Poetry Workshops in Informal Settings
Most of my working days are spent running poetry sessions in schools. Whilst not adhering to the same strictures as a school lesson, there is nonetheless a degree of formality: children are normally sat at their tables, are expected to be quiet, and are generally overseen by their teacher as well as myself.
However, one of my happiest times as a poet was when I ran a series of very informal lunch clubs at a girls’ secondary school in Newham, East London. I worked at the school as Poet-in-Residence from 2014-17, having initially been placed there as part of my MA at Goldsmiths. The lunch club was attended by ‘vulnerable’ students. These were students who, for one reason or another, struggled in mainstream educational settings. The point of the club was to introduce them to poetry and creative writing, whilst at the same time providing a safe space for them to spend their lunch break on a Wednesday. Students were ‘invited’ to attend, rather than required to, and throughout the years numbers fluctuated. At one point they reached double figures (perhaps because of the biscuits on offer), but there was a hardcore of perhaps three or four students who attended every week.
I normally started off the sessions by reading a poem or two, on a different theme each week. Students could then respond to the poem with their own writing and/or drawing, whilst chatting with their friends and eating their lunch. I began by approaching the club somewhat like a regular lesson: I gave the students specific targets to aim for, and often provided them with models or scaffolding for their writing. However, as time went on and it became clear who was dedicated to the club and who wasn’t, my approach changed. I began reading a poem and then letting students respond however they liked. Sometimes they produced their own poetry, and sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes their chat was relevant to the theme I’d introduced, and sometimes it wasn’t. The whole experience was joyous, and the point of it was the sense of community, rather than any clearly defined written or academic outcomes.
Once the group was really well established, I sometimes didn’t even read a poem at all. I just introduced a concept or a theme, or gave them a sentence to complete, and let the students do with it what they wanted. Here is a poem using the sentence starter ‘Love is’, that was produced by a girl in Year 9 with learning difficulties:
Love is fireworks and butterflies
Love is feelings
Love you can’t touch
Love is dumb
Love comes in different cultures
Everyone loves someone
Love is always red
You can’t see love even if you are wearing glasses
Love is wind
Love is blind
Throughout my time running the club, many similarly profound and beautiful poems were produced, and they normally arrived in the absence of the aforementioned modelling and scaffolding. The crucial factor seemed to be the degree to which the club developed that sense of community and cohesion.
So what advice would I give to someone who wanted to run poetry sessions in informal settings? I think the key is that these sessions are best developed across a period of time, so that workshop participants become well accustomed to each others’ company. The second point is related: any written outcomes should be viewed as secondary to the primary purpose of fostering that sense of safety and community. Thirdly, once the importance of these outcomes is deemphasised, very powerful and important writing can, paradoxically, result.
Joshua Seigal is a poet, performer and workshop leader based in London. His latest collection, Welcome To My Crazy Life, is published by Bloomsbury, and he was the recipient of the 2020 Laugh Out Loud Book Award. Please visit www.joshuaseigal.co.uk for more info.