Becky Fisher: A dream is like a pile of cotton floating in the sky – young poets and their writing

Amid all the doom and gloom of slashed PGCE bursaries, university English departments being threatened with cuts and closures, and the general frustration and anxiety that COVID-19 has brought to all of us, I have felt very fortunate to have two bright spots in the past week – all thanks to some wonderful young poets. 

Artist: James Brown

I was really lucky to be able to attend the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Ceremony, an afternoon celebrating the brilliant young writers who had been selected as winners. During the ceremony, we heard from a selection of the young poets who had tackled challenging issues personal to them through their passionate, courageous, creative poems. Death, loss, and grief; love, friendship, and community; uncertainty, familiarity, and cultural traditions were all woven through the astonishing work. I found myself closing my eyes to be able to take in all the sounds and shapes the poets were conjuring. More than once, I smiled; my eyes filled with tears; I laughed out loud. If you’re finding things hard going at the moment, and you need a little lift, I encourage you to settle in with a brew and take a moment to listen to the poets reading their work

The Poetry Society Cafe Window illustrating the winning 100 Foyles Poems. Artwork by Imogen Foxell – 7th October 2020 Photo: Hayley Madden.

Another boost to my spirits was the opportunity to observe the inspiring poet, writer, and teacher Kate Clanchy as she ran the first of three workshops in the Poetry Possibility series. Delivered by the Forward Arts Foundation in partnership with the University of the West of England, Reading University, and the English Association, these workshops introduce new and trainee English teachers to ways of teaching poetry in school that focus on enjoyment and creativity. The first workshop was all about creative word games that lead to a poem, and which Kate has used to great success in the classroom. For example, we started by playing the Surrealist Game: grab yourself a piece of A4 paper and a pen and have a go now!

Step 1: Fold your piece of A4 paper in half then in half again, then tear along the fold lines to get four smaller pieces of paper.

Step 2: On the first piece of paper, write a concrete noun.

Step 3: On the second piece of paper, write the definition of your concrete noun.

Step 4: On the third piece of paper, write an abstract noun.

Step Five: On the fourth piece of paper, write the definition of your abstract noun.

Now for the fun part! Match your concrete noun up with the definition of your abstract noun and see what you end up with… For example, you might mix up the definition of ‘a glass’ and ‘hope’ to end up with a statement like: ‘hope is a vessel used to contain liquids that we drink to quench our thirst’. I’ve played the game myself a few times in the days afterwards; the experience is a bit like laying out a spread of tarot cards and looking for the meaning hidden within. 

Kate then led the group through a period of quiet, individual writing, where we used our image-collages to build a poem of our own. Throughout the workshop, Kate shared the incredible work of the young poets she has taught in the past: they had produced such impactful, poignant poems that I actually found it a bit intimidating to write my own – but if I were heading into my classroom the next day I would have felt excited to try this technique with my class. If I haven’t inspired you yet, just turn to Kate’s Twitter account, where she shares the work of her young poets with the world; I promise you will find something there that speaks to you. 

Finally, I’ll leave you with some of the unedited work created by a Year 9 class in Bradford on Avon, led by teacher Amy Battensby. Her class played the Surrealist Game live online, inspired by Kate’s workshop. Many thanks to Amy and her class for sharing these poems with us.

Ella:

Wealth


“Wealth” is a disease that changes your life,

And the life of the people around you.

It fills your mind with countless desires,

And sickens the view of you in other’s eyes.

You become so ill you see people differently,

So sick you treat them differently.

And unless you can find a cure,

Everyone you know is suffering.

Isla:

Sadness

Sadness 

it is grey and colourless 

it smells like the ashes left from a fire 

it tastes bitter and sounds empty 

and it lives alone. 

 

Sophia:

My own poem – Endless thoughts 

 

Thoughts sing and dance around, 

They fly high above the clouds, 

But they fall through doors, 

Of endless sounds, 

And end up Lost to man.  

Their wings take them everywhere, 

But fail on them when they get too far, 

Because in the end they need a break, 

But cannot find anywhere to rest, 

As they fall so slow so fast, 

They find peace in the past. 

You find them in the deepest parts,  

Where one got trapped and another got free 

But they wind up fighting but escape nobody, 

And they submit to the mistakes, 

Made by the wings on their own body   

Chloe:

ate is a feeling like a burning house
One that doesn’t make you feel happy

Izzy:

A dream is like a pile of cotton floating in the sky, when your sad it rains, when your happy it snows and there may not be one at all, a dream may follow you, guide you, be your shadow, it always knows how you feel, a dream may be angry and may bring a storm, it may cloud the sky with darkness, when that is gone and you awake there will always be a rainbow

Harvey:

Time is a child and a coffin.
It is an biography for all things when they started and ended,
Yet there is no entry for it.
It can stretch bend the rules of the universe with no consequence, but does it like a curious child
Does it plays and watches the forever go on and on
Time rules over everything, but it’s forever so does it even see who it rules over for the blink of an eye
Does everyone pass by it before it can say hello?
Is it alone? It is along in the everything forever universe
Does it lie down rest and sleep because it can’t do anything with its omnipotence
It is a coffin? Is it a child and a coffin?

Freya:

Sexism

It floats around the world despite it being 2020
It controls women’s confidence, it controls their body
When was it okay for men to tell women what to wear and what not to wear?
How to look, how to act, what to do
To stay at home, to clean, to look after te children
Since when was that their personality
When was it decided that men should have a higher standard to lige?
Why does it still go on..?

How does it still go on?
Why is it there have such a pay gap?
But when raised, just told to shush

Becky Fisher

Becky Fisher is CEO of the English Association.

Kate Clanchy: Quarantine Poems

Quarantine Poems

 

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.