In the darkness/ a bird makes its nest

Recently I spent two wonderful days at Hellens Manor, in Herefordshire, providing poetry workshops to local primary schools for Ledbury Poetry Festival.  Ledbury PF have an acclaimed community and schools outreach programme, and Hellens Manor is a marvellous place.  Chloe Garner, artistic director of Ledbury Poetry Festival, did a wonderful job welcoming and enthusing the children – a real effort aimed at demonstrating that poetry really was for them.  We hope to see some of them at the Festival, which this year is 29 June to 8 July.

Then it was time for the first workshop.  The children exclaimed in excitement as we walked on snowy cobbles under an arch, and I asked them to help carry in firewood.  Our room was down a maze of flagged passages hung with iron breastplates, and once we’d arrived, on that first snowy Monday morning, everyone could see the point of lighting a fire.

tw Hellens fire

Once we’d warmed up, we talked about nests.  What they are, how they are, what they mean.  We handled nests I’d brought in with me.  And a very tiny, blown hen’s egg.

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Then we played with cut up poems borrowed from Tom Pow’s beautiful pamphlet ‘Nest’, from Roncadora Press.

And then we wrote poems.  Here are some of them.

For me, it was a very rewarding two days, and fantastic to be working alongside superb practitioners Sara Hirsch, Val Bloom and Matt Black.  We had a lot of fun.

 

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Shy Snowdrops & Trees Upon Trees

I’m just back from a most inspiring and exciting week at The Hurst, tutoring a band of marvellous young poets from Hargate Primary School. My co-tutor, Wajid Hussain, was just great to work with, and he has a lovely manner with the children.  The staff from Hargate are just exceptional, and they worked their socks off encouraging and supporting the children, who are only 10 and 11 years old (there was the occasional bout of homesickness).  Hargate Primary School, from West Bromwich, is the school where I’ve been poet in residence for the last three years, so it’s a special pleasure.   All week, the house and grounds at The Hurst provided these urban children with an extraordinary and inspiring place in which to live and work: I could see it changing them by the hour.

Snowdrops come from winter.
Why so many?

Leah J

The first night, we all went out for a Night Walk, under a huge full moon.  Once the children’s eyes had adapted, they were staggered by the brightness of the sky.  I showed them their moon shadows, and we watched the snowdrops gleaming in moonlight.  Back inside, Wajid and I collected oral descriptions of what the kids had just seen and experienced.  So at 11pm I was scribing a twelve foot poem onto a roll of lining paper, using only their words, but editing them into order.  Next morning I rolled it out on the breakfast table.  Lovely to see the kids creeping along it, reading.

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Later, we explored the woods, making poem notes on a small folded booklet.

We wrote about magical objects found in the wood, and we searched out doors and portals to write about changing spaces and new surprises.  We looked closely at bark, and discovered storm-torn trees with fragrant heartwood newly exposed.  We listened to the birds and stared into the pond.

A mixture of leaves and mud
turned into a bowl of soup.

We walked and there I found
my magical object.
If you throw it, it comes back.
It is made out of wood.
Do you know what it is?

Simran

Here’s the Crow workshop – my Crow is about to be lifted out of his cardboard box to ooohs and ahhs.  We swopped crow lore and stories, then I gave the children tiny stapled books to write their crow poem into.

On Thursday we wrote about nests, inspired by Tom Pow’s pamphlet from Roncadora Press.  The children held the nests very delicately, and wrote inventive poems.

When the nest came to me
it was very fragile.
The smell of nature
coming into my body
soothed my mind.
The little egg contained inside
was the smallest egg I’ve ever seen
and it made the tiniest of rattles.

Alfie

On the last morning, I admitted that I am also the Spellwright, and encouraged the children to write a Spell for the Making of Poetry for themselves.  They took the very fabric of The Hurst as their inspiration, and investigated fireplaces, doorways, sinks and old glass.  Then I dripped hot sealing wax onto their spells, and they applied the brass Seal which makes the spell work.

Take – 

the soot from the chimney
the spines from the books
and a mile of stripes from John Osborne’s scarf…

And here is the feedback sheet gathered in by Hurst Director, Natasha (while Wajid and I had a much needed coffee).

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Truly, it was a marvellous week.  I’m so happy to have had the opportunity to work at The Hurst again, and especially with Hargate Primary School.

‘My friend thinks the bombs have stopped’

All too soon, it’s my last poetry workshop for Shropshire Council’s imaginative project ‘In The Hands of the Boys’, which focusses on World War I.   This morning I went to Severndale Specialist Academy in Shrewsbury and worked with an enthusiastic and energetic group of students.

