Joolz, 66, is a poet, novelist, artist, illustrator and professional tattooist. She came to prominence in the 80s when she was often called a punk poetess and was instrumental – Justin Sullivan, the lead singer was her partner at that time – in the rise of New Model Army. She’s still writing, painting, drawing and expressing her opinions from her base in Bradford
Where do you live?
I live in the same house in Bradford I’ve lived in for 35 years. It’s an end terrace in a hidden cul de sac in a very poor area but by chance has a large garden with trees. It’s extremely untidy and full of stuff and art materials. It’s very comfortable despite being in disrepair.
What do you do? I’m an artist, writer and tattooist, although I’m semi-retired from tattooing because it’s exhausting work. I have my own studio and set my own rules so I don’t have to get up early or any of that nonsense. I spent my whole adult life working at night either on tour with the band or just because I like it and it racks me off when people say ‘not up yet?’ I probably didn’t go to bed until 3.00 am whilst they were snoozing at 9.00pm. I’m sure it’s lovely to see the sunrise and I often do, just before going to bed.
Tell us what it’s like to be your age?
I will be 66 shortly. My current joke is ‘one six short of the Beast’ which no one finds funny but me. Life is a see-saw – when you’re young you have all the energy and no wisdom, in middle age, it’s 50-50, now it’s all wisdom and naps. It’s frustrating my body which was always fit and strong is still strong but less fit and I live with the constant pain of arthritis in my knees due to motorcycle accidents and the sports I did but hey. Everyone has something wrong with them. I don’t put up with bullshit and I speak as I find, so people try and pigeonhole me as a grumpy old woman but I’m not. I’m half in this world and half in the other world so I see things much more clearly than I did.
What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?
Insight and courage, I was a very damaged and hurt girl, I suffered serious sexual and physical violence, decades of abuse and bullying – now I understand and despite the legacy of CPTSD and depression, I’m actually much more liberated and free than I was. At 25 I didn’t have knowledge that I didn’t need anyone else to be happy. Now I like people well enough but I don’t need them.
What about sex?
I have a partner who’s 30 years younger than myself and extremely good looking. All my bits are in working order. It’s not a problem. I don’t lack for suitors either, but that’s their gig, I’m not bothered.
They have been extremely problematic in the past and I’m shit at them, I just take it day by day. I don’t expect the traditional holding hands in the twilight of our year’s stuff now. I had years of domestic abuse physical and psychological so I’ve seen the worst relationships can bring and I’ve also seen the best. I think people expect too much of their partners sometimes. They want a mother, father, sibling, best mate, nurse, counsellor and lover all in one and that’s a terrible burden to put on someone else. Just look at them as a person like yourself with problems like yourself that you’ve entered into a partnership with so you’ll each have someone to be close to over the years and never ever marry someone you couldn’t spend two weeks in a two-man tent in the Lake District with.
How free do you feel?
Extremely free. No one tells me what to do and I won’t be shouted at by anyone. I do as I like and make what I like.
What are you proud of?
Surviving. Being successful in every career path I’ve taken. Being a hard worker and researcher. Loving people. Loving my cat Scout. Having nice grey hair. The garden.
What keeps you inspired?
Absolutely everything. Every day is a revelation and brings fresh insight. I’m not even kidding or bullshitting. Just keep your eyes open it’s all out there.
When are you happiest?
In bed reading with Scout lying beside me. Scout is a 9kg male Black Smoke variant Maine Coon cat so it’s like having a dog that purrs. We love each other. I feel safe, warm and comfortable and can dream of other places, places I’ll visit when we can travel again.
And where does your creativity go?
Into everything I do and am.
What’s your philosophy of living?
I don’t think too hard about that. Don’t get wound up about small stuff. Tell the truth and shame the devil. Stand up for what you believe in but question everything. You don’t get owt for nowt so be prepared to pay the price. Love with all your heart, if the loved one turns out to be shit that’s their karma. Women should always have money of their own and men should give up trying to control everything. Children are our most precious resource, don’t spoil or hurt them. Don’t use children as props to your ego or weapons against your partner. Respect your Elders, you don’t have to like them but they gave you life. Be polite. Swear if you feel like it. Let your hair go grey and be proud of it because it’s two fingers up at Society that says we should be ashamed of being old.
It’s just part of the journey. We all die. I’ll make an end of it myself if I’m too ill to go on with dignity like my father did. At least I hope I’ll be that brave. There’s nothing to fear in dying, just try to do as much as you can prior. Think of it as the end of the summer holidays and that bright shore waiting.And dying?
