Roger Stevens: Making Books

Occasionally we repost a particularly good blog – this week we have an updated blog from a few years ago, by Roger Stevens, all about making books!

Making Books

I know very few poets who do not want their work to be published. Poetry is not the solitary communication with the Muse that it is sometimes thought to be. We poets are driven to express ourselves. We want to tell people how we feel. We want to share our writing journey. We want to show off.

For many of us, particularly those of us who write for children, this desire to share stretches much further than seeing our work in print. We also want to work with those young readers we are trying to reach.

As I often tell teachers when I visit schools to give performances and workshops, we are not trying to teach children how to be poets. We are helping them to improve their writing skills, to write creatively, to communicate and to express themselves, and to enjoy using words.

Of course, we want to pass on a love for poetry and thus motivate young readers to write. And we often succeed, our workshops producing a plethora of poems. And then what? Maybe the children read them to the class, maybe they go straight into folders – often that is it!

But why should these young poets feel differently to we older ones? Perhaps they would like their work to be published, too; to share their poems, not just with their classmates, but with the school, their family and the wider world.

We often see lovely displays in the classroom, in the school hall, in the school entrance hall and even in the local library. But one of the best and most satisfying ways to share poems is to make a book.

So please take note all teachers, but also anyone who has, or knows, talented children who write poetry – parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, family friends. This is a great way to help these youngsters share their work.

I had a residency in a Basildon school for a few years. It consisted of one morning a week for one term with one Year 4 class. At the beginning of one term I announced we would write a book. I gave everyone in the class a free notebook, to start making notes and jotting down ideas. I explained that they didn’t have to share anything in the book if they didn’t want to. It would be private and personal to them. A couple of the children lost their books, a couple wrote nothing, but most of the children filled their books with all sorts of things, just as a ‘real’ writer would. We chose animals as a theme. And each week began working on different styles of animal poems.

Towards the end of the term we chose an editorial team, gathered together the best class illustrators, assembled a production group and lastly a sales team. We aimed to mirror the way a ‘real’ book would be made and marketed. We used the ‘old-fashioned’ cut and paste method. Poems were written on, or transferred to, computer and edited. Then printed. Then, finally, poems were cut out with scissors and assembled on the pages. Illustrators illustrated. We gave the book a title – My Name is Fire, wrote a blurb, invented a publishing house and decided to sell the books for £1 each – the money going to Comic Relief.

My Name Is Fire

The whole process was brilliant fun, the children loved it. There was so much creative energy. They were thrilled with the final product, everyone had at least one poem in the book, we photocopied 100 copies (it was cheaper than printing them). We sold every copy! And the book was a permanent reminder of the fun we had and the creative skills of the class.

I was telling this to a group of children at our local children’s book shop (the Book Nook) and a girl in the audience, Evelyn, aged 9, took it to heart. She went home and wrote a book of her own poems – The Magic of Poetry (illustrated with the help of her Dad, using images from the internet). She sold the books at £1 a time and sold 350 copies for Children in Need. I’m very pleased to say that I have a copy signed by the author herself.

I also love making small books. If I have a class for a day we can go through the whole book-making process from beginning to end. We write a poem. The book is A6 size, folded in half. The text is written on a single sheet of A6 paper folded in half, making four pages. The cover is a piece of A6 card, also folded in half. We write a blurb, invent a publishing house, make a dedication, add a pretend barcode, write a biography and so on. At the end we have 30 or so tiny books, and a whole new class library.

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Making home-made books is not just for children. If you’re an adult writer you can join in too! Either by using the photocopy method or splashing out and paying to have your work published by a small Press. Indeed, there’s a rich and noble history of writers, particularly poets, self-publishing their work. You must just be wary of vanity publishing – publishers who will tell you that your poem is akin to Wordsworth’s best and will offer to publish it (along with probably five hundred others) and charge you an exorbitant sum for doing so.

When I first began visiting schools as a poet, I’d had several poems published in anthologies, but I did not yet have a collection of my own work. So I self-published my own book, Never Trust a Lemon, to take into schools to share and sell. Nearly 25 years and 40 ‘real’ books later, Lemon is still one of my favourites and still sells!

Making books, especially with children, is great fun, and very rewarding for all who are involved.

