Sue Hardy-Dawson: What is Poetry?

Perhaps you’re already a fan of poetry? As you’re reading a poetry blog, it’s a fair assumption. However, undeniably, it remains the marmite of literature. Why? I suspect part of the problem is that unlike other models for writing it’s hard to define exactly what a poem is.

It’s true there are many different forms and styles of poetry, as many as poets past and present have and continue to think up. In fact, poetry by its very nature welcomes experimentation and innovation. BUT, whilst it’s a wonderful open field to play for poets, it can feel a bit daunting to those, as yet unconvinced, endeavouring to teach it.

Like all else it requires first and foremost a degree of immersion. Even if you have read and yes reread at least some if not a lot of poems by different poets contemporary and historical, a satisfying definition that fits all models, much less how to write poetry, remains elusive. Add to this an educational zeitgeist of deconstruction and poetry risks becoming a fearfully complex thing. Right?

No, it doesn’t need to be. Naturally, as a poet, I know a fair amount about poetry. Yet, like every child everywhere, almost all I know I learnt a long time after I began writing it. My first poems were largely mimicking poetry I’d enjoyed. I’m grateful my youthful attention wasn’t required to identify similes, metaphors or alliteration. Not, at least, until secondary school and university.

So here’s the thing, poetry needn’t be scary, you can know very little about its constructs and still embark on a joint voyage of enjoying poetry with children. The single most important teaching tool you can bring to the party is a genuine passion. Better still you can experiment and invent your own rules. There are no poetry police or they would have carted me away at birth. So poetry provides endless opportunities for wild creativity. You can arrange it solely by syllable counts, write it rhymed or unrhymed, play with and have lots of punctuation, or none at all. You can mimic other forms of writing. There’s very little a poem cannot be from an epic to a single word.

‘Ah’ you say, (well probably not you, but many teachers and parents I’ve come across) ‘but I don’t like poetry.’ And who can blame you? We’ve all felt dislike for something. The book we dread at bedtime, the irritating song you find yourself tragically humming on the bus. For me it’s competitive sports and computer games. I understand. So, if you aren’t already, can I ever make a poetry fan of you? Well, I believe it’s possible. Familiarity is key and it doesn’t even lead to contempt.

Consider opera, music’s marmite, yet after the world cup who hasn’t found themselves humming Nessun Dorma? If not launching into full-blown song in the bathroom and scaring the neighbours? Just me then? Nevertheless, it proves we can all learn to love new things and, if we don’t have to be experts in Italian or opera to feel opera’s joy, why not poetry?

So if you don’t like or are even fearful of teaching poetry, children’s poetry is a good place to start. It’s accessible and often fun. Don’t let poetry become just an exercise in studying language, though, let contextual osmosis work its magic, learn poems as you would a song. Watch videos of poets performing or go and see one live. Why? Because enthusiasm is addictive and children have inbuilt primeval, adult-engagement sensors. Open their hearts and love – and even understanding – will grow on its own.

Sue Hardy-Dawson

Sue Hardy Dawson is a poet & illustrator. Her debut collection, ‘Where Zebras Go’, Otter Barry Books, was shortlisted for the 2018 CLiPPA prize. Sue’s poems and teaching resources can be found on the CLPE website. Her second, ‘Apes to Zebras’ Bloomsbury, co-written with poetry ambassadors, Roger Stevens and Liz Brownlee, won the North Somerset Teachers Book Awards. As a dyslexic poet, she loves encouraging reluctant readers and writers. Her second solo collection ‘If I were Other than Myself’ is out now with Troika Books.

Laura Mucha: In the Face of Uncertainty

Here is another look at a favourite, and still pertinent blog from 2020:

I was hit by a car when I was 29. I was left virtually bedbound for years and after six months or so, I found myself writing poetry. Somehow, it was a place where I could process thoughts and feelings, a code that allowed me to access parts of me that were otherwise out of bounds.

I also devoured poems. I read this excerpt of a poem called New Every Morning by Susan Coolidge every day for at least two years:

 

Every day is a fresh beginning;

Listen, my soul, to the glad refrain,

And, spite of old sorrow and older sinning,

And puzzles forecasted and possible pain,

Take heart with the day, and begin again.

