Joseph Coelho: The Form of a Poem

The Form of a Poem

I love poetic form. And I love that the rules and restrictions that make up form also allow for no rules and no restrictions. Poetry can be both restrained and boundless and there is a magic in that.

Most of us are introduced to form via the simple haiku…

Haiku

3 lines

5 syllables in the first

7 syllables in the second

5 syllables in the third

The haiku does a brilliant job of encapsulating the heart of poetry distilling the crash and roll of life into a single moment. When focusing on the haiku you enter into an act of removal, of pruning away everything and anything that isn’t essential, that doesn’t connect or speak to the truth of the moment.

Most of us then next come across sonnets via Shakespeare…

Shakespearean Sonnet

14 lines

4 verses

1st verse, 4 lines with rhyme scheme ABAB

2nd verse, 4 lines with rhyme scheme CDCD

3rd verse, 4 lines with rhyme scheme EFEF

4th verse, 4 lines with rhyme scheme GG

4th verse often contains a twist to the narrative

The sonnet is short enough to be penned in a park, but long enough to allow for a thorough pondering on a given theme, and that Shakespearean twist brilliantly mirrors our tumbling minds, hashing out a theory only to dash it on the rocks of epiphany.

For most of us, a delve into poetic form stops there, we may read a form poem without realising the form it hides such as Dylan’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ which hides a perfect villanelle. Villanelles are tricky beasts with a complex repeating rhyme scheme that needs a subject that merits the revisiting and the developing of ideas.

The sestina is my favourite form – a 7-verse poem where the end words of each line in each verse repeat to a set patten in each verse that follows. The sestina requires even more careful handling and consideration of those repeating words if it’s not to feel forced and clunky.

Working with form forces you to think in a new way opening up unexpected and surprising juxtapositions of ideas and language. It was for this reason that I was keen to feature form poems in my latest book The Girl Who Became A Tree which I’ve classed as a ‘Story Told in Poems’ because ‘verse novel’ didn’t feel right. I adore verse novels, the way they take a reader and invite them to ride a story through a roller-coaster of free verse. But for this book I wanted to keep hold of a core of poetry so that the themes of death, mourning, magic and rebirth could be given space to grow and transform. Very much like the heroine Daphne who, like her namesake in the Greek myth, is turned into a tree but not by her river god father. My Daphne is turned by a foul and sinister creature called Hoc who plans to keep her imprisoned in a dark forest that hides in a library.

Exploring form in this book with pantoums and ballads, rondels and villanelles opened up new ways into the story forcing me to delve deep into the language-worlds of books, trees, technology and memory. I also got to have fun with far simpler forms like shape poems and so I was able to create pictures of keys and trees with words. These poems complement Kate Milner’s glorious illustrations which are themselves poems in picture form.

If you haven’t written a form poem for a while, or at all, give one a go and remember that at its heart poetry should be fun, it is after all a tool for us to play with language.

The Girl Who Became A Tree – A Story Told in Poems, Illustrated by Kate Milner, Published by Otter-Barry Books

Joseph Coelho

Joseph Coelho is a multi-award winning children’s author and poet. His debut children’s collection Werewolf Club Rules is published by Frances Lincoln and was the winner of CLPE’s CLiPPA Poetry Award. His Collection for older readers, Overheard In A Tower Block, appeared on numerous long and short-listings for various awards including the Carnegie Medal. His picture book If All The World Were… illustrated by Allison Colpoys won the Independent Bookshop Week Book Award. He wrote and presented Teach Poetry – a 10-part BBC online series that aims to make the writing of poetry fun and accessible to all.

Pie Corbett: Lists

Lists

The Japanese poet Sei Shonagon wrote list poems. These were collected in ‘The Pillow Book’, about 1000 AD. Lists are a great way to write as you can have a long list or a short list.  Sei wrote hundreds of lists about shiny things, soft things, hard things, worries, things that make me annoyed, sad things, things that worry me, rare things, cats, awkward things, disconcerting things, things that give a clean/ unclean feeling, things that should be large/ short, features I like and so on. The book contains lists, poems and gossip. I suppose it was an early form of blogging.

During lockdown, I asked children on the radio show RadioBlogging to make lists of secret, special and delicate things. Here is a list of twelve things, sort them into two groups – delicate and strong.