Are you still dreaming?
What was a recent outrageous action of yours?
My entire existence is an outrage to many so I don’t have to do anything special.
How are you doing on the creative front? Has getting older freed you into a more creative place?
I just googled exactly that and depressingly it came back with endless reports about the brain being less creative as we get older. Bullshit, I thought. But I did find this from Psychology Today in 2007.
‘The ageing brain resembles the creative brain in several ways. For instance, the ageing brain is more distractible and somewhat more disinhibited than the younger brain (so is the creative brain). Ageing brains score better on tests of crystallized IQ (and creative brains use crystallized knowledge to make novel and original associations). These changes in the ageing brain may make it ideally suited to accomplish work in a number of creative domains. So instead of promoting retirement at age 65, perhaps we as a society should be promoting transition at age 65: transition into a creative field where our growing resource of individuals with ageing brains can preserve their wisdom in culturally-valued works of art, music, or writing.’
I am 67 and a half!! Did Adrian Mole ever get to that age? And I co-founded Advantages of Age with Suzanne Noble in 2016. In many ways, we’ve gone in different directions – in that Suzanne is developing her Silver Sharers site and Start-Up For Seniors while I am more focused on the arts and my relationship with poetry and dance and writing non-fiction. Although having said that Suzanne is singing the blues and performing when we’re not in Covid times.
Being a part of Advantages of Age – advantagesofage.com – has definitely helped me develop my relationship with the arts. In 2017, we received – on the second try and we didn’t write the budget bit – our first grant from the Arts Council and we created Death Dinner, the film about death and dying, had hot tub salons on everything from tantra to co-housing, ran a Taboo Club around sexuality/love, filled a bus Flamboyant Forever with Over-50s dressed up not just to the nines but the tens and elevens. There was a lot of production work involved.
And I realised that I could do it – get that sort of thing together. The same year 2017, I had my first poetry pamphlet Tantric Goddess out on Eyewear. By 2019, I created a book of poems with my partner, Asanga Judge illustrating them with watercolours – it was called Wild Land. We had an exhibition – poems and paintings together – at the Llyn Arts Festival in N Wales and we also performed there. By this time, I’d written a long poem A Song for an Old Woman, which was about the fears and vulnerabilities of getting older plus my mum having Alzheimer’s and the horrors of the later stages. Asanga plays the crystal bowls. So we did a performance where I read one stanza and then he responded with the haunting sounds of the bowls. We were going to do a version at the Poetry Café but Covid came along.
In 2019, Brent – I live in Harlesden and have written a non-fiction book – A London Safari walking adventures in NW10 – about my walks here with Louis Theroux, George The Poet etc – were told that they’d won the competition to be the London Borough of Culture 2020. Immediately, I started thinking of a project that I’d love to do. Be Willesden Junction Poet in Residence and immerse myself in this bleak but beautiful place. This scary but intriguing place.
I already had a relationship with the station. I’d done a chapter in A London Safari where I walked with railway enthusiast, Ian Bull and been enthralled by his litany of Willesden Junction nuggets, for example, that the buddleia seeds were brought in on the train’s wheels from ports, they came from China. For example, the old transformer building dates back to 1910 and is Arts and Crafts. Plus his winsome theories on my favourite building – the building on stilts. He surmised that it was a carriage washing building.
However, I didn’t go ahead until I’d had several chats with producers. Thanks, Titania Altius. And it became obvious that community was the name of the case. Of course. It’s not all about you, Rose. So I came up with the idea of The Willesden Junction Poets in Residence. I would gather poets in Brent and we would unravel the station through all of our different perspectives. And so I filled in the form. Yes, I managed it with a bit of advice from Suzanne on the budget front.
Lo and behold, last November I heard that I was one of the lucky ones. I had a grant of £3,000 to create The Willesden Junction Poets, make a book out of our poems, find an artist to illustrate it and launch it. I was over the moon. Exactly my kind of project.
By Feb 2020, I’d put the word out on social media, the Kilburn Times and amongst friends for nine poets. I found about 30 and decided on the group. One of my aims was to cherish this group so that it had long-lasting roots so that we became a collective that could carry on afterwards. I had tea with the ones I had decided upon.
On March 1st, we got together for the first time. A vegetable curry at my flat, lots of research about WJ strewn on my floor, shared our WJ stories and then we went to the station. The sun shone and we looked at the station in a way that we never had before. Even me. The fences suddenly looked like the staffs owned by medieval nobility. There were convex mirrors everywhere. And frills on the roof. A wasteland with steps to nowhere. The poets were animated and falling for WJ. Poems started to be written.
