Pie Corbett: The City of Stars

This game is one of my favourite surreal poetry games. Put the children into pairs. The first pair makes a list of 5 generic places (by that, I mean not ‘Paris’ but ‘city’) or containers (suitcase, pocket, jar, etc.) and their partner makes a list of abstract nouns – without seeing each other’s lists, e.g.

Generic places: city, cellar, beach, cupboard, attic, town, village, house, shop, cathedral, park, forest, planet, pocket, backpack, jar, musical box.

Abstract nouns: wonder, despair, grief, greed, sadness, joy, death, hope, peace, kindness, jealousy, war, imagination, creativity, anger, anxiety, happiness.

The pairs then put their two lists together in the order in which the words were written. This is to ensure that the combinations are random and not influenced by logic. The combinations that work best are the fresh and startling juxtapositions when two ideas are placed together that have never been heard before. It is this unique combination that catches the imagination. If I use my first five ideas from each list, it would produce:

The city of wonder

The cellar of despair

The beach of grief

The cupboard of greed

The attic of sadness

You could then choose out one idea and create a list poem:

In the city of wonder, I saw –

A serpent with eyes of rubies,

A song thrush flying from a golden cage,

A sunset slipping over the darkening landscape,

In the city of wonder, I found –

A scarlet rug, softer than an eagle’s feathers,

A crimson pen nib, sharper than pirate’s blade,

A scintillating canary, yellow as mustard blossom.

James Walker from a Bristol primary school experimented with his year 6 class. He began by ‘banking’ with the children as many ‘colour’ words as possible plus abstract and ‘magical’ nouns. When randomly combined this gave lists of ideas such as:

Velvet shadows

Ebony whispers

Indigo happiness

Cerise laughter, etc

Of course, the sentences need verbs to provide the power and action for the lists of colours and abstract nouns. Five minutes rapid brainstorming gave the class a considerable list. Rapid brainstorming is an important part of teaching writing. The brainstorm trains the mind to generate possibilities. During the writing, the writer than has to select and judge – what makes most impact, what works?

James then used shared writing on the flipchart to work with the children developing magical and mysterious sentences. It’s important to model the writing of a text so that the teacher can develop writerly habits such as ‘first thought isn’t always the best thought’. The task is fun, accessible and inclusive and encourages children to play with words without fear.

The children moved straight into writing independently, drawing on their lists of colours and abstract nouns, extending their own sentences. The class wrote in silence and at a pace.

Sapphire suns created golden shadows whilst an indigo moon conjured up a velvet nightmare.

A cobalt truth floated gently through the captured eternity as a gossamer spell darted violently through the ashen sky.

I asked James what he had learned and he replied:

– all children love being creative;

 – generating and judging ideas;

– going off at tangents / no limits;

– warming up the imagination.

My thanks to James Walker who is a class teacher and ‘Talk for Writing’ trainer. He runs training and development projects: https://www.talk4writing.com/train-with-us/james-walker/

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. During Lockdown, he produced a daily, interactive radio show based on developing children as readers and writers. Each show featured a guest poet or author and all 60 shows are available for free: https://radioblogging.net

Matt Goodfellow: Teachers as Poets

On an actual in-person school visit earlier this year (I know, a rarity, right?), a teacher mentioned she’d spotted how many writers had a background in education. Off the top of my head, I can think of… Jan Dean, Brian Moses, Roger Stevens, Pie Corbett, Coral Rumble, Andy Seed, James Carter, Wes Magee, Rachel Rooney, Me, Sue Hardy-Dawson… I’m sure you can think of more…

So, why, in my opinion, is the teaching profession such a successful spawning ground for writers?

Aspiring teacher-writers are around their target audience all day – they read to them and can see first-hand what they like and what they don’t. There are plenty of opportunities to slip their own writing in – or I certainly did – to gauge reaction.

Teachers enjoy engaging with children. I hated the paperwork, pressure and ever-increasing workload of life as a teacher, but always loved talking to children – having a laugh, hearing what made them tick. It inspired poems…and still does. Teachers who want to write will have their receptors tuned in.

