by Harry Smithson
"I’ve never wanted to be exclusive, to use an elitist form of expression. I’d always want to speak to someone in the street and for them to get the crux of what I’m saying"
Poet, performer and A&E nurse Piers Harrison-Reid, fresh from appearances on the BBC and CNN, shares an exclusive poem for our 7th issue, Solitude. In our interview, we discuss the risk of publicly confronting racism, playing roles as a poet, and attempting to resonate with those who disagree with him.
So, now it seems the brown man’s saviour is viewfinder favouring the true.
Still smirk-screams of context and coon fill comment sections, and forget to count their blessings. Who knew?
Some closet racists now want a brown face to call their bias justified.
Pretend a rich right winger has nothing to hide. You know people lie for power and pride, right?
But we’re all flawed, all worthy of love, yeah whatever you’re feeling is alright:
We all crave contact, cuddles, and the darkening soft summer skies,
We’re all made of stars, all search for meaning,
We’re all such beautiful sore thumbs, sometimes.
We are clammy handed honesty, hope pouring out of smiling eyes.
Lord knows my zen is more Monzo than bonsai but I,
know so many lived and died, to get us right here in time.
Belly Mujinga and the ghosts of Grenfell: No justice no peace.
This skin has rotten nooses hanging from it still you see.
But the opposite of death is dance, to be truly lost in movement: glee
Our lives electric and our love is vast like the beauty of the rolling sea.
So, may the space we leave be full of light,
May we find one voice to sing and fight,
Learn to harmonise our heartbreak, learn we can be less polite.
Begin to rebuild our world to meet all our needs and make it right.
And as we are our actions we must always act phenomenally:
Take time to listen, forgive ourselves, just breathe and grow and be.
How long have you been a poet?
I’ve been writing poetry for 10/15 years. I’m 27 now. When I was 16, I focused on writing then performing in the Colchester area – Essex, Suffolk. Recently I’ve been writing more about my life as an A&E nurse, using the medium of poetry as a form of reflective practice.
There’s been a spurt of public interest in your poems. Can you give us a run-down of the developments?
I was a full-time A&E nurse for a few years and decided that it was taking over my life and I wasn’t finding time to write. I started doing bank-nursing, which allows you to choose which hours you work, so I could focus a bit more on poetry.
I immediately went on tour with a group of poets around England, Scotland and Ireland. Off the back of that we started doing some work with the BBC to increase the profile of the tour. It was serendipity that one of the producers for radio and one of the producers for TV also wanted something about the NHS being 70 years of age. So as a poet and a nurse I was asked to write about that. That worked really well – it got up to I think a million views across different platforms. They asked me to revisit that again this year, in the wake of the coronavirus crisis and it’s two years since that last piece was done, so the NHS is 72 years of age since its inception.
I expanded a little bit on the things which had changed. The first piece I did for them, they asked me to edit it down to make it shorter and take out some of the more… pointed political commentary, I would say. This time round, they kind of let me keep it as it was. Whether that means I’ve adjusted my political outlook, whether I’m more part of the status quo, or if we have a better working relationship, I don’t know. I also think I understand a bit more about what the BBC wants on their platforms, because they’re not allowed to be seen as political.
Off the back of the NHS pieces they also asked me to write about Black Lives Matter. I think it’s something we have to understand as performers and entertainers, we take on roles for different platforms, which don’t always necessarily correspond with how we see ourselves. I think [BLM] is interesting, but I’m not one of the organisers. So when I’m writing about it I always have to say – I’m just writing from my own experience, not as a particularly active activist, or as an organiser of an incredible grassroots movement. But it’s still not something I’ve sunk my teeth into like a lot of other people have.
"The online feedback I got for the NHS pieces and the BLM pieces is stark"
How do you feel about politics impacting your poetry? Does it always inspire you, or do you see it as a necessary evil that you have to engage with?
I think it’s difficult. I know I’ve made a personal point of not engaging with racism through my poetry for the vast majority of my life. I wrote a bit about it when I was younger just to see what I came up with; I was listening to a lot of hip-hop at the time, and I figured I should try and write about it. The things which I wrote when I was young feel, reading back on them, quite juvenile. I was trying to find a poetic voice so it was a good experience, but it wasn’t something that I wanted to define my poetry.
