Teresa Cremin: Profiling Poetry this December

Profiling Poetry this December

It’s Yuletide – a time for carols, songs, stories and poetry– a time to tempt children with the words and tunes, rhythm and rhyme that play into this space of celebration. Over the decades, teachers have made this time special in school, offering class, whole school and community events that involve giving, receiving and so much more.

It is also a rich opportunity to read, write and perform poetry together and to seize those liminal spaces when half the class are at a play practice or are finishing making cards for instance. So, in this Christmas blog, given there is scant time for thinking as we rush from job to job, planning food, writing cards and generally panicking (well I am!),  I thought I’d simply share some ideas for profiling poetry this December.

Advent Calendar Poetree: This idea was developed by Miss Graham, an NQT from Edge Hill University who is working at Kingsmoor Junior in Carlisle, Cumbria. Eager to foster children’s reading for pleasure @MissGrahamteach hid 24 wrapped poems in each classroom, children find the day’s poem and share it! Each dated poem also has a challenge on the back- a discussion question relating to the topic or form of the poem to get children buzzing about poetry!

Poems as Christmas Gifts: Inviting the class to write their own poems as gifts for family members always works well. Focusing on a chosen relative or friend, rather than the jolly red stereotypes of Christmas is often more engaging. The key, as George Szirtes highlights, is to avoid platitudes and clichés, but to let the pressure of such avoidance ‘be felt at every juncture of each line and each word. That pressure is the pressure of the imagination, the auditory imagination if you like’. You could explore what makes their grandma so special – what are the objects in her house, her voice,  style, typical expressions and so forth. Or you could play the furniture game and encourage them to imagine their grandad as a piece of furniture ‘a deep leather sofa creased and loved’ perhaps? Printed on card and illustrated, this will be given with love.

Poetry Recommendations for Parents: Encouraging poetry gift giving, schools can offer a recommended booklist of their top ten poetry collections, perhaps on the school website or newsletter.

Pop-up Poets: Why not interleave  opportunities to share poetry – the children’s own and others – when parents come to see their children’s work or attend events? You could create pop-up poets who, having prepped their chosen poem in small groups, are at the ready when a governor, parents or others come by? They can then rush off and perform their poem – ‘Talkin turkeys’ by Benjamin Zephaniah or ‘The computer’s first Christmas card’ by Edwin Morgan would work well amongst many others.

Poetry in Christmas gatherings: Most schools will be joining together in a special assembly or performance. Why not interleave the printed programme with children’s own poems? Or offer live poetry during the interval?  Saint Andrew’s C of E Primary school Halstead hold an annual candlelight service for the children who sit in a circle around the candles while each member of staff reads a poem or an extract. One teacher there, Claire Williams (@borntosparkle), tells me that the sense of peace and ‘togetherness’ is tangible, especially when the headteacher closes by reading ‘A visit from Saint Nicolas’ by Clement Clarke Moore. Sounds very memorable.

Regardless of the way you enjoy poetry with your class this December, I hope you and the children will be tempted by the words and tunes, the ideas and images that such rich language provides.

Teresa Cremin

Teresa is Professor of Education (Literacy) at the Open University. An advocate of teachers’ creative artistry, Teresa is also passionate about developing readers for life and leads a professional user-community website based on her research into reading for pleasure. The site supports over 80 OU/UKLA Teachers’ Reading Groups and 24 HEI partnerships across the country. Teresa Cremin’s OU webpage.

Kate Wilson: Packing Meaning Into a Small Space

I am lucky.

At so many times in my career, I have been able to… um, let’s call it what it sometimes feels as if it is, indulge my love of children’s poetry.

I wasn’t brought up in a particularly bookish household, but on my seventh birthday, I received a book that was, for me, transformative. It was The Book Of A Thousand poems – small, thick, densely packed with poetry, much of which I can still recite by heart. I still have my copy of the book, the top of it forested with little triangles of faded pink torn paper that I used, at some point, to mark my favourites. These were fairly traditional poems. I was responding, of course, to experiences of rhythm and rhyme and sometimes other language patterns – assonance, alliteration, repetition – building on the bedrock of English-language nursery rhymes that should be the bedrock of every English speaking child, which is not, of course, to discount the richness of children’s rhymes in other languages from Akan to Zulu. But I was also responding to the way that poetry packed meaning into a small space, to be mentally and emotionally unfolded, not just at the moment of reading, but later, on reflection as I rolled remembered words around in my brain.

