Colin Dardia: The collection deals with your years of therapy, with some of your treatments and their aftermaths seemingly quite brutal. Did you want to take a no-holds-barred approach to detailing your experiences with the mental health system?
Michael Wilson: The “truth” as in the expression of my experience in hospital, of psychosis, of care in the community, endless appointments and times of crisis but also wellness was central to the entire book. It had to all come out as it were. I had to write about drug addiction, I had to write about horrifying psychosis, or else not write at all. It all had to go in. I always preface a reading of the book with the words: I can’t speak for the definitive mental illness experience, it is to varied and almost impossible to cover everything. One thing I did learn is that the system is a lottery and say, for example in Greater Manchester you’re better off being ill and presenting to the system in some neighbourhoods much more than others as regards treatment. That’s probably the worst thing about the system at the moment, and it is not a new problem.
CD: The use of ‘bedlam’ in the book’s title is provocative: does this lean more towards your frustration with the lack of mental health services when you were younger, or the general public perception of people with mental health issues?
MW: It was at first just a line in the text, it’s a joke really. It is so evocative though. The publisher, Eyewear did not like my original title: My Adventures in Mental Health that I’d done a huge UK tour and 3 weeks at the Edinburgh Fringe with that title of “My Adventures…”, I was quite attached to it. I liked the flippancy of something so horrible and testing. In the end though, having Bedlam in the title was an inversion of the joke of the original title, I was using something weighty and loaded in a sentence that is also a joke. As to what it means to the reader, you’re right there’s two ways of reading that title. It to me shows how despite illness we are still amazing people with not only our own stories but a way to shine despite the horror, maybe because of it.
CD: In your introduction to the collection, you also criticise the “romanticising” of mental illness. Do you feel poetry has added to this in any way, or has it been better at stripping the false glamour and revealing the truth?
MW: Yeah, it’s tough to know sometimes if it is romanticising the illness or romanticising the recovery. For me recovery in poetry is even more deep and meaningful than expressions of illness and the burden of it, however, recovery gets its power from the story of what led to it, the illness itself. For those reasons it’s hard to pick which poem or story is romanticising or is truly helpful; I think we should celebrate recovery because it is hopeful, it is life affirming. We should not celebrate illness without recovery and wellness. Poetry can be amazing at instilling hope, it can also make grief understandable, relatable and can comfort, having a loved one in the grips of mental illness and suffering is in a way, like grief. To comfort, show community, and instil hope can’t be romanticised, not completely.
CD: You apply an expansive layout to the majority of the poems in the book, where the position of the text seems to mirror the fragmented and distorted thought process of the depressed mind. Was this a nature development while writing the poems?
MW: The editor and I worked hard over a number of months to achieve the layout as is. In the original manuscript some of the writing was done in fragmented concrete poetry. The reasons for that was to show that mental illness is largely hard to understand, particularly to outsiders but also to the sufferer, as it is difficult for the sufferer to explain what the sensations are like. At first it was mainly the section on panic attacks that had broken text and long lines running into each other but the editor, Catherine, ran with the concept and we both worked through the entire script splicing and also making shapes from the paragraphs at time, and not only at the parts describing illness, but also wellness. It was a fun process and I’m very happy with the end product.
CD: You’ve had experience gigging in Manchester and other parts of England. How does the spoken word scene there contrast to the – perhaps comparatively still fledgling – Irish scene?
MW: I think Northern Irish poetry is just as good as anywhere else for quality by a good number of poets out there performing. I ran a poetry night in Portstewart for over two years and we only duplicated one poet as headliner during its run, there are so many good poets out there, Northern Ireland hits above its weight, the next step I guess is to get more over the water and down south.
CD: You also occasionally use British Sign Language in your performances, and not always necessarily to engage with D/deaf audiences. What was the decision to incorporate this element into your readings?
MW: It was a way to add another way of providing a narrative, to perform but also display a language I find visually captivating. It is also a way of showing how disability can actually be a positive thing.
CD: Recent years has seen you set up readings in Belfast, on the North Coast, and tour North England to promote the book. How important is it to you to be provide platforms for other poets to access?
MW: I think people with a story, that have a story to tell should have a platform. We as poets can continue the canon of what can be said on stage. The stage should be a safe place, the stage should be not just the setting but the site of expression, nothing is more powerful than a story set into art of performance in some way. Performance is also important, it can never really be repeatable, not completely as every performance, every audience is different. I love the printed word and its concreteness is fantastic, but performance has this power, the same as the difference between the experience of reading a book and watching a play. To see a poet on a stage telling you their story is for me quasi-spiritual, although sometimes it depends on theme and content (performance can also be fun and raucous and irreverent). I think the scene here in Northern Ireland contains all these types.
‘Bedlam’s Best and Finest’ is available now from Eyewear Publishing, £10.99, ISBN 978-1912477265
Colin Dardis’s new collection ‘The Dogs of Humanity’ is available from Fly On The Wall Press, £6.99, ISBN 978-1999598693