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

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

While typing, pause to sterilise

Whisper to me alone
The new normal. Lunch, visor and poetry notes at The Booth Centre.

You’ll find the remarkable Booth Centre tucked down the back of Victoria station in Manchester, surrounded by garages, carparks, little eateries and mysterious businesses. Amongst drab surroundings it is a bustle of energy and purpose, a little sunburst. It provides extraordinarily imaginative support for the homeless community in this city. It’s welcomed arthur+martha here for over 10 years. Our Booth sessions have taken place in a hubbub of job clubs, quizzes, drama, singing, with everyone meeting together for exuberant mealtimes. It’s been a kind of home from home.

During the time of the pandemic, the Booth has quietened, but stayed busy. They’ve been supplying food parcels from their garden and providing activity packs and phones support for isolated people in lockdown. Many of the regular visitors to the centre have been scattered across the city in hostels and hotels, out on a limb. 

Now at last people are starting to come back, and creative sessions cautiously beginning again. However, the big boisterous groups have gone, instead people work at individual tables, in large, well-ventilated rooms, wearing masks and visors.

(While typing this blog at the centre, I pause to sterilise my hands from one of the many bottles available.)

Today’s is the first poetry session I’ve run here in months. I work alongside the sewing group that Bryony leads on Wednesdays. The stitchers are deep in the making process, focussed on the intricate rhythms of stitching and colour. It’s a perfect atmosphere for quiet conversation — and I work with three people, jotting down their words, to make poems. I simply ask them to describe their morning and their impression of the world right now.

The person I’m talking to becomes emotional, suddenly blurting out words, letting go some old history. He apologies to me. Normally this would be because showing your emotions is “unmanly”, but these days the apology is because he’s scared of spreading the virus. He pulls his mask tighter, continues in an even tone, hidden under the disguise.

And so here’s a tale of coming out of prison straight into the wider trap of the pandemic — a whole world under lock and key. But it’s also a world in which we can finally hear birdsong in the city…

Been let out

The virus. Me,

I was in prison and then when

I got out, it had started and

The whole structure of life

Was DIFFERENT —

Getting a prescription, getting 

HERE, haircuts

Seeing the doctor

Feeling of uncomfortableness

Of threat. And yet.

Have you

Seen the FOXES?

One was here yesterday. And the birds of the morning

When you get to hear BLACKBIRDS

Beautiful

Now the traffic is quiet.

People overcompensating

Gathering everything together:

“Get food, get supplies

That’s how we won the war!”

Inside

THE PRISON. Closed down, you were

Locked 23 hours a day

20 minutes in the yard

Volatile atmosphere, very.

Stopped all visits, all everything.

Coming out

Was the best day of my life

And then — REALITY ATTACK

Went into a shop and they stopped me

Didn’t know what they were talking about:

“Stay 2 metres back!”

Anonymous

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 our Facebook activity session, which included the arthur+martha WHISPER TO ME ALONE poetry videos. To see samples of the Booth’s online programme go to these links:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t60atajOgCw&t=5s

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC5JJmqziR9EG1fM-hSv1-ag

Phil would like to thank Bryony from Stitched Up Co-op for welcoming him into her workshop.

Lockdown, Me

poetry, Whisper to me alone

Like a wolf
A wild dog sat in lonely lockdown
Another day goes by.
To some this is loneliness
But to me, joy.

Gives me time to reflect
Sitting here, pen in my hand
And my old Number 7
Jack Daniels, jotting down
Thoughts and
Reading aloud:

To the heavens
Ploughing down rain
To some this is hell
To me this is heaven.

So thanks to the gods
The old gods and the new
Brood of the trickster
We are the tales you’ll be told.
Another day, lockdown me
Life still rolls on
By Ragnarok set free.

Kris

Photograph Sue Dean. 2020

WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers experiences of 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 lockdown photographs of Manchester that illuminate this blog were by Sue Dean, using her favourite camera, her phone.

WHISPER TO ME ALONE is supported by Arts Council England. Partners include The Booth CentreBack on Track, Bury Art Museum and With One Voice arts and homeless sector global network. 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.

