Continuing our look at poetry and poets who tackle difficult personal subjects – these will continue twice a week until we’ve got everyone’s responses published.
My name’s Colin Bramwell, I’m from the Black Isle in Ross-Shire. I’m a poet, performer and translator, though I also work between forms, and as a musician. Most of my published work is in translation: I co-translate the Taiwanese poet Yang Mu, and also translate from various European languages into Scots. My principal way of getting my poetry out there is by making theatre shows—poetry is involved in all of these, some to a larger extent than others—under the moniker of Teuchter Company. I’ve written and performed four such shows in the last three years. My latest solo show, Umbrella Man, just finished two short runs at the Edinburgh and Prague Fringe festivals. I’ve been selling it as the story of a man who works in Subway and tries to prove the earth is flat, but it’s really a show about how grief can make people behave strangely.
1. Why, if there was a reason, did you write this poem/these poems?
I like to write about all sorts of things. When I started writing poetry properly, I was very clear that I wanted to avoid writing about details of my life that I considered personal. My reasons for this were grounded in a healthy suspicion of personal revelations of authorial trauma and hardship in poetry, particularly in performance settings. The manipulation of an audience’s attention and sympathy is so frequently substituted for the actual work of art, which, if you care about the people who listen to it, ought to be generous to them, and to their experience. In some ways, it ought to be for them (principally, not solely.) Pain or grief can make people very selfish, and lead to the rotten assumption that one individual’s pain is somehow greater than another’s for having been transfused into the form of poetry, and that this individual somehow elevates themselves above the crowd through the bravery of reading it. The anger that I felt when placed in those situations by other poets, and the awkwardness of having to lie to them about enjoying their work afterwards, made me want to do the opposite in my poems: to extinguish not personality, but personal details.
I found that writing explicitly in a narratorial or dramatic voice was a good way for me to avoid hypocrisy in my ethical requirements for my own poetry, and have proceeded along those lines ever since. However, the more I wrote, the more I realised that it was ungenerous to exclude the personal stuff: that the poets I loved were good at inhabiting and expanding their memories, and that this is an essential aspect of the task at hand. There’s a line from Michael Donaghy that I like: ‘My father’s sudden death has shocked us all / Even me, and I’ve just made it up.’ I still believe that making things up is a less boring way to access truth.
Umbrella Man has about four poems in it. Two were written this year, with the show in mind; the other two were written about three years ago. A close friend of mine died unexpectedly about five years ago. Only one of them is explicitly about her. I have a feeling that it’s the one she would have liked the least. The show, as a whole, is a heavily fictionalised account of a period in my own life where I was really devastated about losing her. I wrote it because I reached a point where I was thinking about it so much that I had to address it in some way. I also, perhaps bizarrely, wrote it because it made me feel closer to her. It forced me to spend more time with memories of her, which guided me in writing it. That process became far easier when I realised that I should make something that she would have liked. I sometimes see my performances as encounters with her, and I haven’t decided whether that’s overreaching yet, but sometimes the thought has been helpful.
2. Why, upon writing this poem/these poems, did you perform them?
I appreciate the gently disapproving tone of this question. I performed them because I liked them, because they were part of the show. ¾ of the poems are quite page-y, the other is very much a performance poem that I don’t think would work on the page at all. That was important to the show and the character. I attributed most of them to fictional authors, apart from the performance one, so I suppose it was important that they felt like they could have been read in a book, then delivered by someone who had remembered them, as opposed to heard in a live setting first.You’d have to ask the audience if they felt similarly. I did the performance one as a kind of advert for the show once, to a large audience with a front row comprised mainly of children. I’d forgotten that there was a line about paedophiles in it. There’s probably a lesson somewhere in that.
3. How does performing this piece change how you look at what happened to you?
If you’ll forgive my pedantry, I feel like it would be a basic failure of perspective to say that what happened to my friend also happened to me. In terms of the event of her loss and its significance to me, at least I’ve registered it now. But I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of it.
