Rachel Piercey: Conversation and Crossover

Conversation and Crossover

I started writing for children a few years ago, when I co-edited the Emma Press anthology Falling Out of the Sky: Poems about Myths and Monsters, and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. It has introduced me to a gigantic new group of readers, writers and co-creators, and a whole new library of joyous, devastating, transcendent poems. It has also given me valuable insights, particularly in terms of clarity and energy, into my writing ‘for adults’.

This was a distinction I had never made before, and one I am keen to blur. The world of children’s poetry makes plenty of room for adult poems, in anthologies and school lessons, and children are gloriously open-minded about deep, experimental creativity. The best children’s poems discuss the same big, knotty themes as adult poems, skilfully balancing accessibility with complexity. Now I would like to see the adult poetry world making more space for children’s poetry, which is a vital part of its foundation and future. I would love to get more people discussing, reviewing and enthusing about children’s poetry, and to encourage more poets to try writing for a younger audience.

Kate Wakeling is one of many poets, including me, who published their first poem for children in the Myths and Monsters anthology. Like many of the poets, she got hooked. And just two years later, Kate won the 2017 Centre for Literacy in Primary Poetry Award with her extraordinary debut Moon Juice. I’ve been in the audience when Kate has read children’s poems (my favourite is her shatteringly superb ‘The Demon Mouth’) alongside adult poems – and it’s an exhilarating combination. I wish more readings would mix the two, amplifying in a small but effective way the conversation between poetry for children and poetry for adults. In fiction, the young adult genre acts as a kind of bridge between children’s books and general novels, but we don’t really have an equivalent in poetry. To move, with no turning back, from the warm, fizzy, inviting world of children’s poetry to the secondary school canon can be disorientating. But if children’s poems were part of the general poetry conversation, sharing the same space, young people could study new, chewy works alongside more digestible ones.

So, let’s disrupt the distinction wherever we can. Let’s make more noise about the many children’s poets who are writing well-crafted, sensitive, probing poems about human emotions and the world around us, and zingy, experimental poems which push and pull language like plasticine – via social media, blogs, readings, and conversations with poetry friends. (If you’re looking for somewhere to start, the Children’s Poetry Archive is a great resource, as are the fabulous archives of the CLiPPA award. The Emma Press children’s list is also full of excellent, eclectic poems – many by poets new to writing for children.)

If you are a poet writing for adults, try reaching back the other way – remembering and celebrating the poems you loved as a kid. Try your hand at writing for children and share what you write, enjoying the licence for giddiness and experimentation. And costumes – see photo above!

Ultimately, what I would really love is to see magazines and journals accepting children’s poems and reviewing children’s poetry books as a matter of course, and even to see children’s poetry potentially in the running for the big prizes, acknowledged for its world-altering potential. Welcoming children’s poetry into the ecosystem of adult poetry would be such a powerful message that what we read when we are young is as precious and important as what we read when we are older. And the more young readers and writers of poetry we can nurture, the more secure that ecosystem will be.

Rachel Piercey

Rachel Piercey is a freelance writer, editor and tutor. She co-edited and contributed to the children’s poetry anthologies Falling Out of the Sky: Poems about Myths and Monsters (shortlisted for the CLiPPA award 2016), Watcher of the Skies: Poems about Space and Aliens, and The Head that Wears a Crown: Poems about Kings and Queens, all published by the Emma Press. She regularly performs and runs poetry workshops in schools, and she has taught courses on writing poetry for children for The Poetry School. Her poems for adults have been published in The Rialto, Magma, Butcher’s Dog and The Poetry Review, as well as pamphlets with the Emma Press and HappenStance. rachelpierceypoet.com

Gaby Morgan: In Praise of Anthologies

In Praise of Anthologies

1993 was an interesting year. Bill Clinton became the 42nd President of the USA. Sleepless In Seattle was released. Three members of One Direction were born and Macmillan Children’s Books published two slim anthologies, Doin Mi Ed In – Rap Poems by David Orme and Martin Glynn, and ‘Ere We Go! Football Poems by David Orme, launching a poetry list that is still going strong twenty-five years later. They introduced an exciting new band of very lovely poets to the world and I am so very lucky to be working with them all half a lifetime later. These were collections written for kids rather than at them and introduced them to a wide range of themes viewed from all kinds of different angles.

