A panel exploring Writing Poetry for Kids, hosted by the Brisbane Square Library, was held at the Queensland Poetry Festival 2017, Saturday August 26th. It was encouraging to see the theatrette full, and a mixture of backgrounds: parents, local writing for children community members, local writers and poets, and public in attendance, as well as a few children. The library did a beautiful job hosting and making sure the equipment was all sound checked and ready to go. Thanks to the Queensland Poetry Festival for including our panel in the festival.
The panel explored the idea that children are the future of keeping the art of poetry alive. If they love it, then when they grow up their children will also love it. So how then do we foster and keep poetry vibrant, inclusive, and add it onto everyone’s would like to try or must do, and must buy list, especially children, grandparents, parents, families and schools? Dr Virginia Lowe posed this and other interesting questions to the panel.
Dr Lowe expressed her love of poetry and how much children from a young age can gain from it. Her detailed PhD study looked at her own children’s interaction with poetry and metaphorical language beginning with nursery rhymes from birth right up until they were just leaving their teen years. ‘They can understand much more than we give them credit for. They benefit so much for the metre and beat of poetry and the way it uses language and encourages metaphorical thinking and abstract thought.’
Dr Sally Murphy commented that in nearly all bookshops there is no poetry for children’s section. She makes a point of checking this whenever she is near a bookshop and did so in Brisbane and found it to be typical. The shop she went into did have picture books that rhyme (which are enjoyable but this limits what people think of as poetry books for children). The emphasis with most ‘poetry books’ for children is heavily on rhyme. Why is this? Why is poetry not considered saleable and marketable for children in its own right despite the fact it is widely studied in schools and potentially could be popular for this reason? Poetry for children is not seen as something for trade publishing, and is only a small part of educational publishing.
June mentioned the brilliant work of Riverbend books in supporting poetry for all ages and that they had been the first to stock Magic Fish Dreaming.
The challenge is that when children and young people have to pull poetry apart, especially when they are in high school (unless they have teachers that love poetry!), their love of it can potentially diminish unless something in their lives draws them to it again and they discover it anew.
The panel went on to outline where their own love of poetry came from – such as through a parent or grandparent who loved language, and exposure to poetry for children such as AA Milne or Dr Seuss and the poetic language of Shakespeare, musicals and popular songwriters their parents loved. Their love of it deepened through writing it, and sometimes through realising the healing and transformative powers of poetry in their own lives. Dr June Perkins had highly encouraging teachers who sent her along to poetry festivals and encouraged her writing and recital of her work.
Each of the panelists found publishing their poetry encouraged them to continue to write it, and in Sally’s case she has written and been awarded for her verse novels.
June after studying the World War One poets wrote a peace poem and was thrilled to then have it published in the local paper. She also credited her mother’s traditional stories from Papua New Guinea, and her sense of magic and fun as well as her highly literate in the classics father for playing a role in her creative work.
The panel spoke for the highlighting of the emotive elements of poetry within schools for students from an early age rather than just focus on a few set forms like acrostic, limerick and haiku. If students can connect with the social and emotive power of poetry, and see the role poets have played in society or the role poetry can play at an individual level in their lives, they might just respect the art form more. This is much more important than just remembering numerical formulas of poetry.
Part of the solution to not losing lovers of poetry is creating a greater love and understanding for poetry and all its most attractive attributes in teachers. Sally Murphy recently completed her doctoral studies into poetry for children, and has worked as a teacher. She found the set ways in which poetry is taught within the curriculum quite uninspiring, to the point where she had to leave teaching, but now visits schools as a poet/writer. June mentioned a recent enjoyable poetry visit to a high school class where she shared with them life as a children’s poet and did put them in touch with the emotive elements of poetry.
She mentioned a love of what university study taught her about poetry, for it introduced her to African American writers, Indigenous poets and more, and also engaged her with more technical aspects of poetry so she could do more informed experimentation of her work. She loved understanding for the first time how to scan a poem for its metre properly.
JR Poulter, mentioned how it is important for children ‘to feel poetry’ to understand it and write about it. How the poetry makes them feel can be a vital way to begin their explorations of poetry.
