Shauna Darling Robertson: Children’s Poetry in Translation

Children’s Poetry in Translation

A few years ago I subscribed to Modern Poetry in Translation (MPT). The magazine was started by Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort in 1965 so it’s older than me – just! Clare Pollard is the current editor and each issue has a ‘focus’ section which hones in on topics from dead women poets to Japan, from extinction to the Caribbean, and from the Maghreb to LGBTQ+ poetry.

The Summer 2015 issue focused on world poetry for children, with new translations of poems from Russia, Taiwan, Samoa, Mexico, Eritrea and more. I still have my copy and I’d love to share a couple of its treasures.

Toon Tellegen is one of Holland’s best-known poets, with a long list of awards to his name. I have two of his adult collections, Raptors and About Love and About Nothing Else. Philip Fried, founding editor of The Manhattan Review wrote, “Tellegen’s poems are parables for grown-up children. Their world is stripped-down, urgent, playful, quirky, familiar as children’s games yet strangely disorienting.” I hadn’t realised that Tellegen is also a popular and prolific children’s author until a Wikipedia search revealed a list of around 40 children’s titles!

The poems featured in MPT are from a sublime book called I Wish, which pairs 33 poems prompted by the statement ‘I wish’ (translated by David Colmer) with a gallery of portraits by artist Ingrid Godon. The faces stare out with strange and serious expressions alongside Tellegen’s outstanding confessions of yearning. Sailor wishes to be music so he’ll be heard; Anton wishes courage was something you could buy; Marie and Rose wish to be the only people who don’t know about death, and Marcel wishes to have an alibi for every circumstance. Here’s Carl’s wish –

You can find out more and watch a video on the publisher’s website at https://elsewhereeditions.org/books/i-wish

Wojciech Bonowicz has published eight poetry collections in Poland. His poems have appeared in English translation in various magazines but I haven’t been able to track down a translated full collection. There are just a few prose-poem fragments by Bonowicz in MPT, translated by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese.

The fragments, referred to as ‘stories’, take the form of brief observations and aphorisms and come from a collection called Bajki Misia Fisia, which I think translates as the fairy tales of a bear called Fisia. “These stories are very short because ‘Nutty Teddy’ can concentrate only for a very short time,” says the introduction!

The fragments are sometimes funny, sometimes sad and are both strange and insightful. Here’s one of the longer ones (available online at www.modernpoetryintranslation.com/poem/beard).

Gabriela Cantú Westendarp was born in the north of Mexico and is a poet, teacher and translator. She has six poetry books, one of which – Poemas del Árbol / Poems from a Tree – is for younger readers. Sadly I can’t find any record of an English translation, but two poems translated by Lawrence Schimel were featured in MPT. Both come from the book’s second half, called ‘Claudio Discovers the World’, in which the poems are dialogues between mother and son. Here’s one (also available at www.modernpoetryintranslation.com/poem/the-language-of-ghosts).

In the years since that issue of MPT I’ve often fantasized about editing an anthology of children’s poetry in translation, though I have no idea if such a thing would be commercially viable! Still, in the fantasy I’m pacing the corridors of the Bologna Book Fair rooting out poets from all over the world, spending hours pouring over the International Children’s Digital Library (an incredible-looking resource of children’s literature in multiple languages), and – best of all – making a chance discovery of some amazing writer in the Pacific Islands and being sent to track them down. Poets, eh – such dreamers!

Shauna Darling Robertson

Shauna Darling Robertson’s poems for adults and children have been performed by actors, displayed on buses, used as song lyrics, turned into comic art and made into short films. Shauna has two chapbooks for adults and a collection for children, Saturdays at the Imaginarium (Troika, 2020) which explores the human imagination. She’s currently working on a new collection for teen/YA readers on the theme of mental health: You Are Not Alone, with support from Arts Council England. http://www.shaunadarlingrobertson.com @ShaunaDarRob

Liz Brownlee: Shaping the Words

After every poem, job or project that involves shape poems I think, never again. They are uniquely testing in every conceivable way, and perhaps that is why, despite the agony, I inevitably find myself contemplating another shaping idea – because the challenge of, and the enjoyment in interlacing words, poem and art, is irresistible.

In 2018 I proposed editing an anthology of shape poems about people who have shaped our world, called Shaping the World.

