Laura Mucha: You Think You Like Poetry?

You Think You Like Poetry?

‘You think you like poetry? You don’t like poetry…’ said Mrs Flowers.

‘You’ll never like it until you speak it – until you feel it come across your tongue, through your teeth, over your lips, you will never love poetry.’

Her student, Maya Angelou, ran out of the house. But Mrs Flowers didn’t give up – she followed Angelou to the store and said, pointing her finger, ‘You don’t like poetry’.

She continued harassing her student for months until finally, after five years of not saying a single word, Angelou spoke for the first time. And when she did, she spoke poetry. (You can listen to Angelou’s account of her experience here.)

Mrs Flower’s description of speaking poetry made me think of the phrase ‘hau gum’ or ‘mouth-feel’ in Mandarin. It’s usually used in the context of food, but I think it applies just as much to poetry. It’s all very well reading poems silently on the page, but, as Angelou’s teacher pointed out, that doesn’t give you a sense of the texture and sound of the language, the ‘mouth-feel’.

That’s why, when I run workshops with young people, I try to get them to co-write – and co-perform – a poem. The performance is just as important as the writing as they both inform the other. It’s only when you perform a poem that you fully appreciate the tiny signposts the poet has left you in the form of commas, line breaks and white space – and can reflect on the signposts you might use in your own writing.

But often, when poetry is taught in the classroom, the teacher is the only one that performs, while the students sit and listen – at least according to Joy Alexander at the School of Education, Queen’s University Belfast.

Teachers can easily solve this by asking students to perform poems in pairs. When one of Alexander’s student teachers realised her pupils were ‘not at all proficient’ in reading or performing poetry, she found it improved drastically with just a little practice. She also found that the practice was helped by playing the audio of the poems to students before asking them to say the poems themselves. Not only did this help them perform better, but it also made them more engaged with the poem more generally. BOOM!

Even if you don’t speak it, listening can be game changing. Seamus Heaney once wrote that until you had found the work of T.S. Eliot, you had not ‘entered the kingdom of poetry’. But for a long time, he found Eliot obscure and bewildering – until he heard the actor Robert Speaight reading Eliot’s Four Quartets. By listening, Heaney discovered that what he ‘heard made sense’.

That’s why it’s so important to find ways to take poetry off the page. “If your genuine goal is to share poetry,” argued Ariel Bissett, a prominent booktuber at this year’s annual Poetry Summit, “then you shouldn’t just be doing it in print. Print is preaching to the choir. What we need are new readers who don’t yet know that they love poetry.”

Taking poetry off the page and getting it into the mouths (and ears) of young people makes poetry more accessible. And perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising because, as Mrs Flowers said, ‘You’ll never like poetry until you speak it.’

 

Laura Mucha

Audio sample of Dear Ugly Sisters, Laura’s debut poetry collection for children:

 

Laura Mucha

Laura Mucha’s debut collection, Dear Ugly Sisters is out now and comes with a free accompanying audiobook (a sample of which is provided above).

Her debut non-fiction book, Love Factually / We Need to Talk About Love was published last year and Richard Curtis describes it as ‘much better and more useful than my film’.

Laura 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. You can read more of her work at lauramucha.com. @lauramucha

Roger Stevens: The Joy of Parody

Recently I, and several of my poet friends, have been writing parodies. I think because with the pandemic and feelings about the UK government’s handling of the crisis running high, they provide a way for people to vent their feelings and lighten a dark mood with humour. There’s been a parody boom on all social networking platforms.

I discovered parody as a teenager in the early 1960s, when my father brought home a copy of Arnold Silcock’s Verse and Worse that was about to be pulped in the paper mill where he worked. It was full of the most amazing poems and had a big, fat section featuring parodies.

One of my favourites was Sellar and Yeatman’s version of Browning’s poem – How I brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix. The original line is:

I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he; I galloped, Dirk galloped, we galloped all three;

in their version it becomes:

As I galloped, you galloped, he galloped, we galloped,
Ye galloped, they two shall have galloped: let us trot.

There were parodies of nursery rhymes. One I liked was:

Doctor Bell fell down the well
And broke his collar bone
Doctors should attend the sick
And leave the well alone.

 And a real eye-opener was discovering that the poems I so loved in one of my favourite books, Alice in Wonderland, were themselves parodies. The Victorians, it seems, loved writing them.

Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh was a popular work to satirize, not only by Lewis Carroll. There have been many versions over the years. This, by James Payn (1830-1898):

I never had a piece of toast
Particularly long and wide,
But fell upon the sanded floor,
And always on the buttered side.

Even Charles Dickens had a go:

I never nursed a dear Gazelle,
to glad me with its soft black eye,
but when it came to know me well, and love me,
it was sure to marry a market gardener.

Dickens uses parody not just for humour (I love the comedic device of the unexpected non-rhyming ending) but also to make a comment about market gardeners. What was that all about? Presumably readers of the time knew.

So parody has been popular for many years. Pompous people whose views are overblown have always been targeted for taking down a peg or two. Things that are just wrong sometimes need the spotlight of ridicule shone on them. Witness the satire boom in the 1960s and later with programmes like Spitting Image and impressionist Rory Bremner’s TV shows.

Parody has been a life-long preoccupation of mine, both in verse and in music. And I’ve written so many over the years. I remember referencing William Blake as a young teenager with:

Hedgehog, hedgehog burning bright
In the hedgerows of the night…

So when my career as a children’s poet began, in the late 1990s, parody was bound to find its way into my work. I think the first was in The Monster That Ate the Universe (Macmillan), my second solo collection, a poem by Coleridge:

It is an ancient mariner
And he stoppeth one of three –
He stopped the person just in front
Why didn’t he stop me?

Later, I found many poems and verses to parody, such as Kipling’s If, Wordsworth’s Daffodils, Carroll’s Jabberwocky and, of course, nursery rhymes. I don’t think parody will ever go out of fashion, there are so many wonderful poems are out there just waiting to be recycled into something differently meaningful, topical, insightful or downright funny. There is something about knowing the original and then being confronted with it in a different context that is just so satisfying.

Roger Stevens

Roger Stevens is a National Poetry Day Ambassador, a founding member of the Able Writers scheme with Brian Moses and runs the award-winning website PoetryZone for children and teachers, which has just celebrated its 20th anniversary.  He has published forty books for children. A Million Brilliant Poems (Bloomsbury) was shortlisted for the CLPE prize and his book Apes to Zebras – an A to Z of shape poems (Bloomsbury) won the prestigious NSTB award.

Matt Goodfellow: A Poet under Lockdown

A  Poet under Lockdown

During the recent Poetry Summit (online) meeting, there was a discussion around how the poets present had been getting on during lockdown – I didn’t say much because I hadn’t really thought about it.

So I had a think.

Firstly, I’m really lucky that no one in my family, immediate or wider, has fallen severely ill – (my 89 year old grandma did contract Covid 19 but defeated it quickly, escaping with just a sore throat). I’m also lucky to be a homeowner with access to a garden.

Aside from health worries, the over-arching effect of lockdown for me has been financial – which has certainly squashed my idea of a poetry-powered Porsche…

Like many of my fellow poets, the lion’s share of my income comes from school visits. My last paid workshops were the week lockdown came into effect. Up to that point, my diary was booked up until the end of the academic year and I was full-speed ahead promoting my Bloomsbury collection, Bright Bursts of Colour, published in February. As schools closed, so the cancellations flooded in. My wife, Joanna, after months of soul-searching had just resigned from her role as a primary school head-teacher, without a job to go to, not envisaging life as we knew it would grind to a halt. I accessed the government scheme for the self-employed and took a payment holiday on our mortgage – this helped – but there’s no doubt that money worries have been more to the fore than ever before. However, there is food in my cupboards and (ever-shrinking) clothes on my back, but am aware how deep the struggle is for some.

With so many creatives and teachers in effect out-of-work, the first weeks of lockdown flew by in a flurry of people posting online readings and educational workshops. I was one of them. Until, well, I got a bit bored doing them: I’m not good with technology and was therefore reliant on either my 10 year old daughter or 14 year old son filming me – and they didn’t take much pleasure in the self-serving ramblings of their show-off dad… although my son, Will, was savvy enough to realise time filming me was time away from home-schooling!  Happily, during this time, Joanna managed to secure a new job which relieved some of our tension.

Then came a lull in proceedings where we settled into a strange ‘acceptance of lockdown’ rhythm and it was then that I imagined I could re-awaken my muse – lazing in my study (overcrowded box-room), shrouded in silk scarves, notebook and pen in hand, reading and writing.

I was wrong.

