Word and image

4th November 1994 at 00:00
Robin Buss on Poetry International.

Launched at the Royal Festival Hall last Friday with a speech by James Fenton and a welcoming poem by Matthew Sweeney, this year's Poetry International is a ten-day celebration involving readings and workshops, with special emphasis on Chinese poets in exile and the centenary of the death of Christina Rosetti - two benchmarks which suggest the range covered.

One highlight, tomorrow, will be the presentation of Poetry and Film, three film-poems made by Year 10 pupils at schools in Wales, London and Northumberland, under the guidance of poets and film-makers.

The three teams set out with a wide brief, with little guidance except that they were to make poems and films which reflected the lives of their communities. At a girls' school in London's Docklands, where nearly all of the pupils are of Bangladeshi origin, poet Lavinia Greenlaw introduced them to haiku and encouraged them to write poems in this form, while film-maker Richard Coldman visited the area with the group, discussing what to include in a film that would reflect their daily lives.

In Ashington, where the film-maker was Ian Cottage, poet Matthew Sweeney sent his pupils out to talk to their parents and grandparents about change in this former mining village, then to find images that would reflect this and their feelings about the place. At Ysgol Gyfun Gwyr, near Swansea, film-maker Ceri Sherlock and poet Menna Elfyn set about combining film, with the pupils' poems (in Welsh), to evoke a very different community and its history.

When I spoke to Menna on Sunday, she and Ceri were still editing more than four hours' worth of video to make their 15-minute film. All those involved complained that they had not had as much time as they would have liked; on the other hand, all were enthusiastic about the process. They agreed on one thing: that the films should be generated by the pupils themselves, and that their own role was that of facilitators.

They were also, generally, very impressed by the students' abilities. One remark often made by adults using poetry in the classroom is the standard of work that can be achieved, and not always from the "most able" students in other fields. On the contrary, some of the most striking poems may come from the bottom end of the class. And Matthew Sweeney emphasised that poetry in the classroom is not an easy ride - as he had to remind his group at one point. He had set them an exercise to do for the following day, and hardly any of them came in with the desired results. He gave them a good telling-off and said: "Come now, do you want your film to look silly next to the ones from London and Wales?" The appeal to regional pride had the desired effect.

The three films will be shown at the Purcell Room on the South Bank at 3pm on November 5, followed by a discussion with the poets, film-makers and pupils from the three schools.

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