Category Archives: Non Poetic Blogs

PoArtry: Round 2

Create and Share with the World, a cliche I co-opted from a commentator on the Playstation 2 Game NBA Street 2. For all it’s misplaced addition to the world of street basketball, it is one that I’ve held dear ever since. One that drives me to seek out collaborative spaces and opportunities.

With PoArtry I would be randomly paired with an artist then given three months to create a piece of poetry based on one of their existing works and vice versa. A 10 day exhibition would take place which included a dedicated poetry reading. I’ve now entered two of these projects, the latter which finished on 10th February 2020 being tied into a literature festival.

The beauty and ugliness of art is laid bare by the fluidity of interpretation. I can honestly say that I did not know what to expect when I was paired with either artist. Both were stylistic wildcards that meshed with my contrarian tendencies. I was therefore excited when I started to rifle through their work.

Although both artists took the same approach in picking elements from my poems rather than focusing on the larger concepts, they yielded rather different results. Some may say this is to be expected because people are people. What happens when the artist’s explanation of their output runs in opposition to the poet’s convictions or vice versa? Do you acknowledge the piece for what it is or try to change the narrative?

When I consider how Derek who interpreted my poem described it, there is a delicious irony in the contrast between my message and real life vs the illustration in which I could easily be the villain of the piece.

I choose to let art be art. I choose to find common ground between the truths I subscribe to and those of others. As I learn, I find new streams of inspiration.

I challenged myself to submit to the art rather than make the art bend to my penmanship. I hoped that this time, the longest conversation wouldn’t just be at the initial stages of pairing or selection of work to use. I hoped that the artist wouldn’t just give me a polite hello on the launch night but (to this day) never acknowledge my contribution to the collaboration.

I wonder if things would have turned out differently had we had meatier conversations. It’s possible that everything or maybe nothing would have changed.

Ultimately I wrote two poems and inspired a piece of art that went on sale for £450. To buy all 3 pieces of art would have cost you close to £1200. The feedback from both Derek and others was incredibly positive. Although I wonder what a more traditional artist would create from my work, I am more than happy with what was done and hope to do many more.

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Halfway House

“One day your metabolism will slow down and your appetite will catch up with you.”

“Go to the gym now so that you don’t have to work as hard when you’re older”

“You look OK from the back but you’re a mess from the front”

“I like that you’ve got something to hang on to”

Being physically appealing from the neck down has never appealed to me. However, as time has gone on, despite eating healthy without calorie counting, my lifestyle has impacted what I can wear. In 2017 I was wearing hoodies 24/7 to disguise my burgeoning belly despite walking 30 miles a week.

By the end of 2018, I had outgrown even the new shirts and had begun to wear a big jumper over what I had. I looked at myself in the mirror with disgust and shame. Even the stress of work couldn’t take away from the fact that I was a mess, and I couldn’t trust myself to do a solo workout in the gym I’d signed up to.

I saw that an 8-week challenge was about to happen at my gym (True Grit Training) and thought I’d give it a go. High-intensity circuit training wasn’t new to me, I’d done “caveman training” beforehand lost some weight. However, the Paleo diet they preached wasn’t for me, I resented the food choices available. Heck, this week I’ve eaten cauliflower for the first time in about 3 / 4 years.

The first 3D scan told me I was practically a chocolate Buddha standing at just over 6ft tall – my heaviest in 10 years. This time I couldn’t rely on a messy break up to lose a stone in a week, it would be sheer hard work and disciplined eating. I sought to motivate myself over the long term so I set my weight target for the year and not the program. I also adjusted my approach to eating this time around. Rather than have a specialised set of foods for the purpose of the program, I chose to apply the lower carb higher protein principle to what I would eat on a regular basis.

In practice, the evening meals have been the same mix of fish, white and red meat with rice or sweet potatoes that I eat week in week out. Breakfasts and lunches have seen switches away from cereals and sandwiches or heavier cooked meals.

After 40 classes over 8 weeks, days before my final scan, I am ready to treat myself. I know I’ve lost over a stone in weight, I am one waist size down in formal trousers. When I look at myself in the mirror, I don’t see a crazy amount of change in my shape. What I do see, is a man who is on the right path, a man who has put his mind to a mix of extreme, spinning, strength and other circuit classes. I don’t yet have the body I want but to paraphrase Bon Jovi, oh ….I’m halfway there.

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World Mental Health Day

Mental Health, trendy isn’t it? Everyone’s talking about it, sharing memes and copying and pasting posts right now.

What happens when the volume turns down; when the phones are off or the next distraction explodes onto our screens? What happens when the man really has to look in the mirror? What happens when it becomes….”oh that’s so 2018” or “are you still on about that?”

