Search

beccipoet

Handing out words

The Roving Poet Part 14: The Crow’s Nest

For once so far, this summer, it isn’t raining. But the clouds are thick and hang low in the sky. The gulls wheel in and out of them, calling in that screeching voice of protest that is so familiar to the coast. It’s lunch time. I am poised on the top viewing platform of Caro’s Quayside sculpture, ‘Sea Music’. There is a box of fish and chips balanced on the railings and my two-year-old parrot, Maya, is on my shoulder, purring to herself.

They call this uppermost viewing platform ‘the Crow’s Nest’. In Caro’s original design, he and Tom Roberts, who was head of Poole Arts Council at the time, discussed the idea of a spiral staircase leading right to the top of the structure, with a crow’s-nest-like circular viewing platform. In the end, this notion was dismissed, but Sea Music is still surrounded by three tiers of viewing platforms, the central of which is adorned with very simple seating. The railings are painted silver. When the sun is high, it matches the gleaming peaks of the stirring sea.

I am told that Caro would often come with his wife, (Sheila Girling, a renowned painter in her own right and Caro’s regular advisor when it came to applying colour to his work) and eat fish and chips whilst sitting on one of Sea Music’s viewing platforms. It feels right to do the same now, while I am writing about its recent restoration. Maya is eager to share the chips. Being a bird, she is not allowed, but she has some treats of her own that I give her. The treats are not chips so she is not impressed and spends the next ten minutes sulking.

This morning, we have been in the library. What a happy place to be – the excellent librarians and experts there had surrounded me with a variety of cracked and aging books, photocopies of old poems and stories and a folder of artefacts to do with the object of my study. His name was Harry Paye, known by the Spanish as Arripay, a late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century pirate. Paye was born in Poole, spent much of his time sacking French ships and attacking Spanish towns to bring the looted goods back to Poole. He caused such trouble amongst his continental nemeses that they sent a combined fleet all the way to Poole in 1405 in an attempt to burn it down. They failed, but only just. Harry Paye was far before the time of Sea Music, but the more I read about him, the more I realise he represents something similar. Rightly or wrongly, he was admired by the people of Poole. (He still is! A social organisation called the Pirates of Poole run regular events in his honour, often dressed as pirates. Recently, they travelled to Spain to return the crucifix from the Church of St Mary, which Paye stole on one of his many rampages along the coast of Spain.) Paye brought back foreign goods, was appointed a Commander of British naval ships and provided wines and loot for the people of Poole that were far beyond what many of them would have seen at that time. Perhaps, to some, he represents the heroism and daring that could defend a town, that could give it purpose and longevity. Yes, they were hazardous times, with the harbour against which the town was nestled inviting both opportunity and danger, but Paye was brave enough to climb to the crow’s nest of his ships and stare out into the horizon as he chased it.

Standing in the Crow’s Nest of Sea Music, my own parrot on my shoulder, her feathers fluffed against the wind, I feel oddly close to Paye. He was—to all intents and purposes—a destroyer, a looter, a thief, but he brought opportunity. Like him, Sea Music was initially considered to be something quite piratical by the locals. Likened to a can opener, dubbed ugly and useless, a waste of space and public money by the residents, it received much disdain. During its time on the quay, it has been open to the elements as well as to the callousness of humankind, suffering graffiti as well as gull guano. It wasn’t until it was revealed that the design and installation of Sea Music had cost the public no money at all that they began to soften towards it. Indeed, Caro waived his fee, many of the materials were donated by Bourne Steel and the workers involved in construction were often volunteers. £130,000 the sculpture was estimated to cost, and yet not a penny of it was drawn from the public purse. Like Paye, it had crossed the horizon of public imagination and brought something back; a gift. Like Paye, Sea Music is often consigned to the depths of local history, known to the people of Poole, but not far beyond, despite the interest that may be gleaned by both stories.

A little like Paye may have been considered, by some, as the defender and hero of Poole (though, doubtless, he is thought of with nothing but contempt by the French and Spanish), Sea Music now stands sentinel on the quay, drawing the eye for the length of the harbour. It was designed to be a meeting point, to draw together town, harbour and open ocean, a crossroads for the imagination. To me, it stands a little like a guardian. We do not face armies of marauding pirates any more, it is a long time since our coastal towns have been sacked and burned, but still we face challenges. We are challenged by the nature of our nation’s identity, by how we seek to create—both as individuals and as a culture—and establish a positive and meaningful place in the world. Now Paye may be a controversial figure, both loved and hated, feared and admired, but in that regard, he is no different to Sea Music. The sculpture (so far as I know) has never sacked a Spanish town, nor looted French ships, but it has drawn much criticism in its time. Despite this, its steel spine will not bend in shame, the rolling ribbons of its shape will not warp under the pressure. It remains, stubborn and steadfast, offering a view of the horizon, the working ships, the distant sea.

Perhaps now is a good time to mention that I am afraid of heights. Looking up at the top of the sculpture from this height makes me feel dizzy. I can see the sea and the harbour through the slats in the platform. The wind is stronger up here and my knees are bent against my own unsteadiness. But fear is invigorating. The unknown forces our minds to race in shapes hitherto unfamiliar to us. Whether it is right to revere Paye or not, he is a figure that sparks conversation amongst the locals. It is not unusual, in Poole, to see a pirate crossing the road, carrying a bag of chips and possibly walking a dog. This is a town—perhaps, arguably, a country—eager to have its imagination awakened, whether by pride, anger, reverence or fear. It is openness that I hope this sculpture inspires, a willingness to see beyond the basics of shape and objective fact and observe the human stories behind those things.

I don’t stay up in the Crow’s Nest long after having finished my fish and chips. Maya is grumping loudly and we are drawing a lot of looks from the crowd below. Pirates in Poole may be normal, but even they have to look twice to assure themselves that there really is a live parrot on my shoulder!

