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Wednesday 11 December 2013

Farewell To St Antony's Year 2 class! Special Poem

This term I have been working every Friday morning with Year 2 at St Antony's School, Newham. I've been sharing my poems with them and using poetry to help develop their literacy skills (and, I hope, their confidence and enthusiasm for literacy). This Friday will be my final session with them. I hope I don't sound too mawkish or saccharine when I say that I will genuinely miss them.

Working on this project has given me the opportunity to write some bespoke poems. Here is my final one, dedicated to Year 2. (Warning: contains a couple of 'in jokes', especially in the penultimate stanza.)

Goodbye Poem For Year 2

Farewell, then, to St Antonys
We’ve had a lovely time,
With onomatopoeia, metaphor,
Rhythm and rhyme

And repetition, repetition,
Repetition too –
I hope I've helped you realise
The things that you can do.

In eight short weeks we all have seen
The joy that words can bring,
And every single one of you
Has done amazing things

And everybody tried their hardest –
Every single one.
The work was sometimes difficult
But mostly it was fun.

We’ve shouted LHASA (APSO!)
And we’ve screamed OOSHUS (MAGOOSHUS!),
Our time together went so fast
It’s like it blew straight threw us

And I will really miss you
Fridays will not be the same,
And hopefully, before too long,
I’ll see you all again!

Tuesday 10 December 2013

'Poetry Is'... Workshop Idea For KS2 & KS3 (and maybe KS1!)

You know a lesson plan is fairly successful when almost every member of a badly behaved and disengaged Year 8 class comes up with a genuinely interesting poem. This happened to me yesterday, complete with soul-destroying groan when I informed them that they would not be having the end-of-term video session they had been expecting, but would be writing poems instead. I'd like to share the lesson plan that I used. I think it can be adapted, if not simply replicated, for KS2 classes (and potentially KS1, as will be explored at the end of this post).

Warm Up Exercise

Pupils write as many examples as they can think of in each of the following categories:

  • Something funny
  • Something beautiful
  • Something important (to them)
  • Something interesting
  • Something weird
It is crucial to impress upon them that there are no right or wrong answers, and that anything they write down will not be judged, condemned or criticised. They don't know it yet, but the things they write at this stage will form the raw material for their poems!

Sharing and Discussing Poetry

Have a discussion about what poetry is. Can anything be a poem? Simon and Garfunkel wrote that the four letters on the underground wall constitute a poem. Were they correct?

Share my poem 'Redefine' with the class (it is posted at the very end of this article). Have a discussion about any lines the pupils find especially interesting, or do not understand (once again: no right or wrong answers!). Pupils can underline any parts they found interesting.

Writing The Poem!

Having done the warm up exercise, and shared my poem, this bit is really simple. The warm up exercise has provided the raw material for a poem on the theme of 'Poetry Is...'. Nobody can say "WAAH! I CAN'T THINK OF ANYTHING" because they have already written down their ideas! It could be as simple as taking the things they wrote in the warm up and prefacing them with the phrase 'poetry is' - less confident pupils can do this if they wish. More confident pupils can elaborate and develop the ideas, infusing them with interesting vocabulary and embellishing them in the light of my poem. Remember to leave time for pupils to share their work. Here are some of the lines that were generated by Year 8 yesterday:

"Poetry is the way my baby brother laughs"
"Poetry flows unexpectedly like a waterfall"
Poetry is that warm cup of cocoa you get when it's winter"

Benefits Of This Workshop
  • This workshop marries the conceptual with the concrete in a way that is easy for pupils to engage with. 
  • Differentiation is built into it - the warm up exercise has provided the raw material for everyone to work with in whichever ways they choose.
  • Pupils are able to go as deep as they like. The ideas can be humorous and silly, deep and meaningful, or both. Pupils are given the space to explore meaningful, personal issues but are not forced to do so.
  • I reckon this workshop could even work with KS1 pupils. For KS1 perhaps given each table the task of coming up with an example in each of the categories mentioned above in the 'Warm Up' section. Then stick 'poetry is' at the beginning of each of them, and join them up to make a group poem! I'd bet that this will be an impressive piece of work from such young pupils!

Redefine By Joshua Seigal

Poetry is a one-eyed dog howling ceaselessly
at a moon of cats, and a turtle sleeping softly
in the silence of her shell.

Poetry is the dance of a twisting flame, flirting
with the match; it’s the four letters on the inside wall
of the train station cubicle.

Poetry lies in the frantic laugh of the playground
and in the throat of your nine-year-old cousin
finally able to talk.

Poetry is the picture on the back of the cornflakes box
after a long, hungry night; it’s your name in lights
on your school football shirt.

Poetry is standing on a street corner, spitting
your voice at the wind. Poetry lives unheard
in the pores of your skin.

Friday 6 December 2013

Please, Sir, Can I Make Things Up?

Since September I have been training to be a Spoken Word Educator at Goldsmiths College. The training involves running poetry workshops with secondary school pupils, a demographic with whom I have not previously done much work at all. I am finding it challenging; not unrewarding but sometimes lacking the spark of what I like to think of as mildly eccentric spontaneity that I bring to the primary school classroom. This is a corollary both of the age group with whom I am working - elephant impressions, audience participation, the shouting of nonsense words and other such elements of my work as a children's entertainer just will not fly - but also of the fact that I am a member of staff rather than merely a fun visiting poet. The students are expected to call me 'Sir' and 'Mr Seigal', and, I, for my part, am expected to wear a shirt.

The ethos of the Spoken Word Educator programme is providing students with a space, and helping them find a voice, to express issues and ideas that are important to them. It seems to be expected that students will write about their own lives, views and experiences, and they are encouraged to be as open as they feel able to be. What seems less expected is that some pupils would rather 'make stuff up'. And as keen as I am on finding out about the lives and concerns of my pupils, it is a key tenet of my ideology, my 'poetics', that poetry can be made up: during school assemblies I usually stress that one of the great things about poems and stories  is that they are in fact the only times in our whole lives when we are allowed to do so. I have often found that simply making this point is the catalyst for some wonderfully imaginative writing. Admittedly, however, all this applies to my primary school work, which reveals, I think, an important difference between the mentality of younger and older pupils: younger pupils are more keen on making things up.