I went on to study English at university, and emerged with a determination to “get into publishing”, without, really, knowing what that meant other than that I wanted to work with books.

Spectacularly, I got a job at Faber, and so had not only the joy of sharing a lift with Seamus Heaney, but also selling – mine was a sales role –  The Rattle Bag, poetry by Water De La Mere and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Some of the children’s poetry I encountered there was new to me, some was deliciously familiar.

After a while, I found myself as the children’s publisher at Macmillan, publishing, and, once, meeting Charles Causley. Up until that point, I am ashamed to say now, my experience of poetry had been, well, silent. It happened in my head. I read poems. I didn’t read them aloud. But at Macmillan I had the experience of publishing poets who worked in schools: worked with audiences of children – Valerie Bloom, Paul Cookson, Ian Macmillan and Pie Corbett among others. It was an honour to watch children’s responding to poetry read out loud. These were words, I realised belatedly, not just to roll around in your brain, but words to roll around in your ears, roll around on your tongue.

It made me think about picture books, which so often demand to be read out loud too: theatre for an audience of one or two. Macmillan already had on its list Bringing The Rain To Kapiti Plain, a rhyming picture book classic. But I published Valerie Bloom’s funny, sunlit rhyming picture book about counting, Fruits, further brightened by Valerie’s use of Jamaican patois. And I published The Gruffalo. At the time, to publish rhyming picture book texts was risky: the received wisdom was that the challenge of translation made it hard for them to achieve the kind of international sales that make the high cost of publishing books in colour financially viable. But The Gruffalo was a hit internationally, and has opened the door to a panoply of picture books that tell stories saturated with rhythm and rhyme.

Inspired by The Book of A Thousand Poems, though, I kept faith with the idea of the pick ‘n’ mix delights of the anthology. The first, rather glorious, National Year of Reading ran from 1994 to 1995, and, thinking of ways to support it, I came up with Read Me: A Poem a Day for the National Year of Reading, now still published as Read Me: A Poem for Every Day of the Year. It was the best idea I’d had in the bath for a long time.

Still later, here at Nosy Crow, we’re publishing both rhyming picture books – by, among others Caryl Hart, Tracey Corderoy and Lou Peacock – and poetry anthologies. I am interested in sort of combining the two: bringing the richness of picture book illustration to poetry. Our first, hugely ambitious shot at this is I Am The Seed That Grew the Tree: a Nature Poem for Every Day of the Year, published a year ago. It’s a big, beautiful book published in partnership with The National Trust that both invites children into poetry, and invites children into nature, as the poems describe the seasons, animals, weather, and plants that the child can observe, or at least imagine, happening and living outdoors at that moment.

The success of this book – commercial and critical – has been such a justification of its publication: at no point in the making of the book did it seem remotely possible that it would do anything other than lose us a bucket of money. I am proud of it… and seeing that it worked and was welcomed, has made us plan several others that we’ll be announcing in the months to come.

Kate Wilson

Kate Wilson loves books. She read avidly as a child, studied English at Oxford and got into publishing as soon as she could wangle a job typing and taking her boss’s shirts to the dry cleaner. She’s worked in international rights selling and then as a publisher at Faber, Egmont, Macmillan, Scholastic. After being fired from an adult publishing job, she founded Nosy Crow, and is managing director there, working with co-founders Adrian Soar and Camilla Reid and 50 other people to publish over 100 new books for children aged 0 to 12 a year. Nosy Crow has won many industry and business awards, most recently this year, and for the second time, Children’s Publisher of the Year at the British Book Awards.

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.

Dawn Finch: Poetry for Children – a School Librarian’s Perspective.

Poetry for Children – a school librarian’s perspective.

I have worked with primary school age children for a very long time. I ran a primary school library for over a decade, and all in all have worked with books for primary age children for over thirty years. I am often asked what books I feel are most popular with children of that age, and the answer came from the shelf in my library that was always the messiest. The shelf that was most heavily used (and gave me the most tidying up duties) was the poetry shelf. I had to move the poetry section closer to my desk because it was so busy I decided it was easier to help children if they were right at my desk. In every primary school I’ve worked the situation was the same – kids love poetry. Small children have not yet learned to feel awkward or embarrassed about their love of it, and so they embrace poetry. They read it, write it, share it and love it.

