Tea & coffee at 8.25

I’ve wanted to write about Anne Lister for a long time, even before she was brought to the attention of the wider public by the popular BBC series Gentleman Jack. I felt an affinity with Anne, not only because of her relationships with women, but also because she was such a prolific diary-writer. I recognise in myself that same compulsion to get everything down on paper – and was amused to hear that, like me, Anne would sometimes refer back to old diaries to settle arguments!

In searching for a way in to writing a poem about Anne Lister, I was hugely indebted to the women who are, even now, painstakingly deciphering Anne’s spidery writing and fiendish codes to make the diaries accessible to a wider audience. Specifically, this website generously offers transcripts of many of Anne’s diary entries, and I became curious to read the very last entry that Anne wrote, before her untimely death from a fever at the age of 49, whilst travelling in Georgia with her partner Ann Walker.

There’s a gap of about six weeks between this diary entry and Anne’s death, and there’s no suggestion that at the time of writing it she had already fallen ill. This, of course, leaves the distinct possibility that she wrote more diary entries beyond this one. Perhaps her actual final volume was buried with her, and we will never know what the real last words were?

However, this is all we have to go on for now as a final diary entry, and I was really struck in reading it by the mixture of precisely-observed detail about the new places through which Anne and Ann are travelling, and by the very ordinariness of the final sentence: ‘Tea & coffee at 8.25’. Tea and coffee? Did they both drink both, one after the other? Much more likely, I think, that one liked tea and the other preferred coffee, and so they brewed up both in the wicker barn that was their shelter for the night. That sentence has both the precision and the lack of elaboration of a routine that has been repeated many times, with the confidence that this will be continued into the future. That this is, then, the very last sentence of the diary makes it deeply poignant, adding to the sense of a rich life cut off abruptly.

As well as providing the title, Anne’s last diary entry contributes some other phrases in the poem – those ‘wooded hills rising / to conical summits’, for example. And the entry begins with Anne complaining at having been woken in the small hours by ‘cats at my cheese’, a detail so delightful that I couldn’t resist including it.

One particular challenge in writing this poem is that Anne’s partner’s name was also Ann. This is a particular issue for some same-sex couples, and I’ve discovered that there’s a rather satisfying name for it: homonymy. Nevertheless, it makes life tricky for a poet who wants readers not to be confused. At least Anne and Ann’s names are spelled slightly differently, so I refer to ‘the other Ann’ in the first verse, and hope that the reader will recognise the shift to Anne (with an ‘e) Lister in the second. Of course, it’s harder for an audience to spot that difference when the poem is read aloud!

I’m delighted that Tea & coffee at 8.25 was accepted for publication in Issue 65 of The North, where it can be found on page 41, together with another poem of mine, When we hold hands. I’m so grateful to the editors, Peter and Ann Sansom, for publishing these poems.

Desire lines*

I’d never heard of desire lines until I read this article by Amelia Tait in the Guardian in June. On reading it, I realised that there was a name – and a rather lovely one, too – for the paths I’d seen emerging on the meadow at the bottom of my garden during the lockdown.

Some of the paths over the meadow have been there for many years. But it was curious to see new ones being created. One, for example, runs parallel to a paved path, exactly two metres apart (see above image). Others crisscross the meadow seemingly more erratically – the result of the increased number of people choosing to take their daily ration of exercise in the most scenic spot they could easily reach from home.

My poem ‘Desire paths’ emerged in late June as a result of reading Amelia Tait’s article and then following the desire paths to get a feel for how they took the routes they now so clearly traced, without any conscious planning. I recently entered it into the Daily Telegraph lockdown poetry competition, and was delighted to be selected as one of the four runners-up. The Telegraph article is, unfortunately, behind a paywall, but here’s a screenshot of the poem:

* Since submitting the poem to the competition, my friend Clare Kelly, who teaches navigation,has alerted me to the fact that desire paths are also known as ‘desire lines’, and I prefer that as a title, so I’ve re-named it now, and am grateful to her for the tip.

