Posted in Poet's Piece

Kick Start by Jan Dean

Jan Dean is the author of Wallpapering the Cat, Macmillan, A Penguin in Lost Property, Macmillan, (with Roger Stevens) and Reaching the Stars, Poems about Extraordinary Women and Girls Macmillan, (with me and Michaela Morgan).

She has also written two fiction books for children, but describes herself as “a poet who sometimes writes fiction, not a fictioneer who knocks of the occasional poem.”

Jan is great fun and a brilliant poet who works in schools – her projects have also included working with groups from Covent Garden’s innovative music theatre education programme in the Purcell School for gifted young musicians and writing in the environment with Northumberland schools. She has led workshops for both adults and children in Manchester, Liverpool and Chester Cathedrals, and has also run workshops at major festivals. 

Jan’s blog is here and her Twitter account is @glitterpoems

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Kick Start

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I hate grey weather. It makes me miserable. Sometimes I wonder if the weather has seeped inside my head and filled me up with fog… and when I feel like this I find it hard to write. So I have to kick-start the process. These are some of the things I do:

• Look out of a window and write down the first three/four things you notice, then go to another window and do the same. (You can do this for every window in the house if you like.)

• Say the words out loud to hear if there are any interesting sound patterns going on in the lists

• Visualise the things in the list to see if there are any striking colours/pictures.

• Write six or seven opening lines based on the list. (You don’t have to use everything and you can mix the lists up. Or you can write one verse about your room and one about a better/worse room.)

• Work up the best four into draft poems – be sure to weave your mood and any changes of feeling into the drafts. Remember that once you start writing you don’t have to stick to the ‘truth’ of what you saw. Making the words work is what counts.

I did this one from the list of stuff from my window. It might be finished. I won’t know for sure until I’ve put it away for a few weeks and then come back and re- read it.

Outside
Wren in the hedge. Hopping
like a brown ball. Stopping
for a second on the red brick wall.
I wish I had just an ounce
of your bounce…

Slug on the step. Sliding
smooth as oil. Gliding
by milk bottles then back to black soil.
Writing your route in slime
while I write mine in rhyme.

I did see a bird in the hedge – but it wasn’t a wren. And I did see a slug – but it wasn’t on the step. I changed what I saw to improve the sounds and rhythms in the poem. (My actual list was: Blue tit in hedge bouncing on branch. Bright blue car in road. Slug on ivy root. Recycling bag on gate.)

I’ve got a couple of other drafts to work on too – one about how sinister ivy is – the way it creeps and clings and takes over; and one about matching your day to the first thing you see when you open the curtains that might begin like this:

‘Today is a tin can day
a clattering day
a rolling away day

Today I am going to bang about
slam doors
howl under beds
and throw stuff….’

Or it might not. I’ll have to see how it goes.

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Jan Dean

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Posted in Poet's Piece

Where Do You Get Your Ideas From? By Brian Moses

Brian Moses is, as Poetry Archive says, “One of the nation’s favourite children’s poets.” He taught in schools for 13 years and has been a professional writer in schools, libraries, theatres and festivals for 30 years. In that time 3,000 schools across the country have been the thrilled recipients of his poetry and percussion shows (‘The Alternative 3Rs – Rap, Rhythm & Rhyme’) and his expertise as an inspired poetry teacher in workshops, where he uses a variety of percussion instruments to both underpin the rhythm of his words and to add atmosphere. 

He has also published over 200 books from publishers such as Macmillan, Hachette, Puffin, OUP, Collins, Longman,  Heinemann and  Frances Lincoln, and over a million of his poetry books have been sold by Macmillan Children’s books alone.

Brian is a generous and unfailing supporter of new poets, and he published my very first poem back in 2000, in A Sea Creature Ate My Teacher (Macmillan).

His first children’s fiction book Python has just been published by Candy Jar Books. His latest poetry books are The Waggiest Tails (Otter-Barry Books), written with Roger Stevens, and Lost Magic, The Very Best of Brian Moses (Macmillan), where you can read all his favourite own poems!

You can visit Brian’s website here, and his blog, where he writes about reading, writing and performing poetry here. You can follow him on Twitter @moses_brian.

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Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?

