Category Archives: Poetry

Kiss and Part

I’d never heard of the Hosking Houses Trust, or the village of Clifford Chambers, and I’m guessing neither have you. The trust provides women writers with a “room of one’s own” where they can write in peace. And as such places require funding, they have commissioned a short story collection from past incumbents, and that’s Kiss and Part.

This is great fun to read and not in the slightest as worthy as it might sound. The introduction is by Margaret Drabble, and the list of authors has some names more famous than others on it, and all have contributed something original, something that connects with the cottage and the village.

Kiss and Part

We meet Shakespeare. After all, it’s more or less in his backyard. There is poetry. There are long stories and shorter ones, and they are all interesting in their own way.

I especially enjoyed The Incumbent by Elizabeth Speller, where I was at first annoyed by the seemingly narrow-minded narrator, but grew to understand her and to sympathise, and the ending is a masterpiece.

The stories are all different, as are their authors, and the fascinating aspect is how they all connect to the same place, while still being so diverse. They mirror literature today, showing us quality while proving this doesn’t have to be in just the one style.

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Too tired to haiku

You know how it is with those subject lines in your inbox? Whatever it was you started discussing, it follows you around, even when you’ve moved onto something quite different.

I emailed Theresa Breslin about something, and then back, and back again, we went. Until she declared she was ‘tired’ of me being ‘tired’ in the subject line, and she was going to write a poem. As you do.

Since I don’t go on Twitter as often as others, it was pure chance that I discovered Theresa’s Haiku.

Theresa Breslin haiku

I have absolutely no idea what it is about. Am I dead? Or is there bird poo?

But I’m impressed that I could ‘inspire’ some inbox poetry.

Writing Rhythm

It’s odd. First, I don’t read that much poetry, or go to poetry events. And then in quick succession I found myself in the Spark theatre for poetry, two events running. Also, out of five poets, three are American. But they explained that poetry is big in the US, in a way it’s not in the UK.

Jason Reynolds and Amy McKay

Chaired by Amy McKay, whose flamingo skirt I couldn’t help noticing at the first event (about flamingos), she’d moved on to an equally stunning daisy skirt. And as she said in her introduction of Sarah Crossan, Kwame Alexander and Jason Reynolds; ‘we are really spoiling you this afternoon.’ They really were. She also knew not to waste time on listing all the great stuff the three have done.

Kwame Alexander

For some reason I’d not realised Kwame wasn’t British, but he’d just moved to London six days earlier, so I was almost right. Brixton has changed in 28 years, apparently. He read his new ‘picture book’ The Undefeated to us, showing the audience the illustrations while he recited his own poems by heart.

This impressed Sarah Crossan, the current Irish Laureate na nÓg, because she can’t remember hers. Maybe it depends on which side of the Atlantic you’re from. She chose to read about Marla and Toffee, the young and the old, and no one listens to either.

Sarah Crossan

And I finally got to ‘meet’ Jason Reynolds, whom I’d not heard of two years ago when I met someone who enthused about him a great deal. At first he gave a fair impression of a sullen teenager while the other two spoke, but once it was his turn,  he sprang to life and you could see why people admire him so much. He mentioned the weather [in the tent], before moving on to gun violence, and talking about how we ‘strap monikers to children so we won’t have to call them children.’

Jason Reynolds

So, anyway, poems are cool in America. Sarah was in luck, writing her first novel while living in the US. According to Kwame poetry is big, but he reckons the publishers don’t know much. He mentioned the impact of Walter Dean Myers, the hero in Love That Dog. Verse novels is quite a new thing, but ‘the kids were already there.’

Sarah is ‘impressed by myself’ and keeps anything she’s written, but edited out, in case she can slot poems in where they are needed. Kwame had many nice poems, but they didn’t go together, so he rewrote.

Jason said ‘it’s my job to keep the rhythm,’ and according to Kwame ‘when it works, the reader forgets it is poetry.’ And he told Sarah that she needs to learn to ‘own her own work.’ She felt that sounded like therapy, and very American.

Sarah Crossan

Kwame went on to mention the American ‘call and response’ to poetry, which is clearly what Elizabeth Acevedo was busy doing a couple of days before, when Dean Atta read from his book. Sarah doesn’t want to manipulate the readers, but Kwame is ‘totally into manipulating’ them… You need to make the world better, and it’s his responsibility to make you feel something. Jason said he’s somewhere between the other two, and manipulation is a dangerous word. ‘I just wanna bear witness.’

