Thursday, 31 March 2016

Syrian poet and son murdered for 'apostasy'

Richard Wilcocks writes:
The LitFest event 'Eat With Adonis' on 7 March in Mint Café was full. The people present on that evening heard English versions of poems in Arabic by the great Syrian poet Ali Ahmad Said Esber (Adonis), so I assume that the members of that audience at least will be moved by the following report from PEN International on the murder of a Syrian poet and his son by the death-cult IS.
14 March 2016
Mohammad Bashir al-Aani
PEN International is shocked and deeply saddened by the murder of renowned Syrian poet Mohammad Bashir al-Aani and his son Elyas in Deir al-Zour city by the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS). According to media reports, Al-Ajani and his son were originally held in an undisclosed locations with 100 others after they attempted to leave an area of the city that was besieged by IS forces. Reports emerged in recent days that both al-Aani and his son were killed after IS accused them of ‘apostasy’.
Mohammad Bashir al-Aani, who was known for his opposition to the government of President Bashar al-Assad, had published three volumes of poetry and was said to be known for his lyrical style. According to family members interviewed by local media, Al-Ajani and Elyas had returned to the area to bury his wife who had died in Damascus.
‘We are shocked and deeply saddened by reports that Mohammad Bashir al-Ajani and his son Elyas were murdered by the militant group Islamic State which had accused them of ‘apostasy’. The deliberate murder of civilians during an armed conflict is a war crime and both those who commit them and those who order them must be brought to justice. We call on all actors involved or with interests in this conflict to use all diplomatic means possible to ensure that no more civilians – including writers – are killed’. – Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.
For more information, please contact Sahar Halaimzai, Campaigns and Communications Manager, PEN International at or +44 20 7405 0338.
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Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Leeds City Academy - poetry with Rommi Smith

                                                  Photo by Sally Bavage
Sally Bavage writes:
Celebrating the e-book launch of 'Achievement': a brand new poetry collection by Leeds City Academy in collaboration with writer Rommi Smith

Before we saw Lulu, it was lovely to meet and celebrate their 'Achievement' with some of the young poets who had worked hard with Rommi Smith and the head of English, Rebecca Capstick (pictured), in after-school workshops to bring together their own book of poems. As Rommi said, “Poems say a lot in a few words or lines,” and cover some very inspiring, special or important personal topics.

As Ms Capstick enthused about the quality of the work - “Absolutely brilliant, with lot of compliments from other members of staff” - she recalled the difference that the poetry workshops had made to some of the young people. “Miss, I need to improve in English” was a moving comment from a young poet who had shifted her attitude towards learning after starting this project. She had “noticed a depth and maturity to the work that was bearing fruit in English lessons.” One young man “who would reluctantly write a couple of sentences now writes a page each lesson.”

And so to Lulu. It is a self-publishing company, and the Leeds City Academy group from year 9, called appropriately LCA9, have provided the poetry in a 42-page e-book of their poems called 'Achievement.' It's already online and available to buy. Rommi typed all the poems, edited them, compiled the collection, with the children forming an editorial team and co-editing with me in the final session of the series, choosing a title and cover of the book.

They were also introduced by Rommi to a variety of digital writing resources new to the school. These include: Lulu, Tagxedo, as well as new forms (to the school) such as mesostics and circle poems. A favourite was Tagxedo, which turned their words into word clouds. Gilson in particular remembered using that as “Great fun.” He also said that writing poetry “Gives me a voice, writing things I don't normally say.” Rivaldo thought the project had been “Really good, I love writing now, writing poetry for the first time.” Marcus thought the best bit had “Actually been writing poetry for the first time.” Sian thought “Writing your thoughts is easier with poetry,” and “I would love to do it again.” Mirela was “Proud of my work ; today was a lovely day.” You can see a theme here. Latisha thought it had been “A good adventure.” As Ms Capstick said, “They know now they have the ability to write, there is no stopping them.”

Over pizzas provided by Leeds City Academy, and the cakes and drinks brought by Rommi from The Real Junk Food Project in Armley where she volunteers (and it was the first one set up in the world; now it has spread to Brazil, South Africa, etc), we enjoyed chatting about the poems in the book before hearing some of them read out. For the first time. The project this year did not have enough time to fully develop performance skills, but the young poets had a go. Despite the nerves and shaking papers, they did well to address the audience which included the new headteacher Jackie Rose and new and deputy headteacher Jo Hill, as well as other staff and members of the LitFest committee.

