For lots more exciting info about me, please go to my main home -

Friday 28 March 2014

A Lovely Email I Received Recently

Last month I had a lovely visit to Holtsmere End Infant School in Hertfordshire, a school which I have now visited twice (you can read about the visit here if you like). I led informal workshops for two Year 2 classes, and did FIVE performances - one for Nursery, one for each Reception class and one each for joint groups of Year 1 and 2 children.

I recently received the following delightful email, from someone whose grandson saw me perform. One of the reasons I keep this blog is so that I have a written record of good things that happen, not so I can blow my own trumpet - I hope it doesn't come across that way - but so that, if ever I get downhearted, I can remind myself that what I do is worthwhile and has a positive impact on people. Anyway, here is the message I received:

Dear Joshua,
A few weeks ago you attended and performed at the primary school that our grandson attends in Woodhall Farm, Hemel Hempstead.
Now, our Ryan has had difficulty with his reading and writing, and it has been difficult to get him  inspired, in spite of having a cupboard full of books.
He has not stopped talking about 'Oosha Magoosha' since, and he even remembered your name!   We have purchased 'My Grandpa's Beard' which will be his Easter present (far better than chocolate!).   Thank you, too, for your personal message in the book (he'll love that).
Kind Regards,
[name supplied]
P.S.   We have enjoyed the poems too!!!

Tuesday 25 March 2014

War On Want Conference (+ poem)

On Saturday I attended the War On Want conference at Rich Mix in Shoreditch with a group of young poets from Holy Family Catholic School. The young poets had the opportunity to participate in workshops on the themes of war, poverty and injustice with pupils from a variety of schools, led by some of the country's leading poet-educators.

I suppose I was there officially to help out and assist with the running of the day, but I ended up participating in one of the workshops. This was a very valuable opportunity for me to address issues that I have typically seen as too 'big' or 'complicated' to be tackled by my pen. The workshop in which I participated was led by Pete The Temp, and one of the exercises involved responding poetically to various images. We were tasked with picking a person in one of the images - we were told nothing of their background - and writing a letter from their point of view. One of the things I came to appreciate was that there is not the dichotomy between 'big, important issues' and 'personal, parochial issues' that I have sometimes taken there to be. The 'big' issues are big precisely because they impact upon the personal to such a large extent; every individual has their stories to tell.

The image I chose was of what I took to be a child soldier. I can't find the exact image, but the one at the bottom of this page, depicting a child soldier from what was then Zaire, comes close. Here is the poem I came up with:

Dear Mum

Dear Mum,
this gun in my hand feels good.
I sleep with it at night, feeling
its metal caress me like you
used to do.
It whispers to me, tells
me that I’m a big boy now.
It makes me feel powerful.

Dear mum,
my hands are small and I’m no good
with words.
This rifle will reason
where voices have failed.
I don’t know where you are now
but I’ll blow holes in humanity
to make up for your absence.
The whole world will be motherless
by the time I am done. 

Sunday 23 March 2014

Grant A Wish - Lesson Plan and Sample Poem

Here is an idea for a fun, poetry-based lesson/workshop. I have used the plan twice so far, once with Year 6 and once with a mixed-age Secondary group, and it has produced interesting results both times.

  • Perhaps using this poem of mine as a prompt, each pupil writes down THREE wishes. These can be as weird and elaborate as they like.
  • Teacher collects papers in, and redistributes them, so that each pupil now has a list of someone else's wishes.
  • Pupils pick ONE of the wishes they have received, and write a poem, in the First Person, developing it further. Here are some prompts to help them get started:
            - Why might you have that wish?
            - What would you do if it came true?
            - How might you feel?
            - What might other people say?

Using someone else's wish as a springboard for a poem leaves room for the writing to be taken in various interesting directions. For example, some pupils may choose to write about a wish that they themselves don't have, and the resulting piece of writing may thus end up being from the point of view of a 'character', using a different voice. Alternatively, some pupils may choose to pick a wish that they can identify with. It is likely that such pupils will gain confidence to open up about themselves and their lives under the guise, the 'shield', of someone else's wish. 

