Joshua Seigal: I Bet I Can Make You Laugh

I Bet I Can Make You Laugh

Some of the most fun I have had so far in my career as a poet was when Bloomsbury asked me to edit an anthology of funny poems for children. Entitled I Bet I Can Make You Laugh, the book came out in 2018 and features poems by myself and a bunch of other poets, all ostensibly funny. I put out an open call for submissions, and for several months was inundated with poems from hundreds of poets. From these, I had to choose the ‘funniest’.

What was the importance of this activity? And what indeed is the value of funny books, and funny poetry, in general? One obvious purpose is to appeal to reluctant readers. When I was at school, I was not an especially voracious reader. When I started to get seriously into books, it was always the funny ones that first grabbed my attention. I remember howling with laughter to myself in my room whilst reading Adrian Mole and The Beano, and even now some of the most pleasure I have gleaned as a reader has been from Viz magazine (not for kids!). I know from personal experience that if something is funny it will have a readership beyond people who are typically considered bookish.

Relatedly, writing funny poems can appeal to people who might not normally pick up a pen. I run workshops in schools, and I have lost count of the number of times I have seen humour, or the prospect thereof, galvanise children into writing. Speaking for myself as a writer, I got into poetry in part through watching stand up comedy, and one of my favourite things as a poet is when I stand on stage and the audience laughs (not straight away; I normally have to say some words first). This, for me, is an experience unlike any other, and one of the reasons I cannot imagine doing another job.

It is not the case that to be funny means to be flippant, or facile. Funny poems can serve the purpose of highlighting serious issues. Much of my own poetry, though funny, is tinged with a sense of sadness in ways I’m not sure I can explain. Perhaps this is not obvious to the reader, but for me the sadness is often there. I started messing around with words in the first place as a kind of antidote to depression, which I am sadly never far away from. The best humorous poetry works hard for its laughs, and uses clever, tricky wordplay and sophisticated jokes. These were the types of poems I tried to select for my anthology (although I also firmly believe toilet humour has a place in a book of funny kids’ poems).

So far I have been trying to justify the use of humour in poetry, reading and writing, but at a profound level I’m not sure it needs justifying. Its benefit is self-evident. Laughter is one of the things that makes life worth living; it is a basic good, like life itself, that does not need to be justified. If there were no humour, life would be a tunnel of grey – empty, colourless and devoid of meaning or worth. As I mentioned before, I love it when audiences laugh. For me, this is an affirmation of life at an elemental level.

I am surely not the only one who thinks this way. The Lollies Award (Laugh Out Loud Award; formerly the Roald Dahl Funny Prize) is the only prize in the UK for funny books. I am delighted to say that I Bet I Can Make You Laugh is on the shortlist for 2020, and I am even more delighted to say that whether or not it wins is in your hands! You can vote for my book in the 9-13 year old category, and you can do it using this link here (if you are a teacher you can vote up to 35 times!): Lollies.

Joshua Seigal

Joshua Seigal is a poet, performer and workshop leader. He frequently visits schools to run inspiring poetry workshops, and has performed all over the world, including the Edinburgh Book Festival and the Dubai Literature Festival. His most recent book, I Bet I Can Make You Laugh (Bloomsbury), is shortlisted for the 2020 Lollies Award.

You can vote for the Lollies if you are a child, teacher, or grown up voting on behalf of a child. Voting closes the first week in December.

 

James Carter: Poet Laureate… for Children

What better date than National Poetry Day to suggest something new to the children’s poetry world…?

Now. In the 20 years or so I’ve been lucky to be working as a children’s poet – writing and publishing children’s poetry, visiting well over 1200 schools in the UK and abroad – I’ve noticed a gradual but significant sea change. For up-and-coming poets I’d argue it’s a more welcoming place than it ever was. Moreover, there’s a wonderful, thriving and wholly supportive community of UK children’s poets online; check it out on Twitter. I feel that the poetry books – collections and anthologies – we publish now are of a better quality overall and have a more inspiring range of topics than ever before. Many of the wonderful teachers I meet – Primary teachers – seem to be so much more enthusiastic about poetry now and have shaken off that age-old intimidation or reluctance – even saying to me how much their classes love doing poetry – reading, writing and performing it. Not so much do I hear ‘poetry is scary’. Hurrah! Literary festivals are booking more poets. We even have a number of children’s poetry awards. (A couple more would be good though…) Plus, as far as I can see, poetry seems to be read far more at home than it ever was. Allelujah to that!

