Janetta Otter-Barry: Poetry and Illustration

Poetry and Illustration – optional extra or indispensable ingredient?

I’ve been thinking about the role of illustration in children’s poetry….  As a publisher it can be tempting not to include pictures, particularly in a collection for older children, but I strongly believe that illustration adds hugely to the enjoyment and understanding of poetry for all ages.

Take the three Otter-Barry Books new August titles….

In Belonging Street Mandy Coe illustrates her own poems, creating a special relationship between words and pictures. In First Haircut Mandy describes a dragon-claw comb, but then surprises us with a fully grown dragon!In City Seed Song the seeds become children reaching for the sky as they celebrate a new green world. Other pictures offer revelations or playful hints that help us decode puzzles and answer questions.In Dear Ugly Sisters, Laura Mucha’s exciting debut, Lithuanian illustrator Tania Rex provides stylish, contemporary pictures, reflecting the many moods of the poems. It was her decision to establish a narrative thread by following one child through the pages, providing interesting links for the reader.  How Long Until I Can See My Mum, addressing the plight of refugee children in the US, is poignantly visualised and the same child features over the page in I Am Brave, her fears now depicted as a crocodile – but one that can be banished. The pictures and poems work perfectly together, keeping the reader engaged and eager for more.Joseph Coelho’s The Girl Who Became a Tree, a story told in poems for 12 plus, (27 August), could arguably have been published without illustration content – but what a loss that would have been. Visually, there is so much to explore and respond to, as Daphne confronts the loss of her father and enters the dark magic of the forest.Her journey from isolation and grief to acceptance and new beginnings is beautifully captured by Kate Milner’s pen and ink drawings.

Images of trees, branches, leaves, roots, draw us ever closer to Daphne  –  and to that other Daphne from the Greek myth, who also plays an important part in this story and whose illustrations are identifiable as white on black.

There’s no doubt that the extraordinary pictures deepen our understanding of this brilliant verse novel.

In Spring 21 we present three collections for Key stage 2 that all have hugely important contributions from illustrators. For Val Bloom’s eagerly awaited Stars with Flaming Tails, (publishing January 2021) we chose Ken Wilson Max to illustrate, pairing two famous creative practitioners of colour in a wide-ranging tour-de-force, underpinned by verbal and visual diversity.

Weird, Wild and Wonderful – the poetry world of James Carter is an important showcase for James’s most admired and requested poems plus new work, and the incredible verve, wit and energy of Neal Layton’s illustrations make these poems almost leap off the page!

Publishing for Mental Health Awareness Week in May, Being Me, Poems about Thoughts, Feelings and Worries, is a ground-breaking collaboration between Liz Brownlee, Matt Goodfellow and Laura Mucha. New illustrator Victoria Jane Wheeler‘s quirky drawings play a vital role here, sensitively visualising the feelings expressed in the verses with empathy and a light touch.

Lastly, in July, we publish Rachel Rooney’s first teen collection, Hey Girl.  Rachel’s son, Milo Hartnoll, illustrates, his powerful and empathetic graphic images perfectly capturing the girl’s inner journey as she grows up through the book.

So yes, I’m more than ever convinced that illustrations bring poetry alive in amazing, unexpected ways. They welcome, challenge, reassure, explain and inspire – and I believe they deserve to be at the heart of every children’s poetry collection.

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.

Laura Mucha: You Think You Like Poetry?

You Think You Like Poetry?

‘You think you like poetry? You don’t like poetry…’ said Mrs Flowers.

‘You’ll never like it until you speak it – until you feel it come across your tongue, through your teeth, over your lips, you will never love poetry.’

Her student, Maya Angelou, ran out of the house. But Mrs Flowers didn’t give up – she followed Angelou to the store and said, pointing her finger, ‘You don’t like poetry’.

She continued harassing her student for months until finally, after five years of not saying a single word, Angelou spoke for the first time. And when she did, she spoke poetry. (You can listen to Angelou’s account of her experience here.)

