‘UTTERANCE’ A poem by Helen Mort
Utterance is about giving a platform to those who have not always been heard during lockdown and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Off the Shelf commissioned the work as part of our 2020 festival and it was premiered across various digital platforms to mark the start of England’s second lockdown on November 5th. The project was developed in partnership between WE Great Place, Right Up Our Street and Barnsley Museum.
Artists Helen Mort and James Lockey worked across South Yorkshire with the support of Age UK Doncaster, older people and carers out in the community and in residential care.
Participants were invited to send in letters or take part in workshops that allowed them to express their experience of this time, their words then formed a verbatim poem created by poet Helen Mort and a moving image response produced by James Lockey.
The year our lives took place behind screens. As I write, I’m sitting at home under a blanket with my two year old who has a fever. I feel sick with worry and uncertainty and – selfishly – disheartened at the prospect of another long stretch where I won’t be able to work or produce art, the thing that gives my life purpose. I use the word ‘selfish’ not just because I feel guilty as a mum, but because my thoughts are also with the millions of people across the world who have lost everything to this pandemic: lost lives, lost loved ones, lost employment, lost connection, lost hope. My own situation is hugely privileged, my worries are trivial. Yet I still have days where I want to shout and rage against the intangible, against shapeless threat, against uncertainty. How can we write about this? How should we? When the UK went into lockdown in March, I saw my friends and acquaintances producing poems about the pandemic. Have you written anything yet? The question almost seemed loaded, an accusation. I could not write. I had nothing to say about my own situation, about days mundane with anxiety, boredom and doubt.
Working on the ‘Utterance’ project changed my sense of what art can do for us in crisis, where artists should direct their energy. Along with filmmaker James and supported by Sally, Dominic, Michele, Gaby, I spent months finding out about what life has been like this year for the elderly and for those in care homes, the vulnerable members of our society who have been spoken about frequently since March but who have seldom spoken themselves, still less been heard. We asked them what has kept them going, what they would change, where they would go to if they could, what they would say to those in power. The answers surprised me. Their eloquence humbled me. I ran writing workshops in Doncaster where staff and elderly service users from Age UK described the autumns of their childhood, the people and places that defined their lives. I read letters from volunteers and care home residents who were angry, defeated, grateful, stoical. I tried to suppress the sense of injustice I felt on their behalf and focus on their words instead. I stitched them together into this poem, where all the images and ideas come from elsewhere: all I did was arrange them. ‘Utterance’ was curated by me and James, but it was written by the poets of South Yorkshire who spoke to us, lent us their words. Being a writer has felt like a precarious prospect this year, but if I’m able to take part in projects like this, then it’s still what I want to do with my time on earth.
With thanks to Dominic Somers & Rachel Blake (WE Great Place), Helen Mort, James Lockey, Right Up Our Street and to Arts Council England.