Also, the wannabe teacher-writer will (hopefully!) get to witness in full glorious technicolour those already doing the job – when I was a primary teacher, I was lucky enough to have writers including Jan Dean, Brian Moses, Tom Palmer, Nick Toczek and Wes Magee in school – and watched what they did and how they did it.  Some did assemblies, some didn’t, some only worked with KS2 classes, some did Q+As etc – they all had their own style – and I could cherry pick!

Those with a teaching background will be confident in pitching the level of work they ask children to do in their sessions – and, on a practical level, will have an awareness of how to organise a workshop session: what equipment will all classrooms have? How should a 30min/45min/1hr be structured? How much input is needed in order to get the children writing?

Teaching is one big performance! You can be the finest writer of poetry the world has ever seen – but stand in front of a 3-form-entry infant school, or a 4-form-entry junior school where the streetwise Y6s eye you with the utmost suspicion, and you realise that you have to be able to perform – entertain, engage and hold the attention of children (and the adults sitting round the side!). An audience of adults watching a boring performance will most probably remain polite…. 350 bored 5-7 year olds will immediately let you know they’re bored.

Alongside the day-to-day classroom ‘performance’, teachers will generally have a track record in delivering assemblies, the physical act of standing up in front of large groups of children and being the focal point. This doesn’t come naturally to everyone but those who’ve taught will have had to do it…and will have developed their own style. Even as a class teacher with no leadership responsibility, I was on a weekly rota for Key Stage 2 assemblies (and often had to cover whole school assemblies) – it was a time when the other class teachers stayed in their classrooms catching up on marking etc and crucially allowed me to deliver whatever official message I had to deliver…and then sneak some poems in to get them road-tested in front of mixed ages…what work? What doesn’t? What gets the Y6s joining in as well as the Y3s etc?

No wonder so many writers come from a teaching background!

Matt Goodfellow

Matt Goodfellow is from Manchester. He is a National Poetry Day Ambassador for the Forward Arts Foundation. His most recent collection is ‘Bright Bursts of Colour’ (Bloomsbury 2020).  

Cheryl Moskowitz: From The Raven to The Odyssey

From The Raven to the Odyssey

So here we are, a new year and schools closed again.

As a poet writing for children, I want to know: what it is like to be a child at this time? What is most boring, most interesting, most concerning about the current situation from a child’s point of view? How are they spending their time? What games are they playing? What stories and poems are they reading, and what do they themselves most need to write?

When the first lockdown began in March 2020 I spoke to children directly about the pandemic, about not being able to go to school or see their friends. They talked about their worries and frustrations, their wishes and hopes, and their visions for a corona-free world. I wrote poems in response to those conversations to reflect their experience. Back then the coronavirus was new. Scary perhaps but also different, interesting and maybe even for some, exciting.

Children from Margate class with their ‘Poetry Passports’ at The Beacon, a foundation special school in Kent 

Since then we have been through many rule changes, loosening and tightening of restrictions and at the time of writing, we have just entered a new national lockdown and Covid-19 is no longer a novelty.

The pandemic is not the only thing going on in children’s lives – new things happen all the time. Fresh experiences that need processing. That’s why conversation is so important. To converse means literally to ‘live among’ or to be ‘familiar with’ and it is how we exchange important feelings and ideas. Social distancing puts up barriers to conversation, so we have had to find new ways to converse meaningfully, particularly with our children.

Last Autumn, when schools were in attendance, I was fortunate enough to take part in Pop Up’s SEND Festival, usually a hands-on literature programme for pupils in special schools. This time the ‘hands-on’ element needed to be virtual rather than actual but that was an exciting and interesting challenge.

My first task was to find a way to familiarise myself with the children and them with me, before my online visit. Key to this was talking to teachers about their pupils, finding out about individual quirks. I also made a video in which I introduced myself and set the pupils a task of making a ‘poetry passport’. They had to choose an alias instead of their name, identify a distinguishing characteristic, state a like and dislike, a dream, an ambition, and something they would never do. 