I read ‘The Sentry’ with them, and we acted out what happens in the poem – so we all cowered in the Boche dugout, holding just three candles in the darkness, and sent one ‘soldier’ up to be the sentry at the top of the mud-covered steps.  Deafening shelling was going on all the time, we imagined the din in our ears – and then the sentry is blown back by a whizz bang and hurled down the steps into the mud at the bottom of the dugout.  We acted out how we dragged him from the mud, only to discover that he thinks he is blind…

We tackled another poem in much the same way, then gathered in a circle.  I asked everyone to close their eyes.  I did a visualisation exercise with the group, asking them to imagine a cold morning, waiting for breakfast in the muddy trench, knowing they were going over the top into No Man’s Land later on.  Then I encouraged them to contribute words and lines towards a class poem.  The children were hugely focussed on this, and very thoughtful.  We read back the first draft of it, and I promised to edit a second draft and – here it is:

It’s a cold, frosty morning
on 19th January 1918
and the whizz-bangs are flying over.

Over the top it’s dangerous.
No matter what you do out there
you can easily get hit.

I hear a scream and someone
throwing up.
I see killed soldiers in deep mud.

The sky is black as soot. It’s rainy now.
The mud is grey and brown.
Smoke blows towards us.

I feel shattered, I’ve had no sleep.
I’ve been on sentry duty, watching for biplanes.
The rats are eating our food.

There’s frost on the tap, frost
on my mug and on my metal plate.
I see a tank in No Man’s Land.

In my ears the banging and the bombing
are like thunder
but I can hear someone dying.

Later on, I handed out the browned and tattered ‘trench paper’ and they all wrote their own work – and we remembered the fragments of poetry left by Wilfred Owen on his death in action, ninety-nine years ago.  Here’s just some of the work the children produced:

And here’s a sample of their thoughts on the workshop as they headed off for their lunch.  What a lovely group!

Feedback

 

Thank you to Katherine Webb and the classroom assistants for supporting me so well.  ‘In the Hands of the Boys’ uses dance, poetry and photography to explore and share stories about Shropshire’s involvement in the war.  Young people aged 7 to 14 are working as researchers, creative interpreters and performers.

“In The Hands of the Boys” has been funded by a National Lottery grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund ‘Then and Now’ programme (commemorating the centenary of the First World War), Shropshire Council and participating schools.

Rifle fire rattles like a ball bearing in a can

I arrived at St Mary’s Primary School in Shawbury this morning, all ready for our Wilfred Owen workshop, part of Shropshire Council’s imaginative project ‘In The Hands of the Boys’, which focusses on World War I. The project uses dance, poetry and photography to explore and share stories about Shropshire’s involvement in the war.  Young people aged 7 to 14 are working as researchers, creative interpreters and performers.

This was a great class to work with.  They listened really well to each other, and most attentively to Wilfred Owen’s work.  Here’s just a sample of their responses, written up on battered fragments of aged ‘trench’ paper, reminiscent of the fragments of poetry left by Wilfred Owen on his death in action, ninety-nine years ago.

It was great reading through the poems with class teacher Janet Turner afterwards.  Then I took down the post-it evaluations the children had stuck speedily to the classroom door as they went out to lunch.  Here’s a few.  What a mercy I was quite kind.

“In The Hands of the Boys” has been funded by a National Lottery grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund ‘Then and Now’ programme (commemorating the centenary of the First World War), Shropshire Council and participating schools.

‘I am the bearer of stretchers’

I helped set up our working space in the stage area of the main auditorium at The Edge today, shifting tables and chairs with the students of William Brookes School in Much Wenlock. William Brookes is the only mainstream secondary school involved in Shropshire Council’s imaginative project ‘In The Hands of the Boys’, which focusses on World War I.  This was a group of young people from different year groups, and included the group of boys involved in the dance element of the project.

We shared knowledge about the war, and I tried to learn names, before reading some of Wilfred Owen’s poetry together.  There were some sharp-eyed readings of his work, with students commenting on the impact of particular lines, and talking about why it affected them.  Later, we did some free-writing and drafting.  Here’s some samples of finished work, written on ‘fragments’ to recall the fragments left by Wilfred Owen on his death, just a week before the Armistice.

I asked the group to put their evaluation up on the black wall of the theatre.  I did rather like the one that just said, ‘Twas good’.

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“In The Hands of the Boys” has been funded by a National Lottery grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund ‘Then and Now’ programme (commemorating the centenary of the First World War), Shropshire Council and participating schools.

‘What am I going to do with the noises I hear?’

In pouring rain I arrived at St George’s Primary in Clun this afternoon, all ready for our Wilfred Owen workshop, part of Shropshire Council’s imaginative project ‘In The Hands of the Boys’, which focusses on World War I. The project uses dance, poetry and photography to explore and share stories about Shropshire’s involvement in the war.  Young people aged 7 to 14 are working as researchers, creative interpreters and performers.

