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 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.