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.

Lucy Thynne: Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award

Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award

This time last year, I had finished my A levels and was going to meet some of my ‘poetry friends’ in the centre of London. We were going to see one of our favourite poets, the TS Eliot prize-winning Ocean Vuong, in conversation with Sandeep Parmar, at the Southbank Centre, and the following day, we were travelling to a little town in Herefordshire called Ledbury to read at their annual Poetry Festival. I’m more than aware that this is not the typical summer blowout of an eighteen-year-old – but bear with me.

I got very, very lucky. I was chosen as one of fifteen winners for the Foyle Young Poet of the Year Award in 2016, 2017 and 2018, an international competition that aims to seek out the best poems of 11-17-year olds. The prize: publication and an Arvon writing course at the Hurst, in Shropshire. These are the tangible rewards offered, but the most fulfilling result of the competition is the boost of confidence it can give you. Writing, I quickly realised, was not just something to hide away in my bedroom; it was something that had been validated and could be shared.

Ocean Vuong’s fan club – at the Hurst

The friendships I came away with from those Arvon courses were the best outcome of the competition. The week is an organised chaos of poetry workshops in the morning, free time in the afternoon; there are cooking endeavours in the kitchen and muddy walks to the nearby village. Tutors on the course have included Pascale Petit, Kayo Chingonyi, Raymond Antrobus and Malika Booker, and guest poets have included Sarah Howe and Caroline Bird. Where there is little sleep, there are many excited, quiet revelations about poetry. Teenagers who also read and were as enthralled by poems as I was – that was a huge discovery for me, and something I never would have found without Foyle. I feel incredibly privileged to have met young poets from around the world: many of whom I am still in touch with, go to university with, and count among my closest friends. It is rare for any person, let alone a teenager, to find a trusted group of people they can show their writing to. I’m very grateful to the competition for that.

In the craziness of times like these, I hope that young people can also turn to poetry. There is a lot of talk about being creative while a virus is raging around the world; I think for many, it has been rather paralysing, but for some, it can be a means of comfort and of self-expression. It is strange to think that this time last year I was travelling around the country, able to take advantage of opportunities that had come directly from the wonderful people at The Poetry Society. My heart really goes out to all of the young people stuck at home, particularly those who may feel shafted by the pandemic – if parents are key-workers, if exams have been cancelled. There is a self-consciousness to writing poetry; I think far too often, people are dissuaded by the pretentious and elitist image that it can still hold. Nonetheless, I hope that more young people can see beyond this view and use this extra time to write a poem, because it can do a world of good. I know it did for me.

Lucy Thynne

Lucy Thynne is 19 and studying English. A previous winner of the Foyle Young Poet of the Year, her work has also been recognised by the BBC, the Forward Arts Foundation and the Young Romantics Prize. She edits fiction for her university magazine and is an Editor at the Oxford Review of Books.

The Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award is the biggest international poetry competition for 11-17 year olds in the world. Run by The Poetry Society, the competition is free to enter, with no theme or line limit. Teachers can enter class sets of students’ poems and receive a discount on The Poetry Society’s Poets in Schools booking service, and individual poets can enter as many poems as they like for free! The competition closes on 31 July. Find out more and enter at foyleyoungpoets.org.

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).

Teresa Cremin: Sharing the Love of Poetry

Sharing the Love of Poetry

 Children’s lives are packed with poetry; they participate in a world of words and play with these eagerly, often without recognising the essentially poetic nature of playground rhymes, songs, chants, jingles, jokes and lyrics for instance.  Young people find intense pleasure in verbal play and are drawn to the sound and visual effects of poetry and many enjoy watching poets’ perform online.  Recognising and celebrating their affinity with poetry is important. As educators, poets and parents we want to help them develop and sustain positive attitudes and pleasurable engagement in reading, writing, listening to and performing poetry.

So, drawing on some partnership work with Eve Vollans from Mayflower Community Academy in Plymouth and a team of talented teachers, I have created some mini reading challenges – invitations to engage and share the love of poetry!

They are underpinned by OU research which shows that reading for pleasure is supported by reading aloud and  time to talk about texts, as well as time to read, alone, and with others. Rich practice which supports a love of reading is, I argue,  Learner led, Informal, Social and with Texts that Tempt (LIST).

Poetry tempts many young people, so why not offer these invitations to children and families you know and invite them to explore and then share their pleasure in poetry with teachers, friends or family.  They might for example choose to become Poetry Detectives in their homes – on the hunt for word play in lyrics, adverts, picture books and newspapers. They might pop a poem or joke in their window to engage passers-by, find out their parents’ favourite childhood poems, or explore The Children’s Poetry Archive- the opportunities are almost endless.

Adults, as poetry loving role models, can participate too!

So feel free to invite – engage – enjoy and share the love of poetry widely!

