This week, I completed my first day in school as Poet in Residence. What an experience. My current role is organised so that I am present for two afternoons per week. I run a service called the poetry ‘Takeaway’ during the lunch break (stolen straight from the London Poetry Takeaway Service, who do an amazing job, and whose details can be found here.) and this was my main focus for my first day.
The poetry takeaway is set up in the school library, opposite the open double doors. It consists of two folding tables, two chairs and a sign. I sit at one of the chairs with my notebook and a pen and look earnest. Students are invited to approach the tables and request a poem. The poem can be for themselves, or for someone else. We talk for a little while about what they would like to have in their poem, I take their name and their form group and send them on their way. Frantically, I write their poem and it is then delivered to their form group during the week. That first lunch time, I thought, I’ll only get two or three poem requests, it’ll take a while for the students to get started. I’ll probably get some silly ones for friends, some of them might want poems for themselves or their parents. It’ll take time.
Now, the fact is, it will take time. To establish something as controversial as poetry into the school culture will take time, there is no doubt, but the responses of the students I spoke to that first lunch time astounded me. In ‘Part One’, I mentioned how difficult students found it to engage with poetry that doesn’t belong to them, how the poetry they experience is irrelevant to their lives, and how teachers’ experiences of poetry are also often limited, as a result of their own poor experiences as children. What I learned, during this lunchtime is that, while all that is true, when given the chance to claim poetry as a means of communication for themselves, students are more keen than I originally thought. That first lunch time, I received requests for 8 poems. Bear in mind, that lunch time only lasts for 25 minutes at this school, so this was a significant flow of students throughout the break. Many students approached me at the beginning of the break, clearly intrigued and wanting a poem, but unsure why. Many asked for one, but weren’t sure who for, or what they wanted to say. I told them they could go away and think about it and come back if they had an idea. After a short while, several, meek little voices said in my ear “I think I’d like my poem now…” and what a range!
The first poem request I had was from two year 11 girls. Their friend had left for East London in year 9. At first, they wanted a poem to make fun of her a little, to appeal to her sense of humour. They had numerous stories to tell me about the daft things they’d done together, about ridiculous slippers and faux pas on the underground. I made a note of everything and, just before they left, one of the girls turned to me and added “Miss, make sure you tell her we miss her.” Here was my first experience of students who wanted to say something they were unsure how to say themselves. Their poem was a hand reached out to the friend they barely saw any more, but they were afraid to display their souls completely, because missing someone, needing someone, made them vulnerable. Discussing what they wanted to add in their poem made them smile, made them remember things they had done together and gave them that space to be vulnerable, even if only for a split second. They returned to collect their poem at the end of the day, read it, giggled over it, and left, grinning widely. For that moment, as their poet, I had a glimpse into the memories of two girls whose lives had otherwise been completely separate from mine. It was a chance for them to share memories they clearly treasured, and this was a pattern I noticed with every student I wrote for.
The poems I was asked to write were invariably extremely touching, thoughtful and profound. The students showed a depth of understanding, of empathy, an ability to notice things far beyond themselves. Three students asked me, separately, to write a poem for their mothers, who had been having a tough time recently. All students acknowledged that their mothers took care of their whole family, cooking, cleaning, getting the children to school, and were so busy they had no hobbies of their own. They wanted, not only to thank their mothers, but to reassure them. They spoke quietly, earnestly, were clear that they wanted their mothers to know that they were loved and appreciated. They shared memories with me that were clearly very private, and so will not be recreated here. But this transaction between me and the students became suddenly very interesting. The students offered me their vulnerability and, in return, I formulated it into something resembling strength. Students were accessing a part of themselves that made them open. It showed a distinct level of trust that they might never have given me, had the offer of their poem not been there between us.
Another student said he wanted a poem, went away and thought for a while, and came back. Quietly, he told me that he wanted a poem for his friend, who accepted him despite his particular learning need, and did not care that he was ‘different’. His poem had to explain how lovely it was that he could be himself around this friend, and how important this connection was to him. Yet another wished for a poem for her Dad, someone she clearly loved. She told me, giggling, about his clumsiness, and how wonderful it had been when their whole family drove abroad for the summer. Another student wanted a poem for her friend, whose birthday it was. She smiled and laughed as she told me about her friend, and was keen the poem would be ready in time. The final student looked thoughtful for a moment and said “Miss, I would like a poem about the sky, about how beautiful the sky is.” I’ve no idea what her motivation for this was, but there was something quite lovely in such a request. It was a poem for herself, to put into words something she had noticed. Perhaps she had been serious, perhaps she had simply wanted to see how I might react, but either way, her interaction with poetry became something personal. She wanted, in words, an expression of something she felt fundamental to her experience of the world. Or perhaps she just wanted to see if I could do it, who knows? I’ve no idea how she reacted to her poem!
The fact is, that during this initial lunch time, despite the nervousness, the hesitancy, the quiet voices, the embarrassment, the students were intrigued by the idea of this new way of communication. Suddenly, poetry was something they could control, something personal to them, that they could share with their loved ones. It was a way of saying what they had previously been unwilling or unable to put into words. The conversations they had with me were quiet, gentle, furtive. They were conversations they may never have had with a teacher, but were compelled to have with a poet. No, perhaps that’s wrong. They were compelled to have the conversation with a poem. I was just the translator.
And here is the crux of it: Something that had previously been alien, frightening, puzzling, a formidable labyrinth of words set up to make them fail, was suddenly open. It listened. It was quiet, it did not judge. This something which they had thought volatile, cruel, confrontational, that had revelled in their confusion, was theirs now. It beckoned them gently, kept their secrets, was kind to them. Here, in the space of twenty five minutes, was a concept transformed in the eyes of eight young people. I’ve no idea what they felt when they read their poems, whether they liked them, how their parents and friends might react. I hope they liked them. I cherished each one, I wrote it quietly, quickly but with care, aware of the burden of truth I was transferring through my pen. I wrote each one by hand. Each one was an effort of trust for the student, so I translated that through the effort of writing. They were quiet acts of understanding, each one. I hope the teachers who delivered them respected that. I hope it will not be too much longer before I sit at that folding table and hear those quiet words in my ear: “Miss, I think I’d like my poem now…”