Zaro Weil: A Glimpse; Adult Poetry and Children’s Poetry

A few years ago, after a talk about children and poetry, I was asked about the difference between adult poetry and kids’ poetry.

A Cheshire cat grin rolled over me. I didn’t have to think twice. ‘There really is none,’ I replied with a smile. ‘A good poem is a good poem is a good poem. Of course themes and language will be different. Age and emotional suitability may vary. But poetry for children is not – at its heart – different from other poetry.’

Let’s take a glimpse at the basics. Just a glimpse.

What is it we expect when we read a poem?

The first thing is simple. There is an invitation. Something in the title or opening line says, Come on in. I have an idea you’re going to like.

Sounds good. We decide not to close the book or turn the page. We read further. The poet is communicating a vision we intuitively like. He or she is talking to us the way a friend might.

Zaro’s Cherry Moon won the CLiPPA Award for Children’s Poetry this year.

From that first invitation a good poem offers, the child is often more than willing to suspend what they already think and allow themselves to be transported into another world. Indeed, kids are often more eager and open than adults to step inside and treat the poet as a new friend.

But the words themselves must also spark magic; the swing and sway of the rhythms, meter and sound need to be dynamic. And feel right. It is the poet’s craft with words which creates excitement and meaning for us. Because our brains buzz and light up when the exact right words both sound great and go together. Like they were meant to be.

As for sound musicality and language acquisition, these are the child’s very own domain; one filled with the joy of rhyme, the thrill of rhythm and the love of onomatopoeia to name a few.

And what is it the poet says to us? Is it clear and sunny enough that we can relate to it? Are the words bright enough in the lines we read for us to ‘get’ it.

Next we ask if this poem inspires us. Do we feel the poet’s unseen presence in his words? Does the poem burrow down to ignite those misty moon-lit thoughts we have but don’t know very well? The thoughts that are deeper and richer than our everyday words and ideas. The ones that allow us to imagine a new way of seeing things.

For imagination relies upon the senses; of what we have seen, heard, touched, tasted, smelled and remembered. A good poem creates the words and sensations that call upon the reader’s personal memory store and then graciously offers up the possibility to re-imagine, re-pattern and re-position the reader’s own understandings.

Children grow in the ambiguity of light and dark. In the bright logic of facts and ideas about the world. But they also grow in the belief that there is something else. Something unknown, dark and uncontrollable. Being close to and accepting the mysterious plays an important role in a child’s development. A child is open to being moved by a poem.

And precisely because children play and because imagination is the currency for this play, a good poem can ignite a child’s mind. And as children are close to both their sensory understandings and memories, a good poem has the potential to fly them into a universe pulsing with possibility.

To finish my reply to the question, I think we all, at every age, respond to the same human impulses; the ones which lead us to better understand and illuminate the world we find ourselves in.

And that is why my Cheshire cat can’t help but smile.

Zaro Weil

Zaro Weil lives in southern France with her husband and Spot Guevara Hero Dog, alongside a host of birds, insects, badgers, wild boars, crickets, donkeys, goats, hares and loads more. She has been a lot of things; dancer, theatre director, actress, poet, playwright, educator, quilt collector, historian, author and publisher. Zaro’s two poetry collections, Firecrackers and Cherry Moon were widely praised; with Cherry Moon being awarded the CliPPA Poetry Award for 2020.

Joshua Seigal: “So How Did You Get Into Poetry, Then?

This is one of the most common questions I get asked when I visit schools. It is not an easy question to answer, and I am tempted to say that I simply ‘fell into’ it. But this is a cop out. My journey can best be adumbrated by my encounters with five poets.

Michael Rosen

Michael visited my primary school when I was around 8. I remember being captivated by his performance in assembly, where he acted out his poems and really brought them to life. I bought his book Don’t Put Mustard in the Custard, and we listened to its accompanying casette in the car every day on the way to school for about a year! I wasn’t necessarily inspired to write my own poetry at this stage, but the kernel of Michael’s visit obviously lodged in my mind. Later on, Michael taught on my MA at Goldsmiths, and was good enough to write an endorsement for the cover of my first book with Bloomsbury.