Mrs Flower’s description of speaking poetry made me think of the phrase ‘hau gum’ or ‘mouth-feel’ in Mandarin. It’s usually used in the context of food, but I think it applies just as much to poetry. It’s all very well reading poems silently on the page, but, as Angelou’s teacher pointed out, that doesn’t give you a sense of the texture and sound of the language, the ‘mouth-feel’.

That’s why, when I run workshops with young people, I try to get them to co-write – and co-perform – a poem. The performance is just as important as the writing as they both inform the other. It’s only when you perform a poem that you fully appreciate the tiny signposts the poet has left you in the form of commas, line breaks and white space – and can reflect on the signposts you might use in your own writing.

But often, when poetry is taught in the classroom, the teacher is the only one that performs, while the students sit and listen – at least according to Joy Alexander at the School of Education, Queen’s University Belfast.

Teachers can easily solve this by asking students to perform poems in pairs. When one of Alexander’s student teachers realised her pupils were ‘not at all proficient’ in reading or performing poetry, she found it improved drastically with just a little practice. She also found that the practice was helped by playing the audio of the poems to students before asking them to say the poems themselves. Not only did this help them perform better, but it also made them more engaged with the poem more generally. BOOM!

Even if you don’t speak it, listening can be game changing. Seamus Heaney once wrote that until you had found the work of T.S. Eliot, you had not ‘entered the kingdom of poetry’. But for a long time, he found Eliot obscure and bewildering – until he heard the actor Robert Speaight reading Eliot’s Four Quartets. By listening, Heaney discovered that what he ‘heard made sense’.

That’s why it’s so important to find ways to take poetry off the page. “If your genuine goal is to share poetry,” argued Ariel Bissett, a prominent booktuber at this year’s annual Poetry Summit, “then you shouldn’t just be doing it in print. Print is preaching to the choir. What we need are new readers who don’t yet know that they love poetry.”

Taking poetry off the page and getting it into the mouths (and ears) of young people makes poetry more accessible. And perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising because, as Mrs Flowers said, ‘You’ll never like poetry until you speak it.’

 

Laura Mucha

Audio sample of Dear Ugly Sisters, Laura’s debut poetry collection for children:

 

Laura Mucha

Laura Mucha’s debut collection, Dear Ugly Sisters is out now and comes with a free accompanying audiobook (a sample of which is provided above).

Her debut non-fiction book, Love Factually / We Need to Talk About Love was published last year and Richard Curtis describes it as ‘much better and more useful than my film’.

Laura has won two international prizes for children’s poetry (the Caterpillar Prize and the YorkMix Prize) and her poems have been featured on BBC Radio 6 Music, BBC Radio 3, Classic FM and CBBC. You can read more of her work at lauramucha.com. @lauramucha

Cheryl Moskowitz: The Corona Collection

The Corona Collection – A Conversation

School’s out for summer. For most children during this pandemic school has been out for a very long time. Not just school but playgrounds, football fields, cinemas, restaurants, playdates with friends, visits with grandparents and so much else.

We’ve all needed support to navigate our way through the crisis, but children especially have needed help and reassurance to know that the world is not ending however much it might seem like that from where they are standing.

Despite most parents not being trained teachers and teachers not able to teach as they normally would, these adults have been expected to meet the educational requirements set out for children by government during the lockdown. Children have been scared, confused, frustrated, sad, depressed and bored. How can their learning needs be met when issues relating to their mental health and well-being are so overwhelming?

I live in North London where there are many families and young children. Within a mile radius of my house there are 9 primary schools and one large secondary. In March 2020 when school closures were announced my concern was for all those school children. How, I wondered, would they and their carers cope?

That’s where poetry comes in.

I am a parent, educator and a trained counsellor. I am also a writer and a poet. When a problem overwhelms me, I turn to poetry. When I need to make sense of my feelings and voice my concerns, I turn to poetry. A poem is a way of sharing thoughts and ideas widely with others. A poem is a conversation and one that can be easily shared, even (or perhaps especially) from a place of isolation.