I quickly came to realise how valuable periods of solitude are to my writing. And with two children, an energetic 9 month old Golden Retriever – and an unceremonious eviction from my study so Joanna could work from home – there was not much solitude to be had!

I have managed to write poems – just, perhaps, not as many as I usually would. Oh, and I quite like writing in pubs and cafes as well… it’s the people watching, honest!

Matt Goodfellow

Matt Goodfellow is from Manchester. He is a National Poetry Day Ambassador for the Forward Arts Foundation, and delivers high-energy, fun-filled performances in schools. His most recent collection is Bright Burst of Colour (Bloomsbury, 2020).

Laura Mucha: In the Face of Uncertainty

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

 

Chrissie Gittins: Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?         

Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?

‘Where do you get your ideas from for poems?’ This is the question I’m most often asked when visiting schools, festivals and libraries. Ideas come from many sources – conversations, reading, observation, memory, things children say, things that happen, and sometimes simply the sound of a word or its punning potential. An idea catches in my mind and becomes an obsession until it’s written into a poem.

I thought I’d outline a more detailed genesis of a couple of poems – my most recent and an older poem. As you may know April is National Poetry Month in America. NaPoWriMo, or National Poetry Writing Month, is an annual project which offers a daily prompt throughout April. www.napowrimo.net The prompt for Day 22 appealed to me – a proverb from a different language. Websites are listed with possibilities. I chose ‘There’s no cow on the ice’ – a Swedish proverb meaning there’s no need to worry.

I liked its the throw away, surreal quality and it seemed to hook into the current climate. I thought about other precarious animal situations and took it from there.

 

There’s No Cow On The Ice

(Swedish proverb)

 

There’s no cow on the ice,

there’s no horse on the tightrope,

there’s no elephant on the church spire,

there’s no hippopotamus in the pear tree.

 

So don’t worry about the cow falling through the ice,

or the horse slipping from the tightrope,

or the elephant sliding down the church spire,

or the hippopotamus flailing in the pear tree.

 

The cow is having tea in the meadow,

the horse is there beside her with fruit cake,

the elephant raises a cup with his elegant trunk,

the hippo has a custard cream to dunk.

 

The second poem began with a conversation with a friend. She’d visited HMS Victory in Portsmouth and told me about the young children, often orphans swept off the streets, who worked on eighteenth century sailing ships as powder monkeys. They kept the artillery on the gun decks stocked with gunpowder. I was gripped by how frightening this must have been and shocked to discover that before 1794 children as young at six went to sea. I visited the Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum to research further.

The poem won the Belmont Poetry Prize for individual children’s poems. This was especially pleasing as the shortlist was drawn up by teachers and the prizewinners were chosen by thirteen year old children. Coincidentally, after 1794, the minimum age for children working at sea was raised to thirteen.

 

The Powder Monkey

 

This is the moment I dread,

my eyes sting with smoke,

my ears sing with cannon fire.

I see the terror rise inside me,

coil a rope in my belly to keep it down.

I chant inside my head to freeze my nerve.

 

Main mast, mizzen mast, foremast,

belfry, capstan, waist.

 

We must keep the fire coming.

If I dodge the sparks

my cartridge will be safe,

if I learn my lessons

I can be a seaman,

if I close my eyes to eat my biscuit

I will not see the weevils.

 

Main mast, mizzen mast, foremast,

shot lockers, bowsprit, gripe.

 

Don’t stop to put out that fire,

run to the hold,

we must fire at them

or they will fire at us.

 

Main mast, mizzen mast, foremast,

belfry, capstan, waist.

 

My mother never knew me,

but she would want to know this –

I can keep a cannon going,

I do not need her kiss.

 

 

‘The Power Monkey’ is published in ‘Now You See Me, Now You …’, ‘Stars in Jars’ and ‘Michael Rosen’s A to Z : The Best Children’s Poetry from Agard to Zephaniah’.

Chrissie Gittins

Chrissie Gittins has had three of her five children’s poetry collections as Choices for the Children’s Poetry Bookshelf. Two were shortlisted for the CLiPPA Award. She won the Belmont Poetry prize and was a Manchester Children’s Literature Prize finalist. Her poems feature on Cbeebies and the Poetry Archive. She has judged the Caterpillar Poetry Prize and is a National Poetry Day Ambassador.

