Poetry Without Words: Paul’s story

Paul Hawkins is a poet, artist, publisher and former learner with our Bristol Wellbeing College. He now runs his own six-week course, inspired by the creative writing movement ‘Poem Brut’, where he supports fellow learners to use artistic creative writing to help their mental wellbeing.

Here, Paul shares his personal mental health story with us and how using creative arts can nurture confidence, self-expression and growth.

You can view the powerful artwork our learners create during Paul’s course in our virtual exhibition, Poetry Without Words.

Trigger warning: this article mentions self-harm and suicidal thoughts

Paul Hawkins

“I’ve had a long history of depression, anxiety, addiction, and a general inability to maintain functioning relationships. I’ve sought sanctuary from my problems through self-harming when alcohol and drugs didn’t seem to work. During these decades I worked out that I’d moved on average every 10 months but only ever owned one tent.

I went through a lot of jobs, too many to mention here, but they included musician, installing irrigation systems, a refuse collector, tour manager, shop work, managing an Elvis Presley impersonator, roadie and freelance journalist. I could never keep a job for long. I experienced long periods of suicidal thoughts too, that culminated in an attempt just before I went to another detox clinic in November 2010.

Following four months at a drug and alcohol treatment centre, I was re-housed & slowly began re-building my life.

Creative therapy

I first came across Vita Nova (a charity run by and for those in recovery from addiction) when they performed some poetry, creative writing and music at the treatment centre. I had played, written and performed in different bands for many many years, and had written too.

Back then I didn’t think it was possible to live clean and sober, let alone be creative. Vita Nova showed me it was possible.

Inspired, I started going to the weekly Creative Writing workshop. I was scared, lacking in confidence and self-esteem, with mental health issues bubbling-up unfettered by other substances. The workshop was run by playwright and novelist Nell Leyshon. It was a safe place to go to, was understanding, put no pressure on me and gave only gentle, encouraging support. I kept going back and did so for over two years.

I took part in projects in local schools using theatre and writing as a way to talk to their local community about drug and alcohol use. After performing with Vita Nova at Kingston University as part of a conference on Performance and Addiction, it was suggested that perhaps I could return to studying; perhaps for an MA. Nell encouraged me to start an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, which I passed with Distinction in 2013.

It’s important to mention that for the last few years of drinking and drugging I couldn’t listen to music. What the music meant to me simply hurt too much. As I gained confidence through my writing I met up with a pianist at Vita Nova. From there we wrote and performed a soundscape to a Vita Nova production of Red Shoes. Inspired, we ran a weekly music workshop at Vita Nova, encouraging the therapeutic aspects of making sounds with others; of having fun, building up some confidence, writing and performing music.

As a Vita Nova Associate Artist for two years, I supported others in the way I was supported; passing on the tools given to me, using the creative arts in an environment that values individual participation and nurtures confidence, self-expression and growth.

SHERBERT by Paul Hawkins

Connecting with Second Step

Since moving to Bristol nine or so years ago I’ve been facilitating creative writing workshops, curating events, working with SJ Fowler’s Poem Brut project, co-running Hesterglock Press, publishing, exhibiting & performing.

Seven years ago, although still clean & sober I found I was still experiencing difficulties and, following an assessment was given a mental health diagnosis by my psychiatrist. I was then supported by Second Step and started attending weekly Group Therapy six years ago. I’ve struggled many times, and life has not always been easy at all, but with support from Second Step, my partner and through art & writing, as time passed I’ve managed to pull through.

Around four years ago I contacted Ali, a support worker at Second Step with a proposal for this course, and with the support from Poem Brut curator SJ Fowler, we put it together. We ran some taster sessions, have completed our first course and are now into our third – it’s brilliant!

The Poem Brut movement is a source of inspiration, support and a rich site of collaboration and learning. To have been able to collaborate with Second Step support worker Ali McAllister and put together the Poetry Without Words course has been incredible. The first course we ran was amazing; genuinely exciting and unique in its mix of participants, whose enthusiasm, interest, appetite for trying something new, sense of mutual support and humour made me feel proud to have been a part of. Here’s to the future!

You can view the artwork created by Bristol Wellbeing College learners in our virtual exhibition Poetry Without Words here.

Paul Hawkins
Paul Hawkins. Photo by Vilde Bjerke Torset (2023)

Header artwork: WINO by Paul Hawkins.

This post was first published in December 2020 and has been updated.

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