The Background To Shtum: The Stutter Poems David Bateman
Stuttering And Writing
I stuttered since soon after starting school. It began as a simple repeat-stutter, where you’re saying the same syllable over and over, but by the time I was in my teens it had developed all the extras that stutters do. So it became a block-stutter too, where you just get completely stuck, unable to say anything for a while except for the odd ‘Uh’ noise, and where you’re also grimacing badly as you try to force the word out. Most children who stutter leave it behind at some point in their later childhood or teenage years; but as happens sometimes, mine just carried on with me.
I started writing poetry properly when I was 16. Cycling home from my Saturday job as a hospital cleaner, I’d often stop off at the bookshop for a browse. This particular sunny June weekend, I noticed the names Henri, McGough and Patten on the spine of a book, and I recognized them as the names of the three poets on Grimms, a live album of music, poetry and comedy I’d heard at my friend Rob’s. The poets were funny and serious at the same time; and, reading the book that evening, one of the poems reminded me of a dream I’d had, that I’d already written down as diary. I thought maybe I could make a poem out of that, and I tried it. Next day, at risk of being thought airy-fairy, I showed the poem to a couple of friends; and I think I was always going to be a writer from then on. Admittedly I stuttered so badly I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to talk properly; but at least I could write.
Jump forward a few years. The poems in Shtum were written over a long spread of time: mostly 2009 to 2015, but the earliest ones are from 1980. I’m half-surprised that I hadn’t thought of writing a collection about stuttering earlier, and that it took someone else’s project to kick me into action.
It was in May 2009 that I was contacted by Gary Hastie via my author’s page at the Write Out Loud website, asking if I’d take part in a BBC Radio Merseyside documentary about stuttering that he was making. At that stage, he was particularly interested in stutterers who perform in public; and the fact that the focus would be on my poetry and performing prompted me to look back at what poetry I’d written to do with stuttering itself.
I felt that I hadn’t really written much about stuttering apart from a couple of pieces, but what I discovered was that I’d actually written quite a lot – except that most of it was in the form of diary, and the rest was mostly rough-drafted half-ideas for poems that had never really been finished.
The main early stutter-poem I had finished, ‘Spoken Poem By Stuttering Poet’, had been written pretty much in isolation, soon after I’d started individual speech therapy, though before going to group therapy. It was a long piece that didn’t really work as a whole; but when I came back to it all these years later, selecting and reworking parts of it, it directly spawned nine of the poems that went into Shtum. Beyond just that, though, looking at other fragments and at past diary from a distance, there was a sense of suddenly knowing what to do with them as poetry in a way that I sometimes hadn’t known at all at the time, back when its intimidating subject matter had been staring me so closely in the face. Anyway, the reworking of those pieces now mostly came easier, and that reworking in turn led to an outpouring of new poetry – from the inward-looking free verse of ‘The Stutter The Symbol’ to the much lighter (but I’d say just as truthful) approach of rhyming poems like ‘It’s Hard To Be Suave With A Stutter’.
Why hadn’t I written more about stuttering earlier? I think partly it was precisely that closeness, that not always knowing how to pitch a piece so that it will work for other people. And part of this is that stuttering was such an angst-laden thing; and that as a poet something you learn – painfully sometimes – is that it’s very easy to give other people an overdose of your personal angst if you’re not careful.
But I think there’s something else as well, connected but not the same, which is this. As someone who stutters, you want to see your stutter as less damaging or significant than it is. For a lot of the time you’ll be implicitly telling yourself that your stutter doesn’t really affect you a lot, that it’s not a big or important part of your life. It’s only at other times it’s crystal clear to you that the stutter has profoundly affected pretty much everything in your life, and has made a challenge of not just classrooms and job interviews, but pretty much every other social situation too, big and small. When even the smallest interaction can suddenly become fraught with difficulty, no wonder so many of the poems mention catching the bus or buying a train ticket.
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