An interview with Kate Clanchy
We recently had the opportunity to ask Kate Clanchy, the award-winning poet, educator and writer, a few questions about teaching and writing poetry, social media and what poetry can offer to students and teachers alike.
1. You’ve been teaching in schools for over 30 years, most recently at Oxford Spires Academy. What have been the highlights for you?
Every class and every lesson has its own highlights – each time a young person produces something they are proud of is a thrill. But I was so proud to publish the book England: Poems from a School, which is an anthology of my migrant students’ poems over the years, of the radio programme we made in 2015, We Are Writing a Poem about Home, and of the wonderful response the book got in and across the country; and of a group of Year 11 students who started as an ‘inclusion’ class, and who formed a tight bond with each other and ended by each writing an incredibly moving poetry pamphlet.
2. You have published a lot of your students’ poems on Twitter, and in print – what initially inspired you to put their poems ‘out there’ (as it were!) and what have been the benefits?
I’ve only been on Twitter since 2017, and at the beginning I was just sharing poems and lesson ideas with a small community of other writers and teachers. Then one or two of the poems went viral, and now I have 30,000 followers, which is amazing! They are a lovely audience who listen to and respond to the students’ words with empathy and respect. They look to the students for something authentic and moving on Twitter, and the students love to be listened to in this way – it’s a wholly positive use of social media.
3. What do you think the study of poetry offers to students, and what can teachers learn from teaching poetry?
Poetry is genuinely for everyone: it offers a creative outlet to dyslexic students and English as an Additional Language (EAL) learners as well as challenging and stretching the most able. Because poems are short, they are the easiest and quickest way of making the curriculum flexible and diverse. Poems are funny, poems are complex, poems are about the deepest emotions. They help us listen and they let us be heard. Teachers can join in all this: poems keep teaching us throughout our lives.
4. Many students will encounter an unseen poem as part of their GCSE English Literature exam. How can teachers best prepare students to approach unseen poetry?
There is so much pressure and tension around GCSEs, and teachers tend to feel their students must be super-prepared for unseen poems with lots of technical terms. But, actually, if students like poems and are confident with them they can write good essays using just a few terms. I’d always favour writing your own poems in response, doing your own experiments with form and creative exercises such as cloze as a way of preparing for the unseen paper. At our school, students wrote creatively all the way up to their GCSEs, and always did well in the unseen paper – including the less academically able.
5. What would your advice be to someone who would like to write poetry but has never put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, to compose one?
Read a poem you like and let yourself respond to it and imitate it. That’s the easiest, most natural way to get started. People sometimes worry that this is ‘copying’ but actually it’s the way most poems have always been written – epic poems such as Beowulf and the Odyssey were composed from a mixture of inherited and invented lines, while oral poems today are created through call and response. I’ve put a mixture of my best poems for this purpose – poems which really help people write – in my book, How to Grow Your Own Poem. So, you could try that out!
Kate Clanchy teaches poetry at Oxford Spires Academy and shares her students’ brilliant poems on her Twitter account. She is the winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Writing 2020 with her book Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me and her latest book, How to Grow Your Own Poem, is out now.