We climb down. I bin the empty box and am composing a Paye poem in my head as I return to the museum. A few metres from the entrance, I am stopped by a father holding the hand of his young child. The father smiles at me but the boy stares with a mixture of fascination and nerves.

“He wants to know,” the boy’s dad says, “if you’re a pirate, because you’ve got a parrot on your shoulder.”

I smile. As is often her way, Maya chooses that exact moment to exert the power of her Jurassic lungs and challenge the seagulls. The boy puts his free hand over his ear, but a smile tugs the corners of his mouth.

“Not a pirate,” I say, “It’s worse than that. I’m a poet.”

The Roving Poet Part 13: Listening to Sea Music

WP_20170725_13_34_56_Pro (2)

Today, the coast of England seems to have remembered—however briefly—that it is Summer. The sun has made a guest appearance, though I am assured that she will be disappearing to other climes tomorrow and the end of July will roll over in its sleep, complain that its mother has woken it too early, and disappear beneath the British weather for another few days.

But it doesn’t matter. Because I’m on the coast. I’m at Poole Museum, looking out over the quay. From where I’m sitting, the towering figure of Sea Music, Anthony Caro’s stunning public sculpture, rolls it steel waves into the sky. On almost every roof, there is a fledgling gull screaming for food. The parent birds circle overhead or snooze on windowsills. Their yellow-eyed stare seems to suggest that parenthood isn’t all it is cracked up to be. My parrot mimics their cries and I smile, thinking that, if she keeps it up, I’ll be taking a little bit of the coast back home with me.

When I was offered the role of Writer in Residence at Poole museum, to celebrate the restoration of the beautiful statue on Poole Quay, it felt a little like those first tentative steps out into the sea at three or four years old: the sudden shock of water that feels soft with salt, the gentle fingers of wild ocean foam holding your ankles, and you not knowing whether to back away in fear, or crash out into this new world with all its glorious, slimy, dangerous treasure. When we stand on land and look out to sea, what we are actually doing is standing on the boundary between dimensions. Experiencing that for the first time can be overwhelming. But that’s what I feel when I stand at the base of sea music and look up. Captured in steel is the vitality of the rearing sea, its heaviness and homeliness, its delicacy and danger.

But the sculpture represents more than that to me. Since being offered the position, I have excitedly ransacked the internet for local history, for biographies of Caro, for information about other public art projects. What I uncover is a silent battle on behalf of the arts to establish and maintain the place in society it deserves. Much like the Angel of the North, I read, Sea Music suffered much controversy as it was being created twenty-five years ago. Why? I asked. I examine it for hours, pore over all kinds of photographs, climb the viewing platform, take pictures, sit beneath it, touch its cool steel. What is so offensive about it? The answer is simple: its existence. For too long now, the arts have been considered surplus to social requirements, and so the idea of ‘relinquishing’ public space to a piece of art is often seen as a waste of time. Public sculptures that are long-lasting often fade from the public eye, becoming nothing more than background. They are open to destruction, vandalism, the elements, to discrimination from all sides. Yet for twenty-five years, Sea Music has endured. And its endurance poses a wider question: Why do we need art?

I do not ask the question do we need art, because for me, the answer is simple. Yes. From the earliest examples of cave paintings, to the contemporary west end theatres, art is life. As Ben Knight, a councillor during the inception of Sea Music, says in his interview, ‘art established a nation.’

What does it say about our nation that we view art so begrudgingly, jealously, critically, ungratefully?

Sea Music is described both by Ben Knight and by Anne Stribley, another member of the council at the time, as ‘a gift to Poole’. Designed and overseen by Caro, the materials and labour for its construction were all locally sourced or donated, without dipping deeply into public money. As much honest art is, it was created and given out of purity. A good friend of mine, Claire Dyer, a poet and fiction writer, once told me ‘poetry is an offering. It is a gift.’ I don’t think that is unique to poetry.

When artists take those first steps into the tempests of their imaginations, draw upon the horror and gentleness and beauty and ugliness of humanity, when they rake their nails through their memories and drag them like seaweed to the surface, hold them out in both hands and say, for you, they are giving something far purer than anything that could be bought by mere currency. They are carving their humanity up to be gifted to their fellow man. Sea Music is a representation of the enduring nature of art, of its continued and unyielding relevance, of being what a culture needs and deserves despite being misunderstood. It is a gift. It remains a gift, and it gives repeatedly.

Sometimes, we become blind to that which deserves gratitude. We grow intolerant of wonder and deaf to beauty. But still the sculpture is there, a frozen moment of ocean rearing like a storm, like a fin, like a tentacle, into the hearts of all who see it.

So, when I write of Sea Music, of tides captured in steel, of sunsets ricocheting from sculpted metal, of the rumble of boats, I add my voice to history. I stand alongside the endurance of art and fortify the walls with my words. I write, and I encourage others to write, and I create and I build and I sculpt as a way of giving sustenance to a living piece of work. To love art is to love life.

And the gulls call as they wheel over the ocean, and land, one-legged on the crest of the sculpture, and participate in the apparent violence of feeding their young. Their music rotates inside the waves of the statue, just like the moan of boats, the chatter of children, the silence of poets.

In the great scheme of things, we are all whispers of water unfolding against the sand. But what we create in our moments of being, what we appreciate, what we cherish and protect, does not just establish a nation, it defines a species. Sea Music is a gift, and I hope that what I write and create and give in the next two months goes some way to maintaining the generous offering Caro gifted to the harbour, to the town, to the nation.

I can’t wait to begin.

The Poet Activist: SLA Conference 2017 -Poetry is a Lightbulb in Moments of Utter Darkness

Last weekend, the school librarian with whom I collaborate on my residency drove us both to Harrogate to the School Library Association 2017 conference to celebrate and share ideas for how librarians, writers and associated individuals can best spread the love of reading that I’m still convinced will save the world.

