A model writer in an East Wall school
Poet Catherine Ann Cullen reports on her experience as writer in residence in inner-city Dublin
Catherine Ann Cullen, writer in residence programme with Business to Arts and Dublin City Council sponsored by A&L Goodbody. Photograph: Jason Clarke
“Have you done your homework, Catherine?”
That’s the first thing I hear when I arrive at my residency at St Joseph’s School, East Wall, every Thursday morning. I’ve promised not to give any homework, but to do homework for the children instead. They enjoy this role reversal, especially when I ask them what sanction I’ll face if I don’t do the work. So far, I’ve avoided being sent the principal’s office.
Each week the children commission a poem on a theme of their devising, and the following week’s session opens with that poem. Topics can be seasonal, like Christmas or Valentine’s Day, or based on their interests or experiences – football, dresses, being late for school.
“Modelling” may be a cliche in education these days, but it’s become central to my practice. For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s an echo of the well-worn “show, don’t tell” idea: model or exemplify the behaviour you wish the children to emulate. The behaviour I model is writing – they see me drafting, keeping deadlines, taking on and completing assignments. At times, I’m satisfied with my homework, at others I tell them I’m still drafting, but I always fulfil my brief. I also read them some of what they call my “grown-up writing” – from my latest collection, The Other Now (Dedalus 2016). They’ve become familiar with poetry, and ask questions about the imagery and the ideas.
The residency is funded by A&L Goodbody, and co-ordinated by Business to Arts under the Docklands Arts Fund, supported by Dublin City Council. I’m told it’s the first school residency in the country funded by a company.
From October to February I was based in third class, since then I’ve been in fourth. Both classes have fantastic teachers, Hilary Boyle and John Harney, who are committed to the residency. I compiled my poems for third class into a book called Homework Poemwork, which Hilary tells me is the most popular book in the class library. I’m delighted with that accolade.
Along with writing for the children, I encourage their individual writing, and we’ve composed some songs communally too. Ballads have been a persistent influence on my work and I find the tunes come to me as I’m cycling along. So far, our repertoire includes Oisín Rap, The Salmon of Stupidity, East Wall Bridges and their firm favourite, East Wall Lullaby. The children adore anything funny but I’m sometimes surprised at their openness to more serious subjects.
For the lullaby, I got everyone to imagine putting a child to sleep using the sounds of East Wall at night. Most of the children live in the area and those who don’t have strong connections to it through parents or grandparents. Each child wrote at least a few lines of lullaby in their copy books, and some wrote an entire song or poem. I was touched by their familiarity with the idea of singing a child to sleep, and their care in identifying local sounds. Trains, boats and buses feature, along with the wind that whips my bike down East Wall Road. I went between whiteboard and copybooks, writing up lines that worked well, and encouraging the children to come up with rhymes. There’s a phrase from each child in the song.
I had an emotional last day with third class. They sang me the East Wall Lullaby, and presented me with a sheaf of thank you cards, one from each child, and a home-made basket of sweets. Big gulp!
There are many strands to working as a writer with children. I want to give them confidence to express themselves without worrying about spelling or grammar in the first draft, to help them reflect on their lives, to look around their neighbourhood and embed it in our work together, to show them something of what it is to be a writer. A&L Goodbody are very involved with the school and many of their employees volunteer to read with the children every week in a one-on-one effort to improve literacy.
On the one hand, I think it’s important to emphasise the difference between facilitating creative writing and teaching literacy – it’s a strong tenet of the Writers in Schools scheme that writers are not there to teach reading. On the other hand, some of the projects I’ve done cross over into literacy and numeracy. Third class made an East Wall Alphabet, where we looked for things in the area beginning with each letter, and made posters with rhyming couplets, and with fourth class I’m doing an East Wall number-line, where we identify features in the area that correspond with numbers from 1 to 20, and again do up a poster for each, with a rhyming couplet and pictures.
