June 01, 2006

TES Cymru Article

This article is reproduced courtesy of TES Cymru and Nerys Lloyd-Pierce and was published on Friday May 26.


Returning to Abersychan comprehensive school after an absence of 35 years conjures up a string of memories for prodigal poet, Gareth Calway.

He recalls the anxiety of his first day, aged 12, newly arrived from Somerset, wearing the hideous brown uniform that was the order of the day then; the furious red pen of the English teacher, "Ma Bart", slashing through his homework.

Yet despite her uncompromising attitude to marking schoolbooks, the classroom dragon inadvertently encouraged him to write.

"She ran an Eisteddfod poetry prize, which I entered aged 15. The theme was Spring, but I thought that was boring, so I based my poem on a Beatles' lyric. With the arrogance of youth, I was convinced that I¹d win."

He didn't, having failed to stick to the brief. But the joy of self-expression through verse remained.

A lifelong Bristol City fan, and the club's official poet laureate, Calway, 50, uses football metaphors and his book of football poems, "Sheer Paltry", as a tool to pass on the power of poetry to the group of 30 Year 8 schoolboys attending his workshop.

"Football chants echo the call-and-response form of poetry that harks back to Greek theatre, and is also found in African tribal chants and blues music," he explains.

Now based in Hunstanton in Norfolk, where he is head of English at Smithdon High School, Calway has just published his seventh poetry book, Exile in His Own Country.

The title refers to his own experiences of being an English boy entering the Welsh Valleys, and conversely being a Welshman in Norfolk.

This duality was part of the appeal when Abersychan head teacher, Mike Conway, invited him back to perform.

"I feel that it's important for the pupils to experience someone coming in from the outside, but Gareth, ironically, is also from their own community, so there's a lovely touch to that."

And, as boys and girls at Abersychan are taught English in a single sex environment (following a pilot scheme run in conjunction with Bath University), the football theme is appropriate.

"In order to engage boys, and hold their concentration, lessons have to revolve around topics they can relate to, and need to be broken up into manageable sections," adds English teacher, Sian Agland. "Gareth succeeds in doing both by using football as a reference point, and by keeping the session hands-on and active."

Calway's work seems to strike a chord with the Abersychan lads.

"I'd never really thought that football and poetry would go together," says Liam Cowels, 13, "And I always thought poetry was boring before, but this is fun."

Like Ma Bart before him, Gareth Calway aims to organise a poetry competition at the school. But one thing is certain, entrants won't be penalised for failing to write about spring.

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