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Handing out words

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August 2017

The Roving Poet part 15: Young Views of Sea Music

When children choose to attend a writing workshop, they often come wrapped in a mix of eagerness and anxiety that leaves them looking, mostly, very confused. They smile, but only slightly, they have ideas, but they speak them very quietly. The title of ‘poet’ that I am wearing, (rather than ‘teacher’) seems to inspire a level of reverence that means it doesn’t matter a jot that they have never heard of me, they just desperately want to impress. I have conflicting views about this, as I feel that the title ‘teacher’ should inspire similar reverence. (if we consider what a teacher is: scholar, academic, graduate, educator, collector and purveyor of knowledge, leveller of class, promoter of intellect, linguist, guardian of rhetoric, philanthropist, aide and quiet word of courage; I believe that anyone who embarks on the journey to educate those who need it, deserves a level of respect that is sorely lacking for the profession at the moment. But that’s a blog post for another time.)

Today, I am not at school. I am tucked into one of the gallery spaces on the second floor of Poole Museum. There is a parrot on my shoulder and a pile of paper at my feet. Eight children of varying ages stare up at me, mostly from behind their parents. To a child, they have asked to come. They want to be here. We are writing ocean poetry and we are learning personification. At least one child already knows what this word means. She is the one who brought it up. The others, I’m not sure, but when I mention the word, their faces set with a kind of silent determination. They are poets and this is a poet’s word that they need to have to write today.

It starts off as it always starts off. We talk a little about whether they have read poetry, what poetry they like…well, I talk; they sit there and stare at me as if I am terrifying, but gradually, the hands go up and they offer answers. We discuss the sculpture, Sea Music, on the harbour. That is, after all, the reason we are here, to celebrate the monumental achievement of an artist and a town offering something selflessly for the sake of the community. It is interesting that all the parents present at the workshop express surprise when I say that no public money was spent on the sculpture, that Caro waived his fee and gave the town this piece of himself as a gift. The children seem less surprised. A few of them are even nodding as if to suggest they knew this all along. I am reminded that our children can make excellent teachers.

We cannot see the sculpture itself from where we are, but this gallery contains the ‘100 views of sea music’ collection of photographs by David Ward. We have endless images of the sculpture in all kinds of light from all kinds of angles. But when I ask the children to imagine what they can see, hear, smell, taste and touch on the harbour, they close their eyes. A second thing I am reminded of; never underestimate the power of a child’s imagination. My own tortured me incessantly when I was younger. It is a kind of magic that needs to be controlled, but in its untrained, juvenile state, it holds the kind of force we would do well to tiptoe past. Children are natural creators. It is life that undoes this part of them as they grow.

Once the children have written lists of things they can sense on the harbour, we share some ideas. The children are a little more animated now, and so when we read one of my poems about the bottlenose whale trapped in the Thames in 2006, and I ask them ‘who is speaking in the poem?’ they are pretty unanimous in answering ‘the river!’

It’s easy from there; they are to write a poem of their own. There are no rules except that they have to write as something other than themselves. Again, their imaginations remind me how narrow I can sometimes be. One boy writes as a seagull, one girl as the ocean, a second girl as the statue itself. We have poems from the perspective of boats, as well as one poem that draws upon the history of Dunkirk. As they write, I realise I have achieved that heightened, teacherly bliss that I never quite managed to find in four years working in education, I have managed to manufacture such a hype of intellectual activity that not one of my students needs me at all. Granted, some are working with their parents, others with friends or siblings, but their faces are wearing the frown-of-the-poet, their pens tapping their chins or dancing away against the page. Everyone produces a poem. And several are willing to share their work.

Though I have worked furiously my whole life so that I can write and publish my own work, though I pride myself on the constant and lifelong development of my craft as a writer and hope that my own writing will bring warmth and comfort and peace to those who read it, there is something about watching a child realise they are a writer that makes me catch my breath. There is power in the moment a child hands you a piece they have written. The power is almost all yours. What you say and how you say it will strengthen or unravel everything about the young person standing before you. Writing unlocks the innermost part of ourselves. No, that’s a little reductive: art unlocks the innermost part of ourselves. It is why, I believe, Caro’s Sea Music was initially so badly received. Art scares us because it reflects us. Like a child standing before their teacher with their first poem, art makes us hesitate. But that, in itself, is why the sculpture, and why writing and making are so fundamental to who we are as individuals and as a species. We should take a great deal from the fearlessness of children. We should all walk through life as if we have never fallen before and never will. We all will, and it will hurt, but that is not a bad thing.

To qualify this rather brazen assertion about the nature of life, I will say one more thing: I offered every parent in that room a pen and paper to write. They all turned it down, most for the very valiant reason of wanting to help and support their child in the writing of their own poem, a role they carried out with care, vigilance and success. Perhaps I may be wrong, but I believe there is also an element of nervousness in the turning down of a proffered pen and paper. I have seen this in many workshops I have run with adults. Creating is scary. I believe it is particularly scary when we create with words, but the fear is there in other forms of art as well. Perhaps that is why Caro’s sculpture carries such weight whenever I look at it. It reminds me that, every day, I do something terrifying: I attempt to fill up a blank page. Perhaps Caro felt the same fear when he stared at an empty space and attempted to create into it. Perhaps it is the same fear a musician faces when they hear only silence. Creating is petrifying. Yet we ask it of our children all the time. And they do it. They do it with enthusiasm and energy, far more than we could ask of them.

So, I leave the workshop after an hour, having said goodbye to every young poet before they left the space, and feel…cleansed I suppose. Cleansed of that nagging, biting, grumbling fear that asks but what will other people think?

I am reminded of a piece of advice I received as a teenager, though the source of the advice eludes me. I was told: ‘don’t let your love for the idea of being a writer overshadow your love of writing.’ I remember it whenever I need it most.

I believe this was Caro’s greatest achievement with Sea Music. He created, not for the prestige of being an artist or for the payment he would receive, he created for the love of creating, for the love of the town and the strength of his conviction that public art was fundamental and could provide something positive for the locality. Creating for the simple reason that creating is good, is something I am reminded of whenever I work with children. It is love that fuels art. And I saw that in every child I worked with today.

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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.”

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