Throwback: Passing the Spark

As I mentioned in an earlier throwback post, to tie in with my Black Country poems going on exhibition at Dudley Museum, I spoke at a panel discussion about my writing process, the poems, and what interested me as a writer. I was met with such a positive response, that I felt a spark was lit within me for discussing and sharing my passion with others. This set me on a new path within my poetry career: one of teaching writing classes, running workshops, and mentoring poets.

I began down this path by approaching my local primary school, to see if they would be interested in me leading a few poetry writing classes with their pupils. This was something they were keen on encouraging, so they invited me to run workshops throughout the day, with a handful of pupils at a time. These pupils were at the top of their school in Year 6, so around age 13. I was prepared for challenges, and of course, at times the children were a little excitable to be taken out of their regular lessons to do something entirely new. But overall, it was a success: I really feel the pupils got something from it, achieved the targets I established at the beginning of the session, and most importantly, had fun!

I also enjoyed the experience, and later that year in 2016, I applied to be an Assistant Writer for Spark Young Writers, a programme organised by Writing West Midlands. They run 20 Spark groups around the West Midlands, aimed at groups of children aged 7 to 11, and 12 to 16. I was fortunate enough to be chosen to assist at one of the Birmingham groups in Edgbaston, which was held at Winterbourne House and Gardens. The children were of the higher age category, and across 10 session run by the wonderful author Maisie Chan, they were taught a mixture of everything from poetry to comics, screen writing to life writing.

To enable lots of young writers a chance to follow the path of teaching and running workshops, the placements for Assistant Writers at Spark are only one academic year. After finishing the sessions with the Edgbaston Spark group in the summer of 2017, I was still keen to gather more experience in teaching poetry, and was eager to begin organising and leading my own sessions. That summer, I had also graduated from the University of Birmingham, had begun pursuing publication for my own portfolio of work (what was later to become Bella), and was really immersing myself in the poetry scene in the Midlands. I was reading at open mic events across the region, and helping to run Verve Poetry Festival in the city. These credentials, alongside my earlier foray into exhibiting my work in galleries, put me on the radar of the Anchor Gallery in Harborne.

The Anchor Gallery approached me to be the curator of their Spring season of events from March to May 2018. Located in what was, at that time, the Peel and Stone Bakery on Harborne’s high street, the gallery exhibited the work of artists on the walls of the café, downstairs from the bakery. In this intimate space, they wanted me to host a range of different poetry events to tie in with the themes of their exhibited artworks.

The events I organised for the Anchor Gallery varied: from monthly reading slots at exhibition open evenings; to ‘Poetry Fix’, an event to showcase short, snappy poetry; to ‘The Hook’, an event which featured the jaw-dropping talent of poets including Bobby Parker, Casey Bailey and Rebecca Tamás. Yet for me, the most successful thing to come from working with the Anchor Gallery was ‘Pen to Paper’, a monthly poetry workshop which began in that downstairs café in Harborne, but later grew and expanded into something even greater.

  • A worksheet typed in comic sans font, titled 'Getting Inspired to Write Poetry Workshop'. The page includes learning objectives, a list of activities, and a learning outcome.
  • A couple of sheets of paper, with typed prompts and handwritten responses, in various children's handwriting.
  • A group of people sit around a long table in a cafe space, which is lit with a golden glow. They are all hunched over, writing.
  • Four poets (two male, two female), sit in a row, behind a table. A young woman, the host, is standing facing them. Seated around are various spectators.
  • A booklet is held up against a floral backdrop. The cover reads 'Pen to Paper, Spring 2018', and features a cartoon pen and three small snapshots of writers writing.
  • Five adults stand around a table, arranging slips of paper into an order, during a writing exercise.
  • A yellow paper folder, a pink Unipad notepad, a Spark Young Writers leaflet, a copy of the YA novel Bartimaeus by Jonathan Stroud, and a pen, laid out on a table.
  • A classroom set up with chairs around a long boardroom table. Some papers, pens, and water bottles on the table.
  • A photo of a classroom, with rows of pupils facing away from the camera and looking towards a young female speaker, who is stood at the front of the room.
  • A group of young women sit around a table in a library setting, looking down at books and papers.

I like to see the Pen to Paper sessions held at the Anchor Gallery as a trial, a test-bed, for what came later. The workshops were only two hours long, and sought to cram in far more activity than the time allowed. The sessions were ambitious, but also lots of fun, and the attendees all encouraged me to continue with Pen to Paper even after my time with the Anchor Gallery was over. Shortly after, Pen to Paper found a new home in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG), where the sessions could be extended to five hours, with an increased capacity of 15 attendees, as well as a dedicated classroom space.

The new and improved season of Pen to Paper ran from September 2018 to July 2019, and though they have stopped for the moment, I do hope to get the workshops up and running again in the future. You can read more about Pen to Paper over on my ‘Mentoring’ page.

In the meantime, I have been continuing to teach poetry and run writing classes. Throughout 2019, I ran a number of workshops for high school and sixth form students on National Poetry Day, as well as giving lectures at the University of Worcester, and at the University of Loughborough as their poet-in-residence. In the same year, I was also invited by Writing West Midlands to become a Lead Writer, building on my experience as an Assistant in Edgbaston to organise and lead sessions for the Spark Young Writers group in Stratford-upon-Avon. I have absolutely loved designing interesting and engaging workshop activities for this group, and though our end-of-term plans to create a podcast series was cut short due to Covid-19, I hope to return to teaching there in the future.

Down this path of my poetry journey, I have taught classes ranging from primary school pupils, high school and sixth form students, to university undergraduates and adults. I have had incredible opportunities to design and organise my own events and workshops, which has directed me onto the career I currently hold. But most importantly, over this time, I feel I have passed on the spark of poetry to many people, some of whom wouldn’t have explored this craft otherwise.

If you read this far, I hope you enjoyed this post, the fifth of my thread of throwbacks. Other stories like this will follow, published on Thursdays. With every post we step closer to the modern day – only a few more steps along this poetry journey to go!

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