I have replicated some of the work I have been doing as a Spoken Word Educator in the primary classroom, and it has mostly gone very well. For example, a prompt I have been working with is 'Welcome To My Family' - I wrote a poem with this title (which is too long, and not yet good enough, to post on this blog!) which is used as a springboard to spark ideas in the students. Older pupils seem to take it for granted that they are expected to be as 'truthful' as possible, and as such to talk about the reality of their family lives, but younger pupils seem keener to indulge in wild flights of fancy: making up family members, pretending they live among a family of wolves, pretending they have a two-headed sister, etc.

I have been impressed with such dexterity in imagination, but it has made me think hard about the purpose of the writing exercise: what is it exactly that I want the students to do? I want them to feel that they can express important issues that might otherwise lack an outlet, but I also want them to have fun and and indulge their creativity. At the same time, I don't want the former to intrude upon the latter, or the latter upon the former. It might be as simple as encouraging 'making stuff up' with primary school kids but discouraging it with secondary school kids, but why should this be the case? If older pupils want to write fun, silly poems about having an alien for a dad, if they want to express themselves in that way (as they very occasionally do), and if younger pupils want to tell us what life is really like in their family (as they often do) then why shouldn't they? I think a better solution would be to provide both age groups with a range of models, and inform the students that either of two valuable opportunities is available to them - telling us about their lives and indulging in make-believe. Both, I think, are valuable and neither are opportunities which are readily available outside of this context.

Some very important issues are under the surface here, and I think the immediacy and intimacy of the Spoken Word artform renders the issues of 'truth' and 'honesty' more pertinent than they might be in poetry generally. But I do not think the fact that a poem is being spoken precludes its being silly, fun, whimsical and fictional, and quite frankly a lot of the Spoken Word I have been encountering - by the professionals, not by the students, I should add - I find rather po-faced and overly earnest. This of course has a place, and some issues demand this kind of treatment, but I would hate students to go away thinking this constitutes the entirety of Spoken Word. Or maybe it does, and what I've been doing all along is 'Performance Poetry' rather than 'Spoken Word'. I just don't know, but I value the opportunity to explore the issues.

Friday 22 November 2013

Bespoke Poems For Year 2 At St Antony's, Newham

Over the past few months I have been doing a fair amount of 'writing to order': I have been working on specific projects with a variety of groups and ages, from very little children to young adults, and have been churning out poetry to suit their workshop needs. I say 'churning out', which has fairly unpleasant, mechanical connotations, but in reality it has been a pleasure (and a challenge).

One of the groups with whom I have been doing an extended project is Year 2 at St Antony's School in Newham, East London. I have been working on the Catching Words project with them, which involves running poetry-based workshops every Friday morning this term. Each workshop focuses on a different aspect of poetry, and I have been writing some poems for the class to model the ideas. I'd like to share two of them now.


One of the sessions took the form of a competition. Several, often fairly complicated, literary techniques were discussed with the class, and then they had to get into small groups and compete to see how many sentences they could write utilising each of these techniques. A handy acronym has been devised by poet Joe Coelho to help children remember them: MORERAPS. This stands for Metaphor, Onomatopeia, Rhyme, Emotion, Repetition, Alliteration, Personification and Simile - heady stuff for Year 2 kids! In order to model these notions in a simple and fun way, I wrote the class a special poem.

However, before I share the poem a bit of background is in order. St Antony's is a wonderfully creative school which goes to great lengths to inspire and enthuse its pupils. Thus, on the day when I ran the MORERAPS session, they had a writing day involving the whole school. In order to kick the day off, there was a full school assembly in which an actor, in the guise of a local historian, told the children that a weird, secret tunnel had been discovered running under the school. The teachers were in on the act too! For the rest of that day, the children had to complete writing activities based on this tunnel: what did it contain? How did it get there? Who is living in it? And so on.

Given all this, I thought it would be nice for my MORERAPS poem to follow the tunnel theme. So here it is:


I’m the terrible tunnel
I’m deep, damp and dark,
I stretch all the way
From the school to the park.

I’m the terrible tunnel
Coiled up like a snake,
I’ll fill you with terror
And make your boots quake.

I’ll make you scream AAAH!
I’ll make your bones judder,
For I am a demon
And I’ll make you shudder.

I’m the terrible tunnel
I’m deep, dark and damp,
Come and explore me,
Bring your best lamp.

I may be quite scary
And make your head spin,
But I hide some secrets –
So come on in!



Another workshop involved thinking about journeys, and in particular specific verbs children could use in describing their journeys. They were taken to the hall, where all the apparatus had been set up. Next to each piece of apparatus was a verb sheet, i.e. 'tiptoeing past the...', 'hopping over the...'. It was up to the children to complete the sentences in as weird and wonderful a way as their imaginations could muster.

Having come into the classroom from the hall, the children then wrote a poem describing what happened on their journeys. I modelled the following poem, to help spark their imaginations:

Escaping From School

I sneaked through classrooms
As dark as an ogre’s cave.

I hopped over a sticky, slimy swamp
Made out of mouldy school dinners.

I got lost among letters
In a jungle of words.

I balanced on a tightrope
Made out of pens and pencils.

I tiptoed past the dragon
Who lives in the headmistress’s room.

I jumped onto a raft
Made out of torn-up maths books

I ran down cavernous corridors
And crept towards sweet freedom...

... but the Receptionist said
“Sorry, you can’t get out that way.”

Admittedly the understated irony of that last stanza was lost on some of the Year 2 children, but I had fun writing it, and the children certainly came up with some wonderful poetry of their own, my favourite line being 'I sneaked past the demon dinner lady'. An idea for a poem, methinks!

Saturday 26 October 2013

Halloween-Based Workshop Idea

I have been busy over the last week, visiting primary schools in Camden, Bracknell, Hackney and Newham. As it is approaching Halloween, and as I have a thing about monsters anyway, I have been running some Halloween-based poetry workshops. I have refined it over the course of my schools visits, and I'd like to share it now. The thing I like about it is that it enables a lot to get done in a relatively short space of time, whilst still remaining fun. It develops skills such as listening, recollection, drawing, writing, collaboration and performance all in a single session!

