Lorna Dowell was Mole Valley Poet Laureate for three years, set up a successful out-of-school poetry club, Poetic Licence, and has worked extensively in teaching and environmental education. She talks to The Friday Poem about her first teachers at school, her work with children and young adults, and how creative expression is key to general well-being and mental health
TFP: When and where did you start to write?
LD: The discipline of writing (which never felt like a discipline but rather a freedom) is one that I instinctively took to in primary school. I found it came very naturally to transcribe my experience onto the page without in the least realising how this helped me to assimilate things. I had a troubled home life and so this was a welcome outlet.
TFP: What teachers inspired or supported you to become a writer / poet?
LD: In middle school we were lucky to have a student teacher who taught creative writing and used different techniques – very innovative ones at the time – to inspire us. One was music: I remember he played a recording of the Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’ and I wrote a rather sad story which even then I think I realised was indirectly about my father.
After reading this, the student asked if he could use my writing as part of a study he was doing for his teaching course. This in itself was hugely encouraging – it was the first time I had been singled out for having some kind of writing ability, even though I didn’t really understand how or why what I wrote was anything out of the norm.
My next and more obvious mentor was a teacher I had in secondary school, called Mr Fletcher. He recognised my ‘flare’ for writing and, given that this wasn’t recognised or encouraged at home, my teacher’s endorsement was formative. My mother worked in the same school and prided herself on my academic record, so it was only because this English teacher showed a special interest in my creative writing and spoke so positively about it that my mother tolerated this inexplicable need I had to write.
Mr Fletcher recognised my ‘flare’ for writing and, given that this wasn’t recognised or encouraged at home, my teacher’s endorsement was formative
Mr Fletcher took my reading in hand and gave me lots of classics to read ahead of my years. Although I didn’t always get the best out of Hardy, the Brontë’s and Robert Graves at age 13, and although it made me self-conscious and apt to overwork my own writing subsequently, I also imbibed a fair amount.
Alongside this, we had regular lesson time allocated for creative writing. Although we weren’t taught a lot about the technique of writing, we were encouraged to write anything that we liked – story, poem or account – in a commonplace book. And so I continued what I’d begun in primary school, writing about things that were happening in my life that I took to be normal. (I can now see why my mother might have wished that I had not!)
TFP: Have you written poems about your teachers?
LD: The only poem I have is one about a teacher who rather inadvertently inspired a poem which is not so much in praise of the teacher but is called ‘Write about what you did at the weekend’.
Write about what you did at the weekend
We went to the Ups and Downs to fly
a kite. I left out the bit about Dad
not wanting to fly the kite with us but
on his own and how we watched my mother
dangerously close to tempestuous
when he ignored her and us. No,
I thought of running into the wind, arms out-
stretched, making a kite of myself, soaring
and circling above – no sense of my feet
touching earth or crushing grass.
The teacher frowned: where was this place called Ups
and Downs? Then almost laughed. ‘You mean Epsom
Downs!’ Mortified (spelling errors were grave
signs of character flaws)
I was confused. And again, when she told
my mother – repeated it like a joke.
Although she laughed and never did
mention my ignorance, something told me
she was hiding what I couldn’t say
what (I wanted to ask) was so funny
about Ups and Downs
TFP: Thank you. Do you still have your old notebooks?
LD: I’m pretty sure I still have the short story I wrote, but I’m not sure about the commonplace books. I have some old school work in a box in the loft and, funnily enough, I was only thinking recently that I must chuck it out because I can never bring myself to look at it!
TFP: Would your mother have seen your school work?
LD: Yes, my mother would have seen some of my work at Parents’ Evenings in primary school, although she never commented on this, only how I was doing in general. In fact, the poem I mentioned is very much about my mother being shown my exercise book one day after school. By the time it came to secondary school, my commonplace book would have made regular mention of things like access visits my father made and the way we spent time with him and my baby half-sister – all painful stuff, no doubt, for my mother to read and I don’t think my teachers would have necessarily shown her when I was that age.
TFP: Did you continue to write as a teenager / young adult?
LD: I have to admit that my situation at home was such that I had no confidence to follow up on the suggestions they made as I got older. One teacher encouraged me to enter writing competitions, and Mr Fletcher wanted me to apply to do the course in creative writing at UEA (it had only recently been introduced and I was told it was the first of its kind). I wish I’d been able to do as they urged, but I was (I now realise) suffering from trauma – a response to what was happening at home – and a severe lack of confidence. In many ways, this made the writing and the validation the teachers gave me all the more vital, but it was only when I was in my mid-twenties and had had some help that I was able to see how little I’d been able to believe in myself or seize the opportunities that came my way in those earlier years.
As you may imagine, my experience of subsequent creative writing workshops was, when I dared sign up for them, dogged by this inherent lack of confidence and a sense that I had let down my teachers by not fulfilling the promise they saw.
TFP: Is there anything particular that helped with your confidence or stopped you being afraid of not fulfilling the promise seen by your teachers?
