Depth and Defiance: inviting children to become poets

What makes a poet?

I run Poetry Retreats for Year 5 and Year 6 pupils, and by the end of these retreats, some of the children are poets.

Some of them have an excellent grasp of writing, and some have a really wide vocabulary and some are incredibly well-read, and some of these children are poets by the end. Some write comparably little, what they do write is addled with misspellings and poor handwriting and their poetry barely reflects anything we have discussed on the visit, and some of these children are poets by the end.

Some are poets when they arrive. Some love writing poetry but aren’t ‘poets’.

You cannot run a ‘doctors retreat’ for 9-11 year olds and expect to see tangible emerging ‘doctorliness’ after four days; to be a doctor sits primarily in the domain of rarefied and specialised knowledge. You cannot run a ‘coiffeurs retreat’ for 9-11 year olds and expect to see skilled barbering after four days; to be a skilled hair stylist requires prolonged apprenticeship working on specific skills.

To be a poet is different. The category of ‘the poet’ has no formally-recognised boundary, it is nobody’s role to police it, nobody passes a test to become one, and therefore it is quite hard to define.

We can distinguish between published and unpublished poets, I suppose, but then, by that metric, all of the children who take part in the Poetry Retreats that Adisa and I curate are published poets by the end. Their poetry does end up having a fairly wide readership too – passed around schools and families, resting proudly on school bookshelves, talked about endlessly by me at education events.

But does being published necessarily confer ‘poet’ status, in and of itself? If I were to publish some of my poems would that make me ‘a poet’? If I file a tax return it doesn’t make me an accountant. If I write a blog it doesn’t make me a journalist. I could be someone who prolifically writes poetry who doesn’t identify as a poet, just as much as I could write other things whilst still identifying as a poet, like AF Harrold explains in his recent interview with Charlotte Hacking in Books for Keeps.

‘I’m a poet. My biog has always said A.F. Harrold poet. I never described myself as a novelist, I always feel like a poet who has got lucky with the prose he’s written.

Having asked the question on Twitter about what distinguishes ‘a child poet’ from ‘a child who has written some poetry’, #WritingRocks suggested a clearer sense of what constitutes a poem is necessary. Their post ‘What Is Writing? Why Do We Write?‘ shares some wonderful insights into people’s thoughts about this – what are the motivations that compel somebody to put pen to paper.

The diversity of opinion on this question attests to the subjective, relational and affective nature of the creation and appreciation of writing, including poetry. For Frank Smith, the writerly dimension exists in the communicative cultural space, for Ivanic, the focus is on the self, and their several other references touch on a range of other explorations of the writer’s impulse.

Should I feel ashamed for offering a quite thoroughly subjective explanation for what I feel constitutes a ‘child poet’? Perhaps. In what follows, I am going to try to account for my leanings though, recognising that in the context of our Poetry Retreats, my role as one of the two people leading it is irrevocably tied up with the nature of ‘appreciation’ and the definition of ‘poet’.

Is a child-poet any more than a child whose poetry is appreciated by that small number of people around them (largely their teachers) with the power to define what constitutes ‘good’? Are we right or are we wrong?

 Our retreats and the young poets

I’ll be talking through a few specific child-poets on our visit with pseudonyms used, but before doing so, I ought to clarify something again, that I bang on about on Twitter for several months in a year…

I am genuinely moved and impressed each year by the children who take part in our poetry retreats. I feel that for all of them, the retreats are a valuable experience – these sessions provide green space outside of London, in the safety of their friends and known-adults, in which they can take time to think and reflect. Our retreat is very much an emerging fusion of mine and Adisa’s approaches to writing, to teaching and to education.

Adisa and I have only had one ‘sit down meeting’ in which we tried to thrash out the structure of the poetry retreat, and that happened in September 2016, two months before the first of our retreats. Whilst some elements of what we discussed are still present, the project has been evolving more dynamically, on the retreat itself.

Certain constants are the use of the natural world and the landscapes we explore as a muse. Adisa has introduced pupils to the work of John Agard and other poets sharing a connection with the natural world. Children learn to write metaphorically about natural phenomena, and personify them – this is true of fields, of forests, of gnarled and fallen trees and, this year, of the winding river and the Seven Sisters. My interest in the humanities runs through our work too, be it through wandering the haunting tracks of a long-abandoned train line in the New Forest, or exploring the myths and folklore of Anglo-Saxon burial sites in the South Downs.

From Adisa, there has always been the inclusion of the importance of precision and self-discipline, exemplified by the fact that every single day begins with the whole group gathering outdoors for a session of martial arts training before breakfast. From both of us, there has been the love of music, rhyme and the lyricism of hiphop – we move from the appreciation of nature to the combative spirit of wordplay in battle-rap and braggadocio.