  • Start off by playing children my poem OOSHUS MAGOOSHUS, available on YouTube: Test the children's recollection skills by asking them if they remember (a) what Ooshus Magooshus eats, (b) where Ooshus Magooshus lives, and (c) what you should do if you encounter Ooshus Magooshus.
  • Ask the children what sorts of things I didn't tell them about Ooshus Magooshus. The most important piece of information that is missing is what Ooshus Magooshus looks like. Ask the children to take a minute or so to close their eyes and imagine their own monsters, focusing specifically on what it looks like.
  • Children go to their tables and ILLUSTRATE their monsters. They do not do any writing at this stage; they focus instead on doing the most colourful, fun, imaginative drawings they can. Tell them to imagine things such as the monster's legs, arms, eyes, face, teeth, etc, as well as what colour(s) it is. 
  • Now comes a bit of a curveball. Go round the class and collect in the monster pictures, and go round redistributing them so that everyone has someone else's monster. The task now if to DESCRIBE the monsters they can see in front of them. This can either be done in books, or on the space around the monster. Depending on age, the description could be either a single sentence or a detailed paragraph. To ensure that interesting language is used, a couple of sentences can be MODELLED on the board. 
  • Now comes the TEAMWORK. Hand out big sheets of paper, one per table. The children need to work together to turn their individual monster descriptions into a group poem. Ask each child to choose a sentence from the descriptions they have just written. Try and ensure that each child on the table is describing a different part or aspect of their monster. They then need to arrange their descriptions into a group poem, to be written up on the large sheet of paper (for younger children this could be scribed by the teacher; otherwise they need to work together to decide who is going to do it). They need to decide the order in which they want their lines to go. 
  • Each group needs to REHEARSE the poems they have just written. They need to decide how they would like to perform it. Will one person do the reading, or will they take it in turns? Will people do actions? Will they add a chorus in between each line or couple of lines (for an example of a monster poem with a chorus, see my Zombie Poem).
  • Lastly, it's the PERFORMANCE. Each group performs their poem to the rest of the class. If you like you can add a light element of COMPETITION by awarding a prize to the best group. (This doesn't have to be for the best performance; it could be for the group who works best together, or who tried the hardest to overcome some initial conflict. I always like to acknowledge this.)
I hope you've found this helpful. It should work well with primary children of all ages. I recommend that each child gets to keep the monster they illustrated, rather than the one they described. This is both because they are usually more emotionally attached to these critters, and because it will be useful for them to see how someone else has interpreted their work.

Have fun, and may Ooshus be with you!

Sunday 20 October 2013

New Model Poems

I have just started an MA in Writing/Education Studies at Goldsmiths College, University Of London. Assuming I complete it this will be my third degree. As part of the MA I am training to be a 'Spoken Word Educator', which will involve teaching teens about Spoken Word poetry. As someone who works primarily with younger children, and as someone who is only fairly peripherally involved in the London Spoken Word scene (the odd gig here and there, but usually I'm too knackered after performing for up to six hours in schools), this will be an interesting challenge for me. To use a slab of the kind of corporate jargon that I loathe, I am looking forward to 'diversifying'.

The Spoken Word Educator programme was piloted last year by an American educator called Peter Kahn. Last week myself and my fellow MA students read a couple of poems by him, entitled 'What It's Like To Be Nervous (For Those Of You Who Aren't)', and 'What It's Like To Be A Chicagoan In London' (For Those Of You Who Aren't)'. Peter uses these as model poems in class, encouraging students to write their own poems using the format 'What It's Like To Be X (For Those Of You Who Are Not-X'. I have written a couple such poems. Here they are. (WARNING: The second one contains swearing. I have not done this frivolously. I would obviously have to check with teachers before doing it in school.)

What It’s Like Starting Your First Day Of School (For Those Who Don’t Remember)

It’s being wrapped up like a polar bear
in your fluffy blue coat, protecting you
in your new adventure.

It’s Honey Nut Loops in a Tupperware box
at snack time, and a Marmite sandwich
for lunch.

It’s your new teacher telling you
you’re grown up now, and Sarah crying
all day long.

It’s trying not to have an accident,
and a red beach-ball of pride in your chest
when you don’t.

It’s air rushing out of a balloon
at the end of the day, and a new balloon


What It’s Like To Get Out Of Bed When You’re Depressed

It’s the weight of the room
pressing down on your chest, and heaviness
holding hostages in your throat.
It’s light charging under your blinds
like an invading army, occupying you,
and birds cursing the day
with their cynical songs.
It’s vomit in your stomach and shit in your brain.
It’s bullying voices telling you to get up,
and a set of leaden limbs
unable to obey.
It’s your mum crying outside your room, wondering
what she’s done wrong; your dad slamming
the door on his way to work.
It’s hot acid shampoo in the shower,
searing into your head and shoulders;
old clothes hung like sackcloth
across your scarecrow bones.
It’s standing in a field with
the day an open chasm before you.
It’s having arms with no joints,
so you can’t get the fallen fruit. 

Thursday 17 October 2013

Yucky Food List Poems - Fun, Quick Workshop Idea For All Ages

Yesterday I ran some workshops with Year 4 classes at Gospel Oak Primary in London. The writing exercise I set was over quicker than expected, so I had 10 minutes or so to play with. I asked the children to write list poems - a very easy thing for anyone to do - involving the most disgusting culinary concoctions they could think of. Some examples included:

 - owl soup
 - felt and chips
 - fizzy moose brains
 - warts with jelly
 - paper omelette

This is a very fun exercise, which stretches the imagination. It can be made as long or as short as you like, and engages even the most reluctant writers. The class were in uproarious laughter when a selection of children read out their poems. I thoroughly recommend giving it a go!

(PS, it might be an idea to specify no poo, wee or sick...)

