Sue Hardy-Dawson: What is Poetry?

Perhaps you’re already a fan of poetry? As you’re reading a poetry blog, it’s a fair assumption. However, undeniably, it remains the marmite of literature. Why? I suspect part of the problem is that unlike other models for writing it’s hard to define exactly what a poem is.

It’s true there are many different forms and styles of poetry, as many as poets past and present have and continue to think up. In fact, poetry by its very nature welcomes experimentation and innovation. BUT, whilst it’s a wonderful open field to play for poets, it can feel a bit daunting to those, as yet unconvinced, endeavouring to teach it.

Like all else it requires first and foremost a degree of immersion. Even if you have read and yes reread at least some if not a lot of poems by different poets contemporary and historical, a satisfying definition that fits all models, much less how to write poetry, remains elusive. Add to this an educational zeitgeist of deconstruction and poetry risks becoming a fearfully complex thing. Right?

No, it doesn’t need to be. Naturally, as a poet, I know a fair amount about poetry. Yet, like every child everywhere, almost all I know I learnt a long time after I began writing it. My first poems were largely mimicking poetry I’d enjoyed. I’m grateful my youthful attention wasn’t required to identify similes, metaphors or alliteration. Not, at least, until secondary school and university.

So here’s the thing, poetry needn’t be scary, you can know very little about its constructs and still embark on a joint voyage of enjoying poetry with children. The single most important teaching tool you can bring to the party is a genuine passion. Better still you can experiment and invent your own rules. There are no poetry police or they would have carted me away at birth. So poetry provides endless opportunities for wild creativity. You can arrange it solely by syllable counts, write it rhymed or unrhymed, play with and have lots of punctuation, or none at all. You can mimic other forms of writing. There’s very little a poem cannot be from an epic to a single word.

‘Ah’ you say, (well probably not you, but many teachers and parents I’ve come across) ‘but I don’t like poetry.’ And who can blame you? We’ve all felt dislike for something. The book we dread at bedtime, the irritating song you find yourself tragically humming on the bus. For me it’s competitive sports and computer games. I understand. So, if you aren’t already, can I ever make a poetry fan of you? Well, I believe it’s possible. Familiarity is key and it doesn’t even lead to contempt.

Consider opera, music’s marmite, yet after the world cup who hasn’t found themselves humming Nessun Dorma? If not launching into full-blown song in the bathroom and scaring the neighbours? Just me then? Nevertheless, it proves we can all learn to love new things and, if we don’t have to be experts in Italian or opera to feel opera’s joy, why not poetry?

So if you don’t like or are even fearful of teaching poetry, children’s poetry is a good place to start. It’s accessible and often fun. Don’t let poetry become just an exercise in studying language, though, let contextual osmosis work its magic, learn poems as you would a song. Watch videos of poets performing or go and see one live. Why? Because enthusiasm is addictive and children have inbuilt primeval, adult-engagement sensors. Open their hearts and love – and even understanding – will grow on its own.

Sue Hardy-Dawson

Sue Hardy Dawson is a poet & illustrator. Her debut collection, ‘Where Zebras Go’, Otter Barry Books, was shortlisted for the 2018 CLiPPA prize. Sue’s poems and teaching resources can be found on the CLPE website. Her second, ‘Apes to Zebras’ Bloomsbury, co-written with poetry ambassadors, Roger Stevens and Liz Brownlee, won the North Somerset Teachers Book Awards. As a dyslexic poet, she loves encouraging reluctant readers and writers. Her second solo collection ‘If I were Other than Myself’ is out now with Troika Books.

Laura Mucha: In the Face of Uncertainty

Here is another look at a favourite, and still pertinent blog from 2020:

I was hit by a car when I was 29. I was left virtually bedbound for years and after six months or so, I found myself writing poetry. Somehow, it was a place where I could process thoughts and feelings, a code that allowed me to access parts of me that were otherwise out of bounds.

I also devoured poems. I read this excerpt of a poem called New Every Morning by Susan Coolidge every day for at least two years:

 

Every day is a fresh beginning;

Listen, my soul, to the glad refrain,

And, spite of old sorrow and older sinning,

And puzzles forecasted and possible pain,

Take heart with the day, and begin again.

In the face of the stress and uncertainty of the global pandemic, I wanted to use poetry to help young people process what was going on and express themselves. Normally I would work face-to-face with them, getting them to improvise, come up with words and lines, vote on changes and perform – but as we were in lockdown, I had to figure out how to do all of these things via little boxes on a screen.

