About Me

Introduction

RoganI see myself mainly as a writer but have spent a working life and earned most of my living as a mental health social worker. In my case, what this meant was that for twenty years I ran community centres for people with severe and enduring mental health problems.

Then I went free-lance and for another twenty years was part-time facilitator for a group of people who had used mental health services. I supported them in advising service managers on the quality of the services provided.

And in that same free-lancing period I began (and still run) a project called “Poems for…the wall” which supplies small poem-posters for public display, free of charge, in schools, healthcare waiting rooms and libraries. Many of the poems are bilingual, with 50 different languages represented. More recently the bilingual poems have been joined by a collection on mental ill-health and another on learning disability.

In a sense, “Poems for the wall” is a way of using the words and spirit of poetry to bridge difference, to “open people’s lives to each other” in public and sometimes desolate space. The project has been funded and supported over the years by a wide range of individuals and organisations, including the UK Arts Council, the NHS, the Foreign Office and the John Lewis Partnership.

The vast majority of people who download the poems are schoolteachers intending to use the poems in class. A very high proportion of these teachers are working outside the borders of the UK.

I used to live in London. I have come to live in Bristol. I am English and have three adult sons.

The Writing

I see writing as a way of trying to make sense of where and how you are, as best you can ; it’s a way of avoiding falling off the rock-face, a way both of holding on and reaching out. I would go so far as to say that – at least when things are going well – it’s an act of worship.

The right words liberate and dignify and defuse and help to orientate. They turn darkness and tumult into some kind of bearable poise and light. They confer blessing of some kind.

Here is the poet Ted Hughes on the subject, saying it much more neatly : “What’s writing really about? It’s about trying to take fuller possession of the reality of your life.”

In the same part of the home page as this “About Me” section, I have linked to several bits of work, set out in a column. All but one are longish poems and all but one are by me. For the remainder of this section I shall add a few comments about these bits of work.

A Light Summer Dying. This poem acts as a kind of witness to someone’s death from cancer, and the way she and her family lived it through. It was written at the request of the person who was ill. She wanted my record of her dying to survive her, mostly for her kids to read when they were older.

The poem has been praised by the poets Moniza Alvi, Caroline Carver, Debjani Chatterjee, Andrew Motion and others. Here are their comments.

The poem has also been recited to powerful effect 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.

Travels of the Last Emperor. At the top right of the home page, there is a video of me reading this poem. For most of it, I am sitting by some medieval battlements in Mallorca. Thank you, Roberto, for suggesting the place and supplying the camera and camera man.

The emperor the poem refers to is the last emperor of Constantinople, the “Great City” of European civilisation, heir of Rome. When the city fell, so did the Byzantine Empire. But by that time, there was little very left of either empire or city. The last emperor was defending a virtual ruin. What for ? And what then ? I have it that he didn’t die on the walls, as history claims. He just went wandering off in search of a new and better city. And of course is still wandering, fugitive, refugee, witness.

The poem 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 ; both the English and Italian translations are uploaded on a website site called Margutte. Here is a link to the Margutte site.

And the distinguished Turkish poet Cahit Koytak has translated the Emperor poems into Turkish. Together, he and I have recited passages from it to a small audience on the deck of a river boat on the Bosporus. The emperor was revisiting his broken walls.

Despatches to my Gazan Son.   In Autumn 2016, the Yunus Emre Institute published a book-length poem called Gazze Risalesi by Cahit Koytak. (The Institute is the Turkish equivalent of the British Council).

The book is bilingual, with Cahit’s Turkish original running down one side, the English translation, called Despatches to my Gazan Son, set out opposite. The English version was co-written.  I am responsible for the mother tongue English version, working from an initial translation by the Turkish poet Mevlut Ceylan.

Cahit’s poem is a passionate and beautiful lament on the condition of the Palestinians in Gaza. Go back to the home page for links both to Cahit’s voice reading some of the Turkish original and mine reading the English. Two of Cahit’s sons have correlated the words with pictures of Palestinian children playing among the ruins of Gaza.

