About Me

Introduction

RoganI am English and live in the UK. I have recently moved out of London.

I run a project called “Poems for…” which supplies small poem-posters for public display, free of charge, in schools, healthcare waiting rooms and libraries. Many of the poems are bilingual, so that the reader sees two languages on the same page, effectively in conversation. The poet David Hart has said “here is a way of opening people’s lives to each other.” At different times over the years, the project has been funded by the Arts Council, the NHS, the John Lewis Partnership and the Foreign Office, among others.

I have three sons, all now grown up. One of my sisters had Down’s Syndrome. She was called Kim and died in 2012. I do not have a TV. My mobile is for emergencies only. Screens and noise to a minimum. All that.

First I shall talk here about my own writing and offer to give readings of it to anyone – but especially to social and healthcare workers and their managers and trainers, for reasons I give below.

Second I shall talk about my years of work as a mental health social worker, the first half managing community centres and – the second – involving myself in helping users of the services to inform service managers on what works in the system and what doesn’t and to push for improvements.

Lastly I shall briefly describe a charity I run called Hyphen-21 and then some more detail about the Poems for…  project.

The Writing

I believe and have been told that I am mostly myself when reading out my own poetry. Saying that is not necessarily the same thing as claiming to be a good poet. It is not for me to make that claim, just try to keep writing as well and honestly and effectively as I can. But I know I read well and with power.

From time to time the work gets published. A Scottish magazine (now defunct) which specialised in long poems, published one of mine called “A Light Summer Dying.” The poem has been praised by the poets Moniza Alvi, Caroline Carver, Debjani Chatterjee, Andrew Motion and others. It has also been read with dramatic success in various settings, principally to people whose job includes working with the dying, such as social workers, nurses in palliative care, hospice nurses and a priest. It can be found here.

On the home page of this blog, an audio recording of another long poem of mine can be found, called “The Travels of the Last Emperor.” This is in fact a collection of different poems on a single theme, written at intervals over about twenty years. Excerpts of it have been translated into Italian and the English and Italian uploaded on a website site called Margutte. see http://www.margutte.com/?p=14240&lang=en  The distinguished Turkish poet Cahit Koytak has also translated the Emperor poems into Turkish. Together, he and I have recited excerpts from it to a small audience on the deck of a boat on the Bosporus. The emperor was revisiting his broken walls.

In Autumn 2016, the Yunus Emre Institute published in book form a bilingual version of a long Turkish poem by Cahit Koytak. I wrote the English translation, with help from the poet Mevlut Ceylan. The poem’s English title is : “Despatches to My Gazan Son.” The Yunus Emre Institute is the Turkish equivalent of the British Council. Koytak’s poem is a passionate and beautiful lament on the condition of the Palestinians in Gaza.

In partnership with Westminster MIND, I am about to publish a book of my own poems called “Of Animals and Other Meetings” ; this has been illustrated in spectacular fashion by people who attend a mental health arts project managed by Westminster MIND, called Portugal Prints.

But publishing means more than just making books. Where does the book go ? Into a few book shops ? Around a few inner circles and networks ? In essence, publication is a broader thing than just being put between book covers. It means “broadcasting” as seed is broadcast, thrown out as an act of giving and true investment. How best to broadcast, in present conditions ? Options are many. They include readings to friends in a chapel on a cliff-edge. They include this blog.

As a poet, I find the following quote of real importance. It is part of an address given by David Jenkins, then Bishop of Durham. During the 80’s – times almost as lost and despair-making as the present day, his was a wonderfully refreshing voice of authenticity, of integrity and of opposition. Jenkins’ address was given to a conference for social workers in 1988 : “Social workers are a group of people who are being called upon to live dangerously at many of the pressure points in our present confused, confusing and increasingly divided society. As such you are the objects of, and therefore presumably in your own persons and reflections the subjects of, a great deal of confusion, anxiety and uncertainty. Your position is highly ambivalent and ambiguous and therefore both actually painful now and potentially promising with regard to the future of our society and, indeed, of human beings on this earth.”

