This morning I worked with seven Year 9 students (aged 13 and 14) from The Clarendon College, Trowbridge, Wiltshire, who are writing poems to commemorate the visit of the Olympic Torch Relay to their school. The poems will be included in the Wiltshire 2012 Festival of Celebration at Hudsons Field, Salisbury on 11th July and will be on permanent display within Clarendon College after that.
As a warm-up, I asked the students to write a list of all the sounds they could hear in the room. Most participants enjoy this warm-up exercise and it encourages writers to observe small details. After writing for two minutes (timed), and comparing observations, I asked the students to imagine they were standing at the entrance to their school and to write down all the sounds they could hear from there. Next, they were asked to imagine that they had the ability to hear any sound from the room they were in, all the way up to and inside the house they lived in, and to write what they could hear. Finally, they had to imagine that they possessed the super-power to be able to hear anything in the world or universe and to write down all the sounds they could hear.
The purpose of this extended warm-up is to encourage the writers to exploit the limitless potential of their imagination. Some students didn’t imagine far but included visceral detail in their writing; one student’s furthest imagined sound was the clatter of trolleys in the superstore on the edge of town; another student imagined the sound of warfare on an imaginary alien planet.
After the warm-up, I guided the students in compiling a list of sensory images that they might like to include in their poem. They thought back to the day of the Olympic Torch Relay visit and wrote all the sounds, smells and sights they remembered. They noted any particular tastes or the way things had felt to touch. They wrote memories of the weather, the atmosphere and mood around school, and their own feelings.
Next, armed with this list of sensory images, the students listened to extracts from Paul Farley’s ‘I Ran All the Way Home’ (after Joe Brainard) and wrote their own memories of the day, beginning each recollection “I remember…..”.
Then, considering different ways to shape their poems, the students read ‘Desert’ by Elisabeth Wilson (from ‘Fools for Love and Salt’: Foyle Young Poets of the Year) and wrote about the Olympic Torch using the first person singular. I was interested to discover that some students found it almost impossible to write a recollection of the day starting with “I remember…” but were unstoppable once they imagined being the Torch and wrote in the first person! Similarly, some students were helped by reading the next poem, ‘A Lullaby for Bullets’ by Brian Turner and chose to address the Torch as ‘You’ in a poem.
By now the students had been concentrating for over an hour and were beginning to flag but there were a few more poems I wanted to share with them. I provided small packs of sweets for a small boost of energy!
We talked about using similes and we read Jen Hadfield’s ‘Prenatal Polar Bear’ which describes the bear hanging in formaldehyde “like a softmint or astronaut dreaming in his moonsuit”. The students came up with some terrific similes for the Olympic Torch; a “cheese grater”, an “upside down dunce’s hat”, an “ice cream cone” to name but a few.
We discussed taking an image to an extreme. For instance to quote Robert Marsland’s one line poem ‘Moon and paper’ (from Cake magazine, Issue 3): “Paper touches moon. The moon catches fire.” The students discussed extending the simile of the Torch looking like a cheese grater to include details about cheese melting in the heat. Everything was becoming rather surreal but the students were starting to experiment and play with the images they were creating.
We ended by studying Kate Clanchy’s ‘Our Balloon’, laid out on the page in the shape of a hot-air balloon and some students have started to experiment with setting out their poem in the shape of the Olympic Torch.
After only one, two-hour session, some terrific poems are beginning to emerge. Now one more session to further draft their work and to prepare it for printing and presentation! I’ll write about that next week.
My sincere thanks to the students for their cheerful enthusiasm and energy.
P.S. Writer Gail Aldwin has kindly sent a link to the Young Poets Network Olympic Poem Relay competition which I’ll be encouraging students to enter.