Sue Hardy-Dawson: How to Grow Your Inner Poet

Here’s a few things I’ve found useful. Tips, either, collected from other poets or along the way. Hopefully you’ll find something helpful here or interesting – perhaps both.

Read lots of poems by different poets: all good poets read lots of poetry. If you want to write it’s the single most important thing to do. Why? Because it helps you get in the zone, to see new words in context and avoid clichés. 

Be a word collector: when I find new words I explore their use and sound, then add them to the large pile in my head. I’d love to tell you it’s a neat, orderly pile but I doubt it. It’s probably like my bookshelves, three deep with a few balanced on the top. Poets, like all writers, need lots of words to choose from.

Keep a notebook (sort of): all poems start with ideas. It doesn’t matter how you get ideas down. Scribble, text or write on anything you can find. Spelling/handwriting is tricky for me so I don’t worry unless I won’t be able to read it later. I even draw pictures if I’m stuck. I never rub/scribble words out though. Many good things are lost like that.

Write every day/any words are better than no words: If you’re stuck try a free-write, write for a few minutes anything that comes into your head. Our amazing brains put all sorts of abstract concepts together and that’s a really good start for any poem.

Good or bad, never throw ideas away: Why? Ideas sometimes grow wings (improve) if you put them away. Equally you’ll always have something to begin to work on.

Experiment/take your time:

Occasionally

poems only

need a tweak

or two.

But mostly

there’s much

shuffling

and polishing

to do.

Finding the poem’s often the most difficult part: it sounds a little odd perhaps but maybe the first line is buried in the middle, it might even be the only line you actually use in the end. The best words are almost always in there somewhere. Time and practice will tell you where. Try cutting words into strips and moving them around. Take some in and out. When will it be finished? Only you will know. Maybe not even you. I’ve changed poems months, even years later.

Don’t use words JUST because they rhyme: the sense must always come first. Obviously with nonsense or list poems it’s easier to rhyme. But always ask yourself first, would I put these words together for any other reason? If not, don’t. Only use words you really like and would have written anyway. Always be careful to make sure those words make sense and sound natural.

Write about what you know: the best poems come from within, you can write with honesty and understanding then. Even if you are using a persona, use your own experiences of emotions. Recycle your life. It’s what writers do.

Finally read it aloud: to pets, friends, anyone at all. My dogs probably think all dogs have poetry recitals in large fields with an audience of surprised sparrows and passing joggers rolling their eyes and shaking their heads. Why aloud? Well, to know if the words fit. Even poems that don’t rhyme have a rhythm, a tune. If there is a clunk or awkward sentence that falls off the line that’s how you’ll discover it.

So that’s what I do. Of course, there is nothing wrong with any particular way. But if you’re not sure where to start why not give some of these ideas a try?

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.

Sue Hardy-Dawson: Dreams

Brains are fascinating organs and of all brains, perhaps ours are the most creative. We can’t be certain, of course, animals don’t have a culture of art, stories and poems hidden from human perceptions but therein lies a whole different story. Still as poets we often ask the question: ‘What if?…’ giving both animate and inanimate things words and human emotions. 

What if?, in itself, opens up a world of possibilities and juxtapositions of realities. On such I’ve long contemplated and dreamt.

So much so I’m never quite wherever I am, I’m sure it’s something we all do to an extent, but invariably whilst walking along a perfectly ordinary street or sitting on a bus my head is usually elsewhere. This can of course be both wonderfully liberating and mildly problematic, dangerous even. I’ve ruined meals, bumped into stationery objects and twice almost walked into moving traffic. So not always desirable but I mention it because it demonstrates how mesmerising ideas can be and how intensely creative thoughts block out everything else.

Nevertheless I’m a dreamer and it’s become my job to dream. There’s nothing more enticing than the teasing glimpse of an idea. Inspiration won’t wait or come when asked. Words haunt my sleep if I can’t quite grab them. Having sensed them and having started to consider what shape and form they will take, line by line they will pull themselves from the ether, whether I choose to catch them or not.

