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Wednesday 30 July 2014

Workshop Idea - One Word Poems

One of the great things about poems, I think, is that they can be extremely short. A fun idea for a writing warm up, or even for a short workshop session, is to come up with one word poems. Yes, such a thing can be done! Here is one by Roger Stevens, published in his recent anthology Off By Heart, in which - ahem - I also have a poem:

A Poem That Despite Being Only One Word Long, Can Sometimes Make a Crowd be Quiet, and can be Easily Understood by a Baby


Now of course the poems isn't really only one word, because it has an elaborate title. Calling it a 'one-word poem' is therefore a sort of joke. The workshop challenge, then, is to think of a word to serve as your one-word poem, and to give it a long, interesting title. Here are some of my own examples:

A Poem That My Mum and Dad Recite When My Sister And I Ask Them If We Can Get a Puppy


A Poem That, For Some Reason, Can Make Rather Immature Children, and Some Adults, Laugh


The trick here is not simply to parrot a dictionary definition of the word; it is to think of a funny, interesting way in which that word plays a part in your life. It might help if you provide a list of potential words for children to use as their one-word poems. Here is a quick sample, just off the top of my head:

- Yes
- No
- Maybe
- Quiet!
- Ouch
- Yum
- Wah!

Monday 28 July 2014

Addicted To Chicken

When I visit schools, especially secondary and older primary, the kids often profess their love, sometimes their undying love, for chicken. Indeed, one school I visited banned their students from visiting the local chicken shop, such was their rowdiness in their pursuit of the good stuff. With this in mind, I read an article in the paper the other day about how children are quite literally becoming addicted, physically addicted, to chicken. Now there is no possible world in which I pass this up as an opportunity for a poem. Thus, please find below a new piece, 'Addicted To Chicken'. I am posting it here rather than on my website because I'm not really sure how well it sits on the page. It is certainly intended primarily as a comic performance piece, perhaps even a rap. At any rate, I hope y'all enjoy!

Addicted To Chicken

Squawk! Squawk!
I’m addicted to chicken!
Squawk! Squawk!
I’m addicted to chicken!
Squawk! Squawk!
I'm addicted to chicken!

My brow starts sweating and pulse starts to quicken

Nobody knows the pleasure I feel
At the thought of a greasy fried chicken meal
I pass the chicken shop and my heart skips a beat
I'll eat the freaky creature from the beak to the feet
I’ll slurp the luscious legs and the wicked, wicked wing
For chicken is my life, it’s my everything, coz

Squawk! Squawk!
I’m addicted to chicken!
Squawk! Squawk!
I’m addicted to chicken!
Squawk! Squawk!
I'm addicted to chicken!

My teeth are chewin’ and my tongue is lickin’

I’ll have it with some coke and I’ll have it with some chips
I’ll have it with some sauce that oozes and drips
I’ll have it with my friends, they’re as crazy as me
And we’ll have a little party at KFC
So listen to me now as I spread my wicked word
There’s nothing I won’t do for a bit of battered bird, coz

Squawk! Squawk!
I’m addicted to chicken!
Squawk! Squawk!
I’m addicted to chicken!
Squawk! Squawk!
I'm addicted to chicken!

My chin starts to double and my waist starts to thicken

When I see a chicken burger I really wanna hug it
My brain is turning into a giant chicken nugget
I’m gonna move my bed down to the chicken shop
So even when I go to sleep I won’t have to stop
I’m gonna swap my clothes for a piece of chicken skin
Get a funnel for my mouth to drop the chicken in
In fact I’ll hook a drip right up to my veins
For the chicken lickin’ life’s got me goin’ insane, coz

Squawk! Squawk!
I’m addicted to chicken!
Squawk! Squawk!
I’m addicted to chicken!
Squawk! Squawk!
I’m addicted to chicken!

Squawk! Squawk!
I’m addicted to CHICKEN!  

Sunday 27 July 2014

Day and Night - Workshop Idea (& Poem) for KS2/3

Day and Night

In the day
I haul myself from the warmth of my sheets
and yawn as I take a shower.
I have a quick breakfast, then put
my poems into my backpack.
On my way to school I worry about
whether the kids will like me;
whether the new poem I’ve written
will make them laugh,
and whether the teacher
will invite me back.
Some kids laugh
and some kids don’t.
On my way back home I think about
all the things I could have done
differently. I bury my mind
in the pages of a book,
eat supper and go to bed.

