Poets in the Archives – the story so far

by Helen Savage, Heritage Office

Across the last year, attendees to Poets in the Archives have delved into Southwark’s Archives collections to inspire new poetry. We have looked at Southwark Poets Una Mason and Pat Brown, delved into Southwark’s Roman past, borrowed pamphlets from the Feminist Library in Peckham and taken inspiration for LGBT history month from the Southwark Sappho Newsletter. Here is a selection of the work from the group. We hope you enjoy.

What does the phrase ‘towards the stars’ mean to you?

Una Marson writing at a desk and looking at the camera
Una Marson

Una Marson was a Jamaican writer and broadcaster and the first Black woman to work at the BBC. Her first home in the UK was in Peckham. In 1945 she published a poetry collection called Towards the Stars

Towards the stars by Eugenia Sesti

Around the time that we were about to go on our first holiday in two years there was a lot of coverage for NASA’s Perseverance rover. Around this time, we also found out we had been in contact with someone with COVID and might have to postpone our trip. It dawned on me that sometimes things that seem impossible are feasible and sometimes a much simpler thing in comparison can bump into many obstacles. Life is not always straightforward, but we can keep on looking towards the stars.

The countdown
Has begun
From ten to one
Perseverance is in Mars
Its home beyond the stars
While a sneeze is all there is
Between me and Heathrow Terminal 5


Canada Water by Eugenia Sesti

I’m a duck
Full on bread
Slightly stale
Slightly hard
I still want to taste each crumb
I’ll take all that I can get
The leftovers from your life
Fill me up
And I don’t need to search no more
I spend my time just hanging out
Waiting for the breakfast you forgot to eat on Tuesday

Spring in Russia Dock Woods by Nirma de Silva

Walkers stride jauntily
rejuvenated like patches of daisies on grass,
 scattered dandelions, hawthorn in white bloom.

Pram pushers in abundance. A toddler is allowed out
by a pond, unsteady legs, stretched arms
towards mallards. They squawk, move into water.

Parents point at prayerful cormorants
drying wings on logs, children observe a photographer
framing a woodpecker as a blackbird sings sweetly.

Small patterned wings flutter in a hurry
for nectar, whites drink their fill
from green alkanet, some rest on leaves.

Air is crisp, fresh shoots, energy flows –
willow in yellow catkins, horse chestnut in flowering
spikes. Pulling on leads, dogs excited by new scents

bark at squirrels that scamper undaunted.
Umbellifers spread white tablecloths
for picnickers, cherry adds cheer in pink.

Roman Southwark

Roman artefacts have been found all over Southwark, helping us to build a picture of this fascinating period, and provided plenty of inspiration for this session.

Roman Southwark by Nirma de Silva

It’s in the fragments
of a terracotta tile,
red corridors.
In broken plaster remnants
of wall paintings
of scenery, gods they worshipped,
the painted walls of a wealthy house.

In unearthed pieces
of mosaic,
geometric motifs in red and black
stylised flowers, strands,
tessellated panels,
the floor of a large room.
It’s all there.

     a central courtyard
          surrounding corridors
                multiple rooms

It’s there
strewn fragments of clay pots, vessels, brooches,
narthecia of perfumes, salves anointed in
public baths
built with hypocaust,
the fragrance, the indulgence
their way of living.

Each piece a part of an image
that expands
to a glimpse of an era
to form
a mosaic of Roman Southwark.

Painted wall plaster from Winchester Palace excavations from Below Southwark: the archaeological story by Carrie Cowan

Cupid in Southwark by Nirma de Silva

I am alone but never lonely
in my mansion of orange and beige walls
where columns touch blue skies.
I watch all from my vantage point
Londinium extends on the north bank
Southwark becomes a bustling suburb
of terracotta pavements, public baths,
roads stretch far to the south.

My winged feet carry me past
 traders of salves, cloth, pungent salted fish
potters with samian bowls, drinking vessels for wine
public baths where perfumes drift

When people gather on feast days
in honour of gods, I celebrate in dance
on mosaic floors. Years later, I watch as my
beloved pavilion collapses in 300 A.D.

It lays beneath the gardens of Winchester Palace
Undisturbed, barren.
I wait 1600 years to see it again
Recognisable but faded, broken.

No longer my glorious mansion,
it will not draw me back.
Southwark too, I barely recognise.
You will not see me again.