This ‘sneak peek’ I had of the children’s personalities, dreams and dreads enabled me to write a riddle-type poem containing hints of all their identities and proved to be an engaging way to start the session. Having recognised themselves in the poem I’d written, they were much more willing to engage and write revealing and moving poems of their own, even though (or maybe because!) I was on one side of the screen and they on the other. 

When we share a piece of writing or a favourite poem with one another this is also a form of conversation. During these past months I’ve been mentoring a 9-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy in creative writing. It has been revelatory to let these young people set the agenda. The boy, who loves dystopian fiction, led me to ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allan Poe which, with its powerful incantation Nevermore, is a poem about living with loss.

The girl has steered me towards Homer’s Odyssey and we are still puzzling together whether the eponymous hero should be held responsible for so many of his fellow men’s deaths. There could not be two better metaphors for our times. Schools may be closed but children’s minds are most certainly not.

Cheryl Moskowitz

Cheryl Moskowitz is a poet and educator. 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. She serves on the Creative Council for Create Arts and is working with Pop Up on a three-year project to develop creative resources for use in SEN schools across Kent.

James Carter: Growing A Poetry Book

Growing a Poetry Book

From Cars, Stars, Electric Guitars – my first collection for 7-11s –  onwards, I’ve aimed to create each collection as though they were quasi-anthologies – ie with multiple poets – so they’ll have as much variety as possible. When I interviewed Norman Silver he said he aimed to make a collection like a ‘biscuit tin’, so readers could dip in anywhere not knowing what they’d get. Boom! That became my template.

Assembling each collection has been all about engaging, intriguing and sustaining a reader. Overall, I’m after breadth and balance, so I’ll include rhyming verse, as much free verse as I can (too much rhyme and it can get a tad samey), syllabic poems, all kinds – mainly short to medium length poems. I want a range of tones/ voices / themes – some daft ones – but reflective pieces too. As KS2 books will be mostly read by children themselves – unlike EY/KS1 books – I try and ensure that the poems are ‘page’ not performance poems, so they work in the mind’s ear of the reader.

From research I’ve learnt adults dip in and out of poetry books; children read in a linear fashion. Therefore, I don’t want a child a) to know what’s coming next – or b) worse, leave my book and return to a novel. I want them to keep reading. Unpredictability is key! Curiously, I think I’ve always tried to write poems for children that don’t necessarily like verse. I’m not trying to proselytise, even trick them into enjoying poetry, but I like the idea of someone going ‘I’m not into poems, but I like this one!’ I started out as that kind of reader, and only began reading verse properly as I first wrote it 25 years ago. I’m obsessed with words, and poetry (along with non-fiction) is the most rewarding experience I can have as a writer. I l o v e the musicality of verse and equally its philosophical way of saying ‘hey, look at that – but look at it like this..’. I get the idea that children might too.

By the time I’ve sent a manuscript in, I’ll have spent five intense years of writing, re-writing, scrapping (1000+ poems) and crucially, showing poems to other writers for candid comments. Other poets know about the tinkering under the bonnet; what needs further tweaks. Craft is everything.

Otter-Barry Books, Jan. 2021

My latest, Weird Wild & Wonderful, is a ‘best of’, from 25 years of writing. I sent 75+ mainly tried-and-tested poems to my publisher, the wise and unfailingly insightful Janetta Otter-Barry. She rejected 20 or so from those and then we went through a ‘maybe’ pile together. The criteria for this book included what a first-time reader might enjoy, but also which poems had been most anthologised, those that had received favourable comments from children/teachers and those that had gone down well in schools. I included several newies. Some older poems needed tweaks as I am more obsessive about tightness/scansion nowadays! 

The title naturally suggested three sections: Weird contains the lighter, dafter poems, Wild has natural world poems, and Wonderful a brace of quieter poems. I wrote a brand new poem to finish the book. As with all my KS2 collections, I’ve attempted to weave the poems together, with a ‘paper chain’-style thematic/linguistic link from one to the next.

