Monday, 16 March 2015

Disparate thoughts about fear/shame/(near-)nudity

I've been trying to Google the quote for the last ten minutes, but it goes something like this: if what you're writing scares you, if you're worried about friends/family seeing it, if you think it might offend but you still care about it anyway, then that is what you should be writing. Forget everything else. 

I think I'm working towards that. In the last couple of months, I've written poems where I compare my mother to a favela (disclaimer: that came from a writing exercise - and the fact I was headed to Rio at the time); poems where I list the pitfalls of popular 'dating' apps such as Grindr; poems describing my relationship to religious belief (I'm hoping it'll be a late addition to my next pamphlet, out in May with Eyewear Publishing, but it's a work in progress, beginning with: 'On one of my agnostic days/ my brother telephones', before describing 'my atheist chorizo slices' and ending with a line from Psalms 27).

Yes, I dread them being (mis)read by certain people but, more than anything, I dread having to go back to writing things that don't resonate on a personal level... I'm never going to write about pretty flowers; it's not me.


Lately, I've been asked to do a couple of 'erotic poetry' gigs. I know, right?! Previously, my stance was that my sexuality is nobody's business and so any attempt at erotica would be a no-no; but, if we follow that thought to a logical conclusion, neither is my mother or my opinions or my (atheist chorizo) shopping habits. In all of these cases, I'm inviting the reader/listener into a story, into a version of my self. And if I need to tell a story, if I feel I can communicate a powerful message, and if that message or that story draws on erotic imagery, how can I continue to justify that 'nobody else's business' stance? The answer is simple: shame.

Growing up, I was jealous of friends who talked sex with their parents. More recently, I've been slightly envious of poets whose relatives turn up at gigs/readings, and seem comfortable with their frank outpourings. I've never shared that ease of intimacy with family - and I probably never will. That dis-ease has played out more generally with how I relate to some friends and audiences. But I don't think that's a good enough excuse for censorship; I need to be able to be a whole person on page and on stage. When I start hiding things away because I might meet disapproval, I'm being a coward. Now, that doesn't mean I should - or will - tell everything to everyone; I will never be a completely open book. But every page I leave unturned or uninterrogated could be an opportunity missed to form a deep and meaningful connection.

I'm still uncomfortable writing erotic poems per se. But I've had a lot of fun subverting passages from 50 Shades of... to make a point about the commercialisation of sex; I've also used the genre to have fun turning sex 'apps' on their heads, looking at sexual racism and internalised homophobia; finally, sex for me is a political act - and using sexual terminology to describe how national/international politics is penetrating the most intimate space of relationships is a pretty hard challenge, but one I've enjoyed rising to. How can I make all of the above sexy? (And funny... but not in a silly, embarrassed teenagery way) How can I stay within the genre of the erotic and yet explore the same themes that I'm usually drawn to? I think that, just by playing around with words, and knowing that I had agreed to perform at these events, helped me write new material I wouldn't have written before.


When we do away with shame, a curious thing happens. Only recently I revisited my 'Identity Mix Up' show at JW3. I had to relearn the poem 'Girls' Socks', which I've only once performed outside of the show; it needs too much of a preamble to really work without its wider context. Rehearsing the poem at home was a strange and wonderful experience; how ludicrous to be going over this poem again and how strange it was re-encountering my 2013 creative interpretation of a childhood event. I had to learn how to reconnect with it, as written then, and inhabit that world for 10 minutes.

The poem is about the time I wet myself at school, aged about 6, and had to wear clothes from the lost property bin for the rest of the day... including a pair of girls' socks. At the time, it was hugely embarrassing parading about the school and having to explain to curious classmates why I was wearing frilly white socks; now, it's something I can laugh about... after all, it was a very long time ago. But the memory has stuck because the shame was so intense. Writing about it brought it back up: the sense of injustice, a tiny amount of anger and, yes, embarrassment from admitting that I wet myself in the school hall, simply because I was too timid to get up in front of everyone in the middle of an assembly and run out to relieve myself.

Why have I mentioned this? Because I believe my reticence at attending and promoting the erotic gigs were fueled by the same shame apparent in that incident, now many, many years ago. I worry about disapproval, or looking bad or stupid, just as I did at the age of six. And I know worrying about looking bad or stupid may be a good short term tactic to avoid confrontation, but it still leaves me sitting in a puddle of my own urine in the long run.When I've performed that poem, the release I've felt (pun intended) - and the subsequent conversations/ odd connections I've had with audience members - has been extremely empowering.


So I'm at erotic poetry event #2 of this year, Velvet Tongue, and I remember I'm wearing my Superman underpants under my boiler suit (I'll explain another time). Last time I was invited onto this stage at a sister event called 'Glam Slam', I wore these same pants and nothing else. That was about 2 or 3 years ago; I marvel at how I've become more reserved over time, not less. That said, even then, I was so paranoid about the people taking pictures, it spoiled some of my enjoyment of the performance. How to explain to anyone who wasn't there and might see me tagged on Facebook, looking too comfortable in my underthings?

Just before getting up on stage - more nervous than I usually am for poetry gigs - I decide I want to do things differently to how I'd planned it. If I feel like standing and doing poetry in my underpants or even nude, great - I need to own it! For an 'erotic' night, this is also one of the least body-conscious and most experimental environments I've been in. (This is the night where at least one audience member is completely naked, as well as the host, for most of the night). Nudity isn't going to be a problem; my fear is mostly due to what people outside might think afterwards.

Once on stage, I start unzipping the top half of my boiler suit. I'm not revealing much flesh, but I suddenly feel self-conscious in front of the audience (standing behind a mic with one hand on your zip and shouts of "Off! Off!" tend to do that). I think of my mother and how much she might disapprove. I think of the 6 year old Keith in the school hall, not speaking up. I think of my not-yet-memorised poems, which I'm holding in a shaky hand. I think of what drove me to write those poems and whether they'll be received well...

And then I stop thinking, and speak.


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