Woman of the Week is Stylist’s weekly celebration of women making a difference to society. Kate Clanchy MBE is a teacher and writer. She’s also the editor of England: Poems from a School, a remarkable new collection of poetry by children and teenagers from refugee, asylum-seeking and migrant backgrounds.
You might not be familiar with Kate Clanchy’s name. But if you spend any amount of time on Twitter, you’ll likely have come across one or two of the poems she shares there: tender, funny, succinct and often devastatingly sad verses about home, family, loneliness and identity. Last Friday, Clanchy was appointed an MBE for services to literature in the Queen’s birthday honours, thanks in large part to these poems. But she didn’t write them. Her students did.
Clanchy is a ‘writer in residence’ at Oxford Spires Academy, a secondary school in the venerated academic city, where she has taught for almost a decade. The reality of the school belies its loftily glamorous name: it’s a state comprehensive on the poor east side of Oxford, attended by children and teenagers from all over the world (including a sizeable contingent of refugee and asylum seeking pupils), speaking more than 30 languages and around 50 dialects between them.
Spires isn’t a bad school, by any measure. Indeed, in the last five years, it’s frequently been held up as an example of how once-failing comprehensives can be turned around. But it still faces the pressures and challenges of all underfunded, overstretched state schools with ethnically and socioeconomically diverse student bodies.
It’s here that Clanchy works with Year Seven students to sixth formers, introducing them to poetry and encouraging them to write and perform their own. An award-winning writer and poet herself – she’s published four poetry collections, a memoir, a children’s book and a novel – she joined Spires in 2009, and now focuses exclusively on running poetry workshops with all kinds of different groups of children and teenagers.
“There are voluntary groups that people can come and join after school and in lunchtimes, and there’s one that’s for sixth-formers and one that’s for younger kids,” she says. “I’ve had groups for poorer students, disadvantaged white kids and older boys for whom English is a second language. I had a young group who all had severe dyslexia, who were hilarious and very talented. Right now, I’m in with a Year 9 group, and we’re making a book of poems just for fun.”
A collection of some of Clanchy’s students’ poems, titled England: Poems from a School, is set to be published by Picador on 14 June. All of the young poets featured in the slim book are from refugee, asylum seeking and migrant backgrounds; all moved to the UK after the age of six, and none speak English as a first language.
Their poems are about home and longing, about being forced to leave somewhere you know you’ll never see again, about trying to remember the details of a place you’re not sure you’ll ever return. They’re also, as the collection’s title suggests, about England, and the experience of trying to build a new life as a young person in an unfamiliar country.
Overall, Clanchy says, her students feel “very positive” about England. This positivity isn’t the same as uncritical reverence: several of the poems touch on casual racism, poverty and desperate loneliness.
“But the kids are young, they’re excited and there’s a genuine warmth there,” Clanchy says. “They really identify with this multicultural community and they really want to be here. However challenging it is, they’re glad they’re here.”
“Genuine warmth” is a good way to describe the reception Clanchy’s pupils’ poems have received since she started sharing them on Twitter in January 2017. One poem by 12-year-old Mohammed, in which he recalls his home in Damascus, was retweeted by more than 1,300 people. A brief, beautifully simple ode to young love by 13-year-old Freya was liked 15,000 times. In the wild west of Twitter, which can often feel like a breeding ground for the world’s most twisted and toxic opinions, Clanchy’s posts are a breath of hopeful, clarifying air.
The social media response to the students’ writing has “been really lovely”, Clanchy says. “And the kids just love it. I can’t tell you – it makes them feel so heard, when they look and see people saying nice things and liking them and retweeting them.”
One poem, she says, got retweeted by a famous footballer and spread “all around the world”.
“It’s a really good use for Twitter, because it’s very positive,” she continues. “It’s warm and truthful, and all it is is a voice. It’s not trying to be anything; it’s not trying to get money off you. It’s just saying ‘here we are. We exist’. It makes the kids more human.”
Giving a voice to young people from refugee, asylum-seeking and migrant backgrounds feels particularly important in a post-Brexit, post-Trump landscape, as attitudes have hardened towards immigrants and people seen as ‘other’. (In the 11 months after the EU referendum, reports of race- and faith-based hate crimes in England and Wales surged by more than 40%.) Often, people making the progressive case for immigration will cite the economic value of diversity, but Clanchy is more interested in the harder-to-measure benefits of multiculturalism.
“I’ve met so many deeply interesting kids who’ve told me so much and taught me so much about the world,” she says. She sees their poems as an assertion of “how beautiful [diversity] is, not just how useful it is. They show what a powerful moment it is when all these different cultures come together, and people try to make a better world. Because that’s what they have done.”
She’s keenly aware that she is potentially open to charges of exploitation by publishing a book of the children’s poems, or accusations that – as a middle-class white woman – she’s appropriating their words.
“But I am reasonably savvy and careful, I hope,” she says. There are some poems that she’s refused to post online, and she always changes the names of children if she’s concerned their writing could get them into trouble.
A donation of 50p from the sale of each book, meanwhile, will go to the charities First Story and the Forward Arts Foundation, which have backed Clanchy’s work at Spires – and each of the poets featured in the collection were paid a fee of £100. “So they’re paid, published authors with a national press, which is just wonderful.”
Clanchy says she always suspected her students were special.
“That’s why it’s so lovely having a book. I always secretly felt their poems were fantastic, but seeing people loving them on Twitter and now having the book out, it feels like – yeah, I told you so! I knew we were brilliant!”
England: Poems From A School is published by Picador, £9.99.
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Images: Alexander James / Alicia Clarke