Michaela Morgan: A Profile

We asked poet Michaela Morgan to talk about being a children’s poet

Who are you?

Michaela Morgan is my name. I am a wordsmith, a dreamer, someone who loves the taste of words. Someone who likes to imagine, find facts, play with words, make up stories and poems – and share them by putting them in books or performing them

How long have you been writing poetry for children?

I have been writing for a long time! My first books for children were published in 1988! They were picture books – but picture books share the poetic qualities of power, economy, and rhythm. In a picture book no words are wasted, every word should count. It’s the same with poetry.

How did you get started?

My first published poems were included in anthologies put together by John Foster and Oxford University Press. After that I had my poems included in many anthologies.  These anthologies were valuable starting points. Typically, I would be approached to see if I could write a poem on a given topic. This provided me with focus and motivation – and resulted in making me much more productive.

There was a golden age when there were lots of anthologies such as The Works series published by Macmillan. These were so valuable, inspirational and helpful. They were loved and appreciated by participating poets, children and their teachers. They still are!

What do you enjoy writing?

I like the first frenzied phase of writing – scribbling down ideas, leaping at words and connections. Then I enjoy the slower phase of polishing – attempting to perfect the writing.

I write poetry, but also fiction and non–fiction. I write for an enormous age range, so my enjoyment of writing is widespread.

Which book was most important in your career as a poet?

Wonderland: Alice in Poetry has a special significance for me. It celebrates Lewis Carroll – particularly his poems. He took and twisted existing verses which children of his time were routinely made to learn and recite – and which were intended to teach them solemn life lessons.

So he took ‘Against Mischief and Idleness’ which starts:

How doth the little busy Bee/ Improve each shining Hour,
  

Lewis Carroll, who had a taste for mischief, turned it into:

How doth the little crocodile/ Improve his shining tail…

I passed the poetic baton on to contemporary poets. Roger Stevens produced his reflections of How the Scary Centipede whiles away his idle hours (playing hopscotch and watching Arsenal apparently). Children reading this book can then pick up the baton and add their poem to the chain.

I wrote my share of contributions to this collection but was honoured to be joined by many others – Roger McGough, John Agard, Rachel Rooney, Joshua Seigal, Liz Brownlee, Tony Mitton, Jan Dean, Grace Nichols, Cheryl Moskowitz, Joseph Coelho, Shauna Darling Robertson, Vivian French, Nicholas Allen, Sue Hardy- Dawson. I would have loved to cram even more poets in, but time, space and budget impose their limitations.

As a lifelong fan of the Alice books, this collection was wonderful for me to work on.

It was particularly powerful for me as I was taking my first steps forward from a period of trauma during which I had been unable to read or write anything. To return to reading a book that had supported and entranced me in my childhood – and stayed with me all my life – was magical. To find poetry friends willing to contribute new poems and to turn up and perform them at the wonderful launch of the book offered consolation, confidence, companionship – and fun. The collection was shortlisted for the CLiPPA – and so featured on the stage of the National Theatre. Who could ask for more? But actually, I did get more. While I was working on the collection, I became a grandmother. Entirely coincidentally, she was named Alice. An historic celebration of Lewis Carroll was also an historic book for me.

Which is your favourite amongst the books you’ve written?

This is like asking someone to name their favourite child! My books are very varied. Some are for the very young. Some are read by adults. Some are fun. Some are poignant. Some will make you think. Others will make you shout out loud and join in.

My favourite book has not yet been published but I intend to collect all my poems and put them into one volume so that at the end of a performance or a school visit there will be the perfect book to buy and take away. That will be my favourite – because it will have all my most popular, loved poems in it.

I’d take it to my desert island and perform it to the palm trees and the parrots. The parrots might even be able to join in.

Roger Stevens: Poetry Forms

There are some very strange and beguiling forms, styles and varieties of verse out there in Poetryland. I’ve always been fascinated why this should be so and how different forms of poetry come about.

Take blank verse, for example. Its first recorded use was by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, in his translation of the Aeneid around 1540. Not so very long after, in 1561, the first play in blank verse, Gorboduc, was written by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville. The work of Shakespeare and Marlowe show how they then adopted and adapted this form.

Shakespeare, ever the innovator, developed blank verse in many interesting ways, using enjambment and feminine endings, for example, as well as using the potential of blank verse for abrupt and irregular speech. In this exchange from King John (3.2) one blank verse line is broken between two characters:

My lord?
            A grave.
                        He shall not live.
                                                Enough.

