Roger Stevens: Haiku, A Love Affair

My first ever published poem was a haiku:

When I write haiku

I always seem to have one

Syllable left o

This was back in 1998. Which makes that poem 24 years old. The only problem is, of course, it’s not actually a haiku.

My love of Japanese poetry began at art college in the late 1960s. I became fascinated with a book I found in the college library – Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps. This ‘collection of Japanese poems and stories’ immediately became a great influence on my writing, as well as on my art and music.

Back then it didn’t occur to me that the haiku in that book didn’t each have 17 syllables arranged in lines of 5,7,5. Later, I realised this was because they had been translated into English from the Japanese. But they maintained the essence of haiku by saying so much, so sparingly. One of the great haiku masters is Matsuo Basho (1644-1694):

The old pond

A frog leaps in.

Sound of the water

When I became a fully-fledged children’s poet, I would include what I thought were haiku in my own collections and anthologies I edited and found the 5,7,5 format great fun to share with children in workshops when I visited schools.

It’s a great discipline and children enjoy trying to fit their ideas to the form. I remember the teacher who couldn’t believe the enthusiasm of two boys in her class, who had hardly written anything creative before, writing verse after verse… because it involved counting.

I often still write poems in the 5,7,5 format. But I now like to, more accurately, describe them as ‘written in the haiku style’.

Because, in 2012, I attended an online haiku writing course, along with Liz Brownlee and several other well-known children’s poets, given by Alan Summers, a haiku specialist who has won awards in Japan for his poems and is the president of the United Haiku and Tanka Society.

And it turns out that haiku are much more complicated than I first thought. I haven’t the space to list all the rules and subtleties of writing haiku here. But to begin with, a haiku must have three elements: a reference to nature (kigo), two juxtaposed images and a kireji, or ‘cutting word,’ which marks a transition in the verse and pulls the poem together. An individual image must occupy lines 1 and 2, with the third line containing the kireji. During the course, I only managed to write one haiku that passed muster:

sky before rain

a Rackham tree

catches a hat

I also discovered senryu – and found these were what I had been writing all along. Because while senryu obeys many haiku rules, they can be about people, or society and are often satirical or funny. I know now that my first published poem was, in fact, a senryu.

I like to think that, along with the mesostic, I’ve done my bit as a poet, anthologist and educator to popularise senryu. I devote some time to discussing these Japanese forms in my book Is This a Poem (Bloomsbury, 2016.)

Is This a Poem?, Roger Stevens, Illustrated by Spike Gerrell, Bloomsbury

I do enjoy the challenge of writing true haiku; so few words say something that exactly catches a moment, an idea or a feeling. A good haiku brings out the sun, just for a moment, on a grey, rainy day.

Roger Stevens

Roger Stevens has had nearly 40 books published: novels, numerous solo poetry collections and edited poetry collections. When not writing, he visits schools, libraries and festivals performing his work and running workshops for young people and teachers. He is a National Poetry Day Ambassador for the Forward Arts Foundation, a founding member of the Able Writers scheme with Brian Moses; and of course runs the award-winning and most excellent poetry website PoetryZone.

A. F. Harrold: Poems For Your Pockets

Poems for your pockets

The human condition being what it is, I like to write comedy.

And life being short, I like to write poems, because they take much less time to write than novels.

Even quite a long poem is shorter than quite a short novel, unless you and I have different definitions of ‘quite’, ‘long’ and ‘short’, in which case I wish you luck with your dictionary and all who sail in it.

Little funny poems are the small change of the poetry world, they fill our pockets and jangle when we run too fast, but we can put our hands in when we’re nervous and turn them over between our fingers. We can practice saying them, make sure we’ve got the words right, mutter them under our breath when it gets too dark.

When I was small there was a poetry anthology in the house called Poetry for Pleasure (Ed. Ian Parsons, (Chatto & Windus, 1977)), and it was filled with long dull dusty poems in olde fashioned writing that I simply couldn’t get my head around, but the penultimate section of the book was titled ‘Epigrams, Epigraphs & Epitaphs’ and most of the poems in there were short.