I don’t think the quote applies just to social workers, but to anyone at all who works at the frontiers between Have/Have-not, Cope/Uncope, Control/Uncontrol, Sense/UnSense, Well/Ill,  Alive/Dead, In/Out, I/Other.

This is the community whose poet I want to be, the public I want to address. I would like to recite my poems to people who spend their time at these fraught frontiers and divisions, trying to make bridges by means of the  “Skills of Love”.

I’ll end this section in contradictory fashion by saying that I also find expression in prose and am considering for the nth time publishing in book form a collection of essays called “Fables and Reflections.” These were written ages back but I think still apply. I put them together after a working life in mental health social care. They carry some of the learning that took place in all that time about how people and social systems work ; and they offer some strategies on how to defend principle and right action in times of dread and denial. Here is what the distinguished writer Iain McGilchrist has to say about the collection : “When I wrote a book [“The Master and His Emissary”] about the structure of the brain and its influence on culture, I did not expect for one minute that it would inspire artists, poets and musicians in the way that it has. I find it deeply touching to be asked by Rogan Wolf to write a brief foreword for these clever and insightful prose poems – for that is what they are. He feels my book provides a fitting context for them. But their beauty and the imagination that created them are all his. They are full of wisdom that we need very badly to hear. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.”

Mental Health Social Work

I have acted as a mental health social worker pretty well all my adult life.

I used to run community centres for people with severe and enduring mental health problems. The centres were run according to therapeutic community principles, adapted to suit their clientele. Eventually I saw them in terms of the traditional “parish.” These were secular parish centres for people who were otherwise without a community or network to belong to. But there was also constant two-way inter-action between this careful community of “parishioners” and the wider community round about. The building could and should therefore act partly as unconditional refuge and stable reference-point, but also and at the same time as a place of constant possibility and negotiation, renewal and re-connection.

In the mid-nineties, I went off to Greece for a three-month Sabbatical and came back as a free-lance worker. For the next twenty odd years I spent half of each working week consulting with users of mental health services about the quality of the services they received. This is a confusing activity whose essential purpose (to help the services be more attentive, responsive and person-centred) is often undermined by the clumsy, careless and irresponsible means by which consultation itself is put into practice. I would say without hesitation that much of the practice conducted as part of the mental health services’ obligation to involve and consult with their service users, actually puts a significant number of those people’s mental health at risk – surely a bit of a contradiction. Weren’t the services created to help people, then ?  But, on the positive side,  the role allows for some creative bottom-up initiatives and brings up some central issues.

Here’s one of those issues, expressed well by this true anecdote. A respected psycho-analyst based at the Tavistock Clinic called Isobel Menzies-Leith was called in as consultant to a hospital where there were problems. (It was actually not a psychiatric hospital but I think the story applies even more to psychiatry, than to general medicine). She studied the situation and gave her view. This can roughly be summarised as follows : that many of the working practices of the hospital were designed primarily (though unconsciously) to protect the staff and managers from the pain and anxiety of their difficult work, rather than to achieve the best possible healing outcomes. Her findings caused a stir. Many years later, not long before she died, a conversation between her and a colleague was published in a Tavistock book – they were discussing why her findings, despite the stir they had caused, had nevertheless been largely ignored (and still are).

So what can we do to ensure the messenger is neither shot nor ignored ? How can people of benevolence be helped to sustain their almost impossibly difficult task day in day out, of relating to an Other which the rest of Society cannot help, and often cannot tolerate ?

I still believe that the skills and knowledge-base of a good social worker apply across all the helping professions and can be found there in plenty ; I also believe they apply to many walks of life outside the helping professions and Society would have more hope and be more healthy were they to flourish there. The phrase “the skills of love” is a translation of a term used in the Buddhist tract, the Metta Sutra. One hesitates to use that phrase as a way of describing the skills which social workers must use, all day, every day. It sounds religious. Or wishy washy, or self-righteous. But I can think of nothing better, nor more accurate. So, hesitantly, I use it. Social work is love. It is a hard and rigorous discipline of abiding love (thanks, Iain Travers).

