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Finding voice through poetry

How residents of Kingswood and Hazel Leys reset their voices through lockdown poetry

Creative Civic Change (CCC) is a new approach to funding, using arts and creativity to make positive local change. Continuing our series exploring creative community responses to COVID-19, we spoke to George Hill and Helen Willmott, co-chairs of Creative Kingswood & Hazel Leys (CKHL) in Corby, East Midlands, about their residents’ poetry book. 

 The smaller the boat you’re in, the quicker you can turn around.”

– Helen 

That’s exactly what the small team at CKHL did in the early days of the pandemic, when co-chair George received a poem written by his neighbour Nicola. This act planted the seed for a project that has reached all 3,000 homes in the Kingswood and Hazel Leys estates. 

After receiving Nicola’s poem, CKHL’s resident steering group made the decision to put a call out for other poems created by residents, describing their experiences and reflections of the lockdown.

Recognising that for many people lockdown had been an isolating experience, the group felt that this was a valuable way for people to express their thoughts and feelings. Isolation also raised a further question: how could CKHL use the poetry to create a sense of connection and community?

The team had many ideas: painting the poems on the walls of buildings on the estates, displaying them on local buses, and more. They eventually settled on painting the poems on walls and a physical book of poetry, titled Reset: Poems from Corby 2020

3,500 books went out to the two estates, Kingswood and Hazel Leys, partners and supporters. The feedback has been really good, you know? It’s just lovely to have an end product.”

– George Hill, member of CKHL

Helen reflected that for CKHL, this kind of doorstep creativity – through the art packs and the poetry book – has been important because:

 It’s how we can make people’s homes nicer, more entertaining places to be. A lot of us are privileged to have nice homes. I’ve got a TV with Netflix, a two-bedroom house, a garden and can drive to a country park to go for a walk. If you haven’t got access to any of that stuff or internet a thing like a book coming through your door or some craft supplies really makes a difference.”

The poetry book also offered an important way to connect with the wider community across Hazel Leys and Kingswood estates. Lockdown had prevented plans for local artists Kate and Lola to spend time connecting with people in the streets. As Helen remarked:

We hoped that the books going through every house door was a kind of connectivity. We don’t know  what everyone did with the books that landed through their doors. And that’s one of the problems of Coronavirus! We put all this stuff through people’s doors and we don’t always know what happens to it. There could be a number of households that have read the book and started writing their own poetry, or have even now bought other poetry books.”

For George, the project and especially the safe and creative space of the CKHL team, have had a very personal impact:

George (front) surrounded with his artwork, with Kate Dyer (Corby Community Arts), Andrew Carroll (1979 films) and Lola Dziarkowska (Corby Community Arts).

It’s just reaffirmed that I am an artist. If I say to somebody that I paint and they ask, “Do you paint well? Are you a good painter?” I say, “I like walking. I like painting”. You wouldn’t ask me  “Are you a good walker? Do you walk fast? Do you walk slow?” It doesn’t matter. I know I’m not everybody’s cup of tea, but I know whatever I put into this piece of writing, I’m putting a piece of me in.”

The project has now gathered steam, with excerpts from the poems displayed publicly on posters:

The team from Corby Community Arts have taken excerpts from the poems, put them on to posters and have been pasting them up around the estate and starting conversations with passers-by. Mine ended up on the side of the bottle bank!” 

– Tim Morton, Big Local representative.

Another unexpected impact of the project is a new collaboration with Par Bay Creatives, a CCC project based in Cornwall.

Poets and creatives from Corby and Par now meet once a month online for a ‘Cross-Pollination Poetry’ open-mic night. Read George and Jayne’s step-by-step guide to running an online poetry session here.  

When we asked George what he was most proud of in the first year of the pandemic, he reflected:

I’m really proud of this group the connections I’ve made and of what we’re doing. I’m optimistic. I’m realistic, passionate, whatever. I know that something like writing a poem, or getting a craft pack changed people’s day and for me that’s a result – that hopefully changes their week, their month and their year. I see the benefits of creativity and what it can do. Everybody’s an artist, man. Everybody’s an artist.”

Find out more about Creative Kingswood & Hazel Lees in this film, made by local media group HD Media CIC (fast forward to 10 minutes).

About the authors

This blog is part of our series on Creative Civic Change responses to COVID-19. It was written by CCC evaluators Anousheh Haghdadi (Beatfreeks) with Sarah Boiling and Amanda Smethurst, as part of the second CCC learning report, Growing Through the Storm.  

Compiled and edited by Khadijah Carberry (CCC Intern 2021).

Photo and film credits: Creative Kingswood & Hazel Lees and Khadijah Carberry.