Well versed

A school-based poetry-writing workshop started during lockdown offered parents and teachers the chance to be creative, and share ideas and embrace the process, says Kris Spencer

Kris Spencer is the Headmaster of St James’s Prep in West London

During the first lockdown, I joined a Zoom session a poet was giving to a group of year six pupils. Towards the end of the session, she set us a task – to write a poem based on a Greek myth. We were given five minutes. I wrote a poem about Icarus. Epiphany is an overused term, perhaps, but in that short time something clicked. I've been writing poems ever since. On the way, I discovered a thriving world of poetry ­­– half-hidden. A world of journals, readings and awards; a world where well-known poets are accessible and friendly. Where editors and publishers wield great power; where there are rivalries and disputes. But mostly the poetry world is one where beauty, kindness, support and respect are allowed to prosper. As I wrote away, I developed my voice and some confidence. My poems were taken up and published in journals and magazines. I found writing poetry to be fulfilling and mindful; and relatively straightforward, although not always easy. Two things struck me. The first was that we are all of us poets – we all notice things that are special and are worthy of sharing. The second was that I had made enough mistakes in my own writing to have learned something of the craft of poetry; and that the teacher in me might be able to offer some tools and insights to others.

So, I decided to run a poetry writing workshop for the parents and teachers in my school. A short email outlined the course: six weeks long; every Monday evening via Zoom; culminating in a live performance in our elegant assembly hall. In the end, there were nine of us. Each week I chose a theme and selected some poems as examples. I set some exercises to stimulate writing. And, when the writing started, I offered some comments and instructions (and warnings against instructions) on the poems that had been written. The final performance was glorious: the poets read their work, we had live music, and an audience of friends, family and the curious came to enjoy the results of parents and teachers learning together. I believe teaching is encouragement, in the best sense of that word – offering courage. Having found the courage ourselves, it was clear to us that some of the greatest pleasures of writing poetry are to be found in the process itself, as well as sharing, and in doing something new as well as you can.

I found writing poetry to be fulfilling and mindful; and relatively straightforward, although not always easy

Poets' corner Poems are about communication; and the way in which an idea, thought, feeling or experience is expressed. Poems have a style. They're sculptural – we mould them and chip away. Poems are portable. You don’t need heavy or expensive equipment. You can write a poem on a bus or sitting in a café. Many poets write in their garden sheds. I write on an iPad – often with my children around. Indeed, I like writing poems about my children; children are poems. Poems don’t have to be technically demanding. There's no word count. Nobody will shout at you if you don’t write a poem. There's no money in poetry (believe you me). And with this comes creative freedom.

How to get started… 1. For every poem you write, read a hundred. 2. Don’t start the poem too soon, or end it too late. 3. Never explain, or summarise; end a poem with a question. 4. The poem knows the path, you just need to follow it. 5. Write for others. 6. If you want to know if a poem works, read it aloud. 7. Leave room for the reader to do some of the work. 8. The simpler the words the better; leave all those poetic. words for greetings cards. 9. Don’t listen to that voice saying ‘you’re not a real poet; what do you know about anything?’ 10. Poets notice things and they pay attention to noticing.