Andrea Reece: Poetry ‘for keeps’; a history in 240 issues

Poetry ‘for keeps’; a history in 240 issues

Among the anniversaries to be celebrated in 2020 is one very important landmark for children’s literature: Books for Keeps, the children’s book magazine, is 40. In its very first issue, way back in 1980, editor Pat Triggs explained what the magazine would be: ‘Helpful, practical, stimulating, informative, entertaining, sometimes provocative and always enjoyable to read’.  And so it has remained, as a dip into the archives reveals. Past issues are all available to read for free on the website, four decades worth of serious (though never earnest) scrutiny of writing for young people.

Unsurprisingly, poetry for children has been a major preoccupation of BfK editors and contributors, and the archive is a revealing commentary on the contemporary history of the genre, the highs, lows, rise of new poets, and growing concentration on its importance to children themselves.

‘Every teacher needs a personal bookshelf of anthologies and collections of favourite poets. Every classroom needs poetry in the book corner.’ Editor Pat Triggs again, in 1983, lines that are just as true today, and need as much emphasis. She was writing in the era of the Signal Award for Poetry, a period when there was an unparalleled energy in the publishing of the genre, prompted perhaps, as Brian Alderson wondered at the time, by the presence of the Award itself. Such was the healthy state of poetry that in 1988 BfK was able to publish a guide to children’s poetry, edited by Chris Powling and Morag Styles.  It was revised and updated in 1991. Authorgraph subjects of the 1990s include Roger McGough, Kit Wright, Charles Causley, John Agard, Grace Nichols, Michael Rosen and James Berry – and a delightfully playful conversation with Lewis Carroll no less, as imagined by Naomi Lewis. (For non-BfK readers, the Authorgraph is our feature interview, an in-depth discussion with leading writers for children).

In an article in 1996, then Puffin editor now agent Philippa Milnes-Smith was able to celebrate the impact poetry for children was having, and even to grumble that poetry accounted for less than 5% of children’s books published and was never considered for the Carnegie Medal. She was happy to stand up for comic verse too, and just as well, because there was a surprising amount of public hostility, as demonstrated by her favourite press clipping of the time: MUM CALLS FOR BAN ON REVOLTING NOSE POEM.

Come 2001 however and things feel gloomy. Robert Hull is forced to ask, ‘What hope for children’s poetry?’, worried that children’s understanding of poetry is being driven out by the curriculum. Comic poetry is no longer a laughing matter, and Morag Styles, judging the CLPE Poetry Award in 2004, worries about the preponderance of ‘relentlessly jokey books of second rate verse printed on rough paper’.

Jumping ahead a decade however, and things are on the up again. A trawl of BfK makes the reasons clear: the reinvigoration of the CLPE Poetry Award, now CLiPPA, which, like the Signal Award in the 20th century, gave publishers reason again to invest in poetry; the combined efforts of organisations such as CLPE, NLT, UKLA, National Poetry Day and the Poetry Society to promote poetry for children; the work of campaigners such as Kate Clanchy, not to mention that of individual poets themselves in schools, festivals and, significantly, digitally. A search of recent issues will find articles on the influence of rap and hip-hop, on the liveliest techniques for encouraging children’s poetry writing, while round ups of the best new poetry feature books by 21st century stars Rachel Rooney, Karl Nova and Kate Wakeling. Recent Authorgraph subjects have included Joseph Coelho, A F Harrold and Sarah Crossan and the July issue will feature Carnegie winning verse novelist Elizabeth Acevedo.

In fact, as we mark the 40th anniversary, the time seems right to create another Books for Keeps Guide to Children’s Poetry. July seems the right time – coinciding with the announcement of the CLiPPA. What do you think?

Andrea Reece

Andrea Reece is Managing Editor of Books for Keeps.

Laura Mucha: Blank Pieces of Paper

Blank Pieces of Paper

Day one of a painting course at the Slade and my tutor asked, “Where’s your source material?” I didn’t have any. She made me leave the class and go and collect images that would help me visualise and think about what I was trying to create.

That moment has influenced the way I approach all creative work, including poetry. Working from ‘source material’ (whether artwork, music or even other poetry) often helps me generate ideas, break out of using predictable language, come up with original images and experience emotions that I can hopefully channel into a poem.

One example is a poem I wrote called ‘The Land of Blue’. I remember sitting in front of a painting at The National Gallery and wondering why there was a blue valley between two very green hills. It really didn’t fit with the rest of the painting and it was all I could think about.

Staring at this valley, I found myself, quite unintentionally, writing about sadness – imagining The Land of Blue as a place we go to when we feel low.

Looking back, it’s not surprising – I’d had cardiac arrest the week before and was being tossed about by a gigantic emotional tsunami. But if you’d simply asked me to sit down and write a poem about what I was feeling, I suspect the paper in front of me would have remained blank.

Instead, focusing on something else brought it out in a much more organic, safe and manageable way.

Here’s an excerpt:

Across the valley, it waits for you,
a place they call The Land of Blue.

It’s far and near, it’s strange yet known –
and in this land, you’ll feel alone,
you might feel tears roll down your cheek,
you might feel wobbly, weary, weak.

I know this won’t sound fun to you –
it’s not – this is The Land of Blue.