In the face of the stress and uncertainty of the global pandemic, I wanted to use poetry to help young people process what was going on and express themselves. Normally I would work face-to-face with them, getting them to improvise, come up with words and lines, vote on changes and perform – but as we were in lockdown, I had to figure out how to do all of these things via little boxes on a screen.

In my first session, 7-11 year olds were coming up with lines like ‘I’m going to use all the bog roll’, ‘get me out of here’ and ‘my dad’s talking about Boris’. It was fascinating to see how the pandemic was impacting them and help them articulate that in a poem. They told me they appreciated the chance to have a voice, collaborate, be creative and learn – and many parents said that this was the highlight of their children’s lockdown.

I decided to run a series of workshops to co-write a thank you poem for key workers. I enlisted the help of a brilliant friend of mine, Ed Ryland, who normally produces some of the best TV on our screens. I advertised free poetry workshops, messaged everyone I could think of – from every school I’d ever visited to friends I hadn’t seen in years – and prepared a Powerpoint outlining who key workers are and what they do. And off we went.

More than fifty young people role-played, imagined being different key workers, thought about how they would feel, what they would be doing, what difference they would make. And they wrote everything down, sharing hundreds of words in a couple of minutes. I collated them all with the help of teaching assistant and poet, Meg Fairclough, then we worked as a group to create a first draft.

I spent the weekend reflecting and editing (filming my editing so I could share this in the next workshop) and asked for comments from my agent, editor, and four professional children’s poets. In the following session, I showed all of this to the young writers and asked them to vote on the suggestions. “It’s your poem,” I said. “Only accept the comments you agree with.” They rejected many… Then we discussed what costumes or props they had, allocated lines and planned how we would perform the poem.

One thousand videos later – and countless emails and calls with Ed and numerous parents – and we had a film. More than 80 children from the UK, US, Australia, China, Italy and Uruguay took part. It had thousands of views in a couple of hours and made its way onto CBBC’s Newsround.

I know I’m a poetry evangelist. But poems are an invaluable way to process and communicate – particularly in times of difficulty. And as difficulty looks like it will be here for a while, I will continue to evangelise.

Poetry is important. And poetry is for everyone. So please write it.

Laura Mucha

Laura Mucha 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.

Her debut non-fiction book, Love Factually / We Need to Talk About Love (Bloomsbury) was published last year and Richard Curtis describes it as ‘much better and more useful than my film’. Her debut collection, Dear Ugly Sisters (Otter-Barry Books) is out in August, and her debut picture book, Rita’s Rabbit (Faber & Faber) in 2021. You can read more of her work at lauramucha.com. @lauramucha

Brian Moses: A Profile

As the first in a new series of poets’ profiles, we asked Brian Moses to talk about being a children’s poet.

Who are you?

Brian Moses, Poet, Picture book writer, anthologist, writer in schools, percussionist.

How long have you been writing poetry for children?

Since I became a teacher in 1975 and started getting children to write poetry. I used to read them all my favourite stuff by Michael Rosen, Roger McGough and later on Kit Wright and Wes Magee. Some of the time I couldn’t find suitable children’s poems for the class topics that we were studying so I started writing them myself and using them with the children. Their responses were often quite favourable, probably because I was their teacher and they were being kind to me. But it did encourage me to keep writing more and more.

How did you get started?

I was drawn to poetry through my enjoyment of the lyrics of rock music, particularly singer/songwriters like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and The Doors. The poetry I was offered in school made little impression on me at the time and it wasn’t until I picked up a book of poems by the Liverpool Poets – Adrian Henri, Roger McGough & Brian Patten – that I realised that poetry could be fun, that it could speak to me in  a language that I understood and that it had relevance to my life as a teenager. I wrote my first poem at the age of 16 to try and persuade a girl who lived near me to go out with her. It failed to achieve its purpose.

What do you enjoy about writing?

I love words and the way that poetry allows me to string words together in a variety of ways. I love the rhythms of poetry and being able to underpin those rhythms with a range of percussion instruments. I like the way in which poems can sneak up on me when I least expect them too, the way that they nag at me till I take time to pin them down. I like being able to write in many different places and not being confined to my desk, although that’s where the poems are usually completed.

