Colin West: Nonsense and Stuff

Those who have come across my work will know I’m a fan of the three Rs — Rhyme, Rhythm and Repetition (and obviously Alliteration too!) But how did it all begin for me?

Well, growing up in the early fifties, after the standard start with nursery rhymes, I remember the poetry of song lyrics. My mother sang around the house as she went about her work. I thought she knew every song ever written, and am still haunted by some of the evocative lines.

Take my hand, I’m a stranger in Paradise, all lost in a Wonderland…

All I want is a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air…

These words conjured images in my mind. They were poetic, mysterious and a little scary. The radio, too, provided more thought-provoking material.

Will I be handsome, will I be rich, here’s what she said to me…

And other songs tickled my funny bone.

I’m a g-nu, a g-nother g-nu…

My mum read to me too — from a book of hers which was a cherished school prize. My grubby finger-prints still mark the page I loved most, which featured The Owl and the Pussycat. Going to school myself, there were more words to amuse and sometimes perplex me, such as the misheard

There is a green hill far away, without a sitting wall …

How sad, I thought, for them not to have a wall to sit on.

A few years later, we were singing along to the folk songs of the British Isles and beyond, with the radio programme Singing Together. The accompanying booklets were decorated with great illustrations by the likes of David Gentleman and Barbara Jones. I learned about my three Rs from such songs, although I didn’t realise at the time, I was merely enjoying them.

Hey, ho, here we go, donkey riding, donkey riding…

Bobby Shaftoe’s gone to sea, silver buckles on his knee…

Funny place for buckles, I always thought.

We did touch on poetry too, although my abiding memory of Nicholas Nye is that of our teacher explaining that the mention of gumption was nothing to do with floor polish.

This was also the era of TV and my favourite programme, Rawhide, had a catchy theme tune.

My heart’s calculatin’ my true love will be waitin’…

And of course, there was Robin Hood, who was forever riding through the glen with his merry men.

I also loved the funny songs of the time.

Don’t dig there, dig it elsewhere, you’re digging it round when it ought to be square…

Wait a minute, it’s stopped hailing, guys are swimming, guys are sailing…

But the times, they were a-changin’ and soon there were different types of lyrics to feed my mind.

I was born with a plastic spoon in my-y mouth…

And the people bowed and prayed to the neon god they made…

And throughout all this, I maintained an admiration for songs from an earlier era, with their clever lines.

Do do that voodoo that you do so well…

The things that you’re li’ble to read in the Bible…

I tried writing my own songs, but could no more keep my guitar in tune than I could do a backward somersault. So instead I wrote poetry, of sorts. It was revealing to me that the chap who sang about Jennifer Eccles having terrible freckles was also a proper poet who wrote proper books. And I also realised about this time that books were far better value than expensive L.P.s. What’s more, they were harder to scratch, and friends didn’t ask to borrow them so much.

I became fascinated by the way artists such as Edward Gorey and Tomi Ungerer could bring an extra element to poetry collections. By now, on my post-grad course, my tutor showed me a book he’d recently illustrated. “He’s got hundreds of them,” he remarked as I read the ground-breaking poems of Michael Rosen, illustrated by Quentin Blake. Meanwhile I was writing my own nonsense and discovering more by Mervyn Peake, J. B. Morton, Walter de la Mare and others, and catching up with Belloc, W. S. Gilbert and Ogden Nash. I produced a slim volume entitled Tomorrow I’ve Given up Hope which was seen by Dennis Dobson, who published my first book, Out of the Blue from Nowhere, the following year. I embarked on a bumpy career as an illustrator and author producing a range of books, but poetry always being my first love.

Colin West

Colin West was born in Epping in 1951 and studied Graphic Design at Wolverhampton Polytechnic, and Illustration at the Royal College of Art. He is the author/illustrator of over 60 children’s books, including poetry collections Not to be Taken Seriously, The Big Book of Nonsense and Never Nudge a Budgie! His latest collection, Nutty Nonsense has all profits going to the charity Children’s Literature Festivals. He currently lives in East Sussex and is as busy as ever writing and drawing. You can hear Colin reading some of his poems on the Dirigible Balloon.

Sue Hardy-Dawson: How to Grow Your Inner Poet

Here’s a few things I’ve found useful. Tips, either, collected from other poets or along the way. Hopefully you’ll find something helpful here or interesting – perhaps both.

Read lots of poems by different poets: all good poets read lots of poetry. If you want to write it’s the single most important thing to do. Why? Because it helps you get in the zone, to see new words in context and avoid clichés. 

Be a word collector: when I find new words I explore their use and sound, then add them to the large pile in my head. I’d love to tell you it’s a neat, orderly pile but I doubt it. It’s probably like my bookshelves, three deep with a few balanced on the top. Poets, like all writers, need lots of words to choose from.

Keep a notebook (sort of): all poems start with ideas. It doesn’t matter how you get ideas down. Scribble, text or write on anything you can find. Spelling/handwriting is tricky for me so I don’t worry unless I won’t be able to read it later. I even draw pictures if I’m stuck. I never rub/scribble words out though. Many good things are lost like that.

