Philip Gross: Outside In

There’s a child at the back of the class. I don’t know who. But at some point in this poetry session, as if a sash window has slid open, clunk, a snatch of a poem we’re reading will blow in, inside them, and take root. They might not even notice. But thirty years later they’ll find it there, a memory, a sudden feeling of a possibility: yes, I could put words together like that. Somebody’s life will be changed.

No evaluation form will pick this up. The visiting poet may go home feeling pleased to hear the laugh at a punchline, or, in a sad one, the quiet sigh. Meanwhile, somewhere, a seed of the culture has been passed on.

I trust this. I can’t prove it, except to say I was that child at the back, the one who didn’t speak out loud, who would have shrunk to a quivering blob of himself if everyone’s attention had turned to him. That’s still who I write for when I write a children’s poem.

Poetry written for young people can do many things, from the most extrovert, bonding a roomful of children into a single response, to the most private. It can whisper a reminder of a birthright, one under threat in this performative, social-media-skilled age, which easily tips into scorn for the ‘sad’, the introverted – their right to their own inwardness.

There’s a room in my house where nobody goes

            except me:

a still room, a light room,

            a where-I-go-to-write room,

an any-day, any-time, a middle-of-the-night room,

     a feeling-low-and-slow or a high-as-a-kite room.

                                                                 Feel free!

There’s a room in my house where nobody goes.

There are cupboards and corners that nobody knows

            inside me.

The memory I treasure most out of forty-odd years of creative workshops is almost silent. A group of twenty middle school students have been exploring the gardens of Northcourt, on the Isle of Wight, moving between writing and visual art to capture the spirit of the place. The weekend’s theme is inside out/outside in. We pause; now is the time to let it sink in.

We’ve got hold of a forty-metre bolt of muslin from a local scrap store. The group sits down on the grass, in a slightly distanced line, and lift the fabric gently over their heads. This becomes a private space. They aren’t hidden – they can see out, they can lift the fabric aside any time they like. But a quietness spreads through us all. Birdsong sounds louder. And for longer than you’d dream of asking a class to be silent, nobody stirs. The poems they wrote after that were not self-centred. They were full of vivid impressions of the world around them… which also, as poetry does, caught honest sharp reflections of the children’s lives. At the end of the day, asked What was the most memorable thing?  child after child wrote The snake!

That magic happened because all of us were there as writers. They were readers too, but also finding how it felt to choose between that word, that line, that effect. Test this out for yourselves, doesn’t young people’s appetite for poems with nuance and subtlety, with layers to unpick, go up by leaps and bounds the moment they step from consumer (thumbs up, thumbs down, reach for the remote, flick channel) to creator mode? In poetry as in sport, the richest experience gets laid down when we feel like participants.

There’s the paradox – our inner spaces are where we’re at our most engaged. That outside-in place belongs to all of us. And it’s where poetry lives.

Philip Gross

Philip Gross has seen his poetry for adults and for young people as all of a piece through 40 years and some 25 collections. He won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2009 and a Cholmondeley Award in 2017, while children’s collections from Manifold Manor (1989) onwards have won the Signal Award and the CLPE Poetry Award, and he chaired the judging panel for this year’s CLiPPA. There have also been 10 novels for young people and a few librettos along the way. He is a keen collaborator – e.g. with artist Valerie Coffin Price on A Fold In The River (2015) and with scientists on the CLiPPA-shortlisted Dark Sky Park (2018).

CLiPPA Poetry Award 2019

CLiPPA 2019

A highlight of our year at CLPE (Centre for Literacy in Primary Education) is the CLiPPA award ceremony which we’ve organised in collaboration with the National Theatre.

The CLPE Poetry Award started 17 years ago, to fill the gap left by the Signal Poetry Award. A list of the winners since then with other information about the award can be found on our Poetryline website.

In 2014 we made the award more high profile, the announcement of the winner being made at the recently opened House of Illustration with a linked poetry trail featuring poems from the shortlisted titles. However, children themselves remained the missing guests at the feast and thin 2015 we began a schools’ shadowing scheme, created resources to help teachers introduce the books to children, and started a partnership with the National Theatre. Thanks to chair of judges Roger McGough commenting that the prize needed a more snappy name, it became the more catchy CLiPPA which stands for Centre for Literacy in Primary Poetry Award.

