Tom’s Interview for Teachers Talk Radio: Poetry and the ELT Classroom

Floating heads of Intrepid English Teacher Tom and Harry Waters of Renewable English. The green 'Teachers Talk Radio' logo showing a phone with headphones on is in the centre.

In case you missed it: Tom appeared on Teachers Talk Radio with Harry Waters of Renewable English last week where they spoke about the role of poetry in the ELT classroom. They discuss what films and writers they consider to be essential viewing and reading for both students and teachers, as well as Tom’s writing journey, and why he is passionate about teaching poetry from a diverse and inclusive range of writers, and not just dead white dudes. They also tackle the big question, is Eminem a poet?

You won’t want to miss this fun and fascinating chat! What are your thoughts on these topics? We would love to hear your views in the comments.

πŸ“š If you enjoy learning English through literature, reading and writing, you’ll love Tom’s weekly Book Club! It’s free to join for everyone throughout 2022. You can book a seat right here.

πŸ§‘β€πŸ« If you are interested in one-to-one English lessons with Tom, you can also book a free trial lesson to talk about your English learning goals.

You can find the complete transcript below, and you can listen to the interview on Podbean, Teachers Talk Radio, or the Intrepid English Podcast. Enjoy!

Harry Waters  00:11

Hello, everybody. Good evening. Good afternoon. Good night, wherever you may be joining us from. I hope you’re well, I hope everything is treating you well. And I hope the sun is shining on you if that’s the kind of weather that you’d like. The sun is certainly shining here in Seville. It is a brisk 35 degrees beaming in through my office window so I’ve got the big blinds down. It is warm. I can’t believe that a week ago it was chucking it down with rain. And now it is this hot. I guess that’s what you kind of expect from Spring usually, but it’s certainly not what I’m used to the last decade or so here in Seville. So yeah, it is full on Summer mode now, which is always a treat. So, how are things with you? I hope they’re well. Some news that I feel I should share with you today. Lots of news, in fact. All the news! I’m like a big old news guy. This will be the final Drive Home with Harry Waters. I hear a collective gasp in the air. Everyone’s like, “No! what’s going on? Don’t say that, Harry!” Don’t worry, I’m not leaving. Simply changing time slot. So when I returned for a small break, I will be coming back at a later time of 6pm British time, so 7pm here in Spain, or wherever else you may be, it’s basically a little while later. So don’t worry, the show will still exist. It will just be in a slightly different guise. So don’t worry about that. That’s good news. So my last ever Drive Home guest is here today. I can’t wait to talk to him. He will be here very shortly. But before we do that, let’s fill each other in on what’s been going on the last week or so. So since we last met, I have been to the town fair, which I went to right after the show last week. It’s a huge spectacle, a huge event here in Spain. And it’s also basically one giant COVID fest. And everybody in my family caught COVID, got over COVID and we’re all negative already so it was a pretty spectacular town fair to be honest, where everybody shared as many viruses as they could. Apparently the the ‘gripa A’, which is the ‘flu A’… I don’t know what it would be called in English… is also pretty prevalent at the moment. So yeah, that was… that was different. And I won’t be back on the air until… June. This is my last show before June because… why do you..? Why, Harry? Why are you going? Why are you leaving us? It’s OK guys, don’t cry all at once. I have got a fairly exciting week ahead of me. Maybe my most exciting week ever, professionally. Possibly. I’m not really sure. Is that true? Yes, it’s true. It’s definitely true. This Saturday, I am heading up in a car share to Santander, which is about nine hours away, to deliver a talk all about speaking exams and some ways of dealing with speaking exams. Because there are times when I forget, Harry, you are a teacher trainer. You’re not just an environmental activist. There are other strings to your bow. And this is another string to my bow, which I am delighted to be able to be using for arrows of knowledge, straight into people’s heads. Not in a painful way. A good arrow of knowledge. Not a bad one. Anyway, so I’m off there. Then on Wednesday I’m off to Belfast because I have a few talks in TEFL. And then on Friday, I’m off to Paris, as I’ll be speaking at the Change Now Summit, which by the way, will also be spoken at by people like Amy Meek from Kids Against Plastic, who was a previous guest. And the legendary Dr. Jane Goodall, so I’m quite excited about that. It’s going to be massive. I will very shortly be bringing in, as I mentioned, the final Drive Home guest, Tom Stewart, or Thomas Stewart. He will be here very shortly. So hold on to your hats, of which I bought a new one today. I actually bought a new item of clothing for the first time in I don’t know how long. However it was from a shop that is 114 years old. A local shop as well. We’ll talk more about that later. We’ll be back very shortly after the news so stay where you are. We’ll be back with Tom very, very shortly.

—- Commercial Break —-

Harry Waters  12:19

Hello, and welcome back, everybody. Thank you very much. It’s funny that mention of a clicker. I bought one just the other day as mine had broken. So anyway, who’s here now? It is Thomas. Thomas Stewart is here. He is, well he’s more than just one thing. He’s many things. His, as we were mentioning bows earlier, he has many strings to his. He is the Senior Teacher and Head of Content at Intrepid English. We have in the past spoken to their glorious founder. But he is also an award-winning poet. I’m gonna get him to tell you a little bit more about that as I bring him in. So Thomas, thank you so much for joining us.

Thomas  13:07

Thank you for having me.

Harry Waters  13:09

It’s a pleasure. Now I also before I do, let you tell us a little bit about yourself, which you will, I would like to say, Lorraine mentioned about your voice. She mentioned you’ve got a lovely voice. And I thought, okay, I’ve heard lovely voices before, you know, I’ve heard a voice or two in my time. And then I did hear a snippet of you speaking and I must admit, everybody’s in for a bit of a treat for the next hour and 15 minutes because you do have a really lovely voice.

Thomas  13:43

Well, thank you. I mean, yeah, she set the bar high when she said that my voice was similar to Stephen King’s. I’m like, that’s royalty right there. That’s the king of narrating audiobooks. So, thank you.

Harry Waters  13:54

It’s definitely up there. That’s for sure. So, Thomas Stewart, tell us about yourself.

Thomas  14:03

Yeah, where should I start? Maybe start in the present and work my way back into the past. Yeah, currently, I am the Head of Content and Senior Teacher at Intrepid English, as you said. And I’m a poet and a writer. Maybe it’s easier to go back to the past. I started doing my BA at the University of South Wales and that was looking at English. Kind of neglected language at that point in my life. I was only interested in Language and Power, was the course that I took. It was all about politics and stuff. And then I did my masters at Warwick, went to Milan to finish that off and thought I was writing the next fantastic novel, which naturally I was, but you know, no one understood that’s what I was doing. And then finished and went home to Cardiff for a bit and then moved to Edinburgh about six years ago. And it was my mum who suggested that I do the CELTA, because she’s worked in that world for a long time. And I did the part-time course and then 2018 met Lorraine, and off we’ve gone! And poetry took over fiction. Fiction is harder than poetry, apparently, which doesn’t add up to how I started, but yeah, that’s kind of the brush strokes.

Harry Waters  15:23

Very nice. So you started with fiction, that’s… oof. That is a tough nut to crack, I must say. Because yeah, I’ve had so many ideas. I thought that’d be great, whereas actually nobody would like that. That was just me that would think that’s great. But for how long have you been… I don’t want to sound ridiculous…. how long have you been into poetry? When did poetry, kind of, grab you? When did it spark your imagination?