Smiley shoelaces. Photograph by Sue Dean, 2020

Social dancing

Whisper to me alone
Social Dancing. Photograph by Sue Dean

WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers experiences of 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.

Phil writes:

The isolation that has come with lockdown has forced many of us to look at ourselves and try to understand some of our dilemmas. It’s brought the good and it’s brought the bad. For some it has felt like a prison sentence. For other people it’s been a kind of opportunity. Anastasia points this out:

“I’ve had the chance to slow down, to quieten all the noise around me. To still the voices of busyness and make myself be calm. I’ve been thinking a little bit zen these days. Taking time to exist. It’s a choice isn’t it, what you do with this moment. Maybe I’ll learn from it.”

The writing and art is part of this process, it can be a tool for holding those reflections, so they don’t just melt away but are kept and thought about. Making a poem now is like no other time in people’s lives. We’re also experimenting with making poems over the phone, the author speaking lines down to the scribe (myself) and an edit agreed by reading it back.

It’s a whole different time
It’ll be unique in the telling
A different way of looking
We’re thinking the new thinking.

Anonymous

July 13. Photograph by Sue Dean

In reflecting the world through writing and art, we look at it more closely. This can be a celebration as well as a reckoning:

The birds tweeting
The squirrels hanging out — see!
Small bird, one of the tiny ones
The owl’s fascination
The great grey bird on the canal
Encounter in the kitchen, a Queen Bee
(Got to be careful with that one)
The squirrels drop round our way
For nuts and
Since we’ve kept our distance
We’re not so close to each other
But then. I look again and
There’s a hedgehog.

Alan

And in making things, we also make ourselves.

“I’ve loved having this writing and art, it’s keeping me going. It gets stuff out of my head onto paper. The art process helps. And when I lose making art, it feels like I lose myself some days. I hang onto me through the images and the writings. It’s all you’ve got sometimes…”

Anonymous

Selfie with mask. Adapted photograph by Sue Dean

The lockdown photographs of Manchester that illuminate this blog were by Sue Dean, using her favourite camera, her phone. WHISPER TO ME ALONE is supported by Arts Council England. Partners include The Booth CentreBack on Track, Bury Art Museum and With One Voice arts and homeless sector global network.

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.

More than a watchman for the daybreak

poetry, Projects, Whisper to me alone

When I was a little girl I used to say, “I want to love the world better.” But it’s a job I cannot do. Sometimes I can’t even love myself.

16 years ago I got clean. I was using heroin and crack, introduced to them by an ex-partner. Even then I wrote every day, journals and diaries and books of all descriptions. Sometimes it was almost illegible. I did the cold turkey myself, writing every terrible day. My dad would say, “This is the book that will help the world, this will be how you love the world better. The story of how you healed.”

When you come off heroin, your body is all pain. You stretch and you bend and you twist, you twitch your legs, they call it Riding the Bike. Couldn’t sleep, I’d be pacing, I’d be looking at the sky. In the middle of the night I’d be looking out for that chink of light at the darkest time, just before the daybreak. When it finally came I’d think I’ve done another day, I’ve been clean.

I wrote about it every day, every detail. A whole book. Then one day I burned it all. Maybe the weight of those pages was too heavy.

Maybe you know that book too.

“A”

Drawing by Jasmine, from journal pages

 

WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers experiences of people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of many other vulnerable people — in Manchester during lockdown. We’re using journals of writing, art, songs, phone conversations and embroidery.

Photo above: Featured embroidery, by Marylyn MacLennan for the quilt, Here Comes the Sun. 

WHISPER TO ME ALONE is supported by Arts Council England. Partners include The Booth CentreBack on Track, Bury Art Museum and With One Voice arts and homeless sector global network.

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.

In the sunshine you’re invisible

Here Comes the Sun, Whisper to me alone

The sun has been a symbol of hope and life to humans since the year dot. But it can also bring the harsh light of exposure. In this poem, written for our project WHISPER TO ME ALONE, Danny Collins describes the fear of being seen, when you’re homeless.

Everyone under the same sun

In the sun you are recognised
In the bright bright sun.
In the night, people don’t see
Homeless feel secure of a night.

When you’re living rough and get wet
In the rain, in the beer, in whatever
It takes days to dry out
And the sun sun don’t stay.