It was a long day. It was also a beautiful day. There is something to be said for being in a room full of individuals who are as passionate and adamant about the written word as you are. We had a truly wonderful time and we did gather a whole load of new strategies and ideas for how to best embed reading—particularly reading of poetry—into the ethos of the school. The difficulty I have is that, although we learned a lot in terms of new strategies, in terms of our own conceptual understanding, all we really received was a lot of affirmation that out instincts were correct.

“What’s wrong with that?” I hear you cry, sipping your tea and nodding along (I hope) to the notion that reading helps us to develop the capacity for compassion, empathy, widens our social and cultural knowledge, helps us to dream and generally builds our understanding of the world. Truth be told, there was nothing wrong with it. We were very happy to have our notion of the superhero world-saving properties of reading reaffirmed. The difficulty was, and I heard it said by so many writers and librarians, if only we could convince the members of staff at whom we have been preaching this way of thinking since time immemorial?

Now, teachers, I am one of you. English teachers in particular, I feel your pain: you have maybe five or six classes, all of whom you teach every day, your marking load is so insane that you sleep-mark just to keep on top of it, all your students are supposed to know how to identify metaphors, personification, assonance, hyperbole, sibilance, simile, internal rhyme etc but none of them have woken up enough to have an opinion about a piece of work and you’re dreading the poetry unit because you know full well that the kids only have to hear the word ‘poetry’ and there will be mass, self-inflicted insertion of compasses into their eyes in an attempt to escape the lesson. I get it. There is not enough time in the day, the curriculum is ridiculous and many of you already do your best to creatively bypass this curriculum because you are trying to teach a subject you love, not just one that is functional. Enthusiasm may well have left you about twenty years ago, it’s entirely possible that all you want to do now is lay down under your desk and cry. I have done it many times. A good cry is important for the soul.

But when you’ve finished crying, I have a plea. This is a plea from a poet who hated school but loves to learn, a poet who returned to the same school where she was mercilessly bullied and desperately lonely to give safety to those who remind her of herself, from a poet who has built her whole practice around the quiet revolution; a revolution that starts with the first word of the first line on the first page of the first book your students ever pick up and a revolution routed in the poetic.

Here it is. For a day, an hour, the first ten minutes of a lesson, don’t be a teacher; be an activist. Give your students poems, and do something really awesome: don’t ask them to find the metaphors. Give them something that will make them angry, make them furious (teenagers love to be angry!) and ask them how they feel. Give them something controversial, make them justify their position, make them debate each other, then make them write their own poems in answer. Get them to be creative. Get them to read and get them to write. Share Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ with them and teach them about the history of hysteria. Share anything in Jamaal May’s ‘Hum’ with them and talk to them about the alienation of their own generation. Read them Aldous Huxley, read them Toni Morrison, give them ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian’, complete with all its bad language, and teach them about the mass genocide of the First Nations Peoples. Reading, and particularly poetry, is a lesson in compassion.

Now, I know you are measured by the number of sub-levels your students gain in a term, and not by their empathetic approach to each other. I know you are judged by how quietly your classes learn, and not how passionately they feel when they read. I know you are measured by how much writing your students put down in their books and not by the quality of their couplets.

But please.

From a poet.

For that day, that hour, that ten minutes that you are an activist, these are not just your students. They are young worlds, volcanic, explosive, still forming, their elements still sizzling in the heat of themselves. With no impact, they will burn into rock. They will pass through school, fall into orbit and be lost. But give them a book…no, give them more than that, give them the concept of story in whatever form in may appear, and you have established a catalyst. That’s all it takes—a solitary lightbulb in utter darkness, the first word spoken into silence.

I know you’re tired. I know you have a hundred and eighty books to mark by 4pm tomorrow evening. Please believe me and try to swallow your panic when I ask you to trust me that this is more important.

The Poet and the Parrot: Words with a Bird on the Shoulder

Lately, I’ve been doing quite a lot of travelling and performing with my parrot, Maya. Over the last two months or so, we have done performances in Caversham and Henley, we have spent a weekend staying in an 800 year old Franciscan chapel and performing to kids in Canterbury, and this week we ran workshops at one of the most amazing schools we have ever been to.

Maya and I have had a lot of experience recently, but we have both learned that peoples’ generic reaction to poets and parrots is almost identical:

  1. a look of fear upon realising it is in the room with them
  2. Fear turning into intrigue as they take time to get to know it
  3. Surprise and confusion as they are offered a closer look
  4. They hold out their hands uncertainly, and as they feel it step onto their fingers, their faces turn to utter amazement and excitement.

This is true when Maya steps delicately onto a stranger’s hand, or that same stranger discovers what poetry really is. I think this is why I like bringing Maya with me wherever I go. Not only does she draw conversation, she is like a little feathered poem, something that touches people’s hearts and stays with them. So, I’d like to take you through a few of my adventures over the last month.

The Wise Words Festival 2017, Canterbury

I love this festival. I have gone every year for the last five years and have been so excited by how it has grown from a single yurt in a garden to a fully blossomed, beautiful festival that is like walking straight into A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This year, with the parrot in tow, the festival struggled to find somewhere for me to stay that would allow pets, and so, in true festival style, I was granted night-time sanctuary in the Franciscan chapel on the garden grounds. Correction, the 800-year-old Franciscan chapel. The oldest Franciscan chapel in the country. I’m not a religious or particularly spiritual person, but I have a great deal of respect for sacred spaces, so listening to the way that building talked to itself as the night drew in, as the beams relaxed, as the doors and locks and floors and stairs groaned, as the river rushed by underneath it (yes, it is built over a river! There’s a trapdoor straight down to the rushing water in the room that used to be dungeon…) was magic. In the morning, Maya and I waked under trees hung with origami and decorated lampshades, under an archway of books, into a garden full of smiling people in muslin trousers and sandals. My kinda people.