Teresa Cremin

Teresa is Professor of Education (Literacy) at the Open University. An advocate of teachers’ creative artistry, Teresa is also passionate about developing readers for life and leads a professional user-community website based on her research into reading for pleasure. Research Rich Pedagogies supports over 80 OU/UKLA Teachers’ Reading Groups and 24 HEI partnerships across the country. Her most recent book is Reading for Pleasure in the Digital Age: Mapping Reader Engagement (2020, Sage). Teresa Cremin’s OU webpage.

Debbie Pullinger: A Poem in the Head

A Poem in the Head

Lockdown has been an unlooked-for boost for poetry. Under pressure, creative juices have leaked out and poems have sprouted in every spare bit of ground. At the same time, appetites have grown, and some – like my friend who’s learning a load of Larkin – have even turned to memorising.

If lockdown poems have poured out of you, then you’ve something to show for it all. But what if you have simply coaxed them off the page and into your head? What’s to show for that? And why not simply enjoy reading them, rather than going to the bother of learning?

These were precisely the kinds of questions with which we began our Poetry and Memory project at the University of Cambridge. We were interested in the value of the memorised poem, and how knowing poems by heart affects appreciation and understanding. Our findings point to a constellation of potential benefits – for anyone, at any age. You can read more about the project here. But to highlight just three, a poem in the heart …

  • becomes a valuable emotional resource, often growing and changing with us.
  • creates a sense of ownership – and for children, that can provide a vital sense of mastery as well as being a staging post to other poems.
  • open us to possibility – like Becky Fisher’s mum, you never know where, or who, it might lead to…

Lines in the head also help with the lines that come out. We know that for so many of our great poets, a store of memorised poetry was instrumental in their achievement – what Seamus Heaney called “bedding the ear with a kind of linguistic hardcore”. When poetry learning was reinstated on the primary curriculum in 2012, it was not universally welcomed. Even so, it does build an instinctual awareness of how poetic language works. It’s great to hear on this blog about the inspiring work poets are doing in schools – and to read some of the poems which come out of that. And as these young writers begin to find their voice, they will be tuning into those tracks of language laid down in the brain.

Ok, but surely children shouldn’t be required to learn or recite? An interesting question I’m often asked.

In our research, we asked about when, how and why poems were learned. Some people reported dreadful experiences of enforced learning that put them off for life. And yet… others made to learn and recite under duress were really glad they did and now love their poem. Countless others, though, said they learned their poem ‘accidentally’, just through hearing it again and again.

And that’s the thing – children really don’t need forcing. As any parent whose child joins in with a Julia Donaldson book knows, they do it as naturally as they learn language. And as many a teacher knows, there are lots of ways to make learning enjoyable. For a few ideas, my Poetry Archive Teaching Resource draws on findings from the project.

Once learned, poems can be explored through performance. The act of sharing a poem in this way seems to bring the relationship between sounds and sense into sharper focus, while new shades of meaning can be opened up in the moment. Again, ideas for performance are here.

But what if, like me, you’re of the generation who never learned poetry in school? Well, some of my most fascinating interviews were with people who told me about starting to learn poems later in life – as an absorbing hobby, as a bulwark against dementia or, perhaps – most significantly for these times – as therapy for depression or solace for dark days. It’s never too early, never too late.

Debbie Pullinger

Debbie Pullinger is a writer and researcher based at the University of Cambridge. Having published a volume on children’s poetry – From Tongue to Text (Bloomsbury, 2017) – she is currently working on a book about the memorised poem. www.debbiepullinger.com  @debpullinger

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.

Kate Clanchy: Quarantine Poems

Quarantine Poems

 

Today I placed my hand

against a window

to feel the warmth of April

and my hand left a print.

Amaani Khan (17)

 

I’ve never really believed that poetry workshops could be taught online. Tutorials and edits are one thing – they can work quite well on the phone – but for the scribbling, heavy breathing magic that can happen in a group writing together, particularly a group of young people, I’ve always relied on being physically present. In the school where I taught for a decade, Oxford Spires Academy, and where the anthology, England, Poems from a School was created being physically present  meant in the library, after school, seated round the big table and catching passing trade from Year Sevens waiting for their mums,  lost souls on detention and sixth formers filling in UCAS forms.

But when lockdown started, I had to  think differently. Generations of my students were back in town from university, living disconsolately with their parents, or stuck in student accommodation far away, or furloughed from sixth form and missing it far more than they could believe.  I’ve always kept up with my old students, and read their new work, but that has always been, quite properly, sporadic.  Now, though, they were all back in touch, and all at once. So I tentative downloaded zoom, and sent out invitations, and one by one they appeared in Zoom’ shrinking frames: Mukahang, in his first year at Oxford, Sophie, just finishing her MA, Esme, graduated from Nottingham and running her own writing groups, Asima, working for the Rathbones Folio Foundation, dyslexic Aisha, relieved of her A Levels; Timi, back from Portsmouth, Annie, Linnet and Amaani, half way through sixth form. We were all so moved  and pleased to see each other, even postage stamp sized.

