Joshua Seigal: Poets and Social Media

With Twitter in the news a lot lately, and having been an avid Twitter-botherer for the last decade or so, I thought now might be a good time to share some reflections regarding my experience of the platform. These reflections are personal, but they might nonetheless be relatable to those of my fellow poets who are on social media.

For me, Twitter has been an indispensable way of making connections with other poets, as well as with teachers and other educators. As a consequence of this, I have been able to develop my network of contacts, and to get a good deal of paid work. As an introvert, Twitter has also been an extremely useful way of putting myself ‘out there’ in a way that feels manageable to me, and in a way that I wouldn’t be able to do in a room full of actual, physical people. It has given me the chance to say what I want to say, and also to delete it a few moments later. One can’t do that at a party!

Twitter has also been a highly useful way of garnering an audience for my poems. If I write a poem that I deem to be half decent, I will stick it on Twitter and see what kind of reception it gets. The level of response can be a useful barometer for whether or not a poem actually is any good, and can thus serve as a kind of informal feedback. Many poets might justifiably be hesitant to give their work away for free, but I look at it as being akin to a free sample, like those mini blocks of cheese with cocktail sticks you get at the supermarket – if someone likes a poem, they might be more likely to go and buy some of my books.

However, there is definitely a sinister side to social media, and as a poet this affects me in both a personal and professional capacity. Twitter is a great way of putting myself in the shop window, but sometimes it seems as though tweeting, and accruing likes and retweets, is the driving force behind the production of the poems. I can find myself writing with one eye on producing good work, but with the other eye keenly on how and when to put it out on the socials. I sometimes fall into the trap of measuring my self worth in terms of what kind of response my work gets, and if a piece doesn’t get the reception I think it ‘deserves’, well, I don’t lose sleep but it can often be a huge downer. One time I wrote a poem that, for personal reasons, I knew I could never put online at all. This almost made the poem feel worthless, which of course should not be the case.

There is also the dangerously addictive dopamine hit whenever someone follows me, or whenever a poem does get a response. This feels good, but is it a substitute for a real, physical social interaction? Is it as useful as actual money in the bank? Of course not. But sometimes social media can make it feel as though it is. It has the tendency to warp our perception of reality, and if we are not careful we may find ourselves living in a simulacrum.

What advice would I give to fellow poets, then? I would say to embrace social media (I use Twitter mainly, but obviously there are many options) but with extreme caution, lest your social, spiritual and creative wellbeing suffer.

Joshua Seigal

Joshua Seigal is an internationally renowned poet, performer and educator. His first book with Bloomsbury, I Don’t Like Poetry, was nominated for the Laugh Out Loud Book Awards in 2017, an award Joshua subsequently won in 2020. Joshua was also the recipient of The People’s Book Prize in 2022, and has performed at schools and festivals around the world

Please visit his website: www.joshuaseigal.co.uk, and FOLLOW HIM ON TWITTER: @joshuaseigal

Philip Gross: Outside In

There’s a child at the back of the class. I don’t know who. But at some point in this poetry session, as if a sash window has slid open, clunk, a snatch of a poem we’re reading will blow in, inside them, and take root. They might not even notice. But thirty years later they’ll find it there, a memory, a sudden feeling of a possibility: yes, I could put words together like that. Somebody’s life will be changed.

No evaluation form will pick this up. The visiting poet may go home feeling pleased to hear the laugh at a punchline, or, in a sad one, the quiet sigh. Meanwhile, somewhere, a seed of the culture has been passed on.

I trust this. I can’t prove it, except to say I was that child at the back, the one who didn’t speak out loud, who would have shrunk to a quivering blob of himself if everyone’s attention had turned to him. That’s still who I write for when I write a children’s poem.

Poetry written for young people can do many things, from the most extrovert, bonding a roomful of children into a single response, to the most private. It can whisper a reminder of a birthright, one under threat in this performative, social-media-skilled age, which easily tips into scorn for the ‘sad’, the introverted – their right to their own inwardness.

There’s a room in my house where nobody goes

            except me:

a still room, a light room,

            a where-I-go-to-write room,

an any-day, any-time, a middle-of-the-night room,

     a feeling-low-and-slow or a high-as-a-kite room.

                                                                 Feel free!

