Was this project my idea ? Not really. At best, I provided a flint for the spark, or something like that. Sometimes the creation of a new idea does seem to act not so much as a light switching on within a single person’s brain, as a spark being struck between brains, as people talk together. It’s as if the idea takes place in the air between them, as part and as a result of their exchange. That experience is actually more exciting, I find, than an idea that occurs as if in isolation.
I also like the fact that it involved a vivid moment of empathy, an imaginative leap into another person’s situation.
I was talking about poetry to Paul in a pub in Wimbledon. It was a few years before the Millennium. The pub was called “The Hand in Hand” and we were on the second pint. Paul was a Community Psychiatric Nurse (CPN), who also practised as a counsellor in GP practices. His patients would wait in the doctor’s waiting room for their sessions with him.
And I was manager of a community centre for people with long term mental health problems. I came from a “therapeutic community” background and the centre I ran reflected the learning and experience that came from that background. So Paul and I spoke a similar language.
And I was saying that poetry is a raw and urgent business, a life-long wrestling-match with the dark angel of the word, a matter of emotional truth-telling (among so much talk that is not really telling at all, or saying anything) an attempt to make sense of the difficult, tumultuous business of living. It doesn’t reach out far or wide enough and, when it does, the surroundings are often so cosy, so clubby. Slender poetry books and the small poetry magazines are insufficient – too exclusive and private a way of sharing good poetry’s rich and living I-Thou language, with its power to illuminate, liberate, move and connect. Poetry is an agency of renewal. How better to broadcast ? Where else might poetry belong ? I asked.
“Ah, now…what about the waiting room outside my counselling room ?” suddenly said Paul.
So we made some leaflets of my own poems and Paul put them out in his waiting room.
Another friend, an NHS manager, suggested that I should take the idea further. She thought that I might include the work of other writers and even approach the Poetry Society for their support.
The Society’s director at that time was an ex-librarian called Chris Meade and Chris was just then in the process of writing an application to the National Lottery. He was looking for funding for his own very similar idea that poetry can belong in public places, not just in book shops, between book covers. He called his idea “Poetry Places.” Not knowing any of this, I talked to Chris over the phone about displaying poems in waiting rooms. Waiting rooms could be poetry places too. And there are lots and lots of waiting rooms. And all of us have to visit these places at some time in our lives. There and then, over the phone and before we’d even met, Chris agreed to support and supervise the work, and included me in his funding application. It was successful. Poems for the Waiting Room was accordingly piloted in NHS waiting rooms around Kensington and Hammersmith in 1997.
(This was just the first of several striking examples of the way this project has kept coinciding with, and benefiting from, wider cultural movements and currents which seemed to share its spirit or which it seemed to exemplify. Other such currents and movements have been : the “Arts and Health” movement ; New Labour’s support for making the arts available to wider audiences ; new thinking on how NHS environments and settings can and should support the healing process ; educational policies concerning diversity and the support and teaching of minority groups).
The pilot lasted a year and was successful, culminating in an article in The Guardian Society pages by a freelance reporter called Eileen Fursland. The article produced an enthusiastic response from across the country and almost certainly secured the project’s future funding prospects. (Further articles have appeared since – in the national press, in local newspapers, in medical journals – see “What People have said”).
Following the pilot, Alison Combes of the Arts Council convened a meeting near Birmingham to discuss the next step for this project which we were still calling Poems for the Waiting Room.
Besides myself, she invited the poet David Hart and a GP called Dr. Malcolm Rigler, one of the pioneers of the UK Arts/Health movement. At the meeting, Malcolm suggested we apply to the King’s Fund, who were interested in funding arts/health projects.
I in turn rather diffidently introduced an idea of my own – how about having poems about waiting displayed in healthcare waiting rooms, thereby offering a very present empathy to the reader, waiting to see the doctor or nurse ? Alison Combes seized on the idea. She thought it might qualify for the Arts Council’s “New Audiences” funding stream recently introduced.
Both those proposals yielded fruit. The Arts Council would fund a collection of commissioned poems about waiting ; following straight on, the King’s Fund would fund a second collection called “Poems for …All Ages.”
More detail on these and other collections can be found here on this site.
Design, Production and Delivery in the Early Days
With the project now established as a going concern, we had to come up with a poster design, quickly enough to be ready for the collections as they neared completion. I like the idea that we did not go to commercial experts for that design. Instead, my son Joe and I hammered it out. The border. The title colour. The teal colour theme. The font. And, once we were satisfied and had a template, I did the formatting of each poem, using simple desktop publishing software. It became one of the project’s main satisfactions for me.
