PHOTO CREDIT: Jeiran Ganiyeva
We met a Beeston performance poet who is breaking down the boundaries of mental health…
It’s very rare that I cry after reading a book or poem. But one Beeston-based performance poet succeeded in opening the floodgates when I read one of ten poems in his collection Breakdown. The man in question is Chris McLoughlin, 28, who has been writing for two and a half years, ever since he moved to the area.
His chapbook was published in July 2016 by Big White Shed, a Nottingham-based business run by Anne Holloway, which acts as an enabler to help poets such as Chris realise their ambitions, such as writing a book.
After reading his collection, I couldn’t wait to meet him and it turns out we have a lot more in common than expected, i.e. we both have anxiety. I begin by asking him about the subject matter of his poems. He says, ‘They predominantly cover the mental health spectrum and grief.’ It is by nature a personal subject, so I asked him what his poems mean to him, in terms of their content and writing them. He tells me that ‘they are a way for me to process what I’m going through, but in performance and by publishing they are a way that I hope other people can process what they are going through.’
As a Beeston poet myself, I wondered whether he has ever been inspired by our home-town. He says: ‘I write about Beeston quite a lot. You know the concrete steam towers? When you get the train in just before the station? I’ve written about them loads. Every time I reach them I’m home, and they’re the signifier.’
At this point we turn to the subject of performance. Chris tells me that he has a background in drama and is a trained actor. He says, ‘I’m more of a stage poet than I am a page poet. The difference for me is when you read a powerful poem, it will tend to reach people for longer but not in the same way. Whereas when I perform, I perform to people not just at them.’
I walk into the audience and get them to cram around me as tight as they can, and it’s trying to teach them what anxiety is.
Chris has performed at a number of festivals including Luton International Carnival, Nottingham Poetry festival, and Greenwich & Docklands Festival. He provides me with an insight into how someone expressing mental health problems transfers that to an audience: ‘There’s one poem called Ghosts which I do at festivals,’ he says, ‘and usually you tend to get quite a lot of “traditional” poets who read and look like professors. But in Ghosts, I walk into the audience and get them to cram around me as tight as they can, and it’s trying to teach them what anxiety is.’ I tell him what a great idea it is, to combine his acting skills with being a poet, and he recalls a performance he did at Das Kino in Nottingham. ‘They’ve got a big mirror at the back which you perform in front of,’ he tells me, ‘and that’s so horrible! If I perform in front of that, everyone is going to be like “whatever”, so I got everyone to turn around and face the mirror, and I faced the mirror and said, “this is what anxiety looks like.”’
I tell him I need to see him perform.
To tell me what message he wants to convey to his readers through the written word he begins by explaining the writing process of his book’s blurb: ‘We [him and Anne] took three hours to write the blurb, and it’s two sentences. It’s because we didn’t know what we meant, and it was always stuff like “Chris McLoughlin is a blah blah blah” and in the end I just wrote “he kinda wants you to buy this book, or whatever, but really he just hopes these poems help you feel less alone”. And that’s exactly it, I just want someone to hear the poem and go “oh, me too.”’
I was meant to interview Chris for the last issue, and touch on his role with the Mouthy Poets, a poetry collective that run weekly workshop sessions to explore poetry in terms of performance. But in December 2016 they split up, so I decide to ask Chris, who was their Artistic Director, about the reasons behind the split. He tells me ‘we got caught in a catch 22 where our funding got so low we could barely afford to pay our staff, and we needed our staff to be doing funding stuff. Eventually we decided rather than impact our participants negatively we’d say “we’ve done a lot and that’s that.”’ He informs me that the average running course of an arts organisation is five years, and the Mouthy Poets had been on its sixth year.
It’s not all bad news, however, as participants from Mouthy have branched out and created new projects such as a writing collective and an editing circle. Chris adds that although he doesn’t see Mouthy coming back together, he wouldn’t rule it out completely.
After reading Breakdown I’m eager for more, so I ask him if he is working on anything at the moment. ‘I’ve just finished my first full collection, called Underneath the Almond Tree. It covers my life from three months before my mother passed away from breast cancer up until the present day.’ As he wants his collection in the hands of more people, he’ll be sending it off to publishers such as Faber and Carcanet, and it’ll be another two years or so until the collection is out.
But for now, you can buy Breakdown from Chris’ website: http://www.pijaykin.com
Or see his featured poem below, taken from his upcoming collection.
I want to be big, flightless, and tasty
for explorers. When I walk into a room
parrots will squawk Who’s a pretty boy
then? I want a beak, for pecking,
grabbing, but not chewing.
I don’t want to chew anymore.
I want to swallow things
or leave them alone.