There’s a room in my house where nobody goes.

There are cupboards and corners that nobody knows

            inside me.

The memory I treasure most out of forty-odd years of creative workshops is almost silent. A group of twenty middle school students have been exploring the gardens of Northcourt, on the Isle of Wight, moving between writing and visual art to capture the spirit of the place. The weekend’s theme is inside out/outside in. We pause; now is the time to let it sink in.

We’ve got hold of a forty-metre bolt of muslin from a local scrap store. The group sits down on the grass, in a slightly distanced line, and lift the fabric gently over their heads. This becomes a private space. They aren’t hidden – they can see out, they can lift the fabric aside any time they like. But a quietness spreads through us all. Birdsong sounds louder. And for longer than you’d dream of asking a class to be silent, nobody stirs. The poems they wrote after that were not self-centred. They were full of vivid impressions of the world around them… which also, as poetry does, caught honest sharp reflections of the children’s lives. At the end of the day, asked What was the most memorable thing?  child after child wrote The snake!

That magic happened because all of us were there as writers. They were readers too, but also finding how it felt to choose between that word, that line, that effect. Test this out for yourselves, doesn’t young people’s appetite for poems with nuance and subtlety, with layers to unpick, go up by leaps and bounds the moment they step from consumer (thumbs up, thumbs down, reach for the remote, flick channel) to creator mode? In poetry as in sport, the richest experience gets laid down when we feel like participants.

There’s the paradox – our inner spaces are where we’re at our most engaged. That outside-in place belongs to all of us. And it’s where poetry lives.

Philip Gross

Philip Gross has seen his poetry for adults and for young people as all of a piece through 40 years and some 25 collections. He won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2009 and a Cholmondeley Award in 2017, while children’s collections from Manifold Manor (1989) onwards have won the Signal Award and the CLPE Poetry Award, and he chaired the judging panel for this year’s CLiPPA. There have also been 10 novels for young people and a few librettos along the way. He is a keen collaborator – e.g. with artist Valerie Coffin Price on A Fold In The River (2015) and with scientists on the CLiPPA-shortlisted Dark Sky Park (2018). www.philipgross.co.uk

Laura Mucha: The Belonging of Books

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the fact that people in power often don’t prioritise the needs of children.

HOW are school libraries NOT a statutory requirement?! HOW is CAMHS so pitifully underfunded? Given we live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, HOW are we also one of most unequal?

I was having one of these moments when UNICEF got in touch. Having worked with them on a YouTube series exploring the science of love in childhood, they asked me to write a poem-film on the subject.

The science of love in childhood. Summarised. In a poem.

My initial reaction was AHRGAHRGAHRGHAGRHAGRHAGRAHR.

I’m comfortable being asked to write poems about specific subjects. I’ve done it enough now that I have faith I can do it – even if it does take five reject poems before I write (and rewrite and rewrite) one I’m actually happy with.

But this was a BIG ask.

So I immediately emailed the very brilliant Robbie Duschinsky at Cambridge University, the consultant on a book I’m writing for adults about attachment theory. And Robbie emailed fellow world-leading thinkers and researchers on the subject. My question for them was – which images do you think best describe love in childhood?

(Full disclosure – I didn’t technically use the word love. I used the phrase ‘secure attachment’. According to his family, John Bowlby, the founder of attachment theory, wanted to use the word ‘love’ but didn’t as he was worried the scientific community wouldn’t like it… So love feels like an acceptable shorthand for what is an incredibly complex theory of human development.)

The world leading experts talked about the importance of feeling received, welcome, accepted – and suggested images including: the feeling of a parents’ hand around yours; being folded into a huge hug; bandaging a hurt knee; being helped across stepping stones; and reading a book together.

Just to be clear – some of the world’s best thinkers on the subject of love in childhood, people who work in leading academic institutions around the globe and have dedicated their entire lives to the study of the subject, cited reading a book together as an image that came to mind when trying to describe it.

I thanked the academics in a profuse yet professional manner. I finished the poem-film (see below). And I got back to my work with a renewed vigour.

But their words had reminded me of something important that’s all too easy to forget – reading with children can be an act of love.

