Handing out words


October 2016

The Roving Poet Part 5: ‘Megalodon versus The Kracken’

When I turned up to Whitley library yesterday at 11.30, tired, a little nervous (as I always am for running workshops), it turned out that twelve children had been booked into the ‘Tales for the Deep’ workshop for that day. With the help of the library staff (it must be said, librarians in Reading are powerhouses in their own right!) we transformed the children’s section of the library into a craft space and at about five past twelve, the children appeared.

There were only seven in the end, but hey, for a free workshop, that’s not a bad turn out. In the first half an hour of origami fish and colouring octopus pictures, I learned three very important things:

  • Children are just as fascinated by the octopus as I am, and already come to this space with a surprising amount of knowledge about these bizarre animals.
  • The children I work with feel an affinity with this creature for the same reason I do: it is weird. It is misunderstood and the reaction of many people upon seeing it is one of revulsion, but get to know it and you cannot help but be amazed by it. These were children who had experienced this kind of attitude, just as I have. They are different, for whatever reason. They were outspoken, alternative, curious, thoughtful, creative, questioning and, crucially, many of them confessed to being outsiders in the community of their school. The Octopus is an outsider too.
  • Give a child permission to create and they will use up all your origami paper creating little books in which to write numerous poems and stories about sea creatures, each more insane and beautiful than the last.

I do not miss my origami paper, in fact, I genuinely believe it has gone to a better place than the bottom of my Ryman’s bag waiting to be folded into fish. It has become story and that is a more valuable identity for a piece of paper.

The exciting thing about yesterday’s workshop was the move from reality into legend—the space of anything-goes. After we had exhausted the mad facts about octopuses (their blue blood, their three hearts, their thinking arms, their changing colour, their doughnut-shaped brains, their intelligence,) we moved on to the horror and fascination of the imagination. Did I know, asked one boy, what the biggest shark that ever lived was called?

I did! MEGALODON! How big was it? Twenty…thirty…forty feet! Longer than three great white sharks! What would it eat? How about giant squid? How big was a giant squid? The largest on record has been noted at twenty feet long. Was it dangerous? Almost definitely! Ancient fisherman believed in a creature called a Kracken, a great octopus that attacked ships and would rise from the deep at the end of the world. Who was more powerful, Megalodon or Kracken? I don’t know, what do you think? Only one way to find out…

Of course, we all should have guessed; write the story of Megalodon versus Kracken and let the subconscious decide.

Suddenly, we weren’t just listening to stories I had written, but creating our own. Children lined up to have paper stapled together into books. We had poems about sea horses, about sharks, about an evil octopus called Fred who discovered an underwater lab, was transformed into a Kracken and terrorised the ocean residents. (Don’t worry, he got is comeuppance!)

Interestingly, it took a lot of guts for any of those children to share their stories with me. There was something about solidifying their imagination in the written word that was both exciting and terrifying. They were willing to do it, they went for it, they wrote and wrote and wrote. But when I asked to see, they retreated into themselves as if I’d just asked them to do something horrific. Of course, I never make children share their stories. Stories are private unless we choose to share them. So when they shared, it was of their own volition and I celebrated the incredible limitlessness of their imaginations. But it did make me wonder…

The book I have been working on for the past year centres on the motif of the octopus for its otherness. In the three poetry narratives it is ostracised, demonised, even destroyed for being different. It made me think of these children, hiding their imagination against their chests and shaking their heads with embarrassed rictus grins if they were asked ‘can I see?’ How many times had they been told ‘that’s wrong?’ or ‘that doesn’t work?’ or ‘you misspelled this?’

I wondered if a teacher, (under pressure and exhausted. I’ve been a teacher, I understand), might have said to the boy who wrote about Evil-Octopus-Fred, ‘would there really have been an underwater lab? Would the octopus really have drunk a fizzing yellow potion?’

As adults, we have a very set way of viewing the world. We know what items are for: paperclips hold paper together, sharks eat fish, the octopus is disgusting, no—the megalodon is not still alive today, it’s definitely dead, sorry to disappoint you!

But what harm does it do a six-year-old child dreaming of underwater adventure to hope beyond reasonable hope that they might one day come face to face with a forty-foot shark? That same child, searching for its encounter, may one day make an oceanic discovery ten times as bizarre and important.