Thomas  15:53

Yeah, because I’ve had a complicated history with poetry. Like, I wrote an essay about it called The Power of Poetry, that just explored my problems with it. So at school, I hated poetry. I remember sitting down with a guidance counsellor being like, I want to study English, but I don’t like poetry. And he laughed in my face and was like, well, good luck. And he was right. Because I went to college, and we studied poetry. And it was exactly what I thought, which is… poetry was you either get it or you don’t. And if you don’t get it, you’re an idiot. And you’re not as intelligent as everyone else. And there’s a problem. And that was what poetry was. And even my lessons in college, my teacher, who was a very unenthusiastic poetry teacher, would give us the poem, and essentially explain it to us. And I read somewhere recently, I feel like it was Philip Pullman saying it. He was just like, what an awful thing, to have a poem explained to you. Where’s the fun and joy in that? And I agree with him now. So anyway, I hated poetry, went to do my masters at Warwick and was taught by David Morley. And I remember him teaching us about call and response poetry. And it really just resonated with me. It was fun, it was different. He was what I imagined a poet to be, you know, he’s like, let’s go outside and listen to birds and try and write it down. And I met Philip Gross in my undergrad. And he was also another, kind of… it was meeting a poet, I guess, meeting those two poets that sort of broke this vision of poetry. And they both took me on that journey of like, poetry isn’t a right or wrong thing. There’s also a huge… I was almost about to swear there and I don’t think I should. There’s a huge amount of poets out there. And it’s really just finding the ones that speak to you. So I guess it was my undergrad and my masters that it started building, and it was in my undergrad I had my first poem published. Me and my housemate both had poems published in Agenda broadsheet. Agenda’s this really big poetry magazine and a broadsheet is the little thing. There, they published the kind of, cast offs. And we thought this was the beginning of our wonderful poetry career. But yeah, that was… that was when it all changed, really. And then, you know, I got the… Red Squirrel Press got in touch and were like, yeah, we’ll publish your pamphlet in two years time. So I had two years to play around with this pamphlet that completely changed. And I feel like it got more developed, my voice as a poet. So yeah, it was around the masters that it sort of, took off, I’d say.

Harry Waters  18:35

Yeah, because that is what the biggest problem for me with poetry is the way in which it is perceived. You know, when you hear poetry, all I ever thought about was, you know, classics, you know, the, oh, you’ve got to listen to really old poetry, that’s just not great. And, you know, it wasn’t even until I was studying drama that we got into any of the First World War poets, you know, and you’re listening to that, and, you know, for me, that that kind of stuff really can resonate so well, with anybody at any time. You know, it is slightly more modern than, you know, looking back to, hundreds of years ago. It’s a lot more modern, it’s a lot more up to date. But it also for me, conveyed a feeling that, I could really kind of, see. Not necessarily relate to, but like, it was really very visual, it was really very poignant. I think maybe just the language that was used as well was a lot more simple. But we get stuck on these, you know, these classics. And even First World War poetry and from there, and we forget about now, how many poets there are now. Like you said, there are so many, and there is such a spectrum of poetry. It’s amazing.

Thomas  19:58

Yeah, and it’s interesting because in Intrepid English I have a lot of freedom. A ridiculous amount of freedom, so thank you, Lorraine. And I’ve been tutoring teenagers who are in school and they have exams. They have Scottish highers and stuff to do. And they’ve been taught Carol Ann Duffy, who has been on the curriculum since I was a kid. And they hate her. They absolutely loathe Carol Ann Duffy. I love Carol Ann Duffy. So I was like, I’m ready for this challenge. But I think what I realised was, yeah, okay, like we really need to look at this curriculum again. Because all I’m seeing a dead white guys and one woman. It’s not great. And with Intrepid English, then I can develop these classes myself. We’re reading Langston Hughes, or Wanda Coleman and Wanda Coleman is a poet that I discovered two years ago, a year and a half ago, which in my opinion, is twenty-eight and a half years too late. I don’t know why. Well, I mean, we know why but poets of colour were not on the curriculum when I was a kid. I’ve looked at their curriculum, they’re not really there anymore. Well, they’re not there now. And I just think it’s a massive disservice. And I was saying this to a friend of mine. I was like, I’ve recently discovered June Jordan, another Black poet, and a woman who’s fantastic. And I had this deep sense of shame after reading her. And I think it was because she’s so amazing. The shame I felt was, why haven’t I been reading this poet my whole life? So yeah, that is a really big issue. As you said, you know, war poetry, of course, we can relate but, you know, we’re reading the dead, white men of that time when, you know, there’s the Ukrainian poet who’s name I’ve forgotten, who’s writing today about a situation. So I think what I’ve tried to do with Intrepid English classes is give that range of, yes, we’re going to read Auden because there’s something interesting we can discuss about poetry in response to art. But at the same time, we’re going to read Danez Smith, who’s writing today and is a Black man.

Harry Waters  22:06

Yeah. Because when I was at school, it was, you know, it was, here we go, we’re gonna do The Raven. You know, Edgar Allan Poe, we’re gonna do it. And it was just a bit like, all right, you know, it was like fourteen or so. Honestly, I couldn’t give less of, of a damn about, you know, Edgar Allan Poe. At the time, I was playing a lot of The Legend of Zelda. And Poe to me were just those little ghosts. The Ocarina of Time, that’s what a Poe was to me. And I was like, that’ll do, you know, I don’t, I don’t need anything else, you know, and reading… I really like Shakespeare. I’m a big fan of Shakespeare, but I wasn’t a huge fan of Shakespeare, because it wasn’t presented to me in an interesting way, you know, it wasn’t. And, you know, that’s why when, like, you know, Wilfred Owen comes along, it does seem more interesting. But you’re right, it’s dead white guys, you know, it’s… and it’s still that, you know, there’s still Walt Whitman and Hardy and, and people like this, they’re still there. And that’s not to take away from what they’ve done. Because they did do stuff, but they were, you know, those famous people at the time, who, you know, who had the exposure, who had, you know, what was necessary. And we don’t have the opportunity to listen to other people from that time because they weren’t published, which is something that’s so good about now because, you know, you could probably list off thirty fairly famous poets from now that I’ve never heard of, you know. I’m not saying I’m a huge poetry fan, you know. But then you could, I don’t know, you could… I could list off five poets that you may have never heard of, because there’s so much talent out there. And it’s just, it’s wonderful to see and wonderful to see more people getting an opportunity, more people getting a voice. And I remember, it must have been about twelve years ago, listening to Saul Williams for the first time and just like, my jaw hit the floor, you know, Just so incredibly powerful, absolutely out-of-this-world kind of stuff, and just being taken aback and thinking, I want more of this, I need more of this, you know, and trying to get more of that around. But what I would really like to know from you is, how do you, kind of, link your poetry to your classes? How do you become that guy from your masters that connects you to the poetry, rather than just being, “We’re going to do poetry!” and all the students go “Uhh, Mr. Stewart wants to do poetry again. Just loves that poetry, doesn’t he?”

Thomas  24:58

Well, I mean, I think with Intrepid English I’m in a privileged position where it’s one-to-one classes usually. So I’m responding to what the student wants. And it’s funny, you mentioned The Raven because my thirteen year old student loves Poe. And we did The Raven, and it really spoke to her. But that’s her interest. So it’s easy in that way to just tap into a student’s interests. But when I’m, like, thinking of tutoring the teenagers who just, they don’t want to be talking about poetry, they’d rather talk about anything else. The two things that I’ve noticed is, One: Removing that sense of, you have to understand everything, you have to get it all right. And that sense of foolishness that I felt as well, that if you don’t get it, you feel like a fool. And that plays into the confidence. So one student I was tutoring, there wasn’t confidence there at all. And that just kept cutting off any chance to even talk about the poem because they were afraid that they might say the wrong thing. So that’s how I work in a sort of, like, a group setting versus a singular setting. And yeah, you’re right about Shakespeare, though. Like, I wanted to just respond to that because I love Shakespeare too. And I was taught Shakespeare in high school. And my teacher looked at Lady Macbeth, who is my favourite character of all time. And that just really spoke to me. It was, this dead white guy is talking about a really amazing woman. He has created the best anti-villain ever, who’s a woman. And it just kind of blew Shakespeare wide open for me that he doesn’t have to just be this very binary writer. Like, I was tutoring Julius Caesar, which is all about men. But about the toxicity of masculinity. Oh my God, he’s got it right. Like, he has got it right, right, right. So yeah, as we were saying, the dead white guys, we don’t want to disparage them completely. There is a space for them. But the space is widening for others, such as Wanda Coleman, Lucille Clifton, who were publishing in the 60’s, and weren’t getting as much attention as Thomas Hardy, as you said. I love Thomas Hardy. But I also love Lucille Clifton. But yeah, that’s the way I try and go at it with my students anyway. And also, final thing, if I’m excited, hopefully that excitement is being shared into the students, right?