Through poetry, words, and books, we can help young people make sense of what is going on with them and with the others around them. We can give words to things they themselves may not be able to. We can bear witness. Decode. Connect. We can help them escape. Laugh. Learn, imagine, rest. We can block out the ceaseless distractions the world has to offer and devote our uninterrupted attention. We can engender empathy. We can open up urgent but difficult conversations – conversations that say “it’s OK, this isn’t your fault” or “this is important, let’s talk about this” or “you’re not alone”.

In doing so, no matter what is going on with the people in power, through the simple act of reading a poem or a book, we can each take microsteps towards creating a society where all children and young people are welcome, accepted and loved.

Laura Mucha

Laura Mucha is an award-winning poet whose books include Being Me, Rita’s RabbitWe Need to Talk About Love and Dear Ugly Sisters. She writes for young people and adults and has several fiction and non-fiction books forthcoming with Walker, Hachette, Nosy Crow, Audible and Bloomsbury. As well as writing, Laura works with organisations such as the Royal Society of Medicine, National Literacy Trust and UNICEF to improve the lives of children.

Roger Stevens: Making Books

Occasionally we repost a particularly good blog – this week we have an updated blog from a few years ago, by Roger Stevens, all about making books!

Making Books

I know very few poets who do not want their work to be published. Poetry is not the solitary communication with the Muse that it is sometimes thought to be. We poets are driven to express ourselves. We want to tell people how we feel. We want to share our writing journey. We want to show off.

For many of us, particularly those of us who write for children, this desire to share stretches much further than seeing our work in print. We also want to work with those young readers we are trying to reach.

As I often tell teachers when I visit schools to give performances and workshops, we are not trying to teach children how to be poets. We are helping them to improve their writing skills, to write creatively, to communicate and to express themselves, and to enjoy using words.

Of course, we want to pass on a love for poetry and thus motivate young readers to write. And we often succeed, our workshops producing a plethora of poems. And then what? Maybe the children read them to the class, maybe they go straight into folders – often that is it!

But why should these young poets feel differently to we older ones? Perhaps they would like their work to be published, too; to share their poems, not just with their classmates, but with the school, their family and the wider world.

We often see lovely displays in the classroom, in the school hall, in the school entrance hall and even in the local library. But one of the best and most satisfying ways to share poems is to make a book.

So please take note all teachers, but also anyone who has, or knows, talented children who write poetry – parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, family friends. This is a great way to help these youngsters share their work.

I had a residency in a Basildon school for a few years. It consisted of one morning a week for one term with one Year 4 class. At the beginning of one term I announced we would write a book. I gave everyone in the class a free notebook, to start making notes and jotting down ideas. I explained that they didn’t have to share anything in the book if they didn’t want to. It would be private and personal to them. A couple of the children lost their books, a couple wrote nothing, but most of the children filled their books with all sorts of things, just as a ‘real’ writer would. We chose animals as a theme. And each week began working on different styles of animal poems.

Towards the end of the term we chose an editorial team, gathered together the best class illustrators, assembled a production group and lastly a sales team. We aimed to mirror the way a ‘real’ book would be made and marketed. We used the ‘old-fashioned’ cut and paste method. Poems were written on, or transferred to, computer and edited. Then printed. Then, finally, poems were cut out with scissors and assembled on the pages. Illustrators illustrated. We gave the book a title – My Name is Fire, wrote a blurb, invented a publishing house and decided to sell the books for £1 each – the money going to Comic Relief.

My Name Is Fire

The whole process was brilliant fun, the children loved it. There was so much creative energy. They were thrilled with the final product, everyone had at least one poem in the book, we photocopied 100 copies (it was cheaper than printing them). We sold every copy! And the book was a permanent reminder of the fun we had and the creative skills of the class.

I was telling this to a group of children at our local children’s book shop (the Book Nook) and a girl in the audience, Evelyn, aged 9, took it to heart. She went home and wrote a book of her own poems – The Magic of Poetry (illustrated with the help of her Dad, using images from the internet). She sold the books at £1 a time and sold 350 copies for Children in Need. I’m very pleased to say that I have a copy signed by the author herself.

