Poems capture pupils' arrival in the UK using adaptation and translation

Kate Clanchy

In a college like EMBS, each term is different. The college is ‘alternative provision’ for Oxford City, meaning that its students can’t be educated elsewhere, whether because they are caring for family, unwell themselves, upset or disruptive, or, in the case of most my poetry students, very recently arrived from other countries. 

Young people arrive suddenly, often engage intensely, and very often disappear again. For example, last term Adem, a very focused young man from the Sudan, arrived for a single session, wrote this deeply moving prose poem responding to a poem in my anthology England, Poems from a School, then was moved to another school and was never seen again.

Map by T H Chia

My Name is Adem

I miss being in the country where I was born. In the morning when I got up I helped my mother and went to school with my friend, but my town wasn’t safe because the government killed people and took them to Yemen to fight and so my father had to leave my country and leave me because I was too young to go to a new country and when I was old enough I went to Libya but that wasn’t a safe country and so I came to Italy by boat and then to Belgium and the UK and I am safe here and I thank the government that gave me my home and asylum and I work hard in school and am doing well but I always remember my mum and my father and my sister and my home when we played together. When my mum smiled on my face.

- Adem

Last term my group also had a strongly South Asian character, with students from Vietnam, East Timor, Thailand and the Philippines all exchanging words and translations. This term, several of them were back, but were joined by a larger group of students from South America: from Brazil, Ecuador, Chile, Peru and Bolivia in fact (we all enjoyed calling the countries in on the large map on the wall). I started the term with this group using, as I often do, English poems with strong simple structures to inspire the students to write their own. For example, the poem Things We Carry on the Sea by the Chinese American Wang Ping inspired a host of beautiful poems such as this by Norjhun:


We carry the pain that happened in our lives.
We carry the things that are important in our lives.
We carry the life we left behind, the good and bad memories.
We carry the words that made us happy
We carry the last word we said: pamlam, goodbye.~
We carry the promises we made our loved ones.
We carry the gifts our loved ones gave us.
We carry the book from the school we went to.
We carry the jacket to keep warm in the cold.
We carry a handkerchief in case we start crying.
We put all this in our heart and our brain.
We carry all this in our migrant’s bags.

- Norjhun (17)

But with so much Spanish and Portuguese in the room it was tempting to be even more multilingual. I started bringing in dual text poems by Lorca, Neruda and by contemporary Latinx American poets such the El Salvadoran Javier Zamora. The students very much enjoyed this, and immediately responded with their own dual texts – writing first in their own language, then translating. As they did so, they talked about words and  roots of words, and comparing the Latin words in Beatrix’s Portuguese, Norjun’s Tagalog and the different Spanishes of Alejandro and Sergio. It was an extremely creative atmosphere.

Some of the results were raw and powerful, such as Alejandro’s poem about arriving in England:

I came empty
                 I only had physical things. Inside I was crazy.
I came empty
                 I didn’t know England was a country.
I came empty
                I thought Queen Elizabeth was a story.
I came empty:
                 I thought English was impossible.
I had come from a farm school, Mondays and Fridays,
                 then no school.

I came empty:
                 I had my clothes and my teddy 
                               and some pebbles from my village.
I came empty, scared, insecure. 

I came empty and found a life that cannot fill me.

- Alejandro (17)

'I want to write a poem' by Alejandro (17)

While others were sophisticated and fluent, such as Sergio’s response to Neruda’s Dulce Sempere –


Sometimes change comes upon us
with such speed that there is no perception of time.
t simply advances like cars on the road
or a crowd on the street,

With or without me everything
has its end or beginning
its outcome or entanglement,
for good or for bad.

Everything goes on and on
without my realizing
how beautiful they are,
the things that surround me.

And people will come
into my life and I will lose them
without noticing how much
they are worth. 

- Sergio

Though it was lovely to see how a much simpler response to the same poem by Geniva, from East Timor, was also effective:

Poem for my Friend

I’m sending you a poem
with  the texture of pudim de cacaos,
so smooth in your mouth.

I’m putting it on a blue china plate 
and serving it to you
one sunny afternoon in East Timor.

It’s a poem to  show how I feel,
sweet chocolate inside.

I want this poem
to be smooth as pudim de cacao
smooth as I feel

when you came near me.

- Geniva (17)

When the COVID virus struck, the group was awaiting a visit from Aisha Borja, a young UK/Colombian poet and excitedly planning their next anthology. Two new students had arrived, and were sharing their different Arabics, from Kurdistan and Sudan. Mohamed, also from Sudan, ended the last session with a call and response Arabic chant, to the great admiration of the South Americans.

We very much hope to pick up some of our plans, somehow, next term.

Learning languages in through poetry

Kate Clanchy is a teacher and writer. In 2018 she published England Poems from a School, a collection of her migrant students' poems and was made MBE. Her most recent book is Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, described by Sir Phillip Pullman as the 'best book about writing and teaching and children I have ever read.' 

Kate has produced a series of short films demonstrating some of the poetry activities she uses with pupils visit our resources section to watch the films.