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.

Roger Stevens: Are Song Lyrics Poetry?

Are Song Lyrics Poetry?

As well as being a poet I am a musician, and I write songs. This year, on the suggestion of my record label, I published a book of the words to my songs, called Lyrics (2001 to 2021). This, of course, raised the inevitable question: Can lyrics stand on their own, can they be poetry? Or do they only really work when they are part of a song, being held up by a good tune?

Two of the world’s best songwriters recently joined the debate. Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 for having created new poetic expressions within the Great American Song tradition. There was, and still is, some controversy over this. But how can lines like

The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face

Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place

(from Visions of Johanna)

or

Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay
You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way

(from Mississippi)

not be read as poems?

Paul McCartney, too, is publishing a book with a title not unlike mine. As well as containing his lyrics, it tells the stories behind the words and about the songs they inhabit. Interestingly, the book has been edited by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon who, himself, has published a collection called The Word on the Street, poems that double as rock songs.

Fans of Shel Silverstein’s children’s poetry are often unaware that he wrote hits for Doctor Hook and Johnny Cash. Many contemporary children’s poets use their guitars, or percussion, to perform poems to music – e.g. Brian Moses, James Carter, Eric Ode. 

Folk singers often draw on the ballad tradition where stories (often about politics or a special event or remarkable person) have become poems which then turned into songs. 

The lyrics of many singer-songwriters stand up very well on their own. I’m thinking Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. And in the rock genre, Patti Smith. I don’t think Dylan set out to write poetry – he sees himself primarily as a songwriter. But the structure of lyrics and songs do have much in common.

Generally lyrics also need their tune. Dylan’s lyrics work well on the page, but come alive when they are sung. The words to Waterloo Sunset, written by Ray Davies, are lovely – Terry meets Julie, Waterloo station, Every Friday night – but they really conjure up special pictures when sung by the Kinks. 

It can work in reverse, too. Many classical poems have been set to music. In German these are Liede; as a collection they are known as a Song Cycle. In more recent times, when I ran a school choir, we found some of Allan Ahlberg’s Please Mrs Butler poems set to music. They sound as brilliant as a choral work as they do as poems. 

Most of us learn some of our first words through poetry – for that is what a nursery rhyme is; and many picture books feature verse. We learn rhythms and rhymes as babies and toddlers and with nursery rhymes this is often set to music. Songs, lyrics and poems are hugely important at the beginning of our lives and we hold them in our subconscious. Music often takes centre stage later on. Some music does not honour or showcase the lyrics but it still speaks to you – but when songs do allow the words to be clearly heard, what really matters is that they move you, through your head or your heart, in some way. Perhaps it’s when the words are as important as the music that the lyrics have become a poem as well as words to a song. 

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 been going for more than 20 years. 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.

Shauna Darling Robertson: Guerrilla Poetry

Guerrilla Poetry

I love being surprised by poetry, whether that means finding a poem in a fresh voice, an unusual style, a different format or an unexpected place.

In my book Saturdays at the Imaginarium there’s a poem called ‘The Poetry Guerrilla’ featuring a mysterious character who sneaks poems into strange locations for people to find – inside a boiled egg, etched onto an aspirin, etc. I was thrilled when a London school got in touch to say that the poem inspired them to create their own guerrilla poetry project for National Poetry Day, which got me thinking about some of the wonderful things I’ve come across since I started getting interested in poetry guerrilla-ing. Here are a few of them, in the hope that one or two might inspire some guerrilla tactics of your own!

Poetry ‘bombing’ What if cities that have suffered wartime bombings could experience a different sort of ‘bombing’ – one where poems rain down instead of missiles? Chilean art collective Casagrande staged five ‘Poetry Rain’ projects in different cities, as a protest against war. In this video you can see what happened when 100,000 poems were dropped from a helicopter over London’s Southbank. “But I don’t have access to a helicopter,” I hear you say. Okay, so how might you adapt this concept to do something on a smaller scale?

Pay with a poem Did you know that you can pay for a coffee with a handwritten poem on World Poetry Day each March? Coffee company Julius Meinl kicked off the idea in 2013 and it went global, with people around the world penning limericks for lattes and elegies for espressos. Here’s a video from the 2016 event. No need to wait for coffee time though… how else might you turn poems into valuable currency?

