On being a teacher-poet

Wednesday 23rd December 2020

One of the best things about being a secondary school English teacher is the annual opportunity to take Year 11 students to Poetry Live. As the name suggests, this is an event at which poets whose work is included in the GCSE English Literature anthology read and discuss their poems. For those of us who admire poets the way others do rock stars, it is the literary equivalent of a particularly impressive line-up on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury: in no other context can I imagine being able to see John Agard, Simon Armitage, Gillian Clarke, Imtiaz Dharker, Carol Ann Duffy, Daljit Nagra, Grace Nichols and Owen Sheers on the same bill.

At several Poetry Live events I have attended during my ten years as an English teacher, Gillian Clarke has shared a compelling anecdote about one particular student’s response to her poem ‘Catrin’. The poem draws parallels between the struggle of childbirth – expressed here as a ‘first/Fierce confrontation’ between mother and child – and her daughter’s later desire for independence, asking if she can ‘skate/In the dark, for one more hour.’ When Clarke reads ‘Catrin’ at Poetry Live, she explains how a boy in the audience at an earlier event put his hand up and suggested that this final line of the poem refers to ‘the baby in the womb’, asking if its birth can be delayed. ‘No,’ Clarke told him, ‘it refers literally to my daughter asking me if she could stay out and skate in the dark for one more hour.’ But the boy persisted, and repeated his interpretation. At this point, Clarke relates, she paused, and said, ‘Well, now I see it that way. Now I do.’

This story tells us a great deal about the relationship between teaching and writing poetry. When I received that extraordinary, unforgettable phone call from the Poetry Business in May this year, I wandered around in a glorious haze of disbelief and champagne for a day or two, and then reflected on what had made this possible. For years I had convinced myself that while I could write literary criticism (I was coming to the end of my PhD thesis at the time), I wasn’t really a creative writer. I didn’t think I had it in me, and I didn’t have the courage to try. What had changed, and when had it changed? Firstly, had it not been for the birth of my niece Anabel in September 2017, I might never have picked up a pen to write my first poem. Then there is my maternal grandmother, the magnificent and incomparable Nora Newton, whose intellectual and literary tastes were entirely without pretension or artifice – football, Coronation Street, Joey from Friends, but also Milton, Shakespeare, Dickens. She trained at drama school in the 1940s, and would read Judy Blume and Roald Dahl to me in whichever regional or international accent I requested, all of them note-perfect. How could I not be an English teacher and a writer with the blessing of a literary inheritance like this? But I know that even more than Anabel, even more than my grandmother, it is my students – all of whom I have been so proud and privileged to teach, even when they’ve driven me mad – who have made me into a poet.

Most of the time, I love my job. I am passionate to the point of obsession about my subject, and young people are mostly (I stress mostly) wonderful – engaging, entertaining, often possessed of startling intellectual maturity, capable of making me laugh out loud several times in a lesson. Poetry is, perhaps obviously, what I enjoy teaching most, and I have had several moments in the classroom that recall Gillian Clarke’s story about the boy in the audience at Poetry Live – moments when a student offers an interpretation of a line or a metaphor that would never have occurred to me, moments when we’re deconstructing a poem in a way that feels philosophical, rather than mechanical (given the constraints of the GCSE assessment criteria, it can sometimes be quite hard to do this).

Teaching can, however, be physically and emotionally consuming, often exhausting. To do it well means understanding that it is both a performing art and an athletic discipline, requiring (for me, at least) an approach to sleep, diet and exercise that makes any kind of normal social life all but impossible. I didn’t start writing poetry properly until three years ago partly because I just thought I didn’t have the time, and I would never have the time. Then I came across Doris Lessing’s lightbulb-exploding, stop-you-in-your-tracks quote about achieving your dreams: ‘Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The timing is always impossible.’ Well. Hell yes, Doris. I printed this out and stuck it inside the cover of my first notebook, which swiftly became The Notebook Where Ideas Come to Die (illustrious choreographer Sir Matthew Bourne, if you’re reading, I have an entire ballet treatment for Sarah Waters’ novel The Night Watch. CALL ME, darling). Only last year did I realise that I would have to be ruthlessly self-disciplined, and carve writing time out of my working day somehow. That’s when I started writing poems before work, between 6.45 and 7.30am, at a café in Bexley Village. This was transformative: even if I didn’t get very far in those forty-five minutes, I might write down one idea or line that would turn into something the next day, or the following week. I have a photograph I took during one of these writing sessions – it shows a couple of notebooks, and one of those coffees – a Teacher Special – that takes two hands to lift, and sends you into your first lesson on the ceiling. You can just make out that there is a leaflet tucked into the back of one of those notebooks. This was the leaflet promoting the 2020 Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition. I carried it around with me for four months, and I put my poems together to make a pamphlet. And I thought that there was little point in me sending it in, because I hadn’t been writing for very long, and surely I would never win. But then I did send it off. Just in case.

‘Tilda Swinton as David Bowie’

A number of early readers of my just-published collection Black Mascara (Waterproof) have asked me about the ideas behind the poem ‘Tilda Swinton as David Bowie’, so I am pleased to provide this blog post in lieu of a discussion at some suitably sparkling literary salon – although one hopes, of course, that with spring…

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