Debjani Chatterjee was born in Delhi in 1952 and came to Britain in 1972 via Japan, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Egypt and Morocco. She has worked in the steel industry, education and community relations. Widely anthologised, her poems have won various prizes including a Peterloo Poets prize. She is Reviews Editor of Writing in Education, published by the National Association of Writers in Education. For a list of her books visit NAWE's website at www.nawe.co.uk
Last November when I went to the Sheffield Children's Hospital to be interviewed for the post of Poet-in-Residence, I felt both honoured and excited to be selected, a feeling that has not abated with time. My six months' residency from mid-January to mid-July involves spending one day a week at the hospital (often this is two half days) and another working from home. I am not physically resident at the hospital as some people assume, although I do frequently find myself spending far more time on my residency than I anticipated! It's easily done.
As Poet-in-Residence my work involves promoting poetry among the children, parents and staff at the Sheffield Children's Hospital. This means that I read and perform poems with children and their carers, and encourage them to write their own poems - either by themselves or in collaboration. The work is enormously varied as well as challenging and each visit that I make is interesting, unpredictable and, most of all, rewarding.
1. Ongoing Activities
a) I've been spending short periods of time with children that I meet in the hospital's main reception area, outpatient clinics' waiting rooms, the 'potting shed' (that's the room where children get plasters put on them), accidents & emergencies, the parents' dining room, the Chaplaincy and the Eye Department, either just reading poems with them or performing my own poetry with them. Generally these children have very little time with me and I may only meet them once.
A lot of this work is inevitably with individual children. An example of working with a group involved going at lunchtime to the parents' dining room where I saw that all the children dining there were of pre-school age. One parent told me quite seriously that her child did not know any poetry at all. Another actually said that the children in the room were too young to have anything to do with poetry! But when I talked to the children about their favourite nursery rhymes, it turned out that every child in the room knew at least a few lines of a nursery rhyme and was happy to join me in reciting them. One child sang 'Baa Baa Black Sheep' for all of us. The parents said that they didn't know that nursery rhymes counted as poems! 'Besides, if it's sung, it becomes a song, not a poem!' said another parent.
b) I also visit children in the wards. Here again most children are short stay patients and when I return to their ward the following week I often find them gone. Sometimes I do come across long-stay patients. There are of course children who are too ill to work with me. But generally I can work with children in the wards & know that I am contributing a pleasurable & valuable experience as part of their hospital stay.
Sometimes it is very hard to reach children in order to involve them in poetry when my time with them is so short & there are so many barriers to be overcome, barriers such as their apprehension about waiting for an injection, or suspicion regarding a strange adult, or distraction from noise or television or computer games. One lever for me to gain access to children's attention and interest has been my introduction of Theo, the hospital's teddy bear mascot, in my conversations with young children & in some of the poetry I read to them.
c) My work is not just with the children & parents at the hospital. It has also meant contributing occasional poetry-related news items and poems to the hospital's regular newsletter, NewsFlash. I have also attended a meeting of the hospital's Arts Steering Group, the people who applied to the Poetry Society to sponsor my post.
I have worked with hospital volunteers & staff. I feel particularly pleased about a very vulnerable young volunteer whom I encouraged to write. I sent off one of his poems to a magazine and I'm happy to say that it was published. Then there is the nurse for whom poetry exorcises her frustration; she sent me an anonymous poem in which she wrote of being sick' of needles, doctors & hospitals! There is also the pathologist who writes poems, often morbid, on such subjects as post-mortems and can't understand why her church magazine won't accept them! She wants to know how to improve her poems & wants to learn in particular about forms and techniques. It has been a pleasure to work with her & to help her to develop her writing interest.
d) Anyone who is a Poet-in-Residence can sometimes find themselves, like the Poet Laureate, being expected to write 'occasional' poems - by that I mean 'poems of occasion'. But these are not poems about the country or the royal family & their wars, birthdays & marriages, but about the institution where they are resident-poet.
In my case this has meant turning up at the Children's Appeals Office one day & being faced with the confident expectation that half an hour later I would write & perform a birthday poem as a present to one of their colleagues! It has meant turning up at special events such as the Chaplaincy's Opening & performing poetry with the children who attended. Among the imaginative requests that I've had was one from a little boy who wanted some poetry to be written on his plaster cast!
2. Special Events
a) A World Book Day poetry performance at the hospital with Theo attending as VIP on 10 March 2000.
I also launched a World Book Day poetry chapbook to which I invited people to contribute their poems.
b) The hospital Chaplaincy's Open Day on l4 March 2000. I attended their special non-denominational service and afterwards performed for the children.
c) Giving a talk, running a workshop and preparing poems for display at Signposts Health & Writing Day held at the Quaker Meeting House, Sheffield, on Saturday 8th April 2000
d) Children's Activity Sunday at the Chaplaincy on 7th May 2000. This involved performing poetry and storytelling, and encouraging children to write and to draw pictures to illustrate their poems.
3. Outcomes, media contacts & coverage
a) A Poetry Corridor and a World Book Day Big Book are being created. I'm encouraging (and occasionally teaching through the use of model poems and collaborations) the children, their parents and hospital staff to write poems. I have made extensive use of acrostics in the process. I'm collecting some of these poems for making poster-poems to be put up on hospital walls (a 'poetry corridor' will be created) and for putting into a one-off chapbook that I'll be donating to the hospital's teaching staff (I introduced the idea of the chapbook on World Book Day in March).
b) The hospital's links with local South Asian communities are being improved. My visible presence in the hospital is of course a contributory factor, as also is the media's reporting of my work. In addition I have encouraged some Bengali women and girls in a community group to which I belong, (Bengali Women's Support Group) to undertake a project to produce Quranic poster-poems and a wall-hanging using Islamic calligraphy for adorning the hospital's Muslim Prayer Room. The Quran is widely believed to be the finest poetry in Arabic & there are also some fine translations of it in English. The group intend using both Arabic & English in making their posters.
c) I'm also working with the hospital's Arts Co-ordinater, who is a photographer, to do a one-off booklet of photos and verse to demystify for children the experience of having an eye examination. In our booklet a teddy bear is photographed going through the various stages of examination in the hospital's Eye Department.
d) The hospital has achieved much positive publicity from the great deal of media interest in my appointment & residency. The ethnic minority press has also widely reported on my appointment and the hospital has not normally got coverage in this sector.
Although media interest can sometimes be intrusive & a nuisance, it is also something that benefits the hospital in giving positive news about the hospital and encouraging potential donors and volunteers. To mention the coverage that I am aware of, there have so far been two BBC Radio Sheftield interviews, an article & a profile in Nursing Times, news articles in Gaurav Gujerat, Yorkshire Post, The Star, The Sheffield Telegraph, The Sheffield Journal & even The Big Issue. Yorkshire TV's 'Calendar' programme sent a reporter and cameraman to film me at work in the hospital, as did the BBC's News 24 and world programme.
e) The hospital residency is not of course meant to benefit only the people at the Children's Hospital. It is also very importantly for my benefit. The residency is inspiring me to write my own poetry for children. One of the positive outcomes of my residency will be a collection of poems, Animal Antics, which will be published this summer at the end of my residency by Pennine Pens of Hebden Bridge in association with The Poetry Society. The Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, has kindly provided an introduction.