A few weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of chatting with Andreena Leeanne about her collection of poems ‘CHARRED: A survivor speaks her truth to inspire’. I have seen & heard first hand how much of an inspiration she is during events where she has shared her poems and especially during this interview where I caught my breath many times and I have no doubt you will too. At the end of the interview, you can find details of her self-care workshops and how to book one if you are interested. This was shared on booklovers blog in April, however during Pride Month I will be highlighting LGBTQ+ role models on this blog too.
Andreena is an out and proud Black working-class Lesbian poet, inspirational speaker and mother. Let’s meet her.
How did you come to write poetry?
Andreena: I found poetry in 2014 when my girlfriend Germaine and I went to an open mic night and someone asked me ‘Would you like to go on the open mic?’ and I replied ‘no, I haven’t written a poem or done anything like that since I was a child. I’m only here to support my partner who wants us to do more things she’s interested in like going to events, theatres and museums’.
Later on during the event, I found the guy and told him ‘You know what, if you get me a pen and paper, I’ll write something and if I feel like sharing it then I will do’ and that’s what happened, In February 2014, I wrote and shared my 1st poem on an open mic and the rest is history as they say. Writing poetry has changed my life.
That’s very brave in that moment to ask for a pen and paper and just share it, that’s wonderful.
Andreena: Yes, I wrote about the night, the event and it came really naturally to me come to think of it and people have asked me since if I was interested in writing before and I’ve said ‘no’ but yeah I have.
Was that recently or as a child?
Andreena: As a teenager, I used to keep a journal and one day my mum (who I’ve had great difficulties with) came into my room and she opened up this journal I kept in my room. I’d written in big capital letters on it ‘I HATE MY MUM, I HATE MY MUM’ like doing lines for school. When I came home from school, my room was trashed, she had torn posters off my wall, had my journal and she asked, ‘What is this about you hate me?’
I was just livid – that I’d written something so personal and I couldn’t even share my feelings on paper. She confronted me about it and I was in big trouble for writing what I felt. I was a teenager and remember it vividly. From that day I vowed never to write anything down where anyone could see it and if I did write anything, I would burn it so that nobody ever got to see what I’d written.
Some people have commented ‘you write so naturally, you write from the heart, you’ve never studied poetry or anything like that, you’ve never been to poetry nights before this, now you’re writing like this, where did it come from?’
So I’ve reflected on that. I know that, had that situation not happened with my mum, I reckon I could have been a writer by now because I used to enjoy it. I used to write. Now having found poetry again, I’m nearly 40 so it’s been a long time and recently I’ve been going back and connecting the dots and figuring a lot out. A lot of that has been down to this book.
So I started going to poetry nights, my partner bought me a journal. I wrote poems as I went along to lots of events as I said ‘ Germaine, this is wonderful. Why have we not been doing this before’
We went round different poetry events in 2014 and then in January 2015 I started Poetry LGBT as I realised that there wasn’t really anywhere for us to express ourselves. There were lots of places we could go to drink and to party but not many places where we could write about how we feel and share that with anyone else. So over 6 years of Poetry LGBT, I filled up some journals.
What made you want to publish your poems?
Andreena: In 2018, my poems were published in an anthology called ‘Sista!’, an anthology by and about same-gender loving women of African and Caribbean descent with a UK connection. I was really proud of that as that’s the first time my poems have ended up in a published book.
International Women’s day March 2019 was the first time I wrote about my abuse experience because the theme of the event was ‘Protest’. For me, breaking my silence about my abuse was breaking my silence and protesting.
I spent the rest of the year thinking of the abuse and what I’d shared and then I shared the poem on the survivors trust website (http://www.thesurvivorstrust.org). As the months went on, it felt like I needed to talk and share more as in sharing that journey people have come to me and said ‘ I too am 1 in 4, that’s happened to metoo’ so at the time it felt like the most important thing.
In December 2019, I quit my job and dived into 2020 wanting to be an inspirational speaker, speaking my truth about abuse. In January, February and March 2020 I was building up some momentum of being this speaker with no experience of speaking by the way, just the experience of my own journey to share with others.
Then the pandemic happened which actually gave me a chance to reflect and think about how I wanted to share my truth. I looked at my journals and thought I’d like all my poems in a book so I thought where do I start with the book?
I remembered I’d been published in an anthology so I contacted the publishers ‘Team Angelica’, mentioned the 2 journals of poetry I had and said I’d like to share my experience of abuse and other things. I would like a book. John R Gordon, one of the publishers asked me to send my poems to him in a word document to see what we could do with them.