LD: I’m not sure I have EVER got over the feeling of not fulfilling the promise seen by my teachers. I think I have, instead, just learnt to accept that these expectations get placed upon us and, although they can be a force for good and encouragement they can also create pressure. It’s a hard balance to achieve.
TFP: Have you since been in contact with any of your teachers?
LD: Yes, around 2001 I was reunited with one of the teachers, Peter Holmes, who had been so encouraging when I was in the sixth form. He was a former actor and, delighted that I was writing and engaging as a poet in the local community, he gave me lots of support by reading my work and responding. Also, because I found reading and speaking at public events very nerve-wracking, he gave me professional advice on how to approach it. He then took part in some of the events that I staged and was hugely supportive of the teaching I was doing by then.
What I learnt above all was the value of listening to the children and encouraging them not to censor their imagination – poetry is very liberating
TFP: When did you start sending out poems and where did you find success?
LD: It was small steps. I was writing prose at the start and found a way of testing the waters by signing up for an Adult Education creative writing class. The critiquing was not very robust, so I then submitted work to a tutor, Katherine Knight, a poet who once ran poetry courses at the City Lit. She critiqued my poems, and through that correspondence I built the confidence to begin submitting to small magazines. I didn’t establish any rapport or relationship with a particular editor. I was only sending out work sporadically because I didn’t feel I was writing ‘real’ poetry, (whatever that is!)
TFP: How did you get to be appointed Mole Valley Poet Laureate?
LD: I was encouraged by our local Literature Development Worker to submit some poems. The local laureateship was just being established. I was then called to interview to discuss the ideas I had for projects and how to promote poetry in the community. It was an opportunity to develop the role almost from scratch.
The work I did in schools was very much based on the positive creative writing experience I had in school, and also on some Adult Education teaching I’d done. That was in crafts, not creative writing, although my approach to both was similar – concentrating on building people’s confidence in their own creativity as much as their technical skills.
As I was being asked to do a lot of readings and public speaking – something I found very challenging – I paid for some voice coaching to build my confidence. This aspect of the role was unavoidable and rather like aversion or immersion therapy!
If I had a mentor during the laureateship, it was the poet Jackie Wills who put me forward for projects where I was fortunate to work and learn alongside her (the Surrey Hills AONB Inspiring Views project and the Able Pupils scheme in Sussex). Jackie was very generous and supportive. I drew on my experience with her when I was then commissioned (by a local literacy project funded by The Millennium Commission and the Campaign for Learning) to run a series of fourteen workshops in schools for the Jubilee Project.
It was a very intensive period of work, but what I learnt above all was the value of listening to the children and encouraging them not to censor their imagination – poetry is very liberating. I often took the creative cues from an initial discussion, drawing out what inspired them. The fact that their work was being recognised both nationally (we had a Silver Medal winner in the associated nationwide poetry competition, judged by the then Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion) and locally (the sponsor published a glossy pamphlet of the poems, and some were set to music and performed by the Dorking Choral Society) did much to encourage the children and raise the profile of poetry in schools.
Being a student and a teacher are, in a sense, inseparable: one feeds into the other and you never stop learning
As for developing my own writing, apart from the feedback from my tutor (which I found invaluable when it came to writing the dreaded commissions!) I attended a series of workshops run by Jackie Wills, and others facilitated by poets invited to take part in our local literature festival. I was also at this time taking some courses at The Poetry School. I had become particularly interested in what was then called cross-art work after being commissioned to write poems in response to sculptures, working alongside a musician in residence, Peter Cook, at the Hannah Peschar Sculpture Gardens, (near Ockley, in Surrey). This was all part of a Year of the Artist residency culminating in a promenade performance (Sound Sense) with pupils from local schools and The Yehudi Menuhin School.
This very positive experience of responding to other art forms chimed with my early creative writing experiences in middle school, and I think it’s what then prompted me to take a couple of The Poetry School courses, called Poetry and Art (held in the Courtauld Gallery and tutored by Greg Warren Wilson and Carole Satyamurti). Workshopping poems in response to art works on the course then inspired me to organise a project in a gallery for the out-of-school poetry club, Poetic Licence, that I had set up.
For Poetic Licence, I ran monthly workshops, brought in guest poets, edited pamphlets of the students work and organised readings. One of the most exciting events was when the Watts Gallery in Compton allowed me to take the group of 12-14 year olds into the gallery and to workshop on site. The model I used was very much taken from the ‘Poetry and Art’ course I took: the curator talked a bit about the paintings and then the students were given time to write poems in response. The group was small enough for me to be able to go around and work with each one-to-one. After they had written their poems, they were printed up and went on display in the gallery for many weeks. We then organised an evening performance, open to the public, at which the students read their work alongside the paintings.
This was a lovely, collaborative event. My former teacher, Peter Holmes, participated by giving a professional reading of some of the poems that had inspired George Watts’s paintings. (The painting, Found Drowned was inspired by the Thomas Hood poem The Bridge of Sighs; and The Seamstress was influenced by Hood’s The Song of the Shirt.) It reminded me of why he was such an inspiring English teacher – he brought texts to life.
