Sue Hardy-Dawson: What is Poetry?

Perhaps you’re already a fan of poetry? As you’re reading a poetry blog, it’s a fair assumption. However, undeniably, it remains the marmite of literature. Why? I suspect part of the problem is that unlike other models for writing it’s hard to define exactly what a poem is.

It’s true there are many different forms and styles of poetry, as many as poets past and present have and continue to think up. In fact, poetry by its very nature welcomes experimentation and innovation. BUT, whilst it’s a wonderful open field to play for poets, it can feel a bit daunting to those, as yet unconvinced, endeavouring to teach it.

Like all else it requires first and foremost a degree of immersion. Even if you have read and yes reread at least some if not a lot of poems by different poets contemporary and historical, a satisfying definition that fits all models, much less how to write poetry, remains elusive. Add to this an educational zeitgeist of deconstruction and poetry risks becoming a fearfully complex thing. Right?

No, it doesn’t need to be. Naturally, as a poet, I know a fair amount about poetry. Yet, like every child everywhere, almost all I know I learnt a long time after I began writing it. My first poems were largely mimicking poetry I’d enjoyed. I’m grateful my youthful attention wasn’t required to identify similes, metaphors or alliteration. Not, at least, until secondary school and university.

So here’s the thing, poetry needn’t be scary, you can know very little about its constructs and still embark on a joint voyage of enjoying poetry with children. The single most important teaching tool you can bring to the party is a genuine passion. Better still you can experiment and invent your own rules. There are no poetry police or they would have carted me away at birth. So poetry provides endless opportunities for wild creativity. You can arrange it solely by syllable counts, write it rhymed or unrhymed, play with and have lots of punctuation, or none at all. You can mimic other forms of writing. There’s very little a poem cannot be from an epic to a single word.

‘Ah’ you say, (well probably not you, but many teachers and parents I’ve come across) ‘but I don’t like poetry.’ And who can blame you? We’ve all felt dislike for something. The book we dread at bedtime, the irritating song you find yourself tragically humming on the bus. For me it’s competitive sports and computer games. I understand. So, if you aren’t already, can I ever make a poetry fan of you? Well, I believe it’s possible. Familiarity is key and it doesn’t even lead to contempt.

Consider opera, music’s marmite, yet after the world cup who hasn’t found themselves humming Nessun Dorma? If not launching into full-blown song in the bathroom and scaring the neighbours? Just me then? Nevertheless, it proves we can all learn to love new things and, if we don’t have to be experts in Italian or opera to feel opera’s joy, why not poetry?

So if you don’t like or are even fearful of teaching poetry, children’s poetry is a good place to start. It’s accessible and often fun. Don’t let poetry become just an exercise in studying language, though, let contextual osmosis work its magic, learn poems as you would a song. Watch videos of poets performing or go and see one live. Why? Because enthusiasm is addictive and children have inbuilt primeval, adult-engagement sensors. Open their hearts and love – and even understanding – will grow on its own.

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 prize. Sue’s poems and teaching resources can be found on the CLPE website. Her second, ‘Apes to Zebras’ Bloomsbury, co-written with poetry ambassadors, Roger Stevens and Liz Brownlee, won the North Somerset Teachers Book Awards. As a dyslexic poet, she loves encouraging reluctant readers and writers. Her second solo collection ‘If I were Other than Myself’ is out now with Troika Books.

Roger Stevens: Poetry Forms

There are some very strange and beguiling forms, styles and varieties of verse out there in Poetryland. I’ve always been fascinated why this should be so and how different forms of poetry come about.

Take blank verse, for example. Its first recorded use was by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, in his translation of the Aeneid around 1540. Not so very long after, in 1561, the first play in blank verse, Gorboduc, was written by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville. The work of Shakespeare and Marlowe show how they then adopted and adapted this form.

Shakespeare, ever the innovator, developed blank verse in many interesting ways, using enjambment and feminine endings, for example, as well as using the potential of blank verse for abrupt and irregular speech. In this exchange from King John (3.2) one blank verse line is broken between two characters:

My lord?
            A grave.
                        He shall not live.
                                                Enough.