The street sign poet Stroll around London’s Kentish Town and you might see ‘the parachute of intrigue’, ‘the girl made of mist’ or ‘the heart is a crazy bus driver’. “There is a street sign outside our place on Islip Street,” explains local poet Mark Waddell. “It’s there to make folks think, chuckle and ruminate.” Discover more at Mark Waddell’s blog.

Poem in Your Pocket Day Poem in Your Pocket Day takes place every year in the USA (April 29th in 2021). The idea began in New York City, then spread across the USA and into Canada. UK, anyone? The basic idea is to carry a poem in your pocket and share it with everyone you meet that day. More info and ideas here.

Wear a poem Miami-based artist Augustina Woodgate sewed paper tags carrying lines of poetry into second-hand clothes for sale in charity shops. Buy a t-shirt, find a poem! You can read more in this news article. If you’re working with kids, needles and sneaking into shops are probably out. But there are lots of ways to ‘wear a poem’, right?

Edible poems Guerillas need to keep their strength up, and what better food than poetry! Poetry Digest, edited by Swithun Cooper and Chrissy Williams, was a magazine that iced poems onto cakes – and invited the Young Poets Network to join in. Find out more and read the poems (which, luckily, were photographed before being gobbled) at The Young Poets Network.

That’s all for now (though I do have more if you’re interested!). I’d love to hear about any guerrilla poetry projects you might create or come across. Drop me a line or tag me on twitter at @ShaunaDarRob,

PS. If you’re going to get into poetry guerrilla-ing, do keep your common sense about you. Stay safe, respect others and the natural environment, and never confuse a poetry guerrilla with a poetry gorilla.

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, made into short films and published in a variety of books and magazines. Her first solo collection for children is Saturdays at the Imaginarium (Troika, 2020). A second, You Are Not Alone, written with support from Arts Council England, is forthcoming (Troika, 2022). www.shaunadarlingrobertson.com @ShaunaDarRob

Rachel Piercey: Tyger Tyger

Introducing Tyger Tyger Magazine

I am thrilled to introduce Tyger Tyger Magazine, a new online journal of poems for children which will soon be accepting submissions for the first issue. Establishing a magazine of children’s poetry is something I’ve been dreaming of for a long time – and now I’ve finally taken the leap.

© Imogen Foxell

Once a term, Tyger Tyger Magazine will publish twelve poems on a shared theme, by contemporary writers from across the world. Selected poems in each issue will come with free teaching resources, and each poem will be available as a free, downloadable, printable poster. I love how the walls of primary school classrooms are always bright and bustling with creativity, and this will make it easy to add a poem or two into the mix. I want these poems to roar in as many dimensions as possible!

© Imogen Foxell

I really hope this will be welcome news for writers of children’s poetry. Poets who write for adults have a vast number of submission opportunities, and I know myself how helpful it is to have a focus for new writing, and how exciting it is to see your work appear in conversation with other new poems. It’s also exhilaratingly easy, as a reader of poetry, to find magazines full of brand-new poems to be stirred, entertained and astonished by. But if you write poems for children, there are far fewer opportunities. And I believe it’s equally important for children’s poets to have a direction, testing ground and showcase for new work. Jonathan Humble has recently launched a children’s poetry magazine too – the gorgeous Dirigible Balloon, already sailing with lots of lovely poems – so there are at least two new places to submit this year. I hope more and more children’s poetry magazines will open up in time!

© Imogen Foxell

The name Tyger Tyger comes, of course, from the poem by William Blake. As soon as it occurred to me, I knew I’d found my title. The real-life creature stalks inside it: wild and mighty, precious and playful. For those who know Blake’s poem, it conjures awe-filled questions about existence. The archaic spelling gifts a twist of strangeness. And there’s the sense of an echo or an invocation in the repetition, which is one of my favourite poetic devices. Blake’s tyger makes you feel something powerful and so do the poems I love best, and which I want to publish in the magazine.

I am extremely lucky to have a wonderful editorial team around me: Rakhshan Rizwan, Kate Wakeling and Helen Steffens. I have spent countless happy hours talking about poetry and writing for children with these incredible women, and they bring a vast range of expertise to the magazine, as readers and writers and lovers of children’s literature. I am excited and honoured that they will be helping me to choose the poems for each issue.

