Teresa Cremin: Profiling Poetry this December

Profiling Poetry this December

It’s Yuletide – a time for carols, songs, stories and poetry– a time to tempt children with the words and tunes, rhythm and rhyme that play into this space of celebration. Over the decades, teachers have made this time special in school, offering class, whole school and community events that involve giving, receiving and so much more.

It is also a rich opportunity to read, write and perform poetry together and to seize those liminal spaces when half the class are at a play practice or are finishing making cards for instance. So, in this Christmas blog, given there is scant time for thinking as we rush from job to job, planning food, writing cards and generally panicking (well I am!),  I thought I’d simply share some ideas for profiling poetry this December.

Advent Calendar Poetree: This idea was developed by Miss Graham, an NQT from Edge Hill University who is working at Kingsmoor Junior in Carlisle, Cumbria. Eager to foster children’s reading for pleasure @MissGrahamteach hid 24 wrapped poems in each classroom, children find the day’s poem and share it! Each dated poem also has a challenge on the back- a discussion question relating to the topic or form of the poem to get children buzzing about poetry!

Poems as Christmas Gifts: Inviting the class to write their own poems as gifts for family members always works well. Focusing on a chosen relative or friend, rather than the jolly red stereotypes of Christmas is often more engaging. The key, as George Szirtes highlights, is to avoid platitudes and clichés, but to let the pressure of such avoidance ‘be felt at every juncture of each line and each word. That pressure is the pressure of the imagination, the auditory imagination if you like’. You could explore what makes their grandma so special – what are the objects in her house, her voice,  style, typical expressions and so forth. Or you could play the furniture game and encourage them to imagine their grandad as a piece of furniture ‘a deep leather sofa creased and loved’ perhaps? Printed on card and illustrated, this will be given with love.

Poetry Recommendations for Parents: Encouraging poetry gift giving, schools can offer a recommended booklist of their top ten poetry collections, perhaps on the school website or newsletter.

Pop-up Poets: Why not interleave  opportunities to share poetry – the children’s own and others – when parents come to see their children’s work or attend events? You could create pop-up poets who, having prepped their chosen poem in small groups, are at the ready when a governor, parents or others come by? They can then rush off and perform their poem – ‘Talkin turkeys’ by Benjamin Zephaniah or ‘The computer’s first Christmas card’ by Edwin Morgan would work well amongst many others.

Poetry in Christmas gatherings: Most schools will be joining together in a special assembly or performance. Why not interleave the printed programme with children’s own poems? Or offer live poetry during the interval?  Saint Andrew’s C of E Primary school Halstead hold an annual candlelight service for the children who sit in a circle around the candles while each member of staff reads a poem or an extract. One teacher there, Claire Williams (@borntosparkle), tells me that the sense of peace and ‘togetherness’ is tangible, especially when the headteacher closes by reading ‘A visit from Saint Nicolas’ by Clement Clarke Moore. Sounds very memorable.

Regardless of the way you enjoy poetry with your class this December, I hope you and the children will be tempted by the words and tunes, the ideas and images that such rich language provides.

Teresa Cremin

Teresa is Professor of Education (Literacy) at the Open University. An advocate of teachers’ creative artistry, Teresa is also passionate about developing readers for life and leads a professional user-community website based on her research into reading for pleasure. The site supports over 80 OU/UKLA Teachers’ Reading Groups and 24 HEI partnerships across the country. Teresa Cremin’s OU webpage.

Kate Wilson: Packing Meaning Into a Small Space

I am lucky.

At so many times in my career, I have been able to… um, let’s call it what it sometimes feels as if it is, indulge my love of children’s poetry.

