Update May 2022: You can now read this article in its entirety via our digital partner Exact Editions’ Feminism and Gender Equality resource here
In honour of International Women’s Day on 8th March 2022, we are releasing an extract from Jenny Mitchell’s article ‘How Being a Girl Poet Saved My Life’, the full version of which will be available to read in our Spring 2022 edition
“I was inspired to think about my life as a girl poet after hearing the outcry caused by a teacher’s memoir. I read it with a feeling of horror at the descriptions of her students, many of whom were seeking poetic inspiration. It took me back to my own life as a girl poet at secondary school and helped me make connections to my current life as a writer.
It was easy enough to propose an article about my experiences but the thought of setting it all down was overwhelming. I decided to back out just before starting but as soon as the self-imposed pressure was off, it felt important for me to begin. I think this is related to who I was as a young person. I hated school because people kept telling me what to do. It meant I was very cheeky until I started to write poems and stories. The teachers were good enough to see that this was helping me academically and gave me all the encouragement I needed. It meant I was allowed to work in relative freedom. As a result, I went from being in one of the lowest streams, where I had been dumped after primary school, to being in the top stream.
I also hesitated to write this article for the same reason that looking through my schoolbooks made me cry at this sentence, written when I was eleven: The parcel consise of paper, pencils and rubbers.
The use of the word concise instead of consists says everything about my longing to get it right, to be clever and to write my way out of a life I could already see was being packaged up and sent to work behind a till at Tesco.
Writing poems and stories allowed me to avoid a life it would have destroyed me to live, and one that so many people with as much talent and imagination as me are forced to live every day. It’s hard to look at how I avoided an unbearable life but perhaps it’s important to see how being a girl poet could make such a difference.
I was saved by a primary school teacher who expected more from me than sulky backchat. She enrolled our whole class in the local library, and during my year with her, my reading age went from eleven to twenty-four.
At secondary school, the English teacher for the top stream had great boundaries and lots of ambition for her students. She allowed me to go to her office with my poems after school and told me that I had talent as a poet. I can still remember walking on air from that one comment.
I came from a household where there were no books and a great fear and awe around education. My mother had been forced to leave school at fifteen in order to go to work in a shop. From what I can gather, the need to earn money was everything to her family. Despite or because of this, she spent her adult life attending evening classes, passing that habit on to me, at least for a few years.
But her obvious craving for an education did not mean she encouraged me to pursue my studies. In fact, she tried to push me into leaving school at sixteen to go to work in a shop. So, I was set on a path that I imagine went back several generations to a time when day-to-day survival meant everything.
I feel strongly that this is part of a transgenerational transmission, one that goes back into the need and poverty black people were forced to live as a result of British transatlantic enslavement.
In my second collection, Map of a Plantation, I attempt to imagine the thoughts and feelings of enslaved people in order to understand how a desperate fear of poverty, and a craving for money/food could become so entrenched. I don’t believe it began with the enslaved but with the demands of the enslavers.
In the poem, ‘Burden of Ownership’, which won a Bread and Roses Award, I describe the commodification of black people by a so-called master:
He measures cost in body parts. A head pays
for a month of food; two eyes a week of drink.
The poet and editor Fran Lock says of this poem: ‘We have become accustomed to speaking about the wealth of empire as born from the bodies of enslaved and exploited people. This poem itemises human suffering cut by cut [and gives] us the horrible rationality of colonial power.’
In choosing/wanting to spend my life writing, which many people see as an idle indulgence, I was literally stealing my body from the slave master and escaping to the freedom that lived in my own mind.
Another poem in the collection, ‘The New Master in Confidence’, opens with the line:
You must have heard black women are for work.
I believe this is not only a reflection of enslavement but black peoples’ relationship to the UK in the twentieth century and our present Covid-dominated era. The so-called Windrush Generation was invited to the ‘mother country’ in order to do the service jobs, literally becoming the nation’s servants. Our presence began to be problematic in the 1970s when there were fewer jobs to go round.
We have seen from the statistics that the people most impacted by the Covid pandemic are people of colour who, sadly, are still forced to do so many of the service jobs in the UK.
The pressure on black people to do menial work has had a direct impact on our experience of education, as suggested above. The final poem from the collection that I’ll quote from was written after reading ‘Bird’ by Liz Berry, which won the Poetry London competition in 2012.
