Sue Hardy-Dawson: How to Grow Your Inner Poet

Here’s a few things I’ve found useful. Tips, either, collected from other poets or along the way. Hopefully you’ll find something helpful here or interesting – perhaps both.

Read lots of poems by different poets: all good poets read lots of poetry. If you want to write it’s the single most important thing to do. Why? Because it helps you get in the zone, to see new words in context and avoid clichés. 

Be a word collector: when I find new words I explore their use and sound, then add them to the large pile in my head. I’d love to tell you it’s a neat, orderly pile but I doubt it. It’s probably like my bookshelves, three deep with a few balanced on the top. Poets, like all writers, need lots of words to choose from.

Keep a notebook (sort of): all poems start with ideas. It doesn’t matter how you get ideas down. Scribble, text or write on anything you can find. Spelling/handwriting is tricky for me so I don’t worry unless I won’t be able to read it later. I even draw pictures if I’m stuck. I never rub/scribble words out though. Many good things are lost like that.

Write every day/any words are better than no words: If you’re stuck try a free-write, write for a few minutes anything that comes into your head. Our amazing brains put all sorts of abstract concepts together and that’s a really good start for any poem.

Good or bad, never throw ideas away: Why? Ideas sometimes grow wings (improve) if you put them away. Equally you’ll always have something to begin to work on.

Experiment/take your time:

Occasionally

poems only

need a tweak

or two.

But mostly

there’s much

shuffling

and polishing

to do.

Finding the poem’s often the most difficult part: it sounds a little odd perhaps but maybe the first line is buried in the middle, it might even be the only line you actually use in the end. The best words are almost always in there somewhere. Time and practice will tell you where. Try cutting words into strips and moving them around. Take some in and out. When will it be finished? Only you will know. Maybe not even you. I’ve changed poems months, even years later.

Don’t use words JUST because they rhyme: the sense must always come first. Obviously with nonsense or list poems it’s easier to rhyme. But always ask yourself first, would I put these words together for any other reason? If not, don’t. Only use words you really like and would have written anyway. Always be careful to make sure those words make sense and sound natural.

Write about what you know: the best poems come from within, you can write with honesty and understanding then. Even if you are using a persona, use your own experiences of emotions. Recycle your life. It’s what writers do.

Finally read it aloud: to pets, friends, anyone at all. My dogs probably think all dogs have poetry recitals in large fields with an audience of surprised sparrows and passing joggers rolling their eyes and shaking their heads. Why aloud? Well, to know if the words fit. Even poems that don’t rhyme have a rhythm, a tune. If there is a clunk or awkward sentence that falls off the line that’s how you’ll discover it.

So that’s what I do. Of course, there is nothing wrong with any particular way. But if you’re not sure where to start why not give some of these ideas a try?

Sue Hardy-Dawson

Sue Hardy Dawson is a poet & illustrator. Her debut collection, ‘Where Zebras Go’, Otter Barry Books, was shortlisted for the 2018 CLiPPA prize. Sue’s poems and teaching resources can be found on the CLPE website. Her second, ‘Apes to Zebras’ Bloomsbury, co-written with poetry ambassadors, Roger Stevens and Liz Brownlee, won the North Somerset Teachers Book Awards. As a dyslexic poet, she loves encouraging reluctant readers and writers. Her second solo collection ‘If I were Other than Myself’ is out now with Troika Books.

Sue Hardy-Dawson: So You’re a Poet Now

So it’s happened, your first collection’s been accepted and you’re now officially a poet. You’re caught up in the excitement. You’ve read and re-read your advanced copy, wondering what others will make of it. You’re at times euphoric, terrified, depressed and sleep deprived. You count down, weeks, days and on that final night, hours until publication. And then…and then…

Well, not a lot. I don’t know about anyone else but when my first book came out I didn’t expect to be mobbed or to find paparazzi in the chrysanthemums; of course not. But I did think maybe my local bookshop would stock my book. Or did I? Sadly not really. I love a book and as a fan I’m pretty clued up on poetry everywhere.

In fact I habitually go into bookshops and ask them where the poetry section is. Generally at the back of the shop, on a low shelf and not a whole shelf never mind the several I’d love to see. Often it shares space with joke books. Usually it comprises safe archaic poetry, ‘best of’s’, well-known names and the odd big production coffee table book. The assistant, who has little say, looks about uncomfortably, assuring me they can order anything I’d like. However, what I’d like is to browse, to choose from many I fancy or I might as well order online myself. But I digress.

So my book isn’t there. I suggest a launch. They tell me how much they love local authors doing launches. A date’s booked and I’m excited and terrified afresh. More so when, the week before, I find a tiny grey note on the door announcing my launch. So I drum up a reporter, I put the word around and on the day find the shop has only ordered 15 copies and they go in the first few minutes, despite being hidden away upstairs in the shop. So I lend my copies to the shop. A success, the shop-assistant assures me. Normally they sell very few books at launches…

So here’s the thing, I’m not complaining, well not much, but unless you’re a bestselling novelist there’ll be little promotion. It’s expected, as a children’s poet, the bulk of sales will come from schools. However, there’s a plague and a lack of school visits or even schools containing children, which has been disastrous to those expected to do their own promotion. So, like many others, we’ve had to find ways of reinventing what we do. However, I suspect, I’m not alone in finding constantly being in promotion mode uncomfortable and, if I should be, when? How? How often?

