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.