Many’s the time I’ve tried to focus on some other task only to end up scribbling on the nearest piece of card or paper, because as soon as I tried to do anything else words would appear, insistent and full. And what most poets and writers will tell you is that you ignore those ideas at your peril. You can never remember them later no matter what you might think. You may have a vague notion of it as a whole but those exact words in that exact order will be lost forever.

In inappropriate circumstances or in the absence of time and means I will settle for the first line. I’ve found the first line is the most crucial. If I can at least type it into my phone often it will take me back to where I was in my head.

That’s the thing with poems, they are sensory time machines. I can look back at anything I wrote and tell you where I was when I wrote it. Exactly what went through my mind, how warm or cold it was, what scents were in the air. Everything. Maybe if you’ve got a good memory you think that little. But I haven’t. I’ve often visited places and can’t remember going there. If it’s not attached to me I lose it and I still joke that when my children were young if they hadn’t the ability to follow me I’d have lost them.

Nevertheless, to be at all creative you must first be a dreamer. Yet dreaming, especially in children, is often undervalued. It might be perceived as not concentrating, not paying attention.

But without it who will our future dreamers be? The dreamers who bend rules and reinvent them? Dreaming can’t be measured and it’s difficult to teach. Even so everyone, especially children, need some regular opportunities to dream, to let their imaginations run wild and unfettered, to create without objectives or an agenda. Dreaming is what makes us human. Why? Because without dreamers there’d be no fiction or poetry, no music, sculpture or drama, and I suspect no electricity, no theory of relativity, not even perhaps an axe or wheel.

Sue Hardy-Dawson

Sue Hardy-Dawson’s a poet & illustrator. Her debut collection, ‘Where Zebras Go’, Otter-Barry Books, was shortlisted for the 2018 CLiPPA. Her second, ‘Apes to Zebras’, Bloomsbury, co-written with poetry ambassadors, Roger Stevens and Liz Brownlee, won the NSTB Awards. Sue loves visiting schools, has worked with the Prince of Wales Foundation, ‘Children and the Arts. As a dyslexic poet, she loves encouraging reluctant writers. Her second solo collection ‘If I were Other than Myself’, Troika Books, is out now.

Sue Hardy-Dawson: So You’re a Poet Now

So it’s happened, your first collection’s been accepted and you’re now officially a poet. You’re caught up in the excitement. You’ve read and re-read your advanced copy, wondering what others will make of it. You’re at times euphoric, terrified, depressed and sleep deprived. You count down, weeks, days and on that final night, hours until publication. And then…and then…

Well, not a lot. I don’t know about anyone else but when my first book came out I didn’t expect to be mobbed or to find paparazzi in the chrysanthemums; of course not. But I did think maybe my local bookshop would stock my book. Or did I? Sadly not really. I love a book and as a fan I’m pretty clued up on poetry everywhere.

In fact I habitually go into bookshops and ask them where the poetry section is. Generally at the back of the shop, on a low shelf and not a whole shelf never mind the several I’d love to see. Often it shares space with joke books. Usually it comprises safe archaic poetry, ‘best of’s’, well-known names and the odd big production coffee table book. The assistant, who has little say, looks about uncomfortably, assuring me they can order anything I’d like. However, what I’d like is to browse, to choose from many I fancy or I might as well order online myself. But I digress.

So my book isn’t there. I suggest a launch. They tell me how much they love local authors doing launches. A date’s booked and I’m excited and terrified afresh. More so when, the week before, I find a tiny grey note on the door announcing my launch. So I drum up a reporter, I put the word around and on the day find the shop has only ordered 15 copies and they go in the first few minutes, despite being hidden away upstairs in the shop. So I lend my copies to the shop. A success, the shop-assistant assures me. Normally they sell very few books at launches…

So here’s the thing, I’m not complaining, well not much, but unless you’re a bestselling novelist there’ll be little promotion. It’s expected, as a children’s poet, the bulk of sales will come from schools. However, there’s a plague and a lack of school visits or even schools containing children, which has been disastrous to those expected to do their own promotion. So, like many others, we’ve had to find ways of reinventing what we do. However, I suspect, I’m not alone in finding constantly being in promotion mode uncomfortable and, if I should be, when? How? How often?