We all got introduced, and then we read poems written by Wilfred Owen, and talked about the experience of the young men who went to fight in the trenches.  We talked about the war memorial in Clun, and how every town and village has one.  We talked about how the bodies of the fallen remained in France, buried in long fields filled with white gravestones.

Then we did some visualisation, some free writing, and began drafting short poems, written up on ‘trench paper’ (aged and battered artistically by yours truly).  Here’s just a sample of some wonderful work.

It was wonderful sitting with lovely teacher Claire Burke afterwards, reading slowly through the poems.  Then I took down the post-it evaluations the children had stuck speedily to the classroom door as they went home.

“In The Hands of the Boys” has been funded by a National Lottery grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund ‘Then and Now’ programme (commemorating the centenary of the First World War), Shropshire Council and participating schools.

‘Close the curtains for me’

It’s Tuesday, so it must be Cheswardine Primary, and my second day with Shropshire Council’s imaginative project ‘In The Hands of the Boys’, which focusses on World War I. The project uses dance, poetry and photography to explore and share stories about Shropshire’s involvement in the war.  Young people aged 7 to 14 are working as researchers, creative interpreters and performers.

100 boys and young men from 6 schools across Shropshire are working with creative practitioners, heritage specialists and museums and archives. A piece of contemporary dance is being choreographed and (this is the bit I’m delivering) poems written in response to the work of Wilfred Owen, who was born in Oswestry.

This morning, in Cheswardine Primary, set among the green fields and woods of Shropshire, the trenches of northern France felt all of a century away.  But the children really rose to the occasion, writing sensitive and imaginative work in fragments, recalling the fragments of poems left after Wilfred Owen’s death.  Here’s a sample:

And some of their evaluation after the workshop.  I do love the one about professionalism.

‘In The Hands of the Boys’ has been funded by a National Lottery grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund ‘Then and Now’ programme (commemorating the centenary of the First World War); Shropshire Council and participating schools.

The portrait of Wilfred Owen at the top of this post is by artist Anthony Brown, unveiled at the Wilfred Owen Story in Birkenhead in 2011.

‘Hours upon days of waiting…’

Today I started work with Shropshire Council’s imaginative project ‘In The Hands of the Boys’, which focusses on World War I, and uses dance, poetry and photography to explore and share stories about Shropshire’s involvement in the war.  The project involves young people aged 7 to 14 as researchers, creative interpreters and performers.

100 boys and young men from 6 schools across Shropshire are working with creative practitioners, heritage specialists and museums and archives. A piece of contemporary dance is being choreographed and (this is the bit I’m delivering) poems written in response to the work of Wilfred Owen, who was born in Oswestry.

There will be a performance at Theatre Severn in Shrewsbury at the end of the project.  It’s a very exciting project to be involved in.

This morning, under the strange red sun of Storm Ophelia, I worked with a lively class and their teachers in Whixall Primary, talking together about the war, reading and discussing two poems by Wilfred Owen.  Then the children wrote their own, working from free-writing, through drafts, and into short poems.

We wrote the poems up as ‘fragments’, as at Wilfred Owen’s death, just a week before Armistice Day, he’d left many poem fragments uncompleted.

Here are some of ours (I ‘aged’ the paper to mark the passage of a hundred years) :

And here’s some of the feedback at the end of the workshop!

‘In The Hands of the Boys’ has been funded by a National Lottery grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund ‘Then and Now’ programme (commemorating the centenary of the First World War); Shropshire Council and participating schools.

‘And threw a spade to own a space’

 

Today I went to Meadows Primary School in Ketley to help bring poetry into Heritage studies.  I had a brilliant day with the talented staff and two classes of 8 year old children, who are making something very special from their detailed and practical studies of local history.  We went for a good long walk in a cold wind, exploring Ketley’s industrial past – the Inclined Plane which once hauled tugboats from one canal to the other; Ketley Hall, home of William Reynolds who owned the town ironworks; Ketley Paddock Mound, a man-made tump created out of clay and ironstone spoil from the mines –  and the Squatters’ Cottage (below) built in a night on common land.  Your garden ground around your cottage was determined by how far you could throw a spade or an axe.
Someone made smoke rise
from an overnight chimney
and threw a spade to own a space

Meadows Primary Heritage Oct17 (4)

We made Poem Notes, and later created whole class collaborative poems as well as a really exciting set of poems from individuals.

Some poems were written as cinquains, so much counting on fingers went on.  Others were written as six line poems split into two, or three stanzas.  Naturally, some young poets scrapped the rules and made up their own, with great success!  I particularly liked a subtle poem based on the word ‘not’.

 

 

 

And here are the two class collaborative poems, based on oral suggestions made by the children after two minutes of silent ‘free-writing’.  Just a delight.

 

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