It’s blue – and when you leave, you’ll see
the crackly branches of the tree,
the golden skies, the purring cat,
the piercing eyes, the feathered hat
and all the other things that come
when you escape from feeling glum.

Across the valley, it waits for you,
a place they call The Land of Blue
and going there will help you know
how others feel when they feel low.

Poems provide me with a safe and structured place to explore and process things that are a bit harder to be honest and open about in real life (like sadness, fear and anger) – and I think it’s the same for younger people too.

One strategy for those working with young writers might be to play emotive music or provide examples of artwork (by students or well-known artists) and ask them to write down words, questions, images or phrases that come to mind, focusing on feelings, thoughts, shapes, colour, texture and sounds. These notes could then be collated (either individually or as a group), and then revisited and edited at a later point.

If collating words as a group, students could be asked to use at least some of the words others had come up with, as this would get them using terms and phrases that didn’t come to them quite as readily.

Poetry provides a sanctuary in which to process difficult emotions and experiences –something that’s essential for good mental health. And I find that the best way to approach writing poems is not to sit in front of an intimidatingly blank piece of paper, but to come at it sideways, by exploring the creative work of others.

lauramucha.com
@lauramucha

Laura Mucha studied psychology, philosophy and flying trapeze, worked as a face painter and swam in Antarctica before becoming a lawyer for an international law firm. Then, when she was hit by a car aged 29, decided to change career – she’s now an award-winning poet, author, broadcaster, performer and speaker.

Her poems have been featured on BBC Radio 6 Music, BBC Radio 3 and Classic FM, in 2016 she won the Caterpillar Poetry Prize, and last year Poetry Ireland featured her alongside Jackie Kay as one of eight poets displayed on the Dublin overground. Her debut poetry collection, Dear Ugly Sisters (Otter-Barry Books) is out next year, and her debut picture book, Rita’s Rabbit (Faber & Faber) the year after.

Laura also writes for adults. Her debut book, Love Factually (Bloomsbury), was featured on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour as well as being Sydney Morning Herald’s Pick of the Week.

A Sense of a Revival, by Michael Rosen

I have a sense that the world of children’s poetry is having something of a revival at the moment. Someone with their nose closer to the details would be able to aggregate what’s going on but as someone who is himself immersed in it all, I can see that there seem to be more single collections coming out, along with more anthologies bringing together the work of several or many poets. On top of that, I see a lot of activity on social media – twitter especially – drawing attention to events, school visits and prizes. I personally know several of the young poets working with schools and bringing out new books themselves and it’s great to see that they’re making a living. The CLPE’s prize for the best poetry book of the year draws a good deal of attention to what’s coming out too.

I can’t immediately put my hand on what is the cause (or causes) for this but I would point at the ‘advocates’ of poetry for children who put in a shift on this: CLPE, the English and Media Centre, Chris and the folks here on this website, the Poetry Archive, the magazines like Carousel, Books for Keeps, English Association 4-11 and Teaching English from NATE. We can also see that several publishers are going the extra mile and working on bringing out beautifully produced books of poetry for children and young people. Another growth point is the increase in the number and variety of rhyming picture books. These provide a base in how parents, teachers and children think about poetry: that it’s accessible and engaging. It’s easy to forget that ‘The Gruffalo’ and the rest of Julia Donaldson’s hugely popular books are of course poems. Alongside this, at the other end of childhood, we’re seeing the rise of the free verse novel (Sharon Creech, Sarah Crossan) which contributes to a wider acceptance of what I might call the ‘poetry way of seeing things’.  I think also that poets themselves have got more media savvy and are using the internet more with news, videos, websites and the rest. My son and I have worked very hard on building up our web presence with regular updates on our YouTube Channel and my website. Obviously, putting poetry through these channels enables teachers, parents and children to access poetry very easily on tablets, laptops and phones.

I think there must also be a new enthusiasm amongst  younger teachers who spend an inordinate amount of time locked into a curriculum obsessed with putting children through tests that only have right/wrong answers. Besides everything else that poetry offers, it provides quick benefits in terms of children’s confidence, interest, enthusiasm and what I call a ‘bridge’ to literacy. What I mean by that is the way in which poetry – particularly in performance – offers children a way in which they can easily make a bridge between the oral and the written. Purely in terms of literacy, poetry is a bonus when it comes to reading fluently.

In saying this, I don’t want to minimise in any way what poetry can offer by way of foregrounding emotions, feelings, a sense of self, a sense of culture, a sense of the plasticity and flexibility of language. More than that too: in its own way, poetry insists on being portable philosophy, carrying a commentary on the interactions between the mind, the world and events as they unfold. Speaking personally, poetry has above all enabled me to explore memory, whether that’s been through a form of ‘naturalism’ or through hyperbole. In all these matters, poetry will insist on not wanting to be reduced to those right/wrong answers but to make its effects known through suggestion, sensation, ambiguity and a movement of feeling across words, verses or a whole poem. And let’s not forget Keats and his ‘negative capability’ – those moments where, as writers or readers, we can sit in a place of not-fully-knowing. Whether teachers put the matter like this or not, I have a sense that for many, poetry has become a great place to do things that are not like the binary world demanded by the teach-and-test regime.

In general though, things are looking good!

https://www.michaelrosen.co.uk/

https://www.youtube.com/MichaelRosenOfficial