So what do we do? We promote and cheer each other on. We talk about poetry, in interviews, blogs and videos. We hope the goodwill grows as we give our time and even our work and writing ideas to teachers. We encourage even children we’ll never meet, because it means much to a child.

Of course it doesn’t always translate into sales, so why else? Well it’s partly about getting word out there about our books. Because, though small, each took years to write and traverse the mires of publication. Each time with dreadful symmetry: we have loved and loathed our work, had it picked apart by others, had hopes elevated and dashed. Yet, also, perhaps, there’s our inner child, one that wants to help others feel joy in something we adore, poetry as a whole. Certainly I want everyone I meet to feel that. But most of all I want to have a slightly less depressing answer to give the next child who asks me, ‘Why are you a poet?’

Sue Hardy-Dawson

Sue Hardy-Dawson’s a poet & illustrator. Her debut collection, ‘Where Zebras Go’, Otter-Barry Books was shortlisted for the 2018 CLiPPA. Her second, ‘Apes to Zebras’ Bloomsbury, co-written with poetry ambassadors, Roger Stevens and Liz Brownlee won the NSTB Awards. Sue loves visiting schools, has worked with the Prince of Wales Foundation, ‘Children and the Arts. As a dyslexic poet, she loves encouraging reluctant writers. Her second solo collection ‘If I were Other than Myself’ Troika Books is out February 2020.

Sue Hardy-Dawson: The Room I Write In and Cathartic Writing

The Room I Write In and Cathartic Writing

Years ago I was asked to write about the room I write in, difficult as I’ve no such room. Eventually, I wrote my room as a metaphor for the many places I’ve actually written. I wrote it on a train returning from London. It was winter, late at night and pitch black outside. I was a bit worried about a number of things, about the journey, missing my connection or my train getting cancelled. The thought of being stranded overnight in a freezing empty station was not appealing so I disappeared into my little world of writing where there was a magical box, doors leading to fields and beaches, warm summer meadows and safe comfortable places. Writing made the journey spin by and hours later I arrived safely back home with a useful piece.  I could have written about my fears of course, but escapism’s ever been my chosen coping mechanism.  Besides I had a deadline and however I felt needed to become my inspiration.

Over time I’ve found reading and writing poetry a wonderful escape in times of stress, it’s completely portable and whilst I’m creating or indeed reading I’m immersed in my thoughts. I don’t suggest it’s a cure but a momentary respite. At the moment when many of us are living slightly surreal lives I find there’s a great need for us all to both create and think creatively as well as to find hope in the words of others. Especially as a children’s writer, when we as adults are doing our best to make them feel safe, to make ourselves feel safe and to give the impression, at least, that eventually everything will be ok.

An interesting side-effect of social distancing is that social-media has become, for many of us, our only means of communicating with the outside world. This has led to all manner of amazing things from virtual book launches, poetry performances, stories to illustrating and writing workshops. Many delivered by authors, in some cases actors and on the whole uplifting. Mostly people are coming together, virtually, to support each other, to provide poetry, stories, happy thoughts and distractions.

It’s all too easy to forget the uplifting psychological impact and power of words when we’re stressed. After all many of us are trying to cope with the unfamiliar and difficult combination of suddenly becoming teachers and child development-experts and all whilst juggling home working. We’re our own support network/all-round-care-givers in what is essentially a siege situation. We don’t have time talk about how we feel or admit even to ourselves that we’re scared too. Yet children often sense these things and feel anxious whilst perhaps not really understand why. Maybe they even think with all these suppressed powerful emotions around that they did something wrong.

