‘They have a lot to say about their confinement.’ Kate Clanchy shares her students’ powerful lockdown poetry

Poet and teacher Kate Clanchy shares some of the incredible poems her students and former students have written in the lockdown poetry workshops she has been running online.

by   Kate Clanchy
04/06/2020

Award-winning poet Kate Clanchy has been teaching poetry at Oxford Spires Academy, a small comprehensive school where over thirty languages are spoken, for over five years. Her talented students have won every prize going, and a selection of their poetry was collected in the anthology England: Poems From a SchoolWhen lockdown began, Kate knew she needed to continue to provide her young students and former students with a creative outlet in these difficult times. Here she explains how her online poetry workshops have provided a lifeline to young people missing their friends and struggling with the disruption to their lives, and shares some of the stunning work her students have produced. 

I’ve never really believed that poetry workshops could be taught online. Tutorials and edits are one thing – they can work quite well on the phone – but for the scribbling, heavy breathing magic that can happen in a group writing together, particularly a group of young people, I’ve always relied on being physically present. In the school where I taught for a decade, Oxford Spires Academy, and where the anthology, England: Poems from a School was created, being physically present meant in the library, after school, seated around the big table.

But when lockdown started, I had to think differently. Generations of my students were back from university, living disconsolately with their parents, or lonely in student accommodation, or furloughed from sixth form and missing it far more than they could believe, and they were all writing poems and sending them to me. So I tentatively downloaded Zoom and sent out invitations, and one by one they appeared on my screens shrinking frames: Mukahang, in his first year at Oxford, Sophie, just finishing her MA, Asima, working for the Rathbones Folio Foundation, dyslexic Aisha, relieved of her A Levels; Timi, back from Portsmouth, Annie, Amber, Anna, Linnet and Amaani, halfway through sixth form. We were all so moved and pleased to see each other, even postage stamp-sized.

students-on-zoom-call-with-raymond-antrobus

Kate and some of her students during one of their online poetry workshops with special guest, poet Raymond Antrobus. 

And it seems the poetry workshop magic still works. I very much miss being able to walk around the table, tap on shoulders, and peer at manuscripts in process but I’ve learned to do some of it in Google Drive. During the class, all is clicks, quiet, and camera phones turned to ceiling. But we still seem to get something from writing together, because, at the end of half an hour, everyone has created something and wants to share it by reading aloud. This is another habit I’ve built up over years in the library. I’ve even taught them to laugh at each other’s self-deprecatory introductions: ‘Opposite talk’ they call to Sophie when she says she’s written ‘something prosy.’ ‘Bet you haven’t’.

She hasn’t. No one has. The standard of poetry in this group is stunning. Perhaps because they are more mature, perhaps because they are self-selected – but I think it is also the times. These young people are shut up with their families at the very age when they should be out in the world, enduring the sight of a sunny spring outside their own windows but unable to run out in it, and they have a lot to say about their confinement. When I put some of the poems on Twitter, it was clear that it’s not just me who thinks so. I’m so glad to have the chance to share their work more widely here with Picador who have been so supportive of our work.

 

The Poem in Quarantine

The poem is trying to convince itself all families 

are like Russian dolls, tells everyone the hokey kokey 

 

is its favourite song. If this poem were autumn, it 

would not be dry enough for leaf fights, if it were 

 

spring the daffodils would be stars a little worse

for wear. But this poem is neither, its season is the 

 

smudge, at 17:36 pm. The poem tries to walk it off, 

but the rule is the muck is there even if 

 

you can’t see it. The poem diverts eyes like a 

fisheye mirror It’s heavy isn’t it, the poem thought, 

 

with the whole sky above your head, and can 

that be technically allowed?  Birds fly 

 

above the poem’s head in a V-shape like 

the sky is telling the poem to fuck off. The day 

 

this poem pulls out the plug everything 

will sink into the ground like water pouring 

 

into a moat some child dug at the beach 

and leave just the shells on the windowsill. 

 

This is no way to live. Only knowing the time 

by the temperature of your tea, seconds 

 

by your heartbeat when it’s in the nature of a poem  

to burn bridges, to smell the coffee, to go break 

                some more glass.

 

Linnet Drury


 

In the last week

I’ve noticed how large bees can be.

So large they’ve made their way

into my dreams at night.

 

How quickly

condensation can gather

on a cup in a hot room.

 

The way sellotape

gathers paint

when pulled from a wall.

 

Two days ago, I traced

all the messages I’ve ever sent

And read them again.

 

Yesterday I noticed how 

my fingertips shrivel after washing

like thorns against my face.

 

Today I placed my hand 

against a window

to feel the warmth of April

 

And my hand left a print.

