Kate Adams – poet, artist and author of The Cheering Rain – talks to David Nettleingham about her work with refugees, and the stories that inspired her debut collection.
How did you first become involved in working with refugees and asylum seekers?
I became involved with refugees in 2002. The young offenders unit in Dover had been converted to an Immigration Removal Centre, or in other words, a prison detaining asylum seekers and other migrants indefinitely for the purpose of deportation. A campaign group was set up to oppose the Detention Centre. I became involved and also joined a Visitor Group befriending the detainees. The campaign group encouraged people to stand bail for the prisoners. One of the first detainees I visited was an Algerian man who was suffering from post- traumatic stress disorder after witnessing the shooting of a woman on a bus by Islamist rebels. I stood bail for him and he was released. His asylum claim was refused and he spent many years living on the edge of society without papers or rights. He was finally granted indefinite leave to remain in 2011. He continues to suffer from depression and anxiety related to his traumatic experiences.
In 2007 Kent Refugee Help, a registered charity was set up to support detainees in obtaining their release and to provide after-care. I have worked as a volunteer caseworker for the charity since its inception. The charity operates more or less as a co-operative with little funding. We work very much in partnership with detainees and former detainees. A number of our current clients are ex-foreign national prisoners, a group targeted and scapegoated by successive governments and the tabloid press. Many have drifted into crime through destitution. They are routinely criminalised for using false papers to enter the UK or working illegally, when they had no other option. It has been a great experience working collectively to help these refugees access their rights and challenge discrimination.
What was it that made you start writing poetry about these experiences?
I was moved and shocked by the case of a young man who became mute because he could not cope with his incarceration. He refused to co-operate with the Detention Centre regime and expressed his anger through a dirty protest, abandoning personal care and refusing food. He was punished for this behaviour by segregation and I was refused access when I went to visit him. We could not communicate but I wrote to him and asked other detainees to translate my letters into his language, Darija, an Arabic dialect.
I began writing poems which charted his struggle. Writing poetry helped me deal with my own distress at what was happening but also to honour his resilience. It was another way of fighting the system. I went on to complete a foundation course in counselling at the Refugee Therapy Centre, to learn more about the effects of trauma on the human psyche and the potential for healing. Until this point my writing energies had been focussed on producing reports for casework and leaflets, and press releases for campaigning. The year at the Refugee Therapy Centre allowed me to think in a different way and to begin to take writing poetry seriously.
The Cheering Rain reads as a series of snapshots and stories of different people and places, how far are they based on your experience and how far on the experiences of those you write about?
This is a difficult question to answer. There is no clear division between these two things. The poems are not an objective account of the experiences of the people I meet. They are my subjective response to their stories. In some of the poems stories are collaged or merged so they are not simply reportage.
It is not an obviously compelling or exciting story that inspires me to write; it is more about the way a person expresses themselves, their use of language, their imagery, the way of telling that then sparks my reaction. In this sense the poem results from a shared experience, an exchange between myself and the person I am listening to. I feel strongly that the poems belong to the people I have encountered; they are sourced from their struggle and survival in impossible circumstances. Of course, I am there in the poems too in different guises and my reaction is part of the story. I hope this gives the poems a universal quality.
In the poem, The Meeting Place, the narrator says in the last stanza,
“My meeting and yours collide/ two bright shapes/ in a kaleidoscopic night.”
Perhaps the place where two worlds collide, the refugee’s experience and mine, is the catalyst for the poems.
The sequence ‘Fes’ contains six individual poems – what separates these from the rest of the collection?
The refugees and migrants I connected with most strongly were Algerians and Moroccans. As the two countries border each other many of my clients had lived in both places and there were issues of disputed nationality. The Algerian Embassy is not co-operative in providing emergency travel documents for people to be returned who have no passport. Detainees in this situation languished in detention for many months and sometimes years before obtaining their release because their detention was deemed unlawful. They talked about the beauty of the country they missed, the colour and light in contrast to grey and rainy England as well as the impossibility of ever returning. I took a trip to Fes, Morocco in 2011 so that I could understand more. I would have liked to travel to Algeria but was advised it wasn’t safe because of the kidnapping of tourists. In Morocco I met people like the detainees I had been supporting, the difference was they were free and independent if extremely poor. I made notes and drawings while I was there and from these the six poems emerged. I could have written many more if I had stayed longer; every day was an amazing visual and emotional experience.
The Fes poems are about the other side of detention, the roots and the source of migration. I tried to honour this in the poem, Your Name Means an Avenue which is about remembering someone you have lost when you visit their country.
What would you like the reader to take away from this collection?
Poetry works when it takes you to another place, the country of your imagination. I have sometimes experienced this sensation in my work with detainees and post detention survivors; a voice on the telephone, a house in a run down road, a man facing his trouble with extraordinary courage and resolution can transport me to a different world, allowing me to escape my own frustrations and limitations. In forgetting myself I have arrived somewhere else and so extended my understanding of the human condition. I hope this is reflected in the poetry.