Roger Stevens: Sale of Wife

It’s my turn to write this Blog, so I’m wondering what to write. I’m jotting down ideas in my notebook. I could reveal the recipe for Michael Rosen’s Chocolate Cake, or ask why no one seems to want to publish my book of robot poems. But then it hits me. I’ll write about keeping a notebook.

The two pieces of advice I give would-be children’s poets, and to children themselves, is to read lots and to keep a notebook. Writers of fiction, artists, musicians, any creative person – you need a notebook.

I have a poet friend who eschews notebooks. He belongs to the old ‘jot the idea down on the back of a fag packet’ school of writing. But how many of Shakespeare’s sonnets would have been lost if the Bard had used that method? Would we know how to compare someone to a summer’s day? I doubt it.

Random Pages from Roger’s Notebooks

You never know when you are going to hear or see something that will spark your imagination. Have you ever been woken in the night by a great idea, only to find upon waking in the morning it’s gone, forgotten? You need to keep your trusty notebook by your bed. 

You will undoubtedly discover, nine times out of ten, that the great thought you had at 3am is rubbish: an orange table discussing Brecht with a giant turtle was never going to work on the page. But that tenth time, when you see a white chicken in a red wheelbarrow standing out in the rain… well, there you go.

Whenever I’ve been a poet in residence, I’ve always given each student a notebook. You can often find a pile of old exercise books in a school store cupboard.

More random pages from Roger’s notebooks

I tell students (and staff) that what they write will be private. I won’t ever read it, unless they want me to. Their notes will be scribbled ideas and beginnings, not actual poems. Their writing doesn’t have to be neat or the spelling perfect. They can draw pictures or doodles to help, if they like. Their notebook is purely for them to use. But – they must write something every day. Even if it’s just one word.

Not every student will sign up to this. But many children love having a secret notebook and do use it as a creative tool; they see it as a chance to be free of the stress that writing rules can bring. Some brilliant poems have been born this way.

On the Skytrain, Vancouver, BC

A notebook is a very personal thing. I take a while choosing mine. For a few years, Paperchase sold a thick, hardback A5 plain-paper notebook that was a favourite. Then they introduced lines on the page. I didn’t like them. I had to find other makes. Over the last few years, I’ve taken to using a smaller and more portable notebook. Always non-lined. And into that notebook everything goes: ideas for poems, stories, songs, games, shopping lists, people’s names, drawings and my computer passwords (in code).

The first notebooks I came across, as an art student in the 1960s, were the notebooks of Dieter Roth; they had a great influence on both my art and my writing. Most of us will have marvelled at Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, full of brilliant drawings, amazing inventions and notes written in mirror writing.

And finally – did you know that Thomas Hardy and his wife, Emma, noted down incidents culled from local newspapers in their notebooks? One entry, barely three lines long, is headed Sale of Wife. Out of that fragment came The Mayor of Casterbridge.

Roger Stevens

Roger Stevens is a National Poetry Day Ambassador, a founding member of the Able Writers scheme with Brian Moses and runs the award-winning website PoetryZone for children and teachers, which has just been going for more than 20 years. He has published forty books for children. A Million Brilliant Poems (Bloomsbury) was shortlisted for the CLPE prize and his book Apes to Zebras – an A to Z of shape poems (Bloomsbury) won the prestigious NSTB award.

Pie Corbett: The City of Stars

This game is one of my favourite surreal poetry games. Put the children into pairs. The first pair makes a list of 5 generic places (by that, I mean not ‘Paris’ but ‘city’) or containers (suitcase, pocket, jar, etc.) and their partner makes a list of abstract nouns – without seeing each other’s lists, e.g.

Generic places: city, cellar, beach, cupboard, attic, town, village, house, shop, cathedral, park, forest, planet, pocket, backpack, jar, musical box.

Abstract nouns: wonder, despair, grief, greed, sadness, joy, death, hope, peace, kindness, jealousy, war, imagination, creativity, anger, anxiety, happiness.