“Where do you get your ideas from,” is the question I’m most asked when I visit schools. Occasionally a curve ball comes in like – “Have you ever been arrested’ from a 6 year old in Southend, or ‘Have you ever used a ouija board?’ – but more often than not it’s the way ideas are born that fascinates children. They look at me as if I have a secret to impart, and that if they could share it they’d never struggle to find ideas for their own writing again. I toy with the notion of telling them that I purchase my ideas from an ideas super- market or discover them in some online catalogue, but mostly I try to satisfy their curiosity.

I tell them that all writers are ideas detectives, that we’re always on the look out for something strange or different that might lead to a poem. There are, of course, very few new ideas, but there is always the possibility of taking an old idea and looking at it from a different angle. Think of fireworks, for example, and avoid the whizz, bang, whooshes. Write instead about the charred and blackened treasures pulled from the bonfire ashes next morning.

An idea, of course, is like a knock on the door. Ignore the knocking and whoever it is gives up and goes away. So with poetry, when an idea calls, I need to be ready to act on it. Whatever I’m doing, wherever I am, I need to capture that idea, to scribble it down on a scrap of paper, file it away in a notebook, talk it into a voice recorder. My family became used to me suddenly getting up from where we were sitting to hastily find something to scribble on. Quite often too , they fed me ideas, and it still goes on. My older daughter’s partner is training to be a stuntman and on a family holiday this year he told us that he still hadn’t fallen from the saddle of a horse. I was onto that straightaway – Still haven’t found a rainbow’s pot of gold/still haven’t discovered a cure for growing old. Still haven’t painted a new Mona Lisa/still haven’t straightened the Leaning Tower of Pisa.’

Often it is the things people say that get me thinking. I was in a school staffroom once where I discovered that six teachers were all telling each other what they wore in bed. It was an absolute gift and I made notes as they spoke which later developed into my poem ‘What Teachers Wear in Bed. Another time I heard a young boy ask his Mum, ‘Did pirates wear make up?’ I ended up with a poem all about a topsy-turvy world of pirates.

Perhaps the poem I’m most associated with, and the one that seems to be the most listened to poem on the Poetry Archive for much of the time, is ‘Walking With My Iguana’ – a performance poem involving drumming which seems to inspire children to perform their own versions. (Take a look on YouTube.) The idea behind this came from a meeting with a man and an iguana on a very hot day on Bexhill beach. The creature was called Ziggy and only came out for a stroll during summer heatwaves. I love finding out about things that sound as if they shouldn’t be true, but actually are. I wrote the poem very quickly and premiered it a few weeks later at the Edinburgh Festival.

Signs that I see in the street or glimpse by the roadside as I’m driving are often a source of inspiration. In Nottingham once, a department store were holding a ‘Monster Sale’ . Well, obviously that meant there was to be a huge clear out of unwanted stock but looking at it another way, it might just have easily have been ‘Buy one monster, get one free’. A poem and a book resulted from that. On another occasion I saw a sign for ‘Carpet Warehouse’.

Not a terribly interesting subject for children, but split ‘Carpet’ in two and it becomes something quite different – ‘car pet’. What would we find in a ‘Car Pet Warehouse?’ Maybe earwigs to keep in ashtrays or a hamster for the glove compartment. Perhaps a snake on the back seat to deter would be car thieves. The possibilities are huge.

In any book that I write there are poems that I hope will make children smile or laugh, but poetry, of course, touches every emotion and I always make sure that in my books there are poems to make children shiver, or think, or wonder, or maybe a little sad at times. I always include a selection of these in any performance I give along with the humorous ones.

Friends ask how do I keep coming up with fresh ideas. Surely, they say, you’ll run out of ideas one day? But it’s what I’ve done all my life, as a teacher for 13 years with year 6 in the days when you opened them up rather than closed them down, and then as a professional writer for the past 30 years. I’ve searched out ideas, both for my own writing and ideas to inspire children in the writing workshops I run on my school visits. A cat called Elvis moved in next door, Laika, the space dog, troubled me till I finally found the right words and the right mood, turtles in captivity, a white feather (from an angel?), stars, unicorns, snakes. Recently too, I’ve written to order, writing 30 poems in six months about space, sport, war, scary stuff, pre 1066 history and most recently dogs. That’s a real challenge, the final poems often wrung out of me in pure desperation as the deadlines loomed.

There’s another question I’m asked too by children who see themselves as writers of the future. ‘What advice would you give to anyone who wants to write?’ First of all, I reply, if you want to write, then write. Don’t talk about it, do it. So many people talk about writing a book one day but never do.