I also had the privilege of performing my children’s story in this same chapel, draped in a velvet cape, with a fedora hat and a parrot on my shoulder, I had a very interesting conversation with a seven-year-old about how she doesn’t like shops that sell fake broomsticks because it puts magical people like her off, and you should only buy proper broomsticks that can properly fly, otherwise it’s much harder to learn. She reminded me of me. There is a magic in children, in the way they believe with a conviction that we have forgotten how to feel as adults. The world is magic. Just because we can explain some of it, doesn’t mean it isn’t wonderful. Electricity in the sky? What’s with that? Sea creatures that can live for hundreds of years? Glowing creatures deep in the ocean? Flight? Gravity? How are these things not magic? Under the rafters of that chapel, watching a parrot fly about over their heads, those children bought thoroughly into that narrative of magic, listened to the rolling lilt of a language that has developed over thousands of years and understood. Their hearts are open. For a whole load of reasons not entirely relevant to this part of the post, I think this is something we are taught to forget as we grow up. Which brings me to my second adventure:

The Treehouse School, Cholsey

At 8am on Wednesday this week, Maya and I rocked up to Cholsey station, four platforms surrounded by fields. We had never been their before. We were met by one of the teachers at the school we were visiting, and three students, all of whom had come to escort us. We walked. In the humidity of bizarre May-time weather, the scent of horses, the occasional rumbling of 4 by 4s with mud-caked wheels until, abruptly, the teacher stopped and said “here we are!” I looked around me. There was no building that looked remotely like a school. We were on a residential street. But the kids opened the gate of the nearest house and trudged right in. We walked past the metal sculpture of a giant eagle, into an enormous garden that looked like something right out of my childhood daydreams. The climbing frame was a Trojan Horse (yup, genuinely). The hedges had in-built dens. There was a little teepee village right beside the vegetable gardens and the kids started the day by weeding.

While they worked, I explored. The school was a house. Or, the house was a school. It was a beautifully converted house with a classroom in the conservatory, a craft room, a carpeted work space where the living room once was. The kitchen smelled amazing as the staff and students prepared a healthy veggie meal. It is an independent school, but the parents do not pay fees. Instead, funds are raised through campaigns organised by the staff and students. All fifteen students in the entire school, who spend time running around outside, cooking, exploring, going on trips, taking care of animals. Now this might sound like the airiest and fairiest of all airy fairy places. You might think ‘but what are they actually learning? Are they progressing like other kids?

I have worked with secondary age students for four years, and I’ve met sixteen year olds who couldn’t do what these kids could do. Their independence in learning, their resilience, their maturity was unbelievable. Throughout the whole day, they surprised me. To a child, their poetry was better than anything else I have read from any other child I have worked with, and the oldest kid in that school was ten. One of the oldest lads wrote the line ‘I am the small, dark room you are trapped inside.”

And a seven year old girl, sweet as anything, and enthusiastic to boot, wrote ‘I am the blood of the rainbow because I keep all happiness to myself.”

THE BLOOD OF A RAINBOW!

She was seven. I had brought writing frames for some of the youngest students, frames I had previously used to support eleven- and twelve-year-olds doing tasks like this. Even the five-year-olds in this school didn’t need it. They didn’t even want it. All fifteen students produced a poem of at least five lines, some over two pages, of the most beautiful, stirring, evocative and original images. They wrote lines I wish I’d come up with at twenty seven.

With all the wonder of that place, the contact with the natural world, the excitement and interaction, it almost looked like the kids weren’t working at all. But they remained focused and determined for the whole morning, proud of their writing, always aiming to make it better, crossing out and improving. Even the younger ones. Those students must go home at the end of the day and sleep so well. But I know that, if I had gone to that school as a child, if I had had an environment like that instead of the terrifying, whirling madness that was my state comprehensive; the bullying, the loneliness, the cruelty of other children, the rigorous terror of testing, the relentless unhappiness that I experienced, my anxiety may not have spiralled so badly out of control as it did when I was in my twenties. I’m willing to bet anything that that school has saved as many children as have passed through its wonderful doors. Because they are taught to be who they are. I know it’s an old, cliched message, but no one ever tells you how terrifying, how difficult, how lonely a task it can be.

If I were to tear the entirety of the education system down and rebuild it from the foundations up, I would build it in the image of that school. It is the first place of education I have been that also feels like a sanctuary. And, if nothing else, that’s what learning should be, the developing of our own, internal sanctuary. That place was a glimmer of what-could-be in a climate of over-assessment,an epidemic of young adult mental illness, the growing trend of depression and anxiety in pre-teens, the disconnection and disenfranchisement of a generation of young people who represent our future. I left and felt hope. I know it was hope, because I had to think very carefully about it. I knew I recognised the feeling, but also that I had not felt it in a very long time. Not like that.

So…

Although I am proud that Maya and I, the poet and the parrot, delivered a whole load of words to people who came asking for them this past month, I feel humbled by the staff and students at the Treehouse school, by the incredible organisers of the Wise Words Festival, by amazing individuals who develop these places of safety, of imagination, magic and power. I am a roving poet, a quiet whirlwind with no defined path. These places give people like me a home. They are places we can recharge, regrow, remind ourselves of our missions and draw strength. Without these places, artists of all kinds would cease to exist. Like the school I went to when I was young, the world as a whole can be vicious to people who think differently, who are idealistic and hopeful. If we are to change it, we need to preserve our havens.