They were also given some advice by Azalia Anisko, one of the stars of the film made in Leeds, 'We Are Poets, who had popped in specially to join us. “Keep your writing journey going; being a writer is a life journey. Just practise and perform to keep your ideas alive.” Advice Rommi had given her when mentoring her for the 'slam' poetry competition six local poets went to in Washington. DC that is, not county Durham. America. (Did they win? You'll have to watch the film to find out).

Rommi deftly linked the work the young people read out with references in literature, the real world and our own experiences, making each young writer feel their work was valued and valuable. She summed up a lovely celebration with some anecdotes about her own life, including having read out her own poem to commemorate the abolition of the slave trade. In the Houses of Parliament. When she was the Poet in Residence. Doesn't get much more prestigious than that! What a delightful role model for these aspiring writers to have, one that Headingley LitFest feels privileged to have brought to Leeds City Academy.

Just a couple of snippets of the many poems inside the book:

Poem of the Pen
The ink of education
It’s the long stem to revising

Latisha Brazil

Free: you and me
I am the right for people
I am the right for women
I am the right for freedom
I am the right for men
I am the right to love whom you want
I am the right of race


Tuesday, 29 March 2016

St Chad's Primary School - poetry with James Nash

                 Photo by Sally Bavage
The Listeners 

Gail Alvarez writes:
A small and fortunately short-lived flurry of snow greeted my arrival at St Chad's on Tuesday afternoon, 29 March, to enjoy the poetry showcase assembly with Year 6. The sun soon came out, illuminating the strong line-up of pupils reading their poetry. James Nash, local writer and poet, had worked with them over the past three weeks, assisted once again by Rachel Harkess, a stalwart LitFest volunteer, using the seminal poem by Walter de la Mare that those of us of a certain age can probably remember from our school days. Called The Listeners, it begins:

Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest's ferny floor:

James read this beginning, and a little more, and already the audience had got a sense of unease, of possible menace, of trouble. Watched by the whole of Key Stage Two (years 3, 4 and 5), 30 of them confidently read out lines from their many poems. Nervous, brave, confident, hesitant. Yes. Microphone? No problem; loud and clear voices carried to the back of the hall. We had many scenarios suggested to us, all Intriguing (the theme for the 2016 LitFest), some rather frightening, some sad. But all with the skill of carefully edited original work, expressing the creative writing that free-flowing poetry can produce despite the burdens of preparing for SATs exams shortly after Easter.

'I watch carefully.'

'Alone. A word I know too well; the screaming never leaves me.'

'Small. Don't want to be noticed.'

'I have come from a faraway land and …'

'Now I am in the heart of the forest …'

I have come to see my friend. He was in the war.'

'But now, it's just me.'

'I made a promise, a promise to myself.'

'Eyes contained fear. I don't know where I am. I may be ill, or just a memory.'

'The taste of confusion is driving me insane.'

'Who am I? Sadness. Where did I come from? Darkness. What is it? Hatred.'

There was more, so much more, in the lengthy writings of each child. Powerful and disturbing at the same time.

As Kiran Maan, teaching assistant, said “The work is really good, so strong. And the confidence of the children …!”

Amy Turnbull, class 6 teacher, was so enthusiastic: “Brilliant! Absolutely brilliant! Such mature work, and now they have really understood the importance of drafting and redrafting work till you get it how you want. After James' and Rachel's first visit, I said we would go back to the poems in the morning. First thing, they got their poems out as they couldn't wait to get back to them.”

Matthew Brightwell, another senior teaching assistant, noted how one young boy in particular often had to be taken out of class for intervention support as he found the work difficult and 'acted up' to avoid it. Not with this work. He worked hard, wrote lovely poetry and performed with the rest of the class. Wonderful, and amazing. This work has made a real difference to him, his self-esteem and his reputation.”

Feedback from the young people will be worked on collectively after their looming exams; watch this space. Though the smiles of pleasure and achievement shone on their faces and told the story wordlessly.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Poetry Gala at Lawnswood School

Richard Wilcocks writes:

John Siddique
The acoustics are fine in the drama studio at Lawnswood School, so microphones were unnecessary, and the audience of parents, staff and visitors was rapt as the young poets, most of them from Year Nine, read from their work, introduced by teacher Sarah Davies. To mention some really special contributions: Wisdom's Addictions and The Ghetto showed impressive sophistication, Ola's Identity and Prejudice were cleverly emotive, Simran and Jess's Looking in the Mirror and Immobilised gave them an opportunity to perform a well-rehearsed double-act, Rupo's Inside and Looking Beyond were brisk and well-honed, Owen with his violin showed that he has the makings of a maestro and Torin was amazing.

