New Voices from the Tower Hamlets Schools

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SLAMbassadors Showcase, 14th July 2016

Close your eyes, and try to remember the last time a thirteen-year-old implored you to ‘rise up and change the twisted reality this world has made’, in those words. Drawing a blank? Now try and picture this: a darkened theatre in the heart of the West End, a wildly applauding audience of teachers, librarians, school mums and friends, and more than a dozen brave, articulate teenagers taking the stage with most spot-on, heart-thumping verses about the world and their place in it.

The showcase marked the end of another SLAMbassadors season for four Tower Hamlets schools – Stepney Green, Sir John Cass’s Foundation, Swanlea, and Central Foundation. Jointly organised by The Poetry Society and the Tower Hamlets Schools Library Services as part of the former’s spoken word education programme, every cohort of SLAMbassadors participants enjoys poet-led workshops on writing and delivery, has their finished poems filmed or recorded, and takes part in a showcase that brings the young poets together to experience each others’ creations.

The event was hosted by Joelle Taylor, a well-loved performer and teacher on the spoken word circuit, and headlined by songwriter, novelist, and poet Joshua Idehen. Joelle roused the crowd with her brilliantly-constructed piece ‘The Correct Spelling Of My Name’, which – judging from the storm of applause – resonated with a largely non-white-British audience (this reviewer included), while Joshua rounded,  off the event with a set of new and familiar poems, from quieter, heartfelt pieces like ‘My Love’ and ‘Dad Poem’ to more recent, emotionally-charged responses to racial violence in the US, and conflicting ideas of ‘Britishness’ in the fallout from the EU referendum.

But the highlight of the morning was the students themselves. Clad in their crisp uniforms, some shaking as they climbed onto stage clutching folded and written-over scripts, the twelve- to fourteen-year-olds came one after another to present their creations. Stylistically, these ranged across the palette of contemporary poetry – an eclectic mix of rap, lyric, narrative, confessional, rhyming and non-rhyming, page and performance. Thematically, they coalesced broadly around the idea of ‘identity’ (which had been provided as the theme of the showcase), but so many reached so deeply and widely into their own stories that their poems spoke of much, much more.

Some chose to highlight racial stereotypes they find themselves up against daily (‘People put me down / just because my skin is brown’), while others tackled class differences in ways most visible to them and their peers (‘If your name has no history / what do you call yourself?’) If occasionally falling back on tried-and-tested expressions, almost all were able to deliver humbling linguistic punches – ‘I wasn’t in the deep end / I was drowning in the shallows’, one accomplished young wordsmith began, while another declared: ‘you came like a story and you left like a legend’.

We sat in rapt attention, soaking in poems which were not only mature and well-formed – testament to the dedication of workshop leaders like Joelle, Joshua, and others – but carried an unmistakable ring of truth with them. Many responded both to personal experiences (‘I am a refugee / I have a personality / and that’s the only thing that matters to me’) as well as injustices they recognised in the world (‘Why is it easier to give a gun than a pen / why does all the money go to the men?’) Running through all their poems was an urgent, uplifting desire to be understood and valued: ‘Go ahead and call me a nerd’, said one unforgettable young woman, ‘I have an opinion and I will be heard’.

As libraries and literary organisations across the country are forced to close, questions about the role of poetry in the ‘real world’ have become a staple of academic conferences, opinion columns and meet-the-author interviews. Few answers, however, have been as satisfying as those supplied by teenagers from our Tower Hamlets schools. Poetry matters as the medium in which one can take the stage to say: ‘I am a black fourteen-year-old girl in the world / And I matter’.

By Theophilus Kwek 


Find out more about The Poetry Society’s SLAMbassadors programme here.