Matt Goodfellow: In Their Voice, About Their Life

In Their Voice, About Their Life

In my opinion, one of the most brilliant and powerful things about poetry is that it can be a vehicle for children to write ‘in their voice, about their life.’ As a former primary school teacher, I’m acutely aware how narrow the writing curriculum can be in some schools, and how much pressure teachers are under to get children writing in a certain way in order to satisfy those incalculable geniuses who set the curriculum.

Poetry can, if welcomed into the classroom, give a space where teachers and children can learn about the enormous breadth and diversity of poetry together – they can read and discuss and perform different poems from different cultures and different times and say ‘Wow, so these are all poems!’ – they can use these as starting points to have a go at shaping their own thoughts, feelings and experiences into poems which are free from the expectations of the rest of the writing curriculum.

Importantly, when exposed on a daily basis to poetry, children begin to understand that poets play with thoughts, feelings and ideas in their own unique voice – and it’s something they can also do too. As a teacher in Manchester, I was forever correcting verbal and written Mancunianisms like ‘Can I go toilet?’ or ‘I went town with Mum last weekend’ into ‘proper English’ – one day a lad in my class who was a pretty shrewd (if awkward) character to deal with stopped me dead in my tracks when he said: ‘Mr Goodfellow, how come you tell me it’s wrong to say ‘Can I go toilet?’ when my Dad says it, and my grandad says it?’ And I got it. I got the fact that the way a family speaks to each other, the way a person thinks is their cultural heritage – and poetry allows that voice to speak.

I see my job as a poet in schools to open the doorway to poetry for both teachers and children and spark discussions that will hopefully continue long after I’ve gone. I read a selection of my poems that range from silly to sad and all things in between – and try to explain to the children that I try to reflect my life when I write – and my life is silly, sad and all the things in between!

Often the most moving encounters I have are when I’ve discussed the difficulties I had in childhood living between two houses that never felt like home, shuttling between two parents who made no secret of their disdain for each other and who had moved onto new relationships with partners that didn’t seem to have time for me and my sister. In every classroom I visit, I am aware there will be children who have the same experience – who feel as lost and displaced and angry as I did – and I try to show that poetry can give a voice to those feelings.

I have been told many times that some of the poems I write that touch ‘difficult’ emotions like sadness and grief are poems which are ‘not for children’. I disagree wholeheartedly. Giving children an invitation to explore their own life in their own words is absolutely crucial.

I’ll leave you with a poem that was handed to me after I’d done a morning workshop in a school a couple of years ago – we’d looked at a model poem and talked about why poetry was different to any other kind of writing and then had a go at our own poems. After the session, the children went out to play and it was as they were on their way back in that a girl handed me a little piece of lined paper – on it was a poem that was nothing like the one we’d looked at in the classroom session – it was her poem, in her voice about her life:

Matt Goodfellow

Matt Goodfellow is an award-winning poet from Manchester. He spent over ten years working as a primary school teacher before embarking on his poetry career. He is a National Poetry Day Ambassador and spends his time visiting schools, libraries and festivals where his inspiring performances and workshops open new doors to poetry for both children and adults.

Rebecca O’Connor: Falling in love with poetry: The Caterpillar Poetry Prize 2021

Falling in love with poetry: The Caterpillar Poetry Prize 2021

I fell in love with poetry when my aunt and uncle gave me a gift of Enid Blyton’s Treasury of Verse for my seventh birthday. At the age of eight, I started to write. Though the inspiration ebbs and flows, it has been a constant in my life. But only on a couple of occasions have I attempted to write for children. I am amply qualified, you’d think, as a parent and a published poet and an editor of a literature magazine for children – but it was so much more difficult than I could have imagined.

This has given me a real appreciation for the ones who get it right. They make it look so easy, that’s the thing. But you have to have all the right attributes – a gift for music, a riotous imagination and an ability to connect with children, not speak down to them. A sense of humour doesn’t hurt either. But nor is it any harm to go to places that are less than comfortable, to write of loneliness or anxiety. The rest of course is just hard graft. And that’s where I see a lot of poets fall down. They just haven’t put the work in. It seems so obvious, but a poem for a child should be just as good as one written for adults. It should require drafting and redrafting. Relying solely on a bouncy rhyme to carry your reader along isn’t going to cut the mustard. We shouldn’t underestimate the child as reader. They are much harsher critics than adults. They know what they like, and they can see through a fake. The really good poets know that.

