As the first in a new series of poets’ profiles, we asked Brian Moses to talk about being a children’s poet.
Who are you?
Brian Moses, Poet, Picture book writer, anthologist, writer in schools, percussionist.
How long have you been writing poetry for children?
Since I became a teacher in 1975 and started getting children to write poetry. I used to read them all my favourite stuff by Michael Rosen, Roger McGough and later on Kit Wright and Wes Magee. Some of the time I couldn’t find suitable children’s poems for the class topics that we were studying so I started writing them myself and using them with the children. Their responses were often quite favourable, probably because I was their teacher and they were being kind to me. But it did encourage me to keep writing more and more.
How did you get started?
I was drawn to poetry through my enjoyment of the lyrics of rock music, particularly singer/songwriters like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and The Doors. The poetry I was offered in school made little impression on me at the time and it wasn’t until I picked up a book of poems by the Liverpool Poets – Adrian Henri, Roger McGough & Brian Patten – that I realised that poetry could be fun, that it could speak to me in a language that I understood and that it had relevance to my life as a teenager. I wrote my first poem at the age of 16 to try and persuade a girl who lived near me to go out with her. It failed to achieve its purpose.
What do you enjoy about writing?
I love words and the way that poetry allows me to string words together in a variety of ways. I love the rhythms of poetry and being able to underpin those rhythms with a range of percussion instruments. I like the way in which poems can sneak up on me when I least expect them too, the way that they nag at me till I take time to pin them down. I like being able to write in many different places and not being confined to my desk, although that’s where the poems are usually completed.
Have you any poetry writing tips you’d like to share with us?
Keep a writer’s notebook and always listen in to other people’s conversations.
Which is your favourite amongst the books you’ve written?
It has to be my Best of ‘Lost Magic’ as it contains my hundred favourite poems. The hardback edition from Macmillan with a brilliant cover by illustrator Ed Boxall is something I’m so pleased to have on my shelves. I’m also looking forward to my new book ‘Selfies with Komodos’ which Otter-Barry are publishing in January as it has poems written over the past six years that I’m really pleased with.
Which book was most important in your career as a poet?
I sent poems to Cambridge University Press in 1993 hoping they’d be keen to publish a book and was pleasantly surprised to find that they wanted two books from me, one for younger readers which became ‘Hippopotamus Dancing’ and the other ‘Knock Down Ginger’ for older ones. These were published in both hardback and paperback and were my first poetry books from a major publisher.
Anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself?
Over the 34 years that I have worked as a professional poet, it’s the unpredictability of the job that has kept it exciting and rewarding. I’ve never known what was going to happen next or where I’d be invited to go. I’ve performed my poems in many different locations including Iceland, the Edinburgh Festival, Prince Charles’s Summer School for Teachers, an open prison, a New York bookshop , the United Nations Building in Geneva and RAF schools in Cyprus
Anything else you’d like to say about children’s poetry?
On Thursday 21 October 2021, Wes Magee, well-known children’s poet and author, passed away peacefully in his sleep.
Here is a selection of his poems, published with permission, chosen by just a few of those who admired his wonderful work.
Wes Magee was a role model when I first started writing poetry for children. Like me, he was a teacher at that time (later a headteacher) and his classes had inspired him to write his own poems, when he couldn’t find ones relevant to the work in hand. I remember a four page booklet of poems about dinosaurs which the children in my classes loved to hear, and then in 1989 there were two books from Cambridge University Press, Morning Break and The Witch’s Brew.
These were such diverse collections from someone who understood children, their lives and what made them tick. Wes was a master craftsman too. His poems were finely tuned and there was something for everyone – spooky poems, funny poems, sad poems and poems that begged to be read aloud. Reading aloud was something Wes did brilliantly. We shared the stage on a number of occasions and I was always struck by the way he quickly developed a relationship with his audience, no matter what age. He was particularly at home with younger children, and they listened intently as if he was imparting the kind of secrets that they needed to see them through life.
Recently Wes toured Northern Ireland on several occasions. I talked with him once after he’d spent the day in a school in Belfast with 12 classes. “I visited every one,” he said. I envied his energy and his stamina. Fortunately his poems are recorded on the Poetry Archive. Do give them a listen.
