In 2003, when Simon Jenner took up the reins of the long-established Survivors Poetry, there was tacit acceptance in some quarters that he was there to ensure that the organization’s death throes were fairly painless – except that Jenner was not complicit in that acceptance. Nor were the Chair, John O’Donoghue, or ACE (Arts Council England) Literature Chief Nick MacDowell, though MacDowell occasionally wielded an axe.
Jenner had indeed stumbled on a moribund organization, run along gentlemen’s club lines, which had not recovered from the aftershocks of a 1999 structural split, where the definition of Survivors’ mission statement was radically altered; nor yet was it fully able to appreciate the seismic possibilities of that change. What Survivors Poetry, the Arts Council and the wider poetic community would learn was that far from injecting anaesthesia, their new Director was an “inveterate tidier-upper” and a radical.
What, after all, is a survivor of mental distress? Jenner was quick to escape the straitjacketed stereotype, the acceptance of only those with a pre-existing diagnosis. In this he was later abetted by outreach worker Roy Birch, witness to the organization’s earlier turmoil, and also by James Ferguson, pupil of J. H. Prynne, Ruskin scholar and expert morphologist of policy.
What of the undiagnosed? Should they wait for formalities, traipse through officialdom’s maze … if, indeed there was an exit point? The suggestion that that very openness left Survivors open to self-referrals from “nosebleed sufferers, claiming distress” was easily refuted. Such a person, seeking that help, self-evidently had problems. Self-evident, but radical.
Jenner drew on his own early traumas, particularly those suffered at the hands of the child psychiatrist he defines as “a reptilian Freudian”, whose solution to his (almost casual) child patient’s experience of sadistic abuse by a schoolmaster was to administer stultifying doses of medication for several years. Jenner, alongside his father (who refused a Chair in Psychiatry), still describes psychiatry as “an abusive profession”. So, what is this spectrum of mental distress? Mental illness, both diagnosed and without formal diagnoses, clearly, but also alcohol and substance abuse, eating disorders, sensory and learning disabilities, histories of family trauma, sexual abuse … in truth anything which might give rise to mental distress.
If this defines the catchment’s breadth, Jenner is careful to delineate that whilst the work of Survivors Poetry may prove therapeutic, it is not in itself therapy. The organization works with therapists and directs people to providers, but therapy is not its role. Accurately, Survivors is a radical, democratizing force. That very mental distress is recognised to have the potential to hone powerful poetic voices; the patronising tones of the now-nameless novelist, who in 2011 at a Glasgow conference coined “outsider art”, are long squashed. Language has too often been used against survivors, and Jenner proudly asserts that that weapon has now been put into the right hands.
So, far from overseeing a quiet demise, frayed between Arts and Therapy titans, Jenner soon found himself in receipt of a £55k Arts Council salary. To his eternal credit, he accepted only £45K for a year, then successively £40K, then £20k, ploughing back the remainder. He took his needed knowledge of systems and rules, and his willingness to break both where necessary, to overhaul Survivors. It was insufficient to offer survivor poets shared mentoring, with the carrot of a few poems in an annual group anthology. The ambitious Jenner offered a mentor apiece, and the achievable (and often achieved) possibility of solo collections, published by Survivors and other presses. He acknowledges the vision of ex-Arts Council and Esmée Fairbairn section head, Hilary Hodgson, for twice supporting him and his project over a five year period.
Jenner continues fearlessly, channelling the positive creative aspects of mental distress, collaborating with visual artists, and particularly musicians, in the well-established tradition of angered protest. Survivors empathizers of the calibre of Ian Dury and Dave Russell had long been involved. Events are organized by the latter – much praised by independent Arts Council writers for his Poetry Express editorship. Xochitl Tuck, who literally died on the job, was hugely significant in her events management. Jenner plans many more collaborative projects, notably 22 interactive visual/poetry panels mapping London’s mental health provision. Musicians are integral to the monthly open mic Poetry Café events, again hosted by Dave Russell. All this thrills, but governments and funding bodies are thirled to proof. What defines Survivors Poetry as something more useful than any number of well-meaning but ultimately insubstantial bodies? Does Survivors work? Is it cost-effective? 25% success rate in a six month programme. Accompanying adult literacy issues have proved no barrier to uncovering voices eloquent in voicing pain.”
So, what next for Survivors Poetry? A significant aspect of Jenner’s agenda is an expansion beyond the London-centric base. Certainly, there are regional presences, and there is Survivors Scotland, which is now considerably less active than it had been. Hopefully, this second cousin may be a full sibling soon. The regional groups always enjoyed a satellite existence, often a robust independence, producing products as diverse as books, cassettes and CDs. Currently though they struggle, but a miraculously active trustee (the poet David Andrew, a young 75) is making a country-wide, galvanizing tour. The monthly Poetry Express is now online, and photographic work and enhanced interdisciplinary projects beckon. Funding battles and fundraising are ongoing. Who knows where the Arts Council will be in 3 years time? Where will any of us be? In a world beset by ATOS, and Government-structured cuts aimed at society’s most vulnerable, there has never been a greater need of the radical, protesting, unconventional and creative voice of Survivors Poetry.
Editor’s note: You can access the links to Simon Jenner reading his own poetry during a recent visit to Dundee HERE.