Pie Corbett: A Profile

As the third in a new series of Poets’ Profiles, we asked

Pie Corbett to talk about being a children’s poet

Who are you?

 Pie Corbett – poet, storyteller and writer, anthologist, ex teacher, Head and Inspector. I run ‘Talk for Writing’ which is an approach to teaching writing used round the world.

How long have you been writing poetry for children?

I started writing my own poetry when I was at school. I met Brian Moses at teacher training college about 43 years ago and we began writing model poems for children.

How did you get started?

Like many poets of about my age, I was influenced by the Liverpool Poets – Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten. Their writing made me feel that I could write something similar… or, at the least, have a go. I read a lot of poetry and had two other influences. Kenneth Koch was an American writer who often used a repeating line such as ‘I wish I was…’ or ‘I used to… but now…’. The poems were very playful and this worked really well in my own writing and in my teaching. In many ways, the total opposite of Koch was the writer Ted Hughes whose writing focussed upon close observation of the natural world and using the writing to capture and celebrate experience. I used his approach in my own writing and in the classroom – we wrote about a stuffed fox, a rusted bicycle, our hands, tree bark, cats, snow fall and so on. As Sally (9 years) said, ‘you have to try and say what things are really like’.

What do you enjoy about writing?

When I am writing, I block out everything else. I love the tussle with words, creating new images or ideas and the way in which something that has never existed before can appear. I always read my writing aloud because I want the writing to flow. I like the way that poetry is a blend of meaning and music. Many of my poems are like diary entries. When I read a poem from years ago, I can remember where I was and what was happening. Poems, when they work, are little nuggets of life and joy that have been preserved. I see them like jars of preserved fruit, sitting on a shelf glowing in the sunlight. Whenever I take a jar down and read the poem, I can still taste the original experience.

Catalysts, Poems for Writing, Pie Corbett, pub: Talk for Writing, only available here.

Have you any poetry writing tips you’d like to share with us?

Like almost every writer, I keep a notebook with me. I raid life for ideas so I am always on the lookout for possibilities. I raid life. When I am writing a poem, I need silence and to concentrate really hard. I keep rereading, as I write, to check the sense and flow and to get the next idea. Three key tips:

  1. Name it’ – it is not a ‘dog’ but a ‘poodle’ – as soon as you ‘name’ the noun, you create a stronger image.
  2. Strengthen verbs – not ‘the dog went’ but ‘the dog bounded’… or ’the dog limped’
  3. Beware of adjectives, e.g. The big giant (aren’t they all big?) – do you need any? Avoid using adjectives that mean the same sort of thing (weary, tired, exhausted, drowsy). Also watch out for adverbs – do you really need to say ‘she whispered quietly’?
Evidence of Dragons, Pie Corbett, Pub: Macmillan

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

My collection Evidence of Dragons (Macmillan Children’s Books) has all my favourite poems. I’ve just published Catalysts – poems for writing’ (available from https://shop.talk4writing.com/products/catalysts-poems-for-writing ) which is a collection of over 130 model poems that can be used for teaching but also by anyone who loves writing. There are some poems in that book that I love – ‘The Dream Catcher’ is a long poem that captures all shades of life.

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

In about 1983, Brian and I wrote a book together for teachers called Catapults and Kingfishers (Oxford University Press) and that helped us both get noticed. Then the poet-anthologist John Foster published some of my poems in the Oxford Poetry series. This helped me to begin to take my own writing more seriously. Rice, Pie and Moses (Macmillan Children’s Books) gave me a chance to put out a selection of poems, some of which have been published in other parts of the world. The collection was by John Rice, Brian Moses and myself. I’ve enjoyed publishing over 20 anthologies; my favourite was The King’s Pyjamas.

Anything else you’d like to tell us?

If you like writing then keep reading, keep writing and bathe yourself in all that life has to offer.

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. 

Brian Moses: Anthologies


I was fortunate to have my first two poetry anthologies published by Blackie, and then Puffin in the early 1990s. However nobody seemed very keen on my third idea for a book which I called ‘The Secret Lives of Teachers’. One publisher wrote to me and told me that in his opinion it wouldn’t sell.

As an ex teacher I knew it would sell, and fortunately so did Susie Gibbs at Macmillan.

She commissioned the book and then handed the editorship to Gaby Morgan with whom I have now worked for almost 30 years. Gaby completely understood its potential too.

The market for children’s poetry was very different back then. There were a number of school book clubs that regularly took books into schools and these clubs bought thousands of copies of ‘Secret Lives’. In fact we wound up selling 75,000 copies (A best seller for children’s poetry then was 5,000 copies) Gaby and I then put together two more books ‘More Secret Lives of Teachers’ and ‘The Top Secret Lives of Teachers’, and later on, bundled them all together into a big volume.

In all editions, over 200,000 copies were sold in total. At the same time Paul Cookson and David Orme were also compiling anthologies which sold in great numbers.

This was a boom time for children’s poetry. Other anthologies which sold tens of thousands of copies were ‘Aliens Stole My Underpants’ and ‘I’m Telling On You – Poems about Brothers and Sisters.’

