William Gallagher performing poetry at Waterstones Bookstore.

Rhyme of my life

I’m truly not sure that I can convey to you what this week has meant to me, not least because a huge part of it is dizzying surprise. But here goes: last night I performed my poetry on stage for the first time.

It sounds straightforward when I say it like that and actually I’m conscious now that a real poet would’ve imbued the line with layers of meaning. You’d read their version of that line and not just comprehend that this was a life milestone for me, you’d also feel the tug in your heart that it was a milestone for you.

Poets do that and I can’t. All I can do is talk. Privately – no, now I think of it also quite publicly – I’ve been terrified of poetry. The power of it. There are poets who can make me weep on cue and that’s just evil.

I’ve been glad that at least I get this now, that while I came to it very late, I do at least read some poetry and I get this. I get to be made to weep, I get to have my heart tugged and my head wrenched.

But that’s different from writing the stuff.

Only, would I ask you to do something I can’t do myself? Of course I would. Consequently when I’ve run writing workshops that have been required to cover poetry, I’ve happily told you it’s beyond me and I’ve very happily learned from you.

Except a few weeks ago when poet Nyanda Foday conned me into writing a piece when myself and Maeve Clarke were running a summer school for Writing West Midlands.

Maeve Clarke is now the key part of that sentence.

For last night she produced the Birmingham heat of a poetry contest called Superstars of Slam and it was held at Waterstones. I went to support her and to just have a good time listening to the poets.

It turns out, though, that poetry contests will apparently often want what they call a sacrificial poet. This is a new term to me but then the term ‘poem’ isn’t exactly familiar yet, and Maeve had to explain. Judges will listen first to a poem that is not in the competition and to a poet who is not competing. It’s like warming them up. It’s like being the dull first questions in a lie-detector test, you know, where they are setting a baseline.

The judges assess this sacrificial poet and that’s the baseline for the night. Apparently it’s better than them judging the first real poet cold.

The only requirement to be a sacrificial poet, then, is to be a poet with a poem. One poem. Maeve knew I had one poem. She knew I’d written one at that summer school.

And she also knew that because I wrote it on my iPad, it would automatically be on the iPhone I was texting on when she called me over before the start.

I feel like I’m writing a Dear Diary entry here and I’m grateful that you’re putting up with me wibbling on, thank you. But I’d like to ask you to do one more thing: make sure I keep some perspective here.

I was not in competition last night. Having one poem does not make me a poet. And most of all, poetry evenings are supportive and welcoming and kind.

But this was a big thing for me, made possible both by Maeve and specifically by how she sprung it on me. I wish I’d shaved, but otherwise it was perfect: I had no time to get nervous.

Well, there was one moment. The three judges – Maeve Clarke, Giovanni Spoz Esposito and Afshan D’souza-Lodhi – had large laminated sheets with their scores on out of 10. Like Strictly Come Dancing paddles, but with less glitter. And as I looked over at them for approval, I saw all three sheets had the number 1.

That’s a bit harsh, I thought: scoring 1, 1 and 1. Fair, but harsh.

Then they turned them over. For content, I got a 6, a 7 and an 8. For performance I think I got a 7, an 8 and another 7. I was a bit too dazed to take it in but I believe so.

I think it goes without saying that these were the worst scores of the evening but you didn’t have to bring that up.

Mind you, I don’t have to bring up this last point but I see no possible way for you to stop me. That dastardly Maeve who needed a poet and like the producer she is knew where to get one, also filmed my performance. It’s an entire 35 seconds long, which means I’ve now gabbled at you about something forty times longer than the something actually took.

I have no problem with that. You’d best avoid me for a while or I’ll tell you about it all over again.

Anyway. Here’s Palimpsest – about the type of ancient document where words are written over over over each other in layers because the paper was so scarce – as performed by me. Poet William Gallagher.

Gone from a Burton

I’ve just finished two years running a monthly writing workshop for children aged 8 to 12(ish) in Burton-on-Trent. From September, I’m replaced by writer Lindsey Bailey and as we were talking about the group the other day, I found myself suggesting what she could do with them next – and I’m glad to say I stopped myself.

“No,” I said. “It’s your ship now.”

There are things I would love to see that group do, ideas we’ve done that I would build on if I were coming back, most definitely issues we’ve not touched that I want us to. And, oh, do I want to know what these kids write next. But it is her group now: she’s running it, she’ll be planning it, she will have myriad things she wants to do with it.

By the way, I adore telling you this: for my final session the Burton gang scripted and filmed a Doctor Who regeneration scene for me turning in to Lindsey.

They did that after writing and recording a radio play. They don’t hang about in Burton. Did I mention they did this after finishing writing a book? Are you picking up on the teeny clues that I adored working with this group?

I could go on about this. I’m surprised I haven’t before, though doubtlessly things I’ve said to you here have been influenced by these sessions or how Burton has seeped into me. The sessions are only 90 minutes a month yet the time you spend thinking and planning is huge. How do teachers plan for day after day? I like storming in, causing a ruckus and getting out again.

