Portuguese creative writing workshop with Hélia Correia

Tram in Lisbon
Naomi Lester and Tom Stennett

Continuing workshops run as part of the Prismatic Translation strand of the Creative Multilingualism research project, the Portuguese author Hélia Correia (Camões Prize 2015) was invited to hold a workshop with a group of pupils at Oxford Spires Academy.

The pupils came from different Portuguese-speaking backgrounds and were aged between 12 and 17 years old. For most of them, Portuguese was confined to the domestic sphere, with many of the schoolchildren accustomed to speaking the language only with their mothers. (Only one said that they spoke Portuguese with both parents.)

A few pupils were more comfortable in English than in Portuguese, but all of them delighted in working in Portuguese. Among the children the levels of comfort with written and spoken Portuguese varied, and some seemed shy at first at the prospect of speaking Portuguese with someone that wasn’t a family member. The Brazilian students admitted that they had difficulty understanding some typically European-Portuguese phrases, the variant spoken by Hélia and the two Portuguese-speaking Oxford University student helpers, Naomi Lester and Tom Stennett. (These two bilingual Oxford University students were on hand to translate where necessary.)

Hélia introduced the children to a famous sonnet by the sixteenth-century Portuguese poet Luís de Camões. Hélia explained that the poem, ‘Amor é um fogo…’ (‘Love is a fire…’), is the work of a man of ‘great passions’, and one of Camões’s most famous poems. However, Hélia warned the children that ‘se é conhecido não quer dizer que é bom! (‘just because the poem is well-known doesn’t mean that it’s any good!’).

Hélia gave a brief account of the myths surrounding the life of Camões, including the legend that the soldier-poet, having been shipwrecked, saved the unfinished manuscript of his epic poem Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads) by holding the pages above water as he swam back to shore. Hélia explained that the legends surrounding Camões are no less important because they are not historically accurate. Myths and legends, like poetry, make no claim to historic truth: ‘É mais importante ser bonito do que verdadeiro [….]. [Na poesia] coisas que seriam vulgares passam a ser magníficas!’ (‘It is more important that it is beautiful than it is truthful […]. [In poetry] things that would be ordinary become magnificent!’). Hélia read Camões’s sonnet aloud, before asking the children to read a line each of the poem, explaining the images to them, and emphasising the differences between everyday language and the strange, figurative language of poetry.

From the ‘hardest sonnet of the Portuguese language’, the children then moved to writing poetry themselves. Hélia set them the challenge of writing a line of poetry using the technique of comparison, surprisingly with one of the walls in the classroom acting as their stimulus. The verses were collected and then redistributed so that each participant was now confronted with a line written by one of their peers. The children were then asked to write a poem inspired by the solitary line and the cream wall facing them, using techniques of comparison, metaphor and, in longer poems, narration.

The poems produced included starkly beautiful images and intriguing wording. The themes which emerged included life, futility, loneliness, nature, and introspection. In the afternoon session of the workshop, led by Oxford Spires Academy Writer-in-Residence Kate Clanchy, with help from Naomi Lester and Tom Stennett, the schoolchildren continued to work on their poems, concentrating on (de)punctuation, fonts, capitalisation (or not), and layout on the page. They managed to produce some stunning English-language translations of their own work, which will later be compiled in a bilingual anthology.

Tom Stennett and Naomi Lester are postgraduate students at St Anne's College, University of Oxford. Both are bilingual speakers of English and Portuguese.

Where next?

Words and images: a royal wedding?

Friendship and education in a multilingual community

Inspiring pupils: multilingual creative writing