Harry Waters  27:27

It is exactly that. It’s, you know, something people often ask me about, you know, teaching sustainability in the classroom and stuff like that. It’s, you know, how do you get them interested? And, well, if you’re interested in it, they will be interested, it’s sorry, excuse me. They will be interested in it because you are. You know, when I first started teaching… I’m, a big vexillologist, I love flags, I really love flags. And I would always do, one of my routines would be a Flag of the Week. And we’d sit there and we’d discuss the flag. And we’d look at the country, we’d look at famous people from the country, we look at the capital city of the country. And we’d, you know, we’d get all into that. And, you know, I bumped into a student of mine from about a decade ago and we were having a chat, and it’s like, I can still show you the flag of Burkina Faso. And I can tell you, the capital city is Ouagadougou. And I was just like… there you go! That’s literally all I wanted to teach you. There was nothing else involved in our classes. I’m pretty sure as long as you know, the capital city of Burkina Faso, then, that’s all I need to know. Something else you’ve mentioned a couple of times now, with poetry. And is that, you know, if you don’t get it, you’re a bit stupid. Or, you know… or having it just, straight up explained to you. Here you go, here’s a poem. This is what it means. Now, poems to me, yes, they all have the root in the meaning of what the writer originally had planned for it, but they can have different meanings for so many different people, you know. The words written by Maya Angelou, for example, speak differently to me than they do to an African American in the states. Like, they will be spoken, you know, there will be various interpretations. So, you know, yeah, I don’t know if, when you’re with your students going through, I don’t know, Jabberwocky, or whatever you’re going through. How do you, kind of, get them to to bring their own meaning to it rather than just have your answer as the right answer?

Thomas  29:49

Yeah, well, this is something I caught myself on. I don’t speak, because it took me like a year to realise the teacher has a lot of power and if they they say their opinion like, “this is a terrible poem”, that’s the theme of the room. We’re all talking about how terrible it is. So I don’t speak, like, straight away. We read the poem. And you know, I’m just talking to my students. So my first question is, how do you feel? What do you think? And then we go from there. And I say this to a lot of my students, if you’re studying literature or poetry, you’re basically set up to be a lawyer, because it’s all about finding something and arguing it. And if you’ve got the evidence to support your argument, you’re fine. Unless, of course, you’re arguing something completely out there, and you’ve got no evidence. Then it is kind of wrong. So if I do see a student going, like, you know, we’ve read the Jabberwocky. And they’re like, this is all about animal abuse. Maybe it is, and maybe they found evidence to support that, and then I’m with them. But if they’re like, No, I’ve decided it’s about animal abuse. And I’m like, Okay, well, show me in the text, and they can’t, then there’s something we need to talk about. Or there have been occasions where students have taken a word, and gone a bit too far with it. So I’m like, you know, oh, that’s an interesting interpretation. But you’re teetering on the edge of just getting the… I hesitate to say ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, because it kind of goes against what I’m saying. But you know, you you can walk out of something… I don’t know, I’m trying to think of a film where you know, like the Titanic or whatever. And you walk out being like, that’s all about… sustainable ships and how we shouldn’t…. It’s like, no it really wasn’t. So you know, there is that kind of… you got to be in the right pool. And if you’re in the right pool, you know, swim away, kind of thing.

Harry Waters  31:39

Because yeah, I’ve found now, I know, you’re a movie lover, as well. And I was having a discussion with my wife the other day. We were actually talking about Alice in Wonderland. Not the movie, obviously, we were talking about it in general, because she’s working on a photography project, kind of, almost based around that, but also not that… but anyway. And yeah, we were walking along discussing various meanings of it, you know, here, there and everywhere. And I kind of thought, there’s a lot of times that I’ll read a movie review, or a book review, or like a theory online. And it’s just like, it seems like they’ve really looked for it within the text, but it wasn’t actually implied there. So this kind of sounds like what maybe some of this, you know, students do, where somebody will come up with some completely mad cap theory, and they’ll find I’m doing bunny ears, everyone, I’m doing inverted commas, ‘evidence’ to support it. And you know, you’ll see the internet blow up with all this and you’ll just think… I really don’t think that occurred to the author, you know. I really don’t think that occurred to the director, you know, I don’t think that’s what, you know, that’s not what they’re trying to do in that episode of Friends. So yeah, I don’t know if you know what I mean by that?

Thomas  33:03

Well, there’s that classic saying, isn’t there of like, you know, the writer makes the curtains blue. And then the literature student says that’s because the writer was thinking of feelings of melancholia, and the writer just liked the colour blue. Or, you know, they were looking out and saw the sky and then just thought they’d do blue. So, there is a sort of, I mean, it’s the literature students job to delve deep and to come up with theories and to be original because, you know, it can get a bit stale if you’re all saying the same thing of like, you know, Duffy’s poem originally is about childhood. Yeah. Okay. Yeah, it is. What else can we talk about? But yeah, as you said, like, there’s a sort of reining in sometimes with some students where it’s like, I appreciate your enthusiasm. I appreciate you want to think big and wide. You’re going too far, friend. You’re going too far.

Harry Waters  33:52

Yeah. It’s nice to see how far they can go sometimes, I guess. But yeah, it’s always good to make sure they’re brought back just enough. I want to know about your award now, if that’s okay. You won an award. Congratulations, by the way. Amazing job. Tell us about your award.

Thomas  34:16

Thank you. Yes. It’s called a New Writers Award. It’s from Scottish Book Trust. They give them out every year. They give… I think it’s about four or five to fiction writers, and three to poets. And one of those is Gaelic poetry. And the other two is just normal poetry written in English. So yeah, I mean, it’s interesting because I grew up in Wales, and I love Wales, you know, it’s where I’m from. But it’s been really difficult to get any work out in Wales. And then I came to Scotland and the Scottish were just arms wide open. I guess because my surname’s Stewart they’re just like, you know, come please. And yeah, I got a lot from the connections I’ve made in Scotland and I worked at a place called Love Crumbs, another place I’m still affiliated with and do poetry readings with. So I worked at a place called Love Crumbs, which is two doors down from Golden Hare Books. And the owner of Golden Hare Books told me about this award, and was like, you should apply. Because she’d read my work. So I applied that year, didn’t get it. Applied again. And then it was COVID times and I was in my flat and I got a phone call from an unknown number. And I answer them, I’m not really sure why, but it paid off. And it was Scottish Book Trust saying that I got the award, which was really, really nice. And I just kind of stared into space for about ten minutes and silence and just burst into laughter. And yeah, the award was a year. It runs for a year. You get some money, which was very nice. I could take, like, a month and a half off work. Yeah, exactly. I… cheekily, I won the award for poetry and I spent a lot of the time finishing my novel. But then I finished a collection and a pamphlet just to make up for that. And I’m sure Scottish Book Trust won’t be angry at me.

Harry Waters  36:13

Write? It says, ‘Writer’. You were writing, you know.

Thomas  36:16

Indeed, I was writing. That’s right. Even though I won the award for poetry, but whatever, it’s fine. So yeah, I did that. And then I worked with Claire Askew, a fantastic poet and novelist, probably one of the best mentors I’ve ever had. And she and I worked on my collection, which is currently out in the world right now. We’ll see if someone takes it. And she looked at my second pamphlet, which will be out in November. So yeah, and then you get support, and you get to meet other people from Scottish Book Trust. So that was… it was really, really lovely. Yeah.

