Liz Brownlee, Matt Goodfellow, Laura Mucha: Being Me -Addressing Mental Health in Children’s Poetry

Clockwise: Liz Brownlee, Laura Mucha, Victoria Jane Wheeler, Matt Goodfellow.

Being Me – Addressing Mental Health in Children’s Poetry

How do you approach such an important and sensitive topic as children’s mental health and wellbeing in a poetry book and get it right? What approach can you, should you take to write about abuse, death, divorce, racism, for a primary-age reader? We wanted to open up the right discussions in difficult areas, both at home and in the classroom.

Luckily, Laura knew a leading developmental psychologist, Karen Goodall, so we set off on our writing journey with excellent guidelines. However we all came at it from different directions.

Liz: I concentrated on accounts of young people’s lived experiences of what goes on in their heads, and read widely about fostering positive self-image, emotional intelligence and healthy habits.

I also spoke to a GP about which mental health concerns he mostly sees in primary age children in his general practice.

Laura:  My approach was quite academic (I have an MA in psychology and philosophy and have completed a foundation course in psychotherapy). I began by devouring The Handbook of Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychology, The Handbook of Attachment and countless journals on new relationships, parental sickness, divorce and bereavement. I quickly discovered that we don’t always treat children in these scenarios in the most helpful ways possible.

For example, oncological and bereavement research has found that adults are often scared to tell children and young people the truth when they or the people they love are unwell or dying. But the danger in not being honest is that children’s imaginations can concoct scenarios far worse than the truth. My aim in writing was to give a voice to children’s experiences based on research findings in the hope of opening up essential conversations with teachers, parents and caregivers. 

Matt: As a trio, we wanted to cover as many different issues as we could with the aim of allowing children to see themselves reflected somewhere within the words. As an ex-primary school teacher I knew teachers could choose to focus on one particular poem, allow the children to familiarize themselves with the shape and pattern – and then perform it! Alongside this, they could be discussing the thoughts and feelings contained within the poem – and then use these discussions as a catalyst to have a go at writing their own poem – in their voice, about their life. 

We all felt the illustrations for the book needed to be quirky, less literal than usual. Luckily Matt knew illustrator Victoria Jane Wheeler, whose wonderful drawings have definitely added to the life of each poem.

Illustration to Secrets, by Liz Brownlee

Victoria: I had an instinct of the way the illustrations might go after reading the poems a few times, and understanding the rhythm, tone, who the narrator was, and the story being told. My initial ideas often changed a little as they became alive on the page, I let this happen, and tried not to force anything. The poems in Being Me depict a lot of different emotions, so I aimed to capture this through the eyes and the mouth in particular, and the size and angle of the head. To convey a little more I often introduced an awkward stance or a slight tension in texture, scale or surroundings. 

Hopefully children will find themselves in the book and know they aren’t alone in their worries, thoughts and feelings, whatever they are.

Liz Brownlee, Matt Goodfellow, Laura Mucha and Victoria Jane Wheeler

Teaching resources for Being Me and video links and films of the poems featured can all be found here:

Liz Brownlee is a National Poetry Ambassador and award-winning poet – her latest production is a book of shape poems, Shaping the World, 40 Historical Heroes in Verse, Macmillan, 2021.

Matt Goodfellow is an award-winning poet from Manchester. His most recent solo collection is Bright Bursts of Colour, Bloomsbury, 2020.

Laura Mucha is an award-winning poet whose books include Dear Ugly Sisters, Rita’s Rabbit and We Need to Talk About Love. As well as writing, Laura works with organisations such as UNICEF to improve the lives of children.

Victoria Jane Wheeler is a visual artist, illustrator and educator. Working to support young people students and communities, she is passionate about promoting and creating creative opportunities and access to the arts.

