I’ve been the Literature and Verbal Arts Coordinator at CAP for about nine months now. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed looking after the two large community writing projects which CAP run annually. While I also thoroughly enjoyed working with adult writers through community workshops and masterclasses, I’d like to focus here on my experience facilitating our fantastic schools project because it’s had a real, lasting impact on how I view arts participation in schools and other educational facilities.
This year’s Poetry in Motion Schools project saw approximately fifteen poet facilitators unleashed to inspire young people in both Primary and Secondary schools across Northern Ireland. The project was able to reach out to twenty nine schools, encompassing almost nine hundred student participants all of whom had a chance to write their own poetry, workshop ideas with a visiting poet, record their work and join together for an enormous, joy-filled celebration of the project, at the Ulster Hall last week. An anthology of poetry was also published and distributed to the schools and students. Though all the young writers involved in the project are winners in my eyes, I’d like to offer particular congratulations to Rhiannon Reilly from St Catherine’s College whose stunning poem, “Visiting Hours,” was awarded the Seamus Heaney Award for outstanding achievement and, also to all the students in Dr Ross Thompson’s class at Victoria College who were specially selected for remarkable work and engagement with the project.
I learnt so much from facilitating Poetry in Motion this year but I have a few specific thoughts I’d like to share about why projects like this, engaging young people with literature and writing in a creative, inclusive manner are so vital right now. Firstly, having a poet facilitator visit a school is a fantastic way to encourage our teachers. I got to meet almost thirty teachers through Poetry in Motion this year. All of them were inspiring people, passionate about their role and the young people they teach every day. They work in increasingly pressurised environments, strapped for time and other resources, yet still do a remarkable job of nurturing well-rounded, socially-engaged human beings. They often wish they had more time and resources to spend on supposedly non-essential activities like fostering creativity and having fun. It was wonderful to hear from many of them how having a visiting poet in the classroom encouraged them and felt like a much-needed opportunity to unleash creativity, fun and confidence in their pupils. Some teachers even admitted their involvement in the project has inspired them to get writing again themselves. I’m a big fan of teachers. I have a couple of teachers who invested heavily in me as a young writer and I am so very grateful for their encouragement. Anything which can be done to support our teachers and remind them just how remarkable they are is surely a good thing.
Secondly, as Myra Zepf our fantastic judge and children’s laureate for Northern Ireland said at the Ulster Hall launch event, Poetry in Motion is a wonderful opportunity to remind our young people that you don’t have to wait until you’re grown up to be a writer or an artist of any kind. If you’re full of imagination and ideas and attempting to realise these ideas through some kind of art form, then you’re already an Artist. For many of us, not so young, artists it took years to grow into our own names. We mistakenly felt we required publication, exhibition or some other kind of external validation to be entitled to call ourselves artists or writers. Poetry in Motion and other youth-focused art projects aim to give young participants the confidence to boldly claim their identity as artists, early on, to enjoy this role, to grow up with it and in doing so bless the rest of us with many, many years of access to their creative outpourings. I wish someone had taken me aside at five or six and said, “you’re a writer.” It might not have taken me so long to make a serious go at writing stories.
Finally -and this only struck me last night, whilst listening to the Scottish novelist Ali Smith, quote Andy Warhol’s definition of art, (“art is a hole in the wall,”)- I have realised that placing a tool like poetry in the hands of a child is an incredible way of assisting them in their attempts to make sense of and bring meaning to what is an increasingly troubled period of world history. Art creates a hole in the walls which separate us one from the other, allowing individuals and groups to glimpse world’s and outlooks we might not otherwise have an opportunity to see. The young people’s writing collated in this year’s Poetry in Motion anthology bears witness to the wisdom in Warhol’s outlook. Here are poems which peel back the binary divisions between us and them, which attempt to make sense of difficult, non-sensical concepts like war and suffering, which invite empathy through imagination. Here are poems which make holes in the walls these young people have inherited. It’s an incredible hopeful collection. It has been such a journey and a privilege to facilitate this year’s Poetry in Motion project. I have grown as a writer and a person by being part of this project. I look forward, with confidence, to reading many, many more poems from our young writers in the years to come.