The following short poem, by Royce in Year 7, took this as its starting point: 'I wish I could go abroad, specifically to America'. I think Royce's response to this prompt highlights some of the interesting work that, with a bit of imagination, can be produced:

I wish... I wish upon the stars
I wish I could fly
I wish I could fly beyond the Great Barrier Reef
Into the land of the Free
The land of the Brave
The land of America
I wish I could restart my life
No parents and no walls to contain me
In this cage they call home.

Thursday 20 March 2014

Group Poem By Year 5 Pupils at Jessop Primary, Brixton

Jessop Primary in Brixton was one of two schools I worked with to coach children for an inter-school poetry slam, put together by the Brixton Learning Collaborative. I had a wonderful time working with some of their Year 5 children, and am delighted to post below their wonderful group poem, written and performed by Omario, Tasian, Mael, Alacey, Aaron, Ashley, Sadaq and Assya. I especially like the positive message of this poem, as well as the often surreal imagery!


Every day I wake up in the middle of a war,
Always hearing people screaming outside my door
Why can’t they work together like a football team,
Blocking all of Wayne Rooney’s attempts at a goal
Unity is working together, playing pass to pass.
This is my dream. What’s yours?

People should stop being serious
Hit the dancefloor and be mysterious
Let’s fly into outer space
Or try to have a super fun race.

Let your imagination out.
Never go to school.
Let’s all get rockets and go as fast as the speed of light
To a planet made of chicken-flavoured cheese.

Everyone gets a tablet and gets to go on it all the time,
So people can be great at games
So when the aliens come to invade we can fight back.


You have a special quality.
Do not copy anybody else.
You are nobody else but you.
You don’t need to do the same job as your friends.
Smile and play and say hey.

If you do something wrong you shouldn’t get bullied for it
And everybody should get the chance to speak with a voice
A powerful as a volcano
And let your actions run wild.
But make sure not to get carried away
Because your whole life could start again.

Saving people in blazing flames
That’s one thing I wish I could do,
I wish that teachers would have fun and stop being serious
Scoring goals is what I dream of
Going for gold is my big dream
Helping people is what you should do
Not killing people, that is silly
Being rude ain’t no good
Puts you in a mood.

I dream that running on the street
Is a rhythm of a beat
Flying in the air
Like a bird that doesn’t care
Swimming in the ocean
Like you’re making a potion
Running on the street
Is like a pin in your skin.


Wednesday 19 March 2014

St John The Divine Pupils Runners-Up In Brixton Poetry Slam!

I am delighted to announce that the group of eight Year 5 pupils with whom I have been working at St John The Divine Primary School in Brixton were runners-up yesterday in an inter-school poetry slam! Over the last two months I have been working with the group to compose and rehearse a group poem, which was then pitted against poems by nine other groups of children from schools in Brixton. The competition, which I had the pleasure of attending yesterday, was inspirational: the children were all clearly talented and brave writers and performers, but more importantly they were all fantastic team members, and hugely supportive of each other.

St John The Divine pupils wrote a lovely poem based on identity, about all the different things they are 'made' of. Here, then, is the text for their poem, posted with the permission of the writers and performers - Bilen, Etyfela, Chi, Charis, Yemi, Sahidat, Saddiq and Ojei:


I’m made of beautiful clothes that shimmer like clean glass.
I am made of colours that wrap around me like a warm, cuddly scarf.
Blue, red, orange and green reminds me of a rainbow that crosses me to a magical land.

I am made of the time when I wore my mum’s clothes instead of wearing my clothes, and got into trouble.
I am made of laughter and giggles and my family and friends.

What makes me me me? My sister makes me me, with her kind nice heart.
She is always there for me.
What makes me me? My sister makes me me, with her... and her... she is always there for me.
What makes me me me? My sister makes me me, with her Converse and her Vans that she got for me.

We are made of friendship that helps us to create a big family.

I’m made of helping my teacher to be respectful.
I’m made of shining like the sun to make people happy.
I’m made of keeping secrets to be loyal.
I’m made of being loyal and respectful to my friends no matter what,
For I will do anything for my friends.

I am made of Nigeria.
Nigeria is awesome because it’s sunny.
I get to see my family,
But I most like, no I LOVE,
Nigeria’s awesome food like eba, fufu, fried rice, ayamase and egusi soup.

