Fay Lant: A Whole Voice

A whole voice

What’s the word for a joke so unfunny you can’t help but laugh? The word for the amount of water you can hold in your hand? Or the word for the feeling you get when you listen to a story and feel that you are actually there in the world of the story?

The job of a poet is often to convey complex ideas and emotions in a concise and meaningful way. But there really are single words for each of those meanings:

  • A joke so unfunny you can’t help but laugh – “Jayus” (Indonesian)
  • The amount of water you can hold in your hand – “Gurfa” (Arabic)
  • The feeling you get when you listen to a story and feel that you are actually there in the world of the story – “Goya” (Urdu)

At the National Literacy Trust we’ve been working to deliver poetry projects in schools across the country for nearly ten years and we are still excited to see the ways that children use words to create new meanings. But for a while we’ve been aware that for the multi-lingual learners in our classrooms, we are only hearing a part of their creative voice. This year we are working closely with Bradford-based poet and teacher Nabeela Ahmed to put this right.

This year children will have the chance to see and explore poems written in a voice unique to the poet. They will have the opportunity to see how poets use dialect and borrowed words to convey ideas and meaning. The children will have the chance visit a local landmark – the Brontë Parsonage – and interpret their experience using all of the words and meanings available to them. They will be the expert in how their words are written and spoken. The words that are special to them and their families will be shared with their whole class and celebrated. In other words, the children will be given permission to use their whole voice.

From Kashmir to Yorkshire

From Kashmir to Yorkshire

From lush hills and noisy streams

To patchwork moors and crashing weirs

From kachmach, bathuwa and kachnaar for spinach curries

Lasoore for pickles, patakari for haandi, shehtoot and phuware for snacks

Beir dried for winter, devoured around a firepit

Hills covered with fallen clouds, skies full of stars, moonlights of a thousand watts

I left all behind for my lifetime home, Yorkshire

Reservoirs, Brontë moors, canals, rivers, rushing streams and waterfalls

Purply pink heather, taller than me bracken, mossy rocks and mighty oaks

Cheek reddening air, eye soothing waters, postcard perfect hills

Red currants for jelly, gooseberries for chutney and blackberries for jam

Bill berries, raspberries and apples for nourishing treats with friends on long walks

From a strong Kashmiri girl to a tough Yorkshire woman

My landscapes are like me

Not just pretty to look at

© Nabeela Ahmed 2021

Fay Lant

Fay Lant is Head of School Programmes at the National Literacy Trust where she leads on writing and libraries. She has formerly been a secondary school English teacher and delivered education projects for the British Council. 

The National Literacy Trust is dedicated to transforming the lives of children from the UK’s most disadvantaged communities through literacy by improving their reading, writing, listening and speaking skills. The Trust’s research underpins several programmes, campaigns and policy work which have supported the literacy skills of 268,490 children during the last year alone.

Rachel Piercey: Introducing Tyger Tyger Magazine, Issue 1: Beginnings

Introducing Tyger Tyger Magazine, Issue 1: Beginnings

In my last post for the blog, I announced the launch of Tyger Tyger Magazine, a new online journal of children’s poetry. The first issue has just launched, and I would like to introduce the twelve poems we ended up choosing, from a wonderful pool of submissions, along with short extracts and some of my thoughts on these lovely pieces.

*

The delightful ‘Assembly’, by Rob Walton, puts us in the shoes of a child who just can’t stop asking questions. They may come across as cheeky, but we can see that they are genuinely probing at language and meaning.

We have an Assembly about new beginnings.

I put my hand up and ask if it’s possible

to have old beginnings

*

‘In the beginning’, by Carole Bromley, perfectly captures that feeling when a small fib gets out of control. The resolution of the story is gleefully undermined by its last line, and we start wondering about truth and lies all over again…

[…] it was just a little fib

but it GREW.

Nobody checked the facts,

nobody knew.

*

‘Indian Cradle Song’ by Piu DasGupta reflects the circular, interconnected nature of Earth with its beautiful circular structure. It is a poem of mighty contrasts and song-like repetitions.