It is not the fault of teachers that we are suffocating this genius in schools. As I said, I’ve been a teacher, I know. The pressure of exam results, of numbers, how we are judged by and paid for the number of A*-C grades, or acceptable SATS results, that we ‘achieve’ as educators. The expectation to visit every pupil premium child in the classroom at least once whilst simultaneously teaching a four-part lesson, maintaining positive behaviour, dealing with meltdowns that may or may not have anything to do with our lesson or outside of it, measuring learning every ten minutes and progressing the children within the space of a single hour. Five or six times a day. Every day. I know the disappointment we feel when a child we have invested so much emotional energy and time in falls off the rails for a reason we could not have foreseen or controlled. I know the pain when a class of students we have sat after school with every day between March and May, faces a particularly tough exam and completely bombs. Teaching is hard. Teachers are superhuman. But that is not to suggest that they (we) don’t make mistakes, that in our exhaustion and fear, we don’t adhere to a system that kills genius with its rigid rules. That is why I left.

So this blog post is not an attack on teachers for the fear I witnessed in these youngsters on Saturday. It is not your fault. Instead, it is a quiet plea to you. Somewhere, amongst your billions of lesson plans, your late nights, your meltdowns, your panic, your piles of marking eighty-books-high, your emotional exhaustion, your teacher’s guilt (we all have it), please, we need you to be rebellious. Close your classroom door at least once a week, throw the dictionaries out the window (or at least tell the kids spelling doesn’t matter today!), build dens under the tables, turn the room into a forest, staple paper together and get the kids to make comics. Teach them about the octopus and what she means, how she is defiant and strong and different. I know how frightening this idea might be. Trust me, if you don’t already do this as I know so many teachers do, you will feel amazing after the first lesson you free yourself and your students. You should be the forefront of our revolution. We need you. You are the arms of the Kracken facing its own Megalodon, the great teeth closing on the throat of free thought, squeezing out the life force of our children. Don’t go down without a fight.



The Roving Poet Part 4: ‘The Magical Octopus That Grants Wishes…’

Saturday 15th October was my first ‘Tales from the Deep’ workshop with Reading Libraries. The first workshop took place in Caversham Library. I had spent all of Friday night practising origami fish, I had viewed and reviewed my story ready for the workshop and, as usual, the whole thing took me by surprise.

The idea behind the workshops is to engage young children with poetry in a new and unusual way, a way that introduces new knowledge, raises curiosity and engages the imagination. So I packed up my origami fish, my octopus colouring pictures and headed to the library. Once there, I set up shop and waited. When the children arrived, as usual, everything I’d planned went out the window and the children were the ones who led the workshop.

My main attendees were a boy and a girl from different families, both five years old. As far as I knew, they had never met each other before, but the idea of learning to make an origami fish was enough to make them firm friends before they’d even asked each other’s names. It turns out that watching a piece of coloured paper turn into a fish is pretty much akin to magic. And once the paper had turned into fish, the fish needed colouring. We made zebra fish and tiger fish and leopard fish and then we moved onto the octopuses. It turns out these two kids knew a lot about octopuses, but were extremely excited to find that their blood was blue and they had three hearts. As they coloured, they kept up a running commentary on the aesthetic choices they were making for their octopus friends, the boy (whom we shall call Freddie) decided on striped tentacles, while the girl (who shall henceforth be known as Riley) chose a multi-coloured, spotted mantle. As they talked, I told each of them that their octopuses were particularly special, the most interesting octopuses I had ever seen. At this, little Riley, who possessed an imagination too big to be contained by the library, let alone that head of hers, replied, “mine is a magical octopus! And it can grant wishes!”

Now who knows where that came from? But Riley’s head was full of it. The idea of opening doors into other worlds, of octopuses that could make wishes come true, of pieces of paper transforming into fishes, was so exciting she could hardly contain himself. And, just like the child I never grew up from, I totally bought into it. She told me her most precious item was a key that glowed in the dark and changed shape, I asked her where it opened doors to, “does it open doors to other worlds?” She thought it was the best idea. We talked about what wishes her octopus would grant, and how she and her best friend would definitely make it through a magic portal one day. About halfway through, she picked up my poem and asked me to read it to her. Being so young, some of the language in it was a little complicated, but the great thing was she wasn’t afraid to ask. We stopped every other sentence while she asked me what it meant that the Octopus character was ‘waging war’ on the humans, and I explained that he felt angry so he was making bad decisions, and she wanted to know why he was angry. What was particularly interesting was that I could see in her little face that she was contemplating what Octopus was going through, how he was lonely and frightened and how we do bad things when we’re scared. It was a safe way to talk about very human things that she may not have rationalised in her five-year-old mind, and while she was rationalising it, she could colour and octopus of her own, one that could grant wishes, so life was not all that bad.