If that’s the case, why can’t we see it on the shelves of more bookshops?

I’m afraid I can’t answer that. All of my experience tells me that children love poetry and yet buying it is still so hard. We have some superb poets for children in the UK and every day I see details of new and exciting poetry books. This blog is a collective of the most amazing writers, and yet I know that when I walk into a bookshop I’m going to struggle to find most of their books.

If we think the situation is bad for poetry for children, watch that thin line grow ever thinner and vanish as we look at poetry for adults. This is hardly surprising – if you deny a child access to something it’s no wonder that they don’t seek it out as an adult.

Poetry often feels like it isn’t for everyone. I grew up a working class kid in a pretty rough school and past primary age we didn’t really “do” poetry. That was for the posh kids, not for us grubby little estate oiks. Those of us who liked poetry knew it was sensible to keep that to ourselves. This is still how some kids are growing up. Children and young people are still feeling that poetry is not for them and the lack of it on the shelves of bookshops perpetuates that myth.

To experience the wider benefits of reading for pleasure, it has to be just that – a pleasure. If libraries and bookshops fail to stock poetry then that limited choice means that children will never know if it is for them, and that means they will grow up to become adults who feel the same. They will grow to feel that poetry is only for the educated elite and not for us regular folk.

But poetry is for us, and it can be for all of us. I used to think that poetry wasn’t for me, right up to the moment I won first prize in the Brian Nisbet Poetry Award in 2019. Until that moment I was writing poetry in secret because of the feeling that poetry was not for me. Feelings that had stuck with me right from secondary school over forty years ago.

Poetry brings a moment, an experience, an emotion, a place in time all condensed into a delicious capsule. For a small child a great poem can be an epiphany and a gem-like moment of pure understanding. It can be a rolling laugh tangled up in a few short lines, or it can be a sweeping escape in an epic form.

All children deserve that. In fact, so do all grown-ups!

Dawn Finch

Dawn Finch is a children’s author and librarian. She is a Trustee of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) and has recently become the Chair of the Society of Authors’ Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group committee (CWIG). Her website is here. Twitter: @dawnafinch

Hannah Rolls: Poetry and Illustration

Poetry and Illustration

The first poetry book I can remember reading is You Can’t Catch Me by Michael Rosen. Bits of those poems are buried deep in my memory – lines like ‘Shuttup, Stinks! YOU CAN’T RULE MY LIFE,’ or ‘I’ve got you, I’ve got you, and I’ll never let you go,’ or the fact that you might meet a dog down behind the dustbin. I must have read them (or had them read to me) over and over again.

But there’s another thing about You Can’t Catch Me which is memorable and that’s what I want to focus on in this blog. Because that book isn’t just by Michael Rosen, it’s by Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake. Blake’s illustrations are classics – from the scruffy dog Ranzo (Who rolled in the mud behind the garage door? Who left footprints across the kitchen floor?) to the strange and brilliant pastiche of Goya’s nightmarish ‘Saturn Devouring His Son’ which illustrates the poem ‘Jojo’. Those artworks are just as much part of the book as the poems are.

 

That’s a challenge to a poetry editor like me. Not all books can be illustrated by a great like Quentin Blake, but at Bloomsbury the vast majority of our children’s poetry books do have illustrations. Finding an illustrator whose style and tone suits a collection or anthology, whose work the poet likes and who our sales team are excited about can be difficult (especially when you factor in the tight schedules and budgets we’re often working with). Part of my job as an editor is to work with our design team to try and find just the right person and to write a brief for them.

It is something I find endlessly fascinating – part of the reason I became an editor is because I’ve always been interested in books as objects, not just as texts. I also can’t draw for toffee and so the magic of seeing what illustrators come up with based on a poem I’ve suggested they illustrate, or a few sentences I’ve written as part of a brief remains an utter delight. I find it completely magical.