Yet the ‘p’ word still garners the odd groan amongst adults particularly, and that will never go away entirely – and I partly blame the English Literature curriculum’s obsession with verse deconstruction at GCSE for that.

As a fan of American verse, I often look to see what poetry is happening over the pond. And what I’ve noticed is that they don’t just have a Children’s Laureate, but a Children’s Poet Laureate. So how about having the same over here, in office for say two years, leading conferences, training teachers, advising librarians, doing family shows in communities, training up-and-coming poets on how to perform poems/run workshops, giving media soundbites on why poetry is so vital for the young. And rather than trying to work nationally all the time, they could focus their work regionally, so much more can be achieved and with greater depth. I can think of many contemporary children’s poets that would be ideal for this job.

And though poetry is on the up, there’s still more to be done – more teachers, librarians, parents and carers that need to be convinced and shown the myriad benefits of poetry – in terms of children writing, nurturing children’s reading and developing oracy/performance skills. They need to be shown that prose is a mountain, verse is a hill. The more hills children can climb – and early on – the better communicators, the more passionate readers and committed writers they will become. Poetry writing encourages autobiographical writing (q.v. free verse) as well as figurative and expressive language, full of rich imagery; it actively promotes children writing imaginatively and freely, exploring their own thoughts, ideas and creativities. What’s more, the more poems children write, the better they will be at writing prose. This is not a theory but a fact!

Fancy sponsoring this WH Smiths, Foyles, Blackwells, Amazon? And how about getting National Poetry Day UK / The Poetry Society / Children’s Poetry Summit behind this? If each Laureate does a two year term – after ten years, there would have been five different laureates, say all based in very different parts of the UK, from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, bringing all of us children’s poets ever closer together, with each Laureate spreading their own interests and expertise, inspiring both adults and children, handing out plenty of the good stuff. There. What’s not to like?

James Carter

National Poetry Day Ambassador

James Carter is an award-winning children’s poet and non-fiction writer. He travels all over
the UK and abroad (with his melodica, Steve) to give lively poetry/music performances
and workshops, and in the last 18 years he has visited over 1200 Primary schools.
He is an ambassador for National Poetry Day. Once Upon A Star – the story of the sun, James’s non-fiction picture book in verse, is out now in p/b; The Big Beyond – the story of space travel –is out now in hardback. (both Little Tiger Press). His website is here.

 

Debbie Pullinger: Why the Revival?

Why the Revival?

Something’s afoot. As Michael Rosen said at the outset – and as blog on blog has attested – there’s a Sense of Revival. Children’s poetry is all abuzz – as is poetry generally. As Michael Rosen also says, it’s hard to say why – why now? But it’s an interesting question, nevertheless.

Maybe it’s just a pendulum swing thing. The wheel goes round and poetry is recalled and re-cooled.

Maybe it’s because we’re remembering that poetry is all about the ear and the tongue. School poetry, in particular, got rather stuck to the page for all sorts of reasons. But in classrooms as in performance venues, its voice is being heard.

Maybe it’s because a poem is short. It’s all we can manage when we’re so strapped for time and attention.

Maybe it’s part of what David Sax calls “The Revenge of Analogue”.* Like listening to songs on vinyl or writing with a fountain pen in a leather-bound book, speaking and writing and even learning poems feels like some kind of material resistance in this digital age. A slowing, flowing, real-world sort of activity.

Maybe all those, and maybe more.

