I would like to draw everyone’s attention to a new publication from the fantastic English and Media Centre in London. EMC Poetry Playlist: Contemporary Voices for the Classroom is a collection of 130 poems for 11-16 year olds. This blog post cannot really be called a review, as I am not impartial – I feel extremely honoured to have a poem included in the anthology, alongside famous writers and some of my own poetic heroes like Simon Armitage and Michael Rosen. I’d just like to say a few words about why I think the anthology is indispensable in the KS3 classroom, and to pick out a few of my favourite poems.
As well as the sheer variety of styles and themes on display, it is notable that none of the poems seems, in any obvious sense, to have been written for 11-16 year olds. By this I mean that the poems, whilst chosen for their accessibility to young people, have an appeal to everyone. In some sense I do not believe there is such a thing as ‘children’s poetry’; there is simply poetry, some of which might (or might not) appeal to children. The best children’s poetry always goes beyond this narrow remit, and this is very much borne out in EMC Poetry Playlist.
A unique feature of the anthology is that individual poets were invited to curate their own ‘playlists’. These poets are all well known for their work with young people, and include Jacob Sam-La Rose, my MA mentor at Goldsmiths College. Each of these poets also comments on their selection, homing in on a specific poem and explaining why they chose it. Of particular interest was Hollie McNish’s choice of ‘Smile’ by Maria Ferguson. The poem tackles something that is a perennial bugbear of mine: when people tell other people to ‘smile’. Ferguson concludes her piece with ‘And maybe I can’t, you know?/ Maybe I can’t.’ McNish says of the poem: “It reminds me it’s ok to be serious about things and that you’re not a ‘killjoy’ if you don’t giggle or smile on demand.” This is a message I would definitely have been grateful to receive as a young person.
Another piece that captured my attention was ‘The Falcon to the Falconer’ by Jonathan Steffen. The poem expresses a desire on the part of the bird to be free – ‘unleash me from your hand’. Repetition is used to great effect, mirroring the return of the bird to its handler, and some of the language is sumptuous. The alliteration in ‘I will lance the light for you’, coupled with the sibilance in the word ‘lance’, reflects the direct, quickfire flight of the bird, and the final lines, ‘O, give me back my wings/That they may bring me back to you’, emphasises that, all along, the relationship between the falcon and the falconer is one of symbiosis and mutual respect.
Talking of birds, Caroline Bird has two cracking poems in the book. Both are surreal, funny and accessible in equal measure. I especially enjoyed ‘Megan Married Herself’, which is a paean to self-love. The image of a woman marrying herself, accompanied by all the trappings of a traditional wedding, is highly comic, but carries an important message for young people, namely to be as devoted to themselves and their own wellbeing as to any putative partner. Especially poignant, I think, is the remark of one of the wedding guests to himself: “I’m the only one who will truly understand you”. After all, as Rabbi Hillel famously remarked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
Joshua Seigal is an internationally renowned poet, performer and educator. His first book with Bloomsbury, I Don’t Like Poetry, was nominated for the Laugh Out Loud Book Awards in 2017, an award Joshua subsequently won in 2020 with his collection I Bet I Can Make You Laugh. Joshua was also the recipient of The People’s Book Prize in 2022, and has performed at schools and festivals around the world, including the Edinburgh Book Festival, the Cheltenham Literature Festival, and the Dubai Literature Festival. He is an Official Ambassador for National Poetry Day, and has been commissioned to write and perform for the BBC. He can normally be found running poetry workshops and performances in schools, either online or in real life. www.joshuaseigal.co.uk
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