The relationship with the National Theatre has continues and led to a capacity crowd filling the Lyttelton Theatre this year on Wednesday 3rd July. Our Poetry Show featured the five shortlisted poets; Kwame Alexander for his verse novel Rebound (Andersen Press), Rachel Rooney for her collection A Kid in My Class (Otter-Barry Books), Steven Camden for his collection Everything All At Once (Macmillan Children’s Books), Philip Gross for Dark Sky Park (Otter-Barry Books), and Eloise Greenfield for Thinker: My Puppy Poet and Me (Tiny Owl).

Schoolchildren performed from each of their books, with the proceedings compèred in an inimitable manner by chair of judges, A. F. Harrold, assisted by fellow judges Ruth Awolola, Charlotte Hacking and Susannah Herbert. It has now become a wonderful tradition for Chris Riddell to be seated on the stage, live drawing throughout the event.

The schools chosen to perform were selected from more than 100 videos sent in as part of our shadowing scheme. First on the stage were five children from a Birmingham primary school, one of whom took on the role of the cool dude in Rachel Rooney’s poem ‘Cool’ from A Kid in My Class. Then Rachel herself appeared in disguise as a hamster to perform ‘The Hamster Speaks’ featuring a character who scampers through the pages in Chris Riddell’s accompanying illustrations.

Neither Kwame Alexander nor Eloise Greenfield could be at the ceremony as they live in the USA but both sent video messages with warm greetings and recited respectively from Rebound and Thinker: My Puppy Poet and Me.

Three boys from a Northolt primary school captured the rhythm of the basketball court in their rendition of ‘Air Jordan’ from Rebound while a whole class of 30 children from a primary school in Uxbridge gave a captivating presentation of Eloise Greenfield’s ‘Thinker’s Rap’.

Two girls from a Hertfordshire junior school gave a spine-tingling interpretation of ‘Aleppo Cat’ from Philip Gross’ Dark Sky Park followed by Philip diving deep into his collection subtitled ‘Poems from the Edge of Nature’ to read ‘The Abyss’.

A startling solo performance came from a girl who had travelled from a Norfolk school taking on the dual roles of a child and the blank page staring at her in ‘Anyone’ from Steven Camden’s debut collection Everything All At Once. Steven then shared his heartfelt poem ‘Dear Mum, BTEC’ which is for every young person who wants to convey to their parents and teachers that they need to plough their own furrow and that taking a practical path is equally as valid as an academic one.

One of the great things about the Poetry Show is that it celebrates all of the shortlisted titles. However, by the end of it, the audience is alert to hear the announcement of the winner. This year, the judges chose to highly commend Eloise Greenfield’s Thinker: My Puppy Poet and Me. The accolade of this year’s CLiPPA, though, went to Steven Camden’s Everything All At Once, a book that the judges felt should be given to every child in Year 6 in anticipation of their move to secondary school and the new phase of life into which they will be entering.


The show ended with the announcement of a partnership with National Poetry Day to encourage children to write poems on this year’s theme, Truth. This was presented via a video featuring several poets who had previously won the CLiPPA with their first collection for children, including Joseph Coelho, Karl Nova and Rachel Rooney. Seeing those faces up there was just one of many emotional moments of the day for me, having been associated with the award from the beginning.

It was great this year to witness one of those moments for others. I happened to be sitting next to Gaby Morgan, publisher of the winning book and Steven Camden was on the other side of her. A. F. Harrold prefaced the moment when he announced the winner by mentioning that this poet went by another name as a performer – that of Polarbear – and that was when Steven and Gaby knew their book had won and it was wonderful to feel their delight and emotion.

Ann Lazim

Ann Lazim is the Literature and Library Development Manager at CLPE (Centre for Literacy in Primary Education) where she has worked for over 25 years. This multi-faceted role includes being the administrator for the CLiPPA (Centre for Literacy in Primary Poetry Award). Ann has an MA in Children’s Literature from Roehampton University and is active in IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People).