Another question might be about why we lost the poetry plot in the first place. Because, the fact is, poetry is where we all started. Our human ancestors’ first foray into language was a kind of singing – whose main purpose was to maintain bonds within social groups once they became too large for everyone to groom everyone else.** Not language to label and manage, but language to connect and enchant. And it’s where we still start. When you arrived to join the world, it was the musical rhythms and intonations of your family’s speech that you recognised, and vocalised, first. Vocabulary and syntax came later.***

So poetic language is primarily primal language. It’s language rooted in music, emotion and the body. It hangs loose with meaning. It’s playful. That’s what all poetry – but children’s poetry in particular – taps into. Its meaning is often enacted in the body through physicality and sensuousness. This much is obvious in many nursery rhymes (‘Hickory Dickory Dock’, ‘Humpty Dumpty’), but you can find these subtle mimetic qualities in most poetry. The patterned, musical sounds of poetic language reassure the very young (and perhaps all of us) that language is not an arbitrary, alien assemblage of sound symbols, but something that has a deep connection with our own bodily experience, and connects our embodied selves to the world around.

Most importantly, poems offer a vital sense of containment. The world is vast and feelings overwhelming. Rhymes and songs assure children that both can be contained and ordered.

So maybe this revival is simply our first language reasserting itself, in spite of everything. Normality resumed.

*David Sax, 2016, The Revenge of Analogue: Real Things and Why They Matter. New York: PublicAffairs

**Robin Dunbar, 2004, The Human Story. London: Faber

***Studies of language development in infants indicate that rhythm and phrasing are acquired before vocabulary and syntax, and that this process begins before birth.

Debbie Pullinger

Debbie Pullinger is a writer and researcher, based at the University of Cambridge. Her book From Tongue to Text: A New Reading of Childrens Poetry was published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2017. Website: Debbie Pullinger.

 

Allie Esiri: A Childhood Love of Poetry and Shakespeare

A Childhood Love of Poetry and Shakespeare

In recent years, while compiling poetry anthologies and their accompanying apps and audiobooks, I have rediscovered the power of poetry when spoken aloud. This has never been more apparent than in the course of compiling my forthcoming anthology, Shakespeare For Every Day of the Year.

As I have been revisiting Shakespeare’s work, the words come alive in my recollections of where I have heard his poetry most vividly rendered. This has not only been on stage, but also in school classrooms, weddings, films, political theatres and funerals throughout my life.

Since childhood I have found poetry books the easiest to read of them all. From my earliest memories, I know Louis Untermeyer’s The Golden Treasury of Poetry lived for a long time at the side of my bed, and my mother tells me she could hear me reciting the poems, night after night.

As I got older, all of these poems remained lodged in my heart, there to witness, and to console, its every leap and break.

I first encountered Shakespeare in that treasury, and asked my aunt for Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare for my eleventh birthday. This sumptuous volume, pink cloth encompassing the hardback cover, quickly became my second most prized possession, and furnished me with more material to enunciate to my wardrobe and drawers.

Curiously enough, as Shakespeare For Every Day of the Year is released this month, I will have done a very similar thing to the eleven-year-old Allie who, after finding so much to love in Shakespeare, decided he needed a book of his own. If just one person who picks up the book feels even a whit of what I did when I first saw and heard these lines, I would consider it a job well done.

Now I am all grown up, I have had the privilege of getting many of the poems I loved as a child published in anthologies of my own, and spoken by some of our greatest actors for the next generation of potential poetry-lovers.

More than any of my anthologies to date, my latest should be consumed through the ears. So here is a little taster of what’s to come.

Sir Simon Russell Beale reads Sonnet 18 for Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year, edited by Allie Esiri (Macmillan, 2019). Other readers on the audiobook include Damian Lewis and Helen McCrory.

Allie Esiri

Allie Esiri is an accomplished curator and host of live poetry events at The National Theatre, The Bridge Theatre and at major literary festivals. Her anthologies, including A Poem for Every Day of the Year (Macmillan, 2017) and A Poem for Every Night of the Year (Macmillan, 2016) have been listed as best books of the year in The Times, The Observer and The New Statesman. Her poetry app, The Love Book, features readings from Helena Bonham Carter, Emma Watson and Tom Hiddleston, and has been credited with bringing poetry into the digital age. Shakespeare For Every Day of the Year was released on 19 September, 2019.

To contact Allie please visit her website.

John Hegley: Word Play with the Card Players

Image: Travis Elborough.

Word Play with the Card players

Tom* and I we sat and spoke

about the kids, and them awoke;

writing (and drawing) til their pencils wore away or broke.