This book has not yet been formally launched, to my knowledge. Have any copies been distributed, even ? I await developments with interest.

Speak, Parrot.  This extraordinary poem was written in the fifteenth century by the poet John Skelton, tutor for a while to Prince Henry Tudor, later Henry VIII. It was written as a satire, an extended attack on Cardinal Wolsey. Skelton saw the Cardinal as having usurped too much power, thereby making himself a threat to due order and balance.

In 2015, the year of a British General Election won by David Cameron, which led directly to the EU referendum of 2016, I translated some of Speak Parrot directly into modern English. However, I went very much my own way in later sections, my target being, not Wolsey, but more contemporary dangers to due order and balance and health in our community, such as Cameron, Osborne and ultimately Rupert Murdoch the billionaire press baron, phone hacker, friend of Trump. I had a little fantasy that the poem might help win the 2015 election for the other side, the progressive left (whatever and wherever that may be) ! If only poems could make such things happen !

David Punter is Professor of Poetry at Bristol University and this is what he has to say about my version of the Skelton poem : “a brilliant updating of what was in any case for its time a totally remarkable poem (I recall writing an essay on it when I was a student). Savage, bitter – yet suffused with a belief in the possibility of a redemptive power in poetry, which you bring out superbly.” Here is a link to my blog where, in supplying the audio recording of my adaptation of the poem, I also explain why I have set it in the top of the Tyndale Monument, a sort of cage from which to claim the parrot’s liberty to speak.

Of Animals and Other Meetings  I published this collection of my own poems in the Summer of 2017. It has been illustrated in spectacular fashion by people who attend a mental health arts project managed by Wandsworth and Westminster MIND, called Portugal Prints. Jill runs Portugal Prints and has been endlessly creative, imaginative and patient in helping all of us bring the book to fruition, among so much.

All proceeds from the book sales will be going to charity (50% Portugal Prints, 50% Hyphen-21 – see below). Hardback and paperback are both available, our mark-up the same in each case. If you can afford the hard back, I’d go for that. I dare to say that it’s beautiful.

The poet Moniza Alvi has written this about the book : “Rogan Wolf succeeds in casting aside a received way of looking, to perceive freshly, with an inner as well as an outer eye. A fox’s tail ‘is like the skeleton of a wing’, in winter the trees themselves are ‘etchings / of their inner life’ and, dynamically ‘The swift and the air it lives through / maintain lifelong their furious conversation, / through day and night lifelong / that frantic, dreadful ecstasy.’ The cover looks stunning, and with its fine, characterful illustrations this is an uplifting, as well as a consoling book. I feel very honoured to have been invited to comment on it.”

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 the late 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 seek to work with open spirit at any frontier between self and other, I and Thou.

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 fraught frontiers and divisions, trying to be whole and empathically human there.

Finally in this section I want to talk about a collection of essays I’ve written called “Fables and Reflections.” In a sense they attempt to do what I want my poetry to do.

They were written ages back but – to a rather shocking extent – I think they still apply, needing only minor adaptations for present day conditions and reference points. I put them together after twenty years running mental health centres in the community. 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.”

Despite my reservations about limiting the idea of “publication” to the production of books, I keep flirting with the idea of publishing “Fables and Reflections” as a book.

Mental Health Social Work

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

Then I went free lance and as part of my working week and for the next twenty odd years supported a group of users of mental health services in reflecting on and evaluating 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.

In the final analysis it comes down to the question, how can people in a helping role be helped in turn 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 a Buddhist tract, the Metta Sutta. One hesitates to use that phrase as a way of describing the skills which social workers and others 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, practiced with professional and careful skill. It is a hard and rigorous discipline of abiding with 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 title Hyphen-21 was heavily influenced by a book called “I and Thou” by a remarkable man called Martin Buber. 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 measurement, 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 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.

 

Copyright © Rogan Wolf – Poet and Social Worker
In all our sanctuaries we sit at risk

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