In my first session, 7-11 year olds were coming up with lines like ‘I’m going to use all the bog roll’, ‘get me out of here’ and ‘my dad’s talking about Boris’. It was fascinating to see how the pandemic was impacting them and help them articulate that in a poem. They told me they appreciated the chance to have a voice, collaborate, be creative and learn – and many parents said that this was the highlight of their children’s lockdown.

I decided to run a series of workshops to co-write a thank you poem for key workers. I enlisted the help of a brilliant friend of mine, Ed Ryland, who normally produces some of the best TV on our screens. I advertised free poetry workshops, messaged everyone I could think of – from every school I’d ever visited to friends I hadn’t seen in years – and prepared a Powerpoint outlining who key workers are and what they do. And off we went.

More than fifty young people role-played, imagined being different key workers, thought about how they would feel, what they would be doing, what difference they would make. And they wrote everything down, sharing hundreds of words in a couple of minutes. I collated them all with the help of teaching assistant and poet, Meg Fairclough, then we worked as a group to create a first draft.

I spent the weekend reflecting and editing (filming my editing so I could share this in the next workshop) and asked for comments from my agent, editor, and four professional children’s poets. In the following session, I showed all of this to the young writers and asked them to vote on the suggestions. “It’s your poem,” I said. “Only accept the comments you agree with.” They rejected many… Then we discussed what costumes or props they had, allocated lines and planned how we would perform the poem.

One thousand videos later – and countless emails and calls with Ed and numerous parents – and we had a film. More than 80 children from the UK, US, Australia, China, Italy and Uruguay took part. It had thousands of views in a couple of hours and made its way onto CBBC’s Newsround.

I know I’m a poetry evangelist. But poems are an invaluable way to process and communicate – particularly in times of difficulty. And as difficulty looks like it will be here for a while, I will continue to evangelise.

Poetry is important. And poetry is for everyone. So please write it.

Laura Mucha

Laura Mucha has won two international prizes for children’s poetry (the Caterpillar Prize and the YorkMix Prize) and her poems have been featured on BBC Radio 6 Music, BBC Radio 3, Classic FM and CBBC.

Her debut non-fiction book, Love Factually / We Need to Talk About Love (Bloomsbury) was published last year and Richard Curtis describes it as ‘much better and more useful than my film’. Her debut collection, Dear Ugly Sisters (Otter-Barry Books) is out in August, and her debut picture book, Rita’s Rabbit (Faber & Faber) in 2021. You can read more of her work at lauramucha.com. @lauramucha

Andrea Reece: Everyone’s a Winner

Everyone’s a winner

The Newbery Award is one hundred years old this year. Reading an article about the award and its 100 winners got me thinking about prizes, their importance and impact. I should say that prizes have been a big part of my professional life (though, sadly, not as a recipient). Publishers I’ve worked for have sponsored prizes; authors I’ve published have won them. I’ve been a judge myself (Costa Children’s Book Award 2015 – a big year). I’ve been part of the team behind the Branford Boase Award since 2012 and am currently running the Klaus Flugge Prize. And, most pertinent here, I’m delighted to say that this will be my third year working for CLPE on the publicity and promotion for the CLiPPA, the UK’s leading annual award for published poetry for children. Put it all together, and that’s a lot of judging sessions observed, and a great deal of applauding, not to mention lots of opportunities to ponder who prizes are for, and what they can do.

The Newbery anniversary has sparked debate around the list of winners and not all of its 100 winning books are recommended reading for today. Times change, taste and sensibilities with them of course, but it’s true too that anyone who’s participated in an award will be conscious of excellent nominees who, because of some one thing, failed to make the final list. Then too, if there can only be one winner, surely there must be four or five disappointed shortlistees too.

Well, no. Because to see a prize as only being about its winner really misses the point. As an expert, here are five glorious things I’ve realised are true of all prizes.

  1. The judges. Every literary prize I’ve ever observed (and this is particularly true of the CLiPPA) had as its panel of judges a group of informed, enthusiastic and engaged people, ready to share their opinions honestly, to listen to their fellow judges, and to determine the very best qualities in each collection they were considering.
  2. That excitement and passion is then shared with the public, bringing a whole new audience to books, poetry collections and poems that they would not otherwise have discovered.
  3. The best shortlists – and again, this is particularly true of the CLiPPA but it’s also true of the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Forward Prizes – do more than just showcase what is on the list. They highlight exactly what is happening in the field at the time, new and important developments, what is exciting the best practitioners of the moment. How cheering it is for example to see Manjeet Mann’s verse novel The Crossing on the shortlist for this year’s Costa Book Award, and then to see it win the category – the first time in the award’s history that the children’s prize has gone to a verse novel.
  4. No matter how often we think that surely everything there is to say or think has been said, thought or described, prizes put the spotlight on new and original work, reminding us all of the boundless capacity of human imagination.
  5. And finally, the celebrations are for everyone. Michael Rosen was named winner of the 2021 CLiPPA but on the day of the announcement, didn’t it feel as though everyone was talking about children’s poetry? How glorious was that!

