To develop from 
the negative into
the positive
definitive,
ah
the infinite divine

here’s to me and mine
you and yours
who open doors and
make the time
for time to take
the time
to develop.

—“Apprenticed”

John Smallshaw is a poet, he is also our much loved Employment Academy graduate and currently works in our kitchen here at The House of St Barnabas. John has performed poetry on Radio 4 at both Bush House and Arthur Smith’s Balham Bash, at Edinburgh Fringe, here at The House for his evenings of spoken word and has a book of published poems ‘Sapphires are not the only blue’.

John’s work is filled with humour and pathos that strikes a chord with us as readers. Prolific in his output, he writes up to six, seven, eight poems a day, the fragility and humanity of which highlight the impossibilities and possibilities of life, whilst being funny and beautiful enough to leave us uplifted. We caught up with John to muse on work and life.

The main aim of poetry is to… what?
The main aim of poetry is to soften the blow of life’s harsh treatment.

Can you tell us a little about your journey?
My journey was and sometimes still is a series of random yet connected events from the grip of a vice to the clasp of a welcoming hand, difficult really for me to say it was bad even though it was, it was what it was because I chose it that way, sometimes the wrong path has the sweetest smelling flowers growing on the side.

I’m here now and that’s the bonus win and hold for me.

How long have you been writing poetry?
I think I’ve been writing poetry all my life but for most of my life was probably unaware of doing so due mainly to the substances I was addicted to.

Why do you write poetry?
If I’ve been writing poetry all my life it was for therapeutic reasons, I always found that the ink flowed freer the more tangled up I became or that’s how it seemed.

If you could give your writer-self (or just self) five years ago, some advice, what would you say?
If I could have given myself some advice five years ago it would be this;
Remember where you were and where you are now, remember how easy it is and how hard it becomes.
Remember that however dismal things are they have been a lot worse and can only get better.

Do you think poetry has the power to bring about social change?
Social change is engineered by the pioneers, the fervent, the faithful, those with the vision to see how things can be, the poets and writers, the debaters, the doer’s and the thinkers.

Can you share a poem by someone that inspires you?

Suzanne

Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by
You can spend the night beside her
And you know that she’s half crazy
But that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her
That you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer
That you’ve always been her lover
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind.
And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said “All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them”
But he himself was broken
Long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human
He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone
And you want to travel with him
And you want to travel blind
And you think maybe you’ll trust him
For he’s touched your perfect body with his mind.
Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
From Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbor
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that you can trust her
For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind.

— Leonard Cohen

this of course was made into a song but is sheer poetry to me.

Is there a poem you remember reading early on that sparked your love of poetry?
Dulce et decorum est, read this years ago and it shot me somewhere in the heart, one of the greatest pieces ever in my opinion.

Has The House of St Barnabas informed your writing in any way?
The House encouraged me to write and it’s such a great place for ideas, from Dickens and Olde London to modern art to angels waiting by the stairs and ogres on the mantelpiece, it allowed me to rest my eyes in the Chapel and write philosophy in the stars.

The House gives so much.

Can writing be a healing process?
I mentioned poetry as being therapeutic, for me it is healing too, I have written in lines of the death and despair when friends were not there and in doing so eased my own pain.

Which is your favourite poem of your own?
I suppose this to be one of my favourites, written at about 5am one sunny morning in Lisbon, sitting on steps in the old town watching the sun come up. When I read this back to myself it’s almost too surreal to be true. But certainly an inner joy.

I never gave it a title but rather named several writings ‘a period in Portugal’

An owl hoots,
a warning?
I head East into the thieves market,
lucky horseshoes for sale and without fail they are in good supply.
Make no mistake
as they take no prisoners here.
Passing through the untied shoelace of cobble-stoned lanes

I spy the woman through a postage stamp window, barred as if franked by the mailman, she plays patience and always with two cards missing, an unwinnable task, but she’s old and if old becomes a memory then she becomes one too.

An ocean, if red is the ocean, of slanted tiles stretch beyond my imagination into an expanding horizon, I
smell coffee and sit local to the river watching the elegance of Portuguese pigeons, it’s dreamlike in its quality.
this morning,

the earthquake shook me awake even though that was centuries ago and still the owl hoots.
Earlier outside the church of Santo Estaveo
I am bound to its steps by my own chains,
this will change as the sun which works by its own memory rises above the fishing boats.

So easy to be here and to fall into the trap
So easy to tap dance my way through the one eyed shadows that wink over the bay, in the distance, a tram, a man and his day stay longer than this moment in time.

To close ones eyes
clues and sighs
It’s a splendid life
And though full of lies at incredibly cheap prices the thieves market is the place to be wary.

Each shadow now stronger as the day becomes longer and the hours get shorter.
Caught,
I have sought solace in this place and found peace from within,

sin
is yet to find me.

Five words?
I

can

make

it

work.

You can read more of John’s wonderful writing on his website, and if you love his work (as we do) you can see one of his poems, ‘Greek Street and Saints’, read by Founding Member and acclaimed actor Brian Cox here.