Ultimately, my attempts to write for children failed – the tone wasn’t right, I couldn’t make the lines sing – but I’m happy I tried. Perhaps I was too conscious of the fact that I was writing for children, wasn’t able to put that aside, or put my adult self aside. It does seem that some people have an ability to keep one foot in childhood, and they can tap into that part of themselves when they write. My husband Will certainly has it. He can make up truly captivating stories for our children at the drop of a hat, and has done so nightly for many years. None of them have been set down on paper or recorded, but they live in our children.

It makes me so happy as an editor when I come across a poem that is like a beacon in the night – like Louise Greig’s Caterpillar prizewinning poem ‘Don’t Think of an Elephant’. ‘He thought of the sea. / And the sea is a big thought. / It took up a great deal of room in his head. / But he learned a lot. / He learned that the octopus / has a memory, and that whales / feel emotions, but when / he put this to his mother / she bent her head. / Don’t think of an elephant, she said.

Or a poem like Sarah Ziman’s ‘Faux pas’, which wittily portrays the mortification a child feels when she accidentally calls her teacher ‘Mum’, or the boundless humour in a poem by Julia Anna Douglas or Laura Mucha, or the philosophical ponderings of Robert Schechter.

The winner of this year’s Caterpillar Poetry Prize, by Christine McBeth – ‘a powerful piece of writing, a poem that everyone should read,’ according to the judge Michael Morpurgo – is a poem about the fate of our marine environment.

The drunkenness of things being various, that’s the thing. What you can write about for children is boundless. It’s not just monsters under the bed and worm sandwiches.

Rebecca O’Connor

Rebecca lives in rural Ireland, where she edits and designs The Moth and The Caterpillar magazines and runs several literary prizes, including The Caterpillar Poetry Prize. Her debut poetry collection We’ll Sing Blackbird was shortlisted for the Irish Times Shine Strong Award and she is the recipient of a Geoffrey Dearmer Prize. Her poetry has been published in the GuardianPoetry ReviewThe Spectator and elsewhere and was recently shortlisted for the Montreal Poetry Prize.  Her debut novel, He Is Mine and I Have No Other (‘Eerie, tender and wonderful,’ according to Sophie Mackintosh), was published by Canongate in 2018.

Joshua Seigal: Animal Poetry

Animals are great, aren’t they? So much variety; so many opportunities for writing. Since my family got our first pet twelve years ago (a belligerent Lhasa Apso dog named Winston) I have been a big animal lover, and many of my poems feature cats, dogs, and even the odd lemur. What I’d like to do in this blog is share two ideas for writing animal-based poetry, suitable for younger and older children respectively.

If I Were/I Would…

If I were a lion

I would prowl to school baring sharpened fangs

If I were a dog

I would gobble my delicious dinner out of a gleaming golden bowl

If I were a monkey

I would swing from tree to tree in my lush, green garden

If I were a shark

I would glide delicately through a sparkling swimming pool…

I never did get round to finishing this poem. Why not ask pupils to have a go at imagining themselves as different animals, and thinking what they would do if they were to assume animal form. Either as shared or individual writing, children can use the structure ‘If I were/I would’ to continue the poem above. Particular attention should be paid to the use of powerful verbs (the lion doesn’t walk, she prowls) and adjectives (‘lush’, ‘sparkling’). This is a really simple way of writing a fun animal poem that can be taken in any number of different directions. And remember: the children are considering not merely what animals themselves do, but what they (the children) would do if they were an animal.

When I Met…

Ask students to close their eyes and think of an emotion. Next, ask them to imagine: if their emotion was an animal, what would it be? As a writing warm up, give the students five minutes or so to take some notes describing their animal, paying particular attention to the five senses. If it helps them, they can draw and label pictures. Once each student has gathered a bank of ideas, you can share the following as-yet unpublished poem of mine:

The Tiger

doesn’t want you

to look into her eyes.