I began as an educational writer/occasional poet, and never thought I’d do one, let alone five collections. How lucky. With this, I’m doubly so – as Neal Layton, illustrator extraordinaire, agreed to do the artwork and did a brilliant job on our book. Cheers, Neal!

James Carter

JAMES CARTER is an award-winning children’s poet, non-fiction writer and musician. An ambassador for National Poetry Day, he travels all over the UK with his melodica (that’s Steve) to give lively poetry & music performances / workshops / INSET days, and now virtual visits too! www.jamescarterpoet.co.uk

Val Bloom: Poetry as a Mirror

Poetry as a Mirror

I was in a school for the first time since lockdown at the beginning of October.  One of the teachers recounted a lesson she’d had with some disenchanted young boys in a former school.  She’d told them they were going to be doing poetry and was bombarded with groans and cries of “Boring!”  So she challenged them.

“I bet I can make you change your mind.”

They were not convinced.

She then brought out one of my books and at the end of the lesson one of the boys came up to her and confessed that she’d changed his mind about poetry. He was now an enthusiast.

I was reminded of an experience I had as a newly qualified English teacher in Jamaica.  I went back to teach English in my old school, where the classes were streamed, with A being the most academically gifted.  One of my classes was 9V.

In the first lesson, I found myself talking to the walls as the ‘children’ who were mostly boys and mostly bigger than I was, jumped on the desks, threw things at each other, climbed the walls and completely ignored me. The second class went more or less the same way.

In desperation I took in a copy of Jamaica Labrish, a book of poems by the late Honourable Louise Bennett (Miss Lou), written in Jamaican.  I stood at the front of the class and started to read one of the poems.  One by one they returned to their seats and sat listening in silence, except for bursts of laughter at the comic sections.   Afterwards, they clamoured for more but, thinking on my feet I said, “No, it’s your time.”

I divided the poem among them and formed an impromptu speech choir.  They were brilliant. So brilliant that I conceived of a plan to enter them in the National Speech Festival.  They won a gold medal and became the toast of the school.  The next year many of them were promoted to the A stream.

A few years later I returned to Jamaica and met one of those young men in Kingston.  He was on his way to the National Gallery where he was mounting an exhibition of his work.

“It’s all because of you, Miss,” he said.

But he was wrong.  It was all because of Miss Lou and her poetry.

Two of my poems were included in the NEAB GCSE syllabus.  Both were written in Jamaican. Sometime afterwards I was performing in Leicester when a young lady approached me.

“I had to come and say thank you,” she said. “For helping me to pass my English exam.”

At my puzzled look she explained that she’d had no interest in English, that she couldn’t understand any of it until she saw my poem. She was convinced she would not have passed her exam but for the poem written in Jamaican.

The common thread in these episodes is that in all instances the children could see themselves in the poems.  So many of my fellow writers have said they started writing because they couldn’t see themselves in the books that were available to them.  It’s getting better, but the importance of letting children see themselves in poetry books cannot be stressed enough.

Stars with Flaming Tails, to be published in January 2021

Poetry helps us make sense of our world.  It’s harder to make sense of a world that’s unrecognisable. When the poem mirrors a child’s experience, the child can place herself in the poem.  Conversely, if she can’t see herself in the poetry books, she’ll feel those books belong to others, but not to her.

Poems are not just mirrors.  They’re windows through which we look into others’ lives, so diversity in poetry benefits everyone.  As well as seeing themselves, children benefit from learning about and understanding other cultures, other experiences.  In order to help our children become well-rounded adults, respecting others, we need to help them look into the mirrors and through the windows of diverse poetry books.

Val Bloom

Valerie Bloom MBE was born and grew up in Jamaica.  She is the author of several volumes of poetry for adults and children, picture books, pre-teen and teenage novels and stories for children, and has edited a number of collections of poetry for children. Val has presented poetry programmes for the BBC, and has contributed to various radio and television programmes. She performs her poetry, runs writing workshops, and conducts training courses for teachers worldwide.