Even as I write this, submissions are coming in for the 2022 CLiPPA – publishers, there’s still time if you have yet to put your books forward – and entries are also pouring in for the much-loved CLiPPA Shadowing, the scheme that prompts poetry performances in schools up and down the country. I can’t wait to share the announcement of this year’s shortlist and the celebrations of the very best new poetry books for children.

Andrea Reece

Andrea Reece is Managing Editor of Books for Keeps and reviews editor for Lovereading4Kids. She’s also director of the Children’s Programme for the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival. As administrator and publicist for prizes the CLiPPA, Branford Boase Award and Klaus Flugge Prize, she knows how to keep a secret and enforce an embargo. 

Joshua Seigal: Poetry and Philosophy

I often tell people that one of the things that attracts me to poetry is that poems tend to be short. In 2011, I completed a 30,000 word thesis as part of my Philosophy postgraduate degree. The thesis was edited down from about 50,000 words. That is not short. Aside from the obvious matter of length, there is the corollary issue of time. One should not underestimate the time it can take to complete a poem, but it is much shorter than it takes to write a philosophical tract. This suits me because I tend to work in short, intense bursts. In part, my deciding to dedicate myself to poetry can be seen as something of a reaction against my previous life in academia.

Another thing I am often asked about is the extent to which my background in philosophy influences my poetry. One can take this at least two ways: do I write about the same sorts of things? And how similar is the writing process? Let’s take each of these in turn. Philosophy purports to concern itself with the deepest questions: Why are we here? What is reality? How can we come to know reality? When I first started to write poetry for children my main aim was to provide a bit of a giggle. This, again, was probably a reaction against having to tackle the ‘big questions’ in my day job. However, as the pandemic has progressed my poetry has certainly taken on a philosophical edge. In fact, I have probably started to think about the big issues with more gusto than I ever did as an academic.

How, though, have I been tackling these issues? This brings us onto the second question, regarding the extent to which writing poetry and writing philosophy are similar. For me, there are huge differences, and it is these differences that attract me to the former rather than the latter. When Philosophers write, they tend to lay out an argument meticulously, examine it from all angles, consider counterarguments, and advance slowly and cautiously toward a conclusion. And the conclusion in any one essay is almost always nothing more than a tiny grain of sand added to the great mound of what has gone before. Indeed, most of the work I studied was concerned with minute details of the big issues, rather than the issues themselves as a whole. I think this was one of the things that frustrated me: Anglophone Philosophers, in what is known as the ‘Analytic’ tradition, often tend to be details people, rather than big-picture people.

As a poet, I don’t look for conclusions, and I don’t progress by way of ‘argument’. I try to open up a snapshot, or a window, through which the big issues can be viewed, however dimly. I proceed by way of allusion and metaphor, or else I simply tell it as I see it; in neither case is the goal to convince someone to adopt my point of view, and in neither case am I trying to add anything to a collective body of knowledge. I am simply adopting and describing a point of view. The point of view might pertain to issues like love, goodness, knowledge and truth. Or I may simply be describing how my cat was sick on the rug. I am pleased I did my time as an academic, and I am even more pleased now to not be doing it. And given that I am not doing it, I am going to leave this ‘essay’ without an elegant conclusion.

(please vote for me in the People’s Book Prize. It takes twenty seconds: https://peoplesbookprize.com/summer-2021/yapping-away/)

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.

Christmas Poems: Merry Christmas!

© Sue Hardy-Dawson

Thank you to Sue for our lovely Robin introduction, and to the other wonderful children’s poets who have sent poems for our Christmas blog 2021. We’d also like to thank all those who have supported us by sending fascinating and illuminating blogs this year.

Angel Dance

…………………………………

See the shepherds with the sheep,

Not one dares to make a peep,

Tonight, no one will go to sleep,

The angels dance above.

…………………………

See the trees turn golden, bright,

The hills are flooded with pure light,

And all feel warm this cold, cold night,

The angels dance above.

…………………………….

See the glint in every eye,

No one asks the question why

Heaven has flooded Earth’s dark sky,

The angels dance above.

