Roger Stevens: Are Song Lyrics Poetry?

Are Song Lyrics Poetry?

As well as being a poet I am a musician, and I write songs. This year, on the suggestion of my record label, I published a book of the words to my songs, called Lyrics (2001 to 2021). This, of course, raised the inevitable question: Can lyrics stand on their own, can they be poetry? Or do they only really work when they are part of a song, being held up by a good tune?

Two of the world’s best songwriters recently joined the debate. Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 for having created new poetic expressions within the Great American Song tradition. There was, and still is, some controversy over this. But how can lines like

The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face

Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place

(from Visions of Johanna)

or

Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay
You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way

(from Mississippi)

not be read as poems?

Paul McCartney, too, is publishing a book with a title not unlike mine. As well as containing his lyrics, it tells the stories behind the words and about the songs they inhabit. Interestingly, the book has been edited by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon who, himself, has published a collection called The Word on the Street, poems that double as rock songs.

Fans of Shel Silverstein’s children’s poetry are often unaware that he wrote hits for Doctor Hook and Johnny Cash. Many contemporary children’s poets use their guitars, or percussion, to perform poems to music – e.g. Brian Moses, James Carter, Eric Ode. 

Folk singers often draw on the ballad tradition where stories (often about politics or a special event or remarkable person) have become poems which then turned into songs. 

The lyrics of many singer-songwriters stand up very well on their own. I’m thinking Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. And in the rock genre, Patti Smith. I don’t think Dylan set out to write poetry – he sees himself primarily as a songwriter. But the structure of lyrics and songs do have much in common.

Generally lyrics also need their tune. Dylan’s lyrics work well on the page, but come alive when they are sung. The words to Waterloo Sunset, written by Ray Davies, are lovely – Terry meets Julie, Waterloo station, Every Friday night – but they really conjure up special pictures when sung by the Kinks. 

It can work in reverse, too. Many classical poems have been set to music. In German these are Liede; as a collection they are known as a Song Cycle. In more recent times, when I ran a school choir, we found some of Allan Ahlberg’s Please Mrs Butler poems set to music. They sound as brilliant as a choral work as they do as poems. 

Most of us learn some of our first words through poetry – for that is what a nursery rhyme is; and many picture books feature verse. We learn rhythms and rhymes as babies and toddlers and with nursery rhymes this is often set to music. Songs, lyrics and poems are hugely important at the beginning of our lives and we hold them in our subconscious. Music often takes centre stage later on. Some music does not honour or showcase the lyrics but it still speaks to you – but when songs do allow the words to be clearly heard, what really matters is that they move you, through your head or your heart, in some way. Perhaps it’s when the words are as important as the music that the lyrics have become a poem as well as words to a song. 

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.

Roger Stevens: Are Song Lyrics Poetry?

Are Song Lyrics Poetry?

As well as being a poet I am a musician, and I write songs. This year, on the suggestion of my record label, I published a book of the words to my songs, called Lyrics (2001 to 2021). This, of course, raised the inevitable question: Can lyrics stand on their own, can they be poetry? Or do they only really work when they are part of a song, being held up by a good tune?

Two of the world’s best songwriters recently joined the debate. Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 for having created new poetic expressions within the Great American Song tradition. There was, and still is, some controversy over this. But how can lines like

The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face

Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place

(from Visions of Johanna)

or

Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay
You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way

(from Mississippi)

not be read as poems?

Paul McCartney, too, is publishing a book with a title not unlike mine. As well as containing his lyrics, it tells the stories behind the words and about the songs they inhabit. Interestingly, the book has been edited by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon who, himself, has published a collection called The Word on the Street, poems that double as rock songs.

Fans of Shel Silverstein’s children’s poetry are often unaware that he wrote hits for Doctor Hook and Johnny Cash. Many contemporary children’s poets use their guitars, or percussion, to perform poems to music – e.g. Brian Moses, James Carter, Eric Ode. 