Secondly, keep a writer’s notebook. Write down what you see, hear, jokes people tell you, thoughts about strange situations, odd signs. It will, as time goes on, become a treasure chest of ideas to refer to again and again. I have notebooks going back many years and they still prove useful. Finally, train yourself to be an observer. Look, listen, note it down. Be receptive to anything and interested in everything. Spot possibilities. Be that ideas detective.

Brian Moses

Posted in Poet's Piece

The Joys and Frustrations of Editing, by Celia Warren

Celia Warren lives in the very south of England. We have some things is common –  we both like dogs and I also happen to know Celia likes writing poems about worms, in fact she has written an entire book about them. Celia Warren’s poems have appeared in hundreds of anthologies. But she is not only a children’s poet – she also writes teaching materials for children and edits children’s poetry anthologies. I thought it would be interesting to hear about being a children’s poetry anthologiser/editor from the point of view of a poet, and Celia has kindly written all about it.

From the minute I was old enough to enjoy words and their rhythms I have loved poetry. I attribute this initially to my mother, who would frequently recite or read poems to me. Often she read from poetry collections by single poets, such as A A Milne’s When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. Just as often she would read me verses from a wonderfully fat book called The Book of a Thousand Poems. I now own that very book and still turn to it to read old favourites. It wasn’t a single poet’s collection, it was an anthology – that is to say it contained poems by lots of different writers.

As time went by I continued to enjoy reading poetry in many different styles, old and modern, traditional and new, rhyming and non-rhyming, some written in English, some translated from other languages. And the more I read, the more I began to write my own poems. I now have shelves full of poetry collections and anthologies, for adults and for children – in many of which my own poems appear.

I am a collector. But where some people might collect stamps or ornamental hedgehogs (as I did once upon a time), I collect poems. I do this for my own pleasure. Over many years I collected poems about worms – diverse takes on the little earthworm penned by a wide range of poets. No publisher was interested in printing a book of worm poems, until I produced a book of poems about worms that were aimed at younger children and all by me! It involved writing the poems and then editing them. That is, I had to choose which to keep and which to drop; which needed revising and tweaking, and which order to put them in my book. At last it was finished: to my delight Don’t Poke a Worm till it Wriggles was published by Bloomsbury.

That is one kind of editing – picking and choosing and tweaking my own writing. But I had already experienced the joy of another kind of editing – that of compiling collections of poems by lots of different authors: anthologies. These delicious opportunities arrived like buses – two came along at once. I was in my seventh heaven! First, I had already collected dozens of poems about birds – again, this was for my own pleasure. It was when I thought I’d like to share the collection that my anthology grew. The subject matter broadened from birds to British wildlife in general. Now I had even more poems to choose from! I wanted my collection to appeal to families – grown ups and children. I wanted it to appeal to readers who lived in cities as well as those who lived in the country. I wanted to include old favourites, by poets no longer living, and I wanted to include new poems from poets very much alive and rhyming. That’s a lot of ‘wants’! I needed balance.

Finding balance

The hardest part of being an editor or anthologist – a chooser of content – isn’t deciding what poems will appear in the finished book; it’s deciding which poems to leave out. That is difficult. For instance, one of my favourite poets, Walter de la Mare, wrote dozens of poems about birds and about lots of other wildlife. If I put all of his poems in my anthology, I should upset the balance, so inevitably I had to decide to leave out a lot of his lovely poems. The same applied to many other poets’ works, some author friends, some poets I’d never met. Finally, when I had my collection and its ‘running order’ sorted, the publisher’s editor also suggested a couple of poems that she thought should appear. I loved them both and totally agreed to include them.

Of course, new poems are being written every day, and I come across old poems that I’ve not read before. Inevitably, I find myself thinking how well this or that would have fitted in to the finished book, but there would not have been room for more in my RSPB Anthology of Wildlife Poems. In this book, the ‘icing on the cake’ came with the illustrations. Every page had illustrations, largely provided by the best wildlife artists in the country – members of the Royal Society of Wildlife Artists. Illustrations are broadly chosen by the publisher, but I did have my say, too, and was thrilled with the end result.

Meanwhile (remember, I was compiling two books at once!), another book was developing. All anthologies need a theme to hold the poems together. I had the idea of using lines from a famous biblical verse, which appears in the book of Ecclesiastes, as “pegs” on which to hang poems. It begins,

There is a time for everything
And a season for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born
And a time to die
A time to plant
And a time to pull up

… and so it continues, ending with the lines

A time for war
And a time for peace.