Friday 11 October 2013

Catching Words - Literacy Project With Discover Children's Story Centre

I have just completed the first of eight sessions as part of the 'Catching Words' project, in association with Discover Children's Story Centre in Stratford, East London. I am working to produce poetry with Year 2 at St Antony's RC Primary School, in Newham.

I normally get a feel for a school quite quickly, and St Antony's is lovely - the teachers are dedicated, and the children enthusiastic and boisterous. Year 2 have always been one of my favourite ages to perform for, as they are old enough to understand things (and to join in during the correct parts of my poems!) but young enough that they were willing to get involved without any of the cynicism that occasionally creeps in in later years. However, sometimes with children of this age it can be a struggle to get them to be focused and productive in workshops. This was not the case today. I was impressed with the work that each child produced, and the fun they seemed to have along the way.

Today's workshop involved creating animal-based similes, which the children turned into group poems. In preparation for the workshop I wrote the children their very own poem. Here it is:

I’m Like

I’m like a cheeky monkey
When I’m standing on my head

I’m like a stubborn mule
Because I will not go to bed

I’m like a messy pig
Because my room is like a sty

I’m like a grumpy elephant
Because I sometimes cry

I’m like a dashing cheetah
When I’m darting home from school

I’m like a graceful dolphin
When I’m swimming in the pool

I’m like a lazy lion
When I’m lying in the sun

And being like an animal
Is such a lot of fun!

Monday 7 October 2013

How Do I Be A Success Like You?

Outside the classroom, the other day,
a little boy came up to me, and tugging
at the hem of my garment, asked
How do I be a success like you?

And I didn’t know what to say.
You see, I’ve never thought of myself that way.
Because after private school and two degrees
society does not tend to see reading poetry
to kids as a natural progression.
And sometimes it feels like I’m not listening in the lesson;
like this isn’t ‘real work’ or the kind of thing
a man should do.
My parents tell me that I’m better than that,
that this isn’t a real job,
that of course giving kids the joy of words
is no bad thing, but to leave it to someone else
and to go out there and be someone.
Wear a suit, son.
Commute, son.
Be what we expect of you, son.
And of course we read poems and books to you, son,
but this wasn’t an end in itself.
At no point did we dream that one day
you’d be doing such a thing for anyone
other than your own kids.
What are you, a glorified bloody babysitter?

And so the bitter taste at the back of my throat
when the boy asked
How do I be a success like you?
arose from not believing it to be true.
It arose from skulking in the shadows
of people my age already on 50k a year,
of people my age with their own flats and cars,
and even of the bloke at the bar who,
upon being told that I work with children,
drunkenly snorts paedophile, as though that
could be the only explanation for a man
wanting to do such a thing.

It arose from having memorised
the lines of a play
in which I play no part.
But no: through that boy’s eyes
I saw myself anew.
So to the boy who asked me
How do I be a success like you?
I say this:
Believe that what you’re doing is worthwhile.
Believe that anyone who doubts you is mistaken.
Tell yourself every day that you can be what you want to be.
Tell yourself that success is not just reading
from someone else’s script,
but believing what you say,
or, even better, writing the words yourself.
And know that what counts is not whether
you’ve spelt them correctly, or whether
they’re in the right order,
but that they. Are. Yours.

Success does not come in manuals.
Success is not flat-pack furniture,
and – you know what?
Success certainly doesn’t come from listening to poems
about what success is.
So, son, do it your way.
Don’t listen to what I say.  

Saturday 5 October 2013

A Poem By Ruby, From Heathside School

I have had a very busy week, visiting lots of schools for National Poetry Day. On Tuesday I visited Parkgate House School in Clapham; on Wednesday I visited Mandeville Primary School in Hackney, and on Thursday I visited Heathside School in Hampstead. I had a wonderful time at each of these schools, and was delighted to be made to feel so welcome.

I am especially delighted to say that my visit to Heathside inspired Ruby Kingsley Jones to write a great poem, which she sent me yesterday. I especially like this poem because it speaks to my slightly silly sense of humour. It is a poem which I would have been proud to call my own! Here is Ruby's poem:

I Think My Cat's A Dog

I think my  cats a dog,
I really,really do,
He's eaten up a catalog,
And attacked my mums best shoes!

I think my cats a dog,
I promise you i do!
He tried to chew a log,
And licked a bowl clean of stew,

I think my cats a dog,
This is completely true,
He followed my friend to synagogue cat is jumping up and he a kangaroo

Wednesday 25 September 2013

Losing Words

I was honoured to be chosen, along with two other poets, to be part of the Catching Words project at the Discover Children's Story Centre in Stratford. This is a literacy project focusing on using poetry to engage 'underperforming' Year 2 children, which is a challenge on two levels: they are 'underperforming', and they are Year 2! I was very grateful to be accepted onto the project, as the other poets are Joseph Coelho, Paul Lyalls and Adisa, each of whom has many, many years of experience. It would have been easy for Discover to turn me away on the basis of my relative lack of it, but what can I say: they couldn't say no!

But this blog post isn't really about the Catching Words project. Hopefully when I embark upon it I will have a lot to say and to reflect on, but what concerns me now is losing words. For the other week I had an experience which, thankfully, is rare, but is no less uncomfortable for that when it happens - I forgot the lines to a poem. And I didn't just momentarily lose them, I had a total blank. Luckily there was an audience of precisely three people, so news of my gaffe didn't exactly spread far and wide, but it was very unpleasant.

Perhaps, however, losing words is not such a bad thing. Obviously if it happens all the time one needs to develop strategies to combat it (such as, well, reading the words from a piece of paper), but the occasional forgetting of a line simply shows that a poet is also a human. This can be important with an audience of children, and on the couple of occasions when it has happened in school I have used it as an occasion to demystify the reality of what it is to be a performer, and to demonstrate that making a mistake is OK. Hopefully after having seen me fumble with words, the children will feel less inhibited when it comes to writing and performing their own. And the same goes for other ostensibly undesirable traits in a performer, such as 'the shakes'.

I'd still rather simply never forget words though. That would be better.