Niall O’Sullivan

I didn’t really begin writing poetry until my late teens. I had studied Larkin for A Level and my initial efforts were an embarrassing attempt to ape him. During my first year at UCL I discovered the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden, which has a weekly open mic night hosted by Niall O’Sullivan. For a couple of years I regularly stood up and read my poems there, and was furthermore exposed to a wide variety of performance and writing styles. Niall hosted the night with humour and panache, and it was by attending these evenings that I developed my chops as a performer and (I hope) a humorist.

Neal Zetter

Neal helped me turn a hobby into what is now a career. I first came across his name in the Evening Standard, where he spearheaded a literacy campaign in 2012. He was described as a ‘comic poet who works in schools’, and then it hit me: this could be a proper job! I emailed Neal for some advice, and he responded with such warmth and encouragement that I shall be forever grateful. Heck, we are good friends now, and I even invited the man to my wedding. We are also poetical collaborators, and have our second joint book out with Troika in 2021/2.

Brian Moses

I took a humorous children’s poetry show to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012, where I met Brian. I foisted a copy of my first, self-published book into his hands, and asked whether he might help me find a proper publisher. I am extremely thankful for the advice he gave me. He said that my comic poetry was all well and good, but to concentrate on serious, emotional and heartfelt themes as well. I have since tried to synthesise a broad range of styles and feelings into my repertoire, and Brian’s advice has undoubtedly helped me grow as a writer.

Roger Stevens

Roger gave me my first publication in an anthology and invited me on the wonderful ‘poets’ retreat’ in 2014, where I met many other wonderful poets too numerous to mention. In his bounteous munificence, he also put my name forward to a bunch of editors he knew, which helped secure my first book deal with Bloomsbury in 2016. So now I was a poet writing and performing in a variety of styles, who both made a living working in schools and had a proper publishing deal to boot! I could not have made it this far without the aforementioned poets.

Joshua Seigal

Joshua Seigal is a poet, performer and workshop leader based in London. His latest collection, Welcome To My Crazy Life, is published by Bloomsbury, and he was the recipient of the 2020 Laugh Out Loud Book Award.

Please visit www.joshuaseigal.co.uk for more info.

James Carter: Growing A Poetry Book

Growing a Poetry Book

From Cars, Stars, Electric Guitars – my first collection for 7-11s –  onwards, I’ve aimed to create each collection as though they were quasi-anthologies – ie with multiple poets – so they’ll have as much variety as possible. When I interviewed Norman Silver he said he aimed to make a collection like a ‘biscuit tin’, so readers could dip in anywhere not knowing what they’d get. Boom! That became my template.

Assembling each collection has been all about engaging, intriguing and sustaining a reader. Overall, I’m after breadth and balance, so I’ll include rhyming verse, as much free verse as I can (too much rhyme and it can get a tad samey), syllabic poems, all kinds – mainly short to medium length poems. I want a range of tones/ voices / themes – some daft ones – but reflective pieces too. As KS2 books will be mostly read by children themselves – unlike EY/KS1 books – I try and ensure that the poems are ‘page’ not performance poems, so they work in the mind’s ear of the reader.

From research I’ve learnt adults dip in and out of poetry books; children read in a linear fashion. Therefore, I don’t want a child a) to know what’s coming next – or b) worse, leave my book and return to a novel. I want them to keep reading. Unpredictability is key! Curiously, I think I’ve always tried to write poems for children that don’t necessarily like verse. I’m not trying to proselytise, even trick them into enjoying poetry, but I like the idea of someone going ‘I’m not into poems, but I like this one!’ I started out as that kind of reader, and only began reading verse properly as I first wrote it 25 years ago. I’m obsessed with words, and poetry (along with non-fiction) is the most rewarding experience I can have as a writer. I l o v e the musicality of verse and equally its philosophical way of saying ‘hey, look at that – but look at it like this..’. I get the idea that children might too.

