Wednesday 5th September, 2012

Strong words poetry

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See Hollie McNish perform Hollie Dean's work


The Strong Words Poetry project was developed with three young women with whom we had been working and who were experiencing a range of challenges, including struggling to engage with school. We received funding from the Clore Duffield Foundation for this work. These young people had expressed a great deal of interest in creative writing and wanted a project that was based in their community and would make learning writing skills fun.

Performance poet Hollie McNish from ‘Page to Performance’ worked with us to facilitate the creative writing project. Hollie is an experienced facilitator with an extensive poetry performance CV.

All of the young people taking part in the project had low self-esteem and confidence. Their achievement at school was poor with one young woman saying, ‘We’re thick! We’re stupid. We can’t remember anything.’

The resistance

Initially, Hollie was greeted with a lot of resistance from the young women – they considered poetry dull and old-fashioned. When first asked what they thought poetry was, one young woman answered ‘Crap! Shakespeare or something.’ However, after their first group session with Hollie, this attitude changed dramatically.

Hollie wrote in her report, ‘The most exciting aspect of the project was that between the first and last session, the young women involved had completely changed their attitudes towards poetry, what poetry was and could be and where you can find poetry. The fact that they kept attending the sessions, despite their initial ‘hatred’ of poetry, was astounding and thought provoking in terms of how to reach out to more young people. In all my workshop experience, I have never been presented with a group who all begin by describing their disinterest, even hatred, of poetry so adamantly, yet it is this type of young person who I feel it is most important to keep working with.’

Rhymes and reasons

Sessions focused on the varying forms of poetry from song lyrics to pieces of visual art created by poetry. This encouraged the young women to write their own words and express how they felt about aspects of their lives. In one session they were given a scenario in which they had £1 million to spend, and a field, for a weekend event to bring long-term benefit to young people in their neighbourhood. They worked outside visualising what they could see in their space and writing it in list form. All of them managed the task and, when asked if they thought their own pieces were good, they replied, after a little shyness, “Yes!” This was a real high point.

One of the young women’s poems was read out as part of a Cambridgeshire Olympics video, to represent community. Hollie McNish was filmed reading the poem which was then screened at two major city events and has been a great boost to all the young women in terms of their confidence and interest in themselves as writers.

The power of poetry

This has been a really empowering experience for the young women. Giving them the opportunity to write about their own lives rather than only set topics - as they suggested they do in school - we were able to start discussions about extremely important and often unspoken issues, such as bullying, sexism, sex and home life. Poetry is an extremely positive medium, and the young women now have this tool of self expression at their disposal, which they did not have before.