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.

 

Rachel Piercey: Conversation and Crossover

Conversation and Crossover

I started writing for children a few years ago, when I co-edited the Emma Press anthology Falling Out of the Sky: Poems about Myths and Monsters, and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. It has introduced me to a gigantic new group of readers, writers and co-creators, and a whole new library of joyous, devastating, transcendent poems. It has also given me valuable insights, particularly in terms of clarity and energy, into my writing ‘for adults’.

This was a distinction I had never made before, and one I am keen to blur. The world of children’s poetry makes plenty of room for adult poems, in anthologies and school lessons, and children are gloriously open-minded about deep, experimental creativity. The best children’s poems discuss the same big, knotty themes as adult poems, skilfully balancing accessibility with complexity. Now I would like to see the adult poetry world making more space for children’s poetry, which is a vital part of its foundation and future. I would love to get more people discussing, reviewing and enthusing about children’s poetry, and to encourage more poets to try writing for a younger audience.

Kate Wakeling is one of many poets, including me, who published their first poem for children in the Myths and Monsters anthology. Like many of the poets, she got hooked. And just two years later, Kate won the 2017 Centre for Literacy in Primary Poetry Award with her extraordinary debut Moon Juice. I’ve been in the audience when Kate has read children’s poems (my favourite is her shatteringly superb ‘The Demon Mouth’) alongside adult poems – and it’s an exhilarating combination. I wish more readings would mix the two, amplifying in a small but effective way the conversation between poetry for children and poetry for adults. In fiction, the young adult genre acts as a kind of bridge between children’s books and general novels, but we don’t really have an equivalent in poetry. To move, with no turning back, from the warm, fizzy, inviting world of children’s poetry to the secondary school canon can be disorientating. But if children’s poems were part of the general poetry conversation, sharing the same space, young people could study new, chewy works alongside more digestible ones.

So, let’s disrupt the distinction wherever we can. Let’s make more noise about the many children’s poets who are writing well-crafted, sensitive, probing poems about human emotions and the world around us, and zingy, experimental poems which push and pull language like plasticine – via social media, blogs, readings, and conversations with poetry friends. (If you’re looking for somewhere to start, the Children’s Poetry Archive is a great resource, as are the fabulous archives of the CLiPPA award. The Emma Press children’s list is also full of excellent, eclectic poems – many by poets new to writing for children.)

If you are a poet writing for adults, try reaching back the other way – remembering and celebrating the poems you loved as a kid. Try your hand at writing for children and share what you write, enjoying the licence for giddiness and experimentation. And costumes – see photo above!

Ultimately, what I would really love is to see magazines and journals accepting children’s poems and reviewing children’s poetry books as a matter of course, and even to see children’s poetry potentially in the running for the big prizes, acknowledged for its world-altering potential. Welcoming children’s poetry into the ecosystem of adult poetry would be such a powerful message that what we read when we are young is as precious and important as what we read when we are older. And the more young readers and writers of poetry we can nurture, the more secure that ecosystem will be.

Rachel Piercey

Rachel Piercey is a freelance writer, editor and tutor. She co-edited and contributed to the children’s poetry anthologies Falling Out of the Sky: Poems about Myths and Monsters (shortlisted for the CLiPPA award 2016), Watcher of the Skies: Poems about Space and Aliens, and The Head that Wears a Crown: Poems about Kings and Queens, all published by the Emma Press. She regularly performs and runs poetry workshops in schools, and she has taught courses on writing poetry for children for The Poetry School. Her poems for adults have been published in The Rialto, Magma, Butcher’s Dog and The Poetry Review, as well as pamphlets with the Emma Press and HappenStance. rachelpierceypoet.com

Gaby Morgan: In Praise of Anthologies

In Praise of Anthologies

1993 was an interesting year. Bill Clinton became the 42nd President of the USA. Sleepless In Seattle was released. Three members of One Direction were born and Macmillan Children’s Books published two slim anthologies, Doin Mi Ed In – Rap Poems by David Orme and Martin Glynn, and ‘Ere We Go! Football Poems by David Orme, launching a poetry list that is still going strong twenty-five years later. They introduced an exciting new band of very lovely poets to the world and I am so very lucky to be working with them all half a lifetime later. These were collections written for kids rather than at them and introduced them to a wide range of themes viewed from all kinds of different angles.

The biggest revelation that first year was Glitter When You Jump – Poems Celebrating the Seven Ages of Women by Fiona Waters. It was the most astonishing thing I had ever read and introduced me to ‘Phenomenal Woman’ by Maya Angelou and ‘Warning’ by Jenny Joseph.

Over the years I have read an awful lot of anthologies and was delighted to find that you often can hear the anthologists ‘voice’ in a collection. Brilliant anthologists such as Fiona Waters and Anne Harvey weave the most fascinating stories with incredible skill. When Roger McGough delivered the manuscript for Sensational he had written poem titles at the bottom of each page and I could very clearly see how each poem inspired the next – it was such a delight to follow his thoughts.

After many years of learning from these masters I was lucky enough to be asked to compile anthologies starting with Read Me: A Poem for Every Day for the National Year of Reading.

In my youth I spent days on end compiling the perfect mixed tape. A single song was often the spark for an entire C90. I crafted the perfect collection of summery songs, a tape to impress a new love or even one full of please-stay-in-the-friend zone songs. I still use these mixed tape skills today and that is how I compile anthologies. You have to have album tracks or the hit singles don’t shine. For people who dip and browse you need a very strong beginning and end. You need enough familiar poems – ‘Daffodils’! – for people to feel comfortable and enough brand-new to make people look beyond the collection. You start to tell a story and then the poems suggest themselves.

Poems pop into my head and bring their friends with them…

The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ by W. B. Yeats, ‘I hear it in the deep heart’s core’,

Beattie is Three’ by Adrian Henri, ‘How her fist fits my palm/A bunch of consolation’,

The White Cat of Trenarren’ by A.L. Rowse, ‘My cat and I grow old together’,

Let No One Steal Your Dreams’ by Paul Cookson, ‘Your only limit is the sky’.

They are joined by poems that I have heard performed such as ‘Dear Hearing World’ by Raymond Antrobus, ‘I have left Earth in search of an audible God’, or poems that I have come across on social media like ‘Saltwater’ by Finn Butler, ‘Everyone who terrifies you is 65 per cent water’ – look them up, they will bring you joy!

The world has changed enormously in the past quarter century and our poetry list has followed the curve of the earth and the signs of the times. We have published a wide range of poetry titles including landmark anthologies such as The Works: Every Kind of Poem You Will Ever Need for the Literacy Hour chosen by Paul Cookson for a new primary curriculum in 2000. Books to echo trends in popular culture like pirates and wizards, or to reflect upon historical events such as the 50th anniversary of the moon landings and the centenary of the end of WWI. To mark sporting events like the Football World Cup or the Olympics; or delve deeper to demonstrate hope and light in challenging times with poetry about extraordinary women, poetry promoting empathy and tolerance, poetry that celebrates our history and heritage and great big gift anthologies which celebrate poetry itself.

Poetry is powerful stuff – from nursery rhymes, to song lyrics, to poetry shared on social media to verse novels. We turn to poems to soothe or rally, to praise, to celebrate, to comprehend, to grieve, to shout ‘I love you’ or to pick ourselves up when it seems impossible – they are words for life.

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.