What was to be drawn and writ

would be about a bit of local art

in which they’d get to take a part,

with poets working in the school,

each employing, as a tool

a local gallery exhibit

to inspire and uninhibit.

Clare** would come there too, to note

and photograph the drawn and wrote

in Bristol, Bradford, Luton Town:

the young creative gold dust sieved.

And, London, where I’ve also lived.

*Tom MacAndrew, freelance producer, **Clare Elstow, writer and broadcaster.

Paul CézanneThe Card Players 1894–1895, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, public domain.

As a tester for this, I visited a nearby primary school with ‘The Card Players’ by the French painter, Paul Cezanne. I explained that I had a French Connection because my dad was born in Paris and French was his mother tongue. I told the children and their teacher that I celebrate these French roots. We discussed a wide variety of roots and heritage present in the classroom. We then looked at the two card players present in the painting, at their opposite ends of the table.

Are they friends? Are they brothers? Are they farmers? Look how big their knees are! Can you supply a third person to put in the middle? What does this person look like? How big are the newcomer’s knees? What do the existing card players think about the new arrival? What does the table think? What does Paul Cezanne think of what is going on?

John’s own drawing in answer to this exercise!

The teacher in this class is most attentive,

as the children write and draw,

ignited by this image from the Courtauld.

I have learned, with running courses

in classes, workshopping in schools,

that tools held by teachers are such valuable resources.

They know the children, understand

when many hands go shooting up,

which voice

is the most prudent choice.

It may not be the chosen reply

will be the cleverest,

but it may be, here is a child too shy

to ordinarily supply their teacher

with an answer.

The teacher can also advise the guest

when it may be best

to say goodbye.

 

John Hegley

John Hegley was born in Newington Green, North London, and was educated in Luton, Bristol and Bradford University.

He has produced ten books of verse and prose pieces, two CDs and one mug, but his largest source of income is from stages on his native island. An Edinburgh Festival regular, he is noted for his exploration of such diverse topics as dog hair, potatoes, handkerchieves and the misery of human existence.

He is an occasional DJ, dancer and workshop leader, using drawing, poetry and gesture. He has been awarded an honorary Doctorate of Arts from what is now the University of Bedfordshire, and once performed in a women’s prison in Columbia.

Alice Watson: In Celebration of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award.

Image credit: Ben Rogers for The Poetry Society

In Celebration of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award

One of my first experiences of poetry was when I recited Edward Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ at my school eisteddfod.

This was a big deal. My headmistress was proudly Welsh, and despite my school being in Deal, Kent, the eisteddfod was a big calendar event. With two Welsh grandmothers, one of whom was a published poet in the local area, I was determined that I would perform my favourite poem with confidence and bring the house down.

Or at least, this is what I had dreamt in my bedroom, and not quite what happened on the day. In a state of stage fright, I caught the worst case of the giggles and was told to finish the line I was attempting and to “GET OFF THE STAGE!”

Despite this moment, my love for poetry and performance has never diminished and to work at The Poetry Society and deliver one of the biggest poetry competitions in the world, the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, is a dream come true.

Top 15 Foyle Young Poet winners and judges Caroline Bird and Daljit Nagra. Image credit Hayley Madden for The Poetry Society

The Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award is synonymous with excellence in poetry and has recognised, nurtured and supported some of the best known poets in the English-speaking world. However, the Award is not just about the excellent winning poems, it is also about the very act of a young person expressing themselves. There is a bravery with each poem that I wish I had known as a teenager. This year, the competition received over 11,000 poems from over 6,000 young people from across the world, and whilst it is exhausting to read that many poems (and to eat that many biscuits during the judging process) it is such a privilege to read poems by the young people who will shape our world.

Left to right, Kara Jackson Foyle Young Poet and Youth Poet Laureate Chicago, Patricia Frazier former Youth Poet Laureate Chicago, Em Power Foyle Young Poet winner 2017, 2018, Fiyinfoluwa Oladipo Foyle Young Poet winner 2018, Natalie Richardson Foyle Young Poet and former Youth Poet Laureate Chicago and poet Rachel Long. Image credit Helen Bowell for The Poetry Society.