Leaf skeleton   Lace    Butterfly wing   Spider’s leg    Eyeball    Fishing line    Bubble    Snowflake     Dried seaweed    Cat’s tail Snake’s kin    Cloud    Rainbow    Electricity     Elastic band

Delicate things are frail, fragile and easily broken. What would be your list of delicate things? Rapidly jot down ideas. This is often a good way to start writing. Gather lots of ideas very rapidly. It doesn’t matter if they look messy. You won’t use all the ideas when you write. Jot them down in your magpie book or writing journal.

Now choose from your list your special ideas. Choose things that only you know about. Look around the room that you are in. Look out of the window. Look into your mind to places that you know well. Try to spot small, delicate things. Make each idea different and choose your words carefully.

Writing tip:  choose things to write about that only you may have seen or noticed or thought about. That way, your list of ideas will be a special way of capturing your life. Try to avoid the temptation of borrowing other people’s ideas. To get ideas look around where you are, look out of the window and then look inside your head at places you know well. There will be hundreds of things to notice. Make each one special by choosing your words to describe them with care, perhaps revealing a unique detail.

© 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. During Lockdown, he produced a daily, interactive radio show based on developing children as readers and writers. Each show featured a guest poet or author and all 60 shows are available for free: https://radioblogging.net

Susannah Herbert: Poetry Bubbles

Poetry bubbles – or how to throw a National Poetry Day party anywhere

A confession. I’ve been involved with National Poetry Day for eight years, but I am still – a little bit – scared of poetry. My favourite Burns Night guests can recite William McGonagall with gusto, glorying in their rubbish Scots accents. Another leaves us spellbound by Christina Rossetti or reduced to gulping laughter by Michael Rosen. I envy them: they enjoy themselves, break the rules. Their relish in the tumbling rhythm re-charges us all.

And that’s the funny thing: once someone has set the poetry ball rolling in a small gathering, self-consciousness dissolves and the rest clamour for their turns. My husband has an incomprehensible weakness for Edwin Morgan’s The Loch Ness Monster’s Song, which starts

Sssnnnwhuffffll?
Hnwhuffl hhnnwfl hnfl hfl?

And he is not alone.

One holiday evening this summer, round a fire, a retired engineer drew my teenage daughters’ attention away from TikTok with a mesmerising Jabberwocky. In German. (Their faces brightened with each stanza as the universal language of nonsense kicked in.)

Eins, Zwei! Eins, Zwei! Und durch und durch
Sein vorpals Schwert zerschnifer-schnück

I suddenly realised I too had something to say that’s out of the ordinary, and permission to say it. I could be someone else, no longer the all-purpose cook-and-bottle-washer but one of Shakespeare’s crazed royals – Leontes, Lear, Richard II – or, better still, the narrator of Tara Bergin’s At the Garage, which begins with an innocent challenge:

Ask me:

Have I fallen in love with the mechanic?

(And just gets, well, dirtier and dirtier):

Perhaps – perhaps, for a moment.
He doesn’t know what it is.
It’s his hands –
so thickly black with engine oil,
so hard-working, and in such high demand.

National Poetry Day has always been about sharing poetry, but 2020, the year of  bubbles and shields, presents a new thrill: sharing poems with neighbours, colleagues, friends and family, rather than with strangers in public places.

Here are some tips, gleaned from experience – and from The Reader Organisation’s Pass on a Poem whose poetry get-togethers throughout the UK are perfect models of community delight.

1) Feature food and drink prominently in your National Poetry Day celebrations on Thursday October 1st. Chocolate biscuits work well: toffees guarantee sound effects. Cake is superb at elevenses, tea-time or moments in-between.

2) Invite people who can’t physically be there, because they’re shielding or just too far away. This is what Zoom is for.

3) A mix of generations means a bigger range. Lots of children have a second language, invite them to share a poem in it and give a translation, as approximate as they please. Grown ups can also do this, if their poem is short.

4) CRUCIAL: Invite people to share a poem that’s not written by themselves. This means that all – poets and poetry-lovers – are equal, and egos are under control.

