Cheryl Moskowitz: From The Raven to The Odyssey

From The Raven to the Odyssey

So here we are, a new year and schools closed again.

As a poet writing for children, I want to know: what it is like to be a child at this time? What is most boring, most interesting, most concerning about the current situation from a child’s point of view? How are they spending their time? What games are they playing? What stories and poems are they reading, and what do they themselves most need to write?

When the first lockdown began in March 2020 I spoke to children directly about the pandemic, about not being able to go to school or see their friends. They talked about their worries and frustrations, their wishes and hopes, and their visions for a corona-free world. I wrote poems in response to those conversations to reflect their experience. Back then the coronavirus was new. Scary perhaps but also different, interesting and maybe even for some, exciting.

Children from Margate class with their ‘Poetry Passports’ at The Beacon, a foundation special school in Kent 

Since then we have been through many rule changes, loosening and tightening of restrictions and at the time of writing, we have just entered a new national lockdown and Covid-19 is no longer a novelty.

The pandemic is not the only thing going on in children’s lives – new things happen all the time. Fresh experiences that need processing. That’s why conversation is so important. To converse means literally to ‘live among’ or to be ‘familiar with’ and it is how we exchange important feelings and ideas. Social distancing puts up barriers to conversation, so we have had to find new ways to converse meaningfully, particularly with our children.

Last Autumn, when schools were in attendance, I was fortunate enough to take part in Pop Up’s SEND Festival, usually a hands-on literature programme for pupils in special schools. This time the ‘hands-on’ element needed to be virtual rather than actual but that was an exciting and interesting challenge.

My first task was to find a way to familiarise myself with the children and them with me, before my online visit. Key to this was talking to teachers about their pupils, finding out about individual quirks. I also made a video in which I introduced myself and set the pupils a task of making a ‘poetry passport’. They had to choose an alias instead of their name, identify a distinguishing characteristic, state a like and dislike, a dream, an ambition, and something they would never do. 

This ‘sneak peek’ I had of the children’s personalities, dreams and dreads enabled me to write a riddle-type poem containing hints of all their identities and proved to be an engaging way to start the session. Having recognised themselves in the poem I’d written, they were much more willing to engage and write revealing and moving poems of their own, even though (or maybe because!) I was on one side of the screen and they on the other. 

When we share a piece of writing or a favourite poem with one another this is also a form of conversation. During these past months I’ve been mentoring a 9-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy in creative writing. It has been revelatory to let these young people set the agenda. The boy, who loves dystopian fiction, led me to ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allan Poe which, with its powerful incantation Nevermore, is a poem about living with loss.

The girl has steered me towards Homer’s Odyssey and we are still puzzling together whether the eponymous hero should be held responsible for so many of his fellow men’s deaths. There could not be two better metaphors for our times. Schools may be closed but children’s minds are most certainly not.

Cheryl Moskowitz

Cheryl Moskowitz is a poet and educator. She writes for adults and children, runs workshops regularly in schools and is passionate about getting teachers and pupils to write their own poems. She runs writing projects in a wide variety of community settings often working with the most disadvantaged and vulnerable. She serves on the Creative Council for Create Arts and is working with Pop Up on a three-year project to develop creative resources for use in SEN schools across Kent.

Cheryl Moskowitz: The Corona Collection

The Corona Collection – A Conversation

School’s out for summer. For most children during this pandemic school has been out for a very long time. Not just school but playgrounds, football fields, cinemas, restaurants, playdates with friends, visits with grandparents and so much else.

We’ve all needed support to navigate our way through the crisis, but children especially have needed help and reassurance to know that the world is not ending however much it might seem like that from where they are standing.

Despite most parents not being trained teachers and teachers not able to teach as they normally would, these adults have been expected to meet the educational requirements set out for children by government during the lockdown. Children have been scared, confused, frustrated, sad, depressed and bored. How can their learning needs be met when issues relating to their mental health and well-being are so overwhelming?

I live in North London where there are many families and young children. Within a mile radius of my house there are 9 primary schools and one large secondary. In March 2020 when school closures were announced my concern was for all those school children. How, I wondered, would they and their carers cope?

That’s where poetry comes in.

I am a parent, educator and a trained counsellor. I am also a writer and a poet. When a problem overwhelms me, I turn to poetry. When I need to make sense of my feelings and voice my concerns, I turn to poetry. A poem is a way of sharing thoughts and ideas widely with others. A poem is a conversation and one that can be easily shared, even (or perhaps especially) from a place of isolation.

Having conversations, especially with our children, is key to understanding what the other is thinking, feeling, what they value and what they most need and want to happen. I wrote this poem as a way of starting that conversation.

 

Just Supposing…

 

you woke up tomorrow

and there weren’t all these rules

like: YOU HAVE TO STAY HOME!

and: YOU CAN’T GO TO SCHOOL!

And whatever you wished for,

where to go, what to do,

who to be with, how many –

was all up to you.

Where would it be,

doing what, and with whom?

Would you go to the park

or fly up to the moon?

You could go on a picnic

or stay in your room.

