Mandy Coe: Poetry as the Language of Child

Poetry as the Language of Child

Maybe this is why poets and poetry-loving-teachers encounter such enthusiasm in the classroom, maybe this is why poetry is a multigenerational conversation as jubilant as the dawn chorus! Like much of the arts, poetry is so child-friendly, that if adults present poems with even the slightest hint of invite-to-write, children will respond in kind.

How to best get poetry into the classroom is a common issue for educators; perhaps aimed at boys, reluctant readers, or those excluded from literacy. But what if the poetry is already there?  As we know, poems love classrooms – flapping through doors and fluttering down chimneys. In fact, the only way to keep poetry under control, is to use it as a club to whack-a-mole learning-targets (at which point it flies right out the window!). Hey ho, art is fickle, and a poem is as likely to start a fire as put one out.

But bring a free-range poem into the classroom and watch those writers set to – gnawing at pencils, until up goes the sea of hands, each child excited to be heard. Those who teach poetry have always known it as this: a two-way process of questioning and listening, bringing poems in and drawing them out. Even reading a poem is conversational: what do you think? the poem asks, inviting us to lay our thoughts in the spaces the poet left blank. Perhaps this is why poetry crosses boundaries of age, geography, culture and eras (even translation is dialogue), and perhaps this potential is down to commonality. Poetry as the language of child?

For children, life unfolds as an astonishing, hilarious metaphor of bamboozling goings-on; snow has a taste, animals have magic powers, colours speak and wishes come true, and let’s not forget the heartbeat rhythms and drowsy comfort of repetition. Where do most adults go, inside themselves, to write or read a poem (not the craft; that’s learned), what I mean is, where do we go to pursue the spark of it? Deep down and way back, that’s where. To a time when bees named themselves buzz and the world was a poem. Let’s face it, if children retained the copyright of poetry as a first-language, us adults would be left with catchphrases.

Belonging Street, Otter-Barry Books, Cover Art by Chie Hosaka

I write for adults and children, and on the occasions that I write myself to a point where the two paths meet, I feel… at home. In ‘Belonging Street’ I aimed for a place where this dialogue thrives, between nannas and children, parents and toddlers, between reader and poem (and the book is full of ‘invites-to-write’).

So, let’s keep up our end of the dialogue by taking poetry into schools (and us children’s poets need readers in these times, more than ever!). Poets, illustrators, publishers and librarians pride themselves on creating books perfect for schools: classic, contemporary, funny and serious, poems on nature, the universe and each child’s uniqueness – and not forgetting the call for more books reflecting the rich diversity of our communities.  

But this poetry-conversation centres on the child, and when access/funding to poetry and art in schools is cut again, I am not going to just shake my head, summoning resolve to create yet more projects proving without a doubt that poetry in schools is invaluable. After all, those who dictate curriculum-content have the same access as we do, to decades of research evidencing this to be so. Instead, I shall see it for what it is: censorship, a severance from mother-tongue, and silencing of dialogue. Let’s keep this mother-tongue spoken daily, children are not the poets of tomorrow; they are the poets of today.

Mandy Coe

Mandy Coe is the author of 9 books, and writes poetry for adults and children. She was a recipient of a Hawthornden Fellowship and is a visiting Fellow of the Manchester Writing School. Her poems have received a number of awards and have appeared on BBC television and radio programmes such as CBeebies, Woman’s Hour and Poetry Please. Her work on teaching poetry is widely published.

“It sings, so your heart does too.” Nicolette Jones, Sunday Times (Belonging Street)

“A gentle, relatable book full of humour and the wonder of being alive… finely observed poems to share between parents and children, and poems that can be used as models for children’s own writing….” Poetry Roundabout 5 Star review (Belonging Street)

Joshua Seigal: “So How Did You Get Into Poetry, Then?

This is one of the most common questions I get asked when I visit schools. It is not an easy question to answer, and I am tempted to say that I simply ‘fell into’ it. But this is a cop out. My journey can best be adumbrated by my encounters with five poets.

