Open the door

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‘I open the door and then

I see a lonely man

as lonely as I was when I got taken away

I went up to him and said

Do you need a friend

and the wind started to blow

I was cold

he was cold

but there was nothing there…’

(Text © of the author, 2018)

This was written in one of my poetry workshops at DGS this week. You might think it’s good. But not exceptional.

Until I tell you that this writer was a 13 year old student from set 10 (the smallest English class with students who have multiple additional barriers to learning, for whom writing is not just hard, it’s an ordeal). This was a first draft. She wrote it just like this, first time (the only differences are the spellings, some of which I’ve corrected for publishing on this blog).

For me, this is a beautiful example of the fact that opportunities for creative writing MUST be open to all, regardless of background or ability, and that writing HAS to be for all. We can work through things when we write. Express things that we had not even known were there. We can test boundaries, explore and pursue new concepts and structures. We can experience freedom of thought.

This writer read her work aloud in front of the group. At the end of the session, I think she left the room a whole foot taller.

Let’s open the door for all young people, regardless of age/identity/background/gender/ability, to write freely in our schools. Please.

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Delight

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I’m at the end of my first week of poetry workshops with Year 9 at Didcot Girls’ School and just couldn’t be happier. The responses to the sessions have been absolutely glowing!

So before I take the weekend off, and get some R&R in preparation for week two, I thought I’d share some of the students’ feedback so far –

The session has changed how I feel about:

the unreal

drafting

Poetry. Because I thought it was restricted.

expressing my ideas through writing

the real side of poetry

poetry and English

writing about anything and everything

How I can use imagination to express how I feel

I find it free

I didn’t like poetry until this session

My imagination is let free

I was able to write down all of my thoughts without any limits holding me back

I might write poetry now and again

I thought poetry had certain rules and was really hard but it changed my mind about that

….

(and this is just a small sample of some of the positive comments made!)

I’ll be sharing some fragments of the students’ original, startling and expressive writing written during my workshops on the blog soon. So please check back.

But for now – I’m off for a bit of a RELAX…

 

 

 

Patron of Writing Update #PoW: Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads

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‘Poetry is the art of creating imaginary gardens with real toads’ –  Poet Marianne Moore

I love that DGS promotes the Arts in its community, not just through having a Patron of Writing like me, and a Patron of Reading like the wonderful author Jo Cotterill, but also through all these things: its Artist in Residence visits, dance/art collaborations, drama and dance performances, thriving musical opportunities (is Ukulele Club still running, Mr Dingley?!) and the superb Freeborn Gallery in Sherwood which provides an interface where everyone walking around the school community meets art every single day.

At DGS my job is to shine a spotlight on creative writing (and in particular, poetry) in this community.

Today I did this by meeting our 2018-19 student Poet Laureates (one Lower and one Upper school), who are pretty delighted to be a part of this Arts scene too!

What to tell you about them? Nina Winstone (year 8) and Kat Richards (year 11) are curious, open and excited by language and what it can do. This year they’ll be flexing their poetic muscles, making some memorable ‘art’ over the course of the year for everyone at DGS to access and enjoy, and I’m thrilled to be able to mentor them on their journey into writing commissioned poetry for sharing in as many ways as possible … (Keep an eye and an ear out for their first poems, coming soon!)

I also want to give a shout out to all the students who applied for these Poet Laureate jobs. I read all your poems and got fascinating insights into your colourful and varied interpretations on the theme of ‘freedom’, with many of you engaging in the social and political landscapes around us. I commend you all on your brilliant writing and am only sorry that I could only select one of you from each category. My message to you is this:

Don’t let it be the last poem you write this year. Let it be the first.

Finally, a quick message to Year 9: Poetry is coming to a classroom near you VERY soon. I can’t wait to take over every English class for one-hour after half term, exploring, developing and celebrating your creativity through writing; making some imaginary gardens with real toads

See you soon!

#LetsDoThisKids 12: Destination X

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All good things come to an end.

But as I told my brilliant young writers at Didcot Girls, this is not the end of their writing journey, it’s just the start.

Last week we met for our last mentoring session and we were ending on a high, with our really inspiring launch event still fresh in our heads, and the writers still glowing from overcoming the challenge of reading their poetry in public, with great success.

But there is one last challenge before the end: keep on writing!

Every writer knows that the going can get tough. It’s easy to give up when you have a string of rejections of your work; when you get writers’ block and feel as if you’ll never write again; when you produce work but keep sinking into a subjective sense of ‘it’s never good enough’.