The earth’s crust begins in the ocean  

The ocean begins in the moon-tides […]

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‘Blueberries’ by Jérôme Luc Martin is a triolet with an empowering message for young readers. The repeated blue whales / blueberries image delights and surprises me every time I read it!

Start small, if you begin at all.  

Blue whales begin as blueberries.

*

Hilary Elder’s ‘Catching a Yawn / Catching a Wave’ compares the experience of yawning, line by line, to a cresting wave. Together, the poems form a sort of living simile.

The wave caps,

Catching the bottom of the sky

And it holds on, on tippy-toes.

*

‘The Morning is Quiet’, by Robert Schechter, explores how quiet is just as complex and alive as noise: the lion may not be roaring, but it’s still there!

I think there’s a riot

of hush in my ear […]

Illustration: Imogen Foxwell

‘New Baby’, by Paula Thompson, warmly captures a child’s thoughts about the arrival of a new sibling. As baby paraphernalia fills the house, doubts and anxieties fill the speaker’s mind.

I’ll have to share

            their love; my stuff.

*

Andy Nuttall’s ‘The Platform Clock’ thrums with the excitement of train travel, conjuring a child’s sense of scale, potential and adventure. There’s a timeless, fairy-tale quality to the poem.

Up the line the track is singing;

Silver rails are faintly ringing.

*

Sarah Ziman’s speaker in ‘In-betweener’ is interested in the philosophy of beginnings – because it’s the summer holidays, and they’ve finished year six, but not yet started year seven…

Well, here is a puzzle I can’t seem to fix

Am I in year seven? Or still a year six?

*

In Amlanjyoti Goswami’s ‘Seeing it new’, the speaker also stands poised between the old year and the new, feeling suddenly nervous. The poem explores different understandings of a ‘new’ year and ends with a line of exquisite beauty.

But that door is knocking. I hear a bell.

Wait, I shout, not time yet […]

*

‘On Your Marks…’ by Jay Brazeau is a poem of joyful exuberance and highly satisfying repetition, firing the starting pistol for everything from bakers to bedbugs. Definitely one for performance!

runner, runner

              ready, set, go!

baker, baker

              ready, set, dough!

*

The final poem, ‘Night’s Begun’ by Lisa Varchol Perron, soothes us with beautiful imagery and an abundance of ‘s’ and ‘l’ sounds, leaving us on the threshold of a gentle new adventure in dreamland.

Stillness settles, soft and deep.

Quiet lulls and leads to sleep […]

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I am so happy with this beginning for Tyger Tyger Magazine. Thank you to my fantastic editorial team: Rakhshan Rizwan, Helen Steffens and Kate Wakeling. Each poem features on a free, downloadable poem poster and there are teaching resources to accompany ‘On Your Marks’, ‘Blueberries’ and ‘Catching a Wave / Yawn’. Happy New Year and happy reading!

Rachel Piercey

Rachel Piercey is a poet and tutor, and the editor of Tyger Tyger Magazine, an online journal of poems for children. She has co-edited three children’s poetry anthologies with the Emma Press, taught courses on writing children’s poems for The Poetry School, and regularly performs and runs poetry workshops in primary schools. Rachel has written a poetry search-and-find book, If You Go Down the Woods Today (Magic Cat, 2021), and three pamphlets of poems for adults. https://tygertyger.net/

Wes Magee: A Tribute and Celebration

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.

Brian Moses

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 Magee

Judith Nicholls

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 the waves of weeds. In the second verse, cousins are rowing on a lake’s sunlit-wrinkled water and here it is the hand-cupped shout of 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 final Come 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!

Voices

‘Come in!”

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.

         ‘Come in!

         It’s late!

         Come in!’

        

‘Come in!’

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,

         ‘Come in!

         Time’s up!

         Come in!’

‘Come in!’

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,

‘Come in!

dear children.

Come in!’

Wes Magee

Pie Corbett

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. 