I wasn’t brought up in a particularly bookish household, but on my seventh birthday, I received a book that was, for me, transformative. It was The Book Of A Thousand poems – small, thick, densely packed with poetry, much of which I can still recite by heart. I still have my copy of the book, the top of it forested with little triangles of faded pink torn paper that I used, at some point, to mark my favourites. These were fairly traditional poems. I was responding, of course, to experiences of rhythm and rhyme and sometimes other language patterns – assonance, alliteration, repetition – building on the bedrock of English-language nursery rhymes that should be the bedrock of every English speaking child, which is not, of course, to discount the richness of children’s rhymes in other languages from Akan to Zulu. But I was also responding to the way that poetry packed meaning into a small space, to be mentally and emotionally unfolded, not just at the moment of reading, but later, on reflection as I rolled remembered words around in my brain.

I went on to study English at university, and emerged with a determination to “get into publishing”, without, really, knowing what that meant other than that I wanted to work with books.

Spectacularly, I got a job at Faber, and so had not only the joy of sharing a lift with Seamus Heaney, but also selling – mine was a sales role –  The Rattle Bag, poetry by Water De La Mere and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Some of the children’s poetry I encountered there was new to me, some was deliciously familiar.

After a while, I found myself as the children’s publisher at Macmillan, publishing, and, once, meeting Charles Causley. Up until that point, I am ashamed to say now, my experience of poetry had been, well, silent. It happened in my head. I read poems. I didn’t read them aloud. But at Macmillan I had the experience of publishing poets who worked in schools: worked with audiences of children – Valerie Bloom, Paul Cookson, Ian Macmillan and Pie Corbett among others. It was an honour to watch children’s responding to poetry read out loud. These were words, I realised belatedly, not just to roll around in your brain, but words to roll around in your ears, roll around on your tongue.

It made me think about picture books, which so often demand to be read out loud too: theatre for an audience of one or two. Macmillan already had on its list Bringing The Rain To Kapiti Plain, a rhyming picture book classic. But I published Valerie Bloom’s funny, sunlit rhyming picture book about counting, Fruits, further brightened by Valerie’s use of Jamaican patois. And I published The Gruffalo. At the time, to publish rhyming picture book texts was risky: the received wisdom was that the challenge of translation made it hard for them to achieve the kind of international sales that make the high cost of publishing books in colour financially viable. But The Gruffalo was a hit internationally, and has opened the door to a panoply of picture books that tell stories saturated with rhythm and rhyme.

Inspired by The Book of A Thousand Poems, though, I kept faith with the idea of the pick ‘n’ mix delights of the anthology. The first, rather glorious, National Year of Reading ran from 1994 to 1995, and, thinking of ways to support it, I came up with Read Me: A Poem a Day for the National Year of Reading, now still published as Read Me: A Poem for Every Day of the Year. It was the best idea I’d had in the bath for a long time.

Still later, here at Nosy Crow, we’re publishing both rhyming picture books – by, among others Caryl Hart, Tracey Corderoy and Lou Peacock – and poetry anthologies. I am interested in sort of combining the two: bringing the richness of picture book illustration to poetry. Our first, hugely ambitious shot at this is I Am The Seed That Grew the Tree: a Nature Poem for Every Day of the Year, published a year ago. It’s a big, beautiful book published in partnership with The National Trust that both invites children into poetry, and invites children into nature, as the poems describe the seasons, animals, weather, and plants that the child can observe, or at least imagine, happening and living outdoors at that moment.

The success of this book – commercial and critical – has been such a justification of its publication: at no point in the making of the book did it seem remotely possible that it would do anything other than lose us a bucket of money. I am proud of it… and seeing that it worked and was welcomed, has made us plan several others that we’ll be announcing in the months to come.

Kate Wilson

Kate Wilson loves books. She read avidly as a child, studied English at Oxford and got into publishing as soon as she could wangle a job typing and taking her boss’s shirts to the dry cleaner. She’s worked in international rights selling and then as a publisher at Faber, Egmont, Macmillan, Scholastic. After being fired from an adult publishing job, she founded Nosy Crow, and is managing director there, working with co-founders Adrian Soar and Camilla Reid and 50 other people to publish over 100 new books for children aged 0 to 12 a year. Nosy Crow has won many industry and business awards, most recently this year, and for the second time, Children’s Publisher of the Year at the British Book Awards.