I have many favourite poems but for me, this short one is near perfect.
A hot day at the school
All day long the sun glared
as fiercely as a cross Headteacher.
Out on the brown, parched field
we trained hard for next week’s Sports day.
Hedges wilted in the heat;
teachers’ cars sweltered on the tarmac.
In the distance, a grenade of thunder
exploded across the glass sky.
Wes, of course, wrote many school-based poems which children can easily relate to but I’ve chosen something a little different: VOICES, in which all three verses are linked by the voices of different adults calling the children in.
The first verse begins with four friends ‘adventuring’ in an overgrown garden where ‘ … a tumbledown shed, half lost in waves of weeds/was our pirate ship, sailing uncharted seas’ … a lovely alliterative image of thewaves of weeds. In the second verse, cousins are rowing on a lake’ssunlit-wrinkled waterand here it is thehand-cupped shoutof the boatmen calling them in from the jetty.
In the final verse the poem takes a more sinister turn with its Hansel and Gretel reference of a crabbed old woman inviting the children lost in the wood to rest in her cottage, with its finalCome in!/dear children./Come in! It is, we learn, a story being told by a teller who mimics the witch’s final invitation … but we are all aware of the power of story and the children stare intently, dry-mouthed, at the teller!
I love poems that change the mood as they proceed and this would be a wonderful poem to perform; I never heard Wes perform this one but can imagine what a great telling he would give it!
My mother’s voice boomed across the backs of houses,
calling me home as dusk fell that July evening.
But still we played, four friends adventuring
at the end of Mathew’s long, overgrown garden
where a tumbledown shed, half lost in waves of weeds,
was our pirate ship sailing uncharted seas.
Dirt-streaked, and oblivious of the deepening purple dark,
we played on as first stars blinked like harbour lights.
The boatman’s hoarse voice reverberated
across the lake’s sparkling, sunlit-wrinkled water.
Yet my cousins continued to row towards the reed beds
where ducks, moorhens and coots paddled and pecked.
We laughed as heavy oars dipped and splashed,
and gazed when a flight of geese took off, wings clapping.
The rowing boat rocked in the wind and waves,
and still the boatman’s hand-cupped shout from the jetty,
The crabbed old woman smiled toothlessly
as she invited the children lost in the green wood
to rest in her cottage half hidden in the bushes and trees.
I remember how the storyteller added scary sound effects
— an owl’s wavering hoot, wind hushing in the treetops,
and his fingers snapping like dead, woodland twigs.
Dry-mouthed and wide-eyed we stared intently
as he mimicked the witch’s final invitation,
My favourite poems by Wes are either about Thorgill, winter or the annual Christmas card poem in which I felt that Wes was writing about his life. Elegant and finely crafted, this poem slows time to capture and preserve a moment. And every time the poem is read aloud (preferably in Wes’s wonderful rich voice), the moment is recreated and happens again. The poem draws the reader in with ‘you’ and we are there – in the dales, watching the Moon, car lights, cat and bright stars. The poem draws to a magical and comforting closure; a wonder-struck fragment – a prayer.
This Silent Night
(… … on the North York Moors)
Bathed in the back door’s yellow light
you gaze upon a winter’s night
and view the shy Moon’s misty veil
as car beams flick across the dale.
A black cat pads the patio
to leave small paw-prints in the snow,
and air’s aglitter, stars are bright
this Christmas Eve,
this silent night.
I’ve picked What is the Sun, as it was one of my daughter’s favourites when she was little, and I must have read it at hundreds of bedtimes. What, at first encounter, could be seen as a string of metaphors, is deceptive in its apparent simplicity. Each word is carefully chosen and placed so that the lines rise and fall, like a gentle incoming tide, as each soothing image follows the last. It is irresistible to read aloud, slowly, and bathe in its rhythmic calm.
What is the Sun?