Sally focused on the need for readers to enjoy poetry. Poetry can bring pleasure and joy and suffers when over burdened with an educative role! This realisation will attract more people to read it, write it and ultimately buy it. The panel focused on the magic of words, and their sounds and that we can attract young people to have a great love of language through poetry, and to fall in love with the sounds of words that they then long to understand the full meaning of. Poetry can also be integrated into all parts of the curriculum and not limited to the ‘literary’ studies subjects but focus on topics like environment, and friendship. A poem on a topic might bring it alive to students, and increase their engagement with it. For instance Celia Berrell’s work with Science and Poetry.
The panel discussed that despite the fact it is so hard to traditionally publish poetry many people still write it and publish it on blogs and in chap books, perhaps aware of its healing power, but together they raised the question are poets only performing to other poets. How do we then attract a readership beyond poets? This is perhaps something that really needs to change for poetry as a whole. Bring poetry to the people! Address things that appeal to a wide range of the community, including families and children. There are many kinds of poetry for many kinds of people and there is space for all voices, and many choices in style, genre and poetics.
June who had written poems from a young age mainly about experience, nature, identity and peace, began writing poetry for children when her children were small, and she was doing projects like Ripple, to advocate for poetry in her local country town with a RADF grant from council. During the discussion June paid tribute to the children’s writing community of Brisbane and Australia wide, and their support and backing of Magic Fish Dreaming. June also encouraged the writing of poetry with a strong sense of place and identity. The unique voices of their world can find their own forms of poetic expression, and be shared and nurtured. By reflecting the spaces we live in within our poetry, we can contribute something unique to the world landscapes of poetry.
The panel tackled the challenges of publishing poetry for children. There are only a few magazines where poets can send work to, such as School Magazine, Caterpillar and Cricket and the Australian Children’s Poetry blog but trade publishers tend to steer clear of it. Sally suggested that poets for children within Australia need to work together to create a demand for the genre. She commended June for her efforts with crowd funding and marketing Magic Fish Dreaming.
The panel discussed the role of visual books in keeping poetry alive, that is beautifully illustrated books of poetry for all ages from the young to high school readers. Sally’s verse novels, and all of Jennifer’s works are beautifully illustrated. At high school June used to have a friend who illustrated her poems for the school newspaper and she spoke about the wonderful collaboration with Helene Magisson and the way she was able to make poems like ‘Beyond Caterpillar Days’ more accessible for any reader through her breathtaking art. All of the panel discussed the role of the illustrator in adding layers or illumination to the poem which could lead to people who are not practicing poets themselves to engage with the form more.
June encouraged young poets and the audience to become advocates for the art form, to learn many different forms from many cultures not just the European/Western Canon and to then become editors of their school magazines and make sure poetry makes it into the publications. She mentioned the diverse poets at the Queensland Poetry Festival and the need for the sharing of collections with poets from around the world. The panel also shared a list of places children and youth might seek publication.
The panelists were asked some questions from the audience. This was followed by an enthusiastic and interactive reading from the three panelists. J.R Poulter dynamically read three poems with a backdrop of slides to show the illustration (she has created many poetry posters), whilst Sally performed two rhyming poems, although she strongly believes not all poems should rhyme! Her call and answer poem about washing day was a lot of fun. June invited audience participation in her selection from Magic Fish Dreaming with a back drop of slides of the pages of the book and places and creatures in Far North Queensland as well.
Those gathered, including our lovely library host, continued to chat about poetry and think about what we can do to foster and ensure a publishing future for poetry for children, and by them as well.
All in all a wonderful day which can be built upon. The panel, and now hopefully also the wonderful audience who attended, share a dream to nurture and bring about more dynamic poetry for children events in Brisbane and Australia wide. All of us want to see more publishing and sharing of poetry for children, as well as by children for children.
Thanks to David Perkins for his photography of the day. We have shown only people who gave consent for their photographs to be shared. A big thank you to Sally Murphy for flying from Western Australia in the middle of a busy book week to be with us, and to JR Poulter, and Virginia Lowe for journeying from Victoria. Virginia also ran a wonderful workshop for creators of children’s books.
(Pictured above, Virginia Lowe, Create a Kids Book Workshop, 2017)
N.B. This is just my own recollection of the event, and others who were there may remember more or slightly different details. Feel free to send us your blog of your view of the discussion and day.