Roger Stevens: The Poetry Zone

The Poetry Zone – 21 years of children’s poems

When I began going into schools as a visiting author, I would sometimes run workshops that culminated in the production of a printed collection of the work produced by the pupils. This book was often the highlight of the afternoon for the children. Seeing their poems in print seemed to validate the work for them and gave them something tangible to take away and to share with their family and friends. This – and a desire to give young writers a wider audience – was why I launched the Poetry Zone 21 years ago.

Young poets produce wonderful work. By launching the Poetry Zone I created somewhere for children and teenagers to send their poems and, importantly, see them published; a website where they could share their poetry and where it would be taken seriously. I found it very exciting. I knew it would be hard work – the project was me and me alone, every poem had to be read, vetted and the format tidied up for publication – but I thought it would be worth it. And it has been.

We started slowly, but within just a couple of years thousands of children were sending in poems and I was being contacted by grateful teachers and parents. Sometimes I would receive poems from every member of a class – the Poetry Zone had become a useful schools resource. Sometimes poems would come from individuals who were writing at home. They came from all over the English-speaking world – the UK, USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and from India, Japan and other parts of Asia.

I added interviews with children’s poets to the website; and information and advice for teachers. With some tips and a few lesson plans, those wary of teaching poetry have found out how rewarding it can be and how writing a poem can unlock the talent of even the most recalcitrant of pupils. The Poetry Zone has featured reviews of new poetry books and run more than 1,000 competitions – with publishers kindly donating prizes.

In 21 years, the Poetry Zone has received more than a million visitors and I’ve read and published around 30,000 poems by children and teenagers. Last year Troika published The Poetry Zone book featuring some of these poems.

Many children have grown up with the Poetry Zone, regularly sending me poems over the years. I have always provided feedback when wanted and mentored quite a few contributors. One of my regulars, American Claudia Taylor, was Commended in the Foyle Young Poets of the Year – I was very proud that she acknowledged my help when she received the award.

Harshita Das began contributing to the Poetry Zone from her home in India when she was around six years old. Her work always stood out. I encouraged her to practice, which she did. She is still young, but already an accomplished poet:

 Perfect

There is darkness
In each one of us
A tendency to kill
A desire for pain
A hunger for suffering
A greed for more
A blindness to honesty
A thirst to choose wrongly
Nobody is flawless
But to shroud that darkness
With light
Is what makes a person
Perfect

Harshita Das (aged 12)

Violet and Celina Macdonald also began sending poems to the Poetry Zone when they were young children and carried on well into their teens. They lived in Tasmania then. Now they live in the UK. Violet has just won the Sir Peter Ustinov Television Scriptwriting Award for ‘The Wolf’ in the 2019 Emmy World Television Festival.

So, yes, running the website has been worth it! I have never allowed advertising on the site. The Poetry Zone has never made any money. It has always been a labour of love. It’s still a solo project. My reward has been seeing children enjoy everything that poetry has to offer – whether they are writing it or reading poems written by others and commenting on them.

One thing has stood out over the years: Poems by children can be every bit as good as poems written by grown-ups. We have a wealth of talented young writers all over the world – a cause for optimism and hope for the future of poetry.

Roger Stevens

Roger Stevens has been writing and editing poetry collections for children for 25 years. Roger’s books include Apes to Zebras, an A-Z of Shape Poems, Bloomsbury, I Am a Jigsaw; Puzzling Poems to Baffle your Brain (Bloomsbury 2019), Moonstruck; an Anthology of Moon Poems (Otter-Barry) and Be the Change, Poems to Help you Save the World, Macmillan. When not writing, he visits schools, libraries and festivals performing his work and running workshops for young people and teachers. He is a regular contributor to educational journals and conferences, a National Poetry Day Ambassador for the Forward Arts Foundation, and a founding member of the Able Writers scheme with Brian Moses. PoetryZone.

