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Dao posts reports by Richard Downes and Stephen Portlock on aspects of the month-long Together! Festival held in the London Borough of Newham from 22 November - 19 December

Richard Downes reviews the Together! Pop-Up Poetry Café with guest poets John O’Donoghue and Allan Sutherland. Held at the Garden Café, Custom House on Monday 16 December.

Twelve months ago I attended the first Pop Up Poetry Café at Newham’s Together Festival. I was keen to play, starting out on a fine adventure. Today I arrive late at the fine Garden Café which is much the same as last time except the crowd is different. We are more intense, lined up to listen and learn, a bigger audience, packed with more refined, studious poets. We would get the chance to perform again but first Allan Sutherland and John O’Donoghue; the cream of disabled poets.

I met Allan once. We were on an action in Christchurch inflamed by Tory MP, Robert Hayward filibustering, to his great shame, a disabled people’s Civil Rights Bill. We blockaded his office chanting “We’re DAN, you’re trapped, get out around the back”. 

Hence a sense of irony from Allan's short poem:

“Mary had a little wheelchair
It rolled across the floor
And everywhere Mary went
She couldn’t get through the door”.

I learn new things about this disability activist poet tonight. He is a bon viveur with a great appetite for life, love, food and words which he serves up with a mischievous glint,

John O’Donoghue complements and counteracts the great man, displaying an equal voracity for words. Reading from his memoir ‘Sectioned: A Life Interrupted’ John draws us into a journey through time, referencing the life we lead today, in hard times, through his own experience of asylum, homelessness and death – the precipitous incident that commenced his tour. He leavens terror with delight. 

He finishes with a reading from his mobile phone, laughing at his modernity, a poem about a wedding and the death of Seamus Heaney, outlining his learning and respect for Irish literature before treating us to an introduction to a soon to be published epic saga, ‘Fools and Mad’, based in part on Jonathan Swift’s Epitaph:

'He gave the little wealth he had
To build a house for fools and mad:
To show, by one satiric touch,
No nation wanted it so much’

The introduction speaks of a wonderful work based on nature and dream, myth and found realities – a treasure to long for.

Together, Allan and John indicate the progress made by Together 2013 and the Pop Up Poetry Café in a short time. Firstly the groups reputation is now such they can attract this level of quality, and their learning is such that they can enjoy it, but secondly and most importantly the group have committed to the craft and to each other. 

There are signs that those things which interested us as individuals 12 months ago are still there and this may be best exemplified by Dawn in her poems ‘Paul’ and ‘Parrot in the Boat’. Her themes of family and humour are retained and will provide a platform for future work but now she has mastered brevity and yet is still able to demonstrate deeper meanings, 

Here is a group that meets in friendship, studies, socialises through visiting poetry cafes, practices, develops, writes and performs together whilst taking joy and encouraging new or returning poets such as Simon, Steven and Ella.

It is through this process that diamonds are excavated from the mine and where if I was of a mind would find time to join. If you are so likeminded then you are urged to go along and participate too. You'll find contact details here on the Together website 

Photo of comedian Clare Summerskill smiling at the camera

Photo of Clare Summerskill

Stephen Portlock reviews the comedy workshop for disabled people, led by Clare Summerskill on Sunday 24th November as part of Together! 2013

Personally, I have always tried to inject humour into my work, but have generally been fearful of going for out and out comedy. At the end of the three hours that this workshop lasted I was not really much more confident of being the next Jimmy Carr but had been given valuable pointers in the right direction.

More to the point perhaps, Clare, who presided over the workshop managed to be encouraging without being patronisingly dishonest. So while some participants readily admitted that their contributions failed to tickle the funny bone, Clare’s comments were always constructive, emphasising how to take their particular idea forward in order to transfer it into comedy.

Described by Woman’s Hour as a lesbian Victoria Wood, Clare has had quite serious mental health problems and has also written about life in a psychiatric ward, and consequently she actively encouraged the use of comedy in order to tackle serious themes. However even here caution is necessary and she personally would only consider doing comedy about mental illness under strict circumstances. Perhaps two examples during this workshop of comedy having a higher purpose were one of Clare’s own monologues by a lesbian hippie and an in-depth examination of a French and Saunders sketch about two hotel cleaners.

Participants were initially invited to come up with plays on words. Admittedly such puns might only raise a smile but they are part of an accumulative process when included in a comedy set.