I also love making small books. If I have a class for a day we can go through the whole book-making process from beginning to end. We write a poem. The book is A6 size, folded in half. The text is written on a single sheet of A6 paper folded in half, making four pages. The cover is a piece of A6 card, also folded in half. We write a blurb, invent a publishing house, make a dedication, add a pretend barcode, write a biography and so on. At the end we have 30 or so tiny books, and a whole new class library.

20220629_172014

Making home-made books is not just for children. If you’re an adult writer you can join in too! Either by using the photocopy method or splashing out and paying to have your work published by a small Press. Indeed, there’s a rich and noble history of writers, particularly poets, self-publishing their work. You must just be wary of vanity publishing – publishers who will tell you that your poem is akin to Wordsworth’s best and will offer to publish it (along with probably five hundred others) and charge you an exorbitant sum for doing so.

When I first began visiting schools as a poet, I’d had several poems published in anthologies, but I did not yet have a collection of my own work. So I self-published my own book, Never Trust a Lemon, to take into schools to share and sell. Nearly 25 years and 40 ‘real’ books later, Lemon is still one of my favourites and still sells!

Making books, especially with children, is great fun, and very rewarding for all who are involved.

Roger Stevens

Website for students and teachers: PoetryZone

Twitter: @poetryzone

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.

 

Joshua Seigal: What is Children’s Poetry?

Ah, that old chestnut. Many gallons of academic ink have doubtless been spilled in the attempt to proffer some kind of answer. I say ‘academic’, because a satisfactory crack at the question invites a labyrinthine discussion about what poetry is, and what ‘children’ means, and so forth. What I have to offer here will not be an academic discussion; rather, I will adumbrate some thoughts based on my ongoing writing of two poetry collections, one ostensibly for grown-ups, the other to be marketed to children.

The main thing I am learning is that the boundary between children’s poetry and other poetry is incredibly murky. It can’t really be delineated by an appeal to theme as, in my experience, many adults appreciate poetry that deals with light-hearted themes, whilst children can certainly access poetry that tackles big, deep issues. Nor will an appeal to style suffice: children often love jaunty rhythms and rhymes, but then so do plenty of adults.

One might think that the two types of poetry make use of different lexicons, and that ‘grown up’ poetry uses words and allusions that children wouldn’t understand. This may be true in some cases, but the pair of manuscripts that I am currently working on subverts this expectation somewhat: in the children’s book I go all out with my vocabulary, and the introduction even includes a recommendation that children read the book with a dictionary, or Google, ready to hand. In the grown-up book I very much aim to pare down my vocabulary, and to resist the inclination to use a fancy word where a common one will do. I sort of aim to encourage children to reach for the stars, whilst bringing adults firmly down to earth.

Ultimately, I think that whether or not a particular piece counts as a ‘children’s poem’ comes down to context. Notice how I very deliberately used the word ‘marketed’ in the opening paragraph. In many cases, this seems to be the determining factor. If you show a poem to children, and they get something out of it, then it is a children’s poem. Similarly with adults. Indeed, there are a couple of poems that I hope to use in both the children’s and grown-ups’ books. I know that children and adults might well take slightly different things from the poems, but I hope they will each take something. Here, then, is a poem that appears in both collections.

I Found It

on his desk last thing

on the Friday afternoon, and assumed

it was from his kids, or wife.

Glancing inside, however, I read –

Happy Birthday Jack, Love Mum.

Only then did I see him in a different light,

the crumpled trousers and wonky tie

no longer those of a teacher

but of someone’s child.

His name was Jack and he had a mum,

a mum who gave him birthday cards.

I figured he must have put it there

to remind himself, through the fog

of our cruelty, of the lighthouse of her love.

We, all of us, are children –

I touched this truth and felt it burn

as I snuck from the classroom

out into the sun.

Is this a ‘children’s poem’? Well, ‘[w]e, all of us, are children’; children are hopefully elevated by the knowledge that, poetically speaking, they are no more ‘little’ than adults; adults meanwhile have their ‘grown up’ pretensions quashed. Poetry is the leveller.

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 http://www.joshuaseigal.co.uk for more info.

Sue Hardy-Dawson: What is Poetry?

Perhaps you’re already a fan of poetry? As you’re reading a poetry blog, it’s a fair assumption. However, undeniably, it remains the marmite of literature. Why? I suspect part of the problem is that unlike other models for writing it’s hard to define exactly what a poem is.

