• Two Hundred school children celebrate diversity in Medway

    In the Autumn of 2007 I was put in touch with Amy Thompson who works in Medway as local government advisor on Minority Ethnic Achievement.

    On seeing the bilingual poems, Amy asked me to supply one full pack for every school in her area of Medway – a total of 114 packs, each one consisting of 145 individual A4 poem-posters. They were delivered in style by aged Carlsson Saab one stormy Autumn evening, with the Norman walls of Rochester Castle lowering at us from across the river.

    The excitement of that little adventure generated a further suggestion – that we could offer a bilingual reading to children from interested schools in Amy’s area.

    For the concept of these short bilingual poems converts well into live readings – a quick succession of different poets and languages. Each begins with what sounds for a mainly English audience to be a short stream of unfamiliar noises, stripped to mere music and rhythm, read by the poet, noises which are immediately made meaningful by someone local reading the English translation. The reading as a whole works cumulatively as a rapid succession of different languages, “strangenesses” crossing a bridge and bringing something vivid and common home to everyone present.

    We’ve done it often in the past – with real success and power – but always in healthcare settings. This would be the first time we’d have gone to school with it.

    Craig Brown is Director of Specialisms at Chatham Grammar School for Boys. In the end it was he who chiefly planned and co-ordinated the event which took place in the Rochester Corn Exchange on July 13th. But this was not just a bi-lingual reading by a small number of visiting poets. It was a major affair drawing together nearly 200 children from several local schools, to celebrate and explore their diversity. Poetry was indeed the main medium, much of it the children’s own poetry, but the day included a wide range of performing arts, such as music and dance, from various cultures and traditions.

    There had been a poetry competition beforehand and the winning poems were now displayed, and prize-winners awarded. More writing took place on the day, with the children divided into small working groups, to produce poems on a given theme, this theme – like those of the competition itself, – asking the children to address issues or images concerning diversity.

    Debjani Chatterjee MBE, Amarjt Chandan, Shadab Vajdi, Grace Tamakloe and myself all contributed to a poetry reading as part of the programme. Stephen Watts and I had earlier acted as judges of the competition and we now joined forces again for the prize-giving.

    It was an extraordinary day, notable for the genuinely high quality of the many and varied contributions, but above all for the urgency and passion shown by the children. Their ages ranged from 9 to 16, and they
    stayed intent and actively engaged from beginning to end, yielding extraordinary material, material reporting with great vividness on what it’s like to be young in a multi-cultural UK in 2009.

    A video record of the event is in preparation and when it’s ready we hope to make it available on this site. I promised in addition to publish all the winning poems of the competition here and this will soon be accomplished. In the day’s excitement, I also asked to borrow poems written in the workshops so that I might transcribe them for publication here as well. And that too will be happening soon, with the poems about to be returned to their owners as I write.

    The day worked so well. I believe the design of it has the capacity to help bring communities together. It will be repeated in Medway, I know. I hope it will be replicated elsewhere.

    Great credit to Amy and Craig and everyone else who helped.

    For now, click here and here for two examples of poems which won prizes in the competition. To read the English version of the second example, you will need to scroll down, past the Punjabi original.

  • After One Year’s Work – Update on who downloads from the site

    We now know how many of you registered (over 500) , what you wanted to use the poems for (mostly for use in schools) and where you’re located (about 400 from all over the UK and about 100 from everywhere else in the world).

    The exercise included collating the email addresses – so that in future we can notify you of new collections becoming available.

    As far as I am concerned, the UK registrations has been a major geography lesson ; I have been introduced to many UK towns and localities that I’ve never heard of before.

    Of the 101 registrations from non-UK locations, most of them came for the USA – a total of 32, a significant proportion of them from teachers working in the Deep South. The remainder came from simply everywhere – South America, India, the Middle East, South Korea, Africa, Europe, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand…

    It is worth noting that, although the site is linked to by various UK educational sites and newsletters, by the Poetry Society, by the Children’s Laureate’s site, and by the Times Educational Supplement site, there hasn’t been any significant press or international publicity for these recent developments at all. We hope that will come. But in the meantime, we can take pleasure in the fact that the interest we are attracting from teachers and others outside the UK is surely the result of their own browsing. They browse, in search. Materialising, we provide what they searching for.

    Here is what one teacher (an Englishman teaching in China) wrote after he had learnt how far and wide these poems have travelled : “One of the things about these sets of poems is that it seems to be an important thing, at least to me, in an international setting, to know that the posters on my wall are also on walls around the world.”

  • Poems for…the wall website attracts worldwide interest

    Rogan Wolf, the project worker for “Poems For…”, put together the short report during Christmas 2008. It entailed tracking all the registrations the new site had received since the April launch, and establishing where they had come from and how they planned to use poem-posters once down-loaded.

    You can read the report here.

    Findings from the report emphasise the high proportion of UK schools interested in this project, followed by public libraries. The main reason for the interest in nearly all cases is the fact that large numbers of the poems are bilingual, “in celebration of diversity.”