………………………………

Coral Rumble

 

Christmas morning

Last year

on Christmas morning

we got up really early

and took the dog for a walk

across the downs

It wasn’t snowing

but the hills were white with frost

and our breath froze

in the air

Judy rushed around like a crazy
thing

as though Christmas 

meant something special to her

The sheep huddled together

looking tired

as if they’d been up all night

watching the stars

We stood at the highest point

and thought about what Christmas means

and looked over the white hills

and looked up at the blue sky

And the hills seemed

to go on forever

and the sky had no bounds

and you could imagine

a world at peace

Roger Stevens

Illustration by Chris Riddell, from THINGS YOU FIND IN A POET’S BEARD (Burning Eye)

A Christmas Poem

When my Great Aunt Bertha,
who was a Quaker,
read in the papers
of how their boys and our boys gave it all up,
put the guns down
and climbed over the top
to kick the patched leather ball
between barbed wire and crater rims,
between the two straight dark ditches they lived in,
she took it upon herself to head down to Woolworth’s
and buy up all the marked down boxes of Christmas cards,
lolling on the January shelves.

She spent her war years licking stamps,
inking addresses,
printing xmas messages in one of a number of different languages,
as appropriate,
signing her love
and visiting the pillar-box at the head of her road.
Sacks of the things went off at once,
whole stretches of trench filled with spade-handled robins,
holly, magi, stockings and snow.
The babe of peace arrived in his manger,
in the stable,
in March, in April, in May,
ceaselessly,
year on year.

If there had been no calendars,
no officers, no orders,
no today’s or yesterday’s newspaper in the mess,
in the trench,
no date on the soldier’s letter from home,
then her plan may have worked,
assuming the other side were equally ill-equipped
and open-mindedly eager to clutch peace as it passed.

But
no one was stupid enough to think it might be Christmas
every day,
no one was fooled by her hand,
and besides, the ball
needed pumping
and a puncture repair kit.
Great Aunt Bertha.

A.F. Harrold

Christmas dawn

brings frost

in fields.

Sheep seek

one patch

where sunlight creeps,

and stand

– quite still –

on a Cotswold hillside.

Woolly backs

    steam; 

         shadows stretch.

                 Fingers of friendly light

          linger

    as frosted grass

turns green.

Pie Corbett

Janet Wong: The Children’s Poetry Scene in America: A Recap of #NCTE21

In late November, I attended the NCTE (ncte.org) convention. This conference is one of the most important annual events for children’s authors in America, where we talk about our books with thousands of teachers who work at all levels, preschool through university. There are always dozens of poetry sessions. To give you a sense of the content we share, here is a description of one of the sessions I participated in.

Equity in Poetry: Celebrating Diverse Voices in Verse

Three award-winning poets — Janet Wong, Elizabeth Steinglass, and Carole Boston Weatherford — will share poems that embrace the call for equity. In addition, we will invite audience participation with strategies that promote greater equity with movement, sign language, choral reading, visuals, music, and other tools as we co-create equitable literacy learning experiences together.

This session was hosted by Sylvia Vardell, a professor of children’s literature in Texas and one of America’s top experts on poetry. Each year in January on her Poetry for Children blog, she features a “sneak peek” list of the hundred-plus children’s poetry books that will be published that year. And all through the year, you can read interviews and book summaries, enjoy minute-long “poem movies,” and more: http://poetryforchildren.blogspot.com/.

For decades, Sylvia has been urging educators all over the world, from Athens to Auckland to Austin, to embrace the brevity and accessibility of poetry. She believes — as we all do — that poetry has the power to reach every reader, but not just because of the form or content of a poem. In anthologies that she and I have created together, such as The Poetry Friday Anthology for Celebrations, The Poetry of Science, and GREAT MORNING: Poems for School Leaders to Read Aloud (please see https://pomelobooks.com/), she always includes “Poetry PLUS”— additional materials that extend the learning along with suggestions for sharing poems in a lively way. As she pointed out in the resources in HOP TO IT: Poems to Get You Moving and also in this NCTE session, we can use movement, sign language, choral reading, visuals, and other techniques when we read a poem to create a level playing field for learning.

In addition to showcasing poetry in programs by authors and educators, another reason that NCTE has become the professional home of many American children’s poets (and poetry fans) is its poetry awards. I received the 2021 Excellence in Poetry for Children Award, a lifetime achievement award that has been given to Paul Janeczko, J. Patrick Lewis, Marilyn Nelson, Joyce Sidman, Marilyn Singer, and others. For a mini-lesson on children’s poetry in America, you can click here (and scroll down): https://ncte.org/awards/excellence-in-poetry-for-children-living-american-poet/.

NCTE also highlights thirty poetry books (collections, anthologies, and verse novels) on its annual Poetry Notables list; my book Good Luck Gold & MORE was lucky enough to be included on the current list. Here are excerpts of a poem, prose piece, and discussion questions taken from its pages.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama emphasized in her opening keynote speech for #NCTE21 that “it’s harder to hate up close.” In the closing keynote speech, poet Amanda Gorman said, “Writing — telling truthful stories that matter — is an essential service for humanity.” And in America, this is what many of us children’s poets are focusing on today: how to make our country (and the world) a better place, one poem at a time.