It’s true there are many different forms and styles of poetry, as many as poets past and present have and continue to think up. In fact, poetry by its very nature welcomes experimentation and innovation. BUT, whilst it’s a wonderful open field to play for poets, it can feel a bit daunting to those, as yet unconvinced, endeavouring to teach it.

Like all else it requires first and foremost a degree of immersion. Even if you have read and yes reread at least some if not a lot of poems by different poets contemporary and historical, a satisfying definition that fits all models, much less how to write poetry, remains elusive. Add to this an educational zeitgeist of deconstruction and poetry risks becoming a fearfully complex thing. Right?

No, it doesn’t need to be. Naturally, as a poet, I know a fair amount about poetry. Yet, like every child everywhere, almost all I know I learnt a long time after I began writing it. My first poems were largely mimicking poetry I’d enjoyed. I’m grateful my youthful attention wasn’t required to identify similes, metaphors or alliteration. Not, at least, until secondary school and university.

So here’s the thing, poetry needn’t be scary, you can know very little about its constructs and still embark on a joint voyage of enjoying poetry with children. The single most important teaching tool you can bring to the party is a genuine passion. Better still you can experiment and invent your own rules. There are no poetry police or they would have carted me away at birth. So poetry provides endless opportunities for wild creativity. You can arrange it solely by syllable counts, write it rhymed or unrhymed, play with and have lots of punctuation, or none at all. You can mimic other forms of writing. There’s very little a poem cannot be from an epic to a single word.

‘Ah’ you say, (well probably not you, but many teachers and parents I’ve come across) ‘but I don’t like poetry.’ And who can blame you? We’ve all felt dislike for something. The book we dread at bedtime, the irritating song you find yourself tragically humming on the bus. For me it’s competitive sports and computer games. I understand. So, if you aren’t already, can I ever make a poetry fan of you? Well, I believe it’s possible. Familiarity is key and it doesn’t even lead to contempt.

Consider opera, music’s marmite, yet after the world cup who hasn’t found themselves humming Nessun Dorma? If not launching into full-blown song in the bathroom and scaring the neighbours? Just me then? Nevertheless, it proves we can all learn to love new things and, if we don’t have to be experts in Italian or opera to feel opera’s joy, why not poetry?

So if you don’t like or are even fearful of teaching poetry, children’s poetry is a good place to start. It’s accessible and often fun. Don’t let poetry become just an exercise in studying language, though, let contextual osmosis work its magic, learn poems as you would a song. Watch videos of poets performing or go and see one live. Why? Because enthusiasm is addictive and children have inbuilt primeval, adult-engagement sensors. Open their hearts and love – and even understanding – will grow on its own.

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.

Laura Mucha: In the Face of Uncertainty

Here is another look at a favourite, and still pertinent blog from 2020:

I was hit by a car when I was 29. I was left virtually bedbound for years and after six months or so, I found myself writing poetry. Somehow, it was a place where I could process thoughts and feelings, a code that allowed me to access parts of me that were otherwise out of bounds.

I also devoured poems. I read this excerpt of a poem called New Every Morning by Susan Coolidge every day for at least two years:

 

Every day is a fresh beginning;

Listen, my soul, to the glad refrain,

And, spite of old sorrow and older sinning,

And puzzles forecasted and possible pain,

Take heart with the day, and begin again.

In the face of the stress and uncertainty of the global pandemic, I wanted to use poetry to help young people process what was going on and express themselves. Normally I would work face-to-face with them, getting them to improvise, come up with words and lines, vote on changes and perform – but as we were in lockdown, I had to figure out how to do all of these things via little boxes on a screen.

In my first session, 7-11 year olds were coming up with lines like ‘I’m going to use all the bog roll’, ‘get me out of here’ and ‘my dad’s talking about Boris’. It was fascinating to see how the pandemic was impacting them and help them articulate that in a poem. They told me they appreciated the chance to have a voice, collaborate, be creative and learn – and many parents said that this was the highlight of their children’s lockdown.

I decided to run a series of workshops to co-write a thank you poem for key workers. I enlisted the help of a brilliant friend of mine, Ed Ryland, who normally produces some of the best TV on our screens. I advertised free poetry workshops, messaged everyone I could think of – from every school I’d ever visited to friends I hadn’t seen in years – and prepared a Powerpoint outlining who key workers are and what they do. And off we went.