You can marvel at her stance

and the way her tongue flicks

across her fangs;

you can cower at her claws

and the stripes that streak

like poison down her back;

you can even draw up close

to catch her bitter breath

but the tiger doesn’t want you

to look into her eyes

for

should you do so

you might see nothing more

than another little housecat

blinking

      back at you.

In this poem, the tiger represents fear. You can have a discussion: what does the poet’s encounter with the tiger say about what happens when fear is confronted? What literary techniques are used in the poem? In the light of the poem, and using their ideas from the warm up, students can have a go at writing a poem in which they come face to face with their animal. If it helps, they can use the phrase ‘When I met…’ as a sentence starter. Here are some of the intriguing animals students have met during my workshops:

The crow of jealousy

The elephant of sadness

The donkey of shyness

The peacock of joy

So there you have it: two ideas for creating animal-based poetry. These ideas constitute bare bones, and I am intrigued to see the different ways workshop leaders and students alike are able to flesh them out. And remember: please visit my website for lots of free poetry and videos!

Joshua Seigal

Joshua Seigal is a poet, performer and workshop leader based in London. His latest collection, Welcome To My Crazy Life, is published by Bloomsbury, and he was the recipient of the 2020 Laugh Out Loud Book Award. Please visit http://www.joshuaseigal.co.uk for more info.

Sue Hardy-Dawson: Dreams

Brains are fascinating organs and of all brains, perhaps ours are the most creative. We can’t be certain, of course, animals don’t have a culture of art, stories and poems hidden from human perceptions but therein lies a whole different story. Still as poets we often ask the question: ‘What if?…’ giving both animate and inanimate things words and human emotions. 

What if?, in itself, opens up a world of possibilities and juxtapositions of realities. On such I’ve long contemplated and dreamt.

So much so I’m never quite wherever I am, I’m sure it’s something we all do to an extent, but invariably whilst walking along a perfectly ordinary street or sitting on a bus my head is usually elsewhere. This can of course be both wonderfully liberating and mildly problematic, dangerous even. I’ve ruined meals, bumped into stationery objects and twice almost walked into moving traffic. So not always desirable but I mention it because it demonstrates how mesmerising ideas can be and how intensely creative thoughts block out everything else.

Nevertheless I’m a dreamer and it’s become my job to dream. There’s nothing more enticing than the teasing glimpse of an idea. Inspiration won’t wait or come when asked. Words haunt my sleep if I can’t quite grab them. Having sensed them and having started to consider what shape and form they will take, line by line they will pull themselves from the ether, whether I choose to catch them or not.

Many’s the time I’ve tried to focus on some other task only to end up scribbling on the nearest piece of card or paper, because as soon as I tried to do anything else words would appear, insistent and full. And what most poets and writers will tell you is that you ignore those ideas at your peril. You can never remember them later no matter what you might think. You may have a vague notion of it as a whole but those exact words in that exact order will be lost forever.

In inappropriate circumstances or in the absence of time and means I will settle for the first line. I’ve found the first line is the most crucial. If I can at least type it into my phone often it will take me back to where I was in my head.

That’s the thing with poems, they are sensory time machines. I can look back at anything I wrote and tell you where I was when I wrote it. Exactly what went through my mind, how warm or cold it was, what scents were in the air. Everything. Maybe if you’ve got a good memory you think that little. But I haven’t. I’ve often visited places and can’t remember going there. If it’s not attached to me I lose it and I still joke that when my children were young if they hadn’t the ability to follow me I’d have lost them.

Nevertheless, to be at all creative you must first be a dreamer. Yet dreaming, especially in children, is often undervalued. It might be perceived as not concentrating, not paying attention.

But without it who will our future dreamers be? The dreamers who bend rules and reinvent them? Dreaming can’t be measured and it’s difficult to teach. Even so everyone, especially children, need some regular opportunities to dream, to let their imaginations run wild and unfettered, to create without objectives or an agenda. Dreaming is what makes us human. Why? Because without dreamers there’d be no fiction or poetry, no music, sculpture or drama, and I suspect no electricity, no theory of relativity, not even perhaps an axe or wheel.