So I wanted to pass on some last advice, tips, tools and experience, to support these brilliant young people, as we disperse as a group and go our separate writing ways.

And I thought I’d share it with you, too.

So here’s our final take home task. And in the words of the entirely lovable Dory the blue-tang fish (yes, it’s a Finding Nemo reference, folks, it was an inevitability):

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‘just keep swim-ming, swim-ming, swim-ming…What do we do? We swim, swim, swim…’

 

Last Take Away Task: Stay connected and get your work out there!

Read, read READ! Whatever you LOVE! Amazing free sites where you can read (& hear) poetry:

https://www.poetryarchive.org/ SO GOOD!

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/

https://www.poemhunter.com/

Of course, check out poetry on YOUTUBE as well, e.g. Academy of American Poets.

  • Do writing challenges online that you can send in. This will prompt you to write new work and give you a deadline for completion as well as providing an opportunity for your work to be published and read by others.
  • Make it a regular challenge. Set a diary reminder/task on your phone (e.g. for one Saturday in each month). Make that writing challenge day.
  • Set up a writing group of your own, with a couple of friends who also want to keep writing. Decide what you want it to look like (face-to-face? Online?), how often you will meet, what you will aim to do each time.

Some examples: it could be a workshop feedback group, a place to share writing opportunities that you’ve found online, somewhere to chat about your writers’ block and ways to overcome it etc…

  • Join online writing communities (see below)

Twitter has thriving writing communities. Just remember that if you have a public profile, don’t share personal info. If you’re not sure how to use it, ask a fellow user.

  • With writing competitions and magazines/publishers: Always read and stick to submissions guidelines.

Recommended online sites for young writers:

https://ypn.poetrysociety.org.uk/  Young Poets Network. THIS IS GREAT! See the ‘Poetry Opportunities’ tab.

https://www.newwritingsouth.com/jw-home ‘Just words’ is a free online platform for sharing work and receiving feedback. Also they have competitions and workshop groups.

Places to submit/send your work to:

https://www.thestudentwordsmith.com

http://www.cuckoowriters.com  submissions from writers aged 15-21

https://manuscriptionmag.wordpress.com/submit/

 

 

 

#LetsDoThisKids 8 – Here’s to ‘expanding the mind’

air-airship-art-237779At the half-way mark in my mentoring programme at Didcot Girls’ School (where I am Patron of Writing), I want to share some of the young writers’ highlights so far.

Let’s hear it in their own words:

‘From the one-to-one feedback, I get a professional and honest view’

‘I have really liked having suggestions on what to add/ take away from my poem’

‘You’ve taught me to add more details’

‘It’s expanding my mind on poetry’

‘You’ve taught me to have confidence in my writing and my ability.’

I was humbled, encouraged and delighted by their responses.

Thanks so much for following this project – lots more to follow in the next 10 weeks, including showcasing of the writers’ exciting new work.

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Storm surge of words – DGS writers on the mentoring programme

#LetsDoThisKids 6 – To Be A Mentor

This week, I did some catching up with The (always brilliant) Verb (BBC R3) and came across their ‘How do you choose a mentor?’ discussion (Dec 1, 2017, with the inimitable poet Hollie McNish, listen to it here). It got me thinking. And realising that I am deeply glad to be a mentor to my young writers on our Mentoring programme at Didcot Girls’ School.

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Everyone needs a little helpful direction sometimes.

Every week this process presents me with challenges:

What can I offer them? How will I share it? How will it impact them?

And I guess this week, having reached half term and a short hiatus, was a time to reflect. So.

What’s changed in the last 5 weeks?

  • These writers are continually demonstrating sharper observation.
  • They are increasingly aware of their power as wordsmiths. Power to reflect their world. Power to make a mark on their world. Power to present realities in a fresh way. Power to challenge things.
  • They are speaking out. A few read their own work in front of the entire group this week. That’s a FIRST. But I know it won’t be a LAST.
  • They are probably taking away with them more than I can imagine, as I continue to share openly with them about my thinking about writing: my process, my source of ideas, my treasured and collected fragments garnered from other writers.

And in other news …

Some of the writers are working towards competition deadlines with their work (DEADlines: always a good push to finish things 😊), receiving one-to-one feedback from me as they go.

Most are currently editing a ‘Voice’ piece, and putting into practice new editing skills and insights

Many may be thinking about the quote I shared this week, that writing is in fact ‘80% reading’ (as according to Patience Agbabi) … and picking up a book …

and

Most are getting excited about our plans to publish our own ANTHOLOGY at the end of our 20 week journey (more on this soon!)

