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Performing Poetry- On A Ventilator

November 26, 2014

Performing poetry has its challenges, but more so if your breathing is controlled by a machine.

Owen Lowery is 46 and lives in Lancashire. He has a ventilator which helps him to breathe.

He began writing poems seven years ago on a university course and started to perform them for audiences in 2012 after an Arts Council grant made live shows possible. He brought in a musician, a producer and a film-maker to create a poetry performance which is accompanied by music and animation.

His ventilator is programmed to take breaths for him at set intervals which, he says, can make it tricky to read his work aloud. “I was a bit nervy at first,” Lowery says, “because I thought that the gaps between breaths would be too obvious and too long.”

He says that being on a ventilator is like breathing passively. “It’s done for you, without you having to think about it. You have to wait for it,” he says, “and that has a big impact on your reading and your performance of poems.

“When I perform, I try and be aware of it and almost use it as an advantage to make people think about what I am saying. But in general, when you’ve been on it quite a long time, you almost forget it’s there.”

Lowery spends time practising before a performance to work out where his breathing will kick in, so he doesn’t get caught out in the middle of a line. “You want the pauses to occur at fairly natural places,” he says. “It’s about pacing yourself out. Like doing a musical score and figuring out where to put the breaks.”

He hasn’t always been disabled, and writing wasn’t always his passion. At 18 years old he was holder of the British Judo men’s closed title when a promising sporting career ended abruptly for him. An accident in the ring during a charity tournament left him paralysed from the shoulders down. He’s now a tetraplegic and unable to breathe for long periods without help.

After two years Lowery left hospital with his new wheelchair and a portable ventilator. He describes the important device as: “a vanity case-sized thing with batteries, about the size of a Filofax”. A tube leads from the ventilator to a tracheostomy – an opening in the neck in front of the windpipe. “The tube goes under my jumper and I always wear a neck scarf, so you can’t even see the tracheostomy bit,” he says.

Following the accident, Lowery’s parents moved from Reading to Lancashire to help him. He went on to gain a first-class honours degree in humanities from the Open University followed by two master’s degrees, one in military studies and another in creative writing. He is currently working towards gaining a PhD on World War Two poet Keith Douglas.

He met his wife, Jayne, when she began working as his carer. They got married last year but Lowery is still living with his parents until Jayne’s house can be adapted.

Jayne reads some of the poems in the live shows, and often takes notes for Lowery if something inspires him when they are out together.

In his first book Otherwise Unchanged, nestled among works about historical events and his beloved Liverpool football club, there are many poems about his recovery.

One of them, Bruise from my Baclofen Pump Re-fill, deals with the complicated relationship between patient and doctor while having anti-spasmodic drugs administered to a pump underneath his skin. And another poem in the collection, New Admission, Southport ICU, recounts the arrival of a short-stay patient to the high dependency ward.

A new book, which doesn’t touch on disability, is based on the work of Portuguese visual artist Dame Paula Rego, and will be published early next year.

“Writing about disability in many ways is no different to writing about anything else,” says Lowery. “It is simply something that is there, in the way that an odd-shaped tree might be, or a football match, or a story from the war. The secret, if there is one, is to understate, rather than overstate, perhaps, allowing the reader to make their own mind up.”

Owen Lowery will perform poems from Otherwise Unchanged on 4 December at Liverpool’s The Bluecoat, as part of DaDaFest.

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