Back to School

Thursday, 2nd October 2014

I spent this year's National Poetry Day whizzing around Moray schools delivering three packed one-hour workshops to secondary pupils - S2 at Elgin High, S6 at Elgin Academy and S4 at Lossiemouth High. The workshops kicked off with my attempt to show how 'cool' poetry is by showing a short video of Kate Tempest (in her pre-hip hop days, of course) kicking it live to a small crowd. It seemed a good way to get the pupils on side. After all, how many of them had truly been looking forward to an hour of, zzzz, poetry?

The rest of the workshop was sheer hard work! No, of course it wasn't but it did include using the five senses to bring unusual words to the fore (boggin' was one great example of this), free writing (thinking specifically about a memory of either their first day of school or a family holiday), alliteration and onomatopaeia (for which I recited illustrative examples by WH Auden and Spike Milligan!), different forms and rhythms and, finally, rhymewells - a technique I was taught at Open University that helps you look for rhymes, slant-rhymes, half-rhymes or just words which look good with another. I did explain to the pupils that poetry need not have a strict rhyme (in fact many poets I know detest the very thought) but that the repetition of sound can be important. I also read two poems that I felt very nicely summed up this year's theme of 'Remember' - 'Consider the Lily' by Eddie Gibbons and 'The Captain of the 1964 Top of the Form Team' by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy.

One outcome of the workshop was for each pupil to write a poem within the hour. This seemed to be asking a lot given the time it would take for me to rifle through the slides but practically every pupil had a good bash at it and I like to think at least fifty new poems emanated over the course of the day. Some pupils were even keen to recite their new works to their classmates and, after some gentle persuasion from their teachers, others followed. I was really impressed by the quality overall and I do hope each class went on to work on and refine their works.

Returning to Elgin Academy was a real thrill even if it has moved a few hundred metres from where it was when I attended between 1989 and 1995. I was pleased to find out that around four teachers from my time are still there and had a good long chat with former teachers Mr Davidson and Mrs Meisner. Even better was the fact the school dinners have now significantly improved and I was able to tuck in to something tasty while deliberating the entries to the staff poetry competition which I had been asked to judge. I may have caused a minor scandal by relegating the hot favourite into second place but, oh well!

I received some great feedback from the pupils, some of which can be read below. However, most gratifying of all was chatting to one pupil from Lossiemouth High after the home bell had gone. She said she wanted to be an author and was already working on her first young adult novel. We had a great exchange of ideas and tips, long after the rest of the class had headed for the school bus and it topped off a great National Poetry Day for me.

"His visit has definitely built my confidence in terms of both writing and performing and I hope to continue writing throughout the year."

"All advice and information that was shared I found to be very beneficial and helped me to think about all the possibilities I can explore within my folio. I highly recommend this to other pupils in the future."

"I enjoyed this because I have never truly written poetry before and this made me feel more comfortable writing it. I also enjoyed the transition between the short story writing towards the poetry [...] you can tell a story through poetry and I didn’t truly know that before."

"The gradual build up to constructing our poems by using simple, easy to follow steps meant the process of writing a poem was broken down and made a lot easier to understand."

"Richie Brown’s presentation was very interesting and educational. The only issue with the presentation was the time, or lack of. This however was not Richie’s fault, as it also meant less time was spent sitting around doing nothing."

"The techniques that were given to us, such as incorporating sounds, tough, smell, taste and sight, will prove to be invaluable for writing short stories in class. I also enjoyed the free-writing task because it was quite interesting and amusing seeing what I wrote down."

A huge thanks goes to Shelagh Toonen of Elgin Academy, Angela Walker of Lossiemouth High and Eilidh McLean and Alison Harding of Elgin High for inviting me to give these workshops.