Write out of myself: connecting with others

21st March 2016

On World Poetry Day, I have something to say about not writing poems, about other ways of connecting with people and myself, without using language.

I have just listened to a programme on Radio 4 about a contemporary community dance organisation in Oxford, established 30 years ago, and still flourishing. At the heart of Dance Your Life Away is the idea that dance is inherent in being human and moving, from the dancing baby in the womb.

Another idea which particularly engaged me is that dance is a form of translation – it’s a way of expressing emotions for which we often don’t have the words. This idea was beautifully captured on the programme by children explaining how dance enables them to “burst out moving”.

I loved the idea of focusing a dance class on a part of the body, such as the shoulder blades, or on a theme, such as wings. The programme gave me a sense of the poetics of dance, and the dance of poetry. I thought about how I as a poet might play with the idea of wings, turning it over and over in my mind, stretching it away from me, holding it up above my head, lifting it into the light and the shadows.

I have always regarded dance as an art form which I much admire, and love to watch, but I never thought of myself as a dancer. I love moving to music, but never regarded that as “real dancing”. My back problems, worsening with age, have led me to consider myself as increasingly limited in mobility and flexibility. However, listening to stories of wheelchair users who dance with Dance Your Life Away made me think again. So, in the privacy of my kitchen, with the soup bubbling away on the stove, I danced out my feelings about someone who did me harm, and who is incapable of hearing any words I might find.  I forgot about my back; I wasn’t limited by the pains in my shoulder and legs. I have said what I have been struggling to say for so long, entirely without words.

Here’s a link to the programme. It will be available for another 28 days. I am sure that I will listen to it again.









15 June 2015

Poetry and Activism

This programme, broadcast today on BBC Radio 4, explored  a

Motown spoken word label. It was called Black Forum and

recorded poetry, civil rights speeches, African-American soldiers

in Vietnam and more.

The programme explores the relationship between

poetry and activism.

From the programme notes:

 Those [Black Forum] releases have started to attract interest

with some reissued. They stand as a powerful testament

to the African-American experience at a turbulent time in

America. The financial educator and spoken word record

collector Alvin Hall listens to the recordings and talks to those involved in their creation.







31st January 2015

This page focuses not on internal and private connections in relation to creativity, but on co-creating and how we respond to each other. It also gives me a space to reflect on my responsibilities as a writer and a human being.

As a young writer in South Africa in the seventies and eighties, I was silenced by my sense that I had nothing worthy to say about the evils of apartheid. I felt that as a white woman, my words would be inauthentic. Although I felt that the literature of protest was important, I didn’t know how to craft my words powerfully enough to engage and influence others.

As I get older, I feel a compulsion to use my words to make connections with others, on the levels of compassion and justice. I feel less self-conscious about my craft, more intent on expressing thoughts and feelings which might resonate for others.

My textpoems    http://creativetextpoems.co.uk/  convey my explorations of compassion and making deep personal connections.  Composing these poems has involved the creation of new words which condense observations and the processes of connecting. A word which has great personal significance for me is “unothering”, by which I mean the processes of empathic connection.

In my other poems and in other writing, I am reaching for a voice which can speak out effectively against injustice, bigotry, hatred and all the terrible atrocities of our times.

In my work as community arts facilitator, I see it as my responsibility to make spaces for others to find their voices and to utter the unspeakable, using whatever form seems appropriate.

During the past week, I have participated in two poetry readings in the Red Barn gallery in Belfast as part of Holocaust Memorial Week, organised by the Institute for Conflict Research http://conflictresearch.org.uk/ .   One of the poems which I read, Bell, is a holocaust story. Although it might appear so, it’s not my personal story, but I tell it from a personal perspective. I do so because it is one of many stories which need to be told, which are seeking to be heard, even though they may make us feel uncomfortable.

We need to tell the stories of those who cannot speak for themselves, so that their suffering is recognised. We need to remind each other of our humanity and how we are all connected.




At Dachau, a rusted bell still tolls,

swinging wild and clanging in a cage of steel.

Footsteps between the barracks

harsh down gravel corridors, dissonance of past and present,

guard, commander, prisoner, visitor, soldier, guide.

So easy to get lost in here, my father texts me.


So much of it, and all the same.

He texts without abbreviations,

spelling out the facts so hard to comprehend.

The SS guards were trained in here. A school for cruelty.

Three years my dad lived here till they killed him.

They slept shoulder to shoulder on hard and rotting bunks.

They say the grass grew rusty red on Execution Ridge.


I see my father pacing slow behind barbed wire,

marking out his father’s  absence.

He will bring back a postcard of the sculpture at the entrance:

splayed skinny  limbs and heads tossed back, a Guernica in steel.

He will place his memories and imaginings side by side,

shifting and rearranging, nothing making sense.


His lost father is a face repeated in an album,

decayed by fingerprints and years.

A tiny form, a blur of charcoal hair,

An arm around his bride’s small shoulders,

Tall behind his seated wife, my infant father shawled upon her knee,

only a few months before he went to Dachau,

a dissident transported for his thoughts, the words he spoke, his name.


I see my father on the train today from Munich to the camp.

I see him thinking, not thinking, perhaps nodding, but not speaking.

My father seldom speaks. He is an old man in a stiff grey coat,

His hard cracked hands bunched on his knees,

tannin of the garden in his nails and on his skin.

His eyes narrowed from years of planting,

measuring out, scrutinising growth and change.

Every Sunday in the churchyard at my mother’s grave, weeding and amending,

the trowel, still gleaming eight years later,

standing cleaned and ready during the week,

hissing all through winter into hardened soil.


My mother faded like a wine-red rose turned to paper,

bleeding black into the petals’ edge.  Dark mouth, crumpled paleness.

I’ve lost my sense of her.  She comes so seldom in my dreams,

a phantom at the edge of things, like a language I’ve forgotten through disuse.


For years my father scrutinised all those crackling films about the war,

translating history into family narrative,

making meaning from a time beyond all meaning,

seeking his father’s face in all those stacks of corpses,

grey skin on forms as long and hard as giant reptiles,

noses sharp as beaks, hands curled like claws.


In the crematorium, oxblood red bricks

and a heavy chain before the ovens,

corroding at the links.

The memorial stone tells a story:

“Ashes were buried here.”

The last fact that he texts me:

“We waited for the train back in McDonald’s.

I had some tea. It burnt my tongue.”


When the message comes,

I am drinking coffee in the Ulster Museum,

tired of puzzling over images of the Titanic wreck,

trying to distinguish moss from rock from hull from shadow.

A haze of water murks the truth.

Then the cinema in the art gallery,

Bill Fontana’s Silent Echoes.

An old bell swings as easy as a flower on its stem,

silver turned to green and bronze,

found poetry in the dark.


Shelley Tracey  ©

In Abridged 0-26, 2012, pages 8-9. Available online at http://abridgedonline.com/abridged-0-26-rust/












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