At 12 noon I check in to The Malmaison in Manchester as The lead singer of The Manic Street Preachers is checking out. In a couple of hours I arrive at the Rochdale Stepping Stones project for the homeless. “he’s here” growls Geoff whose voice sounds like he’s just eaten a bowl of sandpaper and finished it off with a fine Cuban cigar.
It’s an open room full of homeless folk from Rochdale, some of the workers and myself. We work on poems, mainly the extended metaphor. It is not an easy concept to get over without it sounding either pretentious or distant but the group of about twenty are giving me space to try and communicate the idea.
There are cigarette breaks and the odd kerfuffle – why wouldn’t there be. At 5.15pm all twenty of us are whisked to The Gatehouse a venue for the Annual General Meeting of Stepping Stones. The AGM is the Annual General Meeting for an organisation for the homeless which has a turn over of over a million pounds a year. It is right that management discuss these figures in front of their homeless Service Users. AGM’s can be staid affairs but as soon as the business of finance and logistics was over, the
business of poets players and artists could begin.
The heavens broke and thousands of millions of tiny raindrops banged upon the roof as the first poet rose up and read. From then on I introduced each reader onto the stage. Hands gripped paper, shakily. Some burst into tears but still read their poem to the end. One sang The Times They Are Changing. One writer sat on the steps of the stage, a woman, with a microphone in her hand and sobbed her way through her poem, determined to reach its end. And then there was another who is known for a pathological shyness who read her beautiful poem and fought her fear so visibly that it brought the audience to tears.
The key workers saw different and new sides to their service users. As a point of
record this whole thing was down to the foresight skilful application and respect for art that came through one worker – Tonia Murphy.
My job is to get people to write. Make no mistake, this is not therapy for them nor me. But what it is is the power of the simplest and most potent thing Metaphor. Each writer read upon the stage with an honesty that would pull the rug from many of us. But be clear, my job was to keep the poem in metaphor. My job is to actually sense seek out and explore their talent for description – the enjoyment and exploration of words and the imagination. In using metaphor they once reading their own work would see the power it had upon others. One six foot tall man with dark stragely unkempt hair a deep almost whispered voice as if compensating for his own size wrote a poem about a brick wall – a most moving piece of work.
“I’m not reading it” he said so I agreed to read it on stage if he would stand next to me. The image and the poem and him spoke for itself. John Burnside the Scottish poet said at The Purcell Rooms at The South Bank once, that “Metaphor is the closest a human being
can be to their environment”. How does that statement stand here, next to these homeless men and women. We in this workshop and at this reading, through metaphor, were being more real.