Roger Stevens

Website for students and teachers: PoetryZone

Twitter: @poetryzone

Roger Stevens has had nearly 40 books published: novels, numerous solo poetry collections and edited poetry collections. When not writing, he visits schools, libraries and festivals performing his work and running workshops for young people and teachers. He is a National Poetry Day Ambassador for the Forward Arts Foundation, a founding member of the Able Writers scheme with Brian Moses; and of course runs the award-winning and most excellent poetry website PoetryZone.

 

Michaela Morgan: Elite? Effete? Irrelevant?

Elite? Effete? Irrelevant?

There was a time when poetry was put on a pedestal and regarded as either ‘special’ and ‘magical’ or somewhat elite and effete. It’s two sides of the same cliché of course and it’s an attitude that still lingers somewhat – despite poetry slams, raps and the tendency of Building Societies and Insurance Companies to use a TV version of poetry to boost their sales impact.

But poetry has always seemed normal and essential to me. It’s in my blood stream.

 I come from a very un-booky childhood home – a household without books, with never a bedtime story for me. Yet I grew up immersed in words and the music of words.  Educated in an era when religion involved chanting in Latin, one of my early intros to poetry was listening and joining in with the Call and Response of the catechism. Then listening or joining in with chants and incantations –in mystical Latin. There were also oral stories, tongue twisters, songs and jokes – word play.

I loved words. At primary school and later at convent school I went under the radar, doing things just the way I wanted to but never being suspected of being a rebel because I was just so very small and quiet. Like a Very Bad Mouse. So if a lesson was boring (and they so frequently were) I read a book secretly. I know nothing of primary school maths because I spent my time with the Walrus and the Carpenter and the Jabberwock with eyes of flame.

I got through secondary school without playing any of their team games. I spent those sessions hiding behind heaps of other people’s clothes keeping company with Charles Causley and Mr Shakespeare and his sonnets.  I never did learn to throw a ball but I loved to juggle words.

My credo is that everybody loves poetry – they just don’t always know it. There were a few raised eyebrows when I turned up at prison gates… to bring poetry to prisoners. But, with the judicious addition of chocolate hob nobs, my poetry sessions were always hugely popular.

At the same time as I was working in prisons, I was also making author visits to schools – sometimes running the same or similar poetry workshops with sticky infants and tattooed felons. Re-working Nursery Rhymes produced:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall

He fell off and cracked up after all.

All the psychiatrists, psychologists too

Sectioned him off under the Mental Health Act (subsection 2)

In both settings I celebrated National Poetry Day by using Poem a Day collections and distributing poems by birthdates or special days. This provoked much reading aloud, discussion, display, sharing and some illicit trading.

In schools I work to promote reading, performing, creating, illustrating, discussing – and learning about the magic and power of language. I urge schools to read a poem a day for delight – and also to provide models and springboards to enable children to take steps to writing their own poems. In my poetry workshop manuals I provide poems as models so children (and their teachers) share a wide range of poetry and are provided with encouragement and starting points to write their own. 

Teachers need to be captivated by poetry too. They may be intimidated by it or think it’s irrelevant – doesn’t fit their targets. Or it can become reduced to something to fit in at the end of term or on National Poetry Day.

We need MORE poetry in schools, in bookshops, on TV, on posters – everywhere.

At times of anxiety, celebration or grief- at each important stage of our life – we reach for a poem. It is essential. Why?

Because poetry packs a punch and poetry leaves an echo.

Michaela writes poetry, picture books, fiction and non-fiction. Her poetry is widely anthologised and she is responsible as writer, editor or co-contributor for:  

Words to Whisper Words to Shout (shortlisted for BBC Blue Peter Award), 

Wonderland: Alice in Poetry (shortlisted for CLPE’s CLiPPA Award)  

Reaching the Stars  – Poems about Extraordinary Women and Girls (winner of the North Somerset Teachers’ Award) with Jan Dean and Liz Brownlee  

For teaching, she has also written the popular Poetry Writing Workshops (ages 5 to 9 and 8 to 13) published by David Fulton Books/Routledge and recently reissued in a revised and extended third edition.  

Rebecca O’Connor: Falling in love with poetry: The Caterpillar Poetry Prize 2021

Falling in love with poetry: The Caterpillar Poetry Prize 2021

I fell in love with poetry when my aunt and uncle gave me a gift of Enid Blyton’s Treasury of Verse for my seventh birthday. At the age of eight, I started to write. Though the inspiration ebbs and flows, it has been a constant in my life. But only on a couple of occasions have I attempted to write for children. I am amply qualified, you’d think, as a parent and a published poet and an editor of a literature magazine for children – but it was so much more difficult than I could have imagined.