Friday 13 September 2013

Datchworth Boy

Last term I ran poetry workshops at a lovely school in a village called Watton-at-Stone in Hertfordshire. On my way to the school I drove through an equally lovely village called Datchworth, and was reminded of a newspaper article I'd read some years previously.

The article told of the village's recent commemoration of a family who starved to death there in 1796. James Eaves, his wife and two children were, apparently, ostracised and left to die by member of the community. Eaves' 11-year-old son survived, and went insane following his ordeal. Here is a contemporary illustration of the Eaves family:

When I read the article, and when I saw the picture, I was highly disturbed. I told the children during the school assembly that I knew a 'scary' story connected with Datchworth, but that it was genuinely not nice, and I'd leave it up to them to do their own research. Perhaps predictably, however, they clamoured to hear it, and did not seem to be overly disturbed by it. (Let it be known that I did not show them the horrible picture above.)

I am hopefully going back to visit the school some time in the next school year. When I visit schools I often try to write a bespoke poem for them, so I wrote a poem entitled 'Datchworth Boy', about James Eaves' 11-year-old son. The poem is the first villanelle I've ever tried to write. I chose the form because I think its repetitive, cyclical nature would be good at conveying the insanity into which Eaves Jr. irrecoverably fell. I will hopefully read it out to the older children during my visit:

Datchworth Boy

His mother gathered water from the lake.
They found him dressed in rags, decayed and pale.
A madness grew from which he couldn’t wake.

His baby sister’s body couldn’t take
The strain, his dad too weak to wail.
His mother gathered water from the lake.

The door was bolted shut, as though to make
That house on Datchworth Green into a jail.
A madness grew from which he couldn’t wake.

And some say Datchworth’s haunted by the ache
Of wounds left by the family it failed.
His mother gathered water from the lake.

The village voice lies silent now. Let’s stake
A claim to history unveiled:
His mother gathered water from the lake.
A madness grew from which he couldn’t wake. 

Wednesday 11 September 2013

The Real Richard Bennett

Anyone who has ever seen me perform my poetry for children will know that I often open my performance with Richard Bennett, a poem about a bully. The punchline of the poem is that Richard Bennett is revealed to be my own brother (sorry for giving that away!). I ask the children for a vote on whether they think the poem is true or false, and use this as a springboard to discuss the fact that poetry is one of the only places in our lives when we are actually allowed to make things up: of course, it is not true that Richard Bennett is my brother.

What is true, however, is that when I was at secondary school there really was a bully, called Richard Bennett (albeit not my brother). I think the story of the real-life Richard Bennett raises some interesting issues to do with bullying and self-reflection, and I'd like briefly to share the story. I may be flattering myself with the presumption that people will actually bother to read this, but I'm going to err on the side of caution and change some people's names. 'Richard Bennett', I think, is a common enough name that I am not risking anyone's reputation by using it.

I went to secondary school right in the heart of London, which necessitated a lengthy commute. At that age, such a thing was a big deal, and inevitably provoked a bit of anxiety in my parents. They thus arranged for me to get the train with a boy called Adam who lived on my road and went to the same school, and who subsequently became my best friend. There were a few other boys from the school who took the same route, one of whom was Richard Bennett.

I had read about bullies in books, and watched depictions of them on television, but thankfully up until that point I was lucky enough not to have encountered one. Richard Bennett looked pretty much like the archetype of a bully: very solidly built, very short hair and perpetual scowl. He was in the year above us (Year 8), and took immediate delight in intimidating us younger children.. He boasted that his key-ring could cause internal bleeding, and once knocked my classmate Steven's head against the train window, for very little apparent reason. At that age it was fashionable to insult people by proxy by insulting their mothers, and I once wrote 'Richard Bennett's mum is a cow' on my hand, as a kind of cowardly act of revenge. Someone told him, and I came in for some flack after that (thankfully none of it physical).

The next year, however, Adam and I, and the rest of the younger children who took that train, ceased to be the target of Richard Bennett's intimidation. That role was transferred to a boy called T, who had just joined the school. We all used to sit together in one big group, and Richard Bennett tried to impress the rest of us with how mean and spiteful he could be to T. I am ashamed to admit that I laughed along with Richard Bennett, and I now realise that the reason I did this was because I was relieved that I was not the recipient of his barbs. I think at that age I had a mean streak - never physically threatening but more than willing to delight in others' misfortune - and it manifested itself in the fact that I went along with Richard Bennett's teasing of T, and even strangely enjoyed it. T - if you are reading this and recognise yourself from the description, I apologise.

Eventually, Richard Bennett got expelled (or 'asked to leave', as was the appropriate locution). T's parents contacted the school, and all the children who took our train were called into the Deputy's office to give their account of events. I was honest about what I perceived to be Richard Bennett's bullying, and for the rest of his short time at the school Richard Bennett derided me as a 'grass', with the implication that I had at one point been something of an ally. Which, sadly, I guess I had.

Why am I recounting these events? Part of it may be a kind of selfish need to unburden myself, but I don't really think this is the case. I think it is more the simple desire to recount the true story behind one of my poems, for anyone who may be interested. It is also an opportunity to reflect on bullying, and how we can unwittingly get caught up in it. I've heard it said that Richard Bennett was in fact bullied by his brother, and thus may have been a victim as well as a perpetrator. Attempts to track the real Richard Bennett down on social media have proved unfruitful, due to the ubiquity of the name. I wonder whether he'd be interested to know that he's inspired a poem. Hopefully he wouldn't bash my face in..

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Reflections On Edinburgh 2013

A couple of nights ago (after what I can only describe as a 'pig' of a journey home, which involved schlepping a £60 flipchart stand and a changeover at Birmingham) I returned home from the 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. I had been up there for the second year in a row, with my children's poetry show. The Fringe is quite an experience, and I thought I'd share here some of my reflections on this year's run.