Michael Rosen

Michael visited my primary school when I was around 8. I remember being captivated by his performance in assembly, where he acted out his poems and really brought them to life. I bought his book Don’t Put Mustard in the Custard, and we listened to its accompanying casette in the car every day on the way to school for about a year! I wasn’t necessarily inspired to write my own poetry at this stage, but the kernel of Michael’s visit obviously lodged in my mind. Later on, Michael taught on my MA at Goldsmiths, and was good enough to write an endorsement for the cover of my first book with Bloomsbury.

Niall O’Sullivan

I didn’t really begin writing poetry until my late teens. I had studied Larkin for A Level and my initial efforts were an embarrassing attempt to ape him. During my first year at UCL I discovered the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden, which has a weekly open mic night hosted by Niall O’Sullivan. For a couple of years I regularly stood up and read my poems there, and was furthermore exposed to a wide variety of performance and writing styles. Niall hosted the night with humour and panache, and it was by attending these evenings that I developed my chops as a performer and (I hope) a humorist.

Neal Zetter

Neal helped me turn a hobby into what is now a career. I first came across his name in the Evening Standard, where he spearheaded a literacy campaign in 2012. He was described as a ‘comic poet who works in schools’, and then it hit me: this could be a proper job! I emailed Neal for some advice, and he responded with such warmth and encouragement that I shall be forever grateful. Heck, we are good friends now, and I even invited the man to my wedding. We are also poetical collaborators, and have our second joint book out with Troika in 2021/2.

Brian Moses

I took a humorous children’s poetry show to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012, where I met Brian. I foisted a copy of my first, self-published book into his hands, and asked whether he might help me find a proper publisher. I am extremely thankful for the advice he gave me. He said that my comic poetry was all well and good, but to concentrate on serious, emotional and heartfelt themes as well. I have since tried to synthesise a broad range of styles and feelings into my repertoire, and Brian’s advice has undoubtedly helped me grow as a writer.

Roger Stevens

Roger gave me my first publication in an anthology and invited me on the wonderful ‘poets’ retreat’ in 2014, where I met many other wonderful poets too numerous to mention. In his bounteous munificence, he also put my name forward to a bunch of editors he knew, which helped secure my first book deal with Bloomsbury in 2016. So now I was a poet writing and performing in a variety of styles, who both made a living working in schools and had a proper publishing deal to boot! I could not have made it this far without the aforementioned poets.

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 www.joshuaseigal.co.uk for more info.

Natalia Kucirkova: Using Technology to Create and Share Poetry

Children are poetry natives. They notice intricate details and say things like ‘the Sun is purple today’. Children are less intimidated by screens than adults. Their fingers glide on hotspots without any anxiety over potential risks. This combination of poetry and technology turns children into wonderful digital artists.

With my colleagues in Norway and England, we have been supporting children to create and share books with tablets, smartphones and PCs for several years. When used proportionally and mindfully, screen activities can encourage children think outside the box and explore their inner worlds. Some apps (for example Faces iMake) combine letters, shapes, colours and sound to enlarge children’s experience of stories, art and poetry.  Children can add special effects like the sound of a loud word, or digital glitter or foggy effect over their creations (for example with the Bomomo website). Phonics apps can be used to form rhyme units and colouring apps offer children a variety of patterns, fabrics and textured letters to tinker with.

Children who can decide which colour splash or brush stroke should take up the whole screen feel as empowered as adult poets who give new meanings to words. Such fine-motor experiences give children the skills and confidence they’ll need for participating in multi-media communities of their older peers. Many contemporary poets effectively blend the use of digital art with verses and share their poetic creations on Instagram or Facebook. Photo-poems or filmpoems are an exciting way to experience poetry.

Technologies are not neutral, and there are many digital tools that kill rather than enhance creativity. Adults supporting children need to know how to distinguish between closed and open-ended apps, that is those apps which overwhelm children with fast-paced entertainment and those that are open to children’s imagination and let them make their own art. The latter kind of apps are of particular value to children who do not have access to poetry because of an illness, social disadvantage or, as we have seen in the recent months, a pandemic.

