Giving voice to the virus
“I walk with my eyes open, there’s so much to see / I never get too close to people, I keep a distance, me.”
Poet Phil Davenport and songwriter Matt Hill spent 6 months collaborating with homeless and vulnerable people to write pandemic songs via phone calls, socially-distanced workshops and personal journals. These recordings are an audio diary of deepest lockdown. They give tiny glimpses of other lives, in rooms, on streets, isolated in hotels — and in turn offer new perspectives…
“The point was to reach out and spend time with vulnerable people when they were really hurting from isolation. We spent many hours talking, laughing, writing — and singing together. You can hear deep feeling in these scratchy little phone recordings, they come from the heart.” (Phil)
Lockdown has forced many of us to look at ourselves and try to understand — who are we becoming? Jessica, a trans woman who contributed vocals to many of the songs, talks of being attacked in the street less often during the pandemic:
“One thing I’ve noticed during the virus is people are more kind. They’re trying to stay calm, they’re trying to deal with this situation. They are listening to each other much more, trying to figure out what to do, how to survive…” Jessica
Words and images from the journals were tweeted to make a many-person account of Covid. An album of songs, adapted from the original poems by songwriter Matt Hill, was recorded collaboratively with participants over the phone, you can listen here. Phil and Danny Collins made a series of 2-minute poetry tutorial videos, which were shared via the Booth Centre online community and on Youtube. Songs from Whisper To Me Alone were played in Bury Art Museum in accompaniment to the Covid quilt Here Comes the Sun. Videos for the songs Whole Different Time and Army of Birds are on YouTube.
Thank you so much for all your help. Thank you doesn’t even come close to saying what I feel. I can’t think of it coming to an end. It’s been a help and outlet, immensely enjoyable. I have loved these sessions. It has been wonderful to know that they’re always there and when I need to cancel I can cancel if my mental health is making things difficult for me. This project has been here for everybody and for me too. I’m 15 years clean from addiction. This gives everybody an opportunity to speak their truth. And it’s a place to have my voice public. Just like everybody involved I’m given a voice.
These words that we make, they give people a clue don’t they? When I go to jail, which I do a lot, I like to read Dickens. That’s what I do, I go into my head with a book. Now I’m out, my head is full of words and I want to make songs and stories until about my life. I love doing this, it helps with everything. Helps with my head.
And the poems they keep coming like a fountain. It’s been born in me, poetry. But I’ve got to work at it too, it’s a song brought to life with meaning and feeling. You’re helping me along the way, I’m learning and I’m feeling it…
We’ve got to be careful now, we got to be keeping 2 metres apart, not meeting in groups. We could get a second spike and this could get worse before it gets better. So for me, I go off into the parks and I’ll meet with the animals instead. These airborne creatures are fascinating to me, they make us free. The birds and the caterpillars into butterflies in the parks. Look at them wriggling on the leaf, look at their orange wings. Going to see them and writing them down, writing all the names down, all the animals, that’s what I’m doing now. It makes me calm, it gives me something to hold onto.
People have come back to themselves, and learned a little bit. Maybe the virus is teaching us things, maybe the virus is teaching us to be kinder. I don’t get beaten up so much maybe that happened because of this pandemic. Sad to say isn’t it? Doing art and writing, that’s where I can do the deep stuff, that’s where I can be myself and no one attacks me. We have these conversations and I go away and I write and write. I’m making a book of myself, written and drawn.
Anonymous (Booth Centre)
It’s more difficult these days, to be honest. Not many jobs that’s what I struggle with. Everyone isolated, everyone very paranoid. It’s that distance and yet we need to communicate, we are human. That’s why I come here, to the Booth centre. Trying to get out of your own little bubble. I never used to hang out in Picadilly Gardens but now I chill there with friends. To be honest some have knives. Everyone has started using drugs, drinks, even me. Thank you for talking with me, for writing this down. I’ve been heard.
Thom Jackson (Booth Centre staff member)
I just wanted to thank you and let you know how much of a help you and Danny were in the lock-down period in making the daily activity videos. It was hugely appreciated by the viewers and got lots of people involved, the themes you set out each week and your delivery of the more well know poems and Danny’s personal poems came as great inspiration and encouraged lots of people to send in their own poems and kind or inspiring words. I think the fact you are already part of Booth Centre team and a familiar face helped people to engage quickly and helped us all stay that bit more connected whilst we were all stuck indoors. Not only did you inspire the visitors of the Booth Centre, but myself and all the staff enjoyed participating in the tasks and getting creative with our own poems! It really felt like we managed to keep our community properly connected, alive and entertained through the most difficult of times.
This project received emergency response funding from Arts Council England, to respond to the Covid 19 lockdown, particularly in respect of people experiencing homelessness. Partners included The Booth Centre, Back on Track, Bury Art Museum and With One Voice Arts and Homelessness International.
As part of Whisper To Me Alone, artist Lois Blackburn worked separately, with diverse groups, often using the post, to create an upbeat quilt as an antidote to Covid depression, see more at Here Comes the Sun.