Sue Hardy-Dawson

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

Martin Kratz: Manchester Poetry Library and the Poetry of Childhood

Credit: Simon Haworth

In the novel Mutterzunge (Mothertongue), Emine Sevgi Özdamar writes: “In der Fremdsprache haben Wörter keine Kindheit.” A rough translation is: “In a foreign language, words have no childhood.” But really, it says something more like “in THE foreign language, words have no childhood”, because Özdamar is thinking here in particular of the bilingual experience—a person’s other tongue, as opposed to their mother tongue.

While it’s untrue to say I have no childhood in English at all, there are certainly gaps in that upbringing. I grew up speaking mostly German. These days, English is by far my stronger language; and, like many others, I now have to make a concerted effort to engage with the language that was once my only one.

The Tree is Older Than You Are, A Bilingual Gathering of Of Poems and Stories From Mexico, Selected by Naomi Shihab Nye

Occasionally English words and sentences, which have been layered over a foreign foundational grammar, will buck and move according to that other logic. I sometimes find basic linguistic reference points, expressions and phrases simply aren’t to hand. I’m conscious of it too when speaking to friends about what was read to them as children. I didn’t read those books. They weren’t part of my early childhood literary landscape. They never informed my sense of language.

Wordygurdyboom! The Nonsense world of Sukumar Ray, translated by Sampurna Chatterji

All this simply to say, what an amazing opportunity it is now to be working in mapping out that foundational landscape. I work as project manager for Manchester Poetry Library at Manchester Metropolitan University—opening this year. The building is built, the first books are on the shelves and we’ve been connecting with people through our online programme. We’re now waiting for things to get to the point where we can put books, space and people together.

We’re one of several Poetry Libraries in the UK which have a close relationship. Like the other poetry libraries, we’ll be open to the public and our focus is on 20th and 21st century poetry. Specialisms include poetry in recording, Manchester’s 200+ community languages and poetry for children.

It shouldn’t be surprising to find a focus on poetry for children here. The library grows out of the Manchester Writing School under the Creative Directorship of Carol Ann Duffy. Her own writing for children and her Laureate education projects (such as the Mother Tongue Other Tongue Competition) not only have a home in the library but are part of its DNA.

English-Chinese Bilingual Poems and Quotations for Children, Selected and Translated by Slow Rabbit

In 2020, we invited the poet Mandy Coe to co-curate the children’s poetry section. If you read her story of this process [The Adventures of Co-Curating a Poetry Library Collection for Children by Mandy Coe – CILIP: the library and information association], you might understand how pleased I was that she mentions my particular passion for poetry in translation; because of course these different specialisms don’t exist in isolation from each other. We hope for children’s poetry both in translation and in recording too. (The images in this blog are recommendations from Mandy’s report.)

What Mandy’s brilliant work has done is set the ball rolling, when she reached out to individuals and organisations for their recommendations. We continue that work. So, allow me to take this opportunity to reiterate our call: if you have children’s poetry book recommendations, please get in touch. And while I have this platform, if you have recommendations for children’s poetry in translation, in your mother tongue or another tongue in particular, let us know. Better than a library that captures THE landscape of childhood on its shelves would be one that is home to as many landscapes as possible.

Martin Kratz

Martin Kratz is Project Manager at Manchester Poetry Library at Manchester Metropolitan University. He is also a poet and translator. His most recent translations from the German appear in Modern Poetry in Translation, ‘Clean Hands: Focus on the Pandemic in Europe’. You can contact him at M.Kratz@mmu.ac.uk.

Liz Brownlee, Matt Goodfellow, Laura Mucha: Being Me -Addressing Mental Health in Children’s Poetry

Clockwise: Liz Brownlee, Laura Mucha, Victoria Jane Wheeler, Matt Goodfellow.

Being Me – Addressing Mental Health in Children’s Poetry

How do you approach such an important and sensitive topic as children’s mental health and wellbeing in a poetry book and get it right? What approach can you, should you take to write about abuse, death, divorce, racism, for a primary-age reader? We wanted to open up the right discussions in difficult areas, both at home and in the classroom.