Freddie remained very proud of his fish. It was a little lop-sided and one fin was much bigger than the other, but it had very neat stripes and it was red, which was his favourite. He was less interested in the stories, but loved the poem I wrote for him (I wrote one for each of them, Freddie’s was about a red fish called Henry and Riley’s was about her magical octopus). He was keen to learn about octopuses, but was the kind of child who needed to do everything himself and know everything before anyone else. I applaud that child. That is a child whose two hands and two feet will remain his most powerful and sophisticated tools.

Although there were several other children who came and went, whose eyes widened at the transformation of paper-into-fish, who relished the thought of colouring an octopus that could look like anything because octopuses had no set colour, these two stayed for the whole two hours. Freddie had to be persuaded out of the workshop by his mother.

So yes, the workshop was a success. Despite the plans going in the bin, the fact that the library looked like a shipwreck afterwards and that I was covered in orange felt-tip ink, those children opened doors into worlds I had forgotten existed. They were places where it was safe for me, as a twenty-seven-year-old woman, to be excited by magic. It is still real. It is the transformation of paper into fish, it is the wish-granting octopus in the mind of a five-year-old girl, it is turning a library into an underwater paradise and being so immersed in the fantasy that you jump when the phone rings. I was tempted to steal Riley’s wish-granting octopus for a story, but I’m no thief. I figure she may want to use it for a story of her own one day, and there are plenty of animals out there that I can call upon to grant wishes in my next poems. Those kids weren’t the only ones who walked away feeling a little more like their magic exists. I walked out of that library with a whole load more ideas in my pockets. I was shattered and hungry but it was the good kind of shattered and hungry, the kind you feel when you’ve come home again after a very long trip, when you start to recognise the road you are on and know that the place you are going is safe and familiar, somewhere where things make sense.

I’d forgotten just how important that magic was to me as a child, and I’m so glad those children called it from that place somewhere within me where it had been hibernating. Even now, I can feel it stretch itself out like a Cheshire cat, yawn its huge tiger teeth, blink with bird eyes and swish a scaly dragon tail. It is ready, and my magic and I have work to do.


(ABOVE) The craft station, waiting for the fun to begin!


The Roving Poet Part 3: “What rhymes with detention?”

The last few weeks of my poetry residency in Hampshire have been a whirlwind experience. Not only have we managed to secure funding from Foyles Libraries Fund, which will mean I can increase my hours at the school, but our success with the poetry takeaway and the after school poetry club is increasing. In fact, this week, I’ve been thinking particularly about a year 8 student who has been attending the after school group, who both surprises and concerns me.

For the purposes of anonymity and child protection, we shall call him Luke. Luke is what we might traditionally call ‘intelligent’ in that his academic ability is high. He is outgoing, outspoken, obsessive about his interests in popular culture, (including youtubers I’ve never heard of) and rather controversial in his ideas. He’s lived his whole life in this tiny little town, which is mainly working class, white British with high levels of deprivation, and his views often reflect the rather right wing views of many of those around him. He gets into a lot of trouble in class, mainly for being what he calls ‘mouthy’. He talks back when he shouldn’t, flatly denies any involvement in silliness, even though his teacher was right there watching him do it, and is adept at making things worse for himself. But put him on a stage and he is brilliant. He’s a performer, born and bred, his understanding of comic timing, stage presence, use of vocals, gesture and body language would be impressive in a thirty year old professional actor, but are phenomenal for a young teenager. When he discovered that he might be able to write a poem that he could read, out loud, on a stage, to an audience, he was right in there.