Folk singers often draw on the ballad tradition where stories (often about politics or a special event or remarkable person) have become poems which then turned into songs. 

The lyrics of many singer-songwriters stand up very well on their own. I’m thinking Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. And in the rock genre, Patti Smith. I don’t think Dylan set out to write poetry – he sees himself primarily as a songwriter. But the structure of lyrics and songs do have much in common.

Generally lyrics also need their tune. Dylan’s lyrics work well on the page, but come alive when they are sung. The words to Waterloo Sunset, written by Ray Davies, are lovely – Terry meets Julie, Waterloo station, Every Friday night – but they really conjure up special pictures when sung by the Kinks. 

It can work in reverse, too. Many classical poems have been set to music. In German these are Liede; as a collection they are known as a Song Cycle. In more recent times, when I ran a school choir, we found some of Allan Ahlberg’s Please Mrs Butler poems set to music. They sound as brilliant as a choral work as they do as poems. 

Most of us learn some of our first words through poetry – for that is what a nursery rhyme is; and many picture books feature verse. We learn rhythms and rhymes as babies and toddlers and with nursery rhymes this is often set to music. Songs, lyrics and poems are hugely important at the beginning of our lives and we hold them in our subconscious. Music often takes centre stage later on. Some music does not honour or showcase the lyrics but it still speaks to you – but when songs do allow the words to be clearly heard, what really matters is that they move you, through your head or your heart, in some way. Perhaps it’s when the words are as important as the music that the lyrics have become a poem as well as words to a song. 

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: Working with Idioms and Proverbs

Working with Idioms and Proverbs

Take a proverb (a popular expression) and innovate.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’

might become

‘A camel in the park is worth six in the theatre aisle’.

In Cornwall, they have an interesting idiom that is worth discussing, ‘the tongue-less man gets his land took’. I innovated on that expression:

In Cornwall they say,

The tongue-less man gets his tongue took.

In Argyllshire they say,

The thoughtless camel gets its hump stolen.

In Gloucestershire they say,

The worthless crown gets its thorns trimmed.

In Yorkshire they say,

The hopeless hero gets his bravery burned.

In Liverpool they say,

The harmless rumour gets its beard singed

In Galway Bay they say,

The timeless clock gets its hands cuffed.

Try playing the game where expressions are taken literally, e.g.

The detectives said

the books had been cooked.

(They tasted good).

My teacher said we could

have a free hand.

(I added it to my collection).

Some people bottle up

their feelings.

(I keep mine in a jar).

My Mother said,

“Hold your tongue!”

(It was too slippery).

In the school races,

I licked everyone in the class.

(It made my tongue sore).

Here is a bank of possible idioms to play with:

How to Invent new proverbs.

First, take an even number of proverbs.

Next, cut them in half.

Still waters  /   run deep.

Too many cooks  /  spoil the broth.

Finally, stick them together in the wrong order:

Still waters spoil the broth.

Too many cooks run deep.

Pie Corbett

Pie Corbett is a teacher-poet – his collection ‘Evidence of `Dragons’ is 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. He runs online training for teachers and every Monday works with about 6,000 children on @TeachingLive, running writing sessions of poetry, creative nonfiction and story. 

Lorraine Mariner: NPL IRL! The National Poetry Library is Open!

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is lorraine-at-sbc.jpg

NPL IRL! The National Poetry Library is Open!

Since my last post for this blog, about the National Poetry Library eloans collection for children and young people, I’m delighted to say that you can come and visit us again and borrow actual books In Real Life – we’re open!  We are currently having some maintenance work done so we have limited space, please check our website here http://www.nationalpoetrylibrary.org.uk/visit we would be so pleased to see you in the library soon. It was a very special day for the NPL team when we reopened on 28th May and unveiled a new rainbow design on our rolling shelves.

