Poetry and Pizza

The starving artist in the garret is by no means the only model of the contemporary creative; at New Wortley Community Centre (founded in 1982 to serve the community of the Armley ward area of south Leeds), creative writing is fostered by FOOD! Former MP John Battle (of whom more of in a future blog) was instrumental in establishing Poetry and Pizza as one of a number of community activities, and it was clear when I met with them recently that they are bubbling over with creativity. Each week, they meet as a group (fuelled by pizza, biscuits and limitless hot drinks!) to write poetry and stories about their lives and local area, and to express their responses to the events and ideas which stimulate, trouble and inspire them. In preparation for the Power to the People project, John (who usually supplies some familiar and less familiar poetry for discussion at the start of each session) had provided information and prompts. The creativity flowed, and at the performance day in September, several pieces of work written by members of group were read out, in a couple of cases by other group members who found the courage to perform in public, no mean achievement for first time readers-out.

I was invited to meet with the group on their home turf, and between mouthfuls of pizza and several cups of tea, I chatted both to those writers represented in the project, and others, about what motivated them to write. I was privileged to be given a folder of writing by Maggie, Jenny, Rhea, Lindsey, Samantha, Beverley, Claire, Sam, John, Malcolm, Ann and Natasha.  Many members of the group live with depression, disability, social and economic deprivation and some have experienced discrimination and the sort of challenges which reflect the institutionalised inequalities brought to light so clearly by the pandemic. As I noted in one of my poet-theologian blogs, we may have all been at sea during lockdown, but some of us had life rafts, and other had nothing to support us.

I had the opportunity to listen to their reasons for writing, and how it makes them feel empowered. In their own words: ‘writing is healing, a sort of therapy, helping you find your voice by working through things’ (Claire); ‘Writing helps me feel in control of the uncontrollable, gives me a sense of self-worth, a way of moving on’ (Beverley); ‘I’ve always been busy with my family and though I struggled with reading and writing as a child, now I find that writing is something for ME’ (Sam); ‘I wake up in the night wanting to write things down; I love using word association’ (Ann); ‘I can’t make things up but I can write from my own experience; I can get quite emotional reading out war poetry’ (John); ‘I’m strong on relationships and a very keen Leeds Rhino supporter – I can write but not read out!’(Malcolm); ‘I can’t switch off, so I’m always writing something. I would love to change things, and rap works best for me as a way of criticising the government’(Maggie); ‘I’ve written for years, and write through the lens of hindsight’ (Rhea); ‘I learned to understand what lockdown had meant for me by writing about it’(Jenny).

Here is a word-collage of the poetry produced not only for the official Power to the People project but from the present day laureates of empowerment, who gather together week by week to read and write and listen to words.  To misquote Oscar Wilde, in being with the Poetry and Pizza group, I experienced the triumph of hope over adversity.

We will come out of this stronger; no matter what the difficulties…Love under lockdown became new and right life…Boris with your lovely hair/allowing death great despair,/ as you put them down to rest,/ don’t blink and say you did your best!…I was often alone but never lonely …One day we will be free from covid; when it comes to that day, everyone will celebrate … can we keep ‘the new normal,’ please? … loved ones died and hate was slowly eroded  … a random act of kindness/ for someone who was feeling blue/can really uplift their mood/but it’s just as good for you…. How can we be free/ in a dead and buried kingdom? …I’m grateful for a joy inside! To start again! The path is wide!

The group are currently working on a re-interpretation of Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land’, called ‘This Place is Your Place’, which will culminate in a night of music–making and creative performance for the Association’s AGM. What a vibrant and adventurous group they are, expressing empowerment despite dark days and long winter nights. Poetry and Pizza folk, I applaud your resilience and good humour, and I thank you for your warm welcome and enthusiasm to share your ideas and creativity.