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Kate Clanchy Introduces Poems from the New Anthology, England: Poems from a School

Posted on 15th June 2018 by Martha Greengrass

An unmissable and original new anthology, England: Poems from a School brings together the work of young poets from Oxford Spires Academy, a small comprehensive school with 30 languages, brought together by writer-in-residence Kate Clanchy. Praised by Philip Pullman as 'not just good for school children, but great by any standard', these poems give an extraordinary insight into migrant experiences and reflect on the power of giving young people a platform for their voices to be heard and understood. 

Here, exclusively for Waterstones, Kate Clanchy presents three poems from the collection. 

When I’m asked what I’m doing in my post as writer in residence in my local school, Oxford Spires Academy, I hesitate. I’ve been working there for nearly a decade and my project has evolved in the way all things grow in a school: messily, unpredictably and like Topsy.  So I often tell people what I did that week instead. In the same spirit, I offer you last Tuesday. 

First, I got Mohamed out of his PSHE lesson. As usual, Yakub and Hasan wanted to come too, and as usual, I told them they had to write some more poems first. Then Mohamed and I spent an hour reading Mahmoud Darwish and translating Mohamed’s poems from the Arabic using Googletranslate, an online dictionary, and emails to our friends at Oxford University’s Prismatic Translation Project. As ever I marvelled at the contrast between the sophisticated ancient poet that Mohamed is in Arabic and the naughty small boy who dashes out of the library to bounce a football aggressively against a classroom wall. He is always in trouble.  

Something that does help Mohamed is working with my next class: a group of 12 older boys in their second year of learning English. They are big, effective-looking lads with beards and trendy haircuts, and they all come from war-torn countries – Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Eritrea, Syria -  but their manners are carefully gentle. They are all tender and reverent about poetry.  Today, Abdullah is filled with delight as I show him how many retweets and 'likes' and comments have been posted underneath the poem of his I tweeted last week. 'Now you are nearly as famous as Omar,' I joke, because Omar’s poem was retweeted by Michael Rosen, no less. 'No Miss,' says Abdullah, 'Now people understand my feelings. My feelings for Syria.'

After school, I hold a session for the keenest kids – the ones who have been writing with me for years and who have often won national writing competitions. Mukahang, for instance, has been to a poetry workshop every school week for the last six years. He got an A* in A Level Creative Writing when he was 14 and is a star Foyle Young Poet – though his proudest moment is probably meeting Ocean Vuong.  Today, Mukahang has brought Timi with him, recently arrived from Nigeria. 'He’s good, Miss,' Mukahang says reassuringly, and I hope he’s right because we’re doing something crazily sophisticated, making versions of Rebecca’s Perry 'Love in Icelandic' and plunging our metaphors in and out of other languages to see what might happen. (Eva discovers that translation into Basque causes her poem to produce goats). Timi more than copes. 

Can he be in the book? Asks Mukahang, and Timi can, he will have a place in our 'Dictionary of Rare and Precious Words' which we are self-publishing this summer with sponsorship from the RSL, but he can’t be in our other book, our 'big' book, England: Poems from a School, because it’s already in press with Picador. It’s a selection of poems by our migrant students over all the years I have been teaching in OSA. Like a day in school, it brings together the raw testimony of students like Abdullah with the playful sophistication of kids like Mukahang, and it sings, like our school, with the voices of every continent of the globe, and the endless optimism of the young. Like school, too, it’s moving, shocking, entertaining, and hard to sum up. You should probably read it. 

Okay

There is a Nepalese word okay 

which is not the same as being okay. 

She is the obedient polite twin 

of okay who lowers her head 

and clasps palms to say namaste,

to say I will, I will and please 

all at the same time. 

Mukahang Limbu (16) 

New in England

I walk down the road thinking:

don’t ‘mate’ me, mate, don’t 

make that old-faced mouth 

like a squirrel eating 

its favourite rubbish or a bird

munching its favourite delicious fly 

making delicious fly noises.

enormously, obviously, literally...

Their favourite word is actually. 

Mine are Pardon and Excuse Me. 

I feel deaf and dumb.

I want to speak like that.

Timileyin Amusan (17)

Cham 

When I was in Syria 

I did not count up 

how lucky I was 

when I raised my hand 

to spell the word ‘happiness’; 

when I got each letter correct.

Now my hand is gloved 

in strangeness. Now, 

I try to write the name 

of my country from 

the wrong margin. 

Four letters. Each letter hurts.

Mohamed Assaf (13)

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