I do want you to know that I wouldn’t have chosen to leave Burton this year. I wouldn’t have ever left. I do very much want you to know that as upset at losing the group as I was, I actually felt an awful lot better when I heard who my replacement is. And for the sake of my ego I’m quite keen for you to know that I’m leaving because I’m replacing someone somewhere else.

These sessions, properly known as Write On! Young Writers’ Groups, were created by and are run by Writing West Midlands which is a charity that commissions us writers and decides who goes where. (Do support them if you can. If you’ve got kids, exploit this organisation as much as you can: they’d like that.) I think the current total is 21 groups across the region and in each case there’s a maximum of 15 kids, all of whom have chosen to come work with professional writers one Saturday a month. I’ve now run or assisted or nosily sat in on seven of these groups. So I can tell you that the format is broadly the same, the logistics are identical, but the groups are astonishingly different.

A lot of that difference is down to the kids who’ve joined and a lot more is down to where the sessions are held: my Burton ones were in a library and that’s quite common but others are in art galleries and even an Abbey. But I believe the greatest difference is in the lead writer. We’re all there to do the same thing, we’re all there to do the best we can for these kids. You should see the online chatter between us after a Saturday session: it’s exhilarating, you race back to that Facebook group to beam about the things your group got up to.

I see this in the other groups and in the other lead writers so I must accept it about mine and about me: Burton reflected who I am. I may have discovered who I am while doing it, but that group functioned the way it did because of what I ran there.

It is time they had a different lead writer.

It’s better for the group to get a change and I think it’s equal parts thrilling and daunting for any writer who comes in to take over such a bunch. But these new lead writers are there to take over, that’s what they have to do. I know this and I believe it but I felt it anew when I was in that conversation with Lindsey and stopped myself suggesting things.

That phrase, though, “your ship now”. I must’ve got that from somewhere. I can’t remember where but I can remember how often I’ve thought it and I can well remember why.

I may not say it all that often but I think it a lot because I’m a man. I’ve been in work situations where a team has had a new man come in and, right or wrong, good or bad, he’s forced a change in the dynamic. I say right or wrong, good or bad, but it’s always been wrong and bad. Equally, I had a thing once in radio where, as it happens, I was the only man working in a small group of women. I didn’t register that until another woman joined and she made a point of it. “Don’t you feel awkward, surrounded by women?” she asked in that kind of question that isn’t a question, it’s a bullet.

I remember that from an astonishingly long time ago. I remember seeing in that instant that she was creating lines within this team and actually that she was going to succeed in getting me out of it. I remember how clearly and immediately I could see there was nothing I could do. You think of a team as a collection of people, in the best cases a group of friends, but it is a body in and of itself: it’s a single entity and it changes, evolves, stops in ways that have little to do with how the individual members are together. Maybe today I could’ve been more astute, more aware of how to game a team but it’s not my thing and I’m no good at it.

Although I was okay when a similar thing to that radio experience happened in front of me many years later. That was with a group of men where the pivotal issue was that one guy wanted this other man’s job. It was a management post and to get it, he was inserting himself into decisions, was taking charge wherever it didn’t matter if he were in charge so nobody stopped him. I saw it and I saw what he wanted, I also didn’t care as I was just freelance there, but I do then also remember the exasperation I felt when I realised I’d have to do something about one of his decisions or I’d be collateral damage.

People, eh?

I don’t want to be people, not in that sense. I also don’t want to be a man in that stereotypical pushing way, not just by being a man, not just by being male. If I push for something, it’s me, it’s not my gender.

So I admit that when I said to Lindsey no, it’s your ship, I was conscious that I’m a man and she’s a woman. I would’ve thought the exact same thing with any replacement but I was conscious of our sexes. I had felt the same thing when I started as an assistant to lead writer Maeve Clarke and it’s not about joining or replacing or being replaced by a woman, it is about how there is a type of man I don’t want to be. There is a type of man who sees it as necessary to be alpha and are we really still that bothered? Alpha Male stuff surely shouldn’t still be here when we’ve stopped being hunter-gatherers and become shopper-clickers.

Yet I’ve seen men entering teams, I’ve seen men asserting authority that they don’t have and don’t need but believe they lack. I don’t need you to believe I have authority.

Then it sounds like a joke, it should be a joke, but I’ve seen men be incapable of listening to a woman and, God in heaven, I don’t want to be that. In fairness, I’d like to tell you that I recently had to ask my wife Angela to repeat something I’d said because a woman we were with simply would not listen to me. It’s not universally a male thing.

But it’s big. Maybe it’s galactically a male thing.

So when I went to learn from Maeve, it was important to me that she knew I understood it was her show, it was her ship. Now that Lindsey has replaced me at Burton, it’s important to me that she knows I understand I’m gone and that it’s her group. I hope she’s thrilled at how she can now do anything she wants with the group; I imagine she must be as daunted as I was that this means she has to do something, she has to do everything, with her group.

She’ll be great, the kids in Burton will have the very best of times and maybe some day I can come back to visit. That will be up to her although, Lindsey, hello, I’m always available.

And in the meantime, I’ll be off running a Young Writers’ group in Rugby.

That’s my ship now.