Believe it or not, one of the oldest poetic forms is the acrostic. The word was first applied to the prophecies of the Erythraen Sybil, of classical antiquity, which were written on leaves and arranged so that the initial letters on the leaves always formed a word. Many writers and poets have had fun with this idea over the centuries. Notably Lewis Carroll in his poem for the “three Misses Liddell” whose names are spelt out by the poem.

My favourite variety of this form is the mesostic, where letters in the middle of the poem vertically spell out the poem’s title. Mesostics were invented by the Fluxus artist John Cage in the 1960s and work much better in the classroom than acrostics, causing children to try a little harder for their poem to make sense and giving a more pleasing shape when written down.

Taking the idea further, there is the horizontic:

hope Or a mirAge, Shimmering In the deSert

This and other unusual acrostics, as well as examples and explanations of many different kinds of poetry, can be found in my anthology Is This a Poem? (Bloomsbury, 2016).

Haiku poems emerged in 13th Century Japan as the opening phrase of the Renga, an oral poem generally 100 stanzas long, which was also composed syllabically. The much shorter haiku broke away from its parent in the 16th Century. And was distilled a century later by the haiku master Matsuo Basho.

the old pond
a frog leaps in
sound of the water

No modern children’s anthology, it seems, can do without at least one haiku – which should really be about nature – or its cousin, the senryu, – which describes human behaviour and is usually satirical.

After having attended a course on writing haiku, as an anthologist I now describe all these types of poems as ‘written in the haiku style’. Proper haiku poems are very complicated beasts indeed and are typically serious. I broke that rule with the very first poem I had published, way back in the early 1990s:

When I write haiku
I always seem to have one
Syllable left o

Roger Stevens

Roger Stevens has published over forty books for children. He is a National Poetry Day Ambassador, a founding member of the Able Writers scheme with Brian Moses and runs the award-winning website www.poetryzone.co.uk for children and teachers, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2018.  A Million Brilliant Poems (Bloomsbury) was shortlisted for the CLPE prize and his book Apes to Zebras – an A to Z of shape poems (Bloomsbury) won the prestigious NSTB award. This year he published his best-of collection Razzmatazz (Otter-Barry Books) to excellent reviews.

Kate Wakeling: On Trusting Difficult and Mysterious Things

I’ll start by saying what I don’t mean. What I don’t mean is that poems for children should ever be wilfully obscure or inaccessible. Or that poems for children shouldn’t ever be wonderfully direct and simple. Or just tell a good joke. All of this is an important part of children’s poetry.

That said, I have this feeling there’s sometimes a certain expectation that poems for children should… do what they say on the tin, or not include anything deemed too mysterious, or not feature words or ideas that might risk seeming a bit highfalutin’ for younger brains – or that they (poems) shouldn’t have a sense of not having quite made up their minds.

As someone who writes for adults and for children, I do of course differentiate in all sorts of ways between these two audiences. I know there are many kinds of ‘difficult’ things (in vocabulary or concept) that would doubtless be unconstructive to include when writing for younger people, and I spend a lot of time making sure that I don’t risk losing a reader across a poem.

But at the same time… the more I write, be it for adults or children, the more I’ve realised how important it is for me not to know exactly what I’m talking about before I start. And I think my most successful poems for both children and adults retain something of this mystery once complete. Poems I’ve written for children called ‘The Demon Mouth’ and ‘Weird Cake’ both delve into ideas and sensations that I still can’t precisely articulate (tenderness, desire, control, self-expression, rage, release?) – and they seem to spark a lot of thought in children.

When I write in this way – i.e. propelled by an impulse that is difficult to explain in concrete terms – I find that the words often arrive in my brain with an odd sort of force. And because of this, when writing this sort of poem for children, I will sometimes use a word that mightn’t be immediately familiar to that audience. I use it because it feels like the right word, in the way that words do in a poem. And I only use such a word if I’m confident that it will spring to life for the reader in this context, but I know it’s still a risk. Yet I feel like it’s right to take this risk on occasion because, for me, poems are there to carry you to somewhere else in all sorts of ways. And if you trust in this process and let the sonic power of each word work its tricks, then it will probably be OK.

It’s a well-trodden reference, but I find Keats’ ‘negative capability’ such a helpful perspective: that good writing is ‘capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. I find it interesting that there’s sometimes an uneasiness about exposing children to ‘uncertainties’ in poetry – that it might be too unsettling or off-putting if a poem doesn’t reveal itself clearly enough in each and every way. Perhaps it’s because we often feel that our job as adults is to provide children with answers. But of course answers are not only what children want or need.

