OUTSIDE EDGE / Edward Platt on the life-saving Survivors' Poetry

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The Independent Culture
Poetry saves lives,' claims Joe Bidder, a founder member of Survivors' Poetry. The group, founded in 1991, is dedicated to nurturing the writing talents of 'survivors' of the mental health system. It has grown into one of the most vibrant poetry networks in the country. Last year alone, it organised 100 events, and it has already given paid work to 150 'survivor poets' - all of whom have a history of mental illness.' We've touched a well-spring, and it's just gushing forth,' says Joe Bidder.

Joe Bidder's evangelical faith in the power of poetry is founded in personal experience. He suffered the first of a series of break-downs in 1971, at the age of 30, and was diagnosed a manic depressive. In 1978, he started writing - 'raw, undisciplined poetry that was coming out of a place of me I could not control' - and within three years he had given up his job as the sales director of a major construction company to become a full-time performance poet. Since 1985, he has not broken down once, and he attributes the change to the cathartic effect of writing: 'All the emotions that you have are marginalised and rejected because you are classed as mentally ill. But if you write it down and perform it, then it becomes validated. It can transform

your life.'

Bidder and three other poets decided to establish a regular workshop where they would be able to to talk freely: 'People often feel too exposed and vulnerable to go to a conventional poetry workshop. We wanted somewhere they could feel comfortable. It doesn't mean that everything they write has to be about mental illness, but it forces people to acknowledge that everything is influenced by it.'

Though they are keen to break down some of the fears and prejudices surrounding mental illness, Bidder insists they are an artistic movement, rather than a campaigning organisation. They are proud of the fact that they boast performers and audiences from both mainstream and disability arts; when they book professional poets, they do not restrict themselves to survivors - instead, they look for 'kindred spirits', writers whose views and experiences are in sympathy with theirs. They are not short of choice - Bidder claims that 10 per cent of the population seek help from the psychiatric system at some stage in their lives, and he is quick to stress the notorious connection between mental illness and creativity: 'You only have to look at all the great writers and artists over the centuries to see the link. The force of the creative spirit is so strong in Survivors' Poetry - it's what makes us unique.'

'A Festival of Survivor's Poetry' runs from 14-17 June, in Portsmouth and on the Isle of Wight. There are regular workshops and performances in London and around the country

For more information, contact Survivors' Poetry, 34 Osnabergh Street, London NW1 3ND (071-916 5317)