Joseph Coelho: The Form of a Poem

The Form of a Poem

I love poetic form. And I love that the rules and restrictions that make up form also allow for no rules and no restrictions. Poetry can be both restrained and boundless and there is a magic in that.

Most of us are introduced to form via the simple haiku…

Haiku

3 lines

5 syllables in the first

7 syllables in the second

5 syllables in the third

The haiku does a brilliant job of encapsulating the heart of poetry distilling the crash and roll of life into a single moment. When focusing on the haiku you enter into an act of removal, of pruning away everything and anything that isn’t essential, that doesn’t connect or speak to the truth of the moment.

Most of us then next come across sonnets via Shakespeare…

Shakespearean Sonnet

14 lines

4 verses

1st verse, 4 lines with rhyme scheme ABAB

2nd verse, 4 lines with rhyme scheme CDCD

3rd verse, 4 lines with rhyme scheme EFEF

4th verse, 4 lines with rhyme scheme GG

4th verse often contains a twist to the narrative

The sonnet is short enough to be penned in a park, but long enough to allow for a thorough pondering on a given theme, and that Shakespearean twist brilliantly mirrors our tumbling minds, hashing out a theory only to dash it on the rocks of epiphany.

For most of us, a delve into poetic form stops there, we may read a form poem without realising the form it hides such as Dylan’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ which hides a perfect villanelle. Villanelles are tricky beasts with a complex repeating rhyme scheme that needs a subject that merits the revisiting and the developing of ideas.

The sestina is my favourite form – a 7-verse poem where the end words of each line in each verse repeat to a set patten in each verse that follows. The sestina requires even more careful handling and consideration of those repeating words if it’s not to feel forced and clunky.

Working with form forces you to think in a new way opening up unexpected and surprising juxtapositions of ideas and language. It was for this reason that I was keen to feature form poems in my latest book The Girl Who Became A Tree which I’ve classed as a ‘Story Told in Poems’ because ‘verse novel’ didn’t feel right. I adore verse novels, the way they take a reader and invite them to ride a story through a roller-coaster of free verse. But for this book I wanted to keep hold of a core of poetry so that the themes of death, mourning, magic and rebirth could be given space to grow and transform. Very much like the heroine Daphne who, like her namesake in the Greek myth, is turned into a tree but not by her river god father. My Daphne is turned by a foul and sinister creature called Hoc who plans to keep her imprisoned in a dark forest that hides in a library.

Exploring form in this book with pantoums and ballads, rondels and villanelles opened up new ways into the story forcing me to delve deep into the language-worlds of books, trees, technology and memory. I also got to have fun with far simpler forms like shape poems and so I was able to create pictures of keys and trees with words. These poems complement Kate Milner’s glorious illustrations which are themselves poems in picture form.

If you haven’t written a form poem for a while, or at all, give one a go and remember that at its heart poetry should be fun, it is after all a tool for us to play with language.

The Girl Who Became A Tree – A Story Told in Poems, Illustrated by Kate Milner, Published by Otter-Barry Books

Joseph Coelho

Joseph Coelho is a multi-award winning children’s author and poet. His debut children’s collection Werewolf Club Rules is published by Frances Lincoln and was the winner of CLPE’s CLiPPA Poetry Award. His Collection for older readers, Overheard In A Tower Block, appeared on numerous long and short-listings for various awards including the Carnegie Medal. His picture book If All The World Were… illustrated by Allison Colpoys won the Independent Bookshop Week Book Award. He wrote and presented Teach Poetry – a 10-part BBC online series that aims to make the writing of poetry fun and accessible to all.