The Pat Brown archive

Peckham resident Pat Brown photographed and wrote about her everyday life and the world around her. These poems were inspired by her personal archive collection.

The Nightwatchman

Tall and slim
With pictures of petals
In mourning.
Shiny and proud
You stand erect and free
Just content to be you.
But now I flick the switch
Your light floods the room.
I can read
No more groping
For the words.
And when I am done
You take care of me while I sleep
A sentinel
You stand guard
Till another light filters
Through the window blinds.
When eventide returns
I reach again for book and bed.
Later you will comfort me
Watch over me
Before I start anew.

Herewith, elsewhere by Rowenna Mortimer

Herewith, inside
They point out what I wish kept hidden
Give voice to what knows only silence
Parade the flaw in what I believe precious
Read the holy words I forgot to cover
Speak of the sacred I failed to lock away
Lean forth in their space as if to tumble through
Into mine.
Elsewhere, outside
All is secret.

‘I was only copying the others’ by Rowenna Mortimer

I need to let you know
that what you gave me is
what you said it was, is
what you hoped
                               This is the medium 

show off to you that what
I saw is what I saw,
to prove I spoke the truth
I’ll capture that
                               This is the medium

turn the green shoulder, make
it face me, how close I
trash my reputation
against the sun
                               This is the medium            

force the confrontation,
own the violation,
I’ll trap a thing in life
then show the lie
                               So this, the medium.

Southwark Sappho newsletter

Southwark Sappho was produced by the Southwark Women’s Centre on Peckham High Street from 1993 to 1994. The newsletter promoted local services and events taking place across London. We looked at archive copies at our session during LGBT History month 2022

Hand drawn zine cover on pink paper: Southwark Sappho August '93 By local women for local women. 
Southwark women's centre lesbian newsletter

Cut-up poetry by members of the Outside Project and Poets in the Archives


This session was inspired by from Alo-Wa, a black women’s Oral History group and focused on the theme of Home.

No Shoes by Eugenia Sestini

My grandparents moved from Italy to Argentina after WWII, and my dad was born in Argentina. When he was in school, the teachers told my grandparents not to speak Italian because it was confusing him, so they never spoke Italian at home, and they never returned to Italy. I think they were worried that things would still look like they did when they had left. They both wanted to remember and wanted to forget.

No shoes
Or washing machines
A ship
Across the ocean
The hope
And longing
New beginnings
With footwear
And appliances
A language to be learned
And one to be forgotten
Do we choose what we want to remember?

Poets in the Archives: Poetry in Response to Alo-Wa ‘Our Story’

Back in 2021, Poets in the Archives met for a session to engage with material from Alo-Wa, a black women’s Oral History group in Southwark which formed in January 1990 and ran until 1991. Members of the group were seven women in total, all from African and Caribbean descent, and all living or working in Southwark.

During the poetry session, we looked through Alo-Wa material and then participants came up with questions to ask one another to inspire what would eventually be the writing of new poetry. These were:

  1. What does the phrase ‘back home’ mean to me?
  2. What does my family history look like?
  3. What are my childhood memories / how do I re-connect to a country I saw years ago?
  4. Why did my father / mother never teach me…
  5. What do I wish I knew more about my family?

Below are the poems the group produced in response.

Stories by Nirma de Silva

Embraced in the Alo-Wa spirit
they were brought together.
A sense of purpose,

warmed by community air.
Reminiscing about sun filled days and swaying palms
the sweet smell of the earth
the taste of tamarind, fried plantain, sweet potato
vibrant patterned kaftan fabric and
shimmering blue waters
they connected to others, to the community
in a celebration of culture
by sharing food, experiences,
their own stories.

It began as storytelling
voices from the past of
grandparents, an aunt, family ‘back home’
why they came to Southwark
challenges they faced
stories of courage and resilience
that amaze, inspire and stay with you.
Writing their own histories
like threads woven into a rich tapestry
of a community’s heritage
in a new home.

Back D’Home (dom) by Joanna Cielecka

Finding my
Forked tongue

One goes to the country
Misty evenings amongst the fields
Of corn, kukurydza, coucou rice
The sun is friendly
Even though I ignore it, typing
Ferociously these words.

The other slithers through Southwark
From jaunty Elephant’s Cheap Street
Crosses at George’s Circus
And swings back to watery Bankside
To sit on the slimy steps
And laugh with the rabbles.

“Coming home”

How loudly was it sang
By guys climbing onto buses
In July twenty eighteen,
While twelve of us women
Sat quietly with herbs
In Prostitutes’ Graveyard?