The Foyle Award connects to so many more poetry activities outside of the competition itself. Some of this year’s highlights include sending poet Ryan van Winkle on an epic adventure to the Isle of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, to run poetry workshops with 150 students across a week. We welcomed three youth poet laureates from Chicago, two of whom were Foyle Young Poets, to The Poetry Café to lead workshops for recent Foyle winners and entrants, and to share a stage with them at our free Young Poets Takeover. And we sent three-time Foyle winner Mukahang Limbu and 2019 judge Raymond Antrobus to Wogan House to catch up with Cerys Matthews on her BBC6 Music radio show.

Left to right, Mukahang Limbu Foyle Young Poet winner 2016. 2017 and 2018, Cerys Matthews and Foyle Young Poet judge Raymond Antrobus. Image credit Helen Bowell for The Poetry Society.

Last year we celebrated 20 years of the Foyle Award, and what really struck me was that approximately 100,000 young people in the last 20 years have shared their work with The Poetry Society, and whilst we celebrate 100 winners each year, I think it is also important to celebrate the very act of writing poetry itself. Like many of us, I was only taught to read and recite poetry at school, and I wish I had been given the tools and confidence to write poetry myself, and share in the power and freedom that it can give a young person. That is why, in celebration of the legacy of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award and its ongoing commitment to poetry, we will be launching a new teaching resource for teachers using Foyle Young Poets’ winning poems as inspiration for lesson plans that will enable young people to write poetry themselves in and out of the classroom.

Left to right Foyle Young Poet winner 2017, 2018 Suzanne Antelme and 5 time Foyle Young Poet winner and former judge Helen Mort. Image credit Hayley Madden for The Poetry Society.

On the 2nd October 2019 this year’s top 100 winners, selected by judges Raymond Antrobus and Jackie Kay, will be announced at the Southbank Centre and another 100 young people will join the Foyle Young Poets family.

Alice Watson

Alice Watson is the Education Officer at The Poetry Society. She manages the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award and supports the delivery of SLAMbassadors, Look North More Often and Artsmark at The Poetry Society. She has previously worked at Lauderdale House and Shakespeare’s Globe and studied an MA at King’s College, University of London in Education in Arts and Cultural Settings. To get in touch please contact Alice Watson.

Steven Camden: Left Handed Hammer

Left Handed Hammer – I Never Dreamed of Being a Writer

“Do me a favour and fetch a left-handed hammer, Stevey”.

It was my first day on the building site and I was eager to impress. My best friend’s uncle Uthan had given me the job as a favour and, as I brushed my teeth that morning, I promised my reflection I wouldn’t let him down. Uthan and the other builders were all seasoned veterans so, as we started preparations to lay raised decking and someone me asked me to fetch a left-handed hammer, I ran off to the van determined to do just that.

Half an hour later, I was still crouched in the back of the old Vauxhall Bedford, holding a different hammer in either hand, desperately trying to decide which one felt more ‘left-handed’.

If I close my eyes and concentrate, I can still hear the polyphony of their gravelly laughs when I returned holding both.

The lesson I learned that morning (apart from never trust anyone on your first day on a building site) was that I’m not great with tools.

Fifteen years later, standing on the stage at the National Theatre in front of a few hundred people, blinded by spotlights, holding the trophy for the CLiPPA award for poetry 2019 in my hands, the three words glowing neon in my mind were, ‘left-handed hammer’.

Image: © Ellie kurttz courtesy of CLiPPA

(Maybe that’s two words, technically, I mean, I’m not fully sure how it works with hyphens).

I never dreamed of being a writer.

Not in the sense of never dreamed it would be possible, I mean I literally never dreamed of being a writer. I had no plan. There wasn’t and isn’t a magical place of recognition or status I’m trying to get to by writing. I am not interested in the ideas of prestige or critical plaudits. What interests me about writing, is how stories can be used to help unlock ideas and possibilities in others.

It’s the thought of someone seeing me as a writer who comes from a background and heritage similar to their own and feeling that their voice now seems more valid to have a place in the world that gets me going, or the characters and worlds I create starting conversations between people about lives and circumstances not always discussed, or maybe just the simple idea that the approachability of my work might spark the confidence in someone to have a go at writing themselves. That’s the most exciting thing about writing for me.