We’re excited that our work is going to be part of Stories in the City in the International Literary Festival Dublin at the end of May. Artist Holly Pereira is giving us her take on our East Wall Alphabet, and we hope to have musical accompaniment to our songs from the brilliant Imogen Gunner.
Many of the children I work with these days were born into the recession – there was no Celtic Tiger for them. I’m conscious of the struggles of their communities – the people of East Wall, for example, live in the shadow of the IFSC, where the bubble grew and burst, and they deserve to benefit from the profits accruing there. I also work for the Trinity Access Programmes (TAP) with under-resourced schools, and I see the value of art in all its forms for children and families.
I’m part of my local Harold’s Cross Festival in May, PalFest (Irish Artists Supporting Palestine) in July and the Five Lamps Arts Festival in spring, where last year I performed in the Eastrogen Rising Rebel Cabaret. I believe every community should have access to publicly-funded arts. I’m grateful to have benefited from such funding, from the Arts Council for my first poetry collection, and from Dublin City Council for my second collection and for many school residencies.
I don’t want to be perceived as someone who works exclusively with children – it was invigorating to go to Leitrim libraries for National Poetry Day and read and talk to adults – but I consider myself lucky to have this residency, and luckier that it has been extended for a second year. I’m looking forward to becoming more embedded in the East Wall community and helping to foster more of its creative talent.
Dr Catherine Ann Cullen’s The Other Now: new and selected poems is published by Dedalus Press
The Docklands Arts Fund is a partnership between Dublin City Council & Business to Arts. It aims to enhance, develop and grow the practice, appreciation and development of quality arts experiences in the Docklands Area. Fostering a partnership with artists, businesses, residents, educators and appropriate agencies, DAF supports the ongoing investment in this unique area by securing new financial and other resources.
Stories from the City: From East Wall to Everywhere takes place on Monday, May 29th at 9am in St Joseph’s Co-Ed School, East Wall
East Wall Lullaby
Go to sleep, my East Wall child.
I can hear the wind so wild.
Listen to the church bells ring –
Go to sleep, my little thing.
Trains are whistling through the night,
Lit up by the moon’s clear light.
Stars are shining in your dreams –
Have you seen the way they gleam?
Go to sleep, you East Wall boys –
Tidy up your special toys.
Relaxing in your comfy bed,
Hug your precious little ted.
Go to sleep, you East Wall girls,
While outside the traffic whirls –
Boats and buses passing by
Sing an East Wall lullaby.
(By 3rd Class, St Joseph’s Co-Ed school, with Catherine Ann Cullen)
I am Gulliver sprawled on the shore.
You think you can tie me down
but I shake off the pins of your definitions.
I travel well.
I float rafts of words into the world
and they return solid as ships.
Ghosts materialise everywhere:
beneath their quaint speeches are stories
not yet finished.
I take nothing at face value:
I read the brass plates but weigh them
against words spray-painted on walls.
Sometimes I shrink beside the others,
I am Gulliver eye-balling a giant cat.
I am snagged in an eagle’s talons and dropped in the sea.
My instincts are sharp.
I may be scarred and ragged, but
I make my way home.
I am all about perspective –
The city is a speck lodged in my eye:
I will keep worrying it until I write it out.
You are made to drink light.
You open your green mouth to it,
spread your green hands for it,
gorge yourself at the ‘all you can eat’ buffet.
But you are not a sunbather
lazing in the summer brightness -
your work is tough, and seasonal
as the B&Bs, the beach cafés.
It’s hot as a greasy spoon
where you toil in your green sweatshop
using the light, the air you breathe,
to churn out food for your plant.
The straws of your veins and stem
suck up water from the roots
and back down flows your syrup,
a summer cocktail for the tree.
You nourish the small buds,
coax the flowers into bloom,
grow the small twigs,
make every branch flourish.
And when the days grow shorter
and your work is done,
you put on your red coat
and let go.
Catherine Ann Cullen