Daisyfest 2016 – grassroots disability arts, sharing the creativity of disabled artists


DaisyFest is an annual celebration of disabled artists in Surrey and beyond – held this year at GLive in Guildford on 9 June. DAO was invited to present a poetry workshop and one of the main evening events: a spoken word extravaganza. Deborah Caulfield turned up, joined in and reported back.

The wordgame Consequences is always fun, and never more so than when played with the enthusiasm and liveliness of this group. They were going strong long after my imagination had stopped for tea.

photo of a group of three musicians playing at Daisyfest. Photo © Colin Hambrook

John Kelly mid-set at Daisyfest

My first activity was the DAO led poetry workshop with members of Dramatize, a Surrey based group that provides dance and theatre activities for adults with learning disabilities.

John Kelly (Reasons to Be Cheerful / AKA Rockin’ Paddy) rocked and rolled on and off all day. It was good to catch him in the afternoon break, to see him perform (live!) his version of Which Side Are You On.

They say that we’re a burden
They say we’re on the scrounge
They say our lives are not worth living
Then they’ll stick us in heaven’s waiting lounge

MC-ed by poet and DAO editor Colin Hambrook, the main event Words that Defy Normality saw three disabled performance poets delivering their unique takes on disability and the mad reality of disabled lives.
Keeping quiet about disability, and all the rubbish that goes with it, is a common defence/survival strategy for many disabled people. But it feeds isolation.

Then along comes poetry. In the words of Colin:

Poetry is a lifesaver
Give yourself a break
Write yourself a poem

Photo of disabled performer Penny Pepper reading from her memoir propped on a music stand

Penny Pepper on stage reading from her memoir First In The World Somewhere

The first of the featured artists was author, poet and disability rights activist Penny Pepper. She performed a selection of her call-to-arms poems, including Scrounger and Special, rebutting the old, demeaning narratives, and reclaiming the language:

I am fucking special!

Penny’s poems have bounce as well as bite, as in the one about a London bus:

Boris bus
Bumpy, dirty, Tory bus
Suitcase in the crip space
Replaced the brilliant bendy bus

We were then treated to excerpts from her memoir First In The World Somewhere to be published in 2017, taken back to her punk pop-star days, the mid-1980s, when she was all Kate Bush hair and leather bondage frocks.
What a life!

A dream-come-true postcard from Morrissey; a near-miss with a small-minded record company executive who liked the style but not the wheelchair; a breathless encounter with Ian Dury of rhythm stick and Chailey Heritage fame.
Penny was right there, in 1987, at the birth of the disability arts movement, in West London. Crips of all kinds were everywhere, she told us. Memories like these matter too much to be kept to oneself.

We’re being dragged back by old models of disability.
I hope my memoir will change this.

Allan Sutherland has also been writing and performing poetry for thirty years. He began his set with Leaning on a Lamppost, a poem from his collection Difficult People. It’s an autobiographical tale, chilling and funny, about his encounter with a knife wielding, night-time passer-by who was oblivious to his would-be victim’s state of post-epileptic fitness.

I bet George Formby never had these problems.

Humour is a way of fighting back against ignorance and hostility, a way of joining in regardless, even (especially) when the system doesn’t care if you’re there or not, but wants you to love it anyway.

Bite the hand that feeds you
Make the bugger bleed
You don’t get rights without a fight
So fight for what you need

photo of disabled performer Allan Sutherland reading from his poetry collection

Allan Sutherland reading from his collection ‘Difficult People’

Allan’s transcription poems are, to my mind, his greatest work. He records interviews with disabled people and then transforms their words into poems. His voice, their stories, a powerful co-production.

At Daisyfest 2016 he read Self Portrait, a transcription poem from The Explorer a cycle of poems from the words of artist Nancy Willis.

I thought this situation was going to be for ever
I would never be able to live long enough to bring up a child
So I thought, this is right
We’ll have to put an end to this pain
And then of course
I carried on being alive

Performance poet Dolly Sen introduced herself as a professional mad person. She once thought she was God but then stopped believing in herself.

She’s a survivor of the mental health system. Shame on it, she said. She’s still waiting for her appointment with dignity.

Dignity is not in our budget this year.

Photo of performers cuddling toy sheep

Dolly Sen and Colin Hambrook share some BedLamb

Soft-toy sheep featured heavily in her performance, peacefully sleeping throughout.

Welcome to Bedlamb.

Dolly uses visual and cerebral humour to challenge traditional psychiatry that tends more towards medicating people into a state-sanctioned stupour (my words), rather than listening and supporting.

I know from experience that there’s more to normality than being normal, which isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
And cracked up is how we were after Dolly informed us of a good way she’d discovered for motivating ‘normal’ passengers out of the crip space on buses and trains:

Offer them a lap dance.

Dolly has copyrighted her madness so psychiatry can’t use it without her permission.

She left us reflecting on this key question: Are you mad enough?
I’m not, but I think I’m getting there.

At a time when disabled people are increasingly finding themselves having to justify their existence, and fighting against a world view that would have them put down or put back in the box marked ‘reject’, this show was a timely reminder that disabled people’s zest for life remains undiminished.
The show must go on.

For more information about Daisyfest go to http://daisyfest.co.uk