The Roving Poet Part 12: A Gentle Revolution

A few weeks ago now I travelled down to a university on the south coast to work with a group of trainee English teachers. I’d been planning this for a few weeks and was excited to run a workshop with a group who already loved literature. The plan was to run a two hour session about how to engage students creatively with poetry. I had a whole load of poetry pamphlets with me to share, and some of my own to sell. (If anyone has not come across the beautifully made pamphlets by The Emma Press, I can highly recommend them. Steven Sexton’s ‘Oils’ is stunning, and ‘Dragonish’ by Emma Simon and ‘Goose Fair Night’ by Kathy Pimlott contain some of my favourite poems ever).

This particular university is where I did my PGCE in English teaching. I remembered my own naïve over-excitement and tendency towards wanting to teach everything I could in as exciting a way as possible. I was expecting a similar level of enthusiasm but had forgotten that I was a writer, that I was, chiefly, a poet, and that we are not all the same.

The students were clearly very focused and devoted. There were seventeen of them, mostly women but with a good number of male trainees too and, although they were mostly young, there were individuals there from a range of age backgrounds. One woman appeared a few minutes early, flustered but smiling and explained she wasn’t certain she would have been able to stay for the afternoon session because of childcare issues, but had made a huge effort to rearrange because she loved poetry and did not want to miss out. I felt this boded well.

This is where the positive signs stopped.

It’s not that they were not an attentive, open, thoughtful and willing group. It’s not that they were not willing to have their minds changed. It was the age-old adage that your school days follow you around like a sick puppy, to which you are tethered because you have caught it’s sickness and cannot find the cure. I will explain.

We began the session by brainstorming two things: what the students were looking forward to when it came to teaching poetry, and what they were afraid of. When we fed back, we began with ‘the excitements’. We managed a grand total of five. We were not, on the whole, excited. What we did come up with was:

  • It’s short and easy to get through
  • It can be completed in a lesson
  • It offers ways for the students to look at things from other perspectives
  • The language is often very beautiful.
  • Children like the rhythm.

Our fears, however, provoked a great deal more animation. We decided that poetry was:

  • Boring
  • Hard
  • Irrelevant
  • Confusing
  • Elitist
  • Made us feel stupid
  • Not important any more
  • For posh people
  • For posh white people
  • For posh white dead people
  • For posh white dead male people
  • Not very fun
  • Not very interesting.

The list went on and on. And on.

At first I felt slightly put out. Then I felt mildly irritated. Then I felt a tad overwhelmed at the task ahead of me. Then I felt sad.

This was not the incredible, versatile, fluid, inclusive and powerful art form that had dragged me from the depths of depression and given me control over what might otherwise me a crippling anxiety disorder. It was not the art I had discovered in a backroom of a pub, listening to an incredibly talented Nigerian poet perform a moving verse whist standing on his head. It was not the politically charged, emotionally striking, linguistically intelligent art I had fallen in love with, that had saved me time and time again and that had leant its power to me when I felt no one and nothing was there to hear me. I stepped back from my scribblings on the white board and asked,

“out of interest, how many of you have read a poem—any poem—for pleasure since finishing your degree?”

Three hands went up. Three. Out of seventeen. “Well,” I said, “There’s your problem.”

It was slightly reductive. This, in itself, was not the problem. The problem was that none of these intelligent, educated, devoted, well-read human beings—none but three—saw poetry as a valid and valuable reading experience. The problem was that none of them had sat up in bed with a poetry book and a cup of tea and let the incredible beauty of the language wash over them. None of them had curled up on the sofa and read Ted Hughes to their cat, or cried into Eugenia Leigh with Alanis Morisette playing in the background, or found strength after a break up in the powerful lines of Sarah Kay. None of them had heard the war cries, the protests, the offerings of contemporary poetry. None of them knew. And I found myself thinking ‘How sad.’ How sad that they had not had this incredible experience.

So, I got to work. I read them Jamaal May, we looked at some of my poetry, we looked at the poetry of Helen Mort. I got them to write. And really, there is not much difference between a reluctant writer who’s just hit fifteen, and one that’s just hit twenty-five. The same hilarious things ensue; the look of creative despair, the huffing and reluctant sighs, the scribblings out, the ‘I-can’t-do-this!’, the ‘No, you can’t read mine!’, the ‘don’t judge me!’. We forget that writing, creating through language, is a trauma. It’s a trauma because it forces us into the recesses of ourselves, into the narratives that live within us, born of our unique experience, the purest of which, can be found in poetry.

Isn’t it interesting that, of all written forms, poetry is the only one children are not expected to be able to write at school? They learn how to write articles, instructions, advice columns, information texts, stories, even reviews. But never are they told that poetry is an art form open to them, one they deserve ownership over just as much as any other. And yet.

My students love poetry. They write it incessantly. We have an artificial tree in the school library absolutely laden with haiku written by KS3 students. We have just had over seventy entries to the school writing competition and the shortlist has twenty stories and poems in it because they are just so good. Ten students performed in our poetry slam and fifteen will contribute to our school anthology. They’ve discovered poetry, they’ve caught the bug. They’re off.

Now, I want to make one thing clear. I do not believe for a single moment that the reluctance of these trainees to engage with poetry was in any way their fault. They are, most of them, the same age as me. They came through the same school system. And I remember how I was taught poetry at school; dry, emotionless, clinical, with the emphasis on only the mechanics of the piece and little to say for a poem’s incredible power. Our young teachers, the keepers of our children’s futures, are no more equipped to empower our young people than the average frog, because they, themselves, were not empowered when they were young.

What we need is a gentle revolution, a quiet uprising, a thoughtful and compassionate unmasking of the hard powers that govern our education in order that we might explode the status quo from the inside. We do not need youngsters who can identify fronted adverbials and explain metaphors. We need youngsters who can outwit fronted adverbials and spin metaphors. We need free thinkers, creators, mavericks, renegades, clowns, comedians, musicians, painters, dancers, theatre-makers. In a world grown thoroughly sick with the rhetoric of exclusion, of us-and-them, or every-man-for-himself, it is artists—it is poets—that will rework the future through their incredible control of language.