Have you any poetry writing tips you’d like to share with us?

Keep a writer’s notebook and always listen in to other people’s conversations.

Which is your favourite amongst the books you’ve written?

It has to be my Best of ‘Lost Magic’ as it contains my hundred favourite poems. The hardback edition from Macmillan with a brilliant cover by illustrator Ed Boxall is something I’m so pleased to have on my shelves. I’m also looking forward to my new book ‘Selfies with Komodos’ which Otter-Barry are publishing in January as it has poems written over the past six years that I’m really pleased with.

Which book was most important in your career as a poet?

I sent poems to Cambridge University Press in 1993 hoping they’d be keen to publish a book and was pleasantly surprised to find that they wanted two books from me, one for younger readers which became ‘Hippopotamus Dancing’ and the other ‘Knock Down Ginger’ for older ones. These were published in both hardback and paperback and were my first poetry books from a major publisher.

Anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself?

Over the 34 years that I have worked as a professional poet, it’s the unpredictability of the job that has kept it exciting and rewarding. I’ve never known what was going to happen next or where I’d be invited to go. I’ve performed my poems in many different locations including Iceland, the Edinburgh Festival, Prince Charles’s Summer School for Teachers, an open prison, a New York bookshop , the United Nations Building in Geneva and RAF schools in Cyprus

Anything else you’d like to say about children’s poetry?

Yes, please buy my books!

Roger Stevens: Poetry Forms

There are some very strange and beguiling forms, styles and varieties of verse out there in Poetryland. I’ve always been fascinated why this should be so and how different forms of poetry come about.

Take blank verse, for example. Its first recorded use was by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, in his translation of the Aeneid around 1540. Not so very long after, in 1561, the first play in blank verse, Gorboduc, was written by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville. The work of Shakespeare and Marlowe show how they then adopted and adapted this form.

Shakespeare, ever the innovator, developed blank verse in many interesting ways, using enjambment and feminine endings, for example, as well as using the potential of blank verse for abrupt and irregular speech. In this exchange from King John (3.2) one blank verse line is broken between two characters:

My lord?
            A grave.
                        He shall not live.
                                                Enough.

Believe it or not, one of the oldest poetic forms is the acrostic. The word was first applied to the prophecies of the Erythraen Sybil, of classical antiquity, which were written on leaves and arranged so that the initial letters on the leaves always formed a word. Many writers and poets have had fun with this idea over the centuries. Notably Lewis Carroll in his poem for the “three Misses Liddell” whose names are spelt out by the poem.

My favourite variety of this form is the mesostic, where letters in the middle of the poem vertically spell out the poem’s title. Mesostics were invented by the Fluxus artist John Cage in the 1960s and work much better in the classroom than acrostics, causing children to try a little harder for their poem to make sense and giving a more pleasing shape when written down.

Taking the idea further, there is the horizontic:

hope Or a mirAge, Shimmering In the deSert

This and other unusual acrostics, as well as examples and explanations of many different kinds of poetry, can be found in my anthology Is This a Poem? (Bloomsbury, 2016).

Haiku poems emerged in 13th Century Japan as the opening phrase of the Renga, an oral poem generally 100 stanzas long, which was also composed syllabically. The much shorter haiku broke away from its parent in the 16th Century. And was distilled a century later by the haiku master Matsuo Basho.

the old pond
a frog leaps in
sound of the water

No modern children’s anthology, it seems, can do without at least one haiku – which should really be about nature – or its cousin, the senryu, – which describes human behaviour and is usually satirical.

After having attended a course on writing haiku, as an anthologist I now describe all these types of poems as ‘written in the haiku style’. Proper haiku poems are very complicated beasts indeed and are typically serious. I broke that rule with the very first poem I had published, way back in the early 1990s:

When I write haiku
I always seem to have one
Syllable left o

Roger Stevens

Roger Stevens has published over forty books for children. He is a National Poetry Day Ambassador, a founding member of the Able Writers scheme with Brian Moses and runs the award-winning website www.poetryzone.co.uk for children and teachers, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2018.  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. This year he published his best-of collection Razzmatazz (Otter-Barry Books) to excellent reviews.

