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

Threadwork

Necklace of Stars, poetry, quilts
Below an old tree,
among fallen leaves,
thread wraps a root
to weave a web about
life’s woodenness.
Thread reaches out,
across low hollows,
into farther woods,
to feed new bodies,
form new fruit.

Linda Goulden

I can’t imagine not wanting to write, but the pandemic silenced me for awhile. I felt so stupid, fuddled by all this – and I feared that what I wrote would be trivial. Trivial in the face of what’s happening. And I possibly still think that. But I’m writing despite it.

You’ve really helped me get started again. I wouldn’t have approached poems like this. It’s all seemed so freeing. And lately I have been able to go back to older unfinished or unsatisfactory poems and work on them too.

I’ve stopped thinking in terms of  “When this pandemic is over I will…” Last year I was travelling and thought this year I would travel more and be at more poetry readings but maybe I won’t. Maybe I won’t ever be able to travel again. I’m coming to terms with that.

It’s a funny feeling being an older person right now, after the lockdown. I see people living much more freely than I do, some recklessly. And I don’t live like that. It’s watching the world come alive and it’s not happening to me. I still need to be careful for my own health, cautious. People might think I’m over anxious, but I don’t. I’ve bought some masks and tried them on but I haven’t been anywhere I need to wear them yet.

We always did live in uncertainty, it’s just we were very good at not noticing.

You have to be conscious now, you have to be careful in this time of Covid. If you’re pretending things are normal that takes energy as well. And I feel a funny anger about the difference, about having to manage this situation, about how tiring life has become.

I feel exhaustion some days, certain days. I don’t know when they’ll arrive, or why. It is not easy to tell whether it is age, ailments, lack of fitness or the situation. I suppose if you keep yourself tense you tire yourself out. Yesterday I disappeared, I was lost to it. I wasn’t relaxing, I’d been holding myself too tight. Even meditating it took much longer to relax. Mind you, even before COVID I was trying to arrange that any busy day ‘on’ was followed by a quiet day ‘off’.

Linda

Writing takes a big chunk of my day, it’s very important to me just now. What am I writing? I’m living in the past, not the recent past which is full of grief for me, but the past of childhood. I’ve stepped beyond the grief and gone right back to something that’s relatively harmless. And going back to these memories helps me to know myself, I see aspects of the child that are in me today.

I think in snapshots, the little images that come to you when you start to dig around in the back of your mind. And the writing is a system for helping me to dig out these memories, I want to get to the core of the memory in my head. I’m very careful about how I describe them, making every word count, so the images are clear. It’s like looking in a mirror and seeing who you were as a child. These things have been in my head for decades, but they’ve been asleep. Now I’m awakening.

Tony

A Necklace of Stars, working with older people in Derbyshire, is supported by Arts Council England, Arts DerbyshireDCC Public Health and Derbyshire County Council Home Library Service. This project is particularly aimed at countering isolation; during the pandemic we’ve been working using distance methods – phone conversations and post.

The heart of the moon

Necklace of Stars, poetry

How many of us
Have stood alone
With our thoughts and feelings
And gazed into this vast expanse
We call the universe?

I have, with my aching bones and my troubled mind
And I’ve asked the question — why?
Why does the moon beckon to me
What is this force that is pulling my gaze upon it?

Its a-luminous appeal
And surface scarred by time
Its craters remind me of the moment
The asteroids struck its heart
But we still both shine.

How the stars wink at me —
Are they calling me,
playing a game,
Or simply looking down?
Maybe guiding me to better times.

I take heart when the sun starts to rise
Life itself is enriched
By its warmth and energy
It shines so bright.
Now I have the answer why.
Do you?

Neil Sessions

Everything relates to the sun and the moon, to life playing its game. Why does the moon draw us with its craters, the knocks and bangs of life? The moon is very powerful, it gives us gravity, weight, it moves the seas. The waves of emotion in ourselves, the werewolves in us comes with the moon. I’ve got bruises of the heart – they relate to the craters on the moon. The moon must’ve hurt when those asteroids struck.

Surface scarred by time, that’s my life. But I’m still shining bright. That’s come from you, that idea. Telling me to be proud of what I’m doing, these poems. Telling me to rise up, to stand alone in my individuality. My poems are the voice I’ve found, words scattered on scraps and I’ve assembled them with you. You’ve given me a precious gift and I hope to pass it on.

Actually I’m dyslexic, it’s why they called me stupid at school, but I’m qualified to write this. I’ve got the certificate, I’ve lived a life that’s battered me and I write from experience. Sometimes my mind screams at me like a teacher — why can’t you spell this properly? But what we have got to communicate as human beings is more important than spelling it correctly.

I invite people to do what it says in this poem, to take time to look at the sky, to look at the whole universe, and gaze and ask why. We are going through some terrible times and we need to take stock. I understand, I used to do it after my wife died. I carry the whole night sky in my memory, I close my eyes and I see it all. And I’m still asking it questions. Asking why, asking why.

