Poet Michael Shann, from local group Forest Poets, explains how he came to write his book Walthamstow
Walthamstow’s name comes from ‘Wilcumstowe’, meaning welcome place. With a name like that, why wouldn’t you want to live here?
I grew up in the Yorkshire Dales, the epitome of a strong community, but it wasn’t until I came to Walthamstow 11 years ago that I felt properly at home. It is down to earth, proud of its radical history, but also a place of creativity, possibility and change.
With its diverse population, it also felt like a microcosm of London, and therefore of the world. Unlike many other boroughs, Waltham Forest has some proper hills, and if I ever felt myself pining for the Yorkshire countryside, we had one of Europe’s best preserved ancient forests at the top of the road.
From a very young age I remember having a strong sense of the transience of things, and the impulse for many of my poems has been to capture the spirit of a place, as you would with a photo, but burrowing down another layer or two, beyond the surface of the present. Walthamstow is full of places that have stories to tell, that play host to our current community as they have to past generations and as they will to others when we’ve moved on.
In writing my book I wanted to celebrate the place that I’ve come to call home and share my enthusiasm for its treasures and quirks with others who may never have been here or even heard the name Walthamstow.
The spark came from a workshop run by local poet Pascale Petit in June 2013. I wrote a poem about seeing a kingfisher from the train one misty morning as I crossed the marshes on the way to Liverpool Street.
The poem Kingfisher can now be found in the pavement outside Walthamstow Central Station, along with several other poems by Forest Poets, and the eight-line format formed the rack on which I’ve hung the words for the 35 other poems in my book.
I liked local artist Kirsten Schmidt’s striking drawings of crows and asked if she’d be interested in drawing a kingfisher. So began a collaboration lasting many months, with Kirsten illustrating a few more poems and suggesting ideas.
When we had around 15 poems and four drawings, we approached Matt McKenzie, who runs the amazing Paekakariki Press off Hoe Street. Matt’s work has been influenced by the printing techniques of William Morris’s Kelmscott Press and we were on the spirit of the Arts and Crafts Movement which advocated collaboration and a return to traditional handicrafts.
So the book has been written, illustrated and printed in Walthamstow by three people who now call it home but originated in different parts of the world (Yorkshire, Germany and New Zealand).
We launched it on the first weekend of this year’s E17 Art Trail and the first 300 copies sold relatively quickly. It’s been great to see it being sold in various places across Walthamstow, including the sausage shop on Orford Road!
Night Music, Walthamstow
Rain on a skylight window is music
enough, at midnight in January,
when the boiler has switched itself off
and the pipes no longer protest.
Up in the roof, just the two of us
in a dark embrace, a last plane’s
cello moan, your sleeping sighs’ slow
violins, the raindrops’ virtuoso piano.
Walthamstow is available to buy from the E17 Art House, Paekakariki Press, William Morris Gallery, Vestry House Museum, God’s Own Junkyard and the East London Sausage Co.