Believe it or not, one of the oldest poetic forms is the acrostic. The word was first applied to the prophecies of the Erythraen Sybil, of classical antiquity, which were written on leaves and arranged so that the initial letters on the leaves always formed a word. Many writers and poets have had fun with this idea over the centuries. Notably Lewis Carroll in his poem for the “three Misses Liddell” whose names are spelt out by the poem.

My favourite variety of this form is the mesostic, where letters in the middle of the poem vertically spell out the poem’s title. Mesostics were invented by the Fluxus artist John Cage in the 1960s and work much better in the classroom than acrostics, causing children to try a little harder for their poem to make sense and giving a more pleasing shape when written down.

Taking the idea further, there is the horizontic:

hope Or a mirAge, Shimmering In the deSert

This and other unusual acrostics, as well as examples and explanations of many different kinds of poetry, can be found in my anthology Is This a Poem? (Bloomsbury, 2016).

Haiku poems emerged in 13th Century Japan as the opening phrase of the Renga, an oral poem generally 100 stanzas long, which was also composed syllabically. The much shorter haiku broke away from its parent in the 16th Century. And was distilled a century later by the haiku master Matsuo Basho.

the old pond
a frog leaps in
sound of the water

No modern children’s anthology, it seems, can do without at least one haiku – which should really be about nature – or its cousin, the senryu, – which describes human behaviour and is usually satirical.

After having attended a course on writing haiku, as an anthologist I now describe all these types of poems as ‘written in the haiku style’. Proper haiku poems are very complicated beasts indeed and are typically serious. I broke that rule with the very first poem I had published, way back in the early 1990s:

When I write haiku
I always seem to have one
Syllable left o

Roger Stevens

Roger Stevens has published over forty books for children. He is a National Poetry Day Ambassador, a founding member of the Able Writers scheme with Brian Moses and runs the award-winning website www.poetryzone.co.uk for children and teachers, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2018.  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. This year he published his best-of collection Razzmatazz (Otter-Barry Books) to excellent reviews.

Pie Corbett: Surrealist Games

Surrealist Games

     As a teacher-writer, I often use surrealist procedures because, ‘Poetry should be made by all. Not one’. The Surrealist’s first manifesto argued that the imagination should be free; every human was endowed with imagination; through various games and techniques, ‘the marvelous is within everyone’s reach’. These ideals suggest that every child can succeed uniquely, opening playful possibilities. Early on, I used simple approaches such as Kenneth Koch’s suggestion to write about dreams or crazy wishes: ‘I wish I was/ a silver fish swimming in the sunset sea.’ Here are a few games:

     Random Pairs – involves juxtaposition of ideas and words. Play in pairs.

  • Partner A writes down 5 adjectives
  • Partner B writes down five nouns.
  • Put lists together and read.
Partner A – adjectivesPartner B – nouns= new phrase
darkdeliverydark delivery
ravenousfeetravenous feet
softfestivalsoft festival
shinyhorseshiny horse
pixilatedsunflowerpixilated sunflower

     Children MUST combine the words in the order they are written to overcome the desire to combine words into known patterns … clichés. To break this habit, random selection should rule so fresh combinations occur. Lengthen mini sentences or use in paragraphs. Create other constraints:

  • List pairs of words that alliterate:
  • Work in threes to create sentences using adjective+noun+verb;
  • Experiment in fours to produce sentences using adjective+noun+verb+adverb;
  • Try other combinations, e.g. adjective+noun+verb+simile.

     Initial letters and acronyms – in pairs, use initials. Child A lists random adjectives for a given name. Child B lists for the family name:

Harry Potter is – a Hairy Promenade, a Handsome Party, a Helpful Peach …

     Use number plates or acronyms such as BBC, ITV, DIY, UFO, FBI, LOL to create mini sentences:

Adjective Bold

Noun Baggage

Verb Celebrates

     Consequences – called ‘the exquisite corpse’ by surrealists, play consequences to create sentences. Pieces of paper are passed round from child to child using a grid. Remind children about word classes. Control the movement of the papers to avoid pandemonium! Start simply:

DeterminerAdjectiveNounVerb
Ashyeggsneezes

As children become confident in word classes, expand the grid:

Determiner  Adjective  Noun  Verb  Adverb  Preposition  Determiner  Adjective  Noun  

     It is important that the paper gets passed on and is folded over so the next child cannot see previous words. Hence, random juxtaposition creates surreal sentences to tweak:

Those pink axes whisper brightly inside that timeless parrot.

