Rosemary Nissen-Wade: Aussie poet and teacher of metaphysics – a personal view
My bestie nicknamed me SnakyPoet on her blog, and I liked it. (It began as
'the poet of the serpentine Northern Rivers' and became more and more abbreviated.)

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Now I'm Writing Poetry for Children

At least, I hope so. As a former children's librarian, I know that writing for children is one of the hardest things a writer can do. The cardinal rule I learned is that a good children's book is one that adults enjoy too. The great trap in writing for children is to talk down to them. Kids aren't stupid; they can tell, and they hate it. I wouldn't on purpose, but what if I do it unconsciously? I'm not around kids very often these days. I might have forgotten how to talk to them.

But no. The way to talk to kids is to know that they're people. I've always got on well with them for just that reason. 'She meets them at their own level,' a kindergarten teacher said about me once — not so; I assume they are at mine. Children's author Michael Dugan advised that you don't necessarily have to modify your language —  it's the concept you have to get right for the age group. If children understand the concept, he said, they will understand the language.

Two of my poems from years ago, The Day We Lost the Volkswagen and Vagabond, have both been published in anthologies for schoolchildren. They were written for adults and just happen to work for kids too. My late great friend and mentor, the poet Barbara Giles, asked if she could submit them for the first of the anthologies and I agreed. (The second anthology asked permission after seeing it in the first.) Barbara then suggested I try writing for children  — 'at the risk of raising a rival', she said — and gave me the (usually unshared) name of her London editor who dealt with such material. But, what with one thing and another, I never took up her kind suggestion.

A while back, in response to a prompt, a fun thing bubbled up and wrote itself. The Bees' Knees was not specifically written for children either, and adults love it — but I saw that children would probably enjoy it too. And so, with Robert Lee Brewer of Poetic Asides hosting his usual November Poem A Day Chapbook Challenge right now, I decided to try for a book of verse for children. Already it's scary, at only two days in! But if I don't try, I might not fail but neither can I succeed.

It's uncharted territory. For sure children like rhyme and metre, but will they also respond to free verse? I hope so! My first poem of the series insisted on being written that way. The second topic lent itself to rhyme, and I managed a sort of rough four-beat rhythm.

And what age group am I aiming for? Who knows? But if it has to appeal to adults too, then perhaps I won't worry too much about that. Perhaps it can have broad appeal.

Many years ago now, I participated in a poetry reading in Hobart when I was visiting. The organisers graciously gave me the spot after the star, Gwen Harwood, who read something so brilliant and beautiful that the only way I could think of to follow it successfully was to change the mood entirely and do a punchy performance piece. I chose The Volkswagen. Afterwards a father brought his young daughter up to ask for my autograph. She was very excited because her teacher used one of the school anthologies it was in, and she loved it. A great moment for me — and it showed me that the publishers were right: the poem did work for kids. (She was maybe seven.)

I don't have to put all 30 poems in a chapbook, of course. I can't imagine that all of them will be good enough. On the other hand, as I don't seriously expect to win, I could add more poems to it if I like, and make it something bigger than a chapbook. I certainly should include the three I've mentioned above.

This leaves aside questions of where and how to find a publisher and market for such a volume. But first, let's see if I even have what it takes. I'm about to find out. Wish me luck, folks!