Pie Corbett: Surrealist Games

Surrealist Games

     As a teacher-writer, I often use surrealist procedures because, ‘Poetry should be made by all. Not one’. The Surrealist’s first manifesto argued that the imagination should be free; every human was endowed with imagination; through various games and techniques, ‘the marvelous is within everyone’s reach’. These ideals suggest that every child can succeed uniquely, opening playful possibilities. Early on, I used simple approaches such as Kenneth Koch’s suggestion to write about dreams or crazy wishes: ‘I wish I was/ a silver fish swimming in the sunset sea.’ Here are a few games:

     Random Pairs – involves juxtaposition of ideas and words. Play in pairs.

  • Partner A writes down 5 adjectives
  • Partner B writes down five nouns.
  • Put lists together and read.
Partner A – adjectivesPartner B – nouns= new phrase
darkdeliverydark delivery
ravenousfeetravenous feet
softfestivalsoft festival
shinyhorseshiny horse
pixilatedsunflowerpixilated sunflower

     Children MUST combine the words in the order they are written to overcome the desire to combine words into known patterns … clichés. To break this habit, random selection should rule so fresh combinations occur. Lengthen mini sentences or use in paragraphs. Create other constraints:

  • List pairs of words that alliterate:
  • Work in threes to create sentences using adjective+noun+verb;
  • Experiment in fours to produce sentences using adjective+noun+verb+adverb;
  • Try other combinations, e.g. adjective+noun+verb+simile.

     Initial letters and acronyms – in pairs, use initials. Child A lists random adjectives for a given name. Child B lists for the family name:

Harry Potter is – a Hairy Promenade, a Handsome Party, a Helpful Peach …

     Use number plates or acronyms such as BBC, ITV, DIY, UFO, FBI, LOL to create mini sentences:

Adjective Bold

Noun Baggage

Verb Celebrates

     Consequences – called ‘the exquisite corpse’ by surrealists, play consequences to create sentences. Pieces of paper are passed round from child to child using a grid. Remind children about word classes. Control the movement of the papers to avoid pandemonium! Start simply:

DeterminerAdjectiveNounVerb
Ashyeggsneezes

As children become confident in word classes, expand the grid:

Determiner  Adjective  Noun  Verb  Adverb  Preposition  Determiner  Adjective  Noun  

     It is important that the paper gets passed on and is folded over so the next child cannot see previous words. Hence, random juxtaposition creates surreal sentences to tweak:

Those pink axes whisper brightly inside that timeless parrot.

Six snoring keys stay exhaustingly below these cold peppers.

Example from a teacher poetry group run by Talk for Writing trainer, Maria Richards.

Vary the grid with different challenges to include phrases, e.g.

Determiner  Adjectives  Noun  Verb  simile  
Thesnarling, bare-toothedcataloguesimperslike a moss-smothered rock

Liam, yr 5, starts his paragraph with a sentence from the game:

Confused, the pencil lay hidden in the chaos of the desk. Why do they hide me away, while I’m destined to write the stories of their imagination? Why trade me for a pen, when my point is ready, sharp and poised for action? Creativity lies within me.

     Time traveller’s potlatch – what gifts would you give historical figures or book characters? One version we play involves children in trios passing round folded paper as in the consequences game.

  1. What present would you give: I will give you a mute swan’. Fold paper over and pass on.
  2. Without peeking, extend the description: which is slimmer than a mouse’s whisper.’ Fold and pass.
  3. Add on what the gift might do: and can bake buns faster than pastry chef.’

Surrealist games make poetry accessible, build confidence, break barriers and encourage daring combinations.

Pie Corbett

Pie Corbett is a teacher-poet – his collection ‘Evidence of `Dragons’ is used in many classrooms. He has published and edited over 250 books, runs ‘Talk for Writing’ and was made an honorary Doctor of Letters for services to creativity, poetry and social justice by the Open University. 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. 

Roma Havers: What happens when you let children tell you what’s in your library?

What happens when you let children tell you what’s in your library?

