Liz Brownlee: Shaping the Words

After every poem, job or project that involves shape poems I think, never again. They are uniquely testing in every conceivable way, and perhaps that is why, despite the agony, I inevitably find myself contemplating another shaping idea – because the challenge of, and the enjoyment in interlacing words, poem and art, is irresistible.

In 2018 I proposed editing an anthology of shape poems about people who have shaped our world, called Shaping the World.

Shape poems must start with an excellent poem, and require a certain degree of artistic talent, experience to know what will and won’t work, piles of patience and a skill and joy in playing with form. I received numerous excellent poems, some already brilliantly shaped, and a number with ideas for a shape, many of which worked and some which didn’t.

There are a plurality of things to consider – too many words and too few words can both present problems. The way a form lies on a page – it might be too wide for instance for the dimensions of the book. When presented as a shape, the poem must still be easy to read, and read left to right as much as possible.

Concrete poems are made entirely from words that convey the subject of the poem. They do not have to be the shape of the subject, but do communicate the meaning – this is Jane Clarke’s concrete poem about Socrates in Shaping the World, which uses only words to make the shape:

Socrates, © Jane Clarke, from an idea by Jane Clarke, shaped by Liz Brownlee

Sue Hardy Dawson’s Florence Nightingale poem is a shape poem, using words plus shapes available in the word processor of the computer:

Florence Nightingale and Athena, poem and shape © Sue Hardy-Dawson

Kate Wakeling’s Rosa Parks poem fills a shape already made:

Rosa Parks, poem and shape © Kate Wakeling

I use everything available in the word processor, whatever makes the most engaging shape!

Which brings me to Word. Word is amazingly powerful. Put a word into a text box and another tab opens in the top of your document – in this tab, ‘shape format’, you can remove the background to your text box, remove or add a line around it, and most thrillingly, you can warp the text in numerous ways within the text box. This is very helpful when making a shape. You can also insert geometric shapes, and warp it using ‘edit points’ to produce small details, things which have proved impossible to make in letters or words – a beak perhaps, or a foot.

It involves much trial and error. I look at images and try and find my subject in a position which allows the poem to begin and finish in appropriate places, that will be clearly recognisable made out of words. I might find it hard to shape a bird from above. A bird from the side on a branch is much easier!  This shape uses only Word:

It’s great if you can use a word or letter in its correct place to suggest part of a shape – conjunctions like this are very pleasing, but it’s not always possible. Here the hippo’s ears are made by the B in ‘but’:

Children do enjoy shape poems and are also open to turning the page to follow text as it curls in a spiral or loops to create a shape’s curve. I think a good shape poem should accurately describe the subject of the poem and pique interest in reading the poem itself – as well as be pleasing on the eye. I don’t believe there should be any other rules.

Hopefully there is someone, somewhere reading this, that has been inspired to experiment with their word processor!

Liz Brownlee

Liz Brownlee is an award-winning poet, poetry editor, film-maker and performer at all types of poetry and natural history event. She is the author, collaborator or editor of 7 books of poetry and is proud to be a National Poetry Day Ambassador. Shaping the World, 40 historical Heroes in Verse is published on the 1st April, 2021. Poetry Roundabout LizBrownleePoet @Lizpoet

Chrissie Gittins: Files Not Found on a Computer

‘Files Not Found On A Computer’ is the title of a poem from ‘Stars in Jars’ (Bloomsbury). I had been thinking about computers, and that however useful they are they cannot replicate the variety of lived experience. I imagined three files which can’t be found on a computer, each containing a list of sensations relating to three of the five senses.

When I use this poem in a workshop in schools I first ask the class what a computer can do that human beings can’t do, and then the reverse. We read through the poem twice, as a class and/or with different voices, so that the children become familiar with the concept and the patterning in the poem.

Files Not Found on a computer

 

The Touch File

a son stroking his father’s cheek,

fingers folding a hamster’s fur,

a face buried in cherry blossom,

enclosing arms of goodnight.

 

The Taste File

 

the saltiness of boiled ham

against soft white bread,

the sharpness of marmalade

melding with butter on solid wholemeal toast,

the twang of rhubarb with ginger

hiding beneath crumble,

the cut of iced sparkling water

swilling down my throat.

 

The Aroma File

a wet dog in the rain,

garlic squashed beneath a knife,

lavender steaming from my bath,

croissant warming Sunday morning.

 

After writing the title and the three verse titles on the board/flip chart I explain that I chose the word ‘aroma’ instead of ‘smell’ to inspire appealing experiences for the nose, rather than ‘bad smells’. I then ask for contributions for each file in turn – something they like the feel/taste/smell of. If their answers are brief I quiz the contributor about their suggestion, encouraging them to expand their answer with precise details and descriptions. I ask for examples from the natural world, and ask them to use specific names of any birds, plants, trees etc. they might want to include. I point out that it’s difficult for their reader to imagine ‘a bird’ or ‘a flower’ in their mind’s eye, but much easier to imagine ‘a magpie’ or ‘a snowdrop’.