And then there was the night visit. I really wanted to go in the dark. Three of us went just as social distancing was coming in but wasn’t understood. Not by us either. No masks yet. We stood in the drizzle and dark, feeling like people in an Edward Hopper painting. There was a loneliness to it and an endless blue freight train. And postmodern blue lights like spears.
Lockdown happened. We took to Zoom like everyone else. Poetry workshops – we shared and commented on our WJ poems. Zoom kept our group together. The project was meant to last three months. We spent two months on Zoom. It deepened the trust and commitment in the group.
By June, the visits to the station started again. This time with masks. Filmmaker Tereza Stehlikova – she’s made Disappearing Worm Wood which is about this landscape which is changing all the time – came for a visit with us. This bleak and beautiful landscape. The vast horizon with all those tangles of tracks where both art critic John Berger drew and made etchings from (I haven’t been able to find any) in the 50s and painter Leon Kossoff made gorgeous, ugly paintings in the 70s and 80s.
Tereza told me she thought of Willesden Junction as a land of enchantment, I told her I thought of it as a theatre. Together with poet, Sue Saunders, we found the beating heart of WJ. Round the back, down a narrow passageway, near the steel bridge. Where the station staff make their way up and down in their orange hi-vis. Where we were forced into close encounters because the pathway is so narrow. Where the mainline trains speed by to Scotland, where freight trains chug by slowly carrying limestone aggregate, for instance, from the Mendips. And the wind is howling as though we’re on the moors in Haworth. Meanwhile, we’re caught up in an intensity of lines – fences, bridges, tracks.
More poems are written. Another high point is the visit with a botanist, John Wells who introduces us to over forty varieties of wild plant in the wilderness that looks like a wasteland full of rubbish and rats. Bristly ox tongue, dove’s cranesbill, spear thistles to name but a few.
I’d always wanted to re-frame the infamous WJ ‘walkway from hell’, ‘the purgatorial pathway’, ‘the jailed path’ with our imaginations. And these urban plants gave us another chance to see and feel this challenging walkway differently. And the poems went on.
By July, I’d picked the poems for the book and thought that BeWILDering could be a good title. The station was referred to as ‘bewildering’ in the late nineteenth century because it was labyrinthine and people actually got lost trying to look for their trains!
Be Wild, re-wild, Wild thing, Willesden Junction – they were all in that title for us. And Sue turned up at our interview with local radio station The Beat with badges bearing – Be, Wild, Er, Ring. I congratulated her on her brilliant deconstruction of our title. ‘I just couldn’t fit it on the badges,’ she said beguilingly.
In the meantime, Keira Rathbone was making her dazzling typictions. And having her own adventures at the station. She wasn’t keen on WJ at first, but as time went on, she fell into intrigue. Keira would appear in her silver jacket and mask looking like a visitor with Mars with her own old Imperial typewriter. Then she’d sit and turn the platen while typing furiously and by some twist of wonderment, she’d create all these images.
On one occasion, she and I were down by the heart of WJ, and we simply became fascinated by an old pipe in the wall. This very textured wall with what looked like gunshots in it. Keira said something like – ‘Look like her come hither look’. And then she became the sexy pipe. And on we went. The spirit of the WJ residency captured. That spirit of tale-telling and you never know where it will lead you.
The book went to the designers, then the digital printers. By October, we had the beauties in our hands. Finally, my son, Marlon – thank you son – who is a filmmaker came down and made short films of us reading our poems ‘on set’ as Tereza put it. It was a great day. An acknowledgement day. Andrea Queens read Legend – where magical occurrences happen at WJ – on the steel bridge, I was near my beloved Building on Stilts, Ian McLachlan performed Changeling down ‘the purgatorial path’, we even got into the station itself for a quick shoot of Sue Saunders reading her Closely Observed Pigeons, Elizabeth Uter was filmed near the 266 bus stop reading her How Many Feet, Iman Hamid told us about her experiences On Platform 4 and Sue Saunders read Nick Moss’ STOP because he couldn’t be there.
And so The Willesden Junction Poets project has been a great project. We are now a group and hopefully, we will carry on performing in London. And I have just filled in another application. So let’s see if the next project comes about next year when I’m 68…
From our inception in 2016, Advantages of Age has always had a proclivity for poetry. In 1936, William Butler Yeats, widely considered one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, described Edith Sitwell’s poetry – ‘Her language is a traditional language of literature — twisted, torn, complicated, choked here and there by strange resemblances, unnatural contacts, forced upon us by some violence beating in our blood, some primitive obsession that civilization can no longer exorcise’.