© Takis Zontiros

And a new section for Young Adults:

Having a more prominent Young Adult section was always a dream of my former colleague and Children’s Poetry Summit member Pascal O’Loughlin, who has now moved on to pastures new in the Wirral, so it was a thrill to send him a photo of this and some of our recent Young Adult additions.

We continued to collect books during our closure and here are some of my favourite purchases from the past year for our children’s collection.

Anyone with a UK address can sign up to join the National Poetry Library. Children can become members too and borrow 4 books at a time. We’re open Tuesday 12-6 and Wednesday-Sunday 12-8. You can find us on Level 5 of the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre. If you can’t visit us in London in person you can still sign up to our eloans collection.

Like all other libraries and cultural centres we continue to grapple with the new normal and what the winter months may bring. Our much loved Little Library space for children in our foyer remains closed until early next year and our schools workshops are currently on hold, as is our weekly Rug Rhymes session for under-5s. I miss these sessions very much, especially as my nephew, born during lockdown, has recently learned to roar during ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’ and clap during ‘If You’re Happy and You Know It’ and has yet to see his auntie lead these songs in a professional capacity. Plus, there are some new rhyming picture books we can’t wait to include at this session. We hope to revamp and relaunch our children’s programme for Spring 2021 and will have some exciting news to share about Southbank Centre’s schools programme in the coming months.

© Takis Zontiros

In the meantime, we’re delighted to announce the return of the National Poetry Library Open Day on Saturday 23rd October on the theme of Friendship as part of the London Literature Festival.

This is a chance for us to display recent acquisitions, including books for children, and specially curated displays. This year we also have two activities, open to children as well as adults, where we’re inviting visitors to get creative on a postcard that we will ink stamp to send to a friend and the chance to make a Friendship themed mini-zine (materials provided).  Come along from 11am and help us create a mini-zine friendship library!

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), and two pamphlets Bye For Now (The Rialto, 2005) and Anchorage (Grey Suit Editions, 2020).

Shauna Darling Robertson: Guerrilla Poetry

Guerrilla Poetry

I love being surprised by poetry, whether that means finding a poem in a fresh voice, an unusual style, a different format or an unexpected place.

In my book Saturdays at the Imaginarium there’s a poem called ‘The Poetry Guerrilla’ featuring a mysterious character who sneaks poems into strange locations for people to find – inside a boiled egg, etched onto an aspirin, etc. I was thrilled when a London school got in touch to say that the poem inspired them to create their own guerrilla poetry project for National Poetry Day, which got me thinking about some of the wonderful things I’ve come across since I started getting interested in poetry guerrilla-ing. Here are a few of them, in the hope that one or two might inspire some guerrilla tactics of your own!

Poetry ‘bombing’ What if cities that have suffered wartime bombings could experience a different sort of ‘bombing’ – one where poems rain down instead of missiles? Chilean art collective Casagrande staged five ‘Poetry Rain’ projects in different cities, as a protest against war. In this video you can see what happened when 100,000 poems were dropped from a helicopter over London’s Southbank. “But I don’t have access to a helicopter,” I hear you say. Okay, so how might you adapt this concept to do something on a smaller scale?

Pay with a poem Did you know that you can pay for a coffee with a handwritten poem on World Poetry Day each March? Coffee company Julius Meinl kicked off the idea in 2013 and it went global, with people around the world penning limericks for lattes and elegies for espressos. Here’s a video from the 2016 event. No need to wait for coffee time though… how else might you turn poems into valuable currency?

The street sign poet Stroll around London’s Kentish Town and you might see ‘the parachute of intrigue’, ‘the girl made of mist’ or ‘the heart is a crazy bus driver’. “There is a street sign outside our place on Islip Street,” explains local poet Mark Waddell. “It’s there to make folks think, chuckle and ruminate.” Discover more at Mark Waddell’s blog.

Poem in Your Pocket Day Poem in Your Pocket Day takes place every year in the USA (April 29th in 2021). The idea began in New York City, then spread across the USA and into Canada. UK, anyone? The basic idea is to carry a poem in your pocket and share it with everyone you meet that day. More info and ideas here.

