I am two different people. But first, let me tell you about my dream. I was being published in a new anthology. The details were hazy except I know awesome poet and friend Vahni Capildeo was in it too. We had to give a reading and – classic performer’s dream – I couldn’t find a copy of my poem, couldn’t remember a single line…except the title: Taboo.



So here in our everything must be air-brushed, image, success and goal-obsessed Western advanced capitalist society what are the taboos? Not so much kinky sex (whatever that means) more the ordinary stuff. Illness, old age, poverty…?

Take illness. Just for instance, say. Here is the split: when I am well I am in a hurry. Running from A to B. Concerned – like the business man in Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince – ‘with matters of consequence’. Illness? It’s a switch-off topic. Read a blog about it? Not likely. I don’t even want to be associated with it. I feel sorry for ‘Them’, the poor unfortunates dealing with it. When I’m well I’m busy trying to figure out my rest-play balance, the creativity v other stuff balance etc. I long to have more time. To catch up. To do all those things I haven’t had time to do. Oh to have time! Oh to bask in it!

IMG_5700But when I am ill I am very slow. I even walk slowly if I walk at all. And I have lots of time. But I never get round to catching up with anything. Whatever ‘it’ was is long gone, disappearing over some horizon, out of reach. I’m find I’m drawn to other ill folk. We swap stories of symptoms, latest remedies tried, practitioners who helped or didn’t help. We read up about about illness. The rest-play balance decisions become even harder, scarier because the stakes feel higher. It’s a whole other world – which does nothing for our profiles or careers. Those back in the healthy world don’t always understand…

I wrote a number of poems on illness a while back, here’s one snippet:

(from ‘Fatigue’ in Syrena (Redbeck 2004) )

“People keep asking me/about Fatigue./I say:/it happens to metals after repeated blows…

…Is it like being tired/ all the time…I tell them no.//Tired is a shore I long to reach.”

IMG_5822Of course this is all an over simplification. There aren’t two worlds, sickness and health, (unless you work for the government planning ever more cuts to disability benefits). There are other worlds in between and worlds within worlds. We’re all on some spectrum, some of us live bi-culturally, multi-culturally. But it feels like two distinct worlds sometimes.

Does illness make us more sensitive people or just crabbier? It certainly forces us to be more selfish or self-focussed which is an interesting challenge for women especially.

As a poet I make it my business to enter different worlds – illness is not one I choose. Recently it has claimed me. When I venture back on short-stay visas into the healthy world, I feel like a foreigner. How can I possibly explain where I have been and where I am returning to when the visa runs out?

If you’re a fellow traveller or resident of the ill world and have read this far in the hope of miraculous tips, you may be disappointed.What’s keeping me going? Actually this applies to all my worlds: the amazing – and humbling- kindness, friendship and love of others. Oh and my potted blueberry. I’ve been watching it change close-up.


Are there pluses for a writer on this journey? Tricky. Do we dream more when we are ill? Perhaps we’re also pushed face to face with the visceral, the body’s minutae, those everyday details which fascinate poets anyhow? We’re used to picking berries from among brambles. Would I swap this journey for a different one? In a heartbeat.

IMG_5842Why do artists get ill? Why do women, or carers, get ill? Working people? Babies, old people? Why does anybody get ill? I don’t know but it’s worth asking. I have some more questions: what would it be like to get ill in a society which revered the ill and the vulnerable? (I don’t just mean comfy seats at bus-stops so you can rest though that would be a start.) I mean a whole attitude change to how we see sickness and health? Where illness was believed to be a vitally significant journey? Where the world waited eagerly for all our dispatches? Where treatment options weren’t dependent on your income or postcode? What if ‘health and safety’ at work meant: how is each employee’s health being preserved – no enhanced! – by working here? Where growing ill – or old – wasn’t something to be scared of?