Harry Waters  36:49

So that actually brings me on to another little question. So you mentioned you weren’t… it’s difficult in Wales. Is that because in Wales they’re looking for more, kind of, Welsh poetry, like in Welsh? As opposed to in English? You know, there is like a strong pull towards Welsh. My parents and my sister all live in Wales. My nieces are in fact, both bilingual, English and Welsh. I am not. Me neither. So yeah, shame for both of us. Yeah, I don’t know if maybe, if that might be one of the reasons behind it. If they’re more searching for the, kind of, Welsh spoken poets?

Thomas  37:31

I mean, I don’t know. I mean, it could be that I took up poetry around the time I moved to Scotland… Though that’s not really true. I was working on my pamphlet before I came to Scotland. I don’t know, really. I mean, it’s not the language as such, because I know there was a big push when I was in high school that the Welsh Government pushed people to learn the language. And there was like, you know, if you have the language over someone else, you’re gonna get the job kind of thing. So there was this push, but in terms of the publishing world, I think what I just discovered was it wasn’t as active as Scotland. And I grew up in Cardiff. So it’s the capital. And I just found it really difficult. There was Literature Wales, obviously. And then there was New Welsh Review, which wasn’t very active. And since there’s been things like The Lonely Crowd, which isn’t very active. When up in Scotland, you’ve got things like Scottish Book Trust, which is like an institution to be reckoned with. You’ve got Scottish Poetry Library. You’ve got Gutter. You’ve got Extra Teeth, a new magazine. So there’s a lot more life here. I would really love to extend my connections in Wales. The publisher that has my collection at the moment is a Welsh publisher, because I address Welsh myths and my second collection is completely revolutionising… that’s a big word, rewriting. Blow my own trumpet there! Rewriting a Welsh myth. So I think interestingly, it was coming to Scotland, having the success, that a) made me really appreciate Scotland and b) reintroduced me to my roots as a Welshman.

Harry Waters  39:12

That’s awesome. Now my next question is about, again about poetry, surprisingly enough. So when I came over to Spain, I’d read… I’d tried to read Don Quixote in English, and I hated it. It was rubbish. And one of my goals when I got here was to read it in Spanish because I wanted to see if it was actually all that good. Turns out it is pretty good. But also, I’d read bits of like, Lorca. But I’d read them in English. I’d read them translated. Now, one of the things for me about poetry is 100% the way it sounds, you know. I’s rhythm, them the way it goes. And obviously in Spanish and English we speak very, very differently. You know, here we have a syllabic tone when we say absolutely every syllable of every word. Whereas in English it’s a stress tone language, as you know, you’re a teacher. So for me when I was reading these poems in other languages, I know that, you know, not all poems have to rhyme.

Thomas  40:27

Please don’t make them rhyme. But yeah.

Harry Waters  40:29

But yeah, it’s… it didn’t… they didn’t speak to me nearly as much. I felt that so much was lost in translation in poetry, and even more so than in literature. And I’ve tried, you know, looking at sonnets in Spanish, and Shakespeare doesn’t work for me in Spanish, just because it’s written in such a way. You know, the iambic pentameter, you need it, you know. It’s what… if it isn’t there, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t sound right. And I don’t want to sound like, you know, somebody who’s being stubborn, and not open-minded. But it just doesn’t speak to me in the same way. So I was wondering what your opinion was on translated poetry?

Thomas  41:18

Hmm. Well, I mean, yeah, I’ll be honest, I don’t think… I’m looking at my shelves now and I’m like, do have a lot of translated poetry on those shelves? I’m not sure that I do. I mean, there are magazines out there that are working in this world to, I guess, to make this more accessible, where you’ve got the original poem, the translated poem, and the translators in communication with the poet. So there’s something there to try and make that bridge a bit more open. But I’m inclined to agree with you just because another thing I learned when I went and did my masters was I was taught by David Van, fantastic writer. And he talked a lot about the music of language. And so much so that he told me something amazing, which is that you can chop out those little, all the little articles and prepositions we stress that our students use, and we chopped  them out. And when you do that, you sort of make a music with these words. And it’s sort of hard to explain rather than… without me actually just reading his book. But you get this kind of dum-dum, dum-dum going on with the words and it takes you almost like, you know, water rippling down, you go with it. And I don’t know if that were translated into Spanish, that that effect would be the same. I mean, I’m an incredibly ignorant person, when it comes to languages, I’d really love to learn Welsh, and Italian. Those are the two languages I want to learn before I die. I don’t know them. So I don’t know if I can speak as freely about this subject as I’d like to, but my heart’s saying there I do agree with you when we come to this idea of the music of language and the rhythm of language.

Harry Waters  43:13

Yeah. And that’s not to say that it shouldn’t be translated, because I don’t think it should in any way be like, “These are English poems. They’re just for the English!” You know, that kind of Brexit mentality. No. I’m not saying that. I’m just saying that it maybe loses something in the translation. Maybe it gains something as well, though, maybe? I don’t know if there’s a chance because, you know, for me reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. Obviously, I’ve still not read it in Spanish because I read it in English and was like… I almost swore them. That’s incredible, you know? Yeah. You know, reading Garcia Marquez is… any of his books, to be honest. They’re good enough translated. They’re better than good enough. They’re brilliant. But again, I don’t know if it is that to do with the music of language because you don’t have it as much in literature. It could be darker, I guess it depends on the poem. Well, yeah. And also I guess, just again, to agree with you, like, that’s a novel isn’t it, One Hundred Years of Solitude. And poetry really depends on that sound. As you said, not all poems have to rhyme. But a lot of poems depend on the rhythm or the sound of it. So yeah, how do you translate that? I don’t know. But I teach two translators, who are Brazilian and love One Hundred Years of Solitude, of course, and we talk a lot about the collaboration between the original writer and the translator and the challenge of translating and one of my tutors when I was doing my Masters was translating a Turkish writer. And luckily, he was alive so she could call him up being like, “What do you mean?” But there’s still that… I don’t know, I think it’s a deeper, darker challenge. Dark..? A deeper challenge when it comes to poetry.

Thomas  45:01

The Raven, you know, like how are you gonna translate that?

Harry Waters  45:05


Thomas  45:07

Very darkly!

Harry Waters  45:08

Yeah. Yeah, you’d expect so from a raven. We’ve talked a little bit about poetry. And obviously you say you’ve got a novel as well. Tell me about your novel.

Thomas  45:24

The novel. Which one do you want to know about?

Harry Waters  45:27

The good one!

Thomas  45:27

The good one. Oh God. Well… OK, the good one. Um, well, this is the one I guess that’s like, recently, an agent liked, but we’ll see. Anyway, it’s… there’s two. There are two novels. The one I worked on over lockdown, I mentioned this because of your wife’s show, which is… it features Alice from Wonderland. And it features a lot of characters that we know from books that are in the public domain. So, I’m safe for copyright, but basically I’m hesitant to talk too much about it, because I’ve been writing it since I did my undergrad, and I’m terrified that someone will find the idea and steal it. So I’ll just give you a snippet of that about… It’s basically a political fantasy with censorship and equality at the root of it. But the novel that I guess I’m free to speak about that I’ve recently finished and sent to agents, and we’ll see, is about a kleptomaniac. When I was… in 2015, a friend of mine worked on Deal or No Deal. And he messaged me saying he wanted to work on something more creative. So I wrote a short story about a sex addict, of all things. So we made this short film. And then the idea was to do a second part, which was about a drug addict. And then part three was going to be about a kleptomaniac. Didn’t happen. But the idea stayed with me. So I decided to write this story. And basically, the pitch is it’s like Breaking Bad with a kleptomaniac female lead. She steals things. And then one thing leads to another and she steals a human. And then she doesn’t know what to do with it, because she’s very ill-prepared for that challenge. And it just goes on, it goes on from there.