More than fifty young people role-played, imagined being different key workers, thought about how they would feel, what they would be doing, what difference they would make. And they wrote everything down, sharing hundreds of words in a couple of minutes. I collated them all with the help of teaching assistant and poet, Meg Fairclough, then we worked as a group to create a first draft.

I spent the weekend reflecting and editing (filming my editing so I could share this in the next workshop) and asked for comments from my agent, editor, and four professional children’s poets. In the following session, I showed all of this to the young writers and asked them to vote on the suggestions. “It’s your poem,” I said. “Only accept the comments you agree with.” They rejected many… Then we discussed what costumes or props they had, allocated lines and planned how we would perform the poem.

One thousand videos later – and countless emails and calls with Ed and numerous parents – and we had a film. More than 80 children from the UK, US, Australia, China, Italy and Uruguay took part. It had thousands of views in a couple of hours and made its way onto CBBC’s Newsround.

I know I’m a poetry evangelist. But poems are an invaluable way to process and communicate – particularly in times of difficulty. And as difficulty looks like it will be here for a while, I will continue to evangelise.

Poetry is important. And poetry is for everyone. So please write it.

Laura Mucha

Laura Mucha has won two international prizes for children’s poetry (the Caterpillar Prize and the YorkMix Prize) and her poems have been featured on BBC Radio 6 Music, BBC Radio 3, Classic FM and CBBC.

Her debut non-fiction book, Love Factually / We Need to Talk About Love (Bloomsbury) was published last year and Richard Curtis describes it as ‘much better and more useful than my film’. Her debut collection, Dear Ugly Sisters (Otter-Barry Books) is out in August, and her debut picture book, Rita’s Rabbit (Faber & Faber) in 2021. You can read more of her work at lauramucha.com. @lauramucha

Kate Wakeling: On Trusting Difficult and Mysterious Things

I’ll start by saying what I don’t mean. What I don’t mean is that poems for children should ever be wilfully obscure or inaccessible. Or that poems for children shouldn’t ever be wonderfully direct and simple. Or just tell a good joke. All of this is an important part of children’s poetry.

That said, I have this feeling there’s sometimes a certain expectation that poems for children should… do what they say on the tin, or not include anything deemed too mysterious, or not feature words or ideas that might risk seeming a bit highfalutin’ for younger brains – or that they (poems) shouldn’t have a sense of not having quite made up their minds.

As someone who writes for adults and for children, I do of course differentiate in all sorts of ways between these two audiences. I know there are many kinds of ‘difficult’ things (in vocabulary or concept) that would doubtless be unconstructive to include when writing for younger people, and I spend a lot of time making sure that I don’t risk losing a reader across a poem.

But at the same time… the more I write, be it for adults or children, the more I’ve realised how important it is for me not to know exactly what I’m talking about before I start. And I think my most successful poems for both children and adults retain something of this mystery once complete. Poems I’ve written for children called ‘The Demon Mouth’ and ‘Weird Cake’ both delve into ideas and sensations that I still can’t precisely articulate (tenderness, desire, control, self-expression, rage, release?) – and they seem to spark a lot of thought in children.

When I write in this way – i.e. propelled by an impulse that is difficult to explain in concrete terms – I find that the words often arrive in my brain with an odd sort of force. And because of this, when writing this sort of poem for children, I will sometimes use a word that mightn’t be immediately familiar to that audience. I use it because it feels like the right word, in the way that words do in a poem. And I only use such a word if I’m confident that it will spring to life for the reader in this context, but I know it’s still a risk. Yet I feel like it’s right to take this risk on occasion because, for me, poems are there to carry you to somewhere else in all sorts of ways. And if you trust in this process and let the sonic power of each word work its tricks, then it will probably be OK.

It’s a well-trodden reference, but I find Keats’ ‘negative capability’ such a helpful perspective: that good writing is ‘capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. I find it interesting that there’s sometimes an uneasiness about exposing children to ‘uncertainties’ in poetry – that it might be too unsettling or off-putting if a poem doesn’t reveal itself clearly enough in each and every way. Perhaps it’s because we often feel that our job as adults is to provide children with answers. But of course answers are not only what children want or need.