At night
I shower in laughter and money.
I have a thousand doughnuts
for breakfast, and never get fat.
Every poem I write brings joy
to children across the globe,
and causes countries
to lay down their arms.
Teachers queue twice
around the world
to invite me to their schools.
At night there is no such thing
as regret.
Every cloud is the hug of a parent.
Every thunderclap is a round of applause,
and every drop of rain
is a funny joke. 
Firstly, I hope you enjoyed this poem. When writing it I faced something of a dilemma: should I write the poem from 'my' point of view, or from the point of view of a child? Much of my poetry takes place from the latter point of view, or at least blurs the distinction, but the above poem very much adopts the perspective of a fully-grown, adult poet. The 'I' of the above poem is not a child, or pseudo-child. I'm sure this is a very important issue within the realm of children's poetry, and children's literature generally, but I'm not sure whether here is the best place to discuss it. What I would say is that I hope the resultant sense of 'authenticity' acts as a spur for the children's own writing. What I would like to do now is to outline an idea for a poetry workshop, based on some of the ideas in my poem.

  • Warm Up

Each student writes a 'timeline' of a typical day. They can include the events that occur, and how they feel about them. Each student could aim to jot down five such events, which span the space between getting up and going to bed.

  • Poem Sharing and Discussion

Share my poem 'Night and Day' (above) with the students. Discuss the difference between what happens 'in the day' and what happens 'at night'. Is one true and the other false? What kind of language have I used towards the end of the poem?

  • Poem Writing

Using the ideas generated in the warm up, students write their own 'Night and Day' poems. The key idea here is to contrast reality with the imagination; to juxtapose the mundane with the fantastical, and to reify the dreams, ambitions and desires that the students have. I hope this exercise shows that poetry can encompass both the real and the imaginary, and can blur and question the distinction between the two. As ever, enjoy!

Wednesday 23 July 2014

The Nasty Box - workshop idea for all ages

I have lost count of the number of times I've visited schools to discover that the children have been using Kit Wright's famous poem 'The Magic Box' as a model for their own writing. The poem is very well suited to this, filled as it is with rich imagery wrapped up in a scaffold that is very easy and enjoyable to mimic. But why not go for something a little more original, or at least give children the option of going in a different direction? Instead of a magic box filled with wonder, why not have a 'nasty box' filled with bad stuff? This has the advantage of maintaining the helpful scaffolding whilst at the same time fostering a sense of mischievousness in subverting the original piece. 

In my poem 'The Nasty Box' below, I have maintained Wright's structure, whilst changing the nature of the box. 

The Nasty Box

I will put in the box

the bark of a dog, keeping me awake at night,
lava from the mouth of an angry volcano
the graze on my knee from when I fell over.

I will put in the box

a snowball filled with bits of dirt,
a fizzy drink that’s gone warm and flat,
a stomach ache and a trip to the doctor.

I will put in my box

the deafening taunts of a thousand bullies,
a snarling teacher with sharpened fangs,
the red crosses on my failed homework.

My box is fashioned from decaying bark
with fungus on the lid and ants in the corner.
Its hinges are the knuckles terrible ogres.

I shall bury my box
deep in the bowels of a dense forest
where, like a lost tribe,
it will never be discovered.

As ever, I'd start by getting children to write a list of bad things, perhaps memories, people they find annoying, or things they find ugly, distasteful or scary. I would then introduce Wright's poem, and compare it with my own above, before letting the children loose on their own pieces. 

Please note that there are many famous poems that can be subverted in this way. Another great example could be Adrian Henri's poem 'Love Is'. Why not get children to write a poem called 'Hate Is'. I personally find the latter much more fun!

Wednesday 16 July 2014

Poetry as Escapism

There are many ways people deal with depression. Anyone familiar with my poetry and other writing, or indeed my style of performing, teaching and workshop leading, might be hard pressed to find signs that I have suffered from, and to varying degrees continue to suffer from, depression. There are a handful of places that might yield some clues: I acknowledged it in one of my first blog posts, and some of my poems contain a dark edge that I hope distinguishes me from the plethora of exclusively humorous and whimsical children's poets, but the truth is that signs of my condition may not be obvious to those who know me primarily in my capacity as a poet.

