Nottinghamshire Community Drug Service

Ian Duhig

In Spring 1999, I conducted a placement in order to produce a small anthology of poetry, this to comprise entries by people with drug-use issues prepared in sessions taking place at their home address. This resulted in a draft anthology with nineteen pages of poetry and an introduction.

During the course of my visits to people, I was able to leave them copies of the Poetry Society's guide, Taking Your Poetry Further. It is the best brief and most up-to-date source of information I have come across and I have also left a copy at The Maltings, for reference use by staff there.

I had been warned in advance that this was a client base where I should expect a high drop-out rate and this was true. The sessions themselves varied in my practical involvement from looking at finished work to very active involvement in the production of the work. I was most pleased by people trying poetry as something new and I want to conclude with a quote from a letter from one of these: "I am really pleased that you liked my last poem, it made me really happy when you told me you were impressed. I thought I would get rejected but I'm happy that I did not."

An anthology of poems from this project, First Poem, was published by Nottinghamshire County Council (available from Ross Bradshaw, Mansfield Library, Westgate, Mansfield, Nottinghamshire NG18 1NH).  Following are the Forward and Introduction to the anthology

Foreword by Cathy Symes, Drug Worker
North Notts Community Drugs Team

The poems in this anthology have come from two sources: those by people who are or have been clients of the North Nottinghamshire Community Drugs Team, and those by people who are or were residents of the Stonham Hostel for Homeless single men in Mansfield.

The idea for a poet in residence, and for this anthology, initially came from the amount of writing, poetry and prose, which individual clients of the drug team shared with us.

As part of this project we set up a poetry board in the waiting room of the drugs service. Poems were donated, often anonymously, and whilst they are not part of this collection they are important in their continuing contribution.

This anthology is proof of the creativity of the people who have written in it. People who use drugs are often seen only in terms of that drug use and the stereotypes which cling to that. The same is often true for people who are homeless. I hope this anthology provides a challenge in showing the individuality and humanity of its contributors.

For the people who did contribute I know that it has been an important experience for them. For some it has provided a vehicle for sharing their already extensive collections of writing. I was amazed at the amount of writing people have hidden in their homes. For others it has provided the impetus to start writing.

In talking of their experience of this project I was aware how much people gained from the valuing of their contributions. From being seen.

Sharing of writing always takes great courage. It is often the showing of the most vulnerable parts of ourselves. This anthology for me illustrates both courage and creativity.

Introduction by Ian Duhig

A poem in this anthology, written by Annalees, ends with the phrase "flight is my real home". Like all good poetry, it works on several levels. At one, it celebrates whatever enables us to soar above the ordinary, to find simple existence as glorious in itself. At another, it admits the interpretation that this can mean running away from life and its problems. At a third, it could refer to the actual writing of poems, which does both of the foregoing and more.

It seems to me that the poets represented here display a sharp understanding of the cost of life's choices and how the exercise of one kind of freedom can mean the loss of another, and sometimes the loss of life itself. Drug dependency and imprisonment are not just symbols here: they are part of the biographies of a number of our contributors. What sets them apart is the efforts they have made to learn from and make recognisable patterns out of this - as Aldous Huxley wrote in Texts and Pretexts, experience is not what happens to you, it is what you do with what happens to you.

The poets here demonstrate that they understand Huxley's point and so these pages are often surprising. There is the presence of serious religious faith in the skilful work of Wendy. Annalees, whom we have mentioned before, manages humour as well as lyricism. Simon handles deep themes and Keelyis particularly impressive as a new poet and her first achieved piece opens the collection. Only lack of space prevents a detailed discussion of the work of all the poets represented here.

First Poem is the fruit of the efforts of Ross Bradshaw, Nottinghamshire County Council's Literature Officer, and Cathy Symes, North Notts Community Drugs Team. They wanted to bring something new into the experience of some groups of people in Mansfield and Newark who are normally excluded from the activity of literature. They planned the scheme and secured the funding to bring in professional writers to help edit and prepare texts, encouraging new poets in the process.

It has to be said that their success was initially greeted with hostility in the press. It is therefore a particular pleasure to report that once it became evident how well the project was working, a number of the following poems were requested for inclusion in a national multi-media exhibition held at the Poetry Society headquarters in London.

Ian Duhig's poetry collections include The Bradford Count (Bloodaxe 1991) - shortlisted for Whitbread and Forward Poetry Prizes and chosen for 'New Generation'; The Mersey Goldfish (Bloodaxe 1995) - shortlisted for TS Eliot Prize; and Nominies (Bloodaxe 1998) - received Arts Council Writer's Award and was one of the Sunday Times Poetry Books of the Year, 1998. Duhig was National Poetry Competition winner twice, in 1987 and 2000