Posts Tagged ‘Poetry in Schools’

Two momentous events of the past month cannot go unblogged, despite my being late in setting them down. One is the Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, New Jersey this weekend – the largest poetry event in North America, the ‘Woodstock’ of poetry, poetry Mecca. Patricia Smith, Terrance Hayes and Dorriane Laux are some of the poets who brought me to America, and some of the poets I saw and heard. But before I talk about this, I want to put these writers on the same stage as another group of poets I’ve been privileged to see since arriving – the Urban Word young poets, specifically those who shared their work at the Preemptive Education Conference at the end of September.

Urban Word’s Preemptive Education Conference

was a full weekend of workshops, performances and lectures for poets, teaching artists, school teachers, young people and academics, exploring ‘critical issues that affect today’s youth, while providing creative and practical resources to address them…using the power of spoken word poetry and hip-hop as the lens to explore language and privilege’ (UW).

Poet Darren Arthur opens the conference

The event I want to celebrate most was the opening evening, entitled ‘Poetry is Pedagogy’, in which acclaimed academics from the fields of education, social justice and the arts, responded to works written and performed by young poets. For me this embodied the power of the whole conference and its reason for being.

I’ve never seen this done before. What I mean is, I’ve never heard an academic scholar discuss, extol and explore the work of a young (17-21), ‘unpublished’ poet, with the attention, gravity and respect of one thinker/writer talking to (and about) another. What became clear was that the poets – Sabrina Ross, Danni Green and members of the 2012 Urban Word NYC slam team – were themselves engaging in the same active, intelligent criticism of the US education system (and the social system underpinning it) that the academics – Dr. Ernest Morrell, Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz and Dr. Kersha Smith – grapple with in their own work. Sabrina Ross performed a impassioned and carefully wrought poem on the silencing of young people in classrooms; Danni Green’s beautifully crafted work spoke of her own struggle to get to university and her refusal to accept the future laid out for her by the sense of failure hanging over her community – a future personified as ‘a husband I don’t love’.

The message of the evening was clear. Young poets, thinkers and activists such as these deserve the same stage and critical attention as so called ‘experienced’, published writers (the word ‘young’ is actually misleading as it suggests inexperience, in both writing and life). This is true because of the importance of what they have to say, as well as the form and language in which they say it. But the message was also that their work needs to actively inform the education system; that this level dialogue of poet-young adult-professor is essential to education.

The Dodge Poetry Festival

Now I come back to the other stage, and to the incredible poets I saw this weekend. What was striking (though it should really be obvious) is how many of these giants of American poetry are engaged in the same struggle as the Urban Word poets – struggle against injustice through language (in both senses), struggle with language itself. To sit in a room with Amiri Baraka and historian Clement Price as they spoke about Baraka’s experience of the 1967 Newark Uprising and the founding of the Black Arts Movement was to recognise art as a truly transformative, social force.

Patricia Smith performed a sequence from Blood Dazzler, her collection of poems in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, accompanied by The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra String Quartet. Smith’s work embodies the hurricane through so many voices, including Katrina’s own, with such compassion towards the people she is imagining and reporting on, that there is no presumption in her personas.

As Smith read, the vast, Prudential Hall audience included pockets of students who had been visited by the poets the previous day. The Dodge Festival was remarkable not just for calibre of poets it assembled, but for the way it put them to work, in full recognition of the role poetry needs to play in contemporary education.

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Back in August, I stepped on a plane to Singapore. I had no idea what I’d find or whether it was the right thing to do. I’ve been here three months now and the idea that I might never have come is almost unimaginable. I’ve discovered so much – poets, artists, friends, jazz, festivals, schools, cafes, karaoke (!), what mangos really taste like, that umbrellas are actually meant for the sun… and food. A lot of food. And yes, I’ve neglected to blog. I’ve been so immersed in the offline world of streets and people that I’m only just coming back online. Here are some of the things I’ve been up to…

Performing at Singapore’s Esplanade during Y-Fest, a festival of youth arts. I was invited by Word Forward as a guest performer and judge for their youth poetry SLAM. Word Forward is a poetry & creative writing organisation run by Chris Mooney Singh, specialising in SLAM. They’ve given me a warm welcome to the Singapore poetry scene and I’m very lucky to work with them.

Singapore Shophouse Salon

Recently, I performed at subTEXT at The Arts House, a literary evening presented by the wonderful poet Yong Shu Hoong, and at Blu Jaz (Singapore’s jazz cafe and one of the best venues I’ve discovered) at a Word Forward SLAM that threatened to blow the roof off. I also co-hosted an evening of spontaneous performance at Singapore Shophouse Salon, a jazz-poetry-dance party thrown by Laura Freedman at her beautiful shophouse. Laura is an MBA admissions consultant who happens to know a whole load of artists and truly knows how to throw a party. Just one of the many inspiring people I’ve met here.

Leading Workshops at the United World College South East Asia. United World Colleges are an international group of schools where students from all over the world come together to learn, volunteer and live together, most of them on scholarships. I went to UWC Atlantic College in Wales before university, so it was interesting to re-visit a similar place as a workshop leader. I was working with International Baccalaureate students as well as grade 8s – performing my poems, answering some searching and brilliant questions about poetry (do I mind how people interpret my poems?), taking them through writing exercises and looking at how to approach critical commentary writing in a creative way. I hope the students learnt as much as I did. I also led a special workshop on ‘Landscape Poetry’ – exploring different ways to write about place, for a group of students who were about to visit the UK on a literature trip.

