Poet gets a gong: an MBE for Kate Clanchy

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Teacher, poet and author Kate Clanchy has been awarded an MBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list for her services to literature, after decades of teaching young people poetry, English and creative writing. 

Clanchy has been working with migrant and refugee children as Writer In Residence at Oxford Spires Academy for the past nine years and has edited a new anthology of the pupils’ poems, England: Poems from a School which is to be published this week by Picador.  The book is made up entirely of poems from the school’s migrant students who, she told me, “make the best poets because they have such powerful things to say, because they often come from backgrounds of song and story, and because their ears, having lost a language, are especially open to English.”

I asked her how she first reacted to the news of her MBE: “Teaching and writing can both be lonely jobs, so it's lovely to be recognised” she said, “And I was very surprised , the idea of receiving an honour has never even been on my radar. When I saw the government envelope, I thought I must have made a mistake with my tax return.”

But there can be no mistaking her abundant enthusiasm for her work and her love of poetry, and who could be better placed to embrace a thoroughly modern perspective on what young people think about it all?  “Lots of my students have poems on their phones,” she told me, “either Instagram or performance, and there isn't the resistance that used to be there. Poetry is portable, compact, powerful, political, personal - perfect for the age of the tiny screen and the big feeling.”

Having also been appointed as a Creative Writing Tutor at the University of Reading earlier this year Clanchy has a wealth of teaching experience and some firm ideas about our government’s educational policy.  She remains positive and philosophical on the subject; “I think a lot of teachers would like to teach more creatively and freely, and should. The exam system is cruel in so many ways, from the desperate conservatism of the new GCSE to the narrowness of A-Level. There are great teachers out there, and great books - we should let one teach the other, and trust them both.”

At a time when the lack of class and racial diversity in UK poetry is coming under close scrutiny, Kate Clanchy and her students are forging ahead.  Her students and others like them could be the very writers and poets to whom their peers and future generations can aspire, and whose creative example will showcase the depth of twenty-first century British culture.  “There are so many barriers, to do with class, confidence, and resources,” she says, “My students have really shown me how hard it is, and how white our poetry is. But I think times are changing now.”

So do I, and it is thanks in no small part to the wonderful efforts of people like Kate Clanchy. 

England: Poems from a School is available to buy here, and Kate’s new book Some Kids I Taught And What They Taught Me will be published next year.

 

Background: Young Syrian refugee wins Betjeman poetry prize 

 

 

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