Wes Magee

Celia Warren

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

Wes Magee

Moira Andrew

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.

Down by the School Gate

There goes the bell

it’s half past three

and down by the school gate

you will see . . .

. . . ten mums in coats, talking

nine babes in prams, squawking

eight dads their cars parking

seven dogs on leads barking

six toddlers all squabbling

five grans on bikes wobbling

four child-minders running

three bus drivers sunning

two teenagers dating

one lollipop man waiting. . .

The school is out,

it’s half past three

and the first to the school gate

. . . is me!

Wes Magee

Pie Corbett: Working with Idioms and Proverbs

Working with Idioms and Proverbs

Take a proverb (a popular expression) and innovate.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’

might become

‘A camel in the park is worth six in the theatre aisle’.

In Cornwall, they have an interesting idiom that is worth discussing, ‘the tongue-less man gets his land took’. I innovated on that expression:

In Cornwall they say,

The tongue-less man gets his tongue took.

In Argyllshire they say,

The thoughtless camel gets its hump stolen.

In Gloucestershire they say,

The worthless crown gets its thorns trimmed.

In Yorkshire they say,

The hopeless hero gets his bravery burned.

In Liverpool they say,

The harmless rumour gets its beard singed

In Galway Bay they say,

The timeless clock gets its hands cuffed.

Try playing the game where expressions are taken literally, e.g.

The detectives said

the books had been cooked.

(They tasted good).

My teacher said we could

have a free hand.

(I added it to my collection).

Some people bottle up

their feelings.

(I keep mine in a jar).

My Mother said,

“Hold your tongue!”

(It was too slippery).

In the school races,

I licked everyone in the class.

(It made my tongue sore).

Here is a bank of possible idioms to play with:

How to Invent new proverbs.

First, take an even number of proverbs.

Next, cut them in half.

Still waters  /   run deep.

Too many cooks  /  spoil the broth.

Finally, stick them together in the wrong order:

Still waters spoil the broth.

Too many cooks run deep.

Pie Corbett

Pie Corbett is a teacher-poet – his collection ‘Evidence of `Dragons’ is 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 by the Open University. He runs online training for teachers and every Monday works with about 6,000 children on @TeachingLive, running writing sessions of poetry, creative nonfiction and story. 

Michaela Morgan: Elite? Effete? Irrelevant?

Elite? Effete? Irrelevant?

There was a time when poetry was put on a pedestal and regarded as either ‘special’ and ‘magical’ or somewhat elite and effete. It’s two sides of the same cliché of course and it’s an attitude that still lingers somewhat – despite poetry slams, raps and the tendency of Building Societies and Insurance Companies to use a TV version of poetry to boost their sales impact.

But poetry has always seemed normal and essential to me. It’s in my blood stream.

 I come from a very un-booky childhood home – a household without books, with never a bedtime story for me. Yet I grew up immersed in words and the music of words.  Educated in an era when religion involved chanting in Latin, one of my early intros to poetry was listening and joining in with the Call and Response of the catechism. Then listening or joining in with chants and incantations –in mystical Latin. There were also oral stories, tongue twisters, songs and jokes – word play.

I loved words. At primary school and later at convent school I went under the radar, doing things just the way I wanted to but never being suspected of being a rebel because I was just so very small and quiet. Like a Very Bad Mouse. So if a lesson was boring (and they so frequently were) I read a book secretly. I know nothing of primary school maths because I spent my time with the Walrus and the Carpenter and the Jabberwock with eyes of flame.

I got through secondary school without playing any of their team games. I spent those sessions hiding behind heaps of other people’s clothes keeping company with Charles Causley and Mr Shakespeare and his sonnets.  I never did learn to throw a ball but I loved to juggle words.

My credo is that everybody loves poetry – they just don’t always know it. There were a few raised eyebrows when I turned up at prison gates… to bring poetry to prisoners. But, with the judicious addition of chocolate hob nobs, my poetry sessions were always hugely popular.

