Halfway through her four-week digital poetry residency, we talked to writer Shey Hargreaves about her work, why even bad jobs are about more than just paying the bills, and her frontline experience of recent cuts to healthcare in this country
Hi Shey, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work?
I’m a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, really, but I started writing poetry many years ago and it’s the one form that has remained consistent throughout what I do. The bulk of my written work now isn’t poetry at all, though; this year I’m writing a science fiction graphic novel with a bunch of physicists, which I’m really excited about. I’ve always loved sci-fi and it’s something I never thought would cross over into my professional life. I also write scripts for stage, screen and radio, including a storytelling podcast, Tales from the Pigshed.
What made you get into scriptwriting?
We all go to films, we might listen to radio plays, and scripts are in our lives in so many ways, but they’re kind of an invisible mechanism – you’re not taught scriptwriting at school, like you are with poetry. I think one of the reasons why it appeals to me – and it’s taken me quite a few years to figure this out – is that it involves communicating with a whole team of people right from the start. In a sense you’re working together towards drawing up a blueprint more than a finished work, which I also like. I’m not massively precious about my work and the idea of somebody picking it up and doing something with it that I would never have thought of is really exciting to me.
Is this sense of collaboration something you’re hoping to explore during your residency with 1215.today?
Absolutely, having a conversation through my work really interests me. I’ve been making poetry out of some found sources and it would be great to offer those same sources to a lot of people and get lots of different responses, maybe some new interpretations. It could be a bit of an experiment – to have lots of different people using a shared text as a jumping off point.
I’m also hoping to get readers to tap into 1215.today’s social media channels, where they can communicate with me directly. I’ve already thrown up some questions over the past two weeks and I’d really value other people’s input, especially if they have a definite stance. I’m definitely up for hearing what people have to say.
What sorts of issues are you blogging about on 1215.today?
I’m tackling four main issues over the course of my four weeks as poet-in-residence: one a week. The first week might come under the heading of ‘freedom of speech and expression’, which I’ve realised is a massively wide theme. Specifically, I’ve been looking at what makes words powerful and why there’s all this legislation about what you can and can’t say – hate speech laws, for example. We also have to ask, ‘What are the negative consequences of suppressing what some people might deem to be dangerous views?’ If people aren’t allowed the space to express their views, even if they’re undesirable, then you often give them a leg to stand on or the issue goes further underground. It’s difficult to know what’s right and what’s safe in these situations, and I definitely don’t have the answer!
What’s week two all about?
Next I’ve been looking into the right to access healthcare of good quality, and the way that current government policy might be affecting this. So that’s quite topical at the moment, what with all the junior doctors’ strikes. I’m also looking at assumptions around the idea of ‘quality of life’. Serious issues crop up around this all the time – much more than you would like to think in the twenty-first century. For example, it may happen that medical professionals are trying to decide whether or not it’s appropriate to resuscitate somebody with a complex condition and learning difficulties. They may make all sorts of assumptions about that person’s quality of life without necessarily taking into account that person’s feelings on the matter, either because the patient is too ill to communicate or simply because they don’t feel the need to confer with the person and their family.
In this country we don’t tend to talk about death that much either, so I’ll be looking at that a little bit – because that’s a healthcare-related choice too: choosing how you die.
And number three?
In the third week I’ll be exploring the idea of being free to live an independent life, no matter the circumstances of your birth. In some instances, this comes back to words and communication in a really fundamental way. There are people, for example those with complex disabilities, who require really expensive equipment in order to just speak and communicate with other people, which I really do believe is a basic human right. These people are often denied this equipment because it’s expensive and the government say they can’t justify paying for it.
As part of this, I’ll also be looking at disturbing recent changes to things like Personal Independence Payments and the Motability scheme – all funds that are put in place to enable everybody to live an independent existence as far as is possible. I’m hoping to have input from artists who are living with disabilities and hopefully some activists will chip in this week as well.
What about week four?
After all that, the last week will centre on the issue of access to legal aid – but I haven’t decided exactly where I’m going to take that yet!
