Poems by Sheena Sen: The Well of Loneliness

After each of the workshops we conducted in the summer and autumn, we invited participants to submit any additional writing or creative work that they felt inspired to do after attending the workshops. One of our participants, Sheena Sen, sent us some wonderful poems and reflections on her experience of participating in the workshops, and more broadly, on loneliness and belonging as an LGBTQIA+ person.

In a series of posts, we will showcase Sheena’s work and reflections, and pause to think about how they shape understandings of LGBTQIA+ loneliness and belonging.

Sheena’s first poem, ‘The Well of Loneliness’, explores the emotions surronding experiences of loneliness over a period of time.

Titled after Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), Sen’s poem is, to my mind, a tribute to Hall’s painful experiences of loneliness as well as bringing the idea of ‘the well of loneliness’ into the twenty-first century. Hall’s story, ‘Miss Ogilvey Finds Herself’ (1934), was used as one of the prompts to get us thinking in the autumn workshops.

Image of Radclyffe Hall's novel, The Well of Loneliness. Image depicts a painting of two women.
Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928)

In that place of despair
where emptiness swilled
and spilled its bile
of discontentment
I stood there barefoot
In the silence of pleas
and known certainties
now traceless in a past
that held the pieces of me
In my sense of belonging
in my split sideways
dreams and in sentences
where words have wobbled
from one side of reality
to places I barely could see

In the familiar and formal
In informal discretions
inside a fragility borne
inside the parameters
of fear and acceptance
It is there where I leaned
between mirrors
and laughter made
of small bubble tears
there I felt most alone
as I breathed out for fear
and in for my courage

at the well of my loneliness
I remember how fast
my own heart can beat
at a sentence wide open
to someone’s rejection
in the depth of a memory
as I tentatively trace
the years of my longing
in the pit of despair
I learned there how pain
can visibly bleed.

I asked Sheena about her poem, and she explained to me how she wrote it and what it means to her.

The poem was written in the midnight hour, somewhere between silence and stillness is where it began. In the recalling of the discussions shared in the project around belonging and loneliness and what came from the personal accounts of those people who opened their hearts up to strangers in honesty.

It matters to be integral to speak openly; however painful the sound of a truth might be, it is imperative to think about what makes us feel a sense of acceptance and belonging in a world full of diversity where oppression, or the fear of it, even now still finds me. I am a lucky one in my finding my identity and sexual preference; it came relatively easy with more acceptance than rejection, but it’s the essence of fear that beats in a heart full of uncertainty that you can’t see, and that’s why I wrote it — as a collection of thoughts from my own history and the pieces of those in the LGBTQIA+ community who have had their struggles too.

For me, the images of breathing and a beating heart capture the immanence of loneliness and the way it can manifest in physical sensations. I am reminded too of the broader capacity of the heart to ‘bleed’, but also how pain can be a source of learning. This is a paradox of LGBTQIA+ loneliness as well as other forms of emotional difficulty: painful as these experiences are, sometimes they can be sources of insight into ourselves and other people. Sen’s poem does that for me: it reveals the speaker’s journey, oscillating from loneliness, pain, and longing, to moments of courage, learning, and remembering — literally, collecting the pieces of oneself and placing them back together in a new mosaic.

— Richard Vytniorgu.

Images of loneliness: exhibiting Jade Varley’s photography

In one of our workshops with young people in the summer we asked participants to bring along an image they had identified or created themselves which somehow illustrated loneliness to them. We had some fantastic contributions, but one of them we were able to put forward to represent The Beat of Our Hearts in a new exhibition organised by Arts and Culture at the University of Exeter, showcasing innovative arts and humanities research.

Situated in the West Wing foyer just outside the Queen’s cafe, this space will provide a zone in which visual stories about university arts and culture projects can be told. Featuring collaborations between artists, academics and students, and highlighting the process of interdisciplinary working across the University, the space will also display curated images from the University.

Photo of Jade Varley's image next to the Queen's cafe door
Jade’s picture by the entrance to the Queen’s Cafe

We were delighted that Jade Varley’s photograph could represent our project for this exhibition.

Photograph depicting a hunched over figure on a park bench, with a dark green tree looming over. The image is saturated with colour, with some over-exposed white space.
Jade Varley’s photograph

When Jade shared her photograph in the workshop, there were some really interesting responses from the other participants. Adjectives used to describe this image of loneliness were:

‘scared’

‘closed-off’

‘sense of something looming’

‘disconnect’.

One participant wondered what the darkness related to: is the tree meant to be protective, or does it loom with a sense of foreboding?

