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.

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.