By the time I’ve sent a manuscript in, I’ll have spent five intense years of writing, re-writing, scrapping (1000+ poems) and crucially, showing poems to other writers for candid comments. Other poets know about the tinkering under the bonnet; what needs further tweaks. Craft is everything.

Otter-Barry Books, Jan. 2021

My latest, Weird Wild & Wonderful, is a ‘best of’, from 25 years of writing. I sent 75+ mainly tried-and-tested poems to my publisher, the wise and unfailingly insightful Janetta Otter-Barry. She rejected 20 or so from those and then we went through a ‘maybe’ pile together. The criteria for this book included what a first-time reader might enjoy, but also which poems had been most anthologised, those that had received favourable comments from children/teachers and those that had gone down well in schools. I included several newies. Some older poems needed tweaks as I am more obsessive about tightness/scansion nowadays! 

The title naturally suggested three sections: Weird contains the lighter, dafter poems, Wild has natural world poems, and Wonderful a brace of quieter poems. I wrote a brand new poem to finish the book. As with all my KS2 collections, I’ve attempted to weave the poems together, with a ‘paper chain’-style thematic/linguistic link from one to the next.

I began as an educational writer/occasional poet, and never thought I’d do one, let alone five collections. How lucky. With this, I’m doubly so – as Neal Layton, illustrator extraordinaire, agreed to do the artwork and did a brilliant job on our book. Cheers, Neal!

James Carter

JAMES CARTER is an award-winning children’s poet, non-fiction writer and musician. An ambassador for National Poetry Day, he travels all over the UK with his melodica (that’s Steve) to give lively poetry & music performances / workshops / INSET days, and now virtual visits too! www.jamescarterpoet.co.uk

Sue Hardy-Dawson: So You’re a Poet Now

So it’s happened, your first collection’s been accepted and you’re now officially a poet. You’re caught up in the excitement. You’ve read and re-read your advanced copy, wondering what others will make of it. You’re at times euphoric, terrified, depressed and sleep deprived. You count down, weeks, days and on that final night, hours until publication. And then…and then…

Well, not a lot. I don’t know about anyone else but when my first book came out I didn’t expect to be mobbed or to find paparazzi in the chrysanthemums; of course not. But I did think maybe my local bookshop would stock my book. Or did I? Sadly not really. I love a book and as a fan I’m pretty clued up on poetry everywhere.

In fact I habitually go into bookshops and ask them where the poetry section is. Generally at the back of the shop, on a low shelf and not a whole shelf never mind the several I’d love to see. Often it shares space with joke books. Usually it comprises safe archaic poetry, ‘best of’s’, well-known names and the odd big production coffee table book. The assistant, who has little say, looks about uncomfortably, assuring me they can order anything I’d like. However, what I’d like is to browse, to choose from many I fancy or I might as well order online myself. But I digress.

So my book isn’t there. I suggest a launch. They tell me how much they love local authors doing launches. A date’s booked and I’m excited and terrified afresh. More so when, the week before, I find a tiny grey note on the door announcing my launch. So I drum up a reporter, I put the word around and on the day find the shop has only ordered 15 copies and they go in the first few minutes, despite being hidden away upstairs in the shop. So I lend my copies to the shop. A success, the shop-assistant assures me. Normally they sell very few books at launches…

So here’s the thing, I’m not complaining, well not much, but unless you’re a bestselling novelist there’ll be little promotion. It’s expected, as a children’s poet, the bulk of sales will come from schools. However, there’s a plague and a lack of school visits or even schools containing children, which has been disastrous to those expected to do their own promotion. So, like many others, we’ve had to find ways of reinventing what we do. However, I suspect, I’m not alone in finding constantly being in promotion mode uncomfortable and, if I should be, when? How? How often?

So what do we do? We promote and cheer each other on. We talk about poetry, in interviews, blogs and videos. We hope the goodwill grows as we give our time and even our work and writing ideas to teachers. We encourage even children we’ll never meet, because it means much to a child.

