An interview with Survivors’ Poetry Events Coordinator, Debbie McNamara

Can you give us a summary of Survivors’ Poetry as a project? 

Survivors’ Poetry was founded in 1991 by four Survivor poets – Frank Bangay, Peter Campbell, Hilary Porter and Joe Bidder. All four were active on the fringe poetry scene and in the mental health Survivor campaigning movement in London, and saw that a space specifically by and for Survivors of mental distress to share our creativity was needed, building on the work of Frank Bangay for CAPO (Campaign Against Psychiatric Oppression) in the 1970s and ’80s. The uptake was huge and immediate and Survivors’ Poetry became a registered Charity, winning funding for two paid workers and office space at the Diorama Arts Centre. I was one of those workers. This enabled the original idea to flourish and in addition to weekly Survivors’ Poetry writing workshops in Camden and Brixton, plus a monthly live performance featuring billed Survivor poets, musicians and Open Mic at a community venue in Euston, numerous workshops and performances took place in a wide range of settings from psychiatric wards to mental health residential units, day centres, community centres and local theatres. We had an Outer London Boroughs project which brought events to every far flung corner of London. A National Outreach project brought Survivors’ Poetry to hundreds of Survivors UK-wide and a network of satellite groups was established with the help of our National Outreach workers Anna Neeter and Alison Smith. In the 00s Survivors’ Poetry Press was set up which enabled many Survivor poets to be published for the first time, and we also had a mentoring scheme. Two anthologies were produced: From Dark to Light and Under the Asylum Tree. The quarterly Survivors’ Poetry journal Poetry Express Newsletter began in hard copy format, it has since become an online publication featuring the work of Survivor poets from the Zoom sessions and others, reviews, essays and Survivor artwork, circulated to more than 1,500 individuals and groups, edited by Dave Russell.

Can you tell us a little about the history of Survivors’ Poetry? What inspired the launch of Survivors’ Poetry, and how has the community developed since?  

Since those heady days, the vagaries of the funding world meant that Survivors’ Poetry became a voluntary organisation with a core of committed people working for nothing from home to satisfy the ongoing demand for Survivors’ Poetry performances and workshops, with monthly performances taking place at The Poetry Café in Covent Garden, The Chances in Tottenham and a weekly writing group in Central London, organised by Razzpoet and Xochitl Tuck. Following both of their deaths, I stepped back in as a volunteer to keep the live performances going at The Poetry Café where each event was packed to the rafters. The Chances got sold off and when the pandemic hit, The Poetry Café closed and remains closed so – thanks to funding from NSUN’s Covid-19 Fund for our new Zoom licence – we moved onto Zoom in March 2020 and have since held monthly live online performance events on the last Thursday of the month which are free for any Survivor poet or musician to join from anywhere in the world. We have found our way into directories for international poetry Zoom events and now have regular Survivor attendees from the States, Australia, Africa, Europe. Despite having no income, we still have active Charity status with a Board of Trustees and a charity structure, managed by our Director Simon Jenner.

You describe the community as healing and inspiring one another. Could you tell us more about this – what role do groups like yours play in providing solidarity and support? How might it differ from other spaces? 

We get regular feedback from attendees at the Zoom sessions telling us that not only does Survivors’ Poetry provide solidarity and support, but helps to keep people focused on their writing and music in a healing and productive way. It is an act of Survival to write, and then to share your story via a live performance alongside a whole thriving community of Survivor poets and musicians in a safe space is incredibly affirming and empowering. We hold no one particular viewpoint and reject any kind of dogma. Issues concerning identity, labelling and intersectionality specific to our community arise. We consistently find our commonalities as Survivors in an international context despite our diverse personal and cultural experiences, and celebrate not only our diversity as individuals but the discovery of the concept of being a Survivor as something that binds us, that means that we ‘get’ each other in a way that non-Survivors don’t, that makes us especially open to and understanding of each others’ experiences. In an increasingly homogenised world, where care is subject to the laws of the corporate market and worth is judged by one’s economic potential, we hold firm to artistic perceptions of success, and praise and appreciate each other for our work which is our output of poetry and songs. Furthermore we applaud our Survivor experiences and hold them aloft as marks of power, our sensibilities and insights are to be emulated, we come together to know our worth, share our words and reject stigmatisation and discrimination. We call ourselves a ‘tribe’.

