It’s 1983. In a school playground in East London a teacher gives a crying boy two tools to change his life forever. First, a pen: “This is your weapon”. Next, a blank notebook: “This is your new best friend”. Though young Charlie had been expecting something quite different, he noted his teacher’s advice, “Write down how you feel about school”. The white pages gradually filled with vengeance, in what he called ‘The Book of Torture’, plans for what he would do to any bully who touched him again. So, when someone grabbed him in the playground and pulled his school tie around his neck tighter and tighter, he knew he needed to do something, to say something. “If you ever touch me again I’m going to crush you like giants crush mountains”. The bully was so surprised that he left Charlie alone, and that is when he realised if he kept writing and reflecting no one would bother him again. He has written a poem every day since, so over 11,000 in total, and his copious ‘friends’ flood his childhood home.
Poetry can give children confidence, a voice, and power. The microphone can let them say things they’re too afraid to whisper. UK Performance Poet, Charlie Dark, sees poetry as a useful form of self-expression, like “a silent movie on a snow white paper screen”. He advocates empowering young people with language and ultimately bringing words to life, which is exactly what the 20 finalists of the Inaugural English Poetry Competition did. Charlie and the finalists first met during a workshop before the competition. With only one day before the final, the students were given the theme for their poems: themselves and how they would like to be remembered. The short time period between being given the theme, and the actual final encouraged the young people to think on their feet and the result was a mixture of nerves, inspiration and raw emotion. The confidence, pride, positivity of the students and their belief in the possibility for change and improvement struck a chord with the adults in the audience. The cheeky smiles and enthusiasm proved to be infectious, and the Head of English Programmes, Brian Stott, was even caught on camera pretending to be a DJ.
The levels of English were impressive and one of the students, Gun, introduced her poem as follows: “It is written in the snow with the footprint of a sparrow, listen to it before it melts.” Transience is beauty, and though this afternoon will soon be a thing of the past it has made its mark on a number of exceptional young people, and members of the audience. Especially the winners, the top prize being a UK Study visit for one week, along with a set of books and vouchers. The event was arranged by the British Council in collaboration with the Office of Basic Education, Ministry of Education and English Speaking Union.
Through a dramatic reading of one of his poems Charlie Dark engaged and enlivened the audience, and succeeded in drawing a crowd from passers-by. Taking it line by line; animatedly acting out each part, the audience followed suit. It was a rare occasion when the crowd was as energetic as the performer: the positive energy was obvious. It must have been quite a sight from stage to see the 20 finalists, special guests, visitors and friends pretending ‘busting some moves’, holding their pens (weapons) up to the sky, break-dancing and mock aggressively crossing their arms. It definitely brought poetry to life.
The students’ individuality became clear when they walked up onto the stage in turn to perform their poems about themselves. Some strode confidently, others paced timidly, many forgetting their lines mid-way through, but recovering, taking a deep breath, a nervous giggle, and re-gaining confidence. One boy did a little dance and rubbed his head as if he was massaging his brain so it would work again, another dug out scraps of ripped paper from her pockets and incorporated it into her performance so well that she was awarded the prize for ‘The Best Improvement’. After each performance Charlie provided feedback and the pride in the young people’s faces was overwhelming. He inspired them, but this inspiration was not limited to the young performers. Charlie’s performance and their words combined to produce an atmosphere of hope.
“I just want to be seen like a book on a broken shelf.”
“I sometimes fall down, but I never give up like the flow of streams… I believe in myself.”
“I dream I can swim across the Pacific Ocean in 1 minute… I dream I can be everything I want to be.”
“I am like a grain of sand in the sea, so little, but strong if you bring it together into a bigger stone. From a grain of sand to something better…like a butterfly I will fly.”
“I am a big shark that can swim in a dangerous and beautiful sea… I can swoop up into the sky and grab my dreams.”
All I need now is my weapon and my friend…and perhaps you do too…