Poet Stewart Henderson and his classroom challenge


Stewart, you’ve been writing poetry since
you were a teenager, and the Sunday Times has described your children’s poetry as ‘essential
reading’. What is so great about poetry? The great thing about poetry is that it’s
about self-expression. We all walk through the day, and we have all these ideas, and
we’ll be walking to school, and then we’ll arrive in school, and we’ll have thoughts
and we’ll have feelings, and we keep them to ourselves. What poetry is is about writing
about those thoughts and feelings. And where do you draw your ideas from when
you’re looking to write a poem? Oh, all sorts. I remember when I was a child
walking to school or back from school and that was the beginning of my poetic voice.
I’d look at a bus going past and thinking ‘I wonder what all those people are thinking’
‘I wonder what all those people are feeling’. Basically I was known as ‘wonder boy’ – ‘I
wonder what’s in there’ and ‘I wonder what’s in there’. So it is a case of letting your imagination
run riot and begin to rise, and I can’t emphasise enough – poetry is not about rhyming, it’s
about the initial thought, the initial feeling, getting it down on paper and then we’ll trying
to shape it into a wee poem. So you’ve got the ideas, you start thinking
about putting it onto paper or onto laptop or whatever. How do you actually do that when
you’ve got this blank sheet or blank laptop? It usually comes with the first line. It was
funny – I went into a school in Yorkshire and it was a newly built school. Beautiful
from the outside. Parts of it were like an old liner, a big sort of ocean going ship.
The angles and there were circular windows, and I thought this is interesting. So when
I went into the class and I said to the children after about 10 or 15 minutes ‘Tell me something
about your impressions of this school’. And some of the children were saying it well it
was big or shiny and so on, and that’s all absolutely right – those were the impressions.
And then one boy said ‘This building is like a policeman’. And I thought what do you mean?
He said it’s unexpected. And I thought that was absolutely brilliant. The school in contrast
to the school I went to which was an old sort of Victorian thing – very old building, very
sort of draughty and creaky – but that’s how the kids saw it – it was unexpected, it was
like a policeman. That’s how he put it. That is the beginning of a poem. Great now in a moment you’re going to perform
once of your poems for us, and then you’ve got a bit of a challenge. But first do you
want to briefly explain the background to how this poem came about? The poem’s called ‘Class Project: rediscovering
our past’ and how it came about was I went to the Museum of London which is in the City
of London, and I was going there to interview the curator – the man who was in charge – for
a Radio 4 program that I was presenting. And whilst I was waiting I heard some London schoolchildren
– it was obviously a class day out, it was a class project, and they’d been into an exhibition
where they’d seen an exhibition about the lives of 1940s children – about children who
lived through the second world war. And it was extraordinary listening to these 2012
children making observations about 1940s children and I just eavesdropped and the poem, in effect,
wrote itself. Yesterday we went to a museum
and looked at old photographs of children. Children were in black and white then.
They were in a war so they had to be sent off to farms and places,
they got on special trains and tried not to cry. When the war surrendered
the children went to the seaside and the boys sometimes wore school caps
and the girls had dresses with bows at the back
and some children had round glasses and smiled a lot
and their teeth were funny. They played in the street until it was nearly
dark and the girls skipped because there were no
cars. Then they went indoors and had small food…
bread and jam and not much else and they sat cross-legged in front of a fire
and read books. And everyone was poor
in these photographs but they weren’t somehow
and they were children like us but they weren’t somehow…
In the future, will there be a photograph of our class in the museum? Now Stewart you said you were going to set a challenge. What is it?
Thank you yes I’d forgotten that. Yes this is your challenge should you choose
to accept it. You are going to be writing as a child in 2012 to a child in the 1940s
during the second world war. And you’re going to be telling this child in the 1940s everything
about your life. You’re going to be telling them about your hopes, your dreams, your worries,
your fears, your days, what you do at the weekend with your mates, and if you’re going
to be writing about things like mobiles phones, or social networking sites, or DVDs or playstations
then 1940s child won’t know what that means, so you’ve got to find a new language. For
example, if you’re going to say ‘playstation’ I would suggest that you go something along
the lines of say ‘My own private amusement arcade’. That’s the thing about poetry – you’re
looking for new ways of saying things which are familiar to us. Ok? And even social networking
sites – 1940s child hasn’t got a clue. But what you could say is ‘That’s where I speak
to my friends but I don’t speak out loud’. Interesting eh? So that’s the task. So 2012
child – write to a 1940s child. Off you go.

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