John Gallas
ASDA, and Oadby Library
(Leicestershire County Council)

John Gallas has published four volumes with Carcanet, the most recent being Resistance is Futile. He was born in Wellington New Zealand and currently teaches in Leicestershire.

When I was asked, "And why a Supermarket?" I wish I'd answered, "Because it's there." But at nine o'clock in the morning, on top of a Leicester skyscraper and live on The Morning Show, I wasn't that sensible. I think I said something about moving the styles and subjects of poetry away from the school-remembered blocks of verse that people were obliged to call their favourites. It seemed right to be ambitious at the time. "We'll be writing," I said, "about fruit and vegetables." And I said we wouldn't rhyme.

At the Launch, I turned up at Oadby ASDA with an 'ASDA Poem' that wasn't about fruit and vegetables, and rhymed. John Florence had set up his Breakfast Show in a corner of the cafe and we took our turns being interviewed: the Literature Officer, the Manager, the Libraries Officer, the Poet, the Councillor, the ASDA Liaison Officer. We all said that a supermarket was a good place for poetry. Then the Councillor handed the Poetry Place Plaque to the Manager, and we were declared open.

With poems on the til rolls and the walls, and more to appear in the car parks, on the cash machines, in the toilets and in the flower stall, the next thing was to read the 'ASDA Poem' over the tannoy. I took the cordless microphone to the Help Desk, hid behind a returned suitcase, and read:

"Stop what you're doing and listen to me!

Are you standing next to a packet of tea?

Are you just reaching out for a nice pair of slippers?

Or eyeing the price of a bagful of kippers?"

And so on. And on. After a short stop - I think they thought it was going to be a competition - the shoppers went on shopping. I hope they went on listening: it got a bit political.

"Spare a thought for the fisherman, planter, designer,

the workers in chocolate, champagne and china;

the drivers and pickers and sailors and ships

who bring you your dinner - your cheese and your chips."

For the next six weeks, classes of schookids were bussed in to ASDA for a Poetry Workshop/Tour of the Superstore. Split in half, the groups swapped activities after a half-time of doughnuts and orange juice upstairs in the staff canteen.

And we wrote about fruit and vegetables. Before each session, I filled up a trolley with coconuts, garlic, tomatoes, lychees, squashes, oranges, sugarcane, okra, rhubarb, melons, potatoes and some things I didn't recognise or ever want to try, including a karela that looked, promisingly for us, like a dinosaur's claw. One side of the cafe was set up for us with six tables, twenty chairs, paper and pencils and a guaranteed audience of breakfasters, brunchers and lunchers - some of whom became, over the weeks, regular good friends.

We wrote group poems, five-senses descriptive poems, simile poems, haiku, conversations between and amongst various fruit and vegetables, riddles, Limited Word poems, and oral Lost-in-the-Air poems. The children were school years two and three. Exposed to poetry almost daily in their Literacy Hours at school, they were unfazed, inventive, noisy, excitable, quick, and very sociable.

So why was it, as it turned out to be, a good place? The irresistible answer is, "Because it's there." The extra answers are probably that it's unusual (and therefore attracts attention), unstuffy (and so without conventional expectations of style and subject matter), accessible (therefore open to anyone), ordinary (so without a hint of academia), surprising (therefore likely to encourage humour), and busy (thus increasing the immediate exposure of what's being written, and what's written.) While I'm sure nearly anywhere would do for a Poetry Place, these qualities could be capitalized on to produce a kind of poetry that fitted my bill: new subjects, plain styles and real forms.

I decided to be strict with all three. By limiting the subjects to a kind of 'still life gallery' of fruit and vegetables, I wanted to get the children to concentrate on looking, thinking and describing - surely the first steps of poetic skillfulness. The linking of description with 'like things' would come in the haiku, and the linking of descriptions and comparisons with feelings and their expression would come in the fruit and vegetable conversations. By then, I thought, we'd have covered what poetry does. Mostly. I didn't tell them this master-plan, but they guessed it.

The poems the kids brought with them - and there were books full - confirmed my belief in trying to make a fresh start, or at least putting a fresh wedge of possibilities into their poetry worlds. They all rhymed, often contortedly, were mostly sentimental, full of tv and, formally, a wee bit tortured. I'm not being unkind - I'm from New Zealand, and if I hadn't explored a bit more of the world I'd think it was closed on Sundays. If they're still writing what they wrote before, that's fine; only now it's more of a choice and less of a necessity.

I don't think poetry changes anything. It's as well to write a pure, 'mathematical' description of a glass of water - something we tried with the adult groups in Oadby Library in the other half of the Poetry Place - as a satire on sin. They are both only poems. And they are either good or bad. What I wanted was to get the children to write good poems: if that meant restricting their subjects and forms and styles, then the world would still be there to write about when they came out of the cafe.

That was the theory. Which didn't matter a bit to them. They simply wrote - and wrote - and wrote.

