Even though I had absolutely no idea at the time, A Hurricane in my Head was technically born on 7 April 2017. I’d been commissioned to write a poem for Eureka! The National Children’s Museum to celebrate their 25th birthday, as well as becoming one of their #Eureka25 ambassadors. At the time I was living in a warehouse in North London, but as I lay in the garden with a notepad, I was instantly transported back to my childhood in West Yorkshire. The hazy Halifax haven that was Eureka – I’d visited regularly as a kid, and in no time whatsoever, the memories came flooding back.
Those of you who are familiar with my work already will know that most of my output is unashamedly political; recent themes including the working-class Leave vote and the refugee crisis. It’s not particularly explicit or anything, but it certainly isn’t what you’d consider to be child friendly. And yet there I was, pen in hand, writing from my childhood – a celebration of the quirky, colourful, creative paradise that lets your blossoming imagination run wild. I absolutely loved it, and fortunately for me, so did Eureka.
On 19 June 2017, Eureka uploaded the poem to Facebook, and later that day, I was contacted by somebody from Bloomsbury – tentatively asking about a poetry collection for children. Now at this stage, I’d been running poetry workshops for pupils aged 7 upwards for 4 years, but for some reason, I’d never thought about writing poetry for children. It seemed so drastically far away from my “adult” output that I guess I just never considered it to be a possibility.
The message from Bloomsbury planted a seed in my head. I developed a clear idea of what I’d want to achieve with a kids’ poetry collection – challenging gender stereotypes, addressing online bullying, channelling playful rebellion, etc. – and with that, the seed continued growing. 9 months to the day after that first message, I had a meeting with Hannah Rolls, and a year after I’d written the Eureka poem, I was commissioned to write what is now A Hurricane in my Head.
Suddenly, I had to completely remove myself from the increasingly tumultuous political landscape. I’d literally just submitted the manuscript for my ‘Two Little Ducks’ collection, and now my challenge was to write something that an 11-year-old might engage with. The initial terror very quickly subsided to pure excitement, as I wrote poems about homework excuses, pulling a sicky and sulking in the supermarket. The older you get, the more magical your childhood becomes, and even though a lot of people will roll their eyes at me suggesting that 29 is a mature age, it definitely gives you a different take on childhood than what your early 20s would.
I’d been so busy completing ‘Two Little Ducks’ and working on other projects that the bulk of these poems had to be written in a relatively short period of time. By now I was living a house in East London, so my plan of action was to take the short walk to Plashet Park, find a tree, and then write until I simply couldn’t write any more. I’d sit there for a solid 4 or 5 hours at a time, and then come home without the foggiest notion of whether I was writing good quality poetry or not. My partner Maria was extremely supportive, and when I finally had 70 poems ordered and ready to submit, I’d completely transformed as a poet and as a person.
Seeing the world through a kids’ eyes allows you to appreciate things a lot more. You stop to notice the details, ponder the possibilities, question what’s generally taken as a given and reminisce about rule-breaking and (gently) tackling authority. For tax returns, council tax bills and rental contracts, see cinema dates, sports days and footballs over fences. My “poetic currency” had always been political and cultural references, whereas now it was playful imagination, universal truths and coming-of-age struggles. What’s not to love?!
There are obviously huge differences between my childhood in the ‘90s (cue more eye-rolling from some!) and those who are experiencing childhood now. The main difference being smartphones and social media – I was 12 when I owned my first mobile phone, and the thought of you being able to take pictures or go online with it would’ve been utterly baffling. Same with social media; I guess the equivalent would’ve been forums, but even then, it was nowhere near the same, and barely any kids or teenagers used them.
I can’t imagine how tough it must be, being a kid when everybody has Instagram and Snapchat. It must take fear, insecurity and anxiety to whole new levels. It’s also brought a whole new dimension to bullying, manipulation and vulnerability, which breaks my heart. I do regularly reference technology and social media in this collection – hence the tongue-in-cheek strapline “poems for when your phone dies” – but I also hope that it gives the readers a chance to appreciate life away from a screen, and concentrate on the things that really matter. Friendships, ambitions, whatever family you happen to have, if any. And most importantly, your imagination.
When you’re a kid, you presume that all adults know exactly what they’re doing in life. They’re grown-ups; they not only stick to the rules, but they impose them as well, and they always have reasons and answers for things, and they make things happen and they sort things out. What you certainly don’t realise is that we’re basically just kids in older bodies – we generally have a fairly good idea of what we’re doing and why, but a lot of the reasons and answers are either guesses or fabrications, and really all we want to do, deep down, is just be a kid again. Every adult that I know has a hurricane in their head, and if this collection helps to calm things down a bit, even for a short while, then I’ll have done my job. Happy reading…
Matt Abbott is a spoken word artist, activist and nationally acclaimed writer and performer. His debut children’s poetry collection, A Hurricane in My Head, is available now.