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AofA People: Debra Watson – Performer, Tutor, Poet


1 Minute Read

Debra Watson, 53, is a wildly exciting woman. She runs a participative theatre, art and media charity. She’s a performer who’s interested in intimate methodologies. She’s a tutor. She does sensual poetry performances as part of The Crimson Word, The Bloody Poets and the Poetry Brothel London.

Her next performance is this Thursday where she will be performing FemmeDom, tickets are only on sale beforehand from Eventbrite.

WHERE DO YOU LIVE?

Up in leafy Muswell Hill. It’s very suburban and also very green and pretty. I moved here when my son started high school. I love North London because of the proximity to the Ladies Pond on Hampstead Heath. It’s a life-saver in the summer!

WHAT IS YOUR AGE?

53

TELL US WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE YOUR AGE?

It’s great! I’ve had a fantastic last two years creatively. I am full of ideas and have some great people around me to work with. I worry as I am not sure how much longer I can go at this pace. I had to take a month off for health reasons in mid-October.

WHAT DO YOU HAVE NOW THAT YOU DIDN’T HAVE AT 25?

Debra Watson by Steve Gregson

I am a lot more at peace with the fact that I am odd. My 25th birthday was amazing. I was working on a hit show at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. My sister brought my nephew and niece backstage and brought a cake. I was semi-famous. That year, we were invited to perform at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and then for a run at the Tricycle Theatre in London. Yet somehow, though my work now is much more marginal, I have much more confidence in my process and output, than I had then.

WHAT ABOUT SEX?

Ah. I have discovered that sex is not as difficult to get as I thought it would be for someone my age. I enjoy it immensely when I have it. I don’t currently have any long-term sexual partners. I’d prefer that to a series of one-off encounters. I’m super into intimacy. I’ve discovered I’m not really that promiscuous anymore. I long for depth and the scariness that comes with allowing someone to know you. You can discover a lot about yourself. I am surprised at how sexual I still am. This year, I’ve performed intimate poetry in a few different sex-clubs. It’s been an eye-opener. I clearly have a lot to learn and explore. I feel lucky to still feel sexual desire and to be desired. I know that for many women and men, sex becomes irrelevant to them as they age. It’s a genetic thing, I think. My mum was the same.

AND RELATIONSHIPS?

I am separated from, but immensely close to, my ex-husband (whom I met when I was 25!), I work with him sometimes. He is my best friend. I can’t imagine a life without him. We co-parent. He wipes away my tears when my lovers break my heart. I have been experimenting (badly) with polyamory. It has been chaotic. I don’t enjoy relationship chaos. I like being treated well, with consideration and sensitivity. I can’t bear being blindsided by stupidity.

HOW FREE DO YOU FEEL?

In what way? Personally, there are things I feel free about, but to be honest, I think I would feel freer if I had more liquidity. I am not free enough to travel as much as I would like, or to give up working for money or to just pack up my flat and go full Nomad. There are many ways in which I feel constricted. Not free at all.

Debra Watson by Lilith Costela

WHAT ARE YOU PROUD OF?

I am super proud of my creative output in the past three years. On my 50th birthday, I did a ‘dress tease’ for my friends and it started off a creative process that has been wonderful for me. In my late 40s, I started writing poetry again and this has led to an interest in performing intimate poetry. In the last two years, I have been performing with The Poetry Brothel London, The Bloody Poets and this year, have started a new intimate, immersive poetry collective The Crimson Word, with my friend Winter James. We are set up to do events, pop-ups, and parties; but we keep changing our mind and expanding the horizons of the company. The Bloody Poets was started in London by Mad Pirvan and Belen Berlin in 2017. Mad moved to London a year ago and runs the event once a quarter. It’s been very experimental and probably the closest I have come to re-picking up the thread of exploring experimental performance work I was doing in the early 80s and 90s.

WHAT KEEPS YOU INSPIRED?

