Richard Downes has had quite a year since signing up as a DAO Associate Artist. During that time he has been developing roles as a performance poet, a producer and an MC. He tells DAO about what he has learnt and what the highlights of his year have been.
Before I blather on can I say thanks DAO for asking me. It’s been a thrill a minute, an ascending ride to the gods or to myself. This year started back in the 60s. Before special school. Being a sick kid, Dad taught me to read. Writing follows on from reading. A favourite writing story goes back to special school and founded my motivation.
I sent a ghost story to grandad. He was a constipated, working class man with an outdoor loo. He made going to the loo bearable by posting photos of his family to the toilet door and other things that made him smile. One summer holiday I visited him, went to the loo and found my story there. High praise. I guess you asked me to become an Associate Artist because of my poetry blog on DAO. That’s like a silver medal to me Grandad’s gold.
Importantly I’ve continued to write. Everything is based on this. Sometimes putting pen to paper, key to screen, I feel I’m getting stronger, getting better at it. It fluctuates. Sometimes the poem appears as drivel. It doesn’t matter. I still blog it.
I’m learning in performance that my views about my work are irrelevant. The first time I took drivel to an audience it went down a storm. People laughed at it, smiled at it, applauded it. Not just the poem and it’s sentiments but the intro, the outro. The intro and the outro is something I’ve had to develop. In some ways I’ve just copied those who went before. My DAO presentation is based on something Gini used to do. I’ve followed her format. From the Strawberry Fair to Survivors Poetry I’ve learned I can link things together and put on a show. I never thought I’d perform. I never would have if DAO hadn’t said ‘you have written a performance poem. Perform it’.
I’m not a producer. Collage Arts asked me to curate a series of events at the Karamel Restaurant. I was developing ideas about a zine and I had a title for this, REaD Rhymes. Again DAO said something important. ‘Are you going to develop this as a character’. I hadn’t even dreamt it.
Having a title to hang a coat on is important. I could have done a better job with the publicity. Could have been braver. Could have made REaD more significant. I copped out. I hid that it was Disability Arts. I shouldn’t have done that. What I did do was curate a show developed an idea, formatted it. I was clear about how we would do things.
Sometimes it wasn’t possible to be as prescriptive as I would have wanted. Things got in the way. Access. Ego. I had to be flexible. In being flexible, adapting to needs, I took on more stresses than I expected and whilst this might spoil my view of a night out, the audience never cottoned on.
MC-ing was new and hard. I’m still learning this. I see different MC’s with different styles. I learn how to stand, how to use a mic. Learn character, personality. This weekend I watched Wendy Young. She’s well connected, knows her acts, enthuses, bigs people up. I’m not sure she’s always in control of what she says but stuff comes out and she’s welcoming and encouraging. I’m sure I don’t get things right often enough. But I’m trying.
When DAO asked me to perform I was quite taken aback with how much I enjoyed the set-up, with a selection of poets on stage together and reading for a few minutes in turn. I was surprised by the synchronicity that occurred with themes around nature recurring through the varied voices on stage.
Before 2019 started I did my first gigs at DAISYFEST. I was really pushing out that I was going do this and I dreamt I would be paid and put an idea out there about having a poetry circle. A poetry circle what’s that? I’m sure I’d heard the words but how does it work. To me it was poets going round and round, having a turn each and then grooving off each other, enjoying what each had to offer. Some things came together.
The last gig we did each poet had a poem about institutions. Those four poets could have gone on and on about that theme but even if they did each turn would have been different. Personality comes into it. Wendy Young, Janine Booth, Julie McNamara were so strong, Ju Gosling so balanced. Then you’d get people like John O’Donoghue who was playful enough to change the sequence. For me it’s about community. Poets trusting poets. Poets presenting to our people and poets presenting to new audiences from a common message. It doesn’t always work like that. Our differences as poets come from where we come from, what are interests are. George Tahta’s interests are not my interests but they are relevant and need to be heard, which reflects back on my advocacy experience. People with a need to speak using words that need to be heard.
I see myself moving forward with the skills I am developing as an artist and poet. One of my highlights this year has been the Realm residency with Outside In. Realm was interesting. I did not submit my best work as a part of the application. I submitted poetry and images that related to being a part of something else: a communal exercise, a response to an article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
I wouldn’t have dared enter on the basis of my ‘great’ art. Rather I suggested I was someone who can work with people. I was shortlisted and then had to submit a paper in response to questions which were about cooperation, community. This is what I do. This is what I’m good at. I help others develop.
Realm turned that on its head. I began to think like an artist. I could feel my relationship with words changing. Image wise I was going into specifics. I’d been given permission to play and was happy to. I became a maker of things. But I was also, as I said about REaD Rhymes, grooving off others. I was junior and depended on the abilities of others. I’m not sure if all artists can do that. Yes. There were spaces and times I had to leave my ego at the door, but it was a price worth paying. In some ways I led pre-art production, made sure my voice was heard, got my ideas down, shared and accepted support. Whilst I do my own work in some ways, I think I’m more suited to cooperative ventures.
I’m looking forward to more ReAD Rhymes at the Foundry. REaD Rhymes Live is like a freedom franchise. It could spring up anywhere. The concept remains the same. I will ask poets I’ve used already.
The community is intact and its confidence is growing. I will however be setting a new challenge. The challenge is the brief curator Aidan Moesby has set. The poets will need to find work that fits with that. I will be the same loud mouth activist poet seeking engagement with an audience through a social model message. So, I’ll be hearing new words and will have some new material myself. What I’m also looking to develop through manipulation of the venue is the idea of a meeting place. Somewhere people can be, a place for learning, message spreading, community involvement.
This year I spent four days at an arts conference, ‘Extreme Views – Think Tank’ in Barrow-In Furness. The town is poor, oppressed, has an unengaged wider community. Outside they are ecologically rich. One of the big issues for artists up there is how to engage the people. I proposed the development of Poet Trees. I’m bringing that idea to the Foundry under the name of ‘Under the Poet Tree – REaD Rhymes Live’. Come down and meet us.
Tuesday 3 December, International Day of Disabled People.
18:30 – 21:00
The Foundry, 17 Oval Way, London SE11 5RR