A couple of books I’ve worked on here at Bloomsbury this year show this magic at work. Back in July we published Spaced Out, an anthology of poems about space edited by Brian Moses and James Carter and illustrated by Del Thorpe. As is often the case with anthologies the poems in this book have a variety of moods and so we needed an illustrator who could handle serious and beautiful poems as well as humour. As the examples below show, I think Del handled that challenge with ease.

 

Another book I’ve worked on recently is Midnight Feasts, an anthology edited by A.F. Harrold and illustrated by Katy Riddell. Katy is a young illustrator who hadn’t worked on many projects before this one but her distinctive style and quirky sense of humour are a perfect fit for A.F. Harrold’s brilliant selection of poems on the theme of food which includes poems by everyone from Ian McMillan and William Carlos Williams to Joseph Coelho, Sabrina Mahfouz and Imtiaz Dharker, as well as A.F. Harrold himself.

Of course it is much too soon to say whether either of these books will become classics in the way in the way You Can’t Catch Me did (still available as part of Mustard, Custard, Grumble Belly and Gravy, thirty eight years after it was first published).

But I hope the combination of poems and pictures in them will delight today’s children and worm their way into memories in the same way as Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake’s work did all those years ago.

Hannah Rolls

Hannah Rolls is Editorial Director for educational fiction and children’s poetry at Bloomsbury which is both 2019 IPG PLS Education Publisher of the Year and 2019 IPG Blackwell’s Children’s Publisher of the Year. Her list includes everything from early readers to high low fiction for teenagers, and children’s poetry of all kinds.

Tracey Guiry: Making the Children’s Poetry Archive

Making the Children’s Poetry Archive

I don’t remember poetry being spoken of in my house as I grew up and certainly not spoken out loud. We lived on a remote farm and I spent from dawn to dusk outdoors, which in the 60’s and 70’s meant truly outdoors,  being given a cheese sandwich and some orange squash and told to be back before it got dark. The stories I most loved as a child reflected that sense of freedom, of being master of my own destiny, an explorer and an adventurer no less brave or able than my brothers.

From an early age I knew the name of pretty much everything I came across in the fields and woods around our village so it is really no surprise that the first poems which snagged my imagination were about the things I knew best. Poems like John Clare’s Mouse’s Nest, with his lovely made-up words like ‘prog’, and Ted Hughes’ Thought Fox, ‘and again now, and now, and now’ brought a shock of recognition which I can still recall with a smile. These poems filled my mind with pictures even if, at the time, I thought they truly were only about a mouse and a fox. There is nothing can compare to the moment we discover something we know speaks to us alone.  I remembered these feelings as we made the decision to create a Poetry Archive dedicated to children.

The Poetry Archive exists to produce, acquire, preserve and share the world’s finest poetry read out loud and it wasn’t long into our history of making recordings that we knew children’s poetry should have its own website.  We believe passionately that poems are not only words on a page but equally have a life in the mouth and on the ear and we wanted to break down any barriers which might exist between a child and a poem. The quality of writing for children has always been high – children are the most discerning and demanding audiences – but there were few websites specifically designed with a younger user in mind.

Young people today are technologically savvy in ways I couldn’t even have imagined at their age, and our site needed to reflect that. The ‘favourite’ function next to each poem allows users to click on the and save poems to their very own collection in ‘My Archive’. From there they can create their own poetry playlists, listen back to their own curated collections and share the poems they like with their friends. The ‘eyes closed, ears open’ button allows them to switch off all the other sights and sounds on the page except for the poet and their voice.

We want children to discover poetry for themselves. There is no fanfare of description on the Children’s Poetry Archive, no lessons on meaning, or other people’s opinions, though these can be found by anyone wanting to search. When a child arrives at the Children’s Archive they will find only the poet’s voice, the sound their words make, and a head full of pictures all their own which they can recall with a smile all their lives.

Tracey Guiry

Children’s Poetry Archive.

Tracey Guiry is the Director of the Poetry Archive. She worked in the Giant Screen film industry before learning how to build very big cinemas. She then went on to build even bigger Visitor Attractions and Science Centres which brought art, science and nature education to the public, becoming a Director at ‘We the Curious’ in Bristol before it launched in 2000. Her passion for poetry and literature led to her co-founding Literature Works with Alex Cluness in 2008 to provide developmental support to writers – this became a national portfolio organisation of the Arts Council in 2009. She joined the Poetry Archive in 2016, working to ensure their poetry collections and education materials can continue to be shared free-of-charge with as many people as possible. The Children’s Poetry Archive was developed with the kind support of the T S Eliot Foundation.