A note about #NCTE21: Originally planned as an in-person conference in Louisville, Kentucky, the decision was made to shift to a virtual online format in the summer before the conference as COVID-19 surged again in the United States. I’ve attended the annual NCTE conference almost twenty times in person, with a thousand good memories; but, oddly, I felt an even stronger sense of community with this virtual format. All throughout the talks that I gave and attended, people chatted, responding immediately to the content with questions and feedback. It felt to me that we were sitting together in the same room, though photos posted on social media showed people in many different settings: lounging on the couch with cats in front of their screens, munching on samosas, or sitting on their balconies as they watched. As much as I keep hearing people say that they hope we can return to in-person conferences very soon, I hope we’ll always keep a virtual element at future conferences. At #NCTE21, people logged in from all over the world. Making global participation easy is something that justifies—actually, mandates—keeping a virtual element for future in-person conferences. Fingers crossed that we see (or at least “see”) each other at #NCTE22 in Anaheim, California. Disneyland, anyone?

Janet Wong

Janet Wong is the author of more than 35 books for children and teens. Her most recent book (with Sylvia Vardell and 25 poets) is THINGS WE DO, an alphabet anthology; 100% of the profits from this book will be donated to the IBBY Children in Crisis Fund https://www.ibby.org/awards-activities/ibby-children-in-crisis-fund

Wes Magee: A Tribute and Celebration

On Thursday 21 October 2021, Wes Magee, well-known children’s poet and author, passed away peacefully in his sleep.

Here is a selection of his poems, published with permission, chosen by just a few of those who admired his wonderful work.

Brian Moses

Wes Magee was a role model when I first started writing poetry for children. Like me, he was a teacher at that time (later a headteacher) and his classes had inspired him to write his own poems, when he couldn’t find ones relevant to the work in hand. I remember a four page booklet of poems about dinosaurs which the children in my classes loved to hear, and then in 1989 there were two books from Cambridge University Press,  Morning Break  and The Witch’s Brew.

These were such diverse collections from someone who understood children, their lives and what made them tick. Wes was a master craftsman too. His poems were finely tuned and there was something for everyone – spooky poems, funny poems, sad poems and poems that begged to be read aloud. Reading aloud was something Wes did brilliantly. We shared the stage on a number of occasions and I was always struck by the way he quickly developed a relationship with his audience, no matter what age. He was particularly at home with younger children, and they listened intently as if he was imparting the kind of secrets that they needed to see them through life.

Recently Wes toured Northern Ireland on several occasions. I talked with him once after he’d spent the day in a school in Belfast with 12 classes. “I visited every one,” he said. I envied his energy and his stamina. Fortunately his poems are recorded on the Poetry Archive. Do give them a listen.

I have many favourite poems but for me, this short one is near perfect.

A hot day at the school

All day long the sun glared

as fiercely as a cross Headteacher.

Out on the brown, parched field

we trained hard for next week’s Sports day.

Hedges wilted in the heat;

teachers’ cars sweltered on the tarmac.

In the distance, a grenade of thunder

exploded across the glass sky.

Wes Magee

Judith Nicholls

Wes, of course, wrote many school-based poems which children can easily relate to but I’ve chosen something a little different: VOICES, in which all three verses are linked by the voices of different adults calling the children in.

The first verse begins with four friends ‘adventuring’ in an overgrown garden where ‘ … a tumbledown shed, half lost in waves of weeds/was our pirate ship, sailing uncharted seas’ … a lovely alliterative image of the waves of weeds. In the second verse, cousins are rowing on a lake’s sunlit-wrinkled water and here it is the hand-cupped shout of the boatmen calling them in from the jetty.

In the final verse the poem takes a more sinister turn with its Hansel and Gretel reference of a crabbed old woman inviting the children lost in the wood to rest in her cottage, with its final Come in!/dear children./Come in! It is, we learn, a story being told by a teller who mimics the witch’s final invitation … but we are all aware of the power of story and the children stare intently, dry-mouthed, at the teller!

I love poems that change the mood as they proceed and this would be a wonderful poem to perform; I never heard Wes perform this one but can imagine what a great telling he would give it!

Voices

‘Come in!”

My mother’s voice boomed across the backs of houses,

calling me home as dusk fell that July evening.

But still we played, four friends adventuring

at the end of Mathew’s long, overgrown garden

where a tumbledown shed, half lost in waves of weeds,

was our pirate ship sailing uncharted seas.

Dirt-streaked, and oblivious of the deepening purple dark,

we played on as first stars blinked like harbour lights.