Of this writing, I have lots of good memories. A little boy struggling in a corner with his pencil and a knob of garlic for half an hour and coming up with:

Garlik - it is

Pinokio

with a beard

A class of seventeen kids shouting ideas at each other until they agreed on a haiku:

A green-white turnip:

my big fat ugly brother

sits watching tv.

Two girls with their arms covering their work laughing away darkly at:

A green karela:

a sharp, tearing raptor claw,

ready for slashing.

A boy, helpless with laughter, holding up a kiwifruit and listening to his friend's poem:

Like a giant's eye!

Or a fuzzy egg!

It feels like sandpaper.

It's my grandpa's nose!

Two serious girls reading their conversation-poem, 'The Pineapple & the Parsnip' to each other, in role, amidst the noise:

I feel furious

 

I feel like I'm dead

 

I look like a woman in a hat

 

and I'm a rocket

 

We are talking about beautiful and ugly.

And Mrs. Pittham's class coming up, suddenly, after half an hour, to their own surprise, with a little masterpiece that amazed them because they knew it was good:

The Squash.

The Squash is a lightbulb.

It has bashed its head on the floor.

 

The Squash is creamy,

the colour of your hands.

 

It is crying like a sad bird.

 

The Squash comes from earth.

It feels like a cold stone.

And tastes like paper.

 

It smells like nothing

and sounds like a duck,

like quiet people

or the sea.

That one got a round of applause and an encore from the cafe.

In the end we produced, or they produced, over a hundred poems. The public were drawn in, as were the supermarket staff, and the children wrote intensely and lightly, on their own or in pairs and groups, putting their poems on paper or letting them go into the air. What delighted - and rather awed - me was their ability to know what was good. An apple comes from the red planet." It "sounds like a breathing nose." A potato is "the shape of your heart." The squash "is a tophat." The carrot is "a sun-trumpet." The peach is "a fridge-apple." A parsnip-riddle says, "I'm a white rocket / I'm me just out of the bath." The carrot says, "I'm bright fire," and the kiwifruit replies, "I'm soil." The melon is "thinking about exploding into pieces." The pineapple says, "I've got a hairstyle."

Each of these small, humanised sympathies are worth, to me, more than rushes of feeling. The anglo-saxon, old norse feel - tangy, concise, clean, sharp, tinged with humour in their slightly daring humanity and comparisons show, perhaps, that carrots and avocados can do as well as the charge of the Light Brigade and the loss of faith as the subjects of poetry. And if the form is tight and the style plain, then this can only help to make the expression of that subject clearer and more concise. I wish I could do it. After the Poetry Place in ASDA I'm trying. But middle age is a big obstacle to clarity: you can only hope it will come back again later.

If I was asked "And why a Supermarket?" again, I'd probably say, "Because it's there," - but I'd still mean that I'd like to reassess the subjects and styles of poetry, and move them, if only temporarily, from the school-remembered blocks of verse that people are obliged to call their favourites.

I'll never look at a green pepper, a stick of sugarcane or a lemon in the same way again. It's a kind of love, after what was written about them.

ASDA POEM

Stop what you're doing and listen to me!

Are you standing next to a packet of tea?

Are you just reaching out for a nice pair of slippers?

Or eyeing the price of a bagful of kippers?

Are you trying to fit in a new pair of jeans?

Or choosing from fity-five kinds of baked beans?

Well before you decide and then reach out to take them,

Remember that somebody else had to make them,

And all of the stuff that's in boxes and shelves

Wasn't knocked up by a cave full of elves,

But somebody somewhere grew it and tinned it,

And picked it and stitched it and sawed it and skinned it,

And welded and folded and pertumed and spiced it,

And bottled and packaged and fizzed it and iced it -

 

It's just as well we've got shops, my friend,

It's just as well we've got shops.

 

*

 

So what could you make out of everything here?

Could you whip up a CD, or brew your own beer?

Could you write your own book or croquette your potatoes?

Invent your own polish or paste your tomatoes?

Or bake a selection of Norwegian cakes?

Could you slice up a cow for some nice peppered steaks?

Could you run up some trainers, or bake your own bread?

Or knit trendy hats that would fit on your head?

Do you know what's in biscuits, or light-bulbs or pop?

Could you whip up a sausage, a glass or a mop?

 

It's just as well we've got shops, my friend,

It's just as well we've got shops.

 

And what would the cat eat? And who could find cress?

And can you catch prawns on the beach at Skegness?

And how could the washing be whiter than white?

And the budgie contented? The surfaces bright?

The flowers come in winter? The yoghurt go sour?

And ten million wheat-ears get turned into flour?

If it wasn't for somebody beavering on

In Alaska and Auckland and Omsk and Saigon,

And digging in Derby and peeling in Paris,

And cockling in Cromer and hunting in Harris?

If it wasn't for butchers and tinners and bakers

And singers and tailors and underpants-makers?

 

It's just as well we've got shops, my friend,

It's just as well we've got shops.

 

*

 

So look around, friends, cos the whole world's in here,

From Leicester to Lagos, from Crewe to Kashmir:

And millions of people are working away

To make what you put in your trolleys today.