I love short poems.

Here’s one from that section.

Just and Unjust

The rain it raineth on the just

And also on the unjust fella;

But chiefly on the just, because

The unjust steals the just’s umbrella.

(Written by someone called ‘Lord Bowen’.)

The words were a bit olde worldy (‘The rain it raineth’ sounds distinctly Biblical in age), but I understood what they said, and the fact that they said what they said, and that they rhymed ‘fella’ and ‘umbrella’, made me warm with delight.

Or this:

Upon the Death of Sir Albert Morton’s Wife

He first deceased; she for a little tried

To live without him, liked it not, and died.

(Written by ‘Sir Henry Wotton’, whoever he was.)

Again, it feels solemn and dignified at first, and then you read it and realise all pomposity has been pricked and, whether kind or unkind, true or untrue, there is a joke here, but a joke, not in the punchline kind, but in the sense and shape of its own expressing itself… something subtler and harder to define, but delicious like a salmon and jam sandwich.

One last example from this book:

John Bun

Here lies John Bun,

He was killed by a gun,

His name was not Bun, but Wood,

But Wood would not rhyme with gun, but Bun would.

(Written, of course, by our trusty friend, ‘Anon’.)

It was a puzzle, at first, to get one’s head around – every rule you know about poetry and about tombstones is being broken here, in front of your eyes – metre, common sense, truth… Is a lie really a lie if in the same breath it’s owned up to and corrected? Was this really something on a gravestone or is it just a bit of fun in the book? How do you get away with elongating lines like that without summoning the poetry police down on you?

And how wonderful is the sound ‘Bun would’ to say? It’s up there with ‘cellar door’ for sure.

These little poems are the sort of things that fill up the corners of my brain. I tend to keep them secret just for myself, but they belong to anyone who reads them, without diminishing my store of them – that’s a lovely thing about words, they can be shared. If you like them, take them, let them make you smile when you reach into your pocket on a dark day.

Here’s an extra one from me, for you:

The Dangers of Rock and Roll

Don’t put a rock in a roll,

unless you hate having teeth.

And be careful when rolling rocks,

In case you end up underneath.

From my and Mini Grey’s new book, The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice (Bloomsbury, 2020).)

A. F. Harrold

A.F. Harrold is a poet, performer and children’s author. He has a beard and a hat and enjoys showing off in front of people and hiding at the end of the garden, but not at the same time. His most recent books are The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice, with Mini Grey, and The Afterwards with Emily Gravett.’

Roger Stevens: Sale of Wife

It’s my turn to write this Blog, so I’m wondering what to write. I’m jotting down ideas in my notebook. I could reveal the recipe for Michael Rosen’s Chocolate Cake, or ask why no one seems to want to publish my book of robot poems. But then it hits me. I’ll write about keeping a notebook.

The two pieces of advice I give would-be children’s poets, and to children themselves, is to read lots and to keep a notebook. Writers of fiction, artists, musicians, any creative person – you need a notebook.

I have a poet friend who eschews notebooks. He belongs to the old ‘jot the idea down on the back of a fag packet’ school of writing. But how many of Shakespeare’s sonnets would have been lost if the Bard had used that method? Would we know how to compare someone to a summer’s day? I doubt it.

Random Pages from Roger’s Notebooks

You never know when you are going to hear or see something that will spark your imagination. Have you ever been woken in the night by a great idea, only to find upon waking in the morning it’s gone, forgotten? You need to keep your trusty notebook by your bed. 

You will undoubtedly discover, nine times out of ten, that the great thought you had at 3am is rubbish: an orange table discussing Brecht with a giant turtle was never going to work on the page. But that tenth time, when you see a white chicken in a red wheelbarrow standing out in the rain… well, there you go.

Whenever I’ve been a poet in residence, I’ve always given each student a notebook. You can often find a pile of old exercise books in a school store cupboard.

