Singing from the rooftops

18th November 2005 at 00:00
Poet Kenneth Steven describes his creative process and explains how children can also discover the writer within

Two years ago, I decided I'd had enough of the telephone, a street noisy with people and cars, and a large number of well-meaning visitors. I was a writer who wasn't writing. My wife suggested the cabin idea, probably in the hope that it would mean seeing less of me. And that's where I wrote every single poem of my first collection for children, Imagining Things - at the bottom of a garden in a one-roomed cabin, disturbed only by birdsong and bright sunlight.

It was as though the poems had been lying in wait through all those long months of frustration; on some days five or six would fall out of the pen during those hours of cabin fever.

When I work in schools as a writer in residence, I get children to brainstorm their ideas first; pour the words down straight from the furnace of the subconscious. If they've decided it has to rhyme then work on that can begin later, when the battlefield of the first draft is being sifted and sorted, read aloud and polished. Often I show them Robert Frost's wonderful "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening", where the rhyme is so effortless and easy it often passes them by altogether. And I assure them that it's only with the simplest words that rhyming works.

Finally, I tell them that poems are waiting asleep all around them - in the objects they find on the way to school, in the treasures they have at home, in the dreams they wake up with in the morning. I wave Imagining Things at them and remind them that every single poem came from beyond my cabin window.

I have to say that I find a lot of contemporary poetry collections for children rather patronising; writers trying terribly hard to be trendy, to sprinkle bad verse liberally with text messaging and transient street-talk.

That may have its place, but it's become ubiquitous. I lament the demise of poems about green places - going for conkers, looking for shells on the beach, watching the stars, seeing the blue brooch of a kingfisher on a stretch of spring river.

The Field Mouse

On a lawn in front of the river

In the buttery yellow warmth of April -

A field mouse, busy eating.

I went down to his level;

He sat up on two paws and looking, wondering,

All quivering in the wind.

He would only have filled an eggcup;

No more than a scrap of fur

Followed by a length of tail.

I stretched out a finger and touched him

Soft as a leaf, yet he staggered, toppled,

Then trundled off afraid into the trees.

I learned that morning

Something I will not forget -

That gentleness is not as easy as we think.

I intended this collection for use in the classroom, as a springboard into creative writing of all kinds, not only poetry. I wanted that classroom to be just as much urban as rural, an inspiration to city children and country cousins alike. It was intentional that the main protagonist of the title poem should be stuck in a high-rise flat on a miserable Saturday afternoon. It's his imagination that transports him to faraway places and stories, the beginnings of stories. I get children to touch their temples with their forefingers; I tell them that between their ears lies the most precious gift of all - the imagination. The more it's used the richer it'll become.

Imagining Things

Saturday morning and the skies are grey;

Danny sits in his bedroom six floors up,

His eyes downcast and his elbows on the sill,

Listening to the grey rain sing:

It's singing from the chimneys

And it's singing from the roofs

It's singing from the steeples

And it's singing from the trees.

He wanted to go and play football,

But Jamie's got a cold and Alfie's away,

Sam's at his granny's and Alan hasn't time,

And Danny's mum said: 'It's far too wet!'

It's singing from the chimneys

And it's singing from the roofs

It's singing from the steeples

And it's singing from the trees.

Danny imagines he's a bird,

Flying up over the houses and away,

Looking down on all the little figures,

Scampering away with their brollies and their hats.

It's singing from the chimneys

And it's singing from the roofs

It's singing from the steeples

And it's singing from the trees.

Now in his mind he's a thousand miles away,

Riding on a camel through yellow desert sand,

Searching for a treasure that's been lost since time began -

And he has to find it soon ...

Danny isn't here in a city block of flats,

Danny isn't sitting with his elbows on the sill,

Danny isn't wishing he is out there in the rain -

Danny's far away, imagining things!

Poems come from funny places, literally and metaphorically speaking. One day I looked out of the cabin window and saw a whole host of birds landing and taking off, coming for food and leaving with it. It was early spring and it was a sight I'd witnessed on numerous occasions before, but suddenly my mind slipped and the garden became an airport, busy with planes. That's what I tell children poetry is all about - those moments when something ordinary flickers and changes, lets in a new light and tells a new tale.

Attention Please

Ladies and gentlemen

A robin will be landing at terminal three

In approximately four minutes.

Would all sparrows still requiring breakfast

Please proceed to the bird table immediately

As a crow is expected to arrive

At any moment. The blue tit who left his luggage

Over by the back window

Is kindly asked by security to remove it.

We wish you all a very pleasant flight.

I try to get across the idea that sound is at the heart of everything in poetry, that words are pictures in sound. I love doing exercises with description, getting beyond the everyday and humdrum ways of writing about the weather and the world in general. We start with the one sentence - "It was raining" - see what we can do to make it more exciting using similes and verbs. "The rain was like the fragments of a shattered mirror", was the immediate response from a girl at the International School of Lausanne recently, and English was her second language.

Then we go on to listen to rivers, to smell autumn leaves, to touch grass all sharp with frost, to taste a piece of ripe fruit. It's the jumping off point for an exercise writing about exploring a cave; the only sense you can't rely on for description is sight, so it concentrates on all the forgotten senses. The Alumbria poem illustrates what can be done with onomatopoeic, made-up words - children have no trouble guessing their meanings.


In the morning

It is spinkebright.

The wind thrums at the trees With their red, gold and amber leaves.

The river goes downstream like a humberback, White horses over rocks and banks.

A skiffle of moon hangs in the sky,

The sky that is blue as ice.

Children run and jamble in the field,

Their faces red and full of laughter.

It is Alumbria. The time between the falling

Of the first conker and the first snowflake.

Kenneth Steven's collection Imagining Things is published by Lion Hudson.

For more on his work visit

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