I view poems as a magic invitation (for writer or reader, adult or child) to sit for a while with a question or sensation, and explore it in your own way. Poems provide a space where things don’t necessarily need to be solved or understood in a rational sense. Rather, they’re somewhere you can experience something a little more deeply or perhaps in a new way entirely. They are a place of mystery and knottiness, but also of discovery. And it seems only fair that children should get just as much of this as anybody else.

Kate Wakeling

Kate Wakeling is a writer and musicologist. Her debut collection of children’s poetry, Moon Juice (The Emma Press)won the 2017 CLiPPA and was nominated for the 2018 CILIP Carnegie Medal. Her second collection for children, Cloud Soup (The Emma Press) came out in the summer and was selected as a Book of the Month by the Guardian and the Scotsman. A pamphlet of Kate’s poetry for adults, The Rainbow Faults, is published by The Rialto.

Joshua Seigal: Poetry and Philosophy

I often tell people that one of the things that attracts me to poetry is that poems tend to be short. In 2011, I completed a 30,000 word thesis as part of my Philosophy postgraduate degree. The thesis was edited down from about 50,000 words. That is not short. Aside from the obvious matter of length, there is the corollary issue of time. One should not underestimate the time it can take to complete a poem, but it is much shorter than it takes to write a philosophical tract. This suits me because I tend to work in short, intense bursts. In part, my deciding to dedicate myself to poetry can be seen as something of a reaction against my previous life in academia.

Another thing I am often asked about is the extent to which my background in philosophy influences my poetry. One can take this at least two ways: do I write about the same sorts of things? And how similar is the writing process? Let’s take each of these in turn. Philosophy purports to concern itself with the deepest questions: Why are we here? What is reality? How can we come to know reality? When I first started to write poetry for children my main aim was to provide a bit of a giggle. This, again, was probably a reaction against having to tackle the ‘big questions’ in my day job. However, as the pandemic has progressed my poetry has certainly taken on a philosophical edge. In fact, I have probably started to think about the big issues with more gusto than I ever did as an academic.

How, though, have I been tackling these issues? This brings us onto the second question, regarding the extent to which writing poetry and writing philosophy are similar. For me, there are huge differences, and it is these differences that attract me to the former rather than the latter. When Philosophers write, they tend to lay out an argument meticulously, examine it from all angles, consider counterarguments, and advance slowly and cautiously toward a conclusion. And the conclusion in any one essay is almost always nothing more than a tiny grain of sand added to the great mound of what has gone before. Indeed, most of the work I studied was concerned with minute details of the big issues, rather than the issues themselves as a whole. I think this was one of the things that frustrated me: Anglophone Philosophers, in what is known as the ‘Analytic’ tradition, often tend to be details people, rather than big-picture people.

As a poet, I don’t look for conclusions, and I don’t progress by way of ‘argument’. I try to open up a snapshot, or a window, through which the big issues can be viewed, however dimly. I proceed by way of allusion and metaphor, or else I simply tell it as I see it; in neither case is the goal to convince someone to adopt my point of view, and in neither case am I trying to add anything to a collective body of knowledge. I am simply adopting and describing a point of view. The point of view might pertain to issues like love, goodness, knowledge and truth. Or I may simply be describing how my cat was sick on the rug. I am pleased I did my time as an academic, and I am even more pleased now to not be doing it. And given that I am not doing it, I am going to leave this ‘essay’ without an elegant conclusion.

(please vote for me in the People’s Book Prize. It takes twenty seconds: https://peoplesbookprize.com/summer-2021/yapping-away/)

Joshua Seigal

Joshua Seigal is a poet, performer and workshop leader based in London. His latest collection, Welcome To My Crazy Life, is published by Bloomsbury, and he was the recipient of the 2020 Laugh Out Loud Book Award. Please visit http://www.joshuaseigal.co.uk for more info.

Gaby Morgan: Publishing Magic

Even after almost 30 years, I am still grateful and delighted on a daily basis that I get to make and publish poetry books with brilliant, inspiring poets and editors.

At Macmillan Children’s Books we currently publish around ten poetry titles a year – we publish titles for moments and events, like International Women’s Day, the Football World Cup and Remembrance Day, books that will particularly be enjoyed in schools and big gift books for Christmas.

