From blogging to performing: my poetry journey with DAO

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Regular Disability Arts Online blogger and unofficial poet laureate, Richard Downes shares his journey through writing on DAO, following two years of penning a poem weekly – and his recent performance poetry debut.

Doors with shutters in front of them

Photograph from poem ‘Mind Steps aka Words to an Unresolved Election’, taken by Richard Downes

Two years ago, I set myself the task to write a poem a week and publish it on DAO. Why? As the Bonzos might say; “Let’s go back to your childhood”. I’m sick. I can’t watch TV. Dad teaches me to read. I am prodigious. Medical modellers said; “It’s life or death. Do something about it”. Special school. Maybe I was too young for ghost stories, but I sent one to grandad. Grandad’s constipated and has an outdoor loo. Too make the experience bearable he puts photos of his family – things he loved – on the door. Visiting him and going to the loo I discover my story on grandad’s shrine. My earliest remembered thrill. I will write.

Special school. Well you know the score. Increasingly I find people who had a different experience. Suffice to say I was given reason to acquire another impairment. A stammer developed. Separation anxiety. Abuse. New fears. Tests and testing. I could read words. I was good at it. I could put them together. Sometimes it was OK, frustrating, magical. I was aiming for that first thrill again.

Life moves on. Experiences gather pace for those not excluded. I find succour in writing. I know there is never going to be enough energy inside me for a novel. Short stories go unfinished. I can do a poem. I remain committed. A clunky typewriter in a garret. Bohemian artist – drugged. Yawn!! This is killing me. I stop. Join the undead.

I find work. Lose work. I join a movement. I am home. Newsletters for organisations. I’m writing again. I’ve still got it. ‘New Writers’. A DAO course. I write to correct a balance. Work, life, it’s ok. It’s also a restraint. My need is to write, express myself, to be free in thought. Writing is easy for me. Give me a pen, a blank page. I’ll put something on it. Something is missing. Missing always missing. Pick it up. Put it down. I determine to do one poem a week. Anytime during long weekends. Discipline.

A change happens. DAO publishes Martin. Colin, Esteemed editor, tells me he likes the line; ‘Martin smells of Martin’. He can relate to it. It holds a level of empathy. I find it easier to write about people now. I’m not putting them down. Just holding an uncritical mirror up. I start a theme; Signs. I photograph disability symbols when I see them in the environment. Responding to them. Sometimes critically. We accept accessible toilets as an achievement. I don’t. I want more. A sign on the train door leads to thoughts of death trains. I write; ‘Signs Eugenically Euthanistical Murder’. Colin says, “that’s a performance poem that is, that needs to be heard”.

Writing poems is OK. Speaking them. Not on your life. I can’t do that. I’m a stammerer. I’m a black country lad. I have an accent. On the mic my s’s go real ssssssibilant. I can’t speak, don’t want to speak and hate my speech. Yet a seed has been planted. I find myself reading my poems aloud to myself, I read to my wife. She likes it. Is opinionated. She doesn’t throw me off. I read to friends. They don’t say much. I read to my colleagues. They’re kind. Occasional applause is heard amongst the positive comments. I start harassing John Kelly about DAISY – Disability Arts in Surrey. I put the notion to Colin that I can read there. I’m offered an open mic slot in Farnham.

I rehearse at home. It’s going well. I get to Farnham for a workshop. I’m sitting with a group of poets. Big names. Colin, Akila, Wendy. Only five letters each but they’re big to me. They’re welcoming. I tell my grandad story. It’s a winner. This is community. My first gig. It’s great. Martin goes down well but not as well as Push where I have the rock ‘n’ roll nerve to ask for audience participation. Can’t wait for DAISY 2.

Black and white close up of a man's face

Richard Downes aka ‘the Glorious Servant’

Epsom. Akila’s back. She’s with the great John O’Donoghue. These people are really poets. The workshop group is full of people with stories to tell, poems to write. I find myself shrinking. I have four old poems to read for the first time. One more than last time. Everyone is so great. I’m getting smaller but I’m still this tall and whilst reading someone’s fiddling with the mic. I am useless. The stammer is pronounced. This whole shebang of a shithouse is a disaster and I hate this and that. I am humbled.

Two DAISY’s two different experiences. I take a good look at myself. I write well. I am open. I am accessible. I can be fun. There are others out there better than me. People I value higher than myself. I have to stop this. I have to stop feeling jealousy, putting others first. I need to accept what’s good about me. I have to know I give value.

I carry on writing. I am facing redundancy. I create a character; The Glorious Servant. A man who gave 25 years to the movement. An older man now. Struggling with changes in the sector. A man like myself. Johnny Crescendo posts on Facebook. He’s considering parking up. Handing over to the youth. I remind him of his history in disability arts. I say I gave up on actions too, but every poem is a contribution as every one of his songs should be. Don’t park up. Just do it differently.

Redundancy knocks. People want to know what I’ll do. I see an artist residency advertised on DAO. I apply for it. A month in the wilds. Suits me. Just me and a pen. I’ll get into that. Applying I have to register on Curator Space – an interesting website. Residencies abound. I’m applying for them. Getting a few knock backs. I see another poet/photographer’s website. The language of the arts world. I can’t talk that shit. Can’t sell myself with those words. I commit to words. Words throw me off. I stick with it. I’m out of work. I want work. I want to write. I want to read. I apply for festivals asking for outsider art, activist art. Then it happens. I’m invited to perform at Europe’s biggest outdoor free festival. I accept. I’m not afraid. I’m excited. They want Signs. They want the Glorious Servant. It’s a couple of months away but I’m up for it. Death or Glory.

Follow Richard Downes’s poetry blog here.