Picture The Poet: Behind The Scenes

 Writer and teacher, Vicky Morris, gives us an insight into working with South Yorkshire young people on the Picture the Poet project…

Everything great I see in relation to performance poetry almost always involves my favourite fruit and reptile combination – Apples and Snakes, so I was honoured to get the chance to work with them supporting young people on the brilliant Picture the Poet project in autumn 2014.

Not surprisingly,PTP-full-group the project was a delight featuring everything a great project of this nature should – an intriguing and far-reaching theme, focused workshops, quality musings, oodles of writing and lots of daring to share it out loud. Enough of all this for a group of 7 young minds to truly get their teeth into the bones of it all and produce some really juicy work while getting some fine insights into the power and diversity of poetry. And the icing on the cake? – A finale performance with two incredible poets – Buddy Wakefield and Lemn Sissay. What more could there be?

So much, hidden within all this of course. Everything about this project clicked. Don’t get me wrong, having worked with young people for 17 years, I know, regardless of what you have planned for them, they or the universe may have other ideas. But there are ways to help ensure something good, and this project had it going on. So, a look at some of the detail and some thoughts from the participants themselves.

The Theme

“I discovered a whole new side to the way I can write, and the way the exercises and exhibition sparked things in my head made me really think a lot deeper about the things I wrote.”

ben-zeph-in-exhibition Our starting point was the brilliant Picture the Poet exhibition featuring around 50 varied, and ripe-for-poetic-  interpretation, portraits of some of the nation’s best-loved poets. The exhibition instantly offered a great way of  highlighting and bringing together diversity in poetry and through looking at some of the poets’ own work. Both they and  the exhibition provided a superb collective focus for so many questions, exercises and divergences around everything from  identity and how we see ourselves and each other, to considering our own ‘poetic lens’ and nature of poetry itself.

We initially made our way around the exhibition discussing first thoughts about each portrait. I encouraged everyone to  share their own perceptions. If they had never heard of a poet or their ideas about them were wildly off, that was fine. This  was about interpretation, context and imagination. Some beautifully poetic explanations on each came out. It was a freeing  way of warming them up to their own poetic lens.

 “There is something in those marble eyes that knows how to pick you apart.”

 The first writing exercise I set involved them settling on one of the portraits which drew them in, and to write in any point of view triggered by what was in the frame. A huge range of interesting work came from this.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Poetry

“I feel like I have more experience under my belt, and am seeing a clear difference in the styles of different poets, including one of my own which I never thought I would write.”

IMG_1410hkOne of the things I love about working with groups of young people on creative writing projects, is how, in this case, poetry allows individuality and diversity to flourish. And what I particularly love about this, is the impact it can have at a time in their lives when they often feel stifled and restricted. Understanding that poetry can involve so many approaches, styles, voices and perspectives, is a liberating and thought for anyone having a go at writing it. Discussing this was our starting point on first visited the exhibition and it was reflected throughout by the use of many different poetry examples.

Paying homage to Dis Poem, by Mutabaruka, Dis Poetry by Benjamin Zephaniah, and Poem by Donna Jones, the group wrote about the nature of poetry and what they wanted from it as both poets and poetry ‘ingesters’.

Delving into the diversity of work by the poets within the exhibition was a rewarding aspect. It really allowed the group to think in terms of the breadth of poetry by walking through a physical space and seeing the faces behind the verses. There were page, performance, and musical poets all equally credited for their individual contribution to poetry. The group chose from a range of powerful sentences from poems written by some of the poets in the exhibition before they had heard the whole poem. The sheer shooting-from-the-hip possibilities they offered encouraged some real invention. It was really interesting listening to them reading their work and hearing the original poems where the lines had come from.

Portraits of Young Poets

“Just completed the last Saturday. It was SO refreshing to be around people who don’t care about ‘conventional coolness.’ They break into song for no reason, compliment your articulated thoughts and read their poetry in-a-serious-way. Everyone is accepted without question. I am who I am.”

IMG_1693Our relationship with our identity, particularly our physical identity when we are young, often involves on-off battles. Towards the end of the project, when bonds and trust had formed, we did the thing some cringed about when first mentioned, (although they ended up loving it) that is, shooting each other’s portraits. From chosen photos, they dared to then write about what they saw both in themselves and each other. What they came up with was a far cry from what some might expect when we think of the angst of our younger years, especially around the way we look. On the contrary, the work was brave, insightful (I think most unexpectedly to themselves), moving and – rather wonderfully – kind.

 A Top-notch Opportunity to Perform

“Such an experience to have, and I definitely feel as though I want to perform for a long time and that I CAN DO IT!”

The level of acceptance and peer support the project brought out in the group was simply heart-warming. This rose to very nervous and heady heights on the night of the performance. Some were ready and hyped to tackle the stage alone. Others wanted to go up hand in hand and thought that perhaps they couldn’t do it. Everything was acceptable and unsurprisingly, let people do something in the way they feel most comfortable, and they will do it well. Each performance was wonderful. Everyone had really gone out of their way to learn their pieces. They fought their nerves to deliver their work the best I had heard them read it.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the performance side of it, I could feel the blood racing to my head when I got off stage. I felt alive. I’m most proud of reading out my friend’s poem as she couldn’t be there due to health issues.”

One member of the group, Fran, was sadly unable to attend. She was gutted not to be there and we all felt the same. She’d worked so hard and produced some fantastic work. Alison, a good friend in the group, did her the honour of relaying to the audience a quirky and typically Fran message and read her poem, Dreams, that came about as a result of an exercise triggered by Helen Ivory’s Sleeping with the Fishes, where I got the group to become an animal or inanimate object to look at the world through a different lens.

IMG_1350On a personal note, I loved working on this project with such an awesome group of group people. I really believe in providing quality and inventive creative experiences that really challenge and inspire them. There was time to get the best from each of them and that’s sometimes difficult to achieve in such a time-limited project. But it was and they felt the benefits. The finale performance, with two talented and high-profile poets, gave them a validating and empowering platform which cannot be underestimated for the pleasure and confidence it has inspired. And when they came off stage, there were those two beautiful words, invisible to the ear, but resonating repeatedly in the air– I can, I can, I can.

With thanks to Andy Cook and Gavin Hudson.


You can have a look at the poems the young people wrote during the workshop here. 

PICTURE THE POET is a three-year project presented by The National Portrait Gallery, in partnership with the National Literacy Trust and Apples and Snakes. It has been funded by Arts Council England’s Strategic Touring Fund; special thanks to the local organisations involved in shaping and contributing to the programme. For more information about Picture the Poet visit our project page or follow #Picturethepoet.