    But also the report reveals that this project is now of international interest, doubtless for the same reason – that the poems celebrate diversity. For example, during one week-end in the Autumn of 2008, Rogan was notified of two registrations/downloads : on the Saturday, someone living in Las Vegas, the United States, downloaded the poems “for use in a public library” ; on the Sunday, someone living in Doha, capital of Qatar, downloaded the poems “for use in a school.”

  • Bilingual Poetry Reading at the Royal Brompton Hospital

    A bilingual poetry reading took place on November 6th in the main reception area of the Royal Brompton Hospital in South Kensington, London. The event was organised jointly with Victoria Hume of RB&H Arts and was opened by Dr Mark Rigby, one of the hospital staff. Then a large, appreciative and lively audience, mainly composed of hospital staff, heard poems read in Arabic, Hindi, Persian, Punjabi, Somali and Turkish.

    Poets taking part included Debjani Chatterjee MBE, Mevlut Ceylan, Shadab Vajdi, Amarjit Chandan and Abdullahi Bootaan Hasan. Amjad Taha read a poem by Mourid Barghouti and an excerpt from a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, both Palestinian poets.

    Each short poem was followed by its English version, read in several cases by hospital staff. Chris Meade and Stephen Watts also read. Chris Meade, ex-Director of the Poetry Society and of the Booktrust, is presently Director of if:book, a small think and do tank which he has founded. if:book seeks to explore the future of the book in the digital age and the potential of new media for readers and writers. Stephen Watts is a poet, editor and translator.

    Chris read the English of Amarjit’s poem, Stephen the English original of Mevlut’s poem.

    Dr Martin Orwin, who teaches at SOAS, read his own translation of Bootaan’s Somali poem.

    There were readings of poems by hospital staff and by children patients of the hospital, inspiringly supported by Phillip Wells and colleagues from the Chelsea Children’s Hospital School; and good music was played by Les Boum !

    The evening also launched a “calligraphy mural” of some of the poems, designed by Michelle Johnson. The mural has been put up in the hospital’s Bronchoscopy unit, on a wall which faces patients as they recover consciousness after their operations.

    The project “Poems for” is managed by “Hyphen-21,” a small charity concerned with naming and strengthening the links that make community (see www.hyphen-21.org). After the reading, the charity held its AGM in the hospital’s staff canteen. There the following Trustees were re-instated in their positions : Mevlut Ceylan, Caite Doyle, David Morris, Pat Pegg-Jones, Graham Thorp, Jane Thorp and Mary Young.

    Chris Meade and Debjani Chatterjee were voted in as Joint-Chairs of the charity.

    Mary Young was thanked for paying for recent legal services which had proved necessary and appear so far to have been successful. It has been agreed that an action for libel and harassment will be taken out if necessary.

    The theologian Martin Buber’s notion of “I-Thou” was considered – and led to the thought that good poetry is a concentrated enactment of community, vitalising connection between person and person, self and other. It was said as well that poetry will always be a voice from the margins.

    The AGM ended with a joint-reading of the traditional Navajo chant – “In Beauty May I Walk.”

  • Poet Laureate launches new website

    Andrew Motion reading at the Nehru Centre Inauguration.

    The Poet Laureate Andrew Motion launched this web-site on April 22nd in London. The site allows people to down-load and print for themselves the 145 poem-posters we’ve put together so far. Future collections will also be displayed on the site as soon as they’ve been completed. The launch took place at the Nehru Centre, near Hyde Park Corner. The Centre was founded by the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and is part of the work of the Indian Embassy. Its purpose is to strengthen Anglo-Indian understanding, chiefly through the arts.

    Eighteen of the project’s bilingual poems were exhibited at the launch, many of them by poets from south Asia. The posters were enlarged to A2 size especially for the event and remained on display for the following week.Over 100 people attended. Jules Mann, the Director of the Poetry Society, was one. A previous Director, Chris Meade, was also present. Chris helped obtain funding for the pilot phase of Poems for… over ten years ago.

    Three poems were then read out. Vidya Misra read her poem “Black Tears” in Hindi, Rogan Wolf following with the English version. Amarjit Chandan read his Punjabi poem “The Peacock in Walpole Park, Ealing” Stephen Watts reading the English version. Finally, Andrew Motion read his own poem “While I wait for You.” This was originally commissioned by the poet David Hart as part of the first of the “Poems for…” collections – “Poems for…Waiting.”

    Andrew Motion inaugurated the poster exhibition and a presentation of the new site with a short ceremony, traditional at the Nehru Centre, which involves the lighting of candles at a small altar. In his speech he expressed admiration for “Poems for…” above all for its primary vision that good poetry belongs in the everyday and the everywhere, and can offer warm and vital connection across ethnic and cultural difference.

    Pictures by Joseph Wolf and Noel Bailleux

  • “Please Take a Seat – you’ll be seen shortly”

    In 1999, the poet David Hart was asked by the Arts Council to commission 50 short poems about waiting, as part of the “Poems for…” collection.

    The fifty poets included well-known poets such as Andrew Motion the Poet Laureate and Carol Ann Duffy – as well as poets still largely unknown outside their own circles. The poems were then printed as small posters and displayed in healthcare waiting rooms all around the country.

    These days they are also being displayed in schools and libraries and can be downloaded from this site. David has now written about that experience of eight years ago, and you can read his reflections here.