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How Being a Girl Poet Saved My Life

London-born poet and writer JENNY MITCHELL recently published her second collection Map of a Plantation in the UK with Indigo Dreams Publishing. Here she reflects on how poetry enabled her to create a more self-determined path.

Iwas inspired to think about my life as a girl poet after hearing the outcry caused by a teacher’s memoir. I read it with a feeling of horror at the descriptions of her students, many of whom were seeking poetic inspiration. It took me back to my own life as a girl poet at secondary school and helped me make connections to my current life as a writer.

It was easy enough to propose an article about my experiences but the thought of setting it all down was overwhelming. I decided to back out just before starting but as soon as the self-imposed pressure was off, it felt important for me to begin. I think this is related to who I was as a young person. I hated school because people kept telling me what to do. It meant I was very cheeky until I started to write poems and stories. The teachers were good enough to see that this was helping me academically and gave me all the encouragement I needed. It meant I was allowed to work in relative freedom. As a result, I went from being in one of the lowest streams, where I had been dumped after primary school, to being in the top stream.

I also hesitated to write this article for the same reason that looking through my schoolbooks made me cry at this sentence, written when I was eleven: The parcel consise of paper, pencils and rubbers.

The use of the word concise instead of consists says everything about my longing to get it right, to be clever and to write my way out of a life I could already see was being packaged up and sent to work behind a till at Tesco. Writing poems and stories allowed me to avoid a life it would have destroyed me to live, and one that so many people with as much talent and imagination as me are forced to live every day. It’s hard to look at how I avoided an unbearable life but perhaps it’s important to see how being a girl poet could make such a difference.

I was saved by a primary school teacher who expected more from me then sulky backchat. She enrolled our whole class in the local library, and during my year with her, my reading age went from eleven to twenty-four.

At secondary school, the English teacher for the top stream had great boundaries and lots of ambition for her students. She allowed me to go to her office with my poems after school and told me that I had talent as a poet. I can still remember walking on air from that one comment.

I came from a household where there were no books and a great fear and awe around education. My mother had been forced to leave school at fifteen in order to go to work in a shop. From what I can gather, the need to earn money was everything to her family. Despite or because of this, she spent her adult life attending evening classes, passing that habit on to me, at least for a few years.

But her obvious craving for an education did not mean she encouraged me to pursue my studies. In fact, she tried to push me into leaving school at sixteen to go to work in a shop. So, I was set on a path that I imagine went back several generations to a time when day-to-day survival meant everything.

I feel strongly that this is part of a transgenerational transmission, one that goes back into the need and poverty black people were forced to live as a result of British transatlantic enslavement.


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