Pie Corbett: Lists

Lists

The Japanese poet Sei Shonagon wrote list poems. These were collected in ‘The Pillow Book’, about 1000 AD. Lists are a great way to write as you can have a long list or a short list.  Sei wrote hundreds of lists about shiny things, soft things, hard things, worries, things that make me annoyed, sad things, things that worry me, rare things, cats, awkward things, disconcerting things, things that give a clean/ unclean feeling, things that should be large/ short, features I like and so on. The book contains lists, poems and gossip. I suppose it was an early form of blogging.

During lockdown, I asked children on the radio show RadioBlogging to make lists of secret, special and delicate things. Here is a list of twelve things, sort them into two groups – delicate and strong.

Leaf skeleton   Lace    Butterfly wing   Spider’s leg    Eyeball    Fishing line    Bubble    Snowflake     Dried seaweed    Cat’s tail Snake’s kin    Cloud    Rainbow    Electricity     Elastic band

Delicate things are frail, fragile and easily broken. What would be your list of delicate things? Rapidly jot down ideas. This is often a good way to start writing. Gather lots of ideas very rapidly. It doesn’t matter if they look messy. You won’t use all the ideas when you write. Jot them down in your magpie book or writing journal.

Now choose from your list your special ideas. Choose things that only you know about. Look around the room that you are in. Look out of the window. Look into your mind to places that you know well. Try to spot small, delicate things. Make each idea different and choose your words carefully.

Writing tip:  choose things to write about that only you may have seen or noticed or thought about. That way, your list of ideas will be a special way of capturing your life. Try to avoid the temptation of borrowing other people’s ideas. To get ideas look around where you are, look out of the window and then look inside your head at places you know well. There will be hundreds of things to notice. Make each one special by choosing your words to describe them with care, perhaps revealing a unique detail.

© 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. During Lockdown, he produced a daily, interactive radio show based on developing children as readers and writers. Each show featured a guest poet or author and all 60 shows are available for free: https://radioblogging.net

Rachel Piercey: Charles Causley and Endings

Charles Causley and Endings

Like many others, I have spent some of my time during lockdown working through the tottering pile of books I’ve always meant to read. And so, long overdue, I fell head over heels in love with the rollicking and poignant Collected Poems for Children of Charles Causley.

I have a gorgeous, sunset-coloured edition, published by Macmillan and zestily illustrated by John Lawrence. The poems are effortlessly rhymed, mischievous, absurd, thoughtful, intelligent, wondering, steeped in folk traditions, and gently, constructively anarchic. You can find a few examples and a biography on the Children’s Poetry Archive and in this lovely blog post on Anthony Wilson’s Lifesaving Poems.

What I’d like to enthuse about specifically here is Causley’s endings. I think he’s so good at them, and they showcase the many ways you can leave a poem reverberating in the reader’s mind. Causley is famous for his use of form – particularly the ballad – and all his poems are strongly metred and rhymed. The lines march, skip and dance, but they never arrive with a thump at a closed-off destination. Instead, they use form to leave the poem hanging, tantalisingly.

Take the fresh and shivery ghost story ‘Miller’s End’. The poem ends with a revelation, simply rhymed, but the poem is far from tidily tied up. Who is the shadowy Miss Wickerby? Or how about the famous ‘Timothy Winters’ – the poem ends with that most final of words, “Amen”, but the reason that Timothy Winters and the speaker are praying is because Timothy’s future is so uncertain. It’s painfully empathetic:

 

So come one angel, come on ten:

Timothy Winters says ‘Amen

Amen amen amen amen.’

Timothy Winters, Lord.

Amen

 

Like Edward Lear, Causley knows the impact of a repeated line and particularly a repeated name. In Lear’s limericks, the last line reworks the first: “There was an old person of Putney” becomes “That romantic old person of Putney”. The effect with both Causley and Lear is the same: the poems explicitly refuse to shut down meaning or interpretation. You’re back where you started, just with a little more context. In ‘Tell, Tell the Bees’, the first and last stanza are identical:

 

Tell, tell the bees,

The bees in the hive,

That Jenny Green is gone away,

Or nothing will thrive.

