Hannah Hodgson

Hannah Hodgson on Being Disabled Within the Poetry Community

For the final video of her residency, Hannah talks about being disabled within the poetry community, and writing disability within her poems. Watch the full video on YouTube or read the transcript below:

Hi, it’s Hannah Hodgson back again with a video for The Poetry Business. Today I’m going to be talking about writing disability, being disabled within the poetry community and all the feelings that brings up.

When I first started writing, I always told people it was my therapy, that I needed it on this other level. And that is the same today, but I was using it to mask a lot of mental health conditions – I was tricking myself into believing that writing would get it completely out of me, and there is something in that. Once you externalise something and it becomes a piece of art and the property of other people and they have opinions on it, it is quite freeing.
But also, that is your trauma so that piece of trauma doesn’t go away because you’ve written about it, and that has nothing to do with resilience. That has to do with being human.
Every time you access a memory it will change slightly. My therapist told me that, and it has made me think about truth within poetry and it’s why everyone’s memories of certain events differ and there’s no scientific truth. I was being very resilient within my writing, and actually I was feeling terrible. So I wasn’t being true in my writing, it wasn’t acting as a therapy. And I think that is quite interesting.

Don’t get me wrong, to be a disabled person within the poetry community you have to have quite a thick skin. You have to get used to turning up to events, even if you’re the main billed performer, and there not being a ramp for you to get into the building or up onto to the stage. I’ve had many occasions where things haven’t gone so well. That makes me feel like a rubbish poet, but actually, that has no reflection on me as a poet or even those organisations.
Those organisations just need some training to rethink about how they view disabled people, right? Because it’s this assumption that goes along with disability…
A lot of people who hear that I am as ill as I am, and that I use a hospice, and I get palliative care, just instantly assume that I don’t work. And while that is totally valid, we’ve also got to think about the people who do work. I could name 10 people off the top of my head that despite having serious health conditions continue to work. And it is the law that places should be accessible. But I think particularly within venues, pub venues, theatre venues, they haven’t really thought about disabled people as performers as opposed to audience.

And I think that’s a really interesting thing that has happened since the pandemic, since things have gone online. We have seen so many so much more disabled talent come forward because they’re not having to transfer from their wheelchair, there are captions, things include image descriptions. We’ve all become a lot more aware about what it means to have to stay in the house.
Now, we’ve had varying levels of that: I’m still shielding even though legally shielding doesn’t exist.
But that experience has made me realise how much we’re going to lose by going back to slowly in person and I think the issue with going back to slowly in person is it’s going to make poetry even more  exclusive. It’s going to be “oh we’re not streaming this, pay the privilege for a small group in a fancy venue for a short time you’re the only people that are going to access it” and  I think poetry is already at a level that it’s hard to get into this industry.

And I am worried that while during the pandemic we’ve made these huge steps forward: we have completely changed the game. We’ve by no means made it accessible to everybody , don’t get me started on that one! But we certainly have made sure that people who cannot leave their homes, even without covid, can access these events. And I think it’s so important that we continue to think about those people, and to put them into our Arts Council funding applications and, just continue to recognise that they’re there. My experience has been tricky, it has been reluctance on some parts, there is cost involved to accessibility, but also a lack of knowledge. And a lack of knowledge is something we can change, so I’m of the opinion that if your organisation, or you as a person running events, haven’t been accessible up until this point it’s really important to feel sorry and say you’re sorry but use that shame to make sure that we never get back to a place where disabled people have to fight like we did pre-pandemic. We were told by universities that there’s absolutely no way we can do units online, and one of my best friends didn’t complete her degree because for one term they let wouldn’t let her work from home because she was disabled. So the barriers are still there, it’s not an easy thing to navigate physically but it’s also not an easy thing to write about.

I think that the area has predominantly been poems written by carers and there is definitely a huge space for that, it is important that we listen to carers and their experiences and the demands that caring for someone will take. It certainly plays into my feeling like a burden sometimes, reading these poems. I think it’s important that we publish disabled artists as well because if we don’t we’re not giving a balanced view.
I think it’s very easy to think that being disabled is the worst thing in the world that can happen to you, that your life is over, and that plays into what we’ve seen on the national stage when talking about death surrounding covid. The lucky thing with poetry is that it is so personal, that the reader inhabits that poem and they know your thought processes for those few lines and they can empathise with that and I think that is so rare, in that you have a space where you are uninterrupted and can say like it is and people can either look away or continue reading, and most people continue reading.