This week, I asked our six poets – myself, Caroline Cadenza, Wendy Klein, Beatrice Garland, Matthew Brown and Debra Watson – to introduce themselves and to tell us something about how getting older has affected their poetry. We will all be performing at the Poetry Café this Thursday, June 27th at 7pm.
I started writing in my mid-50s so I was already old when I started. I wasn’t a teenage poet however I had been a journalist for years, and words ran with me like water. I found myself in the position career-wise where the opportunities to be a freelance journalist had become less and less. The democratisation of writing on the web and my age mitigated against the career I’d relished for the previous 25 years. It was a scary time. So I decided that re-invention was the best policy. In order to earn money, I started doing press and at the same time, I signed on to a Beginner’s Poetry Class at City Lit in London.
There was something about the succinctness of poems and the task in hand that attracted me, and it still does. And there is a parallel in that, with journalism. Condensing an experience that is long and complicated into something that bites with its intensity. Like pasta al dente. Not to overcook. That is my aim.
My first pamphlet Tantric Goddess was published on Eyewear in 2017 when I was 64. It was an exploration partly of the relationship that I started when I was 60. Hence the title which also has a tongue in its cheek. More recently, I did a project with my partner, Asanga where I sent him ten poems and he created ten watercolours as a response, this then became an exhibition and a book Wild Land.
Here is a poem from Tantric Goddess –
LOVE IS LIKE FINDING A SECRET BALLROOM IN MY HEAD
All those years I’d been doing crazy asanas,
the dancing was happening round the corner.
My Conscious Relationship teacher did a lecture
on Holding The Psychosexual Boundaries.
Destroy his letters in a fire ritual.
I’d always dived into Never-Neverland
with broken men, bits of rope and dirty dishes.
To me, the terms were incomprehensible,
I thought my writing should be on their walls.
Enlightenment came through painstaking logic,
a series of unyoga-like forays into household chores.
Like rebels in flagrante,
we move our old limbs slowly.
I haven’t mentioned the chandeliers.
Caroline Cadenza, 51, is an award-winning advertising copywriter, living and working in London. Not finding much scope to express the deep stirrings of her soul whilst writing cat food ads or car brochures, she often uses her daily commute to write poetry. She loves reading her work at Open Mic events and feeling it resonate with audiences.
She has just published Metaphorplay, which she describes as ‘a wildly poetic romance’ and is a collection of her erotic, naughtily edgy, witty poems. She has also illustrated them with her own inimitable pizzazz and colour.
Here’s what she says about her evolution as a poet –
In my 20s and 30s, my poetry was a microphone for my innermost voice as it sung of my spirit’s longings for wholeness and my passion’s yearnings to bust out of the prison of my shrinking-violet personality.
Throughout my fantastically freeing 40s, my art and poetry were increasingly an outlet for my mischief and wildness. But at some point, this ‘secret me’ was so thoroughly outed as the ‘real me’, that putting it back in its box became pointless.
Now at the tip-over from 40s into 50s, it seems that my former decades were merely fertilising the ground for the fruition and bursting forth I’m currently enjoying. This feels like the midsummer of my life – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually blossoming, blooming, ripening and epiphany-ing all over the place.
My poetry today remains an amplifier for my ever-more daring voice – defying convention, berating ex-lovers and shaming them for chasing ridiculously younger totty. But my main catharsis comes from fondly deriding myself and transmuting my tragedies – confessionly, into comedies. As ever, my poetry doesn’t just express my inner world, it reveals, translates, unscrambles and interprets it to me. The trembling voice of my awe and gratitude to be here at all, offers both poetic prayers of thanks and laments the loss of contemporaries who have already passed away. Through my poetry’s portal, my inner goddess roars her wrath and purrs her promises.
What’s next? Who knows? I love turning my poems into performances. So watch this YouTube space for more like this:
This is one of Caroline’s poems that we published at Advantages of Age. It epitomises her courage and naughtiness.
Fruits plucked in haste when ripe enough to eat
Are fresh and firm and tolerably sweet
But look again and higher up you’ll see
Maturer fruit still hanging on the tree.
Come connoisseur, this mellow one’s for you
Not tang and tart and biting back
Nor am I overdue
But come to my fruition – in my prime
Beyond delicious: my taste is sublime.