The biggest revelation that first year was Glitter When You Jump – Poems Celebrating the Seven Ages of Women by Fiona Waters. It was the most astonishing thing I had ever read and introduced me to ‘Phenomenal Woman’ by Maya Angelou and ‘Warning’ by Jenny Joseph.

Over the years I have read an awful lot of anthologies and was delighted to find that you often can hear the anthologists ‘voice’ in a collection. Brilliant anthologists such as Fiona Waters and Anne Harvey weave the most fascinating stories with incredible skill. When Roger McGough delivered the manuscript for Sensational he had written poem titles at the bottom of each page and I could very clearly see how each poem inspired the next – it was such a delight to follow his thoughts.

After many years of learning from these masters I was lucky enough to be asked to compile anthologies starting with Read Me: A Poem for Every Day for the National Year of Reading.

In my youth I spent days on end compiling the perfect mixed tape. A single song was often the spark for an entire C90. I crafted the perfect collection of summery songs, a tape to impress a new love or even one full of please-stay-in-the-friend zone songs. I still use these mixed tape skills today and that is how I compile anthologies. You have to have album tracks or the hit singles don’t shine. For people who dip and browse you need a very strong beginning and end. You need enough familiar poems – ‘Daffodils’! – for people to feel comfortable and enough brand-new to make people look beyond the collection. You start to tell a story and then the poems suggest themselves.

Poems pop into my head and bring their friends with them…

The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ by W. B. Yeats, ‘I hear it in the deep heart’s core’,

Beattie is Three’ by Adrian Henri, ‘How her fist fits my palm/A bunch of consolation’,

The White Cat of Trenarren’ by A.L. Rowse, ‘My cat and I grow old together’,

Let No One Steal Your Dreams’ by Paul Cookson, ‘Your only limit is the sky’.

They are joined by poems that I have heard performed such as ‘Dear Hearing World’ by Raymond Antrobus, ‘I have left Earth in search of an audible God’, or poems that I have come across on social media like ‘Saltwater’ by Finn Butler, ‘Everyone who terrifies you is 65 per cent water’ – look them up, they will bring you joy!

The world has changed enormously in the past quarter century and our poetry list has followed the curve of the earth and the signs of the times. We have published a wide range of poetry titles including landmark anthologies such as The Works: Every Kind of Poem You Will Ever Need for the Literacy Hour chosen by Paul Cookson for a new primary curriculum in 2000. Books to echo trends in popular culture like pirates and wizards, or to reflect upon historical events such as the 50th anniversary of the moon landings and the centenary of the end of WWI. To mark sporting events like the Football World Cup or the Olympics; or delve deeper to demonstrate hope and light in challenging times with poetry about extraordinary women, poetry promoting empathy and tolerance, poetry that celebrates our history and heritage and great big gift anthologies which celebrate poetry itself.

Poetry is powerful stuff – from nursery rhymes, to song lyrics, to poetry shared on social media to verse novels. We turn to poems to soothe or rally, to praise, to celebrate, to comprehend, to grieve, to shout ‘I love you’ or to pick ourselves up when it seems impossible – they are words for life.

Gaby Morgan

Gaby Morgan is an Editorial Director at Macmillan Children’s Books and proud curator of the Macmillan Children’s Poetry List. She has compiled many bestselling anthologies including Read Me and Laugh: A Funny Poem for Every Day of the Year, Poems from the First World War, Poems for Love, Fairy Poems – which was short-listed for the CLPE Award – and A Year of Scottish Poems.

