Living poet's society;Poetry

15th January 1999 at 00:00
Thanks to the work of one inspirational teacher, Martin Whittaker finds the Muse thriving amid poverty and hopelessness in the land of Dylan Thomas and the Manic Street Preachers

It doesn't look like the stuff of poetry. The drab 1970s houses of the Gurnos estate, many of them boarded up, lie in an ugly sprawl on a mountain-side in Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales. High on the plateau overlooking the estate, against the panoramic backdrop of the Valleys, is Pen-y-dre High School.

In the playground, crows battle over discarded chips and children huddle with their backs against the keen wind. Bleak is an understatement.

In the warmth of the school hall, Mike Jenkins sits with a small Year 11 group. To a visiting journalist the teenagers are shy and monosyllabic. But when Mike gets them talking about their creative writing, they light up, competing to get their replies in.

Helen Davies, 15, reveals she has begun writing in her spare time. "If I think of something good in my head I'll jot it down," she chirrups. A beaming Mike tells her: "That's how I started. I couldn't talk to my parents, so the only way I could say what I wanted to them was to write it down and hide it in drawers."

Like the inspirational schoolmaster played by Robin Williams in the film Dead Poets Society, English teacher and award-winning poet Mike Jenkins is instilling in his charges a passionate love of writing. In the movie, the pupils came from privileged families. Here the background is one of high crime rates, unemployment, serious drug abuse and disaffected youth.

But thanks to Mike's rapport with his pupils, even the hardest children have produced good prose and poetry. And it works both ways: his pupils provide the inspiration for his gritty poems and short stories. He has published six books of poetry and one of prose. Much of his writing speaks with the voices of the teenagers in their distinctive Merthyr dialect. In Graffiti Narratives, the poems chart the youngsters' often chaotic lives, their hopes and dreams, the fractured families, tales of joyriding, teenage motherhood and drug abuse. Yet there is humour too.

Last year his book of interrelated short stories, Wanting To Belong, won the English language section of the Arts Council of Wales Book of the Year award.

Headteacher John Williams said: "He's a very good teacher of creative writing, a very good poet. He enthuses and inspires children and they enjoy his lessons enormously - because he respects them and always works from their starting point."

Mike, 45, lives with his wife Marie, a primary teacher, and their two teenage children on the outskirts of Merthyr. He believes he identifies with his pupils because of his own turbulent childhood.

He was born in Aberystwyth and moved to Cambridge. By the time he reached his teens his parents had divorced, and he lived with his mother, a biology teacher. "My own writing came out of suffering. My parents were split up and I didn't have an easy life then. Because of that I can relate to these kids and some of the personal problems they're going through.

"I started writing at 15 - masses of stuff. Still got it somewhere. daren't look at it. When I think of the stuff I wrote then, the work the kids in school are writing now is just so superior."

He studied English at Aberystwyth University and after a two-year break went into teaching full time. He arrived at Pen-y-dre school in the mid-Seventies. At first he didn't know what had hit him. "The cane was used regularly, but you also had violence from the teachers - using violence to keep order. You had kids who were more violent as a result of that."

His more gentle approach - being friendly and treating the children as equals - got him into frequent trouble. "When I got there it was regarded as a real weakness by everybody, my peers especially. I used to like looking at rock lyrics in class when they fitted in with the theme we were doing. I remember playing a song by Stiff Little Fingers, and the headmaster at the time came in and took the needle off the record."

Today Pen-y-dre is a much-improved school, and Mike says he is amazed by the quality of pupils' writing. "I think they develop their own individual styles, which is good. They're not copying from things they've read. I think there's a tendency to churn out cliches, often from poorly-written rock lyrics. And they don't do that."

His approach to teaching prose and poetry is varied. He still uses rock music, playing a track and getting pupils to write about it. Sometimes he uses photographs to inspire them. And then there's his writer's imagination. "I'll give them situations. Each kid would have a situation on a bit of paper, some of them bizarre, some more ordinary. I'd ask them to imagine they were on a rooftop or on a skateboard going through a supermarket, or in a church with a mask on."

Sometimes he asks his class to put their pens down, close their eyes and meditate. "I'll ask them to put themselves on this beach, and they're beachcombing. They start picking up objects that relate to their lives. It's a process of eventually finding an object that takes them back. And we try to build up the atmosphere of the sea, of voices, of faces coming out of the sea and so on."

What is it about his pupils that inspires him to write? "Lots of things," says Mike. "They've suffered a lot ever since I've been here from all kinds of deprivation. And I've tried to understand what they've been going through and I've identified with that.

"It's the sense of humour - having a laugh. And obviously the dialect. The different words and phrases they come up with. They're funny but they're also a good means of describing things. I encourage them to use dialect words, not coming down on them and saying 'that's wrong - it's not formal English'.

"I've found the hardest of kids could write, and write some good stuff. They want to put everything in it. They want to swear, and you wonder should you put that in?" So does he let them? "I say 'put the asterisks in'," he laughs. "After all, I don't want to get into trouble."

Graffiti Narratives by Mike Jenkins is published by Planet, PO Box 44, Aberystwyth, SY23 3ZZ, pound;4.95. His book of short stories Wanting to Belong is published by Seren, First Floor, 2 Wyndham Street, Bridgend, CF31 1EF, pound;5.95.

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