I can be a lone wolf, but I really enjoy working in collectives. I get tremendous inspiration from other artists and tend to enjoy having events and themes to write to. My work is very, very personal, but having a group and compatriots that are also focussed on work and creativity has been crucial for me in developing in ways I haven’t expected. Social media is fun too. I’ve found that Instagram is an amazing tool for reaching new audiences. That being said, I need downtime and alone time to process, research and write.

WHEN ARE YOU HAPPIEST?

When I am creating. Even though it can be fraught, I love the creative process. The starting with a blank page, or one phrase, or one image and then building that up ‘into’ something. I am often not at all sure that I am going to pull off an idea. It is fabulous when/if things come together. I also get very, very happy when people pay me well and when they tell me that my work has moved them or impacted them in some way or another. Sometimes, especially after the very intimate 1-2-1 readings, people have an after-glow. They say: ‘It’s better than sex’. I used to be very shy about approaching performers and acting all fangirlish. No more. I realise how important it can be, in those dark and lonely hours when you think all your work is shit and that you’ve never have done nor will do anything well, to remember a kind word or a moment of sincere praise.

AND WHERE DOES YOUR CREATIVITY GO?

I perform, I write, I make costumes. A lot of my work is concerned with intimacy/intimate performance. It’s so intense and unpredictable. I also run a participative theatre, art, and media charity, so I also tutor and facilitate creativity. Part of my life is me being a big show off and another part is engaging very sensitively with other people to get them to tell their own stories.

WHAT’S YOUR PHILOSOPHY OF LIVING?

Go towards what terrifies you.

AND DYING?

I recently had a health scare. I am not out the woods yet. I am still in terrible pain on alternate days, but they don’t think I am dying. Before the diagnosis, I had a very serious discussion with my ex. I felt 100% that if it turned out to be critical, I would take this as an opportunity to step off the planet. I am not too keen on living for long. The world seems to be going to shit. I think I have had a good run of it, I think there is more fun to be had, but if it all had to end, I hope to face it graciously. Secretly, I am envious of people who die suddenly and quickly. It’s horrid for those left behind but I am not, and never have been, a fan of chronic pain and slow decay.

ARE YOU STILL DREAMING?

Yes. And there’s still so much I feel I need and want to do.

WHAT WAS A RECENT OUTRAGEOUS ACTION OF YOURS?

I tend to do all my outrageous acts in performance. The Crimson Word is just about to launch the first of a series of ‘Suprasensual Poeticals’ at a private members club in Hackney. It’s a continuation of work we have been exploring over the summer. Our theme is ‘Venus in Furs’ after the 1870 novella written by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. It explores themes of female domination and male submission. So, I am going to be exploring FemmeDom in performance. I hope it will be fun! It’s a small audience in a beautiful room in a private members club. No tickets will be available on the door. Only sales in advance from here.

The Ineffability of Ageing


1 Minute Read

I buy a new bra laced with dahlias.
Calvin Klein. Dress is Indian
embroidered olive green silk.
Shepherd’s Bush Market.
Candelabras are cheaply ornate. Car
boot. Oh Lord, teeth have been savaged.
Dental hygienist. Like a slow moving
volcano. My sixtieth.
Pause for thoughts about gifts.
Unwanted. Suggest pies on laps
as they drive to Voewood. Wanted. Funk up
with Prince, George Clinton and Deee-Lite.
The bass. Rachel, formerly of Hard House
at the helm. Home entertainment. La famille
Pougnet divert with a comedic turn.
Love. I show a film – Rose of Life,
eulogy ahead of its time. Useful.
My mother shimmies with her grandson.
Tiger. Crone-new, I am blessed
by the sexiness of my revellers. Bingo.

Spiky Heels


1 Minute Read

I snuck back home
Like a cat
Through back alleys
Shiny with rain
Crept back to my boys
Noiseless, past bins

Spotted the odd cat
Slinking off round corners.
My shadow switching on security lights
Yellow, wet patches stretching ahead, then
Gone, they switch off, fade to gloom.
Unheard, unknown, untroubled,
Home.

And the high heels?
The click click click
Sharp reminder that a lone female
Is out at night, alone
Wending whither to wherever
Feeling vulnerable in the back alleys
Of a neighbourhood called home
Now
Dark and deserted.

