I’m looking forward to doing a public reading of my poems about Nellie Bly (1864 – 1922) for the first time on Light Night on 17 May. The poems from my collection in progress – Insane Places – speak through Nellie as she’s trapped on Blackwell Island Insane Asylum, New York for ten days in the disguise of Nellie Moreno/Brown. This experience was recounted in her exposé Ten Days in a Madhouse. Her story is interrupted by a conversation with David Rosenhan who, as David Lucie, became a pseudo patient seventy years after Nellie to test the limits of psychiatric knowledge and diagnosis. His famous study On Being Sane in Insane Places is a classic study in the literature that questions and challenges psychiatry. My poems interrogate what it means to be mad through setting, place and experience. It is particularly thrilling to be reading my poems in the library of The Athenaeum, a club first founded in Liverpool in the late eighteenth century. My reading will start at 8.00 pm on 17 May.
Chaperone “One for the pavilion” the doctor’s voice an auctioneers with poor young Nelly Brown as bargain of the day. The undernourished crowd sighed to see the new unfortunate, as though the playing out of power were as good as a cold repast. The ambulance surgeon walked me through the well-kept grounds to the insane ward, to the rooms of broken women, to the cells of hard billets to the buckets of black water, to the atmosphere of excrement and fear to the rules and orders to the white capped nurse, “Take off your hat. You are staying.” I heard my voice as though in another mouth – repetitions like childhood disadvantages or the sound of guns. “I am waiting for the boat.” That first insane night ruminant noise of nurses kept us all awake. The food was filthy, festering like a wound. They removed my clothes. “Do you see faces in the wall? Do you hear voices? Tell us what they say.” As though I had strange powers beyond the world, powers they longed to kill or claim themselves. Then a parade of visitors, each one scrutinised my face, tried to see the skull beneath my skin, the pickled brain beyond, a specimen in a case. Pauline Rowe from 'Insane Places'