Debbie Pullinger: Poems and Pictures

Poems and Pictures

This week I heard about a new poetry book prize. This year, at the International Bologna Children’s Book Fair, the BolognaRagazzi award for illustrated children’s books has a special category for poetry – “in acknowledgement of the wealth of poetry books produced in recent years by the children’s publishing industry worldwide.” Hurrah, indeed. One of this blog’s contributors, Morag Styles, is on the illustrious judging panel, so we can look forward to hearing more about it in due course. In the meantime, it’s got me thinking about what makes for good poetry book illustration, and about how pictures and poems interact with each other.

As adults, we may be used to reading poetry quietly, reflectively. Or we may prefer to hear it read aloud. Like music, it has to come off the page. Either way, we’re tuning into the poetic language, allowing the sounds to enhance the sense, the words to resonate with connotation, the imagery to unfold. For me, it’s a sort of listening with which pictures would really only interfere. It’s like the old adage about listening to the radio “because the pictures are better”. (The science behind this: neurologically, incoming visual stimuli tend to override aural ones.)

But it would be an odd book of rhymes for the young that had no illustration. For pre-literate children, especially, the pictures are doing some vital work – signalling to the child that this is something specially for them; helping them to navigate the collection and to relocate their favourites; making the book a pleasurable object in its own right. A picture can also help them to key into a poem and what it’s about. Since many rhymes and poems – especially those for the very young – come with actions and gestures, or special voice and sound effects, I wonder, too, whether poetry illustration may be supplying a sort of visual equivalent on the silent page.

There are many books of children’s poetry where the illustrations seem to have insinuated themselves into the work. I cannot think of Ted Hughes’ Season Songs without feeling the almost awkward bulk of that book and seeing Leonard Baskin’s haunting illustrations, or of Michael Rosen’s early volumes without seeing Quentin Blake’s amiable figures, all feet and elbows, ambling across the pages. Both in their own way seem to capture and conjure the wordworld of the poet, in all its richness and particularity.

Sometimes, less is more. I think of Ann Stevenson’s black and white motifs that dance around Carol Ann Duffy’s work, or the stark woodcuts of Jonathan Gross that punctuate the poetry of his father, Philip in Off Road to Everywhere. As oblique as the poems themselves, they work metaphorically, metonymically – poetically.

More recently, Jackie Morris’s beautiful watercolours have shared equal billing with Robert Macfarlane’s extraordinary poems in The Lost Words. Although more lavish and more figurative, they still manage to create space for the imagination. It’s interesting that these particular poems went on to forge a further cross-media collaboration in a set of musical arrangements, premiered at the Royal Albert Hall proms. Of course, there are those who would rather let the poem speak for itself rather than be spoken over by music. But that’s another blog.

So then, it is possible that hearing a poem performed well is the best way to fully experience its poetry, to engage the musical ear and the mind’s eye. But equally, illustration and design (let’s not forget those oft-unsung designers) can add another dimension. The finest can play along with the words – whether in unison or harmony or counterpoint – to create a rich, multimodal experience that opens up the imaginative space in different ways.

Debbie Pullinger

Debbie Pullinger is a writer and researcher, based at the University of Cambridge. Her book From Tongue to Text: A New Reading of Children’s Poetry was published by Bloomsbury Academic. Website: www.debbiepullinger.com

Brian Moses: Anthologies

Anthologies

I was fortunate to have my first two poetry anthologies published by Blackie, and then Puffin in the early 1990s. However nobody seemed very keen on my third idea for a book which I called ‘The Secret Lives of Teachers’. One publisher wrote to me and told me that in his opinion it wouldn’t sell.

As an ex teacher I knew it would sell, and fortunately so did Susie Gibbs at Macmillan.

She commissioned the book and then handed the editorship to Gaby Morgan with whom I have now worked for almost 30 years. Gaby completely understood its potential too.

The market for children’s poetry was very different back then. There were a number of school book clubs that regularly took books into schools and these clubs bought thousands of copies of ‘Secret Lives’. In fact we wound up selling 75,000 copies (A best seller for children’s poetry then was 5,000 copies) Gaby and I then put together two more books ‘More Secret Lives of Teachers’ and ‘The Top Secret Lives of Teachers’, and later on, bundled them all together into a big volume.

