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LGBT+ History Month

Interview: Simon Maddrell on poetry, Derek Jarman and activism

LGBT+ History Month takes place every February across the UK, celebrating the achievements and contributions of all LGBT+ individuals and communities. It is also a time to reflect on (and raise awareness of) the ongoing struggles and discrimination that they face, and what needs to change to create a more inclusive society.

As part of this year’s celebrations, the poet, editor, educator and facilitator Simon Maddrell kindly agreed to answer a few questions about himself and his most recent work focused on legendary writer, artist, queer and AIDS activist, designer, filmmaker and gardener Derek Jarman, and to share with OCA students a couple of his poems.  

Simon writes as a queer Manx man, thriving with HIV in Brighton and Hove. Since 2019, over a hundred and thirty of his poems have appeared in twenty anthologies and numerous publications including Acumen, AMBIT, Butcher’s Dog, Poetry Wales, Stand, The Gay & Lesbian Review, The Moth, The Rialto, and Under the Radar. Simon’s debut, Throatbone (2020), was published by UnCollected Press, and his second pamphlet, Queerfella, jointly-won The Rialto Open Pamphlet Competition in 2020. In 2023, The Whole Island (Valley Press) and Isle of Sin (Polari Press) were Poetry Book Society Selections. 

Simon’s latest collection, a finger in derek jarman’s mouth (Polari Press), launches this month to mark the 30th anniversary of Jarman’s death. Simon takes words from Jarman’s diaries, images from his films and colours from his Prospect Cottage garden in Dungeness on the Kent coast, and re-edits them into what author, director and performer Neil Bartlett describes as “a loving, furious and gorgeously queer act of homage”. 


How did you first come to know and engage with Jarman’s work? 

I can’t remember my first encounter with Jarman. It probably began with his pop videos for The Smiths and The Pet Shop Boys, without me knowing it was him. I have very distinct memories of seeing Sebastiane (Jarman’s 1976 feature film debut is a loose retelling of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian), which was my first positive experience of being queer on a film or tv screen. This inspired me to also see Caravaggio (the 1986 sumptuous biopic) and his other films. I also remember his interview with Jeremy Isaacs and his choice to be open about his HIV status in late 1986.  

Why is Jarman important to you, and how has his life and art inspired you in relation to advocating engagement with the arts by the LGBTQ+ community to facilitate change?

I think Jarman’s life influenced his art and his creative process, and Jarman’s life has influenced, first and foremost, my life, and then my creative work and output. 

Jarman influenced me specifically in terms of queer activism. (Jarman’s book At Your Own Risk, first published in 1992, is both an historical record and a call for the right to be queer how we want to be queer, not just a call for heteronormative equality.) He has inspired me to be an HIV/AIDS activist (albeit not to his level!). My dad inspired my love of gardening, but Jarman has inspired the design of my garden (ironically it has four walls), which has hanging threaded stones, artefacts and flotsam and jetsam (in my case from the beach and the street!).

Jarman was a big factor in me being open about my HIV status after I contracted HIV in 2013. My second pamphlet Queerfella was my journey from shamed to unashamed. Documenting queer history is important to me.  Isle of Sin charts the queer history of the Isle of Man from 1986-1992, and also the life of actor Dursley McLinden who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1995. (He was the inspiration for Ritchie Tozer in the Channel 4 drama It’s a Sin). 

This year I’ll be working with people living with HIV in workshops - reading, listening and writing poetry and prose. I have recently got an ACE project grant to support this and to write a poetic memoir about Jonathan Blake — one of the first people in the UK to be diagnosed with HIV (and now 74 years old).

In addition to my latest pamphlet, a finger in derek jarman’s mouth, I have been working on a manuscript that charts, in many senses, my ‘relationship’ with Jarman — how I was inspired to escape the shame of queerness and HIV, embrace sex, create a garden inspired by the Prospect Cottage Garden design elements, and explore more deeply the relationship between nature, mortality and extinction, like he did so brilliantly.

In what ways do you think Jarman has shaped or impacted your practice and voice as a poet in terms of your collection’s key concerns, images, themes, phrases, sounds, rhythms, forms or structure? 

The Jarman pamphlet is unashamedly a homage to Jarman. There are a couple of poems at the end that are in the lyrical ‘I’ and that ‘I’ is me, but most of the poems are either Jarman as the lyrical ‘I’ or Jarman as ‘he’. Obviously, I am there because of what I have chosen to write, but it is mainly about him.

It is heavily influenced by (and centred on) Prospect Cottage and his garden, alongside HIV. However, it also looks at his works, in particular two ekphrastic poems from two scenes in War Requiem (Jarman’s 1989 powerful visual evocation of Benjamin Britten's oratorio). There are also ‘found poems’ or ‘semi-found poems’ from Jarman’s words. 

There are a lot of ’sonnets’ or 14-line poems, and I also frequently use a favourite form of mine, which is two column poems, meaning they can be read two ways (or even three ways if there is more than one stanza). To me, it felt like these different ways of looking at the same thing fitted Jarman well. The poems are quite sparse in the main and try to focus on imagery, but there are some narrative poems, especially the two inspired by stories from his friends, including Tilda Swinton, who found Prospect Cottage with Jarman.

Jarman is someone who wanted his art to say something, and I aspire to that.

Can you describe your process in creating this collection, and how the poems evolved? Where did you start?!

I read or re-read, or watched or re-watched his books and films; read lots of books about him and Prospect Cottage; went to London’s Garden Museum exhibition on Prospect Cottage, Manchester Art Gallery’s PROTEST! exhibition, the John Hansard Gallery exhibition in Southampton; watched interviews with him, etc.

As you can see from the different types of poems I have included, the starting points were very different depending on the poem. I guess what they all have in common is that I tried to emotionally submerge myself in the subjects and objects of each poem.  I had loads of scribbled ideas that never turned into anything that really grabbed me, so it certainly isn’t biographic in that sense of trying to capture every aspect of his life through the years.

Were there any particular challenges you faced? (For example, in relation to intertextuality, the concept of identity or navigating creative/personal vulnerabilities.)

The biggest challenge is to do Jarman justice, and I hope I have.  I was never trying to make pronouncements or judgements about him in a way a biography often does. I have neither the right, nor the skill, nor the agency to do that.  I was trying to illustrate aspects of his life using poetry.  I guess with poetry being perhaps the lesser of his extensive and immense talents, it felt less foreboding choosing poetry.

I hope the poems are transparent (there are notes at the back for most poems) as to what they are trying to navigate and/or illustrate. I think it is clear where I am reflecting directly his influence on me, and it is certainly clear from the notes how I have mashed his and my words about (and experience) of HIV and HIV stigma together in the two columned ‘life confirmed as a time bomb’. 

What do you hope this collection brings to others?

I’m shocked at how many people have never heard of Derek Jarman -  even queer individuals, especially the younger generation, and those under 40 years of age! I hope this brings him to the attention of many, who will be inspired to learn, see, watch, and read more about his incredible legacy. I hope those that do know of him, see it as an act of homage, and perhaps gain additional perspectives.

The AIDS global epidemic hit the UK dramatically during the 80s and 90s, decimating a generation of queer men, and so many stories are lost, or not passed on –– which is why I am so passionate about telling our stories and the stories of other queer people of my age or older.

The Limited Edition of a finger in derek jarman’s mouth is sold out, but a standard second edition is forthcoming.

Details of Simon’s London launch events and Brighton readings can be accessed here.

Signed copies of Simon’s other books are available here

('life confirmed as a time bomb' was originally published in Poetry Wales; ‘crambe marítima’ first appeared in AMBIT)

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