Luckily, Laura knew a leading developmental psychologist, Karen Goodall, so we set off on our writing journey with excellent guidelines. However we all came at it from different directions.

Liz: I concentrated on accounts of young people’s lived experiences of what goes on in their heads, and read widely about fostering positive self-image, emotional intelligence and healthy habits.

I also spoke to a GP about which mental health concerns he mostly sees in primary age children in his general practice.

Laura:  My approach was quite academic (I have an MA in psychology and philosophy and have completed a foundation course in psychotherapy). I began by devouring The Handbook of Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychology, The Handbook of Attachment and countless journals on new relationships, parental sickness, divorce and bereavement. I quickly discovered that we don’t always treat children in these scenarios in the most helpful ways possible.

For example, oncological and bereavement research has found that adults are often scared to tell children and young people the truth when they or the people they love are unwell or dying. But the danger in not being honest is that children’s imaginations can concoct scenarios far worse than the truth. My aim in writing was to give a voice to children’s experiences based on research findings in the hope of opening up essential conversations with teachers, parents and caregivers. 

Matt: As a trio, we wanted to cover as many different issues as we could with the aim of allowing children to see themselves reflected somewhere within the words. As an ex-primary school teacher I knew teachers could choose to focus on one particular poem, allow the children to familiarize themselves with the shape and pattern – and then perform it! Alongside this, they could be discussing the thoughts and feelings contained within the poem – and then use these discussions as a catalyst to have a go at writing their own poem – in their voice, about their life. 

We all felt the illustrations for the book needed to be quirky, less literal than usual. Luckily Matt knew illustrator Victoria Jane Wheeler, whose wonderful drawings have definitely added to the life of each poem.

Illustration to Secrets, by Liz Brownlee

Victoria: I had an instinct of the way the illustrations might go after reading the poems a few times, and understanding the rhythm, tone, who the narrator was, and the story being told. My initial ideas often changed a little as they became alive on the page, I let this happen, and tried not to force anything. The poems in Being Me depict a lot of different emotions, so I aimed to capture this through the eyes and the mouth in particular, and the size and angle of the head. To convey a little more I often introduced an awkward stance or a slight tension in texture, scale or surroundings. 

Hopefully children will find themselves in the book and know they aren’t alone in their worries, thoughts and feelings, whatever they are.

Liz Brownlee, Matt Goodfellow, Laura Mucha and Victoria Jane Wheeler

Teaching resources for Being Me and video links and films of the poems featured can all be found here:

Liz Brownlee is a National Poetry Ambassador and award-winning poet – her latest production is a book of shape poems, Shaping the World, 40 Historical Heroes in Verse, Macmillan, 2021.

Matt Goodfellow is an award-winning poet from Manchester. His most recent solo collection is Bright Bursts of Colour, Bloomsbury, 2020.

Laura Mucha is an award-winning poet whose books include Dear Ugly Sisters, Rita’s Rabbit and We Need to Talk About Love. As well as writing, Laura works with organisations such as UNICEF to improve the lives of children.

Victoria Jane Wheeler is a visual artist, illustrator and educator. Working to support young people students and communities, she is passionate about promoting and creating creative opportunities and access to the arts.

Debbie Pullinger: Poems and Pictures

Poems and Pictures

This week I heard about a new poetry book prize. This year, at the International Bologna Children’s Book Fair, the BolognaRagazzi award for illustrated children’s books has a special category for poetry – “in acknowledgement of the wealth of poetry books produced in recent years by the children’s publishing industry worldwide.” Hurrah, indeed. One of this blog’s contributors, Morag Styles, is on the illustrious judging panel, so we can look forward to hearing more about it in due course. In the meantime, it’s got me thinking about what makes for good poetry book illustration, and about how pictures and poems interact with each other.

