Tag Archives: Poetry

A Hurricane in My Head

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.

Eureka 1.pngThose 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.

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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 9781472963505they 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.

Poetry in Unexpected Places

When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, back in 2016, there was a collective gasp from the literary establishment. While some critics leapt to the defence of the Nobel committee’s decision, others devoted reams of newsprint to the inevitable question: ‘Can song lyrics be poetry?’

Back in 2008, the renowned poet Simon Armitage had spoken for many when he confidently asserted that ‘songwriters are not poets’, going on to say that ‘songs are often bad poems. Take the music away and what you’re left with is often an awkward piece of creative writing full of lumpy syllables, cheesy rhymes, exhausted clichés and mixed metaphors’ (and this was in an article in which he professed his love for the Arctic Monkeys. Rather than saying that songs were bad per se, he was suggesting that we take them on their own merits).

It is true to say that few children are exposed to much of what many people would consider true ‘poetry’. ‘Poetry’ can so often be seen as something ‘difficult’, and certainly when I was at school a number of teachers analysed the joy out of it, so that what should have been an enriching experience became a dull one. Syllabuses these days focus less on dead white males than they used to, but nonetheless the notion of ‘poetry’ has, in some circles at least, retained that rather elitist veneer.

But what children are exposed to are songs and rhymes, ranging from skipping rhymes in the playground to the latest rap lyrics (and it is worth noting that Seamus Heaney, himself studied on many school courses, praised the ‘verbal energy’ of rap artist Eminem). Take one of the playground rhymes I learned as a child (chanted while throwing balls against a wall):

‘Please, Miss, my mother, Miss,
Forgot to tell you this, Miss,
That I, Miss, won’t, Miss,
Be in school tomorrow, Miss’.

Doggerel? Perhaps. And yet there’s a lot to learn from it. That repeated use of ‘Miss’, providing the verse with its rhythm. The ‘this, Miss’ – two rhyming words jostling against each other within a line, marking both a rhythmic change and one in the rhyme structure. Or how about the skipping rhyme:

‘On the mountain stands a lady,
Who she is I do not know.
All she wants is gold and silver
All she wants is a nice young man.
All right, [girl’s name], I’ll tell your mother,
Kissing [boy’s name] round the corner!
How many kisses did she give him?
Five, ten, fifteen, twenty…’

Not much poetry in there, you might think, and it’s true it wouldn’t win any prizes (not least because of the appalling sexism of ‘all she wants is a nice young man’, although in its defence we also sang ‘all he wants is a nice young girl’ on the few occasions when the boys joined in).  And yet the words have a strong beat, and the abrupt change in rhythm in the fourth line is one worth noting.

Or take the lyrics from Stormzy’s ‘Blinded by Your Grace’. I can’t pretend I know much about rap music – my main exposure comes from one of the characters in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty who is an aspiring rapper, and his lyrics are very clever (perhaps unsurprising given that they’re in fact written by a prize-winning novelist whose brother is himself a rapper). But here’s Stormzy with some blinding half-rhymes in Blinded by Your Grace:

On the main stage runnin’ ’round topless
I phone Flipz and I tell him that we got this
This is God’s plan, they can never stop this
Like wait right there, could you stop my verse?
You saved this kid and I’m not your first
It’s not by blood and it’s not by birth
But oh my God what a God I serve

Can we not, when learning poetry, note this and learn from this too? The ‘topless’ juxtaposed with ‘got this’ and ‘stop this’ in the next lines? That repeated use of ‘God’ that punctuates the final line that I’ve quoted?

Whether or not such examples are ‘poetry’, is, for me, something of a moot point. Rather than arguing over genre divisions, perhaps we are better off seeing the potential for poetic learning in so much of the ‘verbal energy’, to use Heaney’s phrase, which surrounds us on an everyday basis. Maybe what we should be doing is using children’s lived experiences – through songs, through rap, through rhymes – as a springboard from which to discover other uses of language (while at the same time not falling into the trap of making value judgements about which linguistics usages are ‘better’).

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Bob Dylan famously dithered over accepting the Nobel prize, in part because of his own doubts about whether he deserved it. Perhaps this could be summed up by the oft-quoted (and presumably anonymous) lines ‘I’m a poet and I didn’t even know it’.

But maybe all of us, even young children, can say the same.

‘I’m a poet and I didn’t even know it’.

Precisely.

 

Elli Woollard is a writer of picture books, young fiction and poetry. Her new poetry book for younger children, Perfectly Peculiar Pets, publishes on 21st March 2019 and is available for pre-order now.

