Pie Corbett: Poems with Constraint

Those who do not write might expect that creativity starts with the blank page. However, writing with constraint, under specific instruction, pattern or imposition, often liberates creativity. The trick is to make sure that the constraint does not limit the possibilities but acts as a way of opening up, providing a scaffold rather like a coat-hanger for ideas.

Whilst I love the ballads of Charles Causley, as a model for writing they provide too sophisticated a challenge for almost every primary child. However, writing a number poem from 1 to 10 which uses alliteration is enough of a challenge to generate writing that demands thought:

One white walrus waggles a weary wand at a wonderful washerwoman.

Two testy trains tried to tackle a tremendous, tantalising tin of tomatoes.

 A moment ago, neither the walrus nor the washerwoman existed but the constraint forced me to sift ideas, dredge my mind for alliterative possibilities and use the underlying sentence pattern to bring something new into being.

Alphabets offer a structure that releases ideas as the pattern is sufficiently simple for everyone to use. This list is based on advice for a hobbit on an adventure:

Avoid alleyways which may appear useful as an avenue of escape but almost invariably are dark, poorly lit and have robbers waiting.

Bridges are usually manned by bridge elves and may have aggressive trolls underneath.

Caverns and caves offer shelter. However, goblins and dragons live underground…

The 1960’s OuLiPo movement used mathematical formula to produce strange and rather dull writing. However, adopting a writing form such as a recipe can liberate. This extract is from a recipe for the desire for beauty by Beth, year 6.

Pick an eyelash from Aphrodite’s lemon hair.

Grab a pair of emerald frog’s legs so you can leap Mount Olympus,

Rip a page out of Tom Riddle’s diary full of blankness and mystery,

Grind the lime tangled vines that reach out from the corners of your room…

Alongside the constraint of a recipe format, another challenge in this poetry workshop was to ‘name it’. This shifts from the general to the particular so that ‘an eyelash from your hair’ becomes ‘an eyelash from Aphrodite’s hair’. It is the difference between, ‘the man got in the car’ and ‘Boris Johnson got into the Skoda’. ‘Naming it’ helps to strengthen an image.

Another popular constraint requires the writer to write a passage and then swap all the nouns or verbs for fruit or vegetables. So that, ‘I woke up this morning, climbed out of my bed and brushed my teeth before running down the stairs’ becomes ‘I appled up this morning, lemoned out of my bed and pineappled my teeth before bananaing down the stairs’ or ‘I woke up this marrow, climbed out of my potato and brushed my runner beans before running down the cucumber’. What fun!

A recent and more challenging idea that I have been playing with involves exploring how one thing leads to another – poetic inevitability.

As a result of dark clouds – snowmen gather at dusk.

As a result of snowmen – no carrots for lunch.

As a result of lunch – empty fridge.

As a result of empty fridge – trip to supermarket.

As a result of supermarket – plastic wrappings in bin.

As a result of plastic – dead dolphin.

As a result of dolphin – sewn sea.

As a result of sea – dark clouds above.

The success of a poetry writing session is not just about an interesting idea, model or constraint – it also hinges around 3 key conditions: a class brainstorm; share write a class poem; and children writing in silence with a time-limit to create a sense of meditative concentration.

Pie Corbett

Pie Corbett’s latest collection ‘Catalysts’ has over 130 catalyst poems that act as models, offering patterns and constraints for writing. Ideal for primary schools and anyone interested in writing. Available from: https://shop.talk4writing.com/products/catalysts-poems-for-writing

Cheryl Moskowitz: Translation as Transportation, Liberation and Connection

IMAGE: Hayley Madden

Translation as transportation, liberation and connection

Writing poetry, no matter what language it is written in, always involves a sort of translation. In the first instance, that is the translation of feeling and experience into words. To translate a poem written in one language into another requires further transportation but the reward is that we gain access to feelings and experiences that might be very different from, or sometimes surprisingly similar to our own.

The verb ‘translate comes from the old French translater meaning to carry over or transport. I like the idea of translating as a kind of transportation. Like moving house, going on an adventure, or being magically beamed from one world to another.

Much of the work I do in schools as a poet involves me in some way as a creative translator. Some translators speak other languages, however creative translation does not require you to be a linguist. In her recent publication ‘Letters on Liberty’ for the Academy of Ideas, translator and academic Vanessa Pupavac says ‘translation is for all’ and suggests that ‘most of us should take up the liberty of translating or retranslating against our habitual language limits and enhance our liberty of expression.’

Freedom of creative expression has been very much in the news recently in the wake of the recent shocking attack on author Salman Rushdie at a NY event where he was about to speak on that very subject. This comes at a time when, one year into Taliban rule, girls and young women in Afghanistan are still barred from attending secondary school.

Everyone has the human right to express themselves, and Article 13 of the UNCRC makes it clear that this includes children and young people. People should be able to express themselves regardless of their religion, culture or beliefs and they may express themselves in all kinds of different ways as long as they do not do so in a way that causes injury or harm to another. What constitutes injury is of course not always clear but artistic freedom depends on that fact that we do not have to agree with, or even like what is being said by another. Indeed, there can be a great deal of value arising from debate and criticism that comes from engagement with ideas and thoughts that might be profoundly different from our own.

