I’m now 8 hours and 180 students in to my poetry workshops at Didcot Girls’ School, with year 9. It’s been brilliant, and there’s still more to come.
There has been a vast amount of creativity, imagination and powerful writing in all the sessions. I’ve been lucky enough to work with all groups across the prior attainment spectrum. The young writers are all phenomenal.
As well as writing, we’ve had rich discussions about poetic form, where poems come from and how we might start to write them.
This blog post is a micro showcase of some of their writing. All these drafts were written playfully and experimentally, in under 15 minutes, in response to reading Mary Jean Chan’s ‘Safe Space’ sequenced poems, from her latest collection, ‘Fleche.’
With my Didcot Girls’ School Patron of Writing hat on, I had a lot of fun planning a poetry takeover for National Poetry Day. The students explored the life and words of environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, and wrote poems inspired by her, around the theme of climate change.
Please enjoy these poems, created by year 9 student, Paulina Sieczka, during the takeover session (with huge thanks to Paulina, for letting me share them!)
How do we change young people’s perceptions about poetry?
How do we remove the blocks, the clamps that weigh us down, make us so fearful of writing freely?
How can we release the incredible potential of the next generation’s creativity?
These are all issues that I seek to open, challenge and address in my poetry workshops with young people, and as Patron of Writing at Didcot Girls’ School, my workshops with year 9 (students aged 13-14) are now well underway. I’ve been thrilled with how the workshops have been so far: with the creative responses of the young writers; with the quality of what’s been produced during our 1-hour together.
This blog post is really me taking the opportunity to share some of the students’ remarkable, unique and brave writing, as well as a way of demonstrating that the above aims are completely achievable in creative writing workshops.
I’ve entitled the workshops ‘Safe Spaces,’ a title borrowed from Mary Jean Chan’s shining new collection, Fleche (pub by Faber, 2019). In the workshops, we read and digest Chan’s 3 poems in the sequence, using them as a springboard to launch our own recreation of ‘Safe Spaces’. We discuss, question and experiment with form (two of Chan’s poems in the sequence are prose poems), utilising line, the senses, voice and imagery.
Here is a small sample of some of the powerful, original and expressive work created, in under half an hour, by some of the Didcot Girls’ writers:
The range of responses to the prompts is stunning. The drafts are very free but strong, capturing diverse worlds, emotions and voices. My instruction to ‘write in a box,’ wall-to-wall, without paying any thought to line break, frees up language, images and emotions, rather than shutting them down. The writing time is delivered in three stages, the writing box expanding with each burst of writing, until, on the third stage, we widen up the width of the page and try to fill it with long figurative, free lines, expressions of our own ‘safe spaces’ with white space in-between, to let the images breathe.
Here are a couple of their striking responses:
The student feedback from the sessions so far has been illuminating. It also affirms the value of poets delivering workshops in schools. Here’s how some of the writers chose to complete the phrase: ‘The session has changed how I feel about –
“how to generate ideas for poems”
“Expressing my emotions”
“My safe spaces”
“Poetry, because I felt free but also contained”
“How powerful poetry is”
“What poetry can be”
“poetry and its adventures”
“poetry because it can be about anything”
I’ll give the last word, to them:
“I always thought poetry was quite simply boring,
however, I really enjoyed this workshop and learned about different poetic
forms and language”
“I feel a lot more passionate about generally writing the poetry”
“I would like to do more poetry workshops in English lessons”
…and I’m delighted to be working with the amazing students at SBS this year!
My first task is to seek out the very first two student Poet Laureates for the school, who I’ll be mentoring on their journeys, as they develop their skill and craft as poets, over the course of the school year.
Could you be Poet Laureate? If you think this great opportunity should be yours, then take a look at the info above, get writing and send me your Freedom inspired poem by October 11th please…
And a huge welcome back to the incredible students at Didcot Girls’ School!
I genuinely can’t wait to work with you over the coming year.
The unique role of Lower School Poet Laureate is now up for grabs, so get writing and send me those poems by Friday 27th September please!
I’ve genuinely loved every moment of being DGS Patron of Writing for 2018/19. It remains an awesome privilege for me to crack open some space in the school day for creativity and writing.
And I’m absolutely thrilled to be returning next year – so watch out, next year’s Year 9, poetry is coming for you in term 2! There’ll also be excellent opportunities for Year 7s to push boundaries in language, ethics and self-expression in our Eco-poetry Showcase, which returns for a second year, as well as an absolutely golden opportunity for 2 students who show special potential, to take over the mantle of Poet Laureate from this year’s incredible poets, Nina Winstone (Year 8) and Kat Richards (Year 11). There will be time and space created for lower school writers to create poems for National Poetry Day in October on the expansive theme ‘truth’. And last but not least, the chance for Year 9 and 10 students to dig into writing, and become a supportive community of writers, in our unique 20-week Young Writers’ Mentoring programme, which returns for a third year.