Rachel Rooney: Finding the Sweet Spot

Finding the Sweet Spot

Much of what we call poetry written for children might more accurately be termed  as verse; words which engage and entertain the reader, written in regular rhythm and with full end-rhymes. It’s a what you read is what you get type of experience. There’s a pleasure to be had from reading or hearing well-crafted verse that scans as it intends and that uses language in deft, comforting or amusing ways.

Children are particularly drawn to the reading, listening and performing of verse. Its predictable aural patterns tend to lodge in their memory, too. But it is much harder for them to write effectively. The technical skills needed to maintain a coherent idea through extended rhyme and rhythm is tricky for all but the most practised and enthusiastic junior poet. Happily, I was that kind of child. The following poem was written by my 11 year old self about the bus journey I took to school. I’d never shown it to anyone, but kept it safe, eventually including it in my second collection, for reader interest. It’s not particularly good poetry, or even ‘Poetry’ for that matter – it’s simply verse that was relatively crafted for its time.

 

The 20a Bus

 

In the line you hear a chatter

Up and down a clatter, clatter.

Noisy schoolgirls scream and shout

pushing in and pushing out.

 

Down the street the red bus trundles.

Girls surge forward all in bundles.

On at last, but what a rush

Banged my elbows in the crush.

 

‘I don’t know what it’s coming to’

said the lady with big buttons, who

had a habit to pursue

the trivial things young children do.

 

And when the bus stops in the street

I kick her underneath the seat

And when the lady stops her chat

I pull the cherries from her hat.

 

Poetry in its purer form, is a more exploratory art. It’s a voyage of discovery into the unknown. Its aim is to alter our perceptions and to linger in our mind beyond its reading. We might return to these poems and find new or deeper meaning from them.

The writing of such poetry raises different technical questions. How can we ensure musicality without necessarily relying on the tools of strict metre and end-rhyme? How do we utilise line breaks or the space on the page for full effect? What ‘stepping stones’ (images, concepts, concrete details etc) will we put in place to guide the reader through the reading of it? How subtle the inference and how abstract the ideas, given the poem’s intended audience?

I’m a poet who enjoys all the challenges that writing for varying ages brings, from crafting a jaunty rhyming picture book text through to (almost) ‘adult’ poetry. But I’ve always been particularly interested in the elusive sweet spot between worlds; the poem written for children, that has a surface lyrical simplicity but which offers up a more subtle interpretation for the older reader. Or the poem that pitches itself perfectly in content & complexity between the tail end of childhood and early adult readership.

And occasionally, I stumble across poetry written with the adult in mind, that a child reader might possibly access and relate to. The following short poem by Esther Morgan, is a personal favourite for this reason. It’s superficially simple, and could (almost) have been written by a child. And that is part of its mastery.

 

The Long Holidays

 

The day stretches ahead – nothing but

grass and sky grass and sky grass and sky grass and sky

as far as the eye can see

 

nothing but sky and grass sky and grass sky and grass sky and grass

 

and the wind galloping hard over the fields

like a riderless horse.

 

Esther Morgan

 

If you’re interested, here’s a wonderful close reading of the poem in a blogpost by the poet George Szirtes.

 

Rachel Rooney

Rachel’s most recent collection A Kid in My Class (Illustrated by Chris Ridell, Otter-Barry) was shortlisted for the CLiPPA and has just won the North Somerset Teachers’ Book Award for poetry 2019. A rhyming picture book The Problem with Problems, illustrated by Zehra Hicks (Anderson) is out March 2020 and a poetry collection aimed for older girls is due in 2021 (Otter – Barry).

Dawn Finch: Poetry for Children – a School Librarian’s Perspective.

Poetry for Children – a school librarian’s perspective.

I have worked with primary school age children for a very long time. I ran a primary school library for over a decade, and all in all have worked with books for primary age children for over thirty years. I am often asked what books I feel are most popular with children of that age, and the answer came from the shelf in my library that was always the messiest. The shelf that was most heavily used (and gave me the most tidying up duties) was the poetry shelf. I had to move the poetry section closer to my desk because it was so busy I decided it was easier to help children if they were right at my desk. In every primary school I’ve worked the situation was the same – kids love poetry. Small children have not yet learned to feel awkward or embarrassed about their love of it, and so they embrace poetry. They read it, write it, share it and love it.

