February – June 2016
I knew that Kamikaze was being used in the ‘Power and Conflict’ section of the GCSE English Literature exam’s ‘past and present’ anthology. It was great to be printed alongside Shelley, Blake, Wordsworth, Browning, Tennyson, Wilfred Owen – and for me in particular, Seamus Heaney – as well as many distinguished modern poets. I’ve now been invited to one or two London schools to talk about Kamikaze to the class. It is quite a challenge: 30 or so keen-eyed 14 and 15-year olds full of their own ideas, challenges, complaints and questions. I ended one session by asking the class to have a go at their own poems, and was later emailed several. I suppose it’s inevitable, but my overriding impression was how dominated the young writers felt by grand themes, and by old-fashioned ‘poetic’ language. In response, I encouraged something more personal and direct, more based on their own real and actual experience, and I had the feeling that this was a relief, akin to being sprung from a kind of poetic prison cell.
Here’s one of the poems that Hugo, Jonathan, Harry and Zac from Emily Kaplan’s class at a large North London school wrote in an imaginative response to their study of the poem. Other poems written were from differing points of view – the Emperor of Japan, or the mother or father of the young pilot… All inventive and lively, though one or two hamstrung by the effort to find rhymes. Forget rhyming for the moment! Just write with energy!
What’s more, even though I was neither asked nor told this was to happen, a few months later I was even more pleased to learn that Lady and Fox was the ‘unseen’ poem used in AQA’s paper for this year’s GCSE exams. On the evening of the day of the exam I had over 50 unexpected emails from all round the country, both teachers and pupils. It’s so rare that a poem you’ve written gets that depth of attention and is taken so seriously: it felt terrific.
The emails were very varied: some serious, intelligent, extremely thoughtful and perceptive, some funny, including one of a photo of the young writer grinning like a fox, asking ‘what does the fox say??’ Here’s one I really liked:
What on earth was you on wen righting that poem. It was in are exam. All i want 2 no is wat inspired u. Rlly.
i was getting a* now im getting nuffink.
lots of bants
G M, future McDonalds employee”
She’ll go far, and it won’t be in McDonalds either.
To GCSE students and teachers: A POLITE REQUEST!
I often get emails from you, and I really enjoy this, and am quite willing to respond to serious questions. However, and this is becoming increasingly important to me, when I’ve written back to you – and sometimes it takes quite a lot of thought and time, not always easy at the end of a working day – it is very disconcerting to hear absolutely nothing in reply. I think it should be basic, just to send a quick email saying ‘thanks!’ in response. It encourages me to answer the next email, instead of feeling vaguely ‘used’ by the student or teacher, maybe to get good marks in an exam, or to prepare a class.
Just a word or two back will do. (A few of you do this anyway, but most don’t!)