I think you’ll agree that there’s so much to come in 2019/20! But first, a moment of #DGSPride – pictured are the talented poets who completed this year’s Mentoring Programme with me, on the launch night of our anthology, ‘that in-between space’. It was a night that I will genuinely remember for a very long time!
The summer holidays have been a long wait for some of us. I have to admit to being a summer lover – open fields of long grass hold massive appeal for me, and I’m going to be kicking off my shoes and losing myself in some of them over the coming weeks. Rest so often opens the door for creativity for me, and I hope that, like me, many of you will get your favourite writing pen and notebook out this summer, and fill it with wonderful words. The best way to end the year for me, is with this poem by fabulous poet Maura Dooley, written about Emily Brontë and her dog, Keeper, who are doing just that!
Within 3 minutes of settling down they are writing.
2 minutes later, I have a plethora of raised hands to choose from – all keen to share aloud the words they’ve just written. An observer would be impressed. And that’s just the warm up.
At this halfway stage (week 10) in the mentoring programme, looking around the room, there’s a genuine sense of community here among the 17 year 9 & 10 writers. Their responses to my invitation to share aloud are proof of their developed skill and self-belief in what they write, as well as a manifestation of the trust they put in each other, and in me.
We move on to look at today’s poem: ‘Jaguar Girl’ by Pascale Petit, from her shattering, stunning collection Mama Amazonica. You could hear a pin drop as I read it to them and they follow with their eyes on the page. They respond to what they’ve read/heard in an open, democratic round table discussion. We deconstruct the layers of metaphor within the poem’s worlds.
The students always amaze me with the depth of their perceptive responses to the poems I bring and today’s no exception. Petit’s poem is an uncomfortable, visceral, complex one, but, when I invite any and all responses to the poem (and everything IS allowed), no-one says ‘I don’t get it.’ Guided by their responses, I build a diagrammatic response to the poem’s imagery on the classroom whiteboard. The concentric circles of metaphor spill out across the space.
(I note that this reminds us that things are messy, in our heads sometimes; in the world, often.)
One student who has recently experienced a trauma, has sent me some writing in the week, in between our school sessions. I receive a lot of work from the students by e-mail, in between times, and it thrills me to read what they have been working on in their own time. Whilst the rest are writing away, exploring their own real/unreal places, I sit with her and we sift her draft poem, me explaining my thoughts and suggestions for improvements, her eagerly listening and quietly taking it all in. No, she hadn’t been aware that she had written an elegiac poem. No, she wasn’t aware of her intuitive sense of rhyme, that has surfaced in the piece. When we’re done, she walks away from this feedback conversation a whole foot taller. It’s evident that she is starting to process her trauma through writing.
When our hour has rushed by, as I’m tidying up my things, getting ready to leave, one student lags behind to speak to me. She tells me quietly, and a little awkwardly, that she has something in her mind that she wants to write. It keeps coming back but she can’t write it. After a brief conversation, it’s clear to me that the only obstacle in her way is permission. I ask her if she’s afraid of failing, worried that after she’s finally committed the ideas to paper, she’ll re-read them, and they won’t be any good? She thinks that’s it, that’s the problem. I tell her, one writer to another, that we all feel like this sometimes. I tell her to write it imagining that she’ll immediately throw it in the bin. I tell her that it won’t matter. I give her permission. She smiles and walks away.
Read more about poet Pascale Petit and her award-winning collection Mama Amazonicahere. Find out about her publisher, the formidable Bloodaxe Books, here. Follow Pascale on Twitter @pascalepoet.
I’m proud to be able to publish today the Didcot Girls’ Poets Laureate new commissioned poems.
Nina, Kat and I met 6 weeks or so ago to look over their final drafts of these recent poems. Out lunchtime sessions are brief but wonderfully rich times when we chat about many things, including how the writing process is going. Editing can be a messy, even fussy, business, but they’ve learned a lot about how to ‘grow’ a poem, from first conception to final polished piece. On these meetings, when we’re at last base with a commission, I always get the poets to read the work aloud. Then we dig in with our thoughtful feedback and final suggestions for tweaks.
These two new poems, ‘Scars’ and ‘Acceptance’ have been nurtured over time. Patience plays a part in poetry. The poems take us below surface levels, deep into what is felt and experienced.
It’s a privilege for me to work with these two poets and is really exciting to see the poems on the walls at Didcot Girls’ School, in the hall of fame alongside the names of other successful writers. We are all proud of them. They are two names to watch for in the future!
My young writers at Didcot Girls’ School have made it to the half term breather, which seems like a good opportunity for me to take stock. We are six weeks in to the mentoring programme, and the poets have responded to my first call for submissions of work for this blog.
