Poetry in the park

29th September 2000 at 01:00
Hampden Park, home to Scotland's national football team, has seen many spirited performances in its time. And the cameras were on hand to capture one of the most recent, when a group of Glasgow schoolchildren gathered to pay poetic homage to the stadium. Elaine Williams watches from the touchline.

Rain wasn't part of the plan. But raining it is. In bucketloads. Hampden Park in Glasgow, Scotland's national stadium and home to its football team, is awash. The wet stuff hasn't stopped Scotland's players from training, but it is stopping children from nearby King's Park primary from getting out on to the pitch and being filmed "performing" the poem they have written about Hampden.

Instead, nine-year-old Lauren Mackay finds herself standing on a sill in the director's box, the window behind her panning out to pitch and stands below, a camera thrust in her face and a filmmaker asking for more of that gorgeous smile and for the words to be said slowly. Lauren's delicate face works nervously, but her voice is lilting and fresh: "White like snow on Ben Ledi", her line in the poem (which, in the end, failed to make it past the editing process).

A succession of her peers receive the same treatment as more lines are spoken into the camera: "green like Greenock"; "like clouds over Skye". And then, with the pitch still out of bounds - managers were afraid the soft, hallowed turf would be damaged by the excited youngsters - the filmmakers release the children into the stands, where they crash about excitedly, their voices echoing among the empty seating.

One girl, standing alone in the sea of seats is asked to yell across the stadium "as wide as my da", her voice ringing around the Hampden bowl. Another child stands in a puddle on the pitch side, diminutive against the vast arena. "As wee as me," he pronounces.

Matthew Fitt, the Scots poet employed to help these nine-year-olds make their poem, along with filmmakers Stephen Bennett and Moby Longinotto, students at the National Film and Television School in London, are on tenterhooks. How is it going to come together? They only have this day. It should have been sunny, dammit! The sun was belting yesterday when the poem was created.

The result of this nail-biting effort is to be a film-poem, called National Colours, one of 12 being sponsored by the Royal Mail and featured as part of Poetry International 2000, a festival of poetry readings, lectures, debates and performances at the Royal Festival Hall in London. The film-poems will be launched on National Poetry Day on October 5, which has the coincidental if complementary theme "Fresh Voices".

But the children of King's Park primary seem oblivious to the significance of the occasion. They are overwhelmed by the grandeur and gleaming newness of Hampden. The stadium has been recently upgraded and restructured with the help of pound;23 million from the Millennium Commission, and includes a museum of football history as well as a state-of-the-art sports injury clinic. They are wild with excitement at seeing their national footballing heroes in the flesh, at being fussed over by filmmakers and at making poetry with a real live poet - especially one who has a pony tail and speaks Scots.

Ann Walsh, their teacher, says: "If they had an image of a poet it wasn't Matthew. They didn't expect somebody so in touch with the real world, with their world." Craig Robertson, one of the 15 nine and 10-year-olds chosen to write the poem and feature in the film, says: "For the first time I can see that poetry is really cool." Lauren McGill, nine, says: "Matthew made me think about things in a different way."

The aim of the films is to harness children's imagination and creativity to celebrate the themes of the Royal Mail's Millennium Stamp series. Forty-eight artists have created 48 stamps, four on a theme for each month, focusing on millennium projects around the United Kingdom. Each film is based on one of each month's projects. The Hampden stadium, for example, is the subject of one of the stamps for October, which has a "Body and Bone" theme.

The Royal Mail has a history of sponsoring the arts, particularly poetry, and in the 1930s employed the poet W H Auden for six months to work with its film unit. The result was two celebrated film-poems, made in collaboration with the composer Benjamin Britten - Night Mail and Coal Face. Sixty-five years later the Royal Mail has committed pound;30,000 to the making of these 12-minute poems. The films will be shown on a loop on monitors scattered around a Poetry Lounge in the Royal Festival Hall ballroom; the lounge is also sponsored by the Royal Mail.