This has given me a real appreciation for the ones who get it right. They make it look so easy, that’s the thing. But you have to have all the right attributes – a gift for music, a riotous imagination and an ability to connect with children, not speak down to them. A sense of humour doesn’t hurt either. But nor is it any harm to go to places that are less than comfortable, to write of loneliness or anxiety. The rest of course is just hard graft. And that’s where I see a lot of poets fall down. They just haven’t put the work in. It seems so obvious, but a poem for a child should be just as good as one written for adults. It should require drafting and redrafting. Relying solely on a bouncy rhyme to carry your reader along isn’t going to cut the mustard. We shouldn’t underestimate the child as reader. They are much harsher critics than adults. They know what they like, and they can see through a fake. The really good poets know that.

Ultimately, my attempts to write for children failed – the tone wasn’t right, I couldn’t make the lines sing – but I’m happy I tried. Perhaps I was too conscious of the fact that I was writing for children, wasn’t able to put that aside, or put my adult self aside. It does seem that some people have an ability to keep one foot in childhood, and they can tap into that part of themselves when they write. My husband Will certainly has it. He can make up truly captivating stories for our children at the drop of a hat, and has done so nightly for many years. None of them have been set down on paper or recorded, but they live in our children.

It makes me so happy as an editor when I come across a poem that is like a beacon in the night – like Louise Greig’s Caterpillar prizewinning poem ‘Don’t Think of an Elephant’. ‘He thought of the sea. / And the sea is a big thought. / It took up a great deal of room in his head. / But he learned a lot. / He learned that the octopus / has a memory, and that whales / feel emotions, but when / he put this to his mother / she bent her head. / Don’t think of an elephant, she said.

Or a poem like Sarah Ziman’s ‘Faux pas’, which wittily portrays the mortification a child feels when she accidentally calls her teacher ‘Mum’, or the boundless humour in a poem by Julia Anna Douglas or Laura Mucha, or the philosophical ponderings of Robert Schechter.

The winner of this year’s Caterpillar Poetry Prize, by Christine McBeth – ‘a powerful piece of writing, a poem that everyone should read,’ according to the judge Michael Morpurgo – is a poem about the fate of our marine environment.

The drunkenness of things being various, that’s the thing. What you can write about for children is boundless. It’s not just monsters under the bed and worm sandwiches.

Rebecca O’Connor

Rebecca lives in rural Ireland, where she edits and designs The Moth and The Caterpillar magazines and runs several literary prizes, including The Caterpillar Poetry Prize. Her debut poetry collection We’ll Sing Blackbird was shortlisted for the Irish Times Shine Strong Award and she is the recipient of a Geoffrey Dearmer Prize. Her poetry has been published in the GuardianPoetry ReviewThe Spectator and elsewhere and was recently shortlisted for the Montreal Poetry Prize.  Her debut novel, He Is Mine and I Have No Other (‘Eerie, tender and wonderful,’ according to Sophie Mackintosh), was published by Canongate in 2018.

Matt Goodfellow: A Poet under Lockdown

A  Poet under Lockdown

During the recent Poetry Summit (online) meeting, there was a discussion around how the poets present had been getting on during lockdown – I didn’t say much because I hadn’t really thought about it.

So I had a think.

Firstly, I’m really lucky that no one in my family, immediate or wider, has fallen severely ill – (my 89 year old grandma did contract Covid 19 but defeated it quickly, escaping with just a sore throat). I’m also lucky to be a homeowner with access to a garden.

Aside from health worries, the over-arching effect of lockdown for me has been financial – which has certainly squashed my idea of a poetry-powered Porsche…

Like many of my fellow poets, the lion’s share of my income comes from school visits. My last paid workshops were the week lockdown came into effect. Up to that point, my diary was booked up until the end of the academic year and I was full-speed ahead promoting my Bloomsbury collection, Bright Bursts of Colour, published in February. As schools closed, so the cancellations flooded in. My wife, Joanna, after months of soul-searching had just resigned from her role as a primary school head-teacher, without a job to go to, not envisaging life as we knew it would grind to a halt. I accessed the government scheme for the self-employed and took a payment holiday on our mortgage – this helped – but there’s no doubt that money worries have been more to the fore than ever before. However, there is food in my cupboards and (ever-shrinking) clothes on my back, but am aware how deep the struggle is for some.