In all editions, over 200,000 copies were sold in total. At the same time Paul Cookson and David Orme were also compiling anthologies which sold in great numbers.

This was a boom time for children’s poetry. Other anthologies which sold tens of thousands of copies were ‘Aliens Stole My Underpants’ and ‘I’m Telling On You – Poems about Brothers and Sisters.’

In 1998 the National Year of Reading gave a great boost to poetry and the anthologies we produced – often five or six a year – kept on selling.

We were criticised of course, by those who were precious about children’s poetry. I remember one particular event at the Society of Authors which Gaby and I attended, where she argued our case passionately in the face of some quite hostile criticism. We both knew that the poetry we were publishing made children smile or laugh – although in every book there were poems to make them think too. They were sold at pocket money prices and introduced children to a genre which otherwise they may not have encountered.

There seemed to be some notion though that if you didn’t introduce children to a poet like Alexander Pope before they went to school, then you were doing it wrong. This was a big part of the reason why children of my generation left school having turned away from poetry, through inappropriate choices at inappropriate ages. 

Getting children hooked on words and how they fit together through humorous poetry, means that they are then more open-minded to other kinds of poetry. They will have already embraced the rhythms of poetry and understood that it could mean something to their lives.,

Today there is a huge interest in poetry through poets visiting schools and through many teachers who are equally passionate about poetry. However this doesn’t translate into sales figures and smaller publishers who are producing some very fine poetry books find themselves struggling.

I don’t know what the answer is, I only know that I was pleased to be a part of that gold rush time for children’s poetry books in the 1990s and early 2000s, pleased to work with Gaby for so long, and pleased to have returned to our roots, as it were, with our latest publication of funny poems.

Brian Moses

Brian Moses has over 220 books published including volumes of his own poetry such as Lost Magic and I Thought I Heard a Tree Sneeze, anthologies such as The Secret Lives of Teachers and the recently published The Best Ever Book of Funny Poems. Brian also visits schools to run writing workshops and perform his own poetry and percussion shows. To date he has visited well over 3000 schools and libraries throughout the UK and abroad.
Blog: brian-moses.blogspot.com Website: http://www.brianmoses.co.uk

Shauna Darling Robertson: Children’s Poetry in Translation

Children’s Poetry in Translation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shauna Darling Robertson

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

Roger Stevens: Sale of Wife

It’s my turn to write this Blog, so I’m wondering what to write. I’m jotting down ideas in my notebook. I could reveal the recipe for Michael Rosen’s Chocolate Cake, or ask why no one seems to want to publish my book of robot poems. But then it hits me. I’ll write about keeping a notebook.

The two pieces of advice I give would-be children’s poets, and to children themselves, is to read lots and to keep a notebook. Writers of fiction, artists, musicians, any creative person – you need a notebook.

I have a poet friend who eschews notebooks. He belongs to the old ‘jot the idea down on the back of a fag packet’ school of writing. But how many of Shakespeare’s sonnets would have been lost if the Bard had used that method? Would we know how to compare someone to a summer’s day? I doubt it.

Random Pages from Roger’s Notebooks

You never know when you are going to hear or see something that will spark your imagination. Have you ever been woken in the night by a great idea, only to find upon waking in the morning it’s gone, forgotten? You need to keep your trusty notebook by your bed. 

You will undoubtedly discover, nine times out of ten, that the great thought you had at 3am is rubbish: an orange table discussing Brecht with a giant turtle was never going to work on the page. But that tenth time, when you see a white chicken in a red wheelbarrow standing out in the rain… well, there you go.

Whenever I’ve been a poet in residence, I’ve always given each student a notebook. You can often find a pile of old exercise books in a school store cupboard.

More random pages from Roger’s notebooks

I tell students (and staff) that what they write will be private. I won’t ever read it, unless they want me to. Their notes will be scribbled ideas and beginnings, not actual poems. Their writing doesn’t have to be neat or the spelling perfect. They can draw pictures or doodles to help, if they like. Their notebook is purely for them to use. But – they must write something every day. Even if it’s just one word.