Wear a poem Miami-based artist Augustina Woodgate sewed paper tags carrying lines of poetry into second-hand clothes for sale in charity shops. Buy a t-shirt, find a poem! You can read more in this news article. If you’re working with kids, needles and sneaking into shops are probably out. But there are lots of ways to ‘wear a poem’, right?

Edible poems Guerillas need to keep their strength up, and what better food than poetry! Poetry Digest, edited by Swithun Cooper and Chrissy Williams, was a magazine that iced poems onto cakes – and invited the Young Poets Network to join in. Find out more and read the poems (which, luckily, were photographed before being gobbled) at The Young Poets Network.

That’s all for now (though I do have more if you’re interested!). I’d love to hear about any guerrilla poetry projects you might create or come across. Drop me a line or tag me on twitter at @ShaunaDarRob,

PS. If you’re going to get into poetry guerrilla-ing, do keep your common sense about you. Stay safe, respect others and the natural environment, and never confuse a poetry guerrilla with a poetry gorilla.

Shauna Darling Robertson

Shauna Darling Robertson’s poems for adults and children have been performed by actors, displayed on buses, used as song lyrics, turned into comic art, made into short films and published in a variety of books and magazines. Her first solo collection for children is Saturdays at the Imaginarium (Troika, 2020). A second, You Are Not Alone, written with support from Arts Council England, is forthcoming (Troika, 2022). www.shaunadarlingrobertson.com @ShaunaDarRob

Rachel Piercey: Tyger Tyger

Introducing Tyger Tyger Magazine

I am thrilled to introduce Tyger Tyger Magazine, a new online journal of poems for children which will soon be accepting submissions for the first issue. Establishing a magazine of children’s poetry is something I’ve been dreaming of for a long time – and now I’ve finally taken the leap.

© Imogen Foxell

Once a term, Tyger Tyger Magazine will publish twelve poems on a shared theme, by contemporary writers from across the world. Selected poems in each issue will come with free teaching resources, and each poem will be available as a free, downloadable, printable poster. I love how the walls of primary school classrooms are always bright and bustling with creativity, and this will make it easy to add a poem or two into the mix. I want these poems to roar in as many dimensions as possible!

© Imogen Foxell

I really hope this will be welcome news for writers of children’s poetry. Poets who write for adults have a vast number of submission opportunities, and I know myself how helpful it is to have a focus for new writing, and how exciting it is to see your work appear in conversation with other new poems. It’s also exhilaratingly easy, as a reader of poetry, to find magazines full of brand-new poems to be stirred, entertained and astonished by. But if you write poems for children, there are far fewer opportunities. And I believe it’s equally important for children’s poets to have a direction, testing ground and showcase for new work. Jonathan Humble has recently launched a children’s poetry magazine too – the gorgeous Dirigible Balloon, already sailing with lots of lovely poems – so there are at least two new places to submit this year. I hope more and more children’s poetry magazines will open up in time!

© Imogen Foxell

The name Tyger Tyger comes, of course, from the poem by William Blake. As soon as it occurred to me, I knew I’d found my title. The real-life creature stalks inside it: wild and mighty, precious and playful. For those who know Blake’s poem, it conjures awe-filled questions about existence. The archaic spelling gifts a twist of strangeness. And there’s the sense of an echo or an invocation in the repetition, which is one of my favourite poetic devices. Blake’s tyger makes you feel something powerful and so do the poems I love best, and which I want to publish in the magazine.

I am extremely lucky to have a wonderful editorial team around me: Rakhshan Rizwan, Kate Wakeling and Helen Steffens. I have spent countless happy hours talking about poetry and writing for children with these incredible women, and they bring a vast range of expertise to the magazine, as readers and writers and lovers of children’s literature. I am excited and honoured that they will be helping me to choose the poems for each issue.