I see my published writing as a tool to initiate these connections. A tangible thing to hold, open, read, share and discuss. A means to let voices be heard. A left-handed hammer to use however you like.

Image: Ellie kurttz, courtesy of CLiPPA

Winning the CLiPPA felt lovely in terms of being recognised as a writer of subjective quality. It felt like a confidence boosting rubber stamp from an organisation and individuals I respect.

But, most of all it felt exciting as a way to potentially share my tools with more people than ever and hopefully inspire them to build worlds of their own.

Steven Camden aka polarbear

 

Birmingham born Steven Camden (Polarbear) is one of the most respected spoken word artists in the UK. Performing his work internationally since 2007, Camden has graced stages from Kuala Lumpur to California.

His debut poetry collection ‘Everything All At Once’ was published by Macmillan and won the CLiPPA Poetry Prize 2019.

Among other successes, He was co-writer and script mentor on the Akram Khan Company’s Olivier Award winning production DESH as well as script writer for LIFT festival’s acclaimed production TURFED.

He has written three Young Adult novels for HarperCollins, TAPE (2013), It’s About Love (2015) and Nobody Real (2018).

His first young people’s theatre piece MOUTH OPEN, STORY JUMP OUT, received five stars reviews and is currently on its fifth international tour, with the follow up DARK CORNERS set to tour internationally in late 2019.

He is currently working on his next novel for Harper Collins, a new coming of age feature screenplay and an adult TV drama for World Productions.

Steven spends a large chunk of his time in schools and working with community groups, devising and leading creative projects and sessions, sharing his own unconventional process, hoping to spark minds into using story as a means of expression and collaboration across all boundaries.

 

Liz Brownlee: Having Fun with Children’s Poetry

Having Fun with Children’s Poetry

In 2014 the wonderful people at National Poetry Day made me a National Poetry Day Ambassador.

My journey as a children’s poetry promoter started in 2008, after meeting with a group of children’s poets who all felt the same way; we vowed to find as many ways as possible of supporting children’s poetry. Later that year we gathered again to be filmed sharing poems, to put out into the world in as many places as possible. Out of that fun-filled few days came this video of the wonderful and much-missed Gerard Benson and his River Song.

Just as I was thinking what to try next, and wondering if targeting families might help to engage the parents that buy books, I was asked by Bristol Poetry Festival 2009 to organise a Poetry Exhibition.

A Bristol Poetry Festival grant, an Arts Council grant, sponsorship money and six months preparation led to a poetry submersion room at the Arnolfini, Bristol. Into a brightly painted room was introduced an explosion of poems, poetry toolkits, and our group of talented and willing poets.

ITV Television workshop supplied children who relished reading poems for us.

It was an interesting experience in that many of the people who came hadn’t been expecting it (the Arnolfini is a cutting-edge modern art gallery), and yet they stayed sometimes for hours. Very few left without writing a poem.

Undoubtedly however, the biggest hit were the giant magnetic words. I have used these ever since in a variety of combinations and venues and highly recommend them. It’s a very easy way of enticing anyone to play with words.

It  is impossible it seems to pass a giant magnetic poetry board without picking up words and placing them together. Few were satisfied with that, they went to hunt in the boxes for more poetic or more meaningful juxtapositions. One of the most  gratifying aspects was the total involvement of whole families, parents helping, inspiring and joining in by writing their own poems.

Other projects include marking most National Poetry Days by a range of poetry videos. My favourite theme was light.

We filmed people whose lives in some way touched on light (a fireman, a projectionist, a cosmologist, etc.) reading poems, sent to me by children’s poets, about light. We also roamed the streets of Bristol and asked children and their families to read poems for us – surprisingly few turned down the offer!

Sometimes you’ll find me in a school, inspiring children to use words as exciting tools to express themselves. And of course I also write poems most days, for a variety of rewarding projects. It is what I love most. At the minute I’m collecting and editing my first anthology, a book of shape poems for Macmillan, and thoroughly enjoying it. This also involves the frustrating fun of drawing with words!

I also run Poetry Roundabout, a website devoted to promoting everything about children’s poetry – at the minute there is a series of poets and their favourite children’s poetry books, and tweet for Children’s Poetry Summit.