I am very thankful to The Poetry Business for not only making this residency online but for the fact that two of the four winners of  the New Poets Prize this year were disabled, and that is a groundbreaking thing.
I was chatting to Karl [Knights] (the other winner) and we were saying “I can’t think of many competitions where two writers that write so explicitly about disability have won at the same time”. I’m certainly used to people sending sending me forms, or wanting me to be in my wheelchair in the photographs, that will then go to the diversity and equal opportunities side of things, and that’s quite performative. But to actually make change we need to publish disabled poets  and we need to talk about how the industry varies for disabled people – because it does. There are experiences you would not believe. It does make good poem fodder, I’ll give you that!

But it is quite exhausting, and there is a lot that still needs to be done even from this virtual standpoint. So I am concerned that if we go back to in person we’re gonna lose all this ground and we’re gonna lose all of this potential talent that is just incredible. People who haven’t been traditionally published because they haven’t been able to
access these events have this year been published for maybe the first time, attended their first poetry reading and I don’t think there’s anything more amazing than that.
As a disabled poet I speak out so openly about these things and there is this worry within the disability poetry community that by speaking out we’re going to be blacklisted I have come to the decision that if an organisation is going to blacklist me because I’m speaking about political issues – being disabled, politics, and living as a disabled person are the same thing, and having to speak out so that things change is another dimension to that.
It shouldn’t be down to disabled people, and it isn’t always. Change comes in many forms but in my personal experience once people know about something terrible that happened to me as a disabled person they really try and rectify that.
I think it would be a miss for the community at large to ignore what we’ve learned during this time. I, as much as anyone, want to get back to the bar want to get back to hugs but it is going to be difficult.

I think it’s possible to continue these relationships with disabled talent and then we will begin to see more
disabled talent at the top of poetic organisations. And that is not a job done but that is change. I’ve always thought poetry is about change, the poetry community is always about change, and learning and listening.
I write because I need to on an existential level, I need to write. I can’t go a few days without jotting an idea out for a poem. Poetry is my life but the other 50% of my life is my disability, my health conditions. And at times they are the same thing.

By writing about disability, I really hope that we can do away with this “we need X amount of disabled people, people of colour, LGBTQ+ people in our organisation, we need these ticks” and that those won’t be needed anymore because the organisations will be representative of the population. Until then I think, even then, there are going to be battles, and it is hard.
Because this is something very different from poetry gossip, poetry drama, that we all hear! It is about my life, and my worth, and people believing that. And it took me a long time to believe that. Because of the amount of outside influences – the medical model of disability for a start, makes you feel that you’re the problem, but the social model of disability has shown me that it’s society’s fault that the ramp isn’t there. That isn’t personally on me, and we need to move towards a social model within poetry because we are going to miss out on life-altering experiences, for disabled people but also for our audiences.

[laughs] I know this sort of turned into a manifesto, I didn’t really mean for it to, but I hope that you’ve listened to what I’ve said and even if you don’t 100% agree you’ll at least think about the points I raised. As a disabled person it is hard to just butt heads with these things every day, but I do because I love poetry and the community I’ve got around me that has been built around disabled poets is continuing in the right direction. And it’s about if you want to be on the right side of history.

That’s me for this month, Thank you so much for having me. I have loved this opportunity.
I write about disability a lot if you fancy having a read please do.
Thanks so much for your time.

Hannah Hodgson is a poet living with life limiting illness. Her work has been published by BBC Arts, The Poetry Society and Magma, amongst other outlets. She is a recipient of a 2020 Northern Writers Award for Poetry. Her first poetry pamphlet, Dear Body, was published by Wayleave Press in 2018; and her second, centred around life with serious illness was published by Verve Poetry Press in Feb 2021. Her first full length poetry collection, 163 Days, is due to be published by Seren in early 2022. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @HodgsonWrites and her website is www.hannahhodgson.com.

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