Of course it doesn’t always translate into sales, so why else? Well it’s partly about getting word out there about our books. Because, though small, each took years to write and traverse the mires of publication. Each time with dreadful symmetry: we have loved and loathed our work, had it picked apart by others, had hopes elevated and dashed. Yet, also, perhaps, there’s our inner child, one that wants to help others feel joy in something we adore, poetry as a whole. Certainly I want everyone I meet to feel that. But most of all I want to have a slightly less depressing answer to give the next child who asks me, ‘Why are you a poet?’

Sue Hardy-Dawson

Sue Hardy-Dawson’s a poet & illustrator. Her debut collection, ‘Where Zebras Go’, Otter-Barry Books was shortlisted for the 2018 CLiPPA. Her second, ‘Apes to Zebras’ Bloomsbury, co-written with poetry ambassadors, Roger Stevens and Liz Brownlee won the NSTB Awards. Sue loves visiting schools, has worked with the Prince of Wales Foundation, ‘Children and the Arts. As a dyslexic poet, she loves encouraging reluctant writers. Her second solo collection ‘If I were Other than Myself’ Troika Books is out February 2020.

Val Bloom: Poetry as a Mirror

Poetry as a Mirror

I was in a school for the first time since lockdown at the beginning of October.  One of the teachers recounted a lesson she’d had with some disenchanted young boys in a former school.  She’d told them they were going to be doing poetry and was bombarded with groans and cries of “Boring!”  So she challenged them.

“I bet I can make you change your mind.”

They were not convinced.

She then brought out one of my books and at the end of the lesson one of the boys came up to her and confessed that she’d changed his mind about poetry. He was now an enthusiast.

I was reminded of an experience I had as a newly qualified English teacher in Jamaica.  I went back to teach English in my old school, where the classes were streamed, with A being the most academically gifted.  One of my classes was 9V.

In the first lesson, I found myself talking to the walls as the ‘children’ who were mostly boys and mostly bigger than I was, jumped on the desks, threw things at each other, climbed the walls and completely ignored me. The second class went more or less the same way.

In desperation I took in a copy of Jamaica Labrish, a book of poems by the late Honourable Louise Bennett (Miss Lou), written in Jamaican.  I stood at the front of the class and started to read one of the poems.  One by one they returned to their seats and sat listening in silence, except for bursts of laughter at the comic sections.   Afterwards, they clamoured for more but, thinking on my feet I said, “No, it’s your time.”

I divided the poem among them and formed an impromptu speech choir.  They were brilliant. So brilliant that I conceived of a plan to enter them in the National Speech Festival.  They won a gold medal and became the toast of the school.  The next year many of them were promoted to the A stream.

A few years later I returned to Jamaica and met one of those young men in Kingston.  He was on his way to the National Gallery where he was mounting an exhibition of his work.

“It’s all because of you, Miss,” he said.

But he was wrong.  It was all because of Miss Lou and her poetry.

Two of my poems were included in the NEAB GCSE syllabus.  Both were written in Jamaican. Sometime afterwards I was performing in Leicester when a young lady approached me.

“I had to come and say thank you,” she said. “For helping me to pass my English exam.”

At my puzzled look she explained that she’d had no interest in English, that she couldn’t understand any of it until she saw my poem. She was convinced she would not have passed her exam but for the poem written in Jamaican.

The common thread in these episodes is that in all instances the children could see themselves in the poems.  So many of my fellow writers have said they started writing because they couldn’t see themselves in the books that were available to them.  It’s getting better, but the importance of letting children see themselves in poetry books cannot be stressed enough.

Stars with Flaming Tails, to be published in January 2021

Poetry helps us make sense of our world.  It’s harder to make sense of a world that’s unrecognisable. When the poem mirrors a child’s experience, the child can place herself in the poem.  Conversely, if she can’t see herself in the poetry books, she’ll feel those books belong to others, but not to her.

Poems are not just mirrors.  They’re windows through which we look into others’ lives, so diversity in poetry benefits everyone.  As well as seeing themselves, children benefit from learning about and understanding other cultures, other experiences.  In order to help our children become well-rounded adults, respecting others, we need to help them look into the mirrors and through the windows of diverse poetry books.