Do you think poetry is an effective way of getting people to engage with contentious social issues like these?
I am hopeful, though I think it’s important to be realistic about how many people you’re going to reach through poetry – or any form for that matter. We’re all so saturated with information nowadays, all day every day. If you’re the sort of person that reads the news and cares about it, then it can just feel a bit overwhelming and like you can’t really engage with issues properly.
But I think in this situation poetry, and the arts more generally, can interrogate social issues by grounding them in something specific. A poem can make connections that feel more real because it offers a more narrowed-down and personal take – one individual’s viewpoint which, when expanded, contains a lot more of what’s out there. It can tackle these huge issues but in a way that is so much more accessible to so many more people precisely because it’s so specific. At the minute we’re all just drowning in information, but if a story is personal, memorable or somehow entertaining then you’ve at least been given a hook to grab onto, where you can engage with ideas rather than just scrolling past them in your news feed.
And it’s clear, for example, that many of your second-week posts and poems are based on your own experiences working for the NHS
That’s right – I work for the NHS as a ward clerk and a receptionist on an emergency unit at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital. I worked there permanently for a couple of years until last year. We have 74 beds and, on a typical morning, these will all be full with people from the day before. We then receive about 100 referrals over the following 24 hours. This means that, daily, we have to shift everyone already occupying beds in the unit, referring them elsewhere or hopefully making them well enough so they can go home.
A lot of your writing pictures the ward as a fraught place, stretched to its capacity. How do you find working there?
The ward is under a lot of pressure at the moment, that’s undeniable; but the team is so hardworking and full of energy, they always pull it off. I’m a patient-facing and relative-facing member of staff, so it’s my job – among other things – to take all the phone calls, and I talk to any patients who are a bit lost or need help to contact home and that sort of thing. When I first started this job, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to stick at it. On my first day, somebody had a heart attack and I found it very difficult to keep myself together; I got the shakes and felt like I was going to cry. So I immediately thought I was going to be useless at the job, but I kept going back. After a while you do get used to it. That sounds harsh but it’s kind of the only way you can get by and do what you have to do!
Do you think having a job like this has an impact on your writing?
I think – and I have arguments about this with some other of my friends who are also writers – that it’s really important that I do other stuff as well as write; for reasons other than, you know, paying rent. So I had a few jobs after I graduated – some better than others – and I think they were all really valuable. I’ve always thought that if you’re a writer, then presumably you’re going to want to write about people in the world; and how are you going to know about people in the world if you’re not meeting people in the world? So I think I’ve actively sought out jobs where I will meet lots of different people from all walks of life.
Do any of these encounters make their way into your work?
For the first year, I never wrote about any of my experiences at the hospital. It just felt wrong, as though I was taking advantage of other people’s really tough times. But since I’ve started working there less, those experiences have had time to settle a bit and I’ve realised that it’s ok to write about these things as long as you protect the people they’re about or might be based on. Also, I think that if you’re writing about someone’s circumstances to explore a part of what it’s like to be a human being in the world, then you’re not really taking advantage because, in a way, you’re identifying with their experiences as you write.
In the last few years I’ve met many people living with disabilities of all kinds. I think meeting those people has opened me up not only to the lack of visibility of disabled people in the arts, but also just the actual communication problems posed by certain disabilities. And if art is all about communication then there must be ways to use it to build human connections – so if there’s anything that anyone can do to make a channel for those voices then they absolutely should do that.
So hopefully your 1215.today residency can be a channel for a whole range of voices and experiences?
I hope so. The work that has come from these experiences, particularly in the hospital, oscillates between really meaningful stuff – people’s last moments and how relatives deal with losing someone – and the completely bizarre and ridiculous. Hospitals can be hilarious places. Of all the hospital dramas I’ve seen on telly, for me the one that comes closest to summing up what it feels like is Green Wing – because it really is such a weird place! Alongside all of the heart wrenching, horrible moments, there’s also a lot of giggling, which all adds up to quite a strange atmosphere to work in. But I thrive on that; that’s the stuff that life is made of and I find it fascinating.