You’ll barely need to bite – just use your lips
I’ll yield my liquid treasure for kiss
My perfume beckons – lures you to come near
Good sir – you are the reason I am here.
I’m burdened with this ripeness, heavy with completeness
Never before nor ever more will I exude such sweetness
Nectar-seekers, lotus-eaters have not tasted such
Come pluck me now and glut yourself while I am soft and lush.
I’ve nought to lose and all to gain
For it shall be lamented
If my ripeness finds no mouth
Before I’m all fermented.
Widely published and winner of many prizes, Wendy Klein, 77, is a retired psychotherapist, born in New York and brought up in California. Since leaving the U.S. in 1964, she has lived in Sweden, France, Germany and England. Her writing has been influenced by early family upheaval resulting from her mother’s death, her nomadic years as a young single mother and subsequent travel. Despite dashing about between four daughters and fourteen grandchildren, she has published three collections: Cuba in the Blood (2009) and Anything in Turquoise (2013) from Cinnamon Press, and Mood Indigo (2016) from Oversteps Books.
She writes about herself – ‘I believe profoundly in the curative powers of dancing dogs and reading poetry out loud. I hope that someone will humanely destroy me if I cease to be able to enjoy these pleasures.’
Here’s what she says about age and being the poet she is – I am a bit of an imposter to Advantages of Age, because I really don’t see many advantages in terms of any part of my life. I read the brave, positive items you post with great interest and wonder! Certainly getting older has made me less confident about many aspects of my life, and writing is one of them. I am a glass-half-empty person who does her best to stay just ahead of the black dogs. Everything takes me longer, I am more disorganised, I forget titles I have changed, waste a lot of time looking for lost/mislaid items, electronic and paper.
I had a pretty good system up until we moved a few weeks ago, but I have just spent a whole morning not finding a reading I did in Chichester recently, which I want to repeat in London this Saturday, and I cannot find it. Will have to reprint, and I have no replacement cartridge to make my printer work. It is solvable, and I have a wonderful techie partner who bails me out. But… Performance-wise, I suffer more from nerves than I did when I was younger, stumble more, etc. Am pretty diffident about promoting my work, more etc. You get the picture.
I think I am definitely past my prime in terms of developing new ideas, experimentation, etc. I write what I write and know my limitations, which I guess could be described as an advantage. In general, I find the poetry world an awkward place to navigate, and I think I have retreated from the competitive corners of it I used to inhabit willingly. I still put on a pretty good show, but it doesn’t feel secure.
This is a wonderful poem that Advantages of Age published of hers! I love that it’s ‘the beast’ that she covets. I’m sure Yeats would approve.
WHAT THE WEAVER KNOWS
I’m not just any maiden lounging in the millefleurs,
there to bait the trap. On my canvas, invisible
to the innocent, fish knives gleam, wait to scale
your silver, crack open your heart. Listen;
there are rumours of drowning by metaphor:
the flicker of dance, the aspiration of flight,
the whale-bone squeeze that robs breath, moulds
flesh into enticement, promises nothing.
Embrace the rush of darkness, the drip and seep
of 4 AM when eyelids are peeled back, lashes bat
and flap, when the tick of the body is loudest
as light advances, twists, morphs, begins its birth trial:
crown of head, shoulders, the buttocks’ heart-cushion,
legs and feet, their twitch and kick built-in.
No I’m not just any maiden, there to bait the trap, a silly pawn
in some hunter’s game. It’s the beast I covet:
the arch of his back, his mane’s rough silk, the heave
of his white, white breast. Look out, for only the canniest
can break into the spiked circle, where I spell-spin;
a sucker for unicorns; not much of a lady.
Beatrice Garland, 81, has a day job as a National Health Service clinician and teacher, work which requires a lot of publication in its own right (under a different name), so there have been long gaps in her writing poetry since she began in 1989. But it has never stopped completely.
This is partly because she has always read – poetry from the sixteenth century right up to the 2019s, as a result of a first degree in Eng. Lit. – and partly because no job can satisfy every need, perhaps particularly not the need for something personal and self-examining. She spends a lot of the day listening to other people’s worlds. Writing poems offsets that: poetry is a way of talking about how each of us sees, is touched by, grasps, and responds to our own different worlds and the people in them.
She won the National Poetry Prize in 2001 with Undressing, has won several other prizes and has two collections out – Invention of Fireworks and The Drum.
Beatrice is one of the most dynamic women I know. Her poems are vivid and daring.