Neil Sessions

A Necklace of Stars, working with older people in Derbyshire, is supported by Arts Council England, Arts DerbyshireDCC Public Health and Derbyshire County Council Home Library Service. This project is particularly aimed at countering isolation; during the pandemic we’ve been working using distance methods – phone conversations and post.

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.

 

How the moon shines on the hunter’s gun

Necklace of Stars

The first winter was a long dark winter
After my first wife died: so
I wrote poems. I’ve lived it
Every word of what I tell.
A walk through the cornfield
Lose myself on a lovely day
The corn sways every way.

There’s not many remember a skylark song
I do and women cry for it.
Poetry is written in all ways
I’m a simple country bloke, I spell
The heart.
On a hail-y night in a winter farm
Shut my eyes and I’m there in the storm.

Shut my eyes and see
Taurus the Bull: how his horns shine bright
How The Plough stands out with great form
Shivering and quivering with great delight
How the moon shines on the hunter’s gun
And when we run
You’re beside me on the river in the summer sun.

Neil

Phil writes:

We are entwined with memory. The memory of our parents, school days, a dreaded teacher, a first kiss, a marriage, a child, a death. How we carry those experiences and use them to understand the world — well, let’s just say that’s a life’s work.

The poem above came out of a conversation about this balancing act. When is memory too much of a burden? When is forgetting too much of a loss? During the phone calls that have sparked the start of many of the Necklace of Stars poems, I keep a writing pad by my side. In this particular case I jotted down the conversation and read it back to the speaker. We talked about it and he thought it needed a bit of “twitching” and some polishing too. He suggested some rhymes, hooting with laughter at my Southern accent as I read the lines back to him to check them. Here it is now, twitched and polished. It’s not completely his poem and not mine, it’s somewhere somewhere between the two.

A Necklace of Stars has led us into the night time, the time of dreams, illuminated with stars. It’s easy to get lost in the night, but for all of us, the stars help us to find our way. If you look for them, they’re here in this poem, shivering and quivering with great delight.

Today’s blog was written by Philip Davenport, arthur+martha.

A Necklace of Stars, is supported by Arts Council England, Arts Derbyshire, DCC Public Health and Derbyshire County Council Home Library Service.

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.

The seeds of your thought 

Necklace of Stars

Phil writes:

For years, arthur+martha have run workshops in which a group of people sit around a table to make art and poems together. In truth, these aren’t just workshops, they are also talking shops, they’re about being in one another’s company.

Right now, this is not possible. We have to work at a distance so that we don’t spread the virus. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I ring people and we talk one-to-one, sometimes for a long-ish while. And although I miss the chatty groups, I’m starting to appreciate other qualities of distance working.

One-to-one conversations give people time and space to reflect. To question exactly what it is they’re interested in, how they write about it, to face the things that they are dodging, to appreciate strengths they took for granted.

Below, Margaret’s powerful trio of poems Dandelion time talks about exactly this struggle, to find a pattern in life, compassion and understanding in what can look like chaos. It’s a brave and rather beautiful documentary of the life of the heart. She starts by simply watching the dandelions – these very same dandelions that filled the air when the virus epidemic started. The dandelions become a symbol, they are blown by the wild winds of life and love. They’re also the seed of her daughter’s life. Then in the final section she opens her window to let in whatever life brings along next. This is a heartfelt journey, facing fears and delight equally — and it embraces both.

 

Dandelion time

 

Part I

Invading gardens

littering the roadsides

dandelions wait to tell the time

 

The tic toc of the clock

releasing seed heads,

thoughts that fly

 

It’s bare pincushion head exposed

reveals a Fibonacci spiral

nothing random here.

 

Part II

 

My thoughts take root,

bed down in my house,

the collected chaos of myself

in notebooks and files,

the library of my life.

 

How shall I bring order ?

Unlike the dandelion

my life has been

without a grand design

no Fibonacci sequence.

 

You blow the dandelion to

the tic toc of your own time

letting your seeds of thought fly.

 

I pressed my wild flowers

into heavy books

catalogued on library shelves,

crushing out the colour,

wanting to hold them fast.

I fitted passion into form

hoping to make it last.

Love and marriage

the one fought the other

the other always won.

 

My daughter you are the flowering

of that explosive mix, grown up,

un-afraid to puff your cheeks.

 

Part III

 

Your

seeds fly

through my door

opening windows in my house

as you wait for me to come outside

inviting me to take another chance at life and blow the dandelion clock.

 

Margaret Gosley

 

image1

 

Today’s blog was written by Philip Davenport, arthur+martha. The poem and dandelion photos are by Margaret Gosley.

A Necklace of Stars, is supported by Arts Council England, Arts Derbyshire, DCC Public Health and Derbyshire County Council Home Library Service.