The idea, according to Philip Parker, the Royal Mail's editorial manager, is to make fresh and short films - "miniature art forms full of distilled emotion and feeling" to complement the art-in-miniature of the stamps.

Shan Maclennan, head of education at the Royal Festival Hall, has overseen the project. He says: "This has been a concentrated, bold enterprise. We have made film-poems with pupils and poets before, but we have never done it with children this young and in such a short time. They have produced something powerful and immediate."

Matthew Fitt echoes this sentiment."I'm used to working with groups of kids over a few weeks, but this was done in three days," he says. "I worked with the kids on poetry on the first day, we visited the stadium on the second and did the filming on the third, although what we had planned went pear-shaped because of the weather. After we had finished filming at Hampden, we had 45 minutes of material, which we had to get down to one minute in the editing room. I couldn't imagine how we would do it, I felt suicidal halfway through, but what we have got in the end is fantastic.

"The poem is all the children's words, but because of the short time-scale so many things have contributed to it - the weather, the presence of the national team, which we had not expected, the budget, the mood of the children on the day - everything." All of that, he believes, has been powerfully distilled into a few words and images. "The children were so cute, their faces so incredible, but they were not at all conscious of the effect."

Fitt, who often composes in Scots, has attracted national attention with the recent publication of his Scots science fiction novel, But n Ben A-Go-Go (Luath Press pound;10.99), the first novel, he claims, ever to be published in the language. Alive to the language of local children, Fitt has worked hard with the pupils of King's Park, teaching them on the first day how poetry allows you to see and describe the world in unusual ways, putting things together that are not normally associated. "They responded well to the idea of metaphor and simile and that's what we stuck with in the end," he says. "After their first visit to Hampden I wanted them to describe what they had seen. What struck them most was the colours - the colours of the national flag and the green of the pitch. That's what we wrote about. It was simple, but it worked."

The 11 other film-poems include works centred on the Scottish Seabird Centre at Bass Rock, North Berwick; the Turning the Tide scheme in County Durham - a millennium project that has involved reclaiming miles of coastline from coal pit waste; reconstruction of the narrow-gauge railway from Caernarfon to Porthmadog in north Wales; and the building of a millennium green for local residents near Waterloo in London.

Turning the Tide features the work of a group of children aged seven to 10 from Shotton primary, in Shotton Colliery, near the coast where beaches and promenades, fields and recreation areas, wildlife sites and cycleways have replaced an industrial legacy of a million tonnes of waste. Pupils worked with Northumberland poet Katrina Porteous and north-east filmmaker Anton Hecht and came back from the coast loaded with stones after their first visit with the poet.

The stamp for Turning the Tide features three stones - one black, two white. Porteous found that pupils were most excited by their ancient nature. "When I asked the children how old they thought their stones were, one of the girls put up her hand and said "40". When I told them it was more like 300 million years, that the stones were there long before dinosaurs, they became very excited."

The poem, which turned into an incantation about stones - "The stone that fell from the sky; the stone that colours the earth; the stone that came from a rainbow; the stone that came from the dark mines under the sea..." - was filmed on the beach and in the playground back at school. Anton Hecht says: "We wrote the children's words on the beach, then filmed the children playing hopscotch over them. We then jumped to filming them playing games in the playground, chanting their words while they were running about and out of breath, contrasting the hard edge of school with the idealised, meditative romanticism of the beach."

Porteous believes the collaboration has been highly effective and that poem and film complement each other. Like writing poetry, making a film depends on the editing. She says: "This one is very economic, very exciting."

National Poetry Day is October 5. Poetry International 2000 at the Royal Festival Hall, London from October 6-14. The Poetry Lounge, which features the film-poems, will be open for five weeks from October 6. The festival website is: www.poetryinternational. co.uk. Information about National Poetry Day at www.poetrysoc.com


* blue like rain

like bubblegum juice

like clouds over Skye

* green like Greenoch

like the Loch Ness monster

like golf

* goals as wide as a hunner-inch TV

as wide as my da

* as big as Ben Nevis

* as wee as me

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