Graham Mort describes a collaborative poem project with Year 5 pupils that found its inspiration in the Cumbrian countryside
For centuries sheep have been the shapers of the English landscape. In Cumbria this was celebrated through a millennium commission that employed the sculptor Andy Goldsworthy to build or restore 100 sheepfolds throughout the county. As the work progressed, an educational project was established, using the installations as a stimulus for work in schools with resident artists. My own involvement began in May 2000 with Yarlside Primary School, Barrow-in-Furness. I was allocated a group of 16 Year 5 children and chose the Casterton sheepfolds installation, close to my own corner of North Yorkshire.
Here, the sculptor had placed 16 sheepfolds: eight on each side of a north-south bridleway. In each fold, a huge boulder transforms the installation from functional agricultural unit to artwork. They excited me because of the possibilities of working with stone in the landscape, and because construction had long been one of the metaphors I had deployed in writing workshops to communicate how a poem is "built" from verbal components. The project also offered the opportunity to create work that echoed the form and structure of Andy Goldsworthy's installations, which at Casterton constitute one work: or rather they form a journey, the oldest story of all.
One problem in teaching poetry is the abstract nature of language, compounded by the apparent mystique of the form. I wanted to create a project that could make new work but also illuminate a concrete process for students and teachers. Andy Goldsworthy designed the sheepfolds, but used skilled wallers to build them and this collaborative process intrigued me. Poetry, once an oral tradition and the collective expression of social history and values, is now almost the ultimate individualistic art form. Here was an opportunity to make new work, to break the isolation of the individual writer, making possible a creative act that was shared, meaningful, individually rewarding, and educationally illuminating.
Notebooks: the language of poetry
My first visit to the school was to meet the children and give them a writer's notebook - simple, hard-backed affairs, but distinct from school exercise books. They were also given pencils and reminded that they were in possession of hundreds of years of evolved technology: portable, potent and capable of great spontaneity. The use of computers would come later.
The children were urged to live as writers, making daily observational notes, recording their dreams, even sleeping with notebooks under their pillows. The notebook was to be used to respond to experience and it carried one essential proviso: like my own it was private, a protected imaginative space where the children could express thoughts, impressions and feelings. No one was allowed to look in the notebook without invitation. This sanction protected, privileged and made possible the spontaneity of the initial creative response. To promote richness and accuracy the children were taken through a workshop designed to connect their five physical senses with the writing process. Writing is a way of being alive just as much as it is a way of expressing life. The sixth sense of day-dreaming, thought, or imagination, was also invoked. Responses were sharpened through the use of similes and metaphors that showed how language could both express and transform reality.
In an in-service training session I created an allegory of the entire project - from individual response to collaborative poem - in just over an hour, but it served to reveal the process to the teachers and established my ground rules.
Stimulus: site visit
We visited the Casterton sheepfolds site in early June to make our journey along the bridleway. The weather was perfect: sunny, with wind and occasional showers. The lane gushed with hawthorn blossom, flowering briars, cow parsley and meadowsweet. The children brought a packed lunch and were told they could write indiscriminately about what they could hear, see, feel, taste, smell, think and imagine. They were quick to realise the intimate relationship of water with stone over a geological time-scale, sensing that this rigid material is actually a fluid caught between sedimentation, disintegration, and dispersal. The sheepfolds' central boulders intrigued them. Their placement implied deliberate imprisonment and this suggested movement, life, even consciousness. The children explored what it was to be alive in a particular time and place, collecting verbal raw material at the frontier of the animate and the inanimate, of the self and that familiar, alien energy we call nature. This lively group of 10-year-olds wrote with fierce concentration for several hours. The school's digital camera was used to make a visual record of environmental features and the images later sequenced on the school computer.
Refinement: first drafts
My next visit was to start up a writing workshop designed to take the work into its next, crucial phase. Our initial response was essentially uneven. Like a waller faced with a heap of random stone, we had the task of identification and selection. Just as each stone has to abut another, so each word has to be placed alongside, above and below other words. That sense of the wall began to transform the linear notion of the poem, so that the children were more aware of it as a verbal structure that connected to the three-dimensional form of the wall. Significantly, the poem could encapsulate present, past and even future experience, depicting the restlessness of a human mind.
The children were invited to treat their jottings as "moments in time" and to use a coloured pen to select the most vivid or memorable. These were then assembled into the first draft of a poem. I led by example, showing how my own notes could be worked into poetic form.