Other things have evolved and become the lifeblood of the retreat, but we did not initially plan for it to happen. It became immediately apparent that no matter how much we wanted to focus on the natural world we had taken them too, the children’s minds were constantly tiptoeing back home, and much of their writing reflected their comparisons between home in East London, and their vistas in the New Forest and the South Downs. Much of their writing captured the anxieties and fears, as well as the excitement and buzz, of being away from home for the first time. Also, the ‘alienness’ of the locations we visited really come to the fore – the children see wild horses in bus shelters, cows advancing ominously towards them over the hilltops, they see more sky than they have ever seen; whilst for me, I can log this as amazing strange good fortune, for some children, it makes them feel unnerved and worried.

As such, our focus has shifted to reflect this, to explore it through writing and to take an analytical look at fear itself. We consider that which scares us alongside that which used to scare us, but no longer did; we help pupils to draw strength from the knowledge that many of their fears are unfounded, and that their own experiences attest to this, but we respect that some of our fears are grounded in the imperfection of our lives, and they protect us. We encourage the expression of these thoughts, in conversation, in individual reflections and in writing.

I have written previously about ‘children making writing that matters to them’: I consider this poetry retreat to be, above all else, an exercise in this. I don’t give a single damn about whether the work that the children make whilst wandering in the dew and the haze would qualify them as Greater Depth in a writing moderation. I feel that we are thinking wider than this, and connecting writing to life, to reflections of selfhood and to a sense of cultural belonging. Do I think that this does, actually, support children to become more skilled writers in a general sense? Absolutely. Is this borne out in their wider writing in school after the retreats? Often.

I say all of this partly – I’ll be honest – because I get carried away when I think about the retreats because I love them more than anything else I do in my professional life, but in this post, I say all of this to foreground the fact that I recognise that this kind of project gives many benefits to almost all pupils. In picking out a few particular children and sharing their experience of it, I am not wanting to undermine and celebrate the contributions other pupils may have made. I am proud of every Newham Poet – teachers included (we have an active alumni network spanning the three years of retreats, and we are all meeting up for dinner next month) – and just like the rivers we’ve watched and the desire lines we have followed, life shows us that the routes we take do not necessarily follow a logical progression. I know full well that if any of the children who took part were to become a universally-appreciated creative powerhouse, it may just as likely be the child who barely spoke up as the child who flowed on a stream of approval all week,

What makes a poet a poet on our retreat?

To return to the main question in this post then, what is it that makes a child stand out to me as a poet on this visit.

  1. Depth
  2. Defiance

Many children displayed these at different points and in different parts of their writing. I don’t necessarily feel the need to separate their written work from their interactions and actions across the week. Their defiance is as much behavioural as lyrical; their depth as much a component of their conversations as their probing written reflections.

Depth

We sat on the pebble beach at Cuckmere Haven and, uncontrollably, everybody began massaging the rocks, grabbing at them, feeling their edges, stroking the rough and the smooth. With Charlotte Raby, we explained how old these rocks were and how they relate to the cliff faces ahead of us. We looked at the uniqueness of the rocks and started talking about them half in physical terms, and half in metaphorical terms. This rock is small and jagged; you are first of all drawn to how smooth it is all around, until you see the crevice filled with sand. This rock here has lived – it is punctured with holes, eroded through until smooth – it cannot stand up, it is uneven but by god has it got a story to tell. We explained that in this writing activity, the children had to wander around the beach looking for a stone that they feel a connection with – a stone that, in some way, reminds them of themselves.

Some set off with a giggling energy, traipsing and stomping about together, and a few others got on their hands and knees in solitude. One boy sat cross-legged with a handful of different stones on his lap. He picked them up in turn, the raising and falling of the lines in his forehead hinting at the discussion that was going on inside. I asked him if he had found anything interesting, and he shared his thoughts as they came to him, whilst he held onto a small piece of flint.

Well…I think this rock is small, like me…and really sharp like me…and…erm…it looks like it really hurts…and if it gets really angry, sometimes like me…it will really hurt…as I look at this it feels so rough on the outside but it actually looks smooth on the outside but on the inside … (a long thoughtful pause as he stares and turns it over in his hand)…it looks like it has more, it has a lot of layers…I think I, I think I have a lot of layers because I feel like I have so many feelings, like they are all separate…and this part is broken, like me, because I feel like I have been broken in some parts of my life…(he continues turning over the stone and open his mouth as if to speak, then smiles)

The nature of our visit, and the children we wanted to attend, meant that we did have a lot of children who were going through or who had experienced a great deal of turbulence in their lives. Writing and talking about writing, for some of these pupils, gave them a space to articulate their thoughts and to put them into an order. The depth of thought, and the comfort at switching between the physical and the abstract, enabled this kind of introspection. This child did choose to write about the rock and created a small free verse poem about it.

