This is the sight that will greet my children this morning as they come into the kitchen.
It doesn’t contain chocolate, but it is filled with fun, laughter, treats and just the odd moment or two of reflection. It is our very own Poe-tree calendar for December.
Inside each envelope, one for every day of this month, the kids will find a poem I’ve selected specially for them.
Whilst this year has certainly seen me read more poetry than perhaps ever before (helped by inspirational meetings with poets Joseph Coelho, Rachel Rooney and Dom Conlon at different times), selecting the poetry for our calendar was still a not insignificant challenge.
With what felt like a scant knowledge of poems, and an even less well developed understanding of what I think makes a good poem, I scoured our shelves and brought together all the poetry books I could find, ordered a couple more, emptied the 821 shelf at our public library and started a few weeks of marvellous reading. It was an education and a delight (and also a salve for times when the news made me feel without hope) to really immerse myself in poetry.
As I read, I gathered poetry I thought would especially appeal to my kids, whether on topics of interest to them, or with a sense of humour that I knew would make them giggle and slowly I found myself with a sheaf of 31 incredible poems.
Reading so many poetry anthologies in a short space of time, I started to develop quite strong feelings about how poetry collections work best for me. I like it when each poem turns out to be strung on invisible thread joined to the next, almost like fairy lights; a gentle illumination on that which it follows and precedes, with the juxtaposition giving me new perspectives. Some anthologies do this better than others, and whilst I’m sure some poetry books are never read cover to cover (but rather dipped in an out of as if we readers were herons looking for tasty slivers of silver), when a clever placement of poems next to one another is made, it adds a whole layer I had previously only been theoretically aware of. Poetry editors may despair at my naivety – but I’m being this honest by way of encouragement to other parents, grandparents and curious adults who may not be confident about sharing poetry with the children in their lives.
All this to say, once I had my 31 poems I had great fun deciding what order to place them in, thinking which poems might sprinkle yet further magic dust on others, already sparkling with beauty or wit or downright silliness.
Once I knew the order I wanted my selection to go in, I had to decide how the children would discover each poem. I loved the idea of the kids scratching off silver baubles to reveal the hidden poetry – using this tutorial for home-made scratch off lottery tickets. I liked the idea of hiding poems in a forest like this one from Willow Day (or possibly this one from Your DIY Family). Hanging the poems off a tree would have been ideal (like this, or using this as inspiration). The tree form of these calendar, using planks, match boxes or beautiful paper all appealed hugely, but in the end simplicity (and space saving) won out; each poem was simply popped in a numbered envelope…
…and these were arranged in a tree shape on the back of our kitchen door.
Over the coming month I shall be sharing with you as many of the poems in our calendar as possible (where permission has been granted to reproduce them), reviewing poetry collections, interviewing poets and editors, and otherwise doing all I can to spread the joy, not just with my kids but also with you.
The poem my children will discover inside the No. 1 envelope today is taken from a forthcoming poetry collection, Where Zebras Go by Sue Hardy-Dawson (out next February) and I’m delighted that Sue and her publishers have agreed to let me share it with you too today:
What an apt poem for our own poe tree!
Apart from developing opinions on anthologisation, in the past few weeks’ I’ve also developed a much better awareness of what I think makes a great poetry collection (whether an anthology, or all by the same poet). I look for variety, for descriptions and perspectives which help me and my children see the world and ourselves in new, interesting yet authentic ways, for playfulness (with language or form or subject matter), for poems on topics which speak to us as individuals with different interests and experiences of the world, and always, always: simply great writing, where language seems natural yet fresh, where poetic devices such as rhyme and rhythm do not result in stumbling but rather act like extraordinary, almost subliminal, musicality that helps the poem sing into your head. A great collection – for me – will have many poems, and certainly the majority, that do some or all of these things.
And Where Zebras Go is indeed a great collection.
Inside its pages you’ll find many shape poems (where the words of the poem are arranged in a shape reflecting the poem’s theme or subject) sometimes with added hand-drawn embellishments, stressing how playful poetry can be. Many of these poems are about animals (both wild and domestic), although poems about mermaids and fireworks also embrace the possibilities that come with reading poems on a page.
Many a time I found myself seeing old familiar things as if for the first time, either due to unexpected yet wonderful descriptions (such as ‘cobwebs will drip chandeliers’ in ‘Fog Warning’), or because of shifted – and therefore liberating – perspectives (such as in ‘When I was Famous’, about a child’s growing awareness of how adults’ interest in them can change over time).
Poems about poetry and figurative language, re-imagined fairy tales, planets (including our own) and the weather also feature, and there’s a welcome mix of poems that work best read silently off the page in one’s head, as well as some that would be enormous fun to read out loud, perhaps in a group, such as ‘Sludge Bog Stew’. With poems that invite you to explore other poets (such as ‘Ugly Sister Sonnet’ and ‘Motorway poem’), this book looks outwards and works well as a starting point on a poetry journey – part of the reason I have chosen to start my month-long celebration of children’s poetry with it.
A strong sense of inventive joy and verbal beauty characterise Where Zebras Go. Remarkably, this is Sue Hardy-Dawson’s début solo collection (although many of her poems can be found in anthologies, including one I’ll be reviewing later this month – A Poem for Every Night of the Year) and as such leaves me excited and hopeful. I know my kids and I will eagerly be looking out for more of her work in the future.