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Wednesday 20 March 2019

Guest Post: Alexa Moses on Playing With Poetry

When I was younger, poetry seemed as stultifying as a hot church on a summer’s afternoon. Poetry had nothing to do with me and I wanted nothing to do with it. At its worst, poetry meant being recited lines I didn’t understand by a bristling adult who used a sonorous ‘poetry’ voice.

Turns out, I was wrong about poetry.

Walk past any school playground at lunchtime and you might hear something like this:

‘Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack,
All dressed in black, black, black …’

Or go to a sporting match:

‘We are the Wanderers, couldn’t be prouder!
If you can’t hear us, we’ll shout a little louder!

Or listen to rappers like Kendrick Lamar, Missy Elliott and Jay-Z. Or watch the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team perform their haka.

There’s poetry bouncing all around us, even if we don’t categorise it as such.

Image accreditation Alice Achterhof

Poetry is an artform where words are arranged for rhyme and sound as much as for meaning. It’s ancient and sits on the continuum between prose and music. Although it’s often written, it doesn’t need to be because poetry is like auditory ice-cream: it hooks the part of our brain that responds to music.

Which is why poetry is effective in ad jingles, sports chants, clapping games and mnemonics to recall fiddly concepts.

'Thirty days has September,
April, June and November…'

(Did you mentally finish that poem?)

This ‘auditory ice-cream’ characteristic of poetry makes it the perfect tool to get kids playing with language.

When I go into a classroom, my goal is to get kids to love writing. I want them to feel as if they own their language. I want them to mess with words as if they’d been left alone in a studio with pots of paint, hunks of clay, a forest of brushes and stacks of paper and invited to go wild. I’m happiest when students are absorbed in making with words.

Why am I such an evangelist for the power of poetry? See, I’m a children’s author and I’ve always considered myself a writer of prose. So when I wrote poems for an anthology called A Boat of Stars, edited by Margaret Connolly and Natalie Jane Prior, it was the first time I’d written poetry since I was a kid. Writing those poems transported me to a place of joy and creative play I was finding harder and harder to access when I sat down to work. Because of this experience, my latest book, Bat vs Poss, is a picture book unapologetically written in rhyme.

When I run poetry workshops in the classroom, I make these points.

· Poems are usually shorter than stories, but not always. There are one-word poems and book-length poems. There are no rules.

· The sound of the words matters as much as the meaning. Fiddle with unusual sounds and words. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

· Your poem may or may not rhyme. I don’t care and you shouldn’t either.

· Poems can be about anything: friendship, sports, weird pizza toppings, your favourite pair of shoes, the sting of rejection, being nervous in drama class. Whatever you like.

· If your poem doesn’t work, you can always chuck it aside and write something else.

Sometimes I use a whiteboard and write a quick collective poem with a student group. Sometimes we rhyme, sometimes we don’t. In the same spirit of experiment, students write their own poetry. Older kids can have fun with more formal poetry structures like acrostics of their names, haikus, and diamond-shaped poems if they’re inspired by them.

I firmly believe that reading and writing poetry is transformative. Instead of stumbling blocks, words become tools with which to construct fantastical space-stations or cosy houses for mice or whatever else sparks the imagination.

The trick is to show kids that they, too, can play with poetry without sweating it too much.

Alexa Moses is an author, TV writer and yes, a poet. She likes cooking, dogs, going to the gym and arguing. She has strong opinions about chocolate-chip hot cross buns and apostrophes. Her latest book, Bat vs Poss, is out through Hachette. and she can be found at alexamoses.com.