I’m made of rhythm and drumbeat
Smiling twisting turning happily
Getting together, having celebrations,
Birthdays, weddings and any excuse
We jig and jingle and jangle to music.

We are made of different cultures coming together. However,

I feel that my friendship might fall apart.
I am made of angry energy building up like a volcano exploding in my belly.
I worry that all the arguments with my family might come together in my SATs and make me fail.

I have a side of me that can change any second of any day.
I am made of my heart, a rhythmic drum, always keeping to the beat.
I am talkative, but I have a hidden side.
I am a small enigma. No one knows who I really am.


Tuesday 11 March 2014

Writing Poems About School

Along with fellow poets Sarah Perry and Belinda Zhawi, I am currently working one day a week in an inner-city London secondary school. The placement is part of my course at Goldsmiths, where I am focusing on 'Spoken Word Education'. The aim is to place poets in schools, with the purpose, essentially, of giving pupils a voice and helping them see that their viewpoints, experiences and imaginations are of value.

Yesterday I was at the school, and read over some poems that the students had been writing. The particular poems I read expressed their views on school life, and I was shocked and saddened by the low estimation in which the overwhelming majority of the pupils held school. I'm not sure whether they would have had similar things to say no matter which school they'd been at, or whether their vitriol was exacerbated by the idiosyncracies of their particular school (I suspect a bit of both), but the general disdain and anger was intense. A recurring metaphor was that of school as a prison, and teachers as hypocritical, sinister prison wardens. School was at best seen as a place of utter tedium and pointlessness, and at worst as a place of outright torture and enslavement. I did not come away feeling happy or uplifted, especially with respect to the pupils' views of their teachers. My experience inside staffrooms tells me that teachers are almost all admirable people who are passionate about doing right by their pupils. I've even written a poem to that effect.

But we are giving pupils a voice, and this is that they have said, and I think we need therefore to accept it as valid. I don't think this means that the views must go totally unchallenged - presenting opposing viewpoints and flipsides of arguments seems to me to be a good thing - but this should not occur in the context of attempting to show that pupils' views are mistaken or wrong. This is how they feel and we need to work with it.

Given this, reflecting on the pupils' poems has provided me with a couple of insights. Firstly, their dissatisfaction with school is evidence of the potential of the Spoken Word Education programme to make a real difference in their lives. Not only has it given them an outlet to voice grievances that might well otherwise have stayed bottled up, it has also shown them they can use those grievances creatively, to produce art.

Secondly, the notion of grievances about school that are voiced within the context of school reveals what seems to me to be something of a tension. Is there the risk that, through the mere act of running a lesson, the educator becomes part of the 'system', and therefore part of the very grievance itself? This is at least prima facie problematic, and I think it is incumbent upon the educator to find a way of running sessions within the school, and very much as part of the school, but in a way that is nonetheless different to what the students are used to, so that they don't just become yet another thing about school to hate. If this is done skillfully and delicately then school might become less of an oppressive place, and the grievance will hopefully start to dissipate.

Sunday 9 March 2014

Reflections On Book Week 2014

On March 6th it was World Book Day. This meant that I had a very busy week, visiting lots of schools who decided to turn the entire week into 'book week' or 'literacy week' or similar. On Tuesday I visited Barnes Farm Infant School in Chelmsford, on Wednesday I went to Ashwell Primary in Hertfordshire, on Thursday I went to St Mary's Primary (also in Hertfordshire), and on Friday I visited Preston Park in Brent, London. I had a wonderful time in each of these schools, and I made sure to do different workshops each day, as I wanted to keep things fresh and interesting for myself. Highlights of the week included:

  • Being persistently called Ooshus Magooshus by the pupils at Barnes Farm
  • Being presented with a wonderful book of poetry written by pupils at Ashwell, using this poem of mine to inspire them. (I unwittingly replicated the activity during one of my workshops, and the pupils were great sports in going along with it!)
  • Writing poems about embarrassing moments with Year 5 at Preston Park, and showing them this hilarious viral video. One of the children laughed so hard he fell off his chair.
  • Selling almost 100 books during the course of the week. 
  • Writing 'poetry is' poems with St Mary's pupils, and receiving this lovely thank you email from their teacher, which almost brought a tear to my eye:

Well what can I say?
Poetry is a fruitful day at school
Poetry is a happy class
Poetry is "Thankyou " from colleagues
Poetry is a sunny day
Poetry is in the smile of a child
Poetry is in us all!
Poetry is when we all realise it!
Poetry is a thankyou
Poetry is a special thanks
To you

A truly lovely, albeit exhausting week. I've written these things down in part as a reminder to myself, for when I get disillusioned or depressed, that the work I do emphatically does have value. 

