Michaela Morgan: A Profile

We asked poet Michaela Morgan to talk about being a children’s poet

Who are you?

Michaela Morgan is my name. I am a wordsmith, a dreamer, someone who loves the taste of words. Someone who likes to imagine, find facts, play with words, make up stories and poems – and share them by putting them in books or performing them

How long have you been writing poetry for children?

I have been writing for a long time! My first books for children were published in 1988! They were picture books – but picture books share the poetic qualities of power, economy, and rhythm. In a picture book no words are wasted, every word should count. It’s the same with poetry.

How did you get started?

My first published poems were included in anthologies put together by John Foster and Oxford University Press. After that I had my poems included in many anthologies.  These anthologies were valuable starting points. Typically, I would be approached to see if I could write a poem on a given topic. This provided me with focus and motivation – and resulted in making me much more productive.

There was a golden age when there were lots of anthologies such as The Works series published by Macmillan. These were so valuable, inspirational and helpful. They were loved and appreciated by participating poets, children and their teachers. They still are!

What do you enjoy writing?

I like the first frenzied phase of writing – scribbling down ideas, leaping at words and connections. Then I enjoy the slower phase of polishing – attempting to perfect the writing.

I write poetry, but also fiction and non–fiction. I write for an enormous age range, so my enjoyment of writing is widespread.

Which book was most important in your career as a poet?

Wonderland: Alice in Poetry has a special significance for me. It celebrates Lewis Carroll – particularly his poems. He took and twisted existing verses which children of his time were routinely made to learn and recite – and which were intended to teach them solemn life lessons.

So he took ‘Against Mischief and Idleness’ which starts:

How doth the little busy Bee/ Improve each shining Hour,
  

Lewis Carroll, who had a taste for mischief, turned it into:

How doth the little crocodile/ Improve his shining tail…

I passed the poetic baton on to contemporary poets. Roger Stevens produced his reflections of How the Scary Centipede whiles away his idle hours (playing hopscotch and watching Arsenal apparently). Children reading this book can then pick up the baton and add their poem to the chain.

I wrote my share of contributions to this collection but was honoured to be joined by many others – Roger McGough, John Agard, Rachel Rooney, Joshua Seigal, Liz Brownlee, Tony Mitton, Jan Dean, Grace Nichols, Cheryl Moskowitz, Joseph Coelho, Shauna Darling Robertson, Vivian French, Nicholas Allen, Sue Hardy- Dawson. I would have loved to cram even more poets in, but time, space and budget impose their limitations.

As a lifelong fan of the Alice books, this collection was wonderful for me to work on.

It was particularly powerful for me as I was taking my first steps forward from a period of trauma during which I had been unable to read or write anything. To return to reading a book that had supported and entranced me in my childhood – and stayed with me all my life – was magical. To find poetry friends willing to contribute new poems and to turn up and perform them at the wonderful launch of the book offered consolation, confidence, companionship – and fun. The collection was shortlisted for the CLiPPA – and so featured on the stage of the National Theatre. Who could ask for more? But actually, I did get more. While I was working on the collection, I became a grandmother. Entirely coincidentally, she was named Alice. An historic celebration of Lewis Carroll was also an historic book for me.

Which is your favourite amongst the books you’ve written?

This is like asking someone to name their favourite child! My books are very varied. Some are for the very young. Some are read by adults. Some are fun. Some are poignant. Some will make you think. Others will make you shout out loud and join in.

My favourite book has not yet been published but I intend to collect all my poems and put them into one volume so that at the end of a performance or a school visit there will be the perfect book to buy and take away. That will be my favourite – because it will have all my most popular, loved poems in it.

I’d take it to my desert island and perform it to the palm trees and the parrots. The parrots might even be able to join in.

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.  

Liz Brownlee: Having Fun with Children’s Poetry

Having Fun with Children’s Poetry

In 2014 the wonderful people at National Poetry Day made me a National Poetry Day Ambassador.

My journey as a children’s poetry promoter started in 2008, after meeting with a group of children’s poets who all felt the same way; we vowed to find as many ways as possible of supporting children’s poetry. Later that year we gathered again to be filmed sharing poems, to put out into the world in as many places as possible. Out of that fun-filled few days came this video of the wonderful and much-missed Gerard Benson and his River Song.

Just as I was thinking what to try next, and wondering if targeting families might help to engage the parents that buy books, I was asked by Bristol Poetry Festival 2009 to organise a Poetry Exhibition.

A Bristol Poetry Festival grant, an Arts Council grant, sponsorship money and six months preparation led to a poetry submersion room at the Arnolfini, Bristol. Into a brightly painted room was introduced an explosion of poems, poetry toolkits, and our group of talented and willing poets.

ITV Television workshop supplied children who relished reading poems for us.

It was an interesting experience in that many of the people who came hadn’t been expecting it (the Arnolfini is a cutting-edge modern art gallery), and yet they stayed sometimes for hours. Very few left without writing a poem.

Undoubtedly however, the biggest hit were the giant magnetic words. I have used these ever since in a variety of combinations and venues and highly recommend them. It’s a very easy way of enticing anyone to play with words.

It  is impossible it seems to pass a giant magnetic poetry board without picking up words and placing them together. Few were satisfied with that, they went to hunt in the boxes for more poetic or more meaningful juxtapositions. One of the most  gratifying aspects was the total involvement of whole families, parents helping, inspiring and joining in by writing their own poems.

Other projects include marking most National Poetry Days by a range of poetry videos. My favourite theme was light.

We filmed people whose lives in some way touched on light (a fireman, a projectionist, a cosmologist, etc.) reading poems, sent to me by children’s poets, about light. We also roamed the streets of Bristol and asked children and their families to read poems for us – surprisingly few turned down the offer!

Sometimes you’ll find me in a school, inspiring children to use words as exciting tools to express themselves. And of course I also write poems most days, for a variety of rewarding projects. It is what I love most. At the minute I’m collecting and editing my first anthology, a book of shape poems for Macmillan, and thoroughly enjoying it. This also involves the frustrating fun of drawing with words!

I also run Poetry Roundabout, a website devoted to promoting everything about children’s poetry – at the minute there is a series of poets and their favourite children’s poetry books, and tweet for Children’s Poetry Summit.

I feel very excited about starting on my next new project – and I’m so grateful to the lovely NPD  people for giving a focus for my ideas, and to my lovely supportive poetry friends who supplied all the above poems and more.

In the meantime, this year’s NPD theme being Truth, soon I’ll be choosing climate crisis truth poems that poets have kindly sent, and filming them read by people who work in Climate Crisis in some way.  Please look out for them!

Liz Brownlee

Liz Brownlee is a poet and poetry event organiser. Her latest book Be the Change, Poems to Help You Save the World, Macmillan, is out on September 5th. (Poets included in above exhibition, Roger Stevens, Sue Hardy-Dawson, Andrea Shavick, Philip Waddell, Bernard Young, Gerard Benson, Cathy Benson, Jane Clarke, Michaela Morgan, Graham Denton).