Six snoring keys stay exhaustingly below these cold peppers.

Example from a teacher poetry group run by Talk for Writing trainer, Maria Richards.

Vary the grid with different challenges to include phrases, e.g.

Determiner  Adjectives  Noun  Verb  simile  
Thesnarling, bare-toothedcataloguesimperslike a moss-smothered rock

Liam, yr 5, starts his paragraph with a sentence from the game:

Confused, the pencil lay hidden in the chaos of the desk. Why do they hide me away, while I’m destined to write the stories of their imagination? Why trade me for a pen, when my point is ready, sharp and poised for action? Creativity lies within me.

     Time traveller’s potlatch – what gifts would you give historical figures or book characters? One version we play involves children in trios passing round folded paper as in the consequences game.

  1. What present would you give: I will give you a mute swan’. Fold paper over and pass on.
  2. Without peeking, extend the description: which is slimmer than a mouse’s whisper.’ Fold and pass.
  3. Add on what the gift might do: and can bake buns faster than pastry chef.’

Surrealist games make poetry accessible, build confidence, break barriers and encourage daring combinations.

Pie Corbett

Pie Corbett is a teacher-poet – his collection ‘Evidence of `Dragons’ is used in many classrooms. He has published and edited over 250 books, runs ‘Talk for Writing’ and was made an honorary Doctor of Letters for services to creativity, poetry and social justice by the Open University. He runs online training for teachers and every Monday works with about 6,000 children on @TeachingLive, running writing sessions of poetry, creative nonfiction and story. 

Michaela Morgan: Elite? Effete? Irrelevant?

Elite? Effete? Irrelevant?

There was a time when poetry was put on a pedestal and regarded as either ‘special’ and ‘magical’ or somewhat elite and effete. It’s two sides of the same cliché of course and it’s an attitude that still lingers somewhat – despite poetry slams, raps and the tendency of Building Societies and Insurance Companies to use a TV version of poetry to boost their sales impact.

But poetry has always seemed normal and essential to me. It’s in my blood stream.

 I come from a very un-booky childhood home – a household without books, with never a bedtime story for me. Yet I grew up immersed in words and the music of words.  Educated in an era when religion involved chanting in Latin, one of my early intros to poetry was listening and joining in with the Call and Response of the catechism. Then listening or joining in with chants and incantations –in mystical Latin. There were also oral stories, tongue twisters, songs and jokes – word play.

I loved words. At primary school and later at convent school I went under the radar, doing things just the way I wanted to but never being suspected of being a rebel because I was just so very small and quiet. Like a Very Bad Mouse. So if a lesson was boring (and they so frequently were) I read a book secretly. I know nothing of primary school maths because I spent my time with the Walrus and the Carpenter and the Jabberwock with eyes of flame.

I got through secondary school without playing any of their team games. I spent those sessions hiding behind heaps of other people’s clothes keeping company with Charles Causley and Mr Shakespeare and his sonnets.  I never did learn to throw a ball but I loved to juggle words.

My credo is that everybody loves poetry – they just don’t always know it. There were a few raised eyebrows when I turned up at prison gates… to bring poetry to prisoners. But, with the judicious addition of chocolate hob nobs, my poetry sessions were always hugely popular.

At the same time as I was working in prisons, I was also making author visits to schools – sometimes running the same or similar poetry workshops with sticky infants and tattooed felons. Re-working Nursery Rhymes produced:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall

He fell off and cracked up after all.

All the psychiatrists, psychologists too

Sectioned him off under the Mental Health Act (subsection 2)

In both settings I celebrated National Poetry Day by using Poem a Day collections and distributing poems by birthdates or special days. This provoked much reading aloud, discussion, display, sharing and some illicit trading.

In schools I work to promote reading, performing, creating, illustrating, discussing – and learning about the magic and power of language. I urge schools to read a poem a day for delight – and also to provide models and springboards to enable children to take steps to writing their own poems. In my poetry workshop manuals I provide poems as models so children (and their teachers) share a wide range of poetry and are provided with encouragement and starting points to write their own. 

Teachers need to be captivated by poetry too. They may be intimidated by it or think it’s irrelevant – doesn’t fit their targets. Or it can become reduced to something to fit in at the end of term or on National Poetry Day.

We need MORE poetry in schools, in bookshops, on TV, on posters – everywhere.

