England -Poems From A School Edited By Kate Clanchy (Picador) ​

 Reveiw by Seamus Kelly

What do I, as a poet, look for when reading or listening to poetry? When I read poetry, I want to be shown new perspectives, to gain new insights, to be made to pause for thought and I hope to find pleasure in the reading. After reading just six random poems from this collection I knew that it would deliver on all counts. I wasn’t sure though that it would make me smile.

As I read those first poems every one of them moved me. I came across extreme sadness, heartache for lost people and places and memories of war and violence, but I also came across extreme optimism and that really did make me smile.

How could one not dab a little tear when reading “Eyen” written by the poet Michael Egbe to his aunt who looked after him after his mother was gone? Talking about a photo of his mother he writes:

“…and you would take it away from me and hold me close to say, don’t worry, she’s out there for you”

How can you not feel anger and futility at a world where the poet, Shukria Rezaei, feels compelled to write about her Hazara people:

“in Afghanistan where they come from / in Pakistan where they are murdered /  in Iran where they offend / because of their almond shaped eyes.”

When the poets speak of home they do so with real affection and plenty of illuminating details, often reflecting as much on the food as the geography, so that the reader can feel it, taste and smell it.

The poet Maah-Noor Ali writes:

“No smell of fruit and marble floors, no / swirling noises of fans, no / animals, nothing / that felt alive”

Aisha Borja concentrated on her father cooking both at home in Columbia and now in England. In this short extract from My Dad Cooks the World and his Past in a Steam Cooker she wrote:

 “My dad is the resurrector / of beans, a puller-back / of dead skins / a conductor / of vegetable stew.”

When they describe the loss of it the reader can feel the loss, it feels personal, as it should.
The following lines are from Rukiya Khatun and Shukiria Rexai:

 “Look up the sky is blue. Here the same / Clouds appear, but nothing is the same”

“Today I missed the jagged roads. / The horizons of mountains looming / with
calming familiarity. / The way the sky flowered. / The way I used to live.”

At times this book is a truly heart-rending read with stories of terrible experiences, but it is
also heart-warming in its optimism and its belief in the values of family and society.

In writing this review have deliberately chosen, up to this point, to use the term “poet” and not refer to “young” poets. To look at the writing in context it is necessary to be aware that it is written by young people attending a state school and that the young people were all from what the editor calls “striving migrant families and several are refugees”. The brief pen-portraits of the young poets included at the back of the book are a powerful reminder of where this work comes from and are themselves well worth reading.

I hadn’t expected to find so many genuinely good poems in a book from young people in asingle school.

There is some exceptional poetry in this book and I am pleased to say that I have not found any weak poems in this collection.

The editor, Kate Clanchy, has done a great job of enabling these young people to get their stories told and of putting them together in a book that feels like it belongs to the writers not the editor.

Make no mistake this is not a book of poems to pick up if you want a quick and happy fix of rhyme and pentameters. No! this book is far more important than that.

Being privileged to work with young people myself I never cease to be amazed by their ability to talk about their lives and life in general once we offer them the opportunity and tools in a supportive and non-judgemental way. This book proves to me beyond doubt that young people, regardless of their backgrounds, must be given the chance to both experience and create a wide range of art whether in writing, poetry, spoken,  2 dimensional, 3 dimensional, static or dynamic media. This book also demonstrates, with abundant clarity, that immigration adds immense cultural and human value to our country.

        Seamus Kelly

 About Seamus Kelly…Seams Kelly is a performance poet and has been working professionally since 2015. He has produced a short collection ”Thinking Too Much” and performs and leads workshops across the North West. Seamus is the resident poet on the ”Stories We Could Tell” project in Rochdale working with young people including asylum seekers, young people in care and young people with mental health issues to empower them whilst developing skills and confidence. Read more about him on his website, One Poet’s Vision, click here.

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