As the third in a new series of Poets’ Profiles, we asked
Pie Corbett to talk about being a children’s poet
Who are you?
Pie Corbett – poet, storyteller and writer, anthologist, ex teacher, Head and Inspector. I run ‘Talk for Writing’ which is an approach to teaching writing used round the world.
How long have you been writing poetry for children?
I started writing my own poetry when I was at school. I met Brian Moses at teacher training college about 43 years ago and we began writing model poems for children.
How did you get started?
Like many poets of about my age, I was influenced by the Liverpool Poets – Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten. Their writing made me feel that I could write something similar… or, at the least, have a go. I read a lot of poetry and had two other influences. Kenneth Koch was an American writer who often used a repeating line such as ‘I wish I was…’ or ‘I used to… but now…’. The poems were very playful and this worked really well in my own writing and in my teaching. In many ways, the total opposite of Koch was the writer Ted Hughes whose writing focussed upon close observation of the natural world and using the writing to capture and celebrate experience. I used his approach in my own writing and in the classroom – we wrote about a stuffed fox, a rusted bicycle, our hands, tree bark, cats, snow fall and so on. As Sally (9 years) said, ‘you have to try and say what things are really like’.
What do you enjoy about writing?
When I am writing, I block out everything else. I love the tussle with words, creating new images or ideas and the way in which something that has never existed before can appear. I always read my writing aloud because I want the writing to flow. I like the way that poetry is a blend of meaning and music. Many of my poems are like diary entries. When I read a poem from years ago, I can remember where I was and what was happening. Poems, when they work, are little nuggets of life and joy that have been preserved. I see them like jars of preserved fruit, sitting on a shelf glowing in the sunlight. Whenever I take a jar down and read the poem, I can still taste the original experience.
Have you any poetry writing tips you’d like to share with us?
Like almost every writer, I keep a notebook with me. I raid life for ideas so I am always on the lookout for possibilities. I raid life. When I am writing a poem, I need silence and to concentrate really hard. I keep rereading, as I write, to check the sense and flow and to get the next idea. Three key tips:
- ‘Name it’ – it is not a ‘dog’ but a ‘poodle’ – as soon as you ‘name’ the noun, you create a stronger image.
- Strengthen verbs – not ‘the dog went’ but ‘the dog bounded’… or ’the dog limped’…
- Beware of adjectives, e.g. The big giant (aren’t they all big?) – do you need any? Avoid using adjectives that mean the same sort of thing (weary, tired, exhausted, drowsy). Also watch out for adverbs – do you really need to say ‘she whispered quietly’?
Which is your favourite amongst the books you’ve written?
My collection Evidence of Dragons (Macmillan Children’s Books) has all my favourite poems. I’ve just published Catalysts – poems for writing’ (available from https://shop.talk4writing.com/products/catalysts-poems-for-writing ) which is a collection of over 130 model poems that can be used for teaching but also by anyone who loves writing. There are some poems in that book that I love – ‘The Dream Catcher’ is a long poem that captures all shades of life.
Which book was most important in your career as a poet?
In about 1983, Brian and I wrote a book together for teachers called Catapults and Kingfishers (Oxford University Press) and that helped us both get noticed. Then the poet-anthologist John Foster published some of my poems in the Oxford Poetry series. This helped me to begin to take my own writing more seriously. Rice, Pie and Moses (Macmillan Children’s Books) gave me a chance to put out a selection of poems, some of which have been published in other parts of the world. The collection was by John Rice, Brian Moses and myself. I’ve enjoyed publishing over 20 anthologies; my favourite was The King’s Pyjamas.
Anything else you’d like to tell us?
If you like writing then keep reading, keep writing and bathe yourself in all that life has to offer.
Pie Corbett is a teacher-poet – his collection ‘Evidence of `Dragons’ is used in many classrooms. He has published and edited over 250 books, runs ‘Talk for Writing’ and was made an honorary Doctor of Letters for services to creativity, poetry and social justice by the Open University. He runs online training for teachers and every Monday works with about 6,000 children on @TeachingLive, running writing sessions of poetry, creative nonfiction and story.