Very consciously and responsibly, we took account of the emotional volatility of the pupils. One activity that we have always done in the retreats is a reflective activity on the final night. We begin by talking about the week itself, and ask pupils to share whether they feel that they have changed in any small or large ways. As has been the case with other similar activities, we find that if we allow the talk to continue a little longer, pupils develop the confidence to go deep.

The evening culminates with a completely private writing activity, that relates very well to a post someone shared with me earlier from Psychology Today, titled ‘Expressive Writing Liberates the Mind from Chronic Worrying’. In this final writing activity of the week, we ask the children whether there is something in their life that they would like to get rid of – some kind of baggage that they carry with them, maybe a fear of speaking up in group situations, maybe the behavioural quirks that get them into trouble, maybe whatever they take from the suggestion. The children all have a piece of paper and they write it down. Nobody sees it. When we were in the New Forest, we lit a fire and sat together around it in the salon, and we all watched as Adisa and I symbolically burned whatever it is that they wanted to get rid of. In absence of fire, at the South Downs, we tore it into tiny pieces and showered them into a bin.

After having done so, we asked whether any children or adults had anything to say, reflecting on how they found the activity. One child suggested that it felt like she could organise her messy thoughts by throwing them away.

Depth, in this specific context, does carry that extra emotional weight, and there is a huge moral authority that accompanies that, as the teacher leading that session. The children knew that it wasn’t the case that they had to unburden themselves and make themselves vulnerable, only to be left to their own devices. The mood that had been built across the week was one of nurture and support.

It is worth saying that despite the advanced pastoral needs of the group, depth did not always consist just of emotional depth, either in the positive sense or the negative. For others, the depth of their thought  and expression stemmed instead from harnessing the moments of realisation and allowing themselves to be blindsided.

Our group is a very diverse one, and despite the schools being from the same borough, each school has very different catchments, in terms of the languages spoken, the different religions represented, countries of origin and so on. Over the week, and in this year more than in previous years, the children’s self–directed talk often led them to talk about what made them similar and what made them different. Two children sat next to me on the coach, two Muslim children from different Asian countries, and they explored which words were similar in Urdu and Farsi. When my rap group had our down time, we had a stunning discussion about language, names and food – a raging argument brewed up about whether Ghanaian or Nigerian jollof rice is better, and we shared the meaning of our names.

Now sir… if you want to taste some typical African food, then you gotta get some waakye, you get some stew, you get some chicken and then you also get this kind of sauce – it’s like a sauce but not really – it’s called shito

The children were speaking proudly as if they were representing their culture and cuisine amongst their peers. This, too, I feel shows a certain depth of thought and reflection, and this was reflected in some of the real ‘poets” work.

I am from religion and McDonald’s

I am from Indomie and the start of the world

I am from singing and KFC

I am from Civil Rights and Slavery

For others, their deep poetry came not from conversations in which they had actively participated, but from things that they had overheard others talking about, and had stepped away to think about. Names were a topic we spoke about often, telling the story of our etymology, and how our names tell stories about our culture and family.

We spoke about the shortening of names, and whether some of us who go by a shortened-form or nickname do so for different reasons. One girl was known by a two-syllable name but wanted it to be known that her ‘real name’ is longer, and she didn’t want to say it. Without pressuring her to say it if she didn’t want to, we had a discussion as a group about why we have no problem learning about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in school yet it seemed many African names were shortened. We spoke about that being fine if it was what the person wanted, but if it was done for the sake of others, is that good or not.

One pupil was overhearing us sharing this conversation later on with a teacher, and she was moved enough by it to go and have a conversation with her teacher. Her teacher shared Warsan Shire’s quote with her,

“give your daughters difficult names. give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue. my name makes you want to tell me the truth. my name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right.”

The girl in question immediately sat down and started writing. To keep her anonymity, I’ve had to change the names despite this being at the heart of what her poem is about in this stunningly clear and powerfully worded poem.

I don’t need to.

I don’t need to be called Amy*.

I don’t need to change my name.

I don’t need to tell anyone to change it.

I don’t need to be embarrassed.

I love my name.

My name is Aminata*

Some of the children who I would say emerged as poets are those who accessed this level of depth of thought and reflection. The example above is also very well crafted, but not all of the deep thoughts were. The pupil I first shared in the rock activity wrote a short pithy paragraph, quite formless, yet it still carries the weight of meaning.

Defiance

If poets were agents of docility and passivity, the DfE would be funding them to work in schools. The poetic spirit is not one of conformity and obedience, but one of truth, idiosyncrasy and often resistance. This puts us in a peculiar position, on a poetry retreat within the confines of a school visit. It is particularly curious for me and my positioning, as an Assistant Headteacher in one of the participating schools, who is taking on the role, alongside Adisa, as someone there to facilitate the poetry.