So now, more than ever is a really good time for our children to escape into both writing and listening to poems and stories, indeed there’s never been a better time for accessing the many wonderful free resources or to keep a personal note book, to use it to talk to, to write poems, to write letters to write stories, anything at all. Free-writing is above all things cathartic because even if children don’t write about what scares them, they may write about what gives them hope. In any case the process itself without levels or rules is escapism. And should they write about their fears it may help put them into perspective. At the least getting your children to free-write may give you a way of exploring how they feel and open discussions so you can challenge any misconceptions.

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. Her second, Apes to Zebras, Bloomsbury, co-written with poetry ambassadors Roger Stevens and Liz Brownlee, won the NSTB Awards. Sue loves visiting schools, has worked with the Prince of Wales Foundation, ‘Children and the Arts’. As a dyslexic poet, she loves encouraging reluctant writers. The poem Dog Explains the Moon is from Sue’s new collection, If I Were Other Than Myself, Troika.

 

Sue Hardy Dawson: Why Poetry Matters

Why Poetry Matters

I was born into a house full of poetry. Nightly my father lulled me to sleep with the many poems he knew by heart. On long journeys or stuck in traffic-jams we played rhyming games or changed the lyrics to songs and nursery rhymes. Mum too wrote funny verses for family birthday cards. So from an early age I experienced everything from AA Milne to WH Auden. I grew to love each softly spoken syllable; the portent in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the drumming beat of The Charge of the Light Brigade, the gentle rhythms of Night Mail and wistful repetition in Hiawatha. Each night, anew, I marvelled at Tygers and green eyed yellow idols, lamented on Bessy the landlord’s daughter awaiting her highwayman or lost myself in exotic cargoes of stately Spanish galleons. I took them for my own begging for my favourites. Naturally enough, whilst young, I didn’t fully understand them. Nevertheless, I learned to love lyrical words to love their musicality and my father was a very enthusiastic performer.

Eventually, perhaps inevitably, I began to write myself. Like most beginners, I made mistakes, using words that were archaic or didn’t quite fit. However, the more poets I read the more I got a sense of what worked and didn’t. I fell in love with Hughes at secondary school. I went on to read any and every poet I could lay my hands on, I still do. Then I liked poems for many reasons, they weren’t hard to read because they were usually smaller with more white space, yet there was often a lot to understand. Despite my dyslexia I could learn them well enough to risk reading them out. Writing poems too required less stamina and even if I had to rewrite them many times, they were only short and I could keep them inside my head and work on them. Poetry gave me something I could succeed at.

Whilst I’m not suggesting everyone who enjoys poetry will or should become a poet I believe I was very privileged to experienced poetry as few do in an unpressurised joyful way. I remain convinced that even in this multimedia world or in a busy school with all the demands of curriculum, making time for purely enjoying poetry really matters. Well any poet would I suppose. However, apart from being great fun, something that should never be underestimated as a learning tool, there are many positive effects from poetry for all children.

Like music poetry is multisensory, research suggests it lights up our brains in a similar way, triggering emotions, developing brain cells and improving memory. Historically our ancestors exploited this quality to record stories as ballads handing them down for generations long before the general populace could read or write.

Equally this memorizing characteristic helps children to learn new words in context whilst rhythm and rhyme help with pronunciation and stresses.

Similarly, rhyming, assonance and alliteration promote literacy, building phonic awareness and grouping phonic patterns.

Learning and acting out poetry also develops physical and verbal coordination laying the ground for all manner of public speaking or performance skills.

Perhaps, equally important though, I feel, an early pleasure in poetry for its own sake is more likely to lead to a lifelong love. For even those who claim to dislike it often turn to it in times of need; to express and explore otherwise inexpressible emotions. Finally though poetry is not alone in allowing us to walk in another’s shoes it is more open in making spaces for our own experiences and uniqueness in each footprint.