Here’s what she says about her writing and getting older –
I only started to write really once I was older – say, from 50 onwards. And over the last four or five years I’ve become more confident about performing/reading. But basically growing older for me has meant knowing my own mind, and not being afraid to speak it without becoming strident.
We are going to bed. From where
I am lying, hands behind my head,
I watch your progress with interest
for you are a fine-looking man, good hair
and yes, still slim. When you remove
your shirt, stretching to take it off
without undoing the buttons, I see your ribs
and catch a drift of something feral,
warm, from the efforts of the day
and it makes my pulse quicken. But first
I must tell you something important:
you must never ever ever again
leave your socks on till last.
Matthew Brown, 54, is a freelance journalist and writer. His poems have appeared in a number of publications, including Magma, Other Poetry and South Bank Poetry. He grew up in Durham and lives in East London.
Matt is brilliant at forensically dissecting experiences, particularly around nature. His poems are have a quiet but flaming sensitivity to them.
Here’s s poem of his that was in a group pamphlet, Sounds of the Front Bell.
Weigh it first in the palm of your left, belly up.
Then flop flank down on the block, tail fanned out
against marble or oak. Note the gold scales,
the red-eye dots. See the gills collapse,
the arsehole’s dark O. Touch your blade tip here,
clip a nick, press till the slit grows. Grip.
Use a rag if you must, then slice through chest
to throat – a fine line where pale flesh thins.
Stop before the slack jaw’s wishbone. Make it clean.
Fishwives, it’s said, could cut through fifty a minute, their blunt fingers stunk to old age.
Slide yours between the flaps to catch
the guts, a moist purseful of soft mechanics.
This is what there is: a tube for in and out made slime. Snip the gullet, tug
the slick innards till membrane peels from bone. Adjust your hold, thumb
back muscle, let the knife-point pierce
the spinal column. Ooze as black as claret dregs.
Most goes with a running tap; some spots
need an edge, a fingernail. With luck, what’s found
between the ribs is pink. Leave the head,
let eyes pearl in the pan, skin butter-crisp with sting of lemon and dill. What’s left
is skeleton: skull, vertebrae, fin; tail, a tattered flag on a grounded ship. Fold the waste
in old news, seal the lid from night’s predators.
Debra Watson, 53, is the co-founder and director of The Crimson Word, a poetry collective for shows and events exploring multi-sensory, immersive poetry. She is also a regular performer at The Poetry Brothel London and with The Bloody Poets. She has recently published her first chapbook Laments and Incantations.
Debra is a sensual poet whose words wrap around you and wrestle you to the floor. She delights with her provocative tongue.
Here’s what she says about her work and evolution as a poet –
I stopped writing poetry when I came to the UK in 1997 and started again in 2011. I found a batch of poems that I wrote between 1993 and 1997 and to be honest, the themes and the writing styles are not madly different. I think, if anything, I have developed more craft in the writing. It was wonderful working with poet and editor Katie Haworth on my chapbook. The reasons the poems look more ‘professional’ is that Katie brought some ‘grammar rules’ to the work. She has a fine eye for teasing out the style of the poet and creating formatting rules. She is a tough editor and I had to fight my corner. I am quite stubborn, so often my first reaction to changes is ‘no’ – but then I would look again, and I would see that Katie had actually made a really genius and elegant suggestion. If anything, getting older has made me more willing to open up my work to collaborations.
What has made the most impact on my writing is performing live with The Poetry Brothel London. When I first started I asked Gabriel Moreno if I had to learn my lines. He suggested that I did, but left it to me to decide. The first few performances, I read from a book both for the opening performances and for the private, 1-2-1 readings. However, The Poetry Brothel always has photographers roaming about, and I didn’t like the way the photos looked. So I started learning the poems out of vanity. It was very freeing.
It is very much like that point in rehearsing a play when the director calls for ‘books down’ and suddenly, you can concentrate more intently on your body and your internal relationship to the words than you can if reading from the page. I find this difficult to describe, but in some way it has affected the musicality of the writing.
Performing ‘book down’ has then become really useful when performing intimate poetry either with The Poetry Brothel or with The Crimson Word, the poetry performance company I started with Winter James. Being book free has made it possible to get really close to the clients and to experiment with performing multi-sensory poems.
The poet Amy-Nielson Smith was the first person I knew who was doing this in her private readings, using blindfolds and smell sensations. I was reluctant at first – but after a few months at the Poetry Brothel – seeing how much the clients loved it when other poets blindfolded them, I started doing it too. Now it is a central part of my intimate performances and has made me super aware of the use of multi-sensory word triggers within the long form poems.
