Articles

What I do*

I take performance poetry into nurseries and primary schools, delivering performances and workshops to children aged from 3 – 11.

A ‘usual’ day in school will consist of two performances: 40 minutes with KS1 and 35 minutes with KS2 children, in the school hall. This usually brings us up to break (approx 10.30am) and leaves time for three one hour workshops during the remainder of the morning and afternoon. Each workshop is suitable for up to 30 pupils, with at least one permanent member of school staff present throughout. I also have poetry suitable for nursery aged children and can include a short performance for them if required depending on the timetable for the day.

Most of the poems that I perform were written with the 2004 National Literacy Strategy in mind. I wrote a number of formal poems that would act as examples of some of the different styles required by the literacy strategy e.g. Limericks; narrative verse; villanelles; poems with repeated refrains and list poems, to name a few. This may sound a little stifling, but I certainly didn’t let it hinder my imagination or creativity, and I make no apology for the fact that most of my poems rhyme and take on a formal structure. I like this sort of poetry; it’s also easier to remember, which is a bonus when you’re performing from memory!

The whole point of what I do is to keep children switched on to words and poetry and for teachers to see that the fun that can be had with poetry can be built upon; poetry and rhyme are useful tools for literacy. On another note, I do recall being told by a maths teacher that children who have a good ear for rhythm and rhyme in poetry are usually better at maths.

I always like to bring a bit of mayhem into school especially seeing as poetry and writing are often thought of as dull. I always ask the pupils what they did and didn’t like about the performance and I always stress that it’s fine to dislike things as long as you can give good reasons. Poems and poets come in all shapes and sizes, but sometimes you do have to concede that poetry is not everyone’s cup of tea, which is fine. If nothing else, I at least try to get children talking in a critical way about what they have seen and heard.

For certain workshops I get the children to work in groups for both the writing and performance; the teachers can then expand on what we’ve done in class if they want the children to write individually on the themes I’ve introduced. Although it was never my intention, I have found that the workshops are a good exercise in team work, and teachers are often surprised to see some of their most timid pupils finding the confidence to stand up and perform their work for the rest of the group. I always do my best to encourage everyone and to accentuate the positive; I’m not there to assess the children – it’s my intention that children leave the workshop associating poetry, words and writing with having fun. It’s so easy for children to become switched off by writing, and that really is tragic.

For KS1 children, the challenge of the workshops is to get children writing independently and working as a team so I keep it very simple. Action poems are always popular and provide an opportunity to introduce verbs, simple rhymes and beats. Another one of my ‘greatest hits’ is ‘Everybody Everywhere Stomp Your Feet’ which is a very basic action poem that can also be performed with a dance beat. This has proved a huge hit from nursery aged children right through to Year 6. I’ll grant you that it wasn’t the most challenging poem to write, but it’s a good ice breaker and also makes the point that a lot of poems are merely song lyrics. Sometimes it’s the removal of the word ‘poetry’ that is required to get children to entertain the idea that they can be poets too. Here’s a sample chorus and verse from ‘Everybody Everywhere…’


Everybody Everywhere Stomp Your Feet

Everybody everywhere stomp your feet,

Wave your hands in the air if you like sweets,

Flap your wings like a bird that goes “Tweet tweet!”

Everybody everywhere stomp your feet!

Everybody everywhere bang a drum,

Everybody everywhere chew some gum,

Everybody everywhere wave to Mum,

Everybody everywhere rub your tum.


I think that a big problem with poetry is that it has a mystique about it; it even gets to the teachers, many of whom are terrified by the prospect of teaching the required units of poetry. A lot of my poems are of the grubby gross-out type that lots of children like e.g ‘Scabby Knees’. I use this poem to introduce the notion of ‘write about what you know’ which hopefully makes writing easier those who don’t perceive themselves to be talented or imaginative writers. Some people may argue that scabby knees are unsuitable as a topic for poetry, but the children really relate to it – here’s a short excerpt:

Scabby Knees

Scabby knees! Scabby knees!

Can I pick them, can I please?

They’re so itchy, brown and scratchy,

Crusty, flaky and quite nasty,

Like burnt pastry on a pasty,

If I pick them Mum might catch me.

Chorus

Scabby knees! Scabby knees!

Can I pick them, can I please?

Can I scratch them, can I pick them?

Can I pull bits off and flick them?

I have used this poem as a model for children to write and perform their own poems, something that was a requirement for year 5 in the 2004 National Curriculum when I began writing children’s poetry. The curriculum has moved on and now features a unit specifically on performance poetry, so I have been able to put many of my poems to good use as models for writing. I also perform some of the poems with backing tracks which act as an added incentive for the children to perform; the girls usually want to add some dance moves, and the boys like to show off with a spot of break dancing and beat boxing! Well, it is PERFORMANCE poetry.

By way of a contrast to the arguably vulgar ‘Scabby Knees’ type of poetry, I also do a workshop based on a poem called ‘Memory Beach’.


