- Stewart Cook (Head of English, Whitgift School, Croydon)
Mario Petrucci at Whitgift School
Whitgift was one of the lucky schools awarded a grant in the first round of the Poetry Places school scheme. We were, furthermore, fortunate enough to be able to provide some extra funding to supplement the grant, and to give our poet a decent run. My hope was that this arrangement would appeal sufficiently to a first-rate poet who would feel that a mini-residency would permit some of the follow-up in terms of exercises and sustained creative relationships that one-off workshops rarely achieve.
Having obtained the funding, we drew up a short list for the residency. As it turned out, Mario Petrucci was the only poet we approached, and the first telephone conversation clinched it from my point of view. I had read ‘Shrapnel and Sheets’, so knew the quality of his work in print; his concurrent residency at the Imperial War Museum was an added attraction, although we possibly made too little use of this potential curricular link; his teaching experience and his focused but unassuming questions told me that he would be ideal. We were keen for him to work closely with colleagues in the English Department and with the whole age-range (10-18) of our pupils. He did just that, liaising with seven teachers, and conducting workshops with twenty different groups.
Mario’s inventiveness was astonishing: he used more than forty distinct exercises, usually several in a session, although concentrating on one or two central or extended tasks. He only occasionally repeated exercises, and even then they were given freshness by a new context, or combination with another challenge. His use of other writing – whether from one of our anthologies, or his own work, or that of one of the pupils red-hot from the workshop smithy – was always stimulating.
However, the workshops, although the cornerstone of Mario’s work, were not the only contribution he made to our school life. Once we had got beyond the (disingenuous) puzzlement of the boys who thought that our Poet-in Residence would stroll languidly along the corridors spouting spontaneous verse, classes began to vie for the privilege of his presence in their lessons. Mario became a recognised figure in the school, prepared to conduct one-to-one poetry surgeries in the lunch break, encouraging displays of work in prominent places, and actually presenting us with the manuscript of an original Petrucci from one of his own exercises (with typical modesty arguing that one of the pupil’s efforts was as good or even better). He also became a tremendous colleague, working sensitively with teachers. On his final day in school, Mario gave two readings, both stunning in their way. After school he dazzled an audience of about 80 boys with wit, wordplay and bravura performance; in the evening a much smaller group, largely adults, was lucky enough to be drawn into an entirely different repertoire of deeply serious personal work full of nuance and revelation.
Perhaps we were lucky to get a poet so hard-working and genuinely, originally, profound. Even with a poet half as able, I would recommend the experience for what it provides for both pupil and teacher. Inevitably, there were areas I felt we, as a school, could have used Mario even more – for instance, his pedigree as a scientist would have made him ideal for some cross-curricular work. I suppose that, like after a great piece of writing, we felt simultaneously the senses of fulfilment and of pining for more.