By Mike Hegarty
Not every organisation has its own poet-in-residence, and none have one quite like Helen Moore. In the same way Bristol Pound views money as a tool that can benefit entire communities rather than just a privileged few, Helen sees poetry as being less about personal self-exploration and more a tool to positively affect the way people think about themselves and the world. Recently, she’s been running a series of deeply fascinating creative writing workshops exploring the oft-ignored relationship between money and the self, with a particular focus on how independent currencies can relate to this. I sat down with her in Small Street Espresso to hear more:
So what have you been up to lately?
I’ve been running a series of workshops which are about engaging people with the theme of money. So far, I’ve worked with a group of Bristol Pound members, a WI group from north Bristol and most recently a group of Prince’s Trust young people on a work to earn program.
It really is! Money can be a really taboo subject – there are a lot of feelings in our culture that it’s a very private matter. And yet there are lots of fears about it: we live in a culture that thrives on a scarcity mentality and instilling a fear in people that money is about to disappear.
Did you find that these different groups presented quite different challenges?
Oh, absolutely! I suppose with the Bristol Pound members, they already knew about local currencies. They were engaged with the scheme to varying extents, but essentially they were educated on its benefits and its values and they had already made the choice to get involved.
The WI was more varied: most of them hadn’t used the Bristol Pound so it was much more about helping them to engage with what the importance of a local currency is. But they were educated, privileged women who perhaps had a certain set of values that was interesting to explore
Did they live up to the WI stereotype?
Jam and Jersusalem! No, not at all really. They were quite diverse in their work and ages and were very receptive to the idea of a local currency and were really enthusiastic about exchanging their sterling over for £Bs at the end of the workshop and even in opening an account. I think there’s something great about taking people on a journey through creativity and really getting people to think about our general relationship with money, fostering an atmosphere of enjoyment! What I really love about poetry and creative writing exercises is that they’re often an excuse to talk about things that we wouldn’t really talk about otherwise
Did that approach work for the Prince’s Trust young people too?
Yes, I thought so. With some exceptions of course – some of the questions I get them to respond to are open ended sentences, like ‘my memory of my first job was…’, and some of these young people had never even had a job! Their relationship with money is completely different without that privilege, and I’m really aware of how hard it is for young people, without the security that older people enjoy.
Also, some of them weren’t too comfortable with the creative and introspective approach – they weren’t hostile to it but just a little unsure. Some of them responded to it really well though, it was really fascinating watching them figure out where they stood on statements liken ‘money makes the world go round’ and just exploring this very important but very taboo subject.
Why do you think creative writing is an especially good tool for community engagement?
I think that it engages the imagination and the emotions and allows people to really introspect and reflect on things that they wouldn’t do otherwise. One of the last exercises I do in the workshop is writing a letter to the part of yourself that relates to money, and trying to find a name for that part of yourself. ‘Moneybags’ or ‘breadhead’ were two I remembered! In all the groups I worked with, it was never really something they’d talked about – this part of themselves that relates to money, and it is a very important part of us! The act of just spending 20 mins, sitting quietly, being guided into this type of engagement is really useful I think.
It sounds like you wanted to let them be quite independent in how they conceptualised this personal relationship with money. What sort of things came out of it?
I was always clear that if people didn’t want to share what they’d written that’s fine, and I think that’s quite important, but in the PT group there were some intimations of some real fear about money – fear about how to earn it and about how to make a living. There was one young woman who really struggled in money management. She was quite open about how when she receives money she just has to spend it, that it really burns a hole in her pocket and she can’t keep a hold of it. I think there were beginnings of some really interesting explorations for these young people.
I was really pleasantly surprised with the PT group about how aware they were of the way that big supermarkets and big chain stores impact on high streets and impact local trade. They were very aware of how global trade operates and had some good understanding of the environmental impact.
People (and especially young people) don’t often have the opportunity to talk about these issues – it’s not part of mainstream culture and it’s not talked about in schools, so it’s so important to provide that forum to engage with these issues.
How did they see local currencies fitting into this?
Quite opposed to seeing it as a gimmick, I think they really saw the value of it! I asked them if they had any family members or relatives who were self-employed or were local traders. Many of them did, and they really saw the value of a currency designed to support these people. Of course, part of the PT is about encouraging entrepreneurship with young people, and so many of them really could see how local currencies could benefit them in their potential future careers.
So do you see your occupation as a writer as an active one?
Absolutely, I think that socially engaged arts are incredibly important. I label myself as an ecopoet, so all of my work is about the planet and my engagement with it. We live in really extreme times where it’s no longer relevant for artists to solely be engaged in a very individualistic, introspective practice. There are still plenty of artists who are working in that way, but that’s not how I work. That’s not to say that I don’t examine my own attitudes – I think that’s really important – but I view my work and everything else I do as ultimately being in service to the earth. It’s really important for the green movement to have cultural champions, and I’m always interested in how I can extend what I do and how I can reach new audiences.