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Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.

Week 08 — June 20, 2018

In Conversation

Kate Clanchy Poet, author and teacher10 minute read

Kate Clanchy is a poet, author, and teacher. From her first Forward Prize-winning poetry collection, Slattern, through to her memoir, What Is She Doing Here? A Refugee’s Story, Clanchy’s writing output is marvellously wide-ranging. For the last decade, she has been teaching and working as a writer in residence at Oxford Spires Academy, a small comprehensive where over 30 languages are spoken. This summer sees the release of England: Poems From A School with Picador, a rich, energetic anthology of her students’ poetry. Here, she talks about storytelling, poetry prizes, privilege, inventive metaphors, and the power of Google Translate.

Rosalind Jana

Interview Rosalind Jana

RI was wondering, first, what was it that led you to poetry? Was there anything specific that directed you towards writing it or reading it?

KOh god, that’s a very long time ago. I read a lot of novels and things as a child, but as an older person, I liked to read poetry. I like shorter things — images, short stories, poems. I trained to be a teacher just after Oxford and I discovered contemporary poetry through teaching, actually. Carol Ann Duffy was set on the syllabus in 1994. I read it in the school stock cupboard and thought, “Oh goodness. Women can write poems! I didn’t know we were allowed.” From there, I started to write and explore the poetry scene. My first collection came out in 1996. 

In your work you’ve written about so many things, from masculinity to motherhood to refugee narratives, across a variety of genres. Are there any topics or forms you’ve found especially challenging to approach? 

I find long-form harder. I’m naturally a short-form writer. My memoir and novel I … worked very hard at. I like new genres. Learning to write them is a very, very good discipline. It’s one of the reasons I keep moving along. I’m sure it frustrates my agent and publishers a lot, but I like to do a new thing and learn new shapes. 

It’s amazing how often you think you know that shape because you’ve read a lot of it, and then you get to the process of writing and constructing and go, “hang on, this is so different and intricate and difficult.” 

There’s also a freshness which you can bring to something for the first time, though, which I love.

So you’ve always taught alongside your writing?

I was a teacher before I was a writer – from when I was 21. I think if I had to give up teaching or give up writing, it would be hard to pick.

And obviously a lot of people were alerted to your work — both teaching and writing — through your Guardian piece on The Very Quiet Foreign Girls Poetry Group. I thought it was so brilliant and moving. I was wondering whether, for those unacquainted with the article, you could explain what that involved?

Well, I’ve been teaching in this school for about a decade now, but this article is about one group I taught after three or four years when I was getting into my stride — and really about what they taught me. This is about starting a group all for girls who came to this country late — migrants from different countries — and the way they could write, the way they could tackle poetry, why it was important for them, and what a lesson that can be as a teacher to learn what they’ve got inside them and have to say.

I was really struck by the line in the piece where you talk about “the layer of stories untold”, and the difference between the stories many of your students had to tell officials, for example, and the quieter, more personal stories. You know, the details and textures and memories. What room do you think poetry specifically offers to explore those stories? 

Poetry’s very important. Quite a lot of our students come from living poetry cultures. So, the Arabic poets — the Syrian and Libyan kids that we have — it’s enormously important. Some of it’s almost sinister, actually. Classic Arabic poetry gets recycled on Jihadi sites as part of what they’re doing. But lots of it is not sinister. An amazing number of my Syrian students will say, “oh my uncle’s a poet, my cousin’s a poet.” It’s something everyone wants to do. And the Moroccan and Algerian students often come from living oral poetry cultures. 

Across Afghanistan, some of my students come from cultures where they have poem-offs: oral poetry gatherings where people compete to say the best poem. That’s still alive, that’s still happening. I’ve never had an Afghan kid who wasn’t interested in poetry. So we have that richness in our school. 

Also, for a bright child who’s lost their language, they want to express themselves well, they want to express themselves beautifully — and you can do that in a short poem. You can show your brains. You can push everything out. It can be a very powerful and immediate way of distilling your experience.

