103: Poetry, Schooling, and Flourishing Creativity w/ Joshua Seigal


18 min read

Podcast available here.

Joshua Seigal:

Outside the classroom the other day, a little boy came up to me and tugging at the hem of my garment, asked how do I be a success like you? And I didn't know what to say. You see, I've never thought of myself that way, because after GCSE's A levels and two degrees, society does not tend to see reading poetry to kids as a natural progression. And sometimes it feels like I'm not listening in the lesson, like this isn't proper work or the kinds of thing a man should be doing. My parents tell me that I'm better than that, that this isn't a proper job. That of course giving kids the joy of words is no bad thing, but to leave it to someone else and to go out there and be someone. Wear a suit, son. Commute, son. And of course we read poems and books to you, son. But this was not an end in itself at no point did we dream that one day you'll be doing such a thing for anyone other than your own kids.

Joshua Seigal:

What are you? A glorified bloody babysitter? And so, the bitter taste at the back of my throat, when the boy asked, how do I be a success like you, arose from not believing it to be true. It arose from skulking in the shadows of people my age on 80 K a year. Of people my age, their own flats and cars. And even of the bloke at the bar who upon being told that I work with children, drunkenly, snorts, "Pervert." As though that could be the only excuse for a man wanting to do such a thing. It's arose from having memorized the lines of a play in which I play no part. But no, through that boy's eyes I saw myself and knew. So, to the boy who asked me, how do I be a success like you, I say this.

Joshua Seigal:

Believe that what you are doing is worthwhile. Believe that anyone who doubts you is mistaken. Tell yourself every day that you can be whatever you want to be. Tell yourself that success is not just reading from someone else's script, but believing what you say, or even better writing the words yourself and know that what counts is not whether you've spelled them correctly or whether they're in the right order, but that they are yours. Success does not come in manuals. Success is not flat pack furniture and you know what? Success certainly doesn't come from listening to poems about what success is. So, son, do it your way. Don't listen to what I say.

Nick Covington:

Hello and welcome to episode 103 of our podcast at the Human Restoration Project. My name is Nick Covington, and I'm a social studies teacher from Ankeny, Iowa. Before we get started, I wanted to let you know that this is brought to you by our supporters. Three of whom are Julie Wolver Judkins, Trent M Kirkpatrick and Aubrey Holliman. Thank you for your ongoing support. You can learn more about the Human Restoration Project on our website, humanrestorationproject.org, or find us on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

Nick Covington:

My guest today whose work you heard in the intro is highly acclaimed award-winning professional poet, performer, and educator, Joshua Seigal, who uses poetry to develop literacy skills and inspire confidence and creativity in communication. He has worked in hundreds of schools, libraries, theaters and festivals around the world, had books published by Bloomsbury and other major publishers, and has written and performed for BBC television. Joshua Seigalhas recently been awarded the 2020 Laugh Out Loud book award for, I Bet I Can Make You Laugh and shortlisted for the 2021 people's book prize for Yapping Away. In this episode, I talk to Joshua about his journey from academia to poetry, as well as his own experiences attending British schools and the perspective he has on them now as an adult. And of course, we get a bit of a poetry reading near the end. I should add that I recorded this at home with a very busy three and a half year old, who you may hear throughout the episode. Thank you, Joshua, for being very gracious during an otherwise chaotic recording on my end. I hope you enjoy the episode.

Joshua Seigal:

Yeah, so, it's a really interesting journey. I've been a professional poet, believe it or not, for about 10 years. And it's really difficult to trace back the steps and connect the dots in terms of how I got to do that. I think what happens initially was when I was at school myself, I wasn't massively into poetry. I think I've always enjoyed words and word play and writing, but I decided to go into academia, initially. So, I did a degree in philosophy, and then I did a postgraduate degree. And during those studies, which I guess we can talk about a little bit later in the conversation, but I developed some quite brutal mental health issues. And I really found that writing creatively and fitting words together in interesting ways was a really, really helpful way of dealing with the stress of my studies.

Joshua Seigal:

And then eventually ... I was just writing for fun, for myself ... and one day, and this was when it was just after my postgraduate degree when I loved writing and I discovered performance poetry as well, but I had no idea that it was even a possibility as a job. But then I read an interview in a local newspaper with a professional poet and he talked about the work he did visiting schools. And I thought, you know what? That's what I could do. So, I looked him up, I sent an email and he invited me to come along and meet him and see what he did. And I thought, this is exactly what I want to do. And initially, I was not able to do it.