More random pages from Roger’s notebooks

I tell students (and staff) that what they write will be private. I won’t ever read it, unless they want me to. Their notes will be scribbled ideas and beginnings, not actual poems. Their writing doesn’t have to be neat or the spelling perfect. They can draw pictures or doodles to help, if they like. Their notebook is purely for them to use. But – they must write something every day. Even if it’s just one word.

Not every student will sign up to this. But many children love having a secret notebook and do use it as a creative tool; they see it as a chance to be free of the stress that writing rules can bring. Some brilliant poems have been born this way.

On the Skytrain, Vancouver, BC

A notebook is a very personal thing. I take a while choosing mine. For a few years, Paperchase sold a thick, hardback A5 plain-paper notebook that was a favourite. Then they introduced lines on the page. I didn’t like them. I had to find other makes. Over the last few years, I’ve taken to using a smaller and more portable notebook. Always non-lined. And into that notebook everything goes: ideas for poems, stories, songs, games, shopping lists, people’s names, drawings and my computer passwords (in code).

The first notebooks I came across, as an art student in the 1960s, were the notebooks of Dieter Roth; they had a great influence on both my art and my writing. Most of us will have marvelled at Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, full of brilliant drawings, amazing inventions and notes written in mirror writing.

And finally – did you know that Thomas Hardy and his wife, Emma, noted down incidents culled from local newspapers in their notebooks? One entry, barely three lines long, is headed Sale of Wife. Out of that fragment came The Mayor of Casterbridge.

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.

Zaro Weil: A Glimpse; Adult Poetry and Children’s Poetry

A few years ago, after a talk about children and poetry, I was asked about the difference between adult poetry and kids’ poetry.

A Cheshire cat grin rolled over me. I didn’t have to think twice. ‘There really is none,’ I replied with a smile. ‘A good poem is a good poem is a good poem. Of course themes and language will be different. Age and emotional suitability may vary. But poetry for children is not – at its heart – different from other poetry.’

Let’s take a glimpse at the basics. Just a glimpse.

What is it we expect when we read a poem?

The first thing is simple. There is an invitation. Something in the title or opening line says, Come on in. I have an idea you’re going to like.

Sounds good. We decide not to close the book or turn the page. We read further. The poet is communicating a vision we intuitively like. He or she is talking to us the way a friend might.

Zaro’s Cherry Moon won the CLiPPA Award for Children’s Poetry this year.

From that first invitation a good poem offers, the child is often more than willing to suspend what they already think and allow themselves to be transported into another world. Indeed, kids are often more eager and open than adults to step inside and treat the poet as a new friend.

But the words themselves must also spark magic; the swing and sway of the rhythms, meter and sound need to be dynamic. And feel right. It is the poet’s craft with words which creates excitement and meaning for us. Because our brains buzz and light up when the exact right words both sound great and go together. Like they were meant to be.

As for sound musicality and language acquisition, these are the child’s very own domain; one filled with the joy of rhyme, the thrill of rhythm and the love of onomatopoeia to name a few.

And what is it the poet says to us? Is it clear and sunny enough that we can relate to it? Are the words bright enough in the lines we read for us to ‘get’ it.

Next we ask if this poem inspires us. Do we feel the poet’s unseen presence in his words? Does the poem burrow down to ignite those misty moon-lit thoughts we have but don’t know very well? The thoughts that are deeper and richer than our everyday words and ideas. The ones that allow us to imagine a new way of seeing things.

For imagination relies upon the senses; of what we have seen, heard, touched, tasted, smelled and remembered. A good poem creates the words and sensations that call upon the reader’s personal memory store and then graciously offers up the possibility to re-imagine, re-pattern and re-position the reader’s own understandings.

Children grow in the ambiguity of light and dark. In the bright logic of facts and ideas about the world. But they also grow in the belief that there is something else. Something unknown, dark and uncontrollable. Being close to and accepting the mysterious plays an important role in a child’s development. A child is open to being moved by a poem.

