The following article comes from poet and educator Joshua Seigal.
The beginning of a long journey
For the last decade I have been a professional poet. Despite having had nine books published, the vast majority of my income derives from visiting schools, where I perform my poems and run writing workshops. When we were plunged into lockdown in March 2020, my main income stream ground to an immediate halt. Teachers, of course, were scrambling to set up the provisions for online learning, and arranging poetry visits understandably fell toward to bottom of their agenda.
As a freelance poet I was left to fend for myself.
Covid has affected me both in terms of my workshop leading and my own creativity, but I can say that, despite the initial chaos and anxiety, I have emerged all the better for the disruption. In terms of working with schools, I have been forced to adapt to the demands of online learning.
From my initial position as a complete technophobe, I have now familiarised myself with all the online platforms used by schools, and have tailored my workshops accordingly. The advantages of this have been multifaceted. For example, whereas previously the number of participants in a workshop was limited by physical space, online learning has enabled me to lead workshops with literally hundreds of students at once, whether they are at home or in school. I have also been able to lead workshops with students all over the country, and indeed the world.
Furthermore, schools no longer have to pay travel and accommodation costs in order to access the benefits of my poetry sessions.In terms of working with schools, another challenge I faced was whether or not to use Covid as the focus for my writing workshops. Obviously it has been a perennial, perhaps dominant feature in most of our lives, but I was aware that some participants may not want to talk directly about it. I therefore devised wide-ranging activities that provided space to confront whatever issues and emotions students (and parents and teachers) might be facing. One activity I devised required everyone to think of an emotion (inspired by Covid, or not) and turn it into metaphors. Here is an evocative piece produced by Alfie, during a workshop with Year 3 at Catton Grove Primary School:
Anger by Alfie
Anger is a volcano ready to erupt
Anger is bomb about to blow up
Anger is a flame about to rise up
Anger is a firework about to ignite
Anger is a mum about to shout
Anger is a starving lion
Anger is an aggressive tiger
Anger is a feeling everyone has
Anger is an emotion.
Self Development & Personal Growth
Rather than being limited to face-to-face visits, I am now able to offer a more diverse package to a wider variety of schools, and I suppose I have Covid to thank for enabling this.
In terms of my own writing, Covid has similarly enabled me to develop hugely. At first I felt ossified by anxiety and the precariousness of my situation. However, as people began clapping the NHS and lauding other public servants, I was forced to confront the question: What is my duty as a poet? What should I do with the skills I have? I was thus catalysed into action and began chronicling, through my poetry, the strange times we found ourselves living in.
I had never previously written much political material, but I found that I could no longer avoid it. I have probably written around fifty poems loosely themed around the lockdown, and this has taken me far beyond the children’s material that puts bread on my table.
On a grander scale, I think the pandemic has helped recalibrate mine and many others’ value system. We are so used, as a society, to heralding the rich and powerful, but I came to appreciate the roles played by all members of society, who help us in unnoticed yet crucial ways. With this in mind, I’d like to share one of my pandemic poems. My inspiration was hearing Home Secretary Priti Patel make reference to ‘unskilled’ workers
The Unskilled by Joshua Seigal
We are the unskilled,
at the other end of the curve from you.
Most of the time you don’t notice us
as we do what we do. Silently stitching
the fragile fabric that holds your life,
we are the unskilled, ghosting through
early mornings and late nights
so you can muse on higher things
in the comfort that you’re accustomed to.
There’s not much need to take heed
of us as we prop up the pillars
of your day for you
for we are the unskilled.
We grease the axles of your world for you
but kindness, perseverance
and determination too
are not quite deemed to be the same
as having letters after your name.
Yes we are the unskilled,
preparing, cleaning, polishing the board
on which you play your game.
Many readers of this blog will not have met a professional poet, still less thought about what possible role they could have during a global pandemic. I hope I have, in this article, given you a flavour of my work. I would love it if you’d like to check out my website www.joshuaseigal.co.uk, where you can access lots of free poetry, resources, and information.