So I started typing up my poems from the journals as they were hand written. It was really traumatising, I was having to look back at poems from 2014 and type them up which meant I had to read them properly. It was such a painful process which took me ages but we were in lockdown anyway so I had time. I typed them up and sent them to John, he sent me an email after some time saying ‘These are a definite, these are a maybe and these we’ll leave out’we whittled them down to 50 from about 70.
I decided I wanted to publish the book on National Coming Out day which is 11thOctober but because of lockdown, the venue we wanted to use wasn’t open so it became the 9thOctober. I wanted National Coming Out day as it was my coming out with my truth about my abuse. I had a launch event on Zoom 9thOctober in ‘Gays the Word’ bookshop which was streamed online from there as Team Angelica have connections there.
It’s a collection of poems from my journals over the past 7 years. A few recent ones have been added around child abuse as all I could think of was all those children in lockdown being abused, whereas school could have been their escape from their abuser, schools were closed. So I was continually thinking of the child abuse of these children.
‘Covid 19 in silence’is in there as I thought about the pandemic and we were having to be silent due to wearing masks, silent as the Government were telling us what to do and silent because we can’t go and see our friends, so parallels of being silent and experiencing these difficult and strange times we’ve had.
Who is the book aimed at?
Andreena: It is mainly aimed at people who aren’t writers. I want to encourage people to write if they are not already doing so as writing has helped me immensely to deal with my issues. I used to be a 20 a day smoker and now I don’t smoke anymore. I don’t use any harmful or destructive behaviours as writing has been my safe thing to do to deal with my emotions.
It’s also for survivors of sexual abuse to gain courage from my words. Also for LGBT people who are not out, to find courage to come out, it’s also for people of colour. In the Black community, we don’t talk about our business, whatever happens in the house stays in the house, it doesn’t go outside and that’s quite destructive as there are quite a lot of things that happen in the house. If we carry on not speaking about it then these atrocities continue to happen so we need to speak about it to let people know that’s not normal.
It’s to encourage those who have experienced mental health problems to speak openly about their stuff because with me speaking my truth I then inspire others to speak openly about their truth. That’s why it’s so explicitly raw and also why I’ve put useful contacts at the back because you don’t normally find that in a poetry book but I’m quite mindful that the things I share may trigger other people who are then left with their feelings and what do they do?
It also shows resilience in the face of adversity, showing people, you can still live a happy and successful life having gone through all of these challenges which is all very important.
Do you think you’ll publish another book of poems or are these the most important ones?
Andreena: In recent challenges I’ve had, writing poems has been my way of dealing with it all, so I’ll always write poetry or short stories as my coping mechanism. Whether I choose to share it with everybody else is a different story as we don’t have to share everything we write with everybody.
I would like to create a self-help journal or something to do with self-care. I’m big on self-care because in dealing with all these difficult subjects, self-care is really important and has helped me to get through these difficult times so I want to pass that on too.
Is there going to be another book, the answer is, who knows, you don’t know where life is going to take you. It’s taken this long to get to this stage in my healing journey so it will take more time to put together something else.
I think there’s pressure to always churn out and produce more, I’ve given a lot of myself in this book and it hasn’t been easy as there are people who haven’t been happy with me. My mum is not happy that I’ve got all my business out in a book for all and sundry to see.
I would like to sit with this for a long time because I don’t really think any of these poems will ever get old as they are my life experiences and people can relate regardless of when they read them. It could be in 10 years-time and any of those poems will still be relevant then.
Yes there are such a wide range of topics you can go through. There’s clearly a thread through and some I go back to over and over.
Andreena: When I typed them up, I printed them out and then arranged them in the order I wanted them to be read in. From the start where I’m telling you these years have not been easy, this happened, then when that voice had to come out, my relationships and issues with people, then it’s about COVID and gets more like heavy as ‘No longer keeping secrets’. Then coming out as a lesbian in 2003 and this is the whole truth and nothing but the truth but also encouraging people again to speak your truth because it starts and ends with ‘Speak your truth’just before ‘The time is now’which is right at the end because that poem is about regardless of what has happened, now is really important.
I’ve also left space at the back for people to write if they want to and notes on self-care around what I do. Everyone’s been through stuff, no one has come through unscathed and the longer you go through life, the more you are going through stuff as you’re meeting more people. There’s always going to be something or someone in your life which doesn’t go well and some of us are more affected by whatever it is than others.