Playing netball in a lampshade

There was a moment in a Year 7 lesson in the first week of September when the surrealism of what I was doing convinced me I was in a dream. I was introducing myself to a new class in the middle of my first full teaching day after the lockdown. My head was hot inside my plastic visor, I was having to project my voice more than usual in order to be heard from behind it, and I’d gone for three hours without a sandwich or a cup of tea . A small area around the teacher’s desk had been cordoned off with black and yellow tape and I was doing my best to stay inside it for the whole lesson. I honestly felt as if I was playing netball whilst wearing a lampshade on my head and trying to teach a class at the same time.

After over two decades in teaching I’ve experienced many challenges, but nothing remotely like the experience of returning to school this term and teaching during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mostly, it’s great to be back. After so many months away from the physical classroom I’ve fully appreciated more than ever before both why I like face-to-face teaching so much, and what can be done in the classroom that can’t satisfactorily be replicated online. During this second lockdown, it feels like a privilege both to have a job and to be able to leave the house to interact with real people.

But it’s so tough! Not in the dramatic way that many of us might have feared after having little contact with groups of people for so long, and then suddenly having to work in fairly cramped spaces with large groups of people. I won’t have been the only one worrying in August about how quickly and widely the virus might spread in our classrooms.

The reality is that so far, in my school, there have not been the multiple outbreaks that so many staff, students and parents feared. I write this fully aware that so many other schools have not been so lucky, and that those schools that have had to deal with a large number of cases amongst students and staff have had huge additional challenges to cope with. What there is for all of us, though, is substantial change to almost every aspect of school life.

I now teach each class in a separate room, spread out across the school so that different year groups don’t mix. This means teaching in science labs and music rooms, going to parts of the school I don’t normally see. More than anything, it means feats of both logistics and strength in order to ensure that each room I’m teaching in on any day has all the texts and equipment I need. Sometimes I make Antarctic expedition-style deposits of everything I need in each room very early in the morning; more often I end up carrying huge piles of things, Double or Drop-style, from one room to another throughout the day.

Once the school day starts, the pace is relentless. Teachers are, of course, used to this. But now that break and lunch times are staggered for different year groups, it’s possible to hit a run of lessons where you just miss every break time, going for as many as three or four hours at a time literally without even one minute’s break. Simply taking on board enough food and drink is a challenge, and I feel as if I’ve started eating like a participant in an ultra-marathon, cramming peanut butter sandwiches into my mouth en route from one room to the next.

At the same time, during periods when there has been confusion and non-compliance in society at large, I’ve found it strangely comforting to work in an environment where everyone knows what the Covid-19 rules are and, by and large, follows them. Watching students sanitise their hands as they enter and leave classrooms as a matter of course, and putting their masks on and off as appropriate, largely without any fuss, is hugely impressive. As difficult as all of the new routines are, they are clearly working to suppress transmission of the virus, and that’s very reassuring.

But on top of the logistics and physical demands, one of the biggest frustrations is that we can’t draw on our full range of teaching strategies. We can’t easily organise students into small groups for discussions as they must stay in their seats facing the front of the room. Teachers have to remain in our netball-style zones as much as possible, which makes it hard to have the quiet interactions with individual students that are at the heart of both subject teaching and behaviour management. All teachers in my department now have to be teaching the same things at the same time with each year group in case we suddenly have to move to online teaching with a whole cohort. This reduces the scope for us to use our own creativity and go off-piste, and it also means an awful lot of liaising with each other when classes are shared between two teachers. I long for the return to my own classroom, with its carpet and shelves of reading books for loaning out.

Hopefully, that return might now be possible within this academic year. The camaraderie amongst staff, and between teachers and their students, has been a very precious thing during a period in which many have felt isolated. But I long to take off my visor and wander to the back of my own classroom again.

‘Popshot’ Issue 30: The Protest Issue

I’ve always loved teaching Grace Nichols’ The Fat Black Woman’s Poems. The poems offer rich and diverse material for exploration, and are also great as stimuli for students’ own creative writing.

A few years ago I was inspired by The Fat Black Woman Composes a Black Poem to write my own poem exploring different aspects of gay identity through each of the colours of the rainbow flag. I love the way in which, in such a concise poem, Nichols creates a such a vivid sensory impression of the word ‘Black’, whilst conveying so much about black history and culture.