© Imogen Foxell

The artwork for the magazine is by the hugely talented Imogen Foxell. She was the first artist I thought of – I’d encountered her work via The Poetry Society’s Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, and her magical, characterful illustrations exactly chimed with my vision for the magazine. I absolutely love the logo and the tygers she has created; they are compelling creatures, full of dreamy majesty and mystery, and they pounce and prowl off the page.

The website will be fully launched soon, with details of the first call for submissions, and the first twelve poems will launch in January 2022. In the meantime, you can sign up to the mailing list to keep up to date with new issues and submission opportunities. You can also follow Tyger Tyger Magazine on our new Twitter account, @tygertygermag. Join in and help us to burn bright!

Rachel Piercey

Rachel Piercey writes for adults and for children. Her poetry picture book, If You Go Down to the Woods Today (Magic Cat, illustrated by Freya Hartas), came out in March 2021 and has been translated into nineteen different languages. Her latest poetry pamphlet is Disappointing Alice (HappenStance Press, 2019). www.rachelpierceypoet.com

Gaby Morgan: Publishing Magic

Even after almost 30 years, I am still grateful and delighted on a daily basis that I get to make and publish poetry books with brilliant, inspiring poets and editors.

At Macmillan Children’s Books we currently publish around ten poetry titles a year – we publish titles for moments and events, like International Women’s Day, the Football World Cup and Remembrance Day, books that will particularly be enjoyed in schools and big gift books for Christmas.

I am lucky enough to get sent a lot of ideas for poetry collections, and I love talking to poets about them and exploring how we might be able to publish in the best way. There is a kind of publishing magic that happens when just the right theme is matched with the perfect angle or twist. I have published at least 20 books of football poems, 10 books of Christmas poems and 30 books of school poems, but it is the extra something, the hook that a poet or anthologist brings that makes all the difference, to ensure that we are not walking over the same ground again and again. It means that I can sell the idea to our in house teams, so that they can sell the idea to bookshops and in turn the retailers can sell them to customers. It is that magic that makes children choose them.

I love this poem which is by Paul Cookson and features in School Trips:

Short Visit, Long Stay

The school trip was a special occasion

But we never reached our destination

Instead of the Zoo

I was locked in the loo

On an M62 Service Station.

Once we have our idea and the book is acquired the anthologist contacts a wide group of poets, shares the concept with them and asks for submissions. For a 60 poem collection an anthologist will usually send me around 80 poems to look at. I love reading these manuscripts – every anthologist has a particular style or voice that comes through in the story they tell with the poems. Some manuscripts are perfect, but mostly they take a bit of tweaking as we try different running orders and call in a few more poems to fill any gaps. Anthologists weave their books together with great skill, and sometimes that might mean leaving out some beautiful pieces that don’t quite fit and instead searching out pieces that chime in the right way. We may have to reshuffle a book to keep it within its permissions budget and last-minute changes can often lead to stunning new discoveries.

Some books evolve dramatically – Chris Riddell’s Poems to Save the World With started off as a hymn to the environment and kindness in a strange post-Brexit world, but then Covid happened mid-edit and it became about hope, consolation. It includes this beautiful poem by Nikita Gill:

Kindness

And maybe it is easier to learn kindness in these times.

When the whole world is like a small child with a fever,

trying her very best to make herself feel better.

Maybe we find our unity in the near-losing of everything.

Where we have no choice but to depend upon each other.

This is what it takes to realise we are in this together.

A man helps someone he dislikes because they are in danger.

A neighbour delivers groceries to everyone ill on her street.

Old friends forgive each other and stop acting like they are strangers.

Maybe this time, this is what the revolution looks like.

People helping each other despite their differences.

Understanding truly, that without the aid of others,

we would be all alone in this.

Pick up an anthology today – see the world from different perspectives and from different periods of history, meet some new poets, listen to the anthologist’s voice singing, bookmark a favourite and send one to a friend.