Jade herself stated that the blur in the image was intentional: she wanted to emphasise the physical and emotional disconnect in the picture. The colours are saturated, heightening the intensity of the emotional state she is trying to capture. Jade described this as ‘over the top’ and ‘overwhelmed’. The brightness and the white space are also distorted somewhat. The colours are intense, and there’s an unsettling feeling to the picture.

I think it’s appropriate that the image is now placed next to the door. It hangs on a threshold, just as the white space in the image is suggestive of a world beyond the enclosed and looming environment of the tree and the bench. But thresholds can also be lonely places. They can be places of indecision, immobility, and marginalisation. The figure in the image has their back to the door and faces inward. The image raises many questions at the heart of thinking about loneliness.

This is Jade’s first exhibited photograph, and we think it’s fantastic. We’re really proud that it’s now representing The Beat of Our Hearts in this Arts and Culture exhibition.

A young people’s manifesto for tackling LGBTQIA+ loneliness in the South West

It might not immediately be apparent how loneliness can be a political experience, but for the young people who participated in our workshops in July, LGBTQIA+ loneliness was thoroughly political. Experiences of marginalization, isolation, and stigma which contributed to loneliness among our young people were often derived from factors relating to policy.

So in our final workshop, we asked our young people to put on their political hats and co-create a manifesto for tackling loneliness among LGBTQIA+ young people in the South West. What would they ask for? What would they change?

The manifesto that follows is a work in progress as much as we hope to synthesise and build on our young people’s work with thoughts from our 26+ participants in October. But for now, this offers a special window onto young people’s thinking about LGBTQIA+ loneliness and belonging.

Picture of the manifesto, with a peach background and block colour flowers down the left-hand side. The Beat of Our Hearts logo is in the top left-hand corner. The manifesto is in two pages. The first page deals with healthcare and education.


Picture of the manifesto, with a peach background and block colour flowers down the left-hand side. The Beat of Our Hearts logo is in the top left-hand corner. The manifesto is in two pages. The second page continues education but also has a theme of community. Information about the authors of the manifesto is also on this page.For screen readers, please see the PDF version here of our 16-25 LGBTQIA+ Loneliness Manifesto.

 

Frank Duffy

‘Finding community probably saved my life’: An interview with graphic designer and illustrator Frank Duffy

Creativity and the arts are at the heart of our project on LGBTQIA+ loneliness and belonging. In the past as well as today, those who felt like they dwelt on the margins of societal norms regarding gender and sexuality have turned to creativity to express their feelings and experiences.

And creativity has often been a way for us to find and build community with others. Sometimes it’s as if we feel we’re reaching through an artwork to the personality that created it and sensing that ‘you are not alone’.

It was really important, therefore, that the artist who would create the logo for our project was sympathetic to these values and the way the project is framing the importance of the arts for dramatizing LGBTQIA+ loneliness and belonging.

I spoke to graphic designer and illustrator, Frank Duffy, to find out more about what The Beat of Our Hearts means to them, and why they wanted to design our logo.

Frank Duffy
Frank Duffy

When I asked Frank about why they wanted to get involved, they said:

I was delighted to be asked to work on this project. As a bisexual non-binary trans person I know first-hand the importance of queer community, of finding people who can relate to you and your life.
Frank speaks explicitly about the importance of community in their life:
There’s an easy sort of short-hand being around queers – there’s an acceptance and ease we can struggle to access in a cishet world. Finding community probably saved my life. So this play about LGBTQIAA+ loneliness, especially during the pandemic, couldn’t be more important to me.
And what about their design choices? Our logo has a very distinctive style which instantly grabbed us:
Our fab logo

Frank explains how

In about 2008 I met a group of queers all house-sharing together – there I met my first other trans person, learnt about the possibility of being non-binary, and generally came to understand myself a lot better. There were lots of zines floating about and they were generally photocopied from typewriter-typed text cut and pasted alongside drawings and photographs. There were also old copies of Spare Rib and other feminist publications, as well as art from the Guerrilla Girls. The half-tone dots of the photocopier as well as the typewriter font came from these memories, and the colours feel vivid, uncompromising and related to non-hierarchical community organising and radical politics.

For Frank, the design of our logo is connected to a history of dissident politics and attempts to challenge existing ways of seeing things. For me, this link to the past enriches the artwork and illustrates the project’s focus on histories of LGBTQIA+ belonging and loneliness as much as present experiences.

We can’t wait to explore the ways in which our project will elicit new histories of LGBTQIA+ community, isolation, and intimacy.