Growing a Poetry Book
From Cars, Stars, Electric Guitars – my first collection for 7-11s – onwards, I’ve aimed to create each collection as though they were quasi-anthologies – ie with multiple poets – so they’ll have as much variety as possible. When I interviewed Norman Silver he said he aimed to make a collection like a ‘biscuit tin’, so readers could dip in anywhere not knowing what they’d get. Boom! That became my template.
Assembling each collection has been all about engaging, intriguing and sustaining a reader. Overall, I’m after breadth and balance, so I’ll include rhyming verse, as much free verse as I can (too much rhyme and it can get a tad samey), syllabic poems, all kinds – mainly short to medium length poems. I want a range of tones/ voices / themes – some daft ones – but reflective pieces too. As KS2 books will be mostly read by children themselves – unlike EY/KS1 books – I try and ensure that the poems are ‘page’ not performance poems, so they work in the mind’s ear of the reader.
From research I’ve learnt adults dip in and out of poetry books; children read in a linear fashion. Therefore, I don’t want a child a) to know what’s coming next – or b) worse, leave my book and return to a novel. I want them to keep reading. Unpredictability is key! Curiously, I think I’ve always tried to write poems for children that don’t necessarily like verse. I’m not trying to proselytise, even trick them into enjoying poetry, but I like the idea of someone going ‘I’m not into poems, but I like this one!’ I started out as that kind of reader, and only began reading verse properly as I first wrote it 25 years ago. I’m obsessed with words, and poetry (along with non-fiction) is the most rewarding experience I can have as a writer. I l o v e the musicality of verse and equally its philosophical way of saying ‘hey, look at that – but look at it like this..’. I get the idea that children might too.
By the time I’ve sent a manuscript in, I’ll have spent five intense years of writing, re-writing, scrapping (1000+ poems) and crucially, showing poems to other writers for candid comments. Other poets know about the tinkering under the bonnet; what needs further tweaks. Craft is everything.
My latest, Weird Wild & Wonderful, is a ‘best of’, from 25 years of writing. I sent 75+ mainly tried-and-tested poems to my publisher, the wise and unfailingly insightful Janetta Otter-Barry. She rejected 20 or so from those and then we went through a ‘maybe’ pile together. The criteria for this book included what a first-time reader might enjoy, but also which poems had been most anthologised, those that had received favourable comments from children/teachers and those that had gone down well in schools. I included several newies. Some older poems needed tweaks as I am more obsessive about tightness/scansion nowadays!
The title naturally suggested three sections: Weird contains the lighter, dafter poems, Wild has natural world poems, and Wonderful a brace of quieter poems. I wrote a brand new poem to finish the book. As with all my KS2 collections, I’ve attempted to weave the poems together, with a ‘paper chain’-style thematic/linguistic link from one to the next.
I began as an educational writer/occasional poet, and never thought I’d do one, let alone five collections. How lucky. With this, I’m doubly so – as Neal Layton, illustrator extraordinaire, agreed to do the artwork and did a brilliant job on our book. Cheers, Neal!
JAMES CARTER is an award-winning children’s poet, non-fiction writer and musician. An ambassador for National Poetry Day, he travels all over the UK with his melodica (that’s Steve) to give lively poetry & music performances / workshops / INSET days, and now virtual visits too! www.jamescarterpoet.co.uk