The pairs then put their two lists together in the order in which the words were written. This is to ensure that the combinations are random and not influenced by logic. The combinations that work best are the fresh and startling juxtapositions when two ideas are placed together that have never been heard before. It is this unique combination that catches the imagination. If I use my first five ideas from each list, it would produce:

The city of wonder

The cellar of despair

The beach of grief

The cupboard of greed

The attic of sadness

You could then choose out one idea and create a list poem:

In the city of wonder, I saw –

A serpent with eyes of rubies,

A song thrush flying from a golden cage,

A sunset slipping over the darkening landscape,

In the city of wonder, I found –

A scarlet rug, softer than an eagle’s feathers,

A crimson pen nib, sharper than pirate’s blade,

A scintillating canary, yellow as mustard blossom.

James Walker from a Bristol primary school experimented with his year 6 class. He began by ‘banking’ with the children as many ‘colour’ words as possible plus abstract and ‘magical’ nouns. When randomly combined this gave lists of ideas such as:

Velvet shadows

Ebony whispers

Indigo happiness

Cerise laughter, etc

Of course, the sentences need verbs to provide the power and action for the lists of colours and abstract nouns. Five minutes rapid brainstorming gave the class a considerable list. Rapid brainstorming is an important part of teaching writing. The brainstorm trains the mind to generate possibilities. During the writing, the writer than has to select and judge – what makes most impact, what works?

James then used shared writing on the flipchart to work with the children developing magical and mysterious sentences. It’s important to model the writing of a text so that the teacher can develop writerly habits such as ‘first thought isn’t always the best thought’. The task is fun, accessible and inclusive and encourages children to play with words without fear.

The children moved straight into writing independently, drawing on their lists of colours and abstract nouns, extending their own sentences. The class wrote in silence and at a pace.

Sapphire suns created golden shadows whilst an indigo moon conjured up a velvet nightmare.

A cobalt truth floated gently through the captured eternity as a gossamer spell darted violently through the ashen sky.

I asked James what he had learned and he replied:

– all children love being creative;

 – generating and judging ideas;

– going off at tangents / no limits;

– warming up the imagination.

My thanks to James Walker who is a class teacher and ‘Talk for Writing’ trainer. He runs training and development projects: https://www.talk4writing.com/train-with-us/james-walker/

Pie Corbett

Pie Corbett is a teacher-poet – his collection ‘Evidence of `Dragons’ is used in many classrooms. He has published and edited over 250 books, runs ‘Talk for Writing’ and was made an honorary Doctor of Letters for services to creativity, poetry and social justice by the Open University. During Lockdown, he produced a daily, interactive radio show based on developing children as readers and writers. Each show featured a guest poet or author and all 60 shows are available for free: https://radioblogging.net

Liz Brownlee: Shaping the Words

After every poem, job or project that involves shape poems I think, never again. They are uniquely testing in every conceivable way, and perhaps that is why, despite the agony, I inevitably find myself contemplating another shaping idea – because the challenge of, and the enjoyment in interlacing words, poem and art, is irresistible.

In 2018 I proposed editing an anthology of shape poems about people who have shaped our world, called Shaping the World.

Shape poems must start with an excellent poem, and require a certain degree of artistic talent, experience to know what will and won’t work, piles of patience and a skill and joy in playing with form. I received numerous excellent poems, some already brilliantly shaped, and a number with ideas for a shape, many of which worked and some which didn’t.

There are a plurality of things to consider – too many words and too few words can both present problems. The way a form lies on a page – it might be too wide for instance for the dimensions of the book. When presented as a shape, the poem must still be easy to read, and read left to right as much as possible.

Concrete poems are made entirely from words that convey the subject of the poem. They do not have to be the shape of the subject, but do communicate the meaning – this is Jane Clarke’s concrete poem about Socrates in Shaping the World, which uses only words to make the shape:

Socrates, © Jane Clarke, from an idea by Jane Clarke, shaped by Liz Brownlee

Sue Hardy Dawson’s Florence Nightingale poem is a shape poem, using words plus shapes available in the word processor of the computer:

Florence Nightingale and Athena, poem and shape © Sue Hardy-Dawson

Kate Wakeling’s Rosa Parks poem fills a shape already made:

Rosa Parks, poem and shape © Kate Wakeling

I use everything available in the word processor, whatever makes the most engaging shape!