Shape poems must start with an excellent poem, and require a certain degree of artistic talent, experience to know what will and won’t work, piles of patience and a skill and joy in playing with form. I received numerous excellent poems, some already brilliantly shaped, and a number with ideas for a shape, many of which worked and some which didn’t.

There are a plurality of things to consider – too many words and too few words can both present problems. The way a form lies on a page – it might be too wide for instance for the dimensions of the book. When presented as a shape, the poem must still be easy to read, and read left to right as much as possible.

Concrete poems are made entirely from words that convey the subject of the poem. They do not have to be the shape of the subject, but do communicate the meaning – this is Jane Clarke’s concrete poem about Socrates in Shaping the World, which uses only words to make the shape:

Socrates, © Jane Clarke, from an idea by Jane Clarke, shaped by Liz Brownlee

Sue Hardy Dawson’s Florence Nightingale poem is a shape poem, using words plus shapes available in the word processor of the computer:

Florence Nightingale and Athena, poem and shape © Sue Hardy-Dawson

Kate Wakeling’s Rosa Parks poem fills a shape already made:

Rosa Parks, poem and shape © Kate Wakeling

I use everything available in the word processor, whatever makes the most engaging shape!

Which brings me to Word. Word is amazingly powerful. Put a word into a text box and another tab opens in the top of your document – in this tab, ‘shape format’, you can remove the background to your text box, remove or add a line around it, and most thrillingly, you can warp the text in numerous ways within the text box. This is very helpful when making a shape. You can also insert geometric shapes, and warp it using ‘edit points’ to produce small details, things which have proved impossible to make in letters or words – a beak perhaps, or a foot.

It involves much trial and error. I look at images and try and find my subject in a position which allows the poem to begin and finish in appropriate places, that will be clearly recognisable made out of words. I might find it hard to shape a bird from above. A bird from the side on a branch is much easier!  This shape uses only Word:

It’s great if you can use a word or letter in its correct place to suggest part of a shape – conjunctions like this are very pleasing, but it’s not always possible. Here the hippo’s ears are made by the B in ‘but’:

Children do enjoy shape poems and are also open to turning the page to follow text as it curls in a spiral or loops to create a shape’s curve. I think a good shape poem should accurately describe the subject of the poem and pique interest in reading the poem itself – as well as be pleasing on the eye. I don’t believe there should be any other rules.

Hopefully there is someone, somewhere reading this, that has been inspired to experiment with their word processor!

Liz Brownlee

Liz Brownlee is an award-winning poet, poetry editor, film-maker and performer at all types of poetry and natural history event. She is the author, collaborator or editor of 7 books of poetry and is proud to be a National Poetry Day Ambassador. Shaping the World, 40 historical Heroes in Verse is published on the 1st April, 2021. Poetry Roundabout LizBrownleePoet @Lizpoet

Rachel Piercey: Loud Objects, A Poetry Workshop

Loud Objects: a Poetry Workshop

Now that all the brilliant teachers are back in the classroom in person, I thought it might be helpful to share a poem-resource which I have used many times and which I’ve found to be a reliable prompt for imaginative responses. It’s pretty quick, easily adaptable, and you can write a simpler poem with KS1 or a more complex one with KS2.

The session is based around this poem of mine:

Voices

Tree considers:

Soil or sky, which is my home?

Stone remembers:

I had wings when I was thrown.

Book exhales:

See me jacketed with dust.

Gate creaks:

Hear me speak, my voice of rust.

Computer whirrs:

My poor head… so fever-full.

Mountain thunders:

Sometimes, I feel small.

Violet pipes:

Oh visit, gold-striped bees.

Swallow’s refrain:

Please send me a feathered breeze.

Maze confesses:

No idea where I am going!

Girl declares:

I’ll write this all into my poem.

After reading the poem, I recap personification and explain that I was wondering what humans would hear if they could listen in on inanimate / non-speaking objects. What emotions, secrets and surprises would be spilled?

I tell them that the first draft of this poem had ‘says’ after every object – but in the redrafting process, I decided this was too repetitive, and that I was missing the chance to use more vivid and interesting verbs to describe the voices of my objects. (Plus one noun – the swallow’s “refrain” – because I listened to a recording of swallow-song and it repeated the same whirrs and trills over and over!)

Then we gather ideas for objects together. We look around the classroom first (a clock is always popular and works well), then think more widely. We gather a big pool of words, making sure to mix up manmade and natural, domestic and grand. If you are focusing on a particular subject in class (from the water cycle to the Victorians and anything in between!) you can narrow the selection to objects related to that theme.

