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.

 

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.

Joshua Seigal: Poetry Workshops in Informal Settings

Poetry Workshops in Informal Settings

Most of my working days are spent running poetry sessions in schools. Whilst not adhering to the same strictures as a school lesson, there is nonetheless a degree of formality: children are normally sat at their tables, are expected to be quiet, and are generally overseen by their teacher as well as myself.

However, one of my happiest times as a poet was when I ran a series of very informal lunch clubs at a girls’ secondary school in Newham, East London. I worked at the school as Poet-in-Residence from 2014-17, having initially been placed there as part of my MA at Goldsmiths. The lunch club was attended by ‘vulnerable’ students. These were students who, for one reason or another, struggled in mainstream educational settings. The point of the club was to introduce them to poetry and creative writing, whilst at the same time providing a safe space for them to spend their lunch break on a Wednesday. Students were ‘invited’ to attend, rather than required to, and throughout the years numbers fluctuated. At one point they reached double figures (perhaps because of the biscuits on offer), but there was a hardcore of perhaps three or four students who attended every week.

I normally started off the sessions by reading a poem or two, on a different theme each week. Students could then respond to the poem with their own writing and/or drawing, whilst chatting with their friends and eating their lunch. I began by approaching the club somewhat like a regular lesson: I gave the students specific targets to aim for, and often provided them with models or scaffolding for their writing. However, as time went on and it became clear who was dedicated to the club and who wasn’t, my approach changed. I began reading a poem and then letting students respond however they liked. Sometimes they produced their own poetry, and sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes their chat was relevant to the theme I’d introduced, and sometimes it wasn’t. The whole experience was joyous, and the point of it was the sense of community, rather than any clearly defined written or academic outcomes.

Once the group was really well established, I sometimes didn’t even read a poem at all. I just introduced a concept or a theme, or gave them a sentence to complete, and let the students do with it what they wanted. Here is a poem using the sentence starter ‘Love is’, that was produced by a girl in Year 9 with learning difficulties:

 Love Is

Love is fireworks and butterflies

Love is feelings

Love you can’t touch

Love is dumb

Love comes in different cultures

Everyone loves someone

Love is always red

You can’t see love even if you are wearing glasses

Love is wind

Love is blind

 

Throughout my time running the club, many similarly profound and beautiful poems were produced, and they normally arrived in the absence of the aforementioned modelling and scaffolding. The crucial factor seemed to be the degree to which the club developed that sense of community and cohesion.

So what advice would I give to someone who wanted to run poetry sessions in informal settings? I think the key is that these sessions are best developed across a period of time, so that workshop participants become well accustomed to each others’ company. The second point is related: any written outcomes should be viewed as secondary to the primary purpose of fostering that sense of safety and community. Thirdly, once the importance of these outcomes is deemphasised, very powerful and important writing can, paradoxically, result.

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 www.joshuaseigal.co.uk for more info.

 

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.

Alice Watson: Combat the World with Poetry

Combat the World with Poetry

The world can really feel like a strange place at times, even more so with the recent Covid-19 pandemic, and whilst many people are clearing supermarket shelves of hand sanitizers and buying more toilet rolls that an Andrex puppy can jump into, I think it is important that we continue to seek nourishment through writing and reading poetry in confusing times.

As the Education Officer for The Poetry Society I am lucky that I am always immersed in poetry and constantly blown away by poetry written by young people across the Education programmes we deliver at The Poetry Society. One of the most prestigious programmes that I manage is the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, the biggest and one of the most significant poetry competitions in the world. This year’s Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award was launched on 5 March to coincide with World Book Day and I couldn’t be more excited that this year’s judges include the inspiring Maura Dooley and amazing Keith Jarrett. For more information about the competition please visit foyleyoungpoets.org.

The Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award encourages young people to be bold, brave, creative, to express themselves through poetry and to share their understanding of themselves and how they navigate the world. I am always struck by how talented, compassionate and concerned so many young people are, and how they express this in their poetry which does not shy away from global issues including racism, gender politics and climate change.

I think it’s important that when a young person enters a poem (or 20 poems) into the competition, that they feel a huge sense of accomplishment. They have taken the time to express themselves and to create their own piece of art, and it really is a pleasure for the judges and me to read their work. Every young person who enters the competition this year will receive a certificate to congratulate them on their achievement, and I hope that each entrant displays their certificate with pride and continues to express themselves through poetry.

In the February half term, I had the great honour of spending a couple of days with the top 15 winners of the 2019 Foyle Young Poets competition on their Arvon writing retreat at The Hurst in Shropshire. Here, the top 15 winners from across the U.K. and overseas spent 5 days fully immersed in writing, reading and performing poetry, as well as cooking, exploring the Shropshire countryside and making new friendships. At The Hurst, all of the winners were given time to explore new skills and experiment with poetic forms and work with world class poet-tutors including Mimi Khalvati, Raymond Antrobus and guest tutor Anthony Anaxagorou.

Arvon Residential at The Hurst for 2019 Foyle winners, poet tutors and in locos. Photo credit Dan Haworth for The Poetry Society.

The haven of space and time to explore poetry either as a writer, reader or hopefully both is a necessary liberation in a world that many of us can’t quite fathom. Even Storm Dennis had a good go at trying to halt the winners’ writing retreat, but thankfully the poet gods worked in our favour and everyone arrived without trouble.

As someone who does not regularly write, I increasingly experience the benefit of self-expression through poetry, not just as a reader but also as a writer and I hope more people are encouraged to be as brave, bold and creative as the entrants to the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award. Poetry (as I have learnt) can be a fulfilling sanctuary of creative expression to combat the panic of supermarket sweep.

Alice Watson

Alice Watson is the Education Officer at The Poetry Society. She manages the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award and supports the delivery of SLAMbassadors, Look North More Often and Artsmark at The Poetry Society. She has previously worked at Lauderdale House and Shakespeare’s Globe and studied an MA at King’s College, University of London in Education in Arts and Cultural Settings. To get in touch please contact Alice Watson.