5) Ask guests to send in their poems in advance so you can print them – or at least the titles – out. I am a sucker for recommendations: National Poetry Day recommended anthology reads include Nikita Gill’s SLAM: You’re Gonna Want to Hear this, Gyles Brandreth’s By the Light of the Moon, Chris Riddell’s Poems to Save the World With, Ana Sampson’s She Will Soar and Cerys Matthews’ Tell Me the Truth About Life. (See below for how you can win copies.)

6) Nominate an EmCee to introduce each reader and call time when you need to eat, or empty the house.

7) Give your National Poetry Day gathering a name and postcode – the Ultimate National Poetry Day Knees-Up, Oct 1, John O Groats KW1 4YT, or The Slap Up Poetry Elevenses, Oct 1, Land’s End TR19 7AA – and log it on the National Poetry Day map by September 10th. Post pictures and playlists using hashtag #NationalPoetryDay and #ShareAPoem.

We’ll put all the poetry parties into a hat, and if yours is pulled out, we will send you three gorgeous anthologies from our National Poetry Day recommended reads.

PS. National Poetry Day’s Poetry Map link is here:

Events

Susannah Herbert

Susannah Herbert is the executive director of Forward Arts Foundation, the charity that promotes knowledge and enjoyment of poetry through National Poetry Day and the Forward Prizes for Poetry.

She was once paid a penny a line to recite ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ by her doting parents, who subsequently paid her still more to stop. A national newspaper journalist for 20 years, she is the former editor of The Sunday Times books pages.

Rachel Piercey: Charles Causley and Endings

Charles Causley and Endings

Like many others, I have spent some of my time during lockdown working through the tottering pile of books I’ve always meant to read. And so, long overdue, I fell head over heels in love with the rollicking and poignant Collected Poems for Children of Charles Causley.

I have a gorgeous, sunset-coloured edition, published by Macmillan and zestily illustrated by John Lawrence. The poems are effortlessly rhymed, mischievous, absurd, thoughtful, intelligent, wondering, steeped in folk traditions, and gently, constructively anarchic. You can find a few examples and a biography on the Children’s Poetry Archive and in this lovely blog post on Anthony Wilson’s Lifesaving Poems.

What I’d like to enthuse about specifically here is Causley’s endings. I think he’s so good at them, and they showcase the many ways you can leave a poem reverberating in the reader’s mind. Causley is famous for his use of form – particularly the ballad – and all his poems are strongly metred and rhymed. The lines march, skip and dance, but they never arrive with a thump at a closed-off destination. Instead, they use form to leave the poem hanging, tantalisingly.

Take the fresh and shivery ghost story ‘Miller’s End’. The poem ends with a revelation, simply rhymed, but the poem is far from tidily tied up. Who is the shadowy Miss Wickerby? Or how about the famous ‘Timothy Winters’ – the poem ends with that most final of words, “Amen”, but the reason that Timothy Winters and the speaker are praying is because Timothy’s future is so uncertain. It’s painfully empathetic:

 

So come one angel, come on ten:

Timothy Winters says ‘Amen

Amen amen amen amen.’

Timothy Winters, Lord.

Amen

 

Like Edward Lear, Causley knows the impact of a repeated line and particularly a repeated name. In Lear’s limericks, the last line reworks the first: “There was an old person of Putney” becomes “That romantic old person of Putney”. The effect with both Causley and Lear is the same: the poems explicitly refuse to shut down meaning or interpretation. You’re back where you started, just with a little more context. In ‘Tell, Tell the Bees’, the first and last stanza are identical:

 

Tell, tell the bees,

The bees in the hive,

That Jenny Green is gone away,

Or nothing will thrive.

 

Who is Jenny and what has happened to her? Who is the new “master / Or mistress”? Does anyone tell the bees? The poem leaves us wondering, but sure of the mission’s importance. The repetition and names also reinforce the folk, song-like nature of the poems.

Many of Causley’s poems are narrative and finish in a highly satisfactory way – check out ‘I Saw a Jolly Hunter’ for a gleeful example:

 

Bang went the jolly gun.

Hunter jolly dead.

Jolly hare got clean away.

Jolly good, I said.

 

But just as often, he delights in ambiguity, as at the end of the eerie, earthy ‘Spell’:

 

When I was walking by Tamar spring

I found me a stone, and a plain gold ring.

I stared at the sun, I stared at my shoes.

(Which do you choose? Which do you choose?)