The Covid-19 outbreak reminded us that a disproportionate number of children live in book deserts, surrounded by ugly urban places and with no access to nature. Some children need to take care of their siblings, some even of their parents. For these children, the opportunity to expand their mental images with sounds, words and colourful strokes is a way of countering a dim reality. Poems about nature that are augmented through virtual reality, for example, immerse children into a quiet and peaceful world, where a poet’s voice is not interrupted by a loud siren voice.  Some adults believe that texts, and especially print texts, are the royal route into poetry. From research we know that children learn about the world from static pictorial information in books as well as moving images on screens. These experiences work together, and it is the diversity that is key for expanding children’s poetic minds.

During the recent lockdown, many professional poets have engaged children with verses through the screen. Corona e-books about children’s experiences have been created and shared worldwide. Free poetry workshops or Zoom readings have illustrated that technology can democratize the access to poetry. For young and old, poems help with distancing from an immediate experience and imagining alternative realities. In this respect, poetry-making, in whatever shape or form, is life-affirming.

Natalia Kucirkova

Natalia Kucirkova is professor of Reading and Children’s Development at The Open University, UK and Professor of Early Childhood and Development at the University of Stavanger, Norway. She is also an accomplished poet, with three published pamphlets and her second collection coming out in 2021 from The Black Spring Press Group.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cheryl Moskowitz: The Corona Collection

The Corona Collection – A Conversation

School’s out for summer. For most children during this pandemic school has been out for a very long time. Not just school but playgrounds, football fields, cinemas, restaurants, playdates with friends, visits with grandparents and so much else.

We’ve all needed support to navigate our way through the crisis, but children especially have needed help and reassurance to know that the world is not ending however much it might seem like that from where they are standing.

Despite most parents not being trained teachers and teachers not able to teach as they normally would, these adults have been expected to meet the educational requirements set out for children by government during the lockdown. Children have been scared, confused, frustrated, sad, depressed and bored. How can their learning needs be met when issues relating to their mental health and well-being are so overwhelming?

I live in North London where there are many families and young children. Within a mile radius of my house there are 9 primary schools and one large secondary. In March 2020 when school closures were announced my concern was for all those school children. How, I wondered, would they and their carers cope?

That’s where poetry comes in.

I am a parent, educator and a trained counsellor. I am also a writer and a poet. When a problem overwhelms me, I turn to poetry. When I need to make sense of my feelings and voice my concerns, I turn to poetry. A poem is a way of sharing thoughts and ideas widely with others. A poem is a conversation and one that can be easily shared, even (or perhaps especially) from a place of isolation.

Having conversations, especially with our children, is key to understanding what the other is thinking, feeling, what they value and what they most need and want to happen. I wrote this poem as a way of starting that conversation.

 

Just Supposing…

 

you woke up tomorrow

and there weren’t all these rules

like: YOU HAVE TO STAY HOME!

and: YOU CAN’T GO TO SCHOOL!

And whatever you wished for,

where to go, what to do,

who to be with, how many –

was all up to you.

Where would it be,

doing what, and with whom?

Would you go to the park

or fly up to the moon?

You could go on a picnic

or stay in your room.

If you woke up tomorrow,

restrictions all lifted –

what kind of a world

would you want to be gifted?

 

I took the poem to my local community, conducting pavement interviews with children at a distance, talking to teachers in schools, children of key workers and others in attendance. Inspired by the conversations I was having I wrote more poems and those poems grew into a collection The Corona Collection – A Conversation.

The collection is designed to encourage ongoing conversation between children and adults, in school and at home. I have created resources to go alongside the poems and used the collection to deliver poetry workshops via zoom to children as far away as Hong Kong! In June and July I also ran workshops with small groups of pupils back at school, in their ‘bubbles’.

Since June over 6,000 physical copies of The Corona Collection have been printed and distributed to children and schools around the country. Pop Up Projects took the initiative and gifted 2,000 copies of a special edition to their partner schools nationwide. In London, recognising the value of poetry, Enfield Council adopted the collection, making it central to their PSHE and recovery curriculum for KS2 and transitioning pupils across the borough and have already distributed 4,300 copies. My hope is that organisations around the country will follow suit.

A website www.coronacollectionpoetry.com has been set up as a hub for resources and news, and to gather new poetry and conversations in response.

