Joshua Seigal: “So How Did You Get Into Poetry, Then?

This is one of the most common questions I get asked when I visit schools. It is not an easy question to answer, and I am tempted to say that I simply ‘fell into’ it. But this is a cop out. My journey can best be adumbrated by my encounters with five poets.

Michael Rosen

Michael visited my primary school when I was around 8. I remember being captivated by his performance in assembly, where he acted out his poems and really brought them to life. I bought his book Don’t Put Mustard in the Custard, and we listened to its accompanying casette in the car every day on the way to school for about a year! I wasn’t necessarily inspired to write my own poetry at this stage, but the kernel of Michael’s visit obviously lodged in my mind. Later on, Michael taught on my MA at Goldsmiths, and was good enough to write an endorsement for the cover of my first book with Bloomsbury.

Niall O’Sullivan

I didn’t really begin writing poetry until my late teens. I had studied Larkin for A Level and my initial efforts were an embarrassing attempt to ape him. During my first year at UCL I discovered the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden, which has a weekly open mic night hosted by Niall O’Sullivan. For a couple of years I regularly stood up and read my poems there, and was furthermore exposed to a wide variety of performance and writing styles. Niall hosted the night with humour and panache, and it was by attending these evenings that I developed my chops as a performer and (I hope) a humorist.

Neal Zetter

Neal helped me turn a hobby into what is now a career. I first came across his name in the Evening Standard, where he spearheaded a literacy campaign in 2012. He was described as a ‘comic poet who works in schools’, and then it hit me: this could be a proper job! I emailed Neal for some advice, and he responded with such warmth and encouragement that I shall be forever grateful. Heck, we are good friends now, and I even invited the man to my wedding. We are also poetical collaborators, and have our second joint book out with Troika in 2021/2.

Brian Moses

I took a humorous children’s poetry show to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012, where I met Brian. I foisted a copy of my first, self-published book into his hands, and asked whether he might help me find a proper publisher. I am extremely thankful for the advice he gave me. He said that my comic poetry was all well and good, but to concentrate on serious, emotional and heartfelt themes as well. I have since tried to synthesise a broad range of styles and feelings into my repertoire, and Brian’s advice has undoubtedly helped me grow as a writer.

Roger Stevens

Roger gave me my first publication in an anthology and invited me on the wonderful ‘poets’ retreat’ in 2014, where I met many other wonderful poets too numerous to mention. In his bounteous munificence, he also put my name forward to a bunch of editors he knew, which helped secure my first book deal with Bloomsbury in 2016. So now I was a poet writing and performing in a variety of styles, who both made a living working in schools and had a proper publishing deal to boot! I could not have made it this far without the aforementioned poets.

Joshua Seigal

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.

Joshua Seigal: Poetry Workshops in Informal Settings

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

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

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.