Roger Stevens: The Joy of Parody

Recently I, and several of my poet friends, have been writing parodies. I think because with the pandemic and feelings about the UK government’s handling of the crisis running high, they provide a way for people to vent their feelings and lighten a dark mood with humour. There’s been a parody boom on all social networking platforms.

I discovered parody as a teenager in the early 1960s, when my father brought home a copy of Arnold Silcock’s Verse and Worse that was about to be pulped in the paper mill where he worked. It was full of the most amazing poems and had a big, fat section featuring parodies.

One of my favourites was Sellar and Yeatman’s version of Browning’s poem – How I brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix. The original line is:

I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he; I galloped, Dirk galloped, we galloped all three;

in their version it becomes:

As I galloped, you galloped, he galloped, we galloped,
Ye galloped, they two shall have galloped: let us trot.

There were parodies of nursery rhymes. One I liked was:

Doctor Bell fell down the well
And broke his collar bone
Doctors should attend the sick
And leave the well alone.

 And a real eye-opener was discovering that the poems I so loved in one of my favourite books, Alice in Wonderland, were themselves parodies. The Victorians, it seems, loved writing them.

Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh was a popular work to satirize, not only by Lewis Carroll. There have been many versions over the years. This, by James Payn (1830-1898):

I never had a piece of toast
Particularly long and wide,
But fell upon the sanded floor,
And always on the buttered side.

Even Charles Dickens had a go:

I never nursed a dear Gazelle,
to glad me with its soft black eye,
but when it came to know me well, and love me,
it was sure to marry a market gardener.

Dickens uses parody not just for humour (I love the comedic device of the unexpected non-rhyming ending) but also to make a comment about market gardeners. What was that all about? Presumably readers of the time knew.

So parody has been popular for many years. Pompous people whose views are overblown have always been targeted for taking down a peg or two. Things that are just wrong sometimes need the spotlight of ridicule shone on them. Witness the satire boom in the 1960s and later with programmes like Spitting Image and impressionist Rory Bremner’s TV shows.

Parody has been a life-long preoccupation of mine, both in verse and in music. And I’ve written so many over the years. I remember referencing William Blake as a young teenager with:

Hedgehog, hedgehog burning bright
In the hedgerows of the night…

So when my career as a children’s poet began, in the late 1990s, parody was bound to find its way into my work. I think the first was in The Monster That Ate the Universe (Macmillan), my second solo collection, a poem by Coleridge:

It is an ancient mariner
And he stoppeth one of three –
He stopped the person just in front
Why didn’t he stop me?

Later, I found many poems and verses to parody, such as Kipling’s If, Wordsworth’s Daffodils, Carroll’s Jabberwocky and, of course, nursery rhymes. I don’t think parody will ever go out of fashion, there are so many wonderful poems are out there just waiting to be recycled into something differently meaningful, topical, insightful or downright funny. There is something about knowing the original and then being confronted with it in a different context that is just so satisfying.

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 celebrated its 20th anniversary.  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.

Roger Stevens: Making Books

Making Books

I know very few poets who do not want their work to be published. Poetry is not the solitary communication with the Muse that it is sometimes thought to be. We poets are driven to express ourselves. We want to tell people how we feel. We want to share our writing journey. We want to show off.

For many of us, particularly those of us who write for children, this desire to share stretches much further than seeing our work in print. We also want to work with those young readers we are trying to reach.

As I often tell teachers when I visit schools to give performances and workshops, we are not trying to teach children how to be poets. We are helping them to improve their writing skills, to write creatively, to communicate and to express themselves, and to enjoy using words.

Of course, we want to pass on a love for poetry and thus motivate young readers to write. And we often succeed, our workshops producing a plethora of poems. And then what? Maybe the children read them to the class, maybe they go straight into folders – often that is it!

But why should these young poets feel differently to we older ones? Perhaps they would like their work to be published, too; to share their poems, not just with their classmates, but with the school, their family and the wider world.

