One of the unattractive aspects of growing older is that increasing numbers of people whom you know die. I was saddened today to learn of the death of a past Birmingham Poet Laureate, Joanna Skelt. I did not know her well, but we met on several occasions, during which she was free and generous with her time, and impressed with her intellect and poetic craft. She was one who eluded me for “Poetry Alight”, she was never available for when I had a slot, due to work and child care commitments.
The following obituary from The Guardian is an eloquent appreciation by her friend, Mandy Ross:
My friend Joanna Skelt, who has died of cancer aged 49, explored writing as an expression of conflict and identity. As Birmingham’s poet laureate in 2013-14, she found inspiration in the city’s diversity and restless energy.
She brought the electric excitement of the Blackpool illuminations to a live-poetry Christmas lights switch-on in Stirchley, ran writing workshops that linked schools from Freetown, Sierra Leone, with the city, and worked with musicians from Symphony Hall. In Connected Journeys, the title poem of her 2014 collection, she wrote of Birmingham:
The city a kaleidoscope, a daring embroidery
Spread out like spokes, a web, itself a giant wheel
each of us carrying
Wrapped inside ourselves
Our own threads and journeys
Each of us an infinitesimal part
Such that every wrong, tear or break is ours too
Stitched into the very tapestry of us.
Born in Staffordshire, to Diana (nee Hankey) and Ralph Skelt, a science teacher, Jo spent her early childhood in Cornwall. They moved to Great Gransden, Cambridgeshire, for her father’s work and Jo went to Longsands college, St Neots (1979-84), then Cambridge College of Art and Technology (1984-86) before studying politics at Hull University.
After graduation in 1990 she returned to Cambridge to work as a project officer for the International Extension College, which supported educational initiatives in developing countries. In 1997 she travelled to Freetown to research peace education following the civil war there, for her MA thesis at University of Kent the same year.
She continued to work in this area, with projects in youth and community work, writing and training, both home and abroad. In 2003 she set up Arena for Change International, a small NGO to promote social participation as a means of preventing conflict.
In 2014 she completed the PhD on the social function of writing in postwar Sierra Leone that she undertook at Birmingham University, and two years later returned to its department of African studies and anthropology as a teaching fellow. She also wrote social studies and citizenships books for schools in countries including Jamaica, Ethopia, Ghana and Sierra Leone for Macmillan Education.
She was poet-in-residence in eight schools in Freetown and in Birmingham (2009-10). While in Sierra Leone, she also established a writers’ network and, as an amateur saxophonist, played jazz with local musicians.
A solo parent with a young daughter, Jo had a gift for gathering friends. She bought a caravan she named Dotty, for weekends out of the city and found community with the Unitarians.
Jo was treated for breast cancer in 2015. When it returned in November 2017, she began a blog, describing writing as a form of agency, “re-tessellating pain … into something which contains beauty (if only in broken shards)”.
Jo is survived by her daughter, her parents, and her brother.