Survivors’ Poetry is led by and for survivors of mental distress. Could you talk about the significance of this in creating a safe, creative and accessible space?  

Survivors’ Poetry has most definitely helped to change the landscape around articulation of and broader acceptance of mental health issues in the mainstream in the last thirty years, and continues to push these boundaries towards greater enlightenment and understanding. Whether the subject matter of our work is from darker places telling of violence, suicidality, sexual abuse, psychosis, depression, self harm, incarceration and so on or whether it is blissful and ecstatic, or a view of something else entirely, we embrace the limitless scope of each others’ range, and derive great strength from hearing and relating empathetically to one another, and find over and over that we share so many perspectives, expressed in uniquely original ways. It is always fascinating to see what someone else has created with similar experiences to yours, and it is always healing and cathartic to hear each others’ responses to these experiences in the intimate medium of Zoom. It is always empowering to witness someone else claim their power, it is always illuminating to have the privilege of hearing someone else’s journey. We particularly aim to give a platform to new and inexperienced Survivor poets, as well as attracting and retaining seasoned Survivor poets who over many years have had success on the fringe poetry scene, disability arts scene, literary and music festival scenes internationally, and who remain loyal to Survivors’ Poetry. More than one Survivor poet proclaim that they have ‘cut their teeth with Survivors’ Poetry’ in a performance context, gaining confidence and honing their craft as poets and as performers. Some have built on this growth by venturing to take their work to in person venues in the poetry scenes of various places in the UK, a brave step to take as it is not so predictable how this work will be received by non-Survivor audiences. One of our poets, Michael Wilson, has toured Europe and taken a one man spoken word show based on his autobiographical book Bedlam’s Best and Finest to the Edinburgh Fringe, which received great reviews. Some of our poets have found the confidence to self publish collections of poetry, some have been published by community publishers and in poetry magazines, and some have built their own websites as a place to profile their poetry, although most people still prefer the live arena as the place for self expression and regard Survivors’ Poetry as their artistic home.

You regularly host Survivors’ Poetry Zoom Performance events, where members of the community share their poetry, along with guests. What impact have you seen this space have on the contributors and guests, particularly thinking about how it might feel to share or hear personal and vulnerable work?  

We have welcomed famous poets such as John Hegley, Jennie Bellestar, Lemn Sissay and the late Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze to headline at our gigs who have all shared previously unheard content about personal experiences which has led them too to identify as ‘Survivors’. Less experienced poets and musicians are supported and appreciated in an inclusive, welcoming and enthusiastic environment. Those reading/performing more hard-hitting material or who are feeling vulnerable have always, without exception, found the experience to be beneficial. We welcome work which deals with more difficult experiences, trauma, vulnerability. One Survivor poet joined the Zoom sessions during the duration of their detention in a psychiatric hospital and found it helped them to restabilise and work through that experience. Poets give trigger warnings prior to performing darker content.

What do you think the arts – be it poetry or beyond – can offer to survivors of mental distress?  

We have said to each other often at the Zoom sessions that a Survivors’ Poetry live event is like a big piece of music with all our tones and hues, nuances and moods making up a collaborative group work, we find reflections and echoes of each other across time zones, oceans and continents that arise spontaneously, ultimately we find community with others who really understand where we are at and have been, especially when to us it seemed like we were totally isolated and in such severe pain and perhaps unable to vocalise at that point in our lives. Participation is a return to humanity. Some people come just as audience to soak up the ambience, especially if they are in pain, extreme stress or depression etc. and unable to express at that moment, but return to perform again and tell of their journey. We take a positive attitude to recovery but we know also that for many, mental health issues are not just for Christmas. Receiving empathy and sharing community with our originality with human warmth and kindness in an active and non-hierarchical, creative way is such a very uplifting and powerful act that helps us grow and increase resilience. Some people have said it has saved their lives. As Beano states, ‘Words save lives’. For others it continues to be a lifeline. For everyone it is a source of inspiration and affirmation. A key factor is that the group is by and for Survivors of mental distress, that it is a safe, inclusive, non-judgemental and accessible space that we hold together for each other. Nothing is recorded to preserve privacy. And importantly, there is absolutely no element of competition at our soirees, which is another feature that sets us apart from many fringe poetry events and/or ‘slams’.

