Today I placed my hand
against a window
to feel the warmth of April
and my hand left a print.
Amaani Khan (17)
I’ve never really believed that poetry workshops could be taught online. Tutorials and edits are one thing – they can work quite well on the phone – but for the scribbling, heavy breathing magic that can happen in a group writing together, particularly a group of young people, I’ve always relied on being physically present. In the school where I taught for a decade, Oxford Spires Academy, and where the anthology, England, Poems from a School was created being physically present meant in the library, after school, seated round the big table and catching passing trade from Year Sevens waiting for their mums, lost souls on detention and sixth formers filling in UCAS forms.
But when lockdown started, I had to think differently. Generations of my students were back in town from university, living disconsolately with their parents, or stuck in student accommodation far away, or furloughed from sixth form and missing it far more than they could believe. I’ve always kept up with my old students, and read their new work, but that has always been, quite properly, sporadic. Now, though, they were all back in touch, and all at once. So I tentative downloaded zoom, and sent out invitations, and one by one they appeared in Zoom’ shrinking frames: Mukahang, in his first year at Oxford, Sophie, just finishing her MA, Esme, graduated from Nottingham and running her own writing groups, Asima, working for the Rathbones Folio Foundation, dyslexic Aisha, relieved of her A Levels; Timi, back from Portsmouth, Annie, Linnet and Amaani, half way through sixth form. We were all so moved and pleased to see each other, even postage stamp sized.
And it seemed the poetry workshop magic still worked. We played some of our old games – writing for 1 minute on ‘the rule is’, creating a list of what furniture, boat, weather, and dog your friend is, completing the sentence ‘I am not allowed to think’. We read and shared, as we always did, a strong, contemporary poem to use as a model – we started with Louisa Adjoa Parker’s ‘Kindness’, from the National Poetry Competition – and then we wrote together for a while, with me murmuring suggestions and prompts.
At this point, I very much missed being able to walk round the table, tap on shoulders, and peer at manuscripts in process. Online though, all that has to be done later, on GoogleDrive. During the class, all is clicks, quiet, and camera phones turned to ceiling. But we still seem to like writing together, because at the end of half an hour, everyone has created something and wants to share it by reading aloud. This is another habit I’ve built up over years in the library. I’ve even taught them to laugh at each other’s self-deprecatory introductions : ‘Opposite talk’ they call at Esme when she says she’s written ‘something prosy.’ ‘Bet you haven’t’.
She hasn’t. No one has. The standard of poetry in this group is stunning. Perhaps because they are more mature, perhaps because they are self-selected – but I think it is also the times. These young people are shut up with their families at the very age when they should be out in the world, enduring the sight of a sunny spring outside their own windows, and they have a lot to say about it. When I put some of the poems on twitter, it’s clear that it’s not just me who thinks so.
Kate Clanchy has published 9 books, most recently the highly acclaimed England, Poems from a School, an anthology of her migrant students’ poems and Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, a memoir of 30 years of teaching in state schools. Kate was made MBE for Services to Poetry in 2019.