BRING IT ON.

 

Writer’s Development Task 5:

Continue to observe ‘your person’ and add observations to your notebook.

Over half term, edit your Voice piece. Use the question prompts.

CUT. ADD, using your notebook ideas. EXPERIMENT. Work on the TITLE.

#LetsDoThisKids – 2 (Or: what I’d like to show you after one week of student workshops)

So, what does happen when we give young people a few simple writing tools and FREEDOM ?

I’m excited to be able to share snippets of work that some brilliant 13 and 14 year old writers at Didcot Girls’ School have created this week. (And I should add that these are drafts produced in a very limited space of time. I am entirely unashamed of their crossings out and spelling mistakes.)

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The quality and originality of their writing wasn’t the only thing that blew me away!

Just take a look at some of their brief reflections on the workshop process:

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So this evidence all begs the question: What do we need to do to provide an environment that enables young people’s creativity to flourish?

I think that the most important element is summed up by one student here –

‘I loved how much freedom we were given.’

Reassure these young writers that there are no ‘rules’; that there are no right or wrong answers; that there is no pressure to offer up what they write; that this writing is first and foremost PLAY and EXPERIMENTATION.

Then sit back and wait…

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An emerald forest of a book: A Review of Pascale Petit’s poetry collection, ‘Mama Amazonica’

590f9f5c5b381If you’ve been bewitched by ‘Blue Planet 2’, incredulous at its scale of underwater life, shocked by its prey and predators, then be prepared to be equally transported by the poetry in ‘Mama Amazonica’.

Petit’s collection is an emerald forest of a book.

The power of Petit’s poetry here, I think, lies in her grafting and splicing of worlds. She transplants experience and trauma into the most unexpected of places: rainforests. Her mother, who was mentally ill, is perpetually reincarnated within this tropical world as an array of dangerous and glorious creatures, and in the poems we witness Petit’s struggles as she encounters these, and attempts to make sense of her altered world.

The metaphorical leaps in Petit’s writing are swift and full-bodied. At times, she shows us glimmers of harmony between mother and daughter, but mostly we get an overwhelming sense of alienation and displacement, experienced by Petit:

‘…I wanted warmth/but you are all the colours of drought.’      (from ‘in the Giraffe House’)

Her pain resonates and reaches us.

Cries for preservation of the rich ecosystems of the rainforests also ripple through the poems, reminding us of what we’ve lost, and what we still stand to lose if we continue to decimate these precious parts of our planet.

After reading ‘Mama Amazonica’, I think what Petit leaves for us is a reminder of our essential ties to each other, along with the knowledge that our damage and scars can potentially be transformed into something vital and vibrant.

#Letsdothiskids – Discoveries of a school Patron of Writing

I’m reeling.

I’ve just been reading the creative writing of a bunch of 11 and 12 year olds. Original, compelling, artistically adventurous writing.

Here’s a flavour:

I’m summer, I’m winter,

I’m everything it seems.

Emily W Year 7

She is a record player, playing softly as everyone dances. She smells like warm leather but on the inside: burning.

Natasha S Year 8

He is ocean washing over people, as ocean does, leaving a mark but never staying long enough to be known in full. Deep. Shallow. When he is roused he howls with the wind full force no mercy.

Ellie B-W Year 8

These thoughts, feelings and worlds were captured during a short session in the middle of a school library, just before lunchtime on a Friday (the last day of term in fact, a day when you’d think the kids would be exhausted, depleted and unable to focus on anything except the swiftly advancing school holiday).

The students demonstrated that they can harness imagery and use it to propel themselves forwards; they can reach for the most striking word; they will take risks with poetic lines and whitespace; they are flexing their drafting and editing muscles, with impressive results.

Don’t get me wrong. I know how lucky I am. I’m thrilled to be a part of this. Reading and, even better, hearing THEM read their own work is a huge privilege and an incredible buzz.

In this blog series, I want to capture some of my experiences as a new ‘Patron of Writing’ in a secondary state school. I want to share what’s happening, get it out there, and share what I’m learning about HOW we can make this happen for kids, and WHY it needs to happen – now more than ever.

Since Friday, I’ve been asking myself (in typical writerly egotistical fashion) – What did I do to enable the kids to produce such sublime writing?

The honest answer, I guess, is: it’s all them. It’s not me at all. The fact is, these students are inherently capable of imaginative leaps. They are pretty in touch with their own, and others, emotions. They are eager to learn. They’re unafraid.

