You took the words right out of my mouth…

Jackie standing in front of a wall smoking a cigarette
Artist Jackie Hagan

Excuse the Meatloaf headline, but Jo Verrent, Unlimited’s Senior Producer is blogging about words, writing and all things literature to celebrate today’s announcement of the Jerwood Compton Poetry Fellowships. And to coin another Meatloaf ditty, two out of three ain’t bad…


Today the Jerwood Compton Poetry Fellowships were announced and we are utterly delighted to see that not only are two of the three fellowships going to disabled writers, but also that one of these is Jackie Hagan, who is also currently being supported by Unlimited to develop Jumble Soul – ‘a new solo show that features the real voices of proper skint disabled people who she’s got to know’, premiering this autumn at Contact in Manchester.


The Jerwood Poetry Fellowships, a collaboration between Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Arts Council England, offer a significant new professional development opportunity for poets, made possible through a bequest from Mr Joseph Compton in 1964. They offer a very different type of support for poets. Rather than a commission, they invest in the process and practice of making poetry, with no expectations of published work or performed events as a result of the award. And it’s not an insubstantial sum – each fellow will receive £15,000 and in addition, gain support from a mentor, a range of advisers and ‘critical friends’ to support their developing practice. It’s a brilliant out turn that against extreme competition not one, but two disabled writers rose to the top and have been able to gain this vital support.


Alongside Jackie Hagan, the other disabled poet supported is Raymond Antrobus, born in Hackney, East London, who is a page and spoken word poet who explores deafness, diaspora and language (oral, written and sign) which fuses with his practice as a teacher of performance and creative writing.


Disabled writers have often experienced considerable barriers – constantly being told what and how to write, what to focus on and what to tone up or tone down. As Penny Pepper, author of Desires, Desires Reborn and soon to be published memoire First in the World Somewhere, reported on sending in a draft of a novel: ‘I sent it to agents, only to hear responses like a stuck record for years to come: your writing is good but the story won’t sell. Disability is too negative. No-one wants to read about disabled people’. And quite often when disability does feature in literature, it’s not disabled people writing about it, leading to sensationalizing, inaccurate and often offensive portrayals.


At the same time as all that, investment in literature is often low. During 2014–15 Arts Council England invested £17.5 million in literature, less than 10% of the £178.3 million invested in the same period in theatre. Although literature is often seen to be the least funded artform, the reality is more complex.


If you look at Unlimited’s current commissions, only the remarkable Owen Lowery’s Transitions – ‘a brand new series of poems dealing with the subject of transitions and transformations, which Owen will present in a series of readings, supported by film and music, plus theatrical interpretation’ – appears under literature.


Jackie Hagan appears under ‘theatre’ as she is taking her words and placing them in a theatrical context. This is true for three other commissions where writing is dominant in the commission itself, but the form is theatre: Jack Dean and his R&D award for Jeremiah – a new piece of gig-theatre focused on the Luddite rebellion, Chloë Clarke and her R&D for The Importance of Being Described…Earnestly? – an improvised comedy focused on using audio description as a creative tool, giving the audience a choice of interpretation, and Kaite O’Reilly and Peter Sau’s The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues – an international theatrical dialogue of difference, disability, and what it is to be human, from opposite sides of the world – being developed in Singapore. Kaite is an established playwright and her previous Unlimited commission, Cosy and her original 2012 Unlimited commission In Water I’m Weightless both feature in her latest anthology, Atypical Plays for Atypical Actors.


There will always be disabled writers, and some will be public about being disabled people and some won’t, as there are many different perspectives around identity. Equally, some will write about disability and some won’t for pretty much the same reasons. One thing they do have in common though, is that many of them will experience access barriers in getting their writing into the world. Whilst there are some disability specific writers’ projects, such as Disability Writes, it’s up to every single project, organisation, scheme and programme focusing on writers to consider how it includes, promotes, supports and develops disabled writers too. We’d love to support more writers through Unlimited – so if you know disabled people working in this area, please do get them to sign up to our newsletter to get news of our next commission round coming out late this summer.


Please join us today in sending massive congratulations to all at Jerwood Charitable Foundation, and also to Jackie Hagan – and if you can’t wait until the autumn to see her Unlimited commission Jumble Soul, then catch Graeae’s production of Cosmic Scallies, also written by Jackie, at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer and at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, this autumn.