Welcome to another AccessAbility Arts interview! I'm delighted to be able to shine a light on the fantastic work being done by inspiring women, multicultural groups, LGBTQIA+ community members and disabilities in the sphere of art and accessibility.
Kathryn O'Driscoll got in touch when I put a post on social media asking if anyone would like to be interviewed, and how could I say no? Kathryn O'Driscoll is a spoken word poet, writer and activist from Bath, England. She won the title of U.K. slam champion in 2021 and was a World Slam Finalist the same year. She talks openly about disabilities, mental health, LGBTQIA+ issues and joys and gender politics in her wide range of poems.
She was longlisted for the Outspoken Prize for Performance Poetry, and the Saboteur Award for Best Spoken Word Artist in 2022. In 2021 she was one of the featured poets on the (BAFTA winning) Sky Arts spoken word TV show Life and Rhymes.
Her debut collection ‘Cliff Notes’ was released by Verve Poetry Press in 2022.
If you're on social media, give her a follow. Twitter and fb: @poetryod. Instagram: @kathrynodriscoll
Here is the interview
Daniel: How long have you been writing poetry?
Kathryn: Oh forever. I have poems I wrote in 1997 when I was ten that my parents kept safe for me. Haha. But it wasn’t always good. I started writing poetry at primary school and fell madly in love with it right away.
Daniel: How has your experience with disabilities and mental health challenges impacted your writing of poetry, particularly as it relates to the LGBTQIA+ community?
Kathryn: I mean it obviously has an impact on the subject matters I talk about. I sometimes feel like I’m not a very visible member of the community even though I’m in a queer relationship and have been for years. I think that’s because there are so many people doing the important work of talking about the difficulties of being queer, but less people talking about being on the asexual spectrum or being in a queer disabled relationship. So I tend to talk about those things as a way of having an impact. When I was younger I didn’t even know the word asexual, and I just assumed I was broken so I let people do things to me that caused long term damage. So for me, I could potentially help someone understand themselves and avoid those mistakes by talking about being ace, so that’s a priority for me… I think a lot of the opportunities and programmes to help emerging talent aren’t designed with disabled people in mind. I often struggle to communicate with organisations about access - talking to them about having a carer with me, or the cost being double for two people to travel, things like that… but I have found mostly a willingness to try which I really appreciate. I’ve found the intersection of queerness and disability most felt exposed in the beginnings of the pandemic. Having to shield to protect my partner who’s disability made her vulnerable, and us having to write our wills because we’re a queer couple so our wishes aren’t always the ones the law would default to… that was a really difficult time and I did write a few poems about that.
Daniel: You said you were the 2021 U.K. slam champion. Could you tell us how that felt, and can we watch it?
Kathryn: You can, although it was a weird year, because of Covid we competed by submitting videos to a panel of judges. My two poems are still on the Farrago YouTube Channel..
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e9fOUhQ-o8A&t=2s (content warning sexual assault)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HhsNv4-B_0Q (content warning suicide and governmental oppression of disability)
What I love about this, and then as a consequence representing England at the World Cup of Slam is that I won my title with the second poem which is about the governmental oppression of disabled people in the UK, through things like the PIP Assessment process and the defunding of the NHS… so the activist in me LOVES that those poems are what represented the UK internationally.
Daniel: What was the experience of being longlisted for the Outspoken Prize for Performance Poetry like?
Kathryn: It was a wild experience - I’d submitted to it before but in 2022 I launched my book and I had the footage from the launch night… and I decided to submit The Theory of Relativity (https://youtu.be/E7E3zsEE0S8) which is the opening poem in my collection because it just felt very alive on the night… I was so thrilled that the judges liked it. I haven’t performed much live since so I didn’t submit to this year, but I intend on submitting again in future years because Outspoken are an incredible organisation and it genuinely meant so much to me to even be longlisted!
Daniel: We all know how important it is to look after our mental health, so tell us, do you have any strategies you use to maintain positive mental health in your daily life?
Kathryn: I don’t really, I am not the right person to ask about this as my health is very poor. But I think its important to give yourself a break. Remember you’re doing your best and if things go wrong and you get overwhelmed its not your fault. Blaming yourself can put you in an endless cycle of feeling crap about yourself. Just acknowledge that things are hard, and you’ll try again tomorrow.
Daniel: What inspired you to write your debut collection, called Cliff Notes (it was published by Verve Press)?
Kathryn: I submitted to the Verve open call for pamphlets but I had too many poems I loved so I actually sent them two pamphlets. One on grief and one on mental health, and they asked me to submit a collection. So I started over, and worked out which poems to pull through from that original pamphlet and wrote a bunch of new ones. I was super lucky to be given DYCP funding from Arts Council England to help me try and explore form with intrusive thoughts on the page… and whilst I don’t think I am fully happy with what that looks like now and I want to explore that further, it was really fun to play with. I had to face up to a lot of my own internalised ableism with Cliff Notes. I kept feeling frustrated and upset that I couldn’t write a happy, inspirational toned poem for the book… and it wasn’t until I’d actually already submitted it that I realised that the perception that disability has to be presented to the public with hope attached was an internalised ableistic view that I should just let go of. I am still struggling with that… but I am proud that Cliff Notes is a book about where I am… I hope that one day the inspirational follow up with a note of ‘everything will be okay’ is coming… but I just don’t know right now. And that’s what the book is about.
Daniel: Poetry and art can be a great tool for society and looking back at history. What do you think is the power of poetry - or any art - and what role do you believe artists have in modern society?
Kathryn: Absolute power. History is often distorted by the most iconic images (mental, lyrical, visual or otherwise) of that time, and artists are often the ones in control of creating or documenting those things. Whenever I get blocked I think to myself, what is my voice (as an artist) for? What do I want to use it for? And often that can remind me of something I want or need to talk about, and gets me going again. I think not all art has to be that, but all art has the potential to be that if the artist or the audience want it to be. But most of history as we consume it now, is through the filter of artists. Even textbooks had to be written by someone who had to read stuff written by someone else. We have the power to keep circling what we want society to notice, and hope that it does in time.
Daniel: What does it mean to you to be longlisted for the Saboteur Award for Best Spoken Word Artist?
Kathryn: I genuinely did not believe it, haha. To be a disabled, working class, mentally ill, queer poet… who struggles to go to enough events, who struggles to find time or motivation to submit to publications, who is too old for most opportunities, you start to count yourself out. You start to think of yourself as just someone screaming into a void…. the nomination alone made me feel so seen, and valued in the community even if I couldn’t engage as much or in the same way as an able bodied and neurotypical person… and that moved me beyond belief. It still does.
Daniel: And lastly. We all need to relax, chill, and switch off sometimes. So how do you relax?
Kathryn: I am so guilty of watching television to turn off my brain… I love all kinds of things that stimulate me intellectually but there are days when my brain is fizzing with pressure and I just put on the Bachelor and try not to analyse it as a form of media or the socio-political ramifications, and just be like - yay two people are in love. I also enjoy cuddles with my partner and our dog Sir, and I’m not ashamed to admit I occasionally just lie on the floor and listen to Taylor Swift...
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