         ‘Come in!

         It’s late!

         Come in!’

        

‘Come in!’

The boatman’s hoarse voice reverberated

across the lake’s sparkling, sunlit-wrinkled water.

Yet my cousins continued to row towards the reed beds

where ducks, moorhens and coots paddled and pecked.

We laughed as heavy oars dipped and splashed,

and gazed when a flight of geese took off, wings clapping.

The rowing boat rocked in the wind and waves,

and still the boatman’s hand-cupped shout from the jetty,

         ‘Come in!

         Time’s up!

         Come in!’

‘Come in!’

The crabbed old woman smiled toothlessly

as she invited the children lost in the green wood

to rest in her cottage half hidden in the bushes and trees.

I remember how the storyteller added scary sound effects

— an owl’s wavering hoot, wind hushing in the treetops,

and his fingers snapping like dead, woodland twigs.

Dry-mouthed and wide-eyed we stared intently

as he mimicked the witch’s final invitation,

‘Come in!

dear children.

Come in!’

Wes Magee

Pie Corbett

My favourite poems by Wes are either about Thorgill, winter or the annual Christmas card poem in which I felt that Wes was writing about his life. Elegant and finely crafted, this poem slows time to capture and preserve a moment. And every time the poem is read aloud (preferably in Wes’s wonderful rich voice), the moment is recreated and happens again. The poem draws the reader in with ‘you’ and we are there – in the dales, watching the Moon, car lights, cat and bright stars. The poem draws to a magical and comforting closure; a wonder-struck fragment – a prayer. 

This Silent Night 

(… … on the North York Moors) 

Bathed in the back door’s yellow light 

you gaze upon a winter’s night 

and view the shy Moon’s misty veil 

as car beams flick across the dale. 

A black cat pads the patio 

to leave small paw-prints in the snow, 

and air’s aglitter, stars are bright 

         this Christmas Eve, 

                   this silent night. 

Wes Magee

Celia Warren

I’ve picked What is the Sun, as it was one of my daughter’s favourites when she was little, and I must have read it at hundreds of bedtimes. What, at first encounter, could be seen as a string of metaphors, is deceptive in its apparent simplicity. Each word is carefully chosen and placed so that the lines rise and fall, like a gentle incoming tide, as each soothing image follows the last. It is irresistible to read aloud, slowly, and bathe in its rhythmic calm.

What is the Sun?

The Sun is an orange dinghy

sailing across a calm sea

it is a gold coin

dropped down a drain in Heaven

the Sun is a yellow beach ball

kicked high into the summer sky

it is a red thumb-print

on a sheet of pale blue paper

the Sun is a milk bottle’s gold top

floating in a puddle

Wes Magee

Moira Andrew

Being invited to select a single poem from Wes Magee’s vast collection of poetry for children is like choosing a favourite child! There is so much to admire in his work, so apt, What is a million?, so clever with words, Deep down in the darkness, so sensitive, Tracey’s tree, – and on occasion, so full of fun, Miss Jones, football teacher, that the task is almost impossible.

But here goes!  The children in my Years 3 and 4 really enjoyed Down by the school gate. They loved its rhythm, sustained throughout the poem, its fun, and of course, it brings the joy of the countdown. It’s a ‘joining in’ poem and that makes it special for 7-8 year-olds. And indeed, for Special Needs classes who can shout the numbers and thump the floor as it moves to the final triumphant One lollipop man …

In addition, Down at the school gate provides a pattern on which to model the children’s own poems. It is cleverly crafted, yet looks easy – and that shows the poet’s skill.

Wes has left us bereft, we teachers, poets and friends will miss his friendship, his enthusiasm and above all, his way with words.

Down by the School Gate

There goes the bell

it’s half past three

and down by the school gate

you will see . . .

. . . ten mums in coats, talking

nine babes in prams, squawking

eight dads their cars parking

seven dogs on leads barking

six toddlers all squabbling

five grans on bikes wobbling

four child-minders running

three bus drivers sunning

two teenagers dating

one lollipop man waiting. . .

The school is out,

it’s half past three

and the first to the school gate

. . . is me!

Wes Magee

Sue Hardy-Dawson: How to Grow Your Inner Poet

Here’s a few things I’ve found useful. Tips, either, collected from other poets or along the way. Hopefully you’ll find something helpful here or interesting – perhaps both.

Read lots of poems by different poets: all good poets read lots of poetry. If you want to write it’s the single most important thing to do. Why? Because it helps you get in the zone, to see new words in context and avoid clichés. 