Gaby Morgan

Gaby Morgan is an Editorial Director at Macmillan Children’s Books and proud curator of the Macmillan Children’s Poetry List. She has compiled many bestselling anthologies including Read Me and Laugh: A Funny Poem for Every Day of the Year, Poems from the First World War, Poems for Love, Fairy Poems – which was short-listed for the CLPE Award – and A Year of Scottish Poems.

Ana Sampson: Poetic Perspectives on our Planet

Poetic perspectives on our planet

One of the great pleasures of poetry is that the poets’ dazzling feats of imagination can whisk the reader under the sea, to another planet or to view the world from another perspective in the space of just a few lines. When I was choosing poems for Wonder: The Natural History Museum Poetry Book, I looked for verses that would help me see the natural world in a new way, as many of the museum’s amazing exhibits do. I hoped this shift in viewpoint would encourage children to connect more deeply with the natural world, and encourage a passion for protecting it.

The narrator of a poem can be anyone – or anything: a child, an astronaut, Charles Darwin’s wife, a duck, a dinosaur, a dodo. Children are used to suspending disbelief for the space of a poem, since we have all gorged on a diet of talking animals and magical happenings, often in rhyme since our earliest days being read to. A poem is a portal the poet asks us to walk through, and on the other side, nothing looks quite the same.

One of the poems I’m most looking forward to sharing with young readers is Gita Ralleigh’s ‘Solar System Candy’.

If I ate the solar system,

the moon would taste

strange and dusty

as Turkish Delight.

Planets would be

giant gobstoppers,

except Saturn and Jupiter –

those gas giants

fizz like sherbert,

or melt like candy floss

in your mouth.

The meteor belt

pops and crackles

like space dust.

Comets leave a minty sting

on your tongue.

Black holes taste of cola bottles.

Or memories

you once had

and lost.

Gita’s poem is full of sensory delights that help readers of all ages to see these distant astral bodies with fresh eyes as they recall familiar tastes and sensations. I had never managed to remember which planets were made of gas, but now they taste like candy floss on my tongue, I’ll never forget! The image of Turkish Delight is perfectly chosen, reminding us of the fact that the moon’s surface is dusty enough for us to leave boot prints in it if we could walk around on it.

John Clare’s poem ‘The Ants’ starts with a human-sized perspective. We see the ants’ procession from our usual lofty height. But with the suggestion of a whispered language among the workers, suddenly the reader is urged to swoop down to eavesdrop, and to imagine the customs and commands that govern the intricately-ordered community.

What wonder strikes the curious, while he views

The black ant’s city, by a rotten tree,

Or woodland bank! In ignorance we muse:

Pausing, annoy’d, – we know not what we see,

Such government and thought there seem to be;

Some looking on, and urging some to toil,

Dragging their loads of bent-stalks slavishly:

And what’s more wonderful, when big loads foil

One ant or two to carry, quickly then

A swarm flock round to help their fellow-men.

Surely they speak a language whisperingly,

Too fine for us to hear; and sure their ways

Prove they have kings and laws, and that they be

Deformed remnants of the Fairy-days.

Some of the poems explicitly ask the reader to think themselves into the mind of a seal, or a tree, or a lizard. It’s a wonderful way to ignite children’s imaginations: who hasn’t wondered where the cat goes at night, or what an elephant might dream about? Geoffrey Dearmer’s poem ‘Whale’ – with its lovely lulling ‘rise and sink and rise and sink’ putting the reader right there in the waves – is a great example.

Wouldn’t you like to be a whale

And sail serenely by—

An eighty-foot whale from your tip to your tail

And a tiny, briny eye?

Wouldn’t you like to wallow

Where nobody says ‘Come out!’?

Wouldn’t you love to swallow

And blow all the brine about?

Wouldn’t you like to be always clean

But never have to wash, I mean,

And wouldn’t you love to spout—

O yes, just think—

A feather of spray as you sail away,

And rise and sink and rise and sink,

And blow all the brine about?