I am lucky enough to get sent a lot of ideas for poetry collections, and I love talking to poets about them and exploring how we might be able to publish in the best way. There is a kind of publishing magic that happens when just the right theme is matched with the perfect angle or twist. I have published at least 20 books of football poems, 10 books of Christmas poems and 30 books of school poems, but it is the extra something, the hook that a poet or anthologist brings that makes all the difference, to ensure that we are not walking over the same ground again and again. It means that I can sell the idea to our in house teams, so that they can sell the idea to bookshops and in turn the retailers can sell them to customers. It is that magic that makes children choose them.

I love this poem which is by Paul Cookson and features in School Trips:

Short Visit, Long Stay

The school trip was a special occasion

But we never reached our destination

Instead of the Zoo

I was locked in the loo

On an M62 Service Station.

Once we have our idea and the book is acquired the anthologist contacts a wide group of poets, shares the concept with them and asks for submissions. For a 60 poem collection an anthologist will usually send me around 80 poems to look at. I love reading these manuscripts – every anthologist has a particular style or voice that comes through in the story they tell with the poems. Some manuscripts are perfect, but mostly they take a bit of tweaking as we try different running orders and call in a few more poems to fill any gaps. Anthologists weave their books together with great skill, and sometimes that might mean leaving out some beautiful pieces that don’t quite fit and instead searching out pieces that chime in the right way. We may have to reshuffle a book to keep it within its permissions budget and last-minute changes can often lead to stunning new discoveries.

Some books evolve dramatically – Chris Riddell’s Poems to Save the World With started off as a hymn to the environment and kindness in a strange post-Brexit world, but then Covid happened mid-edit and it became about hope, consolation. It includes this beautiful poem by Nikita Gill:

Kindness

And maybe it is easier to learn kindness in these times.

When the whole world is like a small child with a fever,

trying her very best to make herself feel better.

Maybe we find our unity in the near-losing of everything.

Where we have no choice but to depend upon each other.

This is what it takes to realise we are in this together.

A man helps someone he dislikes because they are in danger.

A neighbour delivers groceries to everyone ill on her street.

Old friends forgive each other and stop acting like they are strangers.

Maybe this time, this is what the revolution looks like.

People helping each other despite their differences.

Understanding truly, that without the aid of others,

we would be all alone in this.

Pick up an anthology today – see the world from different perspectives and from different periods of history, meet some new poets, listen to the anthologist’s voice singing, bookmark a favourite and send one to a friend.

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.

Martin Kratz: Manchester Poetry Library and the Poetry of Childhood

Credit: Simon Haworth

In the novel Mutterzunge (Mothertongue), Emine Sevgi Özdamar writes: “In der Fremdsprache haben Wörter keine Kindheit.” A rough translation is: “In a foreign language, words have no childhood.” But really, it says something more like “in THE foreign language, words have no childhood”, because Özdamar is thinking here in particular of the bilingual experience—a person’s other tongue, as opposed to their mother tongue.

While it’s untrue to say I have no childhood in English at all, there are certainly gaps in that upbringing. I grew up speaking mostly German. These days, English is by far my stronger language; and, like many others, I now have to make a concerted effort to engage with the language that was once my only one.

The Tree is Older Than You Are, A Bilingual Gathering of Of Poems and Stories From Mexico, Selected by Naomi Shihab Nye

Occasionally English words and sentences, which have been layered over a foreign foundational grammar, will buck and move according to that other logic. I sometimes find basic linguistic reference points, expressions and phrases simply aren’t to hand. I’m conscious of it too when speaking to friends about what was read to them as children. I didn’t read those books. They weren’t part of my early childhood literary landscape. They never informed my sense of language.

Wordygurdyboom! The Nonsense world of Sukumar Ray, translated by Sampurna Chatterji

All this simply to say, what an amazing opportunity it is now to be working in mapping out that foundational landscape. I work as project manager for Manchester Poetry Library at Manchester Metropolitan University—opening this year. The building is built, the first books are on the shelves and we’ve been connecting with people through our online programme. We’re now waiting for things to get to the point where we can put books, space and people together.

