Lucy Macnab: Think Like an Owl!

Think like an owl!

It is magical

It’s bigger, better, exciting!

No, it’s bigger, better and it is stronger,

Celebration!

What you really want,

What you really need for your family,

Think about it carefully

Think bold,

Think like an owl!

Ava-Rae, aged 7, St John the Baptist Primary School/Ministry of Stories.

Last month I joined Forward Arts Foundation as Co-Executive Director, alongside Mònica Parle. Forward promotes public knowledge, understanding and enjoyment of poetry in the UK and Ireland. I had spent the past three years at Arts Council England, working on their new strategy, Let’s Create, and figuring out how it could best deliver for children and young people. I felt uncertain about what to do next, what my purpose was, and what poetry could do for a country on its knees after the pandemic. 

Last year, I moved house with my family to a small village near Dover. We had been shielding and needed to be in a place where we could stretch our wings wider while staying isolated. I had my third child there, and would wake through the night with the baby to hear the call of an owl in the woods outside. It felt like company in a very isolated and uncertain time. 

Last week I tried to start this blog about 6 times. I felt uncertain what to write about, out of practice with the business of poetry. Kids. Pandemic. Austerity. Where does art fit? Then last Friday afternoon I quit procrastinating; went to pick up my children from school. I found the playground full of poems. The whole school had been turned into a poetry club for a week, inspired by Amanda Gorman’s poem, Change Sings. The school had made last week ‘Writing Week’, to celebrate writing, and particularly poetry.

Dalmain Primary School, Lewisham

I’m not certain what Ava-Rae was thinking about when she wrote her poem, Think Like an Owl. But I keep circling back to it this week, finding layers of meaning. It is the mysterious owl in the woods, the celebration of a whole school writing poetry, and the boldness and purpose of poetry itself. I’m sure many of us – parents, teachers, friends – are thinking about how we can help children as we emerge from the pandemic. We are in uncharted territory and there is much to feel worried about. There’s plenty of research already that things like literacy, attainment and mental health have been affected. As well as all the things it’s harder to measure. But I firmly believe that poetry has a big part to play. Writing and reading without the need to pin down meaning – playing with words, enjoying their rhythm: this creativity will help children find their way to what they really need. Let’s think bold, like Ava-Rae’s owl.

Lucy Macnab

Lucy Macnab co-leads Forward Arts Foundation, which develops poetry audiences and talent in theUK. She is also an arts consultant and facilitator with expertise in strategy, organisational development, and human centred design.

Previously, she was Senior Manager, Children and Young People at Arts Council England, where she developed their strategy to support the creative and cultural lives of children. Before that Lucy was Director of the Ministry of Stories, which she co-founded in 2010 with Nick Hornby and Ben Payne. She built the charity from scratch with a group of volunteers into an award winning centre of creativity and writing with children. 

Natalia Kucirkova: A Nose Dive into Children’s Poems

© Natalia Kucirkova
© Natalia Kucirkova

Natalia Kucikova

Natalia Kucirkova is Professor of Early Childhood Education and Development at the University of Stavanger, Norway and Professor of Reading and Children’s Development at The Open University, UK. Natalia’s work is concerned with social justice in children’s literacy and use of technologies. Her research takes place collaboratively across academia, commercial and third sectors. Natalia is a Jacobs Foundation Research Fellow 2021-2023. She blogs for Psychology Today and her latest book is ‘The Future of the Self’. 

Helen Bowell: Celebrating LGBT+ History Month With Poetry

February is LGBT+ History Month in the UK, an annual moment to reflect on the history of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex, ace, questioning and queer people. (If you’re not sure of what any of those terms mean, why not find out now?). So I thought it would be a good moment to share some LGBT+ children’s poetry suggestions for teachers, parents and curious readers.

Why mark LGBT+ History Month through children’s poetry?

