In celebration of World Poetry Day on Thursday 21 March, Anna shares a blog about her research and writing, focused on eco-poetry and mental health.

The title of this blog is also the title of the poetry collection which forms part of my PhD thesis: Bipolar Magpie: A 21st Century Embodied Eco-Feminist Poetics. I have chosen to use this as I feel it succinctly conjures the two key elements of my poetry practice as research: eco-poetry and mad studies. I will introduce these two areas of critical thought and expand upon how I have applied them to writing poetry.  

Eco-poetry is engaged with our natural world, our eco system, our environment. Some scholars believe there is a narrow set of requirements for a work to be considered eco-poetry. That it must be written about an untarnished, impossibly wild and grand landscape untouched by human intervention, or that it must be elegiac in tone, a didactic call to arms to protect natural beauty. I consider my work to be post-pastoral and aiming for an eco-ethical lyric. What I mean by these terms is that unlike the pastoral tradition of the past or some eco-poetry of today, I do not believe in a pure wilderness or that nature itself has some higher purity or moral value, the eco-ethical lyric is defined in my work by avoiding anthropomorphism of nature or landscape, by not attributing human qualities to creatures, by de-centring the Anthropocene however inextricable that is to my experience of the environment and by valuing all forms of nature. By this I mean to include the nature we can observe in our daily lives; by looking out of the window and observing the magpie’s raucous squawk, walking to the park to feed the ducks peas, or seeing a grubby fox snouting in the bins around our suburban neighbourhoods. This practice is rooted in a poetry of noticing, the noticing of the small changes in our environment and that every poet can bear witness and communicate climate change in the things they notice in the smallest microclimate: 

as I lock the bike in the yard I notice the moss repointing the brick work the weeds growing out of the concrete they are beautiful and I breathe (Anna Percy Poetry Manuscript). 

By placing reverence upon the forms of flora and fauna that are accessible to everyone, by valuing the liminal edgelands of Manchester, by viewing the window as a portal that lets the natural into the domestic sphere, the definition of eco-poetry expands to include more poets. In my case a poet who sometimes is unable to leave my bed and experiences the natural world through a pane of glass:  

The crow who roosts in the eaves at the corner of my window cawing wakes me when he takes flight is back half waking I think he has beaked his way through the glass and is about to peck my ear. (Anna Percy Poetry Manuscript)

It is at this point that I will outline a few features of mad studies and how it has informed my poetry composition. Mad studies is a relatively new area of critical thought (although it owes much to disability studies and anti-psychiatry psychiatrists such as R.D Laing who I have also covered in brevis) focused on the tenet that those who have experienced mental illness are best placed to provide discourse upon it. In my own experience, it is true that very few people with a severe mental illness, in my case bipolar with a history of psychosis, who experience continuous episodes and frequent hallucinations achieve a high level of study. I was the first student my tutors had supervised who had a personal learning plan related to any disability. At this point I would like to thank my tutors Rachel Dickinson, Nikolai Duffy and Paul Evans for their unwavering support and belief in my research, I have found Manchester Metropolitan University to be the most accommodating institution I have studied at. 

I am particularly keen to reclaim the word mad as I believe that I live with a mental illness that reaches the depths of madness. Mad identified scholars started out by infiltrating psychiatric discourse hoping to change the academy and mental health care from within. There are mad identified scholars applying this nascent area of research to mad positive music and theatre among other interdisciplinary practices. There are poets using mad studies to inform their work, I have yet (if you know otherwise let me know!) to find eco-poetry and mad studies entwined in someone else’s practice. My poetry seeks to demystify psychosis and hallucinatory symptoms, to avoid a neat narrative of recovery, it is about the act of living with a severe chronic mental illness. The other element that comes from my feminist background (and the question of: how do you communicate what it feels like to live with mental illness when it is largely invisible?) is interwoven with another strand of my research, radical landscape poetry.  

