'Incoming' by Jonathan Humble is Write Out Loud's Poem of the Week
The new Write Out Loud Poem of the week is ‘Incoming’ by Jonathan Humble, about a close encounter with a curlew. The poem appears in a recent anthology, Curlew Calling, which was put together to raise awareness about the bird’s falling numbers. Jonathan Humble is a deputy headteacher who has strong views about the teaching of creative writing in schools, and how it has evolved as a result of government initiatives. It is the second time that he has won Poem of the Week.
Would you like to talk a bit more about the background to 'Incoming', and about the anthology in which it appears?
A few years ago, while cycling back from Kendal along a country lane, I had a close encounter with a curlew which had taken a dislike to my bald head. When I returned a bit later with Mrs H (who is the ornithologist in our family), the bird was having a go at somebody else. I stored the experience away in a little compartment labelled “ideas for poems when I’ve got the time” until I noticed a call for submissions on Write Out Loud from Karen Lloyd asking for curlew-related poetry or prose.
Curlew are having a very difficult time of it at the moment and numbers have fallen alarmingly. Karen’s excellent idea was to raise awareness through the anthology, and having secured some very high-profile writers and artists, was looking for involvement from other lesser known creative types (in which category I was lucky enough to be included). The book, which can be purchased on Karen’s website, was launched at the first Northern Curlew Weekend hosted by Tom Orde-Polwett at Bolton castle, organised by Karen Lloyd and Mary Colwell, and also at a spoken word event at Edward Acland’s wonderful Sprint Mill in Cumbria.
Your poetry seems to be a mix of free verse and rhyming poems, often comic in character. Is your style still evolving?
I’m not sure I have a style because I like writing in a number of poetic guises. When I got back into poetry a few years ago, the dum di dum di dum di dum lighter stuff was what came easiest and was also the form in which I had most success. Gordon Swindlehurst on Radio Cumbria was very helpful in the early days and must have read dozens of my poems on his estimable programme. But, in addition to the iambic rhyming verse, I’ve also written free verse (since I was a spotty youth), which is now beginning to see the light of day. Publications like Charles Johnson’s Obsessed With Pipework, Helen Ivory’s Ink Sweat & Tears and the lovely Holly Magill and Claire Walker at Atrium Poetry have taken my serious stuff which, as you might imagine, is massively encouraging. I’d also like to mention Alistair Fraser and his children’s magazine Stew, who was kind enough to publish several bits and pieces, including short stories, written for kids.
Everyone has a different view, but as a poet, is being published important to you?
Yes. It makes me feel good.
You’re a deputy headteacher. Do you have strong views about how poetry should be tackled in schools?
Absolutely. About 30 years ago, the political powers controlling the Department for Education decided that they were going to set in motion a train of events leading to the micro-managing of teaching in state schools. This has included a number of “initiatives”. They include national curriculums in which certain education secretaries have meddled because they had a vague recollection of being taught in a particular way when they were at some private school; literacy strategies in which a teacher’s time in a lesson was dictated by a clock showing what proportion of the lesson should be taken up with guided reading/writing/plenary etc.; league tables in which schools in vastly differing circumstances were compared/shamed on the basis of data taken from Standard Assessment Tests which somehow morphed into pass/fail exams for primary school children and were used by Ofsted inspectors in order to determine whether schools were “failing” and as such had the effect of narrowing the curriculum because far too much time was spent preparing these kids to achieve expected grades/levels rather than on giving them the sort of learning experiences that are more rightly appropriate for five to 11-year-olds … painting, constructing, investigating, going on visits, doing science, enjoying reading, writing and maths etc. etc.).
The latest wheeze has been to make punctuation and grammar teaching a high-stakes activity (for the reasons mentioned in terms of inspection/league tables/test taking etc.). As such, the teaching of poetry and other creative writing activities has been affected, and rather than it being a creative, joyful, positive experience, it is now more linked to standards in learning and accountability of teachers. How many extended noun phrases are there in this work? Are fronted adverbials in place? Do these children recognise the subjunctive, the past and present progressive and perfect tense? Etc. etc. etc.
A few years back (and this is anecdotal, so is not empirically sound, but here it is anyway), I was observed teaching poetry during an inspection. I was very happy with the way the session went; the work was differentiated and children were engaged, busy, being challenged, making progress and enjoying what they were doing. At the end of the observation, the inspector asked me how I thought it had gone. I answered. The inspector then said “Didn’t you feel it was dangerous?” … I gave the question serious thought. Were there children swinging from the light fittings? Were fires being lit in the book corner? Were scissors being misused, risking life and limb in the process? No … none of these things had occurred. It was “dangerous” because it was a creative writing exercise and the inspector said that I didn’t know what the children would produce …
So, in answer to your question, I do have strong views about how poetry should be tackled in schools and in particular about how the teaching of any other forms of creative writing should be approached. Standards are important. Progress is important. Accountability is important. But most important is that, as a teacher, I do not want to be the one responsible for putting children off poetry through dogmatic, wrong-headed approaches in the way the learning is delivered.
by Jonathan Humble
I am not your enemy dear messenger,
but still your intent feels murderous.
And though your reckless, adrenaline
fuelled passes and dopplered cries
have sent these old instincts into full
flight mode, my head disappearing
into my shoulders, my fifty year old
body separated from my bicycle to lie
expediently on this damp grassy bank,
I cannot help but admire your bravery
and the skill with which you missed my
skull by inches. How were you to know,
my crescent beaked nemesis, that I am,
in fact, a fully paid up member of the
RSPB and have no designs on the eggs
you’ve hidden, but am, instead,
merely on my way back from buying
Morecambe Bay shrimps for my
mother-in-law, who, as well as liking
sea food, agrees with me that
curlews are lovely …
(Curlew Calling Anthology/Numenius Press 2017)