Signs of Life: Streets of Poetry


Omikemi reflects on Streets of Poetry – a project within SICK! Festival’s Mindscapes programme in which Dutch poets Elten Kiene and Sjaan Flikweert, Manchester-based poets Saf Elsenossi and Ella Otomewo have worked with migrant communities to create a collection of new poems that reflect a sense of place and identity. Visual artist Jess Loveday has transformed the poems into designs which appear, blast cleaned, into the pavements of Moston & Harpurhey.

“The threat no longer exists except your body does not know this”, Babette Rothschild, The Body Remembers

Photograph of white text printed on grey pavement slabs, double yellow lines to the left.

Photo Credit: Mark McNulty

I’ve been playing dead for most of my life. Even during the times I felt most alive, it’s felt like something dangerous would happen. I’ve given away my aliveness because I’ve been scared of it, what it could do or more accurately, what could happen because of it.

I was seven the first time I woke up with no movement in my legs. It was after the weekend of another big Tyson fight which meant being up later than usual, listening to big-people’s-talk and eventually falling asleep under a blanket patched of voices that were hands slapped one on top of the other in a game of snap.

Twenty years later, in the first flat where I live alone in Bow, I’m reading a book which explains waking up with no movement in my legs is part of Tonic Immobility. When in danger and the options to fight, flight or appease are unavailable, the next option is to freeze, to play dead, to become absent, in the hope that whatever the threat is, it will think you no longer exist.

Despite the author reassuring me, (or gaslighting me?) “the threat no longer exists” the reality is many of us do not feel safe enough in our bodies to inhabit space, to be present and seen. Streets use of grime writing reminded me of the way some freedom practices and rituals hide in plain sight. I wondered whether the young artists collaborating to produce the Sick! Festival public art commission Streets of Poetry, were also finding their way of navigating questions of presence, absence and possibly ‘freeze’?

Through a series of workshops run by Young Identity, a Manchester based spoken-word charity, the young people with migrant status produced poems which were then embedded in the streets of Moston and Harpurhey. The public art piece does well in creating a pathway for the young people to define who they are and have their experiences accent, fill and thicken the landscape. Like much graffiti Streets…also disrupts the basic economy of communications: there’s no clear author or person being addressed, the speaker is able to intervene in thought processes, interactions and conversations in a way that may not be permitted or problematic if they were physically present.

The most engaging aspect of ‘Streets …’ is the spectrum and possibilities for embodiment shown in the young artists work, the sense of them being both, definitely present and apparitions, everywhere and no-where (t)here but not (t)here, and in a transitory process which seems to embody some aspect of their experience. After inquiring about the places the young people were from and being told this could not be disclosed because of their residential status the words return: “the threat no longer exists”. I’m left wondering whether grime writing was engaged as it offered the safest way the young artists to define their presence in the city-scape, have agency over the way they are seen, while remaining absent —a strategy that allowed their bodies to be both safely visible yet absent?

The same week Streets…is revealed, I’m having a ‘push hands’ session, a practice within the martial art, Tai Chi. The instructor tells me “to feel as though you’re not here”. His words both settle in and excite me. They feel like an invitation to immerse instead of pushing against the stagnant stillness of tonic immobility, which for me, is often characterised by an inclination towards absence and invisibility – his words send a flurry of possibility through me.

I’ve often felt little agency when in the state of absence that gets generated while experiencing Tonic Immobility. The terror and chaos that gets locked into stagnant stillness, the overwhelming inclination to move less and less, the life-blood cooling to the temperature of numbness, the social disappearance, the temporary loss of use of my limbs, the tissues, muscles, breath that constrict me into the shape of a fist, (despite a catalogue of well-honed somatic practices) and the embodiment of a trait that had come to characterise my most formative relationships — (t)here but not (t)here.

In a social landscape where we’re saturated with selfie’s and infatuated with being ‘hyper-present’ and ‘seen’ the invitation felt both liberatory and distinctly counter-cultural. We live in a society where someone not being able to find you via social media or google seems to render your existence tenuous. There is an immense pressure to be ‘visible’ and ‘present’ and implied within this, is a sense of being irrelevant or discarded if for some reason you cannot or will not conform to this. In this setting what happens to those of us for whom disappearing, being absent or invisible is a way of being here?

Two pedestrians walk over printed white text on a grey pavement

Photo Credit: Mark McNulty

When we live with daily systemic oppression, we tend to have to expend a lot of energy on care work to stay on an even keel and more often than not we do not have the freedom of not being in one of the trauma responses, and the survival strategies and cycles set off in service of survival can last generations, psychologically and somatically. This can result in living what Muriel Jamille Vinson describes in her essay Sankofa: A Journey of Embodied Remembering, an embodied suicide, which is defined as “the practice of actively preventing the full expression of one’s embodiment/expression of self/truth in order to preserve a feeling of safety and/or connection.” Vinson’s reframing of tonic immobility assists us in seeing these ‘absent’ or ‘invisible’ bodies that are ones which are doing their very best to stay alive by not being in their full aliveness.

I need to feel as though you’re not here, not only felt permissive, it also encouraged a sinking in, attending to and immersion in what is available in the moment, in the case of the freeze response: the stillness, the sense of evaporation and absence. I notice when commit to being in and with the freeze, I start to dis-cover a lot of movement and aliveness; something wanting to be recognised and seen. Often the movement I feel is the thawing of a stuck state, the pressure of something coming awake in the midst of feeling deranged and melting into a shape I cannot name, change or contain.

Simple line drawing of an arm on a chest freezer on lined white paper

I had an intense “freeze” response yesterday with my therapist. So I drew myself as a freezer

What I see in Streets of Poetry is a group of young people finding a way to express their aliveness within a level of compromised safety – a threat to their status, through graffiti poems that elude. Throughout the diaspora we have continued to find forms of life within and emerging from what might look like embodied suicide, we have continued to find ways of playing dead while showing vibrant signs of aliveness.

Diverse Bodies, Diverse Practices: Toward an Inclusive Somatics, edited by Don Hanlon Johnson, 2018
The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment, Babette Rothschild, W.W Norton & Company, 2000

MINDSCAPES is a programme produced by SICK! Festival in Manchester, partnering with cultural institutions in The Netherlands. You can find details of where to find Streets of Poetry across Manchester, on the Mindscapes website.