That said, in their learning at school they are too often (and I’d argue, increasingly) working under limitations and restrictions. ‘Don’t forget to include X. To get the marks, you must refer to Y. Pens down, this is time to listen.’

(And yes, I am very familiar with how things work, I’m a former secondary English teacher.)

So, in what I see as my role as facilitator (‘Don’t call me ‘Miss’. Call me Elaine’), I started by taking the breaks off. No BUTS or NEVERS. As one of our expectations, as a group, we agreed to ‘ignore the rules’. The kids couldn’t believe their luck. Yes, a bit of a risk, but really worth taking.

So, if I give them a task to describe how they are feeling today, using only colours, they could tell me that they’re feeling ‘green, like the freshest patch of grass’ OR they could tell me in their own imaginative way – to use the language of crisps, maybe they are Pom-Bear. Maybe Space Raiders.

If I move them on to describing a character using a metaphor of place, some might crack on with this immediately. But equally it would be ok for them to be just sitting thinking, staring into space, doodling, writing about the colour of the sky at 3 o-clock yesterday; the way their house smells after it rains; their Mum’s loony driving…

I reassured them that this was ok. It was ALLOWED. In other words, I let them go.

(When were they last ‘let go’ that day? Is that an impossible thing to ask a teacher to do?)

So I’d say that getting kids to write the best that they can (and never put a limit on how staggering that writing can be) doesn’t start with sharing your experience, or with unintimidating pen-to-paper tasks, or with modelling excellent writing (important though these things may be). It starts with giving them permission to think their own way, and then giving them recognition when they start to put those unique thoughts down on paper.

More on this later.

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I’m currently working as Patron of Writing at Didcot Girls’ School, Oxfordshire. For more highlights of my exploits and work-in-progress with young writers, have a look at my Tweets @kitespotter and check out the school Twitter feed @DidcotGirls, along with their website.

A Happy Clearing

pexels-photo-396714There has been some movement in my head. One way to describe this might be to say that, for months, I’ve been a bit like someone trying to take a stroll through a deep jungle, as if it were my local High Street. Which is, of course, impossible and ridiculous.

I’ve been hacking away at tangled ideas, attempting to make some kind of pathway to move myself through. Slow, messy work.

But I’ve had a ‘moment’ – the chaos has suddenly thinned out and I’ve unexpectedly tripped and fallen into a kind of thought clearing.

Let me elucidate. My head has been thick with contradictory ideas about what poetry is. Questions like: What should poetry be about? What should poetry do? What is it for? Pretty basic stuff but also pretty foundational. I’ve been continually interrogating my own writing impulse and its results. Perhaps no bad thing?

And the thought that’s opened up for me is this: I need to feel empowered to write what is true. So many philosophers/scientists/artists/thinkers have wrestled with the notion of ‘truth’, I’m not going to regurgitate any of their arguments in this blog, and I wouldn’t pretend to understand half of them! But in terms of poetry, I’ve come to think of ‘true writing’ as poems that are real, or become real while writing, to me at least. Poems that emerge out of a genuine moment/thought/event. I’m beginning to understand that, if the initial impetus is real, then the work has potential to initiate a change in someone, or something, somewhere, beyond myself.

Emile Zola, nineteenth century French writer and activist, believed that truth was potentially unstoppable:

“If you shut up truth and bury it under the ground, it will but grow, and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through it will blow up everything in its way.”

Emile Zola, attributed, Dreyfus: His Life and Letters’

I’ve realised that it’s not only right and responsible, but do-able to grapple with meaty social issues in poetry, ideas that ripple out into the world outside myself. (Easier said than done to write like this, of course – this will forever be a work in progress!) However, at the same time I’ve also been welcoming the notion that if it’s true, if it’s real, if it feels like me, then it’s worthy of writing, and it can also have the potential power to change things.

I’d also go so far to say that it’s worthy of editing and publishing.

I’m delighted to have a couple of poems with political edge in the current issue of ‘Dream Catcher’ magazine (ed John Gilham, @literaryartsmag) and they sit alongside other work which doesn’t shy away from contemporary global debates. In issue 35 you’ll find honest, ‘true’ responses to Brexit, to Trump, to life. It’s a great read.

Finally, for my mantra, I’m going to borrow some words from the celebratory and momentous American poet Walt Whitman, quoting from his poem ‘All is Truth’:

“And henceforth I will go celebrate anything I see or am,
And sing and laugh, and deny nothing.”

 

Read more about Walt Whitman here

Read the editor’s overview of the current issue of Dream Catcher here

 

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