What a fabulous two weeks I spent with Oxford Concert Party and Tony Lloyd working with Syrian Sisters at Rose Hill Community Centre in Oxford. Though it was more like running a play scheme than an arts project at times (we had tiny tots as well as juniors and teenagers) we got an incredible amount of work done.
For two weeks, we danced and sang, told stories, wrote poems, made scores of migratory birds which we stuck to the windows, and travellers' footprints from maps of the world which we stuck to a never-ending roll of card. The food the children's mums prepared for us all was fantastic, too. This was a nourishing project in every way.
What joy it was to discover a supreme storyteller amongst the children. She told us a new story every day and she told an amazing tale about a mouse and a lion on the last day when we held a showcase for the general public. Two of the women turned out to be excellent drummers, as well. There was no shortage of volunteer dancers once they struck up.
It's hard for me to imagine what their lives were like before they arrived in Oxfordshire. I have never experienced war first-hand, much less the total decimation of my country. Grief isn't just about mourning the dead, I am reminded. It's also about loss of one's home and that deep sense of belonging when your family has lived somewhere for generations. I hope we managed to contribute a sense of welcome in this chilly little corner of the world. I hope we managed to silence some of those terrors and deflect that grief for a little while.
We mustn't underestimate a human being's capacity for survival, of course. The Syrian Sisters are building a future. So are the children. And, I do believe, they are building this country's future too. Such generosity, warmth, courage and openness are necessary ingredients for a healthy society. When we come together in a true spirit of sharing, we can achieve so much.
I'm back with Creative Future, too. This means lots of travelling up and down the country - Preston, Newcastle and Brighton - working with writers who find themselves underrepresented for many reasons. Some people are new to writing and are trying it for the first time. Others have been writing for years are beginning to explore and experiment with new ideas and audiences. As always, I find I have something learn. It was really interesting listening to a discussion amongst ex-offenders about how a writer can inspire empathy in a reader.
This series of workshops - there are six in total - explore synaesthesia, colour, music, translation, story-boarding and tone. Essentially, these are workshops that focus on how we communicate and interpret. Every act of writing is perhaps a form of translation. Even the way we read and intuit and finally comprehend something is an act of translation. Since we can never inhabit each others' heads, that is the nearest we can ever get. It all seems terribly imprecise, but there's something fizzy and spicy about the bits we fail to get. It's like stepping on the edge of a crack in the ground knowing you could fall into it. That's what reading and listening are for me. That's what learning a language is like. It's good to fall sometimes. It's good to take risks.
After an interval of two years, I'm doing a storytelling session at the Corn Exchange's Memory Cafe in Newbury next month. I have plenty of new stories to share as well as some musical instruments and an assortment of hats. There's always a chance that someone might want to play a part or make the sound effects.
Am I writing myself? Well, the short answer is 'yes and no' - which means I'm writing in gasps and gulps. I'm very pleased to be one of the contributors to Songs for the Unsung edited by Joy Howard for Grey Hen Press. There are some terrific poems in this, many by poets I have a lot of respect for, and there are various launch readings taking place this year.
I shall be reading from it at Kenilworth Books, Leamington Spa on Wednesday 20th June.
‘They are everywhere. They curl on streets in quiet blankets, wait at borders, work in cabbage fields, staff hospitals by night. They can be unheard, unseen. But when you read the generous and eloquent poems in this anthology, they are no longer the unsung.’
‘This beautiful compilation illuminates lives of the unseen and unheard, unheeded and, at times, hated. Here is a migrant child making sense of insults, here someone kind meeting a stranger and listening. We are blessed witnesses, guided gently out of grey apathy, towards understanding. And those words. They sound like intonations, not to the careless gods above, but to the humanity within each of us.’
Similarly, Poems for Grenfell Tower is a very good collection - again, featuring work by poets whose work I admire. The book is available from Onslaught Press. Here is a brief extract lifted from the foreword by David Lammy MP:
The poems are able to express the scale of loss, in a way that prose is not able to do — from the empty school chair invoked in Michael Rosen’s piece, to Rachel Burns’s ‘In a Hotel Room, A Father Sits Alone’. Unlike countless newspaper articles and reports in the media, poetry goes some of the way in allowing the reader to understand what is really missing — a child in a schoolroom, a much loved daughter.Poems for Grenfell Tower brings together many different poets, whose voices are joined together in elegy. Ricky Nuttall, a Red Watch ﬁreﬁghter who attended Grenfell, offers a heart-wrenching account of coming to terms with what happened. His heroism is reinforced by Christine Barton’s ‘Red Watch’, which pays a moving tribute to the work of ﬁreﬁghters. Poems such as these are able go beyond the limits of prose in expressing the impact of the tragedy. In doing so, they offer an important way in which the voices of Grenfell are heard.
Dates for readings from Poems for Grenfell Tower are as follows:
Seven Dials Club
Cape of Good Hope, Oxford
Artefact Café, Birmingham
RMT Education Centre, Doncaster
Dolman Theatre, Newport
Scottish Poetry Lib, Edinburgh
venue TBA June
Bradford Literary Festival
Poetry Library, South Bank