Exciting adventures of the mind

23rd May 2008 at 01:00
Kenneth Steven would rather be called a 'wordcatcher' than a poet. Here he explains why language is still key to igniting a child's imagination
Kenneth Steven would rather be called a 'wordcatcher' than a poet. Here he explains why language is still key to igniting a child's imagination

Perhaps it's the word "poet" that makes even my heart sink at times; it has too much of a 19th-century weight about it. There's often a deathly silence after I'm introduced in staffrooms as "the visiting poet"; the only sound that of teachers swallowing coffee.

Hardly the desired effect. My aim is to make words exciting, to pass on something of my love of putting words together in poems and stories. I would somehow rather be called a wordcatcher, an imaginator. I want to convince the groups I work with that words are wonderful things and that the imagination is there to be used and stretched and nurtured.

When I visit a primary school, I tend to start with a reading for a large group (anything from 50 to 200). I don't just read poems and picture books and extracts from longer stories. I tell them about the little writing cabin in Aberfeldy where I hide away to work; I talk about writing being akin to music or drama or art - a skill that needs practice and honing. I talk about how once upon a time I thought editing was for cowards and failures, and how now it matters almost more than anything else. And I point out ways in which they could tackle their own writing, and often set up a writing challenge for them.

I generally then go on to work with a smaller group of perhaps 20 older pupils, usually from one of the upper primary classes. I look at one of my poems with them, often something inspired by nature - a poem about going for conkers or visiting a farm to get eggs (see panel). We look together at how a poem's built up, at how we can describe things as vividly as possible. And I let them think about their own memories of exciting journeys and adventures; I remind them that they have potential treasure inside that's waiting to be found.

The whole idea is to convince at least some of them that becoming a creative writer isn't about being visited by a strange old wizened woman with mistletoe in childhood. It's a potential that's there, even sometimes, in all of us.

Most of the schools I visit offer a warm welcome (a real comfort to someone whose memories of pretty ferocious bullying are still quite raw). Going back to school, so to speak, wasn't easy. But most of the time I find that the whole idea of a real, live writer coming into the classroom is one that's welcomed. I didn't have much sense of poets being living people; it would have meant the world to have met and heard a Roger McGough or a Norman MacCaig back when I was 12 and wondering how to begin.

A half or even a full day in a school is infinitely preferable to what I term a hit-and-run raid. I'm aware that I'm a blow-in, that it takes time for children to answer questions and open up when it comes to writing about feelings and dealing with this secret place called the imagination. An hour's visit almost feels counter-productive; the best option of all is working in a school as writer in residence for a whole week, when every class has the chance to work with me two or even three times. At the end of a longer visit like that, the school often gathers all the creative material which has been generated and puts together a little anthology.

I don't honestly believe the imagination is in any more danger than the book. The relentless pressure of the visual image does its damage, no doubt about that, but once the reliance on that can be withdrawn (and sometimes that's a sair fecht), I find the imagination still there and ready to be roused. Nothing is more rewarding than working with a child who didn't believe there was a poem or story to be found inside, and who finds it nonetheless.

All my events north of the border are supported by Live Literature Scotland in Edinburgh. Every author who's produced at least one book has the right to a paragraph in the writers' register that also contains listings of storytellers. The great part of the scheme is that an author or a storyteller will cost the same to a school or library, whether they come from Stornoway or Stirling. Fifty per cent of the author's fee comes from Live Literature, as do all their expenses. It's only the other 50 per cent of the fee which has to be found by the hosts.

Applications for sessions have to be submitted well in advance of the planned visit; often World Book Day and National Poetry Day are the busiest times for writers in schools. The most popular months for school visits tend to be March, April and September.

- For more on Live Literature Scotland: www.scottishbooktrust.com


We used to go there for eggs -

A farm track with that green vein

Sprouting the middle rut. The farm crouched

Like some aggressive wildcat on the ground

Whose yellow eyes were windows. The whole yard strutted

And bagpiped with chickens. I always feared the dogs -

Two streamlined waterfalls of black and white,

Tongues like hot bacon, their barks

Gunning my heart with fear. But the farmer's wife

Brought us inside to the kitchen's hum,

The scent of mown hay green in the room.

We talked about foxes and new roads and prices,

My lips burned on hot tea. The eggs were still warm,

Dunged and tickled with straw.

We squeaked them in sixes into boxes,

Went out across the yard as a blue sky

Switched with swallows, waved to her wide smile

On the long bounce home.

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