Yes, one of the things that hit me about reading your students’ poems is just how extraordinarily good they are. 

Yes! They are just very good. 

They’re fantastic. To go back to the article, you’re also emphatic about the importance of students winning poetry contests and their voices being celebrated and acknowledged. Could you tell me more about those particular aims?

That’s slightly exaggerated, you know, because it’s The Guardian and you’ve got to have a point. But I taught the Foyle course in 2006 and I was amazed how easy it was to teach the language of contemporary poetry — how easy it was for the kids to pick things up, how much more flexible and open they are than older people. But I was also teaching very privileged students. I mean, I picked them and they were lovely. But the majority of them came from privileged backgrounds. And I’d grown up in an era when working class poets were coming to the fore, and I thought — and still think — that it’s worrying. The buying up of the arts by rich people worries me a huge amount. 

We now win more prizes in our funny little comprehensive than Eton or St Paul’s or Westminster. If you establish a poetry writing culture, if they read, if they write, if they have excellence, then they achieve excellence — and I hope we have a few students who’ll go all the way into our publishing houses and our newspapers and bring that experience and not be part of the new elite, because it’s a grim thought that poetry, which is surely the cheapest of the arts, might be dominated only by the rich.

Kate's Top 10

Poetry Books

I completely agree — and it seems like some of your students are already well on their way. It was one of the things I was thinking about ahead of talking to you, especially in terms of poetry’s ‘gatekeepers’ controlling what we access and read. There’s such a vitality and richness to the poems from your students that you’ve been sharing — especially on Twitter. Do you think there are any other ways we could widen those parameters? 

Well, there are different things that people do. I think we have to get over the idea that we’re neutral. You know, I have to check my privilege all of the time, and check my whiteness all of the time — another thing the kids teach me is how white I am. And I think you can’t overestimate that. I mean, people do believe — especially in literature — that there’s such a thing as neutral taste. I just don’t think there is. You’ve got to open up and acknowledge difference, and acknowledge… your own resistance to difference.

And that has to go to all sorts of levels. I think we have to say, “we are particularly open to black candidates” every time we open an editing position, for example. We have to have positive discrimination. But I don’t know enough about that. I’m stuck in my own head in my own school. I suppose what I hope for this book, and my work, is to say, “we’re just as good.” I do think that expectations have a massive effect. It took me a long time, really, to get my expectations up high enough to teach these kids, and I hope with my book that we can raise expectations, too.

Talking of the book, I’d love to hear more about it. How did you go about putting it together? 

Well I anthologise all the time. That’s part of my practice. Last year we self-published 13 different books: anthologies, little pamphlets. And the process of anthologising, of placing your work in print and on the page, is something I work on at all sorts of different levels, from, “let’s type up your poem and make it look nice” to “let’s put a little class anthology together on paper” to “let’s make a book, let’s edit down your poems.” It’s a very educative process. It’s a very rich, rapid lesson to put your poems in a book, and it stays with people for a long time.

So I had a lot of anthologies and a lot of material. I’d also put them together [for] the beautiful radio programme, We’re Writing a Poem About Home. But what actually occasioned it was that I was… well, 13 anthologies was probably too many, and I was staying up rather late. One of them was an anthology for the retiring head-teacher, so I was putting together 10 years’ worth of poems, and I just thought, “these are so good.” Then I thought, “this is just a brilliant book”, and I was about half a bottle of white wine down, and I impulsively sent it to Don Paterson. 

I woke up the next morning and thought, “goodness, I sent a whole load of children’s poems to Don Paterson. I hope he pretends that never happened.” And for two weeks he seemed to be pretending it didn’t, and then he rang me up and said, “I haven’t been so excited about something for ages, and we’re going to publish it.” So, he did.

I can’t wait to read it! Alongside the anthologising you also seem to be very good at using Twitter to amplify a lot of those poems... 

Well, I don’t know if I’m any good at using Twitter [laughs]. I started my account at the beginning of 2017 because I hadn’t been on social media and I thought, “this is ridiculous, you’ve got to grow up, Kate”.