Val Bloom

Valerie Bloom MBE was born and grew up in Jamaica.  She is the author of several volumes of poetry for adults and children, picture books, pre-teen and teenage novels and stories for children, and has edited a number of collections of poetry for children. Val has presented poetry programmes for the BBC, and has contributed to various radio and television programmes. She performs her poetry, runs writing workshops, and conducts training courses for teachers worldwide.

Becky Fisher: A dream is like a pile of cotton floating in the sky – young poets and their writing

Amid all the doom and gloom of slashed PGCE bursaries, university English departments being threatened with cuts and closures, and the general frustration and anxiety that COVID-19 has brought to all of us, I have felt very fortunate to have two bright spots in the past week – all thanks to some wonderful young poets. 

Artist: James Brown

I was really lucky to be able to attend the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Ceremony, an afternoon celebrating the brilliant young writers who had been selected as winners. During the ceremony, we heard from a selection of the young poets who had tackled challenging issues personal to them through their passionate, courageous, creative poems. Death, loss, and grief; love, friendship, and community; uncertainty, familiarity, and cultural traditions were all woven through the astonishing work. I found myself closing my eyes to be able to take in all the sounds and shapes the poets were conjuring. More than once, I smiled; my eyes filled with tears; I laughed out loud. If you’re finding things hard going at the moment, and you need a little lift, I encourage you to settle in with a brew and take a moment to listen to the poets reading their work

The Poetry Society Cafe Window illustrating the winning 100 Foyles Poems. Artwork by Imogen Foxell – 7th October 2020 Photo: Hayley Madden.

Another boost to my spirits was the opportunity to observe the inspiring poet, writer, and teacher Kate Clanchy as she ran the first of three workshops in the Poetry Possibility series. Delivered by the Forward Arts Foundation in partnership with the University of the West of England, Reading University, and the English Association, these workshops introduce new and trainee English teachers to ways of teaching poetry in school that focus on enjoyment and creativity. The first workshop was all about creative word games that lead to a poem, and which Kate has used to great success in the classroom. For example, we started by playing the Surrealist Game: grab yourself a piece of A4 paper and a pen and have a go now!

Step 1: Fold your piece of A4 paper in half then in half again, then tear along the fold lines to get four smaller pieces of paper.

Step 2: On the first piece of paper, write a concrete noun.

Step 3: On the second piece of paper, write the definition of your concrete noun.

Step 4: On the third piece of paper, write an abstract noun.

Step Five: On the fourth piece of paper, write the definition of your abstract noun.

Now for the fun part! Match your concrete noun up with the definition of your abstract noun and see what you end up with… For example, you might mix up the definition of ‘a glass’ and ‘hope’ to end up with a statement like: ‘hope is a vessel used to contain liquids that we drink to quench our thirst’. I’ve played the game myself a few times in the days afterwards; the experience is a bit like laying out a spread of tarot cards and looking for the meaning hidden within. 

Kate then led the group through a period of quiet, individual writing, where we used our image-collages to build a poem of our own. Throughout the workshop, Kate shared the incredible work of the young poets she has taught in the past: they had produced such impactful, poignant poems that I actually found it a bit intimidating to write my own – but if I were heading into my classroom the next day I would have felt excited to try this technique with my class. If I haven’t inspired you yet, just turn to Kate’s Twitter account, where she shares the work of her young poets with the world; I promise you will find something there that speaks to you. 

Finally, I’ll leave you with some of the unedited work created by a Year 9 class in Bradford on Avon, led by teacher Amy Battensby. Her class played the Surrealist Game live online, inspired by Kate’s workshop. Many thanks to Amy and her class for sharing these poems with us.

Ella:

Wealth


“Wealth” is a disease that changes your life,

And the life of the people around you.

It fills your mind with countless desires,

And sickens the view of you in other’s eyes.

You become so ill you see people differently,

So sick you treat them differently.

And unless you can find a cure,

Everyone you know is suffering.

Isla:

Sadness

Sadness 

it is grey and colourless 

it smells like the ashes left from a fire 

it tastes bitter and sounds empty 

and it lives alone. 