James Carter: The Poet in the Primary and Prep School

The Poet in the Primary and Prep School

You’re a new children’s poet and want to do paid visits in schools. You’ve got a website, joined an agency like Authors Aloud. What else? You gather a list of schools. You call them up and offer your services. You do mailshots, join NAWE – National Association of Writers in Education – and get DBS-checked.

Teachers/librarians will expect you to have at least one book published – as you’re there primarily to celebrate BOOKS – the reading, writing, performing of.  You don’t need to be the best poet ever but you so need to be able to actively engage/enthuse children. Some poets work with older children ie 7-11s – others like me (I trained as an Early Years teacher) are as happy visiting a Nursery class as Year 6. Perhaps you’re already a teacher/teaching assistant or parent/carer? All the same, offer free sessions – small workshops in a few classrooms, an assembly for a few classes in the hall. Teachers are very accommodating! Don’t be hard on yourself – even pros have tough days, and, over a few visits, find out what works. Crucially, ask teachers for responses.

Make sure you’re not monologuing. Bring it to life – try call and response poems. Try some music (Ukulele? Guitar? Drums? Piano?). Do actions, even live illustrations if you’re arty. Do a Q&A. Modify/ experiment as you go. Go slow. I mean S  L  O  W. My best advice for children is the same as for you: DOUBLE THE VOLUME, HALF THE SPEED. And go for it – I’ve seen some top writers being dull in performance, and some barely published newbies doing some innovative stuff with enraptured children.

Some authors (novelists/picture book writers) do 3 x 1hr talks/presentations. I prefer a whole day and offer –

Half-hour assemblies – Juniors then Infants – always avoid whole school – as 4 yr olds are different to 11 yr olds!

4 workshops around classrooms – even doubling up two classes if it’s a bigger school.

To finish, a BIG FINALE – children reading their poems. Best bit of the day. Children/teachers LOVE this.

Prep schools have labyrinthine timetables and may well insist you are working in the hall/library all day, and you may have to do that. Not ideal, but poets are adaptable bods!

Workshop-wise, why not use a poem as a model, maybe one of yours. Have a range of workshops ready.  Some teachers ask for topic-focused writing – try a cinquain / haiku / kenning / rap / free verse with imagery – on that topic.  My book Let’s Do Poetry In Primary Schools! (Bloomsbury) is crammed with workshops/ideas I’ve used over the last 20 years. And try this fabulous blog – brian-moses.blogspot.com

In the current pandemic, offer Skype/Zoom readings. Do video performances on Facebook. Listen to Radioblogging.net for tips on how to generate creative writing and respond to children supportively.

Other tips? Be modest – teachers are doing a more important job than us poets. Be flexible. And ask for at least a participating teacher in the room. Pace yourself – I’ve heard of poets getting grumpy by the afternoon. Represent your profession well – you may be the only writer those children will ever meet. Respond positively to children’s ideas. Know your poems really well. Don’t dumb it down, you don’t need to do all funnies (I do about 7 poems in a KS2 assembly – 4 reflective poems then 3 daft ones). Don’t be too OTT with Infants – it takes hours to calm them down! Do visits because you really want to, because you love words and you want children to.

James Carter

James Carter is an award-winning children’s poet and  Ambassador for National Poetry Day. He travels all over the UK and abroad with his melodica (that’s Steve) to give action-packed poetry / music performances and workshops. James has visited over 1300 Primary/Prep schools and performed at various festivals including Cheltenham, Hay and Edinburgh. His next collection, Weird Wild and Wonderful (Otter-Barry Books) will be out Jan 2021.

Sue Hardy-Dawson: The Room I Write In and Cathartic Writing

The Room I Write In and Cathartic Writing

Years ago I was asked to write about the room I write in, difficult as I’ve no such room. Eventually, I wrote my room as a metaphor for the many places I’ve actually written. I wrote it on a train returning from London. It was winter, late at night and pitch black outside. I was a bit worried about a number of things, about the journey, missing my connection or my train getting cancelled. The thought of being stranded overnight in a freezing empty station was not appealing so I disappeared into my little world of writing where there was a magical box, doors leading to fields and beaches, warm summer meadows and safe comfortable places. Writing made the journey spin by and hours later I arrived safely back home with a useful piece.  I could have written about my fears of course, but escapism’s ever been my chosen coping mechanism.  Besides I had a deadline and however I felt needed to become my inspiration.