As adults, we may be used to reading poetry quietly, reflectively. Or we may prefer to hear it read aloud. Like music, it has to come off the page. Either way, we’re tuning into the poetic language, allowing the sounds to enhance the sense, the words to resonate with connotation, the imagery to unfold. For me, it’s a sort of listening with which pictures would really only interfere. It’s like the old adage about listening to the radio “because the pictures are better”. (The science behind this: neurologically, incoming visual stimuli tend to override aural ones.)

But it would be an odd book of rhymes for the young that had no illustration. For pre-literate children, especially, the pictures are doing some vital work – signalling to the child that this is something specially for them; helping them to navigate the collection and to relocate their favourites; making the book a pleasurable object in its own right. A picture can also help them to key into a poem and what it’s about. Since many rhymes and poems – especially those for the very young – come with actions and gestures, or special voice and sound effects, I wonder, too, whether poetry illustration may be supplying a sort of visual equivalent on the silent page.

There are many books of children’s poetry where the illustrations seem to have insinuated themselves into the work. I cannot think of Ted Hughes’ Season Songs without feeling the almost awkward bulk of that book and seeing Leonard Baskin’s haunting illustrations, or of Michael Rosen’s early volumes without seeing Quentin Blake’s amiable figures, all feet and elbows, ambling across the pages. Both in their own way seem to capture and conjure the wordworld of the poet, in all its richness and particularity.

Sometimes, less is more. I think of Ann Stevenson’s black and white motifs that dance around Carol Ann Duffy’s work, or the stark woodcuts of Jonathan Gross that punctuate the poetry of his father, Philip in Off Road to Everywhere. As oblique as the poems themselves, they work metaphorically, metonymically – poetically.

More recently, Jackie Morris’s beautiful watercolours have shared equal billing with Robert Macfarlane’s extraordinary poems in The Lost Words. Although more lavish and more figurative, they still manage to create space for the imagination. It’s interesting that these particular poems went on to forge a further cross-media collaboration in a set of musical arrangements, premiered at the Royal Albert Hall proms. Of course, there are those who would rather let the poem speak for itself rather than be spoken over by music. But that’s another blog.

So then, it is possible that hearing a poem performed well is the best way to fully experience its poetry, to engage the musical ear and the mind’s eye. But equally, illustration and design (let’s not forget those oft-unsung designers) can add another dimension. The finest can play along with the words – whether in unison or harmony or counterpoint – to create a rich, multimodal experience that opens up the imaginative space in different ways.

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 Children’s Poetry was published by Bloomsbury Academic. Website: www.debbiepullinger.com

Brian Moses: Anthologies

Anthologies

I was fortunate to have my first two poetry anthologies published by Blackie, and then Puffin in the early 1990s. However nobody seemed very keen on my third idea for a book which I called ‘The Secret Lives of Teachers’. One publisher wrote to me and told me that in his opinion it wouldn’t sell.

As an ex teacher I knew it would sell, and fortunately so did Susie Gibbs at Macmillan.

She commissioned the book and then handed the editorship to Gaby Morgan with whom I have now worked for almost 30 years. Gaby completely understood its potential too.

The market for children’s poetry was very different back then. There were a number of school book clubs that regularly took books into schools and these clubs bought thousands of copies of ‘Secret Lives’. In fact we wound up selling 75,000 copies (A best seller for children’s poetry then was 5,000 copies) Gaby and I then put together two more books ‘More Secret Lives of Teachers’ and ‘The Top Secret Lives of Teachers’, and later on, bundled them all together into a big volume.

In all editions, over 200,000 copies were sold in total. At the same time Paul Cookson and David Orme were also compiling anthologies which sold in great numbers.

This was a boom time for children’s poetry. Other anthologies which sold tens of thousands of copies were ‘Aliens Stole My Underpants’ and ‘I’m Telling On You – Poems about Brothers and Sisters.’

In 1998 the National Year of Reading gave a great boost to poetry and the anthologies we produced – often five or six a year – kept on selling.

We were criticised of course, by those who were precious about children’s poetry. I remember one particular event at the Society of Authors which Gaby and I attended, where she argued our case passionately in the face of some quite hostile criticism. We both knew that the poetry we were publishing made children smile or laugh – although in every book there were poems to make them think too. They were sold at pocket money prices and introduced children to a genre which otherwise they may not have encountered.