I think it was always the events which took the students outside of school which gave them most confidence, perhaps because they were being both liberated from the subconsciously restrictive school environment, but also because their voices were being heard and creativity validated in the wider world. It’s one of the key reasons why I set up Poetic Licence as an out-of-school club, and why the sponsor, Friends Provident, allowed us to use their premises (the light, airy atrium restaurant) for the monthly workshops on Saturday mornings. There was a lot of initial scepticism from teachers about whether students would attend in their own time, but to everyone’s surprise, they did! I expected some fall-off after the first meeting, and we did lose one or two, but a surprising number kept coming back and we had a core of about 8-10 regular participants. Part of the success was no doubt down to the teachers’ very perceptive selection of candidates: these were young people who benefited from being amongst others who shared a less mainstream interest, and in a context that allowed them to flourish.
The most important part was creating the space for young people to come into their own, to find ways of self-expression that were then received in a supportive environment
I remember attending an awards evening with the group after one of them had won a poetry prize (a competition run by South East Arts in conjunction with the Southern Counties Radio as part of the Appetite project). It was a very joyful celebration of food and the arts, made all the more meaningful when I was told by the parents of the prize-winning student how much they felt their son had grown in confidence and really blossomed – and not just as a poet – through belonging to the poetry club. That, to me, was what it was about.
I don’t think I would have done this had I not had those formative experiences and also known what it was like to have so little confidence and faith in myself at that age.
TFP: What projects have you worked on since then?
LD: After working so intensively throughout the laureateship years, I decided to concentrate more on my own writing, so I made a conscious decision to take on fewer community projects. The ones in which I’ve taken part since have largely been in Environmental Education and combined arts. For many years, I worked alongside an education officer as well as various artists on projects for visiting schools at Gatton Park in Reigate, Surrey. We then developed activity packs for families to use without the aid of tutors, using the same techniques we used for the workshops to draw inspiration from the park (to write poems, tell stories, or paint pictures) at the same time as learning about the history and the environment. I love the collaborative element and alchemical nature of making education creative and vice versa.
TFP: Speaking from your experience as both teacher and student, how can teachers help young people express themselves and develop creatively, and how important is this?
I think my own experience taught me that being a student and a teacher are, in a sense, inseparable: one feeds into the other and you never stop learning. More specifically, I came to appreciate the huge value of not only mentoring (at any stage) but also of being given the opportunity to write from an early age. Because Creative Writing lessons were not just part of English lessons for me – they were timetabled in like Art or Chemistry – that afforded the subject equal recognition and value. Alongside this, I had teachers who were guiding my reading outside of the curriculum. The implicit message I took from this is that creative writing is important. I think I also learnt to make space and time for writing because this habit of doing something that I enjoyed was established. Even though that habit got interrupted when I was studying literature at ‘A’ level and beyond, it was a grounding to which I could always (and did) return.
It may be too much to expect that a one-off workshop in school will establish a habit, but I hope that the regularity of the out-of-school workshops that were part of Poetic Licence might have helped to sow a few seeds. A few years further on, I met one of the students I’d mentored as a result of a local poetry competition I’d judged: she had returned to writing poetry after being at university and was looking to send work to magazines. I also bumped into one of the Poetic Licence members – a chance encounter in which he spoke very warmly of poetry club and of how he was taking that experience forward as he applied to drama school.
For me – and many others, I believe – creative expression is key to general well-being and mental health, and my real concern is that we don’t necessarily have the education system to support that anymore. I think that’s a real loss, both in terms of personal development and to society as a whole
I guess, like teachers in general, you often don’t know what happens afterwards – you just have to trust. That said, I didn’t see myself as a teacher so much as a facilitator or catalyst throughout all this. For me, the most important part was creating the space for young people to come into their own, to find ways of self-expression that were then received in a supportive environment. I hope the poetry club signified to budding poets that they had a talent and that it deserved to be given credence and encouragement every bit as much as any other kind of talent that they might develop in their own time. It was also a forum in which they were not judged and graded according to the curriculum. No exam results rested on this: it was as much about expressing themselves as what they wrote.
It seems that, with the pressures of the school curriculum, young people get very little opportunity to develop in this way and creative talents can get crushed, overlooked or downgraded as somehow less important or not necessary. In students who excel academically, the creativity is probably pushed to one side; in those who are less academically inclined, there is a risk that they may not even recognise where their real talents lie.
For me – and many others, I believe – creative expression is key to general well-being and mental health, and my real concern is that we don’t necessarily have the education system to support that anymore. I think that’s a real loss, both in terms of personal development and to society as a whole.
I’m very conscious of how lucky I was to come through the education system when creative writing was timetabled in. The reading and writing gave me a love of both, and without teachers to guide and encourage me, I may not have found my way to what I do now. I will never forget confiding to my sixth form teacher that I had to write or I didn’t feel right / well. I’m not sure he understood but at least I could express it to him when no one else would have listened or, if they did, might have said I was mad. It’s a confession I now make very happily to my poetry friends, all of whom seem to know exactly what I mean!