The second major influence has been working very closely with the violinist Henni Saarela. Henni is a hero. So much of the impact of the work has come through developing work with her. I have worked with musicians a lot since I started performing publicly in the 1980s.
I used to write far more political stuff till the late 80s, early 90s and worked at first with a traditional drummer and then a cellist. I have always written erotica and performed at a lot of arts events in my youth. At my book launch in May, Henni and I were joined by PicturePoems and Gabi Garbutt for some of the poems from the collection.
There are a lot of poets who are musicians and we tend to talk a bit about the difference between writing music and writing poems. Sappho, of course, was a musician, so the two have been linked in a bardic way through many cultures. We keep intending to record. I’d love that to be a collaboration with other musicians. The Spanish poetess, Belen Berlin, played ukulele on the first performance of ‘Dammit Johnny’ with the collective ‘The Bloody Poets’ and it was amazing. Henni plays that part now and sometimes other instruments too.
At the last Poetry Brothel, Henni and I were joined by Gabriel Moreno on guitar for ‘Barcelona’ and it was sensational. The title of my chapbook is called ‘Laments and Incantations’ and some of the writing has choruses/ refrains that reflect this influence of working with musicians. I’ve worked with a few different musicians on different instruments, but never all at the same time. I guess that might be next.
The last few months I have been dealing with chronic pain and have not had much mental clarity or energy to write. The last thing I wrote which I performed with FemmeDemomium at The Uncensored Festival is a prose poem called ‘Bad Feminist’.
It is a huge departure for me in terms of style. The piece before that was a bespoke performance piece called ‘Baba Yaga’. Although thematically it fitted into my fascination with retelling fairytales – stylistically, it was writing to fit in with a performance developed by poet Naomi Wood – playing the young Baba Yaga who gets the calling to visit the Baba Yaga.
I wrote for and performed the more cantankerous version of Baba Yaga. I also re-wrote ‘The Beauty and The Beast’ for a performance of ‘Venus in Furs’ which we did with The Crimson Word. It was hugely satisfying as it was delivered to be read as a pervy bed-time story and it was enacted by our house submissive playing ‘Beauty’ and an audience member playing ‘The Beast’. The fairy-tale turns the roles on their heads.
I am also busy writing for a new collection called ‘The Empire of Fluff’ which includes poems about colonialism, capitalism and environmental degradation. I don’t really know – my writing feels all over the place at the moment. Lacking discipline in so far as I am responding in very different and diverse ways to themes – so it is more difficult seeing an organic collection grow as I did with ‘Laments and Incantations’.
Here’s a poem that we published in AofA –
I immerse myself in you
Wanting you same
as I always did
When we were young
and the violet Jacaranda
fell carelessly in
around our feet
though we were still
Both busy reaping
the sky of stars,
I fell into you,
and light in passing
we’d be doing
into our 60s
that the delights and sensations of spring
could last for endless nights.
I touch you now
beneath my mouth
open to receive me
and though we are both older
when I kiss you
I feel a subcutaneous youth,
surfacing from deep within
and my thighs
My longing is both endless and urgent
Your body lends itself to me
and I can be as selfish as I choose
in choosing you
The feel of you evokes
so much light in me
that my fingertips
burst with sunshine
Tonight the smile will not
leave my eyes
or my soul
stop from spinning
and I cannot be damned for the
laughter you make well from me
or the way my body remembers
As if we had not spent mere hours together
in this life
but lifetimes with every hour.
TICKETS FOR PIZZAZZ, SIX POETS OVER 50 TAKING PLACE AT THE POETRY CAFÉ DOWNSTAIRS AT 7PM, JUNE 27TH 2019, CAN BE BOUGHT HERE –
Creativity and age – an oxymoron? The early deaths of Chatterton (“the marvellous boy”), Keats, Shelley and Byron fuelled the Romantic “Good poets die young” myth. Wordsworth proved it by living too long and churning out a great deal of second-rate stuff as he grew older.
Try taking a wider view: where would European civilisation be without Milton’s Paradise Lost, Beethoven’s last string quartets or Rembrandt’s late self-portraits? What all these works have in common is that they are the works of maturity, produced in the artist’s later years.