I view poems as a magic invitation (for writer or reader, adult or child) to sit for a while with a question or sensation, and explore it in your own way. Poems provide a space where things don’t necessarily need to be solved or understood in a rational sense. Rather, they’re somewhere you can experience something a little more deeply or perhaps in a new way entirely. They are a place of mystery and knottiness, but also of discovery. And it seems only fair that children should get just as much of this as anybody else.

Kate Wakeling

Kate Wakeling is a writer and musicologist. Her debut collection of children’s poetry, Moon Juice (The Emma Press)won the 2017 CLiPPA and was nominated for the 2018 CILIP Carnegie Medal. Her second collection for children, Cloud Soup (The Emma Press) came out in the summer and was selected as a Book of the Month by the Guardian and the Scotsman. A pamphlet of Kate’s poetry for adults, The Rainbow Faults, is published by The Rialto.

Laura Mucha: Actually, I Haven’t Met My Father

As a child it was hard not to compare myself to people with two parents – EVERYONE else seemed to have them. It wasn’t just the people around me, it was the adverts, books, films, TV programs, French classes where, for years, we were asked to describe what our mother and father did. (I lied. Not least because my French wasn’t good enough age 11 to say “Actually, I haven’t met my father, so I cannot confirm his current profession – or if he’s even alive. But I can tell you about my grandfather, who I call Dad?”)

It made me feel like an outsider, inferior, shameful. While that helped me develop empathy for others, it was also uncomfortable and sad.

I remember one of my teachers telling the entire class that single parent families were inferior to those with two – hers is a common view. But it’s not backed up by evidence. While single parents can fare worse than double parent families, when you account for the impact of poverty, this difference dwindles[1]. Given single parents are far more likely to be poor[2], it’s unsurprising we conflate the two.

Staying single can be a hugely positive choice. I interviewed a father from Sri Lanka who decided to stay single after his wife died in her 40s, leaving him with three children under twelve. “I could have settled with somebody,” Kumar explained, ”but I needed to do something for my children: I had to show fatherly and motherly love because they wouldn’t know their mother’s love. Love [is] what you take on board to your future.”[3]

Dad’s New Girlfriend, Laura Mucha, from Being Me, by Liz Brownlee, Laura Mucha, Matt Goodfellow, illustrated by Victoria Jane Wheeler, Otter-Barry Books

Kumar was right – it is love that we take with us. And sometimes choosing to stay single is the best way to ensure that children feel that love. In some circumstances, children in step-families are psychologically worse off than children with single parents[4]. And in the Harvard Bereavement Study (which followed parents and children for years following their loss), children whose parents dated in the first year after losing their partner had more emotional or behavioural problems (among other difficulties) than those whose parents stayed single.

Albatross, by Laura Mucha, from Being Me, Liz Brownlee, Laura Mucha, Matt Goodfellow, illustrated by Victoria Jane Wheeler, Otter-Barry Books

So why, then, is single parenthood, or any deviation from the two parent family stigmatised? Why don’t we see single parents more frequently and, crucially, more positively in children’s poetry?

In 2020, 58,346 children and young people were asked by the National Literacy Trust whether they saw themselves in the books they read. 37.3% of those that received free school meals didn’t. (The number was slightly lower for those who do pay for meals, at 31.9%.)[5]

Given single parent families are significantly more likely to live in poverty[6] and poverty is linked with lower levels of literacy[7], children in these households are precisely the demographic that we need to support. Surely being able to see themselves and their family situation in the poetry they’re reading is fundamental to that?

Everyone, by Laura Mucha, from Being Me, Liz Brownlee, Laura Mucha, Matt Goodfellow, illustrated by Victoria Jane Wheeler, Otter-Barry Books

Not everyone grows up with two parents. Some only have one. Some have two but one is highly abusive and it’s not safe to stay in touch. Some have none and live with family members. Some live in foster care or institutions.

We know this. We have robust stats that show this represents a significant percentage of children – both here and around the world. And yet, how often do these children see the two-parent family portrayed as the norm, to which they and everyone should aspire? How often do they compare themselves to this norm and find themselves lacking?

How often do they see themselves and their families in the poetry they read?

