I was Man for a Day at the Swindon Festival of Poetry

8 Oct

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That sounds fun, I thought, about being a man for a day. But I didn’t expect it to be such a challenge.

I don’t mean keeping the boobs flat (damn bandages kept rolling up), or keeping my ‘penis’ in place, or even perfecting the man’s walk when, essentially, a woman’s hips are different to a man’s.

Yes, these were annoying but all the women poets taking part in Diane Torr’s Man for a Day (Swindon Festival of Poetry) had these problems and it created a certain comradeship between us.

No, what was hard was knowing what kind of man I wanted to be. And this journey – for a while at least – was a lonely one. Did I want to be myself, but male? Did I want to be a man I admired? Or a man I didn’t?

At least I was clear that I didn’t want to be a stereotype. Or someone I didn’t like. Or my Dad.

When Diane began these workshops twenty-five years ago, most of her clients were lesbians. These days participants range from children to OAPs, married women, single women. This was the first time she’d had a solace* / permusory** of poets.

Juliet said she wanted to be ‘closer to her inner man.’ She’d learnt as a teen to smile more to make her face more friendly and less ‘intimidating’ and, as a man, was advised to smile a lot less; laugh only when necessary.

For Rachael, ‘the wild humour that’s part of me responds to the wild humour in Hilda.’ That’s Hilda Sheehan, festival organiser.

‘I just saw the words ‘workshop’ and ‘free’,’ Hannah said, flippantly, before going on to describe some complicated and confusing male role models of her formative years that she wanted to get a grip on.

Myfanwy explained: ‘I’ve always been very settled in my gender but I don’t think that’s good.’ As a biologist as well as a poet, she’s interested in how much masculinity is nature versus nurture, or biologists’ words: binary.

Jill had mixed feelings about the workshop. She’s come from a very female family, and has always been single. As a girl she wanted Scalxtric but got ballet classes. Later on she struggles with reactions on Facebook to a photo of Jack, her male persona. They tell her Jack is very convincing ‘which is a compliment to me and to Diane,’ she says, but it preys on her concerns that she’s too masculine.

Clare said she was more excited about doing this workshop ‘than seeing Kate Bush!’ “I don’t have strong associations with being a woman,” she told us, having being routinely turned away from public ladies’ loos and worried about hitting the town at the weekend ‘because being mistaken as a gay man makes me more vulnerable than as a woman.’ I have size eight feet and have had lifelong trouble of finding girls’, and later women’s, shoes to fit, which for someone who loves footwear is a big problem. I notice Clare’s shoes are bigger than mine. ‘Do you have trouble finding ladies’ shoes to fit,’ I ask. ‘I’ve never been interested in shoes,’ she replies. ‘Perhaps if you’d found shoes to fit, you may have been,’ I quip. ‘Are you suggesting that the direction of my life is down to the size of my feet?’ It’s a mark of how much we as a group have shared to be able to get away with this sort of banter, between people who were (mostly) strangers just a few hours previously.

On to the manly bit. It was a frustrating start. For whatever reason, I hadn’t seen the prep emails so I turned up having done no research. Fortunately I had raided chronicler Pete’s wardrobe, but I didn’t just want to ‘play’ him; my time as a man would have become some piss take of my husband. In the end I had my own unisex Tiger trainers, his Playboy shirt and socks, another of the participant’s ill-fitting spare man-trousers and a jacket leant to me by Gurch, the Man for a Day film maker. Given that I was going to be seen in public I felt really uncomfortable in such a set of mismatched clothes. I was most unhappy about losing my waist and felt a real lump.

We began with Aikedo-inspired exercises – learning to talk from our diaphragm and using ‘staccato’ movements, feet planted firmly on the floor, learning to own the space, not flit around it. “Be like babies,” Diane told us. “They aren’t afraid to let people know when they want something. Be loud.”

It was interesting to think about male and female. What are stereotypes and what are female characteristics and male characteristics? Is a gender association bad or good? Probably bad when it’s inhibiting and defining. When does men learning so-called female characteristics such as compromise and emotional expression become emasculating? How can women be authoritative without being a bossy bitch?

Diane didn’t involve herself in such gender debates: “No one can own the gender or know what it is to be a man or know what it is to be a woman.”

