Positioned by the Tyne, the BALTIC Gallery is an impressive building. What is even more impressive is that the building seems lived in, is buzzing with people of all ages looking at home in the gallery, rather than out of place or overwhelmed, as in so many other galleries. It creates the feeling that this space is a hub for the local community in just the way you would hope it would be.

I’m here to run workshops around Turner Prize winning artist Lubaina Himid’s collection Our Kisses are Petals. So first I take time to absorb the exhibition, that until now I have only seen as images online. Hanging in the space, her Kanga’s with their delicate, but boldly coloured images, paired with potent lines of poetry from Essex Hemphill’s poem Black Bean, really come alive. To weave in and out of them is to pass by a sense of the aspects of yourself. The bodily organs depicted, conveying a universality along with the text, suggest facets of all of us.

Both workshop session are full, with mainly the same participants returning for more. The first exercise, asking participants to create slogans for themselves, surprises me with how quickly they grasp the raw essence of encapsulating an idea of themselves in a short phrase.

We explore a particular flag, displaying a heart cut and looking like a mouth with the arteries cut in little tubes around it. It’s paired with the words ‘So Many Dreams’. This becomes the springboard from which they leap into word storming and free-writing their own poetic dreams.

The shared work is intimate and brave. Some focus on the universal dreams of the world or their community, others on very personal dreams. But all dive in and share their take on the subject, working through any nerves.

I perform a poem from my forthcoming collection, entitled Us. We discuss the ways in which it brings codes from different cultural struggles, and I lead them into thinking about how the loaning of phrases from other poets is part of the tradition of South African Praise poetry. I allocate lines from Himids’ collection to bookend their own stanzas; each leads on to the next, so there is a flow and echo of the artist’s lines within their work, informing the words they fill in between.

The results are truly staggering; the strength of voice within the pieces, even by participants who began the day obviously anxious and shy, is incredible. The feeling of creative completion when the pieces are performed is evident. The group perform in front of the artwork; the pieces are beautiful and diverse, but also have a unity due to the structure they’ve been crafted to. The gradual process of building with the tools of the simple exercises, then weaving that into their own work nestled amongst the words of Lubaina, creates a moment of magic within the space. That the group is solely comprised of women also leads to a tight camaraderie and a feeling of safety in the way they express themselves.

The feedback is that they enjoyed the challenge of the workshops, but also the discussions around writing. I feel privileged to have been part of such an exploratory and revealing process. Souls were bared, and in many ways the visceral nature of Lubaina Himid’s collection allowed us all to be human and bare in a way that left us with fewer layers, less skin, leading to the expression of stripped bare essences of belonging, of hope and of dreams.

The below poem was made collaboratively by participants at the BALTIC workshops run by Cherie Taylor-Battiste. The first and last lines of each verse are taken from the slogans painted on ‘kanga’ flags by artist Lubaina Himid. Each verse was written by a different participant, using the previous last line to form a daisy-chain:

So many dreams
In my heart and in yours
They fizz and fly around us
Some take hold
Some sail away
Some are real
Some mere fantasy
But how do we start the journey?
It could be a single step
Or there could be an endless ocean.

There could be an endless ocean between us
And eyes that can see, but have never seen us.
A sting of angry emotion may surround us
And the heaving of insults from lungs may negate us
But our humanity continues to unite us
Whatever our gender, race, religion or creed with all its range.
So given all of this, how do you spell change?

How do you spell change?
I spell it G-R-I-E-F
I spell it L-O-S-S
I feel change washing over me
Tearing my soul apart
Feeling the taste of partings on my tongue
That now knows
We were always saying goodbye.

We were always saying goodbye.
Your tongue lashed at mine like Sunday rain
Quenching a thirst I hid within.
Sea green salted tears clutched at my lungs.
I could not breathe,
Sucking in your fear.
Tenderness only we can bear.

Tenderness only we can bear
Stipples us in fur-fondle, fumble, false starts,
Lips sipping coffee-froth.
No touch would strip away the skins; slow
The pulse pulse in my veins.
Can you hear the roaring of that sparrow at the window?
Can you feel the tick tick of something tapping at your throat?
Much silence has a mighty noise.

Much silence has a mighty noise
The split tongue remembers the roof of the mouth
Skin speaks scar language
The brain weighs one cry cut at the root
Is the body a blood-crossing?
Why are you looking?

Why are you looking?
You analyse, write
We hold your gaze in our spines
You place us on bookshelves
Our movements filed away
We have not asked for this
And it is only when we dream
That our kisses are petals
Our tongues caress the bloom.

If you would like to be the clasp that holds the chain together, write us a verse with the first line ‘Our tongues caress the bloom’ and the last line ‘So many dreams’.