Language is important. Make no mistake. It exists in a multi-dimensional space, an elastic space, one that reacts, chameleon-like, to the times. Those that control it will control all of us. And if we do not learn to respect it, to appreciate it, to harness it, we are all at its mercy. Think, teachers; think, artists; think, librarians, social workers, parents and protectors; think to yourselves: who has control of the language now? Who is directing the rhetoric? If that rhetoric were the barrel of a rifle trained on your face, would you stand there and do nothing? If we do nothing else as educators, we must train linguists. We must train playwrights, novelists, bloggers, travel-writers and we must, above all, train poets. Below is a list of poetry collections to read, websites to visit and resources to access. Roll up your sleeves.

Let’s get to work.

POETRY COLLECTIONS

  • ‘Hum’ by Jamaal May
  • ‘Dragonish’ By Emma Simon
  • ‘Goose Fair Night’ by Kathy Pimlott
  • ‘Pepper Seed’ by Malika Booker
  • ‘Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows’ by Eugenia Leigh
  • ‘When My Brother Was An Aztec’ by Natalie Diaz
  • ‘No Matter The Wreckage’ by Sarah Kay
  • ‘Crow’ by Ted Hughes
  • ‘Olio’ by Tyehimba Jess
  • ‘And She Was’ by Sarah Corbett
  • ‘Cove’ by Cynan Jones
  • ‘The African Origins of UFOs’ by Anthony Joseph
  • ‘Grief is the Thing With Feathers’ by Max Porter
  • ‘In Parenthesis’ by David Jones
  • ‘Brown Girl Dreaming’ by Jacqueline Woodson
  • Any of my collections (Buy Here, enjoy!)

 

BOOKS FOR STARTING REVOLUTIONS

  • ‘Making Poetry Happen’ and ‘Making Poetry Matter’ by Sue Dymoke
  • ‘Structure and Surprise’ by Michael Theune

 

WEBSITES AND RESOURCES

  • APPLES AND SNAKES Apples and Snakes is a nationwide organisation promoting spoken word poetry.
  • The Society of Authors Support, resources and advice for writers of all kinds.
  • The Poetry School Courses, support, advice, blogs and resources to support those new to poetry and those seasoned in writing and reading it.
  • The Poetry Society Support, advice and resources for poets and lovers of poetry
  • Relit.org An organisation working to support mental health through poetry.

PRODUCT SPOTLIGHT #1: ‘The Owls’ Bespoke Collection

My bespoke collections have been performing very well of late! With over fifty sales since mid-December, the books seem to be reaching a wonderfully wide audience, ranging in age, experience, race, gender and background. Nothing could possibly make me more excited than the fact that such a diverse group of people are coming together around poetry. It is a bonus that the poetry happens to be written by me!

One thing I have noticed, however, is how much people want to buy for their children. Although I am really pleased with my other collections, and feel they deserve to be read, not all of them have language accessible to young children, (though I think many could be enjoyed by teenagers!) and so, donning my poet’s hat and hitching up my poet’s ego, I set about writing my brand new bespoke collection, ‘The Owls’ aimed specifically at young readers between the age of six and eleven. Although there is undoubtedly some complicated language in these collections, it is written as a challenge and will function as a discussion point between parents and their youngsters. The special thing about this collection is its layout. It features poems about four of Britain’s owl species: The Barn Owl, Tawny Owl, Little Owl and European Eagle Owl (though the last is a slightly contentious issue!) Each own is granted its own section, with a short description of the animal in question, a stamped image to support the description and two poems for each owl. Throughout the collections are short ‘Did You Know?’ sections that offer new information about the owls and serve to support the experience of the reader.

As is often clear in my mad, nature-based, animal-related and heavily metaphorical poetry, the animal kingdom and natural world is hugely important to me. We are, as a species, born from it and we rely on it to live. Many of our issues as human beings are mirrored in the natural world: the need to belong, finding shelter and home, love and relationships, territory and boundaries, social expectation, even otherness and individuality can be seen within the natural world. Just like us, animals can be kind and they can also be cruel. They can be vastly accepting and they can turn their backs on their own young. They can show remarkable love and forgiveness and they can be vicious and dangerous. So, it follows that understanding the natural world can often help us understand ourselves better, empathise with one another and learn the value of respect. These are important lessons for young people, and children begin these lessons young, without us even knowing.

It might appear only to be a book about owls, but this collection has far more to it: stories of friendship, loneliness, hardship, incarceration, cruelty and connection between human and animal. If you are fumbling around for new and interesting reading experiences for your youngsters, may I recommend this little book. Not too heavy, but enough to make you think; not intimidating, but enough to empower; not too adult, but enough to challenge.

‘The Owls’ is available at my shop, PoeticalTreasures along with the other six bespoke collections, and the link directly to the listing for this collection can be reached here.

Poetry in all its forms is here to be enjoyed. As adults, we must not be afraid of it. It is intrinsic to our cultural and historical experience. If you, as an adult reader, do not feel confident as a reader of poetry, please try reading this book with your children. Hopefully, it will inspire you to read more widely too. These collections are designed as short ‘injections’ of poetic experience. They can, if necessary, be read in a single sitting. They are not intimidating and are designed to live on your bedside table, something to provide comfort, inspiration and a platform to dream on. Enjoy them!

The Roving Poet Part 11: A Gift Given in Honesty

Valentine’s week draws to a close. The sickly pink love hearts are now crammed into back boxes with a ‘50% off’ sign attached to it, the cards have been returned to the warehouse, those adverts with beautiful, white, heterosexual couples smiling banally at each other are gone for another year.