Which brings me to Word. Word is amazingly powerful. Put a word into a text box and another tab opens in the top of your document – in this tab, ‘shape format’, you can remove the background to your text box, remove or add a line around it, and most thrillingly, you can warp the text in numerous ways within the text box. This is very helpful when making a shape. You can also insert geometric shapes, and warp it using ‘edit points’ to produce small details, things which have proved impossible to make in letters or words – a beak perhaps, or a foot.

It involves much trial and error. I look at images and try and find my subject in a position which allows the poem to begin and finish in appropriate places, that will be clearly recognisable made out of words. I might find it hard to shape a bird from above. A bird from the side on a branch is much easier!  This shape uses only Word:

It’s great if you can use a word or letter in its correct place to suggest part of a shape – conjunctions like this are very pleasing, but it’s not always possible. Here the hippo’s ears are made by the B in ‘but’:

Children do enjoy shape poems and are also open to turning the page to follow text as it curls in a spiral or loops to create a shape’s curve. I think a good shape poem should accurately describe the subject of the poem and pique interest in reading the poem itself – as well as be pleasing on the eye. I don’t believe there should be any other rules.

Hopefully there is someone, somewhere reading this, that has been inspired to experiment with their word processor!

Liz Brownlee

Liz Brownlee is an award-winning poet, poetry editor, film-maker and performer at all types of poetry and natural history event. She is the author, collaborator or editor of 7 books of poetry and is proud to be a National Poetry Day Ambassador. Shaping the World, 40 historical Heroes in Verse is published on the 1st April, 2021. Poetry Roundabout LizBrownleePoet @Lizpoet

Susannah Herbert: The 600 Citizen Poets of Lockdown

First, a confession.  In the eight years I spent running the Forward Arts Foundation, I was never comfortable talking about my job “in poetry”. For me, those in poetry were the poets and performers, who often doubled as impresarios, editors, publishers and teachers, even while holding down other jobs. These people, it seemed to me, worked in words as potters worked in clay. As makers, they represented something special, luminous – they were touched by the creative spark in a way that set them apart.

Since stepping back from day-to-day involvement with poetry, I’ve thought more about the changes I saw over those eight years: the growing recognition for poetry in the book trade, the media and libraries, an elision of the split between the written and spoken word, a participation surge big enough to win headlines. These days, the notion of creatives as creatures “apart” seems… inadequate.

Take the phenomenon of Haiflu, a portmanteau word coined by the young West Country poet Liv Torc, whose first lockdown response in March 2020 was to wonder what her friends were making of the new normal.

She used her Facebook page to ask for updates: in pictures and words, limiting written posts to three lines arranged in haiku form (5-7-5 syllables). The witty, touching, thoughtful responses kept coming, week after week, each like the opening of a window. Many were breathtaking: all were good in the sense of being true to a personal perception, a moment, a place, a shifting of the light.

I was bewitched by the possibilities of such a simple idea and knew others in the National Poetry Day network – libraries, schools, journalists – would be too. All Forward Arts Foundation had to do was put her in front of the right people, via the British Library’s Living Knowledge Network seminars, the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme or the Arts Council’s library experts.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

A year on, Project Haiflu has directly involved more than 600 “citizen artists” across the UK, with more than 10,000 individual poems shared with Liv for possible inclusion in her weekly short films, tying together pictures and words with music by her composer husband, Richard Monks. Now Liv, who spent much of the summer hospitalized with an auto-immune disorder, has just won a proper Arts Council England grant to turn the project into a participative show touring village halls, plus a book.

I first knew Liv as a poet, one of the dozen working with National Poetry Day and BBC Local Radio as a #BBCLocalPoet in 2019. (See her fine poem about Somerset.) But it’s only when we caught up this week on the usual stuff – health, children, what’s driving us mad or keeping us going – that I realised how much she’d changed the way I understand the working of poetry.