Be a word collector: when I find new words I explore their use and sound, then add them to the large pile in my head. I’d love to tell you it’s a neat, orderly pile but I doubt it. It’s probably like my bookshelves, three deep with a few balanced on the top. Poets, like all writers, need lots of words to choose from.

Keep a notebook (sort of): all poems start with ideas. It doesn’t matter how you get ideas down. Scribble, text or write on anything you can find. Spelling/handwriting is tricky for me so I don’t worry unless I won’t be able to read it later. I even draw pictures if I’m stuck. I never rub/scribble words out though. Many good things are lost like that.

Write every day/any words are better than no words: If you’re stuck try a free-write, write for a few minutes anything that comes into your head. Our amazing brains put all sorts of abstract concepts together and that’s a really good start for any poem.

Good or bad, never throw ideas away: Why? Ideas sometimes grow wings (improve) if you put them away. Equally you’ll always have something to begin to work on.

Experiment/take your time:

Occasionally

poems only

need a tweak

or two.

But mostly

there’s much

shuffling

and polishing

to do.

Finding the poem’s often the most difficult part: it sounds a little odd perhaps but maybe the first line is buried in the middle, it might even be the only line you actually use in the end. The best words are almost always in there somewhere. Time and practice will tell you where. Try cutting words into strips and moving them around. Take some in and out. When will it be finished? Only you will know. Maybe not even you. I’ve changed poems months, even years later.

Don’t use words JUST because they rhyme: the sense must always come first. Obviously with nonsense or list poems it’s easier to rhyme. But always ask yourself first, would I put these words together for any other reason? If not, don’t. Only use words you really like and would have written anyway. Always be careful to make sure those words make sense and sound natural.

Write about what you know: the best poems come from within, you can write with honesty and understanding then. Even if you are using a persona, use your own experiences of emotions. Recycle your life. It’s what writers do.

Finally read it aloud: to pets, friends, anyone at all. My dogs probably think all dogs have poetry recitals in large fields with an audience of surprised sparrows and passing joggers rolling their eyes and shaking their heads. Why aloud? Well, to know if the words fit. Even poems that don’t rhyme have a rhythm, a tune. If there is a clunk or awkward sentence that falls off the line that’s how you’ll discover it.

So that’s what I do. Of course, there is nothing wrong with any particular way. But if you’re not sure where to start why not give some of these ideas a try?

Sue Hardy-Dawson

Sue Hardy Dawson is a poet & illustrator. Her debut collection, ‘Where Zebras Go’, Otter Barry Books, was shortlisted for the 2018 CLiPPA prize. Sue’s poems and teaching resources can be found on the CLPE website. Her second, ‘Apes to Zebras’ Bloomsbury, co-written with poetry ambassadors, Roger Stevens and Liz Brownlee, won the North Somerset Teachers Book Awards. As a dyslexic poet, she loves encouraging reluctant readers and writers. Her second solo collection ‘If I were Other than Myself’ is out now with Troika Books.

Dawn Finch: “How Much?” is not Offensive

In May 2021 the All Party Parliamentary Writers Group published a document looking at the huge negative impact Covid-19 has had on the incomes of writers and outlined a “ten point plan” for post-pandemic recovery.

In order to create this document the APWG spoke to many writers who were struggling to adapt to careers changed or even ruined by an industry that was struggling to cope. As one of the writers spoken to, I know all too well that the post-pandemic environment is one where we have had to adapt and even face the prospect that we may never be able to earn an income the way we did before.

A Society of Authors survey from 2020 revealed that 65 % of writers had lost income during the first half of the pandemic and testimonies taken during all of this research showed that the expectation was of worst to come.

However, there is light on the horizon and that is the fact that the digital world (that we have all so hastily had to adapt to) is not as terrifying as we expected! Many of us have found out that we can carve a new career in this rapidly growing digital world. Where we once found that any form of digital visit or presence was regarded as second-best, it’s now often the preferred choice of many schools and clubs.

Which brings me to a question that many have been struggling to answer – what do you charge?

Sadly there has been over the last couple of years a huge increase in the expectation for creatives to provide both work and time for free. This is simply unacceptable. In my role as chair of the Society of Authors’ Children’s Writers and Illustrators Committee (CWIG) I have been contacted by countless authors who have felt under extreme pressure to provide their work for free. This is appalling and I grind my teeth every time I hear someone say they were told it was “good exposure”. I always picture someone shivering to death on a mountainside when someone mentions “exposure”, and I always will because “exposure” does not pay the bills.

The Society of Authors is often asked what the “going rate” is for author visits and for your contributions but is unable to offer prescriptive advice about what you should charge. This really is a matter for the individual as there are so many different things to take into account.  However, the SoA does publish some extremely useful and supportive guidance on what to expect and how to negotiate for it.