We keep talking, that’s what we do. We keep listening. We keep checking in our friends, the distant ones, the ones who speak to us about the things that matter to them even if it’s not our number 1. We keep on keeping on because doing it saves lives. Doing it breathes life into someone who might not necessarily take theirs but is one moment of frustration away from a breakdown.

Mental Health is more than a medical diagnosis. To have the opportunity to have a positive connection to another human being is something that impacts our ability to live our every day lives as though there really is a tomorrow.

Sometimes the darkness is so thick around us that we push away the candles that are offered. Sometimes it takes persistence from one side to help you understand that the light shining in your life is a genuine one.

I love hugs. I remember there was one guy at university who would greet most people with a hug because he believed in a moment of positivity for everyone. Cheesy as it sounds, a hug has turned my down days where I’m -100 into a day when I’m +10 in how I feel inside myself. A hug has brought tears, opened hearts, allowed friendships to find new planes. Maybe a hug for 10 or even 30 seconds is all it takes. It’s not a magic cure but it’s a start.

No matter how well-intentioned we are, I hope that World Mental Health Day becomes more than a day where we copy and paste. You don’t need to push any social media buttons to check-in with someone no matter how near or distant. Your conversation may be the pressure reliever that they had been waiting for.

May you listen intentionally and without judgment. May your connections grow deeper, may many minds be saved, all because we didn’t just copy and paste.

AJ

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Gremlins and molehills

My home is the stage, or so I thought. Nobody wants to hear me, besides, I’m not allowed to say what I think.

This was me, aged 21 after discovering that performance poetry was the one place where I couldn’t be shot down. The one place where I wasn’t being told that I wasn’t good enough. The one place I wasn’t compared to someone my family or peers knew. The only place where I could speak my mind and people had to listen.

The stage is my home, I don’t get nervous, I come alive when I’m centre stage. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Having written and rewritten my piece for Man Up, my confidence level was always around 8 – 10 on any given day in practice mode. I’ll be just fine for the shows, do what I gotta do.

Somehow the closer I got to the shows, an old gremlin spoke up and asked, “What if I mess up?” Fear of failure, fear of not meeting expectations, fear of letting others down had all shackled me for most of my years. Despite my confidence in my ability to deliver, it caused me to practice even harder right up to the last minutes before I was to step into the limelight.

Despite controlled recovery from a few stumbles, I beat myself up for the rest of the first show. I told myself it was awful, that my part was the weakest out of the solos. I told myself that the crowd didn’t want to hear me talk about race and masculinity, they came for the stories from people like them. They didn’t want someone to rhyme at them with all those hand motions. I told myself a lot of things. Somehow the rest of the cast didn’t see it like I did. They told me they saw me come alive, they heard my passion, they told me they had to remember to hold their applause.

I arrive at the mid-point of a series of performances, so far two nights, two sold-out shows. I was better this time, not perfect but better in the second show. Self-awareness can be destructive at times, yet with 3 shows to go, I realise the importance of embracing the bright. Take the microphone away from the gremlin and make your voice count in a good way.

I’ve got two shows in one evening before the final performance a day later. What matters most? The simple truth is my story is being heard in a way that only I can tell it. At some point I’ll tell it again without the production values, I might even give you the extended version. Simple truths about the best of what I’m doing matter more than amplifying minor faults. Knowing the mountains from molehills will take you far.

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Old vs New Man

To some, the new man seems more feminine. They seem too sensitive, soft, more cushions and curtains tan grit and graft. They don’t know where man has gone. This new man isn’t real man. They don’t fit, they’re the ones fighting for acceptance. They find fewer outlets for their kind of guy.

Is this new man an evolution? Is it the standard for men to come? Or is it just a phase that will go full circle? How does sensitive man teach the toughness that manhood is known for?

I see this so-called new man as more of an expansion to the existing property rather than a standalone building. It is an exciting addition to the stoic menu of masculinity. Our base instincts to build, conquer, fix will always be there. It is simply that we have better ways to protect ourselves. Better ways to heal.

Protection from being honest and open. Protection by knowing what our fights really are. Allowing ourselves the chance to heal properly and become stronger for it.

It is also about better day-to-day maintenance of the man mentally and physically. We have access to greater resources than ever before. Can we trust ourselves to use them?

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I admit it, I don’t Understand!

Generational or cultural expressions of what it is to be us in our natural and spiritual selves have in many cases been the foundations for who we are or have wanted to be. The expectations of those “passing the torch” may come with a pat on the head and a “be a good boy, do what I say and things will be fine” mantra. They are loaded with warnings and implied repercussions for disobedience.