Harry Waters  47:20

I like that. One thing leads to another and she steals a human. It’s like, wha… there’s a few things in there haha.

Thomas  47:26

I think that’s been the thing with the novel. When I told people that, they’re all like, “How? Why? How does that happen?” And when I sent it to the agent, she said something similar. So it was getting into the nitty gritty about this character and I guess the two things that bring those two projects together is trauma and grief are huge themes in both novels, so.

Harry Waters  47:46

Fantastic. Well, I look forward to reading them, that’s for sure. So yeah, now I’d like to talk, if that’s OK, a bit more about your role. We’ve talked about how you get… not how you ‘get’ poetry into the classroom. It sounds like, you know, you’re forcing it in there. “In you come, poetry, in you come, mate!” So, we’ve talked a bit about that and, you know, the way you encourage your students to use poetry and maybe even discover their own poetry, I imagine you do. What else do you do? Other than just poetry? Because, you know, I’ve recently realised that, you know, as an English teacher, I also teach about sustainability and activism and becoming a change maker. And people often, kind of, put that hat on me as just being a sustainability guy. But I do have other hats as well. Strangely enough. So yeah, what are your other hats? And how do you wear them?

Thomas  48:50

Um, well, I’ve been, again, really fortunate with Intrepid English because Lorraine taps into all of our strengths. So she’s collected us and knows what we’re all good at. And for me, you know, I really enjoy teaching my students idioms and phrasal verbs. For me, like, you know, idioms is such a way into a culture. I was teaching idioms today and I was teaching the ‘an arm and a leg’, ‘cost an arm and a leg’. We were talking about where it came from, and how like, this theory that it came from the world wars, where people literally lost their arms and legs. So I like doing that with my students. I mean, obviously, there’s the grammar that I will teach them. It’s not my most exciting thing, although I do have a secret soft spot for prepositions. If you want a lesson on prepositions, I’m your man. But yeah, I mean, for me, it seems to be more about discussion. So a lot of my students, they come to me because we read novels together. And the way that works is, we’ll discuss what novel we’re going to read. We’ll take it in turns reading. They get to read. I get to read, so they’re practising reading and listening. We’ll talk about it. So it’s a lot of speaking. And then there’s those, kind of, concentrated lessons where we’ll talk about idioms and phrasal verbs. But yeah, that’s really where my expertise lies. And like, you know, you come to Intrepid English and you want someone to teach you the really nitty gritty grammar, you go to Lida, because she’s that person. But yeah, I think creativity, and just a kind of freedom comes with my classes, where there’s a lot of discussion and, yeah, that’s the way I do it.

Harry Waters  50:33

I love that idea of basically, you know, prescribed lessons. It sounds fantastic, because it can really allow you to help your students the way they want to be helped, you know. If they’re at work, and they’ve got presentations on, then, you know, you can switch it, you don’t just have that rigid textbook approach. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking textbooks. I like textbooks. I write textbooks. I’d be a bit of an idiot if I knocked them, but you know, they have a time and a place. And I think, as you say, with the looking at, not necessarily just idioms, but you know, I was speaking to a student a few weeks back about, you know, chunks of language. Things that we use that maybe we don’t necessarily look at as being idioms, but we use it, we use these phrases all the time, and it can really help focus in on culture. It can help focus in on, you know, certain, again, prepositions. And you can see these different areas, through looking at the language rather than looking just at the grammar, you know, and focusing on that. And when you’re reading books or reading poetry, it lends it beautifully to doing that, you know. You can find that phrase in there and you can hone in on it. There he is using a three-word phrasal verb. To hone in on something.

Thomas  52:06

Hone in on, yeah.

Harry Waters  52:07

Hahahah. So, yeah, that kind of, the more, kind of, lexical approach to things, I think is really fun, basically, as well.

Thomas  52:18

Yeah. And just, I almost see my classes as like a workshop with my students sometimes. All of us at Intrepid English, we have a different style. But we all, kind of, come together with a main ethos, which is, you know, this is here to help the student. But not just to help them with their commas and their present perfect. It’s to help them, you know, expand their mind and question and all that kind of stuff. So, we’re really trying to do that in Intrepid English. And that’s… and also what I was talking earlier about giving your student confidence. It’s my rule that if a student mispronounces something, I don’t interrupt them. I tell them at the end, because it just completely throws them off the track. And then they’re like, oh, do I want to keep reading this book now? So yeah, it’s… I’m a very laid back teacher. And that’s the way I prefer it, where there’s room for experimentation in the class. And as you said, you know, the way we look at language, it’s an immense privilege because, you know, I don’t look at language that way, but when I’m teaching it, and when I’m thinking about it, I do and it’s fun to like, you know, go for a drink with your pals who aren’t English teachers, and you mention, why do we say ‘on’ a bike, and why do we say ‘in’ a bus? And they’re like, “What?”, and I spent the whole day thinking about it, so. And also, I think the other thing is, I’m really honest with my students, where if I don’t know, I don’t know, and we’re gonna figure it out together. I’m not going to pretend that I know everything because I don’t.

Harry Waters  53:51

There is nothing worse in a teacher than that. I think one of the most empowering things that I ever had as a student was when I was studying politics and my teacher was like, “I haven’t got an answer for you, mate. But I’ll find out and I’ll get back to you”, and I was like, “What? You haven’t answered for me…? You don’t know. You’re not just gonna make something up on the spot because you’re my teacher and I’ll believe you?” It was great for me, like, as a future teacher that really made a massive difference. Now, something you mentioned there that I absolutely love when it comes to teaching and something it seems teachers are often almost forced to forget. It is too much about…  in English it’s too much about getting the exam grade, getting to the end, you know. So you know your present perfect, you know your conditionals, so you can go down, you can sit your first certificate exam. And when you get to a dependent preposition, you’ll be able to guess which one it is because you know all of the dependent prepositions, and you’ve learned them and they’re in your brain and now you know them so you’re a genius. And you know, so that’s one side of being an English teacher that’s kind of irritating. And another side is, you know, ahh we’re teaching them so they can speak English. Brilliant, yes, we are. But forgetting that, kind of, that deeper role that we have as teachers, you know, you mentioned it there, you know, about giving the confidence and empowering people. And I truly believe that every subject, every single subject should be empowering learners to do something other than just pass the exam or do really well in the Ofsted inspection. It’s so vital that, you know, maths teachers enable people to read statistics properly, or maybe help them with their taxes for when they leave, or learn a bit about financial management, because I know that when I was eighteen, and I came into, not a huge amount of money, but you know, a couple of hundred quid, my instant reaction with a couple of hundred quid is I’m going down the pub. I’m going to spend it all. I’m going to buy my mates, I don’t know, what would probably be four beers now with a couple of hundred quid. But back then, we could get at least eight. You know, I think it’s so important that the role of a teacher isn’t just to teach students but it is to empower them. It’s to help them with their general life education and not simply ticking boxes.

Thomas  56:28

Yeah, yeah. I mean, I completely agree with you. And it just made me think there’s a film I love called Mona Lisa Smile.

Harry Waters  56:35

Brilliant, brilliant.

Thomas  56:36

Oh, you know it! There you go, of course. Of course, how could you not? And I was watching it with my partner. And there’s a moment where Julia Roberts says to the class, she puts up a piece of art that isn’t in the textbook, and they have no idea what to say. And she’s like, What do you think? And then they’re rummaging through the book. And she’s like, it’s not in the book. There’s no textbook telling you what to say. Is it any good? And she’s like, you know, you can conform or you can question everything. And my partner turned to me, and he was just like, “Oh, wow, you’re this teacher, then! This is where it all started.” And I was like, “It must have done!” Because I was obsessed with it when I was a teenager. And it stayed with me since because she just is the perfect teacher. I mean, I always preferred that film from Dead Poets Society. I know it’s like blasphemy.