Clare opens her own comedy set with a play on words about her mother. “I have just been staying with my dear mother. I call her my dear mother not because we’re particularly close but because the very mention of her name has enabled my therapist to have an entire loft conversion.” Participants were, however, not required to be so ambitious and Clare cited as an example “’I have a bigger piano than this’ he said grandly.” This is in fact a triple entendre since ‘grand’ can also allude to money. Other sources of humour are aural puns (“what do you call an Irish lesbian” “Gaylick”).

In order to create comedy, it is necessary to turn the world up on its head (“If the Samaritans really cared, they’d call you”). Clare cited four categories of humour: the first three being subversion of expectations, observational humour based in truth and political jokes (Linda Smith’s quip about John Prescott that language isn’t his first language). Linda, who is a personal favourite comedian of Clare, also did observational humour such as one piece apparently off the top of her head on having rabbits as pets. She also did plays on words such as the observation that if you hold a shell suit to you ear you can hear Romford.

The final category of humour cited by Clare was extension of the truth, telling stories or she called “going off on one”.  Participants were invited to think of an idea and either stick with it or to go off at tangents with something that could go into a stand-up routine. As ever the results ranged from the promising to the excellent but Clare’s comments were as ever constructive and encouraging.

photo of performer Liz Porter in a dramatic pose, arms held aloft

Photo of performer Liz Porter

Stephen Portlock reviews a history of stories about sight-loss in summing up the potential of Liz Porter's 'Learning to See' to  go beyond the 'tragic but brave'

I have slightly mixed feelings about first-hand chronicles of sight loss. On the one hand they offer a valuable counterbalance to sentimental, patronising representations that can all too frequently be peddled by a mainstream media.

On the other hand they risk largely preaching to the converted, and being seen by the unconverted as something akin to a visit to the zoo – a brief foray into the world of the strange and abnormal, but thankfully one that doesn’t last too long!

If there is a way around that problem, it seems to largely reside in offering something more than simply the theme of blindness with which to lure in the audience. Gary Tarn in his powerful but not altogether plausible film Black Sun sought to produce something philosophical with an almost zen-like serenity. Hattie Naylor’s play Going Dark provided oodles of scientific information about cosmology. In Learning to See, Liz Porter has counterbalanced her narrative with poetry, folk music and fairy tales, and the result for the most part works extremely well.

It certainly starts off powerfully. Facts about her birth are followed by alliterative poetry and ambient music, which together bring to mind memories of Derek Jarman’s magnificent Blue. This is followed by a recital of The Nightingales Song, which Liz’s father used to sing.

The desired effect is to convey the kaleidoscopic compendium of clashing colours, dayglo dreams and cartwheels with her friends that made up Liz’s early life. Then bedecked accordingly, she made her way to Exhall Grange, a school for the blind, only to find all of this dashed to the ground in a desire to ‘normalise’ her. I imagine that a mainstream audience will hardly fall out of their chairs on discovering that schools for the blind were grim, but it is always worth being reminded just how appalling they truly were.

So out went any visual creativity and in came a dull school uniform and a list of rules recited by Liz in something akin to a semi-poetic rap. Correspondence had to be checked for content before it was posted out, and an appalled Liz found her letter expressing loneliness being taken from her small hands, ripped to shreds and then replaced with one stating how she was loving her life in the institution! This loneliness however yielded an escape route into the fantasy world of fairy tales.

Learning to See is a work in progress, a fact attested to by a Q&A afterwards. At an interesting workshop on storytelling which Liz gave last year, also as part of Together! 2012, she said how she hated the tale of Rapunzel as the blind prince regains his sight at the end of the story. It may be in order to reclaim these retrograde politics that she makes use of a fairytale inspired by Rapunzel to comment on life at Exhall Grange. In it, two girls get locked in a high and dark tower but eventually escape into a world of the visual.

Yet what to my mind makes Rapunzel distinctive among Grimm fairy tales is its unusual sexual frankness as our titular heroine is left pregnant by the visiting prince. So that might be something worth considering as an avenue into later discussions of among other topics Liz’s unusually unpleasant monthly periods and relationships between girls and boys. At one point Liz hints at imposed pressure to be confirmed as a Christian but this potentially interesting avenue is left unexplored.