The Sun is an orange dinghy
sailing across a calm sea
it is a gold coin
dropped down a drain in Heaven
the Sun is a yellow beach ball
kicked high into the summer sky
it is a red thumb-print
on a sheet of pale blue paper
the Sun is a milk bottle’s gold top
floating in a puddle
Being invited to select a single poem from Wes Magee’s vast collection of poetry for children is like choosing a favourite child! There is so much to admire in his work, so apt, What is a million?, so clever with words, Deep down in the darkness, so sensitive, Tracey’s tree, – and on occasion, so full of fun, Miss Jones, football teacher, that the task is almost impossible.
But here goes! The children in my Years 3 and 4 really enjoyed Down by the school gate. They loved its rhythm, sustained throughout the poem, its fun, and of course, it brings the joy of the countdown. It’s a ‘joining in’ poem and that makes it special for 7-8 year-olds. And indeed, for Special Needs classes who can shout the numbers and thump the floor as it moves to the final triumphant One lollipop man …
In addition, Down at the school gate provides a pattern on which to model the children’s own poems. It is cleverly crafted, yet looks easy – and that shows the poet’s skill.
Wes has left us bereft, we teachers, poets and friends will miss his friendship, his enthusiasm and above all, his way with words.
Many of the similes used in everyday speech have been used again and again, so there is no element of surprise:
When he saw the ghost he turned as white as a sheet.
I looked into the cupboard but it was as black as ink.
Whether we are writers, teachers of writing, or both, our job must be to develop the element of surprise wherever we can. James Joyce in The Dubliners writes of ‘…a goods train winding out of Kingsbridge, like a worm with a fiery head winding through the darkness…’
In my sessions with young writers I often ask them to take a well known simile and stretch it till it says something new. As slow as a snail could become as slow as a snail pushing a brick. Make a giraffe even taller by stretching as tall as a giraffe to as tall as a giraffe on stilts.
Other comparisons might be:
As weird as a dandelion clock saying ‘tick-tock’.
As slow as a farmer pushing his tractor up a steep hill.
As fast as a cheetah on roller skates.
As unhappy as a shoe being worn by a smelly foot.
I oftenask young writers to develop these ideas into a poem which builds on one stretched simile after another. I ask them to choose an animal and turn it into a super creature. Some alliteration can be effective here – my crazy crocodile, my magnificent maggot, my fantastic flamingo.
I always start with a class poem which will act as a model for anyone wishing to follow it, but also emphasise that anyone wishing to adapt the model and take off in another direction should feel free to do so.
Think of a first line, perhaps to do with the creature’s size.
My terrifying tortoise is as heavy as a hippo lifting weights
and as long as the Channel Tunnel.
Then think of its strength and speed:
It is as strong as a weightlifter holding aloft the Eiffel Tower
and as fast as Usain Bolt with rocket boosters.
How noisy is it?
It is as noisy as a howler monkey screeching into a microphone.
We then carry on adding to the poem by thinking about what the creature eats and drinks or how much it eats and drinks. Does it have any special features – claws, wings, a tail? Is it fierce or friendly? Does it need protection or does it protect you?
My Huge Hamster
My huge hamster is as big as an elephant with a pork belly
and as strong as a shark using its tail to lift up the Houses of Parliament.
It’s as tall as a twelve storey building on tiptoe
and as heavy as a brick-eating bull.
It is as fierce as a snake when it is bored
and as fast as a cheetah riding a motorbike.
It is as noisy as a lion in a rock band
and as greedy as a panda that’s been starved for days.
It is as funky as a chimpanzee in a disco
and is mine, mine, mine.
In his book Moon-Whales, Ted Hughes has poems that can provide models and inspiration for further imagination-stretching pieces about space creatures. The Snail of the Moon has a wail ‘…as though something had punctured him.Moon-Heads are ‘shining like lamps and light as balloons’ and Moon-Witches are ‘…looking exactly like cockroaches’.
Again find alliterative titles – The Jaguars of Jupiter, the Slithering Snakes of Saturn, the Voles of Venus. This time as well as describing these creatures in colourful language, think of how they interact with others. Do the Monkeys of Mercury visit the Pythons of Pluto or fight with the Newts of Neptune.
Alternatively, come back to Earth again and find nasty creatures in the local environment – the Ogre of Oswestry, the Terrifying Troll of Tring or the Dreadful Dragon of Dorchester…
The Dreadful Dragon of Dorchester
Was as plump as and old oak and tall as a willow.