So
No high heels.
I like my anonymity
Doing my thing, being who I am
Undetected
Without the dead giveaway
The difficult to wear, anyway
The penalty points
Those spiky heels.

The disadvantage of the enforced swivel
The forwards tip
The concentrated balance
The focus
The tell-tale
Click,click,click.

Forget running
Forget competing
Forget being comfortable
Forget feeling chilled
Laid back
In control.

Fucked, basically.
In spiky heels.

La Tempête


1 Minute Read

Napoleon planted these pines,

the soil is sandy but not a beach.

I want to lie down,

stare upwards like a child

who hasn’t had enough clouds.

The watery landscape keeps me upright.

On cherche les oiseaux,

mais on n’entend que les chants.

The sky deceives itself.

We talk (my French friends and I)

about how to inhabit the truth,

to sink our teeth into ice-cream

without fear of incrimination or shame.

We sit with gratitude on a fallen trunk,

taste different sorts of apples,

note the sour and sweet preponderances.

 

There is an ending amid a swamp,

tears escape in a storm.

Brambles, bare feet, endless water.

I am scared.

My friends, my parents become.

This vulnerability is unmapped.

Manhattan Interlude


1 Minute Read

I am in a lift, heading up to the forty-fifth floor, to Russell’s apartment, 45-O, the studio apartment with the grand piano, the windows overlooking midtown Manhattan. On windy nights you could feel the building sway, ever so slightly. On cold nights – how many were there? – he lit a fire. I remember a fireplace, although it’s possible there wasn’t one. We’d make love, silently, because I was too shy to speak once my clothes were off. I thought my body should be able to say enough, to say all I couldn’t, the words sliding off my body onto the bed, into the air, on our sweaty limbs as they coasted over each other—it’s no good. I can’t remember much about us back then. I do remember he made me scream once – that may have been the first time I’d ever had an orgasm with someone inside me – but that was in my shared apartment on the eighth floor, a West End Avenue sublet, books lining the walls of the curving entry hallway, where the two rooms radiated off. There was a piano there, too, but it was in bad need of a tuning, which my roommate and I could never afford, and the real tenants were living elsewhere, in Europe or someplace I only dreamed about at the time. Russell went on the QE2 from New York to London, where they had grand pianos ready for him. That January it snowed a lot and I waited for him to call me. I knew when he was returning but he didn’t call for another week. The next winter he said he was getting married. Since I hadn’t ever been able to talk to him in a way that didn’t involve my body, I wasn’t surprised, but I felt my heart craze against my stomach when he told me. I went to the pre-wedding party, a posh event in a huge uptown apartment. I don’t remember anything about it except what I wore, and I expect I drank too much. My friends thought I was mad to go. I moved to London the following summer. Now I look him up on the internet and of course he has no idea.

From Barbara’s collection To the Boneyard published by Eyewear Publishing. You can purchase it here.

Haiku Days


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On August 11th, I took a picture of my dog’s paw, resting gently in the cup of my hand. Not a work of art, photography not being a thing I’m particularly good at. It caught a little sweetness though. Without me trying, a haiku arose to sit beside it. I posted them on Facebook.

The next day, another haiku arrived, and the next day, another. I decided to make a haiku a day for a month. Thirty-one haiku later, I am grateful to this thread of small constructions of word and syllable: a spontaneous ritual that called me to meet myself on a daily basis.

I hold my dog’s paw.
Ribbons of light, bind me tight
to this little life

I’ve never been a journal keeper. In fact, my writing is wholly undisciplined. I’m full of unwritten writing and that’s a sad fact. I suspect forgiving myself for that is a life-long project.

These haiku days, have been illuminating. And medicinal.

Dog haiku each day
Keeps Black-Dog, hound teeth at bay
It’s a small Blessing

I have learned some things along the road, that hold me now. Of course, I wish I’d learned them sooner. Mostly these lessons have been about simplicity and kindness. How to be kind to the one I am, the one I’m with, and how to welcome, even revel in sometimes, a simplicity that’s like an empty table.