And precisely because children play and because imagination is the currency for this play, a good poem can ignite a child’s mind. And as children are close to both their sensory understandings and memories, a good poem has the potential to fly them into a universe pulsing with possibility.

To finish my reply to the question, I think we all, at every age, respond to the same human impulses; the ones which lead us to better understand and illuminate the world we find ourselves in.

And that is why my Cheshire cat can’t help but smile.

Zaro Weil

Zaro Weil lives in southern France with her husband and Spot Guevara Hero Dog, alongside a host of birds, insects, badgers, wild boars, crickets, donkeys, goats, hares and loads more. She has been a lot of things; dancer, theatre director, actress, poet, playwright, educator, quilt collector, historian, author and publisher. Zaro’s two poetry collections, Firecrackers and Cherry Moon were widely praised; with Cherry Moon being awarded the CliPPA Poetry Award for 2020.

Nikita Gill: Slam!


All poetry is real poetry.

Walk into a room and ask anyone for their definition of poetry.

No two people will be able to give you the same answer. Poetry’s

become the fastest growing art form in Britain and that isn’t just

from traditional poets or from printed collections. It is in no

small part due to the resilient and powerful work of performance

poets and spoken word artists.

When I write poems, I approach the mediums I place them

on with equal importance – whether I put them on a blog, on

Instagram or submit them to literary journals. It never occurred

to me that posting my work in a certain medium would mean I

would then be defined by that medium. This is why I find such a

kinship with performance-based poets.

To define a poet who performs their work as a ‘slam poet’,

and to suggest that ‘slam poets’ aren’t ‘real poets’ is a myopic

misrepresentation of the work they do. There is no such thing as

slam poetry – simply poetry that works in slams. There are no slam

poets, only poets who, with immense craft, have the added the skill of

performing their work in a way that enthralls an audience. One

kind of poetry is not superior to another due to the format it is

produced or shared in.

For years, poetry has been misconceived as an area of elite

literature which is for the privileged few to craft, learn or teach a

certain way. It has been sequestered to the classroom as something

that made us groan as we studied and peeled layer after layer off

Milton’s work in an attempt to understand just what he meant.

But what if there was a different version of poetry? What if we

let it out of the classroom and put it on stage? What if poetry is

remembered to be what it is: the language of fire, fury and freedom?

What if, and bear with me, poetry was for everyone again?

This is exactly what performance poetry is about. It reminds us

of the revolution poetry incites. People from all walks of life flock

to venues or YouTube to watch their favourite poets perform on

stage, using language they can relate to, incorporating humour with

tragedy in an almost Shakespearean way. Slams are an inclusive,

open space, giving poets from under-represented communities a

supportive environment to share their truth, and presenting it in

a format so easily accessible and unpretentious, that people who’d

never engaged with poetry before are finally able to

Slam!, the anthology curated this year, is a manifesto for

change in many ways. It is a manifesto for performance poetry,

the craft and beauty of it and the way it resonates with millions of people. It is a manifesto for

poetry itself, as poets are natural truth-tellers and bring us face

to face with honesty in a time where fact is being dismissed for

opinion. It is a manifesto for compassion and how important it

is in a world that is ever more divided.

The poets in this book are awe-inspiring. Their work is

transcendent, both on the stage and on the page. Without them,

poetry would not be what it is today: empowering, immensely

emotive, approachable, wise, humorous – and all of this whilst

being stunningly and thoughtfully constructed.

As it has been said by our ancestors in

art, let the work speak for itself. After all, poetry is not a luxury,

certainly not in the world we

live in today. It is a war cry – a battle song. And you’re gonna

wanna hear this.

Nikita Gill

Nikita Gill is a British-Indian writer and poet living in the south of England. With a huge online following her words have entranced hearts and minds all over the world. She is a passionate advocate for poetry in all forms and her collection of rewritten Fierce Fairytales along with her latest book of poetry Wild Embers have taken the world by storm.