It was this question that helped me imagine a structure for our first group of children to visit The Poetry Library at Manchester Metropolitan University. We had been working on a Poet in Residence project with the Comino Foundation and, as part of this project, were asked to host a session in the Poetry Library with ten Year 9 pupils.  Manchester Met student and Poet in Residence for St Gabriel’s High School in Bury, Hannah Robinson-Wright, had taken the group to the National Football Museum and wanted to inspire them to write poetry that will be displayed on a football, in the Football Museum and then in the Poetry Library, over the summer. 

This was the first group that I had led around the library space, in my new role as Learning Manager for the Manchester Poetry Library. It was an appropriate one to help me frame this role for myself.

Image: Hannah Robinson-Wright

My job title is Learning Manager not Teaching Manager and I’m interested in facilitating learning. Often empowering other people gives opportunities for me to learn, too. To host the first school visit in the library was an opportunity to be open to them leading their own exploration. I devised a ‘Scavenger Hunt’ that would allow them to discover the library for themselves… and they did. The group was fantastic, giving thoughtful responses to our questions. It was an incredible test of what the library says without us having to explain and, as hoped, the library spoke for itself.

We then invited the students to pick a book from the shelf that they were drawn to, based only on the cover.  They described what they thought the book would be about without opening it. One of my interests is in supporting the library to develop an offer for teen readers that doesn’t limit them to Young Adult targeted writing, so this activity gave me lots of insight into what younger readers expect from a poetry book, and what excites and disappoints them once they open the book. I’m excited to see what we can build by listening to the groups that come into the library and what their expectations can tell us about how to provide for them.

Image: Sarah de la Hoyde

The following week we hosted a second visit for the Comino Project, this time a primary school, Sacred Heart from Bolton.  Again led by a Manchester Met student Poet in Residence, Sarah Walker, who brought 60 excited Year 5s onto campus. Kaye Tew, our Education Manager, ran this session, while I supported and observed.

Image: Sarah de la Hoyde

There was a magical moment at the beginning of the session when Kaye began to rub her hands together, the room quietened and with no instruction 60 Year 5s made a rainstorm soundscape together.

The children were then given a masterclass from Kaye Tew on poet Dom Conlon’s book Blow, Wind,  Blow, part of the ‘Wild Wanderers’ series by Graffeg, illustrated by Anastasia Izlesou. The children responded enthusiastically to the opportunity to make up their own title for a new book in the series, using the format of the Blow, Wind, Blow title, coming up with many variations, the most  memorable suggestion being ‘Dance, Shrek, Dance’.

These two visits have been an incredible introduction to my role in the team and, for me, have opened a world of possibility for what we, as a library, can offer to young people.

The Manchester Poetry Library at Manchester Metropolitan University opened to the public in September 2021. There are 10,000 books in our collection including a growing children’s collection co-curated by poet Mandy Coe, who reached out to children’s festivals and other organisations across the world to develop a diverse starter collection for us to build on. Anyone can become a member for free on our website https://www.mmu.ac.uk/poetrylibrary/. I hope to meet you there sometime soon.

Roma Havers

Roma Havers is Learning Manager at The Manchester Poetry Library at Manchester Metropolitan University and is a poet and theatre-maker.

Lorraine Mariner: Rug Rhymes at the National Poetry Library

The Imagine Children’s Festival took place at Southbank Centre in February this year and it was a chance for the National Poetry Library to hold its Rug Rhymes session for under-5s for the first time since March 2020. That final Rug Rhymes in 2020, just before the first lockdown, was very surreal with just two mums and two toddlers in attendance, though I do remember one of the mum’s talking to her child about a friend they had recently visited who didn’t have real grass in their garden but artificial grass – which on reflection sounds a great subject for a children’s poem! We came back with a bang this February and held 3 sessions over 3 days with roughly 40 children and 40 adults at each session, filling up the foyer outside the NPL.

Rug Rhymes was established in Autumn 2013 as part of our mission to create lifelong NPL members. We sometimes get people in their late teens and early twenties who join the library and tell us they first visited the library on a school visit and it’s our hope that in a few years a young adult will say the same thing about Rug Rhymes. Before we launched Rug Rhymes I visited a few public libraries and sat in on their rhyme time sessions to see how it was done. They seemed to consist of traditional nursery rhymes, action songs and a picture book but we wanted to make sure our sessions also included poems and a rhyming story so it was more of a unique offer drawing from our children’s collection.