 “2020 turned me into a better artist”, she wrote, “because within the restrictions of lockdown I learned how to adapt my practice and continue to hold creative spaces for people. Feeling inept as an individual to report back on unfolding events, I became a weaver.” 

To hold space, to weave, to feel inept alone. Oh yes, this resonates. (That’s an inadvertent haiflu: sorry).  Liv’s creativity cannot be summed up in her own work, but exists among the furloughed librarians and laid-off office-workers who adapted the #haiflu hashtag for use in their communities, among those who found words for their disturbed senses in response to the tentative attempts of others, lonely and fearful like them… like us

That’s how poetry works. I’m glad to be in it.

Susannah Herbert

Read more about Liv Torc and Haiflu on www.livtorc.co.uk

Susannah Herbert ran the Forward Arts Foundation, the charity responsible for National Poetry Day and the Forward Prizes, from September 2012 to January 2021. She is currently working with St John Ambulance, and learning from other vaccination volunteers – mainly furloughed airline stewards – how to improve her bedside manner.

Rachel Piercey: Loud Objects, A Poetry Workshop

Loud Objects: a Poetry Workshop

Now that all the brilliant teachers are back in the classroom in person, I thought it might be helpful to share a poem-resource which I have used many times and which I’ve found to be a reliable prompt for imaginative responses. It’s pretty quick, easily adaptable, and you can write a simpler poem with KS1 or a more complex one with KS2.

The session is based around this poem of mine:

Voices

Tree considers:

Soil or sky, which is my home?

Stone remembers:

I had wings when I was thrown.

Book exhales:

See me jacketed with dust.

Gate creaks:

Hear me speak, my voice of rust.

Computer whirrs:

My poor head… so fever-full.

Mountain thunders:

Sometimes, I feel small.

Violet pipes:

Oh visit, gold-striped bees.

Swallow’s refrain:

Please send me a feathered breeze.

Maze confesses:

No idea where I am going!

Girl declares:

I’ll write this all into my poem.

After reading the poem, I recap personification and explain that I was wondering what humans would hear if they could listen in on inanimate / non-speaking objects. What emotions, secrets and surprises would be spilled?

I tell them that the first draft of this poem had ‘says’ after every object – but in the redrafting process, I decided this was too repetitive, and that I was missing the chance to use more vivid and interesting verbs to describe the voices of my objects. (Plus one noun – the swallow’s “refrain” – because I listened to a recording of swallow-song and it repeated the same whirrs and trills over and over!)

Then we gather ideas for objects together. We look around the classroom first (a clock is always popular and works well), then think more widely. We gather a big pool of words, making sure to mix up manmade and natural, domestic and grand. If you are focusing on a particular subject in class (from the water cycle to the Victorians and anything in between!) you can narrow the selection to objects related to that theme.

I’ve found that it works best to think first about what the clock / kettle / ocean / games console / tiger / football / top hat etc might want to say. Then after we’ve settled on something surprising or insightful, we choose an interesting verb to go with it. This can be a useful opportunity to use some onomatopoeia as well.  

You can create as many couplets as you have time for. It can be a class poem, or once they’ve got the hang of the structure, pupils can write their own poems individually / in pairs etc.

Finally, when using this for a class poem, I invite new ideas for a title – ‘Voices’ is a bit boring! It’s like a final statement of ownership of the poem and every class I’ve worked with has come up with something really quite beautiful and profound. Poets like to look closely at the world in new ways, and this is exactly what they’ve done!

If you use this prompt with your class, I’d love to see the poems you come up with. Feel free to contact me via my website for some feedback on your pupils’ poems, or tag me on Twitter @RachelPoet / on Instagram @rachelpierceywriter

Rachel Piercey

Rachel Piercey is a freelance writer and tutor. She has co-edited three children’s poetry anthologies with the Emma Press and regularly performs and runs poetry workshops in schools. If You Go Down to the Woods Today, her picture book set in a magical woodland illustrated by Freya Hartas, full of poems to read and things to find, is published by Magic Cat today! rachelpierceypoet.com

Natasha Ryan: Charlotte Brontë Knows How to Do the Worm

Charlotte Brontë Knows How to Do the Worm

I joined The Poetry Society as Education Officer in April as a maternity cover. My main role is organising the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, which has just opened for entries again – visit foyleyoungpoets.org to learn more.