So what do we do? We promote and cheer each other on. We talk about poetry, in interviews, blogs and videos. We hope the goodwill grows as we give our time and even our work and writing ideas to teachers. We encourage even children we’ll never meet, because it means much to a child.

Of course it doesn’t always translate into sales, so why else? Well it’s partly about getting word out there about our books. Because, though small, each took years to write and traverse the mires of publication. Each time with dreadful symmetry: we have loved and loathed our work, had it picked apart by others, had hopes elevated and dashed. Yet, also, perhaps, there’s our inner child, one that wants to help others feel joy in something we adore, poetry as a whole. Certainly I want everyone I meet to feel that. But most of all I want to have a slightly less depressing answer to give the next child who asks me, ‘Why are you a poet?’

Sue Hardy-Dawson

Sue Hardy-Dawson’s a poet & illustrator. Her debut collection, ‘Where Zebras Go’, Otter-Barry Books was shortlisted for the 2018 CLiPPA. Her second, ‘Apes to Zebras’ Bloomsbury, co-written with poetry ambassadors, Roger Stevens and Liz Brownlee won the NSTB Awards. Sue loves visiting schools, has worked with the Prince of Wales Foundation, ‘Children and the Arts. As a dyslexic poet, she loves encouraging reluctant writers. Her second solo collection ‘If I were Other than Myself’ Troika Books is out February 2020.

Sue Hardy Dawson: Why Poetry Matters

Why Poetry Matters

I was born into a house full of poetry. Nightly my father lulled me to sleep with the many poems he knew by heart. On long journeys or stuck in traffic-jams we played rhyming games or changed the lyrics to songs and nursery rhymes. Mum too wrote funny verses for family birthday cards. So from an early age I experienced everything from AA Milne to WH Auden. I grew to love each softly spoken syllable; the portent in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the drumming beat of The Charge of the Light Brigade, the gentle rhythms of Night Mail and wistful repetition in Hiawatha. Each night, anew, I marvelled at Tygers and green eyed yellow idols, lamented on Bessy the landlord’s daughter awaiting her highwayman or lost myself in exotic cargoes of stately Spanish galleons. I took them for my own begging for my favourites. Naturally enough, whilst young, I didn’t fully understand them. Nevertheless, I learned to love lyrical words to love their musicality and my father was a very enthusiastic performer.

Eventually, perhaps inevitably, I began to write myself. Like most beginners, I made mistakes, using words that were archaic or didn’t quite fit. However, the more poets I read the more I got a sense of what worked and didn’t. I fell in love with Hughes at secondary school. I went on to read any and every poet I could lay my hands on, I still do. Then I liked poems for many reasons, they weren’t hard to read because they were usually smaller with more white space, yet there was often a lot to understand. Despite my dyslexia I could learn them well enough to risk reading them out. Writing poems too required less stamina and even if I had to rewrite them many times, they were only short and I could keep them inside my head and work on them. Poetry gave me something I could succeed at.

Whilst I’m not suggesting everyone who enjoys poetry will or should become a poet I believe I was very privileged to experienced poetry as few do in an unpressurised joyful way. I remain convinced that even in this multimedia world or in a busy school with all the demands of curriculum, making time for purely enjoying poetry really matters. Well any poet would I suppose. However, apart from being great fun, something that should never be underestimated as a learning tool, there are many positive effects from poetry for all children.

Like music poetry is multisensory, research suggests it lights up our brains in a similar way, triggering emotions, developing brain cells and improving memory. Historically our ancestors exploited this quality to record stories as ballads handing them down for generations long before the general populace could read or write.

Equally this memorizing characteristic helps children to learn new words in context whilst rhythm and rhyme help with pronunciation and stresses.

Similarly, rhyming, assonance and alliteration promote literacy, building phonic awareness and grouping phonic patterns.

Learning and acting out poetry also develops physical and verbal coordination laying the ground for all manner of public speaking or performance skills.

Perhaps, equally important though, I feel, an early pleasure in poetry for its own sake is more likely to lead to a lifelong love. For even those who claim to dislike it often turn to it in times of need; to express and explore otherwise inexpressible emotions. Finally though poetry is not alone in allowing us to walk in another’s shoes it is more open in making spaces for our own experiences and uniqueness in each footprint.

Sue Hardy-Dawson (Sue’s new collection, If I were Other than Myself, Troika Books is out soon.)

Sue Hardy-Dawson a poet & illustrator. Her debut collection, Where Zebras Go, Otter-Barry Books was shortlisted for the 2018 CLiPPA. Her second, Apes to Zebras, Bloomsbury, co-written with poetry ambassadors Roger Stevens and Liz Brownlee, won the NSTB Awards. Sue loves visiting schools, has worked with the Prince of Wales Foundation, ‘Children and the Arts’. As a dyslexic poet, she loves encouraging reluctant writers.