Cecilia Knapp is Spread the Word’s Young People’s Laureate for London, working to engage young people in poetry throughout the capital. In her latest blog, that marks the arrival of spring, she reflects on 2021 so far, its challenges, its joys, the projects she’s working on, and much more…
Another three months of lockdown has mercifully elapsed, the sun is out and it’s time for my latest blog as Young People’s Laureate. Against the backdrop of Covid restrictions, an ever-changing arts landscape, occasional snow, perpetual grey skies, endless zoom calls and my strained bandwidth, we have managed to achieve a lot, and I’m proud of it.
As we know, art reflects and amplifies the world around us and the pandemic has set a new context for this work. It has highlighted and entrenched existing inequalities which have been interrogated and reflected in the poetry coming out of my recent workshops. There is uncertainty in bucket loads. But there is also hope and a grasping towards the good things (many of my students have written vividly and originally about the arrival of Spring, for example). There is a possibility for re-setting and re-evaluating the way we have lived.
The grief we all feel is amplified and the possibility for community and collective mourning is hindered by restrictions on our interaction with each other. All this to say; the last year has compounded the need for safe creative spaces, for access to poetry.
Teaching during a pandemic, finding ways to try and reach young people, sometimes in seemingly impossible circumstances, confirms for me why poetry is so important. In workshops, whether they happen virtually or face to face, there is a collective sense of gratitude that we are together doing something in a group; provoking, enquiring, collaborating. The conversations have felt more charged, the poems we create write against the advancing onslaught of injustices and the reality of inequalities, both existing and those that have been drawn out and exacerbated Coronavirus.
Workshops and residencies
The young women I teach at the charity All Change responded to the murder of Sarah Everard and the treatment of protestors with some poetry inspired by this poem by Phoebe Stuckes. ‘Let us walk home and survive,’ They wrote. Sometimes it’s the simplest lines that cut right through it all.
One of my four residencies during my tenure as YPL is with Young Roots and The Refugee Council. I have been working fortnightly with their young women’s group who responded to international women’s day with poems in praise of the women in their life; ‘You’re the hoping of dawn/that my eyes drink/the heart of a book/ the silence and the voice/I am here because you have been/at my side.’ I’m thrilled to be working with artist Jess Nash to illustrate some of these poems and showcase the beautiful stories from these young women.
The National Literacy Trust and St. Paul’s Cathedral project I mentioned in January’s blog is well underway. I was lucky enough to visit Newhaven school in person in March and help students use what they had learnt about the cathedral to write poems using metaphor. I was so moved by how some of the students explained their sadness to me, but also their hopes for the future, what brings them joy.
Aside from helping us to find a language to respond to the world in these bizarre times, there is that important sense of togetherness that a writing workshop creates, so essential in times of fear and isolation. There is an atmosphere of safety, a special and distinct place outside of the normal rules of logic and productivity, to reflect, to discover, to play, to express and to share; about whatever you might need to.
I recently ran an online campaign #WriteThroughThis, a series of short videos and longer webinars with exercises to facilitate some writing time for anyone who might need it. I began every workshop with an invitation for whoever was watching, to take this time to themselves, to remove any pressure they’ve imposed and allow whatever needs to happen, to happen. I wanted participants to let go of any ambition to write about any particular thing, to get lost and in this way, to discover what they really needed to say. I recently finished reading Caroline Bird’s collection The Air Year which begins with a quote from the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer; ‘In the middle of the forest there’s an unexpected clearing which can only be found by those who have gotten lost.’
These workshops were about just that, trusting that you can come to the page from a place of uncertainty. I don’t think poetry is the business of finite answers anyway. As one of my heroes Mary Ruefle says, ‘I would rather wonder than know.’ Poetry, for me, is less about understanding the world, and more about asking questions of it, getting lost in the writing and trusting that you will land on your ‘clearing’; that bright sharp feeling achieved when you have found the means to express something that before felt impossible. This is one of the reasons I advocate for raising the visibility of poetry, so its positive impacts can be relished and enjoyed.
A lot of what I do when I begin a workshop is undoing, or at least challenging, what are perhaps the more reductive ideas about poetry the students already have. Sometimes I have asked students to describe what a poet ‘looks like’ to me. This is quite a good way to gauge what their preconceptions are. There’s quite a lot of hat feathers, old white men and navel gazing. There’s quite a lot of ‘poetry has to rhyme’ or ‘poetry has to be difficult’ or ‘poetry uses a lot of big words.’ I confess to them my heavy reliance on google and the dictionary. I tell them I’m less interested in the poetry of the past, and more interested in the poetry of the future, their voices. I invite them to see themselves as poets, that their everyday language and experiences can be their own poetics. Once I tell them that they could write about literally anything in the world, that normal rules, the restrictive logic of grammar and fact don’t apply, it feels like we really get somewhere. We take away the seriousness, the loftiness. We have fun. And during that freedom, the ideas are formed, shining out between the lines of the poems like jewels dropped in the grass. (A side note, I wrote this for The Young Poets Network about having fun while you’re writing.) Sometimes poems are just happy accidents. Once we get rid of the idea that there’s a ‘way’ or a ‘formula’ to write a poem, we are free to run through the forest and get lost. We give ourselves permission; this is a space I can roam around in and explore.