Someone in the audience mentioned that with verse novels you don’t have to write the boring bits, which made Kwame quote a secondary school pupil who had described it as ‘the right words in the right order.’

Jason Reynolds

Jason pointed out that writing poetry is like painting with only half a palette, which is harder; ‘really difficult.’ Sarah feels that writing is very democratic, and you only need pen and paper. And it helps if you don’t go to the cinema, don’t have any friends and if you work hard.

Kwame, ‘I steal a lot. Mature writers steal.’

And that was it. The main problem with the event was that it was too short. We could have done with at least another hour. Maybe two. It’s all that poetry, with so few words.

Speaking Up

Elizabeth Acevedo and Dean Atta

Dean Atta loved ‘Elizabeth Acevedo’s brother,’ and she in turn loved ‘his uncle.’ That’s their fictional family members. I reckon these two could easily have chatted to/interviewed each other in the Speaking Up event on Thursday. As Elizabeth said when her awards were listed, ‘this isn’t awkward at all!’

They are both debut authors, writing in verse. Elizabeth won the Carnegie Medal this year for Poet X, while Dean’s first book has only been in the shops a week. I’d like to think that’s why I’d not heard of it, or him.

I like the sound of it, though, and The Black Flamingo looks fantastic in pink. It features a black, gay character, who never got that Barbie he wanted at six. And when he’s an adult he starts doing drag, just like Dean. The idea behind the black flamingo is that colour doesn’t matter. Dean read short extracts from the book, covering several age stages of his character. Elizabeth kept nodding and murmuring her approval throughout, which proves how differently a novel in verse comes across.

Elizabeth Acevedo

In Elizabeth’s reading she gave her character Xiomara a rather different accent than I’d been expecting. Done like this it would make for a great audiobook. She said she’d had no choice about writing poetry, having been ‘forced to sing to plants’ at the age of five, and realising the following day that she didn’t remember what she’d made up, because she couldn’t write. ‘Poetry is being aware of your thoughts.’

She said she used to be so nervous reading in front of people that her hands shook and she couldn’t see what was on the paper, which led her to learning the words by heart. This made her confidence grow. Elizabeth pointed out that you can look at global leaders and see if they read poetry. Or read at all. Empathy makes us human.

Dean Atta

Dean said it was important for him to have a gay main character. He had read books featuring black characters before, but felt that Poet X was special. His next books are two picture books, written for his nieces. And he’s been inspired by his mother, and by Maya Angelou. Teachers can help with confidence boosting by sharing their own problems, such as dyslexia.

Elizabeth’s inspiration comes from hiphop; people who don’t conform. Her next book will actually be in prose, as it was written before Poet X. ‘Big prose,’ she calls it. Reading a lot could help make boys softer [in a good way].

The final question from someone in the audience was a request for Dean to come to her school and do a workshop. Let’s hope he does!

(Photos by Helen Giles)

The 2019 Carnegie and Greenaway medalists

Carnegie/Greenaway 2019

Congratulations to Elizabeth Acevedo and Jackie Morris for their new medals! Much deserved.

Jackie Morris and Elizabeth Acevedo

Poetry and fascism

Michael Rosen poem

I found this poem by Michael Rosen on his Facebook page last week. It has appeared on his own blog several times, and been used or quoted in many other places online, so I trust Michael doesn’t mind me putting it here as well.

We need to read about this. It is both so simple and so true, and much more so than five years ago when he first published it.

Strictly speaking it might not have to do with refugees – during what’s World Refugee Week – but then again, maybe it does.

We need people like Michael Rosen. People who can put into simple words what we are facing right now.

A new laureate

At first I was a little disappointed that Imtiaz Dharker declined becoming our next poet laureate. I half felt I knew her – after a meeting over a signing table! – so that would have been good. Another woman, and one from an outsider kind of background. But I can see why she felt she couldn’t accept.

Carol Ann Duffy has over the years become a very familiar figure, through our shared Manchester connection, MMU and the Edinburgh Book Festival.

But Simon Armitage is the next best thing. At least he will be when I can manage to remember his name and not call him Richard. We have a ‘connection’ to Simon as well. Daughter really liked his poetry at school, so I bought tickets for us to see him at the Manchester Literature Festival one year. We got as far as our home station, by which I mean the platform opposite the former Bookwitch Towers. There we decided not to go after all, so turned round and trotted home again.

[According to the Guardian] it seems that Simon comes from a witty family. His parents burst into tears when they heard the news about him being the new poet laureate. ‘I got a text from my dad later saying “We’ve stopped crying now. — If your grandad had been alive today, this would have killed him”.’