Published by Dizzy Press, Blue in Green, the latest poetry collection by Joe Bidder takes the reader on a journey through the poet’s vibrant life. As well as a love of jazz, the work reflects the writer’s experience as co-founder of the groundbreaking mental health arts organisation Survivors’ Poetry. Review by Colin Hambrook.
Joe Bidder is one of Disability Arts unsung heroes in his influence on transforming the UK arts landscape over the last 40 years. Until his late thirties he was a chemical engineer working on oil refineries before his interests in the literary arts became more of a focus in his life.
I first met Joe in 1991 – a few months after Survivors’ Poetry had begun producing performance poetry events at the Torriano Meeting House in North London. He immediately struck me as a dynamic personality and it was no surprise that under his guidance Survivors’ Poetry grew to have 20 groups across the UK within 3 or 4 years. The London branch alone was running over 1000 events per year; workshops and performance poetry events that took place in day centres, resource centres, libraries, community centres – anywhere that survivors of the mental health system came together to share experiences and to express that lived experience through poetry.
Survivors’ Poetry achieved so many milestones in those years: it’s incredible to think that under Joe’s instruction, Alison Smith, Frank Bangay and I effectively wrote a diversity policy for the organisation in 1994 – 20 years ahead of the time when forward-thinking arts organisations generally began instituting diversity policies. It was really important to us that the workshops and performances we produced reflected and celebrated the talents of all the people across cultures and identities that the organisation attracted to gigs, writing and performance workshops. The organisation ran on the goodwill and passion of many hundreds of survivor poets and artists. It changed the perception of survivors in the wider community and opened up conversations about mental health at a time when it was strictly a taboo subject. We saw the survivor label as a badge of pride; not something to be ashamed of and that message was something Joe was incredibly adept at getting across in the media through the 1990s.
Joe was always a driven individual and the opening poem in Blue in Green, ‘The Drummer Boy’ – with its allusions to the Günter Grass novel ‘The Tin Drum’ – evokes the chaos of a life captivated by the demands of a drum “beat in slavish syncopation… until life is a screaming wall.” There is a parallel between Oskar Matzerath in Grass’s novel using his drum to protest against the mores of middle-class society and the “magic rhythm” Joe talks about being his fate to follow.
It took Joe nearly two decades to come out as a survivor of the mental health system, but when he did it was imperative that, like Oskar, he bring attention to the survivor cause, raging against the way society has pummelled those labelled as mad into the ground with an utterly misplaced trust in the medical model of psychiatric intervention that has caused so much unnecessary suffering, suicide and early death in society.
For Joe Disability Arts is about a transformation from victim to warrior – a way of using the arts to challenge society’s conceptions of so-called ‘mental illness’ – its scapegoating of communities of survivors in order to create fear and division. Poems like Renaissance Man, Label Me and Identity Crisis convey an unflinching honesty. In Neurologist he demands that medics get off their high horse and admit their humanity:
Like a solicitor
you say nothing
until pushed hard;
prefer to measure
response and reaction,
judge the brain’s efficiency
by set-piece standards.
Like a specimen
pickled in a jar
my flesh awaits
the next test:
follow this finger
press this hand
walk that line
Having just reached the age of 80 years old, Joe has dodged death many times over the last two decades. Blue in Green offers a snapshot and celebrates his life and achievements. Equally, with humour and pathos in measure, the collection, as the title poem suggests with its reference to the Miles Davis jazz standard, also annotates his love of music.
It was of utmost importance to Joe that he secure the rights to reproduce a series of seminal photographs by Freddy Warren of jazz giants, Stan Getz, Cleo Laine, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Elaine Delmar, Sonny Rollins, Ronnie Scott, Miles Davis, Astrud Gilberto and Dizzy Gillespie. These are the artists whose rhythm inhabits his stanzas adding to the sense of excitement and creativity that have remained at the core of the poet’s life. ‘Blue in Green’ honours that artistic achievement whilst being dedicated to PJ Fahy – a singer-songwriter who was key to Survivors’ Poetry’s success in the early days.
I lay on my bed for hours, replaying
Giant Steps for the kick in the groin,
hooked on those delicious choruses.
Blue in Green illustrates a rich and full life; a powerful love of culture, art and history. Themes within the poetry twist and turn from seeringly personal reflections on life to philosophical musings on culture. We hear shapes in the music; the ‘spiral’ as a philosophical concept features again and again. We also hear the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Gaugin, there are references to synaesthesia here that represent a reverence to the imagination and to being neurodivergent.
Joe Bidder is a one-off. Survivors of the mental system, and disabled people in general, owe him a debt of gratitude for his support and belief in the power of the arts to transform our lives. I was lucky enough to be subject to mentoring and encouragement from him and to imbibe the confidence he had in me to develop the ideas that underpinned the setting up of Disability Arts Online in 2002. He supported many disability arts organisations through his influence at Arts Council England during the five years he served on their Arts and Disability committee from 1998 to 2003.
Over the decades, poetry was always something Joe turned to as a way of documenting his inner life. Blue in Green is a testament to his belief in poetry as a tool for saving lives and his indomitable spirit, reflected in this wonderful work of art and poetry.