Picture The Poet in Sunderland: Rowan McCabe


Rowan McCabe | Photo credit: Pictures by Bish

Following the success of the National Portrait Gallery’s ‘Picture the Poet’ exhibition, we caught up with featured artist, Rowan McCabe, to hear about his recent experiences running young people’s workshops at the Sunderland Music Workshop Centre.

A few months ago, I was asked by Apples and Snakes to run some workshops at the Sunderland Music Workshop Centre. It was on the theme of identity, in response to the National Portrait Gallery’s ‘Picture the Poet’ exhibition and I really enjoyed being a part of it.

Over the weeks I got to know Dave Murray, who has run the Music Centre for 8 years. He believes any young person should be able to come down and take part in what’s going on there, for free, no matter what age or ability they are. So at any time, you’ve got participants as young as 11 right the way up to 21, all working side by side. Dave’s the first to admit this is a bit unorthodox but I was immediately struck by the strong sense of community there. From the start, everyone really welcomed me into that.

The young people were a dedicated bunch, sometimes travelling for an hour or more on a Saturday morning, no matter what the weather or what other commitments they had. Most were aspiring singer-songwriters and this is what they came down to the Music Centre each week to do. They were already writing lyrics on their own at every possible opportunity and I could see straight away that no one needed to be encouraged to write here.

Instead, my job became about exposing them to performance poetry. Most of the group had never engaged with it before, although all of them were really open-minded and willing to give it a go. I began to weave links between music and poetry. We looked at Benjamin Zephaniah and talked about the musical quality of his work. We discussed the way he uses his own voice and grammar as a way of expressing his identity. It’s a discussion with prominence: This area is famous for bands like The Futureheads, one of a handful of North East groups to make the push for singing in your own voice and getting across your own personality. (Barry Hyde from the band regularly runs workshops at the centre as well. In fact, he popped in in my last week but a tree blew on to the train tracks on my way there and I never got to meet him!)



Trinity | Photo credit: Suzi Corker www.suzicorker.com

We talked about the idea of taking a picture with words. The Stone Roses’ ‘Mersey Paradise’ was the prompt- I was really pleased to learn it was a song the whole group loved as well. We shared thoughts about the photographic-like imagery in lines such as ‘River splashes against the rocks’ or ‘the bricks, the bikes, the rusty tin’. We wrote about places we used to play with our friends (or still
do) using unusual adjectives to try and paint a bold and memorable picture for the audience.



Greg | Photo credit: Suzi Corker www.suzicorker.com

Greg and Trinity were two participants who consistently showed a real passion throughout the 6 weeks.  When the final performance at the Winter Gardens got close, I was really pleased when they put themselves forward for it. What was really special for me was when, after their set, they both excitedly asked where and how they could do more poetry. It was one of those moments when you really feel like you’ve had a positive impact on someone’s life. I put them both in touch with the young people’s project New Writing North and I hope it’s the start of a long and rewarding journey for them both.


Aware that poetry isn’t a proper job, Rowan McCabe has recently created his own occupation and is now a door-to-door poet. He spends his days in Newcastle, bothering people in the comfort of their homes (or, as he insists is the case, ‘finding out what is important to them’). He is also the winner of the 2015 Great Northern Slam and has performed on stages from the Edinburgh Fringe to the Bristol Poetry Festival. Visit Rowan’s website here