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Friday 24 January 2014

The 'Joshua Seigal Method'.

I recently did a poetry performance for a Year 4 class. The following day their teacher set them a poetry writing task, after which she asked the pupils to comment on their own work. The pupil in question said that she was very proud at having used 'a Joshua Seigal method'.

Now, I've really no idea which 'method' she is referring to - I have many methods, I suppose, and they are not always identified as such even in my own mind - but I am proud at having influenced her writing of what seems to be a fantastic poem, as you can see from the picture below.

Sunday 12 January 2014


I grew up on punk music. Granted I came of age in the mid 2000s, not in the 70s or 80s, but many of the significant moments of my teenage years occurred against the backdrop of fast, loud, rebellious music. Or at least music that liked to think of itself as rebellious. I was even in a punk band for a while, playing bass and singing songs about how bad Tony Blair was. But not in a socially conscious Attila The Stockbroker kind of way; in a middle-class privately educated boy who doesn't know what he's talking about kind of way. I still maintain we had some good tunes though. For those of you who are interested, check us out on Youtube.

Nowadays I listen to all sorts of music, but over the last few months I have become cognisant of my punk beginnings as I have prepared my latest children's poetry collection for publication. Now, I am definitely not a punk poet in the sense of John Cooper Clarke or the aforementioned Attila The Stockbroker. Some of my children's poetry is a little cheeky, yes, but you are hardly likely to see me open for the Sex Pistols. Rather, the fact that I organised the whole thing myself - set up my own publishing house, organised printing, design and illustration and forked out for it all - reminded me of punk's DIY ethos. It is in this sense that I can perhaps be described as punk: I am my own publisher, agent, PA, etc. 

Like most authors I have had my share of rejections from mainstream publishing houses. On my more hubristic days I attribute this to factors such as the inclement state of the market, the incompetence of the commissioning editors and the alignment of the stars; on my less self-confident days I tell myself that I am just not good enough yet; that, in the words of The Smiths, I just haven't earned it yet, baby. At any rate, I would probably be lying if I said that, were a publishing deal with Random House to swim my way tomorrow, I would turn it down on the basis that I am channelling the spirit of NOFX. Maybe my claim to the punk rock DIY ethic is therefore basically a defence mechanism, something that I tell myself (and, with this blog, others, IN YOUR TENS OF THOUSANDS!) to mask my disappointment at being overlooked by the powers that be. And maybe the disdain I often feel towards people who put their agents' emails on their Twitter profile - 'talk to my agent mate, I'm far too busy/important' - is, basically, jealousy. There is probably a little bit of truth in all that.

But it is only a very little bit. It must feel nice as an artist to receive the approbation that publishing deals and having agents are indicative of, but, when I think about it, it also feels nice to be self-sufficient enough ultimately to bypass all this. I am proud that I saw a project through from beginning to end. I am proud that, ultimately, my own faith that my art is good enough, that it is at the very least worth knowing about, resulted in 400 lovely books arriving at my door last Thursday. I am proud that I did all this without prostrating myself before an intermediary. I am proud that I, essentially, took matters into my own hands. And I think this is a valuable lesson to take into the classroom, where the majority of my work occurs. I want my students to know that their words and voices are worth hearing, and that they don't need to wait for someone to tell them that they are 'good enough' before they jump in and give it a go. 

Now down to business. If anyone wants to buy my book, they can do so by contacting me or by going to Amazon. (If I was a real punk I wouldn't use Amazon, on account of its being an exploitative multinational corporation, but there you go.)

Monday 6 January 2014

Making Poetry Less Intimidating

I recently had an email from a teacher who told me that she, along with many of her colleagues, find teaching poetry 'intimidating'. This isn't really surprising, since poetry is often approached as though it is some kind of difficult code to be cracked by a hallowed few whose minds have somehow been enlightened. Some poetry is like this, but this is not the kind of poetry I am interested in exploring when I visit schools (or at any other time, if truth be told). I believe poetry, and the written and spoken word in general, has something to offer everyone.