It all began with a poem from my over-fifty-year-old copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous collection A Child’s Garden of Verses – and the poem, Keepsake Mill – “A time to keep”! Yes, again, this anthology began life simply for my personal satisfaction. Then, at last, I was able to share my favourites with others when publisher Schofield and Sims agreed to print my anthology, together with a teacher’s book, giving ideas of how to enjoy the poems in the classroom and in school assemblies. It became a huge project, and ended up with 100 poems. I started with lots of ideas of poems I wished to include, but now I had the added task of finding poems to hang on some of the trickier pegs. It was a labour of love! And I fervently hope that among so many poems, every child (or adult) who dips into the anthology will find at least a few poems that they enjoy. Oh – and the irony of the collection, that typifies the frustrations that interrupt the joy of compiling – the poem that had been the start of my collection had to be left out. Not unreasonably, the publisher pointed out that I’d already chosen this poem to use in another of their books, aimed at the same market, so they wanted to avoid duplication. Fair enough, but sad for me!

Joys and frustrations

An anthology of poetry is better than a box of chocolates. Its pleasure lasts forever. You can dip into a lovely anthology again and again, rereading old favourites and finding others that you missed first time around. My mother’s Book of a Thousand Poems that brought pleasure to my mother during her lifetime, I continue to enjoy in my lifetime and, one day, I shall pass it on to my children.

The titles of my anthologies were agreed, with the publisher having the final say, or in the case of the wildlife anthology, the charity that was supposedly advocating the book. Sadly, it is not the title I should have picked and works to the detriment of sales, particularly as said charity promotes it not one iota. Frustrating! Set against that, each of my anthologies had a foreword written by prestigious poets – former poet laureate, Andrew Motion, and poet for grown-ups and children, Wendy Cope. Joy!

Meanwhile, my reading and collecting hasn’t stopped. Already I have a number of ideas for future anthologies. The only problem is … finding a publisher willing to finance their publication. A compiler, however enthusiastic and experienced, however willing to spend however long is required to achieve perfection, is limited to a budget. That’s never going to change. But if you love collecting poems – then you, too, are an anthologist, even if your personal selection remains for your own pleasure. Never stop reading – in English and translation; old and modern. It’s a joy for life!

© Celia Warren 2017

The following are anthologies and collections edited by the poet:
Don’t Poke a Worm till it Wriggles – Bloomsbury
The RSPB Anthology of Wildlife Poems – Bloomsbury
A Time to Speak and a Time to Listen – Schofield and Sims, hardback 
A Time to Speak and a Time to Listen – Schofield and Sims, paperback
The accompanying Teacher’s Guide: ISBN 978 07217 1206 2

Posted in Poet's Piece

Three Simple Steps to Perk Up Your Poems by Roger Stevens

Roger Stevens carries a notebook everywhere he goes; I have seen his notebook in glimpses over the years, and it is packed full of notes, poem workings, observations, ideas, drawings… it is all you need to write a poem seen through Roger’s eyes and poured out onto pages. It’s like raw diamonds and rocks with seams of gold in dug out of the ground. It’s probably worth MILLIONS. If poetry paid well that is. Roger has run The PoetryZone since 1998, full of really interesting poetry things, such as children’s poetry, reviews of children’s poetry books, and poetry teaching resources. Children can send in poems and if they are good enough get them published there – and Roger runs poetry competitions, the next is due very soon! More details below from Roger – along with how to finish a poem!

Here at Poetry Zone HQ we receive some wonderful poems, written by children and teenagers. But I am often disappointed because a poem which is actually quite good feels incomplete or just needs a few final touches which would change it from a nice piece of writing into something excellent.  So, if you have written a poem and you are ready to send it to The Poetry Zone – or you’re going to enter it into a competition, or you are just writing it for school, or for pleasure – here are three simple things you can do to take your poem on to the elevator and up to the next level.