 

Amaani Khan 

 

 

mother 

 your palm on my fever returns me 

to our old house 

to  the smell of boy moulting his pubes armpits plucked in handfuls boy 

with hair grease leftover from days without a shower boy learning how 

to stop being a boy learning how to stop shedding & stinking like boy 

fat asian boy 

in  nightmare late summers 

behind the barracks the suburbs laughing as the fat asian boy pants 

behind his father on a bicycle for eating five too many packets of maggis 

back to that 

army house so full 

with a soldier’s rage there was no place for the furniture for 

the chemical mother returning after scrubbing toilets or the boy 

dancing in flesh with the lights out to the hum of the radiator 

still white in the dark

to the hours of power cuts line gayo?

somebody screams through the fruit flies crying for their mothers. 

Why do their monsoon night-songs sound like time? 

remember 

blinking with my fingers feeling my way to a door some memory 

tells me was 

black and smelt 

of cigarettes 

of the laughter of men

 a lost firefly dies outside 

his door & this boy is too scared

to open it.  

 

Mukahang Limbu

 

 

My mother

is the corridor

 between two rooms

At 1pm.

 

the clink

of mugs

gathered in fours.

 

thread

snapping between teeth

with some thread

still in the mouth.

 

My mother’s gaze

is the sunset at 16:00

that stains the  living room

pink.

 

My mother

will  always

be a language

I’ll never understand.

 

Ammani Khan

 

 

Fork

I’ve often been told I shovel

my food, like I might never eat again,

but when we’re stuck at home

we cling to meals as punctuation.

*

That, and the garden. I shovel

soil, wash it compulsively down

with the metal watering can

with the handle like my mug.

*

We’ve been mothballed, put in

the box in the attic, time’s very own

basement.  My house feels small.

*

My house feels small until I try to find

things in it.

*

Two days in I asked the houseplants

if they want to be named,

now Spikey wants to be renamed,

his promising sharp spears

have curved into silt-brown veins,

like tired fingers.

*

Soon I’ll be eating soup with a trowel

as I’ve lost all the spoons,

digging the lawn with a dinner fork

as I’ve lost the spade.

 

Linnet  Drury

 

 

Mirror

I used to be that boy that wakes up in the morning 

with the day telling me how I live my life.

With the world telling me how I dress, 

and walk and sleep and  eat and act

 

Now I wake up to complain to the guy

in the mirror about me, getting fat

Now I’m bald and lazy and twenty,

ageing in my room. Who knew hugs 

 

can be so deadly? Now the world says 

fuck you instead of bless you and

going to the park  is the best thing 

that happened to me this year.

 

My front door smells like fast food.

I don’t know where I am anymore.

I don’t know who I am. 

 

Timileyin Amusan

 

 

Ramadan in Quarantine

What would Afghanistan be if Fawzia Koofi’s mother never came back for her?

Why didn’t Benzir’s husband value her life more than society's shame?

 

Why did Uncle Ruksar marry another woman while still married to Aunty Zabreen?

Why is this still allowed?

 

Why did Nirmay try to kiss me when I kept saying no?

Why did my supervisor offer a quick fuck in the bathroom when I was 18?

 

Why did Sabrina say a girl in shorts is to be blamed for being raped because her husband watches pornography?

Do I need to wear a hijab to be guilt free? 

 

Which one person first said that any bhai takes priority over me? 

Why does my culture still make me live this?

 

Would I have visited Uncle Suleman before all this, if I knew he’d die on Friday?

Why do I feel lonely with all 7 family members right beside me?

 

Asima Qayyum

 

 

Crossing

I didn’t know I’d miss waiting 

at traffic lights, waiting for a burst 

of colour, a static of sound. 

I didn’t know I’d miss noise, 

crowds, the breath of rain 

as it hits parched tarmac, being 

near enough to hear people’s 

breath. I didn’t realise I was only 

exactly alone when I was 

walking home from school, or 

to the shops. I didn’t 

realise it was the in-

between times 

that held 

me together.

 

Linnet Drury 


 

 

To Live

I want a frisbee for slicing

an empty park, opened windows

for an angry wind,

a bike for a backwards hill. 

 

Give me a race I will

lose, a joke I will finish. I want

a busy room to sink in, rows 

of real teeth under a real ceiling.

 

The future can go fuck itself:

to hell with checkboxes

pressed against pens, to hell with

Leave meeting? 

 

Just tell me stories with your

skateboard as our bench- give us

a day of abandoned car parks

and gritty spit on curbs,

 

then a moonlit walk to the corner

shop along double yellowed

streets to buy 2 fantas and a packet

of salt and vinegar crisps.