Harry Waters  57:28

You did not just say that out loud!

Thomas  57:29

I know. I said it out loud! It really didn’t speak to me. You know, there’s that episode in Friends where there’s this character slagging off Dead Poets Society. And I completely agree with everything she said. Like, oh, he kills himself at the end. Boohoo, he can’t be in the play. Mona Lisa Smile actually, really, that reckons with me when… yeah. But the point of this wasn’t to lay into Dead Poets Society. It was to say that, yeah, like that teacher really just sort of… and you know, the other one with Maggie Smith that I’m forgetting… Scottish… Prime of Jean Brodie. They’re those kinds of teachers that are all about their students opening their minds, questioning everything, exploring. And their job as a teacher is not to just shove all this information in their students head so they can spell it out the exam. It’s that they’ve evolved as a person. And I think without realising it, I took those lessons on and that’s exactly what I want to do as a teacher.

Harry Waters  58:27

I mean, you look back at Mona Lisa Smile and you look at that cast or you just think… They’re all massive names now, and they’re all still going strong. It’s just…

Thomas  58:41

Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal, yeah.

Harry Waters  58:44

Julia Stiles.

Thomas  58:45

Julia Stiles. How could I forget?

Harry Waters  58:47

You did forget!

Thomas  58:48

I did. Ah, what’s her name? Juliet Stevenson, as well.

Harry Waters  58:53

Dominic West.

Thomas  58:54

Oh my God, Dominic West is in it too. Yeah, there’s another actress I’ve forgotten Marsha. Marsha Gay-something. I can’t remember what her last name is but she’s  like the woman who’s in charge of the house that Julia Roberts stays at.

Harry Waters  59:07

There you go.

Thomas  59:08

Fantastic film.

Harry Waters  59:09

It is really good. And yeach. Imagine if that was like, I don’t know, in your teacher training that you had to watch that.

Thomas  59:18

It should be. It literally should be.

Harry Waters  59:19

Yeah, just in CELTA training or something. You know, you’ve got your books that you need to read, which you know, read Shriveller, read Jeremy Harmer, go and watch Mona Lisa Smile! But that’s a homework, you know, I could get down with. I wouldn’t have to go home and sit there just reading through endless grammar books and books about how to teach and just, you know, sit there and zone out for a bit and zone in while I’m zoning out. But, we’ll be back in a couple of moments to talk more. Don’t you worry. More poetry, more from Tom. We’ll be back very shortly. Stay where you are. And we’ll hear you in a second.

—- Commercial Break —-

Harry Waters  1:02:44

OK, we are back forthe last half an hour. First, I’m going to praise Thomas on using a reusable water bottle there. I believe in praising sustainable behaviour. So good job there. I actually have a jar with my water in it. I don’t have glasses anymore. It’s quite sad. My wife said to me the other day, do you reckon we could maybe get some glasses? Where we’ve got jars, haven’t we? Aren’t they cool enough?

Thomas  1:03:12

Buy some more jam. You know, use it, wash it out!

Harry Waters  1:03:14

Exactly. That’s it. We’ve got them. We’ve got them all. It’s funny actually, because for her for one of her mother’s day presents, my daughter decorated a jar that we then grabbed some of our roses from the garden and put them in there. So yeah, if you’re looking for upcycling classroom ideas, there you go. Jars all the way. just throw it in there. Completely relevant to our conversation. So Thomas, we’ve talked a bit about poetry, classrooms, writing. I wanted… We mentioned, sorry, about our attitudes towards poetry when we were younger. Now, I want you to imagine you have a teenager comes into your classroom and you talk about poetry and they just come up with, you know, “It’s just a bunch of old dead white guys.” Who would you point them in the direction of first to make them realise it isn’t?

Thomas  1:04:10

Well my heart just said Lucille Clifton. Lucille Clifton, Lucille Clifton, Lucille Clifton, always. She is amazing. But then, of course, I would kind of think about the student. I mean, I actually had this class where it was a group of Spanish, Italian girls. Fifteen, sixteen. And I gave them Nikita Gil’s poem called Difficult Damsels. And the whole poem is like, you know, breaking up that idea of a damsel. And they just didn’t respond to it at all. It was just like, whatever, like water off a duck’s back. So I think part of me will be like, OK, what are your interests? But if I didn’t know that and didn’t have that knowledge, and to think of someone who’s universal and great and kind of breaks that myth, then yeah, Lucille Clifton. All the way. I mean, she wrote a six part poem imagining God and Lucifer as brothers. And a lot of her work, kind of, goes back to the Bible, but completely changes it. So you know, there’s like, a poem that I love is like a report from an angel about Eden. Essentially an angel goes down and checks out Eden and then replies back to God. And the angel is really tempted. This is like, kind of, post-the fall. But the angel is really tempted by how they’re just dancing around and they’re free. And it subverts what we associate with the fall. So yeah, I think Lucille Clifton, definitely. I mean, she is a Black poet that was writing in the sixties. She worked with Toni Morrison, who was her editor. Yeah, that’s who I would say. And then I would also say Danez Smith, who’s alive today, and is writing about Black Lives Matter, about, you know, police brutality, about all of the things that we are experiencing. And I think it’s naive to think that kids aren’t aware of this stuff. Actually, part of my essay for my dissertation was arguing that kids want darkness in their fiction. They don’t want to be pampered. Roald Dahl.

Harry Waters  1:06:19

They need darkness. Let’s be honest. They need some darkness. It can’t all just be, you know, rainbows and unicorns.

Thomas  1:06:29

Absolutely. I mean…

Harry Waters  1:06:30

Not, not rainbows and unicorns, by the way.

Thomas  1:06:32

No! Everyone loves a rainbow unicorn, and unicorns can be dark, but Roald Dahl never patronised his audience, and his audience were children. And you look at something like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It’ss literally a slasher film. They get picked off one by one. And it’s brilliant. And you know, if you’re a nasty person, you get punished. It’s just, that’s what kids need. And yeah, that’s what I would say.

Harry Waters  1:06:59

The Twits as well, obviously. They have a nice comeuppance, don’t they? I’ll tell you what, though, Witches absolutely scared the living daylights out of me when I was a young ‘un. I remember reading it just like… I was turning the page. I was trying to look away when I was reading it. You know, I was about eight reading that. I just thought everyone was a witch after that. I was checking people’s shoes for the squared-off toes.

Thomas  1:07:03

Ah, my God. Ah yeah. I mean, The Witches is one of my favourite books ever. When I was a kid, all I wanted to be was a witch. I remember leaving my copy of The Witches out in the rain. And I cried because the pages were wrinkled, never be the same again. But I don’t think anyone watched the film as a kid and didn’t want to like, you know, jump out of a window. I remember running behind the sofa and then coming back being like, no, no, I’m gonna do this. Let’s go. And then two seconds later, Angelica Houston is pulling her face off and I’m running behind the curtain again. This is why I won’t watch this new version with Anne Hathaway. It’s a complete joke. Throw it in the bin. I’m not going to go near it. But yeah, I mean, I’ve said this to people. The Witches is essentially the most tense thing ever. You’ve got one kid in a room with like a hundred witches. It’s the most terrifying premise for a book ever, so.

Harry Waters  1:08:25

It really, really is. It’s fantastic. And yeah, now I want to know, what is a poet? You know, we talked about all of these famous poets. You know, we haven’t mentioned Benjamin Zephaniah, of course, who’s another one who is great for hooking people into poetry, as it were. But what is a poet? Who… like? What’s the difference, for example, between… you know, would you say, Eminem is a poet?

