From the Archive

The power of poetry in hard times

A sign welcoming visitors to Newham
Photo by Raymond Okoro on Unsplash

In a corner of Stratford Park sits a little white bungalow. It is the home of the Newham Poetry Group, a growing community of budding and established poets and poetry enthusiasts. The Poetry House hosts a community café, book swap, and creative writing workshops on Saturday afternoons, and the group also holds poetry sessions on Thursday evenings at Stratford library. 

“There’s no pretention or competitiveness, just a group of people who come together to express themselves, get creative, and be supportive of each other,” says Emily, a regular attendee of the group’s sessions. 

Bristena, who recently released a volume of her own bilingual poetry (in English and Romanian), has been involved with the group for several years. She describes the group as a “very open and welcoming space, with people of all ages and backgrounds.” 

Hector is one of the group’s youngest members. Now a creative media student, he first became involved in the group several years ago, when he was still a child. Speaking about how poetry can be a source of support for Newham’s youth he says: “[being young] is a confusing time. I can’t speak on behalf of every kid my age, but speaking from experience, things like poetry can serve as a vent, in a creative way.”

Some of those who are involved with the group prefer to take a back seat and listen to others, while appreciating poetry and finding ways of making it relevant in their daily lives. Bisi, whose sister Tunde (known as “T”) performed at the group’s poetry festival in late September, likes to use elements of poetry in her work as a teacher. “It can be a tool, I use it with all ages… you can do a sensory poem, for example.”

Achieving a space dedicated to poetry in the shape of the poetry house was the result of many years of effort by the group’s members. “Everything you see here has been done by the community. This space was abandoned and collapsing, so six or seven of us went knocking on doors, saying to the council ‘we want this space’,” explains Sonia, the founder of the group.

Due to their lack of experience, it took five tries for their funding application to be successful. For her, its key mission is to reach out to marginalised communities – migrants, minorities, and the LGBTQ and disabled communities in particular – to be a place where they can be heard and tell their stories. Thanks to this ethos, the group’s diversity reflects the diversity of Newham’s residents, and many members are from the local area and live in the vicinity of the park.

A therapist by profession, Bristena is keenly aware of the capacity of poetry to be a comfort and a way of coming to terms with difficult realities and emotions, and the power that words can have. For her, poetry, particularly when shared with others, can be “a way to stay resourced when terrible things are happening around us, to meet challenges and be resilient”. This was the case for Olimpia, who was sceptical about writing poetry at first but, became involved with the group at a time when “I was going through a lot in my personal life and at work – it was really cathartic, a way of releasing everything I had stored inside”.

Calu also believes in the power of poetry to support people’s mental health and wellbeing, especially in times of crisis such as during the pandemic or in the face of struggles to meet the cost of living. “There is a lot of isolation,” they said, “people need to know it’s not just them.” For them, coming together to share poetry is a way to “channel those things and raise awareness of people’s day to day struggles… this is what people’s lives are made of.”

This article was originally published in our November print edition (Issue 23) and was updated on 2 November 2022.