Having conversations, especially with our children, is key to understanding what the other is thinking, feeling, what they value and what they most need and want to happen. I wrote this poem as a way of starting that conversation.

 

Just Supposing…

 

you woke up tomorrow

and there weren’t all these rules

like: YOU HAVE TO STAY HOME!

and: YOU CAN’T GO TO SCHOOL!

And whatever you wished for,

where to go, what to do,

who to be with, how many –

was all up to you.

Where would it be,

doing what, and with whom?

Would you go to the park

or fly up to the moon?

You could go on a picnic

or stay in your room.

If you woke up tomorrow,

restrictions all lifted –

what kind of a world

would you want to be gifted?

 

I took the poem to my local community, conducting pavement interviews with children at a distance, talking to teachers in schools, children of key workers and others in attendance. Inspired by the conversations I was having I wrote more poems and those poems grew into a collection The Corona Collection – A Conversation.

The collection is designed to encourage ongoing conversation between children and adults, in school and at home. I have created resources to go alongside the poems and used the collection to deliver poetry workshops via zoom to children as far away as Hong Kong! In June and July I also ran workshops with small groups of pupils back at school, in their ‘bubbles’.

Since June over 6,000 physical copies of The Corona Collection have been printed and distributed to children and schools around the country. Pop Up Projects took the initiative and gifted 2,000 copies of a special edition to their partner schools nationwide. In London, recognising the value of poetry, Enfield Council adopted the collection, making it central to their PSHE and recovery curriculum for KS2 and transitioning pupils across the borough and have already distributed 4,300 copies. My hope is that organisations around the country will follow suit.

A website www.coronacollectionpoetry.com has been set up as a hub for resources and news, and to gather new poetry and conversations in response.

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. She serves on the Creative Council for Create Arts and is working with Pop Up on a three-year project to develop creative resources for use in SEN schools across Kent.

Julie Blake: Golden Slippers

Golden Slippers – recovering lost, forgotten and neglected poetry written for black children

Anthologists tend to follow anthologists. Their choices of poems constitute an interesting historical dialogue about what poetry matters and whose voices should be heard. Children’s poetry anthologies contribute to this dialogue in curious ways, and I will write that history some day, but at present I’m thinking about how this conservative tendency commonly replicates whiteness and anti-blackness. Addressing this problem matters to my work as a digital anthologist for the Poetry By Heart National Schools Poetry Recitation Competition, and as a researcher exploring ways of addressing racism in digital archives of historic children’s books.

I’m currently reading and thinking about a particular anthology, published in 1941, called Golden Slippers. The title alone has given me a new way of describing poems – of course they’re golden slippers! You put them on and they dance you to wherever. But my interest is expressed by the subtitle: an anthology of Negro poetry for young readers. This is an anthology that goes against the grain of mainstream children’s poetry publishing in 1941. The Golden Slippers anthologist is Arna Bontemps,  a key figure in the 1920s black cultural movement known as the Arna BontempsHarlem Renaissance, and a great friend and collaborator of the much better known poet, Langston Hughes. All the poems are written by black poets and its intended readers are black children. However, in one exchange of letters with the art critic and photographer Carl van Vechten, Langston Hughes remarked that he thought the illustrator was white as “she draws hands and feet as if she were”. The illustrations are sympathetic but the whiteness shows. This is a not uncommon problem in the ‘recovery’ of texts written for black children.