 

Sophia:

My own poem – Endless thoughts 

 

Thoughts sing and dance around, 

They fly high above the clouds, 

But they fall through doors, 

Of endless sounds, 

And end up Lost to man.  

Their wings take them everywhere, 

But fail on them when they get too far, 

Because in the end they need a break, 

But cannot find anywhere to rest, 

As they fall so slow so fast, 

They find peace in the past. 

You find them in the deepest parts,  

Where one got trapped and another got free 

But they wind up fighting but escape nobody, 

And they submit to the mistakes, 

Made by the wings on their own body   

Chloe:

ate is a feeling like a burning house
One that doesn’t make you feel happy

Izzy:

A dream is like a pile of cotton floating in the sky, when your sad it rains, when your happy it snows and there may not be one at all, a dream may follow you, guide you, be your shadow, it always knows how you feel, a dream may be angry and may bring a storm, it may cloud the sky with darkness, when that is gone and you awake there will always be a rainbow

Harvey:

Time is a child and a coffin.
It is an biography for all things when they started and ended,
Yet there is no entry for it.
It can stretch bend the rules of the universe with no consequence, but does it like a curious child
Does it plays and watches the forever go on and on
Time rules over everything, but it’s forever so does it even see who it rules over for the blink of an eye
Does everyone pass by it before it can say hello?
Is it alone? It is along in the everything forever universe
Does it lie down rest and sleep because it can’t do anything with its omnipotence
It is a coffin? Is it a child and a coffin?

Freya:

Sexism

It floats around the world despite it being 2020
It controls women’s confidence, it controls their body
When was it okay for men to tell women what to wear and what not to wear?
How to look, how to act, what to do
To stay at home, to clean, to look after te children
Since when was that their personality
When was it decided that men should have a higher standard to lige?
Why does it still go on..?

How does it still go on?
Why is it there have such a pay gap?
But when raised, just told to shush

Becky Fisher

Becky Fisher is CEO of the English Association.

Nikita Gill: Slam!

Slam!

All poetry is real poetry.

Walk into a room and ask anyone for their definition of poetry.

No two people will be able to give you the same answer. Poetry’s

become the fastest growing art form in Britain and that isn’t just

from traditional poets or from printed collections. It is in no

small part due to the resilient and powerful work of performance

poets and spoken word artists.

When I write poems, I approach the mediums I place them

on with equal importance – whether I put them on a blog, on

Instagram or submit them to literary journals. It never occurred

to me that posting my work in a certain medium would mean I

would then be defined by that medium. This is why I find such a

kinship with performance-based poets.

To define a poet who performs their work as a ‘slam poet’,

and to suggest that ‘slam poets’ aren’t ‘real poets’ is a myopic

misrepresentation of the work they do. There is no such thing as

slam poetry – simply poetry that works in slams. There are no slam

poets, only poets who, with immense craft, have the added the skill of

performing their work in a way that enthralls an audience. One

kind of poetry is not superior to another due to the format it is

produced or shared in.

For years, poetry has been misconceived as an area of elite

literature which is for the privileged few to craft, learn or teach a

certain way. It has been sequestered to the classroom as something

that made us groan as we studied and peeled layer after layer off

Milton’s work in an attempt to understand just what he meant.

But what if there was a different version of poetry? What if we

let it out of the classroom and put it on stage? What if poetry is

remembered to be what it is: the language of fire, fury and freedom?

What if, and bear with me, poetry was for everyone again?

This is exactly what performance poetry is about. It reminds us

of the revolution poetry incites. People from all walks of life flock

to venues or YouTube to watch their favourite poets perform on

stage, using language they can relate to, incorporating humour with

tragedy in an almost Shakespearean way. Slams are an inclusive,

open space, giving poets from under-represented communities a

supportive environment to share their truth, and presenting it in

a format so easily accessible and unpretentious, that people who’d

never engaged with poetry before are finally able to

Slam!, the anthology curated this year, is a manifesto for

change in many ways. It is a manifesto for performance poetry,

the craft and beauty of it and the way it resonates with millions of people. It is a manifesto for

poetry itself, as poets are natural truth-tellers and bring us face

to face with honesty in a time where fact is being dismissed for

opinion. It is a manifesto for compassion and how important it

is in a world that is ever more divided.