James Carter: Poet Laureate… for Children

What better date than National Poetry Day to suggest something new to the children’s poetry world…?

Now. In the 20 years or so I’ve been lucky to be working as a children’s poet – writing and publishing children’s poetry, visiting well over 1200 schools in the UK and abroad – I’ve noticed a gradual but significant sea change. For up-and-coming poets I’d argue it’s a more welcoming place than it ever was. Moreover, there’s a wonderful, thriving and wholly supportive community of UK children’s poets online; check it out on Twitter. I feel that the poetry books – collections and anthologies – we publish now are of a better quality overall and have a more inspiring range of topics than ever before. Many of the wonderful teachers I meet – Primary teachers – seem to be so much more enthusiastic about poetry now and have shaken off that age-old intimidation or reluctance – even saying to me how much their classes love doing poetry – reading, writing and performing it. Not so much do I hear ‘poetry is scary’. Hurrah! Literary festivals are booking more poets. We even have a number of children’s poetry awards. (A couple more would be good though…) Plus, as far as I can see, poetry seems to be read far more at home than it ever was. Allelujah to that!

Yet the ‘p’ word still garners the odd groan amongst adults particularly, and that will never go away entirely – and I partly blame the English Literature curriculum’s obsession with verse deconstruction at GCSE for that.

As a fan of American verse, I often look to see what poetry is happening over the pond. And what I’ve noticed is that they don’t just have a Children’s Laureate, but a Children’s Poet Laureate. So how about having the same over here, in office for say two years, leading conferences, training teachers, advising librarians, doing family shows in communities, training up-and-coming poets on how to perform poems/run workshops, giving media soundbites on why poetry is so vital for the young. And rather than trying to work nationally all the time, they could focus their work regionally, so much more can be achieved and with greater depth. I can think of many contemporary children’s poets that would be ideal for this job.

And though poetry is on the up, there’s still more to be done – more teachers, librarians, parents and carers that need to be convinced and shown the myriad benefits of poetry – in terms of children writing, nurturing children’s reading and developing oracy/performance skills. They need to be shown that prose is a mountain, verse is a hill. The more hills children can climb – and early on – the better communicators, the more passionate readers and committed writers they will become. Poetry writing encourages autobiographical writing (q.v. free verse) as well as figurative and expressive language, full of rich imagery; it actively promotes children writing imaginatively and freely, exploring their own thoughts, ideas and creativities. What’s more, the more poems children write, the better they will be at writing prose. This is not a theory but a fact!

Fancy sponsoring this WH Smiths, Foyles, Blackwells, Amazon? And how about getting National Poetry Day UK / The Poetry Society / Children’s Poetry Summit behind this? If each Laureate does a two year term – after ten years, there would have been five different laureates, say all based in very different parts of the UK, from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, bringing all of us children’s poets ever closer together, with each Laureate spreading their own interests and expertise, inspiring both adults and children, handing out plenty of the good stuff. There. What’s not to like?

James Carter

National Poetry Day Ambassador

James Carter is an award-winning children’s poet and non-fiction writer. He travels all over
the UK and abroad (with his melodica, Steve) to give lively poetry/music performances
and workshops, and in the last 18 years he has visited over 1200 Primary schools.
He is an ambassador for National Poetry Day. Once Upon A Star – the story of the sun, James’s non-fiction picture book in verse, is out now in p/b; The Big Beyond – the story of space travel –is out now in hardback. (both Little Tiger Press). His website is here.

 

Debbie Pullinger: Why the Revival?

Why the Revival?

Something’s afoot. As Michael Rosen said at the outset – and as blog on blog has attested – there’s a Sense of Revival. Children’s poetry is all abuzz – as is poetry generally. As Michael Rosen also says, it’s hard to say why – why now? But it’s an interesting question, nevertheless.

Maybe it’s just a pendulum swing thing. The wheel goes round and poetry is recalled and re-cooled.

Maybe it’s because we’re remembering that poetry is all about the ear and the tongue. School poetry, in particular, got rather stuck to the page for all sorts of reasons. But in classrooms as in performance venues, its voice is being heard.