And yet, despite my facetious attitude towards this time of year, on which our consumerist culture has thoroughly capitalised, it has actually been one of the most lovely weeks of the year so far. On Tuesday, Valentine’s day itself, I co-hosted an alternative ‘Indie-Valentine’s’ event at the Nomad Bakery in Reading. The magnificent owner and chief baker of this lovely, independent little bakery, is Laura Gonzalez, a human being who works magic with food unlike anything I have ever experienced before. So, alongside her incredible bread, chilli and a pudding to die for, I read poetry to the eleven guests, wrote bespoke poems for three of them and parted with several of my bespoke collections, which I am confident have gone to good homes and are being enjoyed.

It was not like a traditional valentine’s day. There was no expectation beyond good food and good conversation. The thirteen people in that room (including myself and Laura) had not all met each other before that evening. Yet, by the end of it, we were sharing photos of pets, stories of the future and political opinions over far-too-much-prosecco and laughing over the most ridiculous poetry games. There was no exchange of flowers, no gifts beyond that of conversation and connection. And I remembered why it was I loved poetry so much: because of people. People are inherently interesting; ridiculous, charming, infuriating, hilarious, wonderfully unique in their awkwardness. There was not a single person around that table I disliked. Do you know why? Because no one was pretending. They had come to this event because the commercialisation of Valentine’s day was not something they wished to buy into. Whether heterosexual or not, single or not, these eleven individuals wanted something more than the traditional dinner-for-two and a dozen roses.

I read three poems from one of me new collections, ‘Keys to the Microcosm’, a pamphlet of seven alternative love poems, dealing with forms of love often rejected or neglected on valentine’s day. The collection is available here. After the reading, the conversation turned to all forms of love: the love between a father and his beautiful dog, the love between a girl and her enormous (but clearly wonderful) cat, and many more besides.

After a few drinks, some of the guests came over to have a look at the range of bespoke pamphlets I had for sale, bought some copies and made their way home. We hugged goodbye like old friends, despite the fact we had known each other only for a few hours.

Then, a day after the event, I received an email. It was from one of the guests, who had bought a copy of one of the collections. She professed that she had really enjoyed it, but had felt awkward about asking me for a poem of her own. I won’t share the details of her request here, but we exchanged a few emails before I wrote her a poem and emailed it.

What’s interesting to me about events like this is how much complete strangers are willing to share with a poem about their life; their inner-most vulnerabilities, the things most important to them, the people they most want to please. I don’t kid myself that it’s me they’re telling, it’s the poem: the potential for words on a page or in the air that will say the things they most want to say. The thing is that we’re all poets. There are always those needs to express ourselves, to tell those who mean most to us that we cannot do without them. But, as I learned, there is an awkwardness. I rarely take what someone says and ‘make it into a poem’, I just write down what they say. There is no need to change very much because their words are the most sincere.

I haven’t heard how the father of one of the guests liked his poem about his dog, or whether the girl who emailed me liked her poem. I’ve had no angry emails denouncing my ability or integrity. And actually, it’s not for me to know how those poems were received.

My grandfather is often incredulous that I write poems that I give to people and never see again. “But don’t you want to collect them?” he asked, “publish them? Wouldn’t that be lovely?”

Well, for me, yes. But I didn’t write them for me. They were gifts. I wrote them as offerings of human connection, or friendship and understanding. I’m often told it is an act of real selflessness, but actually, that is a downright lie. I need to connect with other people just as much as everyone else. I may not get to keep the poem I write, but that is a small price to pay for such connection with another person. There are always other poems, other books, other opportunities. But what we get from the simple act of conversation, an exchange of words whether written or spoken, is far more special than an exchange of flowers, of jewellery, cards or wine. Some things are more precious than currency can measure.

The Roving Poet Part 10: Of Old Clocks and Aliens

January, that hardest of months, is at an end and, though it is still cold and I have spent a fair amount of time picking myself and my trusty bike up off the ice and applying plasters (to myself and my bike), we begin to look towards the Spring!

And already, there is too much to do. As always, I am only one person, only one poet, but there is enough to keep one poet busy that can, hopefully, undo some of the world’s injustices and sow a tiny seed, even if the soil is dry and cold and hard. I have faith. Last week, I worked with the first of several schools I will be working with in conjunction with the National Literacy Trust. A school in South London, its students had visited Keats’ House in Hampstead, with all its tall, expensive houses and its kitchenware shops that cost a fortune. I had also been to Keats’ House the week before in preparation. I’d written a poem about the bone saw behind glass upstairs. The children, however, focused on the clock in Keats’ sitting room, looking over the old sofa on which Keats’ lay on as he was dying, though he did not actually die until he got to Rome. They were learning something new; personification, that simplest of compassions for the inanimate, to understand that even if something lacks sentience, it does not, in the words of Philip Gross ‘like being ignored’.

Over two hours, I worked with these youngsters to unpick poems they had written at Keats’ House, improve them and learn to perform them. Children are ever surprising. Yes, it was just an old clock they were writing about, but even a ten-year-old can tell you that an old clock mourns the loss of its dead master, hurts when its glass face is smashed, is indignant when wine is spilled on it, is frightened on a ship in the storm, is relieved to be remade again when it is washed up on the beaches of New Zealand, where it was taken briefly after Keats’ death. This mix of emotions was documented in the poems of the students, where the old clock now has more than a single face.

And of course, after their impressive writing bonanza, they wanted to ask questions.

“are you famous?” they asked me. I gave them the simple answer. No.

“what are you writing now?” It’s a secret.

“Are you published?” Ask me that question again in October!

And then, the loveliest of all. “How do you become a writer, and what advice would you give to somebody looking to be a writer themselves?”

She was one of the quieter ones, hair in beautiful braids, glasses, a deep little voice, and she watched me with those deep eyes as I told them all about the depression, the teaching, the struggle with anxiety, how poetry was a remedy, how she should write every day, how she should get her work out there, how stubbornness is more a mark of a poet than talent. When I’d finished, she said “thank you.” And the bell went.

