American poet Ryan Van Winkle visits Islay and Jura's schools

Last week we welcomed Edinburgh-based American poet Ryan Van Winkle to Islay and Jura to offer a series of poetry workshops in each of our island schools. These were organised in collaboration with the WW100 Islay project and aimed to help each of the schools create a short poem based around the local WW1 experience of Islay and Jura, and ultimately one combined school poem for the WW100 commemorations in May.


Ryan faced a number of challenges, not least of which was how to fit 7 poetry workshops into just 4 days and how to put up with Isla’s driving and chitchat! But he also had to work out how to present not just poetry but the tricky theme of WW1 in a way that was accessible and enjoyable for schoolchildren ranging in age from 8 to 14. All of this during a cold, snowy week in the Southern Hebrides!

The workshops were very well received, in particular by an excited bunch of primary school students. Port Charlotte Primary thought that Ryan was “awesome” and the pupils at Bowmore’s Gaelic medium unit thought it was one of the best days at school they’d had. One particularly enthusiastic student declared, “You’re the best person I’ve ever met!” They seemed to like him, and the feeling was mutual!

The students worked on personification, using this as a technique for focusing on the war memorials dotted around Islay and Jura, and also talked about what they would miss about Islay/Jura if they had to go away. With Ryan’s encouragement, the students produced some lovely lines for their poems, which we hope to share with you in due course.

During his visit, Ryan also recited his evocative and moving poem, 'The Watcher', at the Tuscania commemoration held at the American Monument on the Mull of Oa and at Kilnaughton military cemetery on 5th February, a poem he’d written especially for the occasion. It was particularly poignant having Ryan in attendance, as an American, to help remember the American servicemen who lost their lives in the Tuscania wreck and to recite his poem at the graveside of Private Roy Muncaster, the only remaining American buried on Islay.

Ryan is now back in Edinburgh busily tidying up the schools’ poems and weaving together the combined poem for 4th May, which will also be based around the students’ workshop contributions. We’ll report back on the project, and the poems, as it all progresses.