[1] Treanor, M.,‘Social Assets, Low Income and Child Social, Emotional and Behavioural Wellbeing’, Families, Relationships and Societies, Vol. 5, No. 2, July 7, 2016, pp. 209–228.

[2] European Parliament, The situation of single parents in the EU, Study Requested by the FEMM committee, November 2020 https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2020/659870/IPOL_STU(2020)659870_EN.pdf

[3] I interviewed Kumar for my book, We Need to Talk About Love (Bloomsbury) – Kumar appears in Chapter Fourteen, Borrowed People

[4] Amato PR, Keith B. Parental divorce and the well-being of children: a meta-analysis. Psychol Bull. 1991 Jul;110(1):26-46.

[5] National Literacy Trust, Diversity and children and young people’s reading in 2020 https://literacytrust.org.uk/research-services/research-reports/diversity-and-children-and-young-peoples-reading-in-2020/

[6] European Parliament, The situation of single parents in the EU, Study Requested by the FEMM committee, November 2020 https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2020/659870/IPOL_STU(2020)659870_EN.pdf  

[7] National Literacy Trust, Read On, Get On, A strategy to get England’s children reading.

Laura Mucha

Laura Mucha is an award-winning poet whose books include Being Me, Rita’s Rabbit, We Need to Talk About Love and Dear Ugly Sisters (which won the NSTBA Award for Poetry in 2021). As well as writing, Laura works with organisations such as the Royal Society of Medicine, National Literacy Trust and UNICEF to improve the lives of children.


Joshua Seigal: Poetry and Philosophy

I often tell people that one of the things that attracts me to poetry is that poems tend to be short. In 2011, I completed a 30,000 word thesis as part of my Philosophy postgraduate degree. The thesis was edited down from about 50,000 words. That is not short. Aside from the obvious matter of length, there is the corollary issue of time. One should not underestimate the time it can take to complete a poem, but it is much shorter than it takes to write a philosophical tract. This suits me because I tend to work in short, intense bursts. In part, my deciding to dedicate myself to poetry can be seen as something of a reaction against my previous life in academia.

Another thing I am often asked about is the extent to which my background in philosophy influences my poetry. One can take this at least two ways: do I write about the same sorts of things? And how similar is the writing process? Let’s take each of these in turn. Philosophy purports to concern itself with the deepest questions: Why are we here? What is reality? How can we come to know reality? When I first started to write poetry for children my main aim was to provide a bit of a giggle. This, again, was probably a reaction against having to tackle the ‘big questions’ in my day job. However, as the pandemic has progressed my poetry has certainly taken on a philosophical edge. In fact, I have probably started to think about the big issues with more gusto than I ever did as an academic.

How, though, have I been tackling these issues? This brings us onto the second question, regarding the extent to which writing poetry and writing philosophy are similar. For me, there are huge differences, and it is these differences that attract me to the former rather than the latter. When Philosophers write, they tend to lay out an argument meticulously, examine it from all angles, consider counterarguments, and advance slowly and cautiously toward a conclusion. And the conclusion in any one essay is almost always nothing more than a tiny grain of sand added to the great mound of what has gone before. Indeed, most of the work I studied was concerned with minute details of the big issues, rather than the issues themselves as a whole. I think this was one of the things that frustrated me: Anglophone Philosophers, in what is known as the ‘Analytic’ tradition, often tend to be details people, rather than big-picture people.

As a poet, I don’t look for conclusions, and I don’t progress by way of ‘argument’. I try to open up a snapshot, or a window, through which the big issues can be viewed, however dimly. I proceed by way of allusion and metaphor, or else I simply tell it as I see it; in neither case is the goal to convince someone to adopt my point of view, and in neither case am I trying to add anything to a collective body of knowledge. I am simply adopting and describing a point of view. The point of view might pertain to issues like love, goodness, knowledge and truth. Or I may simply be describing how my cat was sick on the rug. I am pleased I did my time as an academic, and I am even more pleased now to not be doing it. And given that I am not doing it, I am going to leave this ‘essay’ without an elegant conclusion.

(please vote for me in the People’s Book Prize. It takes twenty seconds: https://peoplesbookprize.com/summer-2021/yapping-away/)

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 http://www.joshuaseigal.co.uk for more info.