With so many creatives and teachers in effect out-of-work, the first weeks of lockdown flew by in a flurry of people posting online readings and educational workshops. I was one of them. Until, well, I got a bit bored doing them: I’m not good with technology and was therefore reliant on either my 10 year old daughter or 14 year old son filming me – and they didn’t take much pleasure in the self-serving ramblings of their show-off dad… although my son, Will, was savvy enough to realise time filming me was time away from home-schooling!  Happily, during this time, Joanna managed to secure a new job which relieved some of our tension.

Then came a lull in proceedings where we settled into a strange ‘acceptance of lockdown’ rhythm and it was then that I imagined I could re-awaken my muse – lazing in my study (overcrowded box-room), shrouded in silk scarves, notebook and pen in hand, reading and writing.

I was wrong.

I quickly came to realise how valuable periods of solitude are to my writing. And with two children, an energetic 9 month old Golden Retriever – and an unceremonious eviction from my study so Joanna could work from home – there was not much solitude to be had!

I have managed to write poems – just, perhaps, not as many as I usually would. Oh, and I quite like writing in pubs and cafes as well… it’s the people watching, honest!

Matt Goodfellow

Matt Goodfellow is from Manchester. He is a National Poetry Day Ambassador for the Forward Arts Foundation, and delivers high-energy, fun-filled performances in schools. His most recent collection is Bright Burst of Colour (Bloomsbury, 2020).

Chrissie Gittins: Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?         

Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?

‘Where do you get your ideas from for poems?’ This is the question I’m most often asked when visiting schools, festivals and libraries. Ideas come from many sources – conversations, reading, observation, memory, things children say, things that happen, and sometimes simply the sound of a word or its punning potential. An idea catches in my mind and becomes an obsession until it’s written into a poem.

I thought I’d outline a more detailed genesis of a couple of poems – my most recent and an older poem. As you may know April is National Poetry Month in America. NaPoWriMo, or National Poetry Writing Month, is an annual project which offers a daily prompt throughout April. www.napowrimo.net The prompt for Day 22 appealed to me – a proverb from a different language. Websites are listed with possibilities. I chose ‘There’s no cow on the ice’ – a Swedish proverb meaning there’s no need to worry.

I liked its the throw away, surreal quality and it seemed to hook into the current climate. I thought about other precarious animal situations and took it from there.

 

There’s No Cow On The Ice

(Swedish proverb)

 

There’s no cow on the ice,

there’s no horse on the tightrope,

there’s no elephant on the church spire,

there’s no hippopotamus in the pear tree.

 

So don’t worry about the cow falling through the ice,

or the horse slipping from the tightrope,

or the elephant sliding down the church spire,

or the hippopotamus flailing in the pear tree.

 

The cow is having tea in the meadow,

the horse is there beside her with fruit cake,

the elephant raises a cup with his elegant trunk,

the hippo has a custard cream to dunk.

 

The second poem began with a conversation with a friend. She’d visited HMS Victory in Portsmouth and told me about the young children, often orphans swept off the streets, who worked on eighteenth century sailing ships as powder monkeys. They kept the artillery on the gun decks stocked with gunpowder. I was gripped by how frightening this must have been and shocked to discover that before 1794 children as young at six went to sea. I visited the Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum to research further.

The poem won the Belmont Poetry Prize for individual children’s poems. This was especially pleasing as the shortlist was drawn up by teachers and the prizewinners were chosen by thirteen year old children. Coincidentally, after 1794, the minimum age for children working at sea was raised to thirteen.

 

The Powder Monkey

 

This is the moment I dread,

my eyes sting with smoke,

my ears sing with cannon fire.

I see the terror rise inside me,

coil a rope in my belly to keep it down.

I chant inside my head to freeze my nerve.

 

Main mast, mizzen mast, foremast,

belfry, capstan, waist.

 

We must keep the fire coming.

If I dodge the sparks

my cartridge will be safe,

if I learn my lessons

I can be a seaman,

if I close my eyes to eat my biscuit

I will not see the weevils.

 

Main mast, mizzen mast, foremast,

shot lockers, bowsprit, gripe.

 

Don’t stop to put out that fire,

run to the hold,

we must fire at them

or they will fire at us.

 

Main mast, mizzen mast, foremast,

belfry, capstan, waist.