T S Eliot wrote Four Quartets in his fifties. The great twentieth-century American poet, Amy Clampitt, published her first poetry collection at the age of 53. Annie Proulx was 56 when The Shipping Forecast came out. The popular novelist, Mary Wesley, was 71 when her first book was published. The list could go on and on. Helen Vendler wrote of Amy Clampitt: “The flood of poems that she produced late in life delineate a self – silent for 53 years – that suddenly found a public voice. If she had died at 52 we should never have known about her.” From these examples, it seems that the creative urge, far from decreasing, may well up into a great imaginative surge in later life.
The young know they are immortal – at least in their twenties (I can always do it later …). In the past women have been at a particular disadvantage – Virginia Woolf spelled that out very clearly in A Room of One’s Own. In contemporary Western society, there are enormous pressures on both men and women, especially when they are in their thirties and forties. Paying the bills, parenting, building a career – all too often the urgent drives out the important. Not only are there not enough hours in the day but there are constant interruptions. It’s hard to produce that great work of art when you can’t get a good run at it or when you only have the weary dregs of time at the end of the day in which to write, paint, compose.
“Keep true to the dreams of thy youth” were the poignant words found on a slip of paper in Herman Melville’s desk after his death. The dream of my youth was to be a writer. As soon as I learned to write words I started writing imaginatively. I still remember the first story I wrote. It was about two cats who ran a (comically catastrophic) painting and decorating business. I wrote it in what is now called graphic novel form – strips of drawings and words on each page. I made it and sewed it together. That book was lost long ago but my creative impulse to write is undiminished.
I got hooked on poetry in my teens – reading Elizabeth Jennings and R S Thomas for ‘O’ level (that shows my age). I started writing poetry then and have never (quite) stopped. Recently I turned up a bundle of my poems written c. 1966 – 1990. Poems that at one time I thought were worth keeping. Morbid, pessimistic, strong on nature descriptions, mostly derivative of other poets – and uniformly bad. I chucked them into the paper-recycling bin but it was interesting to see where I had come from.
Over the years I’ve had moderate success writing short prose and poetry for magazines. But it was not until 2010 that my first collection of poetry was published. I was 59. I felt slightly ashamed of admitting my age. I was tempted to make a slip of the pen – born 1980 instead of 1950. I felt as if I would be judged as inferior because it had taken so long for my first collection to appear. As if a real writer would have been published years before. As if I was a woman whose literary priorities were clearly so skewed by child-rearing and a teaching career that she had only bothered to take up writing now as a dilettante project to have something to do in retirement.
When I was a child I loved helping in the garden and sowing seeds. Whenever I asked my mother what I could plant her answer was always the same: “Sow me some thyme”. As you get older you know you have less time. “If I don’t do it now, I never will” is a powerful creative force. There comes a time when, with luck, there’s the opportunity to focus on producing imaginative work without the thousand distractions which plagued earlier life.
What is the secret of keeping creativity alive in later years? The answer is, I think, change – that great feeder of the imagination. The motto of Edwin Morgan, the much loved and greatly lamented Scottish Makar, was “Change rules”. He was still writing and publishing very good poetry in his late eighties while living in sheltered accommodation. “Myself I must remake” wrote Yeats in his seventies. “Old men should experiment” said Haydn. “Old men ought to be explorers” wrote T S Eliot in “East Coker”. And women.
In 2011 I read Christopher Pilling’s translation of Maurice Carême’s last poems Défier Le Destin, written when the poet was in his seventies – as was the translator:
A problematical bed to fill was how she put it, which left a lot of scope to wonder how the problem came about and when. In her faded Greenham Common T-shirt and cut-offs, she looked too jaunty for sudden widowhood; too down-at-heel to be on the pull, though her breasts were nicely presented. She didn’t seem the sort to offer her bed to a canine companion, and I guessed her to be a cat-hater or even a member of ‘Abstinence Actually’. Dry shade she whispered to the young attendant, and the ghost of Mellors seemed to hover at her shoulder, to hint at maidenhair ferns, though a gamekeeper was probably the last thing she wanted in her garden, dry shade or not. Then she disappeared down a row of euphorbias, left me to conjure her maverick world; the delicate stepping over of a wine and poem drunk woman, her late night dance, how in the morning she might hurry to ‘sent items’ to check her indiscretions.
Wendy Klein is one of the poets who is performing on June 27th at the Poetry Cafe as part of Pizzazz, the Advantages of Age poetry evening. Book your ticket here.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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
Dark and deserted.
No high heels.
I like my anonymity
Doing my thing, being who I am
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
Forget being comfortable
Forget feeling chilled