 

Annie Davison 

 

 

Cooking

Because time is a tuna sandwich

with some pickles and I am tired of it

today I spoon out the mustard of sweat. 

 

Today the wheels of my belly will bike 

the cobbled alleyways of my body. I declare

 a republic of mackerel and sunflower oil, 

 

where the streets will be soy sauce and 

the smiles are easy as a  knife into tofu. 

Give me the lover who will make 

 

a stir fry out of me, eat jasmine rice 

on the side, every grain like pieces

of a lovesong in a foreign language.  

 

To hell with recipes, diets, soap, wearing 

clean  underwear, to hell with sunrise, aprons, 

the blanket of dusk, eyebags or cold teabags. 

 

Give me the lover whose words drool for food 

that my body could never really learn to cook.

To hell with  the ways to measure water 

in a poem, the ways to wash the vegetables 

in a poem, the ways to cry in a poem, the ways 

to hold yourself in between a line about an oven

timer and waiting to lose your virginity. To hell

with poetry, with memories, with  my

mother’s food  - maybe not my mother’s briyani - 

 

to hell the memory of turning nineteen 

in quarantine.  To hell with waiting. To hell 

with this poem. To hell with how long. 

 

Mukahang Limbu

 

 

Romance

Instead of these bored rooms what if 

we were in Italy. Rome. In a cafe tourists know 

 

as a home away from home slipping in

and out of coffee 18-year olds drink

 

when the world tells them they're old enough, 

and pretend we're not looking 

 

at the boys on the table behind you. In Italy 

we’d laugh with our disgusting laughs about 

 

how we met, and the time you, and when I ,

and what we wore that day. Your hair 

 

would swim around your neck making you 

a model and the skin you once told me 

 

you hated would glow and I would 

join that long line of men 

in love with you. 

 

Aisha Borja


 

Language

Today scientists discovered a new type of time, 

thick, like broth for leather garden squash, 

soundless as hard empty tarmac, slow 

as watching blossoms come and go: plum, cherry, apple, may…

 

The day after we locked down was the hottest of the year. 

Now the roses are exploding. Their debris is the words 

my nokia autocorrects Covid to: bothe, antid, anthe. 

A word that didn’t exist, like an undiscovered cave.

 

I mouth the new words of our language, interpret 

their taste: furlough gathers dust, second wave is 

a sea storm, the r-number stands for revenge number,

radiating redundancy, reason and rationality, a red number, 

 

rehab, ramiferous, ragmatical, Rabelasian, renegade rendezvous, a reminiscing number, a reminder of remorse, resilient repetition, restoring and resurrecting and revealing and retaliating retribution, it rewards ruin, it is rumours, it is lack of room, it is rude, it is a riddle, a ramshackle, ravenous, recurring number.

 

Linnet Drury 


 

Days

On the 1st day you could feel 

the relief in the halls, the imprinted floors 

the walls still covered in pen 

but no longer harbouring the hands

that wrote on them  JT likes SB 

and RS is a whore 

 

On the 3rd day we sat in 

our living rooms with our different 

atmospheres. We all cried 

on the 4th day. Men with their 

heavy man tears, women 

with their heavy man tears. 

 

On the 12th day our parents 

had remembered their mothers’ 

phone numbers but 

forgotten their faces.

The bridge of her nose, 

the shape of her eyebrows. 

 

On the 13th day, middle children 

took a survey to determine 

their lives inside. I watched 

my sister read 

her outcome and shackle 

herself to her bedroom floor 

 

On the 14th day we tried 

to remember which only led

to anger. On the 34th day

I broke a swan’s neck 

in my dream and tried 

to forget again. 

 

Today it rained like February. 

The kids were still out 

on their bikes though, 

pedals fitting half

a foot, hands too big 

for their handlebars.

 

In the evening the sun poured in 

but the day was already lost.

The day we’re out, maybe 

the 1000th day, the fish 

might have disappeared 

into the river again 

 

I might not ever walk back 

where I saw them that day. 

I might not remember the place

in front of the black tree 

ornamented with cormorants, 

like my grandmother’s hands with rings.

 

Aisha Borja


 

From the Gospel of Quarantine: The Statistics and The Silence.

Silence was summoned and came out 

of its corners, over-spilling from potholes,

covering the roads with a fine layer of dust. 

Silence smiled, and 

 

continued, creeping out from the hole 

in the coffee mug handle and sitting

between us on the table, staining

under our lips as we drank, like a disease.

 

The statistics grew exponentially like

everyone’s uncut hair or the hedges

forsaken by the council or the strangling

queues round shops. The statistics 

 

couldn’t understand why no one appreciated

their magnitude, why no one was proud of them. 