Asking children to fire up their imaginations by reading – and writing – their way into fresh ways of seeing the natural world can foster a connection with the wonders of our planet. Hopefully, it will also inspire the next generation develop a lifelong interest in protecting it.

Ana Sampson

Ana Sampson has edited eleven poetry anthologies including Wonder: The Natural History Museum Poetry Book and She is Fierce: Brave, Bold and Beautiful Poems by Women. She knows much less about dinosaurs than her children. www.anasampson.co.uk

Morag Styles: The BolognaRagazzi Award for Children’s Poetry and Illustration 2021 – A Judge’s Perspective

The BolognaRagazzi Award for children’s poetry and illustration 2021: a judge’s perspective

I was delighted to take part in judging the first BolognaRagazzi Award for children’s poetry and illustration. The international nature of the award ensures diversity and I had access to poetry books from many languages with translation. Despite the punishing schedule, the number of entries was around 200, the overall experience left me both elated and asking a few questions.

First of all, it was exciting to discover how much well-written, thought-provoking poetry was being written in many different parts of the world that we are unaware of in the UK  –  and how many illustrators were dazzlingly original. I imagine one reason might be a lack of interest in this country (and USA) in children’s books that are not in English and also because small publishers, which probably make up the majority of the poetry books we examined, do not have the funding to produce books in English without buoyant sales.

As is the case with picture books, children’s poetry can tackle almost any topic, however challenging, if it is done well. Some of the books we considered seemed to be more willing to take risks with content than often happens here.  Poetry from Latin America made a big impact as it managed to be thoughtful, child-centred, powerful and cautiously include the political. Several books given a special mention tackled taxing themes. María José Ferrada’s moving Niños, sympathetically illustrated by María Elena Valdez using a muted colour palette, is dedicated to 34 Chilean children who ‘disappeared’ during Pinochet’s regime. Love letter, a tender series of poems with an environmental slant by the accomplished Taiwanese illustrator and author, Animo Chen, is written in Taiwanese script, the mother language for many people in Taiwan but not recognised  officially. The Girl Who Became a Tree,an inventive, verse novel by Joseph Coelho, goes back and forth between the past and present, Greek myth and contemporary teenage trauma, exploring different forms and voices. Kate Milner’s dramatic, black-and-white line drawings demand the reader’s attention, as does the overall graphic conception of the book.

There were other strong volumes from the UK but the jury selected Fiona Waters’ anthology of burning ambition, huge in size and scope, with animal poems for every day of the year, superbly realised by Britta Teckentrup’s stunningly imaginative illustrations.The well-known opening line of Blake’s most popular poem from Songs of Innocence and Experience provided the title.

The winning book, Cajita de fósforos / Inside a Tiny Matchbox, selected by Adolfo Córdova and strikingly illustrated by Juan Palomino, is an inspirational anthology of Iberoamerican, free verse poetry. Cordova’s wide knowledge, careful research, and flair is evident in both his choice of poetry and his understanding of what would amuse and stimulate young readers.

Some questions

Should we consider anthologies and single poet collections together? Could it be argued that poets’ collections of new poems might be treated separately to editor selections of a wide range of poetry from the past and present?

I loved the fact that word and image interaction was the focus of the award. However, this is usually done without collaboration between poet/anthologist and illustrator, but by the publisher/editor, who selects a suitable illustrator to match the poetry – words come first.

Has the role of the book designer increased in importance and should it be more openly acknowledged and celebrated?

In poetry, every word counts, so should the art of translation be given more prominence?  

Has the environment become the most popular theme for children’s poetry? It was a strong contender at Bologna, as it should be. No big change there as poets writing for children or adults have always drawn on the natural world for inspiration.

I loved my Bologna experience, learned a lot, was impressed by the quality of the poetry we were judging, found the others on the jury and BRAW organisers most simpatico, and all of us passionate about children’s poetry and illustration. Hope to meet everyone for real in Bologna next year.  

