100 Words of Solitude
— after Peter Liversidge
“Your time has come!” In April 2020, while most the country was wondering how they’d cope with maybe a couple of months of restricted social interaction, on a phone call to my sister she remarked that I’d been prepared for just this situation for about 60 years. I couldn’t disagree. It’s not that I’m unsociable – indeed, I love sharing my enthusiasms with others – it’s just that day-to-day conversation is one of the several things that my brain doesn’t do terribly well.
It’s a matter of balance, though. My sometimes exasperating inability to get a grip on the general makes me very, very good indeed on specifics; and while my brain is a veritable fount of unreliable advice and sometimes unreasonable demands, it also points out little details that no one else notices, and shows me the elegant ways in which unlikely juxtapositions create their own beautiful logic. Likewise, the same quirks that have been known to keep my mind flying into darkness through three unsleeping days and nights at a stretch are the same as those which makes me a prolific and pernickety writer. Generally speaking, the good bits win out and, with the help of prescription stabiliser wheels, I can zip reasonably smoothly through my days without hitting anything or landing in a ditch.
So, yes, in many ways I was born for lockdown: no awkward conversations, and endless hours of uninterrupted focus in which to Get Things Done. While some usually creative people have struggled to find the spark over the past year, I’ve been in overdrive. More than anything else, I’m a writer, and I’ve had more time to write, along with more time to send what I was writing off into the world. Not only that, I also had more time to read others’ work, with books on the go by the sofa, by my desk, and in my bag on those days of relaxed restrictions when I could sit outside in the sun. On the one hand, of course, I was worried for family and friends, glued to the government briefings every evening; but, for the most part, I’ve rarely been more at ease in my interactions with the world, all nicely mediated through the written word which has always been my refuge.
But, to repeat myself, it’s a matter of balance. Rather inconveniently, my brain doesn’t ‘do’ virtual environments: all the flashing stuff, the counterintuitive structures, the text that won’t keep still, the pop-ups, the great SPLAT! of unrelated words exploding around the edges, and the rack of disembodied heads jerking, breaking up, pixelating and freezing as I try to glean some sort of sense from the distracting cacophony of ambient sound. There’s just so much damn noise, both audible and visual, and it’s an environment in which, as an academic, I have had to completely immerse myself. Even with finely balanced medication, a course of workshops in keeping me calm, and some excellent support from my place of work, every day is like being thrown down a waterfall in a metal drum. With strobe lighting inside. And, for all its instant connection with pretty much anywhere in the world, it makes me feel disconnected in a way I never have before. And that’s difficult.
However, just occasionally, there are spaces of digital calm, like tiny islands at the lip of that waterfall, on which one can persuade oneself it’s quiet, even though all surrounding evidence suggests otherwise. For me, the 100 Words of Solitude project is one of these. The neat shape of text that needs no scrolling allows for the still moment of focus which is at the heart of the deep pleasure which I take from reading, and breaks down the chaotic distance between the reader and the sharp vignette of another human’s life and thought. These are rare moments in which – as a disoriented stranger in a virtual landscape – I feel fleetingly but profoundly connected.
The last place to which I travelled before the first UK lockdown in March 2020 was Keele University, where I read a set drawn substantially from The Lithium Codex (Hedgehog, 2019), a chapbook in which I address precariousness of balance and some of the things that can happen when one does swerve too far from the path. As I travelled back to my home in York on the train, I saw Peter Liversidge’s light work entitled Everything is Connected on the U+I office building in Manchester, its thought-provoking and, I find, reassuring message glowing through the grey light. It’s an image that stayed with me as everything changed practically overnight, and divisions and disconnects became magnified the world over, leaving millions feeling anxious, adrift, and helpless.
What can one person do – what can I do – in isolation? Well, the same thing we – I – always do. Find the connections that have been there all along and communicate. Even if the words are awkward, even if we don’t understand the language, we grasp that still moment to reach out from our circumscribed sphere to someone who feels as disconnected as we do. 100 words joins another hundred words, then another, until everyone is speaking, everyone is listening, and we don’t even remember the borders. I’ve been ready for this for 60 years.
Oz Hardwick is a European poet, photographer, occasional musician, and accidental academic, whose work has been published and performed internationally. His chapbook Learning to Have Lost (Canberra: IPSI, 2018) won the 2019 Rubery International Book Award for poetry, and his most recent publication is the prose poetry sequence Wolf Planet (Clevedon: Hedgehog, 2020). He has also edited or co-edited several anthologies, including The Valley Press Anthology of Yorkshire Poetry (Scarborough: Valley Press, 2017) with Miles Salter, which was a UK National Poetry Day recommendation, and The Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry (Scarborough: Valley Press, 2019) with Anne Caldwell. Oz is Professor of English at Leeds Trinity University, where he leads the postgraduate Creative Writing programmes. www.ozhardwick.co.uk
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