A rush of adrenaline and hope, combined with a feeling of fear and – OK – dread, have become very familiar to me as a part of my Zoom teaching life. What a strange idea: that one minute you’re sitting in your study alone, and the next you’re teleported into a virtual room with a bunch of other people scattered around the world. Suddenly you have to find a way to fix the background, communicate, keep order, deal with technical challenges, engender creativity, be open to the spontaneous, keep an eye on group dynamics, chair the debate, manage anxiety – your own and theirs – and, above all, offer a safe and productive learning experience.
I, like many colleagues, have been engaged in this process since March 2020. It was a quick transition. One day we were coming to the actual premises of The Poetry School from various ends of London, dealing with the crowded tube, the hopeless buses, the traffic, the bike lanes, the dark, and the rain before sitting in a room together, hanging out by the tea urn, sharing biscuits, and photocopies. And next day we were sitting at home, tapping at our keyboards, staring at those ubiquitous squares on a screen, and trying to make sense of it all.
I can’t say it’s been easy, but I can say it’s been a life-saver. I’ve been surprised by my own resilience in the face of the virtual world, but actually awed by the technophobes amongst my students who have valiantly grappled with various IT difficulties and found a way through.
When I say the poetry workshop has been a lifesaver, I don’t mean just for the students, I mean for myself, too. It’s kept me engaged and regularly communicating with people in the outside world. It’s given my life a structure and a timetable, it’s made me feel useful and valued. It’s work: the best possible kind, doing something I love.
I think it’s true to say that The Poetry School, where I do most of my teaching (and I’m not sure about the word ‘where’ – because it’s not exactly a place anymore, it’s more like a home), has experienced an increase in numbers attending classes in the past nine months. Yes, we all need somewhere to put our thoughts and feelings. But poetry does more than that. It allows us to communicate in a more open, surprising, and vulnerable way. I’ve found that my classes have bonded amazingly quickly – those processes of connection that you might expect to be difficult and slow have in fact travelled at warp speed. I put that down to a great need for authentic human contact – and yes, that seems to be possible even on Zoom. I recently taught a masterclass for The Arvon Foundation to a bunch of black squares on a screen. I was astonished to discover that participants were more than willing to step out of the dark and read fresh, connected, and emotionally vulnerable work to me and a large number of people they couldn’t even see. Such a leap of faith, such courage and commitment.
The poetry workshop gives us an opportunity to face up to the challenges, griefs, rages, and joys of lockdown, as well as a place to escape them. I have always encouraged students to share what’s happening in their lives, but now it’s more vital than ever, because we can’t pretend that we’re not in a situation of extremis. But I offer this opportunity in an indirect way, asking people to express themselves through a metaphor or some other poetic device, which often leads to a poem. And that’s what we come here for. When people say that poetry is therapy, I always agree, but not for the reasons they generally mean. The ‘therapy’ is not about writing your truth – which is valid and difficult enough – good poetry is about turning your truth into art. It’s the transformation, the alchemy of the experience becoming the poem. That is where we find both the struggle and the joy.
We need that alchemy now more than ever. We need to use our imaginations to envisage a better world into being, to reach beyond the obvious, and to express the impossibility of getting to grips with the inexpressible.
This is really a blog of gratitude to my students, my mentees and the organisations that have adapted, grown, and kept this work going. I’m grateful for the opportunities that have opened up, allowing me to meet and work with people who are disabled, vulnerable or geographically distant: an unintended, beautiful, and necessary change. I understand now more than I ever that I learn more from my students than they learn from me. I thank everyone for taking this leap into a vast and unknown space: joining – or perhaps I should say creating – one of the best and most connective networks we have at our disposal in this new and virtual world.
Sign up for Jacqueline Saphra’s upcoming class, A House of Many Rooms: The Sonnet Sequence, running 14 & 28 March at 10:30am – 4:30pm.