I had the opportunity to run this workshop in the middle of a field during the North Cornwall Book Festival in the hamlet of St Endellion with children from a local primary school. The workshop was filmed by BBC Countryfile for a piece concerned with nature words which are in danger of disappearing from children’s vocabularies. This tied in with my most recent poetry collection ‘Adder, Bluebell, Lobster’ (Otter-Barry Books) which takes forty of these endangered nature words as titles for new poems. Before beginning the workshop I usually read several poems from this book, choosing the ones which give plenty of scope for audience interaction such as ‘Blackberry’, ‘Cauliflower’ ‘Mint’ ‘Otter’, ‘Newt’ and ‘Raven’.

Of course there are other verses which could be written on ‘The Sight File’ and ‘The Hearing File’. As we wrote our group poem in Cornwall we were able to hear a lark overhead and the rustling of birch trees, and to see ‘sage green hills melting into the horizon’ (a line from the group poem). We could have also included the wind whipping up the flipchart, or the man who drove his car down the side of the field while his dog ran alongside.

A material-gathering-walk could be incorporated into a school-based workshop with periodic stops to look and listen, smell and touch (maybe not taste?), and to make notes and/or quick sketches.

Wishing you much enjoyment of writing and reading poems in 2020 both inside and en plein air.

Chrissie Gittins

Of Chrissie’s five children’s poetry collections three were Choices for the Poetry Book Society Children’s Poetry Bookshelf, and two were shortlisted for the CLiPPA Poetry Award. She won the Belmont Poetry prize and was a finalist in the Manchester Children’s Literature Prize. Her poems have been animated for Cbeebies TV and she has recorded her poems for the Children’s Poetry Archive. She visits schools, libraries and festivals, she has judged the Caterpillar Poetry Prize and is a National Poetry Day Ambassador. Chrissie’s website.

Roger Stevens: The Poetry Zone

The Poetry Zone – 21 years of children’s poems

When I began going into schools as a visiting author, I would sometimes run workshops that culminated in the production of a printed collection of the work produced by the pupils. This book was often the highlight of the afternoon for the children. Seeing their poems in print seemed to validate the work for them and gave them something tangible to take away and to share with their family and friends. This – and a desire to give young writers a wider audience – was why I launched the Poetry Zone 21 years ago.

Young poets produce wonderful work. By launching the Poetry Zone I created somewhere for children and teenagers to send their poems and, importantly, see them published; a website where they could share their poetry and where it would be taken seriously. I found it very exciting. I knew it would be hard work – the project was me and me alone, every poem had to be read, vetted and the format tidied up for publication – but I thought it would be worth it. And it has been.

We started slowly, but within just a couple of years thousands of children were sending in poems and I was being contacted by grateful teachers and parents. Sometimes I would receive poems from every member of a class – the Poetry Zone had become a useful schools resource. Sometimes poems would come from individuals who were writing at home. They came from all over the English-speaking world – the UK, USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and from India, Japan and other parts of Asia.

I added interviews with children’s poets to the website; and information and advice for teachers. With some tips and a few lesson plans, those wary of teaching poetry have found out how rewarding it can be and how writing a poem can unlock the talent of even the most recalcitrant of pupils. The Poetry Zone has featured reviews of new poetry books and run more than 1,000 competitions – with publishers kindly donating prizes.

In 21 years, the Poetry Zone has received more than a million visitors and I’ve read and published around 30,000 poems by children and teenagers. Last year Troika published The Poetry Zone book featuring some of these poems.

Many children have grown up with the Poetry Zone, regularly sending me poems over the years. I have always provided feedback when wanted and mentored quite a few contributors. One of my regulars, American Claudia Taylor, was Commended in the Foyle Young Poets of the Year – I was very proud that she acknowledged my help when she received the award.

Harshita Das began contributing to the Poetry Zone from her home in India when she was around six years old. Her work always stood out. I encouraged her to practice, which she did. She is still young, but already an accomplished poet:

 Perfect

There is darkness
In each one of us
A tendency to kill
A desire for pain
A hunger for suffering
A greed for more
A blindness to honesty
A thirst to choose wrongly
Nobody is flawless
But to shroud that darkness
With light
Is what makes a person
Perfect

Harshita Das (aged 12)

Violet and Celina Macdonald also began sending poems to the Poetry Zone when they were young children and carried on well into their teens. They lived in Tasmania then. Now they live in the UK. Violet has just won the Sir Peter Ustinov Television Scriptwriting Award for ‘The Wolf’ in the 2019 Emmy World Television Festival.

So, yes, running the website has been worth it! I have never allowed advertising on the site. The Poetry Zone has never made any money. It has always been a labour of love. It’s still a solo project. My reward has been seeing children enjoy everything that poetry has to offer – whether they are writing it or reading poems written by others and commenting on them.

One thing has stood out over the years: Poems by children can be every bit as good as poems written by grown-ups. We have a wealth of talented young writers all over the world – a cause for optimism and hope for the future of poetry.

Roger Stevens

Roger Stevens has been writing and editing poetry collections for children for 25 years. Roger’s books include Apes to Zebras, an A-Z of Shape Poems, Bloomsbury, I Am a Jigsaw; Puzzling Poems to Baffle your Brain (Bloomsbury 2019), Moonstruck; an Anthology of Moon Poems (Otter-Barry) and Be the Change, Poems to Help you Save the World, Macmillan. When not writing, he visits schools, libraries and festivals performing his work and running workshops for young people and teachers. He is a regular contributor to educational journals and conferences, a National Poetry Day Ambassador for the Forward Arts Foundation, and a founding member of the Able Writers scheme with Brian Moses. PoetryZone.