The Our Future Selves project brought together Daisy (Disability Arts in Surrey) and DAO (Disability Arts Online) in partnership with resource centres across Surrey. On Monday 26 March Colin Hambrook and John O’Donoghue facilitated a creative writing workshop with a group of young people at the Cornerhouse in Woking.
When Colin Hambrook invited me to help run some workshops I thought, Writing the Future, eh? Sounds like me. This is because I spend most of my waking hours thinking about the future, whether it’s where we’ll all be post-Brexit, what disabled people have to do to stop the erosion of our rights and the depredations visited upon is, and whether or not the planet even has a future. The way things are going, I can see the Earth being a shiny ball of blue in the heavens, choked to death by the ubiquitous use of plastic for just about everything. A plastic-coated planet – that’s the nightmare currently keeping me awake.
But there’s another part of me that’s far more optimistic. On a very basic level, I believe in the future. It’s a case of having to, just in order to survive. When you’re freelancing the future always has to be better than the present. Any day now I’m going to finish my novel, another book of poems, the musical I’m writing about Francis Bacon (I do the words, my pal James Cox does the music). I’m always one step away from cracking it.
Of course, there are other reasons to think the future will be better. Last year I had to have my left kidney removed. That kind of surgery gives pause for thought. But I’m OK now, and this year it seems I’m going to be a grandfather.
When I arrived at Cornerstone in Woking with Colin I was intrigued to see what the next generation would make of the future. There were about six participants in the workshops, mostly young men who were having the kind of problems I was having at their age: insecurity, experience of depression, making your way in the world. But they did not seem downhearted.
If anything, they were going at life with the kind of future-facing attitude that’s a credit to them. Two were getting their first footings in being performers, a close up magician, and a drag artiste, and others – though perhaps less flamboyant in person – were to show a degree of creativity that was impressive.
The main focus of the workshop was to write a piece from that shadowy, elusive future self back to our present selves. We were then asked to take out a few words and phrases from what we’d written and rearrange these from the collective to make a new text, a poem that came from the group, not just from our own psyches.
Colin mentioned that this was an adaptation of the cut-up technique favoured by David Bowie for writing his lyrics. He’d got the idea from William Burroughs – you cut out words and phrases from the headlines of newspaper articles and re-arrange them to make new and striking juxtapositions. It’s there in Ginsberg’s ‘hydrogen jukebox’, a line of his from his long poem Howl. I think that might predate the cut-up though perhaps you get the idea if you’ve not come across this kind of verbal collage before.
Some very intriguing poems came out of this exercise. I thought that it was like what happens often when humans all exposed to the same environment, or the same routine. Every person will have different dreams, and it was fascinating to see how the different words and phrases generated in the workshop resulted in very different poems. We may all have been in the same room, working with the same material, but there were real differences in the tone and theme of the work produced.
As a coda to the session I asked each participant for a word which I got them to give me on a post-it. I had six post-its in all, and these six words I knew could form the basis of a sestina, which follows this below.
It’s dedicated to all at Cornerhouse, who made us so welcome, and whose work I’m looking forward to reading when the anthology that will be the product of these workshops is published by DAO in May. May our future selves be all we hope for.
The Trick Went Wrong
The trick went wrong. My future self appeared one
Day, and I confess I turned a little green
When I saw him. He looked much younger, a dream-
Boat compared to what I look like now. ‘I trust
You are well,’ he said, smiling. ‘How can this be?’
I muttered, strolling where the wild wind made free
Along the seafront. He came towards me, free
As you like, somewhere roundabout lunchtime, one,
Or just after. I knew we couldn’t both be
Here, on the same temporal plane. I was green,
But not that green. ‘You’ll have to learn to distrust
Your instincts,’ he said. ‘This is not a bad dream.’
He took me to one side, spoke soft. ‘The old dream
Of time travel – we’ve made it happen, got free
Of all that can hold us back. You hold in trust
The future of mankind. For your machine’s one
That can save the planet, can make the Earth green
Again.’ ‘But how?’ I said, not wanting to be
Taken in by him, or me, who I might be
In a future doomed it seemed, but where the dream
Of youth had preserved my future self. The green
Lawns by the esplanade – here I had felt free
But I knew then something was very wrong… one
Of us was lying, and it wasn’t me. Trust
No one, that’s what the Good Book says. ‘I can trust
You,’ he said. ‘Whatever will be must not be.
The future as you know does not flow in one
Straight line. We have to rouse the world from this dream
Before it’s too late. Our task is to set free
Humanity.’ Out to sea, the waves were green,
Blue, turquoise, the wild marine spectrum as green
As his eyes. They were the giveaway. Don’t trust
Future selves whose eyes don’t match yours. ‘I’m not free,’
I said, stalling for time, when a bumble bee
Flew past and he tried to swat it. In a dream,
It seemed, the bee stung him, and it was that one
Swift, pulsating thrust that meant we’d bloody won
And Ceres-3 would not take over our green
And lovely world. We dream in order to be.