(belated) Happy Birthday Mr. F

A couple of weeks ago marked the 101st birthday of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, still active activist, resident of San Francisco and writer of my all-time favourite poem, ‘Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes’ (see link below). In the 1950s, Mr. F. was co-founder of City Lights, America’s first ever paperback bookstore and every bit as iconic as the man himself. A champion of those who need champions, Ferlinghetti’s poetry is heartwarmning, honest and, most importantly, accessible. Anyone with a tenner to spend could do a lot worse than invest in his ‘Collected Poems’.

Why is ‘Two Scavengers…’ my favourite poem? It’s an idea of ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ simplicity used to show very deep and complex issues in a way which engages, rather than preaches. Clever, or what?

Enjoy the poem.

Two Scavengers in a Truck
Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes

At the stoplight waiting for the light
nine a.m. downtown San Francisco
a bright yellow garbage truck
with two garbagemen in red plastic blazers
standing on the back stoop
one on each side hanging on
and looking down into
an elegant open Mercedes
with an elegant couple in it

The man
In a hip three-piece linen suit
with shoulder-length blond hair & sunglasses
The young blond woman so casually coifed
with a short skirt and colored stockings
on the way to his architect’s office

And the two scavengers up since four a.m.
grungy from their route
on the way home
The older of the two with grey iron hair
and hunched back
looking down like some
Gargoyle Quasimodo
And the younger of the two
also with sunglasses & long hair
about the same age as the Mercedes driver
And both scavengers gazing down
As from a great distance
At the cool couple
as if they were watching some odourless TV ad
in which everything is always possible

And the very red light for an instant
holding all four close together
as if anything at all were possible
Between them
Across that small gulf
in the high seas
of this democracy
(Lawrence Ferlinghetti)

Dachau, 1902

Dachau, 1902

 

At certain points

Of the day

There is no time

Only hues

Which confuse

The seasons

 

An artist

She drips

Paint, sex, society

Blues, greens

Six-pointed stars

 

A shepherd boy lamb

No puncture marks

No apple

Just seeds

 

The Midday owl

Shrieks

It knows

 

The canvas freshly painted

Is blank

 

 

 

 

Refugee Week

Crikey. This site’s supposed to be easy to use, but I always struggle. I suppose with computers, there comes a point where you’ve either got it or you haven’t. I’ve been dealt a pretty good hand in life, so I guess I can live with it.

And on the theme of the hand life deals you, I’ve actually sat down to write something about this week’s activities in schools for Refugee Week. Poetry workshops. Eight schools in Birmingham (8 primary, 2 secondary) and around 400 children, all of whom gave it their best shot at imagining being a refugee, or, in the case of quite a few, writing about really being a refugee or migrant.

I’ve long since suspected that pound for pound, children are far more open-minded and tolerant than adults. I’m now sure this is the case. 400 children aged 8-13 worked solidly for 2-3 hours and not once did I hear a word of the tired old racism propounded by the readers of our more ignorant newspapers. Discussions were measured, listening was attentive, and, crucially, those who disagreed with a point of view did so with respect, rather than dismissal. The work which was begun in our sessions (to be completed with the children’s class teachers) also showed a depth of perception which many outside the school system wouldn’t expect.

So, what did we do?

We looked at elephants! To be precise, David Attenborough’s ‘Spy in the Herd’, where a herd moves as they have no food. This necessity to move, making the elephants refugees, rather than migrants. (In all of the schools, the children understood this difference. I wonder what percentage of the adult population would get this right, or even think it important?)

Although it wasn’t the main focus of the project, as an English teacher, I wanted this work to enhance and reinforce literacy, so from the clip, we came up with some WOW words (one of my favourite phrases) to describe the feelings of the baby elephant as it was on the move. We then went on to looking at how the pachyderms’ (WOW word!) was a metaphor for human refugees.

This was followed by some clear and confident reading of a couple of my poems on the subject, and then the children planned their own and began to write them. This gave an opportunity to revise poetic terms learned, and they only needed a few thousand reminders that POEMS DON’T HAVE TO RHYME, AND ARE OFTEN BETTER WHEN THEY DON’T!!!!! And did this stop a few brave/silly souls from doing it anyway? Rhetorical question!

The aim of this work was to raise awareness of what it’s like to be a refugee. To be honest, the schools had done a pretty good job of this anyway (one school has used a classroom to make a mock-up of a refugee camp; another has written postcards of support to give to refugees). As I wanted expression and empathy to be the keynotes, pupils who have a second language were allowed to write in that language if was easier for them, or if it simply suited them better. Some work came out which sounded beautifully soulful, even to those of us who didn’t understand the words.

Once the teachers send me some of the finished work, it’ll be posted with due acknowledgement of authorship.

Hopefully, this will be repeated next year and rolled out to schools elsewhere in the country.

Meanwhile, I give heartfelt thanks to

About 400 children

Numerous teaching and teaching assistant colleagues

Carl Marshall and Razia Butt from Birmingham City Council

Schools of Sanctuary for supporting this project…

… and especially Barbara Forbes from Schools of Sanctuary who enthused about this from the moment I floated the idea, obtained the funding for it to take place, and put me in contact with her contact in the schools. Without Barbara, this really wouldn’t have happened.

Now for the hard part. Can I publish this without deleting it instead?