When I took the job, I was especially looking forward to attending poetry readings in the Poetry Café in London, as well as young poets’ showcases in schools and arts venues. Hindsight is, as they say, 20/20.

Like many arts organisations over the last year, The Poetry Society has moved much of its live activity online: from the recent bicentennial Keats celebrations to launches of our quarterly Poetry Review, Zoom has become the dominant mode of interaction with our audiences, an ill-fitting peg in a Betterton Street-shaped hole. The same is true of our work with young people, where we’ve had to adapt to variables like students’ learning from home, increased teacher workload, different safeguarding concerns, and an awareness of new pressures on young people’s mental health.

One of the most rewarding aspects of our young people’s work is the strong sense of community our young poets form, whether through shared activities as winners of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, or through Young Poets Network. We were especially keen not to lose this.

Mindful that social distancing is not optimal for forging such connections, it would have been easy to be all zoom and gloom. However, the new structures imposed on us revealed a surprising silver lining. For instance, at the last Foyle Young Poets awards ceremony, we were not only joined by more international winners than usual, but also by large school groups whom we could not normally host at an in-person event. In one case, an entire year group joined the event to support their peers.

Last month, we ran an online writing course for the 15 top winners of the award. Over the course of two days, the young poets participated in eleven hours of workshops and sharing sessions to encourage them to develop their craft, build confidence, and support one another.

Undeniably, it was a lot of screen time. But despite the Zoom fatigue, the technology also offered certain advantages: written responses to prompts could be shared instantly and simultaneously using the chat function; for young people sharing their work for the first time, being in the comfort of their own homes reduced anxiety; and the resources we shared onscreen could be edited in real time, giving the participants agency in shaping the material. What’s more, although the nerve-wracking moment when the participants had to unmute themselves before voicing an idea introduced delays into discussions, it was also an important process – the technology forced them actively to give themselves permission to be heard. Once they relaxed into this, they embraced the surreal nature of some of the tasks, so that an ideas-generating exercise prompted unexpected phrases like “Charlotte Brontë knows how to do the worm”, while one participant wrote a villanelle about sweet potatoes that very afternoon.

I’d be lying if I said I’m not looking forward to in-person events again, but I hope we retain some of the benefits of the online format and use it to reach audiences further afield. The paradox of this age of social distancing is that although we feel further apart from friends and family, we can be in the same Zoom room as someone thousands of miles away. When you think about it, that’s an even more extraordinary notion than, say, Charlotte Brontë doing the worm.

The Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award is free to enter and is open to poets aged 11-17 anywhere in the world. Enter online at foyleyoungpoets.org by 31 July 2021.

Natasha Ryan

Natasha Ryan is the Education Officer at The Poetry Society. She manages the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award and supports the delivery of slam programmes and Artsmark at The Poetry Society. She has previously worked as an Outreach Officer for the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, University of Oxford, and in 2017 she completed a doctorate on the representation of glass in nineteenth-century French and Belgian poetry.

Janetta Otter-Barry: Publishing Poetry – Thoughts About Age Level

Publishing poetry – thoughts about age level…

Firstly, there are no precise age-level demarcations in poetry and there never should be! A poem works on many different levels and will light a spark for a reader in different ways, whatever their age.

Otter-Barry Books

James Carter says Take a Poem, published in Zim Zam Zoom! (illustrated by Nicola Colton and categorised as 3 plus), finds many fans with Year Sixes. They love the upbeat simplicity and reassurance, with its universal message.