So here they are, in a mini showcase; a taster of some of their work so far.
The following two poems came out of our ‘Imagist’ workshop, where we read/examined/re-lived the brevity of William Carlos Williams ‘the red wheelbarrow’ (read the poem here).
Enjoy these takes on the lived moment, by Elizabeth Cairns and Thomas King:
I absolutely love the way they have created poems that orbit round a core image with simplicity and utter brevity – all much harder to achieve than you’d imagine!
I’m delighted to have two Graduate Poets on the programme this year (they completed the programme with me last year, and return to continue to develop as poets as well as to lead and contribute to our writers’ community). I’m excited to be able to share some current work by one of our Graduates, Elena Ignatyeva (year 10). It’s a privilege to continue mentor and support such talented poets. I think you’ll see what I mean, when you take a look at her new work –
What is it to be free? What does it look like, for you?
This week with my young writers, we had freedom in mind. We talked about personal freedoms. We discussed free verse and poetic form. We read a poem that’s overflowing with freedom in its use of language, music and powerful self-expression. We did some free writing. We felt free.
I’ve cheekily borrowed the title of this blog entry from that poem I’ve just been referring to: Toria Garbutt‘s joyful reminiscent song that celebrates the downtime of her past schooldays, ‘That inbetween space/ after school/ before tea/… just t’sunshine/ and t’tele/ and t’settee/ and me’
It’s such a punchy poem: wild and free. In our free writing time, when we let all ideas come, writing down everything (always applying our mantra: #nofilter), we borrowed Garbutt’s lines, using them as a point to launch from. We explored our own ‘inbetween spaces’, celebrating the moments when we’re released from timetables, revision, expectations, worries, responsibilities… The list goes on.
I’m so proud of the fact that this Young Writers’ mentoring programme at DGS opens up a window of freedom for these brilliant students. A chance to step back and just BE. From this place, they can produce stunning writing.
But it’s not just about the writing.
Being free to be creative, to fulfill our creative potential, is an essential part of our lives. I recently ‘listened again’ to the important episode of BBC Radio4s Front Row, ‘Arts Education in Schools’. There were so many views presented from a range of relevant viewpoints, on the devastating decline of the arts subjects in England’s secondary schools, the reasons for it (EBacc, League Tables, Gove, to name a few) and the damaging impact this is likely to have on the next generation of Artists (of all kinds) in our country. It was an unmissable debate, please catch it up if you can.
Most importantly, the discussions in the programme highlighted the unlimited benefits of creativity for our young people. The debate was an essential reminder that being creative isn’t only good for the individual, it’s good for society as a whole. WE NEED CREATIVES, now and in the future, to bring their blue sky thinking, their innovation and wide-ranging problem-solving, to our industries – both creative and otherwise. We need ‘that inbetween space/ before bed/ after tea/ …just t’sunset/ n t’moonlight/ n t’universe/ n me.’
(You can read ‘The Universe And Me’ in Toria Garbutt’s amazing collection of the same name, published by the stonking indie publisher, Wrecking Ball Press.)
We’re now on week 3 of our Young Writers’ Mentoring programme 2018/19,
which I run as part of my Patron of Writing role at Didcot Girls’ School, so it’s high time I posted an update, methinks!
I guess what impressed me most at first about my new cohort of 23 year 9 and 10 students, was their openness to inspiration as writers.
I think it’s true to say that ALL writers (poets, novelists, bloggers, life writers etc) have periods of writer’s block, when the ideas go quiet and all moments of inspiration dry up. In that situation, it’s hard not to wobble and question yourself (‘I know I wrote that great thing ONCE, but what if I’m a one-trick pony? A fake?) Out of necessity, to combat these periods, we have to develop strategies for managing these crises. Prevention is generally better than cure; for this reason I start at the beginning with my mentees, challenging them on where and how they find their ideas, as well as how, where and why they ‘store’ them.
The refreshing news is that, during our week 1 discussion on this, the group contributed a wide range of places/events/stimuli where they find inspiration, as well as a broad spectrum of methods/technology they use for storing and retaining these ideas (as and when they encounter them!) Here are a handful of their ideas, as captured in my messy whiteboard notation, around the central question: ‘where do we get our ideas?’
My particular favourites here are: memes; ideologies and role play! It was also really refreshing that ‘stuff you read’ came up; this sparked another conversation later about how necessary and significant it is for writers to read.
The discussion proved to me that young writers are more alert and open to stimuli than more mature writers. As ‘adult’ writers, somehow we have to work harder at finding and retaining fresh ideas and material. I have to admit I’m a bit jealous.
Ultimately, it’s amazing to have these discussions, and I know that increasing their awareness of their own creative process will enhance their range and productivity even further. Which is pretty exciting.