I’m a writer. Do I feel inspired?

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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?’

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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.

 

‘those so-called/ exams’

This blog is a platform for sharing many things, one of the most vital of these things being: excellent writing created by some of the talented students I work with in my role as Patron of Writing at Didcot Girls’ School.

And here’s a poem by one of those talented students, Seth Gay (Year 9). Here they use their work to reflect, in a personal manner, on the extent to which schools have become ‘exam factories’ and pressure cookers, as a result of the Key Stage 3 and 4 curriculum changes in recent years:

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Poem copyright Seth Gay 2018 ©

Thanks Seth for allowing me to publish this startling poem. And get those poems to me, students at Didcot Girls!

Ask a Creative

ask-blackboard-356079I’ve reached the end of my poetry writing workshops with Year 9 students at Didcot Girls’ School. It looked a bit like this:

3 weeks

270 teenagers

a storm of unique voices

dozens of mind-freeing doodles

a symphonic display of ideas & imagery

hundreds of doors opened

AND

a flurry of post-it note questions posed.

One aim of these sessions has been to give young writers an insight into being a professional poet/writer/artist (a career they might have dismissed as not having ‘career status’.) So I encouraged them all to ASK QUESTIONS!

Here are some of the many and varied things that they were curious to find out about:

QUESTIONS

  • Why do you write poetry?
  • How many poems have you written?
  • What’s your new book called?
  • Are you a famous poet?
  • Did you go to school at DGS when you were younger?
  • Is the subject of your new book real or imagined?
  • Do you get paid as an author?
  • Is being a writer fun – would you recommend it?
  • What’s your favourite part about writing poems?
  • How much do you earn?
  • What inspired you to become a writer?
  • Why did you decide to become a poet?
  • Do you find it easy to title your poems?
  • Do you have a main topic that you write about a lot?
  • What’s your favourite genre of poetry?
  • What’s your favourite poem (that you haven’t written)?
  • Would you give up poetry if you could get another dream job?

 

It’s been a privilege DGS – THANK YOU! And as I continue the year as your Patron of Writing (with more creative opportunities to come), let’s keep this dialogue going…

#LetsDoThisKids 11: Proof

I can’t believe I’m nearly at the end of my 20 week mentoring journey with the wonderful young writers at Didcot Girls’ School!

But it ain’t over till it’s over, and today’s session may be one of our best …why?

…because today the writers will hold in their hands and feast their eyes on their published anthology, for the first time.

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Holding your crafted words in physical form, in hard copy, in ink on paper, is a moment of almost indescribable emotion for any writer. It can often become a landmark moment that changes the course of the future for that one writer. And that is the reason why I wanted to publish these talented writers’ work, at the end of this mentoring programme.

And the proof, as they say, is in the pudding, so here’s a taster:

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(Please note, poems are copyright of Halle Kennedy, 2018 ©)

There are moments in reading this when the world stands still.

We are all justifiably proud of this anthology. It offers up powerful and compelling voices throughout, captured in provocative and original form.

As well as being their publishing debut, it’s my debut as Editor, and it’s been an absolute pleasure to work one-to-one with the writers in editing. When it came to putting all the work together I was a bit like that kid in the sweet-shop. The work is strong and holds its own on every page but it was exciting to see new threads emerge as I started to put poems side-to-side and back-to-back.

Excitement is mounting for our anthology launch event, taking place next week, on June 13th. I know that the experience of reading their work aloud, in front of people closest to them, who most likely have never heard ANY of their writing before, is a huge challenge.

Another emotional leap. Another first.

So in today’s session we start our launch preparation with some of my top tips for performing your poetry. Much of this has been gleaned from my 25+ years’ experience of performance, so I think it will come in handy for our young poets, many of whom will be first-time performers.

Here are my ‘top tips’ for performance. I hope they are useful for you, too.

Take away Task/ Elaine’s Top Tips for Performance

 Prepare:

At home, rehearse out loud. Use the copy you’ll read from on the day. Do this once a day every day before the event. Know those lines.

Before you read:

Bring a water bottle

Go to the toilet (!)

Breathe

When it’s your turn to read:

Accept your nerves. They are there to help your body perform to its best.

When you get to the front, take a moment. This is your time. Establish your presence. Feel the earth under you.

Breathe

Throw your voice. Aim to hit the back wall.