If that’s the case, why can’t we see it on the shelves of more bookshops?

I’m afraid I can’t answer that. All of my experience tells me that children love poetry and yet buying it is still so hard. We have some superb poets for children in the UK and every day I see details of new and exciting poetry books. This blog is a collective of the most amazing writers, and yet I know that when I walk into a bookshop I’m going to struggle to find most of their books.

If we think the situation is bad for poetry for children, watch that thin line grow ever thinner and vanish as we look at poetry for adults. This is hardly surprising – if you deny a child access to something it’s no wonder that they don’t seek it out as an adult.

Poetry often feels like it isn’t for everyone. I grew up a working class kid in a pretty rough school and past primary age we didn’t really “do” poetry. That was for the posh kids, not for us grubby little estate oiks. Those of us who liked poetry knew it was sensible to keep that to ourselves. This is still how some kids are growing up. Children and young people are still feeling that poetry is not for them and the lack of it on the shelves of bookshops perpetuates that myth.

To experience the wider benefits of reading for pleasure, it has to be just that – a pleasure. If libraries and bookshops fail to stock poetry then that limited choice means that children will never know if it is for them, and that means they will grow up to become adults who feel the same. They will grow to feel that poetry is only for the educated elite and not for us regular folk.

But poetry is for us, and it can be for all of us. I used to think that poetry wasn’t for me, right up to the moment I won first prize in the Brian Nisbet Poetry Award in 2019. Until that moment I was writing poetry in secret because of the feeling that poetry was not for me. Feelings that had stuck with me right from secondary school over forty years ago.

Poetry brings a moment, an experience, an emotion, a place in time all condensed into a delicious capsule. For a small child a great poem can be an epiphany and a gem-like moment of pure understanding. It can be a rolling laugh tangled up in a few short lines, or it can be a sweeping escape in an epic form.

All children deserve that. In fact, so do all grown-ups!

Dawn Finch

Dawn Finch is a children’s author and librarian. She is a Trustee of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) and has recently become the Chair of the Society of Authors’ Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group committee (CWIG). Her website is here. Twitter: @dawnafinch

Matt Goodfellow: How Did I Become a Poet?

Working as a poet in schools, I regularly get asked the same few questions over and over again – one of them is: ‘How did you become a poet?’ The simple answer is: music. My dad is a massive music fan. Throughout my childhood, Bob Dylan’s hypnotic, incantatory voice was the one I heard the most.

‘I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me’

‘Leave your stepping stones behind now, something calls for you’

I had no idea what he was singing about. But it intrigued me.

My mum and dad were divorced when I was 18 months old and both found new partners. Other than me and my sister, Jane, the only thing that unified the four of them was one album: Famous Blue Raincoat – The Songs of Leonard Cohen by Jennifer Warnes.

‘Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free’

‘And deep into his fiery heart, he took the dust of Joan of Arc’

Beautiful stuff. And again, it interested me. I heard the songs all the time. Still do.

I don’t remember reading much when I was at primary or secondary schools, although Alan Garner’s ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ certainly left its mark. Precise, poetic language. I used to walk in the woods at Alderley Edge, a few miles down the road from me, hearing the voices of Colin and Susan, the sneer of the shape-shifting Selina Place.

I must have studied ‘Ode to Autumn’ by Keats at some point during secondary school – and something about it stuck in my head:

seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ – I liked that.

As for writing poetry, the only memory I have is of writing a rhyming epitaph in, perhaps, Y8?!:

in this grave, lies a man, who died by means of a frying pan’

I thought it was pretty good. The teacher’s response: ‘you didn’t write that!’

Schoolwork (other than maths!), especially reading and writing, always came pretty easy to me –  and I never really saw the need to extend myself. This attitude towards academia continued all the way to studying English at Manchester Met (where Carol Ann Duffy was my poetry tutor).

