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.
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.
In the last week
I’ve noticed how large bees can be.
So large they’ve made their way
into my dreams at night.
condensation can gather
on a cup in a hot room.
The way sellotape
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.
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?
blinking with my fingers feeling my way to a door some memory
tells me was
black and smelt
of the laughter of men
a lost firefly dies outside
his door & this boy is too scared
to open it.
is the corridor
between two rooms
gathered in fours.
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
be a language
I’ll never understand.
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.
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.
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?
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-
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Photo: Mukahang Limbu, Kate Clanchy and Sophie Dunsby at the 2018 Picador Showcase. ©Alicia Clarke