William Stanley Braithwaite

Bontemps collected the work of 28 poets and some traditional oral poems. Some of the poets are well known, others deserve a fresh look having been lost, neglected or forgotten, and others make up the numbers. Some of the poems were written for children, others anthologised as being of interest to them, though van Vechten also questioned why children would want to read Countee Cullen’s poem, ‘Incident: Baltimore’, which shares the permanent scarring of a black child by a racist encounter with a white child. Other poems figure black lives that we are now uncomfortable with because of their stereotypical associations: the banjo player, the washerwoman and a rather queasy Miss Lucy poem. And the poem from which the delightful title is drawn is ghastly: a song, ‘Oh, Dem Golden Slippers’, by James A. Bland, who successfully toured the world as “The World’s Greatest Minstrel Man”, performing blackface minstrelsy as a black man for the entertainment of Queen Victoria. But there are real delights too. I am especially drawn to poems of joy and hope, like William Stanley Braithwaite’s ‘I am glad all day long’ and Georgia Douglas Johnson’s ‘I’ve Learned to Sing’, poems that observe the natural world like Langston Hughes’s ‘In Time of Silver Rain’, and comic poems like Mary Effie Lee Newsome’s ‘Bats’. With a free Internet Archive library ticket, you can read them all here: Archive.

For me, some of the most memorable performances in the Poetry By Heart competition have been of historic poems by black poets: a young man nailing W.E.B. du Bois’s poem ‘Song of the Smoke’, a year 10 girl giving her all to Paul Dunbar’s ‘Invitation to Love’ and this year a sixth former taking my breath away with his recitation of Dunbar’s ‘We Wear The Mask’. We’ll be drawing on Golden Slippers and similar anthologies to add more.

Julie Blake

Dr Julie Blake co-directs Poetry By Heart, the poetry recitation competition for schools in England and co-editor of its first print anthology, Poetry By Heart: A Treasury of Poems to Read Aloud and of its digital anthologies for children of different ages available at http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk. She is also a Research Associate in the Faculty of Education at Cambridge University, working on the AHRC funded project led by Zoe Jaques and Eugene Giddens, Decolonising Digital Childhoods: a pilot study towards enhanced participation and diversification in historical children’s literature collections. She tweets as @poetrybyheart, @litdigi and @felthamgirl.

Roger Stevens: The Joy of Parody

Recently I, and several of my poet friends, have been writing parodies. I think because with the pandemic and feelings about the UK government’s handling of the crisis running high, they provide a way for people to vent their feelings and lighten a dark mood with humour. There’s been a parody boom on all social networking platforms.

I discovered parody as a teenager in the early 1960s, when my father brought home a copy of Arnold Silcock’s Verse and Worse that was about to be pulped in the paper mill where he worked. It was full of the most amazing poems and had a big, fat section featuring parodies.

One of my favourites was Sellar and Yeatman’s version of Browning’s poem – How I brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix. The original line is:

I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he; I galloped, Dirk galloped, we galloped all three;

in their version it becomes:

As I galloped, you galloped, he galloped, we galloped,
Ye galloped, they two shall have galloped: let us trot.

There were parodies of nursery rhymes. One I liked was:

Doctor Bell fell down the well
And broke his collar bone
Doctors should attend the sick
And leave the well alone.

 And a real eye-opener was discovering that the poems I so loved in one of my favourite books, Alice in Wonderland, were themselves parodies. The Victorians, it seems, loved writing them.

Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh was a popular work to satirize, not only by Lewis Carroll. There have been many versions over the years. This, by James Payn (1830-1898):

I never had a piece of toast
Particularly long and wide,
But fell upon the sanded floor,
And always on the buttered side.

Even Charles Dickens had a go:

I never nursed a dear Gazelle,
to glad me with its soft black eye,
but when it came to know me well, and love me,
it was sure to marry a market gardener.

Dickens uses parody not just for humour (I love the comedic device of the unexpected non-rhyming ending) but also to make a comment about market gardeners. What was that all about? Presumably readers of the time knew.

So parody has been popular for many years. Pompous people whose views are overblown have always been targeted for taking down a peg or two. Things that are just wrong sometimes need the spotlight of ridicule shone on them. Witness the satire boom in the 1960s and later with programmes like Spitting Image and impressionist Rory Bremner’s TV shows.