By about 15, I began to discover music and words of my own that spoke to me. In 1995, The Charlatans released a self-titled album that I listened to over and over. I didn’t know what it meant. But it sounded great:

‘here comes a soul saver on your record player, floatin’ about in the dust’

‘take your pick who’s your saviour, come in five different flavours’

‘kiss behind the coolest of walls’

I loved ‘immerse me in your splendour’ from ‘This Is the One’ by The Stone Roses. And so, without really reading poetry, by 16 I was full of it. I’d been playing the guitar for a few years and started up some bands. I was a pretty rubbish musician, but I enjoyed performing. And I began to write the lyrics.

I carried on with music and words, bands like Doves continuing my lyrical fascination, until I finally realised I had no musical talent whatsoever – and put down the guitar at about 23. I became a primary school teacher, which filled the entirety of my head for a while. Words began to surface, though, and soon I was writing songs for assemblies and poems to use in class.

Twelve years later, here I am: a poet. Fancy that.

Matt Goodfellow

Matt Goodfellow is from Manchester, England. He is a National Poetry Day Ambassador for the Forward Arts Foundation, and delivers high-energy, fun-filled performances in schools. His most recent solo collection is Chicken on the Roof (Otter Barry 2018), and most recent book is Be the Change – poems to help you save the world (Macmillan 2019), written with Liz Brownlee and Roger Stevens. His next solo collection, Bright Bursts of Colour (Bloomsbury) is published Feb 2020.

Hannah Rolls: Poetry and Illustration

Poetry and Illustration

The first poetry book I can remember reading is You Can’t Catch Me by Michael Rosen. Bits of those poems are buried deep in my memory – lines like ‘Shuttup, Stinks! YOU CAN’T RULE MY LIFE,’ or ‘I’ve got you, I’ve got you, and I’ll never let you go,’ or the fact that you might meet a dog down behind the dustbin. I must have read them (or had them read to me) over and over again.

But there’s another thing about You Can’t Catch Me which is memorable and that’s what I want to focus on in this blog. Because that book isn’t just by Michael Rosen, it’s by Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake. Blake’s illustrations are classics – from the scruffy dog Ranzo (Who rolled in the mud behind the garage door? Who left footprints across the kitchen floor?) to the strange and brilliant pastiche of Goya’s nightmarish ‘Saturn Devouring His Son’ which illustrates the poem ‘Jojo’. Those artworks are just as much part of the book as the poems are.

 

That’s a challenge to a poetry editor like me. Not all books can be illustrated by a great like Quentin Blake, but at Bloomsbury the vast majority of our children’s poetry books do have illustrations. Finding an illustrator whose style and tone suits a collection or anthology, whose work the poet likes and who our sales team are excited about can be difficult (especially when you factor in the tight schedules and budgets we’re often working with). Part of my job as an editor is to work with our design team to try and find just the right person and to write a brief for them.

It is something I find endlessly fascinating – part of the reason I became an editor is because I’ve always been interested in books as objects, not just as texts. I also can’t draw for toffee and so the magic of seeing what illustrators come up with based on a poem I’ve suggested they illustrate, or a few sentences I’ve written as part of a brief remains an utter delight. I find it completely magical.

A couple of books I’ve worked on here at Bloomsbury this year show this magic at work. Back in July we published Spaced Out, an anthology of poems about space edited by Brian Moses and James Carter and illustrated by Del Thorpe. As is often the case with anthologies the poems in this book have a variety of moods and so we needed an illustrator who could handle serious and beautiful poems as well as humour. As the examples below show, I think Del handled that challenge with ease.

 

Another book I’ve worked on recently is Midnight Feasts, an anthology edited by A.F. Harrold and illustrated by Katy Riddell. Katy is a young illustrator who hadn’t worked on many projects before this one but her distinctive style and quirky sense of humour are a perfect fit for A.F. Harrold’s brilliant selection of poems on the theme of food which includes poems by everyone from Ian McMillan and William Carlos Williams to Joseph Coelho, Sabrina Mahfouz and Imtiaz Dharker, as well as A.F. Harrold himself.