 

Often when I go into schools, I find that children drawn to writing in form are also drawn to very conclusive endings. Such endings have their place, but it’s freeing to experience how a formal poem can leave a question in the air, too. Most contemporary poems leave themselves open rather than closed, and so Causley’s poems blithely bridge a number of traditions, in the most delightful way. I would recommend him to anyone.

Rachel Piercey

Rachel Piercey is a freelance poet, editor and tutor. She has co-edited three children’s poetry anthologies with the Emma Press and regularly performs her work and runs poetry workshops in primary schools. Rachel’s poems for adults have been published in various journals including The Poetry Review, The Rialto and Magma, as well as two pamphlets with the Emma Press and one with HappenStance. She lives in London. www.rachelpierceypoet.com

Andrea Reece: P is for … Reasons to be Cheerful

P is for … Reasons to be Cheerful

The last time I wrote a blog for the Poetry Summit it was January, eight months and a different world ago. Who would have thought way back then, that the ‘p’ word defining 2020 would not be poetry but pandemic?  My diary (I’m old-school and use a paper one, don’t @ me) is full of crossings-out: the whole of the Oxford Literary Festival including events I’d organised on the children’s and young people’s programme  with (gulp) Nikita Gill, Rakaya Fetuga, Jinhao Xie, Troy Cabida, and another with (gulp again) Allie Esiri, Samuel West, Diana Quick, Hugh Ross and Gina Bellman; a big scribble blots out 13 July, which should have been the date for the joyful and inspiring extravaganza that is the CLiPPA award ceremony at the National Theatre.

Looking back though, even if our year has been marked by a peculiar silence, for me as for many I’m sure, it has been punctuated by poetry. Moments I’ll remember include sitting in the garden listening to Roger Robinson’s new recordings for the Poetry Archive; the brilliant Forward Meet the Poet sessions featuring readings from the ten books shortlisted for the Forward Prizes and question and answer sessions with the shortlisted poets; Laura Mucha’s Dear Key Workers thank you poem to the NHS, created with the help of children cheered me hugely (and still does).

Now though, after all the cancellations and postponements, there are real reasons to be cheerful, amongst them the news that the CLiPPA Show will go on.  Thanks to a new partnership between CLPE and The Times and The Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival, the CLiPPA will be celebrated in the Festival’s programme for schools and families, and the winner announced in a very special Festival Poetry Show on Friday 9 October. The Poetry Show will be introduced live by CLiPPA judges, Valerie Bloom and Steven Camden, and will feature performances by the shortlisted poets.  Schools across the UK and beyond will be able to watch the show for free, and then, thoroughly inspired, join in a special post-event shadowing scheme and create their own poetry performances.  By the way, the shortlist will be announced on National Poetry Day, 1 October, another big date that’s certainly not going to be crossed out.

If that isn’t enough, just take a look at the autumn poetry publication schedules – there are some extraordinarily good collections coming out.  Many of my favourites are highlighted in the National Poetry Day recommended lists, including The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice by A F Harrold and Mini Grey, SLAM!, the collection we were so excited to celebrate at the Oxford Literary Festival, and She Will Soar, a superb new collection edited by Ana Sampson, but The Girl Who Became a Tree (Otter-Barry Books) by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Klaus Flugge Prize winner Kate Milner, is heart-stoppingly powerful, a mesmerising exploration of grief and renewal, while I haven’t stopped thinking about Punching the Air by Yusef Salaam and Ibi Zobo since I read it this summer.  HarperCollins will publish in the UK on 1 September, make sure you get a copy.

And one other thing that’s making me happy: in my last blog on here, I’d suggested that as part of the celebrations for the 40th anniversary of Books for Keeps, the UK’s leading children’s books review journal, we might create a new BfK Poetry Guide, and we’ve decided to do just that.  It will be published on National Poetry Day – when else? – and will be packed full of features, interviews with poets and of course reviews of the outstanding new poetry being published for children. You can get in touch to find out more or with feature suggestions (andrea@booksforkeeps.co.uk), and sign up for our newsletter to get it delivered to your inbox on National Poetry Day. (PS if you missed our July issue, there’s a great interview with Joshua Seigal by Liz Brownlee that I highly recommend).

Andrea Reece

Andrea Reece is Managing Editor of Books for Keeps.

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.