In my poem, The Gay Woman Composes a Rainbow Poem, I’ve adopted a similar rhythm and rhyme scheme to Nichols, to draw on that same sense of strength in identity that Nichols conveys. It was an enjoyable challenge to try, like Nichols, to reflect on my associations with each colour, without going for the most obvious ideas.

It’s taken a while for this poem to find a home, so I was delighted when it was accepted for the Protest issue of Popshot magazine. It’s an honour to appear in this publication, and owing, as this poem does, so much to Grace Nichols, it was a delight to see a beautifully illustrated quotation from The Fat Black Woman’s Poems just inside the front cover.

‘Brittle Star’ issue 46 podcast

I’m fascinated by all the creative ways in which poetry is finding new homes in cracks during these famously strange times. It was great to have a poem in the latest issue of Brittle Star, and it was even more exciting to hear that, in lieu of a launch party, there would be a series of podcasts.

So, one rainy day in July, I found myself sitting at my desk under a blanket so as to muffle extraneous sounds, reading my poem The Chicken Question, ready to send off for the podcast. Here it is in episode 3, at around 23 minutes in. Do listen to the whole thing, for a really interesting discussion about writing during the pandemic, and then for five other writers from Issue 46 reading their wonderful work.

The Poetry Village: How to conquer nature

I love how poems sometimes spring from most unexpected places. Having to deal with unwanted rats and pantry moths at different points in the past led to me googling ‘Pest control’, which then led to me stumbling upon accounts of Chairman Mao’s ‘Four Pests’ campaign from the 1950s. In an attempt to eliminate pests which were perceived as being a threat to national prosperity, Chinese citizens were entreated to go to quite extreme lengths to kill them. In the case of sparrows, this involved whole communities banging anything they could get their hands on to frighten the birds into continually flying, to the point where they were so exhausted that they dropped, dead, from the sky, in such numbers that their corpses had to be shovelled up with spades.

But the impact of such mass extermination was catastrophic, leading to a plague of locusts which is thought to have contributed to the Great Famine which killed in excess of 45 million Chinese citizens.

That shocking story about the perils of disrupting the delicate balance of natural food chains became the inspiration for my poem How to conquer nature, which I’m delighted to see featured this week on The Poetry Village website as part of their Earth Shadow series, alongside a stunning image.

‘Butcher’s Dog’ Issue 13 launch

So many new possibilities are opening up at the moment, despite the restrictions. Last night, I was able to ‘Zoom’ into the live launch of Butcher’s Dog Issue 13, which I’d probably never have been able to get to in person as the magazine is based in the north east of England. The event was expertly and warmly hosted by editors Jo Clement and Aoife Lyall, with over 100 people attending. I so enjoyed hearing the poems read in the poets’ own voices, and I always love to hear people sharing the stories that inspired their poems.

The whole submissions and editorial process through which my poem, Coming out for Beginners, found a home in Issue 13 has been so friendly and efficient from start to finish, and the magazine itself is stunning, with a beautiful cover designed by Qi Fang Colbert. To buy a copy of Butcher’s Dog, or to take out a subscription, visit here.

Lockdown teaching

The question of How I’m teaching seems much more pertinent than What I’m teaching right now. With 23 years’ experience under my belt, it’s a long time since I’ve had to learn so much so quickly in order to do my job.

Parts of the media and government would have everyone believe that the only real learning taking place during the lockdown is happening via ‘live lessons’, and that independent schools are leading the way with this, leaving state school students far behind.

The reality, of course, is far more complex. Live lessons – lessons taught via Zoom/Google Meet etc, in which the teacher and students interact in real time – do play a part in my repertoire of online teaching strategies, and I’ve learned a great deal about how to conduct them successfully over the last few weeks. I’ve been team-teaching a sequence of lessons on First World War poetry with a colleague. We send the link to the lesson out to the whole of Year 9, and typically about 70 students ‘attend’, with the lesson also being recorded and sent round later so that others can watch it if they were unable to attend live.