Memory Beach

At weekends, on holidays, in all sorts of weather,

With swimsuits and wellies we go to the beach,

With buckets of upside-down sand we build castles,

And dig moats around them that fill up with sea.


We gather dry starfish as brittle as biscuits,

Driftwood sandpapered and washed by the waves;

Pebbles, glass smooth, shaped by years in the ocean,

We sift through the flotsam for shells in shy coves.


We ponder the rock pools and wonder of mermaids,

Tell tall tales of jellyfish stings and jump clear,

Dare to touch seaweed and dead crabs, so stinky,

Jabbing and jousting a snapped craggy claw.


As pirates swashbuckling, we plunder dune islands,

Tumbling down gullies of hot windblown sand.

Playing cool cowboys and super Sioux Indians,

We slay mutant monsters until the day’s end.


Back by the bay, the tide’s turning, waves breaking,

Invading the shoreline, the swell of the sea

Floods moats; our fortress defences fall crumbling,

Collapsing sandcastles that sweep clean away.

When asked in the workshop whether they like this poem, a lot of the children say that they don’t because it’s ‘boring’ and not rude or funny, but it’s worth performing just to see the faces of the children who do enjoy a gentler type of poetry that takes them somewhere in their imaginations. To those children who dislike it, I set the challenge to write their own version of a poem about a beach, and in contrast to other workshops, tell them that they are completely free to write a poem of their choice. I recall one workshop where one year 5 boy wrote a number of wonderfully evocative haiku. I’m hopeless at haiku and so they were MUCH better than anything I could have written; they really were quite something. But of course you do still get a fair smattering of rap poems and gross-out poetry, especially from the boys, but if it gets them writing and performing enthusiastically then I feel that I’ve done my job. Hopefully, by the end of the day, the experience of having a real live poet in school will lead to children and teachers feeling a little less daunted by the big scary world of ‘poetry’.

Copyright Helên Thomas 2010

A version of the below article featured on the Write Out Loud website http://www.writeoutloud.net in January 2010

*NB I no longer do this.

Ning, Nang, Nong?: article by Helên Thomas

A recent Ofsted report, Poetry In Schools, stated that schools rely too heavily on a limited number of poems as resources for teaching poetry. A survey of schools revealed a top ten of poems which included "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes; "On the Ning, Nang, Nong" by Spike Milligan and "Jabberwocky" by Lewis Carroll. Interestingly, all of the poems in the top ten were written by men, most of whom are dead.

Ofsted was especially critical of primary school teachers whose lack of subject knowledge leads to an over-reliance on lightweight poems with little attention being given to classic and multi-cultural poetry. The report concluded that teachers are playing safe by using the same poems again and again while steering clear of anything challenging.

I have a vested interest here. Along with primary school teacher and literacy specialist, Kate McGann, I provide poetry performances and workshops for primary schools. In our performance piece: We Are Poets! we adopt the roles of posh poet Penelope Page and grubby, street poet Gabby Mouth. Throughout the show, Gabby and Penny bicker about what is and isn’t poetry while taking turns performing their poems. Penelope’s poems are fantastical flights of fancy whereas Gabby’s autobiographical verses are full of childhood grot, grime and scabby knees! Kate describes it as pantomime meets poetry; I call it the performance versus page poetry debate for the under 12s.

All of the poetry in the show was written [by me] with the literacy strategy in mind. That said, I didn’t allow the strategy to stifle my creativity, and sought feedback from teachers and children along the way. Children’s laureate, Michael Rosen, has been quoted as saying: “The literacy strategy has been disastrous for poetry. Children spend their time counting metaphors and proving what makes a poem effective.” He has a point, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The strategy is open to interpretation; with a bit of imagination, it is possible to teach children about the nuts and bolts of writing while illustrating that poetry can be lively, evocative and thought provoking.

Despite the arid nature of the literacy strategy, I think I have managed to use it to produce a variety of poems that are relevant, inspiring, accessible and at times challenging. I say this because these are all words that have been used by teachers when feeding back. Many teachers seem to fear poetry; according to Ofsted, “poetry becomes a chore rather than a pleasure”. This resistance to poetry is illustrated by a quote from a KS2 teacher referring to one of our workshops: "I was dreading the poetry, but that was excellent!"

I believe that the We Are Poets! package of performances and workshops takes the pain out of teaching poetry. We demonstrate that anyone can write poetry about anything they choose whether that be the stuff of daydreams or grim reality; that poems can be long, short, complex or simplistic; that poems can tell stories; that poems can be accompanied by music, actions or a simple drum beat; that poetry can be loud and energetic or quietly contemplative.

