Rachel Rooney: Finding the Sweet Spot

Finding the Sweet Spot

Much of what we call poetry written for children might more accurately be termed  as verse; words which engage and entertain the reader, written in regular rhythm and with full end-rhymes. It’s a what you read is what you get type of experience. There’s a pleasure to be had from reading or hearing well-crafted verse that scans as it intends and that uses language in deft, comforting or amusing ways.

Children are particularly drawn to the reading, listening and performing of verse. Its predictable aural patterns tend to lodge in their memory, too. But it is much harder for them to write effectively. The technical skills needed to maintain a coherent idea through extended rhyme and rhythm is tricky for all but the most practised and enthusiastic junior poet. Happily, I was that kind of child. The following poem was written by my 11 year old self about the bus journey I took to school. I’d never shown it to anyone, but kept it safe, eventually including it in my second collection, for reader interest. It’s not particularly good poetry, or even ‘Poetry’ for that matter – it’s simply verse that was relatively crafted for its time.

 

The 20a Bus

 

In the line you hear a chatter

Up and down a clatter, clatter.

Noisy schoolgirls scream and shout

pushing in and pushing out.

 

Down the street the red bus trundles.

Girls surge forward all in bundles.

On at last, but what a rush

Banged my elbows in the crush.

 

‘I don’t know what it’s coming to’

said the lady with big buttons, who

had a habit to pursue

the trivial things young children do.

 

And when the bus stops in the street

I kick her underneath the seat

And when the lady stops her chat

I pull the cherries from her hat.

 

Poetry in its purer form, is a more exploratory art. It’s a voyage of discovery into the unknown. Its aim is to alter our perceptions and to linger in our mind beyond its reading. We might return to these poems and find new or deeper meaning from them.

The writing of such poetry raises different technical questions. How can we ensure musicality without necessarily relying on the tools of strict metre and end-rhyme? How do we utilise line breaks or the space on the page for full effect? What ‘stepping stones’ (images, concepts, concrete details etc) will we put in place to guide the reader through the reading of it? How subtle the inference and how abstract the ideas, given the poem’s intended audience?

I’m a poet who enjoys all the challenges that writing for varying ages brings, from crafting a jaunty rhyming picture book text through to (almost) ‘adult’ poetry. But I’ve always been particularly interested in the elusive sweet spot between worlds; the poem written for children, that has a surface lyrical simplicity but which offers up a more subtle interpretation for the older reader. Or the poem that pitches itself perfectly in content & complexity between the tail end of childhood and early adult readership.

And occasionally, I stumble across poetry written with the adult in mind, that a child reader might possibly access and relate to. The following short poem by Esther Morgan, is a personal favourite for this reason. It’s superficially simple, and could (almost) have been written by a child. And that is part of its mastery.

 

The Long Holidays

 

The day stretches ahead – nothing but

grass and sky grass and sky grass and sky grass and sky

as far as the eye can see

 

nothing but sky and grass sky and grass sky and grass sky and grass

 

and the wind galloping hard over the fields

like a riderless horse.

 

Esther Morgan

 

If you’re interested, here’s a wonderful close reading of the poem in a blogpost by the poet George Szirtes.

 

Rachel Rooney

Rachel’s most recent collection A Kid in My Class (Illustrated by Chris Ridell, Otter-Barry) was shortlisted for the CLiPPA and has just won the North Somerset Teachers’ Book Award for poetry 2019. A rhyming picture book The Problem with Problems, illustrated by Zehra Hicks (Anderson) is out March 2020 and a poetry collection aimed for older girls is due in 2021 (Otter – Barry).

Matt Goodfellow: How Did I Become a Poet?

Working as a poet in schools, I regularly get asked the same few questions over and over again – one of them is: ‘How did you become a poet?’ The simple answer is: music. My dad is a massive music fan. Throughout my childhood, Bob Dylan’s hypnotic, incantatory voice was the one I heard the most.

‘I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me’

‘Leave your stepping stones behind now, something calls for you’

I had no idea what he was singing about. But it intrigued me.

My mum and dad were divorced when I was 18 months old and both found new partners. Other than me and my sister, Jane, the only thing that unified the four of them was one album: Famous Blue Raincoat – The Songs of Leonard Cohen by Jennifer Warnes.

‘Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free’

‘And deep into his fiery heart, he took the dust of Joan of Arc’

Beautiful stuff. And again, it interested me. I heard the songs all the time. Still do.

I don’t remember reading much when I was at primary or secondary schools, although Alan Garner’s ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ certainly left its mark. Precise, poetic language. I used to walk in the woods at Alderley Edge, a few miles down the road from me, hearing the voices of Colin and Susan, the sneer of the shape-shifting Selina Place.

I must have studied ‘Ode to Autumn’ by Keats at some point during secondary school – and something about it stuck in my head:

seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ – I liked that.

As for writing poetry, the only memory I have is of writing a rhyming epitaph in, perhaps, Y8?!:

in this grave, lies a man, who died by means of a frying pan’

I thought it was pretty good. The teacher’s response: ‘you didn’t write that!’

Schoolwork (other than maths!), especially reading and writing, always came pretty easy to me –  and I never really saw the need to extend myself. This attitude towards academia continued all the way to studying English at Manchester Met (where Carol Ann Duffy was my poetry tutor).

