We asked poet legend and SLAMbassadors founder Joelle Taylor to create a poetry masterclass for KS4-5 students and young poets more widely. In this resource, she explores the effects of coronavirus directly, and in the wider political context, using one of her own newest poems featured on BBC Radio 3’s The Verb.
“One of the roles of the poet is as witness. But how can we witness something we cannot reach? This worksheet will look at how you can marry the imaginative with the real to make a political statement within a poem.
I was recently asked by BBC Radio 3 to write and record a poem for The Verb looking at ‘isolation’ during these perplexing and unprecedented times. All writing happens in context, and so I wrote ‘A Very English Apocalypse’ in response not only to Covid-19 but the tumultuous political discourse of the years preceding the virus, the rise in nationalism, the Windrush scandal, and Brexit.”
A Very English Apocalypse
by Joelle Taylor
Having repelled foreign bodies
foreign bodies invaded
our bodies, now foreign
slipping between border rails
they drifted over high walls
seeped beneath the carpets of Parliament
teaching us anatomy of loss
the universal theory of alone
the mathematics of survival
the weight of air
how visa it all is.
We should have checked our temperatures years ago.
(ii) a very English apocalypse
This fever-empire this other this better
all rogue all unjoin all apart this width
we have invaded ourselves, and queued to do it
what is the distance between two people walking away from one another?
Hacking up headlines
a cough of white crows circle the city’s bloodstream
& two friends walk too close together
their kisses unexploded
The birds teach us new songs, and we follow
reading closely typed manuscripts in crow, and we follow
oh look/ & now
there are dolphins in Venice canals, goats in Llandudno gardens
& lions reporting the news in Moscow.
in Britain/ the bulldog has returned
but each of our doors are closed
hear him now
his midnight howl,
the sound of wrong
an ambulance bawling.
(iii) the empire of us
& all of our beds, desert islands
the empires of us; I lie there
my body, foreign
no longer speaking the same language;
one of my hands does not understand the other
& my blood ticks
& then there is you, my darling
we are two dogs tethered, biting at our own umbilical, &
there are 7 cracks across the living room ceiling, darling
the windows are laboratory slides, darling
teach me the shape of your happy
teach me Galway, 1974
teach me this love wassailed between tower blocks
teach me an earthquake of handclap teach me
to dance on the edge of
it took this to show us the air
Look at the line ‘the windows are laboratory slides, darling’.
What does it mean? Is it just a conflation of two images or does it mean that new life is nurtured there?
Find yourself a quiet space with a window. Look out the window. What do you see? A tower block? Another terraced house? A field? Water?
Your task is to create a life, a culture, from the laboratory slide of the window.
Ask yourself these questions when creating the character or new life for your poem. The more questions you can think of the more bones to the body of your poem:
- Who lives in the house/ building/ land opposite?
- Are they alone?
- How does their body fit the room they are in?
- What is their secret?
- What job do they usually do?
- How do they fit into the current political climate? (for example, are they nationalists, or NHS key workers, or something else?)
- Do they communicate with you? How?
- What would the shadow puppetry of night-time windows be?
Confine your poems to 9 lines if possible so that form follows the context in some way and adds another layer of meaning.
The opening line to ‘A Very English Apocalypse’ is:
‘Having repelled foreign bodies/ foreign bodies/ invaded our bodies/ now foreign’
The first ‘foreign bodies’ refers to those people most directly affected by BREXIT – those from other countries who face losing their right to stay in the UK. These include the same low wage workers who are now vital to our collective survival.
The second ‘foreign bodies’ is the coronavirus.
The final line ‘our bodies/ now foreign’ notes that we now all afraid of our own bodies, the touch of our hands, the sweat we want to wipe off our top lip, our own fingers. It also references the idea of the virus being a coloniser.
Can you write a poem exploring this idea in more depth? For example:
- Imagine the body as a nation
- Imagine the virus as a sentient being, an army, an invading force
- What does the virus do to the idea of ‘borders’? Does it reinforce them? Does it do the opposite?
What will the day be like when we are finally released? How will the world have changed? Will we have learned anything from our confinement and our dependency on one another? Will we remember the power of community?
Take this opportunity to time travel and write a speculative poem about that first day.
You can choose a positive poem or dystopian, just allow your imagination, coupled with your understanding of the world and global politics, to shape it.
If you are aged 11-17 years, don’t forget that you can enter your poems into the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award. It is free to enter and there is no theme, so you can enter poems on any topic. Enter by 31 July at foyleyoungpoets.org.