Rachel Rooney: Finding the Sweet Spot

Finding the Sweet Spot

Much of what we call poetry written for children might more accurately be termed  as verse; words which engage and entertain the reader, written in regular rhythm and with full end-rhymes. It’s a what you read is what you get type of experience. There’s a pleasure to be had from reading or hearing well-crafted verse that scans as it intends and that uses language in deft, comforting or amusing ways.

Children are particularly drawn to the reading, listening and performing of verse. Its predictable aural patterns tend to lodge in their memory, too. But it is much harder for them to write effectively. The technical skills needed to maintain a coherent idea through extended rhyme and rhythm is tricky for all but the most practised and enthusiastic junior poet. Happily, I was that kind of child. The following poem was written by my 11 year old self about the bus journey I took to school. I’d never shown it to anyone, but kept it safe, eventually including it in my second collection, for reader interest. It’s not particularly good poetry, or even ‘Poetry’ for that matter – it’s simply verse that was relatively crafted for its time.

 

The 20a Bus

 

In the line you hear a chatter

Up and down a clatter, clatter.

Noisy schoolgirls scream and shout

pushing in and pushing out.

 

Down the street the red bus trundles.

Girls surge forward all in bundles.

On at last, but what a rush

Banged my elbows in the crush.

 

‘I don’t know what it’s coming to’

said the lady with big buttons, who

had a habit to pursue

the trivial things young children do.

 

And when the bus stops in the street

I kick her underneath the seat

And when the lady stops her chat

I pull the cherries from her hat.

 

Poetry in its purer form, is a more exploratory art. It’s a voyage of discovery into the unknown. Its aim is to alter our perceptions and to linger in our mind beyond its reading. We might return to these poems and find new or deeper meaning from them.

The writing of such poetry raises different technical questions. How can we ensure musicality without necessarily relying on the tools of strict metre and end-rhyme? How do we utilise line breaks or the space on the page for full effect? What ‘stepping stones’ (images, concepts, concrete details etc) will we put in place to guide the reader through the reading of it? How subtle the inference and how abstract the ideas, given the poem’s intended audience?

I’m a poet who enjoys all the challenges that writing for varying ages brings, from crafting a jaunty rhyming picture book text through to (almost) ‘adult’ poetry. But I’ve always been particularly interested in the elusive sweet spot between worlds; the poem written for children, that has a surface lyrical simplicity but which offers up a more subtle interpretation for the older reader. Or the poem that pitches itself perfectly in content & complexity between the tail end of childhood and early adult readership.

And occasionally, I stumble across poetry written with the adult in mind, that a child reader might possibly access and relate to. The following short poem by Esther Morgan, is a personal favourite for this reason. It’s superficially simple, and could (almost) have been written by a child. And that is part of its mastery.

 

The Long Holidays

 

The day stretches ahead – nothing but

grass and sky grass and sky grass and sky grass and sky

as far as the eye can see

 

nothing but sky and grass sky and grass sky and grass sky and grass

 

and the wind galloping hard over the fields

like a riderless horse.

 

Esther Morgan

 

If you’re interested, here’s a wonderful close reading of the poem in a blogpost by the poet George Szirtes.

 

Rachel Rooney

Rachel’s most recent collection A Kid in My Class (Illustrated by Chris Ridell, Otter-Barry) was shortlisted for the CLiPPA and has just won the North Somerset Teachers’ Book Award for poetry 2019. A rhyming picture book The Problem with Problems, illustrated by Zehra Hicks (Anderson) is out March 2020 and a poetry collection aimed for older girls is due in 2021 (Otter – Barry).

CLiPPA Poetry Award 2019

CLiPPA 2019

A highlight of our year at CLPE (Centre for Literacy in Primary Education) is the CLiPPA award ceremony which we’ve organised in collaboration with the National Theatre.

The CLPE Poetry Award started 17 years ago, to fill the gap left by the Signal Poetry Award. A list of the winners since then with other information about the award can be found on our Poetryline website.