Of course it is much too soon to say whether either of these books will become classics in the way in the way You Can’t Catch Me did (still available as part of Mustard, Custard, Grumble Belly and Gravy, thirty eight years after it was first published).

But I hope the combination of poems and pictures in them will delight today’s children and worm their way into memories in the same way as Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake’s work did all those years ago.

Hannah Rolls

Hannah Rolls is Editorial Director for educational fiction and children’s poetry at Bloomsbury which is both 2019 IPG PLS Education Publisher of the Year and 2019 IPG Blackwell’s Children’s Publisher of the Year. Her list includes everything from early readers to high low fiction for teenagers, and children’s poetry of all kinds.

Tracey Guiry: Making the Children’s Poetry Archive

Making the Children’s Poetry Archive

I don’t remember poetry being spoken of in my house as I grew up and certainly not spoken out loud. We lived on a remote farm and I spent from dawn to dusk outdoors, which in the 60’s and 70’s meant truly outdoors,  being given a cheese sandwich and some orange squash and told to be back before it got dark. The stories I most loved as a child reflected that sense of freedom, of being master of my own destiny, an explorer and an adventurer no less brave or able than my brothers.

From an early age I knew the name of pretty much everything I came across in the fields and woods around our village so it is really no surprise that the first poems which snagged my imagination were about the things I knew best. Poems like John Clare’s Mouse’s Nest, with his lovely made-up words like ‘prog’, and Ted Hughes’ Thought Fox, ‘and again now, and now, and now’ brought a shock of recognition which I can still recall with a smile. These poems filled my mind with pictures even if, at the time, I thought they truly were only about a mouse and a fox. There is nothing can compare to the moment we discover something we know speaks to us alone.  I remembered these feelings as we made the decision to create a Poetry Archive dedicated to children.

The Poetry Archive exists to produce, acquire, preserve and share the world’s finest poetry read out loud and it wasn’t long into our history of making recordings that we knew children’s poetry should have its own website.  We believe passionately that poems are not only words on a page but equally have a life in the mouth and on the ear and we wanted to break down any barriers which might exist between a child and a poem. The quality of writing for children has always been high – children are the most discerning and demanding audiences – but there were few websites specifically designed with a younger user in mind.

Young people today are technologically savvy in ways I couldn’t even have imagined at their age, and our site needed to reflect that. The ‘favourite’ function next to each poem allows users to click on the and save poems to their very own collection in ‘My Archive’. From there they can create their own poetry playlists, listen back to their own curated collections and share the poems they like with their friends. The ‘eyes closed, ears open’ button allows them to switch off all the other sights and sounds on the page except for the poet and their voice.

We want children to discover poetry for themselves. There is no fanfare of description on the Children’s Poetry Archive, no lessons on meaning, or other people’s opinions, though these can be found by anyone wanting to search. When a child arrives at the Children’s Archive they will find only the poet’s voice, the sound their words make, and a head full of pictures all their own which they can recall with a smile all their lives.

Tracey Guiry

Children’s Poetry Archive.

Tracey Guiry is the Director of the Poetry Archive. She worked in the Giant Screen film industry before learning how to build very big cinemas. She then went on to build even bigger Visitor Attractions and Science Centres which brought art, science and nature education to the public, becoming a Director at ‘We the Curious’ in Bristol before it launched in 2000. Her passion for poetry and literature led to her co-founding Literature Works with Alex Cluness in 2008 to provide developmental support to writers – this became a national portfolio organisation of the Arts Council in 2009. She joined the Poetry Archive in 2016, working to ensure their poetry collections and education materials can continue to be shared free-of-charge with as many people as possible. The Children’s Poetry Archive was developed with the kind support of the T S Eliot Foundation.

Laura Mucha: The Volume of Words

 

Laura Mucha

Laura Mucha studied psychology, philosophy and flying trapeze, worked as a face painter and swam in Antarctica before becoming a lawyer for an international law firm. Then, when she was hit by a car aged 29, decided to change career – she’s now an award-winning poet, author, broadcaster, performer and speaker.

