Chrissie Gittins: Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?         

Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?

‘Where do you get your ideas from for poems?’ This is the question I’m most often asked when visiting schools, festivals and libraries. Ideas come from many sources – conversations, reading, observation, memory, things children say, things that happen, and sometimes simply the sound of a word or its punning potential. An idea catches in my mind and becomes an obsession until it’s written into a poem.

I thought I’d outline a more detailed genesis of a couple of poems – my most recent and an older poem. As you may know April is National Poetry Month in America. NaPoWriMo, or National Poetry Writing Month, is an annual project which offers a daily prompt throughout April. www.napowrimo.net The prompt for Day 22 appealed to me – a proverb from a different language. Websites are listed with possibilities. I chose ‘There’s no cow on the ice’ – a Swedish proverb meaning there’s no need to worry.

I liked its the throw away, surreal quality and it seemed to hook into the current climate. I thought about other precarious animal situations and took it from there.

 

There’s No Cow On The Ice

(Swedish proverb)

 

There’s no cow on the ice,

there’s no horse on the tightrope,

there’s no elephant on the church spire,

there’s no hippopotamus in the pear tree.

 

So don’t worry about the cow falling through the ice,

or the horse slipping from the tightrope,

or the elephant sliding down the church spire,

or the hippopotamus flailing in the pear tree.

 

The cow is having tea in the meadow,

the horse is there beside her with fruit cake,

the elephant raises a cup with his elegant trunk,

the hippo has a custard cream to dunk.

 

The second poem began with a conversation with a friend. She’d visited HMS Victory in Portsmouth and told me about the young children, often orphans swept off the streets, who worked on eighteenth century sailing ships as powder monkeys. They kept the artillery on the gun decks stocked with gunpowder. I was gripped by how frightening this must have been and shocked to discover that before 1794 children as young at six went to sea. I visited the Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum to research further.

The poem won the Belmont Poetry Prize for individual children’s poems. This was especially pleasing as the shortlist was drawn up by teachers and the prizewinners were chosen by thirteen year old children. Coincidentally, after 1794, the minimum age for children working at sea was raised to thirteen.

 

The Powder Monkey

 

This is the moment I dread,

my eyes sting with smoke,

my ears sing with cannon fire.

I see the terror rise inside me,

coil a rope in my belly to keep it down.

I chant inside my head to freeze my nerve.

 

Main mast, mizzen mast, foremast,

belfry, capstan, waist.

 

We must keep the fire coming.

If I dodge the sparks

my cartridge will be safe,

if I learn my lessons

I can be a seaman,

if I close my eyes to eat my biscuit

I will not see the weevils.

 

Main mast, mizzen mast, foremast,

shot lockers, bowsprit, gripe.

 

Don’t stop to put out that fire,

run to the hold,

we must fire at them

or they will fire at us.

 

Main mast, mizzen mast, foremast,

belfry, capstan, waist.

 

My mother never knew me,

but she would want to know this –

I can keep a cannon going,

I do not need her kiss.

 

 

‘The Power Monkey’ is published in ‘Now You See Me, Now You …’, ‘Stars in Jars’ and ‘Michael Rosen’s A to Z : The Best Children’s Poetry from Agard to Zephaniah’.

Chrissie Gittins

Chrissie Gittins has had three of her five children’s poetry collections as Choices for the Children’s Poetry Bookshelf. Two were shortlisted for the CLiPPA Award. She won the Belmont Poetry prize and was a Manchester Children’s Literature Prize finalist. Her poems feature on Cbeebies and the Poetry Archive. She has judged the Caterpillar Poetry Prize and is a National Poetry Day Ambassador.

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