EVENT REVIEW: Melissa Lee Houghton and Bobby Parker: Poetry and Mental Health

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Saturday 15th October 
Empty Shop HQ
Review by Eloise Pearson

Saturday was almost entirely given over to poetry at Durham Book Festival, and when I arrived at Empty Shop I was pleased to see Poetry and Mental Health completely sold out. I lingered at the back for a while before eventually finding a seat- the small, bohemian venue almost uncomfortably cramped – but that just added to the overall effect of intimacy which was important for the event as a whole. Chaired by fellow poet Degan Stone, the event began with readings from both featured authors – Melissa Lee Houghton and Bobby Parker.

Melissa’s poetry is hyper-real; colours and words interact to create a vivid mindscape. She jokes that almost all of her poems are long, but I think without that they would lose the stream of consciousness form that makes them so compelling. Later Houghton says that she enjoys writing poetry as it gives recognition to her emotions and invites others to share in her experience, thus authenticating it. There is a strong sense of this during her reading. As she reads, the whole room leans forward as if she is unfurling her verse to you, and only you.

Parker reads next. There is something in his repeated refrains and explicit, jarring honesty that reminds me of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, which is surely high praise. Later in the event, Parker reads his highly contentious, ‘She Swallowed my Cum’. As Houghton points out, it is, in essence, a love poem but there is something so raw about it. I still can’t pinpoint exactly how I feel about it.

After the readings, both authors discuss their writing processes and how they can help, and indeed worsen their conditions at times. Houghton described being institutionalised and how, when she was denied therapy in writing or reading, it worsened her condition. When she talks about the state of mental health care in this country, audience members murmur in ascent. There is a strong sense of solidarity in the room.

Later, both poets take questions, both from Stone and briefly, from the audience. The confessional tone of the event keeps me glancing outside, astounded that there is still day light left – I feel almost as if this is a discussion one should be having in private under the cover of darkness. But this is exactly the problem that the event is trying to combat. We need more people like Parker and Houghton to remove the stigma of mental health by talking about it openly, at events like this. Similar to Matt Miller’s Sticking, which I saw earlier this week, the event really opened doors to issues I feel are stigmatised in society and expressed them eloquently and honestly. Houghton discusses how talking to people who have similar illnesses has been the best form of therapy. Indeed, I found the event to be therapeutic in a similar way.