At the same time as I was working in prisons, I was also making author visits to schools – sometimes running the same or similar poetry workshops with sticky infants and tattooed felons. Re-working Nursery Rhymes produced:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall

He fell off and cracked up after all.

All the psychiatrists, psychologists too

Sectioned him off under the Mental Health Act (subsection 2)

In both settings I celebrated National Poetry Day by using Poem a Day collections and distributing poems by birthdates or special days. This provoked much reading aloud, discussion, display, sharing and some illicit trading.

In schools I work to promote reading, performing, creating, illustrating, discussing – and learning about the magic and power of language. I urge schools to read a poem a day for delight – and also to provide models and springboards to enable children to take steps to writing their own poems. In my poetry workshop manuals I provide poems as models so children (and their teachers) share a wide range of poetry and are provided with encouragement and starting points to write their own. 

Teachers need to be captivated by poetry too. They may be intimidated by it or think it’s irrelevant – doesn’t fit their targets. Or it can become reduced to something to fit in at the end of term or on National Poetry Day.

We need MORE poetry in schools, in bookshops, on TV, on posters – everywhere.

At times of anxiety, celebration or grief- at each important stage of our life – we reach for a poem. It is essential. Why?

Because poetry packs a punch and poetry leaves an echo.

Michaela writes poetry, picture books, fiction and non-fiction. Her poetry is widely anthologised and she is responsible as writer, editor or co-contributor for:  

Words to Whisper Words to Shout (shortlisted for BBC Blue Peter Award), 

Wonderland: Alice in Poetry (shortlisted for CLPE’s CLiPPA Award)  

Reaching the Stars  – Poems about Extraordinary Women and Girls (winner of the North Somerset Teachers’ Award) with Jan Dean and Liz Brownlee  

For teaching, she has also written the popular Poetry Writing Workshops (ages 5 to 9 and 8 to 13) published by David Fulton Books/Routledge and recently reissued in a revised and extended third edition.  

Matt Goodfellow: In Their Voice, About Their Life

In Their Voice, About Their Life

In my opinion, one of the most brilliant and powerful things about poetry is that it can be a vehicle for children to write ‘in their voice, about their life.’ As a former primary school teacher, I’m acutely aware how narrow the writing curriculum can be in some schools, and how much pressure teachers are under to get children writing in a certain way in order to satisfy those incalculable geniuses who set the curriculum.

Poetry can, if welcomed into the classroom, give a space where teachers and children can learn about the enormous breadth and diversity of poetry together – they can read and discuss and perform different poems from different cultures and different times and say ‘Wow, so these are all poems!’ – they can use these as starting points to have a go at shaping their own thoughts, feelings and experiences into poems which are free from the expectations of the rest of the writing curriculum.

Importantly, when exposed on a daily basis to poetry, children begin to understand that poets play with thoughts, feelings and ideas in their own unique voice – and it’s something they can also do too. As a teacher in Manchester, I was forever correcting verbal and written Mancunianisms like ‘Can I go toilet?’ or ‘I went town with Mum last weekend’ into ‘proper English’ – one day a lad in my class who was a pretty shrewd (if awkward) character to deal with stopped me dead in my tracks when he said: ‘Mr Goodfellow, how come you tell me it’s wrong to say ‘Can I go toilet?’ when my Dad says it, and my grandad says it?’ And I got it. I got the fact that the way a family speaks to each other, the way a person thinks is their cultural heritage – and poetry allows that voice to speak.

I see my job as a poet in schools to open the doorway to poetry for both teachers and children and spark discussions that will hopefully continue long after I’ve gone. I read a selection of my poems that range from silly to sad and all things in between – and try to explain to the children that I try to reflect my life when I write – and my life is silly, sad and all the things in between!

Often the most moving encounters I have are when I’ve discussed the difficulties I had in childhood living between two houses that never felt like home, shuttling between two parents who made no secret of their disdain for each other and who had moved onto new relationships with partners that didn’t seem to have time for me and my sister. In every classroom I visit, I am aware there will be children who have the same experience – who feel as lost and displaced and angry as I did – and I try to show that poetry can give a voice to those feelings.

