Poetry, performance and story
In February this year, I attended a very inspiring and stimulating AD4E event in Cornwall. Sandwiched between the various talks, there were a few very powerful poetry performances that left quite an impression on me, despite the fact that I am quite a ‘heady’ person who, perhaps quite oddly, tends to find comfort and soothing in abstract jargon-filled academic books. So I was very intrigued to attend such an event, the main focus of which was on poetry, performance and story.
It was organized by the wonderful Jo Watson, director of AD4E, psychotherapist, and a powerful poet in her own right, and co-presented with the inimitable Lucy Johnstone, a psychologist, trainer and co-author of the ‘Power Threat Meaning Framework’, who has been involved with AD4E for some time. Impressively, there were some 200 attendees from far and wide — Australia, New Zealand, Iceland, the US, and Ireland to name only the ones I remember — all of whom enjoyed a surprisingly smoothly delivered event, thanks to John Wilson and team from ‘Onlinevents’ who provided the platform for the evening.
Poetry performances weaved together
Fifteen very different people took their turn on screen to evoke, perform and enact their experiences and perspectives of the pathologising narrative of distress. Poets and performers, experts by experience, psychologists and psychotherapists, as diverse in their performances as in their everyday roles, joined together to weave an all too common narrative: the failure of the medical-diagnostic paradigm and the perversity of a system of care that often seems only to re-traumatise the persons it attempts to help.
Several of these very unique performances had an equally as unique impact on me. I was, for example, swept up in a sort of horrifying elation by Ruth Dixon’s terribly sad and jarring video poem ‘Madness Meds’ which seemed to deposit some elements of her mother’s horrific institutional abuse deep into my own being. In an entirely different way, I found myself drawn into Joelle Taylor’s potent poem-world, as she weaved the ineffabilities of her experiences into strangely tangible and visual word-pictures, despite them being quite foreign to me personally. One of Jo Watson’s poems felt as if it contained a book’s worth of critique and a life’s worth of indignation, a brief burst of wonderful wordplay that was far more than the sum of its parts. Jasmine Gardosi, similarly, for me, seemed to take down the whole diagnostic system with an incredibly sharp-witted play on labels in ‘Blue’. And Sue Irwin’s poem, hushed and pure in its delivery, seemed to slowly unveil a terrifyingly subtle space of its own, as profound in its richness as it was in its poignancy.
I also found in some performances something which has felt personal to me — a sort of outraged excitement at the fact of whole other worlds of experience lurking abandoned in the background of the prevailing status quo. Some voices spoke to me of modes of being forgotten, of messages from the depths that we have desperately tried to disown and destroy. I was moved, impassioned and angered in equal measure by Mica Gray’s delicate and profound poem ‘When daises talk’, describing her wonderfully esoteric and metaphysical communion with daisies while on a psychiatric ward, which, as far as I could tell, gave her better advice on how to live than the whole history of Western Philosophy has. In a different vein, Lydia Daisy performed a poem which screamed of the suppressed feminine, and in turn, to me at least, of that whole feminine order of reality itself that has been denied, split-off and projected into personal sacks of ‘the unconscious’ and filled with ‘pathology.’
Through all of these I found myself stirred by two core themes: the acutely disturbing shadow of the patriarchal structures in all of this and the undeniable value and validity of the first person, lived experience.
Traumatic structures of power and privilege
It was not just that many of the stories involved men in positions of power doing terribly abusive things. It was the fact that the whole theoretical, social and political structure in and through which the trauma and suffering are explained and treated is an inherently masculine one It is one that privileges objectification, control and reduction in the service of a truth defined by the absence of doubt, difference and complexity. Not only do women disproportionately experience such trauma, but the trauma — indeed everyone’s trauma — is then gaslighted away, spun into a hyper-intellectualised web of diagnosis, aetiology, and biological causal mechanisms, exactly losing the very experiences it supposedly explains in the process. There results a double evil, spoken so well by some of the performers: maddening injury, and then the insult of meaning and truth destroyed, itself enough to inspire madness. So many of the predominantly female voices carried rage and sadness in their timbre and words, but around or alongside it, I felt the overriding suppression of the feminine itself. The feminine truth, truth as wisdom — the irreducibly complex hanging together of things — is exactly what seems to get othered, denied and ultimately pathologised, an act that disabuses us all of the primary matrix of healing.
The power and legitimacy of first-person lived experience, to my mind intimately related to the above, was also deeply impressed upon me. It is all too easy, as I myself have done in the past, to think of the voice of lived experience as a sort of commentary on the categories agreed upon independently by ‘the experts’ — as qualifications, caveats or limits to those categories. But what if what is spoken is a radical rejection of the very categories, voiced so clearly in many of these poems? It is all well and good saying ‘We need to hear the voices of service users’ but what if those voices are exactly saying that psychiatry and the mental health system at large has got it wrong, very wrong? Many of these were not ‘descriptions,’ not ‘yes.. ands’ or ‘but… this also has to be taken into accounts.’ They were declarations of entirely different and competing truth(s). To me, such performances are not additions to the picture; they subverted the picture, turned it inside out and reclaimed the canvas.
Performers and performances spoke truth
This event, in short, was an eye-opener for me. Not because I necessarily learnt anything new about the mental health system as it exists, but because I was brought into a very different mode of truth by the performers and performances themselves. The medical-diagnostic narrative is not just intellectually barren and ethically at fault; it is a living force that appropriates the lives and experiences of so many, and it is performances such as these that can serve as guides to exactly what it takes away.
The next Drop the Disorder poetry evening is on Friday 3rd of July.