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What can poetry really say to your students?

We asked three contemporary poets – Matt Abbott, Steven Camden and Dean Atta – to share how their work speaks to today’s young people...

  • What can poetry really say to your students?

Matt Abbott: “I’m challenging stereotypes”

In my opinion, two of poetry’s greatest uses are exposing truth and enabling escapism. I try to do both in my collection A Hurricane in my Head, and whilst I love the playful escapism poems, it’s the poems rooted in honesty and truth that I’m most passionate about.

One of the main aims of the collection is to challenge social stereotypes, mainly when it comes to gender. The poems don’t specify gender unless its relevant to do so. And when it is relevant, I’m usually making a point about certain ‘rules’ or expectations that are planted on us from birth.

My poem Rules for Boys and Rules for Girls is one of the first pieces that I wrote for this collection. Whenever I read it to a class, pupils usually laugh for the wrong reasons early on, before quieting down as I make my point throughout the poem.

The fact that ‘crying like a girl’ is a universal everyday phrase is ridiculous, and that’s the sort of thing that I’m challenging.

I remember a girl joining a football team when I was at school, and a boy choosing to do GCSE textiles instead of Design & Technology. Both received homophobic abuse as a result, and whilst things might have improved since the early noughties, the issues are still there.

On the one hand, these things should be obvious and without question. On the other hand, gender stereotypes and expectations are deep-rooted in society and blatantly obvious from primary school upwards, if not even sooner.

Secondary school is a melting pot for these expectations and the insecurities that come as a result. So, by speaking the truth and attempting to challenge these stereotypes, I hope that my poems can go some small way to emboldening people when they sway even slightly from the norm.

Life’s hard enough as it is without having to fit into boxes. And the truth is, the boxes are only there if we allow them to be.

Steven Camden, aka Polarbear: “It’s a handful of moments”

Sometimes we say what we mean.

Sometimes we think what we mean and say something else.

Sometimes we don’t think or say what we mean until hours later, lying in our beds replaying the moment over in our heads, kicking ourselves for not saying what we wanted to, wishing we could live the moment again.

A good poem can capture that moment, grab the feeling of it and hold it tightly as it wrestles to get away, just long enough for anyone who reads or hears it to feel its truth.

To me, that’s the point.

True moments, captured and shared in a way that hopefully connect to anyone experiencing my poems via the emotion and images I’ve tried to convey.

Writing my collection Everything All At Once was a process of zooming in on a small handful of moments out of the millions that occur for the pupils and staff in a secondary school over the course of one week.

Each piece is me trying to swoop down into the life of the person experiencing the particular moment and convey the truth of their relationship with the world at that specific point in their life.

One of my favourites is the piece called ‘Dear Mum, BTEC’.

This was me imagining a boy sitting in a classroom, feeling alone as everyone else planned for exams. By becoming this boy, I felt myself watching other people in the room thinking and talking about their futures in more traditional academia and feeling a sense of guilt.

Feeling that my own truth was that I wanted a different path, one that is often viewed as less desirable or impressive. Sitting in that moment and trying to feel its truth, my mind ran to my (the boy’s) mother, and what I wanted to say to her about my future.

I understood her expectations or hopes for me to continue academic studies to probably attain a degree and professional career, and how my truth didn’t fit with them. My truth fit me pursuing a more practical and vocational path. And my truth felt strong in knowing that.

So as my classmates planned their University applications, I felt a need to explain to my mother that I felt strong in my choice and that the love between us was partly responsible for that strength and that I wanted to thank her, to reassure her, that she had raised a person who was in tune with their passions and convicted enough to pursue them.

All this came from listening to the truth of that specific moment I had chosen to swoop in on, and hopefully, that specificity of the moment, for that particular person, is what actually makes the emotional truth of that poem feel completely universal.

Download a copy of ‘Dear Mum, BTEC’, by Steven Camden, here.

Dean Atta: “Not everyone wants to be heard”

“You won’t have to read it out, you won’t have to hand it in, you can take it home or you can throw it away.” This is the first thing I will say to a group of students after I introduce myself at the beginning of a poetry workshop.

The process of writing is far more important to me than the end result. Giving students the space and the permission to write whatever they need to, for themselves, not for their peers and not for me.

The lives of young people are under constant observation, from parents or guardians, from teachers, their peers and strangers on the streets or online.

Growing up as a young black teenager in London, I felt I was constantly being watched; on the streets by other black boys, in shops I was followed by security guards, on public transport women would clutch their bags tighter when I stood or sat near them.

Writing a poem was a space in which I felt unobserved; I could speak my truth on the page.

Sometimes I wrote what I wanted to say to those people. Sometimes I wrote what I wanted to say to my parents, teachers or classmates.

Often writing an angry poem meant I felt less angry in real life. Though sometimes writing an angry poem helped me to realise that my anger and hurt was justified and needed to be addressed, and I could do so in a more considered way.

When I tell my students, “You won’t have to read it out…” I see tense shoulders drop and hear sighs of relief.

I know there will be some who want to be heard, who will definitely read it out at the end. I know there will be others who will fold up their piece of paper and slip it into their blazer pocket.

And there will be others who will leave their poem behind on their desk, maybe for me to see or maybe because they’ve written what they needed to and now they want to let it go.

Some young people are ready to be heard, to put their thoughts and feelings out there publicly, and others need to be given the space and time in which to hear themselves.

Matt Abbott, Steven Camden and Dean Atta all contributed to this year’s National Poetry Day, on 3 October, which had the theme of ‘Truth’. To find out about how you and your students could get involved with next year’s celebrations, keep an eye on nationalpoetryday.co.uk.

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