We’re delighted to share an article with you by Ann Cuthbert, a key member of the TWP who sits on our board of trustees, leads writing walks on our behalf in her native Darlington, and is a regular on our performance troupe. Ann wrote this essay in March 2022, and delivered it as part of an online TWP presentation commissioned by Arts University Bournemouth for International Women’s Day. The IWD hashtag for 2022 asked us all to consider what we do to Break the Bias against women, and in our case the bias against poetry too.

Breaking Out

‘We inspire womxn to come into their full power as leaders and influencers through creative self-expression.’

But first, we often have to be convinced that poetry is for us.

TWP work to counter the view that poetry is elitist and that poets are stuck up snobs. There’s a range of poets within TWP with a range of experience. We write and perform poems of all kinds. We’re certainly diverse and equitable.

An older woman with straight grey-white hair and glasses is looking serious but is wearing a joke-shop black satin Dracula cape with a high red collar, and a headband with a cartoon bat on a wire above her head.
Ann Cuthbert proves poetry isn’t scary with Dracula’s Cafe on BBC Upload

We set out to prove that poetry isn’t scary, so we shouldn’t be intimidated by it. We show that poetry can be about things that matter to us – the poetry of the everyday  not high fallutin’ themes. It’s as much about being hairy and sweaty or playing the ukulele as it is about Grecian urns and daffodils. Although –  our most recent writing session did show that we are partial to a snowdrop as a symbol of hope. 

We look at how other poets use techniques and effects. We talk about poems in straightforward ways and about our own poems in the same breath as widely acclaimed poets. 

With the TWP, we use poetry to help find our inner voice. We share our feelings, even negative ones, then explore them positively. We also learn ways of expressing this with different approaches in both writing and performing. 

Poetry helps us break out and escape. In our writing sessions, we can forget other things and focus in on creating something. We have the chance to see other people’s ways of thinking. And when we’re performing, we explore how to be someone else or a different version of ourselves. 

We believe everyone’s thoughts are worth the effort of putting into words. So we focus not just on getting the ideas out but also on crafting them –  trying out different techniques, tightening/polishing drafts into a finished poem. We might do this in an impromptu way during writing sessions or as part of Compassionate Critique, a monthly opportunity to help each other with a poem in progress, sharing what we’re pleased with, asking for advice or suggestions for development.

This also gives a sense of ownership – ‘I’ve created this.’ When you see it written down, hear it spoken aloud –  you realise your ideas are valuable. This increases our confidence and breaks the bias we often impose on ourselves.

Breaking through

So that’s us breaking out of our own bias against poetry. But how have we taken our poetry out into the world and broken through to wider audiences?

We have indeed taken our poems and performances to many and varied venues and to all types of audiences. Academic settings such as Teesside University conferences and events. Civic settings such as Middlesbrough Town Hall with a commissioned piece for the UN 75th anniversary and an audience of over 400. Political rallies like Tees4Europe where our words were applauded by local MPs and a member of the House of Lords. We’ve performed in community centres and cafes, in marketplaces and museums, at local festivals such as Redcar’s Festival of Thrift  and Hartlepool Waterfront Festival (who also commissioned us to perform and film a collaborative piece we’d written about a local community). We’ve displayed our poems in high street shop windows. We’ve performed, thanks to Natalie Scott and her Rare Birds, in a Quaker meeting house and an old courtroom.  

Ann, a white woman with straight dark hair, is hunched over with a roughly-woven shawl over her head and shoulders, adopting the persona of a much older and more crone-like woman. We can see a projection on a screen behind her, showing an early photograph of an old woman sitting crouched against the walls of Holloway Prison.
Ann performing as Prisoner 6151 at the launch of Rare Birds: Voices of Holloway Prison by Natalie Scott, Middlesbrough Town Hall Old Courts, March 2020

In many of these places, we’ve engaged with audiences who might have been biased against poetry but whose reactions showed that they enjoyed and related to our poems and to the ways we perform them. We play with language. We make it fun when we can. We have good stories to tell. We want audiences to see that the issues we deal with are not just womxn’s issues – they are universal themes addressed through womxn’s voices. 

Whether we have succeeded in this, we aren’t sure. Is this off- putting to male audiences? This is a question we have asked ourselves again recently. Our online open mic TWOOMPH sessions had been reaching wide and varied audiences. However, the last  one, when we presented some of our latest collaborative work which features only women – and then only ones called Mary – very few men tuned in. Are male readers/listeners nervous of what they see as womxn’s poetry? We can’t afford to be complacent.

We have the confidence of local councils and arts venues who are very willing to support us because they know we draw in diverse communities. We are approached by local women’s and girls’ groups to work with them in developing their voices for change. We receive praise for the breadth of our work in the Tees Valley.

Everywhere, we try to counter the view that womxn’s voices are somehow less compelling, less important. We are professional in our writing and performance. We show that we know our craft and that we use it effectively.  We challenge. We take up space. All this helps us break the bias.

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