It’s fair to say that we don’t qualify as multi-cultural and none of my poems are classics (yet). However, unlike most of the poets in the top ten, we’re not men and we’re certainly not dead! We’ve encountered lots of interested, dedicated teachers who make the most of our visits using them as a starting point for future work. When we leave a school, the children are fired up and can’t wait to read and write more poetry; some of the children even go home and write their own poems, quite independently, just for the fun of it. Imagine that! We’re doing our bit to keep poetry alive in schools. I think we’re doing a good job.

by Helên Thomas

This article first appeared on Todd Swift's 'Eyewear' blog in December 2007.

http://toddswift.blogspot.com/2007/12/ning-nang-nong-article-by-heln-thomas.html

Performance Poetry

You don’t know till you’ve tried it!

Like poetry in general, performance poetry is the victim of prejudice! I suspect that a great many of the people reading this have never attended a performance poetry event. I would happily be proved wrong, but as a regular performer on the northwest poetry circuit I know that audiences are often woefully small. I hasten to add that I am not calling on individual members of the audience to put on weight, but it would be lovely to see an increase in the numbers of people attending!

So what exactly is performance poetry? To be precise there is a difference between a poetry performance and a poetry reading. It is possible to attend any number of literary events and see well known poets reading their own work in order to promote their books. Many poets do this very well but this is not in my opinion performance poetry. It is also fair to say that there are poets who have sold numerous books, who when called upon to read their own work do a very bad job.

I would argue that performance poetry is exactly what its name suggests: a complete package of poetry that is intended to be performed. Just as a play can simply be read through by actors, or it can be brilliantly staged and directed, a poem can be dramatically delivered by an accomplished performer, so that it conveys so much more that it could by merely sitting on a page.

There are however, critics of performance poetry who would argue that it is simply a case of style over substance. It has even been suggested that performance poetry is stand up comedy masquerading as poetry in order to gain cheap laughs. It is true that good performance can compensate for weaknesses in the poetry, but critics should be careful not to pigeonhole all performance poets as inferior writers.

I would suggest that at its very best, performance poetry can take intelligent writing and deliver it in ways which are dynamic, invigorating, disturbing, moving and often hilariously funny. I would recommend that poets and none poets alike should get out there to sample performance poetry for themselves, and draw their own conclusions. You may find that it is not to your taste but you certainly won’t be able to say that it was dull!

For amateur poets, there is an added incentive to getting out to watch performance poetry. As it gets increasingly more difficult for poets to get their work published, poetry readings and events are an excellent way for writers to share their work with a receptive audience. Most poetry evenings will include an open mic spot where anyone can get up and read about five minutes of their work. Audiences are usually friendly; you don’t have to be a skilled performer to get a good response. Also, poets in general seem to be a very friendly bunch. You will often see the same faces at regular poetry events and can get to know people who can give you feedback on your work. Performance events are also good ways to network and find out information about other literature events, courses and competitions that you might not have heard of otherwise.

A lot of poetry events consist simply of an evening of open mic poetry. As mentioned, these are a good way to share your work with others, but there is no guarantee that all of the poetry will be of the highest standard. You have to be prepared to listen to a variety of styles in terms of both writing and performing and you have to take the rough with the smooth. Whilst you might have to listen to one or two poems that aren’t in your opinion up to it, chances are you will also be pleasantly surprised by the standard of other writers. This in turn might well inspire you to write more or to try a different style, or even to get up and have a go at performing your own stuff.

If you really want to see and hear some quality poetry then you should try to attend an evening that features one or more guest poets. Often these will be professional writers/performers who will do a full set of their work, say twenty minutes or so.

As mentioned before, there are critics of performance poetry who would question its literary value when compared to ‘page poetry’. I would suggest that rather than deconstructing the poetry and finding it wanting, the viewer should look at the complete performance. I think that good performance poetry is like a piece of theatre. Often the poetry you see has been specifically written for performance and it is the poet’s intention to engage with the audience drawing them in so that they suspend their disbelief as they would at the theatre.

Often the performance is quite visual. Some performance poets even adopt specific personas to deliver their work. The poetry here is not just about the words. I am of the opinion that to criticise the words alone is to miss the point, and also fails to do justice to the talents of the performer. That said, I do feel quite strongly that a great deal of the poetry does stand up to scrutiny. I hope that those who criticise performance poetry do so objectively and not out of any sense of snobbery.

All poetry is of course subjective. That is to a large extent its appeal. It also makes it almost impossible to generalise, so that to say that you like poetry is to give almost nothing away about the type of person that you are. If you like one type of poetry it doesn’t mean that you must shy away from other quite different styles. I get quite cross with people who think that certain types of poetry are in some way more worthy than others. To use the written and spoken word to be expressive and creative is in my opinion a good thing. Life is not a competition and to dwell too much on which is the best ‘page’ or performance poetry is surely missing the point.

You don’t have to be a lofty intellectual, a quiet introvert or an angry young man to enjoy reading, writing and watching poetry. It's out there to be savoured in its many and varied forms. So if you still haven’t sampled the delights of performance poetry, go on, I dare you. You never know, you might just like it!


The article above was written for the Creative Women's Network.