 

My mother never knew me,

but she would want to know this –

I can keep a cannon going,

I do not need her kiss.

 

 

‘The Power Monkey’ is published in ‘Now You See Me, Now You …’, ‘Stars in Jars’ and ‘Michael Rosen’s A to Z : The Best Children’s Poetry from Agard to Zephaniah’.

Chrissie Gittins

Chrissie Gittins has had three of her five children’s poetry collections as Choices for the Children’s Poetry Bookshelf. Two were shortlisted for the CLiPPA Award. She won the Belmont Poetry prize and was a Manchester Children’s Literature Prize finalist. Her poems feature on Cbeebies and the Poetry Archive. She has judged the Caterpillar Poetry Prize and is a National Poetry Day Ambassador.

Sue Hardy-Dawson: The Room I Write In and Cathartic Writing

The Room I Write In and Cathartic Writing

Years ago I was asked to write about the room I write in, difficult as I’ve no such room. Eventually, I wrote my room as a metaphor for the many places I’ve actually written. I wrote it on a train returning from London. It was winter, late at night and pitch black outside. I was a bit worried about a number of things, about the journey, missing my connection or my train getting cancelled. The thought of being stranded overnight in a freezing empty station was not appealing so I disappeared into my little world of writing where there was a magical box, doors leading to fields and beaches, warm summer meadows and safe comfortable places. Writing made the journey spin by and hours later I arrived safely back home with a useful piece.  I could have written about my fears of course, but escapism’s ever been my chosen coping mechanism.  Besides I had a deadline and however I felt needed to become my inspiration.

Over time I’ve found reading and writing poetry a wonderful escape in times of stress, it’s completely portable and whilst I’m creating or indeed reading I’m immersed in my thoughts. I don’t suggest it’s a cure but a momentary respite. At the moment when many of us are living slightly surreal lives I find there’s a great need for us all to both create and think creatively as well as to find hope in the words of others. Especially as a children’s writer, when we as adults are doing our best to make them feel safe, to make ourselves feel safe and to give the impression, at least, that eventually everything will be ok.

An interesting side-effect of social distancing is that social-media has become, for many of us, our only means of communicating with the outside world. This has led to all manner of amazing things from virtual book launches, poetry performances, stories to illustrating and writing workshops. Many delivered by authors, in some cases actors and on the whole uplifting. Mostly people are coming together, virtually, to support each other, to provide poetry, stories, happy thoughts and distractions.

It’s all too easy to forget the uplifting psychological impact and power of words when we’re stressed. After all many of us are trying to cope with the unfamiliar and difficult combination of suddenly becoming teachers and child development-experts and all whilst juggling home working. We’re our own support network/all-round-care-givers in what is essentially a siege situation. We don’t have time talk about how we feel or admit even to ourselves that we’re scared too. Yet children often sense these things and feel anxious whilst perhaps not really understand why. Maybe they even think with all these suppressed powerful emotions around that they did something wrong.

So now, more than ever is a really good time for our children to escape into both writing and listening to poems and stories, indeed there’s never been a better time for accessing the many wonderful free resources or to keep a personal note book, to use it to talk to, to write poems, to write letters to write stories, anything at all. Free-writing is above all things cathartic because even if children don’t write about what scares them, they may write about what gives them hope. In any case the process itself without levels or rules is escapism. And should they write about their fears it may help put them into perspective. At the least getting your children to free-write may give you a way of exploring how they feel and open discussions so you can challenge any misconceptions.

Sue Hardy-Dawson

Sue Hardy-Dawson is a poet & illustrator. Her debut collection, Where Zebras Go, Otter-Barry Books was shortlisted for the 2018 CLiPPA. Her second, Apes to Zebras, Bloomsbury, co-written with poetry ambassadors Roger Stevens and Liz Brownlee, won the NSTB Awards. Sue loves visiting schools, has worked with the Prince of Wales Foundation, ‘Children and the Arts’. As a dyslexic poet, she loves encouraging reluctant writers. The poem Dog Explains the Moon is from Sue’s new collection, If I Were Other Than Myself, Troika.

 

Gaby Morgan: Cats

Cats

I spent a long time thinking about what this blog would be about – most of it thinking about poems of hope and consolation, and some of it thinking about poems about spring, but in the end it turned out that what I was writing about was cats. I have two cats who are fond of me, but not each other, and both well into middle age. They have been very attentive while I have been at home. The Orange Cat sits by my computer as I work, next to me on the sofa as I read and follows me around in the garden digging up all of the things I have just planted. The Blue Cat – asks for food and sleeps on my bed. We serve our purpose for him.