Parody has been a life-long preoccupation of mine, both in verse and in music. And I’ve written so many over the years. I remember referencing William Blake as a young teenager with:

Hedgehog, hedgehog burning bright
In the hedgerows of the night…

So when my career as a children’s poet began, in the late 1990s, parody was bound to find its way into my work. I think the first was in The Monster That Ate the Universe (Macmillan), my second solo collection, a poem by Coleridge:

It is an ancient mariner
And he stoppeth one of three –
He stopped the person just in front
Why didn’t he stop me?

Later, I found many poems and verses to parody, such as Kipling’s If, Wordsworth’s Daffodils, Carroll’s Jabberwocky and, of course, nursery rhymes. I don’t think parody will ever go out of fashion, there are so many wonderful poems are out there just waiting to be recycled into something differently meaningful, topical, insightful or downright funny. There is something about knowing the original and then being confronted with it in a different context that is just so satisfying.

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 celebrated its 20th anniversary.  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.

Rachel Rooney: Poetry: A Changing Relationship

Poetry as Parent

Books, particularly poetry collections, were a real comfort to me in what was otherwise a rather austere childhood. I was an insular child who’d taught myself to read before starting school. And as the fifth of six children, all born within 9 years of each other and raised by a very unmaternal mother, it wasn’t surprising that literature became a kind of parental substitute. Reading poetry lead to attempts at writing it, though I never shared my efforts at home or school. Below is the last poem I’d written as a child, aged 13. I still have it on scrap paper somewhere.

 

The sky at night is like a precious stone,

studded with flecks of silver and a pearl.

Surrounded, even though I am alone.

Covered, like an unprotected girl.

 

It shows some technical promise and a pithy allusion to a darker subtext. But after this, I drifted away from writing towards music culture. Other than an appreciation of the odd song lyric, it would be another 27 years before I thought of poetry again.

Siblings, with me on the right.

Poetry as Lover

In my 40th year, I chanced upon a weekly class, Writing for Children with Roger Stevens. We spent a term studying poetry where I revisited and appreciated its otherness and the space it gave for self-reflection. Life had become difficult around that time and writing gave me a much needed sense of control and an alternative, positive focus.  It hooked me in and soon poetry became my obsessive love interest.

Although I knew I wanted to write and publish poetry for children, I was driven to expand my understanding of it, so spent the following three years focusing on writing courses, workshops and residential weeks. As my writing developed, my personal and emotional life came apart. But poetry was both the catalyst to initiate productive change, and the tool to navigate through those changes.

Long story short, I acquired an agent, Caroline Walsh, who helped place my first collection, The Language of Cat, with Janetta Otter-Barry at Frances Lincoln.  And I became part of a new wave of children’s poets emerging alongside renewed publisher and educational interest that continues to grow and flourish today.

Poetry as Boss

Strange as it may seem, it didn’t occur to me that I’d have to ‘work’ to promote my book. I hadn’t considered much beyond the writing of the poems. But I was edged into the limelight when my first collection won the CLPE Award. Public performances terrified me and marketing my work felt alien, but somehow I’ve managed to muddle my way through for long enough to have two more collections (both CLIPPA shortlisted) under my belt. While I’m incredibly grateful for the reception my poetry has had, I can’t help but hold an ambivalence to the job description of Poet. I’m quite protective of my relationship with poetry, viewing it more as mother or lover rather than allowing it to act as my employer.

My next (and likely final, collection) Hey, Girl! is out next year, and is one I’m hoping will speak for itself. It’s pitched at an older readership – early adolescence upwards, and is unapologetically Asperger-ish and female-orientated. It contains poems I’ve written over the last ten years which are part-autobiographical, part epistolary in nature. It marks a natural return to where I’d left off as a young teen and feels somewhat like an ending – but in a good way.

Here’s the title poem.

 

XX

 

Hey, girl!

You’re a miracle, already.

What are the odds a cluster of cells

could grow human from a mother’s womb

and arrive in a bright world, blinking and blue.