Write every day/any words are better than no words: If you’re stuck try a free-write, write for a few minutes anything that comes into your head. Our amazing brains put all sorts of abstract concepts together and that’s a really good start for any poem.

Good or bad, never throw ideas away: Why? Ideas sometimes grow wings (improve) if you put them away. Equally you’ll always have something to begin to work on.

Experiment/take your time:


poems only

need a tweak

or two.

But mostly

there’s much


and polishing

to do.

Finding the poem’s often the most difficult part: it sounds a little odd perhaps but maybe the first line is buried in the middle, it might even be the only line you actually use in the end. The best words are almost always in there somewhere. Time and practice will tell you where. Try cutting words into strips and moving them around. Take some in and out. When will it be finished? Only you will know. Maybe not even you. I’ve changed poems months, even years later.

Don’t use words JUST because they rhyme: the sense must always come first. Obviously with nonsense or list poems it’s easier to rhyme. But always ask yourself first, would I put these words together for any other reason? If not, don’t. Only use words you really like and would have written anyway. Always be careful to make sure those words make sense and sound natural.

Write about what you know: the best poems come from within, you can write with honesty and understanding then. Even if you are using a persona, use your own experiences of emotions. Recycle your life. It’s what writers do.

Finally read it aloud: to pets, friends, anyone at all. My dogs probably think all dogs have poetry recitals in large fields with an audience of surprised sparrows and passing joggers rolling their eyes and shaking their heads. Why aloud? Well, to know if the words fit. Even poems that don’t rhyme have a rhythm, a tune. If there is a clunk or awkward sentence that falls off the line that’s how you’ll discover it.

So that’s what I do. Of course, there is nothing wrong with any particular way. But if you’re not sure where to start why not give some of these ideas a try?

Sue Hardy-Dawson

Sue Hardy Dawson is a poet & illustrator. Her debut collection, ‘Where Zebras Go’, Otter Barry Books, was shortlisted for the 2018 CLiPPA prize. Sue’s poems and teaching resources can be found on the CLPE website. Her second, ‘Apes to Zebras’ Bloomsbury, co-written with poetry ambassadors, Roger Stevens and Liz Brownlee, won the North Somerset Teachers Book Awards. As a dyslexic poet, she loves encouraging reluctant readers and writers. Her second solo collection ‘If I were Other than Myself’ is out now with Troika Books.

Sue Hardy-Dawson: Dreams

Brains are fascinating organs and of all brains, perhaps ours are the most creative. We can’t be certain, of course, animals don’t have a culture of art, stories and poems hidden from human perceptions but therein lies a whole different story. Still as poets we often ask the question: ‘What if?…’ giving both animate and inanimate things words and human emotions. 

What if?, in itself, opens up a world of possibilities and juxtapositions of realities. On such I’ve long contemplated and dreamt.

So much so I’m never quite wherever I am, I’m sure it’s something we all do to an extent, but invariably whilst walking along a perfectly ordinary street or sitting on a bus my head is usually elsewhere. This can of course be both wonderfully liberating and mildly problematic, dangerous even. I’ve ruined meals, bumped into stationery objects and twice almost walked into moving traffic. So not always desirable but I mention it because it demonstrates how mesmerising ideas can be and how intensely creative thoughts block out everything else.

Nevertheless I’m a dreamer and it’s become my job to dream. There’s nothing more enticing than the teasing glimpse of an idea. Inspiration won’t wait or come when asked. Words haunt my sleep if I can’t quite grab them. Having sensed them and having started to consider what shape and form they will take, line by line they will pull themselves from the ether, whether I choose to catch them or not.

Many’s the time I’ve tried to focus on some other task only to end up scribbling on the nearest piece of card or paper, because as soon as I tried to do anything else words would appear, insistent and full. And what most poets and writers will tell you is that you ignore those ideas at your peril. You can never remember them later no matter what you might think. You may have a vague notion of it as a whole but those exact words in that exact order will be lost forever.

In inappropriate circumstances or in the absence of time and means I will settle for the first line. I’ve found the first line is the most crucial. If I can at least type it into my phone often it will take me back to where I was in my head.

That’s the thing with poems, they are sensory time machines. I can look back at anything I wrote and tell you where I was when I wrote it. Exactly what went through my mind, how warm or cold it was, what scents were in the air. Everything. Maybe if you’ve got a good memory you think that little. But I haven’t. I’ve often visited places and can’t remember going there. If it’s not attached to me I lose it and I still joke that when my children were young if they hadn’t the ability to follow me I’d have lost them.

Nevertheless, to be at all creative you must first be a dreamer. Yet dreaming, especially in children, is often undervalued. It might be perceived as not concentrating, not paying attention.

But without it who will our future dreamers be? The dreamers who bend rules and reinvent them? Dreaming can’t be measured and it’s difficult to teach. Even so everyone, especially children, need some regular opportunities to dream, to let their imaginations run wild and unfettered, to create without objectives or an agenda. Dreaming is what makes us human. Why? Because without dreamers there’d be no fiction or poetry, no music, sculpture or drama, and I suspect no electricity, no theory of relativity, not even perhaps an axe or wheel.

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 now.