Not every student will sign up to this. But many children love having a secret notebook and do use it as a creative tool; they see it as a chance to be free of the stress that writing rules can bring. Some brilliant poems have been born this way.

On the Skytrain, Vancouver, BC

A notebook is a very personal thing. I take a while choosing mine. For a few years, Paperchase sold a thick, hardback A5 plain-paper notebook that was a favourite. Then they introduced lines on the page. I didn’t like them. I had to find other makes. Over the last few years, I’ve taken to using a smaller and more portable notebook. Always non-lined. And into that notebook everything goes: ideas for poems, stories, songs, games, shopping lists, people’s names, drawings and my computer passwords (in code).

The first notebooks I came across, as an art student in the 1960s, were the notebooks of Dieter Roth; they had a great influence on both my art and my writing. Most of us will have marvelled at Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, full of brilliant drawings, amazing inventions and notes written in mirror writing.

And finally – did you know that Thomas Hardy and his wife, Emma, noted down incidents culled from local newspapers in their notebooks? One entry, barely three lines long, is headed Sale of Wife. Out of that fragment came The Mayor of Casterbridge.

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.

Pie Corbett: The City of Stars

This game is one of my favourite surreal poetry games. Put the children into pairs. The first pair makes a list of 5 generic places (by that, I mean not ‘Paris’ but ‘city’) or containers (suitcase, pocket, jar, etc.) and their partner makes a list of abstract nouns – without seeing each other’s lists, e.g.

Generic places: city, cellar, beach, cupboard, attic, town, village, house, shop, cathedral, park, forest, planet, pocket, backpack, jar, musical box.

Abstract nouns: wonder, despair, grief, greed, sadness, joy, death, hope, peace, kindness, jealousy, war, imagination, creativity, anger, anxiety, happiness.

The pairs then put their two lists together in the order in which the words were written. This is to ensure that the combinations are random and not influenced by logic. The combinations that work best are the fresh and startling juxtapositions when two ideas are placed together that have never been heard before. It is this unique combination that catches the imagination. If I use my first five ideas from each list, it would produce:

The city of wonder

The cellar of despair

The beach of grief

The cupboard of greed

The attic of sadness

You could then choose out one idea and create a list poem:

In the city of wonder, I saw –

A serpent with eyes of rubies,

A song thrush flying from a golden cage,

A sunset slipping over the darkening landscape,

In the city of wonder, I found –

A scarlet rug, softer than an eagle’s feathers,

A crimson pen nib, sharper than pirate’s blade,

A scintillating canary, yellow as mustard blossom.

James Walker from a Bristol primary school experimented with his year 6 class. He began by ‘banking’ with the children as many ‘colour’ words as possible plus abstract and ‘magical’ nouns. When randomly combined this gave lists of ideas such as:

Velvet shadows

Ebony whispers

Indigo happiness

Cerise laughter, etc

Of course, the sentences need verbs to provide the power and action for the lists of colours and abstract nouns. Five minutes rapid brainstorming gave the class a considerable list. Rapid brainstorming is an important part of teaching writing. The brainstorm trains the mind to generate possibilities. During the writing, the writer than has to select and judge – what makes most impact, what works?

James then used shared writing on the flipchart to work with the children developing magical and mysterious sentences. It’s important to model the writing of a text so that the teacher can develop writerly habits such as ‘first thought isn’t always the best thought’. The task is fun, accessible and inclusive and encourages children to play with words without fear.

The children moved straight into writing independently, drawing on their lists of colours and abstract nouns, extending their own sentences. The class wrote in silence and at a pace.

Sapphire suns created golden shadows whilst an indigo moon conjured up a velvet nightmare.

A cobalt truth floated gently through the captured eternity as a gossamer spell darted violently through the ashen sky.

I asked James what he had learned and he replied:

– all children love being creative;

 – generating and judging ideas;

– going off at tangents / no limits;

– warming up the imagination.