In 2014 we made the award more high profile, the announcement of the winner being made at the recently opened House of Illustration with a linked poetry trail featuring poems from the shortlisted titles. However, children themselves remained the missing guests at the feast and thin 2015 we began a schools’ shadowing scheme, created resources to help teachers introduce the books to children, and started a partnership with the National Theatre. Thanks to chair of judges Roger McGough commenting that the prize needed a more snappy name, it became the more catchy CLiPPA which stands for Centre for Literacy in Primary Poetry Award.

The relationship with the National Theatre has continues and led to a capacity crowd filling the Lyttelton Theatre this year on Wednesday 3rd July. Our Poetry Show featured the five shortlisted poets; Kwame Alexander for his verse novel Rebound (Andersen Press), Rachel Rooney for her collection A Kid in My Class (Otter-Barry Books), Steven Camden for his collection Everything All At Once (Macmillan Children’s Books), Philip Gross for Dark Sky Park (Otter-Barry Books), and Eloise Greenfield for Thinker: My Puppy Poet and Me (Tiny Owl).

Schoolchildren performed from each of their books, with the proceedings compèred in an inimitable manner by chair of judges, A. F. Harrold, assisted by fellow judges Ruth Awolola, Charlotte Hacking and Susannah Herbert. It has now become a wonderful tradition for Chris Riddell to be seated on the stage, live drawing throughout the event.

The schools chosen to perform were selected from more than 100 videos sent in as part of our shadowing scheme. First on the stage were five children from a Birmingham primary school, one of whom took on the role of the cool dude in Rachel Rooney’s poem ‘Cool’ from A Kid in My Class. Then Rachel herself appeared in disguise as a hamster to perform ‘The Hamster Speaks’ featuring a character who scampers through the pages in Chris Riddell’s accompanying illustrations.

Neither Kwame Alexander nor Eloise Greenfield could be at the ceremony as they live in the USA but both sent video messages with warm greetings and recited respectively from Rebound and Thinker: My Puppy Poet and Me.

Three boys from a Northolt primary school captured the rhythm of the basketball court in their rendition of ‘Air Jordan’ from Rebound while a whole class of 30 children from a primary school in Uxbridge gave a captivating presentation of Eloise Greenfield’s ‘Thinker’s Rap’.

Two girls from a Hertfordshire junior school gave a spine-tingling interpretation of ‘Aleppo Cat’ from Philip Gross’ Dark Sky Park followed by Philip diving deep into his collection subtitled ‘Poems from the Edge of Nature’ to read ‘The Abyss’.

A startling solo performance came from a girl who had travelled from a Norfolk school taking on the dual roles of a child and the blank page staring at her in ‘Anyone’ from Steven Camden’s debut collection Everything All At Once. Steven then shared his heartfelt poem ‘Dear Mum, BTEC’ which is for every young person who wants to convey to their parents and teachers that they need to plough their own furrow and that taking a practical path is equally as valid as an academic one.

One of the great things about the Poetry Show is that it celebrates all of the shortlisted titles. However, by the end of it, the audience is alert to hear the announcement of the winner. This year, the judges chose to highly commend Eloise Greenfield’s Thinker: My Puppy Poet and Me. The accolade of this year’s CLiPPA, though, went to Steven Camden’s Everything All At Once, a book that the judges felt should be given to every child in Year 6 in anticipation of their move to secondary school and the new phase of life into which they will be entering.

 

The show ended with the announcement of a partnership with National Poetry Day to encourage children to write poems on this year’s theme, Truth. This was presented via a video featuring several poets who had previously won the CLiPPA with their first collection for children, including Joseph Coelho, Karl Nova and Rachel Rooney. Seeing those faces up there was just one of many emotional moments of the day for me, having been associated with the award from the beginning.

It was great this year to witness one of those moments for others. I happened to be sitting next to Gaby Morgan, publisher of the winning book and Steven Camden was on the other side of her. A. F. Harrold prefaced the moment when he announced the winner by mentioning that this poet went by another name as a performer – that of Polarbear – and that was when Steven and Gaby knew their book had won and it was wonderful to feel their delight and emotion.