Over time I’ve found reading and writing poetry a wonderful escape in times of stress, it’s completely portable and whilst I’m creating or indeed reading I’m immersed in my thoughts. I don’t suggest it’s a cure but a momentary respite. At the moment when many of us are living slightly surreal lives I find there’s a great need for us all to both create and think creatively as well as to find hope in the words of others. Especially as a children’s writer, when we as adults are doing our best to make them feel safe, to make ourselves feel safe and to give the impression, at least, that eventually everything will be ok.

An interesting side-effect of social distancing is that social-media has become, for many of us, our only means of communicating with the outside world. This has led to all manner of amazing things from virtual book launches, poetry performances, stories to illustrating and writing workshops. Many delivered by authors, in some cases actors and on the whole uplifting. Mostly people are coming together, virtually, to support each other, to provide poetry, stories, happy thoughts and distractions.

It’s all too easy to forget the uplifting psychological impact and power of words when we’re stressed. After all many of us are trying to cope with the unfamiliar and difficult combination of suddenly becoming teachers and child development-experts and all whilst juggling home working. We’re our own support network/all-round-care-givers in what is essentially a siege situation. We don’t have time talk about how we feel or admit even to ourselves that we’re scared too. Yet children often sense these things and feel anxious whilst perhaps not really understand why. Maybe they even think with all these suppressed powerful emotions around that they did something wrong.

So now, more than ever is a really good time for our children to escape into both writing and listening to poems and stories, indeed there’s never been a better time for accessing the many wonderful free resources or to keep a personal note book, to use it to talk to, to write poems, to write letters to write stories, anything at all. Free-writing is above all things cathartic because even if children don’t write about what scares them, they may write about what gives them hope. In any case the process itself without levels or rules is escapism. And should they write about their fears it may help put them into perspective. At the least getting your children to free-write may give you a way of exploring how they feel and open discussions so you can challenge any misconceptions.

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. 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. The poem Dog Explains the Moon is from Sue’s new collection, If I Were Other Than Myself, Troika.

 

Chrissie Gittins: Files Not Found on a Computer

‘Files Not Found On A Computer’ is the title of a poem from ‘Stars in Jars’ (Bloomsbury). I had been thinking about computers, and that however useful they are they cannot replicate the variety of lived experience. I imagined three files which can’t be found on a computer, each containing a list of sensations relating to three of the five senses.

When I use this poem in a workshop in schools I first ask the class what a computer can do that human beings can’t do, and then the reverse. We read through the poem twice, as a class and/or with different voices, so that the children become familiar with the concept and the patterning in the poem.

Files Not Found on a computer

 

The Touch File

a son stroking his father’s cheek,

fingers folding a hamster’s fur,

a face buried in cherry blossom,

enclosing arms of goodnight.

 

The Taste File

 

the saltiness of boiled ham

against soft white bread,

the sharpness of marmalade

melding with butter on solid wholemeal toast,

the twang of rhubarb with ginger

hiding beneath crumble,

the cut of iced sparkling water

swilling down my throat.

 

The Aroma File

a wet dog in the rain,

garlic squashed beneath a knife,

lavender steaming from my bath,

croissant warming Sunday morning.

 

After writing the title and the three verse titles on the board/flip chart I explain that I chose the word ‘aroma’ instead of ‘smell’ to inspire appealing experiences for the nose, rather than ‘bad smells’. I then ask for contributions for each file in turn – something they like the feel/taste/smell of. If their answers are brief I quiz the contributor about their suggestion, encouraging them to expand their answer with precise details and descriptions. I ask for examples from the natural world, and ask them to use specific names of any birds, plants, trees etc. they might want to include. I point out that it’s difficult for their reader to imagine ‘a bird’ or ‘a flower’ in their mind’s eye, but much easier to imagine ‘a magpie’ or ‘a snowdrop’.

I had the opportunity to run this workshop in the middle of a field during the North Cornwall Book Festival in the hamlet of St Endellion with children from a local primary school. The workshop was filmed by BBC Countryfile for a piece concerned with nature words which are in danger of disappearing from children’s vocabularies. This tied in with my most recent poetry collection ‘Adder, Bluebell, Lobster’ (Otter-Barry Books) which takes forty of these endangered nature words as titles for new poems. Before beginning the workshop I usually read several poems from this book, choosing the ones which give plenty of scope for audience interaction such as ‘Blackberry’, ‘Cauliflower’ ‘Mint’ ‘Otter’, ‘Newt’ and ‘Raven’.