Joshua Seigal:

It took a long while before I was able to make a living off that, but that's how the bull started rolling. And I made myself a website on Wix. They're not paying me to say that, by the way, but they're the people I used for my website. And initially, I just started calling up all the schools in the local area and just asking if I could come and visit and share my poems. And I think one in about a hundred schools said yes. And again, that got the journey kicked off. And along the way, I got books published and social media, which you mentioned at the beginning, has ... well increasingly so since the pandemic, but it's been absolutely crucial for me. It's enabled me to meet people and connect with people and share my work. As you'll know, I post a lot of my work on the socials. So, yeah, and you mentioned the awards.

Joshua Seigal:

The awards was for something called the Laugh Out Loud Award, and it's awarded every year to the funniest children's book and it's by the public. So, it was really special to me to win that. And that was actually, I remember it because it was a month before the first lockdown. So, that would be February, 2020. So, that was really special.

Nick Covington:

It's interesting how that time becomes a milestone in our head. Isn't it? That March 2020, there's a pre and post. So, you can date yourself from that. It's so weird. Speaking to your experience though, in that world of academia, we kind of hear, and I've heard from, from my own friends and colleagues too, who have moved between careers, that's a pretty common theme, struggling with mental health, perhaps purpose and stuff in those institutions. And then through maybe the power of relationships or mentoring is maybe what it sounds like in your circumstance there, I'm getting involved in what you perceive as being, this new, powerful, purposeful work. So, I wonder then too, if so many of our interactions have been around those issues, we don't have to necessarily speak to intelligence testing and all those other questions just yet, but I want to know just generally about your experiences in the British education system, perhaps is a younger person before your secondary collegiate university level stuff. Because I think through social media, we get such a narrow lens of what that looks like. So, I'm really curious about your experiences with that.

Joshua Seigal:

Yeah, well, you did briefly mention intelligence and I think that is been a crucial facet of my mental health journey. My own schooling, my experience of the British system is not at all representative. So, my parents actually paid for me to go to, we call them private schools ... we say public schools, which means you've got to pay for them. But when you say public schools, that means it's free. Is that correct?

Nick Covington:

Yep, yep, yep.

Joshua Seigal:

So, basically my parents paid for me to attend school. So, I had what would be called a privileged education. And throughout my schooling, grades and exams and passing exams was of absolute paramount importance. It, the whole system that I was part of was geared towards getting into a good university and from then on, you know, getting a job with, which makes lots of money. That's what, that's the message that I kind of imbibed from the education system. And somewhere along the line, I internalized the notion that intelligence is what defines human worth. And ever since I've been in my early twenties, my journey since then has been a deprogramming of that notion. And I've learned a hell of a lot about ... as I've progressed on that journey, I've learned a lot more than the average non-specialist in intelligence testing and what intelligence is.

Joshua Seigal:

And I don't know whether you want to go into that at all, but I've worked, and through the work I do, especially, I know that there's no correlation between intelligence and what you might call lovability, you know, being worthy of love. And that's been, again, we don't need to go into this necessarily, but I'm very interested in psychoanalysis. So, that might be a slightly, you know, the idea of love and being worthy of love is quite a deep topic, shall we say? But yeah, my journey with the education system, when I was in education, that's what it was like. My role in education at the moment, it's fairly self selective in the sense that the schools that invite a poet in are, by their very nature schools that are amenable to having a poet in. So, they tend to have a fairly progressive bent to them. They tend to be schools who are willing to look at creativity and mental health, the schools that aren't interested in that, I don't have much experience of other than through Twitter.

Nick Covington:

No, I would love it if you could unpack perhaps your own journey in that I had pulled so many of the Twitter conversations that we do get involved in start with that seed of intelligence or testing, and those kinds of things, and a frequent comment from you is like, if you were assessed purely on those, those tests or those in intelligence tests, that is not a measure perhaps of your success, or even of the way that you feel about yourself, and yet it is the way that we measure kids in so many different circumstances. So, yeah, feel free to go into that a little bit more in your journey.

