September 30, 2013
by Laurence Georgin
On February 25th 2012, a special reading event was held at Bournemouth Central Library, the culmination and celebration of a three-month writing residency within Bournemouth’s LGBT community. It was a moving and inspiring evening that saw thirty new writers read out their work to a large audience. The residency was organized by Lit Up!, the literature development agency for Bournemouth and Poole, and funded by the Arts Council and the National Lottery. Part of Lit Up!’s two-year remit was to deliver two ‘community-based residences’ and the project manager, Amy Mason, says that ‘it seemed like the perfect opportunity to work with Bournemouth’s thriving LGBT population, who had previously not been engaged with the arts development service’. My role was as a prose writer assisting the poet in residence, Andrew McMillan, in the facilitation of creative writing workshops based in the heart of the community at The NHS Over The Rainbow charity.
Andrew writes that ‘Working on the LGBT residency in Bournemouth and Poole was a transformative experience for me, as a facilitator and as a writer. I’d never considered myself a “gay writer” just someone who was writing and who happened to be gay and so if I wrote an autobiographical love poem, it would be addressed to another man. My aim with this residency was to go in and not make it a single issue residency, so not to say, we’re going to make you write about being gay, or we’re going to make you write about the one thing that makes you a minority in wider society. Actually what I wanted to do was just write and get them to consider the things which come up in community-space workshops, parental love and loss, politics, identity – I wanted them to feel free to express themselves however they wanted.’
From the outset, our brief was clear: to capture, in writing, the voice of the groups who identify themselves with, or as part of, an evolving modern LGBT community, whether that be through writing about life stories and identities independent of LGBT themes, as Andrew suggests above, or through writing about being a part of this community. Our task was to engage with all the different groups that regularly use the Over The Rainbow centre and by the celebration event we had held workshops for mental health, youth, elderly, trans, and women’s groups, amongst others. The workshops themselves consisted of both group-led or 1:1 writing-focussed exercises and discussions designed to inspire emerging writers. These exercises explored writing about home and place, about using memories as stimuli for writing identity and selves, about recounting life stories in imaginative ways. I think it’s fair to say that both Andrew and I, through previous community-centred residencies in the past, had seen the power of writing on many levels: whether as escapism, to create worlds in order to forget about the day to day trials of life, or as a cathartic process, to put down and work through emotions on paper, or, even, writing as celebration, of finding the joy and humour in life, even if that life is surrounded by difficult circumstances. In whatever ways the workshop participants chose to engage with the exercises we introduced, and even if they left with nothing else from the experience, we wanted them to leave with one feeling: that their voice mattered and was important enough to be put down in writing, a subtle form of empowerment.
It became clear over the course of delivering these workshops and meeting with these groups, however, that the residency should be so much more than capturing a voice. This was no longer about a voice, singular, reading and writing alone, recording their story like a writer locked away in a study. The workshops became a dialogue, a conversation on many textual levels. The writers we worked with entered into conversation with each other, not just those of the same group whom they already knew and felt comfortable with, but with other groups using the charity they might perhaps never have met before. On one occasion, we introduced the youth groups to the elderly groups, for example, who didn’t know the other existed and were using the same centre but who found, through telling each other their stories, they could learn from each other, initiating a dialogue between past and present aspects of the LGBT community. On other levels, the writers began conversing, through writing, with past selves, exploring and communicating with their memories in order to address their lives and identities in the present. During February’s celebration event, representatives from each of the groups we worked with took turns in sharing their own work or, if they didn’t feel confident with public reading, could have their work displayed for others to read at their leisure. And afterwards the buzz and excitement of having shared these stories was fantastic to watch. Andrew writes that he was surprised by how many of the participants wanted to write about LGBT themes. He says that ‘We tend, I think, as people, to identify with whatever it is we feel makes us a minority in relation to our peers – writing can be a great outlet for this identification but it can also be a way of turning ourselves outwards, of looking at other experiences and other ideas, working through a cross-section of ages, backgrounds and identities’. What emerged during the reading celebration was not a single story told many times over but, rather, differing patterns of experience, not a singular experience of LGBT life but experiences, plural. And this, I believe, is a central aspect of an evolving LGBT community. In order to continue evolving, growing, thriving, the community needs to recognise and listen to the voices of the individuals, to see that everybody has their own story to tell. To learn from the stories, we need to listen to them. The diverse range of individuals we met came from all walks of life and had their own reasons for attending the workshops. Many had never written before but all of them were open to the workshops and the writing techniques we explored. What Andrew and I were able to do, I hope, was provide these individuals with the tools to represent themselves, to find their own expressions of voice through writing.
The fact that there is funding out there for these types of projects is telling. It is sending the message that the LGBT community is an important part of other local and national communities. The legacy of the residency is, I believe, a positive one. Over the course of the three months, five hundred individuals engaged with the residency and since its culmination, Andrew and I have been asked back to lead further workshops within the community. Writing groups regularly meet and share their work, telling their stories. Even though directly based on Bournemouth’s gay cultural centre, the Triangle, the library admitted that they hadn’t been involved in any of the LGBT community projects and that it was an area of their outreach that had, somehow, been missed but has since hosted local LGBT writer’s evenings, portrait exhibitions and stories celebrating Trans Awareness Week, and will also be involved with this year’s Pride Festival.
Another aspect of my role was in the writing of a short story, Be Me Lennon, based upon my time at the residency. Its commission brief was fairly open, as long as the story featured Bournemouth and tackled an aspect of LGBT life. Be My Lennon was partly inspired by an exhibition that had been on at the library a month before the residency began, charting Bournemouth’s unique relationship with The Beatles. It was a series of wonderful photographs collated for Nick Churchill’s book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Beatles and Bournemouth. From this book and exhibition I learned about a fascinating aspect of Bournemouth’s cultural and musical heritage. Bournemouth can claim that The Beatles performed more shows there than any other city, outside of London. They performed at the Gaumont theatre and in the Winter Gardens, televised for an American audience and the catalyst for their rise to global fame. John Lennon bought his Aunt Mimi a home in nearby Sandbanks. Two of their album covers were photographed in Bournemouth. All these facts highlighted Bournemouth’s long-standing relationship with one of the biggest musical acts of all time, something I wanted to explore in my story. In staging the first part of my story in this period of Bournemouth’s past, I also wanted to comment on Bournemouth’s present and so my story follows episodes in the life of a character, Bob, from the sixties to the present day, mirroring some of the conversations that took place between the youth and elderly groups when they met. I also wanted to explore aspects of ‘the unspoken’, silences, as often the things that are not said are more powerful and telling than the things that are.
A recording of Be My Lennon can be found at www.soundcloud.com/jamesolivercole
You can find out more about me and my writing at www.jamesolivercole.co.uk