According to Stonewall, half of LGBT+ children are bullied at school. By openly talking and reading about LGBT+ lives, we can normalise a variety of gender identities, families and sexualities, and let those children know that whoever they are is okay. LGBT+ History Month offers the lifelines of community – of knowing they’re not alone – and history. And it’s helpful for us all to remember that, though people haven’t always had the language to describe themselves as such, LGBT+ people have always existed. Some of our greatest poets, from Sappho to Rumi, William Shakespeare to Wilfred Owen, wrote about loving people of the same gender as them.

If you’re not sure where to begin with LGBT+ authors, poetry is a great route in. Poems are short, so you can hear from a diverse range of perspectives in a single lesson. Why not read a poem a day throughout this month, or throughout June for Pride?

Suggested poems

NB: these aren’t strictly children’s poems – but they don’t contain strong language or graphic/triggering imagery of any kind and can be shared with anyone of any age.

Suggested books

  • Age 5+: Wain by Rachel Plummer re-tells Scottish folklore in a beautifully illustrated book that make the queer subtext the text.
  • Age 10+: Rising Stars isa children’s anthology of marginalised voices including work by Victoria Adukwei Bulley, Ruth Awolola, Abigail Cook, Jay Hulme and Amina Jama.
  • Aged 13+ PROUD is a YA anthology of short stories, poems and art about pride. Find teaching resources based on it here.

Suggested writing activities

  • Using whatever magazines and newspapers you have lying around, create found poems, erasing any gender stereotypes (etc.). Make them into zines and hold an exhibition!
  • Gender Swapped Fairy Tales simply swaps the genders in fairy tales. Can you write poems that do the same? What surprises occur when the gender changes but the story stays the same?
  • More writing prompts here.

Suggested resources

The Poetry Society’s resources

Happy LGBT+ History Month!

Helen Bowell

Helen Bowell is one of The Poetry Society’s Education Officers, and runs both Young Poets Network and Poets in Schools. In her spare time, she is a co-director of Dead [Women] Poets Society, resurrecting women writers of the past, and a poet published by Bad Betty Press.

Kate Wakeling: On Trusting Difficult and Mysterious Things

I’ll start by saying what I don’t mean. What I don’t mean is that poems for children should ever be wilfully obscure or inaccessible. Or that poems for children shouldn’t ever be wonderfully direct and simple. Or just tell a good joke. All of this is an important part of children’s poetry.

That said, I have this feeling there’s sometimes a certain expectation that poems for children should… do what they say on the tin, or not include anything deemed too mysterious, or not feature words or ideas that might risk seeming a bit highfalutin’ for younger brains – or that they (poems) shouldn’t have a sense of not having quite made up their minds.

As someone who writes for adults and for children, I do of course differentiate in all sorts of ways between these two audiences. I know there are many kinds of ‘difficult’ things (in vocabulary or concept) that would doubtless be unconstructive to include when writing for younger people, and I spend a lot of time making sure that I don’t risk losing a reader across a poem.

But at the same time… the more I write, be it for adults or children, the more I’ve realised how important it is for me not to know exactly what I’m talking about before I start. And I think my most successful poems for both children and adults retain something of this mystery once complete. Poems I’ve written for children called ‘The Demon Mouth’ and ‘Weird Cake’ both delve into ideas and sensations that I still can’t precisely articulate (tenderness, desire, control, self-expression, rage, release?) – and they seem to spark a lot of thought in children.

When I write in this way – i.e. propelled by an impulse that is difficult to explain in concrete terms – I find that the words often arrive in my brain with an odd sort of force. And because of this, when writing this sort of poem for children, I will sometimes use a word that mightn’t be immediately familiar to that audience. I use it because it feels like the right word, in the way that words do in a poem. And I only use such a word if I’m confident that it will spring to life for the reader in this context, but I know it’s still a risk. Yet I feel like it’s right to take this risk on occasion because, for me, poems are there to carry you to somewhere else in all sorts of ways. And if you trust in this process and let the sonic power of each word work its tricks, then it will probably be OK.

It’s a well-trodden reference, but I find Keats’ ‘negative capability’ such a helpful perspective: that good writing is ‘capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. I find it interesting that there’s sometimes an uneasiness about exposing children to ‘uncertainties’ in poetry – that it might be too unsettling or off-putting if a poem doesn’t reveal itself clearly enough in each and every way. Perhaps it’s because we often feel that our job as adults is to provide children with answers. But of course answers are not only what children want or need.

I view poems as a magic invitation (for writer or reader, adult or child) to sit for a while with a question or sensation, and explore it in your own way. Poems provide a space where things don’t necessarily need to be solved or understood in a rational sense. Rather, they’re somewhere you can experience something a little more deeply or perhaps in a new way entirely. They are a place of mystery and knottiness, but also of discovery. And it seems only fair that children should get just as much of this as anybody else.

Kate Wakeling

Kate Wakeling is a writer and musicologist. Her debut collection of children’s poetry, Moon Juice (The Emma Press)won the 2017 CLiPPA and was nominated for the 2018 CILIP Carnegie Medal. Her second collection for children, Cloud Soup (The Emma Press) came out in the summer and was selected as a Book of the Month by the Guardian and the Scotsman. A pamphlet of Kate’s poetry for adults, The Rainbow Faults, is published by The Rialto.

Laura Mucha: Actually, I Haven’t Met My Father

As a child it was hard not to compare myself to people with two parents – EVERYONE else seemed to have them. It wasn’t just the people around me, it was the adverts, books, films, TV programs, French classes where, for years, we were asked to describe what our mother and father did. (I lied. Not least because my French wasn’t good enough age 11 to say “Actually, I haven’t met my father, so I cannot confirm his current profession – or if he’s even alive. But I can tell you about my grandfather, who I call Dad?”)

It made me feel like an outsider, inferior, shameful. While that helped me develop empathy for others, it was also uncomfortable and sad.

I remember one of my teachers telling the entire class that single parent families were inferior to those with two – hers is a common view. But it’s not backed up by evidence. While single parents can fare worse than double parent families, when you account for the impact of poverty, this difference dwindles[1]. Given single parents are far more likely to be poor[2], it’s unsurprising we conflate the two.

Staying single can be a hugely positive choice. I interviewed a father from Sri Lanka who decided to stay single after his wife died in her 40s, leaving him with three children under twelve. “I could have settled with somebody,” Kumar explained, ”but I needed to do something for my children: I had to show fatherly and motherly love because they wouldn’t know their mother’s love. Love [is] what you take on board to your future.”[3]

Dad’s New Girlfriend, Laura Mucha, from Being Me, by Liz Brownlee, Laura Mucha, Matt Goodfellow, illustrated by Victoria Jane Wheeler, Otter-Barry Books

Kumar was right – it is love that we take with us. And sometimes choosing to stay single is the best way to ensure that children feel that love. In some circumstances, children in step-families are psychologically worse off than children with single parents[4]. And in the Harvard Bereavement Study (which followed parents and children for years following their loss), children whose parents dated in the first year after losing their partner had more emotional or behavioural problems (among other difficulties) than those whose parents stayed single.

Albatross, by Laura Mucha, from Being Me, Liz Brownlee, Laura Mucha, Matt Goodfellow, illustrated by Victoria Jane Wheeler, Otter-Barry Books

So why, then, is single parenthood, or any deviation from the two parent family stigmatised? Why don’t we see single parents more frequently and, crucially, more positively in children’s poetry?

In 2020, 58,346 children and young people were asked by the National Literacy Trust whether they saw themselves in the books they read. 37.3% of those that received free school meals didn’t. (The number was slightly lower for those who do pay for meals, at 31.9%.)[5]

Given single parent families are significantly more likely to live in poverty[6] and poverty is linked with lower levels of literacy[7], children in these households are precisely the demographic that we need to support. Surely being able to see themselves and their family situation in the poetry they’re reading is fundamental to that?

Everyone, by Laura Mucha, from Being Me, Liz Brownlee, Laura Mucha, Matt Goodfellow, illustrated by Victoria Jane Wheeler, Otter-Barry Books

Not everyone grows up with two parents. Some only have one. Some have two but one is highly abusive and it’s not safe to stay in touch. Some have none and live with family members. Some live in foster care or institutions.

We know this. We have robust stats that show this represents a significant percentage of children – both here and around the world. And yet, how often do these children see the two-parent family portrayed as the norm, to which they and everyone should aspire? How often do they compare themselves to this norm and find themselves lacking?

How often do they see themselves and their families in the poetry they read?

[1] Treanor, M.,‘Social Assets, Low Income and Child Social, Emotional and Behavioural Wellbeing’, Families, Relationships and Societies, Vol. 5, No. 2, July 7, 2016, pp. 209–228.

[2] European Parliament, The situation of single parents in the EU, Study Requested by the FEMM committee, November 2020 https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2020/659870/IPOL_STU(2020)659870_EN.pdf

[3] I interviewed Kumar for my book, We Need to Talk About Love (Bloomsbury) – Kumar appears in Chapter Fourteen, Borrowed People

[4] Amato PR, Keith B. Parental divorce and the well-being of children: a meta-analysis. Psychol Bull. 1991 Jul;110(1):26-46.

[5] National Literacy Trust, Diversity and children and young people’s reading in 2020 https://literacytrust.org.uk/research-services/research-reports/diversity-and-children-and-young-peoples-reading-in-2020/

[6] European Parliament, The situation of single parents in the EU, Study Requested by the FEMM committee, November 2020 https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2020/659870/IPOL_STU(2020)659870_EN.pdf  

[7] National Literacy Trust, Read On, Get On, A strategy to get England’s children reading.

Laura Mucha

Laura Mucha is an award-winning poet whose books include Being Me, Rita’s Rabbit, We Need to Talk About Love and Dear Ugly Sisters (which won the NSTBA Award for Poetry in 2021). As well as writing, Laura works with organisations such as the Royal Society of Medicine, National Literacy Trust and UNICEF to improve the lives of children.


Andrea Reece: Everyone’s a Winner

Everyone’s a winner

The Newbery Award is one hundred years old this year. Reading an article about the award and its 100 winners got me thinking about prizes, their importance and impact. I should say that prizes have been a big part of my professional life (though, sadly, not as a recipient). Publishers I’ve worked for have sponsored prizes; authors I’ve published have won them. I’ve been a judge myself (Costa Children’s Book Award 2015 – a big year). I’ve been part of the team behind the Branford Boase Award since 2012 and am currently running the Klaus Flugge Prize. And, most pertinent here, I’m delighted to say that this will be my third year working for CLPE on the publicity and promotion for the CLiPPA, the UK’s leading annual award for published poetry for children. Put it all together, and that’s a lot of judging sessions observed, and a great deal of applauding, not to mention lots of opportunities to ponder who prizes are for, and what they can do.

The Newbery anniversary has sparked debate around the list of winners and not all of its 100 winning books are recommended reading for today. Times change, taste and sensibilities with them of course, but it’s true too that anyone who’s participated in an award will be conscious of excellent nominees who, because of some one thing, failed to make the final list. Then too, if there can only be one winner, surely there must be four or five disappointed shortlistees too.

Well, no. Because to see a prize as only being about its winner really misses the point. As an expert, here are five glorious things I’ve realised are true of all prizes.

  1. The judges. Every literary prize I’ve ever observed (and this is particularly true of the CLiPPA) had as its panel of judges a group of informed, enthusiastic and engaged people, ready to share their opinions honestly, to listen to their fellow judges, and to determine the very best qualities in each collection they were considering.
  2. That excitement and passion is then shared with the public, bringing a whole new audience to books, poetry collections and poems that they would not otherwise have discovered.
  3. The best shortlists – and again, this is particularly true of the CLiPPA but it’s also true of the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Forward Prizes – do more than just showcase what is on the list. They highlight exactly what is happening in the field at the time, new and important developments, what is exciting the best practitioners of the moment. How cheering it is for example to see Manjeet Mann’s verse novel The Crossing on the shortlist for this year’s Costa Book Award, and then to see it win the category – the first time in the award’s history that the children’s prize has gone to a verse novel.
  4. No matter how often we think that surely everything there is to say or think has been said, thought or described, prizes put the spotlight on new and original work, reminding us all of the boundless capacity of human imagination.
  5. And finally, the celebrations are for everyone. Michael Rosen was named winner of the 2021 CLiPPA but on the day of the announcement, didn’t it feel as though everyone was talking about children’s poetry? How glorious was that!

Even as I write this, submissions are coming in for the 2022 CLiPPA – publishers, there’s still time if you have yet to put your books forward – and entries are also pouring in for the much-loved CLiPPA Shadowing, the scheme that prompts poetry performances in schools up and down the country. I can’t wait to share the announcement of this year’s shortlist and the celebrations of the very best new poetry books for children.

Andrea Reece

Andrea Reece is Managing Editor of Books for Keeps and reviews editor for Lovereading4Kids. She’s also director of the Children’s Programme for the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival. As administrator and publicist for prizes the CLiPPA, Branford Boase Award and Klaus Flugge Prize, she knows how to keep a secret and enforce an embargo. 

Fay Lant: A Whole Voice

A whole voice

What’s the word for a joke so unfunny you can’t help but laugh? The word for the amount of water you can hold in your hand? Or the word for the feeling you get when you listen to a story and feel that you are actually there in the world of the story?

The job of a poet is often to convey complex ideas and emotions in a concise and meaningful way. But there really are single words for each of those meanings:

  • A joke so unfunny you can’t help but laugh – “Jayus” (Indonesian)
  • The amount of water you can hold in your hand – “Gurfa” (Arabic)
  • The feeling you get when you listen to a story and feel that you are actually there in the world of the story – “Goya” (Urdu)

At the National Literacy Trust we’ve been working to deliver poetry projects in schools across the country for nearly ten years and we are still excited to see the ways that children use words to create new meanings. But for a while we’ve been aware that for the multi-lingual learners in our classrooms, we are only hearing a part of their creative voice. This year we are working closely with Bradford-based poet and teacher Nabeela Ahmed to put this right.

This year children will have the chance to see and explore poems written in a voice unique to the poet. They will have the opportunity to see how poets use dialect and borrowed words to convey ideas and meaning. The children will have the chance visit a local landmark – the Brontë Parsonage – and interpret their experience using all of the words and meanings available to them. They will be the expert in how their words are written and spoken. The words that are special to them and their families will be shared with their whole class and celebrated. In other words, the children will be given permission to use their whole voice.

From Kashmir to Yorkshire

From Kashmir to Yorkshire

From lush hills and noisy streams

To patchwork moors and crashing weirs

From kachmach, bathuwa and kachnaar for spinach curries

Lasoore for pickles, patakari for haandi, shehtoot and phuware for snacks

Beir dried for winter, devoured around a firepit

Hills covered with fallen clouds, skies full of stars, moonlights of a thousand watts

I left all behind for my lifetime home, Yorkshire

Reservoirs, Brontë moors, canals, rivers, rushing streams and waterfalls

Purply pink heather, taller than me bracken, mossy rocks and mighty oaks

Cheek reddening air, eye soothing waters, postcard perfect hills

Red currants for jelly, gooseberries for chutney and blackberries for jam

Bill berries, raspberries and apples for nourishing treats with friends on long walks

From a strong Kashmiri girl to a tough Yorkshire woman

My landscapes are like me

Not just pretty to look at

© Nabeela Ahmed 2021

Fay Lant

Fay Lant is Head of School Programmes at the National Literacy Trust where she leads on writing and libraries. She has formerly been a secondary school English teacher and delivered education projects for the British Council. 

The National Literacy Trust is dedicated to transforming the lives of children from the UK’s most disadvantaged communities through literacy by improving their reading, writing, listening and speaking skills. The Trust’s research underpins several programmes, campaigns and policy work which have supported the literacy skills of 268,490 children during the last year alone.

Rachel Piercey: Introducing Tyger Tyger Magazine, Issue 1: Beginnings

Introducing Tyger Tyger Magazine, Issue 1: Beginnings

In my last post for the blog, I announced the launch of Tyger Tyger Magazine, a new online journal of children’s poetry. The first issue has just launched, and I would like to introduce the twelve poems we ended up choosing, from a wonderful pool of submissions, along with short extracts and some of my thoughts on these lovely pieces.

*

The delightful ‘Assembly’, by Rob Walton, puts us in the shoes of a child who just can’t stop asking questions. They may come across as cheeky, but we can see that they are genuinely probing at language and meaning.

We have an Assembly about new beginnings.

I put my hand up and ask if it’s possible

to have old beginnings

*

‘In the beginning’, by Carole Bromley, perfectly captures that feeling when a small fib gets out of control. The resolution of the story is gleefully undermined by its last line, and we start wondering about truth and lies all over again…

[…] it was just a little fib

but it GREW.

Nobody checked the facts,

nobody knew.

*

‘Indian Cradle Song’ by Piu DasGupta reflects the circular, interconnected nature of Earth with its beautiful circular structure. It is a poem of mighty contrasts and song-like repetitions.

The earth’s crust begins in the ocean  

The ocean begins in the moon-tides […]

*

‘Blueberries’ by Jérôme Luc Martin is a triolet with an empowering message for young readers. The repeated blue whales / blueberries image delights and surprises me every time I read it!

Start small, if you begin at all.  

Blue whales begin as blueberries.

*

Hilary Elder’s ‘Catching a Yawn / Catching a Wave’ compares the experience of yawning, line by line, to a cresting wave. Together, the poems form a sort of living simile.

The wave caps,

Catching the bottom of the sky

And it holds on, on tippy-toes.

*

‘The Morning is Quiet’, by Robert Schechter, explores how quiet is just as complex and alive as noise: the lion may not be roaring, but it’s still there!

I think there’s a riot

of hush in my ear […]

Illustration: Imogen Foxwell

‘New Baby’, by Paula Thompson, warmly captures a child’s thoughts about the arrival of a new sibling. As baby paraphernalia fills the house, doubts and anxieties fill the speaker’s mind.

I’ll have to share

            their love; my stuff.

*

Andy Nuttall’s ‘The Platform Clock’ thrums with the excitement of train travel, conjuring a child’s sense of scale, potential and adventure. There’s a timeless, fairy-tale quality to the poem.

Up the line the track is singing;

Silver rails are faintly ringing.

*

Sarah Ziman’s speaker in ‘In-betweener’ is interested in the philosophy of beginnings – because it’s the summer holidays, and they’ve finished year six, but not yet started year seven…

Well, here is a puzzle I can’t seem to fix

Am I in year seven? Or still a year six?

*

In Amlanjyoti Goswami’s ‘Seeing it new’, the speaker also stands poised between the old year and the new, feeling suddenly nervous. The poem explores different understandings of a ‘new’ year and ends with a line of exquisite beauty.

But that door is knocking. I hear a bell.

Wait, I shout, not time yet […]

*

‘On Your Marks…’ by Jay Brazeau is a poem of joyful exuberance and highly satisfying repetition, firing the starting pistol for everything from bakers to bedbugs. Definitely one for performance!

runner, runner

              ready, set, go!

baker, baker

              ready, set, dough!

*

The final poem, ‘Night’s Begun’ by Lisa Varchol Perron, soothes us with beautiful imagery and an abundance of ‘s’ and ‘l’ sounds, leaving us on the threshold of a gentle new adventure in dreamland.

Stillness settles, soft and deep.

Quiet lulls and leads to sleep […]

*

I am so happy with this beginning for Tyger Tyger Magazine. Thank you to my fantastic editorial team: Rakhshan Rizwan, Helen Steffens and Kate Wakeling. Each poem features on a free, downloadable poem poster and there are teaching resources to accompany ‘On Your Marks’, ‘Blueberries’ and ‘Catching a Wave / Yawn’. Happy New Year and happy reading!

Rachel Piercey

Rachel Piercey is a poet and tutor, and the editor of Tyger Tyger Magazine, an online journal of poems for children. She has co-edited three children’s poetry anthologies with the Emma Press, taught courses on writing children’s poems for The Poetry School, and regularly performs and runs poetry workshops in primary schools. Rachel has written a poetry search-and-find book, If You Go Down the Woods Today (Magic Cat, 2021), and three pamphlets of poems for adults. https://tygertyger.net/

Teresa Cremin: Quickfire Poetry that Matters

Quickfire Poetry that Matters

Are you and the children setting yourselves any New Year’s resolutions? What are their hopes and dreams as they enter another year with the pandemic a backdrop to their lives?  How might poetry play a part in expressing these?

Children often write effectively about issues that matter to them: that have emotional relevance and connect to their values, concerns and future focused desires.   You can support them by discussing these, recognising them as rich writing material and perhaps simply sharing possible intentions in 2s or 3s. For example, I want to… read more, exercise more, smile more, help others, go to bed earlier, be kinder to the environment, eat more fruit, listen first, be more positive and so forth. You could also jot some down on strips of paper to pass round as examples to use, add to and adapt.

It’s easy to move from this brief warm up to exploring more imaginative one-liners framed by a slightly less pragmatic desire. For instance, using the starters I would like to…, I would love to…, I hope to…. and inviting ‘almost impossible’, ‘ingenious’ and ‘novel’ conclusions to the sentence. All the examples have been written by young primary aged poets.

Additionally, you could offer provocative questions on strips of paper, and invite children to write their own ‘challenging to answer’ questions too, then pop them in a top hat for random selection, copying, ‘answering’ and returning the question to the hat to select another.  You might construct it like a game of consequences, with a question written on the top of the sheet, and poets adding their responses underneath. I find occasional peaking and sharing of particularly arresting question-and-answers helps. 

When you open the sheets up, pairs can read and discuss which responses they think are the most effective and why and can then rehearse an evocation of their favourite in a manner which highlights its meaning. I vividly recall three eight-year-olds in London adding an ostinato to the question ‘What is anger?’ The word ‘anger’ was repeated before, during and after the poetic Q and A as if it were bubbling up and threatening to boil over, they created a real sense of frisson in the room. Using body percussion can also work. Sometimes though, a simple slow repeated voicing is the most effective and there is always a moment of delight as the unknowing young poet in the classroom recognises their own words.

Personally, I have often been amazed at children’s depth of thinking and feeling when presented with such questions, though much depends on the openness, early affirmations and exploratory, accept-all manner of the activity. To start with more ordinary responses will surface, but with time, sharing and celebrating rich ideas, (yours and any other adults, as well as the children’s) more allusive and imaginative ideas emerge. As Ted Hughes (1967) noted “the latent talent for self-expression in any child is immeasurable”.

Longer poems can also be sculpted out of these one-liners, by combining some or adding additional lines or repeating refrains or verses. Reducing the ask increases the space to think through the issues, capture thoughts and convey just ‘the best words in the best order’ in Coleridge’s words.

Quickfire poetry can help us voice our hopes and share our thoughts- why not try it in 2022?

 Teresa Cremin

Teresa is Professor of Education (Literacy) at the Open University. An advocate of developing teachers’ creative artistry, Teresa’s research focuses on teachers’ and children’s literate identities and practices. Her new edited collection Reading Teachers: Nurturing reading for pleasure (with Helen Hendry, Lucy Rodriguez Leon, Natalia Kucirkova and 31 teachers and academics is due out in 2022), alongside the 3rd edition of Teaching English Creatively (both Routledge).

Teresa is passionate about developing readers for life and leads a professional user-community website based on her research into volitional reading. In 2022, the site is supporting over 100 OU/UKLA Teachers’ Reading Groups and 34 HEI partnerships across the country to develop children’s and teachers’ pleasure in reading. @TeresaCremin

Joshua Seigal: Poetry and Philosophy

I often tell people that one of the things that attracts me to poetry is that poems tend to be short. In 2011, I completed a 30,000 word thesis as part of my Philosophy postgraduate degree. The thesis was edited down from about 50,000 words. That is not short. Aside from the obvious matter of length, there is the corollary issue of time. One should not underestimate the time it can take to complete a poem, but it is much shorter than it takes to write a philosophical tract. This suits me because I tend to work in short, intense bursts. In part, my deciding to dedicate myself to poetry can be seen as something of a reaction against my previous life in academia.

Another thing I am often asked about is the extent to which my background in philosophy influences my poetry. One can take this at least two ways: do I write about the same sorts of things? And how similar is the writing process? Let’s take each of these in turn. Philosophy purports to concern itself with the deepest questions: Why are we here? What is reality? How can we come to know reality? When I first started to write poetry for children my main aim was to provide a bit of a giggle. This, again, was probably a reaction against having to tackle the ‘big questions’ in my day job. However, as the pandemic has progressed my poetry has certainly taken on a philosophical edge. In fact, I have probably started to think about the big issues with more gusto than I ever did as an academic.

How, though, have I been tackling these issues? This brings us onto the second question, regarding the extent to which writing poetry and writing philosophy are similar. For me, there are huge differences, and it is these differences that attract me to the former rather than the latter. When Philosophers write, they tend to lay out an argument meticulously, examine it from all angles, consider counterarguments, and advance slowly and cautiously toward a conclusion. And the conclusion in any one essay is almost always nothing more than a tiny grain of sand added to the great mound of what has gone before. Indeed, most of the work I studied was concerned with minute details of the big issues, rather than the issues themselves as a whole. I think this was one of the things that frustrated me: Anglophone Philosophers, in what is known as the ‘Analytic’ tradition, often tend to be details people, rather than big-picture people.

As a poet, I don’t look for conclusions, and I don’t progress by way of ‘argument’. I try to open up a snapshot, or a window, through which the big issues can be viewed, however dimly. I proceed by way of allusion and metaphor, or else I simply tell it as I see it; in neither case is the goal to convince someone to adopt my point of view, and in neither case am I trying to add anything to a collective body of knowledge. I am simply adopting and describing a point of view. The point of view might pertain to issues like love, goodness, knowledge and truth. Or I may simply be describing how my cat was sick on the rug. I am pleased I did my time as an academic, and I am even more pleased now to not be doing it. And given that I am not doing it, I am going to leave this ‘essay’ without an elegant conclusion.

(please vote for me in the People’s Book Prize. It takes twenty seconds: https://peoplesbookprize.com/summer-2021/yapping-away/)

Joshua Seigal

Joshua Seigal is a poet, performer and workshop leader based in London. His latest collection, Welcome To My Crazy Life, is published by Bloomsbury, and he was the recipient of the 2020 Laugh Out Loud Book Award. Please visit http://www.joshuaseigal.co.uk for more info.