Thomas  1:08:54

Oh, OK. That’s an interesting question. I’ll come to the Eminem point in a second. But I think… what’s a poet? It really comes down to the poet because if I changed that into ‘writer’, which was what I was always more comfortable with until poetry, sort of, took off. I kind of saw like, you know, ‘Poet’s is the poets with a capital ‘P’ and me as the ‘poet’ with the baby ‘p’. But really, I mean, like, for me, being a poet meant being published. And I know for other people, that isn’t what it means at all. Being a poet can mean writing poems. Or simply, you know, being in that world. It really depends on the person. My definition of what a poet is, for me, not for other people is publishing poems, being active in poetry, reading contemporary poetry, which I think is hugely important. And doing the work really. Stephen King said, you know, you want to be a writer?  Write a lot and read a lot. There’s nothing more you can do, you know, just do the work. And I’ve met a lot of poets over my time that don’t want to do the work, they just want to, you know, publish that thing and it will be out there. And that’s it. They’re a poet. Tick. For me being a poet is continuing it. You keep going. And then re. Eminem. I don’t know. Because I mean, I was reading June Jordan and she responds to Eminem, quite scathingly in her poem. But the question then is, you know, is rap poetry? Yes. Is music poetry in its own way? Yes. I think like these, these forms borrow from each other. So it’s not me to shout down that Eminem isn’t a poet. My heart says no, but if he wants to call himself a poet, who am I to tell him he’s not a poet? It’s really up to the individual, is what I say.

Harry Waters  1:10:50

Because yeah, when I look at rap, and you know… so even, you know, rap rock, I’m a huge Rage Against the Machine fan. And when I think of, you know, Zack de la Rocha I think, you know, when you read his words, you know, maybe not when you’re listening to it, but certainly when you read the words, there’s so much poetry in there. You know, it’s… and so much of it’s true, even to this day, which is kind of scary. You know, the things that they wrote in 1992, still relevant. We’ve got a comment here saying, “Oh, why isn’t Eminem a poet? He writes and publishes poetry, doesn’t he? I’m confused.”

Thomas  1:11:30

Right? I mean, that was just me being mean against Eminem. I never really liked him. Like, you know, I was at school, and I liked listening to classic music, and I wasn’t allowed because I was a boy, and I had to like Eminem. So Eminem was just kind of shoved down my throat. So I have a beef with him. I’m sorry. He is a poet. I’m gonna say he is for you, whoever you are.

Harry Waters  1:11:51

It’s Tom who said that, actually, a fellow Tom. Another Tom. Yeah, I… because I do like Eminem. And I’m a big fan of quite a lot of rap. And yeah, it seems to me that it could be classed as poetry. But again, I’m not a poet. So I wouldn’t want to…

Thomas  1:12:14

No but I’m gonna say he is. Just talking, to agree with what you just said, you know, like Scott Hutchinson, lead singer of Frightened Rabbit, Scottish musician, was a tremendous poet. And it came through the form of songs. Florence and the Machine. I’ve got her collection that she’s calling poems, but they’re lyrics to her songs. And as you said, you know, there’s so much poetry within them that who am I to say that they’re not?

Harry Waters  1:12:46

There you go. There’s nothing I like more than somebody who’s willing to not just stick by what they said, because they said it. But to sort of think, you know what? I’m not saying that you’re admitting you’re wrong. But you’re seeing another side of the coin, which is just really, really refreshing to see, to be honest. Really, really nice to hear. So I appreciate that very much. And yeah, moving back to the classroom again. You know, as you say, you teach mostly one-to-one classes, and it is, kind of, a form of coaching as well as teaching. Like in the same area, as I believe teaching should be. That’s my personal opinion. I don’t think it is just the nuts and bolts of passing exams and stuff. But yeah, how… I’m trying to think of a regular way of saying this. How do you approach each of your classes? So, you know, it is like, each of, most of your classes are tailored and one-to-one. So how would you approach for example, a businessman in Saudi Arabia? How would you approach that class differently to an Italian teenager who’s in Scotland?

Thomas  1:14:10

Um, well, I mean, if they don’t want poetry or literature in their classes, then they don’t get introduced. I’m not going to force the businessman to read Wanda Coleman, even though I think he should. But I’m not going to force him to because really with Intrepid English it’s like, what do you want from us? And that’s what we’re providing. And a lot of the time we have students that want to extend, you know, their business skills. And as you were saying, like their presentation skills. And I can do that, that’s fine. So I wouldn’t do that with that person, basically. I do have students that are from a business world and do want to explore literature with me. And that’s cool. But when it comes to the teenager, I guess… Yeah, OK, so there’s two answers. One is like it comes down to if they want to. Say, hypothetically, the businessman did, then it’s really just like I was saying about The Raven student, like tapping into what they like, but then also giving them something a little bit out there. So you know, that student that liked The Raven likes Gothic stuff. But I gave them Harlem by Langston Hughes, which is not Gothic at all. It’s all about the American dream and racism and protest. And a huge discussion came from it. And I think the reason I did that is because I was like that students gonna respond to it. I’ve spent enough time with them. I know they’re going to have some response to it. And that’s what I would do with the businessman, which actually reminded me of something I wanted to say at the beginning of our chat, which is poetry… when we were speaking about getting it and not getting it. I was talking about Interstellar, you know, Christopher Nolan’s film, the other day.

Harry Waters  1:15:56

It’s so good.

Thomas  1:15:57

I’ve seen it once. And I was saying it to my friend who’s watched it a few times. And I was like, the way I feel about that film is I feel like it’s poetry. Because I don’t completely get it, but I have an emotional response to it. And I get something from it. And I feel like it’s the kind of thing that I’ll go back in and I’ll get more from it, just like when you reread a poem. So yeah, just wanted to throw that in there, just to go back to our chat.

Harry Waters  1:16:23

Yeah, yeah. So there are a lot of different ways that you approach it so you’re using it like, predominantly, you know, for a connection. And of course, for language, you know, as you mentioned, with the protest, and those kinds of things, it’s going to really help engage your students. I had a previous guest, as I’ve mentioned in the past, who is also a poet. He’s also a performance poet, and a rapper, and all sorts of other things as well. He wears many hats, within poetry. But yeah, what he does with one of the big things he does with his poetry and his, kind of, workshops, basically, he goes into two different schools. And with the kids, they work through, you know, they will write a haiku, or they’ll… you know, all sorts of different things that they can do. But it’s all about writing for, kind of, mindfulness, you know. So it’s not necessarily delving deep into the depths of mental health, but more as kind of a release from the problems you can encounter with mental health, you know. So a way of not bottling everything up inside, a way of getting everything out there, a way of, like, releasing. And I went to one of his sessions, and it’s called a de-tension session. Detention, de-tension. Play on words, as well there. And I found like, there were moments where writing can just do that. It can just, you can let everything out. So I don’t know if if with your students, you’ve ever tried this approach? And if maybe you’ve suggested that they try it in their own language first? Or, I don’t know.

Thomas  1:18:10

I mean, it’s certainly happened. I mean, it’s something that the students know it’s there. Because the big thing in my approach is creating that safe space and that trust, so we can have these conversations. Because, you know, it’s not an easy thing to talk about discrimination and protests and stuff unless you’re comfortable speaking with the other person. So the students know that it’s there. And it has happened in the past. And I think what I communicate to my students is, by putting something into words, you’re having control over it. So if you’ve got mental health issues, and you’re writing about it, there’s a way of putting it into words, there’s a way of making it real. And therefore if it’s real, it’s not as abstract as it is in your head. You can almost hold it, like on a piece of paper. And I think that’s hugely important, so I always encourage my students to do it. I don’t necessarily encourage them to do it in the class because I don’t want to overstep, but they know they can. And as I said, it has happened. And we’ve talked about it and gone down that road. Basically, yeah, like, as I said, the students lead always with me. So if the student wants to talk about mental health, and they want to write about mental health, I’m here for it.