I was avoiding it because I didn’t want to be a cliché, but also realise that not engaging with the problem hasn’t made it better. It’s allowed a lot of people in the circles I move in to assume racism doesn’t really play a factor in my life. I want people to know that I’ve had racism in my direction as a child, as an adult, both at work and outside work. I wouldn’t say that I necessarily have to write about racism, but I feel like I’ve been pulled towards it, partly through the commissions that I’ve been asked to do but also – I could’ve refused them, y’know?
Stepping back, the difference between the online feedback I got for the NHS pieces and the BLM pieces is stark. I was very aware that was going to happen, so much so that in the [BLM] piece I wrote, I referenced I was going to get abuse. It wasn’t so much the tenacity or toxicity of the abuse I was receiving, it was more the range of it. I’ve shied away from talking about racism partly because I think I didn’t want to engage with it, maybe through my own fear, maybe through my own lack of energy for those discussions. I think it’s a necessary evil to engage with, but a lot of people choose not to engage. And my poetry will always be political. I’m not gonna be writing about nature and not having some undercurrent of horrible stuff.
You may not have a target demographic, but do you think there’s any type of people who would be particularly moved by your poetry, or indeed anyone who would be particularly affronted by it?
I guess the demographic of people giving me abuse online about the race relations pieces was obviously white, but the abuse I got for the CNN piece was from people who supported Trump – who made a point of their Trump support. I think they were very specifically against whatever I was saying before I said it. I think Trump panders to groups who feel like they’ve lost control.
Realistically my demographic from the beginning has always been the common man. I try not to use too much intangible language. When I speak I’m more verbose than I am in my poetry. And I think I use more complicated words and ideas when I speak than in my poetry, hopefully. I never really want to write poetry for other poets. I think it’s a bit of a boring, stagnant way of writing. I write for myself to express myself and to try and make my self-expression resonate with as many people as possible through relatively simplistic word-choice, and hopefully just raw emotion that people can connect with. So I’ve never wanted to be exclusive, I’ve never wanted to use an elitist form of expression. I’ve liked a lot of incredible poets who I know write for other poets, who self-identify as, y’know, loving words. I’d always want to speak to someone in the street and for them to get the crux of what I’m saying.
Some of the people criticising your poem seemed to suggest that it was inappropriate of you to be relaying your experiences. Do you think there was an expectation, possibly derived from white fragility, that you should be relaying their experiences?
I think it comes down to what is and isn’t valid expression and who gets the platforms for their expression. It’s something I’ve wrestled with recently because I’ve had a lot of opportunities over the past year or two. I’m sure because some agencies have seen that I tick certain boxes. We always have to see how we’re perceived in society. But then, why is my take not valid? Just because it doesn’t speak to people? I think some people in the middle to lower classes in white England feel sometimes like their lives aren’t as easy as they’re supposed to be, especially with race relations and sexual discussions around privilege. I feel like a lot of white men feel like their lives should be easier, they’re being told that they’re in a privileged position without necessarily engaging with the idea of privilege, how it’s a complex idea with lots of things interacting and affecting how well you do in life.
When people come at it like: 'this person doesn’t speak to me, nobody feels like this' or 'racism doesn’t exist', and that's next to a comment that says ‘this is exactly how I feel, racism exists’ , it feels like we’re not seeing each other at all, probably intentionally. It’s quite frustrating and difficult to be the person at the centre of that, having created a piece of art from my own experience and having those experiences brought into question.
I feel like I shouldn’t have to say, ‘oh I’m half white, I was raised by a white mother in a middle class area of the world which was very sheltered'. I shouldn’t have to say that to appeal to a white demographic that doesn’t trust what I’m saying because I’m black, but I do feel like I sometimes have to go through the reasons why my piece should be valid.
Do you think that the assumption on the part of a lot of white people that you’re not really trying to resonate with them – do you think that assumption is erroneous?
I shouldn’t necessarily have to lead people by the hand in order for them to listen to what I’m saying, especially as I’m speaking from experience, even if they are just another human being saying: ‘this is my experience.’ At least acknowledge it and say ‘that’s your experience - it goes against mine and my understanding of the world, but I understand that’s your experience.’
The only way you could see that [I’m fundamentally not trying to resonate with you] is by thinking that I’m not speaking from my own heart, that I’m not being truthful and that I’m just a BBC stooge, and that this is some BBC attempt to stoke discontent for some strange reason. Probably something to do with George Soros or whatever. It’s frustrating because I don’t know how I can pander to these groups any more than I already do by just saying what is true. What else can I say?
Some of Piers’ work and upcoming events can be found on his website
Harry Smithson is a speech & language therapist and the literature editor of the Radical Art Review