Guest blog post: Strong Heart Songs, by Jo Bell

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Anthony often writes that he is ‘at a Thing.’ I go to Things all the time. Poetry World is full of them. Conferences, awards ceremonies, open mics, slams, festivals, performances on an intimate or grand scale.

It’s all terribly thrilling. There is usually a glass of wine and something on a stick. I often get to wear a frock and stand up with a microphone, and show off. What MacNeice called ‘the drunkenness of things being various’ is much in evidence. Last month I read at the Red Shed in Wakefield; last week, at Somerset House. At one event this summer half of the audience swam to the venue, their little rubber hats bobbing up the Thames at sunset to the door of the Corinthian Club.

I am trying to be truthful, as this blog deserves. Yes, I do like to be the centre of attention. I like to feel that an audience likes me. I get some sense of validation and importance out of that; my ego is frail. At these Things, we can believe that poetry is contributing to the culture and that what we do has some kind of significance.

So sue me. But once a year I go to a Thing where I don’t matter at all, but what I say does; an event where the individual poet is of no importance, but where a well-chosen word matters very much. That Thing is the annual conference of Arch, the domestic violence organisation in Staffordshire. My job as MC is to link the speakers in some kind of coherent thread, and to judge the mood of the room. When we are reeling from stories of rape and abuse and poisoning; when one speaker tells us that a refuge which saved her life is going to be closed because of cuts; when another trembles  as she relives a violent attack, and makes it through her story to a standing ovation; each time, someone has to stand up and introduce the next speaker. That someone is me.

I try to put my ego on the back burner, and use words to serve that audience. Often it’s not poetry, but honest witness that is required; someone to properly express indignation or thanks on their behalf. Sometimes it is a poem. A healing one follows a harrowing story, or a damn silly one reminds us that laughter is worth living for. Very often, it’s a poem to celebrate friendship and what I call kith. I don’t choose easy or saccharine poems. They can do difficult, these people. The only thing they can’t tolerate is bullshit. I try to go easy on that.

Today, two poems seemed to resonate particularly with this audience. One of them was my own Strong Heart Songs, below, written for a friend who was then going through her own difficulties.

Strong Heart Songs

 

As their men went into war, the women of the prairie tribes
stood tall to sing Strong Heart Songs.
They sang the strength into their men.
You must be saying all the time to yourself:
I must be brave. I must not fear anything.

And when the fight came to the camp itself,
a tumble of arrow and hoof and scalp
the women of the prairie tribes stood tall
in blankets stitched with scorpions
and sang of heroes, battles won, brave deaths.

My tribe is daily gathering itself for battle.
One standing up to nightmares in the classroom;
one harried in her genius by disbelief;
another, back-to-back with all the clan
and one is racing with his life against an illness that must win.

Braves, as you go to hospital or courtroom;
as you start that meeting with the twinset London girl
who thinks that Birmingham is in the North,
the doctor drawing up the battle lines,
the midwife still insisting that you’re not in pain;

stand tall and listen for the tribe.
Draw round the scorpion-stitched blanket,
listen past the bow and blade
and hear us singing Strong Heart Songs:
You must be saying all the time to yourself:
I will be brave. I will not fear anything.

The one I want to leave you with is by Kei Miller – whose own poetry has the deft touch of a surgeon’s knife, going straight to the sad place, but working to heal and help. Here is Kei’s poem When Considering the Long, Long Journey of 28,000 Rubber Ducks. I hope it leaves you with something approaching the sense of laughter and shared joy that we got today in Stoke.

 

Jo Bell is a poet, editor, broadcaster and poetry hack. She teaches for the Poetry Society, Poetry School and the Arvon Foundation. Her poem Doggerland has been recorded by Maxine Peake and can be heard here. Her recent interview with Ian McMillan on The Verb can be heard here until Christmas.

Jo’s latest poetry collection Kith can be ordered here. The brand new workbook from her global workshop group 52 can be ordered here.

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