‘I don’t think poetry can be apolitical.’

The award-winning poet Jamie Hale cut some writing teeth here at the Friend. Ahead of a major show at the London Barbican, they talked to current editor Joseph Jones

Jamie Hale. | Photo: Becky Bailey, the Barbican.

Your work often deals with your own sense of mortality, and it’s not often we do interviews on hospital wards. Can you tell us a bit about why you’re here?
I’m on a treatment that is difficult to provide at home. I’ve got an underlying condition that has impaired my mobility and many internal bodily systems.

In your show you talk about coming close to death.
I was getting a lot of life-threatening infections. I kept getting severe sepsis and that’s not something that you keep surviving forever. But then the doctors tried me on an experimental treatment and it worked. Within a fortnight I went from getting out of the house once a week to applying for Masters courses and artistic residencies. It was such a turnaround.

That’s a big psychological switch, too.
Very much so. Before that my life was quite insular because I wasn’t able to do much. After the treatments started working there was a real shift in focus in my life and work, towards living actively in the world – remaining aware of the mortality risk but starting to exist as a disabled person in society. So my show follows that pattern: the first part is focused on mortality but then there’s a shift in mood to where I’m looking at the world instead, and how it treats disabled people. In that section, I clarify that for all that my underlying condition affects me, I am far more limited by living in a world that oppresses disabled people, than by my body itself.

Have you always been creative?
I’ve always written in various forms. I cut my teeth as a thirteen-year-old at the Friend actually, writing articles and helping around the office. (Now I write for The Guardian occasionally and I’m working on a poetry collection.) I was encouraged by a teacher called Sue Hampton…

The Quaker Sue Hampton?
Yes but I didn’t know that at the time. She was incredibly inspiring. After her, the first piece I can really recall writing deliberately was for one of those school compilations. We were allowed to write on whatever theme we wished but the teacher suggested Easter. I instead chose the Rwandan genocide – I don’t think it was quite what anyone had expected!

That sounds like the kind of concern for the world you pick up at a Quaker Meeting. Did you grow up in the Society?
I must have been about eleven when I applied for membership. My parents are both members. I can’t get to Meeting so much these days but being a Quaker is very much a part of my identity. As an adolescent the Peace Testimony was very important to me. I remember interviewing [the peace campaigner] Symon Hill after one of his court appearances and feeling that if enough people were willing to commit themselves to that then the world would be a very different place.

So is your work always political in some way?
I don’t think poetry can be apolitical. My collection is primarily nature poetry but I use it as a way of exploring the body and mortality. Romantic relationships also appear in my work but as a queer person I see them as political too.

Because of having to deal with homophobia?
Very much so, yeah. Not just the explicit violence and threat of violence but the day-to-day unintentional erasure – the assumptions that people make. It’s tied up with disability, where people presume that I couldn’t have, or wouldn’t want, a partner, or that a partner wouldn’t want me. Staking the ground out to say, hey, I’ve got a sexuality and it’s not heterosexual is to make two quite strong statements. I’ve just been asked to get involved with a project exploring the sexual health needs of disabled LGBTQ young people, many of whom are outside mainstream education. That means you get very limited sex education (though even in mainstream education it tends to focus on sex as a means of or risk for reproduction). One of my upcoming shows at the Barbican will be for those over sixteen and I have a section called ‘Reasons to shag a cripple’. Throughout it I’m asking people to question the assumptions they’re making about disabled people. In another section I talk about the time I got a round of applause just for being able to get on a bus.

These kinds of experiences all seem to involve things that make people stand out. I imagine you’ve spent a lot of time being looked at.
Yes. In many ways I feel like in public I exist on a stage, or in a fishbowl. So, for me, taking my show to a theatre is a way of confronting that. It’s a way of saying, well, if you’re going to stare then I’m going to give you something to stare at. People are made so uncomfortable by disability!

Why do you think that is?
I guess because disability for them is associated with all of the questions of aging and mortality. Reasonably regularly, strangers will tell me that if they were in my situation they would have killed themselves. Thanks!