Sunday 2 March 2014

'But You Don't Write Poems Like That' (+ a VERY silly poem)

Tomorrow I am due to give a presentation, as part of my MA, on the topic of my 'poetics', i.e. the overarching philosophy or ideology that informs my work both as a poet and as an educator. I have been instructed to come up with a metaphor to describe my poetics, and my metaphor is that of a tightrope: my experiences on the page, on the stage and in the classroom have revealed to me a variety of apparent dichotomies that, on closer inspection, can in fact be bridged. Like walking a tightrope, bridging them requires a degree of care and dexterity that I hope I grow to possess over the coming years. Here, then, are what I perceive to be the 'tensions', as they relate to my own work:

My work as a poet
  • 'fun' poetry vs 'deep' poetry
  • didacticism vs artistry
  • writing for children vs writing for adults
My work as an educator
  • teaching vs entertaining
  • drawing on imagination vs drawing on real life experiences
  • allowing freedom vs drawing boundaries
These tensions are painted with extremely broad brushstrokes, and relate to my work as a whole, rather than to any one particular poem or lesson; it may not be possible to bridge each of them within the course of a single poem or lesson. What I'd like to do now is briefly to look at the first tension, between 'fun' poetry and 'deep' poetry.

I perceive this as a tension in part because of my experiences with a variety of children's poetry. I notice that some poets write stuff about snot and farts, which makes kids laugh but which doesn't carry any deeper message - the equivalent of Viz magazine perhaps - and some poets write earnest little numbers about 'deep' stuff like sunsets and love. My point is not that either of these is wrong per se, but that each is diminished in the absence of the other: only silly stuff and the potential for words to touch the core of our psyche is not explored; only deep stuff and kids, like adults, will think "whatever, lets go watch television." The optimum, then, would be to achieve a balance.

The reality of this tension in my own work was brought home to me last night, when I was babysitting my young cousins. When I had put them to bed I decided, in a rare moment of self-discipline, to sit at their kitchen table and write a poem. I decided that this would be a 'deep' poem, a poem about a boy and his father watching a bonfire, the bonfire serving as a metaphor for their love for each other (insert either "ahhh!" or "pass the sickbag" depending on which side of the 'tension' your proclivities lie). My 10-year-old cousin Jack couldn't sleep, and came downstairs. He asked what I was doing, and I told him that I was writing a poem. He looked over my shoulder and said "but Josh, you don't write poems like that. You write catchy rhyming stuff." (Notice that he is referring to form as well as content: catchy rhyming stuff.)

I told him that variety is good, and that I write lots of different stuff. However, the challenge, for me, is not simply to write lots of different types of poems, but to imbue the whole body of work with a sense of being recognisably 'mine'; it is to bridge the tension, and all the other tensions mentioned above, in a way  that does not leave me seeming like a variety of different people. In other words, it is to encompass many different possibilities within the parameters of a single unified poetics, rather than dabble in lots of different, erm, poeticses [?].

To return to my cousin. What he meant was that he liked the catchy, rhyming stuff and he wanted me to write more of it. So after having explained to him that variety is good, and that if you have just catchy rhyming stuff you leave your horizons fairly limited, I decided that now would be a good time to GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT! So I invited him to sit and help me write a catchy rhyming poem, about a subject of his choice. In the spirit of nothing other than fun, then, here is the poem we came up with together (WARNING: it is ridiculously silly. The fact that he couldn't sleep for laughing determined that this was a good thing):

My Sister

If you come over to my house
And look inside my loo,
There will be a big surprise - 
A special treat for you. 

You may not see it straight away
In fact you may well miss her,
But if you peer really close
I think you'll see my sister. 

You may think this is rather strange
You may think it's absurd,
But this, I promise, is the truth:
My sister is a turd.