The thing about living in the hinterland of depressed, is just how much racket the storms of judgement can make. It’s hard to find the gateway to simple, within all that banging and crashing. Somehow, between my hanging on and giving up, by the kindnesses of others, a beloved dog and a few maps and signposts left by the poets and vagabonds, I have found that gate.

Dog repetition
He takes me out, and back in
Three times, everyday

It’s been much quieter since the condemnations have ceased. I should be this. I should be that. The erosive violence of all that should and shouldn’t: weights and measures of success.

Mouth open: shouting
Gold falls out, and other things
It is not pretty

The haiku have helped me. A small discipline, but a discipline nevertheless. A practice, like walking Leonard The Dog. A commitment. A deal. A promise to show up. An actual showing up that is small and distilled enough for me to succeed at. See, even I’m doing it. Success: what does it mean?

Sometimes. Often, I can only stay for a fragment, a heartbeat, half a heartbeat. I need to retreat. I do come back, to myself or to you, but not immediately. I need a lot of breathing space. Quite literally, to just ‘breathe in’ space. I used to tear strips off myself for this disappearing. I deemed it absent, as a pose to the altar of Presence, where we all seem to worship. Now, I don’t even know if that’s true. I just know that I can forgive myself, if I need forgiving, and that I am free to be the one who disappears and comes back and then goes again.

No haiku came through
Running empty, all day long
Dog kissed my eyelids

The haiku are both small enough and big enough. Tiny and huge. A container. A street corner. A date. Every day the promise to haiku tugged at my hand and brought me to myself for a heartbeat or half.

And, looking back at these captured fragments of my last thirty-one days, I realise I have kept some kind of record. It’s a haiku diary.

Depressed needs to rest
Aches for the Aegean Sea
Body remembers

I dabble with the possibility of carrying on. A year of haiku. Or a lifetime.

On the 19th of August, Leonard and I ambled in our favourite London cemetery. This is the note.

Forgiveness of death
Old stones and trees, bent by time
accompany us

Many of these of these tiny reports, are love letters to my dog. The one who’s teaching me just how much love I am capable of: the one I share my days and nights with.

You are my darling
The face I wake up and see
Sweetest company

Dog rolled in something
Dog got washed from nose to tail
Dog smells wonderful

I am often lost. I stumble and fall, I lurch and crawl, and while these are metaphors, it is also direct reporting. I can’t quite understand how no-one else seems to notice me crashing into walls and falling over my own feet. Stumbling through the days of my little life, is graphic. Now, I know to keep things simple. There is a cradle I can fall back into, and it’s made up of small things: domestic repetitions, lighting many candles each day, always having flowers, walking in and out with Leonard, lists, naps, gratitude, doing the best work I can with my clients. This cradle of Grace is a living thing. There are flowers, reeds and weeds, growing in the nooks and crannies. I lined it with moss and earth. It both holds and anchors me.

Maybe, just maybe, the haiku can hold and anchor me too.

Poetry – how writing keeps me kicking up


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‘For a poem to emerge properly, you have to avoid confronting it. You have to keep it in sight without looking at it directly.’ Fiona Sampson, poet, in Mslexia

Twelve years ago, I’d never written a poem. I wasn’t – so many say this – one of those people who started writing poems in their teens. At the time, I was a journalist whose paid work – the internet and falling sales of newspapers – was on the wane. I was unsettled, gloomy and undermined.

I decided radical action was needed on the writing front. I have always been a fan of lyrical language so I decided to try out writing poems. I knew – and this is key – that writing poetry was never going to earn me my daily bread but I wanted to do it for love. I had been on the hamster wheel of feature editors’ ever-narrowing commissions and instructions, this way I would re-discover writerly freedom.

Not that I expected it to be easy. I was in for the long haul. I signed up to City Lit’s Beginner’s course with contemporary poet, John Stammers at the helm. I’d never heard of him. His collection Stolen Love Behaviour had just come out and I devoured its post-modern bite. Here were poems that were crafted to the hilt, witty and John’s degree in philosophy drove the undertow.