Spare a thought for the fisherman, planter, designer,

The workers in chocolate, champagne and china,

The drivers and pickers and sailors and ships

That bring you your dinner, your cheese and your chips,

From Glasgow to Gothenburg, Moscow to Mull,

From Sydney to Sarawak, Honshu to Hull,

That give you the time to go walking the dog,

Watch City on telly and go for a jog,

To snooze on the lawn and go dancing at night,

And dream of tomorrow and put your life right.

 

It's just as well we've got shops, my friend,

It's just as well we've got shops.


Project Comments, by John Gallas

ASDA: the numbers of children ensured that all sessions were non-stop and lively. Every child produced - either by themselves or in a pair - at least one finished poem. There were small problems with fluency in writing (especially noticable in the Year 2 sessions) which made some activities more difficult, but they helped each other, and staff were present. ASDA promised they would put the poems on display, use the riddles somehow, and the staff said they would work on the ideas and forms we used in their Literacy Hour work back at school. The oral work - haiku and riddles - was predictably loud and fun. None of the children was ever shy or unwilling in any way, making these sessions completely exhausting and very very rewarding.

The Student Support Service session, with the slave-staff, also produced. Each child wrote 2 poems, some with staff input, some without. They drew lots of attention - as did the school groups - from other users of the (large) cafe, which only increased the appreciation of the activities going on. Though I couldn't persuade the children to ask the riddles round the cafe tables, many adults shouted out answers, or came over, read and answered.

Oadby Library (see programme below): this was sheer delight. Highly motivated writers who couldn't wait to try out new things, rise to challenges, talk, question, work together etc. The teenage group doubled by word of mouth from the first session, and all produced, over the two sessions, 4 or five poems. These are to be - or may have already been - put on the Library website. I have no doubt all of them will continue to write. The adults too were willing to give up their longer-established methods of writing -at least for a time - to experiment with oral, modernistic, non-rhyming poems, and talked. Most copied and took material concerning publication in magazines/competitions etc. All produced copiously, and were excited by the oral poems that were to be 'lost on the air' and only ever heard once at our sessions. I'd be willing to attend the group now and then if it keeps going.

Observations.

  1. I would - though it's a small thing - have liked more variety in the ASDA groups. Schoolchildren have daily exposure to poetry in Literacy hour; many other members of the community don't.
  2. I would have liked to work with members of ASDA staff - though they turned out to have their own excellent published poet.
  3. I'm pleased that the adult group are trying to continue.
  4. I'm pleased that ASDA are holding an ongoing poetry competition, and will attempt to make one time a week in their cafe some kind of poetry thing.
  5. It was difficult as a full-time teacher to get the time off (paid). Only some cunning manouevering from my Team Leader got me both the time and money.
  6. The facilities at ASDA and the Library were excellent. Staff went out of their way to make room and materials available for all workshops.
  7. It's important that the work done is kept/displayed in some way. All the children, and most of the teenagers and adults wanted to know what would be 'done' with the poems they had collected and I typed out.
  8. I enjoyed myself greatly, and have stored up lots of thoughts/ideas/notes about what we did that will be of use to me in my own writing. Also, being exposed to such a variety of people, places and ways of writing has given me an extra spurt.


Oadby Library Programme.  

Open children's session, with competition prize-giving by Dennis - cousin of Filbert Fox - where we wrote poems about apples then made, rehearsed and yelled out to Dennis a greetings poem about Leicester City, done to a marching clap. About 30 children came on their half term, and some parents as well, and the event was well recorded with cameras and videos.

Teenage workshops, the second double the size of the first (6 and 12) where we wrote haiku, made oral poems from telephone conversations, made poems from bunches of words hidden in envelopes, wrote Still Life poems about a glass of water, made poems from bunches of words that were pretty unlikely poetry material, and wrote from pictures. Everyone produced at least 2 poems, and ASDA kindly donated a £15 mobile phone time voucher for a 'good performer'.

Adult workshops (6 for the first, 8 came to the second), where we battled with restricted forms, no rhymes, argued about the point of poetry, sat at the feet of the Master Basho and completed haiku that he had started, wrote Still Life poems about apples and daffodils, wrote from pictures and used the same progressively difficult envelopes of words to make poems. We worked as a group with the telephone poem, in pairs and individually. The group got on like a house on fire and are making plans to keep themselves going by meeting at someone's house now and then. A Sugery on World Book Day where help and advice was given about what to do with poems to get them Out into a wider world. This was well attended - we were kept busy for two and a half hours - and ran alongside a Poetry Survey filled in by nearly 60 library users that day, and a Poetry Quiz. The results of the survey are with Oadby Library, and all the poems produced in all the sessions have been typed up and given to the Library to keep, display and put on the Intenret.

I enjoyed myself, got exhausted, argued, geed-up and tried to keep up with all the wonderful people I met who write, and will, I hope, keep writing - with a little something from our sessions added to what they do. Thanks to everyone at Oadby Library for giving me the chance, the facilities, the place and the people to work at this Poetry Society Poetry Place that was shared with Oadby ASDA.

Young Poets Network