Anyone who identifies as a Survivor of mental distress is extremely welcome to join any of our live events to listen, read or perform. No need to book beforehand, just come along and let the host know you would like a floor spot (five minutes). At the Zoom sessions we have a Featured Poet who has twenty minutes for a full set, and two Special Guests who have fifteen minutes each, one of whom is a musician, and the rest of the night is Open Mic. We particularly welcome less experienced poets who constantly surprise with the power and beauty of their work. For so many it is a revelation to find a community of people who share the bond of lived experience of mental distress raising their voices in poetry and song to reach out and connect to each other. During the pandemic we succeeded in using our Zoom events as a platform to overcome the terrible and damaging isolation imposed by lockdowns, and found that we still needed the chance to combat isolation post-pandemic when opportunities to meet in person continued to remain so limited. Three years on, our online community continues to flourish and we continue to connect with and nurture each other.

The benefits of creative expression for wellbeing are well documented and we see this in practice at Survivors’ Poetry. We experience relief and gratitude in sharing our work, there is always a buzz of excitement at our Zoom sessions that transcends the limitations of the medium, people get to meet others from around the world who become friends and allies, our struggles become collective, we heal each other with our words and songs, we overcome the fragmentation and alienation caused by trauma, we use our poetry to manage overwhelming emotions and make sense of our experiences, to document extraordinary times in our lives, to revisit difficulty with new eyes, to celebrate where we have reached, to tell our stories; we revive hope. Above all we bring about transformation in ourselves and each other. When we lost dearly loved Survivor poets during the pandemic, the Zoom sessions were also a chance to grieve together and pay tribute to our departed brothers and sisters, reading their work and sharing memories, which was highly significant and of great comfort to our community, especially as we couldn’t visit people in hospital or attend restricted funerals. Since January of this year, a long-term member of the group has been in hospital and has received messages of support, cards, parcels, phone calls and visits from fellow Survivors’ Poetry poets and musicians from the Zoom sessions, which have been hugely supportive.

The Zoom sessions have become an important breeding ground for all our creatives: through meeting online, Survivor musician Chris Leeds and Survivor poet and musician George Harris have teamed up to produce collaborative ambient trance music/poetry pieces; our Survivor Wellbeing Storyteller and poet from Sierra Leone, S’phongo, is going to have his work featured on fellow Survivor poet Wendy Young’s radio show ‘The Free O’clock Show’ on K2K (Kilburn to Kensal Rise) Radio; Survivor poet Maggie Houlihan took news of us to a mental health group that she is a Trustee for, CREST in Walthamstow, who want to have ongoing Survivors’ Poetry workshops, and we are now in discussion with them.

How can people get involved in Survivors’ Poetry? 

If you are interested in joining the Zoom sessions, email to have your email address added to the mailing list – this means you will receive monthly emails with the flyer for the next Zoom session, information about the billed performers and the live Zoom link to join. And thanks to NSUN it’s all free!

If you would like you can also be put on the mailing list for the free quarterly online Survivors’ Poetry journal ‘Poetry Express Newsletter’.

You can view our facebook page Survivors’ Poetry Gigs to see previous event flyers and get more of a visual feel of what we do.

Thanks to the gifted and brilliant Survivor artist and poet Colin Hambrook for letting us use drawings from his personal collection for our flyers.

And most of all, thank you to all our fantastic attendees past, present and future who make our events a magical, intense, cathartic, uplifting and unforgettable experience! If you’re interested in coming with an open heart and respect, we’d love to welcome you. Come and join the tribe!

This blog is part of our series on creativity and mental health. You can find the other pieces in the series here.

The white flyer displays yellow and white text set on a green background and overlayed on a illustration of an old tree. The text reads: 

You are invited to Survivor's Poetry Performance Zoom Party on Thursday 27 April 2023 at 7.30pm to 10.00pm. 

Join us for a celebration of poetry and song - bring a piece to share or just come along and watch. Featuring poet S'phongo, Village Boy With a Dream, and with special guests Howa Ramadan, Survivor poet and writer, and Chris Leeds with Eclectic songs and music, plus open mic. 

You need a Zoom account to join, it's free and interactive so do come and do a floor spot! For info contact Debbie and See you in virtual space! 

Facebook: Survivor's Poetry Gigs
Images: 'Spiral' by Colin Hambrook