 

‘IF’ For Teachers by Joshua Seigal

“I was inspired to write this poem during a workshop I ran for students, in which we looked at Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem ‘If’. I asked them to have a go at writing their own versions of the poem, based on their ideas about what constitutes an effective leader. I decided to give it a go too, and this is the result. Enjoy!”

If you can keep your voice when all about you
Are using theirs to bellow over you;
If you can dish out rules when all kids flout you
But see the humour in their flouting too;
If you can care and not get tired of caring
Or, being dissed, maintain a steady poise,
Or, being sworn at, not give way to swearing,
And see the stillness in amongst the noise;

If you can plan but not make plans your mistress;
If you can chill and have a nice weekend;
If you can still take care of all your business
And not let children drive you round the bend;
If you can bare to see the gifts you’ve given
Received by ingrates with a sullen grunt,
Or feel the fuel diminish, but stay driven
And smile when the Head is being a…difficult person to work with;

If you can make an ally of a parent
And both look out for what you think is best
For Little Johnny when he has been errant
And hasn’t done his work or passed his test;
If you can force your brain and heart and sinew
To teach the things that Ofsted says you should,
And so make sure the governors don’t bin you
And that the school maintains its place as ‘Good’;

If you can talk with yobs and keep composure
Or plug away when they don’t give a damn;
If you can act when there’s been ‘a disclosure’
And not display the news on Instagram;
If you can keep calm while you have to wing it
With sixty minutes worth of ‘drama games’,
Yours is the class, and everything that’s in it
And – which is more – you might not go insane.

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For more content from Joshua, follow him on Twitter or visit his website.

 

Joshua Seigal on visiting schools as a poet

For me, the best thing about being a professional poet is not actually writing poetry. It is being afforded the regular opportunity to perform my poems to children, and to visit schools where I help them write their own. Here is a list of some of the most memorable things that I have experienced during school visits:

Experiencing a giant group hug whilst visiting a Reception class. The more I wailed “help!” the more kids joined in, and the more the teacher laughed.

The time a child told me that he lived in a buffalo. I was totally mystified, until it dawned on me later that he’d meant ‘bungalow’.

The time a child yelled out “custard man!” in the middle of my assembly performance. I asked him afterwards what he meant, and he didn’t appear to know. He simply blurted it out. This really tickled me, and I now regularly tell this story as part of my performance routine. (In the same assembly, another child asked me the bizarre question, “if you were a monkey, what kind of astronaut would you be?”)

Being presented with a ‘thank you letter’ by a group of year 2 children, in which they had spelt my name ‘Goshoowar’.capture-2

Teaching a child in Year 5 called Tyrone, who hated writing. After my visit, his teacher told me that he simply could not stop writing poetry, at break time, lunch time, and even in class when he was supposed to be doing other things. He simply had to get it out.

Teaching a girl in Year 7 called Precious, who wrote an amazing p
em about her experience as a black person. My workshop wasn’t on this theme; she simply wrote the poem in her own time and decided to show it to me. I entered it for her into a competition, where it was shortlisted.

Undertaking long-term work at Plashet School in East London. Last year I compiled a group of students’ poems into an anthology, which helped raise £500 for the charity Care 4 Calais.

Running a poetry workshop on the theme of ‘what if’. The intention was to write humorous and playful poetry, but the best thing about workshops is that students often deviate from what I expect, and come up with their own ideas (heaven forbid!). Here is a wonderful, and sad, poem produced by a boy called Giacomo in Year 6:

 

What If…

 

What if when I’m older I fail

What if when I’m older I don’t have

any money

What if when I’m older I get lost

and become homeless

What if when I’m older my wife

and children die in a fire and my

house has gone

what if when I’m older

my body gets cancer

what if when I’m older

I’m forced to fight a war

What if I’m in Afghanistan

And get killed at a firing squad

What if when I’m older

I never get married and live alone

What if I could stay a child.

Joshua Seigal is a poet, performer and workshop leader who spends his time visiting schools, libraries and theatres around the country and beyond. He has taken critically-acclaimed poetry shows to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, but usually ends up performing in front of his mirror, using a hairbrush as a microphone. He has managed to gain the minimal skills required to make his own website – www.joshuaseigal.co.uk.

Available from Bloomsbury Education:

I Don’t Like Poetry 

Little Lemur Laughing  (publishes 9th March 2017)

WHAT WOULD YOU ASK A POET?

How do you teach poetry?

Haven’t a clue – but I can tell you about some  really exciting poetry activities you can do with KS2 classes…

READ YOUR CLASS A POEM every morning. Every single morning. I know lots of KS2 teachers that do this and they say the results are manifold.