Radical landscape poetry was a term created by poet and critic Harriet Tarlo in the last decade, I was particularly interested in the focus that Tarlo and other women RLP poets placed upon the experience of the body moving through landscape (Widger, E., (2017) “Walking Women: Embodied Perception in Romantic and Contemporary Radical Landscape Poetry”, Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry 9(1), 4. doi:, on the breath and the step, the embodied sensory experience of landscape rather than being merely descriptive of it. For my poetry RLP provided expansion in terms of what could be landscape, i.e my concept of the domestic as landscape and how an eco-feminist perspective could inform how I communicate my life with bipolar disorder and write poetry that is rich in sensory detail. It all comes back to the body. The body has longevity as a site of discourse for feminists and my work expands it into a way of making opaque the invisible, mental illness does impact the body. I referred to this in my thesis as the concept of the gendered mentally ill body, the body which has gender enacted on it by society and is impacted by mental illness. The following poem includes many forms of bodily experience, eco anxiety and composition by breath and pedal:   

9th October [published as In the Face of rejection in Jumping into a Waterfall] (Projective Verse by Charles Olson | Poetry Foundation)

In the face of rejection I decided to care for my body remind it of the joy of movement and that the restoration of bicycles is grounds for hope for my lacklustre frame with its own forms of rust I enlist a friend discuss all the men I have ever made fix my bike my step dad’s patient attempts to teach me to change an inner tube after I cycled seven miles home on a flat a lesson after he was incredulous I was hungover or stoned dogged in my pedalling the lanes to Hill House speed less of a necessity when plants outnumber cars when a hedge is more of a hazard than an engine later T. when I was attempting to fix him in return assess the damage while I made stew and now J. I am a bad feminist letting down those fierce velocipedestriennes who rode bone shakers brazenly I cannot fix my bike six months a year it has languished against the wall all moss mortared the spokes are entwined deep with growth I wince as I pull it from the roots we both relocate the spiders aware of the oncoming entomological apocalypse another one to add to the deck stacked against our future I mention the snails I crushed in the rain trudging home avoided one then crunch twice these pangs of guilt achieve nothing we can see spiders into the safety of a bush we can restore objects to usefulness repurpose clothing meant for landfill the futile gestures an individual can make in the face of multiple apocalypses I don’t say any of this I am fearful I will have forgotten the rhythm of the pedals despite my clumsiness the bent arm my ponderous thighs and lungs my body feels like it is in exactly the right place on a bicycle my long legs know what to do after all this is a muscle memory not easily forgot from the lopsided tilt of the first red cowboy printed one, my Father gave me only one stabiliser a theory that it would be easier to remove than two not planning for his own absence, my second father managed it, encouraged me back on after I fell and snapped my arm I need to remember this about love you fall out/off it are hurt by the cycle your body still remembers how to do it effortlessly I am lost as to who is the bicycle and who is the rider today I do not know only that the wheels will turn there is something here about love about no one being so broken as to be unloveable.  

Here is an audio recording of this poem:

For further reading on the properties of composition by breath/body, which has acted as an inspiration for poetry movements as diverse as beat poetry and radical landscape poetry, I direct you to read Charles Olson’s projective verse manifesto. (Anna Percy Jumping into a Waterfall Flapjack Press Salford 2020)

There are many reasons why I have opted to combine these areas of thought, while poetry which is cathartic and only discusses the person’s mental illness is of import both therapeutically for the individual, and for communicating to the wider world what mental illness is like. Poetry focused on the lived experience of mental illness is often attributed to the confessional canon ( I wanted to write poetry which did not just look inwards. As many people say that we all have mental health, I believe that living with the rapid changes to our climate and environment that we all have some form of eco-anxiety. It is for these reasons I describe my work as both post-pastoral and post-confessional.  

In a time where the mental health act is woefully decades out of date, mental health funding has been cut to the bone and very little is being done in the face of cataclysmic change to our natural world I have aimed to write poetry that encompasses the totality of my experience and persistence.  

All my poetry collections published by Flapjack Press, and their other publications can be found in the Manchester Poetry Library. If you want to find out more about my work, eco-poetry, confessional poetry, radical landscape poetry, or poetry about mental illness, the librarians are knowledgeable, and the library is full of poets located in Manchester and around the world.  

Optional writing prompt: Set a timer for five minutes (ten if you are feeling energised) look out of your window or go for a walk and write for five minutes solid. Absolutely no crossing out anything including mistakes or trying to fit in a structure or line breaks, write across the whole page. Notice your body, breath and what sensory details you experience (taste, touch, smell, hear etc) try to name creatures, plants, or trees to root your poem in a specific place and time. What have you noticed about the time of year that is different to previous years? How does being aware of your breath/step/body change the lines you write?  

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