I have been told many times that some of the poems I write that touch ‘difficult’ emotions like sadness and grief are poems which are ‘not for children’. I disagree wholeheartedly. Giving children an invitation to explore their own life in their own words is absolutely crucial.

I’ll leave you with a poem that was handed to me after I’d done a morning workshop in a school a couple of years ago – we’d looked at a model poem and talked about why poetry was different to any other kind of writing and then had a go at our own poems. After the session, the children went out to play and it was as they were on their way back in that a girl handed me a little piece of lined paper – on it was a poem that was nothing like the one we’d looked at in the classroom session – it was her poem, in her voice about her life:

Matt Goodfellow

Matt Goodfellow is an award-winning poet from Manchester. He spent over ten years working as a primary school teacher before embarking on his poetry career. He is a National Poetry Day Ambassador and spends his time visiting schools, libraries and festivals where his inspiring performances and workshops open new doors to poetry for both children and adults.

Rebecca O’Connor: Falling in love with poetry: The Caterpillar Poetry Prize 2021

Falling in love with poetry: The Caterpillar Poetry Prize 2021

I fell in love with poetry when my aunt and uncle gave me a gift of Enid Blyton’s Treasury of Verse for my seventh birthday. At the age of eight, I started to write. Though the inspiration ebbs and flows, it has been a constant in my life. But only on a couple of occasions have I attempted to write for children. I am amply qualified, you’d think, as a parent and a published poet and an editor of a literature magazine for children – but it was so much more difficult than I could have imagined.

This has given me a real appreciation for the ones who get it right. They make it look so easy, that’s the thing. But you have to have all the right attributes – a gift for music, a riotous imagination and an ability to connect with children, not speak down to them. A sense of humour doesn’t hurt either. But nor is it any harm to go to places that are less than comfortable, to write of loneliness or anxiety. The rest of course is just hard graft. And that’s where I see a lot of poets fall down. They just haven’t put the work in. It seems so obvious, but a poem for a child should be just as good as one written for adults. It should require drafting and redrafting. Relying solely on a bouncy rhyme to carry your reader along isn’t going to cut the mustard. We shouldn’t underestimate the child as reader. They are much harsher critics than adults. They know what they like, and they can see through a fake. The really good poets know that.

Ultimately, my attempts to write for children failed – the tone wasn’t right, I couldn’t make the lines sing – but I’m happy I tried. Perhaps I was too conscious of the fact that I was writing for children, wasn’t able to put that aside, or put my adult self aside. It does seem that some people have an ability to keep one foot in childhood, and they can tap into that part of themselves when they write. My husband Will certainly has it. He can make up truly captivating stories for our children at the drop of a hat, and has done so nightly for many years. None of them have been set down on paper or recorded, but they live in our children.

It makes me so happy as an editor when I come across a poem that is like a beacon in the night – like Louise Greig’s Caterpillar prizewinning poem ‘Don’t Think of an Elephant’. ‘He thought of the sea. / And the sea is a big thought. / It took up a great deal of room in his head. / But he learned a lot. / He learned that the octopus / has a memory, and that whales / feel emotions, but when / he put this to his mother / she bent her head. / Don’t think of an elephant, she said.

Or a poem like Sarah Ziman’s ‘Faux pas’, which wittily portrays the mortification a child feels when she accidentally calls her teacher ‘Mum’, or the boundless humour in a poem by Julia Anna Douglas or Laura Mucha, or the philosophical ponderings of Robert Schechter.

The winner of this year’s Caterpillar Poetry Prize, by Christine McBeth – ‘a powerful piece of writing, a poem that everyone should read,’ according to the judge Michael Morpurgo – is a poem about the fate of our marine environment.

The drunkenness of things being various, that’s the thing. What you can write about for children is boundless. It’s not just monsters under the bed and worm sandwiches.

