Sharing poetry at City of Leeds
Wednesday 19th March
Sally Andrews writes:
|Michelle and Junior|
Such poetry from a lovely group of youngsters! “As good as we had heard yesterday from the Writing for Survival event held with a mixed group of creative writers from Headingley and Osmondthorpe,” said a member of the audience. True, and so encouraging to find young people prepared to read out their own work: emotional, beautiful, tense, personal.
“I laugh – and I survive” said S. A good metaphor for life. And he spoke of his enthusiasm for writing poems that could be used as the lyrics of a song, encouraged by Junior Willocks, international session musician and producer, working with the likes of Damien Marley and Ellie Goulding. Junior is a local lad, growing up in the heart of Leeds and attending Harehills dance company, Northern Contemporary Dance school and dancing with the orginal Phoenix dance company.
Survival is not a word used often, but we all find ways to survive” said K, as well as telling us about Elizabeth I – who survived her father, smallpox and the Spanish and French wars. A young man who integrated his love of history into a third poem about 1945 and the gas ovens. “I’m next! I’m next! I’m next!” was a panicky last line – chilling.
L spoke of hardship and the great ambition you need to survive, whilst S’s ‘Born a Survivor’ was a poem of praise for the woman who helps others despite her own difficulties and tragedies.
One young man told us of his lonely time living in a refuge, not able to attend school for a year and a half. How soul-destroying that is for a young boy? He, almost casually, related his recovery from swine flu, which put him in hospital for a month, and his unsupported mum into a great fright. Poetry has the power to release dark tales.
D had only recently arrived here from Sicily and had written all her poems first in Italian so she could get the words out before translating them into a shortened form of English. Her beautiful smile lit up when we gave her praise for her English, coming on by leaps and bounds in the way that poetry often releases young people’s restraint or lack of confidence with more formal or lengthy writing. As her teacher said, “Today she has smiled and come out of herself.”
M had said of himself “I can’t write, I can’t write” but the poetry workshops had given him a space to come and enjoy listening. He got there in the end, writing his own poem and he was so proud of it.
As regulars at a long-established dance club which clashed with the poetry workshop evenings, two youngsters were nevertheless fired up by Michelle coming into their lessons and igniting the spark. This encouraged them to drop off their poems anyway and come and share them with us. Dance came second today.
We heard more – the young boy who wipes his mother’s tears from his face in case someone thinks he has been crying. Or the poem Anne Boleyn wrote to Katherine of Aragon, describing her as “a good enemy” and pleading that her daughter (Elizabeth) “must survive.” “His smile traps faces” and “home was the place where he was supposed to feel loved” told a dark tale. “Surviving the loss of a phone, or your trainers – that’s not surviving. Surviving is escaping a tragedy, an earthquake, a fire. That’s real survival.” An old head on young shoulders.
Our thanks go to teacher Kathleen Gallagher for enabling this work and to Michelle Scally Clarke, performance poet, who has worked so hard across the school to get these and other young people to believe they can do it. “It’s so important to celebrate young people’s voices, and to develop their skills in presenting themselves working in groups and with audiences. Everyone has a powerful story to tell. Poetry helps you find the rhythm, see the person”
Note: Michelle is currently Poet in Residence at Space 2 in Leeds and Writing Facilitator for First Floor at the West Yorkshire Playhouse as well as the Ilkley Literature Festival. Her biography is published in Tangled Roots, published in 2013 as an anthology which explores six mixed race/Yorkshire heritage artists. She is working on a new commission for a play/musical. http://www.tangledroots.org.uk/
Michelle Scally Clarke comments:
This year’s slam with City of Leeds moved me in a way the other slams had not. I think it was the theme ‘Surviving’, for City of Leeds boasts the most dynamic, diverse, smiling, happy survivors, each person a story that has a different taste to the last, all unique.
Most of the pupils I worked alongside were survivors. There was a young Year 8 girl who rarely came to school, but came in on the day of the poetry workshops because the teacher had said she would like it. She wrote about surviving the fact that her brother is in the army, how he loved and looked after her, and she allowed me to read this, then read it after herself to the class. The classmate who wrote about her best friend surviving cancer, her best friend sat right next to her, the roar of empathy of love and claps from fellow classmates.
Spoken word has a great impact with the students - it is a great way to begin creative writing and free writing; it allows you to speak to the page, it allows your voice to be owned and heard, it allows for writing and literature and language to be enjoyed first then learnt. This is very important if English is not your first language - it wasn’t for ninety percent of the students I worked with. It allows for praise and for people to see the truth of you. These pupils humble and inspire me with their stories, poems and songs,and I have no doubt that all will continue to perform, write and grow.
I would like to say a massive “Thank you” to the Headingley LitFest and funders for enabling this valuable work each year.