At this time, the digital age was still in its infancy. Websites were rare and barely conceivable and we had no way of making the poems available digitally. We paid a local printer to produce a sufficient number of posters in hard copy, working from my pdf’s. The printer used good quality, ivory coloured paper and the end-result was pleasing to the eye.
And in those early days, quite heady due to the interest these poems were attracting, a large part of my time was spent packing the collections for delivery by post, or delivering large orders myself by van or car. I have warm memories of some of those adventures, driving poems around the country.
On one occasion I delivered 300 packs of 100 poems each to Peter Spilsbury for distribution round his Birmingham and Black Country Strategic Health Authority. That makes 30,000 poems, each set out on its own A4 sheet, packed tight behind my head in a small van rented for the purpose. I drove up the M40 in pouring rain, wondering what would happen if I had to stop very abruptly. Would I have my head cut off by the sharp edges of 30,000 poems ?
And there was a trip to another major NHS Health Authority, this one requiring a drive through Lincolnshire in New Year stillness, the fens rapt and ominous under their smoothly horizontal covers of frost and ice.
In the Autumn of 2007, I delivered 114 packs of 145 poems each to Amy Thompson, Advisor for Ethnic Minority Achievement in Medway, Kent. Amy wanted a pack to give to each of the schools in her area. Again it was raining and a very high tide was forecast that evening. We unloaded the poems quickly at dusk, with the wind getting up and Rochester Castle looking stern and majestic across the mouth of the river.
Another big order had me driving my own car to Reading, filled with packs of poems for a delivery company based there. From Reading they would be distributed – one pack each – to every NHS Chief Executive in the country – to “do something creative” with them. I wan’t impressed by this strategy and don’t think much came of it. Almost by definition, poetry doesn’t flourish by order from above, cascaded down the hierarchy. But at least the car’s springs survived and the whole business was quite exciting.
Going Further – What can Public Poetry say about Difference ?
I suppose the first thought that led to an emerging interest in bilingual poems was that NHS waiting rooms are where simply everyone sits at some point, whatever their origins and differences. And what are the origins of the people who staff such places ? They are as various as those of the people who wait there, needing help. This open space of pause in a human state of need is therefore truly common ground. If public poetry can be accommodated there, if indeed it might work actually to enhance and enrich the waiting, should it not reflect the diversity of the waiting room’s inhabitants ? Further, might it not act vitally in celebration of our diversity, helping us to value it, not fear it ?
I noticed that the Minister for Europe of that time, Denis Macshane, had translated a German poem into English for Poems on the Underground. He was proposing the use of different literatures as a way to build bridges, to connect people beneath surface level, to help them see each other truly. I was impressed and wrote to him about the waiting room and about what bilingual poems displayed there might say to the multitudes who wait.
The upshot was that the Foreign Office helped the Arts Council fund the selection and printing of ten new bilingual poems – one from each of the countries joining the European Union in 2004. The original poem was printed on the left in each case – with the English translation beside it on the right. The poet and editor Fiona Sampson was of crucial help in the making of this collection.
The Foreign Office held an Open Day to celebrate the 2004 EU Enlargement. It was a chilly but sunny spring day. The Victorian splendour of the FCO building on King Charles Street in London played host to around 5,000 visitors. A significant stop-off point on the organised tour were the ten EU bilingual poem-posters enlarged to AO size and displayed on large cloth-covered screens in line down the centre of the famous Durbar Room. They looked superb (and quite at home in their majestic surroundings).
From Surface Mail to Cyber Space and Other Means of Travel
For a while, the three main collections described above – Poems for…Waiting, All Ages and One World – formed a combined pack of 145 poems. These were printed commercially as small posters on attractive ivory coloured paper, under the project’s original title of Poems for the Waiting Room. While they lasted, I liked to send out all three collections together as one complete item. It pleased me to think that I would be sending the pack to an interested person in each site, willing to give time and interest to choosing the most suitable poems for the venue, and maybe even rotating them, so that they stayed “live” for staff and visitors alike. Around 2,000 packs were printed. None now remain.