So how do we support the skills of love (having defined them) ? How do we promote, support, defend, extend, their practice ?

Hyphen-21

I have founded and run a small charity called Hyphen-21. It was originally the suggestion of a notable social work teacher called Phyllida Parsloe, once the Director of the social work department of the University of Bristol.  The charity aims to articulate and support the skills of human connection during an era in which they and the people who practice them, are under pressure and attack. Easy slogans and quantifiable concepts such as Rights, Equality, Customer Care, Choice and Inclusion, concepts often borrowed from the commercial sector, now hold centre stage, to be joined later by years of cut backs. In these conditions, the qualitative skills and bindings which can keep connecting people despite difference, seem too easily and too widely to be neglected, belittled and denied. They are “soft” and hard to measure. Without measure, they can seem not to count. But with bindings discounted, Society falls apart.

The charity is a small shy affair, chiefly highlighting initiatives which seem to improve conditions for the most vulnerable in some way, while challenging attitudes of detachment and withdrawal where these are unhelpful and unsuitable.

Tucked away in the Background section of the charity’s site, now in serious need of updating, are various attempts to understand developments and conditions, using poetry, parable, anecdote – anything that might throw light.  Maybe that’s the best section of the site. Visitors seem to agree. People actually come looking for the “Shadow poems” that can be found there.  But they also come looking for a code of professional good conduct for healthcare ward rounds – initiatives like that which I’m responsible for and which the charity has adopted and for which it has campaigned.

Poems for…

One Hyphen project has attracted  serious funding. It is  called Poems for… and has been going for nearly twenty years now. The main funder has always been the Arts Council. But others over the decades include the King’s Fund, NHS Estates, the Baring Foundation, the Mayor of London, the Foreign Office, the Department of Health and the John Lewis Partnership.

Individuals who have played significant helping roles have been : Chris Meade, Alison Combes, Malcolm Rigler, David Hart, Debjani Chatterjee, Susan Elizabeth, Denis Macshane, Fiona Sampson, Nigel Crisp, Jane Riley, Andrew Motion, Stephen Watts, Joseph Wolf.

In 2005, Andrew Motion, in his role as Poet Laureate of that time,  launched a new collection for “Poems for…” consisting of 45 poem-posters, each of them bilingual. About fifty different languages can be found among the collection, each with its English translation alongside.

In April 2008, Andrew obliged again and launched a web site for us. Since then the project has been taken up by schools. In large numbers, teachers have requested the hard-copy packs, and are downloading the online collections. Poems celebrating diversity are finding an important role for themselves in UK classrooms where children from many many different cultures now congregate. And they are travelling beyond the UK, to classrooms all over the world.

In 2015, some new “Poems for…” ventures were launched : a collection on mental health, another on learning disability. They can be found on the Poems for… site : www.poemsfor.org

Here are some comments on the project “Poems for…” :

The Rt Hon Tessa Jowell, Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 2005 :

 “I think this is a wonderful project giving people something meaningful and personal to consider, inwhat can be an anxious place.”

Sir David Nicholson, Chief Executive of the UK National Health Service, 2010 :

The ‘Poems for…’ initiative has made a valuable contribution to making NHS waiting rooms a more welcoming and sensitive environment for patients and the series of poems celebrating diversity has been particularly well received.

Sir Michael Jay,  Permanent Under-Secretary of State, the UK Foreign Office, 2005,

“Diversity is an excellent theme, and especially relevant to the challenges we all currently face to build a cohesive society. We would like a set of the poems to  use at appropriate FCO events..”

Andrew Motion UK Poet Laureate 1999-2009, contributed poem to first “Poems for…” collection, launched first bilingual collection in 2005, and launched the “Poems for…” website in 2008 :

“Poems for…” is an inspired scheme…I’ve been delighted to be part of it”

David Hart, poet and ex-priest, commissioned 50 poems for this project, all on the theme of waiting,  1999-2000 :

“The new pack has come, Rogan, & it’s an excellent piece of work again; there really has been nothing like these packs before. …. we have the chance here to open people’s lives to each other.”

