As part of the Engage! Young Arts Professionals project, a group of young people from across Norfolk visited a literature festival in Krakow UNESCO City of Literature. They were joined on the trip by Lewis Buxton, a poet, producer and workshop-leader who shares with us his experience of being enthralled, intimidated and inspired in equal measures by this talented bunch of social activists.
You know when someone tells you about a dream they had, and it’s so absurd that you can’t possibly understand it? That’s how I feel trying to tell anyone about the recent Engage trip to Poland with the National Centre for Writing’s Young Arts Professionals. There were 14 young people on the trip, all with a new and surprising story crammed into their carry-on luggage. And it was my job for the weekend to be in loco parentis slash poet-in-residence. The trip began at 8am on Friday, the National Centre for Writing’s reception over taken by an ocean of bags and coats. I’d been having nightmares all week about students being late, wandering off at the airport, getting lost in Krakow, but every single one of them was an absolute dream, listening to us and looking out for each other.
There are so many stories I want to tell about the weekend. Tom’s unfaltering ability to fall asleep on any form of public transport; Joel’s thoughtful conversation at breakfast about the difference between hotels and hostels; Ellie’s courage through toothache and Gracie’s bravery through her first time on a plane; Maud, Martha, Taryn & Thilda’s resilient revising for A-Levels on uncomfortable airport furniture, their inability to be ignored in tie dye dungarees, bleached blonde hair & fierce intelligence; Billy’s quick wit and kind eyes; Bea showing anyone who will look photos of her oddly flexible cat; Nicky’s rolled up jeans hovering just above the wet Polish streets; Hayden hovering on the edge of the girl’s dormitory after being asked to take a photo of them in situ but refusing to enter, and explaining to me later that as the youngest of five children he had to learn to respect bedroom boundaries; Amelia & Grace intimidating a twenty six year old poet and literature graduate with how much they have read. But trying to tell all these stories is like trying to tell someone about a dream you had, they are all too wonderful and blurred in my memory to do them credit.
So I will tell you about our visit to the Villa Decius, a writers’ retreat on the edge of Krakow with a four-hundred-year history, but most recently regenerated by the Nobel prize winning Polish writer Wisława Szymborska. After a tour we met representatives of the Krakow Engage group: Basha, Victoria & Magda. Throughout the visit and the workshop, I kept remembering something Symboska said: I prefer the absurdity of writing poems to the absurdity of not writing poems. It seems absurd to me that I was lucky enough to take these 14 phenomenal young people away for a weekend to talk about poetry and culture and fashion and art and Poland and football and veganism and disability and authenticity and gender and politics and climate change and anxiety. But a life spent doing anything else now seems absurd: returning to Norwich, to bank holiday Mondays and Match of the Day and the fact that at least one member of my immediate social group is not wearing tie dye dungarees.
In a time when Europe is so painfully divided, there is nothing more hopeful than seeing young people from different worlds talking and writing together. The Young Arts Professionals have organized a festival of social activism. It takes place Saturday 11 May and is a celebration of all they have learnt and all they hope for in the future. It irritates me when old people tell young people they feel okay about the world because young people give them hope. It feels like an undue amount of pressure to put on them, like slinging a hold-all full of rocks over their shoulders. So what I’m most hopeful about is working with these young people. How they will become my contemporaries, my colleagues, my friends. How because of the connections we made last weekend the world could become that absurd, dreamy, positive place.
Lewis Buxton is a poet, producer & workshop leader. Coming from a family of teachers, his work is concerned with fathers and sons, how we learn gender roles, and how young men’s image of their bodies fit into the modern world. His poems have appeared in Ambit Magazine, Oxford Poetry and Ink, Sweat and Tears. In 2017 he was shortlisted for the Oxford Brookes International Poetry Prize. He has headlined stages at The Roundhouse, The Olympic Park, The Royal Festival Hall and the Norwich Arts Centre. His poems have been commissioned by organisations like The Tate, First Story, Nationwide Building Society as well as gaining thousands of hits on YouTube and Facebook.
He is the director and co-founder of TOAST Poetry, an organisation dedicated to the professional development of poets. He teaches creative writing in schools, libraries and universities around the country. In 2017 he was one of The Poetry School’s Mixed Borders Poets and was poet-in-residence at Alexandra Road Park in London.
Engage! is a collaborative project between four UNESCO cities of literature around Europe – Barcelona (Spain), Krakow (Poland), Växjö (Sweden) and Norwich (UK) funded by the European Union under the Creative Europe fund and supported by Pen Catala.