If you have never heard a poem about mental health, then I’m willing to bet you have never attended a spoken word event.
When Lloyd Robinson, a performance poet who refers to himself as a functional depressive, wrote one, he compared his depression to the faulty wiring in his bathroom. ‘I feel like a lot of metaphor … in prose and poetry is … geared to something beautiful, whereas the reality … is often quite stark.’
He was keen not to dismiss prettier imagery, though. ‘I think it’s important to have a wide variety of voices. Depression…is not experienced by everyone in exactly the same way.’
In terms of poor mental health being a necessary attribute for a poet, Robinson agreed, to a point. In a slam setting, he explained, ‘the winning slam poem needs to be something…very, very personal…about identity politics or mental health.’
Jenny Lindsay is a poet, promoter and part of the team running Flint & Pitch, which hosts special events on the theme of Reclaim This Script as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival. She said ‘I’ve heard spoken word pieces where I have felt concerned that the performer isn’t ready to share what they are sharing, or is doing so in a way that isn’t “safe” for them.’
Katie Ailes, a researcher of contemporary spoken word poetry, and part of the Loud Poets collective, had a specific warning. ‘If we’re perceiving this as a space for mentally ill people to share narratives of trauma rather than as an artistic space in which artists perform their work, we’re fundamentally misconstruing this art form.’
Ailes had good news about the deeply troubling idea of don’t take your meds and you’ll write better poetry. ‘I don’t know anyone who would encourage others to think like that … This scene … does not glamorise ill mental health to that extent.’ Robinson has experience of the reverse, receiving comments like ‘Lloyd can’t write anymore because he’s happy’ when he started seeking help for his depression – but that was not in Scotland, and not as part of a spoken word project.
‘The scene is split into two tiers,’ said poet, novelist and multiple slam winner Dr Claire Askew. ‘You have the big nights, with higher expectations, and then smaller nights, often with an open mic element.’ Lindsay also expressed this – ‘there’s a chasm between the grassroots and the professional platforms: how do we address that?’
Askew described ‘a leaching of resources into the top tier, which minimises the opportunities for grassroots spoken word nights.’ When asked to specifically to comment on this, Freddie Alexander, a writer and promotor who helps to run Edinburgh’s Inky Fingers, was less sure: ‘There are several ways you can parse the Scottish spoken word landscape,’ he said. ‘A “high-profile” event may be dependent upon the energies of one or a group of highly dedicated organisers who, on departure, will cause the event and audience to dissipate into the scene.’ Ailes confirmed that ‘the majority of spoken word events in Scotland operate without [any] funding.’
So as a performer, looking to attract the notice of a promoter, or group of promoters, do you have to win slams in order to progress? Here, everyone had a different view.
Ailes admitted that ‘for people with anxiety, slams can be very stressful,’ but ‘the scene doesn’t rely soley on slam success…for success overall.’
Askew felt slam wins were necessary for progression, and reported that promoters often attended slams to assess new talent, rather than open mics at smaller nights.
Lindsay said: ‘It’s one of the most common ways to get into spoken word…But aye…there are issues with them.’
Robinson thought it was ‘slightly harder to attain sustainable success’ without slam wins on your CV.
On the contrary, Alexander did not believe slams were essential to ‘earn your stripes’. ‘Poetry slams aren’t for poets … [the] primary beneficiaries are the audience and promoters.’ He also put the onus back on organisers: ‘We, as promoters, should be developing event structures that are more accessible for poets with mental illnesses.’
But of course there are as many manifestations of mental health as there are sufferers. Robinson (functional depressive, remember?) came 4th in the Scottish Slam Championship. He finds that slams ‘provide a new kind of adrenaline rush … my competitive side comes out … it’s nice to be able to explore that side of me.’
Askew was also troubled that funding bodies often measure success in terms of ‘bums on seats’, which makes it more difficult for smaller events to get a share of the pot.
Lindsay noted concerns about the ‘stubborn lack of …poets actually being paid to perform,’ and issues with ‘burnout, and having to make the choice between focussing on yer own work and promoting other people.’
But Alexander had better news: ‘the range of nights, audiences, and venues is a testament to years of hard work.’
Everyone agreed that within spoken word, in Edinburgh and the rest of Scotland, there is opportunity for growth. In which case, there is space for us all on a vibrant, varied, supportive spoken word scene. Right?
By Stella Hervey Birrell
Stella’s first novel, How Many Wrongs make a Mr Right? explores mental health recovery and was published by Crooked Cat Books in 2016. Shorter works have appeared in various places including The Guardian, and The Dangerous Woman Project. She blogs at #atinylife140, tweets at @atinylife140, Instagrams as Stella_hb and can be found on Facebook here.