And yet these things – physical difficulty, mortality – are universal. I mean, we’re all going to die.
Yes, but I remind people of that, which is uncomfortable for them.

Speaking of uncomfortable, one of the ways you describe yourself does unsettle me a bit: ‘part-cyborg’.
When I describe myself that way I’m discussing bodily automation, really. Everything from my food and fluid intake to my breathing is systematised, computerised, and carefully calculated. My bladder and bowel are managed with medical devices. My computer can be controlled by hands, voice, or eyes. I’m living in a future where the limitations of the human body can be surmounted. These things could be framed as enhancements: I don’t have to worry about getting the right amount of protein and carbs; I don’t have to worry about finding a toilet when I need one. You know, when you think about those guys in Silicon Valley taking disgusting powders so they don’t have to use up mental energy thinking about food, I’m way ahead of that. I do use the word ‘cyborg’ with my tongue in my cheek but, for example, although I can’t walk, my wheelchair can carry me upside down for twenty-five miles at eight miles an hour. So, you know.

Has your Quakerism had much to say about these body issues?
Quakerism has been how I’ve gotten through all of this. I’ve always found a certain stoicism in Quakerism – a sense that you accept things as they are. That isn’t so you don’t try and change the world – of course you try to change the world – but it has given me the tools I need to sit with difficult and painful situations, and to approach them calmly and peacefully. It underlies how I coped with everything.

It seems to me that what you do is more than coping…
Coping and transforming, I guess. It’s the coping that Quakerism has given me the tools to do specifically. Transforming has been a requirement for me. I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t creating.

Who inspires you, creatively?
I’ve always felt very upheld by the work of Paul Monette, one of the Aids poets, who wrote about being young and ill. Then Jay Bernard, Mona Arshi, Andrew McMillan, Ilya Kaminsky, Mark Doty, Karen McCarthy Woolf and Leonardo Boix. My nature poetry has been very influenced by Latin American work, particularly Nicaraguan poets writing in the 1970s during the Sandinista revolution – so youth, nature, politics, death again…

And resistance…
Very much so. One of my favourite collections is Ernesto Cardenal’s rewriting of the Psalms to fit the Nicaraguan situation. And I was very inspired Rigoberto López Pérez’s letter to his mother about his decision to shoot Anastasio Somoza García [the dictator of Nicaragua]. I struggle with my love for the Nicaraguan work because it’s about the importance of armed revolt, which doesn’t fit with my understanding of the Peace Testimony or the way that I try to live my life, but I don’t live in a repressive dictatorship and can’t judge people when I’ve not experienced a life that they’ve experienced.

It’s a paradox that’s often extended to ill health though, where we often use war metaphors for bravery.
Yes, I’m not a fan of that. It sets up a dichotomy of winning and losing in which becoming more ill or dying is framed as losing. I don’t think seeing oneself at war with one’s body is necessarily helpful, either. That can lead to a lot of frustration and anger at one’s body at a time when what you need to be doing is figuring out how best you can work with it. It’s cooperation not conflict, as the ‘Two Mules’ Quaker poster has it.

Well there are different ways of losing, aren’t there? I remember watching footage of the International Brigade returning to the UK after losing to fascism in the Spanish civil war. The look on their faces was familiar to me – it was the same as the miners had when they marched back to work after the 1985 strike. It was grim but there was a pride about having engaged with something in a particular way – a satisfaction from the commitment. But when people talk about a brave attitude to ill health, it’s not a struggle that you get to choose. Do you choose the attitude you take to it?
I did. I certainly spent some time in a collapse, where I wasn’t really doing anything. I watched a lot of TV. I spent a lot of time in bed. Now I look back at those years and wonder, why did I waste that time? In the end I thought, well, we only have one shot. My show ends with the assertion that, if I go out in a blaze of glory, I’ve lived more than I’d live in waiting to die.

So in this language of battle, that attitude is already a victory?
But a victory over what? I don’t want to see an opponent in myself. I want to see a comrade. I want to see a friend.

