Back in my photography days, I worked with a start up Not For Profit that wanted to teach photography to the groups least likely to be given the opportunity to learn.My mentor’s most cherished moment was having a student crying, because she’d never thought she’d get to try photography. No one had ever thought to ask this woman if she’d like to try it.
Her photography was stunning.
The participants in the classes absolutely rocked. Their pictures told stories beyond the obvious. They saw the world differently, and looking at their artworks made it easier for me, and many others, to see the world a little differently, too.
Though we sing the praises of the healing power of creativity, we tend to only let it be accessed by the affluent and the able bodied. We assume that disability of any kind means unable, rather than differently able, and a lot of fantastic voices and ideas are lost to that social stupidity.
This year’s Queensland Poetry Festival seems designed to kick the status quo squarely in the balls. The focus is on resilience, and giving space to those who rarely get a look-in at such events. And you know what? It’s glorious to watch it all unfold.
The event I went to today, for example, involved performances by Word On The Street, and Brotherhood of the Wordless.
Word On The Street is a poetic offshoot of The School Of Hard Knocks. The School works to engage, educate, and empower disadvantaged, socially excluded, and marginalised people through a range of creative projects. They kick a lot of ass creatively, and if you ever get a chance to see a performance by any of the School’s programs, do it.
Today’s Word On The Street performers were performing for the first time at a festival, and honestly? You couldn’t tell. These are the sort of heart-breakingly honest, painfully beautiful poems. They weren’t your typical love poems; instead they were raw, utterly spellbinding stories of loss and strife, filled with the sort of hope the world needs so much more of.
The beauty of their work was in the way they found ways to make universal some very specific experiences. I can’t, for example, tell you what it’s like to be so hungry that a piece of chicken from a rubbish bin is a cherished find. But through the artist’s words, it was hard not to relate to those longings, those places in life where desperation and drive come together. It was hard not to think about those moments where our joy looks incredibly different to the joys felt by those around us.
You’ve got to admit, that’s a lot of emotional punch in a poem about a piece of chicken.
The Brotherhood, meanwhile, are a group of performance poets who, due to a variety of conditions, can’t speak. At this point, you’d be forgiven for asking how the hell that works. Though the poems are crafted by a non-verbal artist, they’re spoken by a support person (usually a family member of friend).
That is really, really important, y’all.
This isn’t someone speaking for a non-verbal person in the traditional sense (and by that I mean: this isn’t a person deciding what a non-verbal person thinks or feels, and gate-keeping the thoughts and feelings of another human being), but sharing deeply emotive, utterly important work. The speaker is the brush through which the art is shared, not the artist or the artwork.
If you ever get the chance to see the Brotherhood perform, do it. Because here’s the thing: if you’re a teacher, you need to see this. If you work in disability services, you need to see this. If you spend your days caring for people with severe health issues, you need to see this. If you’re a parent with a non-verbal child, my Gods, you need to see this. Why? Because it’s easy to forget in the constant chaos that you’re working with people with hopes, dreams, and ideas to share.
But also? If you’re in love with language and creativity? You need to see this.
Like Word On The Street, the Brotherhood is the good kind of kick in the ass.
As a society, we think that inability to verbalise thoughts equates to an inability to think or relate. And you know what? All the big themes are there in the Brotherhood’s work. Love, longing, hope, and fear. But there’s also humour. There’s creativity. There’s everything that mainstream society fails to see in non-verbal or differently abled people.
The poetry from both groups is heartbreaking, poignant, and intellectual. It cuts through the social BS about what marginalised people are seen as capable of, and points out something it’s far too easy to forget: race, gender, religion, or circumstances, we all share core fears and experiences. We all want to be loved, and we all get scared that we’ll never find someone who sees us as we are and thinks we’re enough. We all want to be valued, and we all want to contribute. And we all want to share our experiences and ideas with those around us.
Both Word On The Street and The Brotherhood value people, and stories, that we don’t often give a lot of attention to. And giving those people the space and time to be heard? It’s so, so important. Not just because they’re entitled to that space and time- because they are. Not just because watching marginalised people unapologetically take to the stage and deliver powerful truths is beautiful to see and utterly vital- because it is.
Creativity, and especially stories, are so, so powerful. They give us a chance to learn and grow in a profound way. They give us a chance to see the world in a new way, and to learn to be better, more compassionate and empathetic creatures. They save us in our darker moments, and they help us to remember that we’re not alone. We need stories that are vulnerable, yes. But we need stories from voices that we don’t often hear from.
We need stories from people who aren’t white, who aren’t male, who aren’t heterosexual, who aren’t able-bodied. We need stories from the disabled, from the homeless, from the mentally ill, from those struggling with addictions.These are voices desperately needed in our world, because everyone deserves to know they’re not alone, and that someone else has experienced and survived similar circumstances.
We believe that fairy tales teach children that dragons can be defeated. But isn’t it just as vital to remind adults that they’re not alone, and that their experiences are valid, and worthy of being shared?
This isn’t about saving people, or patting people on the head and pretending to care. It’s not about extreme misery-lit, and competitive miseries. It’s about remembering that we’re all human, and we’re all worthy of having our stories shared, acknowledged, and respected.