Caroline Smith pic © Mark Wright

Stanza Bonanza

30th September 2016

On 6 October, the country will come alive to the sound of poetry being read aloud – everywhere from radio stations and railway stations to pubs and supermarkets. In honour of National Poetry Day, Kathy Walton talks to three very different local poets about why poetry and language are important to them…

CAROLINE SMITH

Five years ago, when Caroline Smith started to weave the often harrowing experiences of her clients into poetry, she could not have predicted that publication of her collection would coincide with Brexit or that immigration would become such an emotive topic.
Mother of four adult children, Caroline works as an immigration and asylum caseworker near her home in Wembley. This summer, she brought out The Immigration Handbook, which explores the themes of waiting and delay, as well as the often random nature of Home Office decisions, with the aim of using poetry to shine a new light on how these themes play out in the lives of vulnerable people.
“The book is not a political polemic, and not all asylum seekers are angels, any more than the rest of us, but I hope people will read the poems and realise that behind every statistic is a person with hopes, just like the rest of us,” she says.
She explains that many of her clients languish for years in statelessness limbo, all the while “desperate to contribute” but powerless to do so without the required paperwork.
One client waited 17 years for officialdom to make up its mind; while two siblings, who arrived together, found that one was given leave to stay while the other was not, simply because their cases were handled by different case officers.
Caroline’s job has its lighter moments too; many of her clients’ often hilarious misspellings make their way into one of the poems in the book: howlers such as ‘I send you my wormiest regards’; or one frightened man describing the police as ‘uninformed guards’ and himself as ‘sacred’ instead of scared.
Already a favourite at poetry readings is Eaton House (set in a signing-on office), which compares the metaphorical mountains negotiated daily by an Afghani asylum seeker with the hills of his homeland.
“I feel that many of the world’s problems are distilled into people’s files on my desk. I hope that my contribution will add to the debate,” says Caroline.

Eaton House

Dr Khan has been walking for seven years
out to Hounslow to join the queue
and each week sign his name.
He edges forward, his face burning
as if he’s standing in the markete place
of his home in Paktika Province.
Word has got back from new arrivals.
‘Even Dr Khan is in the queue with us.
He told his wife he was practising in England.’

Every week he has described for her
the life he is building.
She imagines the slow, steep climb
up to the pass
the sun rising over the next ridge
where he can see the summit
the skylarks veering from the scrub
into blue sky – the crossing point
where he’s gone too far to turn back.

‘The Immigration Handbook’ (pub. Seren Books) is available from Chorleywood Bookshop, at £9.99.

PHILIP POLLECOFF

Unrequited love may seem like the end of the world for many teenagers, but for lawyer and Chorleywood resident Philip Pollecoff, it launched him as a performance poet.
“I wrote a love poem to a girl in my year when I was 16 and she gave it out to the rest of the class. It was awful!” laughs Pollecoff, now 62 (and happily married to somebody else).
Undeterred, he went on to read his work in a school show – and was hooked. “My poetry wasn’t that great, but the show was really successful and I knew I was a natural performer.”
He continued to perform his own work in one-man poetry shows while at university, with bookings at arts festivals, until real life intervened – “poetry doesn’t pay the rent” – and he all but dropped the writing to study law. Fortunately, his talent was spotted at an arts event some 20 years later by award-winning poet John Mole, who encouraged him to start again. At around the same time, Pollecoff became a father to Marco, now 22, and discovered a whole new source of inspiration.
“I’ve written some good poems about childhood because my own experience as a father brought out a lot of childhood recollections for me,” he says. His poem Rain Child, about childhood boredom and the comparative excitement of rain, is “basically my recollection of coming from a fabulously dysfunctional family.” By contrast, Captain Of The Under Tens, about Marco’s success on the school football pitch, is very optimistic – an approach that Pollecoff admits will never make him famous. “It’s the most popular poem I’ve ever written, always in demand at readings, but no literary magazine will ever publish it because it’s too sentimental,” he declares.
And talking of sentiment, what became of the girl who spurned him at 16?
“She went out with a best mate of mine and then we lost touch,” says Pollecoff, before adding philosophically: “I wish her well, because it’s a great story and often the stickiest things in life make the best material.”