There’s so much that feels odd about doing this. For starters, we’re each in our own homes, so we have to think carefully about what can be seen behind us. Students’ cameras and microphones are switched off, so all we can see is their names on the screen, which can make it feel a bit like teaching into a void. Teachers check instinctively all the time to see how well students are understanding and engaging with what they’re saying. How do you do this when you can’t see or hear your students? But we make extensive use of the ‘Chat’ function in order to keep the lessons as interactive as possible, and that has proved really useful. It’s lovely to ask a question and for responses to stream in on the chat. One of us is responsible for reading them out, whilst the other responds to the comments. It’s interesting to see who contributes in this format, and that it’s not always the same students who would be first to put their hands up in class. Students have also developed the confidence to let us know through the chat if they’ve not understood something, or if they need to ask a question about the task they’re doing. When we’re in full flow engaging with students’ comments and questions in the chat, it begins to feel like ‘real teaching’ – or at least the closest I’ve got to it over the last few months.

How helpful it is, too, to have both a recording of the lesson and a record of the chat to send round afterwards. Normally, there’s no written record of a class discussion, and no opportunity to play the lesson back afterwards, so these are both bonuses of online live teaching.

There are, however, really good reasons why most state schools are not offering as many live lessons as independent ones. At the start of the lockdown, a significant number of our students didn’t have devices at home on which they could have engaged with a live lesson, and/or internet access with which to connect. Even now, the government’s promised computers have not arrived at our school. A concerted whole-school effort of fundraising and logistics has now helped to ensure that the vast majority of our students are equipped with what they need to engage with online learning, but it’s taken a huge amount of work, and there are still some students who need work posted or delivered to them on paper.

And also, I challenge the assumption that live lessons are necessarily always better than the other sorts of learning we deliver remotely. Sure, the live interaction between teachers and students is hugely valuable. But we have other tools in our repertoire, and the most important thing of all, I think, is to give students a varied diet. This means sometimes setting work that doesn’t require a screen at all; giving students time and space to be creative through extended writing and drawing projects; providing powerpoints with audio commentaries that they can move through at their own pace; offering a choice of tasks. Above all, it means giving students regular feedback on what they’re doing so that they know that we still care about them, we value what they do, and we want to help them to make progress.

Overall, I’m probably just as busy as I would be at school. It’s just that my time is spent in very different ways: a lot more time at my desk responding to emails from students, as well as leaving comments on their work online; lesson preparation time that also now involves intensive learning about all the various settings on Zoom that we need to have in place for safeguarding; liaison with parents and carers about all the many disparate reasons why their children might be struggling; and lots and lots of planning and thinking about just how things might be when we finally return to school in September.

‘Brittle Star’ Issue 46

I’m delighted to have a poem in the latest issue of Brittle Star, which landed on my doormat yesterday. In between rain showers, I made an audio recording of my poem, The Chicken Question, for the magazine launch, which will be released as a podcast soon. Although it’s disappointing not to be able to gather for the launch in person, hopefully the podcast will reach a wider audience, and I’m looking forward to hearing the other poems and short stories read by their creators.

Growing poems

A while ago I wrote a post for the What I’m teaching section of this website about writing poems on seeded paper with my National Writing Project Cambridge group. Well, having shared our poems at our February meeting, I planted mine in March. It felt like a hopeful and grounding thing to do at the beginning of the lockdown. For ages, nothing happened. But now, I’m happy to report that I have a pot of baby poems growing on my decking. I’m not sure what they will turn out to be, but I’m watering them faithfully and they’re certainly getting plenty of warmth and sunlight.

Meanwhile, I’m encouraged by signs of new poetry life elsewhere. For the first few weeks of the pandemic I felt unable to write anything more than notes; it seemed to take too much energy and headspace just to know what day of the week it was and to find pasta at the supermarket. But over the last few weeks I’ve managed to write several new poems, and I’ve had good news of poems having been accepted for publication in Under the Radar, The Poetry Village, Brittle Star, Butcher’s Dog and elsewhere. I’m very grateful to all the poetry editors and competition organisers who are working valiantly in difficult circumstances to tend and nurture the poetry community, at a time when there seems to be a growing appetite for poems in the wider world.