© Imogen Foxell

The artwork for the magazine is by the hugely talented Imogen Foxell. She was the first artist I thought of – I’d encountered her work via The Poetry Society’s Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, and her magical, characterful illustrations exactly chimed with my vision for the magazine. I absolutely love the logo and the tygers she has created; they are compelling creatures, full of dreamy majesty and mystery, and they pounce and prowl off the page.

The website will be fully launched soon, with details of the first call for submissions, and the first twelve poems will launch in January 2022. In the meantime, you can sign up to the mailing list to keep up to date with new issues and submission opportunities. You can also follow Tyger Tyger Magazine on our new Twitter account, @tygertygermag. Join in and help us to burn bright!

Rachel Piercey

Rachel Piercey writes for adults and for children. Her poetry picture book, If You Go Down to the Woods Today (Magic Cat, illustrated by Freya Hartas), came out in March 2021 and has been translated into nineteen different languages. Her latest poetry pamphlet is Disappointing Alice (HappenStance Press, 2019). www.rachelpierceypoet.com

Chrissie Gittins: Libraries Do Change Lives

Libraries Do Change Lives

I grew up in a household with few books. My parents enjoyed the play of language and my mother was a talented raconteur. My father told me about a local man called Peter Nut (P. Nut) who married a woman called Hazel. My mother received a proposal of marriage from a man called Mr Jump who subsequently married a woman called Mrs Stamp. In school holidays my brother and I would sit down at the dinner table and ask my mother to tell us about ‘the olden days’. She would spin a detail into an elaborate story – the uncle who hung the apple wallpaper upside down, the hole that was knocked into a wall so they could listen to the radio next door.

Poster from the Great School Libraries website

It was through borrowing books from libraries that my interest in literature and language grew – both local and school libraries. It is a statutory, legal right for every community in the UK to have access to a local library. But 773 public libraries, a fifth of the libraries once in service, have closed since 2010. Statistics in a report from the Chartered Institute of Public Finances and Accountancy (CIPFA) show that use of public libraries has fallen by 70% in the past 20 years.

It is well documented that children who read for pleasure make marked progress in Maths and English and benefit greatly from the opportunity to explore their imagination. Children with books at home are six times more likely to read above their expected reading age. But if a family can’t access a library and haven’t spare money to buy books where are they to find them? In their school library perhaps? Astoundingly it is not a statutory requirement for every school to have a library. But it is a statutory requirement for every prison to have a library. In the UK 50% of prisoners are illiterate. How many of those prisoners could have widened their opportunities and avoided incarceration if their literacy had been nurtured through reading at an early age?

Recent issue of The School Librarian, the quarterly journal of the School Library Association

One in eight schools across England, Wales and Northern Ireland does not have a library. The bleak irony is that children on free school meals are twice as likely to be attending a school which doesn’t have a library. The Great School Libraries Campaign (https://www.greatschoollibraries.org.uk) addresses these inequalities in its objectives which include encouraging Ofsted to recognize libraries and librarians in their school inspection framework, and securing funding for school libraries. This has been a long-standing issue and in 2014 a report from the Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group asserted that it was ‘vital’ that all schools ‘have a good library to ensure children … fulfil their potential’. But this has not resulted in statutory school libraries.

Cordwalles Junior School, Surrey, school library. Photograph: Cordwalles Junior School

I was heartened to see that the current Children’s Laureate, Cressida Cowell, wrote an open letter in April to Boris Johnson calling for ring-fenced funding for school libraries to the tune of £100 million annually. (https://www.booktrust.org.uk/news-and-features/features/2021/april/libraries-change-lives-read-cressida-cowells-open-letter-to-prime-minister-boris-johnson/) ‘How is it fair,’ she writes, ‘that some children are being given this immeasurable advantage in life, but stark book poverty means many more are denied this same chance to change their future?’ She states that £28m would enable the one in eight primary schools without a library to develop space, stock and expertise; £75m per year would employ a part-time librarian; and £60m per year would allow a school to buy one new book a year for each child. Here’s to this government ensuring that a well-run, well-stocked library is provided for each and every child.

This is the contact information for Boris Johnson should you wish to email your thoughts: https://email.number10.gov.uk

Chrissie Gittins

Chrissie Gittins has had three of her five children’s poetry collections selected 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.