This collection of 25 poems is richly varied in subject matter, tone and style, mixing silliness (‘Hamster Man’) with subtle storytelling (‘The Serpent and The Turtle’) and childhood realities (imaginary friends and scabs) with interplanetary vistas (‘Comet’, ‘New Moon’), whilst also creating space to give voice to big and difficult emotions (‘Bad Moods’, ‘The Demon Mouth’) at the same time as making us laugh a little mischievously (‘Little-Known Facts’) as we turn the pages.
Exuding a belief that young readers are curious about the world they live in, Kate Wakeling’s poems also give her audience a sense of power, of being able to navigate the world they (we) live in. Whether that’s through articulating the frustration and anger that can come on dark days, or through exploring the super powers children can have (even if the adults don’t know it), this wonderful collection is full of encouragement and interest.
Skilfully composed word play, drawing on taut rhythm and neat alliteration particularly within phrases, left me more often than not mouthing the poems out loud when I first read this anthology; I found myself simply enjoying making the shapes of the words and phrases with my mouth.
Although rhyme plays a big role in her armoury of skills, not many of Kate’s poems in this collection look like traditional verse with stanzas and rhyming couplets, and this – to my surprise – is something my eldest immediately picked up on.
“Yes, I don’t like rhyming poetry very much, Mum.”
“Oh really?” [sounding a bit worried, as when reading poetry out loud to my kids I often look for rhyming poetry because it makes it easier for me to find a rhythm and feel comfortable]
“Yes. Rhymes are really difficult to do. If I try to write poetry with lots of rhymes I just get fed up. These are good poems, these make me want to write poems.”
Now that’s a testament to a book of poetry, isn’t it?
There’s a focussed precision in much of Kate’s writing that turns many of her poems into sharp injections of humour or close observation. Her words are gently juxtaposed with black and white illustrations by the Latvian artist Elīna Brasliņa. Expressive, playful and good at making you re-read the poem to see another of its strands, they play an important role in making this book appealing and approachable – what we want for all books of course, but I’d argue that poetry books often have to jump especially high over these hurdles.
Now that’s enough of my words! I’d much rather let the poetry speak for itself, so here is the poem I chose for my kids to read today:
The Instructions by Kate Wakeling (Reproduced with permission from the author and publisher)
1. How to spot THE INSTRUCTIONS
THE INSTRUCTIONS come in all shapes and sizes.
They are often found in and around:
*Tall buildings with statues of lions outside
*Faces with an angry expression
*Faces with a smile seen only in the mouth but
(crucially) not in the eyes
2. The other instructions
There are plenty of other sorts of instructions, which can of course be useful.
*Try not to insert any part of your body into this pond: it contains an irritated crocodile
*For best results, keep both eyes open while landing this lopsided helicopter
*Do not under any circumstances eat the angry man’s sandwich
3. What THE INSTRUCTIONS want
You see, THE INSTRUCTIONS aren’t here to help you.
They want to help someone or something else.
THE INSTRUCTIONS say things like:
*No one’s ever done THAT before: it CAN’T be a good idea.
*Please do the SAME thing as all those OTHER people over THERE.
*Hear that person talking in the PARTICULARLY loud voice? They must DEFINITELY by RIGHT.
4. If you follow THE INSTRUCTIONS
If you follow THE INSTRUCTIONS it is unlikely anyone will ever be very cross with you.
If you follow THE INSTRUCTIONS you are guaranteed to feel neat and tidy (but also a little short of breath).
5. If you do not follow THE INSTRUCTIONS
You will likely face some tricky moments. Apologies for this.
However, there is also a good chance that something
6. The choice
I wanted to share this poem in particular with my kids because 2016 has been a year I’ve felt particularly disenfranchised and helpless, given the political events and ascendency of vitriol and selfishness. This was a poem that reminds me – and hopefully my kids – that even though things may be difficult, we can always choose better, kinder, and something with more hope.
Having read my thoughts on Moon Juice, and one of Kate’s great poems, let’s now here a bit from Kate herself:
Playing by the book: Isn’t it the most amazing thing to be able to write “Poet” in any form that requires you to fill in your occupation?! Can you share a little about how you became a poet?
Kate Wakeling: Ha, well I still feel very sheepish saying I’m a poet with a capital P. Much easier (and I hazard more useful?) to say I am someone who writes poems…
I took a while to find the confidence to write poetry as an adult (I realise if anyone else said that to me I’d just say: what are you waiting for? If you enjoy it, get on with it!). When I was small I wrote absolutely loads – poems, as well as long and painfully intricate diary entries – but then as an adult I got anxious about my writing being useless and so I stopped. A few years ago I started writing about music as part of my work and realised just how much I loved fiddling about with words on the page and this experience gave me the confidence to write about other things. So I started writing poems again. And this time I kept going.
Playing by the book:How do you work as a poet? Do you set aside ring-fenced time to sit down and write poetry? Or is it more a case of being flexible enough, and armed with enough notebooks, to capture the moment when inspiration strikes, wherever you are, with time at a desk later perhaps for editing?
