When I was at school, to the best of my recollection, most poetry rhymed. I also stuck slavishly to couplets, or, if I was feeling particularly adventurous, I’d try A B A B rhyming.
Once I’d left school, however, a wider world of poetry was waiting for me beyond the gates. Roger McGough, John Cooper Clarke, Ogden Nash, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Stevie Smith, among others, led me to experience poetry as a means of personal expression, of protest, and a way to explore aspects of life that we, the readers, may never have considered (or have had to).
Bear that in mind as I bring you an interview with Villayat ‘Snowmoon-Wolf ‘ Sunkmanitu, who uses poetry and photography to cope with his own PTSD and to raise awareness about its impact on PTSD sufferers and the people in their lives. Regular visitors to this blog will know I’ve interviewed him before, but here he talks about what’s next for him now that he has completed a trilogy of works in his Poetry of a Veteran series. Just like his poetry, his responses come straight from the heart, or the gut. Here he is, in his own, inimitable style.
1. Soul of a Wolf if your third poetry book, which you’ve said is the last in the series. What’s next in your journey?
I feel the need to walk away from writing PTSD related work at the moment. My next projects will be photography and wolf related … focussing on photography as well as the written word. I have had both of these projects swirling around in my mind for a few years now but I promised myself that I could indulge myself in them when I got the painful writing out of the way. I also have an autobiographical novel planned … but I need to rest up a lot more before getting to writing that one.
2. We’ve talked in the past about the therapeutic value of the arts. How has writing and photography helped you?
Creative therapies help us to process information stored as memories in a subconscious way. With my poetry it’s as though I’ve temporarily become a Vulcan (Mr Spock type for you Trekkies) – you don’t feel your emotions, they just come pouring out in your words. When you go back and read your own words it can be a bit harrowing because ‘Vulcan mode’ is switched off and you’re having an emotional response to your words. Sometimes it’s as if you were in a trance and this is the first time you’ve seen the words and you question whether you wrote the words in front of you on your screen; computer date stamp and copyright tags says – ‘Yes – you did!’
These three books have helped me to explore some of the issues that I have encountered in my periods of uniformed service, such as racism, corruption, PTSD, fear and apathy. It’s time to write about other things for a while. I think it’s also helped to get a message out there that not all members of the Armed Forces are chest-beating macho types. We can be strong and fight when it’s needed … but some are also sensitive souls with feelings, awareness and empathy about current human issues.
3. There’s a lot more public awareness about PTSD, but could you give us a personal insight into some of the challenges – and how they affect your creativity?
I would argue that the public aren’t as aware as I’d like them to be. I remember seeing an advert somewhere portraying a Veteran having a flashback. I could relate to the content but felt that it was sensationalised in the way that it was presented; people are very impressionable and can walk away thinking that all Veterans are affected in the same way. I find that people stereotype others much too easily … It’s the lazy option and can be misguiding. Disabilities affect people differently … We may have the same condition but the way that it affects us, the way we cope and how we interact with the world around is very varied.
On the issue of care for Veterans with PTSD – the public have to be aware that everything that the NHS provide in terms of care has a budgetary limit. They don’t have the resources to provide Veterans with what they need to cope with this condition. The NHS works on the premise that early detection and Trauma-focused cognitive-behavioural therapy are the key. This can work for troops returning from current conflicts. However we need to be aware of a fact that seems to be pushed further and further from the minds of the general public … We still have many Veterans from conflicts as far back as World War 2 that are still alive – still without support – still suffering in silence with PTSD. Trauma-focused cognitive-behavioural therapy will do a little good but what these people need (myself included) is the opportunity to just sit and talk to someone that understands the issues – allowing us to off load and go back to living with PTSD for a while before we need another opportunity to do the same. The budget holders have intimated that this won’t happen because the issue of PTSD and Veterans ranks very low on their priority list and we just have to get on with it. We’ve been getting on with living with PTSD for many generations. A message I would give to the NHS and their government funders is that they need to remember this: You limit the ways in which you can help Veterans that live a hellish existence resulting in a disability that arose from carrying out their duty to their Queen and Country. They signed off on their cheques and risked their lives for the British public, as a collective … but when they needed the help of the system after coming back to broken homes and shattered lives, the British Government made them acutely aware of the following – there is very little honour in civvy street and the Military Covenant is just a myth.
Some organisations have done very well on the back of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan … One in particular is ‘Help for Heroes’. They branded themselves in a way that captured the public’s imagination and support … But what people don’t know is that they only support projects and troops from the war with Iraq onwards and don’t support Veterans or projects from earlier conflicts. Think back to the number of military operations that the British Armed Forces have been involved in since (and including) World War 2 and try to imagine the real numbers of unsupported Veterans out there that did their duty … only to be forgotten until a lonely bugle sounds on a November morning. Remembrance Day could be viewed as a hollow political exercise.
You then have other organisations that make you feel like a worm for asking for the support that they advertise they’re ready to give you. I had such an experience after getting my first home. I needed things like a vacuum cleaner and some other bits and pieces. The tone of the officer dealing with the application towards me was at the very least condescending and may have harboured a darker issue. I have never made a formal application for help from such organisations since.
Disabled artists and writers can be easily manipulated or abused if they’re not careful. It’s a material world and money’s the new religion. Creative people must protect their Intellectual Property very carefully, particularly in light of the current changes made to orphan works in the UK. For more info see http://www.wolf-photography.com/html/IP-UK/respectIP.html and please have a good look around the whole of the section of my site. It will teach you how to protect your internet assets and give examples of how to sell or publish your work without falling prey to the rip off merchants out there.
