Catharsis in poetry: Ralph Dartford's Recovery Songs
With the darling buds of spring outside and summer just around the corner, the passing of the seasons offers time for quiet reflection. We caught up with West Yorkshire poet, playwright and arts activist Ralph Dartford, founder member of spoken-word upstarts A Firm of Poets, to discuss his most momentous reflection so far.
At the moment you’re touring your new poetry-play, Recovery Songs. Can you tell us a little more?
Recovery Songs is a spoken-word theatrical piece that examines addiction and recovery. It’s a deeply autobiographical work that has been touring arts centres, libraries and rehabilitation centres for a little while. The subject matter on the surface may seem a little depressing and dark, but there is a certain amount of humour attached to the tale to give balance and to accentuate the horror of what it is to be an addict.
The director of the show, Samuel James Humphrey, whom I have been working with to create the production, has brilliantly managed to draw from me a very physical performance using every inch of the spaces that I perform in to a maximum. It’s not a traditional spoken-word show where the artist performs centre-stage in front of a microphone. The script demanded action and movement; there are even dance routines!
And how did the project come about exactly?
As I began to recover from my own chronic drug addiction, I felt it was important to record what had happened to me via poetry. To be honest, I was no longer happy performing my old poems within the Firm of Poets set-up because I thought that those poems were no longer appropriate and not particularly true to my own experiences which were changing constantly. I felt a bit fraudulent. I loved A Firm of Poets and we had a lot of fun but the constant management of the project, its players and its outrageous ambition to ridiculously conquer the world took its toll on me and those people very close to me. In short, it compromised me as an artist and as a person. It made me very sad at its end.
The writing always had the aim to be performed but I needed to take my time with its construction, find the right director who understood the landscape of addiction and get it right out of the respect for the subject matter. The constant questions Samuel and I kept asking ourselves followed the lines of who is this work for? Was it about me trying to cleanse myself of the things that I had done through the illness of addiction? Was I just looking for sympathy? There was also the question of my own health in performing a piece of work that laid me bare. The work is for those who like a story of redemption, who may be suffering through addiction themselves or may know someone who is. There is a certain amount of purging myself through telling the truth but I am defiant in not playing the victim in the show. It must be remembered that I had choices in my life at the outset. I chose to take that first drug.
What has the play’s reception been like?
People who have come to the show have been moved. They like the quality of the poetry and the script. There are always conversations after the show on its subject matter. It’s said to be very welcoming too. Reviews have been excellent and that has been very helpful in spreading the word. However, the most important responses that I get are from people who have suffered or who are suffering from addiction. These may be family members or friends of addicts whose lives have also been devastated. If everyone gets a better understanding of the illness of addiction, then Samuel and I have done our jobs.
Are you planning to expand the project?
The project will always be there to be performed. I cannot see myself stopping performing it for quite a while yet. What has happened recently is that we have been running writing workshops around the themes of addiction and we would love to do more of that as we move forward.
It’s often said that the best writing comes from suffering. Have you found it cathartic to write?
Without a doubt the writing of Recovery Songs has been one of the most cathartic experiences of my life. It has allowed me to look at myself deeply, question my actions and those of others. It has made me a better writer in terms of technique and style, in short, I have found my true poetic voice throughout the process, which had not been there before. It was hiding and waiting for the right moment.