That was you.

 

Hey, girl!

Remember, you had the power

to commando crawl over sharp bricks,

risk unsteady steps in hard, new shoes,

turn upside-down on swings for the view.

That was you.

 

Hey, girl!

You’re simply a sacred being-machine.

No body is perfect but you are perfectly yours.

Hold fast to this thought if others try to undo it.

I am sending this and a kiss (or two).

I was you.

 

Rachel Rooney

Rachel Rooney‘s latest picture book The Problem with Problems, illustrated by Zehra Hicks and published by Andersen, is out now. Her crossover poetry collection, Hey, Girl! is to be published by Otter-Barry Books in 2021.

Lucy Thynne: Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award

Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award

This time last year, I had finished my A levels and was going to meet some of my ‘poetry friends’ in the centre of London. We were going to see one of our favourite poets, the TS Eliot prize-winning Ocean Vuong, in conversation with Sandeep Parmar, at the Southbank Centre, and the following day, we were travelling to a little town in Herefordshire called Ledbury to read at their annual Poetry Festival. I’m more than aware that this is not the typical summer blowout of an eighteen-year-old – but bear with me.

I got very, very lucky. I was chosen as one of fifteen winners for the Foyle Young Poet of the Year Award in 2016, 2017 and 2018, an international competition that aims to seek out the best poems of 11-17-year olds. The prize: publication and an Arvon writing course at the Hurst, in Shropshire. These are the tangible rewards offered, but the most fulfilling result of the competition is the boost of confidence it can give you. Writing, I quickly realised, was not just something to hide away in my bedroom; it was something that had been validated and could be shared.

Ocean Vuong’s fan club – at the Hurst

The friendships I came away with from those Arvon courses were the best outcome of the competition. The week is an organised chaos of poetry workshops in the morning, free time in the afternoon; there are cooking endeavours in the kitchen and muddy walks to the nearby village. Tutors on the course have included Pascale Petit, Kayo Chingonyi, Raymond Antrobus and Malika Booker, and guest poets have included Sarah Howe and Caroline Bird. Where there is little sleep, there are many excited, quiet revelations about poetry. Teenagers who also read and were as enthralled by poems as I was – that was a huge discovery for me, and something I never would have found without Foyle. I feel incredibly privileged to have met young poets from around the world: many of whom I am still in touch with, go to university with, and count among my closest friends. It is rare for any person, let alone a teenager, to find a trusted group of people they can show their writing to. I’m very grateful to the competition for that.

In the craziness of times like these, I hope that young people can also turn to poetry. There is a lot of talk about being creative while a virus is raging around the world; I think for many, it has been rather paralysing, but for some, it can be a means of comfort and of self-expression. It is strange to think that this time last year I was travelling around the country, able to take advantage of opportunities that had come directly from the wonderful people at The Poetry Society. My heart really goes out to all of the young people stuck at home, particularly those who may feel shafted by the pandemic – if parents are key-workers, if exams have been cancelled. There is a self-consciousness to writing poetry; I think far too often, people are dissuaded by the pretentious and elitist image that it can still hold. Nonetheless, I hope that more young people can see beyond this view and use this extra time to write a poem, because it can do a world of good. I know it did for me.

Lucy Thynne

Lucy Thynne is 19 and studying English. A previous winner of the Foyle Young Poet of the Year, her work has also been recognised by the BBC, the Forward Arts Foundation and the Young Romantics Prize. She edits fiction for her university magazine and is an Editor at the Oxford Review of Books.

The Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award is the biggest international poetry competition for 11-17 year olds in the world. Run by The Poetry Society, the competition is free to enter, with no theme or line limit. Teachers can enter class sets of students’ poems and receive a discount on The Poetry Society’s Poets in Schools booking service, and individual poets can enter as many poems as they like for free! The competition closes on 31 July. Find out more and enter at foyleyoungpoets.org.