Maybe it’s because a poem is short. It’s all we can manage when we’re so strapped for time and attention.

Maybe it’s part of what David Sax calls “The Revenge of Analogue”.* Like listening to songs on vinyl or writing with a fountain pen in a leather-bound book, speaking and writing and even learning poems feels like some kind of material resistance in this digital age. A slowing, flowing, real-world sort of activity.

Maybe all those, and maybe more.

Another question might be about why we lost the poetry plot in the first place. Because, the fact is, poetry is where we all started. Our human ancestors’ first foray into language was a kind of singing – whose main purpose was to maintain bonds within social groups once they became too large for everyone to groom everyone else.** Not language to label and manage, but language to connect and enchant. And it’s where we still start. When you arrived to join the world, it was the musical rhythms and intonations of your family’s speech that you recognised, and vocalised, first. Vocabulary and syntax came later.***

So poetic language is primarily primal language. It’s language rooted in music, emotion and the body. It hangs loose with meaning. It’s playful. That’s what all poetry – but children’s poetry in particular – taps into. Its meaning is often enacted in the body through physicality and sensuousness. This much is obvious in many nursery rhymes (‘Hickory Dickory Dock’, ‘Humpty Dumpty’), but you can find these subtle mimetic qualities in most poetry. The patterned, musical sounds of poetic language reassure the very young (and perhaps all of us) that language is not an arbitrary, alien assemblage of sound symbols, but something that has a deep connection with our own bodily experience, and connects our embodied selves to the world around.

Most importantly, poems offer a vital sense of containment. The world is vast and feelings overwhelming. Rhymes and songs assure children that both can be contained and ordered.

So maybe this revival is simply our first language reasserting itself, in spite of everything. Normality resumed.

*David Sax, 2016, The Revenge of Analogue: Real Things and Why They Matter. New York: PublicAffairs

**Robin Dunbar, 2004, The Human Story. London: Faber

***Studies of language development in infants indicate that rhythm and phrasing are acquired before vocabulary and syntax, and that this process begins before birth.

Debbie Pullinger

Debbie Pullinger is a writer and researcher, based at the University of Cambridge. Her book From Tongue to Text: A New Reading of Childrens Poetry was published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2017. Website: Debbie Pullinger.

 

John Hegley: Word Play with the Card Players

Image: Travis Elborough.

Word Play with the Card players

Tom* and I we sat and spoke

about the kids, and them awoke;

writing (and drawing) til their pencils wore away or broke.

What was to be drawn and writ

would be about a bit of local art

in which they’d get to take a part,

with poets working in the school,

each employing, as a tool

a local gallery exhibit

to inspire and uninhibit.

Clare** would come there too, to note

and photograph the drawn and wrote

in Bristol, Bradford, Luton Town:

the young creative gold dust sieved.

And, London, where I’ve also lived.

*Tom MacAndrew, freelance producer, **Clare Elstow, writer and broadcaster.

Paul CézanneThe Card Players 1894–1895, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, public domain.

As a tester for this, I visited a nearby primary school with ‘The Card Players’ by the French painter, Paul Cezanne. I explained that I had a French Connection because my dad was born in Paris and French was his mother tongue. I told the children and their teacher that I celebrate these French roots. We discussed a wide variety of roots and heritage present in the classroom. We then looked at the two card players present in the painting, at their opposite ends of the table.

Are they friends? Are they brothers? Are they farmers? Look how big their knees are! Can you supply a third person to put in the middle? What does this person look like? How big are the newcomer’s knees? What do the existing card players think about the new arrival? What does the table think? What does Paul Cezanne think of what is going on?

John’s own drawing in answer to this exercise!

The teacher in this class is most attentive,

as the children write and draw,

ignited by this image from the Courtauld.

I have learned, with running courses

in classes, workshopping in schools,

that tools held by teachers are such valuable resources.

They know the children, understand

when many hands go shooting up,

which voice

is the most prudent choice.

It may not be the chosen reply

will be the cleverest,

but it may be, here is a child too shy

to ordinarily supply their teacher

with an answer.

The teacher can also advise the guest

when it may be best

to say goodbye.