I was awed by the sheer number of words and descriptions. It made me feel impoverished as a writer for a while, and I wanted to magnify this feeling of inadequacy and project it onto an imagined enslaved woman denied education. My poem is called ‘When Mistress Speaks’, and begins:
Lord God, I crave she words
Bright gold in the mouth.
Oh, to have she riches!
This sums up how I felt about writing and learning. It was something I envied and had to possess even though the odds of my doing so were stacked against me from the start in terms of my background and schooling.
I went to a large Kilburn comprehensive that was threatened with closure during my first year. This meant that when I started at the school there were 1200 students and a thriving faculty. As soon as the rumour went round that the school was closing, the parents who cared about their children’s education sent them to other schools. This meant that by my second year, there were only two hundred pupils left. It should have been the death of the school, leaving it run-down and staffed by teachers who couldn’t get good jobs anywhere else.
The reality was that smaller classes meant I was literally hot-housed, especially in English A-level where there were only three students. It meant we had the sort of close attention I imagine is offered at private schools.
More to the point, my teachers must have been the most dedicated in the world as they all-but carried me on their shoulders through to my exams. I only got one good A-Level but it was enough to get me into Sussex University.
Only when I was safely installed did I learn that my teachers had written to the vice chancellor’s office before my exams, saying in effect, ‘Jennifer will not get her grades but that is the school’s fault. You must take her because she will do well.’
Did the teachers save me from working in Tesco or was it the Pablo Neruda poem I read at the age of fourteen? I can’t remember the title, only that I immediately wrote a poem ‘after’ it. This began a habit of writing ‘after’ poems which remains the way I practise getting better as a writer.
Or was my life saved by the poem ‘My Last Duchess’ which I discovered at around the same age? A teacher read the Robert Browning poem to the class and it grabbed me instantly, like a wonderful film with a brilliantly-drawn narrator/character who gives himself away without knowing it.
Perhaps it was films that saved me, a love beyond all measure that was fed by the incredible output of classic Hollywood and French New Waves films the BBC showed during my adolescence. Films like Jane Eyre, Madame Bovary, Great Expectations and La Quatre Cent Coup opened my heart and my eyes to possibilities beyond Kilburn. They sent me to the library to look for the novels that inspired them so that I was reading Flaubert and Dickens when the people I went to school with were going to parties and experimenting with boys.
I was an outsider which hurt at the time but meant I was free to learn as much as I could. In order to escape my environment, I read a novel a day, which seems extraordinary now. In fact, I knew I didn’t like D.H. Lawrence because it took me a week to read Sons and Lovers.
My love of books and my need to write are described in a poem called ‘The Imaginary Table’ in my debut collection Her Lost Language. It’s the only time I’ve tried to describe my writing process directly and it’s very much rooted in the past:
I found brief moments after school
when I could sit and write or worship
at an empty page – the pen my sacred object.
A table to write on as an adolescent really is imagined as the only table in the council flat I grew up in was in the kitchen. It was not used for writing or even meals as it was crowded with food bought in bulk. This was, I see now, part of the fear of starvation inherited by the descendants of enslaved people. But I’m sure even the most comfortably-off white people only have to scratch the surface of their family to reconnect to this fear. It might help explain why we can’t walk down the quietest road without bumping into a fast-food joint, and why the country is suffering an obesity crisis. Is it also what led to so many people hoarding food at the start of the first Covid lockdown?
Television also played such a massive part in my education that I’ve become one of those fogeys who bemoan the current state of the schedules. The daily outpouring of ‘reality’ and dating programmes makes me wonder if there is a systematic attempt to make young people stupid? Did the television bigwigs work out that by filling the schedules with great films and adaptations of classics, as in my early years, they allowed working class children like me the opportunity to see new worlds and thereby challenge the status quo? Is that why they decided to create a diet of programmes where the only things that matter are how you look and who you’re hooking up with?
Does dumbing down the schedules, along with closing local libraries, ensure generations of young people will be unable to think/read/write their way out of a life and a world that keeps them from achieving any goal beyond a living wage?“
You can read the rest of Jenny Mitchell’s article in the Spring 2022 issue of Poetry Wales, available here
You can also read this article in its entirety via our digital partner Exact Editions’ Feminism and Gender Equality resource here
Poetry Wales 57.3 Spring 2022£9.00 – £16.97