At times of anxiety, celebration or grief- at each important stage of our life – we reach for a poem. It is essential. Why?

Because poetry packs a punch and poetry leaves an echo.

Michaela writes poetry, picture books, fiction and non-fiction. Her poetry is widely anthologised and she is responsible as writer, editor or co-contributor for:  

Words to Whisper Words to Shout (shortlisted for BBC Blue Peter Award), 

Wonderland: Alice in Poetry (shortlisted for CLPE’s CLiPPA Award)  

Reaching the Stars  – Poems about Extraordinary Women and Girls (winner of the North Somerset Teachers’ Award) with Jan Dean and Liz Brownlee  

For teaching, she has also written the popular Poetry Writing Workshops (ages 5 to 9 and 8 to 13) published by David Fulton Books/Routledge and recently reissued in a revised and extended third edition.  

Laura Mucha: What Makes for a Happy Life?

WHAT MAKES FOR A HAPPY LIFE?

Just before the pandemic, the Office for National Statistics asked young people across the country what makes for a happy life. The answer? Having positive, supportive relationships and feeling loved.

Little did they know that a global killer virus was about to lock them away from friends, family and teachers, leaving them more susceptible to the health and happiness of their relationships at home. One year on, what do we know about how happy and healthy those relationships are?

People living with children are more anxious and depressed than those who aren’t, according to the Covid-19 Social Study. Unsurprising given parents are more likely to be struggling financially right now, which in turn can be difficult for children. “Finance is really stressful… it can stress the family out and then that can have an effect on the child,” said one young person to the ONS, long before the world ended.

Source: UCL Covid-19 Social Study
Source: UCL Covid-19 Social Study

Many parents are also struggling to balance holding down a full-time job with homeschooling – and it’s not going very well. A significant proportion think homeschooling is having a negative impact on their kids’ behaviour (24%), wellbeing (43%), their own wellbeing (28%) and their job (30%). Perhaps that’s why the current main causes of arguments among couples are children and finances.

Court applications relating to domestic abuse have reached record levels, so for a horrifying number of children, being stuck at home will mean being trapped in an abusive or neglectful situation. Not only is witnessing violence a form of emotional abuse, but those living with parental violence are also more likely to be abused themselves.

If the pandemic follows the trend of other disasters, we’re likely to see a spike in divorces, as well as marriages and births. While some of these will be for the better (e.g. ending an abusive relationship), for other children it will mean yet more transitions in a world that has already been turned upside down and inside out.

Let’s not forget bereavement. Many children have lost people they love – as well the ability to comfort or say goodbye to them, attend the funeral, or get support from friends, family or teachers. Bereavements may also impact their parents or caregivers, who may be overwhelmed as it is. 

If a happy life means feeling loved and having positive, supportive relationships, some children will be living pretty unhappy lives right now. The stats back that up: 75% of teens believe their mental health is worse thanks to Covid. Jennie Hudson of Black Dog, Australia, explains, “All of the factors that we know contribute to children’s poor mental health have been exacerbated by COVID: an increase in poverty, parent mental health problems, overcrowding and/or violence at home, parental substance abuse, and social isolation.”

Of course for some, spending more time with parents or caregivers will be hugely positive – and by having to homeschool their kids, many will get a better understanding of their child’s education and ability. But that’s unlikely to be the case for families under extreme pressure. There’s been a 107% increase in food parcels given to children and 40% of low-income families lack at least one of the resources they need to homeschool. We were one of the most unequal countries in the world before the pandemic – Covid is only making this worse.

Thankfully there is some hope (if you look hard enough). Another ingredient for a happy life, according to the ONS research, is living in a country where children are given a say, a country where their needs are considered by people in power. “They should listen to children,” one young person explained, “because sometimes the children are right.”

Source: The Guardian 

We may not be the people in power, but as children’s poets, teachers, academics and organisations, we’re in a unique position to help children’s voices be heard. And that will only become more important as we start to understand the long-term impact of Covid, both on young people themselves, and the people they love.

Laura Mucha

Laura Mucha is an ex-lawyer turned award-winning poet, author and children’s advocate. Her debut poetry collection, Dear Ugly Sisters was one of the Independent’s top ten poetry books for children and BookTrust described it as “stunningly original”.  She also writes for adults. As well as writing, Laura also works with organisations around the world (including the National Literacy TrustRoyal Society of Medicine and UNICEF) to try to improve the lives of children. lauramucha.com @lauramucha