Last April, British poet Deborah ‘Debris’ Stevenson traveled almost four thousand miles to meet her students at TEAM Englewood Academy in person for the first time.
In the preceding months, she had worked with TEAM Englewood students through Google Hangout as part of a cross-cultural poetry exchange program piloted and funded by the Poetry Foundation. Throughout the spring of 2015, a group of TEAM Englewood students participated in poetry workshops with a companion class at Bilborough Sixth Form College, a high school in Nottingham, U.K. The two classrooms shared their worlds through webcams, organizing workshops based on the poetry and culture of each city. The exchange, the first of its kind for the Poetry Foundation, culminated in a poetry anthology released last fall.
The anthology was not always part of the plan. Initially, the Poetry Foundation approached English teacher Melissa Hughes about organizing an exchange program for her students at TEAM Englewood, where she also coaches the school’s slam poetry team. Hughes saw the program as an opportunity for her students to write more freely about their experiences to an audience without any local biases.
“With Englewood, there’s this sort of notoriety [in Chicago] about what the neighborhood is, who lives here, what the young people are like who live here,” said Hughes. “So [students] got to write about and tell the story of what their neighborhood is and where they come from to people who had no preconceived, any idea about that…It wasn’t necessary to qualify anything. They could just say. That was, I think, a bit of freedom for a few of them.”
Hughes worked with Ydalmi Noriega, manager of cross-program initiatives at the Poetry Foundation, to develop a curriculum and format for the exchange program. They hoped to find a classroom in the U.K. that could match Hughes’s group of students—an inner-city classroom with a thriving poetry community. They eventually connected with Stevenson, founder of Nottingham-based youth poetry collective Mouthy Poets, and Jane Bluett, an English teacher at Bilborough Sixth Form College.
“[The goal was] to kind of cross-pollinate and make sure that conversations about poetry weren’t just staying at the local level in those classrooms,” said Noriega. Hughes arranged for two teaching artists to lead workshops about the slam scene in Chicago for Bilborough students; Bluett and Stevenson, on the other hand, collaborated to teach the Chicago students about the poetry community in Nottingham.
“When the [Englewood] students were talking about [race] and the way it manifested itself over there, and the violence they’ve encountered or the violence they’ve heard about, they were very honest about that,” said Cara Thompson, a student at Bilborough. “I really appreciated that, and I appreciated their honesty. It made me want to be more honest as well, as a poet.”
Dallas Battle, who was a senior at TEAM Englewood last academic year, used the workshop process to discover what she shared with Nottingham students. “Even though [they’re] far, far away from us, I learned that we have the same essential problems.”
The technology and transatlantic communication sometimes hindered the exchange rather than facilitating it. All three instructors cited technological difficulties as a barrier to more effective workshops. Stevenson, for example, recalled having difficulty teaching to two audiences, one live and another connected through a webcam.
Glitches aside, Stevenson said that the virtual workshops did contribute to the success of the program. “It united them in a way,” said Stevenson. “In that space, what we were concerned about was the quality of the writing and the reading.”
In her original vision, Hughes had hoped that the students would visit each other’s classrooms, but the funding fell through. However, the Poetry Foundation’s budget for the program did allow Hughes and Stevenson to travel and lead workshops in each other’s classrooms.
Battle recalled finally meeting Stevenson in Chicago. “She just lit up the room, and she just immediately started talking about poetry and us getting down to business,” she said.
By the end of the spring semester, both classrooms had accumulated a wealth of poems. When the idea for an anthology was floated, the program leaders were quick to embrace it.
“I think it’s really good to see that there’s an outcome and that they have ownership over that,” said Stevenson. “If you don’t have that tangible thing, then it can be difficult to remember what happened and remember the value of it.”
The result was Middle Ground, a collection of poems written by the exchange participants—fourteen poets from Bilborough and seven from TEAM Englewood. Nottingham-based publishers Big White Shed and Mud Press compiled and edited the anthology over the summer of 2015.
Big White Shed founder Anne Holloway, who has worked with Stevenson through her collective Mouthy Poets, delivered a hundred copies of the anthology to Bilborough College in October. As they flipped through the anthology, Bilborough students saw their work in a bound book for the first time.
“Just actually holding the poetry collection was crazy because I don’t think any of us had been published before,” said Thompson, who is now in her last year at Bilborough. “So to see a physical copy of your work was incredible.”
TEAM Englewood students were equally moved. Battle said she used to be a perfectionist with her writing, but that reading the anthology changed that. “It was really good and really touching,” she said, “because now I know that even my thoughts and even just the little things I think are still impressive.”
Though the Poetry Foundation does not plan to fund another exchange, Battle will remember the lessons she learned during the making of Middle Ground. “Now I write every day and I run my own blog, and it’s just really, really cool knowing that people actually like the little things I have to say,” she said. She is now a college freshman hoping to study journalism. “It was really Debris [Stevenson] and publishing my stuff…[that made] me feel like I can actually do this.”
The poetry anthology Middle Ground is the result of an exchange between a group of TEAM Englewood students and a class at Bilborough Sixth Form College in Nottingham, UK. Two poems are excerpted below.
Teaching My Mother
To Give Birth.
Shouldn’t have had me.
I’m already formed, so just push.
Don’t push me away
but push me into the world
till I know how to push.
Pushing thoughts out
along with people
along with dreams people have given me.
My Mum Has a Cup of Tears
Bilborough Sixth Form College
My mum has a cup of tears which she likes to embarrassingly show off to the world.
My mum cries a cup of tears every time she goes to Weightwatchers and she’s put on weight.
My mum takes her cup of tears everywhere and holds it over her face.
My mum cries a cup of tears when I don’t like my dad’s cooking.
My mum keeps the same cup out of fear of losing something important.
My mum’s cup of tears leads her to be treated like the family bitch,
but she won’t do anything about it but cry another cup.
My mum would gladly pour her cup and cry another one for someone.
My mum has a cup of tears to prove that she gave a shit when no one else did.
My mum doesn’t cry a cup of tears out of being ashamed. She holds her cup up high.
My mum wants there to be a tradition of having a cup of tears.
My mum has dedication for her cup, she likes to cry in it at least twice a day.
My mum cries out of love for her disgrace of a family and cries from sadness when they die,
doesn’t feel ashamed of it but cries another cup.
My mum gives me cups at funerals and weddings, and cries in hers when she sees it empty.
My mum encourages free feelings but married my stone-hearted dad.
My mum cries a lot,
she cries for everyone,
even if we don’t want to cry.
Written on May 5, in response to reading ‘Daddy Dozens’ by Jamila Woods