Rebecca O’Connor

Rebecca lives in rural Ireland, where she edits and designs The Moth and The Caterpillar magazines and runs several literary prizes, including The Caterpillar Poetry Prize. Her debut poetry collection We’ll Sing Blackbird was shortlisted for the Irish Times Shine Strong Award and she is the recipient of a Geoffrey Dearmer Prize. Her poetry has been published in the GuardianPoetry ReviewThe Spectator and elsewhere and was recently shortlisted for the Montreal Poetry Prize.  Her debut novel, He Is Mine and I Have No Other (‘Eerie, tender and wonderful,’ according to Sophie Mackintosh), was published by Canongate in 2018.

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.

Shauna Darling Robertson: Children’s Poetry in Translation

Children’s Poetry in Translation

A few years ago I subscribed to Modern Poetry in Translation (MPT). The magazine was started by Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort in 1965 so it’s older than me – just! Clare Pollard is the current editor and each issue has a ‘focus’ section which hones in on topics from dead women poets to Japan, from extinction to the Caribbean, and from the Maghreb to LGBTQ+ poetry.

The Summer 2015 issue focused on world poetry for children, with new translations of poems from Russia, Taiwan, Samoa, Mexico, Eritrea and more. I still have my copy and I’d love to share a couple of its treasures.

Toon Tellegen is one of Holland’s best-known poets, with a long list of awards to his name. I have two of his adult collections, Raptors and About Love and About Nothing Else. Philip Fried, founding editor of The Manhattan Review wrote, “Tellegen’s poems are parables for grown-up children. Their world is stripped-down, urgent, playful, quirky, familiar as children’s games yet strangely disorienting.” I hadn’t realised that Tellegen is also a popular and prolific children’s author until a Wikipedia search revealed a list of around 40 children’s titles!

The poems featured in MPT are from a sublime book called I Wish, which pairs 33 poems prompted by the statement ‘I wish’ (translated by David Colmer) with a gallery of portraits by artist Ingrid Godon. The faces stare out with strange and serious expressions alongside Tellegen’s outstanding confessions of yearning. Sailor wishes to be music so he’ll be heard; Anton wishes courage was something you could buy; Marie and Rose wish to be the only people who don’t know about death, and Marcel wishes to have an alibi for every circumstance. Here’s Carl’s wish –

You can find out more and watch a video on the publisher’s website at https://elsewhereeditions.org/books/i-wish

Wojciech Bonowicz has published eight poetry collections in Poland. His poems have appeared in English translation in various magazines but I haven’t been able to track down a translated full collection. There are just a few prose-poem fragments by Bonowicz in MPT, translated by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese.

The fragments, referred to as ‘stories’, take the form of brief observations and aphorisms and come from a collection called Bajki Misia Fisia, which I think translates as the fairy tales of a bear called Fisia. “These stories are very short because ‘Nutty Teddy’ can concentrate only for a very short time,” says the introduction!

The fragments are sometimes funny, sometimes sad and are both strange and insightful. Here’s one of the longer ones (available online at www.modernpoetryintranslation.com/poem/beard).

Gabriela Cantú Westendarp was born in the north of Mexico and is a poet, teacher and translator. She has six poetry books, one of which – Poemas del Árbol / Poems from a Tree – is for younger readers. Sadly I can’t find any record of an English translation, but two poems translated by Lawrence Schimel were featured in MPT. Both come from the book’s second half, called ‘Claudio Discovers the World’, in which the poems are dialogues between mother and son. Here’s one (also available at www.modernpoetryintranslation.com/poem/the-language-of-ghosts).

In the years since that issue of MPT I’ve often fantasized about editing an anthology of children’s poetry in translation, though I have no idea if such a thing would be commercially viable! Still, in the fantasy I’m pacing the corridors of the Bologna Book Fair rooting out poets from all over the world, spending hours pouring over the International Children’s Digital Library (an incredible-looking resource of children’s literature in multiple languages), and – best of all – making a chance discovery of some amazing writer in the Pacific Islands and being sent to track them down. Poets, eh – such dreamers!