The poets in this book are awe-inspiring. Their work is

transcendent, both on the stage and on the page. Without them,

poetry would not be what it is today: empowering, immensely

emotive, approachable, wise, humorous – and all of this whilst

being stunningly and thoughtfully constructed.

As it has been said by our ancestors in

art, let the work speak for itself. After all, poetry is not a luxury,

certainly not in the world we

live in today. It is a war cry – a battle song. And you’re gonna

wanna hear this.

Nikita Gill

Nikita Gill is a British-Indian writer and poet living in the south of England. With a huge online following her words have entranced hearts and minds all over the world. She is a passionate advocate for poetry in all forms and her collection of rewritten Fierce Fairytales along with her latest book of poetry Wild Embers have taken the world by storm.  

Brian Moses: Spooky Writing for Hallowe’en

Spooky Writing for Hallowe’en

A Good Scary Poem Needs…

A haunted house,

                A pattering mouse,

A spooky feeling,

                A spider-webbed ceiling.

A squeaking door,

                A creaking floor,

A swooping bat,

                 The eyes of a cat.

A dreadful dream,

                  A distant scream,

A ghost that goes ‘BOO’

                  And YOU!

The poet Wes Magee and I used to run spooky writing weekends for children. One of them was held in a 14th Century Manor House on the Isle of Wight, another in the old Carnegie Theatre in Dunfermline, and a third at Hellens House in Herefordshire.

Hellens was just what we needed it to be – shutters, faded tapestries, huge fireplaces with roaring log fires, stern portraits, a spiral staircase, minstrels’ gallery, four poster beds, ancient cupboards, loose floorboards and not just one, but two rooms which were supposedly haunted.

Right at the start we paraded the cliches of the horror movies and quickly dismissed them. Nothing was needed but the house itself and the spooky feelings that it engendered. Anything that felt menacing was made more menacing. We gradually built up the atmosphere, layer on layer.

I touched a mirror that was layered in thick dust,

I saw a candle light that was there and then wasn’t.

I discovered a piece of shattered glass

in which I gazed upon what seemed like a ghostly face.

And in the grounds of the house on a dull November day…

I saw a young tree strangled by ivy,

I saw a feather fall and stab the ground.

These were quite ordinary things made to sound sinister using the language of horror with words like strangled and stab.

By starting each line with ‘I’, a rhythm is established without using rhyme, along with a chant-like quality when read aloud.

A similar sort of exercise can take place in the classroom. Switch off the light, pull down the blinds and imagine yourself in the classroom at midnight.

I heard the computer sigh creepily like the wind moaning.

I heard the trees scratch against the window as if they wanted to get in.

I saw scissors snapping angrily…

At Hellens we toured the building seeking out possible spooky observations from each room. A poem then followed a pattern:

             We went on a ghost hunt.

             We looked into the drawing room.

             We didn’t see a ghost but we saw a chess piece move and      

                    heard a snore from a chair.

             We climbed the central staircase.

             We didn’t see a ghost but a hand passed my shoulder and

                     a guitar was lightly dusted.

Children then described the resident ghost? Where it dwelt, how it revealed itself, how it moved and what its hopes and fears might be…

               His cold lonely face

               Begs for company

               For fear he would be alone for eternity.

These ideas can also be adapted for classroom use with children remembering spooky places that they have visited in the past.

Finally, consider how the writing should be performed. Some pieces can be made more effective through the use of percussion instruments – the slow beat of a drum between each line, the low notes on a piano. Someone with a keyboard and/or computer skills may be able to compose a suitably spooky backing track against which a poem could be read.

Remember too that the voice is also an effective instrument and that menacing feeling in the writing must come across in the reading for the listener to be completely involved.

