Darlington poet Marilyn Longstaff channels all the anger and frustration she feels at increasing deafness into her poems
Marilyn Longstaff’s poetry deals with a wide range of themes and emotions, but one subject she keeps returning to is deafness. The Darlington poet, now 66, started to lose her hearing in her late 40s, and even though her mother was deaf, she didn’t consider it would happen to her. Her exasperation with the debilitating condition pours out onto the page.
“There is so much scope to write about the experiences of going increasingly deaf. I’m not sure there are that many poems about it and yet it happens to so many people,” she says. “Poetry is a good way to express the sadness, anger, frustration of going deaf. It is a disability where there is so much more poetry to be written.”
Smokestack Books has just published her fourth book of poetry, Articles of War and, as with the others, some of the poems reflect both her and her mother’s attempts to cope with increasing hearing loss. It is the Darlington poet’s fourth book. She brought out her first when she was 52.
“My second book, ‘Sitting Among The Hoppers’, has lots of poems about my mother and her last few months, her dying and me coming to terms with it,” says Marilyn. It also includes poems about deafness. “My Mum started going deaf when I was little and eventually was very deaf. I have the same condition (otosclerosis). I accompanied her to many clinics and found that hospitals are not always that good at making sure hearing aids work or that patients have them in. My mother was quite lucid, but often gave odd answers as she hadn’t heard the question – so there are quite a few poems about her deafness in this book.”
To tackle her own increasing deafness, Marilyn has had two attempted stapedectomies and is now considering a bone anchor hearing aid. “Hearing aids are wonderful and I don’t have tinnitus (touch wood), but you can’t really explain to anyone with good hearing how it’s an emotional disability,” she says. “Last summer, I was in Brittany visiting my younger brother and it came on to rain. He said, ’I love the sound of the rain on an umbrella’. I’d forgotten this sound and it made me very sad.” She wrote a poem about it. “I’m also trying to write one called ‘The Unsexiness of Deaf’, which is what ‘Hearing Aid Beige’ is about too. But I can’t really believe people still think deafness is funny.”
Marilyn goes to lip reading classes and has joined Action on Hearing Loss (formerly RNID), which she says is brilliant on research and campaigning. “Their magazine has lots of useful and interesting information and puts you in a family that understands,” she says. “We get sick of being killjoys or asking for things to be repeated or not bothering.” She sent the charity a poem about café noise in response to Speak Easy, their campaign to reduce background noise in cafes, pubs and restaurants. She has also had a bit of a mini campaign in banks here about their so-called hearing loops. “It’s a long haul though. And like lots of people, you just don’t want to make a fuss or be seen as that nuisance of a woman who complains a lot.”
Marilyn first came to live in Darlington when she was 14. Her parents were officers at Darlington Salvation Army Citadel, in Northgate. She later met and married met fellow creative talent John Longstaff, who did the Cluff cartoon for The Northern echo for 26 years. She has an MA in Education from Durham University and was a teacher until poor hearing forced her to retire early. “The job just became too difficult – it involved a lot of listening,” she says. In her mid-40s, she decided to go to an evening class at Darlington Arts Centre, “partly to get me to go out at night by myself because I had become nervous.” It was a Women’s Writing Class run by the poet SJ Litherland and some of the people who had been at the class for some time had just formed themselves into a group called Vane Women, now well known as a collective which promotes women’s writing in the North-East.
“I had no idea whether or not I could write outside the academic sphere,” says Marilyn, who found she was drawn to writing poetry. “I like succinct and poetry deals with big themes and emotions. It’s funny how many people say they don’t like poetry or don’t understand it, but at times of great joy or misery – weddings and funerals – they often turn to it. I am intrigued by the many different types of poetry, although not all of it appeals to me.”
After some years, she was invited to join Vane Women and they published her first pamphlet ‘Puritan Games’. As well as supporting each other in their own writing, they undertake mentoring, organise masterclasses (open to anyone), do readings and engage in projects. In addition, they run a small press which publishes first pamphlets (poetry or short stories) for women who live in the North-East. “We are a registered charity so everything we do is for free and any money we make goes back into the charity to support writers,” she says. “We meet regularly to critique each others’ work and I would say the ethos is one of support and encouragement to do as well as we can.” All of the current membership are published writers.
“I would encourage people to look to the arts (whatever form) as a way of expressing their thoughts and feelings,” says Marilyn. “As for writing poetry, if you want to do it well, for most of us it’s a long hard slog and there is a craft to learn. I went to the evening class for years and was lucky to have a gifted tutor.” Marilyn has also done an MA in Creative Writing at Newcastle University and attended various courses and workshops, gone to lots of poetry readings and had mentoring. “A big tip though – make it real. It doesn’t have to be fact, but it does have to be true. People see straight through false sentiment.”
Marilyn is also a fan of the succinct. She likes short poems. “I have to edit my work down to the essence. My dad was a preacher and I’m a bit averse to preaching so I like to try to make a point, but not hammer it home until everyone is mightily sick of it,” she says. “Some poems almost write themselves. Others take a huge amount of work. Do I know at the start how the poem will pan out – usually no? My main aim is to write about ordinary lives and experiences (which are never ordinary, are they?) and if anything I write speaks to someone so they say ‘Yes, that’s how it is’ or ‘That’s how I feel/think’ then I have done a good job I hope.”