Shauna Darling Robertson

Shauna Darling Robertson’s poems for adults and children have been performed by actors, displayed on buses, used as song lyrics, turned into comic art and made into short films. Shauna has two chapbooks for adults and a collection for children, Saturdays at the Imaginarium (Troika, 2020) which explores the human imagination. She’s currently working on a new collection for teen/YA readers on the theme of mental health: You Are Not Alone, with support from Arts Council England. http://www.shaunadarlingrobertson.com @ShaunaDarRob

Gaby Morgan: An Accidental Year of Dylan Thomas Pilgrimages

An accidental year of Dylan Thomas pilgrimages

While we have needed to stay safe at home, I have been reminiscing about places I have visited over the past few years. In 2019, I went on holiday to Wales with my family. My father is from Swansea and my childhood summers were spent on the beach at Langland, Caswell, Oxwich and Three Cliffs Bay, and it was during those holidays that my grandma recited poems that she had learnt by heart and have stayed with me to this day. I remember ‘The Lady of Shalott’ in particular and ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’, which she loved because my grandpa had sent it to her when they were courting. During our trip we went on a tour of all the places they had lived in Mumbles, West Cross, Sketty and in the Uplands where they lived just round the corner from Cwmdonkin Park. On a slate-grey Welsh summer day we crossed the park and ended up at Dylan Thomas’ house at number 5 Cwmdonkin Drive and that was the start of a year of accidental Dylan Thomas pilgrimage

from ‘Fern Hill’

‘Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green.’

Image: Gaby Morgan

Dylan Thomas’ house is fascinating – it is the house where he was born, was his home for twenty-three years and was where he wrote two-thirds of his published work. Poems such as ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’ were written when he was still a teenager. Here’s a photo of the outside and a picture of his bedroom as it would have been in 1934.

from A Child’s Christmas in Wales

‘It snowed last year too: I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea.’

Later that week, a very rainy day led us to take cover in the Dylan Thomas Centre where we visited the ‘Love the Words’ exhibition, which included wonderful recordings of Thomas reading his poems including Prologue – here is an extract:

Image: Gaby Morgan
Image: Gaby Morgan

We had gone somewhere else entirely the day we ended up at the Dylan Thomas Boathouse in Laugharne where Thomas, his wife Caitlin and their three children lived from 1949 until his death. Laugharne is of course the real-life model for Milkwood. It is a lovely house set in a cliff overlooking the Taf estuary and just up the hill is his writing shed (photos of both below). We took a different route back to the car and found ourselves at the cemetery of St. Martin’s church where he is buried.

Image: Gaby Morgan

From ‘Poem on his birthday’

‘In the mustardseed sun,
By full tilt river and switchback sea
Where the cormorants scud,
In his house on stilts high among beaks’

Image: Gaby Morgan

The final part of our accidental pilgrimage happened in November that year in New York where we had gone to Greenwich Village for a literary pub crawl to see where Jack Kerouac, Edna St Vincent Millay, Hart Crane and others lived and drank. The meeting place was The White Horse Tavern – reading our guide book while waiting for the rest of the tour party to assemble, we realised that it was exactly 66 years to the day since Dylan Thomas had died at St Vincent’s hospital just up the street. The White Horse was where he frequently drank in New York and where he had spent his last evening before being taken ill. He was 39 years old.

From ‘Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night’

‘Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’

Image: Gaby Morgan

All these poems can be found in The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas: The Centenary Edition published by Weinfeld & Nicolson and A Child’s Christmas in Wales published by Orion Children’s Books.

Gaby Morgan

Gaby Morgan is an Editorial Director at Macmillan Children’s Books and proud curator of the Macmillan Children’s Poetry List. She has compiled many bestselling anthologies including Read Me and Laugh: A Funny Poem for Every Day of the Year, Poems from the First World War, Poems for Love, Fairy Poems – which was short-listed for the CLPE Award – and A Year of Scottish Poems.