From time to time, following the printing of the FCO collection, I was given permission to advertise the project on the FCO’s internal staff bulletin. Each time I did so, there was a swift reaction, and requests for the poems, from FCO staff all over the world, including staff working in the UK. The response of one man, based in London, was responsible for a major shift in the project’s direction. He suggested to me that I should offer a pack of the bilingual poems to his son’s school in Kent. Indirectly and by swift extension, that led to the project being advertised with enthusiasm on various educational websites and newsletters. And suddenly, school teachers all over the country and well beyond were requesting packs of the poems. One area, Medway, requested a pack per school, a total of over 100 packs in all, each in its cardboard box. One stormy evening,they were delivered to Rochester by an aged Carlsson Saab, its springs groaning as the clouds gathered and the grand castle across the water glowered.
Suddenly – although it took a few months to catch up with the fact intellectually – the project had changed its nature and core application. No longer mainly for the waiting room, it was now mainly for the classroom, and potentially for anywhere. No longer, therefore, could we call ourselves Poems for the Waiting Room. It was time to change our name to something more open. So – generally – Poems for… Poems for display anywhere and for different purposes. Also, as an anchor for our different collections, such as : Poems for …Waiting ; Poems for…All Ages ; Poems for…One World.
It should be noted that the project’s development coincided with the arrival and soon the ubiquitous influence of the digital age, as a result of which the computer swiftly entered every office and most homes, and typewriters and filing cabinets became largely redundant and pages of script became almost unusual. Also, as our collections grew in the number of poems they contained, so their volume on paper and card grew increasingly daunting and impractical. The upshot was our conversion to website form, by which all the poems could be viewed online and then downloaded. Designed and built by my son Joe, our first website was launched by Andrew Motion in 2008, at the Nehru Centre in London. The site’s address was www.poemsfor.org (now transferred to the project’s new site, under the title of “Poems for…the wall”).
After 2008 and over the next two or three years, 60 more poems were added to the “One World collection,” so that now a total of 50 different languages are represented across the collections. This latest 60 was not printed in hard copy, but was straightaway uploaded onto the new site.
I should say more about the poet Stephen Watts at this point. His support, friendship and guidance in the accessing of good and interesting contemporary work in language after language was crucial both to the quality of the bilingual collection we put together and to the excitement of doing so. Stephen’s passion for contemporary and international poetry, his erudition and judgement, are extraordinary and the project’s debt to him cannot be overstated. He led our searches not just to where the source languages started, but to where they have spread and further developed and gone their own ways – for instance, not just to Spain but to the many countries in South America where Spanish is spoken ; not just France, but the countries of North Africa where French is spoken ; not so much the established and obvious, as the venturesome, the outlying, the borderland.
Readings and the Mayor of London
There have been other ventures besides the poem-posters. For instance, in the first three months of 2002, several poets, including Andrew Motion, Moniza Alvi, Caroline Carver, Debjani Chatterjee, David Hart and Fleur Adcock, took part in readings in South London health sites, to promote the poem collections. There were visits to six sites in all, accompanied by a photographer Pierre Bascle. Click here, here and here for three examples of the visual records we made of the visits, using Pierre’s pictures.
My favourite is the dancing nurse. It was taken towards the end of the weekly Fracture/Chronic Pain Clinic in Bexley.
The south London project owed much to the support of Mark Homer, then the Arts Co-ordinator for the London Borough of Croydon.
Another initiative took place in 2007, when ten bilingual poems were contributed to that year’s Mayor of London’s Equalities Report. This was at the request and according to the vision of the late David Morris, at that time senior policy adviser on disability to the Mayor. Each poem was by a Londoner and is accompanied by a photograph of the poet taken against a London setting of that person’s choosing. The photographs were by Hugh Hill. He and I travelled around London to meet poet after poet, Hugh with his camera. The non-English languages represented were : Ewe, Hindi, Latin, Mandarin, Persian, Punjabi, Scots, Shona, Somali, Turkish. Two of the poems were by people with mental health problems. Another was written originally in sign language. Here is the collection – a total in the end of twelve poems. These were later put together into an A5 pamphlet.
More recent Developments
During 2013, thanks to the publication in 2012 of a book of contemporary Burmese poems called Bones will Crow by Arc publications, and thanks also to some help from individuals connected to the Foreign Office and to the Rangoon embassy, six Burmese poems were added to the One World collection.
Over the following two years, I worked on two new collections of poems, each separately funded : one on the experience of mental ill-health and one on learning disability. With the help of a charity called United Response, they were launched in Bristol in September 2015. I believe that both belong in schools, as part of an anti-stigma teaching package. The two collections have now been uploaded onto this site and can be viewed and printed off.