Her poems have been featured on BBC Radio 6 MusicBBC Radio 3 and Classic FM, she has won two international prizes for children’s poetry (the Caterpillar Prize and the YorkMix Prize) and last year Poetry Ireland featured her alongside Jackie Kay as one of eight poets on the Dublin overground. Laura’s debut non-fiction book, Love Factually (Bloomsbury) was published earlier this year, her debut collection, Dear Ugly Sisters (Otter-Barry Books) is out in 2020, and her debut picture book, Rita’s Rabbit (Faber & Faber) in 2021. You can read more of her work at lauramucha.com. 

Joshua Seigal: I Bet I Can Make You Laugh

I Bet I Can Make You Laugh

Some of the most fun I have had so far in my career as a poet was when Bloomsbury asked me to edit an anthology of funny poems for children. Entitled I Bet I Can Make You Laugh, the book came out in 2018 and features poems by myself and a bunch of other poets, all ostensibly funny. I put out an open call for submissions, and for several months was inundated with poems from hundreds of poets. From these, I had to choose the ‘funniest’.

What was the importance of this activity? And what indeed is the value of funny books, and funny poetry, in general? One obvious purpose is to appeal to reluctant readers. When I was at school, I was not an especially voracious reader. When I started to get seriously into books, it was always the funny ones that first grabbed my attention. I remember howling with laughter to myself in my room whilst reading Adrian Mole and The Beano, and even now some of the most pleasure I have gleaned as a reader has been from Viz magazine (not for kids!). I know from personal experience that if something is funny it will have a readership beyond people who are typically considered bookish.

Relatedly, writing funny poems can appeal to people who might not normally pick up a pen. I run workshops in schools, and I have lost count of the number of times I have seen humour, or the prospect thereof, galvanise children into writing. Speaking for myself as a writer, I got into poetry in part through watching stand up comedy, and one of my favourite things as a poet is when I stand on stage and the audience laughs (not straight away; I normally have to say some words first). This, for me, is an experience unlike any other, and one of the reasons I cannot imagine doing another job.

It is not the case that to be funny means to be flippant, or facile. Funny poems can serve the purpose of highlighting serious issues. Much of my own poetry, though funny, is tinged with a sense of sadness in ways I’m not sure I can explain. Perhaps this is not obvious to the reader, but for me the sadness is often there. I started messing around with words in the first place as a kind of antidote to depression, which I am sadly never far away from. The best humorous poetry works hard for its laughs, and uses clever, tricky wordplay and sophisticated jokes. These were the types of poems I tried to select for my anthology (although I also firmly believe toilet humour has a place in a book of funny kids’ poems).

So far I have been trying to justify the use of humour in poetry, reading and writing, but at a profound level I’m not sure it needs justifying. Its benefit is self-evident. Laughter is one of the things that makes life worth living; it is a basic good, like life itself, that does not need to be justified. If there were no humour, life would be a tunnel of grey – empty, colourless and devoid of meaning or worth. As I mentioned before, I love it when audiences laugh. For me, this is an affirmation of life at an elemental level.

I am surely not the only one who thinks this way. The Lollies Award (Laugh Out Loud Award; formerly the Roald Dahl Funny Prize) is the only prize in the UK for funny books. I am delighted to say that I Bet I Can Make You Laugh is on the shortlist for 2020, and I am even more delighted to say that whether or not it wins is in your hands! You can vote for my book in the 9-13 year old category, and you can do it using this link here (if you are a teacher you can vote up to 35 times!): Lollies.

Joshua Seigal

Joshua Seigal is a poet, performer and workshop leader. He frequently visits schools to run inspiring poetry workshops, and has performed all over the world, including the Edinburgh Book Festival and the Dubai Literature Festival. His most recent book, I Bet I Can Make You Laugh (Bloomsbury), is shortlisted for the 2020 Lollies Award.

You can vote for the Lollies if you are a child, teacher, or grown up voting on behalf of a child. Voting closes the first week in December.