Kate Wakeling: Interesting questions. Yes, I certainly almost always have my eyes and ears open for a poem. And sometimes I go out looking for one – heading off for a walk or sitting still somewhere busy or wandering round a place that interests me. And should an idea for a poem strike, I’ll write down my thoughts wherever I happen to be. I also try to spend time just writing absolutely anything that comes into my head in a great gabbled rush of words – I guess what’s sometimes called ‘automatic writing’ – and I find something intriguing or unexpected almost always emerges from this exercise. Then I make time to sit down, usually with one or two foggy ideas at the front of my mind, and with my notebook of gabbled words open on the table too, and I start writing.
Playing by the book:How much editing of your poems do you do? And what does that editing look like?
Kate Wakeling: I do absolutely loads of editing. Very occasionally I write a poem in a single, wild stride but almost all the time I go back and forth any number of times, fiddling with words, slashing lines, reinstating lines, fussing about the punctuation. I am quite a relentless person when I am interested by something and I also love working on small, intricate things: I imagine both these things have helped in my writing.
Playing by the book:You’re one of the few people who will know what I mean when I say I have a slenthem at home. Could you tell us a bit about the musical side to your life, how you ended up specialising in such an unusual set of instruments, and then perhaps a few words about how you see music and poetry being similar, and different.
Kate Wakeling: A fellow gamelan musician! Yes, I did a PhD about Balinese music and still play gamelan music (the gamelan is an ensemble of gongs, xylophones, drums and flutes. Hear some here!). I did lots of music at school and when I was at university I became interested in learning about others sorts of sounds beyond Western classical music. I got a travel grant to Indonesia (having seen a friend’s photograph of some beautiful Indonesian boats and deciding this was the place I wanted to visit) and I was spellbound – properly knocked out – by the music and dance of Java and Bali. So I found ways to keep learning about it and some years later ended up living in Bali for over a year as part of my PhD fieldwork. I learned to dance, played gamelan through the night at temple ceremonies and ate innumerable bright green cakes and spicy fishes.
I see music and poetry as both closely linked and totally distinct. Poetry shares so much with music in its being rooted in sound – the wondrous sound of words! But the play of sound and sense is what makes poetry so exciting for me: that each word carries its bag of possible meanings alongside its very distinct sound. Juggling sound and sense in a poem’s lines is perhaps my favourite bit about writing. I particularly like choosing a word only for its sound and then seeing how its sense might find a home in the poem all the same.
Playing by the book:Can you tell me a bit more about how some of your poems were recently set to music? How did this come about? What did you learn about your poems in the process?
Kate Wakeling: Some poems from ‘Moon Juice’ were set to music by the brilliant composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad in a song cycle called ‘The Thought Machine’ for two singers and a pianist. It came about through the Oxford Lieder Festival who wanted to commission a new work for children, to be performed alongside some children’s songs by the 19th-century German composer Robert Schumann.
I found it so joyful to hear these poems set as songs. Cheryl is such a sensitive composer (and human) and her music responded absolutely beautifully to the text – the songs were full of humour, emotion, colour and excitement. On hearing the cycle, I realised I spend a lot of time thinking about rhythm and pace and the length of vowel sounds and things like that when I write – and it initially felt strange when the music worked a little differently from how I expected a line to ‘sound’. It made me realise how conscious I am about the music of poems, but also that different people may of course ‘hear’ things quite differently on the page and that this is something to celebrate!
Playing by the book:What’s the most recent poem you’ve discovered that has brought you joy (or solace or hope)?
Kate Wakeling: As I’m sure lots of people do, I feel frightened and furious about the state of the world right now. I only very recently read this famous poem ‘The Waking’ by Theodore Roetkhe for the first time and found it so uplifting and steadying amid the miserable fog of things at the moment. I love how bold and mysterious it is. Yet I find its strange contradictions make a beautiful sort of sense, particularly in celebrating the power of experience.
Playing by the book: Thank you Kate! Congratulations on a marvellous collection of poetry. I am already looking forward to reading more – here’s to your NEXT book!
Moon Juice is published by The Emma Press, an independent poetry publisher based in Birmingham, UK, and I’m delighted that later in the month I’ll be sharing an interview with founder Emma Wright. Of the poetry she publishes, she’s said:
“I […] want to publish the kind of books you want to carry around in your pocket or handbag, to dip into on the train or while you’re waiting for the bus as well as have on your e-reader or phone like you would an mp3 of a favourite song. I want my books to be gorgeous and covetable like Medieval illuminated manuscripts, except without the gold leaf and hand-lettering because I can’t afford it. They’ll be on nice paper, though, with illustrations where appropriate and some sweet typography. I hope that other people like and enjoy them too.”
Doesn’t that sound BRILLIANT? So what are you waiting for? Go and track down a copy of Moon Juice right now 🙂 You won’t regret it.