What were the easiest, hardest poems to write and publish?
Andreena: I find it easy to write about myself, my life and experiences. I can dig deep into myself and write about myself. I write in the moment that I feel something, if I feel upset. It usually takes me 10 minutes to write a poem.
I’m working on a project with someone in Newcastle and we’re writing about homelessness which is taking a long time as I’ve researched specifically about hidden homeless. It’s not coming from the heart then, it’s coming from a project I need to deliver. I’ve found being commissioned to write more difficult than writing something personal about myself.
In terms of writing, my most difficult poem is the ‘No longer keeping secrets’as it’s about child abuse, it’s my longest poem and most detailed poem. That one was the most difficult to write as it was very painful to go over what happened.
I’ve shared so many of your poems in mindfulness sessions, silent retreats and courses. ‘My Mind’, ‘Happiness’, ‘Speak your Truth’, ‘The time is now’ more than others. Is mindfulness/ meditation important to you as there are so many parts of those poems which really resonate with me and my mindfulness practice?
Andreena: Mindfulness and meditation are really important for me. I discovered mindfulness about 10 years ago. There was a focus at work on wellbeing and someone came in to work to do a session on mindfulness and that’s when I first heard about it. We did mindful eating with a piece of chocolate and we had to smell it, hold it up to our ear, look at it, hold it on our tongue for a while and really savour the taste so we did that. Even to this day I’m very mindful when I’m eating as I really like to taste my food and enjoy it.
So, that’s when I discovered mindfulness and over the years I’ve really focussed on being still and spend time in Nature. It’s really helped me as I was very erratic before and was always busy and now I can sit still. I recognise that before I never wanted time to think about what I’ve been through.
Since finding meditation, walks in the park and nature, I’ve been able to sit still and enjoy quiet moments. I never wanted to be by myself but it is weird, that’s changed my life as well I guess. I know for a fact if I feel stressed to the maximum, I get this pain in my neck, like this unrelenting pain in my neck. I know that’s a sign for me to drive somewhere coastal, or the seaside or somewhere where there is water. All of a sudden the pain from my neck goes, I feel calmer when I spend time in nature. I’ve only discovered that as I did it and it worked and because it worked once, I’ve done it again and over the years, I’ve found that works.
That’s why self-care is so important and I’ve started delivering self-care writing workshops where I use a self-care wheel and encourage people to investigate what self-care means to them. In my writing workshop or any space I create it’s a warm and welcoming space. I’m not teaching how to write poems. I’m showing that this has helped me, it may help others who can write however they feel comfortable and they don’t have to share it unless they want to. That’s what makes it accessible to everyone as anyone can turn up to my workshop and come away with something they’ve written.
What advice would you give any budding poets?
Andreena: I would say just do it, everyone has a story just write, do it. It’s not a competition so it doesn’t matter. We spend so much time comparing ourselves to other people and saying we’re not good enough. I spent lots of time comparing and listening to other people. That’s not healthy or helpful. Just do it if you want to write, just write, you don’t have to have a degree in English to write, just write. You never know it could end up in a book!
Where can readers find you?
Andreena: Instagram @survivor.andreena.leeanne and Facebook: Andreena Leeanne. I’ll also show up in a google search.
Is there anything you wish to close with?
Andreena: I want to say to people that you are important, you are enough and there will only ever be one you. You take care of yourself. Speak your truth because it’s really important. It’s not about speaking your truth and running off into the sunset and living happily ever after.
Your truth may be slightly different to their version of events but it’s important to speak your truth and live your life. You only have one life so you might as well live it to the best of your ability and even if people don’t agree or like you , there are lots of people who will like you and agree with you. I also want to say there is life after abuse as well. Lots of people have their experiences and challenges but it doesn’t stop you from living a happy and fulfilled life. You’re in charge of that, you are in charge of your journey and that’s why it is important you speak your truth. It all ties in together, it really does.
Details of Andreena’s self-care workshop:
I would love to work with your organisation to give your staff and service users access to my interactive, affordable and highly beneficial self-care writing workshop.
With people returning to face to face work or having been affected by the pandemic, these self-care writing workshops offer a fantastic opportunity for people to reflect and identify the best self-care solutions for themselves whilst exploring their creativity.
The workshops are available virtually and/or physically with a choice of 60/90/120 minutes.
Full details, including costs and discounts for charities and multiple bookings are available. Please do not hesistate to contact me should you have any questions or need additional information about the self-care writing workshops.