Title: England. Poems from a School
Edited by: Kate Clanchy
Publisher: Pan MacMillan
Publication date: 2018
Synopsis: Oxford Spires Academy is a small comprehensive school with 30 languages - and one special focus: poetry. In the last five years, its students have won every prize going.
They have been celebrated in the Guardian ('The Very Quiet Foreign Girls Poetry Group'), and the subject of a BBC Radio 3 documentary.
I remember perfectly the first time I heard of this beautiful book. It was the 10th October, during a conference that took place in the CCCB of Barcelona to celebrate the end of the European project Engage! Young Producers. This project, financed by the Creative Europe programme of the European Union, was led by PEN Català with Det Fria Ordets Hus in Växjö (Sweden), Krakowskie Festiwalowe in Krakow (Poland), and the National Centre for Writing in Norwich (UK).
As the website says "Engage! Young Producers seeks to promote the participation of young underrepresented groups in literary-cultural life as a way to empower them and foster critical thinking and a better understanding of multicultural realities."
The first speaker was the award-winning writer and teacher Kate Clanchy, who uses poetry as a healing tool. According to her, Oxford is more than the idyllic headquarters of education that many people know, because it is surrounded by "a big ugly city." 80% of her students are immigrants, and, according to her, "a poem is a bridge between both Oxfords."
Clanchy teaches all these girls and boys to write poetry, and in 2018 she published an anthology with their poems: "England: Poems from a School". During her speech, she explained the heart-breaking stories of some of her persevering students. Many of them have gained scholarships, and one of them has managed to speak at the United Nations. "I couldn't be prouder" she said, and stated that the English students are the ones that do worse, because they don't have hope. The process of writing and reading their poems out loud, however, helps to overcome their traumas and makes them feel listened to by the world.
I was deeply moved by their story, and decided to buy the book as soon as possible. Moreover, a donation of 50p from the sale of each book is shared equally between the charities First Story and Forward Arts Foundation, who have backed Kate Clanchy’s work.
“England: Poems from a School” is a brief, but deep book that contains a selection of poems written by boys and girls from 12 to 18 that were forced to grow up too quickly. Their gorgeous but poignant words are full of homesickness, pain, fear, grief and love, and I had to read them very slowly in order to digest them.
Where Are My Unnumbered Days?
Once I lived in a beautiful town;
Once, I owned a beautiful house,
with a grand garden full of flowers,
and I was prince of it all. Once,
I lived in a house with a name:
And now, I am just a number.
Nations talked to nations
and robbed me of myself.
They made me
a number among millions.
But my rights have no number.
My home had no number.
I could not count the petals of the flowers.
My childhood in the garden
had no limits on it.
Take me back to my country
and I can show you the numbers.
The numbers who suffer.
The quantities of beauty.
The fallen flowers.
Mohamed Assaf (12)
These poems are able to freeze in time sweet and sour memories about family, home, war, peace and racism while playing with our senses. They are full of smells and flavours that make us travel far away from home… Can you imagine not being able to come back? Luckily, after reading these young poet’s stories, we will be a little more capable of putting ourselves in their shoes.
"What would you say to those people who believe poetry is useless?" I asked Kate Clanchy after her speech. According to Clanchy, most of her students already enjoy poetry, because as it's on the Internet and social media, it's not seen as something old-fashioned ("I just have to convince them to write it") And as for adults... "forget about them, they are wrong. I deeply believe that poetry makes you cleverer and kinder."
And this book proves that she was right.