'We ride the electric horse without any reins': poet Shaun Fallows on disability and freedom
Shaun Fallows was born with cerebral palsy, and is a wheelchair user. Last year the Wigan-based poet appeared on a Channel 5 programme to talk about disability, and also published his first poetry collection, Access-Ability. During lockdown he has been appearing at open-mic nights he wouldn’t normally be able to get to, via Zoom. In this interview Shaun talks to Write Out Loud about the daily frustrations of disability, why he still prefers ‘face to face” poetry nights, plans for his next poetry collection, and why he feels that “the chair has given far more to me than it’s taken away”.
I really like the longish, autobiographical intros to your poems in your collection. Maybe it wouldn’t work for all poetry collections, but I think it really does in yours. Like intros at an open mic.
Yeah, I’d be the first person to say that technique-wise I’m not great, I’m not a person who spends ages crafting poems, with a set structure, like sonnets and the like, but I really enjoy the chatty expect of open mic before you actually go into a poem, so I said to my mates who helped edit the book, the intros have to stay. I’ve watched loads of comedy stuff over the years like Richard Pryor live and the way that they’d build up before getting to the joke was what I wanted, so by the time the main poem arrives you’re already in and anticipating. When you hear music bands say we made this album to capture what we sound like live, I hoped for that because I knew that was my strongest suite. Also finally just from a practical point I felt some poems had such an unusual personal angle that an intro was needed to explain where I was coming from.
A number of your poems deal with the practical frustrations of wheelchair users – access during roadworks, lack of provision or priority on buses, arguments with social services, and perhaps your most powerful one of all, ‘What They Said to Derrick’.
A lot of the poems do deal with this aspect because to be honest that is my life, almost day in day out, those frustrations have cropped up so regularly that at first I’d always assumed most people already knew about these issues. It was only when I noticed people’s reactions at open mics I said to myself, Jesus, people really don’t know these things are happening. I knew then that, far from stating the obvious, or so I thought, they needed to be in the book. I thought too that it served as therapy for myself and a kind of historical record.
There are many moving passages in your poems, including the last stanza of ‘Recently Diagnosed Disability’, in which you give advice to someone who has not been disabled, as you have, since birth.
This was a strange one. When I heard the guy say he couldn’t continue and life was finished I didn’t want to come across as if I had all the answers because I only knew what worked for me. But at the same time I was slightly hurt, even offended, because what this bloke was sort of saying was, if he had my life then he would end his life and that’s very hard to hear. You see that a lot with injured soldiers. I always think they didn’t really consider disability as fit young able-bodied [young men] but as soon as their lives are changed, they’re the first ones to say how awful it is and then try and charity run up every possible mountain fund-raising … I understand that they just try and cope with it, but I can’t help but find it disrespectful, as a person who always dealt with it. Perhaps if I hadn’t had it from birth I wouldn’t cope, who knows, but I was desperate to tell him, listen, I go on plenty of nice holidays, eat great foods, I can buy nice things, there are many different ways to make a life.
There are many lines to savour in your poems. I love the one about Scouse Lil in ‘Jimmy Next Door’ – “one eye facing east the other in a caravan somewhere near Rhyl” – and the last two lines in ‘I Met Elmer’: “I met Elmer and said, don’t worry, my artist friend, / for we ride the electric horse without any reins.”
With these two poems I thought it was really important to capture characters, particularly with Jimmy and Lil. They argued all the time and did really daft things when they were drunk but they seemed to show a time that is dying out, a working class generation that always went to the social club, a generation that seemed to look out for each other a lot more. As for Elmer, this was the first time I’d ever seen someone in a similar position to myself, working for himself, without a government scheme that’s more about ticking boxes. He was being judged purely on his arts skills. I was so pleased, I had to say that in the poem. I thought, I want to back this guy to the hills. Afterwards when I got home, I posted his website in as many social platforms I could find, and emailed him my poem, too.
Some of your poems are about visits to Amsterdam. What does the place mean to you?
Amsterdam and the Netherlands means so many things to me. I know discrimination and problems exist everywhere including here but they seem to allow people more freedom without judgment. The red-light district was a great example of this. The first time I had this experience I was convinced they’d be put off by my disability, but it was a revelation to me when they said, No, you’re just a man like everybody else honey, and your money still spends. It was whilst being on this first trip with my cousin I looked around and noticed how flat and accessible this country was, I knew even then this would be a country I could visit again and again on my own. Since then there’s not many places in the Netherlands using local trains I haven’t seen. It seems a tiny thing but it has a massive impact. They’re not afraid and more willing to ask questions.
A lot of your poetry brings a tear to the eye. Not so much out of compassion, but from a sense of inspiration. It occurs to me that being disabled has given you insights that an able-bodied person could never have. This is probably a very patronising thing for me to say, and if so, I apologise. But do you think that it is in any way true?