His footstep was an earthquake,
a mountain was his pillow.
Brian Moses has been a professional children’s poet since 1988. To date he 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 and picture books such as Walking With My Iguana and Dreamer. Over 1 million copies of Brian’s poetry books have now been sold.
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 Moseshas 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
The poet Wes Magee and I used to run spooky writing weekends for children. One of them was held in a 14th Century Manor House on the Isle of Wight, another in the old Carnegie Theatre in Dunfermline, and a third at Hellens House in Herefordshire.
Hellens was just what we needed it to be – shutters, faded tapestries, huge fireplaces with roaring log fires, stern portraits, a spiral staircase, minstrels’ gallery, four poster beds, ancient cupboards, loose floorboards and not just one, but two rooms which were supposedly haunted.
Right at the start we paraded the cliches of the horror movies and quickly dismissed them. Nothing was needed but the house itself and the spooky feelings that it engendered. Anything that felt menacing was made more menacing. We gradually built up the atmosphere, layer on layer.
I touched a mirror that was layered in thick dust,
I saw a candle light that was there and then wasn’t.
I discovered a piece of shattered glass
in which I gazed upon what seemed like a ghostly face.
And in the grounds of the house on a dull November day…
I saw a young tree strangled by ivy,
I saw a feather fall and stab the ground.
These were quite ordinary things made to sound sinister using the language of horror with words like strangled and stab.
By starting each line with ‘I’, a rhythm is established without using rhyme, along with a chant-like quality when read aloud.
A similar sort of exercise can take place in the classroom. Switch off the light, pull down the blinds and imagine yourself in the classroom at midnight.
I heard the computer sigh creepily like the wind moaning.
I heard the trees scratch against the window as if they wanted to get in.
I saw scissors snapping angrily…
At Hellens we toured the building seeking out possible spooky observations from each room. A poem then followed a pattern:
We went on a ghost hunt.
We looked into the drawing room.
We didn’t see a ghost but we saw a chess piece move and
heard a snore from a chair.
We climbed the central staircase.
We didn’t see a ghost but a hand passed my shoulder and
a guitar was lightly dusted.
Children then described the resident ghost? Where it dwelt, how it revealed itself, how it moved and what its hopes and fears might be…
His cold lonely face
Begs for company
For fear he would be alone for eternity.
These ideas can also be adapted for classroom use with children remembering spooky places that they have visited in the past.
Finally, consider how the writing should be performed. Some pieces can be made more effective through the use of percussion instruments – the slow beat of a drum between each line, the low notes on a piano. Someone with a keyboard and/or computer skills may be able to compose a suitably spooky backing track against which a poem could be read.
Remember too that the voice is also an effective instrument and that menacing feeling in the writing must come across in the reading for the listener to be completely involved.
Brian Moses is a children’s poet. He has toured his poetry and percussion show around schools, libraries, theatres and festivals in the UK and Europe for the past thirty-two years. Lost Magic: The Very Best of Brian Moses is available from Macmillan and his widely performed poem Walking With My Iguana is now a picture book from Troika Books. A new anthology, The Best Ever Book of Funny Poems will be published by Macmillan in March 2021.
For four years from 1978 – 1982, Pie Corbett and I were teaching in the same primary school, having previously become friends at teachers’ training college. It was a school that served a large estate of houses on the edge of a town that the railway had abandoned under Beeching. There had been very little thought about what those people who lived on the estate actually needed – no shops, no pub, no community centre. Parents brought their problems into school, argued in the playground or sought counselling from the headteacher.
The children brought their own troubles into the classroom and needed sympathetic but firm management. We discovered that many of the children really enjoyed being creative with words. They had imaginations and grasped enthusiastically at the ideas we presented them with. Our own inspiration came from the work of Sandy Brownjohn, from Ted Hughes manual ‘Poetry in the Making’ and from the American poet and educationalist, Kenneth Koch who had produced a number of books featuring the poetry of city kids. We were also impressed with the work of teacher Chris Searle and his publications – ‘Stepney Words’ and ‘Firewords’ which highlighted writing by children in London schools.