Torin, who is in the Sixth Form, overcame her nerves to deliver her two stanza poem The Mountain in three languages, all of which she speaks fluently - English, Danish and Kurdish. Born in Denmark of Kurdish parents, she came to the UK a couple of years ago and is thriving at Lawnswood. She told me that her favourite poem is To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell, which she has studied for A Level English Literature. She received the loudest applause of the evening.

Guest poet John Siddique also charmed the audience, which joined in his reading by repeating lines from one of his children's poems. "Poetry is the art of noticing," he asserted. He is very wary of publishers who choose book covers for their authors (most of them) and he is proud that one of his poems - about love and sincerity - was apparently banned in Russia (in translation) after it was handed out in photocopied form by supporters of the controversial Pussy Riot protestors, who were imprisoned for dancing in a Moscow cathedral. 

His most moving poems came towards the end - for example one about his eighty-four year-old mother. "I worry about her every time I see her," he told us. "She never hugged us once we'd stopped being small." the poem deals with an emotional meeting during which he massaged moisturiser into the palm of her hand. He finished his reading with a poem about a walk through Manchester, in which he notices the sounds and music of other cultures - Romanian, African and French - that he encounters. He hears the music of the kora (West African stringed instrument) and an accordion, and befriends a woman called Maria, who plays the same three chords in the street over and over again. "We would not have had the poetry we had tonight if it hadn't been for the most natural thing on the planet, migration," he told us. "Just look around the room."

In a series of workshops preceding the Poetry Gala, John had given guidelines for private writing and plenty of general advice, like "Be vulnerable. Run ahead of your own ego." He led creative writing sessions (poems which are lists, poems about things which people carry around with them, poems about the place where you grew up, for example) and read out one or two of his personal favourites - like extracts from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Flowers in May by D H Lawrence and somewhere i have never travelled by e e cummings. Some of the poems read by the students in the course of the evening were the result of the workshops, some were not and some are still being worked upon.

Audience Comments
Wonderful opportunity for our students to work with John. Fabulous performances and great to hear the context behind the poems. Shame it wasn't better attended. (Head Teacher)

Wonderful event. A lovely end to a challenging day. Uplifting and thought provoking. Thank you.

Inspiring! Great to hear the young poets (illegible section) and musician.

John Siddique quite amazing - remarkable poetry (illegible section) Many thanks!

Some powerful readings from pupils and excellent poems from John Siddique. Very enjoyable for a poetry 'newbie' and maths teacher

It was great, poetry was powerful. I loved the violin playing.

Fantastic event! Great way to get children involved in learning. The poetry reading was super and the children did great! Really enjoyed the evening. Thank you.

Inspiring, beautiful work.

It's very nice. It's really nice evening. Thank you so much for all of you.

I really enjoyed the close knit setting of the place - it felt like a conversation not a presentation. John Siddique breaking/halting his poems to talk about the background and experiences of his poems. Torin reading her poem in Danish - it sounded so beautiful. Owen - his involvement in the music

The guy playing the music so well was really impressive.

Great stuff. Needed more student poetry and some info/background from John perhaps on the provenance of the pieces

I really enjoyed all the performances it was beautiful.

Excellent to hear students reading deep and meaningful poetry that they have written. John Siddique - excellent.

A dozen poems but one very strong theme - angst, worry (illegible). How well these youngsters express themselves and good they have an opportunity to be able to express their darker feelings through such personal poetry.

A lovely opportunity to explore their own writing skills and perform to an audience. Who knows where it may lead?

Lovely to include music in the poetry showcase.

Good to hear John Siddique (illegible) read some of his own work. What a chance for the young people in the audience!