4. How do you separate artistic performance from lived personal experience?
You could spend a long time on this question. It’s not a hard and fast rule that you have to. I’ve seen some very powerful performances, and read powerful work, that is essentially a naked account of lived personal experiences. But they’ve been well-written, and that’s often the first and last stumbling block for exhibitionists. You have to give yourself material that allows you to perform it: if your material won’t allow for that, your performances will viscerally enter the annals of your living, personal experience.
If you’re performing your own work then you always have the option to self-consciously put on your performer’s hat for however long it takes. The idea is to remember to remove that hat, but don’t be too harsh on yourself if you accidentally end up wearing it at parties sometimes. Everyone performs at parties too, even the folk standing in the corner not saying much. If you want to separate performance from life, be a gracious guest, don’t overstay your welcome, and apologise if you stand on the cat.
If this question is something that keeps you up at night, you can always take the option of fictionalising details. I wrote Umbrella Man in a character’s voice, included real details alongside made-up ones, wore a three-piece suit and flipflops, and spoke in an exaggerated version of my own accent. You can always have a bit of fun by lying to people about things, or pretending to be someone else.
Perspective is essential too. Consult the living. Consult the dead, they have useful things to say about such matters. Like this, from Leonard Cohen: ‘You are playing to people who have experienced a catastrophe. This should make you very quiet. Speak the words, convey the data, step aside. Everyone knows you are in pain. You cannot tell the audience everything you know about love in every line of love you speak. Step aside and they will know what you know because you know it already. You have nothing to teach them. You are not more beautiful than they are.’
5. Do you find yourself affected negatively by performing this piece? If so, how do you look after yourself?
That depends on how it goes. I’ve found that I get into a funny mood before performing it, that I’ve needed to be alone more in the lead-up to performing it. I’m very aware that, with it being more personal, if my performance isn’t up to scratch, it can really bother me. I’m also more proud of it than anything I’ve written so far: performing something I didn’t believe in as much would affect me more negatively. If I do a performance that I’m happy with, I feel good but never as if a weight has been lifted. There is a level of clarity, though, and that has its own satisfaction. I’m realistic about the fact that the show will not necessarily get easier the more I perform it. It’s a journey, I’m not at the start any more but I know I haven’t reached the end either.
I’ve also found that a post-performance pint or two takes the edge off, though having a good interior monologue just edges alcohol in terms of importance. You have to remind yourself that you’re going through some shit, that everyone else is too, but you’ve stuck your neck out and that’s better than sitting at home playing Bejeweled Blitz and/or touching yourself. If you feel really shit after performing then message a pal and tell them what’s going on, I find that feeling of failure is often quickly fixed by a bit of affirmation.
6. Do you practice any aftercare after performing this piece (either for yourself or audiences)? (E.g., talking to audience members who are upset, taking some time out after your performance to ground yourself, ensuring you perform in places where you feel safe etc.)
I’ll always take time to speak to audiences after anything I perform. I’ve had a lot of people react to Umbrella Man in quite an emotional way, and I’ve tried to be open to their experiences while at the same time giving myself a bit of space to process the show myself. I think you need to be available, and certainly you treat audiences well if a show brings up personal things for them. I understand if a performer was inhabiting traumatic memories that these strategies become increasingly important (especially in the context of, say, a Fringe run of multiple shows.)
We’re often told to ‘practice self-care’ as artists, and yes, of course, it’s important to look after yourself. But you don’t perform material about grief, loss or trauma to be safe, you do it for precisely the opposite reason. And that’s as true for a poem about apples as it is for one about trauma. All performance contains an element of risk: performance of this sort of material even more so. But you do it because you’ve chosen to. No one is making you write about these things, and no one is making you perform about them either. If you’ve chosen to do that, and to do it well (and good on you for making that choice), own it and feel empowered by it. Particularly with the topic of violence, which we can only address if we normalise its discussion. Putting these topics in glass boxes, though well-intentioned, is the opposite of normalising them.
7. Do you do any content warnings for this piece? Why?
I don’t, because I think they are more relevant in the case of trauma. Grief is almost a condition of life, its viscerality hinges on its temporality. It can get worse at certain times of year, for instance. It felt important to have it come up and for that to be a surprise—the show is partly an attempt to capture the pervasiveness of loss, so I felt like there was something apposite about not warning people of that content.
