Popular poetry book on offer to Bristol schools for free

March 01 2019
Totterdown author hails success of book of 'women's boasts'

A UNIQUE book of poems celebrating – no, boasting – about women’s achievements was conceived in Totterdown by Alyson Hallett and Dr Rachel Bentham, a senior lecturer in creative writing at Bath Spa University.

Alyson Hallett Dr Rachel BenthamThe Project Boast book

Pictured: Sarah Guppy, Bristol's great Victorian engineer, and authors Alyson Hallett and Dr Rachel Bentham

A UNIQUE book of poems celebrating – no, boasting – about women’s achievements was conceived in Totterdown by Alyson Hallett and Dr Rachel Bentham, a senior lecturer in creative writing at Bath Spa University. 

Totterdown resident Rachel writes:

We were talking about Sarah Guppy the Victorian inventor, who lived at Arnos Manor on Bath Road and made designs for bridges, amongst many other things, and was a great friend of Brunel's but has never really been acknowledged in Bristol as the important inventor and engineer that she was. She’s not even featured on Bristol’s Engineer’s Walk, but the Bedminster playwright Sheila Hannon has drawn attention to her through her plays. 

Sarah Guppy once said “It is unpleasant to speak of oneself – it may seem boastful, particularly in a woman. We wondered if it’s still true now that it’s culturally perceived to be better for women not to be boastful. In the light of Guppy’s life and her works and her apparent lack of importance in some historical records, we wondered how much has changed? Are women more comfortable now with speaking of their own achievements, or is it still preferable for women to be modest and self-effacing? 

So we decided to try writing poems boasting of our own achievements and ourselves just to feel our way into what that was like. Initially, we wrote some fairly light-hearted poems and sent them to each other – and also got down to the nitty-gritty of our own achievements. What is an achievement anyway? Catching a record-breakingly huge salmon? Meditating in the forest? Not putting up a shelf? One of Alyson Hallett’s poems spoke of Mrs Guppy:

Imagine a house late at night,

Candle burning, a fever of moths

About a flame. Now see inside

 

Her brain – a woman in a man’s

World but only in name. After six

Children she can play any game.

 

My own achievements were something that I found it surprisingly hard to write about. It felt uncomfortably big headed and difficult to mention successes and abilities. And in fact I discovered that there were many achievements that I have never spoken about or recorded anywhere, but they came up during this process. Some of them I had even forgotten. 

However, it was such fun to try boasting out for size that we decided to extend an invitation to other women poets to boast or to speak of themselves. Wow, what a response! Poems flooded in; thoughtful, celebratory, provoking, zesty poems – for example, Fiona Hamilton’s What My Grandmother Tells Me in Dreams

 

Disturb neat lawns 

with boisterous fandangos.

 

Who says

you get what you deserve?

 

Don’t prostrate yourself 

before parking meters.

 

Beware of those who speak 

on behalf of The People.

  

Interestingly, the poems sent were often focusing on someone other than the self in terms of content. It was especially noticeable that there were many poems about significant relationships with mothers, fathers, daughters, unborn children and born children, like Clare Shaw’s My Mother was a Verified Miracle:

 

My mother was church door where millions entered.

My mother was tower where four kestrels roosted -

my mother was hooded, she plunged and she hovered.

She flew at the speed of the wind. Oh

My mother had wings and her voice was an organ,

She was seraph and cherub and throne and dominion.

My mother was bright with flame.

 

 

Some poets wrote of other women, as in Alwyn Marriage’s

RP RIP - Rosa Parks

 

Mother of freedom, who would have thought

You’d lie in state on Capitol Hill?

Against the odds, your disobedience 

Shifted the axis of the world,

 

Reminding us that sitting still

Was once the cause of a great movement,

And breaking rules can sometimes change

The course of history.

 

We did wonder if men were asked to send poems speaking of themselves whether they would respond more strictly within that remit! 

So we had gathered a huge collection of poems on the theme of boasting from a range of poets – both internationally published poets like Jo Shapcott, Arundhati Subramanium and Penelope Shuttle, and also previously unpublished poets like nine-year-old Daisy Proctor, plus a range of women poets between these two poles. What could we do with all this inspiring material? Yes, we could make a poetry anthology – and so of course we did. Triarchy Press agreed to publish this great collection of poems from 29 poets, and at the launch in Bristol there was standing room only. Such was the excited and inspired atmosphere on the night that I decided it would be a good idea to extend the reach of the anthology and get it into schools to encourage young people to speak of themselves and celebrate their achievements. 

So a crowdfunding campaign ensued, and that has raised enough funds to send free copies of the  book to schools in Bristol and beyond. If anyone reading this article knows of a school that would be interested in having copies of the book plus a useful teaching resource (developed with an English teacher), then please do get in touch [see panel]. Also, we have asked four poets to create workshops on the subject of boasting, using the book as a starting point, and they will be delivering workshops during the next year. The first one will be for a group of women at Women’s Aid in Cornwall, led by Katrina Naomi. We’re really looking forward to seeing how it goes.

After the Bristol launch, we were invited to take part in the Extraordinary Women Arts Festival at Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire this summer. So we went on a fantastic road trip in the blasting heat, taking in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and the Bronte Parsonage en route as well as having a wonderful event as part of the literary festival.

This has been a great project; a lot of work, a lot of fun, and a lot of satisfaction for all involved. 

Many thanks to all of the poets who donated their work so that 100 per cent of the profits from the book can go to the Malala Fund which educates women and girls, aiming to help them find and use their voices.

Project Boast Rachel Bentham & Alyson Hallett (eds), Triarchy Press 2018