As a disabled artist, I have limitations. This is why I do therapeutic work only nowadays. I have to be very careful with my energy and how I use it. I tend to visualise a pot and keep tabs on the levels within. If the levels are below half, I stop working and rest … For as long as it takes to fill the pot up again before carrying on. Coping with a disability, with a community that in the main are ignorant of PTSD and with everyday life – is tiring enough. When you add something else to the equation (e.g. dealing with publicists, media, book distributors, other businesses etc) life can become pretty difficult.
4. Is there life after PTSD?
There’s life WITH PTSD! We just have to be careful with our energy, our expectations and how the condition affects us (e.g. what our particular triggers are and how to minimise exposure to those particular scenarios).
If we’re lucky, we find people with kind hearts and open spirits along the way that will help us to achieve our ambitions, whatever they may be.
The key is to be realistic about the demands that we place upon ourselves. I have worked hard all my life until I was retired on ill health in 2006. I now do ‘therapeutic’ or ‘permitted work’ as it’s now called. This allows me to work at my own pace without external pressure and allows me to continue contributing to society in some way. I get days when I’m very low on energy and I remind myself that it’s okay to rest up and just look after myself – no one else is going to do it … and that I’m not lazy. There are days when I’m too hard on myself … That’s the result of the work ethic that I have had since the age of seven! I cannot earn a profit now … and I’d be happy if the business broke even every year … but the real reward is that my creativity allows me to continue living with PTSD. I’ve been lucky enough to experience things that still make me smile deep down inside – and most of these are through my photography of the natural world. If my words reach someone and help them to feel understood or provide empathy or perhaps make them laugh – then I’m content. Hopefully they’re laughing or smiling at something that’s meant to engender that reaction rather than thinking my books are crap!
Whatever your disability is … find a way to do something creative around it – allow your mind and spirit to be free for a while.
5. Are there any poets or other writers that have particularly inspired you while writing your three poetry books?
None. When engaged in my photography or writing, I tend to become more insular and don’t let other influences enter my mind. However, it’s amazing how many times Wordsworth’s Daffodils echoes through the corridors of my memory. The whole object of using creativity to cope with PTSD is to process my issues and to release the valve – it’s a bit like flushing after a good dump – but not as smelly. So I tend to release a lot more than I take in.
6. You wrote The Words of a Wolf some time ago now. Has the publishing landscape changed much since then?
I think so. There’s a lot more work being self-published and I feel that’s great! How many times have you bought a book on the recommendation of a press piece on the back cover, only to find that it’s complete bollocks? People flock to those books because the big companies use contacts to create spin to make them sound like good books – which some are – but not a lot.
Retailers have changed their attitudes as well. When ‘Words of a Wolf’ was released, the reason for writing the book and details of the project were explained to as many branch managers at Waterstones as possible (to raise awareness of how PTSD affects Veterans). Their response and support is something that I’ll always be grateful for – http://www.waterstones.com/waterstonesweb/products/villayat+22snowmoon+wolf 22+sunkmanitu/words+of+a+wolf/7548871/ – particularly the staff that entered ‘book seller’ reviews. 140 Waterstones stores held copies of Words of a Wolf at their branches.
I contacted Waterstones centrally when ‘The Way of the Wolf’ was released only to be told that decisions would not be made by local managers any longer, that purchasing was regionalised and that they expected 50-60% discount on all purchases before they would consider ordering any stock in. I was also told that that they weren’t happy with me quoting the fact that the book was available in ‘Amazon Kindle format’ on the back cover – which I found particularly strange as I’d been reliably informed that Waterstones were going to be selling Kindle readers. If you’re designing your cover for your latest book – check out the distributor’s opinion on these matters.
7. What do you hope people will gain from your latest book?
I hope that they’ll gain a bit more awareness of what living with PTSD is like. People afflicted by the condition are subject to the same issues that everyone lives with but Veterans have a hard time because they come back to society that doesn’t understand where they’ve been, what they’ve done, how they’ve been treated and conditioned … and the sense of abandonment that they’re left with when they come back to a society that doesn’t really want them.
From my own perspective: we were in situations where honour meant everything. We were ready to lay down our lives for our colleagues and people that we were ordered to protect. We cared for each other. We were equals. Materialism was minimal. When I look around in civvy street I see very little honour, a huge decline in moral and basic good manners … and a huge rise in selfishness based on materialism. This isn’t the UK that I fought for. Too much has changed … and it’s not down to immigrant workers, differing cultures and religions or any of the spin that people wishing to divide the UK populace would have you believe. I feel that we’re losing our way because there’s too much greed and corruption in our political and legal systems … we need to address this and to provide positive role models from the emerging generations of celebrities, business people and leaders.
8. Do you plan to do any public readings?
I’ve had an offer from poet and playwright Dave Puller to do a public reading and would to take him up on it. I’m also planning on doing some readings as part of the workshop elements of my rolling exhibition of poetry and photography that starts in November 2013 – see http://wolf-photography.com/html/exhibition.html.
The challenges? I could end up a quivering wreck! :o) One of the attributes of PTSD is disassociation – perhaps I’ll try to make positive use of a negative.
9. Where can people find out more about your book and the project?
Pop along to www.wolf-photography.com – you’ll find everything there.
You can also follow my progress on these social media:
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/Wolf.Photographer
Twitter – https://twitter.com/wolf_photo