As well as gathering together animal puppets that we could use to act out different poems and songs, artist and poet Sophie Herxheimer made two puppets for us who lead the sessions and they’ve become known as Federico and Firebird. We say that they’re Spanish poets who live with us in the Poetry Library because Sophie made them while she was visiting Spain.

Over the years we’ve put together many different session plans, including animals (from the specific – bears, cats, dogs, owls – to more general – pets, jungle, zoos, under the sea), themes that appeal to young children like bodies, food and transport, seasons and festival days and also Southbank Centre festivals such as WOW (Women of the World) and Poetry International. In 2015 Poetry International focused on poetry of the Middle East and we put together a session that included rhymes and poems from Afghanistan and Pakistan thanks to the books in our collection My Village : Rhymes from Around the World (collected by Danielle Wright, Frances Lincoln, 2010)and Children’s Songs from Afghanistan : Qu Qu Qu Barg-e-Chinaar (edited by Louise M. Pascale, National Geographic, 2008).

Since we started Rug Rhymes, something that’s been really great for the sessions is the publication of wonderful books of poems for very young children. We regularly drew on Margaret Mayo’s Plum Pudding (Orchard Books, 2000), but since Michael Rosen’s CLiPPA winning A Great Big Cuddle (Walker) was published in 2015 it’s been good to see other books of rhymes for young children being published and shortlisted for the CLiPPA, such as James Carter’s Zim Zam Zoom! (Otter-Barry, 2016) and Jane Newberry’s Big Green Crocodile (Otter-Barry, 2020). The theme of our recent sessions was Back Together with a focus on children being able to attend parties again, and ‘The Queen Comes to Tea’ from Big Green Crocodile went down a treat and will be used again with the 70th Jubilee celebrations fast approaching.

In May and June we’ll be running Rug Rhymes every Friday between 11.30am-12pm. It takes place in our Little Library space just outside of the National Poetry Library on Level 5, Blue Side, of the Royal Festival Hall. Please check out our website for more information http://www.nationalpoetrylibrary.org.uk

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). She also writes poems for children and writes poems for Rug Rhymes from time to time.

Colin West: Nonsense and Stuff

Those who have come across my work will know I’m a fan of the three Rs — Rhyme, Rhythm and Repetition (and obviously Alliteration too!) But how did it all begin for me?

Well, growing up in the early fifties, after the standard start with nursery rhymes, I remember the poetry of song lyrics. My mother sang around the house as she went about her work. I thought she knew every song ever written, and am still haunted by some of the evocative lines.

Take my hand, I’m a stranger in Paradise, all lost in a Wonderland…

All I want is a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air…

These words conjured images in my mind. They were poetic, mysterious and a little scary. The radio, too, provided more thought-provoking material.

Will I be handsome, will I be rich, here’s what she said to me…

And other songs tickled my funny bone.

I’m a g-nu, a g-nother g-nu…

My mum read to me too — from a book of hers which was a cherished school prize. My grubby finger-prints still mark the page I loved most, which featured The Owl and the Pussycat. Going to school myself, there were more words to amuse and sometimes perplex me, such as the misheard

There is a green hill far away, without a sitting wall …

How sad, I thought, for them not to have a wall to sit on.

A few years later, we were singing along to the folk songs of the British Isles and beyond, with the radio programme Singing Together. The accompanying booklets were decorated with great illustrations by the likes of David Gentleman and Barbara Jones. I learned about my three Rs from such songs, although I didn’t realise at the time, I was merely enjoying them.

Hey, ho, here we go, donkey riding, donkey riding…

Bobby Shaftoe’s gone to sea, silver buckles on his knee…

Funny place for buckles, I always thought.

We did touch on poetry too, although my abiding memory of Nicholas Nye is that of our teacher explaining that the mention of gumption was nothing to do with floor polish.

This was also the era of TV and my favourite programme, Rawhide, had a catchy theme tune.

My heart’s calculatin’ my true love will be waitin’…

And of course, there was Robin Hood, who was forever riding through the glen with his merry men.

I also loved the funny songs of the time.