First, Edinburgh generally. The city is an intense place to be during the Fringe. Apparently its population doubles, and at times one can barely move for posses of undergraduate interpretive dancers shoving flyers for 'Josef Fritzl: The Musical' in your face. One has two options here (aside from incredulity at such a stupid production being brought to the Fringe; believe me there are worse): one can get angry, or one can simply accept that by entering this environment one has thereby entered into a kind of tacit contract, and tolerate it. Stewart Lee - the overrated comedian - seems to opt for the former: I tried, not unreasonably I think, to give him and his children a flyer for my children's show, and he was less than gracious to say the least. In my munificence I did my best to take the latter road. (Although that didn't stretch as far as actually going to see any interpretive dance.)

Probably my favourite thing about the Fringe was simply being in an environment where, pretty much any time of the day or night, one can rock up to watch a show, often for free. One begins to take this for granted in Edinburgh, but upon returning to reality one realises quite how cool it is. Another great thing about the Fringe is seeing stuff that one would otherwise never have seen. The Free Fringe (of which my own show was a part) removes a great deal of the risk inherent in taking a punt on some pretty wacky stuff. A lot of my choices were based simply on discovering a wonderfully bizarre name in the programme, and one of the highlights of my Fringe ended up being Professor Dr Neal Portenza's Interactive Goat Hour.

Now it must be said that a few reviewers disagreed with my immensely favourable opinion regarding the aforementioned Goat Hour. Which brings me onto my next topic. One quickly learns at the Fringe that, just as performers are there to hone their craft, reviewers are there to hone theirs. Thus, the influence of the reviews is usually out of all proportion with their quality. It sounds impressive to say that Three Weeks gave one's show 5 stars; it becomes less so when one notes that Three Weeks seems exclusively to employ unpaid, inexperienced undergraduate interns to do their bidding. And the same goes for most of the other Fringe publications. Again, one has (at least) two options here: one can simply accept that this is how it is, and thus take all reviews with a pinch of salt, or one can get angry that these ignorant foetuses dare pontificate on one's work. Which option one chooses will inevitably be in large part determined by whether one's reviews have been favourable.

Fear of having my work appraised, and distrust of those doing the appraising, meant that I didn't send out any press releases this year. As it happened a couple of reviewers did come to see the show, although only one review ever saw the light of day (it was 4 stars from Broadway Baby, since you asked). The other reviewer, from Three Weeks, came to see the show at the worst possible time: there were only two children in the audience, both of whom were unusually shy and unresponsive. In the event I was proud of how I handled the situation, and would have been interested to know what the reviewer made of it. But nothing has been published. I suppose that, with the sheer amount of shows being reviewed, bits and pieces will inevitably get lost in the system.

And so to my own show. I was for the most part very pleased with how it went. Apart from the aforementioned Day Of Only Two Children, audiences were mostly numerous and appreciative. I think the mean average was something like twenty-five people per day, with a satisfaction rating of roughly 7/10. (This is real science!) I sold at least one book every single day, usually much more. There were audience members who saw the show more than once; one girl told me she had seen the show four times, although I think this says more about her propensities than the quality of the show. On once occasion I got an entire class of nursery children watching the show. I was slightly perturbed by this, as the show was aimed at 5-11 year-olds (already a massive age-range), and on the day when the nursery children were there there were also some much older children. However, I think I worked the room well, and the nursery children seemed focused, even though they obviously didn't understand everything I said.

In 2012 I performed what I very proudly declared was the only children's poetry show at the entire Fringe. This year I was one of two, the other being Dommy B's The Dragon Who Hates Poetry. This occurred in the same venue as my show, although I think it was on at a better time, as Dommy B seemed to pack in bigger audiences! (Or it could simply be that his show was better?...) Despite both ostensibly being 'children's poetry', the shows were in fact very different: mine was more like a gig, with a selection of poems baring only tenuous connections to each other, and no overarching narrative to the show as a whole. Dommy's show was a single story, told in rhyme. He very kindly offered me several guest slots, which I used as an opportunity to promote my own show. I think this kind of cross-marketing worked well, and helped forge a kind of children's version of the Free Fringe. Maybe that is an idea for future years: a quasi-autonomous Children's Free Fringe. I think this would help drive a lot of audiences to free children's shows. I am not really one of life's great organisers, unlike people like Fay Roberts, Dan Simpson and Richard Tyrone Jones, but it could be worth my time investigating this.

And it wasn't only about the children. I also performed a one-off ADULT poetry show, entitled 'Things I Couldn't Tell The Children'. I performed a show of the same name last year, although this year's version was far superior I think. For one thing, my parents were not there this year to witness me making several foul jokes at their expense. Also, my venue this year was the Banshee Labyrinth, which was the hub of spoken word on The Fringe. A decent-sized audience thus got to experience the fact that I don't only perform to the little ones. The theme of the show was basically childhood, both my own and that of the children with whom I work. Special mention goes to Gary From Leeds, who did a slot in my show, and whose poem 'Freud's Only Knock Knock Joke' is definitely not for kids.

All in all, then, The Fringe was a positive experience for me this year, and I hope to return in years to come. I hope I do not sound obsequious when I say a massive thanks to all those who made it worth being at.

Sunday 11 August 2013

New Edinburgh Show - First Performance Tomorrow!

I started this blog with the intention of updating it fairly regularly. Sadly, this has not come to pass. The main reason for this, I must confess, is general laziness. A significant subsidiary reason, however, is that I have been working on my new children's poetry show, snappily titled 'Joshua Seigal Presents The Legend Of Ooshus Magooshus (And Lots Of Other Poems'. The title piece of the show is one of my most popular poems, and one of only a handful that seem to work well with children of all ages. (You can watch a video of it here should you so choose.) The show is basically what I consider to be a Best Of Joshua Seigal, as of August 2013.

I have performed each piece numerous times in schools. I tend nowadays not to get particularly nervous when performing in schools, apart from the standard excited butterflies and rush of adrenalin. Edinburgh, however, is different. One of the reasons for this is that it is a family show, and as such will have a number of grown ups in the audience. This means that I will need to cater to their needs as well (something which I was rebuked for not doing in a review last year). It also means that the children in the audience are not likely to know each other, which can make for a tougher show from a performer's perspective. In schools the kids are all familiar with each other, and are thus relaxed in each other's presence and can feed off each other's energy. There is a ready-made community spirit which a performer in a family show needs to build from scratch. I've often found that poems and jokes which get a big laugh in schools get a much more muted reception at family shows. I think I will need to learn to see this as part of the nature of the show, rather than as a failing on my part.