We’re one of several Poetry Libraries in the UK which have a close relationship. Like the other poetry libraries, we’ll be open to the public and our focus is on 20th and 21st century poetry. Specialisms include poetry in recording, Manchester’s 200+ community languages and poetry for children.

It shouldn’t be surprising to find a focus on poetry for children here. The library grows out of the Manchester Writing School under the Creative Directorship of Carol Ann Duffy. Her own writing for children and her Laureate education projects (such as the Mother Tongue Other Tongue Competition) not only have a home in the library but are part of its DNA.

English-Chinese Bilingual Poems and Quotations for Children, Selected and Translated by Slow Rabbit

In 2020, we invited the poet Mandy Coe to co-curate the children’s poetry section. If you read her story of this process [The Adventures of Co-Curating a Poetry Library Collection for Children by Mandy Coe – CILIP: the library and information association], you might understand how pleased I was that she mentions my particular passion for poetry in translation; because of course these different specialisms don’t exist in isolation from each other. We hope for children’s poetry both in translation and in recording too. (The images in this blog are recommendations from Mandy’s report.)

What Mandy’s brilliant work has done is set the ball rolling, when she reached out to individuals and organisations for their recommendations. We continue that work. So, allow me to take this opportunity to reiterate our call: if you have children’s poetry book recommendations, please get in touch. And while I have this platform, if you have recommendations for children’s poetry in translation, in your mother tongue or another tongue in particular, let us know. Better than a library that captures THE landscape of childhood on its shelves would be one that is home to as many landscapes as possible.

Martin Kratz

Martin Kratz is Project Manager at Manchester Poetry Library at Manchester Metropolitan University. He is also a poet and translator. His most recent translations from the German appear in Modern Poetry in Translation, ‘Clean Hands: Focus on the Pandemic in Europe’. You can contact him at M.Kratz@mmu.ac.uk.

Liz Brownlee, Matt Goodfellow, Laura Mucha: Being Me -Addressing Mental Health in Children’s Poetry

Clockwise: Liz Brownlee, Laura Mucha, Victoria Jane Wheeler, Matt Goodfellow.

Being Me – Addressing Mental Health in Children’s Poetry

How do you approach such an important and sensitive topic as children’s mental health and wellbeing in a poetry book and get it right? What approach can you, should you take to write about abuse, death, divorce, racism, for a primary-age reader? We wanted to open up the right discussions in difficult areas, both at home and in the classroom.

Luckily, Laura knew a leading developmental psychologist, Karen Goodall, so we set off on our writing journey with excellent guidelines. However we all came at it from different directions.

Liz: I concentrated on accounts of young people’s lived experiences of what goes on in their heads, and read widely about fostering positive self-image, emotional intelligence and healthy habits.

I also spoke to a GP about which mental health concerns he mostly sees in primary age children in his general practice.

Laura:  My approach was quite academic (I have an MA in psychology and philosophy and have completed a foundation course in psychotherapy). I began by devouring The Handbook of Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychology, The Handbook of Attachment and countless journals on new relationships, parental sickness, divorce and bereavement. I quickly discovered that we don’t always treat children in these scenarios in the most helpful ways possible.

For example, oncological and bereavement research has found that adults are often scared to tell children and young people the truth when they or the people they love are unwell or dying. But the danger in not being honest is that children’s imaginations can concoct scenarios far worse than the truth. My aim in writing was to give a voice to children’s experiences based on research findings in the hope of opening up essential conversations with teachers, parents and caregivers. 

Matt: As a trio, we wanted to cover as many different issues as we could with the aim of allowing children to see themselves reflected somewhere within the words. As an ex-primary school teacher I knew teachers could choose to focus on one particular poem, allow the children to familiarize themselves with the shape and pattern – and then perform it! Alongside this, they could be discussing the thoughts and feelings contained within the poem – and then use these discussions as a catalyst to have a go at writing their own poem – in their voice, about their life. 

We all felt the illustrations for the book needed to be quirky, less literal than usual. Luckily Matt knew illustrator Victoria Jane Wheeler, whose wonderful drawings have definitely added to the life of each poem.

Illustration to Secrets, by Liz Brownlee

Victoria: I had an instinct of the way the illustrations might go after reading the poems a few times, and understanding the rhythm, tone, who the narrator was, and the story being told. My initial ideas often changed a little as they became alive on the page, I let this happen, and tried not to force anything. The poems in Being Me depict a lot of different emotions, so I aimed to capture this through the eyes and the mouth in particular, and the size and angle of the head. To convey a little more I often introduced an awkward stance or a slight tension in texture, scale or surroundings. 