If you woke up tomorrow,

restrictions all lifted –

what kind of a world

would you want to be gifted?

 

I took the poem to my local community, conducting pavement interviews with children at a distance, talking to teachers in schools, children of key workers and others in attendance. Inspired by the conversations I was having I wrote more poems and those poems grew into a collection The Corona Collection – A Conversation.

The collection is designed to encourage ongoing conversation between children and adults, in school and at home. I have created resources to go alongside the poems and used the collection to deliver poetry workshops via zoom to children as far away as Hong Kong! In June and July I also ran workshops with small groups of pupils back at school, in their ‘bubbles’.

Since June over 6,000 physical copies of The Corona Collection have been printed and distributed to children and schools around the country. Pop Up Projects took the initiative and gifted 2,000 copies of a special edition to their partner schools nationwide. In London, recognising the value of poetry, Enfield Council adopted the collection, making it central to their PSHE and recovery curriculum for KS2 and transitioning pupils across the borough and have already distributed 4,300 copies. My hope is that organisations around the country will follow suit.

A website www.coronacollectionpoetry.com has been set up as a hub for resources and news, and to gather new poetry and conversations in response.

Cheryl Moskowitz

Cheryl Moskowitz is a poet and educator. She writes for adults and children, runs workshops regularly in schools and is passionate about getting teachers and pupils to write their own poems. She runs writing projects in a wide variety of community settings often working with the most disadvantaged and vulnerable. She serves on the Creative Council for Create Arts and is working with Pop Up on a three-year project to develop creative resources for use in SEN schools across Kent.

Cheryl Moskowitz: In Their Words

In their words

Here we are in January, the first month of the year, and only a week or so into a new decade. It is an opportunity to reflect on time and change and redefine priorities.

January takes its name from Janus, meaning ‘archway’. Janus was the Roman god of gates and doorways, who presided over difficult transitions, the beginning and the ending of conflicts, and was one who could look backwards as well as forward.

Last year, through worldwide school strike action, young people rose to the surface, inspiring a global movement to fight climate change. Less than a month ago on December 11, 2019, 16 year old Greta Thunberg was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Speaking at a UN climate change summit in Madrid before the announcement, she urged world leaders to face up to the crisis we are in and take immediate action. The next decade, she said, would define the planet’s future.

The two faces of Janus represent the middle ground between the old and the new, between youth and adulthood.  This dual gaze reminds us we must look to our young as much as to our elders for wisdom and understanding. Now, more than ever, we need to listen to our young people, join forces to find a common language and work creatively with them towards a safe and productive future.

In this second week of January 2020, we are one month on from a general election that children, by virtue of their age, are given no voice in. We enter this new decade still negotiating conflict and in a process of transition, surfacing from an intense period of time where rhetoric and vitriol became the dominant modes of expression. It is vital now that we communicate differently, learn to express ourselves with more clarity, more beauty, more hopefulness, more kindness and more truth. Children and poetry have a big part to play in making that happen.

The Children’s Poetry Summit is made up of adults who believe passionately in the value of poetry and the importance of making it available to children. So, in the spirit of Janus and giving children a voice, I thought I would begin this new decade by looking back at work done during my poetry residency at Highfield Primary School in North London from 2014-18 and publishing a list, a manifesto if you like, written by the children there about why they think poetry is necessary.

As teachers, creative educators and poets writing for children it is always good to remind ourselves, from the child’s perspective, what a child thinks a poem is, what a child knows that a poem can do and why a child believes that the presence of poets and poetry in their schools could play a key part of defining their world’s future.

Here’s what members of the Highfield school council from years 3, 4, 5 & 6, had to say on poetry, in their words.

 

What is a Poem?

A poem is a lie that tells the truth

a poem is a sword, sharp and sly

a poem is a light in the darkness, a single star in the night sky

a poem removes the blindfold so that we can see the world more clearly

a poem is a rainbow leading to treasure, a lost treasure drowned in tears

a poem is a memory, a poem is remembering, a poem is being remembered

and never forgotten

 

What can a poem do?

A poem can blow you away

a poem can be an embrace

a poem can change people’s minds

a poem uses rules, lets you make your own rules, makes you the ruler

a poem can be a doorway to history and new understanding

a poem helps us know the world and our place in it

a poem tells others who we are, what we know, what we want and what we believe…

a poem can change your life!!!

 

Since having a poet in our school…

we are thinking creatively about what we want for the future

we are learning about ourselves and other people

we are sharing memories, spreading messages

we are changing people’s minds about children

we are raising standards, gaining confidence

we are imagining new possibilities

we are feeling inspired

we are making the headlines

 

Cheryl Moskowitz

Cheryl Moskowitz is a poet and educator. She writes for adults and children, runs workshops regularly in schools and is passionate about getting teachers and pupils to write their own poems. She runs writing projects in a wide variety of community settings often working with the most disadvantaged and vulnerable. She serves on the Creative Council for Create Arts and is working with Pop Up on a three-year project to develop creative resources for use in SEN schools across Kent. Cheryl’s website.