I have enjoyed seeing all the photos and videos of other people’s pets on social media and during work video calls. I probably know more about my author’s pets than any other part of their lives, and the very first author pet that I met belonged to Charles Causley. He had a magnificent ginger cat called Rupert. Rupert was an excellent correspondent and I still have photos and postcards that he sent me. When I was compiling Read Me: A Poem for Every Day of the Year Charles suggested that I include a poem by his friend A. L. Rowse called The White Cat of Trenarren. It is sublime and begins:

 

‘He was a mighty hunter in his youth

At Polmear all day on the mound, on the pounce

For anything moving, rabbit or bird or mouse –

My cat and I grow old together.’

 

Charles wrote about cats too – from I Had A Little Cat in which our narrator takes his cat Tim Tom Tay to market to sell but ends up bringing him home again:

 

‘But when the people came to buy

I saw such a look in Tim Tom’s eye

That it was clear as clear could be

I couldn’t sell Tim for a fortune’s fee.’

 

To In Sam Remo about Edward Lear’s cat Foss:

 

‘Deep in the garden of the Villa Tennyson,

Under a Fig tree, end of the orange walk

(Where, in his life, he’d often sprawl and snooze)

Lies the good gatto Foss, for sixteen years

Daily companion of Edward Lear.’

 

I was lucky enough to work on a few of Robert Westall’s books – and happily look after Blitzcat and The Machine Gunners to this day. Robert loved cats and always had several – he wrote in a letter to a friend ‘Cats to me are one of life’s great and certain plusses. When I get angry with God I can forgive him because he made cats – a divine and beautiful joke.’ He put together Cats Whispers and Tales: A Treasury of Stories and Poems as a tribute to them. This was also the book that introduced me to the magnificent Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart, which begins ‘For I will consider my cat Jeoffry’,

 

‘For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.

For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.

For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.

For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.

For he can swim for life.

For he can creep.’

 

… and Pangur Bán (the scholar and his cat), an old Irish poem, written in the ninth century at or around Reichenau Abbey. I like to imagine the monk hard at work illuminating a manuscript with his white cat looking on. It begins:

 

I and Pangur Ban my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill.

 

And ends:

 

Practice every day has made

Pangur perfect in his trade;

I get wisdom day and night

Turning darkness into light.’

 

I would love to hear what your favourite cat poems are.

 

Gaby Morgan

 

Gaby Morgan is an Editorial Director at Macmillan Children’s Books and proud curator of the Macmillan Children’s Poetry List. She has compiled many bestselling anthologies including Read Me and Laugh: A Funny Poem for Every Day of the Year, Poems from the First World War, Poems for Love, Fairy Poems – which was short-listed for the CLPE Award – and A Year of Scottish Poems.

Imogen Lycett-Green: The Poem Inside

The Poem Inside

 

Going to the Dentist

Starting to tap on my teeth

With a silver metal spoon

Look at each of my teeth

Like a teacher looking at her class

I can’t move, sitting perfectly still

While he stands there

Holding a tiny little drill.

 

Maryan, Argyle school, 5Q

 

This poem was written for Track Record, a community project in Camden, supported by HighSpeed1. Maryan was one of 120 Y5 pupils who participated in six class workshops over six months, delivered by the truly inspiring poet for kids, Paul Lyalls. In July last year, at the project’s closing ceremony, Maryan (10) stood up and read her poem out on a stage at St Pancras International station. In front of friends and strangers – including passers-by who paused to listen under the sky blue railway shed, sitting on suitcases – Maryan’s tiny voice told a story. Maryan had never read a poem out loud before, let alone written one. English is not her first language, yet she finds herself in the UK education system, at a school where over 30 languages are spoken, trying to communicate in a foreign tongue. Through the simple act of writing a poem, she finds her voice.

 

My Cousin’s First Steps

A very wobbly first step.

Like a loose tooth in a happy smile.

Everyone in the room watches with excitement.

Staring at this small foot.

He walks, he falls over.

