A Homerton Wood - how the College community came together to create a digital poem

Dr Mariah Whelan, Poet-in-Residence

Homerton’s trees are hugely significant to many in the College community, past and present. Providing shade under which to revise or picnic, and offering beauty, peace and connection to the natural world, they are beloved by students and staff, and remembered fondly by alumni.

The trees were therefore a natural focus for a project which brought together staff, students, alumni and Fellows confined to their homes and scattered across the globe in early 2021. Dr Mariah Whelan, Homerton poet-in-residence, worked with 15 members of the Homerton community to write a poem – A Homerton Wood.

Using the ghazal form, which traces its origins back to 7th Century Arabic poetry, each poet wrote a couplet that responds to one of the trees on site. As each person registered their interest, Mariah assigned them a tree within the grounds, and supplied them with a worksheet containing a series of prompts as well as images and videos of their tree. She also gave participants a collection of other ghazals as inspiration.

“I knew that many of the Homerton community are currently not in the UK,” says Mariah. “Poets who worked on the project include those currently in China, the USA and Pakistan amongst others, so I wanted to design a project where everyone could participate at a time that suited them. The ghazal form is really well suited to working collaboratively. It uses couplets (two lines of poetry per verse), and while the couplets all address the same theme they all work independently of one another - unlike other poetic forms, like the sonnet or villanelle for example, where the poem has a single narrative running throughout. The ghazal's structure allowed us to assemble a single poem out of multiple voices.”

Once each poet had drafted their couplet, Mariah worked with them via Zoom or email to give their ideas a final polish. The couplets were then assembled together as a digital poem, reflecting the way in which so much of our lives have been conducted in a digital space over the past 18 months. Mariah worked with Homerton Fellows Dr Melanie Keene and Dr Georgie Horrell in conceptualising how to create a digital poem, and Dr Paul Elliott played a vital role in creating the digital space and producing the finished look.  

“It was such an enormous pleasure to work with the College community to create 'A Homerton Wood',” says Mariah. “Throughout the year we've had a really great turnout for my poetry writing workshops and readings, but I knew that, because of the way that Covid has impacted on our lives, there were many people who couldn't participate. Writing the poem together allowed us to all experience the joy that writing poetry brings. I was blown away by the beautiful couplets that the poets produced and how hungry people were for the opportunity to be creative. Together, I think we've created something really special at a time when we couldn't be physically close.”

A Homerton Wood is available for you to read here.