Once taken from the privacy of the notebook, these poems entered the public domain of the reader. Now presentation, spelling and, above all, communication mattered. The poems were first drafted on paper and then refined orally through reading aloud. By analysing grammar in a line of poetry we were able to identify verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions and definite articles. Grammar became an aspect of poetic technique. Using active verbs reduced the need for adverbs; using precise nouns energised the work, reducing the need for adjectives to support more generalised language. By identifying grammar, I could be specific in my criticism and the children could respond strategically.
The poem does its work in as few words as possible. Most of the redrafting is cutting, intensifying and discarding excess. I discouraged rhyming in these poems, trying instead to capture the rhythms of speech and the rhythms of thought - the way that a landscape grabs and releases our attention. The accumulation of such apparently disjointed moments brings about the narrative of a journey. What is remembered is also invented and our poems could move from what had literally happened to what the poem required to achieve its form and vitality.
My next and last visit to the school had to achieve two things - a sense of finish in the individual poems and a new, collaborative structure. The session started with a reading of all drafts so far. I listened carefully, suggesting revisions, alterations, alternatives. Then I sat down with each child and discussed their work, often writing on the poem or crossing words out with my own pencil. Working over one draft is often the key to making a new one; a poem is not a holy icon and children do not mind a teacher writing or making marks on it if they feel that their work is being taken seriously.
Having established that a poem is an aggregate of physical sensations and imaginative awareness, it was not such a great step to consider our next enterprise - the collaborative poem. I asked the children two questions. First: if a sheepfold was knocked down and rebuilt from the same stone, would it be the same sheepfold? Second: could the same stone be used more than once in building a sheepfold? The answer to the first question was "Yes and no"; to the second, "No". But it is possible to redeploy the same language in a poem more than once. So the idea of a freely-structured collaborative poem with a refrain or motif was born.
The children went back to their notebooks and poems to find three key images. These phrases had to communicate something essential, identifiable and self-contained. The children were then asked to reduce these to the simplest, shortest, most intense versions without losing any essential information. Working in small groups, they pooled their lines and assembled them in an order that made sense. This involved modification of tense, grammar and content to make a good verbal "fit". Some had to be discarded through negotiation, an exercise in co-operation. The problems that usually stew inside a poet's head were now discussed in a social context: the children were learning to become readers of their own work.
When the sections of the poem were ready, we assembled them into a whole and inserted "magic stones" - refrains that would thread the poem. This revealed how the words only appeared to be the same: the new context in which the refrain appeared changed it in subtle ways.
What was radical about the poem was that, like a journey, it could be started and finished at any point. It could be arranged as a circle; in a linear pathway; hung as a mobile in discrete verbal units; installed on a website; or performed as a choral piece with its contributory voices placing it in the air of the performance space. The collaborative poem offered a new range of possibilities, and like the poem our creative project had a beginning, a middle, and a beginning.
This project had a specific, rural setting and context, but similar techniques can be applied to a shopping mall, motorway service station or any city centre location. Each unique location brings its own coloration, its implications for learning, artistic form and performance.
The Cumbrian Sheepfolds project is a collaboration between Cumbria County Council, Northern Arts and the Arts Council of England National Lottery Fund, co-ordinated by Andrew Mortimer. For more information or to order a sheepfolds education pack e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Graham Mort lives in North Yorkshire and is a freelance poet, writer and writing tutor. E-mail: email@example.com
A Boulder, Dreaming
The first sheepfold dead ahead;
blossom fills it like a pond.
Bluebells drift in wind, blossom
lies on the ground like lily-pads.
The boulder dreams it is alive and will see
more than its stone prison.
I close my eyes.
The wall flows down the hill, under
a sycamore's rustling arms.
Crows squawk in the field,
sun shines into my face.
Light competes with wind,
then slowly fades.
Nature living and dying.
Stone-bugs crawl from solid rock,
Foxgloves shiver, sharing my tears.
The biggest beetle ever crawls
into the sun; stones glimmer.
A bull stares at me, fearlessly,
a cabbage butterfly flaps past,
I close my eyes.
Stone is faced like an alien,
holly pricks my legs.
In comes the wind, blowing
leaves into the clouds.
A wall seems to climb a hill
or fall down as a waterfall.
Nature living and dying.
Nettles surround the stone,
Clouds of mud boil in puddles.
What does rock feel like,
trapped inside a wall?
Does stone dream of freedom?
To see the world and all its seas?
I close my eyes.
May blossom gushes white foam,
Walls swim away like fish.
Polished stones glimmer,
Sky reels into dizzy clouds.
Two tiny lambs bathe in sun,
a blue and purple beetle crawls away.
Nature living and dying.
The stone is trapped:
It can't get out.
I close my eyes, and a bright light shines inside.
Pupils of Yarlside School, Barrow-in-Furness, with poet, Graham Mort