Culture / Literature / People

Poetry for all

4 April 2024

Over the last few months (in my day job as a graphic designer) I’ve had the pleasure of working with Shaniqua Benjamin to help create a set of poetry posters which form part of the output of her final project as Croydon’s Poet Laureate.

The multi-generational project called ‘Out of Silence’ has engaged a diverse mix of Croydon people, Over six months, workshops have been led by local poets in schools, youth organisations and elders groups to amplify local voices that are often unheard and unseen.

The posters (which will start popping up around Croydon from next week) showcase extracts of poems written by participants. During a workshop in February the poster concept was created by local young designers Riley Welch, Rosa Grahl and Gavin Bowyer, which I then implemented across the set. You can see a selection of the posters below.

Here I chat with Shaniqua about the project, and her legacy at Croydon’s first Poet Laureate.

Croydonist: How did the Out of Silence project come about?

Shaniqua: Out of Silence originated as a major poetry project for Croydon’s year as London Borough of Culture, which also coincided with my ending as Croydon Poet Laureate. As well as cementing my legacy as Croydon’s first Poet Laureate, Out of Silence is also a This is Croydon legacy project, as it is ending this summer and Croydon’s year as London Borough of Culture has already come to an end. I wanted this project to amplify and empower the voices of Croydon people, especially those who are often marginalised, ignored or glossed over, which has been my main focus since becoming Poet Laureate back in 2020 – this project gave me the opportunity to really do that.

I also wanted to show that poetry is more than letters on a page available to an elite few, but that it is a vibrant and diverse art form that is for everyone, so the project will culminate in a live sharing, poetry film and most excitingly, poetry posters. The poetry posters will showcase extracts from every single one of the poems written as part of the project and be displayed around Croydon, on both inside and outside locations. Some of the poetry was already shared in public by artist Gijs Van Bon‘s robot Nightwriter Nyx – lines of poetry were written in luminescent sand on the streets of New Addington and Croydon Town Centre, which was very cool for Croydon and like nothing I’d ever seen before.

Croydonist: Where did you run workshops and which poets were involved in the process?

Shaniqua: This project is about Croydon people, so it has been fully embedded in Croydon across the board. Workshops have been taking place in locations where participants would already be present, as I believe it is important to meet people where they are. I also wanted to capture different areas and aspects of the Croydon community, across three different age groups, so running workshops in one particular location may not have been beneficial. The three different age groups are:

  • Teens across four schools – Archbishop Lanfranc, St Giles (a special needs school), Meridian High in New Addington, and Oasis Academy Coulsdon.
  • Young adults across two organisations – SLiDE Dance Company (working with learning disabled people) and Young Roots (working with young refugees and asylum seekers).
  • Elders across two organisations – Age UK and The Association of Jamaicans (UK) Trust.

Keeping with the Croydon focus, all of the poets involved in the project are Croydon based. Jemilea Wisdom-Baako, who is also the Founder and Director of Writerz and Scribez, is the project producer. Along with myself, workshops have been run by Miss Yankey, Beverly Bossanga, Daisy Nash, Zhanai Wallace, and Jamal Hassan, who have all been amazing so far and gotten the best out of the participants. The poetry posters for the project were also designed by three local young people – Riley Welch, Rosa Grahl and Gavin Bowyer – alongside you of course, with your graphic design company, 31% Wool. Out of Silence really is Croydon allround.

Croydonist: What were the joys of engaging such a diverse mix of people in poetry?

Shaniqua: It has been beautiful to experience the variety of voices across each group – to see what is important to individuals and how they may approach poetry. For a number of people, this was their first time writing poetry, so it is great to see a spark ignited and have them sharing a part of their soul, as that is what poetry is. For those who may already write poetry, this was a chance to flex those writing muscles and have their work seen on a wider scale. It’s just enjoyable all round to engage with Croydon’s melting pot of people and I can’t wait for everyone to experience their poetry, because it really is powerful, gorgeous and raw. Reading them has brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion – I’m beyond proud.

Croydonist: What were the challenges of engaging such a diverse mix of people in poetry?

Shaniqua: Like I said, some people haven’t written poetry before, which can also be a challenge, as they believe they can’t write poetry or they don’t know where to start. Navigating groups can be difficult at times, especially in workshops taking place outside of schools, because you may have different people at each of the three workshop sessions or individuals drifting in and out during a single session – despite being a challenge, it’s all part of the fun. Simplifying explanations is always key during a project like this, as there may be language barriers or different styles of learning, so we need to consider how to get the best out of each group. Working with a number of poets on the project was great, as they had different expertise and energy that made them the best fit for each group they were working with, and they were also able to adapt their workshops according to the needs and abilities of each group.

Croydonist: Any surprises that came from running the project?

Shaniqua: I think the biggest surprise was how amazingly brilliant so many of the poems were, despite a number of participants expressing that they were unable to write poetry or that their poems were not very good, particularly those who speak English as a second or third language. I was also surprised at how tediously difficult it is to publicly share work on a large scale in Croydon, which is a struggle I’m finding with displaying the poetry posters. These are the most special part of the project and deserve the necessary attention, because these voices should be celebrated.

Croydonist: As your Poet Laureate tenure comes to a close this summer what’s next for you?

Shaniqua: I honestly have no idea what is coming next for me. I want to spend more time writing for me, polishing up the collections I’ve been working on over the past few years and honing in on the topics that are close to my heart so I can finally get a full work of poetry published. I want to build on my spoken word theatre show, Love Warrior, pulling out the stories within the story to write more shows, this time not involving me onstage. I’m also on a coaching course at the moment, so I’m considering how I can blend coaching, poetry and creative workshop facilitation together into a role where I can empower young people and amplify more voices. Whatever I go on to do in the future, it will involve people, community, creativity and books – I just don’t know what that looks like yet. For now though, I’m just focusing on getting these poetry posters as widely seen as possible – then I can relax, reflect and look back at my time as Croydon’s first Poet Laureate.

Thank you to Shaniqua for chatting with me. Look out for the poetry posters across the borough from next week. They will be displayed until October. You can read the first poetry set in full here.

Photos courtesy of Shaniqua Benjamin: portrait by David Parry; Nightwriter Nyx in New Addington photo by Ameena Rojee.

Posted by Julia

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