 

Nasif, Richard Cobden School, 5L

 

Nasif has a little cousin. ‘Everyone in the room’ does not necessarily speak English. Yet here is Nasif, aged ten, painting pictures in our hearts of his toddler cousin taking precarious first steps in front of an audience. Nasif’s classmates cheered as he stood up to read. They waited, while he too, like the toddler, faltered. But Nasif did not fall over. His poem flew to the rafters to a volley of whoops and cheers. Toot toot went the train, ready to leave the station. Toot toot!

Track Record is in its second year now. The fantastic Paul Lyalls is at it again. This time he has signed up a third school. Track Record is a simple project; we don’t even have a website – though we are thinking about that. We publish a booklet of their poems for the kids to take home, and over 30 poems are printed onto boards at St Pancras, to the delight of the thousands of commuters and tourists who pass through the station daily. The poems stay up all summer. The dream is to expand the project, school by school, year by year.

How many times have you rummaged through that old box in the attic to find a scrap of a picture of a house you drew when you were eight? A story you wrote about dinosaurs when you were nine? Perhaps, like Nasif and Maryan, you wrote a poem when you were ten. Think about what that means to you now.

Connecting with the imagination, seeing life with fresh perspective, celebrating the everyday – these are life skills which lead not only to improved literacy, but an invaluable  sense of oneself in the world which can last a lifetime. It’s pure magic, not rocket science (though, according to some of the young poets on the project, who wrote about racing to the moon, it can be that too!) As adults working in the children’s poetry sector, all we have to do is open the door. We can do that on small budgets, with scant resources. We only need to use our own imaginations to think of new ways of ensuring every child finds their poem inside.

Imogen Lycett-Green

Imogen Lycett Green is an independent arts producer, working on community projects across the poetry sector. Formerly director of the Betjeman Poetry Prize, Imogen judges the Chiddingstone Castle Literary Festival Short Story Prize for children. She is co-founder of the Narrative Medicine programme at the Brighton Health & Wellbeing centre where she runs poetry workshops for doctors as well as adults with chronic illness.

Lorraine Mariner: Poems Go Green! at the National Poetry Library

Poems Go Green! at the National Poetry Library

As I write this the Southbank Centre’s Imagine Children’s Festival is in full flow and the Royal Festival Hall is bursting at the seams with children and their grown-ups. The Imagine Festival takes place annually during February half-term and for the last five years we have been holding a Day of Poetry in the National Poetry Library for ages 0-11. We like to think of it as a Poetry Festival within the bigger festival.

This year our day of poetry was devoted to eco poetry. The idea for the day was sparked by Poems from a Green and Blue Planet edited by Sabrina Mahfouz, a wide-ranging and majestic nature anthology published last autumn. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a whole day of eco poetry at this time of climate emergency, when so many children, inspired by Greta Thunberg, are taking a stand?

Our day of poetry began at 10.30am with Rug Rhymes for under-5s and Ed Boxall joined us for this Eco Edition. He shared a picture book he has recently illustrated, Dragons’ Wood (Troika, 2019), of a poem by Brian Moses. We all took a walk through the wood with our dog catching glimpses of dragons. At 11.30am we had a workshop run by the UK’s Green Poet Martin Kiszko. Martin has worked with Sir David Attenborough composing music for nature documentaries such as BBC’s ‘Wildlife on One’ and has published two collections of green poetry for children illustrated by Nick Park (of Oscar winning Wallace and Gromit fame). Our workshop was aimed at ages 6-10 and Martin got the children writing in different forms; an animal kenning and a clerihew about an environmental issue.

Ed and Martin were back with us for our 1.30pm reading, aimed at ages 5-7, along with poet Carole Bromley, for Poems Go Green! Ed had realised that sticks feature quite a lot in his poems and his gentle, contemplative poems got us looking closely at nature. Carole took us to Australia, a country she recently visited, and which the children were aware had been tackling catastrophic bushfires. One of her poems reminded us to care for the less loveable animals and insects along with the cute koalas. Martin finished this set with his exuberant, rhyming word play, celebrating, amongst other environmentally friendly energy options, poo power.

Our final event of the day was a 3pm reading for ages 8-11, Poems from a Green and Blue Planet, where poet and editor Sabrina Mahfouz shared poems from the anthology along with contributing poet Liz Brownlee. The UK had just been battered on two consecutive weekends by Storm Ciara and Storm Dennis, so the reading began with a selection of stormy poems. Sabrina also got the children thinking of words to describe a storm and we combined these with objects. I think my favourite was “clattering candle”. Highlights of some of the classic and newly commissioned poems that Sabrina and Liz shared were Adrian Mitchell’s ‘Peace and Pancakes’, Hollie McNish’s ‘Anything!’ and Imtiaz Dharker’s ‘How to Cut a Pomegranate’ (with pomegranate prop!).