From Zim Zam Zoom, James Carter, illustrated by Nicola Colton

Secondly – trust the poet! Children’s poets spend huge amounts of time in schools and libraries, performing and workshopping with classes from Early Years to Year Six. They know exactly what works for different year groups. If a poet comes to us with a Key Stage 2 collection, we are generally happy to trust their judgement. And often, if we’ve queried a poem as being too young or too sophisticated, it turns out to be one of the favourites in performance!

Otter-Barry Books

But there are some guidelines. A collection for young children – nursery/KS1 – will work best presented in colour as a picture book, like Zim Zam Zoom! and our new collection, Caterpillar Cake by Matt Goodfellow, illustrated by Krina Patel-Sage (August). The topics are everyday early childhood experiences, pets, the natural world; the poems are gentle, reassuring, fun, with a touch of adventure and fantasy. They’re perfect for reading aloud, with repetition and interaction, and the pictures are hugely important.

From Caterpillar Cake, by Matt Goodfellow

For KS1/2 we look for a rich variety of topics – family, friendships, school experiences, exploring different forms, and also feelings and emotions. Plenty that a child of around seven plus would relate to in their life, but also cross-curricular poems on historical figures, global issues,  conservation, the natural world. Not much is off-limits but we are wary of poems that seem too dark or frightening, without a positive outcome.

Otter-Barry Books

In Stars with Flaming Tails, Val Bloom and I took out one poem that we felt was too bleak and dystopian, maybe more suitable for a child of 12 plus. Though we did keep in the poignant poem about a child soldier, where the language and approach speaks more gently to a primary-aged child.

From Stars With Flaming Tails by Valerie Bloom, illustrated by Ken Wilson-Max

In other places the mood is lightened by funny poems, riddles and wordplay.

Otter-Barry Books

James Carter’s Weird, Wild and Wonderful has exactly that rich variety of styles, moods and interest levels, and appeals to children from Year 2 to Year 6 and beyond.

Otter-Barry Books

Our new KS2 collection about thoughts, worries and feelings, Being Me, by Liz Brownlee, Matt Goodfellow and Laura Mucha, launches ahead of Mental Health Awareness Week in May. This book captures a whole range of emotions that children of all ages experience, but is presented in a way particularly accessible to 7-11s. The characters are primary-age children, going through challenging experiences, drawing recognition and empathy from the reader. Based on personal experience in the classroom and with advice on level from a clinical psychologist, complex issues are explored.  Illustrations by Victoria Jane Wheeler plus exciting fonts and shapes also bring the poems alive, as in Snail by Laura Mucha.

From Being Me, by Liz Brownlee, Matt Goodfellow and Laura Mucha

At KS3, 12 and up, the level is perhaps easier to identify. In Hey Girl!, Rachel Rooney’s new collection, illustrated by her son Milo Hartnoll and publishing in July, we ‘live’ the poems through a young teenage girl  as she battles her way towards adulthood, navigating life with that intensity of experience that occurs between twelve and sixteen.

The language is still accessible, but richly layered – just right for a teenage reader, as beautifully encapsulated by Battle Call.

From Hey Girl! by Rachel Rooney, Illustrated by Milo Hartnoll

So, yes, some guidance on age level helps teachers, librarians and booksellers bring books and readers together, but as James Carter says, “Poems don’t come with an age sticker, and who’s to say who they’re for?” Let’s rejoice that a poem can connect with children of all ages, and adults too.

Janetta Otter-Barry

Janetta Otter-Barry is the founder and publisher of Otter-Barry Books, an award-winning independent children’s publisher with a focus on diversity and inclusion. Otter-Barry publish picture books, young fiction, graphic novels and information books as well as an acclaimed poetry list. The first books were published in May 2016, since when six poetry titles have been shortlisted for the prestigious CLiPPA award. Otter-Barry Books.

