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Ken Cockburn
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Ken Cockburn Walbottle

Notes on Hadrian's Ghost: an 18 verse renga in Summer, written at Walbottle Technology College, with pupils of Years 11 & 13, on September 5, 2003

I have run poetry sessions in schools for several years, and I had participated in and mastered several renga platform events before, but this was my first renga with school pupils, and I was curious, perhaps even apprehensive, as to how it would go. I travelled from Edinburgh to Newcastle on the 7.35am train. It was a fine late summer morning, and a joy to watch the fields and the woods pass by, before the lines begin to run next to the sea.

When I arrived at the school the platform was being set up beneath a tree on a corner of grass near the entrance to the school. I joined Alec, Steve Chettle from Arts UK, photographer Morvern Gregor, and teacher Sheree Mack slotting the lengths of wood together. A small wild garden, with an overgrown pond, lay immediately behind; then the school on two sides, but far enough away not to be intrusive; in front, beyond the drive, an expanse of playing fields opened up. The school boundary was formed, Steve told me, by the remains of Hadrian's Wall, now just a dip in the ground, and a row of trees at the edge of the main road. We were on the barbarian side; the Romans would have been stationed where the main road now runs. (Interestingly, he also mentioned that much of the wall was dismantled in 1745-46, after Bonnie Prince Charlie had marched south through Cumbria, and the Hannoverian commanders realised that they couldn't transport their serious weaponry east to west to counter this. The wall provided accessible road-building materials.) The location worked perfectly. The platform felt a part of the life of the school, but removed enough from it to let us work as we wished; and seemed to be an extension both of the school buildings, and of the open space around them.

Because of the school timetable we had shorter than usual to write, just over 5 hours as opposed to the usual 6 or 7 hours which, in my experience, experience, was needed to write a 20-verse renga. I didn't know either how easily the pupils would get the hang of it, so I had anticipated writing a 16 verse renga, thinking in the back of my mind that even this might be pushing it.

The weather stayed fine and the pupils arrived, not reluctanly but with some uncertainty. I gave a little spiel about the renga 'rules', then after I'd provided a first verse and Alec a second we were off. They got the hang of it pretty quickly. What was slightly unusual about this event was the amount of editing and combining of offered verses which Alec and I did – verses which, when first offered, had an arresting image or phrase, but didn't quite work overall. Four verses of the renga are 'combinations', and others underwent a fair bit of editing on the platform as they were discussed by the group.

As usual on the platform, the time passed easily, with neither a sense of pressure, nor of time dragging. The mix of adults and teenagers seemed to work well, though I think by the end the pupils were all pretty exhausted, as I was the first few times I sat on the platform. The amount of mental energy one can expend is surprising. Over time I've developed an awareness that the easiest and most fruitful way to write to open oneself to thoughts and sense experiences, and then to describe and annotate these, rather than willing poems into being. But it takes a bit of practice.

In the end we completed an 18-verse renga, deviating from the schema by cutting the 'No Season' verses 4, 8 and 9, then adding a final 'No Season' couplet at the end (when we realised that otherwise we'd be finishing on a 3-line verse). 8 verses were by adults, 10 by teenagers, which is only slightly out of proportion to the numbers of each sitting on the platform (6 adults and 9 teenagers).

Rereading the renga now, if anything strikes me it's a certain impersonalness or abstraction about the language, especially through the middle section. Not an 'I', 'we' or 'you' in the whole renga, and even the 'me' of 'forget me not' refers to a flower as well as the speaker. The 'love verses' (7 & 8) feature 'coldness' and snogging rather than anything more tender or touching. And there is less humour than one might expect to find. But the concrete images stand out well in such a setting - the 'twisted sheets', 'horse teeteh', 'bald organge head', the heartbeat. Certainly it has encouraged me to believe that the renga platform is a project which can work in a school seeting.


Ken Cockburn, 4/11/03

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