I feel very excited about starting on my next new project – and I’m so grateful to the lovely NPD  people for giving a focus for my ideas, and to my lovely supportive poetry friends who supplied all the above poems and more.

In the meantime, this year’s NPD theme being Truth, soon I’ll be choosing climate crisis truth poems that poets have kindly sent, and filming them read by people who work in Climate Crisis in some way.  Please look out for them!

Liz Brownlee

Liz Brownlee is a poet and poetry event organiser. Her latest book Be the Change, Poems to Help You Save the World, Macmillan, is out on September 5th. (Poets included in above exhibition, Roger Stevens, Sue Hardy-Dawson, Andrea Shavick, Philip Waddell, Bernard Young, Gerard Benson, Cathy Benson, Jane Clarke, Michaela Morgan, Graham Denton).

Imogen Lycett Green: Who Dares, Writes

Photo: © Sam Lane

Who Dares, Writes

“Poetry written by children? But is it any good?” At a funding meeting for the Betjeman Poetry Prize, a board member of an arts foundation asked this very question.

At the time, I was dumbfounded. Whether or not the poetry by 10-13 year olds submitted to the annual poetry prize and judged by poets such as Carol Ann Duffy, Brian Patten and Imtiaz Dharker was ‘good’ by adult literary standards (which, presumably, was what the board member meant) was not the point, surely. Later, I began to question myself. Why hold a competition? What was the point of encouraging children to write poetry before – arguably – they had mastered the form? There are now over 100 poetry competitions for under-18s listed on the Poetry’s Society’s Young Poets Network. What is the point of generating all that poetry? Who are the competitions for?

 

Young poets warming up before a writing session at the Betjeman Poetry Camp 2019 with poet Paul Lyalls, and below,  hand-written text showing the workings of a child poet.

Firstly, let’s ask what literature is for: to illuminate, to entertain, to enable readers to see the world afresh, to teach, to moralise, to expose, to dazzle, to help the reader understand the world, to help the reader understand themselves, to make them laugh, to make them cry, to help them feel. These are benefits for the reader. But what of benefits for the writer? Why would any writer put themselves through the heartache, the isolation, the sweat and toil and tears? For some writers, writing is the only way of comprehending their experience; others just want to make money (no guarantee!). For some, it is about curiosity, for others about expressing their inner worlds. For still more it is about the joy of language.

Now let’s translate all these benefits to the space where young people read and write: to feel, to comprehend, to process, to illuminate, to laugh, to cry, to understand, to know, for love of language. Why on earth would we not want our young people to begin all these activities as early as possible?

Year 5 Children from Richard Cobden Primary and Argyle Primary, Camden at St Pancras Station, taking part in a performance of their own poetry for a BPP collaboration project with Paul Lyalls and St Pancras International. They are proudly holding aloft the anthology, Track Record. 

Competition as a concept will always provoke debate. Of course. The naysayers will debate the concept on political terms, on emotional terms, on every term (especially school term) under the sun. But this is a debate amongst adults. I would argue that kids understand competition better than adults do and it is often adult projection (vociferous dads on the side of football matches, Hollywood actresses who buy places for their children at university) that creates a monster out of a teaching tool. Competition teaches kids that they cannot win at everything; while it’s important they strive to be the best version of themselves, there will always be someone ‘better’ than them out there.

That established, you might ask why not just hold a football tournament? There are millions of youngsters who prefer football to writing. Sure, but there are also thousands (maybe even millions) of youngsters for whom writing is vital: I write, therefore I am. While writing competitions are not for everyone, they do provide a goal and a platform for those kids. Is their poetry ‘any good’?  If their poem strikes a chord in the judge’s heart, the young poets will have done their job. If other kids read the poems selected for commendation, those other kids may be inspired to make their own squiggles and marks on the page which – miraculously! – may articulate what they know in their heads and feel in their hearts.

To my mind, any encouragement of that process is worthwhile. Perfection of form may come later. Surely it is enough to draw out a young person’s voice. How much more roundly developed as adults will the next generation be, if, as youngsters, they have played with language, tried to describe, worked through feelings, expressed an individual opinion and crucially, may have been heard.