Recently I led a series of poetry SLAM workshops in a local school with Word Forward. Class sizes here are bigger than in the UK – 40 students to a regular class. The students were hard to keep in their seats, but once their energy was channelled into poetry, they produced some impressive results. One group wrote and performed a beautiful poem on love – ‘love tastes sweet like palm sugar,  bitter like antibiotics’. Mmmm. By our final workshop, even the shyest students got up and performed in front of the class, which was a real achievement. The students judged each other in a class slam and selected one group to represent them in an inter-class slam. By this time they were taking the whole thing much more seriously, asking questions like ‘what do you do when you’re nervous before going on stage?’ It was wonderful to experience a change like that in just four days.

Kite-flying at East Coast Park

I’ve also been Writing. I’m currently working on my pamphlet, which is due out next year with flipped eye, and also on new poems. As long as you remember to bring a cardigan (outside may be tropical, but inside can have glacial air-con), there are plenty of good places to write. My favourite is 15 minutes at Lasalle College of the Arts.

I’ve found a strong writing community here and there’s a sense that it’s growing and that things are happening. In September I attended the launch of Ceriph – a magazine of creative writing by new Singaporean writers, in its second issue. Books Actually, an independent bookshop to die for, publishes Ceriph through Maths Paper Press. They’re also collecting submissions for Coast – an anthology featuring new writing of that title by writers resident in Singapore.

Project-wise, I’m plotting a number of things for next year with some exciting people and organisations. These past few months have been a time to explore and find my bearings. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next. Expect to hear more…


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Just before September hits, I thought it’d be nice to round up the ‘year’ (I still seem to think in academic years) by looking back on what I’ve been doing over the past twelve months. It’s certainly been a year of new things – my first out of full time education for a start. I’ve worked with some hugely inspirational people, in particular Jacob Sam-La Rose, who’s been my mentor since September 2008. It would take many more words to convey just how much I’ve gained from this relationship, but the number of times his name pops up below gives an idea of just how many doors he’s opened for me…

The London Teenage Poetry SLAM 2009
From January to June, I worked as Project Administrator for the London Teenage Poetry SLAM. Run by education charity Lynk Reach and Artistic Director Jacob Sam-La Rose, this year’s SLAM gave 12-15 year olds from 11 London schools the chance to work with an experienced poet for five months and compete in a SLAM Final at the Albany. Working closely with Jacob, I was involved in pretty much every aspect of the project and was able to gain a real sense of how an educational poetry programme of this scale works. Every year, the Highest Scoring Team gets to visit Chicago for a week in November….and this year, guess who gets to go too?!!

Fresh Text @ Spread the Word
Fresh Text is a cross-genre group for writers aged 17-25 that I started running last year with support from London literature agency Spread the Word. This year we’ve been meeting every other Thursday for workshops, sharing, play and general experiments in writing. In July, writer and actor Dean Atta commissioned us to write pieces in response to a track by DJ Halo, which we performed at PenPals, a networking event for emerging writers at Battersea Arts Centre.

Barbican Young Poets
I’ve learnt a lot about poetry and teaching this year. From March – July, I assisted Jacob Sam-La Rose on a new youth poetry programme at the Barbican. The 14-19 year old poets we worked with are seriously talented people. One of the best parts of the programme was getting to visit Barbican shows and exhibitions to write poems in response to art and performance. I’ve loved all the education work I’ve done this year, but Barbican Poets was something special. Everybody really wanted to be there and to push themselves and their writing.

Slow Down London
Moving from poetry into creative letter writing, I ran a Snail Mail Workshop at Foyles, Charing Cross as part of the first Slow Down London Festival in May. The idea was to see what happens when people pick up a pen to communicate instead of texting, emailing or instant messaging. Participants wrote letters to friends, important objects, fictional characters and themselves and discussed how they feel about writing and communication. Slow Down London and Foyles have invited me to run a series of these workshops in autumn 2009. Watch this space…

I also co-ran the London Canal Write, a creative workshop and walk along Regent’s Canal with WRITELondon’s Jasmine Ann Cooray.

Poetry in Schools:

Erith School Residency
My first official ‘residency’ in a school, shared with Jacob Sam-La Rose and Kayo Chingonyi. I taught five whole days of lessons for years 7 – 11. When I performed my poem ‘We Can Still Dance’ to my first class of 12 year-olds, I knew I’d never be scared of performing in front of adults again!!

Pod Club @ Nower Hill High School
I led a series of poetry sessions on the themes of bullying, gangs and sexism for an after school group for 11-16 year-olds from different schools in Harrow. This was part of a wider project which culminated in a whole day of poetry with Jacob and myself and a CD of students’ poetry.

Little Ilford SLAM
An intense all-day SLAM with Year 10s at Little Ilford School in Newham, working alongside Sifundo, ShortMAN, Rosie Knight and Chicagoan poets David Gilmer and Adam Levin. The day started with a room full of reluctant teenagers and ended with some really striking performances.

Graveney School, Tooting
Another whole day of poetry for Year 10s, focusing on identity and working alongside poets Charlie Dark, Polar Bear and Inua Ellams and hip hop artists Curtis James and Maxwell Golden.

To prepare myself for the challenge of teaching, I shadowed Jacob Sam-La Rose on a number of projects including a term of poetry at Morpeth School in Bethnal Green and the Young Cultural Curators project for PRU students at the Horniman Museum and Abbey Manor College.

Workshops @ the Albany
As well as working part time in the Albany Box Office, I’ve been involved with the creative side of things there too. I ran a poetry and performance workshop for young people with Yemisi Blake for the Albany Open Day in March and Spoken Beats, a workshop on writing in response to music for the Summer Arts Season 09.

Since June I’ve been Project Assistant for UrbanWords, a literature consultancy specialising in writing and regeneration run by writer Sarah Butler. You can read more about this on the forum I helped set up: www.shapingplace.ning.com

So, those are the things that have been occupying me over the past months… Recently, I’ve been taking some time out and focusing more on my writing. I’ll keep you posted.

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