There seemed to be some notion though that if you didn’t introduce children to a poet like Alexander Pope before they went to school, then you were doing it wrong. This was a big part of the reason why children of my generation left school having turned away from poetry, through inappropriate choices at inappropriate ages. 

Getting children hooked on words and how they fit together through humorous poetry, means that they are then more open-minded to other kinds of poetry. They will have already embraced the rhythms of poetry and understood that it could mean something to their lives.,

Today there is a huge interest in poetry through poets visiting schools and through many teachers who are equally passionate about poetry. However this doesn’t translate into sales figures and smaller publishers who are producing some very fine poetry books find themselves struggling.

I don’t know what the answer is, I only know that I was pleased to be a part of that gold rush time for children’s poetry books in the 1990s and early 2000s, pleased to work with Gaby for so long, and pleased to have returned to our roots, as it were, with our latest publication of funny poems.

Brian Moses

Brian Moses has over 220 books published including volumes of his own poetry such as Lost Magic and I Thought I Heard a Tree Sneeze, anthologies such as The Secret Lives of Teachers and the recently published The Best Ever Book of Funny Poems. Brian also visits schools to run writing workshops and perform his own poetry and percussion shows. To date he has visited well over 3000 schools and libraries throughout the UK and abroad.
Blog: brian-moses.blogspot.com Website: http://www.brianmoses.co.uk

Shauna Darling Robertson: Children’s Poetry in Translation

Children’s Poetry in Translation

A few years ago I subscribed to Modern Poetry in Translation (MPT). The magazine was started by Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort in 1965 so it’s older than me – just! Clare Pollard is the current editor and each issue has a ‘focus’ section which hones in on topics from dead women poets to Japan, from extinction to the Caribbean, and from the Maghreb to LGBTQ+ poetry.

The Summer 2015 issue focused on world poetry for children, with new translations of poems from Russia, Taiwan, Samoa, Mexico, Eritrea and more. I still have my copy and I’d love to share a couple of its treasures.

Toon Tellegen is one of Holland’s best-known poets, with a long list of awards to his name. I have two of his adult collections, Raptors and About Love and About Nothing Else. Philip Fried, founding editor of The Manhattan Review wrote, “Tellegen’s poems are parables for grown-up children. Their world is stripped-down, urgent, playful, quirky, familiar as children’s games yet strangely disorienting.” I hadn’t realised that Tellegen is also a popular and prolific children’s author until a Wikipedia search revealed a list of around 40 children’s titles!

The poems featured in MPT are from a sublime book called I Wish, which pairs 33 poems prompted by the statement ‘I wish’ (translated by David Colmer) with a gallery of portraits by artist Ingrid Godon. The faces stare out with strange and serious expressions alongside Tellegen’s outstanding confessions of yearning. Sailor wishes to be music so he’ll be heard; Anton wishes courage was something you could buy; Marie and Rose wish to be the only people who don’t know about death, and Marcel wishes to have an alibi for every circumstance. Here’s Carl’s wish –

You can find out more and watch a video on the publisher’s website at https://elsewhereeditions.org/books/i-wish

Wojciech Bonowicz has published eight poetry collections in Poland. His poems have appeared in English translation in various magazines but I haven’t been able to track down a translated full collection. There are just a few prose-poem fragments by Bonowicz in MPT, translated by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese.

The fragments, referred to as ‘stories’, take the form of brief observations and aphorisms and come from a collection called Bajki Misia Fisia, which I think translates as the fairy tales of a bear called Fisia. “These stories are very short because ‘Nutty Teddy’ can concentrate only for a very short time,” says the introduction!

The fragments are sometimes funny, sometimes sad and are both strange and insightful. Here’s one of the longer ones (available online at www.modernpoetryintranslation.com/poem/beard).

Gabriela Cantú Westendarp was born in the north of Mexico and is a poet, teacher and translator. She has six poetry books, one of which – Poemas del Árbol / Poems from a Tree – is for younger readers. Sadly I can’t find any record of an English translation, but two poems translated by Lawrence Schimel were featured in MPT. Both come from the book’s second half, called ‘Claudio Discovers the World’, in which the poems are dialogues between mother and son. Here’s one (also available at www.modernpoetryintranslation.com/poem/the-language-of-ghosts).