Apart from the fact that, well, they are awful, there is a reason people are not writing songs and poems in support of the government at the moment. The impulse to write often ferments from a place of discomfort or dissatisfaction, and as such it is responsive to its surroundings, and critically so. Kate Tempest’s ‘Europe Is Lost’ captures that defiant spirit.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/track/3I5vi9XbNrEsPdhcJhlfgY

You can immediately see the strange paradox – the outcome I desire from these young poets may well be borne of them rebelling against the very confines I put them under. Behaviour was something that sat at the front of my mind throughout the visit. Whilst all risks were mitigated against, there remained risk throughout, if pupils did not follow clear instructions; I wanted them to see the cliffs and the changing tides, but to do means I need to trust they aren’t going to sprint off and fall off the edge of the cliff.

As such, the schizophrenic tone I set was one of encouraging freedom whilst punitively enforcing other instructions, for their own good.

One pupil constantly edged beyond the limits set for him. When we descended the hill and made it clear they needed to walk behind us and follow our track, so as not to slip and fall, this boy would be sidling next to us and wanting to be one step ahead. When we ask them to start writing, he would take this time to wander to see if the cows were about. When we told the children to move so we didn’t get in the way of the cows, he chose this time to start writing.

Nothing he did was overtly dangerous, but we know as teachers that letting the small stuff go can lead to the big stuff slipping. It was difficult too because while Adisa and I were leading the teaching and the instruction, the expectation was that the child’s teacher would still be responsible for behaviour. But I am there at the front with Adisa, and we are ‘being teacher’ – authority was dislocated.

This boy found himself being nagged. I became aware that I had said his name more than any other child’s, and hadn’t spoken to him outside of reprimanding him.

The next day at breakfast, I made it clear to him that whilst he needed to follow instructions, I wanted to work with him more and make it the case that I wasn’t there just telling him off all day. I sat with him as he wrote some thoughts down in his poetry book. He gave me no smiles at this point, and seemed inconvenienced by my interest in his work, but wrote all the same.

He. Was.  Brilliant.

His work, more than any other child’s, has a steady, unflinching voice running throughout it. It is profound when it is funny, and funny when it is profound. It is silly and deep. It if carefully crafted yet strayed fully from what Adisa and I were encouraging  the children to write about.

Over the course of the week, he thawed and had better interactions with myself, Adisa and his teachers, but one thing did not change – he would not be told what to write. He would not readily accept any guidance. Certain things that were shared, he did take in, clearly, but he would not let us know that.

His defiance made him a tricky customer to work with as a teacher, but as a poet, it set him apart; given that my role was primarily that of poet to him, I couldn’t help but validate him, in spite of myself.

His work was brilliant and he has a rare poetic sensibility, of the kind that Michael Rosen identifies in ‘Did I Hear You Write?” – this pupil has an ear for the poetical in the mundane, and he listens to what his friends say and uses this with them and, occasionally, against them. His best friend, at one point, made what he perceived to be a really funny vague pointless comment – ‘I like grass’. His response was to write a poem about what his friend Aqil* (pseudonym) had said.

Ail likes grass

Ail  would rather eat grass than dinner

He would rather sleep on grass then a bed

 

Aqil likes grass

He jumped and rolled on grass

 

Aqil adores grass

He would marry grass

 

Every time it rained

He would grow more grass and

Live a grassy life.

I have a recording of the young poet reading it out, and it is delivered with such deadpan readiness and assertiveness. It made me laugh each time, and I can’t quite convey how good it is.

The interesting point for me, reflecting on what I had said earlier about the role of the teacher as an arbiter of quality, is the extent to which my validation of him as a person affects my interpretation of his work.

Nobody else seems to find this poem as brilliant as I do, and he doesn’t even see it himself. Is it the case that I am steamrollering everyone’s appreciation because I personally value the particular way in which he seized upon his friend’s comment and turned it into a gently goading poem? Genuinely, this may be the case, but even knowing this does not alter my appreciation and interpretation of it.

I spoke to this pupil and many others at the end of the week, talking to them about being a writer and being a poet. Here is a bit of a transcript.

Me: What does it mean to be a poet, do you think?

Kid:  You have to have these lines which can be changing the world – famous poets are world changers.

Me: One more thing to ask you … ok I have a lot I could ask you, let me ask you this … what do you think it is that makes you unique? If we are all unique people and different from each other, you still seem different. *he nods* What do you think?

Kid: A have my own ways of doing stuff. I am … I don’t like people telling me that I can’t do that…if someone tells me that I can’t do anything in my dreams, then I just won’t listen to them.

Me: So you’re quite strong willed with it too?

Kid: Yes

Me: Does that allow you to have an easier life or does it make it hard sometimes?

Kid: Easier

Me: Why?

Kid: Cos what I’m good at is what I do, and the good things that I can do are easy to me.

Me: So could anybody or anything change that do you think?

Kid: I’m set in my ways

He is a poet.

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