Captain of the Under Tens

I am blessed to have seen this so many Sundays
sometimes out the corner of my eye
as I’m shooting the breeze with a throng of dads,
tightening our coats, or as if – nothing other,
no birds, no trees, no rivers’ light dashing
no thoughtless clouds, but him
moving up the wing, sprinting past
centre circle towards goal mouth,
looking up to aim – to curve the ball,
on his left – or right ? – Does it go in?
It mustn’t go wide for then branch-like
he’ll bend stood quite still and share
the silenced crowd’s shame of error.

Usually when hapless coaches least think,
when he’s had no fireman’s breakfast
of bacon and egg or his goal scoring banana,
when he’s not had to race up pitch,
more like – when someone passed it high
and at the last second – he kicks out
and drives it home, or when like
the other day, he is facing the other way
and he flicks it with his heel an’ us dads
and the mums all feel – more than him scored.

Philip Pollecoff is a trustee of The Poetry School, a charity for teaching the art of writing poetry. His latest collection ‘Carry This With You At All Times’ (pub. Smiths Knoll) is available from Chorleywood Bookshop, at £5.

NEIL ELDER

Many school teachers, when faced with the challenge of getting teenagers interested in poetry, prefer to avoid the serious stuff and opt instead for poems that are overly sentimental or which are guaranteed to get a laugh.
Not so for father of two and award-winning poet Neil Elder, 45, from Harrow, who used to teach English at St Helen’s in Northwood and now teaches at St Augustine’s Priory school in Ealing. “Poetry is not all hearts and flowers, often it’s about the anxieties of modern life and reflects ideas that students are familiar with,” he says.
One poem that always goes down well with Elder’s pupils is the 1966 poem Death of A Naturalist by Irish Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney, which recalls the days Heaney spent hunting for frogspawn as a child – until one day he feels the frogs have turned on him, and life changes shape. “There’s a richness of language that children can really enjoy,” says Elder.
Two other works he often uses in class are Upon Westminster Bridge, written by Wordsworth in 1802 and Blake’s poem London, published in 1794. “Blake is dark and cynical, while Wordsworth is rapturous about London,” Elder explains. “You put the two poems next to each other and because they are so radically different in their approach to the city, it gets students talking about what London means for them.”
Elder’s own poetry collection, Codes of Conduct (which won the 2015 Cinnamon Press Poetry Pamphlet prize) includes a series of poems that Elder says “examine what we think we know about one another, versus what we do know.”
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, he sets these explorations of contemporary life in an office, where “the ridiculousness of the modern world” is seen through the eyes of an employee called Henderson, whose assumptions and conclusions Elder says owe much to the jaded pen-pusher Reginald Perrin (of the eponymous 1970s TV series).
For Elder, “good poetry is about communicating thoughts and ideas to people in a way that makes them recognise them with new eyes. [My pupils] can recognise thoughts and feelings that are untapped because they haven’t risen to the surface. Poetry brings these thoughts and feelings to the surface.”

Open Plan

The firm Henderson works for has a new office:
open-plan chrome, riverside views towards the city.
But not one person in the office knows
that Henderson keeps a panther in his
spare room at home.

At weekends he spends time in the garden
walking and grooming the animal;
he brushes Sable’s coarse black coat
until it shines like tar.

In cold or wet weather Henderson
puts her on a treadmill
and she walks for miles.

What Henderson does not know
is that newly appointed Amy Bridges (Accounts)
who sits at the next desk of the open-plan office,
spends her spare time guerrilla gardening.
Tonight she’s digging in some daffodils
along the central reservation
of the road that takes her home.

‘Codes of Conduct’ by Neil Elder is available from Cinnamon Press
(www.cinnamonpress.com), price £4.99

Caroline Smith and Neil Elder will be reading from their work as part of Chorleywood LitFest on 15 October at noon in The Junction, Christ Church. Tickets are £8, and include a Ploughman’s Lunch. See www.chilternbookshops.co.uk or call Chorleywood Bookshop on 01923 283566.

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