In the years since that issue of MPT I’ve often fantasized about editing an anthology of children’s poetry in translation, though I have no idea if such a thing would be commercially viable! Still, in the fantasy I’m pacing the corridors of the Bologna Book Fair rooting out poets from all over the world, spending hours pouring over the International Children’s Digital Library (an incredible-looking resource of children’s literature in multiple languages), and – best of all – making a chance discovery of some amazing writer in the Pacific Islands and being sent to track them down. Poets, eh – such dreamers!

Shauna Darling Robertson

Shauna Darling Robertson’s poems for adults and children have been performed by actors, displayed on buses, used as song lyrics, turned into comic art and made into short films. Shauna has two chapbooks for adults and a collection for children, Saturdays at the Imaginarium (Troika, 2020) which explores the human imagination. She’s currently working on a new collection for teen/YA readers on the theme of mental health: You Are Not Alone, with support from Arts Council England. http://www.shaunadarlingrobertson.com @ShaunaDarRob

Roger Stevens: Sale of Wife

It’s my turn to write this Blog, so I’m wondering what to write. I’m jotting down ideas in my notebook. I could reveal the recipe for Michael Rosen’s Chocolate Cake, or ask why no one seems to want to publish my book of robot poems. But then it hits me. I’ll write about keeping a notebook.

The two pieces of advice I give would-be children’s poets, and to children themselves, is to read lots and to keep a notebook. Writers of fiction, artists, musicians, any creative person – you need a notebook.

I have a poet friend who eschews notebooks. He belongs to the old ‘jot the idea down on the back of a fag packet’ school of writing. But how many of Shakespeare’s sonnets would have been lost if the Bard had used that method? Would we know how to compare someone to a summer’s day? I doubt it.

Random Pages from Roger’s Notebooks

You never know when you are going to hear or see something that will spark your imagination. Have you ever been woken in the night by a great idea, only to find upon waking in the morning it’s gone, forgotten? You need to keep your trusty notebook by your bed. 

You will undoubtedly discover, nine times out of ten, that the great thought you had at 3am is rubbish: an orange table discussing Brecht with a giant turtle was never going to work on the page. But that tenth time, when you see a white chicken in a red wheelbarrow standing out in the rain… well, there you go.

Whenever I’ve been a poet in residence, I’ve always given each student a notebook. You can often find a pile of old exercise books in a school store cupboard.

More random pages from Roger’s notebooks

I tell students (and staff) that what they write will be private. I won’t ever read it, unless they want me to. Their notes will be scribbled ideas and beginnings, not actual poems. Their writing doesn’t have to be neat or the spelling perfect. They can draw pictures or doodles to help, if they like. Their notebook is purely for them to use. But – they must write something every day. Even if it’s just one word.

Not every student will sign up to this. But many children love having a secret notebook and do use it as a creative tool; they see it as a chance to be free of the stress that writing rules can bring. Some brilliant poems have been born this way.

On the Skytrain, Vancouver, BC

A notebook is a very personal thing. I take a while choosing mine. For a few years, Paperchase sold a thick, hardback A5 plain-paper notebook that was a favourite. Then they introduced lines on the page. I didn’t like them. I had to find other makes. Over the last few years, I’ve taken to using a smaller and more portable notebook. Always non-lined. And into that notebook everything goes: ideas for poems, stories, songs, games, shopping lists, people’s names, drawings and my computer passwords (in code).

The first notebooks I came across, as an art student in the 1960s, were the notebooks of Dieter Roth; they had a great influence on both my art and my writing. Most of us will have marvelled at Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, full of brilliant drawings, amazing inventions and notes written in mirror writing.

And finally – did you know that Thomas Hardy and his wife, Emma, noted down incidents culled from local newspapers in their notebooks? One entry, barely three lines long, is headed Sale of Wife. Out of that fragment came The Mayor of Casterbridge.

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 been going for more than 20 years. 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.