Poetry as Parent
Books, particularly poetry collections, were a real comfort to me in what was otherwise a rather austere childhood. I was an insular child who’d taught myself to read before starting school. And as the fifth of six children, all born within 9 years of each other and raised by a very unmaternal mother, it wasn’t surprising that literature became a kind of parental substitute. Reading poetry lead to attempts at writing it, though I never shared my efforts at home or school. Below is the last poem I’d written as a child, aged 13. I still have it on scrap paper somewhere.
The sky at night is like a precious stone,
studded with flecks of silver and a pearl.
Surrounded, even though I am alone.
Covered, like an unprotected girl.
It shows some technical promise and a pithy allusion to a darker subtext. But after this, I drifted away from writing towards music culture. Other than an appreciation of the odd song lyric, it would be another 27 years before I thought of poetry again.
Poetry as Lover
In my 40th year, I chanced upon a weekly class, Writing for Children with Roger Stevens. We spent a term studying poetry where I revisited and appreciated its otherness and the space it gave for self-reflection. Life had become difficult around that time and writing gave me a much needed sense of control and an alternative, positive focus. It hooked me in and soon poetry became my obsessive love interest.
Although I knew I wanted to write and publish poetry for children, I was driven to expand my understanding of it, so spent the following three years focusing on writing courses, workshops and residential weeks. As my writing developed, my personal and emotional life came apart. But poetry was both the catalyst to initiate productive change, and the tool to navigate through those changes.
Long story short, I acquired an agent, Caroline Walsh, who helped place my first collection, The Language of Cat, with Janetta Otter-Barry at Frances Lincoln. And I became part of a new wave of children’s poets emerging alongside renewed publisher and educational interest that continues to grow and flourish today.
Poetry as Boss
Strange as it may seem, it didn’t occur to me that I’d have to ‘work’ to promote my book. I hadn’t considered much beyond the writing of the poems. But I was edged into the limelight when my first collection won the CLPE Award. Public performances terrified me and marketing my work felt alien, but somehow I’ve managed to muddle my way through for long enough to have two more collections (both CLIPPA shortlisted) under my belt. While I’m incredibly grateful for the reception my poetry has had, I can’t help but hold an ambivalence to the job description of Poet. I’m quite protective of my relationship with poetry, viewing it more as mother or lover rather than allowing it to act as my employer.
My next (and likely final, collection) Hey, Girl! is out next year, and is one I’m hoping will speak for itself. It’s pitched at an older readership – early adolescence upwards, and is unapologetically Asperger-ish and female-orientated. It contains poems I’ve written over the last ten years which are part-autobiographical, part epistolary in nature. It marks a natural return to where I’d left off as a young teen and feels somewhat like an ending – but in a good way.
Here’s the title poem.
You’re a miracle, already.
What are the odds a cluster of cells
could grow human from a mother’s womb
and arrive in a bright world, blinking and blue.
That was you.
Remember, you had the power
to commando crawl over sharp bricks,
risk unsteady steps in hard, new shoes,
turn upside-down on swings for the view.
That was you.
You’re simply a sacred being-machine.
No body is perfect but you are perfectly yours.
Hold fast to this thought if others try to undo it.
I am sending this and a kiss (or two).
I was you.
Rachel Rooney‘s latest picture book The Problem with Problems, illustrated by Zehra Hicks and published by Andersen, is out now. Her crossover poetry collection, Hey, Girl! is to be published by Otter-Barry Books in 2021.