One of the reasons for this is because, working as a self-employed freelancer, I haven't really had a 'boss' or 'colleagues' for whom this information is necessary. On the thankfully very rare occasions when I have been unable to undertake an assignment, I have been able to pass this off as being down to some other more mundane, less awkward form of illness. In any case, I almost always find that getting out of the house and my mind and into a school to work with children helps my mood. If people see me at all they almost always see me on a 'good' day, and working as a peripatetic poet (how's that for alliteration!) means that I seldom spend long enough in any one place to be anything other than the high-octane entertainer those places have paid for. Which suits me well, I think.

Another reason is that, the aforementioned dark edge aside, much of my poetry is light-hearted, even a little bit silly. Since dabbling with confessional, angst-ridden poetry as a teenager - which yielded some of the most truly execrable writing ever produced by humankind, I should add - I have tended to shy away from writing anything that hits me too close to the bone. There are again exceptions, notably a piece I have used with teenagers, which is reprinted at the end of this blog entry, and this piece, which ended up getting the most 'likes' out of anything I've ever posted on Facebook. (Because that is of course the most important way in which popularity is measured nowadays.)

I have tended to avoid writing overtly about feeling depressed in part because, when writing is used primarily for catharsis, it is very easy to write badly. Or it is easy for me, anyway. But a more important reason, a reason that strikes firmly at the heart of who I am as a poet, is because I tend to view poetry, both in terms of writing and consuming, as a kind of escapism. This means that depression is integral to who I am as a poet, but that this manifests itself in ways that are not obvious. When I am feeling really low, for example, I usually find that it serves me better to write a funny poem about Dracula than it does to reflect on the injustices I perceive myself to suffer. Similarly, I almost always find watching stand-up comedy, or a poet like John Hegley or Tim Key, preferable to watching poets who wear their hearts on their sleeves (some of whom, like Shane Koyczan, I find emotionally unbearable in their intensity). Absolutely none of this is to elevate one mode of expression above any other. None of this is to pass judgment on what other people enjoy or find worthwhile; it is not even to say that I don't myself see the often transformative worth in a lot of the more hard-hitting, confessional life-writing that people call 'Spoken Word'. It is simply to say that, in my capacity as a depressive,  it is fun children's poetry that really hits at my core. It is that which gets me out of bed (and occasionally keeps me out). And coming up with a nifty piece of alliteration, finding interesting synonyms, playing about with rhyme-schemes, finding a funny punchline - these are the things that, to borrow a phrase from my teenage musings, 'salve my wounded soul'. As does writing about it in this blog entry.

Thanks for your time.

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 crate 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,
and 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

Tuesday 15 July 2014

Workshop Idea KS1 - Repetition

First off, here's a little poem based on my (sort of) namesakes:


seagulls, seagulls
swirling, swooping

seagulls, seagulls

seagulls, seagulls,
screeching, squalling

seagulls, seagulls

seagulls, seagulls,
flapping, flocking

seagulls, seagulls
madly mocking

seagulls, seagulls
doing dips

seagulls, seagulls
stealing chips!

This poem can be used to model REPETITION. Perhaps aided by a series of pictures, ask the children to pick an animal, and to come up with as many verbs and action phrases as possible to describe the sorts of things that animal does. So for example, a lion might prowl, pounce, gobble zebras, scare other animals, etc.

Next, think of a phrase to be repeated. In my example above this is simply the name of the animal. Once a phrase has been decided upon, simply slot in the verbs after each iteration, like so:

lion, lion
pouncing, prowling

lion, lion, 
gobbling zebras

lion, lion,
scaring creatures

Needless to say, there are any number of variations this could take. It could rhyme, but it definitely doesn't have to. It could be done with adjectives instead of verbs, or both. It could be done in groups, in pairs, or individually. It could be done using animals or something else - modes of transport perhaps. The important thing here is the use of a repeated phrase as a kind of 'coat hanger' on which to hang the rest of the poem. Enjoy!