Coming home.

How muted now it feels
Being alone with a Weegee
In a dreicht Polish village.
Estranged by Brexitannia
Speaking in the dialect of
Dogs, children and angels:
The prayer of hope.

Hope for home
Where we all belong.

Gentle like a sway of breath
Like mother’s heart
Like moth’s wings.

Gentle yet powerful
Like St Paul’s bell

Let Hope ring

Embrace us

Let the forked tongues
Dissolve tonight

While I thank you, dziekuje
For joining me here
As if nothing else existed

I feel our union.

Not on paper
But above it.

Joanna Cielecka


Not a blur,
Nor a flicker.
No memory of this place.
Yet now it enthralls me
Now it entices me

The paanwallah’s potion
Invites me to submit
To breathe its scent
To taste its touch
To smell its air.

The sun clogs my skin
The dust clouds my lungs.
I’ve entered its body
I live its life
Surrender my mind.
Soon it will have my soul.  

No Shoes by Eugenia Sestini

No shoes
Or washing machines
A ship
Across the ocean
The hope
And longing
New beginnings
With footwear
And appliances
A language to be learned
And one to be forgotten
Do we choose what we want to remember?

My grandparents moved from Italy to Argentina after WWII, and my dad was born in Argentina. When he was in school, the teachers told my grandparents not to speak Italian because it was confusing him, so they never spoke Italian at home, and they never returned to Italy. I think they were worried that things would still look like they did when they had left. They both wanted to remember and wanted to forget.

Eugenia Sestini

Prediction by Colleen Cameron

Poverty, plucked from peaty ash,
Petals my rosey-cheekbones,
Inherited from women scrubbing
A cleanliness privilege grants me now.
They, unknown, behind my looks
Look out –
History, marked by rows of wind-battered tombstones
Etch a line of youth dead before their Time,
Birthing generations of men more fruitful than they
Who look out –
Hills, rolling like our shape, shadowed by
Scottish Pine, high, like our legs made for walking
Miles, and the stamina of a population
Striving to survive –
But that –
Still, they look out –
Sighs of déjà-vu echo now, green
Guttural – the harshness
Palpable – the silence
Comfort keeps History an unanswerable prediction
Yet, they look out –
They see the world now through my eyes
And the world holds them still –
Through me.

A Long Story by Barbara Robson

Oh do not ask me about my family history
unless you are ready for a tale of woe
told from the very pit of existence.
Would it were different, but my heart
tells me that now, coming up ninety-two,
honesty matters most to me.
Gone is the time I needed to impress
or please others. What have I left to lose?
You see, I come from a long line of poor
suckers from foreign parts. To survive their
daily grind, they resorted to secret fantasies
to keep hope alive. But like a sand castle,
this could not withstand the in-coming tide.
This unfortunate habit was passed on to me
willy-nilly. Although this may seem extremely

silly to you, it has all but cost me my life. For
assuming fantasy is safe when kept secret,
combined with a smile plus stiff upper lip,
is the stuff of a horror story. So it has proved.
For suddenly I seem to have a choice: to let
go the illusion that my forbears bequeathed.
Many were the stories both my parents told.
Not least being the one about my birth.
How the midwives prophesized over me
‘This one will become the lady of the family.’
They also named me ‘Rosebud’ due to my
my dainty, pursed mouth. But try as I might,
all this has proved rubbish down to this very day.
Now I can only attempt to count my blessings,
few though they seem. But maybe I am mistaken.
The gist of my story is that, though I come from a
long line of dupes, undoubtedly well intended but
truly f—ed, I am, in fact, no more or less so than others.

Mi yard in peace by Andrew Akpenyi

I was having a stroll in Southwark Park away from my yard

To take time to think to be solely away from everyone
To take time to think to be in a location that’s not common
To take time to think to be under a tree that’s providing me shelter when it hammers down with rain
To take time to think to be in a place as though I’m Chris Tucker laughing on stage

After that I skedaddled to Walworth Road library on the bus because I wanted to find a book on nature

To take time to think if I live in a real abode
To take time to think if I need to move to a different type of housing
To take time to think if my roots are factual

My next destination was a walk along Southwark Bridge to view the River Thames

To take time to think about the boats that pass under and when they’re gonna return
To take time to think about residing in a place around that area

In the end I got the bus back to my real home to just kick back and unwind

To take time to think and…