Morag Styles

Morag Styles is Emeritus Professor of Children’s Poetry at Homerton College, Cambridge. She is the author of From the Garden to the Street: 300 years of poetry for children. She has written widely on children’s poetry and picture books, and anthologised many volumes of poetry for children. She is co-author of Children’s Picturebooks: the art of visual storytelling (2019) with Martin Salisbury and is currently working on a third edition of Children Reading Picturebooks with Evelyn Arizpe. 

Cheryl Moskowitz: What Makes a Young Poet?

Two weeks ago I had the privilege of spending a week at Arvon with a group of young poets, top winners and commended in the 2020 Foyle Young Poet of the Year Award.

It was an ideal opportunity to find out how these phenomenal young writers got into poetry. Chiefly I was curious to know, how far back did it go? Were there poems that had significant influence on them as young children? Could they identify an ‘aha’ moment, some turning point in their lives that made them become poets?

Interestingly, for most I spoke to, early childhood was not a factor – their interest in poetry came when they were a bit older, at the end of primary school or the beginning of secondary.

April mentioned coming across W.B. Yeats’ poem, ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’ which she found ‘visually beautiful’ and was inspired to write nature poems of her own. Aged twelve she began to post these on allpoetry.com and got feedback from people of all ages. That led her to Young Poets Network.

“Children have complex emotions,” says April, ‘I wish I could have got into poetry earlier but I wasn’t that interested in the poetry that was being exclusively written for children.” What was important was that the schools these young poets went to encouraged them to enter poetry competitions. Thank goodness they did!

Many liked reading poems written by young poets their own age writing about things they recognise. One remembered their teacher reading a poem ‘Midnight Cat’ to their Yr 5 class explaining ‘this was written by an eleven year old’. That made an impression and really made you sit up and listen!

Entering a competition for these young poets was important in terms of setting the bar high for themselves. Many were appreciative of teachers or older students who organised reading groups where poetry could be discussed in a non-academic way. Discovering there are ‘multiple ways of looking at a poem’, realising that poets generally write about things that trouble them, and recognising poetry as a way in to learning about current affairs, history and science, can lead to new ways of knowing the world, and the self.

Daniel, for example, read a book in his GCSE history class ‘The Making of America’ and was shocked to learn of the violence early Americans inflicted on indigenous people. He became interested in the ‘Trail of Tears’, the displacement of the Cherokee and Navajo peoples, and some of this has gone into his poetry.

Euan told me, “The most vivid poetic encounter I remember from childhood was ‘A Case of Murder’ by Vernon Scannell. Our teacher read it aloud, then gave us a copy. The poem is about a boy tormenting a cat and when the cat tries to escape by running out the door, the boy slams the door just as it passes through and, ‘the cat cracked like a nut’. That is the line that remains clearly in my head, even after six years.”

Euan remembers how the poem frightened him so much so that he eventually had to take it home to discuss there, in particular that piercing image of the cat cracking like a nut.

The poetry that matters most and influences us for the rest of our lives is the stuff that touches us deeply, even uncomfortably so. Euan explains, “I think this experience has shaped my understanding of art. The artistic encounters that have moved me the most are often those that are the most disturbing. My favourite pieces of writing are those which make me most uncomfortable or uneasy.”

Thanks to the Foyle Young Poets for sharing their experiences. Work by April Egan, Daniel Wale and Euan Sinclair can be found here:

https://poems.poetrysociety.org.uk/poets/daniel-wale/https://poems.poetrysociety.org.uk/poets/april-egan/

Cheryl Moskowitz

Cheryl Moskowitz is a poet and educator. She writes for adults and children, runs workshops regularly in schools and is passionate about getting teachers and pupils to write their own poems. She runs writing projects in a wide variety of community settings often working with the most disadvantaged and vulnerable. Cheryl’s website.