Harry Waters  1:19:26

Yeah. Something that I really loved about this, you know, he doesn’t necessarily go in and say, “Hey, everybody, we’re going to talk about sad things that have happened and you know, we’re gonna get through this.” And what he does is encourage a love of poetry. You know, he goes in there, he takes in his guitar, his loop pedal, and it becomes this whole performance to engage students and yeah, he does, like, blackout poetry. You know, where you have like a, I’m sure you know what it is for. For anybody who’s listening that doesn’t, you have a text and you black out the words that you don’t want and you leave the words that you do want in there to create your poem. And yeah, just some of these ideas I found incredibly useful as an English teacher to be able to do that, because you really can then hone in very closely on the language that, let’s say you’re doing a SCE reading part two, about the workings of the inner ear. And is that boring, because let’s be honest, quite often, that kind of stuff is maybe not the most interesting material in the world, but something they have to use. And using those activities and doing that, and then saying to your students, you know, you just did poetry. I don’t know if it’s something that you would like to do in the classroom, if it’s something you have done in the classroom?

Thomas  1:20:50

It’s something… I mean, it’s not something I’ve done in the classroom, it’s something I’ve done myself, as in blackout poetry. I find it really difficult. I remember I read the newspaper once, and I was just fumbling around. And all I could write was, ‘I love pasta.’ That’s all I came out with it. I’m not a blackout poetry guy. I mean, I play to my strengths. And a lot of the way I do is the way I work. So I read a lot of poetry and that inspires me. And I listen to a lot of music, and film. Those are the three things that kind of… because I’m a very visual writer as well. I can see it as I’m writing it. And those are the tools that I use with my students. Of course, we can experiment. And a lot of the time, as I say, if the student wants to come to me and say, I want to play around with this, then we’ll do it. But what I fall back on is, here’s a poem. ‘Butter’ was the one that we read recently. I can’t remember the poet’s name. But she, she read at Obama’s presidential… when he was sworn in. She was one of the poets. And her writing is incredible. And we just used that poem about food, about memory, which opened the door to food and memory. And the students weren’t writing poems about butter, but they were writing poems about their memories and their food. And that’s the way I work. And like, I’ve done exercises where we listen to music, and we just think about it. Yeah, that’s how I usually work based on how I work as a poet versus as a writer.

Harry Waters  1:22:21

Well, yeah. There’s no point going unnecessarily comfortable. But sometimes going out of your comfort zone is nice, and like you say, with blackout poetry, I think some for me, I’d find it really hard to do. But in the hands of a twelve year old Spanish kid, I think, I don’t know if that might make it easier for them because they have to use the language that’s there. They don’t have to invent anything new. Like I can understand, you know, listening to music, whatever inspires you or, you know, reading a poem and seeing where it takes you. But giving them like, these are the words that you’re going to need to use, you’re gonna need to turn them into some form of poem. I don’t know, for me, it just seems really appealing. But I do… I’m a huge fan of the music one, and not even just a music one, like you said about the birds earlier on. It’s an activity I do with with my class that I have, you know. We just we sit in the garden, and we listen, you know, whatever we can hear. So you know, we can hear running water, or we can hear the birds or we can hear a car go past. And then, you know, we work on that. And the easiest thing for me is to go with haiku. I think it’s something again Dave gave to me, this idea of writing a haiku before you go to bed. Just about what you’ve done. It’s almost as a journal, you know, you’re only writing down fifteen words. Ish. You know, you’re writing your three lines. Just summarising your day with that. It’s a nice, kind of, way of journaling at the end of the day. And it’s it’s a way to encourage, I find particularly teenage students to do something. Because, you know, you tell them to go home and write a poem, they’re like ‘nah’. They ‘ain’t writing a poem. It’s gonna take me more than three minutes. And I only have three minutes because I’ve got TikTok to watch. We all have TikTok to watch, come on. So yeah, that idea of like putting a haiku down just before you go to bed with what you felt that day and, you know, what’s happened that day, is again, almost like a release, as it were.

Thomas  1:24:35

Yeah, I mean, I think the prompt I like to use is the ‘take the last word of a novel and treat it as the first’. To continue, and as you were speaking about, you know, giving the students the words, that kind of thing. Or, you know, give them the opening line. ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ Where do they go with that, kind of thing? So, yeah, there’s something to kind of, you know, getting the wheels going and then pushing them off, kind of thing. And that’s, as you were saying, blackout poetry sustains that. It gives that.

Harry Waters  1:25:08

Amazing. Well, then, Thomas. It’s been a pleasure, I want to say thank you for giving me your time today. I feel like I’ve learnt a lot. I’m looking forward to reading your pamphlets, that’s for sure. I should have done it before we came on, to be honest, but I didn’t. Um, I’m gonna be honest, you know.

Thomas  1:25:28

You’re busy. You’ve got things to do.

Harry Waters  1:25:31

People have things to do. It is true. I do have a fairly hectic time coming up very shortly. But anyway, I did, you know, read about you in other places that I could find. So yeah, I would love to read your pamphlet. And when your novels are available, let me know because they sound different.

Thomas  1:25:52

Yeah, that’s the problem. They’re too different. But one day someone will like that difference.

Harry Waters  1:25:56

Exactly. One day that difference will be… you know, nobody liked Harry Potter at first. I’m not saying you’re gonna write the next Harry Potter, because you don’t have to. That’s one of those things, one of those books that I was talking about earlier that has… There is so much, like, fandom. There are so many people, like, picking into it with a fine tooth comb saying, “This is what she was thinking here. This is what she was thinking here.” I don’t know if it’s just me that things maybe for some of those books, I don’t think she was thinking at all. She was just like, “I’ve got to write another one! I’ve got to get it out now! Oh, there’s a deadline. There’s a deadline!” Just throwing down as many words as she can. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind Harry Potter at all. My daughter is a huge fan. It got so many people reading again. I don’t like her as a human, although she does pay her taxes. which is nice. She pays taxes. She was the first author billionaire. But, I’m not expecting you to be the next JK Rowling. In fact I hope you don’t become the next JK Rowling.

Thomas  1:27:07

I hope I don’t become the next JK Rowling.

Harry Waters  1:27:08

Yes, she’s not a good person. But yeah. So that idea of I hope somebody does see your books for their worth. And good luck with that. Good luck with with all you’re doing and the people you continue to empower. Continue to do so. Don’t stop empowering. Also, don’t stop believing.

Thomas  1:27:36

Any more?

Harry Waters  1:27:41

Find another lyric that I can chuck in there!

Thomas  1:27:43

Don’t stop… something.

Harry Waters  1:27:45

Don’t stop moving to the funky, funky beat. That’s an S Club 7 one, sang that, didn’t they?

Thomas  1:27:50

Ahh! Yeah. Once upon a time.

Harry Waters  1:27:51

Yeah. Don’t stop moving to the S Club beat. There you go. And there is some true poetry for you. S Club 7.

Thomas  1:27:59

As we were talking about Eminem, S Club 7 are poets. All of them. Each and every one. Spice Girls. Poets.

Harry Waters  1:28:06

They definitely wrote all of their own lyrics. Without a shadow of a doubt. They maybe wrote one lyric in the whole thing.

Thomas  1:28:07

That one line.

Harry Waters  1:28:10

One word. Yeah. So yeah, it’s been lovely. It’s been a pleasure. I will be continuing to follow you on your journey into poetry and beyond. So yeah, it’s been a pleasure.

Thomas  1:28:31

It has, yeah. Thank you very much for having me. Nice to talk to you.

Harry Waters  1:28:33

An absolute joy. Yes.

Thomas  1:28:36

Have a good evening.

Harry Waters  1:28:37

I’ll do my best. Thank you, everybody for listening. It’s been wonderful. I’ll be back in a few weeks. As you know, I’m off on various adventures, here, there and everywhere. So thank you very much for being here. Thank you very much for listening. I’ll see you in a few weeks. Ooh, at a new time, remember.


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