Used to sleep under a bridge
Ancoats to Rochdale Canal
Whitworth Park was my office
When it was warm, jumped in

And swam.
This woman asked
“Why you swimming there?”
“I haven’t got a bathroom love.”

Don’t like it when people pity me.
I said, “Listen love I feel sorry for you
You’ve got rent to pay, tax, electricity
I’ve none of that. Trees don’t have keys.”

Pulled the cover over and went to sleep
Left her scratching her head.
In the sunshine you’re invisible
But they still see you.

Danny Collins 

This poem was spoken by Danny over over the phone to Phil, who wrote it down – an example of our current safe distance working. Danny calls this method ‘I spoke it, you wrote it.’

Beryl Lott's sun1

 

If you’ve enjoyed Danny’s poem, you might like to go on one of his Invisible Manchester tours, in which he describes living on the streets and reads his poems in the places where it all happened.

WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers experiences of people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of many other vulnerable people — in Manchester during lockdown. We’re using journals of writing, art, songs, phone conversations and embroidery. Today’s embroideries are: Top, embroidered sun by Hazel Cawthan, and bottom embroidered sun, by Beryl Lott, for the quilt Here Comes the Sun. (Part of the Whisper to me alone project)

WHISPER TO ME ALONE is supported by Arts Council England. Partners include The Booth CentreBack on Track, Bury Art Museum and With One Voice arts and homeless sector global network.

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.

 

I class myself as invincible

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

WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers experiences of people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of many other vulnerable people — in Manchester during lockdown. We’re using journals of writing, art, songs, phone conversations and embroidery. Here one of our Whisperers talks about being transgender and how attitudes have changed during Covid.

Jessica: 

“I class myself as invincible. It’s because I get so much crap every day, being trans. I am just being me, being myself, but they can’t stand it. I’ve been attacked so many times I can’t count. I don’t know why they can’t leave me to live my life, be the person I’ve always wanted to be ever since I was little.

“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. It’s made them come out of themselves. They are listening to each other much more, trying to figure out what to do, how to survive. I notice these things.

Whisper to me alone – journal page by Jasmine

“It’s sad it’s taken the virus to make people more open-minded. I wonder if they’ll stay like that, or they’ll go back to what they were before? The traffic is coming back now, there’s thousands of cars on the roads, maybe everyone will go back to their old ways. Right now I’m not getting so much hassle and violence as I used to. I still can’t go out wearing a dress, I’ll get beaten up. But if I wear women’s jogging stuff, I can go outside and I don’t get too much abuse. Maybe they’re being kinder. Maybe they’re scared of catching the virus. But what comes next?

 

WHISPER TO ME ALONE is supported by Arts Council England. Partners include Back on Track, Bury Art MuseumWith One Voice arts and homeless sector global network and The Booth Centre.

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.

Doorways

Whisper to me alone

Our Covid Journal project WHISPER TO ME ALONE has been up and running a few weeks now. It’s a project that is growing quietly, as people gather ideas for their diaries of words and pictures. Below is the first of the artworks, from Jasmine. A haunting little pencil sketch, it’s an archway that seems to invite us to step in and yet at the same time is a barrier, a secret place.

This project of telephone calls and “one-to-one workshops” is full of fascinating conversations, of insights, openess, and the occasional blind alley. During the calls, I have got a notebook to hand and when it seems important, I scribe down what people say and then read the notes back to them. It’s a way we’ve worked for years, catching words from the air before they disappear. Here, discussing the effects of lockdown, is Anastasia:

We’ve lost so many lives to Covid. It is a catastrophe. But it has also led us to compassion, gratefulness and more humanity. The appreciation of little things that we can’t have right now. Things like hugs. We are missing contact with other people and finding new ways to connect. With each other and with nature. I’ve been looking at flowers, watching the birds.

We’ve actually got time during the lockdown. We have been given time to stop and stare. There are less cars on the road, less pollution. You can see the stars.

Anastasia

WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers experiences of 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. 

This project is supported by Arts Council England. Partners include The Booth CentreBack on Track, Bury Art Museum and With One Voice arts and homeless sector global network.