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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.