Poet Coach, Chris Redmond and Shadow artist Graham Smith tell us about their latest session for Shake the Dust. 

Catch their teams performance at the South East regional Final, @ Nuffield Theatre, Monday 25 June | 6:30pm 

“I knew, when the outline of the workshop was explained to us on the first development day, that when the process reached the team of eight students a new intensity would be needed to fashion two, or hopefully three, group poems into being, and then to have them learnt by heart and made into a physical performance ready for the stage. Still, that was the challenge, that was the process. So I knew that every session would need to be tight and focused and productive; after all we had only an hour and half each session – nine hours in total. Except this is real life and people are not machines that can be programmed with poetry.

After the first session with the team of eight, Chris and I gather in the pieces of paper as the team file out of the library and get sucked back into their school day. I had hoped to be buzzing with excitement, clutching sheaves of paper imprinted with precocious poetic voices. But instead I feel a bit flat. Somehow we haven’t hit the switch to illuminate the world of poetry and the possibilities of language. In the car on the drive back to Salisbury we review the session and pick our brains for where to go next. Chris says, quite rightly, that we have to move up a gear too.

I drive home thinking about the session further and the night before our next visit to Redbridge Chris and I thrash out some more ideas on the phone. Chris suggests having two plans so we can respond to what’s happening in the room when we get there. In the end we plough a third path, mixing and adapting plan A and B. One of the students turns up with massive bags under his eyes looking like he hasn’t slept, another goes pale and dizzy during the warm up exercise and has to sit out (admitting he’s had nothing to eat today). As a new beginning it still looks shaky. But then we go round asking them about last week and there is agreement that we all (poet coach and shadow included) need to step it up a gear. Sitting in a circle we discuss how to do this and just this simple honest talking seems to draw us all together as a team.

Then I read them a long poem (Not the furniture game by Simon Armitage) so we can talk about the possibilities of language. It provokes a lot of discussion, as a poem that is a war on cliché but also something greater, and when we move them to sit on separate tables to write about a moment of conflict in their lives there is a new atmosphere in the room: one of thoughtful introspection. Now the words are coming.

The group reading to each other, half an hour later, is a powerful experience to sit in on. Many have chosen to tackle head on a moment in their lives that is traumatic and the writing is searingly honest. Not only that but their use of language is braver. Going round the circle reading and listening there is another sound too, barely perceptible – the sound of a group coalescing. And now the words are coming.”