Leeds poet talks of the importance of kindness which has 'come to the fore' during pandemic

Having left school with no qualifications and being diagnosed as severely dyslexic, few could have imagined that Michelle Scally Clarke would go on to forge a highly successful career as a poet, author, scriptwriter and teacher.

Tuesday, 20th April 2021, 6:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 20th April 2021, 10:12 am

Yet the 50-year-old’s life story is one of true inspiration which has seen her overcome adversity to enjoy over 25 years as a celebrated poet, having worked alongside ‘greats’ such as Linton Kwesi Johnson, Benjamin Zephaniah and Lemm Sissay.

Michelle, who was adopted at the age of seven having spent her early life in children’s homes, said she simply followed an innate desire to write.

“Having the adopted family I did allowed me to process my life in words and my whole career has been very organic. I began writing as a way of expressing my own feelings.

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Leeds poet Michelle Scally Clarke pictured in 2017 during a one-woman show commissioned by social change organisation, Space2, to tackle the stigma surrounding mental health issues in young people. Picture Tony Johnson.

“It was a real drive for me to want to write. I left school in the 1980s and there was that feeling then that you could get out and forge your own career and you didn’t need qualifications or to go to university. You can become something.

“I think that’s been tightened now - children don’t have that freedom.”

During the pandemic Michelle has harnessed the power of poetry to help boost people’s mental health through virtual well-being workshops, as part of the Clear Out Your Closet (COYC) project, and was part of social change charity Space2’s Inspiration from Isolation online gallery.

She was also recently commissioned by Forum Central - which represents over 250 third sector organisations in Leeds - to write a poem featuring the experiences of many during lockdown, of both social isolation and community spirit.

Michelle Scally Clarke, pictured at Huddersfield Literature Festival. Picture: Jonathan Jacob

The poem was made into a moving six-minute film which has been racking up the views on YouTube and gathering praise online.

Michelle, of Meanwood, said: “It’s the role of a poet - to be a witness, to be able to look at things from a myriad, kaleidoscopic kind of way.”

Her brief from Forum Central was to write a poem based on a 100-page report they provided about the challenges faced by Leeds community groups during the pandemic and lessons which could be learned.

She said she was “shocked” by the sheer scale and variety of groups affected.

“As a workshop artist and facilitator, I had worked in situations where before the pandemic people were struggling to exist. But in the pandemic, how does that look, if you were struggling to exist before?

“Young mothers, immigration, refugees, the visually impaired. You see the amount of groups that were in this report - I was shocked, so many groups. Men’s groups, teenagers, care leavers, people with long-term illnesses - you name it.

“All these people - because Covid has affected everybody in different ways.”

She said the video has been really well received with NHS and mental health organisations and she hopes it continues to be watched as the nation continues in its recovery.

“We need to keep remembering that not everybody has it like us, some people have it worse,” she said, adding: “It’s a Leeds voice, I’m a Leeds lass, it’s Leeds people. The reaction we have had from people is that it speaks to them.

“I really like that kind of sentiment - our voices being heard.

“It’s important because it’s a time capsule as well. I work with a lot of communities in Leeds and you really understand that there’s a real ‘salt of the Earth’ feel to people. It makes you feel connected. It’s that spirit of Leeds. I think we really need to start marking it. All the different kinds of human beings in Leeds who have continued to work alongside [each other] - there’s a kindness. It’s really come to the fore.”

For Michelle, a grandmother-of-one, the importance of kindness cannot be underestimated and she hopes to see a growing swell as the nation continues its recovery from the pandemic.

Citing previous examples of post-pit closures and factory working she said: “There was a surge of kindness after that and these are times when we can make a change for the better.”

“I think one of the greatest gifts is to be kind. Let’s just practice kindness,” she added.

Kindness is one of the main messages in her poetry and teachings, along with the ability to “believe in yourself”.

“I think everyone is born with something they can do. Whether I got paid to write or not, I would still write because it’s something that I do.

“I think it’s just that - believe in yourself and believe in your own inner voice.”

Her former students, she says, have included people who have gone to Oxbridge, been published as well as those who thought they couldn’t even read.

“It’s allowing that little bit of space to write and within it, find the joy in it - become anything or say anything. It just vies you that space of trying it for yourself, listening to your own voice.

“We all say ‘have you heard yourself?’ But how many times have you actually listened to yourself and if you did, would you make different choices than if you listened to others every time.”

An anthology of work created by the past students of Michelle, and colleagues, at Ilkley Literature Festival, with which she has been involved for 10 years, is due to be released in May.

She is also working with Leeds Playhouse on a project celebrating 50 years of the iconic venue with community storytellers writing and creating postcards with local heroes in Leeds.

And she plans to be busy for a long time yet.

"There's still lots more to learn. I never stop learning. Poetry and art are a lot like carpentry - you only get better at it. There's never a stop end."

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