Of course there are other verses which could be written on ‘The Sight File’ and ‘The Hearing File’. As we wrote our group poem in Cornwall we were able to hear a lark overhead and the rustling of birch trees, and to see ‘sage green hills melting into the horizon’ (a line from the group poem). We could have also included the wind whipping up the flipchart, or the man who drove his car down the side of the field while his dog ran alongside.

A material-gathering-walk could be incorporated into a school-based workshop with periodic stops to look and listen, smell and touch (maybe not taste?), and to make notes and/or quick sketches.

Wishing you much enjoyment of writing and reading poems in 2020 both inside and en plein air.

Chrissie Gittins

Of Chrissie’s five children’s poetry collections three were Choices for the Poetry Book Society Children’s Poetry Bookshelf, and two were shortlisted for the CLiPPA Poetry Award. She won the Belmont Poetry prize and was a finalist in the Manchester Children’s Literature Prize. Her poems have been animated for Cbeebies TV and she has recorded her poems for the Children’s Poetry Archive. She visits schools, libraries and festivals, she has judged the Caterpillar Poetry Prize and is a National Poetry Day Ambassador. Chrissie’s website.

Roger Stevens: The Poetry Zone

The Poetry Zone – 21 years of children’s poems

When I began going into schools as a visiting author, I would sometimes run workshops that culminated in the production of a printed collection of the work produced by the pupils. This book was often the highlight of the afternoon for the children. Seeing their poems in print seemed to validate the work for them and gave them something tangible to take away and to share with their family and friends. This – and a desire to give young writers a wider audience – was why I launched the Poetry Zone 21 years ago.

Young poets produce wonderful work. By launching the Poetry Zone I created somewhere for children and teenagers to send their poems and, importantly, see them published; a website where they could share their poetry and where it would be taken seriously. I found it very exciting. I knew it would be hard work – the project was me and me alone, every poem had to be read, vetted and the format tidied up for publication – but I thought it would be worth it. And it has been.

We started slowly, but within just a couple of years thousands of children were sending in poems and I was being contacted by grateful teachers and parents. Sometimes I would receive poems from every member of a class – the Poetry Zone had become a useful schools resource. Sometimes poems would come from individuals who were writing at home. They came from all over the English-speaking world – the UK, USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and from India, Japan and other parts of Asia.

I added interviews with children’s poets to the website; and information and advice for teachers. With some tips and a few lesson plans, those wary of teaching poetry have found out how rewarding it can be and how writing a poem can unlock the talent of even the most recalcitrant of pupils. The Poetry Zone has featured reviews of new poetry books and run more than 1,000 competitions – with publishers kindly donating prizes.

In 21 years, the Poetry Zone has received more than a million visitors and I’ve read and published around 30,000 poems by children and teenagers. Last year Troika published The Poetry Zone book featuring some of these poems.

Many children have grown up with the Poetry Zone, regularly sending me poems over the years. I have always provided feedback when wanted and mentored quite a few contributors. One of my regulars, American Claudia Taylor, was Commended in the Foyle Young Poets of the Year – I was very proud that she acknowledged my help when she received the award.

Harshita Das began contributing to the Poetry Zone from her home in India when she was around six years old. Her work always stood out. I encouraged her to practice, which she did. She is still young, but already an accomplished poet:

 Perfect

There is darkness
In each one of us
A tendency to kill
A desire for pain
A hunger for suffering
A greed for more
A blindness to honesty
A thirst to choose wrongly
Nobody is flawless
But to shroud that darkness
With light
Is what makes a person
Perfect

Harshita Das (aged 12)

Violet and Celina Macdonald also began sending poems to the Poetry Zone when they were young children and carried on well into their teens. They lived in Tasmania then. Now they live in the UK. Violet has just won the Sir Peter Ustinov Television Scriptwriting Award for ‘The Wolf’ in the 2019 Emmy World Television Festival.

So, yes, running the website has been worth it! I have never allowed advertising on the site. The Poetry Zone has never made any money. It has always been a labour of love. It’s still a solo project. My reward has been seeing children enjoy everything that poetry has to offer – whether they are writing it or reading poems written by others and commenting on them.

One thing has stood out over the years: Poems by children can be every bit as good as poems written by grown-ups. We have a wealth of talented young writers all over the world – a cause for optimism and hope for the future of poetry.