Jonathan Douglas: A Smile That Can Never Fade

Every week at the National Literacy Trust I look forward to our ‘poem of the week’ – a poem shared by a colleague that they like or that means something to them. We’ve had everything from Keats to Stormzy via Imtiaz Dharker and Dr Seuss. In one particularly memorable poem of the week, our website manager Greg shared Hello Mr Python by Spike Milligan for Reptile Awareness Day (21st October, in case you’re wondering). It was the first piece of writing he memorised as a 7 year old and he took great pleasure in reciting it to anyone who’d listen. He loved that a grown-up had taken time out of their busy adult life to write a collection of poems for children like him and how daft and irreverent the poem was – coupled with some excellent python facts. It was a brilliant reminder that the poems children enjoy can stay with them well into their adult life. Even if we don’t remember every single word, the memory of the joy it brought us doesn’t fade.

Over the last year the poems colleagues have shared have included messages of hope and positivity. Last week our brilliant knowledge manager (and unofficial poem of the week champion) Emily shared Samuel Beckett’s earliest known poem, written when he was aged between 14 and 16 and found in his friend’s school album:

When a bit of sunshine hits you

After passing of a cloud

And a bit of laughter gets you

And your spine is feeling proud

Don’t forget to up and fling it

At a soul that’s feeling blue

For the moment that you sling it

It’s a boomerang to you.

This one particularly resonated because I think we could all use ‘a bit of sunshine’ in the current circumstances.

As a form poetry connects us with our emotions perhaps more than any other. Our research into children’s writing during the first lockdown showed us that this is true for children too. We saw that for children who wrote more in their spare time during that period, they did so because it made them feel creative and it helped their wellbeing. For children who told us that writing makes them feel better – poetry was the most popular form. In many ways it was not surprising that poetry was more popular than diaries, fiction or song lyrics. Poetry distils creativity and emotions on a page, no matter what age we are.

I’m next on our poem of the week rota and it’s usually a challenging job to pick the right poem but this week I’m going to stay on theme and share a bit of sunshine. The Store Full of Magical Things by Rutendo Tavengerai is included in The Book of Hopes anthology and I hope it will bring a smile to the faces of my National Literacy Trust colleagues.

Over the next half term we’re thrilled to be working with BUPA to produce wellbeing resources on Zone In, our website for young people aged 13 and over; rest assured there will be lots of poetry.

Jonathan Douglas

Jonathan Douglas CBE is Chief Executive of the National Literacy Trust. Previously he was Head of Policy Development at the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, where he also worked as Head of Learning and Access. Prior to that, he was Professional Adviser for Youth and School Libraries at the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals. He has also worked as a librarian and in children’s services for Westminster Libraries. Jonathan is on the Advisory Committee of The Booker Prize, a trustee for World Book Day and The Philosophy Foundation, and Chair of Governors at his local primary school. In 2020 Jonathan was awarded a CBE for services to education.

Dawn Finch: The Icy Waters of the Digital Seas

This time last year we were all looking forward to a year of events and school visits and we had no clue that what was about to hit us was going to change the landscape of our work forever. This year all of us have had to rapidly adapt and even reimagine how we work, and I am endlessly impressed by how creatives have managed to navigate these new and very rocky waters and still stay afloat. One question I am being asked a lot is if I think physical school visits will ever return.

It is clear that Covid may place dramatic restrictions on what we are able to do for quite some time yet, and we’d be foolish to not acknowledge that. We have all plunged into the icy waters of the digital seas, but it turns out they were not as shark infested as we feared!

When this all began I was one of those who never did anything digitally (apart from a few frustrating meetings) and I would have resisted taking my presence online. Now, I’m not sure I actually want to go back to travelling up and down the country for things and I’ve become quite relaxed on camera. I’ve had messages from many creatives who have found new and exciting income streams via digital means, and some who have started doing digital and virtual visits after stopping doing physical ones for some years.

The rapid shift to digital visits has meant we’ve all had a lot of extra things to think about. I would strongly advise people to create or adapt their event booking contracts to fit virtual visits. Take into account things like the possibility of last minute cancellations, and to make sure that your rights are protected. If you are a Society of Authors member you can always have your contracts vetted and you can seek advice for contracts you might be writing yourself. The Society of Authors has some very helpful guidance for virtual visits, and you don’t have to be a member to access it.