My thanks to James Walker who is a class teacher and ‘Talk for Writing’ trainer. He runs training and development projects: https://www.talk4writing.com/train-with-us/james-walker/

Pie Corbett

Pie Corbett is a teacher-poet – his collection ‘Evidence of `Dragons’ is used in many classrooms. He has published and edited over 250 books, runs ‘Talk for Writing’ and was made an honorary Doctor of Letters for services to creativity, poetry and social justice by the Open University. During Lockdown, he produced a daily, interactive radio show based on developing children as readers and writers. Each show featured a guest poet or author and all 60 shows are available for free: https://radioblogging.net

Liz Brownlee: Shaping the Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rosa Parks, poem and shape © Kate Wakeling

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liz Brownlee

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

Susannah Herbert: The 600 Citizen Poets of Lockdown

First, a confession.  In the eight years I spent running the Forward Arts Foundation, I was never comfortable talking about my job “in poetry”. For me, those in poetry were the poets and performers, who often doubled as impresarios, editors, publishers and teachers, even while holding down other jobs. These people, it seemed to me, worked in words as potters worked in clay. As makers, they represented something special, luminous – they were touched by the creative spark in a way that set them apart.

Since stepping back from day-to-day involvement with poetry, I’ve thought more about the changes I saw over those eight years: the growing recognition for poetry in the book trade, the media and libraries, an elision of the split between the written and spoken word, a participation surge big enough to win headlines. These days, the notion of creatives as creatures “apart” seems… inadequate.

Take the phenomenon of Haiflu, a portmanteau word coined by the young West Country poet Liv Torc, whose first lockdown response in March 2020 was to wonder what her friends were making of the new normal.

She used her Facebook page to ask for updates: in pictures and words, limiting written posts to three lines arranged in haiku form (5-7-5 syllables). The witty, touching, thoughtful responses kept coming, week after week, each like the opening of a window. Many were breathtaking: all were good in the sense of being true to a personal perception, a moment, a place, a shifting of the light.

I was bewitched by the possibilities of such a simple idea and knew others in the National Poetry Day network – libraries, schools, journalists – would be too. All Forward Arts Foundation had to do was put her in front of the right people, via the British Library’s Living Knowledge Network seminars, the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme or the Arts Council’s library experts.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

A year on, Project Haiflu has directly involved more than 600 “citizen artists” across the UK, with more than 10,000 individual poems shared with Liv for possible inclusion in her weekly short films, tying together pictures and words with music by her composer husband, Richard Monks. Now Liv, who spent much of the summer hospitalized with an auto-immune disorder, has just won a proper Arts Council England grant to turn the project into a participative show touring village halls, plus a book.

I first knew Liv as a poet, one of the dozen working with National Poetry Day and BBC Local Radio as a #BBCLocalPoet in 2019. (See her fine poem about Somerset.) But it’s only when we caught up this week on the usual stuff – health, children, what’s driving us mad or keeping us going – that I realised how much she’d changed the way I understand the working of poetry.

 “2020 turned me into a better artist”, she wrote, “because within the restrictions of lockdown I learned how to adapt my practice and continue to hold creative spaces for people. Feeling inept as an individual to report back on unfolding events, I became a weaver.” 

To hold space, to weave, to feel inept alone. Oh yes, this resonates. (That’s an inadvertent haiflu: sorry).  Liv’s creativity cannot be summed up in her own work, but exists among the furloughed librarians and laid-off office-workers who adapted the #haiflu hashtag for use in their communities, among those who found words for their disturbed senses in response to the tentative attempts of others, lonely and fearful like them… like us

That’s how poetry works. I’m glad to be in it.

Susannah Herbert

Read more about Liv Torc and Haiflu on www.livtorc.co.uk

Susannah Herbert ran the Forward Arts Foundation, the charity responsible for National Poetry Day and the Forward Prizes, from September 2012 to January 2021. She is currently working with St John Ambulance, and learning from other vaccination volunteers – mainly furloughed airline stewards – how to improve her bedside manner.