We often see lovely displays in the classroom, in the school hall, in the school entrance hall and even in the local library. But one of the best and most satisfying ways to share poems is to make a book.

So please take note all teachers, but also anyone who has, or knows, talented children who write poetry – parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, family friends. This is a great way to help these youngsters share their work.

I had a residency in a Basildon school for a few years. It consisted of one morning a week for one term with one Year 4 class. At the beginning of one term I announced we would write a book. I gave everyone in the class a free notebook, to start making notes and jotting down ideas. I explained that they didn’t have to share anything in the book if they didn’t want to. It would be private and personal to them. A couple of the children lost their books, a couple wrote nothing, but most of the children filled their books with all sorts of things, just as a ‘real’ writer would. We chose animals as a theme. And each week began working on different styles of animal poems.

Towards the end of the term we chose an editorial team, gathered together the best class illustrators, assembled a production group and lastly a sales team. We aimed to mirror the way a ‘real’ book would be made and marketed. We used the ‘old-fashioned’ cut and paste method. Poems were written on, or transferred to, computer and edited. Then printed. Then, finally, poems were cut out with scissors and assembled on the pages. Illustrators illustrated. We gave the book a title – My Name is Fire, wrote a blurb, invented a publishing house and decided to sell the books for £1 each – the money going to Comic Relief.

The whole process was brilliant fun, the children loved it. There was so much creative energy. They were thrilled with the final product, everyone had at least one poem in the book, we photocopied 100 copies (it was cheaper than printing them). We sold every copy! And the book was a permanent reminder of the fun we had and the creative skills of the class.

I was telling this to a group of children at our local children’s book shop (the Book Nook) and a girl in the audience, Evelyn, aged 9, took it to heart. She went home and wrote a book of her own poems – The Magic of Poetry (illustrated with the help of her Dad, using images from the internet). She sold the books at £1 a time and sold 350 copies for Children in Need. I’m very pleased to say that I have a copy signed by the author herself.

I also love making small books. If I have a class for a day we can go through the whole book-making process from beginning to end. We write a poem. The book is A6 size, folded in half. The text is written on a single sheet of A6 paper folded in half, making four pages. The cover is a piece of A6 card, also folded in half. We write a blurb, invent a publishing house, make a dedication, add a pretend barcode, write a biography and so on. At the end we have 30 or so tiny books, and a whole new class library.

Making home-made books is not just for children. If you’re an adult writer you can join in too! Either by using the photocopy method or splashing out and paying to have your work published by a small Press. Indeed, there’s a rich and noble history of writers, particularly poets, self-publishing their work. You must just be wary of vanity publishing – publishers who will tell you that your poem is akin to Wordsworth’s best and will offer to publish it (along with probably five hundred others) and charge you an exorbitant sum for doing so.

When I first began visiting schools as a poet, I’d had several poems published in anthologies, but I did not yet have a collection of my own work. So I self-published my own book, Never Trust a Lemon, to take into schools to share and sell. Nearly 25 years and 40 ‘real’ books later, Lemon is still one of my favourites and still sells!

Making books, especially with children, is great fun, and very rewarding for all who are involved.

Roger Stevens

Website for students and teachers: PoetryZone

Twitter: @poetryzone

Roger Stevens has had nearly 40 books published: novels, numerous solo poetry collections and edited poetry collections. Some of his most recent books are The Same Inside: Poems about Empathy and Friendship (Macmillan); Apes to Zebras: an A – Z of Shape Poems illustrated by Lorna Scobie (Bloomsbury), I Am a Jigsaw (Bloomsbury), and June 6th will see the publication of his anthology of poems to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing – Moonstruck! (Otter-Barry Books) When not writing, he visits schools, libraries and festivals performing his work and running workshops for young people and teachers. He is a National Poetry Day Ambassador for the Forward Arts Foundation, a founding member of the Able Writers scheme with Brian Moses; and of course runs the award-winning and most excellent poetry website PoetryZone.