Flagging up poetic revelations at institute's festival
Poetry can be revelatory; it can explain “why you fuck things up all the time”. That was how social scientist and poet Joe Cullen introduced a poetry reading that was held as part of the Tavistock Institute’s festival of events celebrating its 70th anniversary in London.
The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations applies social science to contemporary issues and problems, and was established as a not for profit organisation in 1947. Joe Cullen is principal associate at the institute, and was previously its academic dean.
However, he is also known as the “bard of Dalston”. At the reading at the Swiss Church in London, he introduced his poems with the aid of music from the Beatles, Billie Holiday, and the Clash, and quotes from John Lennon, RD Laing, and Dorothy Parker.
Poetry can be a medium for rebellion, he said. “Poetry has a real capacity to open up rebellion – to show why you’re stuck, and how you can get unstuck.” Cullen described the first poem that he received public recognition for as a list poem, that was actually a “therapy dump” of neuroses. His presentation, ‘Coming Unstuck’, was a “poetry installation” that allowed the audience to read his poems on a Powerpoint display as he delivered them.
His reading worked through a number of themes – families and tribes; madness and the gods; love and desire; politics and power; acts of rebellion. The poems themselves included that first, list poem – “Listing Dangerously” - another titled ‘True Love’, and one about the London riots of 2011. There was also a rant about the London Olympics, ‘Olympic Town’, in the style of John Cooper Clarke; a love poem in Semaphore; and a delicious poem called ‘Waiting for the 149’: “Her jowls descending like a cable car … she defecates a snort … shakes her fist … and curses all the buses missed”.
The second poet to read, Karen Izod, is a professional partner at the Tavistock Institute, a consultant and academic specialising in how professionals develop skills needed to work with authority and bring about change in their organisations. And, like Joe Cullen, she is also an accomplished poet. She introduced her reading by conceding that “I feel more free to say things as a poet than as an organisation consultant”.
She read a touching poem called ‘Summer’ looking back at a moment a number of years earlier: “Swishing, I went up to London … they had us writing about shapes, shadows … I loved that dress, the excitement … the ‘I had it all to come’ feeling.” She had been on her way to an interview for clinical social worker training. Izod described another as a rebellion poem chafing about writing academically: “I … start to see my life losing definition, scale and momentum … watching the night bus move away … and no one is waving or drowning.”
She has recently written poems about visiting an exhibition in Ditchling in the South Downs featuring the artist Eric Gill, who sexually abused two of his teenage daughters. One poem asks “how far should an artist go to be a father, a father to be an artist … a father go”. She reflects that “he measured their necks, waists …”, and told the audience: “In these poems it’s impossible for me not to draw on my former identity as a social worker in child protection.”
Izod said that she uses poetry on professional development programmes as a way of “reshaping experience that has not gone well - having a second chance at things”. Her poem ‘Interview’ includes subjects such as psychoanalysis and fake news: “I step into a field where truth and authenticity blur … we are in a post-expert world, I say … where no one is listening…”
The audience was certainly listening at the crammed upstairs room at the Swiss Church, only a stone’s throw from the Poetry Café in nearby Betterton Street. This was a beneficial blurring of boundaries, an indication from two experts that poetry can break through barriers, and provide moments of revelation, real truths.