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.