Just as some teachers are intimidated by poetry, some students are paralysed by the thought of writing it. So how is one to overcome these initial barriers when it comes to exploring poetry - in particular the writing of poetry - in the classroom?

I do not have the answer, but I do have a technique that I have sometimes found helpful in encouraging students to generate work. It is basically this: start off with a warm-up exercise that has nothing to do with poetry itself but enables the flow of ideas which can then be incorporated or moulded into a poem. Try to hold off on any discussion of poetry until after this exercise has been completed.

Here is a more concrete example of the sort of thing I mean. Suppose the aim of the lesson/workshop is for each pupil to write a poem on the theme of Memory. You might start off by getting each student to write down, say, three happy memories and three sad or upsetting memories (you can start off by sharing some examples of your own if you like). Try to get them to describe the memories in as much interesting detail, and using the most interesting vocabulary that they can. Once this exercise has been completed, then have a discussion about poetry, and how these ideas might be moulded into a poem. As a poet I would probably at this point share some relevant poems of my own, but you can find some others that interest you if you want. The most important thing is that, by this point, a lot of the writing has already been done. The ideas have been laid out on paper, unencumbered by expectations as to what poetry should be, or the various technicalities regarding how to write it.

All of this is very from from revolutionary. It essentially involves approaching the writing of poetry 'through the back door' - exploring ideas before thinking about writing poems. From my experience a lot of difficulty comes from pupils being presented with a poetry writing task, and then claiming not to be able to think of any ideas. At the very least this technique should go some way to combating that. The crucial thing, I think, is not merely to engage in a brain-storming or warm-up exercise prior to writing the poems - something which I'm sure most workshop leaders do anyway - but to do this, if possible, before you have even told the pupils they will be writing poems (or, if this is not practical, before you have discussed poetry in any significant way). It may even be the case that the ideas generated by pupils take the shape of an interesting list poem of their own accord. If this does happen, then you have actively demonstrated, without any theoretical discussion, that poetry is so non-threatening as to be possible to do without even realising!

Friday 3 January 2014

Tom Waits' 'Children's Story'

Welcome to my first blog post of 2014!

I began to get obsessed with Tom Waits when I went to see a production of Robert Wilson's The Black Rider as part of my A-level drama course. The libretto was written by William Burroughs (whom, as a Beat-loving teen I really wanted to like but couldn't really stomach) and the music was written by Tom Waits. I was immediately beguiled by the lilting melodies, and embarked upon a voyage to discover the entirety of Waits' back catalogue. I am something of a Tom Waits nerd. For those who are interested, my favourite pre-Island record is probably Blue Valentine; my favourite 'middle' period record is Rain Dogs (which is also my favourite overall), and my favourite from the latter years is probably Orphans, a sprawling three-disk album containing the above track, 'Children's Story'.

It may be that, through juxtaposing the innocence of the title with the bleakness of the content, Waits is going for irony. Indeed, Waits' mastery of dry humour is such that this interpretation may strike most as obvious, even banal. But if this is correct then something interesting is highlighted: the assumption that the story is, in reality, not for children at all.

I would dispute this. Aside from the term 'piss pot', which probably wouldn't appear in a children's story, I would argue that many children thrive on a dose of the macabre. I am reminded in particular of classics such as Heinrich Hoffman's Der Struwwelpeter and Edward Gorey's The Gashleycrumb Tinies, books which seem to rebel against the myth that childhood is a place of idyll and harmony. And this is a myth, a myth which, by adopting its ironic tone, Waits' track may be indirectly and unwittingly buying into.

Speaking for myself, I'm sure that, as a child, I would have enjoyed Waits' Children's Story, and it remains part of my aim as an author to dispute the pernicious misconception that childhood, by its very nature, is best depicted my multicoloured lambs gambolling in flowery fields.