 2020

Several organisations work together to support the art group:

Inspiring Change Manchester is a Lottery Funded Learning Programme. We work with people experiencing Multiple Disadvantages, who face barriers to accessing support and may be isolated within society. We follow a No Wrong Door approach, supporting people through a Multi-Agency Partnership that strives to be Asset Focused, Psychologically Informed and Person Centred. We are working to create System Change to tackle inequalities and improve people’s experiences in accessing the support they need.

Dylan Gwylim represented Self Help Services who are the partner providing the mental health element of the ICM project https://www.selfhelpservices.org.uk/

Paul Crudgington represented Back on Track www.backontrackmanchester.org.uk Several Back on Track learners have been involved with WHISPER TO ME ALONE.

MASH is a charity providing a range of confidential and non-judgemental services to women working in the sex industry in Greater Manchester. 

The arthur+martha project WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers words and art from people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of other vulnerable people in Manchester during lockdown. The project centres on journals of writing, art and song lyrics.

Last swim of the day. Anonymous 2020

Channel 70

poetry, Whisper to me alone

Dream I’m still a kid
Wish I was but
You do the best you can mate
That’s what I say
You’re playing a video game
Called life
Level 8

Go round the corner from trouble &
Don’t give up’s what I say
Word of advice mate, it’s a gift:
A toy car, a cowboy gun
Bubble-blowing set
(Best thing I got for Xmas ever)
Sometimes I dream it &
Wish

Dream I’m still a kid
Wish I was, but
Living in Hotel Whatsit now
The name’s on my prescription. There
You can dream the past, go on son!
It’s telly in your head
Course I do, still dream

Of being Superman, Bionic Man
Love my dreams me
In my dreams, always no socks or shoes
In my dreams, trying to run

In my dreams
someone’s chasing & they’ll
beat you fuckin up mate
In slo-mo
In horror dreams on Channel 70, Level 8
Fall off a cliff & wake before you hit the
Deck of the deck of the deck of
Dreams
Of
Smoking sly behind bike sheds
Of school
Of being
In care.

They’re good aren’t they mate
Having them dreams?

Paul

Photo Sue Dean, 2020

This poem was dictated by Paul to Phil, at the Booth Centre 19 August 2020. The treated photograph is by Sue Dean, taken on her mobile phone. WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers words and art from people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of other vulnerable people — in Manchester during lockdown, using journals of writing, art and song lyrics and phone conversations. Supported by Arts Council England, partnered by the Booth Centre and Back on Track.

During the first lockdown the Booth Centre ran an advice drop-in and accommodated people under the Everyone In scheme. At 11am every day they ran a Facebook activity session to combat isolation, which included the arthur+martha WHISPER TO ME ALONE 2-minute poetry videos.