At around the same time, CNWL NHS Foundation Trust published a pamphlet made up of a significant number of poems selected from the Poems for… collections, along with some good photographs of London. A mental health agency called Portugal Prints helped prepare the pamphlet which is now available free of charge in all the Trust’s waiting rooms and similar settings.
During 2014 and 2015, a collection of Turkish poems was also put together, most of them from pamphlets edited and translated into English by the poet Mevlut Ceylan. They are formatted in our usual way, ie with the original language on one side, and with the English translation beside and opposite. We have converted the poems into a slideshow for display on plasma screens. Each short poem appears onscreen for around 30 seconds, before being replaced by the next one. The rotation is continuous. The collection is available on request.
In 2017, a multi-ethnic counselling service called Nafsiyat, based in north London, adopted the same idea for its waiting room. A large number of this project’s bilingual poems, carefully selected, was uploaded as a continuous rotation on a large display screen. That screen was placed in Nafsiyat’s waiting room, facing out from the wall. So here is a point of arrival and departure – Poems for…Nafsiyat’s waiting room wall. Nafsiyat have agreed that the slideshow they have put together can be used for other interested waiting rooms besides their own.
Also in 2017, which just happened to be the project’s 20th anniversary, “Poems for…the wall” replaced “Poems for…” as our overall title. And Joe built this second website. The old one had less flexibility and was beginning to look tired.
The new title represents only a small change, in that the names of the collections will stay the same. But more and more “Poems for…” on its own didn’t say enough. The essential nature of the project, and what its main title should make immediately clear, is that this project is a free presentation of honest words that belong in the public realm. Poems for the hungry wall. Poems to fill a fraught and empty public space.
And during 2017, due to the coincidence of a temporary living situation on my part, “Poems for…the Wall” appeared on the noticeboards of the Bristol Poetry Institute, in the English department of Bristol University, frequently changed over. They were printed on good quality A4 card for this purpose and looked quietly beautiful among all the other notices. Some of the project’s poems were also featured on the Institute’s website. I would have liked to have extended the idea further into the university, beyond the literature department, but only got as far as a busy university cafe in Clifton, which exhibited some of the bilingual poems for a while.
For we keep exploring new ways of “deploying” and displaying this material. In 2018, a church-run community cafe in Bristol city centre exhibited some of the poems on learning disability ; and during Mental Health Awareness Week that year, two Bristol comprehensive schools exhibited the mental health poems. And each week, a teacher from one of those schools distributed a poem, selected from the project’s collections, around his colleagues by email. It proved a popular idea. In 2019, a major exhibition of the poems took place in Clifton (Roman Catholic) Cathedral, concentrating on poems from two collections – bilingual and mental health.
For some striking photographs of that exhibition, click here.
These exhibitions have introduced me to some display materials that were new to me. For instance, I have found the posters look attractive printed on foamex board of 0.5 cm thickness, enlarged up to A0 size. It is light, robust, relatively inexpensive – and weather-proof !
But perhaps the most exciting development as we move into 2020 is the plasma display screen now very common in schools and health centres. The poems fit very neatly into a display screen’s rotatation of announcements and notices. They are easy to read. The poem breaks in and adds to the usual language up there. It takes its place in the community’s life, on the wall.
Different schools and centres use different programmes for their digital displays and require the poems in different forms, the most common being pdf and jpeg. It is important to establish and adapt to the different needs. I shall continue doing so. It is one of the pleasures of following this idea where it leads.
Some places where the poems have been displayed over the years
a small café in the Hebrides, UK
the lift of the UK embassy in Skopje, Macedonia, and in various other UK embassies around the world
a staff canteen at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London
a prayer room in a London hospital
the staff toilets in another London hospital
a home for people with learning difficulties in Shepherd’s Bush, London
MIND centres up and down the UK
an all-night mental health crisis service in Islington, London
schools all over the world, for example : Calarisi in Romania, Vienna in Austria, Philadelphia in New Jersey, Phoenix in Arizona, Buenos Aires in Argentina, Beijing in China, Nairobi in Kenya, Janak Puri in New Delhi India, Coimbatore in South India, Kathmandu in Nepal, Doha in Qatar, Brisbane in Australia …
a small rehabilitation centre in one of Her Majesty’s prisons in the UK
the waiting room of a counselling service in Tooting, London, for people suffering from post-traumatic stress. Many of them are victims of torture
the waiting room of a cancer hospital’s out-patient clinic, west London
several wards in psychiatric in-patient units in south west London
the Mayor of London’s 2007 Equalities Report.