Don’t dig there, dig it elsewhere, you’re digging it round when it ought to be square…

Wait a minute, it’s stopped hailing, guys are swimming, guys are sailing…

But the times, they were a-changin’ and soon there were different types of lyrics to feed my mind.

I was born with a plastic spoon in my-y mouth…

And the people bowed and prayed to the neon god they made…

And throughout all this, I maintained an admiration for songs from an earlier era, with their clever lines.

Do do that voodoo that you do so well…

The things that you’re li’ble to read in the Bible…

I tried writing my own songs, but could no more keep my guitar in tune than I could do a backward somersault. So instead I wrote poetry, of sorts. It was revealing to me that the chap who sang about Jennifer Eccles having terrible freckles was also a proper poet who wrote proper books. And I also realised about this time that books were far better value than expensive L.P.s. What’s more, they were harder to scratch, and friends didn’t ask to borrow them so much.

I became fascinated by the way artists such as Edward Gorey and Tomi Ungerer could bring an extra element to poetry collections. By now, on my post-grad course, my tutor showed me a book he’d recently illustrated. “He’s got hundreds of them,” he remarked as I read the ground-breaking poems of Michael Rosen, illustrated by Quentin Blake. Meanwhile I was writing my own nonsense and discovering more by Mervyn Peake, J. B. Morton, Walter de la Mare and others, and catching up with Belloc, W. S. Gilbert and Ogden Nash. I produced a slim volume entitled Tomorrow I’ve Given up Hope which was seen by Dennis Dobson, who published my first book, Out of the Blue from Nowhere, the following year. I embarked on a bumpy career as an illustrator and author producing a range of books, but poetry always being my first love.

Colin West

Colin West was born in Epping in 1951 and studied Graphic Design at Wolverhampton Polytechnic, and Illustration at the Royal College of Art. He is the author/illustrator of over 60 children’s books, including poetry collections Not to be Taken Seriously, The Big Book of Nonsense and Never Nudge a Budgie! His latest collection, Nutty Nonsense has all profits going to the charity Children’s Literature Festivals. He currently lives in East Sussex and is as busy as ever writing and drawing. You can hear Colin reading some of his poems on the Dirigible Balloon. https://dirigibleballoon.org/

Karl Nova: Unwrapping the Gift

I am sitting here finally writing this and as I think of what I want to say, I realise that once again I don’t really regard myself as a children’s poet, but somehow I have been able to be active for a long time working with young people in primary and secondary schools as well as colleges and Universities. So how did all this happen?

For one thing, during my time in school, I never had an author visit, I never did a poetry lesson or even read poetry. I went to Burton End Primary School in Haverhill, Suffolk up until year 3 and then I was taken to live with my father in Lagos, Nigeria unexpectedly and over there I never did a lesson of poetry either.

It was my discovery of rap music that made me want to pick up a pen and write any kind of verse and it was my older cousin’s influence that inspired me further to love putting words together. Thankfully my discovery of rap was at the time it was more playful and about having a positive message. Many people don’t know Hip Hop leans towards learning and communicating a message and it was this fact together with my older cousin that sparked up my imagination.

The Hip Hop artists themselves would talk about their verses as poetry and would refer to poetic devices they were using in their verses (metaphors, similes etc) and it made me pay attention much closer in English class. In fact, my academic writing in school improved so much, I ended up having my essays read out in class by my Year 4 teacher and in secondary school I represented my school in essay writing competitions.

As I grew, I would write so much on my own, it was very therapeutic and such an amazing personal journey of discovering that I have a place to channel my personal thoughts and feelings in such a fun and enjoyable way.

Soon I found friends in Year 10 and Year 11 who had similar interests and we would write verses in our spare time. It was all exciting. We just did it because we loved it, we never thought we could be actual artists at the time.

Fast forward to later on in life, I had a hip hop artist friend who was a mentor to me. He showed me that I could take my skills as a hip hop artist and poet into schools. I never knew artists like myself did that. When I got into schools and worked with young people, I found out it was an easy transition because I had memories of my cousin writing with me as some kind of foundation to stand on. I also could take my skills as a writer and performer and use them in an educational setting. Like I said earlier, the culture of Hip Hop lends itself to teaching and I was able to lean into that so easily.