So I started tweeting the kids’ poems, and I got to the point where I had about a thousand followers and I was following about a thousand people and they were mostly teachers and educators and people like me. It was nice! I’d put the poems up and we’d get some impressions and have a conversation about it. And then suddenly everything went a bit wild this year. Now I have seven thousand followers and viral tweets and things like that. And it’s been quite lovely, and a bit overwhelming.

I can imagine. How do your students feel about that? 

They are chuffed to bits. They couldn’t be more impressed or pleased with themselves. It’s quite hilarious. We’ve had assemblies where — we have a kind of poetry culture, so it’s quite normal to have poetry assemblies where we share what the kids have written — but I’ve never seen them quite as gob-smacked as when we looked at the Twitter activity on Freya’s poem and saw that it was half a million [impressions], or whatever it was. 

One of the poems was tweeted by J.K. Rowling. People like Michael Rosen and Nathan Filer and Jorie Graham. it’s a very beautiful thing that they can read the kids’ poems and talk about it. It’s very lovely, and makes you think that maybe social media’s not so bad after all. 

Oh yeah — downsides and big, big plus sides all mixed together. Talking of the internet — I also noticed that you’ve discussed using Google Translate to create poems. How does that affect the way one thinks about language and image?

Well, we work with the Open World Research Institute (with Oxford University) and they have something called the Prismatic Translation project — and they’ve been sending us a poet a term in a different home language for the last couple of years. And that’s been amazing, because we’ve discovered how many languages we’ve got, and what you can do with it. 

We started doing quite a lot of really fun stuff with translation. I mean, Google Translate is amazingly powerful. The Arabic kids, the Syrian kids — they’re on their phones all the time because they’re translating. Sometimes it’s really mad. We were doing this thing last week where the kids were writing poems and translating them into funny languages and then translating them back again — like into Basque and back, and seeing what that did to your metaphors. That’s where it gets creative.  

It’s the pressing of time really. So, Mohamed [one of her students], a Syrian boy, writes a poem in Arabic and we just Google Translate it — and then we do stuff like ring up his mum to check what he meant by a particular word, or text a student at the university. But Mohamed was sitting in the back of a Swahili workshop writing poems in Arabic while the poems on the board were in English, and I think he was inspired by the rhythm of the work — because they were singing in Swahili — but also by the words in English, and by his own experience, and that’s when he wrote that beautiful Left-Right poem I put on Twitter. He really knows what to do with an image, that little boy. 

Yes! Your students’ work is full of so many strong instances of inventive, pretty astonishing approaches to simile and metaphor.

I think young people are much nearer to image. The word and the thing are the same when you’re little, and they’re very near that when they’re young. And then when it comes to rhetoric, if you just give them a rhetorical shape they’ll fill it in — and then learn to use their own. I think we underestimate how strong that thing is. When you teach somebody to dance you don’t give them the rules. You just show them the moves with your feet. And if you sing a poem, if you read a poem with its’ sounds to somebody, they will reply in the same register and rhythm. Well, most people will do that. 

People who’ve lost a language when they were a child, changed languages when they were a child, have better ears. And then they have these images and these huge experiences. 

Absolutely vast. That’s a beautiful way of putting it — I hadn’t thought about it in terms of dancing.

People waste a hell of lot of time writing down rules. Also, I’m always under a lot of time pressure, so I want [my students] to write a poem quickly, and the best thing to do is to read them a poem and not make any fuss and just say, “start with this word”, and they do. 

That’s actually a perfect segue to my final question, which was going to be about the poets you’re currently reading? 

At the moment, obviously, in school we’re so excited about Ocean Vuong [laughs]. We would like to point out that we were early Ocean fans — his concerns about the migrant voice and things are very much ours. Freya [a student] is reading Hera Lindsay Bird, which you can see coming through, too. 

Also, to say more good things about social media, people think, “oh libraries are dead, poems are dead.” Our library’s very much alive, but we do use a lot of poems on our phones, too. I’d say half the poems they read are on their phones, or more. And that’s not bad, is it?