In 1998 the National Year of Reading gave a great boost to poetry and the anthologies we produced – often five or six a year – kept on selling.

We were criticised of course, by those who were precious about children’s poetry. I remember one particular event at the Society of Authors which Gaby and I attended, where she argued our case passionately in the face of some quite hostile criticism. We both knew that the poetry we were publishing made children smile or laugh – although in every book there were poems to make them think too. They were sold at pocket money prices and introduced children to a genre which otherwise they may not have encountered.

There seemed to be some notion though that if you didn’t introduce children to a poet like Alexander Pope before they went to school, then you were doing it wrong. This was a big part of the reason why children of my generation left school having turned away from poetry, through inappropriate choices at inappropriate ages. 

Getting children hooked on words and how they fit together through humorous poetry, means that they are then more open-minded to other kinds of poetry. They will have already embraced the rhythms of poetry and understood that it could mean something to their lives.,

Today there is a huge interest in poetry through poets visiting schools and through many teachers who are equally passionate about poetry. However this doesn’t translate into sales figures and smaller publishers who are producing some very fine poetry books find themselves struggling.

I don’t know what the answer is, I only know that I was pleased to be a part of that gold rush time for children’s poetry books in the 1990s and early 2000s, pleased to work with Gaby for so long, and pleased to have returned to our roots, as it were, with our latest publication of funny poems.

Brian Moses

Brian Moses has over 220 books published including volumes of his own poetry such as Lost Magic and I Thought I Heard a Tree Sneeze, anthologies such as The Secret Lives of Teachers and the recently published The Best Ever Book of Funny Poems. Brian also visits schools to run writing workshops and perform his own poetry and percussion shows. To date he has visited well over 3000 schools and libraries throughout the UK and abroad.
Blog: brian-moses.blogspot.com Website: http://www.brianmoses.co.uk

Brian Moses: Spooky Writing for Hallowe’en

Spooky Writing for Hallowe’en

A Good Scary Poem Needs…

A haunted house,

                A pattering mouse,

A spooky feeling,

                A spider-webbed ceiling.

A squeaking door,

                A creaking floor,

A swooping bat,

                 The eyes of a cat.

A dreadful dream,

                  A distant scream,

A ghost that goes ‘BOO’

                  And YOU!

The poet Wes Magee and I used to run spooky writing weekends for children. One of them was held in a 14th Century Manor House on the Isle of Wight, another in the old Carnegie Theatre in Dunfermline, and a third at Hellens House in Herefordshire.

Hellens was just what we needed it to be – shutters, faded tapestries, huge fireplaces with roaring log fires, stern portraits, a spiral staircase, minstrels’ gallery, four poster beds, ancient cupboards, loose floorboards and not just one, but two rooms which were supposedly haunted.

Right at the start we paraded the cliches of the horror movies and quickly dismissed them. Nothing was needed but the house itself and the spooky feelings that it engendered. Anything that felt menacing was made more menacing. We gradually built up the atmosphere, layer on layer.

I touched a mirror that was layered in thick dust,

I saw a candle light that was there and then wasn’t.

I discovered a piece of shattered glass

in which I gazed upon what seemed like a ghostly face.

And in the grounds of the house on a dull November day…

I saw a young tree strangled by ivy,

I saw a feather fall and stab the ground.

These were quite ordinary things made to sound sinister using the language of horror with words like strangled and stab.

By starting each line with ‘I’, a rhythm is established without using rhyme, along with a chant-like quality when read aloud.

A similar sort of exercise can take place in the classroom. Switch off the light, pull down the blinds and imagine yourself in the classroom at midnight.

I heard the computer sigh creepily like the wind moaning.

I heard the trees scratch against the window as if they wanted to get in.

I saw scissors snapping angrily…

At Hellens we toured the building seeking out possible spooky observations from each room. A poem then followed a pattern:

             We went on a ghost hunt.

             We looked into the drawing room.

             We didn’t see a ghost but we saw a chess piece move and      

                    heard a snore from a chair.

             We climbed the central staircase.

             We didn’t see a ghost but a hand passed my shoulder and

                     a guitar was lightly dusted.

Children then described the resident ghost? Where it dwelt, how it revealed itself, how it moved and what its hopes and fears might be…

               His cold lonely face

               Begs for company

               For fear he would be alone for eternity.

These ideas can also be adapted for classroom use with children remembering spooky places that they have visited in the past.

Finally, consider how the writing should be performed. Some pieces can be made more effective through the use of percussion instruments – the slow beat of a drum between each line, the low notes on a piano. Someone with a keyboard and/or computer skills may be able to compose a suitably spooky backing track against which a poem could be read.

Remember too that the voice is also an effective instrument and that menacing feeling in the writing must come across in the reading for the listener to be completely involved.

Brian Moses

Brian Moses is a children’s poet. He has toured his poetry and percussion show around schools, libraries, theatres and festivals in the UK and Europe for the past thirty-two years. Lost Magic: The Very Best of Brian Moses is available from Macmillan and his widely performed poem Walking With My Iguana is now a picture book from Troika Books. A new anthology, The Best Ever Book of Funny Poems will be published by Macmillan in March 2021.