I’ve found that it works best to think first about what the clock / kettle / ocean / games console / tiger / football / top hat etc might want to say. Then after we’ve settled on something surprising or insightful, we choose an interesting verb to go with it. This can be a useful opportunity to use some onomatopoeia as well.  

You can create as many couplets as you have time for. It can be a class poem, or once they’ve got the hang of the structure, pupils can write their own poems individually / in pairs etc.

Finally, when using this for a class poem, I invite new ideas for a title – ‘Voices’ is a bit boring! It’s like a final statement of ownership of the poem and every class I’ve worked with has come up with something really quite beautiful and profound. Poets like to look closely at the world in new ways, and this is exactly what they’ve done!

If you use this prompt with your class, I’d love to see the poems you come up with. Feel free to contact me via my website for some feedback on your pupils’ poems, or tag me on Twitter @RachelPoet / on Instagram @rachelpierceywriter

Rachel Piercey

Rachel Piercey is a freelance writer and tutor. She has co-edited three children’s poetry anthologies with the Emma Press and regularly performs and runs poetry workshops in schools. If You Go Down to the Woods Today, her picture book set in a magical woodland illustrated by Freya Hartas, full of poems to read and things to find, is published by Magic Cat today! rachelpierceypoet.com

Chrissie Gittins: Jill Pirrie – ‘All children are embryo poets’

I had intended to write about Jill Pirrie and her book On Common Ground: A Programme for Teaching Poetry, a book which inspired me when I began visiting schools. When I read that she died earlier this year it seemed even more reason to highlight her work.

A notice in The Eastern Daily Press states that she had a national reputation for teaching poetry, was an accomplished poet herself, and that she spent her life in service to the church and the teaching profession. She was the first of her family to have post-14 education and she received an MBE in 1987 for services to the teaching of English.

Jill Pirrie was Head of English at Halesworth Middle School in Suffolk for over 20 years and taught a mixed-ability group of 9-13 year-olds to write poems. In the mid-eighties her pupils won multiple awards in the WH Smith Young Writers Competition and an Observer Prize. In 1993 Bloodaxe Books published an anthology of her award-winning pupils’ work – Apple Fire.

Ted Hughes wrote the forward to On Common Ground. He writes that in order for children to write good poetry ‘teachers don’t need pupils with an ‘evident natural gift’. All they need is ordinary pupils’.

Steve Gardam, a former pupil, bears this out when he described Jill Pirrie’s classroom on Twitter 30/9/2020. It was ‘kind of old-fashioned, and also timeless … it wasn’t just about the ‘smart’ kids who did well in other subjects. It was every child being shown the tools, the way to use them to make magic from words. And we did.’

Asked by the TES if her pupils continued to publish poetry Jill Pirrie commented, ‘I’m not in the business of making poets. I’m interested in teaching mastery of language.’ In an interview with the Independent she said, ‘Poetry has the capacity to empower children to achieve mastery of all literary genres. It encourages reflection and the powers of criticism, for the child to be both intensely involved at the moment of writing the poem and then objectively detached, equipped with all the criteria for assessing the poem.’

In her introduction she talks about how asking children to imagine requires an intense kind of remembering. The pupil then stands back from her/his material in order to craft their poem. She favoured sitting in rows and liked her pupils to work in silence to encourage ‘focus’.

Her favourite nouns were apparently ‘focus’, ‘economy’, and ‘sparseness’. Her approach to poetry was always inclusive – ‘In so far as all children have memories, all children are embryo poets.’ Each chapter reproduces a wide selection of her pupils’ rich poems.

Many chapters draw on poems by well-known poets. The chapter on Process outlines the importance of naming – the verb being seen second in importance only to the noun. ‘Children must learn to write with economy and discrimination, and to guard jealously the power of their nouns.’ She underlines the importance of naming through the senses: ‘the senses are not only the means by which we explore the world and know that we are alive; they are also the means by which we remember’.

The idea I most often use in workshops is from ‘The Impossible Christmas’ section and is perhaps doubly appropriate at this time. Instead of bought presents we’re asked to think about capturing special memories to gift wrap – a special place, a favourite taste, a wonderful sight/sound/smell, a favourable turn of events, a remembered moment with a friend or relative. Using as many of the five senses as possible I ask for a list poem called ‘Possible Presents’.

Jill Pirrie died 12th September 2020 aged 81. R.I.P.

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.

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.