‘Poetry gave me a voice I didn’t know I had back then’

Local Cardiff poet David Hanlon on how putting pen to paper can really change your life

David Hanlon during his visit to London [Credit: David Hanlon]

Poetry is arguably one of the most revealing forms of art, which requires incredible strength, courage, and confidence to project onto a page for the world to read. David Hanlon admits that poetry saved his life from a dark spiral into depression and coming to terms with his sexuality during his late 20s.

David grew up on a council estate in Cardiff and was raised by a Celtic family in a community, he confesses, that wasn’t a safe space to be openly gay. “It was really damaging, and I was bullied a lot in school, which contributed then to my depression,” he said.

The silver lining, he says, is that the traumatic experiences of his life sparked a newfound passion for poetry. “The tortured artist,” he chuckled, “I feel lucky that I’ve been able to at least survive that stuff and feel strong enough to explore it and put it out there for the world to read.”

The 35-year-old decided to pursue his hobby for confessional writing after watching fellow Cardiff poet Christina Thatcher perform her work at an open mic night. “I saw her reading a poem about her father’s death through alcoholism and I thought it was amazing to see somebody talk about something so difficult,” he said, “it was then I had my first moment of ‘Oh, I can really do this’.” 

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Stepping out

At 29, David took the giant leap and stepped out into the world of poetry. “I went from a closed darkness of isolation to getting out there and exploring this new thing,” he said.

He describes his first performance at the Mackintosh Sports Club as an anxious debut. “I kind of can’t remember coming off stage, I was really nervous, I just walked past the audience and went straight outside for a cigarette.” 

Developing his confidence to perform became difficult due to the Covid-19 pandemic but after a series of performances, the Cardiff local is delighted with his progress. “I think I’ve only read four or five times in the last couple of performances, but I feel more confident than I expected to be in such a short space of time.” 

When something you’ve written has touched someone or helped them, that’s what keeps me going

Ideas take flight

Getting his work published wasn’t easy and after several setbacks and rude replies, David’s perseverance finally paid off when Animal Heart Press published his work in February 2020. “It was an amazing feat but also very scary because it does feel like your soul or your private life is being given to somebody, it’s out there now.” 

Confessional writing is a modern genre that taps into a poet’s life experience. As a qualified mental health counsellor David doesn’t shy away from stigmatised conversations. His debut book ‘Spectrums of Flight’ explores depression and sexuality, among other topics. “A lot of the issues I talk about you’d probably take to therapy, so I’ve been able to work on those issues myself through poetry,” he said.

A career highlight while touring his book came in Liverpool when a father thanked David for giving his son the confidence to come out. “When I heard that I thought it was the most amazing thing,” he beamed, “because that’s exactly the point of my book, I want to give people the strength to feel okay.”

Watch David perform one of his personal favourite poems ‘Swimming Lessons’ here: