Christmas Poems

Illustration: Elaine Hill

Christmas Cat

……………….

The Christmas cat sits still and sleek;

The Christmas cat is wary.

She’s been in trouble twice this week;

She’s finding Christmas scary.

……………………………..

The Christmas cat tried to join in;

She played with Christmas lights.

She pulled the tree right off the stool

And gave them all a fright.

………………………..

The Christmas cat likes Christmas food;

She likes the Christmas meat.

She likes to lick the turkey fat

And get between our feet.

……………………

The Christmas cat is shut outside:

She’d grabbed the Christmas fairy.

She’s been in trouble twice this week;

She’s finding Christmas SCARY!

…………………………….

Trevor Millum

……………………….

The Star’s Story

………………………………………………..

I am a wandering star,

An astronomical event,

Surely not a portent

Of some heavenly god’s descent.

………………………………..

I may travel where e’er I wish

Across the reach of space:

It is my whim to stop and rest

Above this silent place.

……………………………

And what of these three learned men

Who trail me through the skies?

It’s whispered that they’re noble

But should I think them wise?

………………………………..

Yet, somehow, I feel it’s right

To light this stable lowly

And watch as shepherds pay respect

To a child they say is holy.

………………………………………………………….

John H. Rice

Three Slow Visitors

………………

When Christmas is over

And New Year is past

We three slow visitors arrive at last.

……………….

Too late for the angels

We wonder and long

For the piercing white beauty of feathery songs.

……………….

We wandered the wastes

Where the wind and the sand

Whispered and shifted and re-made the land.

………………..

And now by the Maker

Of all things we stand

Mysterious gifts in our trembling hands.

…………………..

The gold and the incense

Are all fine and good

And the myrrh has its meaning too – all understood.

……………………..

But here – at our mercy

Lies God – and we shiver

Just what is the gift here?  And who is the giver?

…………………….

Jan Dean

Roasting the Phoenix

………………………

This year we’re having Phoenix

for our Christmas dinner,

and if Mum doesn’t burn it,

it’s sure to be a winner.

……………

Oh no! The oven’s smoking,

our dinner is on fire.

it’s a raging furnace,

a Phoenix funeral pyre.

………………..

Mum puts on the oven gloves,

and she lets out a roar 

“that Phoenix has grown feathers,

it’s fluttering at the door.”

…………………..

Help! Somebody let it out!

This is a job for Dad.

Mum’s sorry that she stuffed it.

It’s looking really mad.

………………..

So Dad opens the oven

and the bird soars off in flight.

Mum has to have a sherry,

she’s had such a fright.

………………

It rose up from the ashes,

so dinners off, I fear.

I wish we’d had a turkey

like every other year.

………………..

Jane Clarke

…………………….

*Just a Few Sleeps to Go*

………………….

How’s it going, Father Christmas?

“I’m snowed under,” he says,

“still busy sorting toys

to pile upon my sledge.”

…………………..

“The stars are all lined up,” he adds,

“in time for Christmas Day.

So be good girls and boys and

I’ll soon be on my way.”

………………

The little elves are helping

and Rudolph’s at the ready.

Just a few sleeps left to go,

so snuggle down with Teddy! 

…………………

Celia Warren

Christmas Poems

Painting by Jan Dean

The Shepherd’s Story

Snow.

Just as it was growing dark – snow.

Soft flakes fell

White and glossy

Thick as swans’ feathers

Slowly, slowly,

Until the world was put to bed

Under this white quilt

Slowly slowly drifting

Into sleep…

Then.  In that silence

The sky was suddenly alive

With angels bright as fire

Their wings burning with such golden light

Their songs like thunder and like ice,

Like bells and like the deep and sonorous sea.

Their message stranger

Than any other I have ever heard.

‘God is born,’ they said.

‘The God who spoke and shaped the world

The stars, the universes

And the soft black deeps of space.

Is born.’

There on that hillside

In that snow

I heard them say it.

Then just as quickly they were gone

The sky was dark again

No echo lingered

Nothing

But the white white snow

The secret white white snow

Nothing has ever been a greater mystery

Than that night.

With angels.  Snow. 

A million different kinds of light

I knew then that the world is not an ordinary place

When heaven shone from one small baby’s face.

Jan Dean

Christmas Baubles

Baubles
fragile, fire-bright
hanging, hovering, quivering
reflectors of tiny, glinting tints
tree treasures

Kate Williams

Chris-mas

Please try to remember, whatever your age,

That Christmas is spelt with a T                                                 

If you try to have Christmas without it 

There’ll be gif-s placed under a -ree

For dinner, you’ll have to eat -urkey

With s-uffing and maybe some sprou-s

And there won’t be much glitter or sparkle

If it’s -insel you’ve hung in your house

And when San-a Claus visits at midnigh-

He’ll find it most dreadfully shocking

If, instead of his usual cookies and milk,

He’s met with a right Chris-mas s-ocking!

John H. Rice

A Big Surprise

For my presents, I said I’d like
computer games,
a mountain bike,
an electric train
or a model plane
but most of all
I’d like a bike.

I opened my presents
and what did I find there?
A hand knitted hat
and a squeaky bear,
more underpants from my aunts
and socks (grey, one pair).

I said ‘thank you’ nicely,
I tried to smile
but what was I thinking
all the while?
I was thinking
I wanted computer games,
a mountain bike,
an electric train
or a model plane
but most of all
I’d have liked
a bike.

“There’s just one last thing
to unwrap,” they said.
“It’s a big surprise
we’ve kept it in the shed.
It’s special, it comes with love
from the lot of us…

Now I’m the only kid in school
with my own hippopotamus.

Michaela Morgan

The Way

Some snow knows

just where to go

drops straight from sky

to be as one

with other snow           

some snow floats

like feathers, lifts

with air and drifts

no rush to get

from high to low

but each and

every downy flake

in silent flight

each one unique

yet like in white

can find its way

to gently change

transform with light

by simply settling

to unite

Liz Brownlee

Christmas Poems

Last Christmas we finished our blog year with some festive poems, which were very popular. This year we will have a few each day leading up to our normal blog day – Christmas Eve. Thank you to all the poets who contributed – more poems tomorrow!

Liz Brownlee

The sky exploded

……………………………

Night turned inside out

and suddenly was all ablaze

across the blue-black sky

like diamonds.  It was day,

with rainbows sparkling in salt spray,

or waterfalls of light…

not any sort of night

that anyone had ever seen before

–  or since. 

the shepherds on the hill

screwed up their eyes against it

–  so bright it made them wince.

They heard the singing,

felt the wind of wild wings beating,

–  white and gleaming thunder

high in God’s heaven.

…………………………….

All this. 

All this fanfare-fuss, this mad amazing energy,

on this high hilltop,

this was not the main event.

That happened quietly behind the pub

in a shed they kept the donkey in.

There God was born

not in a palace to be claimed by kings

not in a rich man’s house awash with things.

Not even underneath the angels’ shining wings

but in a shed.  With stuff.

For us.  For ordinary us.

Jan Dean

The Last Mince Pie

Who ate the last mince pie?
It was on the plate last night
I wonder, was it Grandpa?
Did he take a crafty bite?

Who ate the last mince pie?
I wonder, was it Mum?
Did she sneak into the kitchen
And gulp it down in one?

Who ate the last mince pie?
Couldn’t Sister Sally wait?
When nobody was looking
Did she pinch it from the plate?

Who ate the last mince pie?
Who, I wonder, could it be?
I know – but don’t tell anyone!
It was…

Father Christmas!

Roger Stevens

Hanukkah

……………………………..

Light the candles

Me and you

One, two

……….

Pray for peace

Evermore

Three, four

Hold hands

Hug and kiss

Five, six

Always love

Never hate

Seven, eight.

Andrea Shavick

Tell Christmas

Tell the winter mist hiding the valley,

Tell the dew on the grass,

Tell the words that I mean to say,

Tell the hedgerows and the lanes,

Tell the windows and skeleton trees,

Tell the homeless asleep in doorways,

Tell the robin with his fiery breast,

Tell the children up too early,

Tell the sleepy world to wake up,

Tell her citizens that it is time

For the kindly sun to warm her skin

Abused by many for so many years.

Pie Corbett

Christmas All Year

You’ve got to admire

anyone wacky enough to leave

their Christmas lights up all year!

But in our street

that’s what they do.

In our street it’s Christmas

any time of year.

Even in the hottest August heat

it’s Christmas in our street,

a time-warp Christmas, a leftover Christmas,

an out-of-place, in-your-face

sort of Christmas.

In our street the sun never shines,

it’s always in shade.

Santa Claus beams from a doorway,

reindeers race for the rooftops.

It’s a street where snowmen never melt

and icicles never drip.

Maybe there’s some crumb of comfort

for the sentimental of the heartsick,

knowing that Christmas doesn’t go away,

knowing that in our street

there’s no January through to November,

for every day is Christmas Day,

every month December.

Brian Moses

Mandy Coe: Poetry as the Language of Child

Poetry as the Language of Child

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mandy Coe

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

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

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

Chrissie Gittins: Jill Pirrie – ‘All children are embryo poets’

I had intended to write about Jill Pirrie and her book On Common Ground: A Programme for Teaching Poetry, a book which inspired me when I began visiting schools. When I read that she died earlier this year it seemed even more reason to highlight her work.

A notice in The Eastern Daily Press states that she had a national reputation for teaching poetry, was an accomplished poet herself, and that she spent her life in service to the church and the teaching profession. She was the first of her family to have post-14 education and she received an MBE in 1987 for services to the teaching of English.

Jill Pirrie was Head of English at Halesworth Middle School in Suffolk for over 20 years and taught a mixed-ability group of 9-13 year-olds to write poems. In the mid-eighties her pupils won multiple awards in the WH Smith Young Writers Competition and an Observer Prize. In 1993 Bloodaxe Books published an anthology of her award-winning pupils’ work – Apple Fire.

Ted Hughes wrote the forward to On Common Ground. He writes that in order for children to write good poetry ‘teachers don’t need pupils with an ‘evident natural gift’. All they need is ordinary pupils’.

Steve Gardam, a former pupil, bears this out when he described Jill Pirrie’s classroom on Twitter 30/9/2020. It was ‘kind of old-fashioned, and also timeless … it wasn’t just about the ‘smart’ kids who did well in other subjects. It was every child being shown the tools, the way to use them to make magic from words. And we did.’

Asked by the TES if her pupils continued to publish poetry Jill Pirrie commented, ‘I’m not in the business of making poets. I’m interested in teaching mastery of language.’ In an interview with the Independent she said, ‘Poetry has the capacity to empower children to achieve mastery of all literary genres. It encourages reflection and the powers of criticism, for the child to be both intensely involved at the moment of writing the poem and then objectively detached, equipped with all the criteria for assessing the poem.’

In her introduction she talks about how asking children to imagine requires an intense kind of remembering. The pupil then stands back from her/his material in order to craft their poem. She favoured sitting in rows and liked her pupils to work in silence to encourage ‘focus’.

Her favourite nouns were apparently ‘focus’, ‘economy’, and ‘sparseness’. Her approach to poetry was always inclusive – ‘In so far as all children have memories, all children are embryo poets.’ Each chapter reproduces a wide selection of her pupils’ rich poems.

Many chapters draw on poems by well-known poets. The chapter on Process outlines the importance of naming – the verb being seen second in importance only to the noun. ‘Children must learn to write with economy and discrimination, and to guard jealously the power of their nouns.’ She underlines the importance of naming through the senses: ‘the senses are not only the means by which we explore the world and know that we are alive; they are also the means by which we remember’.

The idea I most often use in workshops is from ‘The Impossible Christmas’ section and is perhaps doubly appropriate at this time. Instead of bought presents we’re asked to think about capturing special memories to gift wrap – a special place, a favourite taste, a wonderful sight/sound/smell, a favourable turn of events, a remembered moment with a friend or relative. Using as many of the five senses as possible I ask for a list poem called ‘Possible Presents’.

Jill Pirrie died 12th September 2020 aged 81. R.I.P.

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.

Zaro Weil: A Glimpse; Adult Poetry and Children’s Poetry

A few years ago, after a talk about children and poetry, I was asked about the difference between adult poetry and kids’ poetry.

A Cheshire cat grin rolled over me. I didn’t have to think twice. ‘There really is none,’ I replied with a smile. ‘A good poem is a good poem is a good poem. Of course themes and language will be different. Age and emotional suitability may vary. But poetry for children is not – at its heart – different from other poetry.’

Let’s take a glimpse at the basics. Just a glimpse.

What is it we expect when we read a poem?

The first thing is simple. There is an invitation. Something in the title or opening line says, Come on in. I have an idea you’re going to like.

Sounds good. We decide not to close the book or turn the page. We read further. The poet is communicating a vision we intuitively like. He or she is talking to us the way a friend might.

Zaro’s Cherry Moon won the CLiPPA Award for Children’s Poetry this year.

From that first invitation a good poem offers, the child is often more than willing to suspend what they already think and allow themselves to be transported into another world. Indeed, kids are often more eager and open than adults to step inside and treat the poet as a new friend.

But the words themselves must also spark magic; the swing and sway of the rhythms, meter and sound need to be dynamic. And feel right. It is the poet’s craft with words which creates excitement and meaning for us. Because our brains buzz and light up when the exact right words both sound great and go together. Like they were meant to be.

As for sound musicality and language acquisition, these are the child’s very own domain; one filled with the joy of rhyme, the thrill of rhythm and the love of onomatopoeia to name a few.

And what is it the poet says to us? Is it clear and sunny enough that we can relate to it? Are the words bright enough in the lines we read for us to ‘get’ it.

Next we ask if this poem inspires us. Do we feel the poet’s unseen presence in his words? Does the poem burrow down to ignite those misty moon-lit thoughts we have but don’t know very well? The thoughts that are deeper and richer than our everyday words and ideas. The ones that allow us to imagine a new way of seeing things.

For imagination relies upon the senses; of what we have seen, heard, touched, tasted, smelled and remembered. A good poem creates the words and sensations that call upon the reader’s personal memory store and then graciously offers up the possibility to re-imagine, re-pattern and re-position the reader’s own understandings.

Children grow in the ambiguity of light and dark. In the bright logic of facts and ideas about the world. But they also grow in the belief that there is something else. Something unknown, dark and uncontrollable. Being close to and accepting the mysterious plays an important role in a child’s development. A child is open to being moved by a poem.

And precisely because children play and because imagination is the currency for this play, a good poem can ignite a child’s mind. And as children are close to both their sensory understandings and memories, a good poem has the potential to fly them into a universe pulsing with possibility.

To finish my reply to the question, I think we all, at every age, respond to the same human impulses; the ones which lead us to better understand and illuminate the world we find ourselves in.

And that is why my Cheshire cat can’t help but smile.

Zaro Weil

Zaro Weil lives in southern France with her husband and Spot Guevara Hero Dog, alongside a host of birds, insects, badgers, wild boars, crickets, donkeys, goats, hares and loads more. She has been a lot of things; dancer, theatre director, actress, poet, playwright, educator, quilt collector, historian, author and publisher. Zaro’s two poetry collections, Firecrackers and Cherry Moon were widely praised; with Cherry Moon being awarded the CliPPA Poetry Award for 2020.

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

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

Michael Rosen

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

Niall O’Sullivan

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

Neal Zetter

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

Brian Moses

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

Roger Stevens

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

Joshua Seigal

Joshua Seigal is a poet, performer and workshop leader based in London. His latest collection, Welcome To My Crazy Life, is published by Bloomsbury, and he was the recipient of the 2020 Laugh Out Loud Book Award.

Please visit www.joshuaseigal.co.uk for more info.

James Carter: Growing A Poetry Book

Growing a Poetry Book

From Cars, Stars, Electric Guitars – my first collection for 7-11s –  onwards, I’ve aimed to create each collection as though they were quasi-anthologies – ie with multiple poets – so they’ll have as much variety as possible. When I interviewed Norman Silver he said he aimed to make a collection like a ‘biscuit tin’, so readers could dip in anywhere not knowing what they’d get. Boom! That became my template.

Assembling each collection has been all about engaging, intriguing and sustaining a reader. Overall, I’m after breadth and balance, so I’ll include rhyming verse, as much free verse as I can (too much rhyme and it can get a tad samey), syllabic poems, all kinds – mainly short to medium length poems. I want a range of tones/ voices / themes – some daft ones – but reflective pieces too. As KS2 books will be mostly read by children themselves – unlike EY/KS1 books – I try and ensure that the poems are ‘page’ not performance poems, so they work in the mind’s ear of the reader.

From research I’ve learnt adults dip in and out of poetry books; children read in a linear fashion. Therefore, I don’t want a child a) to know what’s coming next – or b) worse, leave my book and return to a novel. I want them to keep reading. Unpredictability is key! Curiously, I think I’ve always tried to write poems for children that don’t necessarily like verse. I’m not trying to proselytise, even trick them into enjoying poetry, but I like the idea of someone going ‘I’m not into poems, but I like this one!’ I started out as that kind of reader, and only began reading verse properly as I first wrote it 25 years ago. I’m obsessed with words, and poetry (along with non-fiction) is the most rewarding experience I can have as a writer. I l o v e the musicality of verse and equally its philosophical way of saying ‘hey, look at that – but look at it like this..’. I get the idea that children might too.

By the time I’ve sent a manuscript in, I’ll have spent five intense years of writing, re-writing, scrapping (1000+ poems) and crucially, showing poems to other writers for candid comments. Other poets know about the tinkering under the bonnet; what needs further tweaks. Craft is everything.

Otter-Barry Books, Jan. 2021

My latest, Weird Wild & Wonderful, is a ‘best of’, from 25 years of writing. I sent 75+ mainly tried-and-tested poems to my publisher, the wise and unfailingly insightful Janetta Otter-Barry. She rejected 20 or so from those and then we went through a ‘maybe’ pile together. The criteria for this book included what a first-time reader might enjoy, but also which poems had been most anthologised, those that had received favourable comments from children/teachers and those that had gone down well in schools. I included several newies. Some older poems needed tweaks as I am more obsessive about tightness/scansion nowadays! 

The title naturally suggested three sections: Weird contains the lighter, dafter poems, Wild has natural world poems, and Wonderful a brace of quieter poems. I wrote a brand new poem to finish the book. As with all my KS2 collections, I’ve attempted to weave the poems together, with a ‘paper chain’-style thematic/linguistic link from one to the next.

I began as an educational writer/occasional poet, and never thought I’d do one, let alone five collections. How lucky. With this, I’m doubly so – as Neal Layton, illustrator extraordinaire, agreed to do the artwork and did a brilliant job on our book. Cheers, Neal!

James Carter

JAMES CARTER is an award-winning children’s poet, non-fiction writer and musician. An ambassador for National Poetry Day, he travels all over the UK with his melodica (that’s Steve) to give lively poetry & music performances / workshops / INSET days, and now virtual visits too! www.jamescarterpoet.co.uk

Sue Hardy-Dawson: So You’re a Poet Now

So it’s happened, your first collection’s been accepted and you’re now officially a poet. You’re caught up in the excitement. You’ve read and re-read your advanced copy, wondering what others will make of it. You’re at times euphoric, terrified, depressed and sleep deprived. You count down, weeks, days and on that final night, hours until publication. And then…and then…

Well, not a lot. I don’t know about anyone else but when my first book came out I didn’t expect to be mobbed or to find paparazzi in the chrysanthemums; of course not. But I did think maybe my local bookshop would stock my book. Or did I? Sadly not really. I love a book and as a fan I’m pretty clued up on poetry everywhere.

In fact I habitually go into bookshops and ask them where the poetry section is. Generally at the back of the shop, on a low shelf and not a whole shelf never mind the several I’d love to see. Often it shares space with joke books. Usually it comprises safe archaic poetry, ‘best of’s’, well-known names and the odd big production coffee table book. The assistant, who has little say, looks about uncomfortably, assuring me they can order anything I’d like. However, what I’d like is to browse, to choose from many I fancy or I might as well order online myself. But I digress.

So my book isn’t there. I suggest a launch. They tell me how much they love local authors doing launches. A date’s booked and I’m excited and terrified afresh. More so when, the week before, I find a tiny grey note on the door announcing my launch. So I drum up a reporter, I put the word around and on the day find the shop has only ordered 15 copies and they go in the first few minutes, despite being hidden away upstairs in the shop. So I lend my copies to the shop. A success, the shop-assistant assures me. Normally they sell very few books at launches…

So here’s the thing, I’m not complaining, well not much, but unless you’re a bestselling novelist there’ll be little promotion. It’s expected, as a children’s poet, the bulk of sales will come from schools. However, there’s a plague and a lack of school visits or even schools containing children, which has been disastrous to those expected to do their own promotion. So, like many others, we’ve had to find ways of reinventing what we do. However, I suspect, I’m not alone in finding constantly being in promotion mode uncomfortable and, if I should be, when? How? How often?

So what do we do? We promote and cheer each other on. We talk about poetry, in interviews, blogs and videos. We hope the goodwill grows as we give our time and even our work and writing ideas to teachers. We encourage even children we’ll never meet, because it means much to a child.

Of course it doesn’t always translate into sales, so why else? Well it’s partly about getting word out there about our books. Because, though small, each took years to write and traverse the mires of publication. Each time with dreadful symmetry: we have loved and loathed our work, had it picked apart by others, had hopes elevated and dashed. Yet, also, perhaps, there’s our inner child, one that wants to help others feel joy in something we adore, poetry as a whole. Certainly I want everyone I meet to feel that. But most of all I want to have a slightly less depressing answer to give the next child who asks me, ‘Why are you a poet?’

Sue Hardy-Dawson

Sue Hardy-Dawson’s a poet & illustrator. Her debut collection, ‘Where Zebras Go’, Otter-Barry Books was shortlisted for the 2018 CLiPPA. Her second, ‘Apes to Zebras’ Bloomsbury, co-written with poetry ambassadors, Roger Stevens and Liz Brownlee won the NSTB Awards. Sue loves visiting schools, has worked with the Prince of Wales Foundation, ‘Children and the Arts. As a dyslexic poet, she loves encouraging reluctant writers. Her second solo collection ‘If I were Other than Myself’ Troika Books is out February 2020.

Val Bloom: Poetry as a Mirror

Poetry as a Mirror

I was in a school for the first time since lockdown at the beginning of October.  One of the teachers recounted a lesson she’d had with some disenchanted young boys in a former school.  She’d told them they were going to be doing poetry and was bombarded with groans and cries of “Boring!”  So she challenged them.

“I bet I can make you change your mind.”

They were not convinced.

She then brought out one of my books and at the end of the lesson one of the boys came up to her and confessed that she’d changed his mind about poetry. He was now an enthusiast.

I was reminded of an experience I had as a newly qualified English teacher in Jamaica.  I went back to teach English in my old school, where the classes were streamed, with A being the most academically gifted.  One of my classes was 9V.

In the first lesson, I found myself talking to the walls as the ‘children’ who were mostly boys and mostly bigger than I was, jumped on the desks, threw things at each other, climbed the walls and completely ignored me. The second class went more or less the same way.

In desperation I took in a copy of Jamaica Labrish, a book of poems by the late Honourable Louise Bennett (Miss Lou), written in Jamaican.  I stood at the front of the class and started to read one of the poems.  One by one they returned to their seats and sat listening in silence, except for bursts of laughter at the comic sections.   Afterwards, they clamoured for more but, thinking on my feet I said, “No, it’s your time.”

I divided the poem among them and formed an impromptu speech choir.  They were brilliant. So brilliant that I conceived of a plan to enter them in the National Speech Festival.  They won a gold medal and became the toast of the school.  The next year many of them were promoted to the A stream.

A few years later I returned to Jamaica and met one of those young men in Kingston.  He was on his way to the National Gallery where he was mounting an exhibition of his work.

“It’s all because of you, Miss,” he said.

But he was wrong.  It was all because of Miss Lou and her poetry.

Two of my poems were included in the NEAB GCSE syllabus.  Both were written in Jamaican. Sometime afterwards I was performing in Leicester when a young lady approached me.

“I had to come and say thank you,” she said. “For helping me to pass my English exam.”

At my puzzled look she explained that she’d had no interest in English, that she couldn’t understand any of it until she saw my poem. She was convinced she would not have passed her exam but for the poem written in Jamaican.

The common thread in these episodes is that in all instances the children could see themselves in the poems.  So many of my fellow writers have said they started writing because they couldn’t see themselves in the books that were available to them.  It’s getting better, but the importance of letting children see themselves in poetry books cannot be stressed enough.

Stars with Flaming Tails, to be published in January 2021

Poetry helps us make sense of our world.  It’s harder to make sense of a world that’s unrecognisable. When the poem mirrors a child’s experience, the child can place herself in the poem.  Conversely, if she can’t see herself in the poetry books, she’ll feel those books belong to others, but not to her.

Poems are not just mirrors.  They’re windows through which we look into others’ lives, so diversity in poetry benefits everyone.  As well as seeing themselves, children benefit from learning about and understanding other cultures, other experiences.  In order to help our children become well-rounded adults, respecting others, we need to help them look into the mirrors and through the windows of diverse poetry books.

Val Bloom

Valerie Bloom MBE was born and grew up in Jamaica.  She is the author of several volumes of poetry for adults and children, picture books, pre-teen and teenage novels and stories for children, and has edited a number of collections of poetry for children. Val has presented poetry programmes for the BBC, and has contributed to various radio and television programmes. She performs her poetry, runs writing workshops, and conducts training courses for teachers worldwide.