Inky Interview Exclusive: Award Winning Poet Sara Hirsch at The Storyhouse, Chester: with Claire Faulkner

I often find poetry at its most magical when I least expect it. So when I stumbled into The Storyhouse in Chester one rainy afternoon, looked up at the balcony and saw in child’s handwriting ‘this poem is a map made of lines. Just lines. Why don’t you take one and see where it leads you’. I was immediately hooked and spent the next hour walking around the building reading the poetry installations which emerged from the WayWord festival.

The poems are written by children from three local schools; Tushingham-with-Gringley C of E Primary School, J.H. Godwin Primary School, and Queen’s Park High School. The pupils took part in workshops with award winning poet Sara Hirsch, and together they created poems about identity, libraries, history, and stories.

The verses are all surprising, inspirational and delightful to read.

‘I Come From…’ opens with the lines:

I come from reading at the dead of night

as quietly as a fingertip turning a page.

Each poem appears on the walls in the child’s own handwriting, and this adds an extra impact when viewing the installation.

In ‘This Library…’ The Storyhouse is described as:

a tornado

sucking you into an adventure

it is another dimension

When trying to answer the question in the poem ‘What is History?’, the children have written:

It is a complex question waiting to be asked

It is a record player that has stopped working

A guitar that has been played a little too much.

And further on in the poem, history is described as:

a locked door

a code waiting to be cracked

it is lonely

a broken time machine

I enjoyed the experience of finding the poems, and took delight from the positive input that the children must have had in the writing and creative process. I wanted to know more about the installation, so I contacted Sara for more information.

What was your involvement in the WayWord festival?

I worked with local primary school children in January to create the poems for the walls of the Storehouse, to be unveiled during the WayWord festival. I then returned during the festival itself to perform a family show and lead a workshop for the 16-25 youth theatre group, so I got to see the finished poetry murals for myself. They look fabulous and I was so proud to see the children’s poetry displayed in such a unique way around the building.

How did the children react to the poetry workshops?

They really loved them! I never know in advance what the reaction will be and how the children will take to me and my workshops. But these ones were particularly memorable, perhaps because we were working towards an end goal. The fact that they knew their words might make it onto the walls of this amazing building really got them excited and it created a brilliant atmosphere in all 3 schools I visited. I usually really like the fact that my workshops aren’t leading up to anything in particular, as it takes the pressure off the kids to create something ‘finished’. But this was really different and really gave the kids a sense of pride in their work, because it was being valued by a venue that they love and respect.

Were you surprised by their reaction?

I was surprised with how they stepped up to the challenge and worked together to produce something really grown up and professional. I usually set no expectations on a workshop so that the children are free to explore their ideas and imagination. So the fact that they were so focussed on creating something they would be proud to show off to the public was really amazing.

Seeing the verse displayed in the children’s own handwriting is extremely effective. How did this idea develop?

Isn’t it! I really can’t claim the credit for this idea. It was thought up by the Storyhouse and the designer (Matt Lewis) and I just did what I was told! However, it was a big part of the workshops – to get the kids to write up their lines in their own handwriting and it was really fun to be a part of it. My rule in all my workshops is to be as messy as possible (scribble things out, say whatever comes into your head etc.) and so giving them permission to carry this idea on for the final product was really liberating. I love that there are spelling mistakes in the poems. It makes them feel really authentic.

Do you think it’s important to encourage children to write poetry?

Of course! Regardless of the fact that it is fun, educational and creative – giving young people the chance to express themselves in different ways is so important for emotional wellbeing and development. Creativity is being sucked from the curriculum, which is an absolute travesty and so the more poets, authors, artists and creatives we can get visiting schools, and giving kids an alternative to the academic standards they are constantly measured against, the better.

Can you share with us what other projects you’re currently working on?

I am currently setting up a spoken word production company in New Zealand called Motif Poetry with Kiwi poet/producer Ben Fagan. I will be heading up the education side of it and hopefully it will eventually be an international venture to connect poetry scenes in the UK and down under. I am also running a lot of international workshops at the moment (I will have performed in 7 countries before the end of March so far this year!) and am working on my third poetry collection which explores feminism and architecture. So lots going on…but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Image credits: Mark Carline

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