SAMH Gateways Service offers a variety of approaches for helping those experiencing mental health and addiction issues. It has been documented that a large number of people undergoing such difficulties often find themselves isolated from the wider community, something that the service’s Tools for Living programme attempts to address by offering a series of eight separate modules that encourage individuals’ re-entry into the life of the community.
These modules are flexible so that individuals can access them according to their own specific needs and time considerations. The aim, as staff-member Kirsty told me at last Wednesday’s taster session, is “to get people out”, thereby helping them to develop the tools necessary for making positive changes in their lives.
A recurring theme of the session was that isolation is a “vicious circle”: people who suffer from any number of mental, physical, financial or circumstantial factors may find themselves disinclined to socialise, to the point of even not wishing to visit the local shop. This, though, worsens their self-esteem, making them even less likely to engage in society.
Tools for Living attempts to reverse this unhealthy cycle: low self-esteem undermines confidence, and a lack of confidence perpetuates a person’s low self-esteem. The way to break this cycle is to move from negative to positive thinking.
Following a discussion of confidence and self-esteem, we moved on to the theme of anxiety and stress, where an interesting distinction was made between anxiety (an often unfocussed and residual fearfulness) and stress (an adverse reaction to the pressures of particular situations). In both cases, however, sufferers experience similar symptoms, both mental and physical, and often resort to the overuse of stimulants such as alcohol or drugs in order to cope.
One of the benefits of being referred by a GP to Tools for Living is that it can be an amazing relief for a person to discover that they are not alone – that others have experienced similar situations and symptoms.
This identification with others is one way in which participants can begin to overcome the issues that have led to their isolation. But the modules offer many other techniques for regaining a sense of control over one’s life.
Having endured some very stressful situations in my own life during the last couple of years (to the point where I can understand how a variety of factors can lead a person to isolate themselves), I found the session hugely inspiring and very moving. It is incredibly heartening to know that this service exists for those who most need it.
Kirsty’s colleague John left me with a quote that I felt summed up Tools for Living’s whole ethos. He said that a participant, upon starting the modules, had told him, “You’re the bus driver, I’m just the passenger.” To which John replied: “No, I’m your Sat Nav. Where do you want to go?”
Tools for Living really is a service that enables people to re-empower themselves and choose where they want to go in life. I couldn’t have left the session feeling more encouraged.
by Mark Jones
Based in Greenock, Mar works as a freelance copy editor and proofreader. His interests include reading, writing and history, and he has a Facebook page – Mark Philip Jones: Strange Information & Other Wordy Obsessions – to share and promote some of my writing.
The corridor was bland as I remember it. A grey as of nothing with pipes and a wooden floor. We only used to go from place to place in it. Yet, for some time now, there have been pictures in the hallway. Gallery Two. It’s good to fill spaces.
The walls don't look shabby now. As people started to come in for the opening, I sat with the artist, Alan Straiton, for a couple of minutes discussing the paintings (and nerves, of course). And the brush strokes. The content.
I had seen the first painting at the top of the stairs. It was red and blue with white on it. Which looked like waves to me. Also, a piece of work in what looked like an aquarium in a picture. Thought it looked like a sea wall and had the colours there too. There are about eight pictures in all.
The corridor was getting more people into it as the minutes passed. People discussing the pictures, discussing the artist. A low murmur in the hallway and people talking downstairs. And on the landing. Talking about the reds and blues.
I thought that the place to put the pictures was excellent. And the artist milling around talking to his friends and others. I would suggest you go see this exhibition if you can. I suggest you sit for a while in the space. I suggest that you look at the detail in the pictures.
I would like to describe the pictures to you in detail. But I think that would spoil the experience. They are hung in Gallery II at Project Ability, where it is free to get in to view and leave a comment. Hope to see you there.
by Stuart Low
Image: Alan Straiton, Boy II
Some Pictures is on in Gallery II at Project Ability until 11 November. It is open from 10am-5pm Tuesday-Saturday, and entry is free.
People who experience mental ill health have been mistreated and ostracised throughout history. Although we have come a long way, it can still feel a slow and uphill struggle.
So, a mental health exhibition which brings artists, organisations and individuals together to exhibit their stories in public spaces is powerful to see. It symbolises a refusal to allow society to push these people and their histories back into the shadows.
For its fifth year, the Out of Sight, Out of Mind exhibition has been shaped around the theme reclaim, and many of the creative pieces can be found in the expansive basement of Summerhall. The motivations of the 165+ contributors are just as varied as the forms their works take. Yet they all locate a space which seeks to reclaim and redefine holistic mental health narratives by and for people with lived experience.
A Space To Be - Edinburgh Community Mental Health Drop-in
To explain what it is like when you experience mental ill health can be to attempt to communicate the indescribable. Art can provide an alternative way for people to articulate this complexity and make sense of their illness and their lives in relation to it.