Joshua Seigal:

It's interesting, because I have taken IQ tests and I don't do that well. Well, again, this is going into the technicalities of the tests, but there's nonverbal elements and verbal elements. And I do well in the verbal stuff because that's my job and words and language is my life. But I can't do the, those logic, the bits with the shapes and all of that stuff. I'm just awful at that. And the notion that someone's performance on that kind of test defines their subsequent trajectory is just terrible. And not only that, I've actually got experience ... Well, I spent a few years running a weekly club. This was when I was a resident, a resident poet in a school. And the club was a weekly lunch club for students with, I don't know whether you'd define them as disabilities or learning needs, shall we say?

Joshua Seigal:

And when you work with poetry, it just opens up an avenue to be so imaginative and creative and express such deep feeling and notions and ideas that are just totally uncorrelated to how a student might perform in a standardized test. And I've got real firsthand experience of that disconnection. So, it is something I feel passionate about.

Nick Covington:

Even that notion of the IQ, the intelligence quotient, somehow refers to your capacity for goodness and so often we translate that into the capacity for value or your worth or what you had called that lovability too. I think, when I think of kids writing poetry too, I think of the lens through my own children, but a little while ago there was this poem going around from this student, and I don't know what the context or this book is. Maybe you have seen this, it's from a student, I'm assuming it's Nile, it's called The Tiger, And I don't know if you've seen this.

Joshua Seigal:

Yes. Let me see if I can recite that off by heart. I think it goes, "The tiger has escaped its cage ... " No. "The tiger, he destroyed his cage. Yes, yes. The tiger is out."

Nick Covington:

That's it to a T. Oh, I love it. And, and just the-

Joshua Seigal:

I'll spend the rest of my career trying to outdo that and probably fail.

Nick Covington:

Exactly. And it's so interesting that just, this is not a six year old who has been trained in the art of words or poetry or meter or rhythm and rhyme. And yet it contains all of those things and is just so pure. And I loved just seeing the joy that people had from sharing, adults sharing that in mass, just this most pure form of that. I even saw somebody who had gotten that tattooed on themselves and-

Joshua Seigal:

Oh, that's incredible. Yeah, that's amazing.

Nick Covington:

That's amazing. Yeah. And just a Testament to the power of expressiveness. Here, we might think a six year old doesn't have a lot to say or even to contribute. And yet here's this thing that they've produced, from the purity of their own experience just through the joy of the words. I mean, there's what? Maybe a dozen words throughout that whole poem. And yet it's resonating with so many people who ... adults in London can recite it by heart. I want to find Nile and talk to that young student, see where they're at.

Joshua Seigal:

I wonder if he's got any idea about that, the fact it's resonated beyond his own book. I wonder if he knows it's been shared so widely, that would be really interesting to find out too.

Nick Covington:

Yeah. I want to do a where-are-they-now for Nile age six, The Tiger poem and get

Joshua Seigal:

Yeah, get him on the podcast.

Nick Covington:

Yeah, exactly. And I wonder too, what is the impact of having peaked at age six like that? Like, if Nile went on for a career as a poet, you just know I'm going to be walking in the shadow of The Tiger for the rest of my life.

Joshua Seigal:

That would be the title of his autobiography, walking in the shadow of The Tiger.

Nick Covington:

Walking in the shadow of The Tiger, yes. That's great. So, I think, then, thinking, I love the perspective that you might have then again, thinking of yourself as a young adult and then in your collegiate experience. And now what you see, again, through the lens of the perhaps progressive schools that you're involved in, that you're able to bring your wonderful poetry to as well, what you perhaps see as being successes in British education. And that could be in your experience or from what you just perceive, in the policy realm or in the news world. And where do you see perhaps as areas of growth or areas that need to change?

Joshua Seigal:

I'm not someone who does research very much about policy or that kind of thing. But from my experience, I perceive, and I'm sure you'll be aware of this as well, a more traditional or trad style of education is very fashionable at the moment. I think a lot of it, or certainly a portion of it, has its Genesis in the research ed's organization, which sprung up in Britain, but which is now worldwide. It has its genesis also in the current ... well, they've been in power since 2010, but the conservative governments and their education ministers. And it seems to me like the so-called traditional style of education, direct instruction, preparations for exams, standardized testing. It seems to me like they're fashionable at the moment. Maybe I only think they're fashionable because that's what I notice, but it seems to me like, again, when I visit schools, it's fairly self selective, in the schools that I personally visit, but it seems like, yeah, there's a traditional flavor of education at the moment.