Rachel Piercey: Loud Objects, A Poetry Workshop

Loud Objects: a Poetry Workshop

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

The session is based around this poem of mine:

Voices

Tree considers:

Soil or sky, which is my home?

Stone remembers:

I had wings when I was thrown.

Book exhales:

See me jacketed with dust.

Gate creaks:

Hear me speak, my voice of rust.

Computer whirrs:

My poor head… so fever-full.

Mountain thunders:

Sometimes, I feel small.

Violet pipes:

Oh visit, gold-striped bees.

Swallow’s refrain:

Please send me a feathered breeze.

Maze confesses:

No idea where I am going!

Girl declares:

I’ll write this all into my poem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Piercey

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

Natasha Ryan: Charlotte Brontë Knows How to Do the Worm

Charlotte Brontë Knows How to Do the Worm

I joined The Poetry Society as Education Officer in April as a maternity cover. My main role is organising the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, which has just opened for entries again – visit foyleyoungpoets.org to learn more.

When I took the job, I was especially looking forward to attending poetry readings in the Poetry Café in London, as well as young poets’ showcases in schools and arts venues. Hindsight is, as they say, 20/20.

Like many arts organisations over the last year, The Poetry Society has moved much of its live activity online: from the recent bicentennial Keats celebrations to launches of our quarterly Poetry Review, Zoom has become the dominant mode of interaction with our audiences, an ill-fitting peg in a Betterton Street-shaped hole. The same is true of our work with young people, where we’ve had to adapt to variables like students’ learning from home, increased teacher workload, different safeguarding concerns, and an awareness of new pressures on young people’s mental health.

One of the most rewarding aspects of our young people’s work is the strong sense of community our young poets form, whether through shared activities as winners of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, or through Young Poets Network. We were especially keen not to lose this.

Mindful that social distancing is not optimal for forging such connections, it would have been easy to be all zoom and gloom. However, the new structures imposed on us revealed a surprising silver lining. For instance, at the last Foyle Young Poets awards ceremony, we were not only joined by more international winners than usual, but also by large school groups whom we could not normally host at an in-person event. In one case, an entire year group joined the event to support their peers.

Last month, we ran an online writing course for the 15 top winners of the award. Over the course of two days, the young poets participated in eleven hours of workshops and sharing sessions to encourage them to develop their craft, build confidence, and support one another.

Undeniably, it was a lot of screen time. But despite the Zoom fatigue, the technology also offered certain advantages: written responses to prompts could be shared instantly and simultaneously using the chat function; for young people sharing their work for the first time, being in the comfort of their own homes reduced anxiety; and the resources we shared onscreen could be edited in real time, giving the participants agency in shaping the material. What’s more, although the nerve-wracking moment when the participants had to unmute themselves before voicing an idea introduced delays into discussions, it was also an important process – the technology forced them actively to give themselves permission to be heard. Once they relaxed into this, they embraced the surreal nature of some of the tasks, so that an ideas-generating exercise prompted unexpected phrases like “Charlotte Brontë knows how to do the worm”, while one participant wrote a villanelle about sweet potatoes that very afternoon.

I’d be lying if I said I’m not looking forward to in-person events again, but I hope we retain some of the benefits of the online format and use it to reach audiences further afield. The paradox of this age of social distancing is that although we feel further apart from friends and family, we can be in the same Zoom room as someone thousands of miles away. When you think about it, that’s an even more extraordinary notion than, say, Charlotte Brontë doing the worm.

The Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award is free to enter and is open to poets aged 11-17 anywhere in the world. Enter online at foyleyoungpoets.org by 31 July 2021.

Natasha Ryan

Natasha Ryan is the Education Officer at The Poetry Society. She manages the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award and supports the delivery of slam programmes and Artsmark at The Poetry Society. She has previously worked as an Outreach Officer for the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, University of Oxford, and in 2017 she completed a doctorate on the representation of glass in nineteenth-century French and Belgian poetry.