Cheryl Moskowitz

Cheryl Moskowitz is a poet and educator. She writes for adults and children, runs workshops regularly in schools and is passionate about getting teachers and pupils to write their own poems. She runs writing projects in a wide variety of community settings often working with the most disadvantaged and vulnerable. She serves on the Creative Council for Create Arts and is working with Pop Up on a three-year project to develop creative resources for use in SEN schools across Kent.

Rachel Rooney: Poetry: A Changing Relationship

Poetry as Parent

Books, particularly poetry collections, were a real comfort to me in what was otherwise a rather austere childhood. I was an insular child who’d taught myself to read before starting school. And as the fifth of six children, all born within 9 years of each other and raised by a very unmaternal mother, it wasn’t surprising that literature became a kind of parental substitute. Reading poetry lead to attempts at writing it, though I never shared my efforts at home or school. Below is the last poem I’d written as a child, aged 13. I still have it on scrap paper somewhere.

 

The sky at night is like a precious stone,

studded with flecks of silver and a pearl.

Surrounded, even though I am alone.

Covered, like an unprotected girl.

 

It shows some technical promise and a pithy allusion to a darker subtext. But after this, I drifted away from writing towards music culture. Other than an appreciation of the odd song lyric, it would be another 27 years before I thought of poetry again.

Siblings, with me on the right.

Poetry as Lover

In my 40th year, I chanced upon a weekly class, Writing for Children with Roger Stevens. We spent a term studying poetry where I revisited and appreciated its otherness and the space it gave for self-reflection. Life had become difficult around that time and writing gave me a much needed sense of control and an alternative, positive focus.  It hooked me in and soon poetry became my obsessive love interest.

Although I knew I wanted to write and publish poetry for children, I was driven to expand my understanding of it, so spent the following three years focusing on writing courses, workshops and residential weeks. As my writing developed, my personal and emotional life came apart. But poetry was both the catalyst to initiate productive change, and the tool to navigate through those changes.

Long story short, I acquired an agent, Caroline Walsh, who helped place my first collection, The Language of Cat, with Janetta Otter-Barry at Frances Lincoln.  And I became part of a new wave of children’s poets emerging alongside renewed publisher and educational interest that continues to grow and flourish today.

Poetry as Boss

Strange as it may seem, it didn’t occur to me that I’d have to ‘work’ to promote my book. I hadn’t considered much beyond the writing of the poems. But I was edged into the limelight when my first collection won the CLPE Award. Public performances terrified me and marketing my work felt alien, but somehow I’ve managed to muddle my way through for long enough to have two more collections (both CLIPPA shortlisted) under my belt. While I’m incredibly grateful for the reception my poetry has had, I can’t help but hold an ambivalence to the job description of Poet. I’m quite protective of my relationship with poetry, viewing it more as mother or lover rather than allowing it to act as my employer.

My next (and likely final, collection) Hey, Girl! is out next year, and is one I’m hoping will speak for itself. It’s pitched at an older readership – early adolescence upwards, and is unapologetically Asperger-ish and female-orientated. It contains poems I’ve written over the last ten years which are part-autobiographical, part epistolary in nature. It marks a natural return to where I’d left off as a young teen and feels somewhat like an ending – but in a good way.

Here’s the title poem.

 

XX

 

Hey, girl!

You’re a miracle, already.

What are the odds a cluster of cells

could grow human from a mother’s womb

and arrive in a bright world, blinking and blue.

That was you.

 

Hey, girl!

Remember, you had the power

to commando crawl over sharp bricks,

risk unsteady steps in hard, new shoes,

turn upside-down on swings for the view.

That was you.

 

Hey, girl!

You’re simply a sacred being-machine.

No body is perfect but you are perfectly yours.

Hold fast to this thought if others try to undo it.

I am sending this and a kiss (or two).

I was you.

 

Rachel Rooney

Rachel Rooney‘s latest picture book The Problem with Problems, illustrated by Zehra Hicks and published by Andersen, is out now. Her crossover poetry collection, Hey, Girl! is to be published by Otter-Barry Books in 2021.