I forget whose idea it was but we decided to invite anyone who enjoyed writing to return to school on a Wednesday evening for extra poetry writing sessions with us. We were allowed to run these in the pre-school playgroup hut where we perched on tiny chairs or sat on the floor and wrote from 7.30 till 9 p.m. For our first session 30 children arrived out of the darkness of the estate. Few were brought by their parents, most just walked to school as they would in the daytime.
Pie and I were able to try out ideas that we might have thought twice about using in the classroom. We were surrealists taking our writing beyond the real with no limits to anyone’s imagination. Often we explored three or four ideas each session and children would arrive the next day eager to show us poems that they had completed at home. We wrote with the children too and shared our ideas. They knew that they could comment and make criticisms about what we had written in the same way that we did with their writing. There was no fear of work being marked or graded and the poems were celebrated for what they were. On summer evenings we wrote on location visiting a graveyard, the abandoned railway line, a turkey farm and a spooky house.
We saved many of the poems that were written and put them in a book that we wrote about teaching poetry. We sent it to Oxford University Press as we liked the anthologies that John Foster had done for them. After three months, an editor from OUP range me up and said they wanted to publish it. That was ‘Catapults and Kingfishers’. We were just in the right place at the right time and they’d happened to be looking for a book like ours. It was, they told us, the first unsolicited manuscript they’d published in fifteen years! And that book launched our careers.
Since those days the school has consistently lounged at the bottom of the league table in its LEA and has been in and out of special measures constantly… but we believed our children were as good as any others. We also had some winners in the WH Smith competition out of some 30,000 entries. ITV also made videos of two of the winning poems.
Recently Kate Long got in touch with me about a writing club that she runs at her school. You can find out more about her work here.
The Able Writers Scheme that I started up in 2002 operates on similar lines. We bring children together from different schools for a day of writing for writing’s sake. The scheme has been successfully run by the Authors Abroad agency for the past eight years and we have over 150 host schools from Aberdeen to the Isle of Wight who organise such days. Information about the scheme and how your school might become a host school can be found here.
The business man Alan Sugar is always complaining that the candidates on ‘The Apprentice’ often lack imagination and creativity. If those qualities are not fostered in schools, then we shouldn’t be surprised at what he says.
Brian Moses has been a professional children’s poet since 1988. To date he 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 Spaced Out, (edited with James Carter), plus picture books such as Walking With My Iguana and Dreamer.
Over 1 million copies of Brian’s poetry books have now been sold.
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.
I developed this idea with Brian Moses about 38 years ago. In those days, we had our children writing lists along the lines of ‘5 things you’d find in Margaret Thatcher’s handbag’. This is the version that I wrote at the time to use as a model for children (Ian McMillan has also written several similar list poems).
Six things found in a Hobbit’s Knapsack
A wasp’s sting to startle unwary goblins.
Two leather-bound books. One titled, ‘Tunnel digging for beginners’ and the other, ‘Wolves and methods for their avoidance’.
A purse of never-ending wishes.
A pot of gold found at the end of a rainbow.
A pair of twelve league boots.
A fur-lined cape, the colour of rock, for keeping warm in the winter and using as camouflage.
Inject a sense of urgency by giving a time limit for independent writing, to aid concentration.
Children share and polish their ideas.
Hear examples. Copy favourites for display or to make a booklet.
This is an example from working with a year six class.
We started with a rapid class brainstorm of possibilities:a hammer forged fromunderground mines; a dagger for dragon attack; oat cake or seed cake; a small block of hardened cheese; a flagon of water for rehydration; a clarinet, reed pipe or recorder; flint and steel; a map of The MistyMountains; a quill and slate for writing runes, communication or sending a message; a silver pen for writing which can only be read by the light of the moon; a diamond for bargaining; a sack for treasure; an invisibility cloak and some pork pie.
We then did shared writing of a few lines:
A silver pen for secret statements concealed safely beneath a moonless night.
An enchanted reed pipe to fool your advancing foe by summoning a slither of moonlight.
Here is a list made by four of the year 6 children:
Sixteen things found in a Hobbit’s Knapsack
Two fire-flies in a jam jar to light up your way.