 

John Hegley

John Hegley was born in Newington Green, North London, and was educated in Luton, Bristol and Bradford University.

He has produced ten books of verse and prose pieces, two CDs and one mug, but his largest source of income is from stages on his native island. An Edinburgh Festival regular, he is noted for his exploration of such diverse topics as dog hair, potatoes, handkerchieves and the misery of human existence.

He is an occasional DJ, dancer and workshop leader, using drawing, poetry and gesture. He has been awarded an honorary Doctorate of Arts from what is now the University of Bedfordshire, and once performed in a women’s prison in Columbia.

Steven Camden: Left Handed Hammer

Left Handed Hammer – I Never Dreamed of Being a Writer

“Do me a favour and fetch a left-handed hammer, Stevey”.

It was my first day on the building site and I was eager to impress. My best friend’s uncle Uthan had given me the job as a favour and, as I brushed my teeth that morning, I promised my reflection I wouldn’t let him down. Uthan and the other builders were all seasoned veterans so, as we started preparations to lay raised decking and someone me asked me to fetch a left-handed hammer, I ran off to the van determined to do just that.

Half an hour later, I was still crouched in the back of the old Vauxhall Bedford, holding a different hammer in either hand, desperately trying to decide which one felt more ‘left-handed’.

If I close my eyes and concentrate, I can still hear the polyphony of their gravelly laughs when I returned holding both.

The lesson I learned that morning (apart from never trust anyone on your first day on a building site) was that I’m not great with tools.

Fifteen years later, standing on the stage at the National Theatre in front of a few hundred people, blinded by spotlights, holding the trophy for the CLiPPA award for poetry 2019 in my hands, the three words glowing neon in my mind were, ‘left-handed hammer’.

Image: © Ellie kurttz courtesy of CLiPPA

(Maybe that’s two words, technically, I mean, I’m not fully sure how it works with hyphens).

I never dreamed of being a writer.

Not in the sense of never dreamed it would be possible, I mean I literally never dreamed of being a writer. I had no plan. There wasn’t and isn’t a magical place of recognition or status I’m trying to get to by writing. I am not interested in the ideas of prestige or critical plaudits. What interests me about writing, is how stories can be used to help unlock ideas and possibilities in others.

It’s the thought of someone seeing me as a writer who comes from a background and heritage similar to their own and feeling that their voice now seems more valid to have a place in the world that gets me going, or the characters and worlds I create starting conversations between people about lives and circumstances not always discussed, or maybe just the simple idea that the approachability of my work might spark the confidence in someone to have a go at writing themselves. That’s the most exciting thing about writing for me.

I see my published writing as a tool to initiate these connections. A tangible thing to hold, open, read, share and discuss. A means to let voices be heard. A left-handed hammer to use however you like.

Image: Ellie kurttz, courtesy of CLiPPA

Winning the CLiPPA felt lovely in terms of being recognised as a writer of subjective quality. It felt like a confidence boosting rubber stamp from an organisation and individuals I respect.

But, most of all it felt exciting as a way to potentially share my tools with more people than ever and hopefully inspire them to build worlds of their own.

Steven Camden aka polarbear

 

Birmingham born Steven Camden (Polarbear) is one of the most respected spoken word artists in the UK. Performing his work internationally since 2007, Camden has graced stages from Kuala Lumpur to California.

His debut poetry collection ‘Everything All At Once’ was published by Macmillan and won the CLiPPA Poetry Prize 2019.

Among other successes, He was co-writer and script mentor on the Akram Khan Company’s Olivier Award winning production DESH as well as script writer for LIFT festival’s acclaimed production TURFED.

He has written three Young Adult novels for HarperCollins, TAPE (2013), It’s About Love (2015) and Nobody Real (2018).

His first young people’s theatre piece MOUTH OPEN, STORY JUMP OUT, received five stars reviews and is currently on its fifth international tour, with the follow up DARK CORNERS set to tour internationally in late 2019.

He is currently working on his next novel for Harper Collins, a new coming of age feature screenplay and an adult TV drama for World Productions.

Steven spends a large chunk of his time in schools and working with community groups, devising and leading creative projects and sessions, sharing his own unconventional process, hoping to spark minds into using story as a means of expression and collaboration across all boundaries.