PUT ON POETRY CONCERTS/ASSEMBLIES – try whole classes performing poems such as Boneyard Rap (Wes Magee), Gran, Can You Rap? (Jack Ouseby), Little Red Rap/I Wanna Be A Star (Tony Mitton), Talking Turkeys (Benjamin Zephaniah), How To Turn Your Teacher Purple (by me..woops.).

twgsc-twitter-imagesv2-2WRITE POEMS AS PART OF YOUR CLASS TOPICS – poetry modules are great, but nothing beats writing poems for a real purpose – creating poems that express a subject matter that a class is enthused about and fully immersed in. Try shape poems (rivers, mountains, volcanoes, planets), kennings ( Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans), haiku ( rainforest creatures, sea creatures), and best of all free verse (memories, real events) – children too easily get stuck in the rhyme rut. And you don’t need to be an expert in all the various forms of poetry – just knowing a few is absolutely fine!

PUBLISH CHILDREN’S POEMS around the school, in the hall, on the school website. And I’ve noticed that children love nothing more than having to take a brand new poem of theirs to show the headteacher!

FIND A RANGE OF POETRY BOOKS – single poet collections and themed anthologies. Set up a poetry corner or poetry book box. Public libraries always have a great selection of contemporary children’s poetry titles – and Oxfam bookshops too are usually good for poetry.

PUT UP POETRY TREES IN THE CLASS/HALL – featuring poems by the children, or the children’s favourite poems.

PHOTOCOPY POEMS and put them all over the school, down the corridors  – even in the lo0s!

HAVE A STAFFROOM POETRY READING one lunchtime. Share adult or children’s poems you like.

INVITE A POET IN … why not? A poet will model how to read/perform poems to an twgsc-twitter-imagesv2-1audience, as well as how to run poetry writing workshops in a classroom.

What advice do you have for teachers?

Apart from buying my Bloomsbury teachers’ book Let’s Do Poetry In Primary Schools! as well as multiple class copies of The World’s Greatest Space Cadet (sorry, that was cheeky! ) – and apart from the activities I have recommended earlier, I would say just go for it. And maybe find a teacher in your school that enjoys doing poetry with her/his class. Find out what they do, and what the results have been.

Quite a number of teachers I’ve met in the hundreds of schools I’ve visited over the last few years have said how much poetry has truly revitalised their English teaching, and got the boys in their classes really motivated. What not to like?

And even if you don’t especially like poetry yourself – and you don’t have to – simply try and source some poems and poetry activities that your class could have fun with and be stimulated by. You might be pleasantly surprised by the results. Enjoy!

book-launch-3-002An award-winning children’s poet, James Carter travels all over the cosmos (well, Britain) with his guitar (that’s Keith) to give lively poetry performances and workshops. James once had hair, extremely long hair (honestly), and he played in a really nasty ultra-loud heavy rock band. And, as a lifelong space cadet, James has discovered that poems are the best place to gather all his daydreamy thoughts. What’s more, he believes that daydreaming for ten minutes every day should be compulsory in all schools.

The World’s Greatest Space Cadet by James Carter is available to buy here 

Follow James on Twitter @JamesCarterPoet

www.jamescarterpoet.co.uk

Bye Bye Billy – Creating Characters in Poetry

By Roger Stevens, poet and co-author of ‘It’s Not My Fault’

The summer holidays are here at last. And I expect you will all be outside enjoying the sunshine, running about in the fields chasing cows or investigating rocky pools at the seaside and hiding crabs in Grandpa’s shoes. Anyway, they are all the things I loved doing when I was at school. The only problem in the long summer school holiday was when my friends went away, to Spain or somewhere exotic like Bognor, and I was still at home. Then I had no one to play with. So I invented an imaginary friend. My imaginary friend was called Billy. He was very different from me. I was very good when I was a child and I never did ANYTHING naughty and I NEVER got in to trouble. But Billy was always getting up to mischief.

Bye Bye Billy

Roger Stevens

Billy left my bedroom in a mess
Billy hid the front door key
Billy posted Mum’s credit cards through the floorboards in the hall
Billy ate the last jam doughnut
Billy broke the window with his ball
Billy forgot to turn off the hot tap
Billy put the marbles in Grandpa’s shoe
Billy broke Dad’s ruler seeing how far it would bend
But now I’m twelve and Billy’s gone
I’ll miss my imaginary friend

The poem’s from our new book, It’s Not My Fault. It makes a good model poem. You could try it with your own children, nephews, nieces, grandchildren or neighbour’s children (when they get bored playing on their i-devices) – or with your class, back at school.