Society of Authors, Rates and Fees.

I do have specific concerns about the expectations and demands placed on poets. I am seeing an increasing number of poets being asked to do digital readings of their work for no fee. This concerns me greatly because you are effectively being asked to do a performance of an entire work for no fee. To ask this of any creative is hugely unethical practice and anyone who asks it should be aware of that.

The thing that is most important is that poets (and all creatives) should be empowered to challenge. You should all feel comfortable asking for payment and expecting (at the very least) reasonable remuneration for both your work and your time. This applies for events in both the virtual and physical sense and you should not feel under pressure to give your work or time for free.

This is where it is important that we stand together and speak up. I absolutely support people who choose to do some work for free (we all do this from time to time and for the causes we support) but that does not mean you should ever feel under any obligation to do that for everyone.

Some key points to think of

  • Are you the key element of an event where you are also the only unpaid person present? I very much doubt that the organisers of an event are not paying the caterer, or the electrician, or the carpenters…
  • Do the organisers value your work? If so, they should be comfortable paying you.
  • Have you felt under pressure to do the work for free? If so, are you sure that this organisation is acting in an ethical way?
  • Have you made sure to include your travel and other expenses? When you work out what you want to charge, do make sure you’ve included actual income and not just priced to break even!

Ultimately you should always keep in your mind that what you are doing is important. The UK’s Creative Industries contribute almost £13 million to the UK economy every hour*. You are not only vital to the mental health, education and general wellbeing of society, but also a part of a multi-million pound industry that fuels the economy.

Where would we all have been during the pandemic without poetry, music, arts, books? I really don’t want to imagine a world without poetry and for that we need poets, and poets need to pay the bills and eat.

Go ahead and ask for fair pay, as the adverts say – you’re worth it.

Dawn Finch

Dawn Finch is the Chair of the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Groupat the Society of Authors and is a children’s writer and poet.

*Link to Gov document

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uks-creative-industries-contributes-almost-13-million-to-the-uk-economy-every-hour

Roger Stevens: Are Song Lyrics Poetry?

Are Song Lyrics Poetry?

As well as being a poet I am a musician, and I write songs. This year, on the suggestion of my record label, I published a book of the words to my songs, called Lyrics (2001 to 2021). This, of course, raised the inevitable question: Can lyrics stand on their own, can they be poetry? Or do they only really work when they are part of a song, being held up by a good tune?

Two of the world’s best songwriters recently joined the debate. Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 for having created new poetic expressions within the Great American Song tradition. There was, and still is, some controversy over this. But how can lines like

The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face

Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place

(from Visions of Johanna)

or

Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay
You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way

(from Mississippi)

not be read as poems?

Paul McCartney, too, is publishing a book with a title not unlike mine. As well as containing his lyrics, it tells the stories behind the words and about the songs they inhabit. Interestingly, the book has been edited by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon who, himself, has published a collection called The Word on the Street, poems that double as rock songs.

Fans of Shel Silverstein’s children’s poetry are often unaware that he wrote hits for Doctor Hook and Johnny Cash. Many contemporary children’s poets use their guitars, or percussion, to perform poems to music – e.g. Brian Moses, James Carter, Eric Ode. 

Folk singers often draw on the ballad tradition where stories (often about politics or a special event or remarkable person) have become poems which then turned into songs. 

The lyrics of many singer-songwriters stand up very well on their own. I’m thinking Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. And in the rock genre, Patti Smith. I don’t think Dylan set out to write poetry – he sees himself primarily as a songwriter. But the structure of lyrics and songs do have much in common.

Generally lyrics also need their tune. Dylan’s lyrics work well on the page, but come alive when they are sung. The words to Waterloo Sunset, written by Ray Davies, are lovely – Terry meets Julie, Waterloo station, Every Friday night – but they really conjure up special pictures when sung by the Kinks. 

It can work in reverse, too. Many classical poems have been set to music. In German these are Liede; as a collection they are known as a Song Cycle. In more recent times, when I ran a school choir, we found some of Allan Ahlberg’s Please Mrs Butler poems set to music. They sound as brilliant as a choral work as they do as poems. 

Most of us learn some of our first words through poetry – for that is what a nursery rhyme is; and many picture books feature verse. We learn rhythms and rhymes as babies and toddlers and with nursery rhymes this is often set to music. Songs, lyrics and poems are hugely important at the beginning of our lives and we hold them in our subconscious. Music often takes centre stage later on. Some music does not honour or showcase the lyrics but it still speaks to you – but when songs do allow the words to be clearly heard, what really matters is that they move you, through your head or your heart, in some way. Perhaps it’s when the words are as important as the music that the lyrics have become a poem as well as words to a song. 

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.