I have to remind myself of this regularly, and reconnect with the joy of writing. I must confess, I am constantly overwhelmed with imposter syndrome, more so during the pandemic with all this indoor thinking time. I look at the lists of books I have made that I have not managed to read yet because I have been busy with the grunt work of survival and I have to convince myself, like I try to convince my students, that poetry is my world too. It’s no surprise that they feel excluded from poetry if even, after over a decade of writing, I still feel that way too.
I’ve been thinking a lot about why the majority of young people I meet don’t see poetry as something ‘for them’ and how writers I know always seem to have ‘fallen in’ to poetry. I did myself. I accidentally stumbled into a writing workshop thinking it was a session for budding actors. Former laureate Momtaza Mehri describes in a recent essay ‘it’s difficult to overstate the lifelong reverberations of stumbling across the right poet at the right age.’ Whilst I think it is a wholly appropriate way to describe the feeling of being a poet- that of falling, stumbling, grabbing little bits as we float on down through the cosmos of our minds- I wonder if it’s significant that so many of my poetry pals came upon it by a happy accident. I don’t know if I want everyone to just fall into poetry. How many will have missed the hole in the ground? I want them to be included in poetry, not have it left to fate. I want poetry on their radars. This is why it’s vital we integrate poetry, and a wider more diverse range of poetry that speaks to more young people, into schools, so young people can read and enjoy poetry, see themselves reflected, and crucially, have their say about the world and feel that bright, brilliant feeling when they discover something about themselves and express it.
Articles and conversations
The Guardian recently interviewed myself and the former young people’s laureates and it was so refreshing to be asked about, and to be able to shine a light on the beautiful landscape of contemporary British poetry, rather than the same stale questions about ‘the resurgence of poetry’ (it’s been about forever, it’s just not always been celebrated!) or ridiculous hypotheticals about whether Keats would enjoy today’s poetry or not. Conversations like this will surely help us to raise the visibility of a wider range of poets for young people and for educators. I also recently wrote about Amanda Gorman ,how she helped to showcase the power of poetry on the global stage and how her poems speak to young people.
I’ve really enjoyed recording ‘Knapp Chats’, a series of conversations I’ll be having over my tenure with writers who I admire, and I’m hoping it will be one of the ways to open up poetry to more people. It’s fascinating and encouraging to hear in their own words about what poetry means to them and how they got into writing. You can watch the first two now, with Travis Alabanza and Rachel Long.
Reading and writing
I have managed to find some time amongst this all to read and to write. I need it. Lately, I find myself fantasising about anywhere other than my bedroom and my desk- wide open spaces and impossibly large trees. As the writer Eli Goldstone wrote in a recent guardian article which I found intensely comforting, ‘Unhappiness lies in the dead space between our current reality and our projected ideals.’ It’s not possible to escape our current situation. We have to accept that. Therefore, the only thing that redeems me from my sense of stagnation, is reading poems. They take me elsewhere entirely, not only geographically (waterfalls! Redwoods! Brooklyn, New York!) but they also reach inside me and root around and leave me full of questions, and other people’s lives. Then the writing. Despite my proclivity to procrastinate, I have written a fair bit. I have a new poem in Ambit magazine which you can watch here. Commissions have helped a lot, having that urgency of a deadline. Writing this piece for Vogue was fun. I wrote a piece in praise of key workers for the ethical cleaning company Clean for Good (I’m also judging a competition they are rolling out which aims to celebrate key workers.) I’ve been writing an original commission with Raymond Antrobus for this Royal Society of literature project, responding to the pandemic. You can watch us talk about it here.
It’s true though that sometimes, writing can feel wretched and impossible. Especially during a pandemic. Poet CA Conrad calls the process of writing poems, a ‘ritual’ and explains, they do not always work. Lorca says ‘the poet who embarks on the creation of a poem begins with the aimless sensation of a hunter about to embark on a night hunt through the remotest of forests. Unaccountable dread stirs in his heart.’ I really feel this. Take last Tuesday, for example. I was writing. I had procrastinated all morning (a long run, the careful unloading of the dishwasher) because I was feeling the dread of beginning. Will I fail? What would I uncover? I was writing a poem about the tyranny of London landlords when WHAM! The poem revealed itself to me. It was about something completely different. I had found my clearing in the forest. I had encountered and moved through my fear (fear of beginning? Fear of understanding? Fear of not understanding? Fear of speaking? Fear of not speaking?) and it motivated me- I had a new poem, which I briefly loved. I had understood myself a little more, and I had even more questions. I put my faith in writing, as I always do. Even when it feels so tough.
Published 15 April 2021