Many thanks to PACYA member Debbie Pullinger, a PhD candidate in Children’s Literature who has worked as a teacher, book editor, games inventor, and freelance writer. Below she shares an excellent report about a unique conference that took place in London this past weekend:
This one-day conference was, in more than one sense, poetic: more than you would believe possible in a short span, where every element stood for something, and stood in rich connection to other elements. And it afforded a valuable forum for dialogue between people from many different spheres: educators, poets, publishers, archivists, and academics.
The first keynote, Morag Styles, who has become the UK’s first Professor of Children’s Poetry at the University of Cambridge, spoke of a lifetime in poetry and of her special interests in Caribbean poetry and women poets. She lamented the dearth of single-poet collections that allow the poet the space to spread their wings and the reader the chance to get to know a poet. That single-poet versus anthology issue was picked up and explored by a publishing panel drawn from three UK publishers of children’s poetry, who highlighted the difficulties of marketing poetry and introducing new poets. To even be considered for their own publication, a poet has to have created their own platform in schools – which underlines the very close relationship between children’s poetry and education.
But what exactly has happened to that relationship? Arguing that poetry can only thrive in a poetry-friendly school, the poet and academic Michael Rosen had the audience in stitches at his account of the rather hostile environment created by the UK National Strategy’s oxymoronic Poetry Units. And this at the end of a jam-packed talk that also included answers to the ‘how does a poem start?’ question (one answer: with the words of a child) and a demystifying explanation of how poetry does its stuff, covering theoretical aspects such as defamiliarisation and how poetry differs from narrative with humour and deceptive ease.
After some diverse parallel workshop sessions, writer, academic, and translator Susan Bassnett offered some fascinating insights into poetry translation as a creative act and a source of innovation. Poetry in translation might not seem like an obvious topic for a conference on children and poetry, but the Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in translation, for which Susan was one of the judges, has sections for under 18s and under 14s, and the winning entries and their commentaries were clear evidence of a very fruitful engagement for the young translators.
Philip Gross – a man who seems to speak in poetry – was an inspiration at every turn. His latest collection has come out of his creative writing workshops and, he says, is written not for children but with children. Like Michael Rosen, he seemed to be pointing to a slightly different interpretation of that apostrophe. Off Road to Everywhere is pure delight on every page, and Philip Gross is one of those poets whose reading of his own poems really does add another dimension.
Finally, Dame Jacqueline Wilson picked up the anthology theme again. Known for fiction rather than poetry, she recently accepted an invitation to create an anthology for girls, and spoke about how the decision-making process of selection and arrangement in Green Glass Beads came from her own experiences of poetry as a child and another lifetime in poetry.
The vast stretches of ground covered will be mapped by the conference proceedings in due course; this is just one take on the emerging themes: children’s poetry as simultaneously thriving and under threat, as different sort of literary space where adults and children can work fruitfully together, and above all as a personal literature.
P.S. You can read a poem Debbie wrote that was inspired by her experiences at the conference by visiting her blog.