  1. Ask yourself: Does the poem say what I want it to say? Does it make sense? It’s amazing how many poems are sent to the Poetry Zone that make no sense at all. Why? I don’t know! A poem may arrive with a last line missing. Or the author may have added a couple of lines just because they want to finish with a rhyme. But, unless it’s meant to be a nonsense poem, a poem must really make sense. Making sure your poem says something is more important than making it rhyme. Sometimes I can tell that the author didn’t read the poem through properly. I always ask someone else to read my poems and stories before I send them anywhere. So, first rule – CHECK IT MAKES SENSE.
  2. Read your poem to make sure it has rhythm. For me, rhythm is the most important element of a poem. It is certainly more important than rhyme. Does your poem flow nicely? Does it have a beat? Are there any awkward words or phrases that interrupt its flow? My rule here is to READ THE POEM OUT LOUD before you send it; read it to someone else. You will hear whether or not it has rhythm and they will tell you if they get a sense of the meaning of the poem.
  3. Check your spelling and punctuation. Generally speaking, you don’t need commas or full stops at the end of lines. Usually the end of each line of a poem signifies a natural break, or the meaning runs into the next line. So there is no need for a comma or full stop unless you need punctuation to make the meaning of the line clear. You might like to use the convention of beginning every line of the poem with a capital letter – or you might prefer to use capital letters as you would when writing prose. The important thing here is to be consistent. And finally on this topic, two bugbears of mine. Firstly use a capital letter when writing in the first person. For example – ‘I wrote a poem’ NOT ‘i wrote a poem’. Secondly learn how to use there, their and they’re. There refers to a place. It’s over there. It even has the word ‘here’ in it to help you remember. Here and there. Their means something belongs to someone . This is ‘their’ story. One way to remember is to change the sentence – if you can change it to ‘my’ or ‘your’ then it’s ‘their’. This is my story, this is your story . . . And they’re is a shortened form of they are. Hence the apostrophe.

I hope you found that useful. There are lots of other things you can do to make your poetry better, of course. You can find more advice on the Poetry Zone or from other websites or poets on the internet. But follow these three simple rules and you’ll notice a real improvement.

So, do send your poems to The Poetry Zone . Do enter our competitions. And do watch out for our special 20th anniversary celebrations next year, in 2018. Good luck. (www.poetryzone.co.uk)

Posted in Poet's Piece

Sue Hardy-Dawson – Language Rules!

The first guest poster on Poetry Roundabout is the excellent poet and illustrator, Sue Hardy-Dawson. Sue’s wonderful book, Where Zebra’s Go, is published by Otter-Barry Books.

I wrote this poem when I was feeling very sad and angry. I often find that writing is a really good way of exploring my feelings. I remember thinking that nowadays children spend a long time being reminded of what they should or shouldn’t do before they write. Of course there are lots of rules to remember.

Yet I don’t recall being asked to think much about them when I was a child.

I have always loved learning new words even though I have dyslexia, and struggle to spell most of them. Only in secondary school did anyone attempt to teach me what nouns, verbs and adjectives were. Later on I vaguely remember rhyme, similes and metaphors being mentioned and that was as much as I knew until long after I started writing poetry. Yet I had no difficulties in having ideas, in using language. I knew where words went and how to use them. How? Because I, just as you are, was surrounded by people who talked. Also my parents read to me and when I too learnt to read, I read everything I could get my hands on. I still believe reading well is the very best way to learn how to write well.

Just think for a minute how amazing our brains are. Did you know we actually begin to learn the rhythms of our native language listening through the walls of our mothers’ wombs? In fact, in the first seven years of our lives, the language part of our brains develops rapidly. This is why talking, reading and sharing poetry and stories is so important, even for the smallest of children.

So without even trying, you, like me, have been collecting words all of your life. Spoken language changes all the time and I still get excited when I find a new word. There are lots of really interesting things to learn about language. So should we be learning and worrying about the rules of grammar? Of course sometimes, when we need to. But not when we are writing creatively, then it should be something we only think about afterwards.

I know if I stopped to consider carefully every word I put on the page I would struggle to write at all or to enjoy it. When getting my ideas down I rarely pause to check anything other than that I can read what I have written. ‘Fine tuning’ (spellings, punctuation, even if it makes sense) is my very last step. Why? Because although there are lots of rules about writing; ideas ignore them. Ideas just want to get out and onto the page. Of course if you don’t listen carefully they will disappear. Ideas are tricky like that and later you will struggle to remember exactly what they were.

So remember what an amazing brain you have. Read everything you can and write for fun, write for yourself. Just have a go without worrying about it. Then perhaps, one day soon, I will pick up a book and find myself reading a poem or a story that you wrote.