As I was walking back to the station, I realised I was smiling. It took me a while to work out why and I realised it was because, for the first time this year, I saw a student who could turn her compassion into a firebrand, someone who understood the emotional complexity of a several-hundred-year-old clock and who might one day turn her words towards the complexity of people.

In my opinion, we are, all of us, in need of comfort at the moment—some more than others. We are, all of us, in need of strength, all of us need to feel powerful. The simplest of human connections is a rebellion against forces that want to barricade us inside our own psychological islands, build walls between us, shut the gates. But they have not reckoned yet with the poets, the artists, the activists—all those working now and all those yet to blossom. We are taking a breath, but when we roar, you will hear it.

So we must make pockets of happiness for ourselves. We must find them and hold them sacred. I found one such beautiful pocket at the Berkshire Music and Arts festival yesterday, where I performed three poems; one from my upcoming collection with Two Rivers Press (Octopus Medicine, out in October) and two from my bespoke collections that are on sale through etsy.com.

One of the poems I read was called ‘An Alien in the Back Garden’. Pretty much, it’s what it says on the tin: a little Martian flies to Earth to visit the humans and ask them what there is to do on their marvellous planet. As it talks to the humans over tea, the Martian realises that humans do not deserve this beautiful planet, they are wrecking it. It flies away and the humans realise that they will never see this amazing little being again, they have disappointed it forever. After I’d read it, several people came to me and told me they loved it, that it spoke to them on so many levels. It was wonderful to connect with people over this story, to know I was not the only lost soul who felt this way. And then we watched the wonderful awards ceremony of the young and older writers’ competition winners, all the way from little ones just starting school to those writing in their sixties, seventies, eighties and beyond…

A little girl read a poem about a Giant who meant no harm.

A teenager read a poem about poppies in a field.

There were specular poems, poems about paintings, poems about homework, poems about friendship. Human experience is varied and cavernous but it is something we all share.

And yes, the conversation turned to the news in the car on the way home. It was raining and dreary and the sun was already going down. Already, the fairy lights hanging off the eaves of the barn at the festival were growing dim in our memories. But we were there for the sake of other people, to share and to give. We were there to apologise to aliens, to give voices to old clocks, and the gifts must continue to travel.

I have three new collections available on Etsy.com now: They are:

THE VISITOR: A collection of seven visitations about human experience, prejudice, power and sustainability. (The Martian poem is in here!) You can get it here.

THE HONEST GENE: Was commissioned by Carnstone Partners Ltd for their Spark Salon on January 25th. It is a science fiction narrative verse about genetic engineering. Think Brave New World. You can get it here.

And KEYS TO THE MICROCOSM: A collection of seven alternative love poems for those whose Valentine’s days may not be the norm. This includes love across cultures, within gender, love of the land and love of the self among others. Perfect for the resolutely and beautifully single. You can get it here.

All collections are £6.00 and each is individually handmade by the poet (me). Poetry is a gift. It’s a gift to the writer, to the audience, to the reader, to the passer-by. Please help it spread as far as we can get it. If all those who are bullying, barricading, wall-building would sit down and read a poem for five minutes, perhaps when they got up again, their vision would be very, very different.

kttm-image-1

 

The Poet Activist Part 2: The Silence of Politicians

Last November, I sent an email to the MP for the constituent in which my residency school is based, asking him to address the issue of funding for comprehensive schools in the UK. Although I was assured of a response by a member of the MP’s staff, it is now January and I have had no response.

As you can imagine, this silence concerns me. It’s no secret that our politicians, while endlessly spurting the rhetoric we want to hear regarding education, continue to cut at it. Now, I do not pretend to know about the national economy and how it is distributed, I am no politician and do not, and do not wish to, have to make the difficult decisions regarding where and how this money is spent.

But I would hope that a politician might at least share the concern of their constituents in this matter.

Perhaps I am being unfair to this person. I am sure they are extremely busy, inundated with emails and queries from a number of constituents with a variety of concerns. I am certain they are not idly twiddling their thumbs, but are working diligently for the members of public in their care.

Still, a response to my concerns would be welcome. As a result of the failed response so far, I have sent a follow up email. You can read this email below:

 

Dear [Member of MP’s staff],

I remain very concerned by the long delay in [MP] replying to my query regarding funding for the comprehensive education system. I have not yet had a response regarding this. I am aware that the government has been considering the implementation of the national funding formula since my email to you, but the issues within our schools continue to affect the education of our young people.

[MP] may not be aware that schools are among some of the most stressful places to work, with rates of mental illness rocketing. [MP] can refer to this article by the BBC from March 2016: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-35900499 and I can assure him from personal experience that the problems have not relented. I am sure, however, that [MP] is aware of the national teacher shortage, and the staggering numbers of young teachers leaving the profession within their first five years. Given the instability of the job, the thoroughly unreasonable workload as a result of teacher shortages, increased responsibilities and demands for constant assessment, and the infuriating mixed messages from OFSTED about teacher expectations, the uncertainty about school funding and concern over jobs is a worry that teachers do not need.

Unhappy teachers cannot teach well. Uncertainty and instability inevitably breed bitterness, fear and anxiety, making the teaching profession a thoroughly unhappy place for many individuals to be. If our government does not address the chaos in which our schools currently operate as a result of financial strain, a shortage of skilled staff and an increasingly overburdened curriculum, the next generation of workers will suffer greatly, and end up ill equipped to tackle the issues left for them by their elders, despite the valiant efforts of their tired and underappreciated teachers.

The government need to address the issue of funding for schools immediately, showing respect for the teaching profession and a commitment to equal education of high quality for all.

I look forward to [MP]’s response.

Kind Regards,

 

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