Always introduce yourself by saying your name before you read.

Read slowly. You can’t read poetry too slowly.

Respect your line breaks & stanza breaks. Give them pause.

Look up at the audience frequently, by skimming the tops of their heads with your eyes. You don’t have to look them in the eye. This will help them to connect with you and your words.

Read from the heart, feeling your words. Then the audience will feel them too.

Enjoy it. This is YOUR MOMENT and you’ve earned it.

 

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“So, let’s start with your name. And why you are here.” #LetsDoThisKids – 3

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(When learning something new, you have to start somewhere.)

No. This is not an AA meeting. This was how we kicked off the Writers’ Mentoring Programme at Didcot Girls’ School this week – an initiative that has grown out of the poetry workshops I led last term with around 250 year 9 and 10 students.

As it’s a New Year (and all that) please indulge me in a brief glance back at the sessions that happened at the end of last year. I managed to get a snapshot of the student responses and they were downright FAB-U-LOUS:

Over 95% of the students enjoyed the workshop and said that, in that one hour, they had learned something new – about poetry, about writing, about themselves, the list went on …

It’s worth remembering that these students were not ‘hand-picked’, they were not screened or selected by ability, they did not even choose to opt-in to the workshop.

So yes, I was both staggered and delighted by their feedback. Of course, it’s also a reminder that ALL young people can access poetry and creativity and (even more importantly?) that MOST of them can enjoy the experience!

Mentoring Week 1: The writer’s notebook

The workshops were an important gateway to my Writers’ Mentoring Programme and I was genuinely excited to meet the Young Writers this week. They are adventurous, inquisitive and enthusiastic – and not just about the Jaffa Cakes! It was an absolute pleasure to sit with them and start this journey, and we began (after the essential getting-to-know-you silly stuff) by discussing the source of our ideas as writers: how we find and retain these little gems. We shared the variety of tools that we use to help us record, store and organise raw material, and came up with a useful spidergram of shared ideas (It wouldn’t be a session of mine without a spidergram):

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I threw out some of my old notebooks for them to flick through. Some of the complete nonsense recorded in these brought a few giggles, however, these compact, dog-eared notebooks also made the valuable point that, as writers, we need to switch our FILTER to ‘OFF’ initially.

Just note it down. Keep it for later.

I think this is something that is almost counter-intuitive to a lot of students. They are so indoctrinated into having every word/sentence/paragraph scrutinised, that they are in danger of losing the ability to write freely and just for themselves. This is one barrier that I’m aiming to help them break through during the mentoring process.

Each week we’ll have a focus as well as a ‘writer’s development task’ to work on at home, so please do keep an eye on this blog, where I’ll be sharing these – in case you want to try it with your own students/young writers.

Writer’s Development Task 1:

Get a notebook. Write something every day. Bring it next week!

#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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Wishing I could have lingered longer

IMG_0590I know better these days than to pack in more than two events in one day at Ledbury Poetry Festival. I need time to bask in this chocolate-box town’s poetic tradition. Time to think. Drink coffee. And ultimately (hopefully): write.

But I was entirely satisfied by my two carefully chosen events (when the brochure arrives, how on earth to choose?) I had opted for a writing workshop with Tony Hoagland and an interview with the ‘Editors’, namely: Neil Astley, Amy Wack and Luke Allan, quizzed on stage by Debbie Taylor.

Led like a child by a poetic Pied Piper, I was enthusiastic to follow Hoagland’s lead and “write wildly” – sitting sipping my coke beside such a charismatic, mature thinker, quite frankly, who wouldn’t be? I came away with some pretty interesting free writing and some useful motivational quotations, including:

“Pleasure is a goal of art making …Get out and play!”

I love a poet who thinks, and works, like this.

I was caught off guard during ‘Meet the Editors’ – I wasn’t expecting Neil Astley (Bloodaxe Books) to make me cry, but his reading of the late Helen Dunmore’s poetry was staggering in its beautiful precision, power and raw loss.

After hearing Luke Allan’s story of how he “got into the business”, I came away with nothing but admiration for these Indie poetry publishers and the sacrifices they make, to support and further the work of poets. It gives me hope. And a certain pride in this poetry community that I consider myself to be a part of.

It goes without saying that the Festival dates are already in my diary for next summer.