That being said, a friend of mine saw the show after having lost someone, and I was glad to be able to warn her that the show was about that. I think I need to take a look at how I’m selling it. I’m still unsure about how I’ll negotiate that, because there seemed something apposite about a show where a character avoids talking about it to also have advertising that avoids talking about it. I chose to push the flat earth aspects of it as an ‘angle’, because I see it as a way into talking about grief. I’ll need to give that more thought.
8. Does the artist owe any kind of protection or safeguarding to their audience?
That depends on what said artist might want the audience to feel. There are cases to be made for it either way, though I think there is only so far you can go with it. If you’re telling a story, it means you might give away plot points, which some audiences would find irritating, though others might be glad for the heads-up. You can’t please everyone, though you try to please the majority. Foremost among what a poet owes to their audience are poems that are worth listening to. That is the best way of protecting, or safeguarding them—to be generous by presenting something good. It’s almost banal to make this point, but audiences will prefer a good poem without a warning to a shit poem with a warning.
9. Do you believe writing about areas such as grief, loss or trauma is a form of healthy catharsis or memorialisation?
Yes, it’s tried and tested. The benefits of writing as a form of self-reflection are very clear. And you aren’t obliged to share that writing, it can be just for you, then you don’t have to think about the requirements of sharing it. Performing for me is a different matter altogether: writing for yourself is one of the most healthy activities you can do. In poetry, elegies are invariably beautiful for their truthfulness and way of sharing your experience with other grieving folk. I think it’s one of the kindest things a poet can share with the world. Funerals, for instance, are one of only a handful of occasions where poetry should be encouraged.
10. What kind of warnings signs would you point out to someone new to poetry or performance who was performing about their traumas?
Start by writing about something else, otherwise you’ll be trying to climb the mountain too early. You should try and get confident with your mode of expression before performing. Spoken word at its best is a split between performance and writing that favours writing. Any halfway decent actor can make tripe sound convincing, so if you are naturally a good performer be particularly wary of this. Try and experiment with form, technique, play games with language. Read a lot—if you’re writing about death, a compilation of elegies wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Douglas Dunn’s Elegies is a stunner too.
Once you’ve written a bit, remain critical of your work. Approach it like someone else wrote it. The selection of a painful subject is not an excuse for carelessness in execution. In general, if you’re reaching to write about something without having given yourself space to reflect on it, you’re less likely to be able to write something worth listening to: similarly, you’ll be able to read, say, Sylvia Plath and know whether that raw, distanceless emotion can guide you to creating work that transcends or even expresses the confusion of pain with clarity. Pain obscures and clarifies. You might find that in trying not to write about it, you end up writing about it; or in trying to write about it, you end up writing about something else. Don’t do it because you feel like you need to inhabit a space of victimhood in order to make your work credible and real. We’re all credible and real. It’s just as valid to write about a moment of happiness, or where happiness and darkness intersect—that’s often where the truth lies. Paint with more than one shade, unless you’re really good at painting.
Remember that you don’t get points for your chosen topic of poetry. Apart from if you’re at a slam, in which case the opposite can be true. I once saw a student read out a diatribe at a slam about how she had to drop out of college and return to the psychiatric institution that she had previously resided in, and how she didn’t want to go. The audience judges awarded her unanimously high-scores, boosting her into the next round. She broke down halfway through reading her final piece, which was on the same topic, interspersed with memories of being bullied at her all-girls school. She was evidently unwell, and had to be consoled by friends on stage. By a very slim margin, she didn’t make it to the final. This upset her even more. She left the venue, friends in tow, crying her eyes out. It was exactly what a performance of difficult material shouldn’t have been: damaging for the young, unwell performer who received high marks not because her stuff was good, but because the audience felt bad for her. The relative positions of audience and performer made it impossible for one to be properly kind to the other, and vice versa. If you’re performing about any of these topics, this is exactly the kind of hellscape you want to avoid, unless one of the goals of your poetry is to actively pursue pity.
Try and keep it real. Don’t elevate your pain over someone else’s: put it into the context of the lived world, and remember that nothing you write will stop that world from turning. That way you’ll be able to do the most good.
Listen/purchase: Colin Bramwell: Headset by Colin Bramwell