By about 15, I began to discover music and words of my own that spoke to me. In 1995, The Charlatans released a self-titled album that I listened to over and over. I didn’t know what it meant. But it sounded great:

‘here comes a soul saver on your record player, floatin’ about in the dust’

‘take your pick who’s your saviour, come in five different flavours’

‘kiss behind the coolest of walls’

I loved ‘immerse me in your splendour’ from ‘This Is the One’ by The Stone Roses. And so, without really reading poetry, by 16 I was full of it. I’d been playing the guitar for a few years and started up some bands. I was a pretty rubbish musician, but I enjoyed performing. And I began to write the lyrics.

I carried on with music and words, bands like Doves continuing my lyrical fascination, until I finally realised I had no musical talent whatsoever – and put down the guitar at about 23. I became a primary school teacher, which filled the entirety of my head for a while. Words began to surface, though, and soon I was writing songs for assemblies and poems to use in class.

Twelve years later, here I am: a poet. Fancy that.

Matt Goodfellow

Matt Goodfellow is from Manchester, England. He is a National Poetry Day Ambassador for the Forward Arts Foundation, and delivers high-energy, fun-filled performances in schools. His most recent solo collection is Chicken on the Roof (Otter Barry 2018), and most recent book is Be the Change – poems to help you save the world (Macmillan 2019), written with Liz Brownlee and Roger Stevens. His next solo collection, Bright Bursts of Colour (Bloomsbury) is published Feb 2020.

Janetta Otter-Barry: Making Poetry Books – an Editor’s View

Making Poetry Books – an Editor’s View

I love editing the Otter-Barry Books poetry list – it’s probably my favourite of all tasks. It feels like a huge privilege to immerse yourself in a poet’s carefully crafted collection, written over months or even years, and to be possibly the first person to read those poems other than the poet.

Generally I don’t actually ‘edit’ the poems much at all. I feel quite strongly that a poem is what it is and stands on its own terms. Occasionally I will suggest deleting a verse to tighten things up a bit, or, if I feel a poem isn’t working in terms of level or tone for the current collection, I’ll suggest taking it out. Though if the poet feels very strongly and has good arguments for its inclusion I will usually defer to the poet! Trust and respect in both directions are absolutely vital.

Punctuation – well, that’s another matter! Some of our poets like writing verse completely unpunctuated and in many cases that’s great – and gives a real sense of freedom from constraint to the reader. But I have to admit to liking punctuation – and I think it can also help with pacing and comprehension – and just keeps you on track with a longer, more complex poem. So a balance is always good. Again, I hope I’ll be sensitive to the poet’s view.

Gradually the collection emerges into a beautiful entity, with an opener that’s not too long or super-demanding – something to whet your appetite – and then moves to more challenging poems as you get into your reading stride. Surprise and humour are vital ingredients and, though this may sound banal, making sure there’s a balance of shorter and longer poems. It can be great to turn a page and find just one very short poem. Giving poems ‘space’ is really important. And then end with a satisfying conclusion or maybe look to the future with a question or a big idea…

So how did it work with our CLiPPA-shortlisted titles, A Kid in My Class by Rachel Rooney, illustrated by Chris Riddell, and Dark Sky Park by Philip Gross, illustrated by Jesse Hodgson?

Daydreamer, from A Kid in My Class, 2018, by Rachel Rooney, Illustrated by Chris Riddell

Both books were true collaborations. Rachel and Chris had already decided they’d like to do something together so the book came to us that way. Our team just loved the poems and we knew we had something special in our hands. At our first meeting with Chris and Rachel – straight after CLiPPA 2016 – we agreed there should be a gallery of portraits of all the kids in the class running through the book, and that the class hamster should also be present, though he doesn’t get his own poem till the very end. We felt strongly that this book should be generously illustrated so we allocated a double spread per poem and came up with the idea of the blue wash throughout as a special effect. We’d probably imagined illustrations in classroom settings but Chris quite rightly leapfrogged this brief and I’ll never forget the excitement of seeing, with Rachel and our art director Judith Escreet, the amazing full-size drawings on Chris’s work-table.


Fidget, from A Kid in My Class, 2018, by Rachel Rooney, Illustrated by Chris Riddell

With Dark Sky Park, the collection came to us through poetry guru Pie Corbett, who knew Philip and recognised that these poems had huge cross-curricular science potential as well as being creative masterpieces. Philip had the idea to give each poem an accompanying ‘info-tweet’, providing fascinating facts about all the creatures and topics in a fun way. We chose the brilliant young Bristol-based artist Jesse Hodgson to illustrate, after seeing her brush-and-line drawings of tigers.

Tardigrade, from Dark Sky Park, 2018, by Philip Gross, illustrated by Jessie Hodgson

She was perfect for the natural history aspect of the book as well as portraying the sense of time, space and wonder that the poems create. A meeting between Philip and Jesse to discuss his visual take on the poems was an inspiring start to the project and Jesse took off from there.

Snow Leopard, from Dark Sky Park, 2018, by Philip Gross, illustrated by Jessie Hodgson

Editing and punctuation? Well, I can honestly say I hardly had to change a single word or comma in either book! These two poets are truly masters of their art.

Janetta Otter-Barry

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Janetta Otter-Barry is the founder and publisher of Otter-Barry Books, an award-winning independent children’s publisher with a focus on diversity and inclusion. Otter-Barry publish picture books, young fiction, graphic novels and information books as well as an acclaimed poetry list. The first books were published in May 2016, since when six poetry titles have been shortlisted for the prestigious CLiPPA award.

Otter-Barry Books.