That’s absolutely true. I feel the chair has given me far more than it’s taken away. I mean, there’s no guarantee of anything. I could have been such an idiot if I was able-bodied, I could have frittered all my time away taking drugs, drinking or whatever but the chair forced me to go a bit slower and think about things others might not have the time for. It also helped in that seeing many of my friends die young, as awful as that is, it’s always made me feel like I need to get a move on. When you are aware of being this vulnerable, I think you’re not afraid to try anything and take a chance. As mad as it could sound, I don’t think I would change it. There’s many down times but I enjoy my life. Disability feels like an asset, not a problem.
Have you found a kind of community within poetry? I ask this after reading your poem ‘Strange Army’: “We are a strange army, / We’d probably never brush shoulders if it wasn’t for this.” And you and me probably wouldn’t have done, if it hadn’t been for lockdown and Zoom. I first met you at the online Write Out Loud Sale, and subsequently invited you to read at an online Write Out Loud Woking. Does the current pattern of Zoom meetings mean you are able to read to more groups than you would normally be able to?
Second time around I began to feel like this - but I say second time because when I first started poetry open mic things around 18, I had no idea what it was about, my confidence was racing just after finishing college and I was convinced I was somehow going to be the next Paul Weller. It didn’t pan out like that though and after feeling such success, well, for the first time ever I was in a mainstream environment that wasn’t cotton wool protected, and things went a bit south. I dropped out of a writing degree at Bolton which really shook my confidence so I stopped doing poetry nights and concentrated on sports and fitness. After a gap of about three years I realised that all my writings seemed a bit pointless if I had no way to show or read them, so I went back to open mic and began to really try and work and practise my poems. As soon as I came back I realised that people really did miss me and I missed them. It did feel like a family then once I’d grown up a bit and decided it was all about basic enjoyment. I also noticed that I’d known these people for a large chunk of my life and aside from poetry I had no clue about their lives, hence the ‘Strange Army’ poem. If feels brilliant now to look for these people at open mics and know that they’ve watched me develop. The Zoom aspect is strange because I’m a bit old-fashioned, I love the face to face, and I can’t stand the digital problems or sometimes lack of atmosphere. But then again it’s supplied me with the mini-country tour I’d always thought of trying. So many buildings and poetry nights just don’t plan on accommodating wheelchair users. I hope it changes because I prefer this [face to face] way. But perhaps tech is just the future.
Last year you took part in a TV debate, outlined in the poem ‘Thank You Big Time’. Can you tell us more about that?
The TV was a fantastic accident. Very long story but my cousin used to date a girl and now years later she works for Channel 5. She’d still kept in touch with my cousin though, and over those years she’d seen various rants and poems from me. She contacted me and said she really thought my words had weight and could come across well for a little interview on disability issues today. Originally it was only supposed to be a very quick, five-minute segment recorded from my home, but I talked so long on the phone to the producer she said, you know what, just come on the show in London. I was so nervous but would have felt like such a hypocrite if I’d not had a go. I think that because of my strong accent I was worried I’d come across like Forrest Gump but the day went better than I’d ever imagined. I even got to do my poem ‘Computers’ for the programme
It was the first time I’d had anything seen by that many people - apparently around 20,000 views
The show itself did go so fast, I wanted it to last forever, I was desperate to do a good job because they believed in me and took a chance. The only disappointing thing for me was the government minister for disabilities didn’t even bother to show up or even send a letter. I was buzzing and would jump at the chance to do it again.
There were only a few odd things I also want to mention. The train guards forgot to get me off the train coming back home from London, and as a wheelchair user this is far from a one-off occurrence, so even after the show it highlighted the problems faced. The minister’s absence too did say it all in my mind, showing exactly what they think of disabled people in the world’s pecking order. But overall such a great day.
Your collection is self-published. Did you submit it to any poetry publishers, before embarking on this route instead? Do you have plans for another one?
In your introduction to your collection, you say that you were quiet at school and felt isolated growing up. But now “I am doing the things I always hoped and prayed for but honestly never saw coming. I actually feel really lucky.”
I did try many times to get the book published, and out of all those that I wrote and emailed only one came back saying I wasn’t cliché. That still motivates me now, I smile and think of this before nearly every open mic. Perhaps in fairness I wasn’t ready then but eventually having seen many of my friends do their books and collections, I got their advice and I thought, you know what, balls to it. I’ve had enough experiences and my work’s just as good. Worst-case scenario I thought would be, at least I’ll have a record of my life. I’m honestly overjoyed with how my book as turned out and been received, so yes, during this mentally draining, very depressing time of corona lockdown the one thing that’s kept going is my writing. I’m not sure when it’ll be all tidied up, but all the poems are there for book two. I’ve said to my friends that as good as I feel the first book went, many of those memories now are quite old and they were really raw. Book two I think will feel a lot more progressed because most of the first book revolves around access. This was a conscious choice because this is such a big part of it. The next phase sort of comes in book two when other aspects away from disability come into play, and that I feel would be a really important thing, because I’ve never wanted to be just that guy in a chair and the one-trick pony. If I had a plan then it sort of was, get your foot in the door, then if it goes well expand the thoughts. To see my words down in the book makes me realise it wasn’t all flukes, and not everyone has a way to capture their lives clearly. So yeah, just dead lucky, I reckon.