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, to mark the start of 2021, she shares news about her current projects, what’s coming up and the soon to be launched Knapp Chats…
I’m windswept and tired, watching the sun go down in Hackney through my kitchen window, remembering a recent visit to St. Paul’s Cathedral where I climbed the two hundred and twenty-five steps to the outdoor viewing platform and had a good look at London sprawling out below. It was the first clear day in what felt like weeks and I could see people crossing the river like ants. Having been mainly writing at my kitchen table for months on end due to various lockdown measures, it was wonderful to be up there with the cold on my cheeks.
Onto the reason I was even standing at the top of St. Paul’s that day: I was lucky enough to be given a tour of the cathedral in preparation for ‘Young City Poets’, a project I’ll be working on with the National Literacy Trust during my tenure. Five schools will visit the cathedral and then I will visit them in their classrooms in the following weeks to create poetry, using what they have learned in the cathedral as inspiration. The Cathedral is home to so much, from a monument to Florence Nightingale, to contemporary art works meditating on global conflicts, to the words of metaphysical poets. There is much to draw upon.
Despite having lived in London since I was a teenager, I had never been inside St Paul’s before. I knew about it, of course. It’s iconic. I see it on the TV, I cycle past it, the recognisable dome is familiar to me in the way most famous landmarks are. But the thought of actually going inside, honestly never occurred to me. I think on some level I saw it, as I often see other large buildings, as impenetrable. I felt this way about theatres when I was young too, the idea of going inside was intimidating. Small anxieties kept creeping into my mind like; where is the door? How do I behave inside? Will I be asked to leave and told I’m silly and not meant for this place?
It wasn’t until the theatre was opened up to me, in the form of a writing group (easily the least scary and friendly place I’d ever been up until this point) that I started to see the theatre as a place that I could walk in and out of without fear or shame.
The same thing happened at St. Paul’s. The head of schools and family learning, Donna McDowell, absolutely made me see the cathedral as a space for me, or for anyone who wants it to be. Inside it was warm and friendly, the staff and volunteers saying cheerful good morning’s to us so many times that our tour took longer than expected. Donna seemed so passionate about using the cathedral as a conduit to learning; about art, about symbolism, about poetry.
Writing this now, I am struck by the parallel between these large buildings and poetry itself. Everyone knows about poetry, in the same way I have always had some awareness of St Paul’s, but perhaps they don’t see it as a space ‘for them.’
My main endeavour over this coming year is to explode that notion. I want the young people I work with to see poetry as something that they are entitled to access, to enjoy and write themselves, that it is absolutely their space, their arena for discovery and joy and fun, a way to express themselves, a space to say whatever they want to say in whatever way they want.
So what have I been up to apart from visiting London’s most famous cathedral? Mainly it’s been about introducing myself and settling into the role. I’ve been writing articles, such as this one in The Independent, chatting on the radio about being YPL, including on BBC Woman’s Hour, and having some really great IGTV chats, one with former Young People’s Laureate Theresa Lola and another with Croydon’s Poet Laureate Shaniqua Benjamin.
These IGTV chats have been such a great way to connect remotely during the Covid pandemic that I’ve decided to carry on with them throughout 2021. Keep an eye out for the first ‘Knapp Chats’ which we’ll post in February. I’ll be speaking to a young poet about their work and we’ll share some writing tips and each read a poem. You can access these via IGTV, Vimeo, YouTube or Spread the Word’s website and I’ll post about them on my socials.
I’ve also spent the last couple of months planning the four residencies I’ll be delivering as part of my tenure. These residencies sit alongside projects like the one at St. Paul’s, as well as working with schools and participating in media opportunities to help raise the visibility of poetry.
It would be remiss to neglect to mention that we are currently grappling with ever changing Covid 19 restrictions so a lot of the meetings planning residencies have involved getting our head’s around logistics. But what I’ve learned is how many incredible organisations there are across London working with young people, organisations that have been tested and destabilised by the recent pandemic but are still committed to delivering projects that will benefit young people.
In terms of confirmed residencies, in the next few months, I’ll be working with the mental health charity CALM on a project that celebrates the positive impact that grassroots football has on young people. I’ll also be working with a charity that works with young refugees, as well as rolling out a project in collaboration with the Guildhall Art Gallery that looks at how some of London’s art works can inspire poetry responding to the city. My final residency will look at how poetry can be made into films and how this can increase the reach of poetry.
Additionally, I’m working on a project with the Royal Society of Literature called ‘Write Across London’, writing original poems in partnership with Raymond Antrobus that try to reflect the experiences of a range of Londoners during the Covid pandemic. I’ve also just recently written a commission for Human Rights organisation Fly the Flag who commissioned thirty poets to write a piece responding to article 25 of the human rights act for Human Rights Day 2020.
Outside of Laureate specific projects, I’ve been teaching online for various theatres, schools and charities and have recently finished delivering a series of ten Arts Council funded workshops, working with over one hundred writers from all over the UK. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to go back into schools and teach writing workshops (Covid safe!) for the writing charity First Story and I continue to deliver workshops for my group of young mums for the Arts Charity All Change. I’ve just delivered a final draft of my novel, out with The Borough Press in 2022 and I’ve curated a new anthology of poems of hope, resistance and joy, out with Trapeze books in Spring 2021 (it feels like we need this more than ever!) I continue to write poems and work on my debut collection. I feel incredibly grateful for all of this, for the brilliant young people and organisations I get to spend my days with, despite it being mostly through a screen.
When I was walking in St Paul’s, it was nearly Christmas. Dark at 4pm, cold. It had been a strange, sad, stressful and uncertain year but planning ahead for my year as Laureate has filled me with hope, there are good people and there is work to be done, and we can make it happen in spite of all the challenges we face.
Published 4 January 2020