By Taryn Everdeen
We are in the fourth week of lockdown when the CONNECT 2 Still I Write: Poetry, Activism & Connection workshop rolls around. Cup of tea in one hand, notebook and pen in the other, I settle down in front of my laptop and wait to join the Zoom call. By now, I’ve participated in several group video calls, and I know vaguely what to expect. It’s no longer quite so intimidating.
Faces pop up on the screen. Some are familiar–among them being Lewis Buxton, our workshop leader, and three lovely staff members from MAP–but there are many others I’ve never seen before in my life. One thing that I’ve really missed about life before lockdown was connecting with new people, and being part of this feels like a way I can still do that.
We wait for more people to join–at one point, I count 16 of us–and then Lewis launches into the session, establishing ground rules (mute yourself unless you’re speaking, hold up your piece of paper to talk), easily breaking any ice with his introduction to the session. “The best foundation for your writing,” he tells us, “is you.” He goes round all of the participants, and we say our names, and one thing we’re good at; “getting lost in a book”; “connecting the dots”; “drawing birds”. Next, we share our favourite words, and Lewis encourages us to think about our philosophies–what phrases do we live our lives by?
Then we write five things that make us happy and five things that make us angry–I’m entertained by Lewis’ rant about coffee–and we are instructed to be as specific as possible. Think of the details. What is it exactly that makes you feel that way?
It’s a gentle way to ease into the session, and I already feel like I know something about the other faces on my screen. We discover that county borders have been crossed as someone reveals that they’re from Kent–one of the really positive things about online spaces like this is we can have participants from anywhere in the world. Everyone in the group seems aware of each other, taking turns, guided by Lewis, nobody dominating the conversation. It feels good. I’m glad to be part of this.
I’m still a little nervous, though–poetry isn’t something I think I’m particularly good at. It just doesn’t come naturally to me. But that’s okay. The purpose of this workshop is to create, to express, to connect–and it doesn’t have to be good. Lewis makes it clear that there’s no pressure. He reminds us that the best writing comes from when we are feeling safe, “Don’t feel like you ever have to make yourself feel uncomfortable.”
We get started on the first proper writing prompt, writing five lines to describe someone we care about, the only rule here being that each line starts with that person. Some of these are shared, and we respond with enthusiastic jazz hands (sign language for clapping). Then Lewis throws some strangeness into the mix, instructing us to cross out that person and replace them with ‘the forest’. The resulting poems are bizarre, and Lewis uses this to demonstrate that it’s OK not to make sense in poetry, and that, in fact “weirdness is a very democratic thing”, allowing the reader to make whatever meaning they want to from it. Using metaphor, writing about something as though it were a different thing entirely, is an interesting way to avoid clichés, and also allows you to connect with a wider audience–crucial for activists.
Together, we watch Maya Angelou perform her poem ‘Still I Rise’, an empowering piece about the struggle to overcome prejudice and injustice. We discuss it, sharing our thoughts, and then Lewis puts us to work again. This time, we’re freewriting (putting pen to paper and writing continuously, no censoring allowed), and the prompt is one of the personal mottos we thought about earlier. If we get stuck, he says, we should just keep writing that motto over and over again until something new comes into our heads. The idea is to just ‘vomit’ all of our thoughts onto the page, and see if anything good is left.
Then, we read another poem together–’Bread and Roses’, a piece that again ties into activism–and we complete another freewrite. This time, the prompt is ‘as I go walking’, and all of us put pen to paper for four minutes, spilling our thoughts onto our white pages. The purpose of this is to escape perfectionism, to just write anything and go with it. I find it freeing.
Time’s up, and Lewis brings the session to a close. We’ve got homework: go away and work on one of the pieces we started in the session, and then write a letter to one of the things that make us angry (inspired by Danez Smith’s piece ‘dear white america’). There’ll be a follow-up session for us in a few days, where we’ll be able to share some of what we’ve created, connecting more deeply with each other.
Even though this digital way of working is something that’s very new to us all, Lewis does an excellent job at managing the discussion, putting us all at ease. I leave the session invigorated, feeling inspired, and a little less alone.
Lewis Buxton is a poet, producer, and workshop leader based in Norwich. His work is largely concerned with fathers and sons, how we learn gender roles, and how young men’s image of their bodies fit into the modern world. He is the director and co-founder of TOAST Poetry, and teaches creative writing in schools, universities and libraries across the country.
The Young Activist Network (YAN) is a youth-led network set up to help young people deliver positive campaigns, and to help them connect and collaborate with other activists and changemakers in Norfolk and beyond. Keep an eye out for future events, and get in touch on the Young Activist Network webpage to find out more about how you can get involved.