I am able to work with young people of all ages because the joy of playing with words and shaping language I discovered through rap music is a joy they are all experiencing to some degree through the rap music they are listening to today. I was able to tap into my inner child and relate to them. I am able to communicate that enthusiasm I found as a child that has never left me.

The kind of artistic expression I bring is inclusive of everyone and it has a cool factor attached to it that I am very aware of. I guess I am able to do what I do because I stayed in touch with my inner child through this wonderful gift I found.

Karl Nova

Karl Nova is an independent Hip Hop artist, poet and author. He received the CLiPPA poetry prize for his debut book “Rhythm And Poetry” in 2018 and also the Ruth Rendell award for his services to literary contribution in 2020. His second book “The Curious Case of Karl Nova” was nominated for CILIP Carnegie medal in 2022. He has widely travelled both nationally and internationally bringing the inspiration of written and spoken word to many. 

He is known for his energetic, witty and relatable performances and delivers hip hop flavoured creative writing workshops in his own unique style.

Ana Sampson: Season’s Readings

Each year, at the start of March, a snatch of poetry runs through my head:

March, black ram,

Comes in like a lion,

Goes out like a lamb.

It appeared in a book which gathered stories, rhymes and snippets of seasonal lore about winter that I pored over annually as a child. I can’t find any reference to this version of the proverb now, so I suppose the ram of Aries was added purely to give the sentiment a rhyme and rhythm. It demonstrates the sticking power of poetry, though: the music of those lines caught in my mind forever.

I had a bookish, indoors childhood, despite my parents’ best efforts to exhort me out into the fresh air. A lot of the feelings I amassed about the natural world came from books and poems. It’s no substitute for the real thing, which utterly delights me now as I chivvy my own reluctant children – sorry, kids! – into the cold to exclaim over catkins, but it did build a store of natural knowledge. And for children who don’t have easy access to nature, it can be particularly valuable.

It turns out I (and now, my daughters) can identify a dog violet, thanks to Flower Fairies of the Spring. April cannot dawn without Browning’s ‘Home-Thoughts from Abroad’ coming to mind. I will always be unsettled by frog spawn, thanks to Heaney’s ‘Death of a Naturalist’. And every year, when my children complain about bright summer bedtimes, I find myself quoting Robert Louis Stevenson:

In winter I get up at night 
And dress by yellow candle-light.  
In summer, quite the other way, 
I have to go to bed by day.  

Again: sorry, kids.

Later in the year, Rachel Field’s autumnal ‘sagging orchards’ in ‘Something Told the Wild Geese’ come to mind, chased by Nikki Giovanni’s ‘Winter’: ‘once a snowflake fell / on my brow’ and Robert Frost’s traveller in snowy woods with ‘miles to go before I sleep’. Wordsworth, in ‘The Prelude’, captured the exhilaration of whirling about on ice-skates. It feels convincing even to me as a clumsy person, whose few attempts at skating (on suburban rinks resounding with Radio 1) resulted in falls eliciting audible gasps from onlookers and spectacular bruising.

It rarely snowed where I grew up. I was never ambushed by a rabble of farting frogs. I couldn’t see pedestrians’ feet from my bedroom. But poetry has helped me make imaginative leaps: in the treasure house of my mind, I’ve thrilled to a chaffinch in the April orchard, and sailed across frozen lakes under a wintry sky. These experiences were not ‘real’, but they live in me nonetheless and foster a sense of connection to the natural world. The reading can inspire the doing, too, and encourage children to seek experiences in the great outdoors.

The success of Allie Esiri’s seasonal anthologies – A Poem for Every Spring Day, and so on, and the beautiful anthologies edited by Fiona Walters – I Am the Seed That Grew the Tree and Tiger Tiger Burning Bright – show that I’m not alone in valuing poetry as a way in to nature for young readers. Gathering material for Wonder: The Natural History Museum Poetry Book, I hoped the poems could inspire young champions for our planet and its wildlife, just as the museum’s collections aim to do. In a world where we’re ever more disconnected from natural rhythms, I do believe books and poetry can help to plug us back in.

Ana Sampson

Ana has edited poetry anthologies including Wonder: The Natural History Museum Poetry Book. You can sign up for her newsletter at Newsletter Sign-up — Ana Sampson.