 

Who is Jenny and what has happened to her? Who is the new “master / Or mistress”? Does anyone tell the bees? The poem leaves us wondering, but sure of the mission’s importance. The repetition and names also reinforce the folk, song-like nature of the poems.

Many of Causley’s poems are narrative and finish in a highly satisfactory way – check out ‘I Saw a Jolly Hunter’ for a gleeful example:

 

Bang went the jolly gun.

Hunter jolly dead.

Jolly hare got clean away.

Jolly good, I said.

 

But just as often, he delights in ambiguity, as at the end of the eerie, earthy ‘Spell’:

 

When I was walking by Tamar spring

I found me a stone, and a plain gold ring.

I stared at the sun, I stared at my shoes.

(Which do you choose? Which do you choose?)

 

Often when I go into schools, I find that children drawn to writing in form are also drawn to very conclusive endings. Such endings have their place, but it’s freeing to experience how a formal poem can leave a question in the air, too. Most contemporary poems leave themselves open rather than closed, and so Causley’s poems blithely bridge a number of traditions, in the most delightful way. I would recommend him to anyone.

Rachel Piercey

Rachel Piercey is a freelance poet, editor and tutor. She has co-edited three children’s poetry anthologies with the Emma Press and regularly performs her work and runs poetry workshops in primary schools. Rachel’s poems for adults have been published in various journals including The Poetry Review, The Rialto and Magma, as well as two pamphlets with the Emma Press and one with HappenStance. She lives in London. www.rachelpierceypoet.com

Joshua Seigal: Poetry Workshops in Informal Settings

Poetry Workshops in Informal Settings

Most of my working days are spent running poetry sessions in schools. Whilst not adhering to the same strictures as a school lesson, there is nonetheless a degree of formality: children are normally sat at their tables, are expected to be quiet, and are generally overseen by their teacher as well as myself.

However, one of my happiest times as a poet was when I ran a series of very informal lunch clubs at a girls’ secondary school in Newham, East London. I worked at the school as Poet-in-Residence from 2014-17, having initially been placed there as part of my MA at Goldsmiths. The lunch club was attended by ‘vulnerable’ students. These were students who, for one reason or another, struggled in mainstream educational settings. The point of the club was to introduce them to poetry and creative writing, whilst at the same time providing a safe space for them to spend their lunch break on a Wednesday. Students were ‘invited’ to attend, rather than required to, and throughout the years numbers fluctuated. At one point they reached double figures (perhaps because of the biscuits on offer), but there was a hardcore of perhaps three or four students who attended every week.

I normally started off the sessions by reading a poem or two, on a different theme each week. Students could then respond to the poem with their own writing and/or drawing, whilst chatting with their friends and eating their lunch. I began by approaching the club somewhat like a regular lesson: I gave the students specific targets to aim for, and often provided them with models or scaffolding for their writing. However, as time went on and it became clear who was dedicated to the club and who wasn’t, my approach changed. I began reading a poem and then letting students respond however they liked. Sometimes they produced their own poetry, and sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes their chat was relevant to the theme I’d introduced, and sometimes it wasn’t. The whole experience was joyous, and the point of it was the sense of community, rather than any clearly defined written or academic outcomes.

Once the group was really well established, I sometimes didn’t even read a poem at all. I just introduced a concept or a theme, or gave them a sentence to complete, and let the students do with it what they wanted. Here is a poem using the sentence starter ‘Love is’, that was produced by a girl in Year 9 with learning difficulties:

 Love Is

Love is fireworks and butterflies

Love is feelings

Love you can’t touch

Love is dumb

Love comes in different cultures

Everyone loves someone

Love is always red

You can’t see love even if you are wearing glasses

Love is wind

Love is blind

 

Throughout my time running the club, many similarly profound and beautiful poems were produced, and they normally arrived in the absence of the aforementioned modelling and scaffolding. The crucial factor seemed to be the degree to which the club developed that sense of community and cohesion.