Currently I am in the early stages of developing an exciting creative translation project with the Stephen Spender Trust focussing on Ukraine – over the coming academic year I will be running workshops in schools around the UK working with students to produce their own English translations of poetry written by Ukrainian authors for children. I am working together with a Ukrainian translator in Lviv to source texts and put together materials in preparation for the workshops.

It is a delight to be introduced to the range of poetry being read by children at the moment in Ukraine and in particular the poems that the translator and her children are drawn to in the midst of the Russia-Ukraine war. I can’t wait to see the creative translations produced in response by children in the UK.

Creative translation in poetry doesn’t just involve creating new versions of existing poems but can also involve dialoguing with poets and bringing your own perspective to bear on their work as I have done here with the brilliant young Afghan poet Aryan Ashory. https://ypn.poetrysociety.org.uk/features/

Creative translation can also be a way for multi-lingual families and communities to create a new shared language of poetry together. You can see some lovely examples here in response to my ‘Poems from Home’ initiative for the Stephen Spender Trust. https://www.stephen-spender.org/poems-from-home/

As well as raising the profile of multilingualism, enriching the teaching of modern foreign languages at school and boosting literacy, Creative translation in the classroom (CTiC) promotes collaborative learning, develops intercultural interest and awareness and raises creative aspiration. In a world where conflict between nations is rife and cultural differences continue to spark horrible violence and hate between peoples, creative translation through poetry can work to connect us.

Cheryl Moskowitz

Cheryl Moskowitz is a poet. educator and creative translator. She writes for adults and children, runs workshops regularly in schools and is passionate about getting teachers and pupils to write their own poems. She runs writing projects in a wide variety of community settings often working with the most disadvantaged and vulnerable. www.cherylmoskowitz.com

Kate Clanchy: Quarantine Poems

Quarantine Poems


Today I placed my hand

against a window

to feel the warmth of April

and my hand left a print.

Amaani Khan (17)


I’ve never really believed that poetry workshops could be taught online. Tutorials and edits are one thing – they can work quite well on the phone – but for the scribbling, heavy breathing magic that can happen in a group writing together, particularly a group of young people, I’ve always relied on being physically present. In the school where I taught for a decade, Oxford Spires Academy, and where the anthology, England, Poems from a School was created being physically present  meant in the library, after school, seated round the big table and catching passing trade from Year Sevens waiting for their mums,  lost souls on detention and sixth formers filling in UCAS forms.

But when lockdown started, I had to  think differently. Generations of my students were back in town from university, living disconsolately with their parents, or stuck in student accommodation far away, or furloughed from sixth form and missing it far more than they could believe.  I’ve always kept up with my old students, and read their new work, but that has always been, quite properly, sporadic.  Now, though, they were all back in touch, and all at once. So I tentative downloaded zoom, and sent out invitations, and one by one they appeared in Zoom’ shrinking frames: Mukahang, in his first year at Oxford, Sophie, just finishing her MA, Esme, graduated from Nottingham and running her own writing groups, Asima, working for the Rathbones Folio Foundation, dyslexic Aisha, relieved of her A Levels; Timi, back from Portsmouth, Annie, Linnet and Amaani, half way through sixth form. We were all so moved  and pleased to see each other, even postage stamp sized.

And it seemed the poetry workshop magic still worked. We played some of our old games – writing for 1 minute on ‘the rule is’,  creating a list of what furniture, boat, weather, and dog your friend is, completing the sentence ‘I am not allowed to think’. We read and shared, as we always did, a strong, contemporary poem to use as a model – we started with Louisa Adjoa Parker’s ‘Kindness’, from the National Poetry Competition – and then we wrote together for a while, with me murmuring suggestions and prompts.

At this point, I very much missed being able to walk round the table, tap on shoulders, and peer at manuscripts in process. Online though, all that has to be done later, on GoogleDrive. During the class, all is clicks, quiet, and camera phones turned to ceiling. But we still seem to like writing together, because at the end of half an hour, everyone has created something and wants to share it by reading aloud. This is another habit I’ve built up over years in the library. I’ve even taught them to laugh at each other’s self-deprecatory introductions : ‘Opposite talk’ they call at Esme when she says she’s written ‘something prosy.’ ‘Bet you haven’t’.

She hasn’t. No one has. The standard of poetry in this group is stunning. Perhaps because they are more mature, perhaps because they are self-selected – but I think it is also the times. These young people are shut up with their families at the very age when they should be out in the world, enduring the sight of a sunny spring outside their own windows, and they have a lot to say about it. When I put some of the poems on twitter, it’s clear that it’s not just me who thinks so.

Kate Clanchy has published 9 books, most recently the highly acclaimed England, Poems from a School, an anthology of her migrant students’ poems and Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, a memoir of 30 years of teaching in state schools. Kate was made MBE for Services to Poetry in 2019.