Through John, I discovered so many poets – from Wallace Stevens to Clare Pollard – but most importantly, and this is a rare feature, I found out that John can actually pinpoint what works and doesn’t work in his pupils’ poems. Over the years, this has been such a boon as well as a pain.

For a long long time, my poems were embarrassingly bad. I’d have a few sizzling one liners, or a good title here and there but the struggle to write a decent poem was arduous and humbling. Luckily, I expected the climb to be arduous and was willing to plod on.

Christian Palen
Rose Rouse by Christian Palen

What is a good poem? Ah ha, there is the subject of many a book and author. Basically the content should be fresh, the voice should belong to that poet alone, the attitude should be ‘show rather than tell’ (ie cut out any of those literal lines), a big no to the overly poetic (John has a list of forbidden words and they include iridescence and meniscus!) and then the most difficult, something should emerge magically without the poet even knowing. Helen Mort who is well-known in the poetry world, has just won the Mslexia (a magazine for women who write) poetry prize and the judge, Sinead Morrissey said; ‘there’s a vortex in the middle of it that works like a spell.’ Exactly.

Funnily enough, I am still in one of John’s groups, now an invitation-only one with some damn fine poets – including Barbara Marsh, Judy Brown and Beatrice Garland who all have collections out, won poetry prizes and more. Wednesday afternoon is often the high point of the week for me. We meet in Covent Garden above a pub in Betterton Street while the Poetry Society does its refurbishment re The Poetry Studio.

The format is like this. We hardly ever discuss our personal lives. Only through the poems. John brings in three poems as photocopies, he doesn’t tell us who the poet is. He reads the first one and then we analyse/criticize them. He will bring in these poems for all sorts of reasons – they are badly edited, they have something but not everything, they sing with edge and vim etc – and we are in constant pursuit of what makes a good poem. This is a life’s work!

In the second half, we hand out photocopies of our own new poems to the group, read it out aloud to them and then stay silent while they discuss every aspect in terms of meaning and structure. I have squirmed many times in this position as it became apparent that my new poem didn’t make sense, was overegged – I have a proclivity in this direction – and just plainly did not work. Oh the ignoble position of the bad poet!

However, over the years, I’ve been in this group for five years – we published a group pamphlet Sounds of the Front Door in 2014 – my embarrassment has subsided and I now relish their comments even when they are constructively ruthless. Because that’s exactly what my poems need ie outside voices looking in.

In January, I’d just come back from post-Castro Cuba and written a poem Finding My Inner Orisha. A lot of it was in Spanish and through the group, I learnt that actually there was too much for people to understand so they suggested that I translate lines in both Spanish and English. I have now done that and hope it lends an incantatory aspect to the poem. Although I also decided that I didn’t want to do it all in that way as that was too much. The poet always has the last word. Although as we often discuss when reading other poets’ work, a good editor is also worth their weight in gold.

Killing your own darlings is such a useful lesson in life as well as poetry. Poets often have a proclivity towards something that takes them out of balance. Personally, I go for florid language and this can be so easily overdone. Restraint is needed. Going to The Group helps me refine my own editing skills. If I see that extra ‘fecund’, then I force myself to remove it.

This year, I found a publisher for my first poetry pamphlet – 20 poems and these days often called a chapbook – Tantric Goddess at the age of 64. It’s never too late to start. And I’m not giving up now, I intend to get a collection – around 60 poems – together next.

Tantric Goddess is published on Eyewear.

Tantric Goddess

The Dance by Helen Cadbury


1 Minute Read

In the dream

I am younger,

the room is huge

and I dance

over a wooden floor.

I do it often. It’s what I do.

I have a huge room,

as high as a church,

to myself and I dance across

its beautiful wooden floor

again and again.

 

When I wake

the dance is still in me.

It lightens my limbs

moves me to the kitchen.

The coffee brews on the hob

and I dance back and forth

from the table

to the fridge

and I am young

again and again.

By Helen Cadbury, Crime Writer & Poet. Died 30th June 2017

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