Amidst - Fiona McKenzie
Many of the works exhibited appear to respond to the theme of reclaim as something which yields hope. This is communicated through pieces exploring the act of reclaiming and rebuilding life after a mental health crisis. There are other works depicting the reclamation of identity from medical diagnosis and treatments.
Colourful Collages of Courage
As one artist writes underneath their work: ‘I have slowly been pulling back the medicinal picture and beginning to reclaim the original me...and actually, I am OK!’
Reclaiming myself – B
Some contributions express fear and despair at what is happening in the world around us. People are fighting to reclaim marginalised identities and stories in a society and under a government which stacks everything against them. As one contributor writes: ‘Due to budget cuts, the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off and sold for scrap.’ How do we reclaim any sense of hope for the present and future?
The Future is... - Lauren Stonebanks
One answer to that can be found in the art contributions provided by different organisations around Edinburgh. Those like the Edinburgh Community Mental Health Drop-in offer emotional and practical support and bring people together as a community outside a medical setting. This is represented in the installation of a living room, surrounded by media created by and for people who use the space.
A Space To Be - Edinburgh Community Mental Health Drop-in
The diversity of the works reinforces the idea that each expression of mental health is unique to the individual and their circumstances. This can be visualised in the patchwork collage created by members of the Gypsy/Traveller community. Each piece allows for the reclaiming of individual experiences and contributes to what is important to the community as a whole. There can be hope for the present and future if we ensure mental health discussions include a range of societal perspectives and acknowledge the wider histories of people’s lives, particularly the discrimination and oppression they face.
No Less a Traveller - MECOPP's Gypsy/ Traveller health and wellbeing project
It is everybody’s responsibility to have more than “awareness” that mental ill health exists. When spaces and narratives are being reclaimed and reframed, it's important we listen, support, value and learn from what we see and hear.
No Head Clutching Please - Creative Industries students at Edinburgh Napier University
by Z Nugent
Out of Sight, Out of Mind continues at Summerhall until Sun 29 Oct, and venues across Edinburgh. There is no need to book.
Written by A J Taudevin
Directed by Clare Duffy
The word hysteria originates from the Ancient Greek word for uterus, hystéra, and was used for thousands of years to describe a ‘disease’ that only inflicted women, initially thought to have been caused by a ‘wandering womb’. The symptoms included anxiety, irritability, emotional outbursts and sexually forward behaviour.
Jeez, commit me now!
Fortunately, it is an out-dated term no longer used in psychiatry. However the stigma still lingers, and we women are constantly fighting the notion that we’re all emotional, crazy, hysterical…
Hysteria! attempts to tackle these issues by speaking powerful truths in an emotionally satisfying and entertaining way, and with a song and dance in its heart.
The self-described political cabaret takes a hard look at the world today, with a focus on sexual politics and mental health issues. It explores how women are still objectified, even when they are supposed to be respected political leaders, how a man who openly embodies this objectification is now in charge of one of the most powerful countries in the world, and what effect this is having on society as we know it.
It is a heavy piece, there is no doubt, but it is a significant one that is positively essential right now. And the overall message is that we can and should stand up for ourselves, let it out, and invoke change. Womanpower!
Interestingly, it does not have an all-female cast, as one might expect. The decision to cast George Drennan alongside Annie Grace (both The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart), and Maryam Hamidi (The Chronicles of Irania), was an effective one, as it brings a certain energy to the show that it might not have otherwise had. At times it is amusing to hear Drennan speak as if he, too, were a woman, however at other times it can feel uncomfortable, when he speaks of issues such as rape.
Maryam Hamidi’s choreography is fun, lively and well synchronised, and Anna Porubcansky’s musical direction of the memorable tunes, carried by the talented singers, and even the occasional rap (in Scottish!) is glorious. All of this intertwined with musical instruments, spoken word and audience participation, makes for a decidedly satisfying theatre experience.
It ends perfectly, with a rendition of (I Can’t Keep) Quiet by Milck, presumably inspired by the flashmobs at the women’s marches earlier this year. Lyric sheets are provided, encouraging the audience to join in, and I doubt I was the only one who had tears streaming down her face during the highly poignant song.
Overall director Clare Duffy succeeds in tying together a witty and bold theatre experience, one which causes the audience to think deeply about the issues of sexism that plague politics and society, and the adverse effect it has on mental health.
If you, like me, suffer your own silent journey of dealing with mental health, I urge you to go see Hysteria! and feel inspired to let it out.
by Jo Osborne
Book now for Hysteria!, running at A Play A Pie & A Pint at Òran Mór, Glasgow until Sat 14 Oct, before moving to the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh from 17-21 Oct. All shows from 1-2pm, with an additional show on Fri 20 Oct from 7-8pm. All tickets include a pie and a drink.