When did you start performing?
I remember reading my work at the Quaker Southern Summer School [now Junior Gathering] as a teenager, and then performing it on the Guildford open mic scene. At university I took a course called poetic practice, in which you’re looking at your own work in the context of wider poetry. So I looked at disability poetry, I looked at eco poetics, and I did some very political work on climate change and Guantanamo Bay. CN Lester’s annual showcase of trans artists takes place at the Barbican and they invited me to perform. Then they asked me back to perform at the five-year anniversary. A producer there suggested I apply for a residency and that’s what led to these October shows.

What should the audience expect?
A multimedia poetry and storytelling narrative. It’s an emotional journey, almost a bildungsroman, a rite of passage from one existence into another. People will be both welcomed and challenged.

Tears or laughter?
Very much both. I try to make people laugh and be angry in equal measure!

And you’re also curating the rest of the event. How have you found that?
I wanted to explode the themes from my show in lots of different directions, by different people with different experiences. I’m enormously grateful to the Barbican for supporting and mentoring me, and I wanted to share that experience with other emerging artists. Access of this kind to theatre for disabled artists – in both senses of the word ‘access’ – is so rare. There’s a minimum (and often poor) level of access for visitors, some corner somewhere, but for performers it’s very difficult.

I wanted to talk, too, about how being trans fits into all this, partly because it’s such a hot issue for some Quakers at the moment. Does it play out in the show?
It’s part of the ‘monstrous body’ thing, so yes. The trans body is explicitly queer. It’s visually different. It becomes a statement. It challenges the simplicity of sex categorisation. You look at my body and there isn’t really anywhere to put it (which in hospitals means I get my own side room!). But I’ve always felt personally welcomed by Friends, including those who hold different views on gender to me. Other trans Friends may well have had very different experiences, but I have always tried to believe that I am being approached honestly, compassionately, and in Friendship, and have responded accordingly. And trans Quakers do need things from Quakerism, whether it’s a Meeting that explicitly welcomes people, a toilet they feel comfortable in, or for Friends to use a particular set of pronouns. Quakers have always tried to be respectful and make space for people with different backgrounds and experience. I believe that everyone wants to find ways of eradicating gendered oppression, and while methods can seem different, contradictory, or wrong, we share a similar goal, and through genuine quiet listening and reflection I believe we can find ways forward.

All you’re saying is that trans Friends want the same things as everyone else.
Yes, respect and somewhere to wee! But I’ve always felt very supported by Friends, through my illness and my transition. I do think we could use some more thinking about welcoming disabled Friends to Meeting, though. So many events are at people’s houses. I’m unlikely to be able to make that without making lots of arrangements. But also, how do we integrate everyone in Meeting? Some machines make noise, for example… how do we navigate this in terms of silence? This is about more than building a wheelchair ramp.

I often wish we talked more about stillness than silence. The latter is just a shorthand for the former. It would help with all kinds of inclusion.
Yes but it’s been a shorthand for so long it’s become the thing we hold to. It should be possible to navigate all this, but it will require compromise.

Ben Gilbert, Wellcome Collection.

‘Automation’ by Jamie Hale

Automation creeping into the present
from the future. Like computers implanted
into limbs the low tech becomes the
higher tech. Jobs – a robot instead
of a carer to make you tea, remind you
of your medication. My body also automated
an exportation of my collapsing shell.
Systems upgraded; my legs now
thousands of pounds of highly tuned
motors. My bladder and bowel a network
of tubes curling through my skin, next
maybe a pacemaker for my stomach, or
mechanised arm supports. There aren’t
enough ramps for my wheels and nobody
can upgrade my failing muscles.
a robot is no replacement for a face
on days when it’s dark early and nobody
is coming to make you dinner, or hear
about your day

Jamie’s ‘NOT DYING’ show will be on at the Barbican, 11 and 12 October, as part of the CRIPtic Pit Party showcase they curated. Further information: http://bit.ly/CRIPticPitParty

Photo: Becky Bailey, the Barbican.

You need to login to read subscriber-only content and/or comment on articles.