Isabelle byrne

photo isabelle.jpg

Isabelle Byrne is fairly new to the Manchester poetry scene, but you wouldn't know it - her work is darkness juxtaposed by light, a whole heap of sex and sensuality underpinned with the tedious drama of mental illness and the struggle to find oneself. Her poetry demands to be listened to, and not only does it raise eyebrows and opinions, it also forces the reader to confront their own judgements about women in society. It says "hey - I'm here, and you will listen to me."

Her debut chapbook, Pandora's Ruin, explores one woman's journey through mental illness, focusing on the development of a true sense of self in today's challenging times. It is raw, uncut and brazen - and that is why we love it.

Read on to learn more about Isabelle and her upcoming book below:

Can you describe your work in five words?
 

  • Mental heath

  • Recovery

  • Autobiographical

  • Raw

  • Sexual

 

You’ve had a turbulent journey to where you are now, as a writer and performer. Can you give us some background to Isabelle P Byrne?

 

At three, I was diagnosed with cancer. I think the introduction to my own mortality gave me a grounded position in life; when I started school I was without hair, and as much as that would make people shy I became a great actor.

 

I was unable to read 'til I was 7 and yet no-one had realised because I had managed to appear confident with the work I would somehow produce through memory, manual copy and pasting. I became very learnt in reading the people around me, which gave me me the ability to empathise and understand situations that my peers couldn’t. My writing was always abundant with imagery and imaginative topics and a love for language, despite being diagnosed with dyslexia and spending my youth in bottom set English as any traditional writing skills didn’t exist.

 

At 9 my mother was diagnosed with cancer. It was very hard to be so powerless as the same mortality I had experienced was now upon my mother. I suffered a lot during this period and suffered with very dark thoughts. As I grew up, I had realised that this world wasn’t fit for my alternative narrative that instead suppresses the oppressed into a very lonely place. I felt a duty to make people feel OK to be something out of the ordinary; that rules are to be questioned.

 

I  have been very preoccupied with sex; I remember wanting to be a sexologist when I was in my early teens. I thought I was extremely weird and my sexuality was something I should hide, but in true Isabelle spirit I was a sucker for filling my needs. I knew if I were to be happy I was going to have to break the rules, but I didn’t want to be a rule breaker - so I bent them and questioned them and sometimes used them to justify getting pleasure. I was the life of the party and I had found a way to diminish the haters with my ability to read the other.

At 16/17 my eldest sister began to suffer with mental health problems, and as I was her best friend I took it upon myself to help in any way I could. My sister’s mental health journey continued through the years with me not realising that mine would be soon tested. By the time I had got to University, I was a ticking time bomb - after years of ignoring, drinking, bad relationships and no sleep I was very much manic and in need of help. I had started to write my first mental health poems about depression at this time and used writing as a way to spill the words I could never say out loud. I completed my degree and within the year I had gotten myself a PR job and lived in London.

 

Then I lost it.

 

Nothing made any sense; I had spent my whole life running to the finish line without checking its location. My relationship ended and as much as it wasn’t the bullet that shot me, it sure as hell dug my grave. I had planned to take my life and promised myself that if I hadn’t done it by the morning I’d ask for help. Then, it was morning.

 

I spent ten weeks in a psychiatric hospital where I met some of the most interesting and kind  people I’d ever met; I actually think the true therapy was sitting and talking to people on the smoking table outside. After two more failed attempts on my life and a load of medication, I was deemed treatment-resistant. Everyone panicked and so I was to receive 10 sessions of electro-convulsive therapy. As I began to get brighter, I began to become annoyed with the failings of the ward, my sadness turned to anger and so I was ready to fight a battle. At this point I had converted my scribbles into the bones that led to this book. I had to stop the ECT as my heart stopped and they had to do a Pulp-Fiction-style adrenaline shot to get me back. At the time I thought of the irony that they had killed me whilst trying to stop me from killing myself. I then turned to healthcare; I spent years working on mental health wards, feeling very much like Jack Nicholson. These years of recovery and healing became easier as I watched patients get better.