Imogen Lycett Green

 

Imogen Lycett Green is a freelance writer and educator who runs the Betjeman Poetry Prize, an Artsmark charity inspiring children and young people aged 10-13 to read, write and perform poetry. A former staff journalist on the Daily Telegraph, she is the author of biography and children’s fiction, a judge of the Chiddingstone Short Story Prize and a former chair of the UK International Radio Drama Festival. She was a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Southampton University and is an English tutor at Brighton Aldridge Academy working with KS 3&4 students. http://www.betjemanpoetryprize.co.uk.

Rachel Piercey: Conversation and Crossover

Conversation and Crossover

I started writing for children a few years ago, when I co-edited the Emma Press anthology Falling Out of the Sky: Poems about Myths and Monsters, and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. It has introduced me to a gigantic new group of readers, writers and co-creators, and a whole new library of joyous, devastating, transcendent poems. It has also given me valuable insights, particularly in terms of clarity and energy, into my writing ‘for adults’.

This was a distinction I had never made before, and one I am keen to blur. The world of children’s poetry makes plenty of room for adult poems, in anthologies and school lessons, and children are gloriously open-minded about deep, experimental creativity. The best children’s poems discuss the same big, knotty themes as adult poems, skilfully balancing accessibility with complexity. Now I would like to see the adult poetry world making more space for children’s poetry, which is a vital part of its foundation and future. I would love to get more people discussing, reviewing and enthusing about children’s poetry, and to encourage more poets to try writing for a younger audience.

Kate Wakeling is one of many poets, including me, who published their first poem for children in the Myths and Monsters anthology. Like many of the poets, she got hooked. And just two years later, Kate won the 2017 Centre for Literacy in Primary Poetry Award with her extraordinary debut Moon Juice. I’ve been in the audience when Kate has read children’s poems (my favourite is her shatteringly superb ‘The Demon Mouth’) alongside adult poems – and it’s an exhilarating combination. I wish more readings would mix the two, amplifying in a small but effective way the conversation between poetry for children and poetry for adults. In fiction, the young adult genre acts as a kind of bridge between children’s books and general novels, but we don’t really have an equivalent in poetry. To move, with no turning back, from the warm, fizzy, inviting world of children’s poetry to the secondary school canon can be disorientating. But if children’s poems were part of the general poetry conversation, sharing the same space, young people could study new, chewy works alongside more digestible ones.

So, let’s disrupt the distinction wherever we can. Let’s make more noise about the many children’s poets who are writing well-crafted, sensitive, probing poems about human emotions and the world around us, and zingy, experimental poems which push and pull language like plasticine – via social media, blogs, readings, and conversations with poetry friends. (If you’re looking for somewhere to start, the Children’s Poetry Archive is a great resource, as are the fabulous archives of the CLiPPA award. The Emma Press children’s list is also full of excellent, eclectic poems – many by poets new to writing for children.)

If you are a poet writing for adults, try reaching back the other way – remembering and celebrating the poems you loved as a kid. Try your hand at writing for children and share what you write, enjoying the licence for giddiness and experimentation. And costumes – see photo above!

Ultimately, what I would really love is to see magazines and journals accepting children’s poems and reviewing children’s poetry books as a matter of course, and even to see children’s poetry potentially in the running for the big prizes, acknowledged for its world-altering potential. Welcoming children’s poetry into the ecosystem of adult poetry would be such a powerful message that what we read when we are young is as precious and important as what we read when we are older. And the more young readers and writers of poetry we can nurture, the more secure that ecosystem will be.

Rachel Piercey

Rachel Piercey is a freelance writer, editor and tutor. She co-edited and contributed to the children’s poetry anthologies Falling Out of the Sky: Poems about Myths and Monsters (shortlisted for the CLiPPA award 2016), Watcher of the Skies: Poems about Space and Aliens, and The Head that Wears a Crown: Poems about Kings and Queens, all published by the Emma Press. She regularly performs and runs poetry workshops in schools, and she has taught courses on writing poetry for children for The Poetry School. Her poems for adults have been published in The Rialto, Magma, Butcher’s Dog and The Poetry Review, as well as pamphlets with the Emma Press and HappenStance. rachelpierceypoet.com