First, start with a few character details. When I do this in a class, often as a prelude to writing a story, I ask a series of questions and encourage the children to write the answers quickly, without thinking about them too much. Is your friend a he or a she? How old is your friend? Is your friend big, small, short or tall? Is your friend blond or dark? What hobbies does your friend have? Is your friend a human? What is his/her name?

Next, I ask the children to make a list of all the things that they would LIKE to do – but are not allowed. This works well either as a class activity, or in small groups, as one idea can spin off another idea. Encourage the children to be as naughty and outrageous as possible; although you will probably need to discourage violent or rude ideas. Tell them you are looking for “clever” ideas rather than simply introducing the word “poo” into the list whenever possible for cheap laughs. They could talk about things that actually happened in their own families.

Now choose the best of the ideas and write them in a list. Look at the list and rearrange the events in the best order. It might end with the most outrageous thing, for example.

My poem ends with the narrator growing up, and Billy leaving. And so you might discuss ways for them to end their poem. Finally, check for spelling and read the poem out loud. It should have a nice flow and sound to it.

And in the meantime, enjoy the sunshine, and chasing the cows. Have a great summer.

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What Happens When a Poem Happens to Happen

By Steven Withrow, poet and co-author of It’s Not My Fault

In my travels to schools and libraries as a visiting poet, I often ask students and teachers if they can tell me what a poem is. I’ve received hundreds of wonderful answers—some serious, some silly. My favorite of all came from a young girl in Massachusetts named Audrey: A poem is when words happen to each other, and you can say it like a song.

Give me a month to come up with a definition, and I don’t think I could outdo that one.

Keeping in mind Audrey’s wise notion, I’d like to give you some small insight into the workings of one of my poems in It’s Not My Fault, my collection with Roger Stevens. Here’s the poem (I suggest reading it silently, once, for the sense, then speaking it aloud, twice, for the sound):

 

Pelican

Steven Withrow

If I can’t get a dog then I guess I’ll get a pelican.

A pelican I’ll get if I can’t get a dog.

Instead of a stick, I’ll toss bright fish right into his pouch.

Instead of a walk, he’ll wing like a kite on the string of his leash.

And late at night he’ll settle his pelican head at the foot of my bed

Dreaming halibut dreams swimming up from the dark sea.

 

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First, let’s think of this poem in terms of the first part of Audrey’s definition: A poem is when words happen to each other. Look closely at this poem, even without reading it, and you’ll likely notice that most of the words are little one-syllabled lumps of language. The relatively few multisyllabic words—pelican, instead, into, settle, dreaming, halibut, swimming—provide contrast, both in sound and sense, from the steady march of monosyllables. The longer words stand out and hold a little more weight in the lines because of this syllabic difference. Poems thrive on repetition, but careful variation is also essential.

Another “happening” among the words in this poem is the way many words almost rhyme…but not perfectly, or at least not in the places you might expect. Think of just a few pairs with linked vowels and consonants: get/guess, walk/stick, dreaming/swimming. And the internal rhymes within and across lines in bright/right/kite/night, wing/string, bed/head. Unity of sound is one of my ideals as a writer, yet here too, careful variation is important.

Next, let’s consider “Pelican” in light of the second part of Audrey’s definition: You can say it like a song. I’d like to think that the interweaving of syllable sounds I mentioned above contributes to the music of the poem, and I hope they help make the poem enjoyable to say. I’d also like to think that the poem is different from, say, a set of song lyrics in that it doesn’t require a specific tempo (time signature or pace) or tune (melody or chord progression) to feel complete. While the tight rhythms of the first two lines might make for a sprightly jingle, the more elongated rhythms of the last four lines feel to me more like speech rhythms than song rhythms. In other words, they are more conducive to being said than sung. But it’s a feeling I have more than a definite division I’ve made.

When I share a poem with students—and I strongly believe that sharing a poem as a gift in itself is a better method than teaching a poem or wringing it of hidden messages—I like to point out two or three happenings in the poem as examples and then ask the students to point out a happening they found on their own. A list of possible happenings in even a short poem is longer than one might expect. Children should be encouraged to contribute their ideas, it seems to me, so long as these ideas do not overtake the experience of the poem.

A poem is when words happen to each other, and you can say it like a song.

Yes, it still holds up. Thank you, Audrey.

I could write much more about my poem and other poems that I love, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts on how poems happen…and how you’re sharing poetry with your students. Also, I’m happy to respond to questions you might have in the comments below. Thanks for reading!

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