Joshua Seigal:

And from what I can see on social media, that seems to be fairly worldwide, not just Britain, but again, I'm not ... other people are far more qualified to answer that question than I would be.

Nick Covington:

And it is such a curious thing, I think so much of how pedagogy is like society holding up a mirror to itself and reflecting its own values. So, it's really curious, I think, that a lot of the Genesis, as you said, of that traditionalist movement is reflected in a movement that calls itself research ed, which takes it out of the realm of social values and puts it in this realm of objective science. Right? Because then it says-

Joshua Seigal:

Yeah yeah.

Nick Covington:

... what we're doing is not just a value driven proposition. It's somehow rooted in, it's the science that classrooms have to look like direct instruction and have to look like this.

Joshua Seigal:

Yeah. And I mean, as someone who calls themself in artist ... I should preface this by saying I'm not a qualified teacher. So, maybe the worth of my views on this are limited, but I see education as being as much an art as a science, if not more, and having worked with children, the way from two years old to 18 years old, you just can't replicate laboratory conditions in a classroom. I'm skeptical of the value of applying a scientific paradigm to education. And that seems to be a very fashionable paradigm at the moment.

Nick Covington:

Since, since you've hedged yourself so much on speaking as authority on classrooms and education, I am really excited then, for you to get to share, your expertise then, is in creating wonderful puny poetry. And I didn't know if you had picked a selection for our listeners and things, but I love it if you could lay some on us.

Joshua Seigal:

Yeah. So, I'll just recite. I should say I haven't planned, I wasn't rehearsing. I didn't know I was going to be asked to do this. This is a poem, which is from my first book, which is called I Don't Like Poetry. And it's written for people who don't like poetry and also for people who do like poetry, and it's based on a true story. It's something that happened to me when I was about eight years old and it's called The Most Embarrassing Moment Ever. And it goes like this.

Joshua Seigal:

"The most embarrassing moment ever was at the beach. I ran up to my mom, wrapped my arms around her legs and cuddled her tight screaming, "Mommy, mommy." But then I looked into the distance and I saw my mom and my dad and my sister. And they were pointing at me and laughing. And the lady I'd been cuddling, started laughing too and said, "I think you've got the wrong lady, little boy." And I wanted the sea to wash over me, like a little sandcastle, like a shallow rock pool. And I decided that I would never cuddle anyone again. There we go, and to this day I have kept that promise. I haven't really kept the promise, but the rest of the poems true.

Nick Covington:

Oh, that's wonderful. Yeah. A life without cuddles thenceforth. That's great.

Joshua Seigal:

Or at least without cuddles that I initiate.

Nick Covington:

That's true. Are there any others that you've committed to memory that you want to share?

Joshua Seigal:

Yeah, I'll do a rhyming one because, firstly, I love to rhyme. I love playing with words and playing with language. So, I love rhyme, but I always say when I do workshops that poems do not have to rhyme because if children, especially younger children, if they try and rhyme, then they'll spend the whole hour trying to rhyme a few words together and it might not make much sense. So, I'm very careful to share non rhyming poems as well as rhyming poems. This is a short rhyming poem, again, from my first book. I Don't Like Poetry, and it's called Warrior King, and it goes like this.

Joshua Seigal:

I'm the warrior king of the garden. I'm a revolutionary with my gun and my ax and my telescope and my lookouts in the tree. I'm the warrior king of the garden. I'm a soldier, a fighter, a winner. I don't take orders from anyone until mom calls me in for dinner.

Nick Covington:

I love it because the buildup is like you're going on this big adventure and then suddenly mom intervenes.

Joshua Seigal:

Yeah. And I think one of my avenues into poetry was through comedy. I'm a huge aficionado of standup comedy. It's one of my favorite art forms to go and see. So, a lot of my poems are jokes effectively with a punchline, fairly lightweight punchline sometimes. But yeah, a lot of my poems do have that build up. And then the reveal at the end.