Sue Hardy-Dawson (Sue’s new collection, If I were Other than Myself, Troika Books is out soon.)

Sue Hardy-Dawson a poet & illustrator. Her debut collection, Where Zebras Go, Otter-Barry Books was shortlisted for the 2018 CLiPPA. Her second, Apes to Zebras, Bloomsbury, co-written with poetry ambassadors Roger Stevens and Liz Brownlee, won the NSTB Awards. Sue loves visiting schools, has worked with the Prince of Wales Foundation, ‘Children and the Arts’. As a dyslexic poet, she loves encouraging reluctant writers.

Liz Brownlee: Having Fun with Children’s Poetry

Having Fun with Children’s Poetry

In 2014 the wonderful people at National Poetry Day made me a National Poetry Day Ambassador.

My journey as a children’s poetry promoter started in 2008, after meeting with a group of children’s poets who all felt the same way; we vowed to find as many ways as possible of supporting children’s poetry. Later that year we gathered again to be filmed sharing poems, to put out into the world in as many places as possible. Out of that fun-filled few days came this video of the wonderful and much-missed Gerard Benson and his River Song.

Just as I was thinking what to try next, and wondering if targeting families might help to engage the parents that buy books, I was asked by Bristol Poetry Festival 2009 to organise a Poetry Exhibition.

A Bristol Poetry Festival grant, an Arts Council grant, sponsorship money and six months preparation led to a poetry submersion room at the Arnolfini, Bristol. Into a brightly painted room was introduced an explosion of poems, poetry toolkits, and our group of talented and willing poets.

ITV Television workshop supplied children who relished reading poems for us.

It was an interesting experience in that many of the people who came hadn’t been expecting it (the Arnolfini is a cutting-edge modern art gallery), and yet they stayed sometimes for hours. Very few left without writing a poem.

Undoubtedly however, the biggest hit were the giant magnetic words. I have used these ever since in a variety of combinations and venues and highly recommend them. It’s a very easy way of enticing anyone to play with words.

It  is impossible it seems to pass a giant magnetic poetry board without picking up words and placing them together. Few were satisfied with that, they went to hunt in the boxes for more poetic or more meaningful juxtapositions. One of the most  gratifying aspects was the total involvement of whole families, parents helping, inspiring and joining in by writing their own poems.

Other projects include marking most National Poetry Days by a range of poetry videos. My favourite theme was light.

We filmed people whose lives in some way touched on light (a fireman, a projectionist, a cosmologist, etc.) reading poems, sent to me by children’s poets, about light. We also roamed the streets of Bristol and asked children and their families to read poems for us – surprisingly few turned down the offer!

Sometimes you’ll find me in a school, inspiring children to use words as exciting tools to express themselves. And of course I also write poems most days, for a variety of rewarding projects. It is what I love most. At the minute I’m collecting and editing my first anthology, a book of shape poems for Macmillan, and thoroughly enjoying it. This also involves the frustrating fun of drawing with words!

I also run Poetry Roundabout, a website devoted to promoting everything about children’s poetry – at the minute there is a series of poets and their favourite children’s poetry books, and tweet for Children’s Poetry Summit.

I feel very excited about starting on my next new project – and I’m so grateful to the lovely NPD  people for giving a focus for my ideas, and to my lovely supportive poetry friends who supplied all the above poems and more.

In the meantime, this year’s NPD theme being Truth, soon I’ll be choosing climate crisis truth poems that poets have kindly sent, and filming them read by people who work in Climate Crisis in some way.  Please look out for them!

Liz Brownlee

Liz Brownlee is a poet and poetry event organiser. Her latest book Be the Change, Poems to Help You Save the World, Macmillan, is out on September 5th. (Poets included in above exhibition, Roger Stevens, Sue Hardy-Dawson, Andrea Shavick, Philip Waddell, Bernard Young, Gerard Benson, Cathy Benson, Jane Clarke, Michaela Morgan, Graham Denton).