Another reason for heightened nerves in Edinburgh was alluded to in the previous paragraph: the presence of reviewers. Last year I sent out a large number of press releases prior to the run, and subsequently spent a great deal of time inordinately anxious, lest a reviewer come and scrutinize me. Partly as a result of this I have not done any press releases this year. I'm all about the audience; all about the art, baby. OK, the main reason for this is that I am fairly near the beginning of what I hope will become a decent career, and I don't want a poor review showing up in a Google search when teachers are considering booking me for their school. Not that I for one minute expect to receive a poor review, or think that I deserve to do so. The point, rather, is that I simply don't trust the reviewers. I have read an awful lot of nonsense on Edinburgh review websites, often by people with questionable experience or knowledge of the relevant artform.

Having said all that, I often come away from a good performance wishing there had been a reviewer in the audience. I hope the forthcoming fortnight is full of such performances. ONWARDS!

(PS see my show!)

Tuesday 28 May 2013

Monsters Under The Bed: Some Thoughts On Scariness In Children's Literature

When I was in Year 4 our class were shown a TV adaptation of Berlie Doherty's novel Children Of Winter. The novel is all about the Derbyshire village of Eyam, a community that famously underwent voluntary quarantine during the Great Plague. I'd be interested to know what I'd think were I to see the film again, but to say that I was disturbed by it at the time would be an understatement. Its depiction of the physical effects of the Plague, and the impact of it upon families and communities, rendered me almost sleepless for several nights. I wrote a letter to my teacher telling her how I felt, and she was very warm and understanding. My mum, from what I remember, was less so.

I had a similar experience a couple of years later, when my parents, in what I now recognise to be a monumentally misguided attempt to educate their 10-year-old son on his heritage, made me watch a documentary about the Holocaust with them. When I say 'made' I do mean, quite literally, forced. I didn't have a choice. And the documentary was not for children. The sight of the emaciated bodies and maniacal Nazi soldiers, this time known by me to be entirely non-fictional, profoundly scared me. For a while after seeing that film I regressed, and became scared of things like monsters under the bed. Once again, when I told my mum about this I found her less than understanding. I suppose it is testament to the quality of my childhood to say that, in my opinion, forcing me to watch that Holocaust documentary was one of the biggest mistakes my parents made. By all means educate, but do so via age-appropriate media. Graphic images are no more appropriate for young children when it comes to Holocaust Education than they are when it comes to Sex Education.

I mention all of this because I have recently been confronting similar issues from 'the other side of the fence', as it were. In producing material for children, I obviously have to think hard about what is and what isn't appropriate, but the issue of 'scariness' presents a particular difficulty in that, up to a point, most children seem to enjoy being scared. Probably my most popular poem is my 'scary' one, about a monster called Ooshus Magooshus (he's not real. Or is he?). I always play up the scariness of this poem before I perform it, and I play games with the children, telling them I don't think they're grown up enough to hear it. By the time I get to perform it, in a melodramatic way that is admittedly far more comical than it is scary, most of them are clamouring for it. But every so often this poem lands me in some difficulties. It is one of the few pieces I have that seems to work with children of all ages, but I usually resist performing it for Reception classes, having made small children cry on one or two occasions. The reason the poem (mostly) works is that it has a strong edge of silliness, strong rhythm and rhyme, and is performed by someone not remotely scary (I hope). And importantly, it is fictional.

So 'Ooshus Magooshus' falls quite clearly on the enjoyable side of scariness. However, I recently had the occasion to discuss with children something much closer to the bone. On the way to visit a lovely school in a village called Watton-at-Stone, I passed through a place called Datchworth, and was reminded of an article I read a couple of years ago, about a family who were starved to death in the town in the 1700s. James Eaves, his wife, his daughter and his son were, it seems, locked in a barn on the village green where they all starved to death, except the 11-year-old son, who went insane following his ordeal. The villagers subsequently tried to cover up their crime, until it was discovered and written about in a pamphlet, which was recently unearthed (hence the news article). This is obviously a highly disturbing story, and I think it would make great material for a novel. I mentioned in assembly that I knew a scary story about Datchworth, but that I was unsure about whether to tell it, on account of its being genuinely disturbing, unlike Ooshus Magooshus. It was probably naive of me not to expect that the children would be very eager to hear it. I ended up telling it to the Year 5 class later that day.

It has to be admitted that none were visibly disturbed by what I think is a terrifying tale. There are several possible for reasons for this, among which are (a) that some of them were, but managed to keep a lid on it, (b) that I didn't tell it in a very scary way, and that (c) children are nowadays accustomed to much worse. I suspect the truth is a combination of all of these.

I was probably a slightly over-sensitive child, and I think that, on balance, it is probably better to indulge a child's desire for scary things, and leave them to deal with any fallout, than it is to shield them, and to patronise them by so doing. But, as with so many things with children, it is something of a balancing act. And, as ever, I hope I am getting it roughly correct.

Monday 29 April 2013

A Taste Of My Own Medicine

I recently led my first ever workshop for adults. The focus of the workshop was on writing and performing for children, and I led the participants through some of the writing exercises I do in the classroom (you can see some of them here). The purpose of this was both to explore some possible techniques for producing writing for children, and to access the child-like element within oneself.

Only two people showed up. This could have been extremely awkward, but (for me at least) it wasn't. What it meant was that the session was extremely informal, and had the feeling of a friendly, albeit focused, chat. It also meant that, for the writing exercises, I assumed the role of additional participant as well as workshop leader. In other words, this was one of the incredibly rare occasions where I completed some of the exercises I am so used to setting in class. I got a taste of my own medicine.