Ann Lazim

Ann Lazim is the Literature and Library Development Manager at CLPE (Centre for Literacy in Primary Education) where she has worked for over 25 years. This multi-faceted role includes being the administrator for the CLiPPA (Centre for Literacy in Primary Poetry Award). Ann has an MA in Children’s Literature from Roehampton University and is active in IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People).

Rachel Rooney: Reflections on a Poetry Project

Reflections on a Poetry Project

Several years ago, I happened upon a TV documentary about Limpsfield Grange; a secondary residential and day school for girls with communication and interaction difficulties. My interest was piqued, both as a former SEN teacher and as a parent of someone with an Aspergers diagnosis. Alongside this, the nature of certain girls within the film caught my attention; reminding me somewhat of my former self. Long story short, I returned a year later (with my own relatively unexpected Aspergers diagnosis) to begin an Arts Council-funded autism and poetry project at their school.

There’s a growing recognition of the unique relationship that poetry and (able) autism can hold. Attention to detail, heightened interest in pattern, slantwise thinking, and a desire to communicate that which can’t readily be spoken are just some of the ways that these worlds intersect. I’d wager that a disproportionate number of poets, knowingly or not, are placed somewhere along the autistic spectrum! However, this is not to say the poetry residency itself was a breeze. It took several sessions for groups to settle and fully engage with me. Anxiety, lack of confidence, a resistance to change, and a reluctance to speak in group settings were some of the challenges they might face.

But during my time there, I witnessed definite poetic moments, both in their creative writing and, more importantly, in aspects of personal development. The anxious girl, who leaves the session, only to return in time to successfully complete her poem. The perfectionist who manages to accept that it’s really is okay not to write a satisfying poem that day. The shy student who musters the voice to read her work out, then receiving spontaneous applause from her classmates. These small acts of bravery help to build resilience and self-confidence.

Almost all poetry demands an emotion, but it also requires the control of that emotion. Therein lies its power. To illustrate, here’s a poem written by one pupil, in our last free-write session:

Nightmare

(on losing an elephant lucky charm)

Security waves and slips away
knowing it’s not yet seen.
Sorrow and grief will come around
when I wake up from my dream.

I open it up and look inside.
The empty packet gleams.
My heart begins to shatter
and there’s nothing to be seen.

They don’t quite understand it all,
small as it may seem.
My problem’s large as an elephant
and a drop becomes a stream.

A tiny thing can be so big.
Streams can lead to sea.
I’ll find my way eventually
and wake up from this dream.

That day, the student who’d written this had been very upset. A treasured miniature elephant charm she’d carried around for years had gone missing. At break time I’d noticed she was visibly distressed and I wondered how she’d manage in our workshop later. But I also knew she was a natural poet, one who valued her own creative writing process. So I wasn’t surprised when I was presented with this poem, written in the twenty-minute writing slot that our workshops allowed. Later, in her feedback form she written ‘I liked it because I could say my feelings and writing one of my poems helped me through a difficult time.’

We ended the project with a celebratory recitation from some of the pupils, accompanied by live illustrations, courtesy of Chris Riddell, who’d kindly agreed to donate his time and talent to the day. One the many highlights of the fifteen months there was watching that young poet reading out in a strong clear voice, to a large, appreciative audience. That, for me, is the essence of poetry.

I’m in the process of collating some of their poems to be published in an illustrated booklet Welcome to My World, soon to be available from Limpsfield Grange School. I am also working on a collection of poems in response to my experience there.

Rachel Rooney.com

RacheI Rooney’s poetry collection The Language of Cat, latest edition illustrated by Ellie Jenkins, won the CLPE Poetry Award and was long-listed for the Carnegie Medal. Her second collection My Life as a Goldfish, Illustrated by Ellie Jenkins, was shortlisted for the CLiPPA 2015. Her new book, A Kid in My Class, illustrated by Chris Riddell and published by Otter-Barry Books, has been shortlisted for the CLiPPA 2019. Rachel visits schools for workshops with pupils and has performed her work at festivals and for The Children’s Bookshow. She was Chair of Judges for the CLiPPA 2017 and the Betjeman Poetry Prize.