A book of myths and legends though some would call them truths.
A quill of wise words that writes runes to summon a thread of starlight.
A silver pen that can only be seen by the light of the moon.
Gandalf’s pocket-watch where you spin the hands to turn time.
An enchanted reed pipe for summoning a slither of moonlight to guide you in the night.
A charmed recorder for fooling or hypnotising your foe.
A cauldron of wishes at the edge of an inquisitive mind.
Homely, hard cheese for a fireless night.
A flagon of never-ending water to quench any dwarf’s thirst.
A golden feather, plucked from the finest eagle and a strip of slate forged in goblin mines to contact the nearest village, using an ancient map of The Misty Mountains.
The fang of a dragon to slay fleeing foe.
A completely crystal dagger, able to pierce through any armour and wound even the deadliest of creatures.
A pair of relatively light boots which can endure months of crossing rivers, navigating woods and stumbling through seemingly endless caves and caverns.
A steel-lined cape to protect you from fire, piercing blades and the strongest of incantations.
Of course, the lists could be about what you would find in a troll’s rucksack, a giant’s suitcase, a unicorn’s saddle bags or a goblin’s backpack!
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. Talk for Writing.
Poetry is a niche genre, those of us who make a living as poets understand that. It is often a genre that is at best marginalised, at worst neglected, in favour of fiction.
Lists of recommended good reads often fail to include poetry books, but poetry can be a life saver for children who find pages of solid text quite daunting. Just as there isn’t one method of teaching reading that fits all, there isn’t one common path for a child’s reading journey once the mechanics have been mastered.
So why not invite a poet into your school to widen the reach that poetry can have among your pupils and staff?
Children do enjoy hearing poems read well, and the best way to do that is through direct contact with the person who wrote them. If children are to learn how to read with expression and to perform plays and poetry (as the curriculum stipulates) then this is vital.
The best visit begins to happen a week or so before the poet arrives. The teachers who explore the poet’s work via the Poetry Archive, the poet’s website or videos on YouTube and those who seek out any books or poems in anthologies that they already have on the school library shelves, will build up anticipation and expectation. There will then be a buzz around school before the poet even sets foot in it.
If children know something about their visitor and his or her work, they will become much keener to be involved on the day. (I once had letters from a class of children who informed me that they had been told to write to me and that they hadn’t read any of my poems but they felt sure they were very good!)
My aim is always to make sure that if there are children who say that they don’t like poetry at the start of the day, they will have hopefully changed their minds by the end of the visit.
Quite often too, teachers feel a little scared of poetry, that there must be some kind of magic formula that they haven’t quite grasped and this makes the teaching of poetry difficult for them. Maybe they had bad experiences with poetry and the way it was taught when they were at school. A poet in school can help to dispel that fear. Besides a performance of my poetry and percussion show, I run workshops for classes or year groups.
Mostly we start by writing a poem together. I draw out ideas from the children and show them how their ideas can form the basis of a poem. We work on the poem, in the way that writers do. We modify, cross out, find better words, change lines around, knock off the odd word or syllable, restructure the poem until we are satisfied that it reads well.
Then the children write themselves and hopefully teachers will then carry on the ideas in their own lessons so that children see a poem develop from initial ideas, through composing and editing, to proof reading and final copy. Better still, if finished poems can be displayed or published in some way.
At the end of the day I offer to do a signing session in the school. This ensures that children can have immediate access to copies of my poetry books if they feel inspired to read them.
I always say to children on my visits – you too can be writers. One day you could walk into a book shop and see your name on the front cover of a book. This is my job as a poet who visits schools and I take it very seriously. We all do. So how about inviting a poet into your school?
(In the interests of fairness, other poets are available!)
Brian Moses has been a professional children’s poet since 1988. To date he 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 Spaced Out, (edited with James Carter), plus picture books such as Beetle in the Bathroom and Dreamer.
Over 1 million copies of Brian’s poetry books have now been sold.
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.
He is also founder & co-director of a national scheme for able writers administered by his booking agency Authors Abroad.
I Thought I Heard a Tree Sneeze (The Very Best of Brian Moses’ Poems for Younger Children) – Troika books.