At 4pm it was over. It was a hectic day but all of our events sold out, poets sold and signed books, and I left work feeling less eco-anxious and hope the children that attended felt the same. We’d asked the poets for green tips and Martin advised that you should love the planet in the same way as you would your parents, brothers and sisters or pets. Nature poetry is a great way to foster this love and we have some wonderful collections and anthologies in the National Poetry Library that we recommend – please click here to see our list on the National Poetry Library Catalogue.

Lorraine Mariner

Lorraine Mariner is an Assistant Librarian at the National Poetry Library and has published two poetry collections for adults with Picador, Furniture (2009) and There Will Be No More Nonsense (2014).

Sue Hardy Dawson: Why Poetry Matters

Why Poetry Matters

I was born into a house full of poetry. Nightly my father lulled me to sleep with the many poems he knew by heart. On long journeys or stuck in traffic-jams we played rhyming games or changed the lyrics to songs and nursery rhymes. Mum too wrote funny verses for family birthday cards. So from an early age I experienced everything from AA Milne to WH Auden. I grew to love each softly spoken syllable; the portent in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the drumming beat of The Charge of the Light Brigade, the gentle rhythms of Night Mail and wistful repetition in Hiawatha. Each night, anew, I marvelled at Tygers and green eyed yellow idols, lamented on Bessy the landlord’s daughter awaiting her highwayman or lost myself in exotic cargoes of stately Spanish galleons. I took them for my own begging for my favourites. Naturally enough, whilst young, I didn’t fully understand them. Nevertheless, I learned to love lyrical words to love their musicality and my father was a very enthusiastic performer.

Eventually, perhaps inevitably, I began to write myself. Like most beginners, I made mistakes, using words that were archaic or didn’t quite fit. However, the more poets I read the more I got a sense of what worked and didn’t. I fell in love with Hughes at secondary school. I went on to read any and every poet I could lay my hands on, I still do. Then I liked poems for many reasons, they weren’t hard to read because they were usually smaller with more white space, yet there was often a lot to understand. Despite my dyslexia I could learn them well enough to risk reading them out. Writing poems too required less stamina and even if I had to rewrite them many times, they were only short and I could keep them inside my head and work on them. Poetry gave me something I could succeed at.

Whilst I’m not suggesting everyone who enjoys poetry will or should become a poet I believe I was very privileged to experienced poetry as few do in an unpressurised joyful way. I remain convinced that even in this multimedia world or in a busy school with all the demands of curriculum, making time for purely enjoying poetry really matters. Well any poet would I suppose. However, apart from being great fun, something that should never be underestimated as a learning tool, there are many positive effects from poetry for all children.

Like music poetry is multisensory, research suggests it lights up our brains in a similar way, triggering emotions, developing brain cells and improving memory. Historically our ancestors exploited this quality to record stories as ballads handing them down for generations long before the general populace could read or write.

Equally this memorizing characteristic helps children to learn new words in context whilst rhythm and rhyme help with pronunciation and stresses.

Similarly, rhyming, assonance and alliteration promote literacy, building phonic awareness and grouping phonic patterns.

Learning and acting out poetry also develops physical and verbal coordination laying the ground for all manner of public speaking or performance skills.

Perhaps, equally important though, I feel, an early pleasure in poetry for its own sake is more likely to lead to a lifelong love. For even those who claim to dislike it often turn to it in times of need; to express and explore otherwise inexpressible emotions. Finally though poetry is not alone in allowing us to walk in another’s shoes it is more open in making spaces for our own experiences and uniqueness in each footprint.

Sue Hardy-Dawson (Sue’s new collection, If I were Other than Myself, Troika Books is out soon.)

Sue Hardy-Dawson a poet & illustrator. Her debut collection, Where Zebras Go, Otter-Barry Books was shortlisted for the 2018 CLiPPA. Her second, Apes to Zebras, Bloomsbury, co-written with poetry ambassadors Roger Stevens and Liz Brownlee, won the NSTB Awards. Sue loves visiting schools, has worked with the Prince of Wales Foundation, ‘Children and the Arts’. As a dyslexic poet, she loves encouraging reluctant writers.