Nick Covington:

This maybe wasn't something that ... I'm thinking at it here just spontaneously. Imagine having a spontaneous thought. But my thought is, I don't know if your advice per se is for people to pursue your line of work in particular, only because that's not how you came into this. The powerful, purpose driven work that aligns with the way that you see yourself and see the world. It's hard to maybe positive a one size fits all approach to that kind of thing. But I don't know. What do you say about people who maybe find themselves in your similar position that you were in, perhaps in academia or in stressful, unfulfilling work and say, okay, what, what kinds of things can I do to help align myself with where I really see myself?

Joshua Seigal:

Yeah. My situation is probably, I don't know how typical it would be of a general situation, but I've been lucky enough to have really supportive stable family and people around me who give me love and support. I have, for many years, on and off, had therapy, which has been hugely life saving, really. So, I would say, try and surround yourself with people who believe in you, because it's almost impossible to do it on your own. And I'm really lucky and fortunate to be able to have those people. I would also say it's difficult being ... I'm self-employed. And it's difficult because if I'm ill, I don't get paid. And it's not for everyone. My wife is very ... she needs that regular paycheck, that's just her mentality. But I'm quite spontaneous with the nature of my work. So, I'm okay not knowing what I'm going to be doing in a month's time. But a lot of people, probably the majority of people wouldn't be comfortable in that kind of situation.

Nick Covington:

If you hear guitar noises, my son has found the guitars that we hang up, because I have the wall hangers for a couple of my acoustics. So, he has found that now as his thing. So, it's just been chaotic on my end, but is there anything that you think I missed that you feel like was worth adding on to this, that we didn't get a chance to talk about or that I didn't think about?

Joshua Seigal:

I think we met, I can't remember when it was, but it was on Twitter and it was a few months before the start of the pandemic, I think. And it was actually a really crucial time for me really, because I was getting really psychologically ... well, I don't know what the word is. Distressed is too strong, but dissatisfied, maybe. I was being ground down a bit by what I perceived to be the traditionalism in education. And then I can't remember how I happened upon you, but I was just opened up to a whole world of progressive education, which I didn't really know existed. So, people who don't view IQ testing as the be all and end all, people who don't necessarily have much respect for standardized tests, people who see beyond grades, people who value creativity. And so, I guess you are my gateway into en encountering that whole community. And it's been really, it's been really great.

Nick Covington:

One quick thing. I grew up just playing a lot of music and being very musical. So, we also have a nice little keyboard in the background.

Joshua Seigal:

Oh, lovely, yeah.

Nick Covington:

And so, yeah, perhaps you'll be able to hear those wonderful ... we just have a basement. That's what this curtain is hiding, is a basement full of musical instruments and just play things and stuff. So, my son is just going from [crosstalk 00:28:45] bass to guitar, to keyboard and just making-

Joshua Seigal:

Was, I was in a band a long time ago. So, yeah, I was a bassist and singer in a punk band.

Nick Covington:

Oh. That is the least surprising thing I think I've ever heard from you. So-

Joshua Seigal:

That would be 15 years ago. And if anyone wants to check it out, the band were called Communication Problem and we're on YouTube. So, if you just look for me on YouTube there are, I think two songs which we recorded 15 years ago.

Nick Covington:

I'll tell you, the irony of having an award-winning poet in a band called Communication Problem is not lost on me. Maybe that's British humor, I suppose. I'm just, I'm thankful for you for sticking with me through ... this is the most chaotic recording experience of my entire life. So, I'm a little bit [crosstalk 00:29:34].

Joshua Seigal:

[crosstalk 00:29:34] I think yeah, no, that's good. I'm enjoying it. I'm enjoying the chaos.

Nick Covington:

Yeah. So, I just appreciate you generally. Again, I might have said it, but puny, prolific, it seems like there's a poem for every event and day of the week. And I just love it. Whenever I end up posting something and it must get picked up in your feed, usually I can find a poem that either gives it some kind of perspective or at least lets me smile a little bit about that situation. So.

Joshua Seigal:

Oh, well, if I can bring a smile to people, then that's 90% of my job done, I think. So, I really appreciate that.

Nick Covington:

Well, thanks again, Joshua

Joshua Seigal:

Pleasure.

Nick Covington:

Thank you again for listening to human restoration projects, podcast. I hope this conversation leads you inspired and ready to push the progressive envelope of education. You can learn more about progressive education, support our cause and stay tuned to this podcast and other updates on our website at humanrestorationproject.org.

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