Cheryl Moskowitz: The Wild Woods of Summer

 

The Wild Woods of Summer

 

The year speeds by
like a bullet train –
a ramjet, scramjet
supersonic aeroplane
streak in the night
bright meteorite
a shooting star
from where we started
to where we are.

And soon now soon now
very very soon
like a giant sized
tight-filled
helium balloon
big and bursting
(but lighter than air)
we’ll rise up high
and disappear.

You can search the sky
but we won’t be there;
we’ll be out of sight
we’ll be underground
we’ll be with friends
and heading on down
to the wild woods
of summer…

The poem which begins and ends this post is published in the current issue of The Caterpillar, a gorgeous magazine chock full of quality writing for children. The wild woods in this poem could be a real place, and also a metaphor for the imagination, the place where all poetry begins. I wrote it for a graduating class of yr6 pupils at Highfield where I was Poet in Residence for 3½ years, anticipating the summer along with them.

Now the May half-term is over, the month of May finished (and PM May’s term of office too), we are all, no doubt, looking ahead to our respective summers, wherever we are and whatever we may be planning to do.

Summer, with its long languorous days and warm, balmy nights. Summer, when it feels as if ‘life might be beginning all over again’ as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby says, ‘with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies’. Or the kind of summer which is ‘everything good to eat…’ and ‘a thousand colours in a parched landscape’ according to Scout Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

For most children, the summer is a time for adventure, play, and time for rest. Away from the hustle and bustle of the classroom it is an opportunity to be by yourself, a time for being outdoors and enjoying a certain peace. For some, it is only when school ends and the summer holidays begin, they can feel free to be truly themselves. In summer it is not only everything around us in nature, but also the imagination that goes wild. No wonder so many great writers pay homage to this season in their poems and stories. Here are some links to three of my favourites.

Lewis Carroll – A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky
Emily Dickinson – As Imperceptibly as Grief
Eleanor Farjeon – It was Long Ago

Poems, summer poems especially, are often about place: the place we’re in, a place we long to go to, or a place we miss. ‘A person can only be born in one place’, writes Palestinian poet and author, Mahmoud Darwish. ‘However, he may die several times elsewhere.’ Darwish was referring specifically to the experience of exile, imprisonment or the way a person is estranged when their homeland is transformed by war or occupation. Childhood, with all its difficult transitions can be a kind of exile, making us feel like strangers, even to ourselves. Each new phase we enter can feel like a mini-death and rebirth. ‘Poetry,’ says Darwish, ‘is perhaps what teaches us to nurture the charming illusion: how to be reborn out of ourselves over and over again, and use words to construct a better world, a fictitious world that enables us to sign a pact for a permanent and comprehensive peace… with life.’

This time of year, with the pressure of exams and everything out of place with the end of term looming, encouraging pupils to read or write poetry may be low on the school or home agenda. However, for children, parents and teachers alike it might be that poetry is just the thing that is needed to establish a place for yourself and ensure a positive and productive summer.

Here are some opportunities (all FREE to enter):

1) Throughout the summer writers of all ages are invited to write poems about place, heritage and identity, and pin them to the Places of Poetry map. I’ve written some resources to get you started (KS1–KS5, plus teacher guides) available via the Poetry Society or the Places of Poetry website.

2) Betjeman Poetry Prize invites poems on the theme of ‘Place’ by 10-13 year olds.

3) Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award for 11-17 year olds invites poems on any theme!

4) The Winchester Poetry Festival runs the Young Poets and Artists Competition for children living in Hampshire aged 4-16. This year they want poems about ‘Seasons’ – why not write about summer?

The days unfold
like a three-toed sloth –
a crawlback, sprawlback
laze in the undergrowth
tar-drip slow
dreams of indigo
time to chill
from the end of your bed
to the windowsill.

So forget about school
(but not completely!)
break a few rules
but do it sweetly
and this time
when that home bell goes,
kick off your shoes
and wiggle your toes,
hang up your things
put your schoolbag down
turn the corner
and head on round
to the wild woods of summer.

 

Cheryl Moskowitz

 

Cheryl Moskowitz is a poet, performer, playwright and educator. She studied Developmental Psychology at Sussex University and trained in dramatherapy and psychodynamic counselling. In 1996 she co-founded LAPIDUS (The Association for the Literary Arts in Personal Development) and taught on the Creative Writing and Personal Development MA at Sussex University from 1996–2010.

She writes for adults and children, runs workshops regularly in schools and is passionate about getting teachers and pupils to write their own poems. She runs writing projects in a wide variety of community settings often working with the most disadvantaged and vulnerable. Currently she is working with Pop Up and KSENT, a three-year project bringing authors into schools to develop creative resources for use in SEN schools across Kent.

She is an editor for MAGMA poetry magazine, on the organising committee for the European Psychoanalytic Film Festival (epff10) and co-hosts, together with her musician husband, Alastair Gavin, The All Saints Sessions, a bi-monthly experimental music and poetry performances.

Publications include novel, Wyoming Trail, Granta (1998), poetry for children Can it Be About Me? Frances Lincoln (2012) and poetry for adults The Girl is Smiling, Circle Time Press (2012).

Cheryl’s Website.