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Friday, 6 December 2013

Please, Sir, Can I Make Things Up?

Since September I have been training to be a Spoken Word Educator at Goldsmiths College. The training involves running poetry workshops with secondary school pupils, a demographic with whom I have not previously done much work at all. I am finding it challenging; not unrewarding but sometimes lacking the spark of what I like to think of as mildly eccentric spontaneity that I bring to the primary school classroom. This is a corollary both of the age group with whom I am working - elephant impressions, audience participation, the shouting of nonsense words and other such elements of my work as a children's entertainer just will not fly - but also of the fact that I am a member of staff rather than merely a fun visiting poet. The students are expected to call me 'Sir' and 'Mr Seigal', and, I, for my part, am expected to wear a shirt.

The ethos of the Spoken Word Educator programme is providing students with a space, and helping them find a voice, to express issues and ideas that are important to them. It seems to be expected that students will write about their own lives, views and experiences, and they are encouraged to be as open as they feel able to be. What seems less expected is that some pupils would rather 'make stuff up'. And as keen as I am on finding out about the lives and concerns of my pupils, it is a key tenet of my ideology, my 'poetics', that poetry can be made up: during school assemblies I usually stress that one of the great things about poems and stories  is that they are in fact the only times in our whole lives when we are allowed to do so. I have often found that simply making this point is the catalyst for some wonderfully imaginative writing. Admittedly, however, all this applies to my primary school work, which reveals, I think, an important difference between the mentality of younger and older pupils: younger pupils are more keen on making things up.

I have replicated some of the work I have been doing as a Spoken Word Educator in the primary classroom, and it has mostly gone very well. For example, a prompt I have been working with is 'Welcome To My Family' - I wrote a poem with this title (which is too long, and not yet good enough, to post on this blog!) which is used as a springboard to spark ideas in the students. Older pupils seem to take it for granted that they are expected to be as 'truthful' as possible, and as such to talk about the reality of their family lives, but younger pupils seem keener to indulge in wild flights of fancy: making up family members, pretending they live among a family of wolves, pretending they have a two-headed sister, etc.

I have been impressed with such dexterity in imagination, but it has made me think hard about the purpose of the writing exercise: what is it exactly that I want the students to do? I want them to feel that they can express important issues that might otherwise lack an outlet, but I also want them to have fun and and indulge their creativity. At the same time, I don't want the former to intrude upon the latter, or the latter upon the former. It might be as simple as encouraging 'making stuff up' with primary school kids but discouraging it with secondary school kids, but why should this be the case? If older pupils want to write fun, silly poems about having an alien for a dad, if they want to express themselves in that way (as they very occasionally do), and if younger pupils want to tell us what life is really like in their family (as they often do) then why shouldn't they? I think a better solution would be to provide both age groups with a range of models, and inform the students that either of two valuable opportunities is available to them - telling us about their lives and indulging in make-believe. Both, I think, are valuable and neither are opportunities which are readily available outside of this context.

Some very important issues are under the surface here, and I think the immediacy and intimacy of the Spoken Word artform renders the issues of 'truth' and 'honesty' more pertinent than they might be in poetry generally. But I do not think the fact that a poem is being spoken precludes its being silly, fun, whimsical and fictional, and quite frankly a lot of the Spoken Word I have been encountering - by the professionals, not by the students, I should add - I find rather po-faced and overly earnest. This of course has a place, and some issues demand this kind of treatment, but I would hate students to go away thinking this constitutes the entirety of Spoken Word. Or maybe it does, and what I've been doing all along is 'Performance Poetry' rather than 'Spoken Word'. I just don't know, but I value the opportunity to explore the issues.