National Poetry Day, 2019

For National Poetry Day this year, I was invited back to my alma mater, Windsor High School, to run some workshops and talk to pupils about the importance and joy of poetry. It is not often that I find myself doing something really special for this celebratory day, so it was really exciting to have the opportunity to teach and talk about poetry.

In the morning, I delivered an assembly to Year 12 Sixth Form students, many of whom will soon be making a start on their UCAS applications. For this talk, I wanted to combine my experience of poetry with my experience of university, so even those who do not write poetry would (hopefully) have something to take away. As the theme of National Poetry Day this year is ‘Truth’, I decided to tell them the true story of how I got into poetry. It was an unconventional route, but ultimately it brought me to what I truly love to do. My message was one of happy accidents, and the importance of throwing yourself into the unknown: how being brave and trying something new can turn out to be the best thing you ever did.

In the morning, I ran two workshops with Year 7s, where we turned our hand to writing riddles. This was an idea I took from the National Poetry Day website, but adapted to make it a little more fun and engaging for these youngsters. We began by looking at two riddles, and trying to guess the answers, before discussing how the riddles work – cleverly disguising a truth through language. We then played a game – placing a random object on a central table, pupils had to come forward and make the following statement: ‘this isn’t a ………, this is a ………’. Drawing on the size, shape, look, colour, or texture of the object, the pupils had to replace the truth with an imaginative alternative. We had some great, outside-the-box ideas! After repeating this with three or four objects, the pupils then had to write a riddle about one of the objects, and try it out on their friends. It was a really fun session, and the pupils really got creative with their writing! If you’d like to run this workshop yourself, download the worksheet below, and collect a few simple but interesting objects to use in the game.

In the afternoon, I ran workshops with Year 10s. For their English Language GCSE at the end of Year 11, these pupils will have to write an extended piece of creative writing in prose, but I was told that there was no reason why they couldn’t show an imaginative and skilled use of creative writing by including verse elements in their piece. For this reason, I thought it would be good to look at haibun – a Japanese form which interweaves the familiar haiku poem within a longer piece of bunsho prose. For this workshop, we read through an example (‘Tribute to the Gods’ by Allen McGill), and picked out some of its linguistic elements. As the pupils will use either photograph or a statement as their initial stimuli in their GCSE, I gave each of them a random photograph, then asked them to plan out a short prose story and highlight where in their narrative they would include haiku. Those who completed this task could them attempt to write their haiku, or begin their prose. This was a slightly more complex activity, for higher-achieving pupils, to give them a skill by which their writing will stand out to an examiner. If you’d like to run this workshop yourself, feel free to download the worksheet and the haibun example below.

To finish the day, I led a discussion and workshop with Year 12 English Literature students. A small class of only six, this was a very relaxed session, which reminded me of how close my own Literature class was when I attended Windsor Sixth Form. The students have just begun studying the literature of the First World War, starting with the poetry of Rupert Brooke and later, Wilfred Owen. To avoid covering anything their own teachers might cover, and to approach the subject from a different (and less explored) angle, I introduced them to ‘Unwritten: Caribbean Poetry after the First World War’ (Nine Arches Press, 2018).

We began by discussing a poem from the anthology in pairs. The poems I chose for the students to look at were Malika Booker’s ‘In Memory of Herbert Morris’, Jay T John’s ‘Below the thrum of his heart &’, and Kat Francois’ ‘The Nineteen’.

After feeding back thoughts and ideas on the poems and discussing each one as a group, I introduced the students to the poetic form of ‘The Golden Shovel’. First devised by Terrance Hayes in 2010, a Golden Shovel poem is one in which the end-words of each line, in order, are taken from a short poem or small extract by another poet. Both Booker’s and John’s poems take this form. As Golden Shovel poems are a way of embracing and documenting voices around us that must be heard and felt, I felt it fitting to look at how this poetic form can be used to write about Caribbean experiences from the First World War.

As we did not have enough time in the workshop for the class to research, plan and write their own Golden Shovels based on marginalised voices from 1914-1918, the main writing activity asked students to engage creatively with an existing poem. This poem, also from Unwritten, was Charnell Lucien’s ‘Broken Letters’, where real correspondence between a Caribbean soldier and this loved ones back home is redacted, and each line ends in a blank. Students had to read closely into the poem, and fill out the incomplete letters with their own intellectual and emotional responses. The students were deeply intelligent and creative, and approached both the discussions and the writing activity with open minds.

Returning to Windsor High School for National Poetry Day was a very special thing for me. It was strange to return to the very place – indeed, the very library – where my passion for creative writing grew and was nurtured. Though I returned from university as a poet, rather than a novelist as I had then dreamt, I am amazed at how far I have come, and the successes that have come my way since I was a pupil at Windsor. If I helped any current pupils see the possibility of poetry on National Poetry Day, I would count the day amongst those successes.

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