 

Since my hospitalisation, my journey has been far from straightforward, I think a big problem is believing mental health is something that can be fixed with a linear recovery, when it’s something we need to learn to maintain and to support others through understanding. Only in the last six months have things become easier. I was found to have unaddressed trauma and suffered from PTSD. I got myself back to therapy and started to concentrate on my poetry. As someone who has struggled to communicate in traditional ways in my life, writing has become the way I can be true to myself and the people around me. I found solace in international films, books and art, constantly looking for alternative narratives that fit mine. If I can make someone feel a little less alone I’ll be happy.

 

I currently work as a phlebotomist and spend my free time making mixed-media art and, of course, trying to fit as many poetry evenings in as possible. My family have carried me these past few years and I’m I know how grateful I am to have a family like I do. Right now is me time and for once I’m really enjoying myself.

You write a lot about sex, and not in a particularly romantic way – your work is more raw and visceral than hearts and flowers. What led you to make this choice and what reception do you find it gets in a patriarchal society?

 

I think having had an unruly libido when I was younger and having very negative inner voices about having to hide and conform, that if I was going to ignore my inner voices then I sure as hell wasn’t going to be listening to the opinion of men. I did have a very new-wave feminist moment where I thought I was just adhering to the male gaze.

 

I have defended my sexcapades for many years and I understand the complexity of sexualisation of the female body, but studying Sociology I found a new freedom - that women have rights, and with choice they should be free to be whoever they wish to be. I tend to be raw about sex because I think beauty comes in honesty; that female narratives are very much hidden under expectation. I think our society shapes the way we see ourselves and become our own inner voices.

 

Some of my favourite writers tend to right explicitly about sex: Marquis de Sade, George Bataille, Vladimir Nabokov and of course the beats. Also being an art lover, the work of Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Franz Von Stuck, who were all apart of an art succession which meant they were the band of outsiders breaking the rules on what is deemed obscene rather than traditional.  

 

The only way we can wake people up from societal norms is to challenge them; if I shocked you, then you probably have a little English Victorian person dictating your head.

 
 

Which poem do you wish you’d written, and why?

I’d have loved to have written Howl by Ginsberg as it was one of the last literary works to be deemed obscene and was fought in court - it won the opinion that what is obscene should not stop freedom of speech. Plus, it includes a lot of raw sexual references. 

You’ve got a bit of a reputation for your voice and your delivery of spoken-word poetry. How does it make you feel to be known for this?

I didn’t even know I was known for this! But I take that as a compliment; my accent has always been a little questionable and I’m still unsure where it’s from, but I had a real love for poetry and drama as a kid and I think my expressive nature has been down to wanting to communicate the best I could.

What role do you think strong feminists play in this new era of spoken word?

 

I think now is the most important time for strong feminists to continue our fight. We are so connected to the wider world - the wider issues and insectionality of feminism - that it is now that we must push a unified message. Although every woman experiences this society differently, we must use a common consciousness to create progress. We need to widen the narratives, the options and boxes; we need to have a world that is fit for everyone. In doing so, we are widening the opportunities and voices of those who are stuck in the dark. The more narratives, the less loneliness there will be for the next generation.

 

I think a very important part of feminism is the understanding of state outdated masculine narratives and without change within the ways we allow masculinity to be then women’s rights won’t progress. 

 


You also write a lot about mental health. What led you to share your experiences so openly?

 

I think after being diagnosed with PTSD last year and being told that this isn’t a mental health disorder you can ignore, which tends to reappear if not addressed - I decided to "own" it, which I had never done before. I had hidden all the parts of me I didn’t think would be accepted and swallowed hard. So - I stood up and started talking, and it’s the best thing I could have done for my head - not just the act of spoken word but the experience, that this was a room of the strongest people and are able to be vulnerable all at once. That’s strength. 
 

Red wine or white?

 

Coca-Cola (calisober, only smoke bud!). 
 

You’re becoming very active on the Manchester spoken word scene. Which night has been your favourite to perform at?

 

I started my journey at Speak Easy in Chorlton and I will always have a soft spot for this evening. I do have to say Mind over Matter is a great evening and I can’t explain enough the importance of the work Mind does. It is incredibly friendly with an array of performers, stories and diverse narratives.

 


What can we expect from your upcoming chapbook?


A very raw account of identity and mental health. I explore social narratives that need to be questioned and changed. The chapbook should give a real feeling of what it’s like to suffer with mental health issues and recovery in a society that isn’t fit to solve them. 

Pandora's Ruin drops in late July