Hopefully children will find themselves in the book and know they aren’t alone in their worries, thoughts and feelings, whatever they are.

Liz Brownlee, Matt Goodfellow, Laura Mucha and Victoria Jane Wheeler

Teaching resources for Being Me and video links and films of the poems featured can all be found here:

Liz Brownlee is a National Poetry Ambassador and award-winning poet – her latest production is a book of shape poems, Shaping the World, 40 Historical Heroes in Verse, Macmillan, 2021.

Matt Goodfellow is an award-winning poet from Manchester. His most recent solo collection is Bright Bursts of Colour, Bloomsbury, 2020.

Laura Mucha is an award-winning poet whose books include Dear Ugly Sisters, Rita’s Rabbit and We Need to Talk About Love. As well as writing, Laura works with organisations such as UNICEF to improve the lives of children.

Victoria Jane Wheeler is a visual artist, illustrator and educator. Working to support young people students and communities, she is passionate about promoting and creating creative opportunities and access to the arts.

Val Bloom: Poetry as a Mirror

Poetry as a Mirror

I was in a school for the first time since lockdown at the beginning of October.  One of the teachers recounted a lesson she’d had with some disenchanted young boys in a former school.  She’d told them they were going to be doing poetry and was bombarded with groans and cries of “Boring!”  So she challenged them.

“I bet I can make you change your mind.”

They were not convinced.

She then brought out one of my books and at the end of the lesson one of the boys came up to her and confessed that she’d changed his mind about poetry. He was now an enthusiast.

I was reminded of an experience I had as a newly qualified English teacher in Jamaica.  I went back to teach English in my old school, where the classes were streamed, with A being the most academically gifted.  One of my classes was 9V.

In the first lesson, I found myself talking to the walls as the ‘children’ who were mostly boys and mostly bigger than I was, jumped on the desks, threw things at each other, climbed the walls and completely ignored me. The second class went more or less the same way.

In desperation I took in a copy of Jamaica Labrish, a book of poems by the late Honourable Louise Bennett (Miss Lou), written in Jamaican.  I stood at the front of the class and started to read one of the poems.  One by one they returned to their seats and sat listening in silence, except for bursts of laughter at the comic sections.   Afterwards, they clamoured for more but, thinking on my feet I said, “No, it’s your time.”

I divided the poem among them and formed an impromptu speech choir.  They were brilliant. So brilliant that I conceived of a plan to enter them in the National Speech Festival.  They won a gold medal and became the toast of the school.  The next year many of them were promoted to the A stream.

A few years later I returned to Jamaica and met one of those young men in Kingston.  He was on his way to the National Gallery where he was mounting an exhibition of his work.

“It’s all because of you, Miss,” he said.

But he was wrong.  It was all because of Miss Lou and her poetry.

Two of my poems were included in the NEAB GCSE syllabus.  Both were written in Jamaican. Sometime afterwards I was performing in Leicester when a young lady approached me.

“I had to come and say thank you,” she said. “For helping me to pass my English exam.”

At my puzzled look she explained that she’d had no interest in English, that she couldn’t understand any of it until she saw my poem. She was convinced she would not have passed her exam but for the poem written in Jamaican.

The common thread in these episodes is that in all instances the children could see themselves in the poems.  So many of my fellow writers have said they started writing because they couldn’t see themselves in the books that were available to them.  It’s getting better, but the importance of letting children see themselves in poetry books cannot be stressed enough.

Stars with Flaming Tails, to be published in January 2021

Poetry helps us make sense of our world.  It’s harder to make sense of a world that’s unrecognisable. When the poem mirrors a child’s experience, the child can place herself in the poem.  Conversely, if she can’t see herself in the poetry books, she’ll feel those books belong to others, but not to her.

Poems are not just mirrors.  They’re windows through which we look into others’ lives, so diversity in poetry benefits everyone.  As well as seeing themselves, children benefit from learning about and understanding other cultures, other experiences.  In order to help our children become well-rounded adults, respecting others, we need to help them look into the mirrors and through the windows of diverse poetry books.