Janetta Otter-Barry: Making Poetry Books – an Editor’s View

Making Poetry Books – an Editor’s View

I love editing the Otter-Barry Books poetry list – it’s probably my favourite of all tasks. It feels like a huge privilege to immerse yourself in a poet’s carefully crafted collection, written over months or even years, and to be possibly the first person to read those poems other than the poet.

Generally I don’t actually ‘edit’ the poems much at all. I feel quite strongly that a poem is what it is and stands on its own terms. Occasionally I will suggest deleting a verse to tighten things up a bit, or, if I feel a poem isn’t working in terms of level or tone for the current collection, I’ll suggest taking it out. Though if the poet feels very strongly and has good arguments for its inclusion I will usually defer to the poet! Trust and respect in both directions are absolutely vital.

Punctuation – well, that’s another matter! Some of our poets like writing verse completely unpunctuated and in many cases that’s great – and gives a real sense of freedom from constraint to the reader. But I have to admit to liking punctuation – and I think it can also help with pacing and comprehension – and just keeps you on track with a longer, more complex poem. So a balance is always good. Again, I hope I’ll be sensitive to the poet’s view.

Gradually the collection emerges into a beautiful entity, with an opener that’s not too long or super-demanding – something to whet your appetite – and then moves to more challenging poems as you get into your reading stride. Surprise and humour are vital ingredients and, though this may sound banal, making sure there’s a balance of shorter and longer poems. It can be great to turn a page and find just one very short poem. Giving poems ‘space’ is really important. And then end with a satisfying conclusion or maybe look to the future with a question or a big idea…

So how did it work with our CLiPPA-shortlisted titles, A Kid in My Class by Rachel Rooney, illustrated by Chris Riddell, and Dark Sky Park by Philip Gross, illustrated by Jesse Hodgson?

Daydreamer, from A Kid in My Class, 2018, by Rachel Rooney, Illustrated by Chris Riddell

Both books were true collaborations. Rachel and Chris had already decided they’d like to do something together so the book came to us that way. Our team just loved the poems and we knew we had something special in our hands. At our first meeting with Chris and Rachel – straight after CLiPPA 2016 – we agreed there should be a gallery of portraits of all the kids in the class running through the book, and that the class hamster should also be present, though he doesn’t get his own poem till the very end. We felt strongly that this book should be generously illustrated so we allocated a double spread per poem and came up with the idea of the blue wash throughout as a special effect. We’d probably imagined illustrations in classroom settings but Chris quite rightly leapfrogged this brief and I’ll never forget the excitement of seeing, with Rachel and our art director Judith Escreet, the amazing full-size drawings on Chris’s work-table.


Fidget, from A Kid in My Class, 2018, by Rachel Rooney, Illustrated by Chris Riddell

With Dark Sky Park, the collection came to us through poetry guru Pie Corbett, who knew Philip and recognised that these poems had huge cross-curricular science potential as well as being creative masterpieces. Philip had the idea to give each poem an accompanying ‘info-tweet’, providing fascinating facts about all the creatures and topics in a fun way. We chose the brilliant young Bristol-based artist Jesse Hodgson to illustrate, after seeing her brush-and-line drawings of tigers.

Tardigrade, from Dark Sky Park, 2018, by Philip Gross, illustrated by Jessie Hodgson

She was perfect for the natural history aspect of the book as well as portraying the sense of time, space and wonder that the poems create. A meeting between Philip and Jesse to discuss his visual take on the poems was an inspiring start to the project and Jesse took off from there.

Snow Leopard, from Dark Sky Park, 2018, by Philip Gross, illustrated by Jessie Hodgson

Editing and punctuation? Well, I can honestly say I hardly had to change a single word or comma in either book! These two poets are truly masters of their art.

Janetta Otter-Barry

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Janetta Otter-Barry is the founder and publisher of Otter-Barry Books, an award-winning independent children’s publisher with a focus on diversity and inclusion. Otter-Barry publish picture books, young fiction, graphic novels and information books as well as an acclaimed poetry list. The first books were published in May 2016, since when six poetry titles have been shortlisted for the prestigious CLiPPA award.

Otter-Barry Books.