What I discovered was that I found the exercises really difficult. I was thus struck with a renewed admiration for the children who not only complete these exercises, but do so with imagination and aplomb. Now it may be that the exercises are easier for children than for adults; some of them are pretty silly and require fairly wild flights of fancy, which in turn requires a kind of child-like lack of inhibition. It is for this reason that I think they can be of value in an adult workshop where the focus is on accessing this side of oneself. But there can be no doubt that plenty of children do find my writing exercises tough, and running/participating in the workshop enabled me, I think, to discover one of the reasons why: I felt under pressure. I felt that, because I was setting the exercise, it was incumbent upon me to produce quality work. I also felt that, because I am a 'poet' and thus an ostensibly 'able writer', I should produce top-notch work. I felt, in other words, a kind of performance anxiety. Not that it was any sort of competition, but the other two workshop participants produced far superior work to mine. (And not that this 'anxiety' was too serious - I still had fun!)

This alerted me to two things that up until that point I don't think I had appreciated fully: firstly, confidence is by no means commensurate with ability; and secondly, there is an extent to which it may even be inversely proportional to it. People who are thought to be 'able' in a given field may well find this very fact detrimental to their confidence; they may well feel under pressure to live up to (either internal or external) expectations. This was certainly the way I felt when undertaking the exercise I had set myself, and that was only a fun workshop session. I can only imagine (and attempt to remember) how much tougher it must be in the classroom.

The experience of running this intimate (exclusive!) workshop for adults will hopefully enable me better to empathise with the poor creatures who take part in my workshops...

(PS one of the participants in the workshop was Fay Roberts, a Cambridge-based poet who is currently attempting to write thirty poems in one month. She has put forward one of her workshop pieces as part of this task. It is great. Please read it here.)

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Gangnam Style: Standing The Test Of Time?

First up, here is a poem I wrote recently (it doesn't yet have a title; if anyone can think of a good one, please get in touch);

I leap with joy
I dance about
Run round the garden
Scream and shout
Tear off my shirt
And cry with glee
Slide on my knees
I pump my fists
I flash a smile
I do the twist
Dance Gangnam Style
I beat my chest
I'm going mad -
I scored a penalty
Against my dad.

Now, anyone who knows me moderately well will know that I am not one to give much thought to what is currently fashionable. Thus, I have missed the boat by several months in giving a shout-out to Gangnam Style in the poem above. That said, I know for a fact that the song is still hugely popular in primary schools, and almost all children will get the reference in the poem to 'dancing Gangnam Style'. I haven't yet had a chance to perform it in school, but I hope this reference will make people laugh (especially when combined with the appropriate actions).

The reference to Gangnam Style raises a question: to what extent is it appropriate to refer to no doubt fleeting aspects of contemporary culture when writing poetry for children? I'm sure the question can be expanded beyond poetry and beyond children, but these things raise particular issues: children and young people are often highly attuned to fashions and trends, and are thus likely to appreciate such references, and the kind of children's poetry I write tends to strive for immediacy and accessibility. I thus want to talk to children about a world that is relevant to them.

However, there is an obvious problem with referring to things like Gangnam Style in a children's poem: will the children of the future know what on earth I'm going on about? Perhaps I'm being supremely arrogant in assuming that a small pop-culture reference is all that stands between myself and timelessness, but it is a concern of mine. I'm sure I could tweak the references to reflect contemporary trends, but I have to admit that, with a few exceptions, I tend to shy away from anything that would root my work too firmly in a specific time and place.

I'd be interested to hear what others think about this. In the meantime, I'm congratulating myself for having mentioned Gangnam Style in a poem.

Friday 12 April 2013

Nostalgia and Reading To Children

I recently found, in a cupboard, a book that my father used regularly to read to me when I was a very young child. The book in question was There's A Wocket In My Pocket by Dr. Seuss - a story about a young boy living in a house, apparently alone but for a collection of quirky monster-like creatures. An inscription on the inside front cover indicates that it was a present for me on my fourth birthday.

Prior to finding it in the cupboard I had not thought of that book for a very long time. Memories emerged as I read through it once again, delighting in those mysterious characters with nonsensical names. I'd like to use my rediscovery of the book as an occasion for three observations.

Firstly, and perhaps most crucially: never underestimate the importance of reading to children. Certain aspects of the experience, in particular the idiosyncrasies which each reader brings to the text, will likely stay with them for the rest of their lives. For example, there is a page in Wocket where the young protagonist finds 'the Tellar and the Nellar and the Gellar and the Dellar and the Bellar and the Wellar and the Zellar in the Cellar'. My father always used to speed up when he got to this bit, and I have never forgotten the excitement I felt upon approaching this part of the story. This may seem rather twee and trivial, but it really isn't: these sorts of memories help shape who we are.

The second observation is this: when I read through the book once again, I enjoyed it no less than I did as a child. In a world of so many intricacies and intractabilities I found the experience of this simple, rhyming story, with its endearing illustrations, immensely liberating. Now I'm not suggesting that adults toss aside The Financial Times and Anna Karenina and start reading Dr. Seuss; what I'm suggesting rather is that all of these can have their place in an adult's repertoire. Despite the fact that they are marketed at children, such books can nonetheless be embraced by adults as a form of therapeutic escapism from the 'real world'. Adults could well benefit from accessing the part of them that never really grew up.

But of course adults do have different insights to children, and this is where my third observation comes in: children's texts - many of the good ones, anyway - are multilayered, and things which went unnoticed as a child can be picked up as an adult. I am obviously not the first person to make this observation, but rediscovering Wocket brought it home to me. For example, I remember, as a child, being vaguely conscious of the fact that the protagonist in the story appeared to live in a house with no adults (at least, no adult is mentioned, and no indication is made within the text or illustrations that the boy lives with any). But re-reading the story I was struck by how truly odd this was, and the book took on a sense of loneliness. I even started to feel that the various creatures the boy lives with may be manifestations of a fractured, paranoid mind. Now I'm sure I'm guilty of ridiculous eisegesis here, but my point is not to interpret the text; rather, it is to indicate once again that adults can gain new insights by reading books that are ostensibly 'for children'.

Obviously a lot of children's literature is pretty facile, and unworthy of the kind of discussion I have afforded Dr. Seuss here. But next time you are in the children's section of a bookshop, search for something you remember from your childhood, give it another read, and see what happens.