The author leading a workshop

On a wet winter’s day, we embarked on an intensive series of nineteen workshops at Bluecoat Beechdale Academy, a humming School of Sanctuary, as part of Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature’s ‘Young Voices Amplified’ programme, providing platforms for expression for this city’s young.

Three groups of Year 9 students worked with me through five days of multidisciplinary workshops, combining creative writing, music and art, to create and informally perform their ‘Songs of Identity’: vivid, explorative lyrics with strong rhythms.

In another set of three Year 10 “Ambassadors” workshops bookending the Y9’s fifteen, and a Teachers’ CPD, I test-ran the design for the Y9 sessions, encouraging their “wiser” (in the words of one Y10 student!), older schoolmates to try out and improve on our blueprint. That their input on what made a great workshop matched my plan – of bringing in the outside world to inspire and delight – augured well, and so, we began.

Y10 doodles and a slide from the workshops © Shreya Sen-Handley

It was important that our young delegates, just stepping into their teens, should feel a part of something larger, even as they felt empowered to express their own individuality. Sounds contrary? Yet, lyric-writing has a proud history of being both universal and inward-looking. Revealing some essential or innermost thought to another lyrically can be traced back to classical Greek symposiums, and beyond, to the forums of ancient Eastern civilisations like Mesopotamia and India, proving that it isn’t only a time-honoured tradition but global. 

Such fusty historical concepts, distant as they must seem, might well have made my youthful attendees nod off (considering how many of them wrote of their love for sleep!) but for the fact that poetic face-offs remain an active part of pop culture. 

To demonstrate just how vibrant and relevant, I led them through a Horrible Histories recreation of a famous Beethoven piano duel which had them rolling in the aisles, followed by snippets from contemporary opera, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story (which they asked to see thrice), recent Oscar-winning Indian film RRR, and finally, hip-hop – RUN DMC’s seminal Rap-Off in an Eighties car park. How much they absorbed of the lyric’s universality is impossible to miss in the resultant poetry.

 

From Annalai’s celebration of her heritage:

“Where we have carnivals

To express how proud we are…

Where I express love for Jamaica,

Love for Jamaica, I express love”

To Adeola’s anthem of pride and disappointment:

“(Nigeria)’s called the Giant of Africa for a reason

And my pride for it is never ceasing

But some people from my country

Are not proud to be citizens

Not proud of their colour…”

These deep dives into their identities started with a gentle nudge to each youngster to explore what mattered to them most in their daily lives, in short, straightforward essays. Had I suggested they spring to crafting lyrics right away, would it have fazed them? Maybe not, but I didn’t want to overwhelm with technical demands when teasing out their true voices was paramount. 

Besides the raw beauty of such reflection, there are real benefits to life-writing for this age group, reminding them that they’re important and should be heard. That their words carry weight and show vision, when encouraged to set aside their natural reserve. Their sense of wellbeing is also, hopefully, bolstered. Consequently, we were gifted with illuminating snapshots of their authentic selves.

From Harmony’s moving testimony:

“…The day that struck

We never thought would come

Our whole world collapsed on us… 

The memories of her replay

Replay once again”

To this sage encapsulation from Gurjeet:

“…Spicy chicken and cultural treats

I love sharing with my friends

To show how my culture eats

So they get a better understanding

Of my culture, and me!

In the afternoon, when my life

Calms down, I can be totally Gurjeet.”

By the second batch of workshops, the students’ reflections were pouring out with the force of the rain outside, and pooling into the profound. Our sessions “helped me write who I am”, attested Jacob. Having done the hard work of introspection, however, it was time to entertain ourselves with the waiting drums! 

But letting loose with drums is more than just fun, their primeval beat mimics the sound of our hearts and underscores our lives’ rhythms. 

They have practical uses as well when writing: From helping us identify the natural stresses and pauses in our compositions, to supporting us in emphasising their most important sections – enhancing their power as a result, to using those pauses to break prose sentences down in just the right places to create poetic lines. And last but not least, to create rhythmic sounds, fusing tempo and meaning, to (ironically) both soothe and energise!

Our talented teenagers took to it with aplomb, instinctively parsing their pieces for intrinsic music, easing out the embedded cadences of their short autobiographical theses, reinforcing what we knew from the Y10 workshops; that harnessing this age group’s interest in music to underline the power of words generates arresting output.

From the driving beat of Brodie’s lyric:

“…Wishing on my dream

Of being on the track

Spinning on the wheel

Know I’m not going to slack

In this car, I’m home at last”

To Jacob’s tuneful tribute to family: 

“We all keep family beside us

As they always treat you as you

For a long day can be hard

But family is in your heart”

The author leading a workshop

Although cold and dank outside still, our steadily-thawing teens’ rising spirits were palpable in the rhythms bouncing off the classroom walls, dampened only briefly by a passing teacher asking us to shush!

“I enjoyed doing these workshops as they let me be more creative and use drums,” Ryan GB opined, and he wasn’t alone, Armish’s feedback was as heartfelt as her poetry, “The workshops were spectacular and helped me understand that the art of music was to be found anywhere and everywhere. I truly learned the beauty of sound…”   

With more to do in the workshops that followed to transform our essays into lyrics, and many more snatches of song from our delegates left to share in the second half of this piece, watch this space please. And while you do, here’s Nik, and then Lailah, beautifully embodying the aims of our workshops: 

 

“Falling into the sea of art

It’s loud and proud of itself

It will drown you in the old and wise

It will hurt, it will be careless

Of your pain.

 

It wants to get rid of the old

It wants to be careless

Of others’ suffering

Falling into the sea of art

It won’t let me be

 

Flash of blue, red and yellow

Colours of the old sea

The red cave arts dripping

The water, down the wall, flowing

 

Falling into the sea of art

It won’t let me be”


“You never listen any more

You hold me close to your heart

Yet somehow still so dismissed

 

Living unsure is what makes it so raw

But living unsure is not always the cure

Sometimes living unsure is what 

Makes it so pure. 

 

The love I feel is so pure

Yet the anger still so raw

I hate the way you changed

I wish it could be cured

 

Living unsure is what makes it so raw

But living unsure is not always the cure

Sometimes living unsure is what 

Makes it so pure. 

 

I’m not certain of all your views

Yet I’m not wanting help out

Of it, still I’m not certain 

I could live so unsure!”


Shreya Sen-Handley is the award-winning author of three books with HarperCollins: Memoirs of My Body, Strange and Handle With Care. She has co-written Welsh National Opera’s acclaimed productions Migrations and Creating Change. She is also a print and television journalist, playwright, illustrator and creative writing teacher.