Category Archives: 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.

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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”.’

Angie Thomas

‘Do they know it’s not August?’ both Offspring asked. They did. They being the Edinburgh International Book Festival. And bless them for having an extra event for us, in the dreary days of March, when it was so cold that I suspect Angie Thomas, whose event this was, wanted nothing more than to get back to Mississippi. ‘I can’t do cold weather,’ she said. Although it appears Scottish shortbread goes some way to pacify her.

Angie Thomas ticket

This event, where Angie spoke to poet Nadine Aisha Jassat, was very popular. People queued outside the Gordon Aikman lecture theatre in George Square before being let in. It was a predominantly female audience, mostly young ones, but a fair few unaccompanied adults too. This is testament to how well known this new American author has become, and how popular she is. I’m guessing most had read both her books, The Hate U Give and On the Come Up.

As one [black] fan in the audience pointed out, Edinburgh is not a very black city, or I’m sure there would have been a much larger proportion of black readers present. Angie’s books must be what they have all been waiting for. I would have, if only I’d known.

On this, her only Scottish gig, Angie said you should do what you’re scared of. She’s surprised that she’s now making a living lying, which she’d not been expecting when working as a church secretary in Mississippi, occasionally writing her novel at work. Like her two heroines, Starr and Bri, she grew up in a poor black area, going to a white school, having to live two different lives.

‘I respond to things’ is how she describes herself. She changed after a shooting of a young man in California, where everyone concentrated on the fact that he was an ex-con, rather than on the fact that he was lying on the ground and was shot in the back. So Angie wrote The Hate U Give to prevent herself from burning down her school in anger. And On the Come Up was written in response to that book.

Writing is cathartic, and she has inspired young people to write, which has empowered her. For many of them it has been a revelation to read a novel where ‘they talk like I talk, they sound like me.’ Angie pointed out that although her speech may sound simple, using words like ain’t, she has a GPA of just below 4, which is very high.

Angie wants people to remember that Trayvon Martin was a boy whose mother loved him. She also said that contrary to popular belief that black fathers are not part of their children’s lives, there are statistics that prove they are more than average involved. For Angie it’s important to concentrate on the people, not on the issues.

She feels that she can’t worry about what others think of her; it’s better to follow her heart. The best way to change the world, is to change the world around you.

And with that it was time for questions, and we were all very taken with the flying mic. It’s a soft – red – cube, that was chucked round the auditorium. It was hard not to hold your breath as you watched to see where it would land, and if its intended target was going to miss. First one out was someone I know, and it was one of many really good questions.

Angie Thomas, with Sheila

Angie feels that white Americans have stolen from the country by celebrating people like Dr [Martin Luther] King only after their deaths, especially when they were responsible for him dying. But she’s hopeful, feeling that the young of today are much more aware of issues. ‘The work has to start now.’

She has always made up stories, beginning by rewriting Green Eggs and Ham because she didn’t like the ending. At the age of eight she entertained her friends at school with cliffhangers. Her books need both the trauma and the triumph, which answered a question I’d had too. Subjects like fatal shootings don’t generally have much good about them, but Angie has inserted hope into her stories.

She loved Harry Potter. Those books ‘saved my life!’ And we could see that in The Hate U Give; it’s almost incongruous to have the famous wizard in a story about crime against black people in America. But it gives it recognisable reality (I know. They are books about magic), something nearly all of us know.

On the Come Up features hiphop, which when it’s good Angie describes as poetry. Luckily someone asked her to rap, which she did, long and well, to jubilant applause. (The sign interpreter in Newcastle the day before had had to give up halfway…)

Asked about her books being banned, Angie said that ‘the banned book list is a great list’ to be on. Americans always want to read more of banned books.

At first Angie hadn’t been sure it was OK to write the way she did, so she asked an agent on Twitter, which is how she got herself an agent, and how her debut novel had 13 US publishers fighting to get it. Another five in the UK. Her very sensible editor tells her that she needn’t worry about how she writes; she should stick to being authentic, and if white readers don’t get it, they can Google. There are apparently a number of in-jokes in both books…

Angie Thomas

We could easily have done another hour. As it was, Angie had a plane to catch, but there was time for some signing downstairs. At first I wondered why so many fans went to the toilet instead, until I realised the signing queue went down to that level and then round and up the other stairs, and initially back outside as well.

I chatted briefly to a friend before going in search of Dodo and Son for some tea. When we’d failed to get into our first two choices of café, and walked back behind the lecture theatre, the queue was still going strong.

Angie Thomas

I’d say that was one successful event. Even if it was in March.

Recruitment of authors…

I don’t mean that, of course.

Apart from the fact that I realised I’d not been invited to the Chicken House Big Breakfast 2019, I was really pleased to find this YouTube clip from that Witch-free event.

I’m still a bit surprised that Maz Evans is a girl. I tend to think of her as a boy, but of course she’s a girl. One of those authors paid 8%. She’s the kind who writes her own books (unlike some, who are not named).

This is a poetic, not to mention humorous, speech. There should be more like that. Maz tells it like it is.

Next time, invite me. I can always say no. (I didn’t, did I?) Or it could take place in Central Scotland.