Roger Stevens

Roger Stevens has been writing and editing poetry collections for children for 25 years. Roger’s books include Apes to Zebras, an A-Z of Shape Poems, Bloomsbury, I Am a Jigsaw; Puzzling Poems to Baffle your Brain (Bloomsbury 2019), Moonstruck; an Anthology of Moon Poems (Otter-Barry) and Be the Change, Poems to Help you Save the World, Macmillan. When not writing, he visits schools, libraries and festivals performing his work and running workshops for young people and teachers. He is a regular contributor to educational journals and conferences, a National Poetry Day Ambassador for the Forward Arts Foundation, and a founding member of the Able Writers scheme with Brian Moses. PoetryZone.

Rachel Rooney: Finding the Sweet Spot

Finding the Sweet Spot

Much of what we call poetry written for children might more accurately be termed  as verse; words which engage and entertain the reader, written in regular rhythm and with full end-rhymes. It’s a what you read is what you get type of experience. There’s a pleasure to be had from reading or hearing well-crafted verse that scans as it intends and that uses language in deft, comforting or amusing ways.

Children are particularly drawn to the reading, listening and performing of verse. Its predictable aural patterns tend to lodge in their memory, too. But it is much harder for them to write effectively. The technical skills needed to maintain a coherent idea through extended rhyme and rhythm is tricky for all but the most practised and enthusiastic junior poet. Happily, I was that kind of child. The following poem was written by my 11 year old self about the bus journey I took to school. I’d never shown it to anyone, but kept it safe, eventually including it in my second collection, for reader interest. It’s not particularly good poetry, or even ‘Poetry’ for that matter – it’s simply verse that was relatively crafted for its time.

 

The 20a Bus

 

In the line you hear a chatter

Up and down a clatter, clatter.

Noisy schoolgirls scream and shout

pushing in and pushing out.

 

Down the street the red bus trundles.

Girls surge forward all in bundles.

On at last, but what a rush

Banged my elbows in the crush.

 

‘I don’t know what it’s coming to’

said the lady with big buttons, who

had a habit to pursue

the trivial things young children do.

 

And when the bus stops in the street

I kick her underneath the seat

And when the lady stops her chat

I pull the cherries from her hat.

 

Poetry in its purer form, is a more exploratory art. It’s a voyage of discovery into the unknown. Its aim is to alter our perceptions and to linger in our mind beyond its reading. We might return to these poems and find new or deeper meaning from them.

The writing of such poetry raises different technical questions. How can we ensure musicality without necessarily relying on the tools of strict metre and end-rhyme? How do we utilise line breaks or the space on the page for full effect? What ‘stepping stones’ (images, concepts, concrete details etc) will we put in place to guide the reader through the reading of it? How subtle the inference and how abstract the ideas, given the poem’s intended audience?

I’m a poet who enjoys all the challenges that writing for varying ages brings, from crafting a jaunty rhyming picture book text through to (almost) ‘adult’ poetry. But I’ve always been particularly interested in the elusive sweet spot between worlds; the poem written for children, that has a surface lyrical simplicity but which offers up a more subtle interpretation for the older reader. Or the poem that pitches itself perfectly in content & complexity between the tail end of childhood and early adult readership.

And occasionally, I stumble across poetry written with the adult in mind, that a child reader might possibly access and relate to. The following short poem by Esther Morgan, is a personal favourite for this reason. It’s superficially simple, and could (almost) have been written by a child. And that is part of its mastery.

 

The Long Holidays

 

The day stretches ahead – nothing but

grass and sky grass and sky grass and sky grass and sky

as far as the eye can see

 

nothing but sky and grass sky and grass sky and grass sky and grass

 

and the wind galloping hard over the fields

like a riderless horse.

 

Esther Morgan

 

If you’re interested, here’s a wonderful close reading of the poem in a blogpost by the poet George Szirtes.

 

Rachel Rooney

Rachel’s most recent collection A Kid in My Class (Illustrated by Chris Ridell, Otter-Barry) was shortlisted for the CLiPPA and has just won the North Somerset Teachers’ Book Award for poetry 2019. A rhyming picture book The Problem with Problems, illustrated by Zehra Hicks (Anderson) is out March 2020 and a poetry collection aimed for older girls is due in 2021 (Otter – Barry).