They couldn’t be kept quiet; too young to realise, 

too old to be expected to

                                             find out for themselves. 

 

Silence became chewy. Politicians 

began to speak about science and scientists 

began to speak about people, which confused

the statistics, slowing them down.

 

but they had already grown too far

to be reclaimed, like how 

when I next see you you’ll be a head taller 

and I’d have missed it, my cousin

 

will have learnt to talk without me, my granny

will have shrunk, and the silence 

will have begun to take root, having taken our friends

on that first day.

 

Linnet Drury


 

Today, 

scientists tell us that there’ll be a vaccine by September,

that I can stop sipping pot noodles, listening 

 

to the mugs greeting as they accumulate on my desk, 

watching my breath fade on the windowpanes 

 

my mother water her plants outside, the garden 

yellow and studded with broken flipflops.

 

I taste bread I watched grow. 

Small pools of orange juice dry in glasses. 

 

The smell of bonfires seeps through my windows.

Distorted Easter eggs are still cradled in plastic.

 

The dusty paper of books stacks up,

My wristwatch tan lines match 

 

that one discoloured floorboard,

Photos curl in my palms. Outside

 

The 2-metre gap is being compressed 

like spring moss under new shoes.

 

I watch the shadows chase their tails, circle 

and snake round glasses and bottle tops.

 

Anna Beekmeyer

 

 

Suspension Bridge

Instead of graduating, why don’t we walk

to the Suspension Bridge again,

this time I’ll be an hour early and 

prove to you that I know Bristol better now.

 

Instead of spending hours in the 

library where we’d use tangerine

peels to cover smells of sweat,

when you’d mouth “Coffee break?”

 

every hour, let’s take a longer walk,

and I will tell you I’ve learned how to

slow down. Your hair will be lighter,

tendrils tighter, and I will notice,

 

and perhaps we’ll both realise 

the space that summer offers us: 

and we’ll take our time

along the last stretch of sun.

 

Sophie Dunsby

 

 

evening run

I didn't mean to run past this 

pontoon I once swam under so 

fast I forgot how to breathe- 

 

Remember getting caught in 

the rapids? How we gasped, 

pulled then laughed, snow 

 

angeling on backwards water, 

unsure, the way I haven't been 

for a while now. Today I am 

 

sure that I’m too beat for this 

evening, I want to walk back on 

my own, I am sure that I have 

 

a whole mouth which belongs 

to me. I don’t want to be here 

thinking about drowning but 

 

I have dark bus stops in my 

mind, I have purple knees and 

I don’t know what to do with 

 

them. It's been a long time

since I’ve done something

without asking if it will kill me. 

 

Recently I’ve been craning 

my neck for a rogue day, one 

that wakes up a little seasick, 

 

a day with sweat curling into 

cheeks, where we could go 

back to fairy hopping over 

 

goose shit built up in a crusty 

mosaic, clinging onto branches

like dodging teeth. what if 

 

someone made danger dizzy 

again, not a set of instructions 

for committing to memory. 

 

Annie Davison      

 

 

Grown ups

The day I run out of words for 

how easy and difficult it is to hear 

 

myself speak at dinner, I tell a story 

that isn’t mine, about the things my mother 

 

believes - that if you are good at cards

you are unlucky in love, that you must always

 

pray for the light when it enters a 

room and  flush the toilet after a bad 

 

dream, and I finish with the Nepalese proverb 

that you hiccup when someone thinks 

 

of you because lately I’ve been holding on 

to this one like some morning prayer.

 

It comes on my run by the meadows 

avoiding the geese, on my  evening bike 

 

ride listening to bats for the first 

time, squinting at Venus. I tell the sky

 

it is better to hold hands with these 

superstitions than with a man too

 

drunk to take me to school, a man 

who believes that without a scooter 

 

there is nothing a father can give a son

who has learned to walk all alone 

 

like a grown up.

 

Mukahang Limbu

 

 

Boar’s Hill

Come with me to Boar’s Hill,

where the land peaks and troughs

like the tide slamming the beach

the froth of the sea dotting the ocean

like the blossom trees on the land

 

Come with me to Boar’s Hill. We can make

daisy lanterns, collect rabbit skulls

and dried leaves, take them back to my room

and arrange them on my ceiling

A mural dedicated to days we have lost.

 

Come with me to Boar’s Hill. I want us

to compare each other’s hands

And touch each other until we fall asleep,

And the sun scorches our skin. I never 

thought I’d miss touch this much.

 

Amber Frizzell

 

Photo: Mukahang Limbu, Kate Clanchy and Sophie Dunsby at the 2018 Picador Showcase. ©Alicia Clarke