Matt Goodfellow: A Poet under Lockdown

A  Poet under Lockdown

During the recent Poetry Summit (online) meeting, there was a discussion around how the poets present had been getting on during lockdown – I didn’t say much because I hadn’t really thought about it.

So I had a think.

Firstly, I’m really lucky that no one in my family, immediate or wider, has fallen severely ill – (my 89 year old grandma did contract Covid 19 but defeated it quickly, escaping with just a sore throat). I’m also lucky to be a homeowner with access to a garden.

Aside from health worries, the over-arching effect of lockdown for me has been financial – which has certainly squashed my idea of a poetry-powered Porsche…

Like many of my fellow poets, the lion’s share of my income comes from school visits. My last paid workshops were the week lockdown came into effect. Up to that point, my diary was booked up until the end of the academic year and I was full-speed ahead promoting my Bloomsbury collection, Bright Bursts of Colour, published in February. As schools closed, so the cancellations flooded in. My wife, Joanna, after months of soul-searching had just resigned from her role as a primary school head-teacher, without a job to go to, not envisaging life as we knew it would grind to a halt. I accessed the government scheme for the self-employed and took a payment holiday on our mortgage – this helped – but there’s no doubt that money worries have been more to the fore than ever before. However, there is food in my cupboards and (ever-shrinking) clothes on my back, but am aware how deep the struggle is for some.

With so many creatives and teachers in effect out-of-work, the first weeks of lockdown flew by in a flurry of people posting online readings and educational workshops. I was one of them. Until, well, I got a bit bored doing them: I’m not good with technology and was therefore reliant on either my 10 year old daughter or 14 year old son filming me – and they didn’t take much pleasure in the self-serving ramblings of their show-off dad… although my son, Will, was savvy enough to realise time filming me was time away from home-schooling!  Happily, during this time, Joanna managed to secure a new job which relieved some of our tension.

Then came a lull in proceedings where we settled into a strange ‘acceptance of lockdown’ rhythm and it was then that I imagined I could re-awaken my muse – lazing in my study (overcrowded box-room), shrouded in silk scarves, notebook and pen in hand, reading and writing.

I was wrong.

I quickly came to realise how valuable periods of solitude are to my writing. And with two children, an energetic 9 month old Golden Retriever – and an unceremonious eviction from my study so Joanna could work from home – there was not much solitude to be had!

I have managed to write poems – just, perhaps, not as many as I usually would. Oh, and I quite like writing in pubs and cafes as well… it’s the people watching, honest!

Matt Goodfellow

Matt Goodfellow is from Manchester. He is a National Poetry Day Ambassador for the Forward Arts Foundation, and delivers high-energy, fun-filled performances in schools. His most recent collection is Bright Burst of Colour (Bloomsbury, 2020).

Teresa Cremin: Sharing the Love of Poetry

Sharing the Love of Poetry

 Children’s lives are packed with poetry; they participate in a world of words and play with these eagerly, often without recognising the essentially poetic nature of playground rhymes, songs, chants, jingles, jokes and lyrics for instance.  Young people find intense pleasure in verbal play and are drawn to the sound and visual effects of poetry and many enjoy watching poets’ perform online.  Recognising and celebrating their affinity with poetry is important. As educators, poets and parents we want to help them develop and sustain positive attitudes and pleasurable engagement in reading, writing, listening to and performing poetry.

So, drawing on some partnership work with Eve Vollans from Mayflower Community Academy in Plymouth and a team of talented teachers, I have created some mini reading challenges – invitations to engage and share the love of poetry!

They are underpinned by OU research which shows that reading for pleasure is supported by reading aloud and  time to talk about texts, as well as time to read, alone, and with others. Rich practice which supports a love of reading is, I argue,  Learner led, Informal, Social and with Texts that Tempt (LIST).