So what advice would I give to someone who wanted to run poetry sessions in informal settings? I think the key is that these sessions are best developed across a period of time, so that workshop participants become well accustomed to each others’ company. The second point is related: any written outcomes should be viewed as secondary to the primary purpose of fostering that sense of safety and community. Thirdly, once the importance of these outcomes is deemphasised, very powerful and important writing can, paradoxically, result.

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 www.joshuaseigal.co.uk for more info.

 

Brian Moses: Fire Lit Eyes – Running a School Writing Club

Fire Lit Eyes: Running a school writing club

For four years from 1978 – 1982, Pie Corbett and I were teaching in the same primary school, having previously become friends at teachers’ training college. It was a school that served a large estate of houses on the edge of a town that the railway had abandoned under Beeching. There had been very little thought about what those people who lived on the estate actually needed – no shops, no pub, no community centre. Parents brought their problems into school, argued in the playground or sought counselling from the headteacher.

The children brought their own troubles into the classroom and needed sympathetic but firm management. We discovered that many of the children really enjoyed being creative with words. They had imaginations and grasped enthusiastically at the ideas we presented them with. Our own inspiration came from the work of Sandy Brownjohn, from Ted Hughes manual ‘Poetry in the Making’ and from the American poet and educationalist, Kenneth Koch who had produced a number of books featuring the poetry of city kids. We were also impressed with the work of teacher Chris Searle and his publications – ‘Stepney Words’ and ‘Firewords’ which highlighted writing by children in London schools.

I forget whose idea it was but we decided to invite anyone who enjoyed writing to return to school on a Wednesday evening for extra poetry writing sessions with us. We were allowed to run these in the pre-school playgroup hut where we perched on tiny chairs or sat on the floor and wrote from 7.30 till 9 p.m. For our first session 30 children arrived out of the darkness of the estate. Few were brought by their parents, most just walked to school as they would in the daytime.

Pie and I were able to try out ideas that we might have thought twice about using in the classroom. We were surrealists taking our writing beyond the real with no limits to anyone’s imagination. Often we explored three or four ideas each session and children would arrive the next day eager to show us poems that they had completed at home. We wrote with the children too and shared our ideas. They knew that they could comment and make criticisms about what we had written in the same way that we did with their writing. There was no fear of work being marked or graded and the poems were celebrated for what they were. On summer evenings we wrote on location visiting a graveyard, the abandoned railway line, a turkey farm and a spooky house.

We saved many of the poems that were written and put them in a book that we wrote about teaching poetry. We sent it to Oxford University Press as we liked the anthologies that John Foster had done for them. After three months, an editor from OUP range me up and said they wanted to publish it. That was ‘Catapults and Kingfishers’. We were just in the right place at the right time and they’d happened to be looking for a book like ours. It was, they told us, the first unsolicited manuscript they’d published in fifteen years! And that book launched our careers.

Since those days the school has consistently lounged at the bottom of the league table in its LEA and has been in and out of special measures constantly… but we believed our children were as good as any others. We also had some winners in the WH Smith competition out of some 30,000 entries. ITV also made videos of two of the winning poems.

Recently Kate Long got in touch with me about a writing club that she runs at her school. You can find out more about her work here.

The Able Writers Scheme that I started up in 2002 operates on similar lines. We bring children together from different schools for a day of writing for writing’s sake. The scheme has been successfully run by the Authors Abroad agency for the past eight years and we have over 150 host schools from Aberdeen to the Isle of Wight who organise such days. Information about the scheme and how your school might become a host school can be found here.

The business man Alan Sugar is always complaining that the candidates on ‘The Apprentice’ often lack imagination and creativity. If those qualities are not fostered in schools, then we shouldn’t be surprised at what he says.

Brian Moses

Brian Moses has been a professional children’s poet since 1988. To date he has over 220 books published including volumes of his own poetry such as Lost Magic and Thought I Heard a Tree Sneeze, anthologies such as The Secret Lives of Teachers and the recently published Spaced Out, (edited with James Carter), plus picture books such as Walking With My Iguana and Dreamer.

Over 1 million copies of Brian’s poetry books have now been sold.

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.