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Poetry for children and where to start: An interview with Emma Wright

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Ben Simmons

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The 2022 Caterpillar Poetry Prize is open for submissions. The prize for a poem written by an adult for children aged 7-11 is €1,000 and publication in the summer issue of The Caterpillar. 

If you’re anything like me (I was very much in the dark on the subject), the criteria that surround the sub-genre of poetry for children are very unfamiliar. So, in search of some much needed insight into writing poetry for children, I was very grateful to get on a video call with The Emma Press’ founder and editor Emma Dai’an Wright.

The Emma Press is an independent publishing house specialising in poetry, short fiction, essays and children’s books. Its publications have received numerous prizes, including the CLiPPA (Centre for Literacy in Primary Poetry Award), the only award for published poetry for children in the UK.

The Emma Press has published essays, fiction and poetry. What attracted you to the idea of extending that range to include poetry for children?

Emma Wright: Actually it [The Emma Press] started off with poetry. It’s known mostly for poetry and I’ve added in the other things. I started off doing poetry pamphlets and poetry anthologies for adults and then, actually, the second thing I added in was poetry for children. So, I was trying to have an offering for everyone. I was thinking really long term. How do you get more readers of poetry? Surely, it’s better for people to never stop reading poetry rather than trying to convince people later on. That was my thinking. That’s why a lot of the books I publish are aimed at slightly older children, because I think younger children are quite well served for verse. A lot of picture books are in verse and obviously nursery rhymes for very small children. Then as you get a bit older there’s not that much there and then you’re expected to suddenly engage with First World War poets in secondary school and it just becomes school work rather than something you read for pleasure. So, that’s why a lot of the books that I publish are aimed at 8+ and because they’re good poems they could be read by a 13 year old who wouldn’t find it childish either. 

What in your opinion, are some key ingredients to  a successful poem for children?

Emma Wright: I’d say precision.  I mean all the same things that make a successful poem for an adult and I think that’s where some people slip up. It  seems like it’s easier and you have to do less and you can just be funny, but actually it’s really hard to be funny. That’s a really skilled thing. You can be briefly amusing, but to have a really satisfying poem, I think you’ve got to be precise. You’ve got to use language sparingly.  You’ve got to have all the tools at your disposal; like form or vocabulary, and a way of expressing a complex emotion with very few words and there’s got to be some sort of reason for the poem. I don’t think you can just say,  “oh I’m going to write 100 poems about pirates”. 

I think you could write some really great poems about pirates, but I think they’re going to explore more than just pirates being fun. There are different ways of approaching it. That’s the point of poetry. You can explore something really complex in quite a small thing, and somehow it’s more powerful for it and that applies to children’s poetry and adult poetry. 

 For writers keen to write for children but haven’t set pen to paper, where should they start?

Emma Wright: I say this not as a poet at all, so I can dish out all sorts of advice. It’s obviously very hard to write. I know this. This is why I do not write, but I would say, first of all, picture your audience. Picture someone, whether that’s yourself at the age you’re aiming it at or a child you know, and write for them.  So rather than having a sense that you write a poem and because it’s for children it’s going to be easier and it’s gonna be simpler and it’s something a generic child would like. Think specifically about what someone you know would like and what would resonate with them and what affects them.  

Presumably you’d have some sort of instincts. You should want to write this poem. It shouldn’t just be that you’re bashing us out. There should be a thing you’re trying to convey. It should be a lovely thing that you’re making, that you hope someone else will enjoy. So think about something that you’re proud of.  It’s not like oh kids like it and therefore it’s fine. It’s got to be something that you respect in yourself and I think, yeah, I think writing for yourself as a child is always quite a good way to go. 

Finally, since reading is a big step in the writing process,  can you give an example of an author or poem for children you’d recommend?

Emma Wright: I would say Kate Wakeling, who I publish, is a really excellent poet to look at and she started out writing poems for adults and I kind of tempted her into writing some  poems for children as well. I’ve published two collections by her and you can see across. a book, but also there’s lots of samples online. She does really funny, silly ones which are so funny instantly that they are good.  And also ones which convey kind of great sadness or really complex things, because of course children are people too. They are experiencing all these complex emotions and I think they appreciate seeing them in poems as well, so I think you can do both. Sometimes at the same time, sometimes separately and she navigates that really, very cleverly.

More Information

For more information on the The Emma Press, you can follow the link to the website here. If you are now inspired to enter the Caterpillar Poetry Prize you can find out more information below.

THE CATERPILLAR POETRY PRIZE 2022
The prize is for an unpublished poem, written by an adult for children aged 7–11. The prize consists of €1,000 plus publication in the summer 2022 issue of The Caterpillar. Entrants are welcome from anywhere in the world. There is an entry fee of €14 per poem. This year’s judge is Naomi Shibab Nye. Deadline: 31 March 2021. See www.thecaterpillarmagazine.com for details.

ABOUT THE JUDGE

Naomi is the author of numerous books of poems for adults and children. Her honours include awards from the International Poetry Forum, the National Book Critics Circle Lifetime Achievement Award and four Pushcart Prizes. In 1988, she received the Academy of American Poets’ Lavan Award, judged by W. S. Merwin. She served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2010 to 2015, and is currently the Poetry Foundation’s Young People’s Poet Laureate. 

Links:

Prize details: https://thecaterpillarmagazine.com/a1-page.asp?ID=7679&page=2

Entry online: https://www.themothmagazine.co.uk/caterpillar/poem1.asp?ID=

Entry form to print: https://www.thecaterpillarmagazine.com/a1-page.asp?ID=7777&page=17

Rules: https://www.thecaterpillarmagazine.com/a1-page.asp?ID=7254&page=14

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