The other consideration in any piece of autobiographical writing is that of when to stop and Liz was probably right not to extend Learning to See beyond an hours length. It ends at the point where she has left Macclesfield and moved to London. Before this she had experienced social stigmatisation and humiliation as a boy who appeared to fancy her failed to turn up for a date on discovering that she was partially sighted. Then this fear and stigma again raised its ugly head as she faced rejection after rejection when applying for work.

At the end of Learning to See, it is not altogether clear quite how Liz feels about being required to ‘learn’ to see. One senses rather mixed feelings, and there are ones with which I myself as a blind man with probably less useful sight than Liz can readily identify. She reasons “at that time I didn’t know I should be sighted or not sighted or how to be… I wonder whether things have really changed even since the sixteenth Century”. Maybe the answer resides in one of her final remarks “eventually I wouldn’t only learn to see, but I would learn to be… but that is another story.”

On the basis of Learning to See, that may well prove a story worth hearing. At the subsequent Q&A Liz proved open to constructive suggestions but already as a work in progress Learning to See shows considerable promise and enough creativity (especially in an aural capacity) and inventiveness to attract a mainstream audience.

Oh… and Liz has a more than pleasant singing voice.

live artist Katherine Araniello on stage showing an audience of disabled people a video set on a large screen

Katherine Araniello on stage at Together! Festival as part of Disability History Month 2013

Richard Downes sent in this report of  the Together! 2013 exhibition and Festival launch party with Live Art by Katherine Araniello held at the Old Town Hall, Stratford on Friday 22 November.

Welcome back, Newham's Disability Arts Culture and Human Rights Festival Together! en route to the Olympic Village in 2913. I hopes this year the festival will be bigger, bolder, brasher whilst holding tight to last years positive virtues: friendliness, grassroots development, a sense of belonging and community. It is here where the festival aims meet a positive response from local disabled people and in which Together excels.

Walking along a corridor looking at exhibits I meet David Riley and Jermain Logan. David feels good that his fish are on the wall but is disinclined to talk. He would rather celebrate Jermain whose 'In Response to Kandinski' moves and vibrates - a dark train hitting a shock of colour. 

Jermain talks of the privilege he has been given and the pride he feels in seeing his work on the wall. He attends a Canning Town Art Workshop. He used to draw in school but has returned to this now because his impairment demands he finds something to concentrate on. He hopes  to improve his self esteem. The interest his work stirs up can't help but help achieve this. He is already talking about his next work. His story is a common one at Together.

Ju Gosling launches the event. She pays tribute to the 70 plus artists who have contributed, either individually or from groups including children's hospices and Powerhouse. She says Together is a guarantee of wall space and a tour for contributors.

Katherine Araniello launches a new piece wherein she interviews herself. Her interviewer is staid, proper, real BBC. You can imagine Kirsty Wark asking the questions. The interviewed self is full of art-wank replies. It sounds serious. She means it. Or does she? Isn't this a play on  language and expectation? 

I prefer to think humour is being used in response to all those demeaning application forms for funding; all those descriptions of work entered into competition. Often times language used to showcase art is facile and dressed up in intellectual cloth. It distracts from the work itself and Katherine is lit up by the dynamics of her own art history displayed in film behind her. And listen to me....

Back in the corridor I talk to Georgia Drysdale who exhibits 'My Unique Motherboard', a soft/hard purple schematic of a brain, lit up by dancing electrodes. She talks about the importance of intuition and coyly suggests that secrets are hidden in her art. She celebrates that she did it herself, used her own hands and came up with a unique representation for her Dyslexia whilst respecting her spirituality. She is a Together volunteer, proud of her community involvement with Newham's disabled artists working together.

Linda Daniel faces us. She exhibits 'Recycled Abstract'. She works intuitively using multimedia  gathered from recycled materials. Her abstractions are like herself. Big and bold. She has toyed with art for 30/40 years but never really had the opportunity to showcase her work before - except once when the beeb visited the institution she worked in. 

She is lifted by Together, by the opportunity to showcase. She's ambitious. She would like to get an art degree. She is pleased as punch to have her work shown and people coming to see it and liking it. We share a diagnosis and an experience. We both met Together at a low point in our lives; through art we found friendship, and Linda says, "a group that doesn't discriminate.

Please click on this link to go to the Together 2013 Festival for Disability History Month

Please click on this link to go to Dao's listings for Together Festival - in Newham until 19 December