Poetry workshops for community projects

I love performing and running workshops in varied community settings, because of the joy of seeing people amaze themselves and each other.

They become confident as they see their own words on the page, the wall, the stage and begin to recognise that they are valued. Often they learn to value themselves and each other in a whole new way.

The short performance at the start of a workshop provides a focus for the group and awakens the imagination. It brings the group together and provides material to start a discussion or elicit a creative response.

  • One visitor to a Women’s Day Centre was listening intently to a story I was telling and afterwards she said to me, ‘All my life, I’ve been afraid, but when I heard you tell that story, I was receiving’. Then she was silent for a long while. After that, with a little regular encouragement and some clues as to appropriate story structure, she started to write her own stories for the first time and she even applied for and completed an English course at a local college.

    I am often amazed by the responses to poems and stories that come from unexpected quarters. Sometimes a poem that has baffled an MA student will elicit a spontaneous cry from an ex-prisoner in rehab, who will call out, ‘I know exactly what you mean! That’s me!’ and then he’ll start to tell you all about it… and that’s when it all begins anew; the telling of a tale to someone who wants to hear…

  • Just outside the old city of Jerusalem, by the wall of separation, I gave a few creative writing classes to some of the elderly residents of a care home. One of the residents, on seeing her words on the wall, written out in ‘good handwriting’, called out ‘It’s too too beautiful’ and encouraged everyone to come and see what she had written, which was a very touching piece called ‘Sadness Day’.

    Another resident was thrilled when the title of her poem was written out and put on the wall in her own language, Amharic. The language of Ethiopia. For someone far from their first home, their own words in their own language can provide a welcome anchor.

  • At the Women’s Day Centre in Reading we had six months of creative writing and costume making, improvising and rehearsing. Some of the women had learning difficulties, whilst other’s were elderly, but they all loved producing and starring in their version of ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, with their carers and volunteers.

    On National Poetry Day this year I returned to reflect with them on my journey to Jerusalem and to write with them on the theme of ‘Home’. This produced some very tender writing. One of the carers said afterwards, “It was so great the way everyone clubbed together today and helped each other… one didn’t have glasses, one couldn’t write, but they all helped each other. That’s what I thought was great. Nice to see you laughing Deb! It was something special cos she said she couldn’t write. It was something special”.

  • The Courtauld Institute, Somerset House was a very different venue for writing in, but just as joyful. The family festival, Freetime, run by Joss Whitten was a demanding commission; 4 days of back to back creative writing workshops for parents and children whom I encouraged to respond to the paintings (from Cezanne to Kandinsky) by writing to their favourite and least favourite painting or sculpture and getting the artwork to ‘write back’.

    The results were fascinating and the sponsors of the event were also delighted to see groups of families from very diverse backgrounds, reading out their writing to each other, fascinated.

  • For SureStart, I performed a set for International Women’s Day and then ran 3 creative writing workshops for teen mums in 2008. I was so pleased when some of them started to write with their children at home, whilst others re-discovered their motivation for projects that had been long-shelved. Writing can be like the digging of a well.
  • In collaboration with Pilgrim Hearts, a charity that promotes the healing use of the arts in the community, I completed two series of creative writing workshops with residents in rehab at Yeldall Manor. Residents are all ex-prisoners who are also recovering from addictions. It is a great privilege to hear poems by people who have read them to no one else. As you work together, you see them learn to trust and to enjoy their own creative process, which inevitably brings hope and a taste of the possible. Many other professionals are involved in helping them harness this hope before it becomes a steady path into a life of greater personal freedom, but the talent that some of them realise they have, can be the beginning of a real determination to value themselves and others differently. One young man read his poem about his love of nature in front of 400 people. He later trained to become a tree surgeon!

I am amazed by the resilience of so many people. When you hear the stories they’ve lived and the rejection that many people have encountered from the earliest moments of their lives, you can only wonder about the strange blending of strength and fragility that is the human heart.

Find out how your community project could be made more creative and memorable by calling Sarah de Nordwall on 07849 641 899 or email sarah@bardschool.co.uk