Brian Moses

Brian Moses is a children’s poet. He has toured his poetry and percussion show around schools, libraries, theatres and festivals in the UK and Europe for the past thirty-two years. Lost Magic: The Very Best of Brian Moses is available from Macmillan and his widely performed poem Walking With My Iguana is now a picture book from Troika Books. A new anthology, The Best Ever Book of Funny Poems will be published by Macmillan in March 2021.

Poets in Schools During a Pandemic

Poets in Schools During a Pandemic

Here at The Poetry Society, we have been placing poets in schools for over 50 years. And never once did we think to prepare for a global pandemic.

When the UK went into lockdown in March, schools were forced to cancel their Poets in Schools bookings. There was nothing either schools or poets could do about it, but it marked the start of a significant loss of income for freelancers who depended on working in schools.

So the Education Team hurriedly donned their sparkly thinking caps. We were able to pay the five poets who had last-minute cancellations what they would have earned, commissioning new resources to help teachers keep teaching poetry from home. Joseph Coelho had great suggestions for poetic forms and Michelle Madsen helped us to imagine ourselves elsewhere, while Joelle Taylor addressed the Covid-19 pandemic directly. One teacher even asked us for a volcanic poetry resource, and Justin Coe provided!

These resources kick-started what would become a major project for us in the Spring and Summer terms – our new Learning from Home section, chock-full of responsive lesson plans, writing prompts and reading suggestions. We asked teachers what they wanted from us, and did our best to provide it, putting together ideas for addressing racism and mental health through poetry, and directing them to the wealth of resources that already existed on Poetryclass.

Meanwhile, we surveyed poets we’d sent into schools in the last two years, asking them what they felt safe doing and about their ideas for digital versions of Poets in Schools. PiS regular Cheryl Moskowitz had been independently visiting schools all through lockdown to put together The Corona Collectionand was helping to steer our thinking. Cheryl also wrote us some ace notes for teachers on how poetry can help students process the pandemic.

By the summer, we were finding that less than a fifth of teachers wanted a Poets in Schools visit that looked exactly as in the past. Poets were agreed that the pandemic presented a chance to do things differently, and that a digital ‘visit’ to a school could be as valuable as an in-person day of workshops and performances. Mandy Coe pointed out that there was fun to be had with the tech, like being carried around a classroom on an iPad, and many poets were already running online workshops for families.

One of our highlights of the summer was Zooming with twenty-odd wonderful Poets in Schools to share questions and findings, and work on creative solutions together. As a result of that consultation, we put together some guidance for poet facilitators in the time of coronavirus, shared some updated safeguarding notes, amended our terms of agreement to include digital visits and made sure to ask important Covid/software related questions at point of enquiry.

Digital workshops and performances are, of course, not perfect. It can be harder to excite students and make sure nobody’s left out when the poet’s not physically in the room, and we know there is disparity in access to technology, both among students and schools. But there are advantages, too –we can now beam in poets to rural schools without adding a big train fare to the bill, and save the poet an early start. There are creative solutions to be had, and we are excited to discover more.

We are very lucky to work with brilliant poet educators who are passionate about inspiring young people. They have been able to adapt to and even embrace the changing circumstances in ways we could never have predicted. As for us at The Poetry Society – we will keep supporting poets and schools, and championing poetry, whatever happens next.

Find out more about Poets in Schools and make an enquiry.

Helen Bowell

Helen Bowell is The Poetry Society’s Education Co-ordinator, and runs both Young Poets Network and Poets in Schools. In her spare time, she is a co-director of Dead [Women] Poets Society, resurrecting women writers of the past.

Chris Riddell: Words and Pictures

Chris Riddell

As one of the world’s most admired crafters of illustrated work for children and adults and the political cartoonist for The Observer, Chris Riddell was Children’s Laureate 2015-2017 and in 2019 was awarded an OBE for his services to children’s literature. Alongside his own iconic Ottoline and Goth Girl series, he has illustrated the work of many other writers, including Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, to be published on 15th October 2020. His middle-grade fantasy series The Cloud Horse Chronicles: Guardians of Magic will be published in paperback and Poems To Save The World With, Chris’s third poetry anthology by Macmillan Children’s Books, is available now.