In light of this, I have learned when to argue and when to keep my mouth shut. I have learned that by appearing to agree with them, I’m protecting myself from a storm of daggers and thunderbolts. I am protecting myself from the exertion of their demigod-like power for the sake of peace. I am shielding myself from myself because to expose that would be war.

Is it your duty to maintain or to advance?

At times I find myself trapped between a desire to maintain the best of what I have received, and build better versions of the worst. Within that are insecurities pertaining to the reception of my evolved view of the worlds I am in. There are also insecurities about knowing enough, being skilled or capable to deliver. Am I enough?

What I can say is that foundations require work. What held the initial version of you together may have to be revisited brick by brick. I am at that point.  I admit it, I don’t understand a number of things that relate to the worlds I belong to. The questions I have, are generated by a level of discomfort with varying structures, attitudes and practices. The byproduct of this is a greater understanding of what I consider to be important.

What I consider important may not line up with generational or cultural expressions or expectations. However, my level of comfort in articulating that through word and deed can only increase by acceptance of that fact. From there, as I know more, I become more. I can exchange old clothes for new clothes and accessories because I know my size, my shape, my style.

Humanity has many dimensions, it’s our duty to discover as many of ours possible.

 

Photo Credit: Jenny Harper Photography

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Man Up! How?

I’ve spent the weekend in the presence of up to 30 men. An environment where masculinity and mental health within men were explored with a view to an eventual performance. It gave scope for bonding, conversing, unlocking doors to experiences that have brought joy, pain and indifference. It allowed creatives to create and every voice to be heard.

At the end of the first day, my niggling thought was, can I separate masculinity from race? I ignored the thought because I didn’t have a place in this sphere.  At the end of the second day, it returned. The truth is I don’t know if I can make a definitive separation.

Whereas some groups have to an extent, found a voice to articulate their struggles and versions of their humanity, I cannot say that my voice has the capacity to capture hearts in the same way. Some go as far as labelling other groups as “the new black” as they draw parallels with being a minority group, and discriminatory attitudes towards them. This is not to say that I am jealous of the shift towards social acceptance, or seek to dismiss their voices. Rather, being within earshot of this has been a trigger, a point of reference from which I begin another journey of understanding.

When I entered the room ahead of the session, I entered as a creative. I entered simply seeking inspiration and hoping that I might write something I could show off. That was the way I would get by.

My masculinity has been heavily influenced by cultural expectations, traditions and race-based perceptions. They have been compounded by faith based interpretations of manhood.  I don’t get to see myself as just a man. I am black man and whisper it….I’m a Christian. To the world around me, to the world inside of me.

I am not socially acceptable in my real form in as many spaces as others are afforded.

In seeking to stay on topic I kept my mention of race down to one conversation to provide context for my story. I didn’t want to as people say….play the race card. Was this men’s space a white space?

In the black community, we are pretty expressive, yet Mental Health is something we collectively seem to be quieter on. My mother was a mental health nurse so she was and still is aware of the signs when particularly I have encountered struggles with mine. In wanting the best, tough love was a method of dealing with it. Yet even in that I was never just a man. Always a black man.

“You are a black man…..you cannot afford to let yourself slip. You cannot afford to….”

I have always had to be aware of how I speak, how I act so that someone else feels better about themselves. At times it feels like as a black man, I don’t really get to have a safe space because I am going to be a threat to someone. I am going to be lumped with some part of society. I am part of something that will be invaded by well-meaning trend seekers who will sell a version of me back to me as though they were Christopher Columbus.

If I show I’m intelligent, I’m a threat so I’m getting passed on for promotions and meaningful career development activity.  If I wear certain clothes, I’m a threat. If I show that I’m angry I’m a threat. Then there’s the projections of promiscuity and prowess. I self-edit constantly to ensure that everyone feels comfortable.

Should I seek black spaces?

Again….do I get to have shared experiences? After all I am male, I was once a child that has become a man.

However, as a child in primary school, my white headmistress sent for me during lunch time. She told me that a black kid has to work 100 times harder than a white kid. I wasn’t given any reasons as to why she chose that moment to give me “the fact of life” that many black kids have drummed into them from birth. Yet, it eroded my self-confidence as a child.

Through the years, versions of this were re-iterated in order to keep me on the straight and narrow. I was even told that if I was a white guy, I’d be ten-a-penny. That I should be fortunate that black people are a minority, as it’s the only way I would stand out.

Shared experiences where being black doesn’t have a say in proceedings seem few and far between. Celebrity deaths get more reaction than folks arrested for waiting at Starbucks. Maybe that’s a different issue. Somehow, somewhere, between principles and expectations, nature and preference, I exist

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