And it seemed the poetry workshop magic still worked. We played some of our old games – writing for 1 minute on ‘the rule is’,  creating a list of what furniture, boat, weather, and dog your friend is, completing the sentence ‘I am not allowed to think’. We read and shared, as we always did, a strong, contemporary poem to use as a model – we started with Louisa Adjoa Parker’s ‘Kindness’, from the National Poetry Competition – and then we wrote together for a while, with me murmuring suggestions and prompts.

At this point, I very much missed being able to walk round the table, tap on shoulders, and peer at manuscripts in process. Online though, all that has to be done later, on GoogleDrive. During the class, all is clicks, quiet, and camera phones turned to ceiling. But we still seem to like writing together, because at the end of half an hour, everyone has created something and wants to share it by reading aloud. This is another habit I’ve built up over years in the library. I’ve even taught them to laugh at each other’s self-deprecatory introductions : ‘Opposite talk’ they call at Esme when she says she’s written ‘something prosy.’ ‘Bet you haven’t’.

She hasn’t. No one has. The standard of poetry in this group is stunning. Perhaps because they are more mature, perhaps because they are self-selected – but I think it is also the times. These young people are shut up with their families at the very age when they should be out in the world, enduring the sight of a sunny spring outside their own windows, and they have a lot to say about it. When I put some of the poems on twitter, it’s clear that it’s not just me who thinks so.

Kate Clanchy has published 9 books, most recently the highly acclaimed England, Poems from a School, an anthology of her migrant students’ poems and Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, a memoir of 30 years of teaching in state schools. Kate was made MBE for Services to Poetry in 2019.

 

 

 

Joshua Seigal: Poetry Workshops in Informal Settings

Poetry Workshops in Informal Settings

Most of my working days are spent running poetry sessions in schools. Whilst not adhering to the same strictures as a school lesson, there is nonetheless a degree of formality: children are normally sat at their tables, are expected to be quiet, and are generally overseen by their teacher as well as myself.

However, one of my happiest times as a poet was when I ran a series of very informal lunch clubs at a girls’ secondary school in Newham, East London. I worked at the school as Poet-in-Residence from 2014-17, having initially been placed there as part of my MA at Goldsmiths. The lunch club was attended by ‘vulnerable’ students. These were students who, for one reason or another, struggled in mainstream educational settings. The point of the club was to introduce them to poetry and creative writing, whilst at the same time providing a safe space for them to spend their lunch break on a Wednesday. Students were ‘invited’ to attend, rather than required to, and throughout the years numbers fluctuated. At one point they reached double figures (perhaps because of the biscuits on offer), but there was a hardcore of perhaps three or four students who attended every week.

I normally started off the sessions by reading a poem or two, on a different theme each week. Students could then respond to the poem with their own writing and/or drawing, whilst chatting with their friends and eating their lunch. I began by approaching the club somewhat like a regular lesson: I gave the students specific targets to aim for, and often provided them with models or scaffolding for their writing. However, as time went on and it became clear who was dedicated to the club and who wasn’t, my approach changed. I began reading a poem and then letting students respond however they liked. Sometimes they produced their own poetry, and sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes their chat was relevant to the theme I’d introduced, and sometimes it wasn’t. The whole experience was joyous, and the point of it was the sense of community, rather than any clearly defined written or academic outcomes.

Once the group was really well established, I sometimes didn’t even read a poem at all. I just introduced a concept or a theme, or gave them a sentence to complete, and let the students do with it what they wanted. Here is a poem using the sentence starter ‘Love is’, that was produced by a girl in Year 9 with learning difficulties:

 Love Is

Love is fireworks and butterflies

Love is feelings

Love you can’t touch

Love is dumb

Love comes in different cultures

Everyone loves someone

Love is always red

You can’t see love even if you are wearing glasses

Love is wind

Love is blind

 

Throughout my time running the club, many similarly profound and beautiful poems were produced, and they normally arrived in the absence of the aforementioned modelling and scaffolding. The crucial factor seemed to be the degree to which the club developed that sense of community and cohesion.

So what advice would I give to someone who wanted to run poetry sessions in informal settings? I think the key is that these sessions are best developed across a period of time, so that workshop participants become well accustomed to each others’ company. The second point is related: any written outcomes should be viewed as secondary to the primary purpose of fostering that sense of safety and community. Thirdly, once the importance of these outcomes is deemphasised, very powerful and important writing can, paradoxically, result.

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.

 

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.