Diane began to make us up. Jill turned into Jack. Juliet turned in Chris Stone. Hannah into Ron. Clare into Edward. Myfanwy into Alex. Rachael into Nat. One by one they went out in the world to do observational research. All I knew was I wanted proper facial hair. I’ve always liked beards so I thought I’d try one out, picking an example from a particularly attractive model on a torn out page from Diane’s fashion magazine. He had his long hair gelled back so that sorted out what to do with mine of a similar length.

After thickening out my plucked eyebrows the job was done. And I liked the result. Diane handed me folded up paper with remnants of the facial ‘hair’. “I hope everyone goes on their own adventures as a man after this is over,” she said. Diane related to me how she would go out as a transvestite to give herself a break from being a wife and a mother. (That’s a bit Pythonesque, I said. She said, I don’t know what that means.)

Ron came back from a field trip to Tesco, men very thin on the ground. In an accent more heavily Lancashire than his female AKA, he observed: “You look like that prince from Game of Thrones.” “Jamie Lannister?” I asked. “That’s the one.” Game of Thrones is my favourite novel and TV show so I suddenly felt on familiar ground (Ron observed later that I visibly relaxed when he mentioned Jamie). I now had a handle on the man I was going to be: full of confidence on the surface, insecure underneath. Fictitious, yes, but there was some comfort in being at arm’s length (fans of GofT: no pun intended). I would be unreliable but charming, lost my way in life and my work. Perhaps I would have once been a successful poet but something happened which stemmed the creative flow.

There was a bit of role play: we had to introduce ourselves as men; we were stuck in a lift as men; we were on a stag do as men.

We talked about what it felt like to be men and the day’s experience. “It’s a double whammy of good company and being myself,” said Juliet, a self-confessed hater of female small talk, cue nods around the room. Those of us with kids all felt uncomfortable doing the toddler group, school playground talk. “More nuanced than I expected,” said Clare. “I enjoyed the reserve, the permission to be self-contained.” Rachael and Myfanwy said they felt stripped of the usual female social strategies. Hannah felt upset. In becoming Ron she’d adopted a male role model from her early life. “I suddenly realised that those men have had quite a hard life.”

At the day’s end, we were to perform as men as part of the festival’s finale at Swindon Arts Centre. I wasn’t there primarily as a poet, but after all that female/male bonding I felt it would be like splitting up the band if I didn’t read something. I remembered that two days earlier I’d written a poem about Felix Baumgartner, the record holder for breaking the sound barrier by falling to earth from the stratosphere. He could be considered as the ultimate in masculinity. But he struggled, very nearly not completing the record.

I was the penultimate reader; the wait was difficult and sweaty. An English actor (Dominic West, Idris Elba?) once said that acting with a foreign accent was like playing tennis with one hand tied behind your back. I was reminded of this when I walked on stage, so I stopped concentrating on the voice and gave all to my reading.

Afterwards: high fives all round. Another ten minutes and gallons of white spirit and our facial hair was gone. For something that set out to uncover masculinity – to quite literally walk in a man’s shoes – it was a great way to bond with other women. Secrets and insecurities had been shared, moments had become tearful and I think everyone felt so lucky to have had this experience, certainly me.

Hilda’s laudable intention was to give women poets a perspective on gender and how it affects our writing. And did it change our poetry? I don’t think the answer’s that simple. I think we all soaked up this challenging, exhausting and stimulating experience, just like we do in the rest of our lives, coming out in a new direction, a new metaphor, a new understanding.

Time will tell.

PS My Mum and her husband were baby sitting. When I returned home I showed her the photo of Jamie. ‘You look just like your father,’ she said.

Written by Louisa Davison

*© Ross Clark
**© me

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7 Responses to “I was Man for a Day at the Swindon Festival of Poetry”

  1. msjinnifer October 8, 2014 at 8:42 am #

    Thanks for that inside view of the day, Louisa. I reflected that Matt at Lower Shaw Farm said he was intimidated by me when we first met because I didn’t smile. I was worried that I was blocking the drive…. Well done to all of you and sorry I couldn’t stay.

    • Festival Chronicler October 8, 2014 at 8:52 am #

      Yeah – how many times have I heard: ‘smile – it might never happen’?

  2. Jill Abram October 8, 2014 at 11:51 am #

    My friends have reassured me that I am very feminine and didn’t think I could pull off being a man – that’s why they were so amazed at the transformation.

    • Festival Chronicler October 8, 2014 at 12:34 pm #

      There you go – worries over! Did you want me to take that bit out? More than happy too as it’s personal stuff.

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