Val Bloom

Valerie Bloom MBE was born and grew up in Jamaica.  She is the author of several volumes of poetry for adults and children, picture books, pre-teen and teenage novels and stories for children, and has edited a number of collections of poetry for children. Val has presented poetry programmes for the BBC, and has contributed to various radio and television programmes. She performs her poetry, runs writing workshops, and conducts training courses for teachers worldwide.

Brian Moses: Spooky Writing for Hallowe’en

Spooky Writing for Hallowe’en

A Good Scary Poem Needs…

A haunted house,

                A pattering mouse,

A spooky feeling,

                A spider-webbed ceiling.

A squeaking door,

                A creaking floor,

A swooping bat,

                 The eyes of a cat.

A dreadful dream,

                  A distant scream,

A ghost that goes ‘BOO’

                  And YOU!

The poet Wes Magee and I used to run spooky writing weekends for children. One of them was held in a 14th Century Manor House on the Isle of Wight, another in the old Carnegie Theatre in Dunfermline, and a third at Hellens House in Herefordshire.

Hellens was just what we needed it to be – shutters, faded tapestries, huge fireplaces with roaring log fires, stern portraits, a spiral staircase, minstrels’ gallery, four poster beds, ancient cupboards, loose floorboards and not just one, but two rooms which were supposedly haunted.

Right at the start we paraded the cliches of the horror movies and quickly dismissed them. Nothing was needed but the house itself and the spooky feelings that it engendered. Anything that felt menacing was made more menacing. We gradually built up the atmosphere, layer on layer.

I touched a mirror that was layered in thick dust,

I saw a candle light that was there and then wasn’t.

I discovered a piece of shattered glass

in which I gazed upon what seemed like a ghostly face.

And in the grounds of the house on a dull November day…

I saw a young tree strangled by ivy,

I saw a feather fall and stab the ground.

These were quite ordinary things made to sound sinister using the language of horror with words like strangled and stab.

By starting each line with ‘I’, a rhythm is established without using rhyme, along with a chant-like quality when read aloud.

A similar sort of exercise can take place in the classroom. Switch off the light, pull down the blinds and imagine yourself in the classroom at midnight.

I heard the computer sigh creepily like the wind moaning.

I heard the trees scratch against the window as if they wanted to get in.

I saw scissors snapping angrily…

At Hellens we toured the building seeking out possible spooky observations from each room. A poem then followed a pattern:

             We went on a ghost hunt.

             We looked into the drawing room.

             We didn’t see a ghost but we saw a chess piece move and      

                    heard a snore from a chair.

             We climbed the central staircase.

             We didn’t see a ghost but a hand passed my shoulder and

                     a guitar was lightly dusted.

Children then described the resident ghost? Where it dwelt, how it revealed itself, how it moved and what its hopes and fears might be…

               His cold lonely face

               Begs for company

               For fear he would be alone for eternity.

These ideas can also be adapted for classroom use with children remembering spooky places that they have visited in the past.

Finally, consider how the writing should be performed. Some pieces can be made more effective through the use of percussion instruments – the slow beat of a drum between each line, the low notes on a piano. Someone with a keyboard and/or computer skills may be able to compose a suitably spooky backing track against which a poem could be read.

Remember too that the voice is also an effective instrument and that menacing feeling in the writing must come across in the reading for the listener to be completely involved.

Brian Moses

Brian Moses is a children’s poet. He has toured his poetry and percussion show around schools, libraries, theatres and festivals in the UK and Europe for the past thirty-two years. Lost Magic: The Very Best of Brian Moses is available from Macmillan and his widely performed poem Walking With My Iguana is now a picture book from Troika Books. A new anthology, The Best Ever Book of Funny Poems will be published by Macmillan in March 2021.

Chris Riddell: Words and Pictures

Chris Riddell

As one of the world’s most admired crafters of illustrated work for children and adults and the political cartoonist for The Observer, Chris Riddell was Children’s Laureate 2015-2017 and in 2019 was awarded an OBE for his services to children’s literature. Alongside his own iconic Ottoline and Goth Girl series, he has illustrated the work of many other writers, including Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, to be published on 15th October 2020. His middle-grade fantasy series The Cloud Horse Chronicles: Guardians of Magic will be published in paperback and Poems To Save The World With, Chris’s third poetry anthology by Macmillan Children’s Books, is available now.