Poetry tempts many young people, so why not offer these invitations to children and families you know and invite them to explore and then share their pleasure in poetry with teachers, friends or family.  They might for example choose to become Poetry Detectives in their homes – on the hunt for word play in lyrics, adverts, picture books and newspapers. They might pop a poem or joke in their window to engage passers-by, find out their parents’ favourite childhood poems, or explore The Children’s Poetry Archive- the opportunities are almost endless.

Adults, as poetry loving role models, can participate too!

So feel free to invite – engage – enjoy and share the love of poetry widely!

Teresa Cremin

Teresa is Professor of Education (Literacy) at the Open University. An advocate of teachers’ creative artistry, Teresa is also passionate about developing readers for life and leads a professional user-community website based on her research into reading for pleasure. Research Rich Pedagogies supports over 80 OU/UKLA Teachers’ Reading Groups and 24 HEI partnerships across the country. Her most recent book is Reading for Pleasure in the Digital Age: Mapping Reader Engagement (2020, Sage). Teresa Cremin’s OU webpage.

Debbie Pullinger: A Poem in the Head

A Poem in the Head

Lockdown has been an unlooked-for boost for poetry. Under pressure, creative juices have leaked out and poems have sprouted in every spare bit of ground. At the same time, appetites have grown, and some – like my friend who’s learning a load of Larkin – have even turned to memorising.

If lockdown poems have poured out of you, then you’ve something to show for it all. But what if you have simply coaxed them off the page and into your head? What’s to show for that? And why not simply enjoy reading them, rather than going to the bother of learning?

These were precisely the kinds of questions with which we began our Poetry and Memory project at the University of Cambridge. We were interested in the value of the memorised poem, and how knowing poems by heart affects appreciation and understanding. Our findings point to a constellation of potential benefits – for anyone, at any age. You can read more about the project here. But to highlight just three, a poem in the heart …

  • becomes a valuable emotional resource, often growing and changing with us.
  • creates a sense of ownership – and for children, that can provide a vital sense of mastery as well as being a staging post to other poems.
  • open us to possibility – like Becky Fisher’s mum, you never know where, or who, it might lead to…

Lines in the head also help with the lines that come out. We know that for so many of our great poets, a store of memorised poetry was instrumental in their achievement – what Seamus Heaney called “bedding the ear with a kind of linguistic hardcore”. When poetry learning was reinstated on the primary curriculum in 2012, it was not universally welcomed. Even so, it does build an instinctual awareness of how poetic language works. It’s great to hear on this blog about the inspiring work poets are doing in schools – and to read some of the poems which come out of that. And as these young writers begin to find their voice, they will be tuning into those tracks of language laid down in the brain.

Ok, but surely children shouldn’t be required to learn or recite? An interesting question I’m often asked.

In our research, we asked about when, how and why poems were learned. Some people reported dreadful experiences of enforced learning that put them off for life. And yet… others made to learn and recite under duress were really glad they did and now love their poem. Countless others, though, said they learned their poem ‘accidentally’, just through hearing it again and again.

And that’s the thing – children really don’t need forcing. As any parent whose child joins in with a Julia Donaldson book knows, they do it as naturally as they learn language. And as many a teacher knows, there are lots of ways to make learning enjoyable. For a few ideas, my Poetry Archive Teaching Resource draws on findings from the project.

Once learned, poems can be explored through performance. The act of sharing a poem in this way seems to bring the relationship between sounds and sense into sharper focus, while new shades of meaning can be opened up in the moment. Again, ideas for performance are here.

But what if, like me, you’re of the generation who never learned poetry in school? Well, some of my most fascinating interviews were with people who told me about starting to learn poems later in life – as an absorbing hobby, as a bulwark against dementia or, perhaps – most significantly for these times – as therapy for depression or solace for dark days. It’s never too early, never too late.

Debbie Pullinger

Debbie Pullinger is a writer and researcher based at the University of Cambridge. Having published a volume on children’s poetry – From Tongue to Text (Bloomsbury, 2017) – she is currently working on a book about the memorised poem. www.debbiepullinger.com  @debpullinger