An Evening with Andrew McMillan and Linda Black

Linda Black and Andrew McMillan                               Photo by Richard Wilcocks
Richard Wilcocks writes on Linda Black:
To be challenged, even tormented, by Linda Black’s poetry is pleasurable, because she usually gets the riddling right. Delivering her work as if she was in a cheerful but fragmented conversation with the audience and with herself, she took us into her gallery to scrutinize fragments of perception, tiny details plucked out of transience, hand-scoops from her beck of consciousness. She was glad to be in Headingley Library, away from London and up in Leeds, where she was once at the old Art School, and where local people speak like those in her childhood memories. I was taken aback, at first, not just by the fact that prose poems are not run-of-the-mill, especially when her juxtapositions and rhythms are in them, but by the startling, rawly honest-sounding treatments of her family, her father for instance, though I was never absolutely sure who the ‘her’ and the ‘she’ was throughout the reading. I assume that the ‘she’ is Linda Black, often detaching herself like an omniscient observer. The pleasure comes partly from not being absolutely sure about anything and partly from being invited to supply the rest of a narrative, which may or may not be there in the poet’s mind. The torment comes partly from many of her endings, which tend to be jumps into the blue. Often, it was as if I was anticipating the final notes in a piece of music which would normally complete a sequence, which do not come.

By the time in the reading when she reached her new collection Slant, a departure from prose poetry, I was really engaged. Here were the minute observations again, along with allusions and references to gardens and the countryside:

A crispen  leaf  a cleft shell  a corridor

Of earthworm  growth

Clipped  (she prunes)   cut

&  the more  will grow

Here too were homages to other writers, their actual words beautifully arranged with great skill. Virginia Woolf, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Elizabeth Bishop all got the treatment. This little stretch of life (from the letters of Elizabeth Bishop) was breathtaking. Does she wield a craft knife on printed pages to slice out what is needed? Or does she live with a poet’s notebook (she has a note-taker’s fondness for the ampersand) full of lists and collections of fine-sounding words – especially amusing pairs linked by hyphens – to create her own sprung rhythms, her own music?

Audience Comments:
Particularly enjoyed Andrew's poetry but overall great readings.

Linda's poetry was beautifully delivered by Linda herself from earlier prose poetry and her latest verse poetry to give a true flavour of her work. I have never listened to either poet read aloud before and it really aided my understanding.


Lovely to hear poetry read by the author - gives a different feel to the words on the page. A local treat. Thank you.

Excellent. Lovely cosy venue. Such a pleasure. Thank you.

Wonderful readings - really enjoyed it.

Love being read to. Liked 2 poets - different styles.

Very enjoyable event - lovely readings from quite singular poets.

Fantastic event bringing poetry to Leeds.

Great readings - thanks!                

The Booles and the Hintons - Gerry Kennedy

Ming Wei Chong writes:
Gerry adopted a unique approach in The Booles and The Hintons, with narrative ownership, as opposed to mainstream biography of figures. It constitutes a hybrid of travel, politics, opinion and biography, as well as an intimate touch with excerpts from his travel diary. Gerry reminisced his early childhood days and the discovery of kinship and familial ties subsequent to him attending the funeral of a relative in 2000. With a quasi-political personality, he narrated his involvement in the peace movement.

We gained a very fascinating insight where there was reflection of stark contrasts between today’s world and the early days. There was a comparison between the computer-dominated world, and the era when The Booles and the Hintons advocated egalitarian doctrines, and were proponents of social change. There was amalgamation between science and religion - the co-existence of scientific discoveries along with spiritual beliefs.

It was especially intriguing to learn about the British physicist and mathematician, whom I idolise very much when learning about his work- Sir Geoffrey Taylor. It was exciting to gain some insight into his personal life and his biography as a major figure in fluid dynamics and wave theory, as well as his contribution to the Manhattan Project.

In particular, James Hinton- father of Charles Hinton attempted to uncover the mystery of pain and pleasure. Being an advocate of polygamy, he proposed for the need for change in the concept of marriage as a social institution. Liberation, as the realisation of nature, led him to explore the role allocation/ assignment between genders. He considered that men are vested with the responsibility of loving women who are innately more altruistic, while endorsing the theory of mutual respect.

The link between prayer and music was also briefly pondered over. The notion of prostitution was examined, especially the reason behind men turning to prostitution. The stand was a pioneering attitude towards prostitution, particularly during a relatively conservative era. Gerry also took us through his personal experience in Moscow, where he elaborated on his travels as well as his encounters while undertaking the task of smuggling some documents.

It was a captivating and thought-provoking exposition of the story of the Booles and the Hintons, illustrating ‘two dynasties who helped shape the modern world’.