Now this has been both a blessing and a curse for our little poetry group. Luke, on his own, has written some fabulous work. He is working hard on a poem at the moment about how difficult he finds it being at school, and how often he gets into trouble. The poem has a clear rhythm and is proving a real puzzle for Luke, but he has made it funny, poignant, interesting, witty and honest. On Monday he came and worked like a trooper (in between showing me Youtube videos that he found hilarious and I tried to find funny but really couldn’t from whatever angle I looked at them from). I sat with him around a table, along with an extremely excitable year 8 student who has only been speaking English for 5 years, and yet comes out with linguistic combinations that I read and wish I’d thought of first, and a tiny year 7 student with ADHD who brings me stories almost every morning to read. There was also another year 8 boy and a year 11 girl, both quietly brilliant in their own individual ways. In this group, I saw a side of Luke I had not previously seen. He was a little nervous, tentative even, sweet to the year 7 girl who talked incessantly and kept interrupting, laughing at the jokes of students he wouldn’t even bat an eyelid at in everyday life, and showing respect to the year 11 student, who is easily one of the best writers I’ve ever met in my life and will be extraordinary when she leaves school. Luke wrote and wrote, was unsure of himself at times, screwed up his face at what he had written and made interesting, self-analytical comments like “I’m not sure if this is the best way to say this…I think I’ve messed up the rhythm there…I want to say this in a different way…” He found the writing hard, but he wrote and rewrote and edited and redrafted and wanted it to be his own. I left after Monday’s club feeling hopeful.

On Tuesday, he brought some friends with him. Two girls. These were not girls I would have anticipated coming to a poetry club and, indeed, they sat on their phones, took sneaky ‘mug shots’ of each other on their cameras, played obnoxious music and did no writing whatsoever. What I saw in Luke in the presence of these two girls was an internal conflict so apparent, I’m surprised we didn’t all collapse from the aftershocks. He wanted to write. He really did. The pen was in his hand, he was looking at the page, the ideas were there. But so was the cool ‘yeah, whatever’ attitude of his two friends. He had brought them along, he wanted them to enjoy it like he did, to write, to perform, but they were not interested. Because of this, Luke succumbed to that part of himself that we all have, and that rises more quickly to the surface in teenagers; his camouflage. Never mind the poem, the self-analysis, the rhythm, the words. He got out his phone and he was as daft as the girls were. I could see the other students, good writers and lovely kids, looking sideways at me and thinking ‘is this how it normally works?’ I struggled to maintain an atmosphere of fun and good humour whilst also trying to keep the girls from screeching, put a lid on music with far more swearing than sense and get Luke to write this poem!

Afterwards, I was exhausted, stressed and more than a little confused. This was an after school group. The idea of it was clear; you come, we play writing games, we chat, we laugh, but ultimately, we make poems. We share those poems and this is a safe space. On Tuesday, it wasn’t safe. It wasn’t even safe for me, and I was leading it. But interestingly, the person it was least safe for, was Luke. He’d trapped himself into a vortex of ‘cool’ that he couldn’t clamber out of, even though he could see how great it was beyond the screaming winds and tearing weather of his own ridiculous popularity. Now, the fact is, that this atmosphere in an after school group is not sustainable, so some difficult conversations will need to be had. I’m not going to pretend I’m comfortable with this, because I’m also very afraid of frightening Luke away. I genuinely believe this group could be good for him, that he could discover an outlet and a level of power he had not previously been able to access. He has the chance now to be on a stage, not as someone else, but as himself, with words he has chosen to tell a truth he lives. He has a space in which his views, which he seems to accept readily from unverified sources as many teenagers are wont to do, can be challenged, moulded, changed and developed. The question is, is he brave enough? Does he have enough courage to turn his back on that popularity, on that hyena-like coolness that children often so desperately want but which is, in turn, so ferociously damaging? I want him to be. I really do. But it’s a hard decision for any young person to make and I’m not even sure I would have had the courage to make a good decision at his age and in his position.

One incident gives me some hope. After being asked for an umpteenth rhyme for the word ‘detention’ I gave him ‘apprehension’. He asked me what it meant and I explained it was when you felt this horrible worry in your gut for something that was to come, like when you’re standing outside the door to something you know will be awful, and hard, and scary, but you have to do it. That’s apprehension. The look on his face told me he recognised that feeling more than he was willing to admit. In fact, he experienced it at least five time a day walking from one room to another, navigating the narrow trail between the mountainous heights of his teacher’s expectation, and the certainly fatal drop of his friends’ disapproval. Luke knew how to be apprehensive. He took that word. I hope he comes back and finds new ways to use it in his writing.

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