Fiona Sampson, poet and editor, helped select 10 bilingual poems in celebration of EU Enlargement 2004 :

“Your idea’s  a  wonderful  one…a deeply human, very profound return  to the meaning of poetry. I’m honoured  to have been part of it.”

Michael Rosen, UK Children’s Poet Laureate 2007-2009, author of  “These are the Hands” commissioned by the NHS, translated here into 4 different languages :

“This is amazing and wonderful. Many, many thanks … It shows that we can talk to each other just as we try to care for each other. I think the project needs all the help it can find.”

Mourid Barghouti, Cairo, Palestinian poet, author of  “Prison” :

“I am delighted to be part of your creative and beautiful project.”

Hana Amichai,  Widow of Yehuda Amichai, Hebrew poet,  author of  : “They call me”

“It is a beautiful  and very important project, I am glad that Amichai’s poem is included.”

Dr. Charles Cantaloupo, Distinguished Professor of English, Comparative Literature and African Studies at Penn State University, USA, translator of “Our Path” by Reesom Haile, Tigrinya poet :

“As the translator, I authorize you, please, to go ahead.  I hope this is enough since your project is great and should not be held up a second more than necessary.”

Dr Aaron Crippen, Beijing, China, translator of “Maybe I am Blind”  by Gu Cheng :

“Your project is turning out wonderfully !… [It] restores the public voice of poetry and brings it back into our common lives.”

Antjie Krog  South African poet, translator of “Ladybird” by Ingrid Jonker and “I feel the string has broken and gone away from me” by Diä!kwain :

“They arrived!!!! the posters. and what a treasure, my head is bristling with ideas…thank you so so so much”

William Radice, writer and academic, transl. “Too Long I’ve Wandered” by Rabindranath Tagore :

“I do congratulate you on a really excellent project.  It has huge potential.”

Drug Unit Manager

“…We provide support and advice to drug users and their families. This involves needle exchange, counselling, access to funding for rehab and being the first point of referral into NHS treatment. Our clients could benefit from the Poems for… project, are we eligible? are there any packs left?   (January)    “The poems arrived a few days ago, and we’ve just had a chance to look through them. They’re wonderful. We’ve all been leafing through and enjoying them today. Once we’ve settled on a way of displaying them I will let you know. (February)  We have had the poems in a binder for a while. Clients have been enjoying them. In fact I’ve just had a request that we change them over, as they’d been read so many times. This service user is now helping us choose the next selection. The poems have meant we have thought more about how our waiting room is, the message it sends and how valued people feel in it. Sometimes we concentrate so much on the quality of the service from one perspective that we lose sight of subtle ways in which we can value those who walk through the door…”  (March) 

Senior Manager, Supported Housing in London for People with Learning Disabilities

“Since our clients have learning disabilities, for some the written word is not accessible. However, some clients have been very taken with the poems, selecting their favourites and saying how good they are”

Family Member of Cancer Patient

“I first came across Poems for… when my husband was in St Mary’s Hospice Birmingham over 2 years ago and it has taken me till now to be ready to get in touch. Reading the poems they had on display was certainly all part of the supportive, caring atmosphere of the Hospice. Through this personal experience  I  should like to be kept in touch with your work.”

Visitor to palliative care unit

“I have recently seen a Poems for… presentation folder within a palliative care setting which provided a great source of comfort for many visitors. May I take this opportunity to thank you and all the contributors. Are these poems available for other health and social care settings?”

Cancer Patient 2013

“I just want to write to say that in 1996 I read and copied one of your poems, the stream of  life, in the waiting room in Hammersmith Gaeni dept. I had recently finished chemo for ovarian cancer.  I have continued to find this poem inspiring and think the idea of displaying poems, especially in health settings, is a great idea. I have only now registered in your site and plan to use them in retreat settings . Thanks.”

 

Copyright © Rogan Wolf – Poet and Social Worker
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