Yes, the landscape of school visits has changed and I don’t think it will be “the way it was before” and that is because I am hopeful it will be better. I am hopeful that we will move to a time where we have the choice to have a digital and/or a physical presence. We’re not looking to go back to how it was “before”, but to a new way of working where the borders, boundaries and barriers we used to have around us have digitally fallen away.

Everything I’m hearing also leads me to believe that there is a great desire to have “real” visits again. I am absolutely convinced that as soon as people are able they will be booking school visits again. I am hopeful that the hunger for physical visits in schools will be such that we should all be prepared for it!

We all want those wonderful life-affirming visits when we can sign a book and answer questions and hear the live laughter and excitement of the audience. These days will come again because teachers, librarians and booksellers are as desperate for this to start again as we are.

Until then, plan your virtual visits with care, check your contracts, and value your digital presence as much you would value your physical presence.

Dawn Finch

Dawn Finch is the current chair of the Society of Authors’ Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group (CWIG). Dawn is a poet and writer and has both written and contributed to many children’s non-fiction books. She has twice won the Brian Nisbett Poetry Award, and is in the process of writing a poetry book for children.

Lorraine Mariner: ELoans for Children and Young People at the National Poetry Library

Though we’re currently unable to welcome visitors to the National Poetry Library, behind the scenes we continue to collect all new UK poetry publications for children and adults, ready for reopening later this year. In 2014 we launched an ebook collection and during lockdown this has really come into its own, enabling our members to continue to read the latest poetry publications. Over the last few months we have added to the books and audio available for children and young people poetrylibrary.overdrive.com

Children’s poets featured range from stellar names such as Roger McGough, Grace Nichols and Michael Rosen, through to new stars on the scene including Joseph Coelho, Matt Goodfellow and Kate Wakeling. Recent additions are the anthologies Midnight Feasts: Tasty Poems edited by A. F. Harrold with illustrations by Katy Riddell (shortlisted for the 2020 Clippa Poetry Award), I Bet I Can Make You Laugh poems by Joshua Seigel and friends, and young adult verse novel Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and prison reform activist Yusef Salaam. The collection ranges from titles for the very young through to novels in verse for teenagers. Audio highlights include beloved American children’s poet Jack Prelutsky reading his work and The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, read by Edith Bowman, Guy Garvey, Cerys Matthews and Benjamin Zephaniah.

The ebooks work in much the same way as the physical books in our collection. A title can be borrowed by one person for up to two weeks. We allow a member to loan two titles at a time and reserve two titles. They can be read or listened to on a laptop or computer through the web browser, or the Overdrive app can be downloaded and they can also be accessed on a tablet or smartphone. Members can also make recommendations.

We host our eloans through Overdrive, so a title has to be available on the Overdrive platform for us to be able to purchase it for the collection. What has been encouraging for us this last year is to have some publishers contact Overdrive to get their books added to the platform so we can offer them to our members.

The service is free to join. All we require is proof of a UK address via email. The parents or guardians of under-16s can sign up on their behalf. Email info@poetrylibrary.org.uk for more information (and with any other poetry related questions – our enquiry service remains open).

At this time of year we’d usually be gearing up for the Imagine Children’s Literature Festival at Southbank Centre, when we host poetry readings for children in the library. Three of our past Imagine events can be found on Soundcloud:

Poems from a Green and Blue Planet a celebration of this anthology of poems about the natural world led by its editor Sabrina Mahfouz.

Amazingly Magical Poems featuring two of our favourite picture book poets, Peter Bently and Jeanne Willis, and teller of tall tales, Andra Simons.

Incredibly Incorrigible Poems featuring Liz Brownlee, John Lyons and Kate Wakeling.

We can’t wait to welcome families and class visits back to the National Poetry Library when it’s safe to reopen but in the meantime we hope our ebook collection and audio might provide a diversion during the current lockdown.

Lorraine Mariner

Lorraine Mariner is an Assistant Librarian at the National Poetry Library and has published two poetry collections for adults with Picador, Furniture (2009) and There Will Be No More Nonsense (2014). She has recently published a chapbook with Grey Suit Editions Anchorage (2020).