This is not about books or about my own genre, contemporary romance. Instead it's about six-year-olds, pirates and poetry because I've been busy working with some of the young people who will, hopefully, becomes the writers of the future.
Years ago, when I worked for UK's National Poetry Society on an ad hoc basis, I used to run poetry workshops in schools. It was often terrific fun and frequently chaotic. I remember one school where the Principal misunderstood the briefing he'd received from the Poetry Society and instead of introducing me to a class of twenty children, he ushered me into the hall to work with the entire school! How did I manage that one? Well after encouraging the children and their teachers to write poetry, I made a large red mail box and invited them to post their poems for a whole-school competition. It did the trick and soon that mail box was full to over-flowing. The only problem then was finding the time to read every entry and select out the winners. As any mother would, I conscripted my own children to help, and between us we managed to identify winners for all the different age groups. But the thing that stands out in my mind from that little experience…well I don't remember the full poem but I do know it was about a Bear called Keith who wore false teeth, and my abiding memory is of my own children rolling about the floor and laughing when they read it.
And that is an example of the main problem when children first start to write poems. Their enthusiasm for rhyming words frequently overtakes their sense of poetry. I'd like to be able to tell you that Keith the bear was part of a splendid comic poem but it wasn't. It was a small boy's desperate attempt to find rhyming words without truly understanding what he needed for the poem he actually wanted to write.
Rhyming for poetry is one of the most difficult things to explain to very young children and they need to understand this before they move onto prose poetry. They understand the rhythm and the word endings quite quickly but thinking about the meaning of the words they have chosen is often one step too far. This can lead to hilarious consequences or, in some cases, to all the children in a class hijacking the rhyming words the teacher has used in his/her own example poem so that every piece of work is similar. The trick is to open up the children's creativity and in the case of my recent workshop, the teacher had already done this by working with the whole class on rhyming words about pirates. The list they'd compiled was truly amazing given that these were five and six year olds. Do you know, for example, that fried cackle fruit is a fried egg? I didn't and I loved having it explained to me by a small boy who knew that the pirates of old kept hens on board ship. I loved, too, that everyone's favourite word was smelly. Apparently pirates are smelly!
So what else happened in my recent and unexpected workshop? As I only had a day to prepare I went in with fingers crossed and a new poem of my own to read to them. My first rule is that if I am going to ask children to write poetry then I have to show them I'm prepared to do it myself. My poem, The Forgetful Pirate, did the trick. The epic of Captain Jack as he searched for the treasure he'd buried many years before captured their imagination. They listened, rapt, not realising as they did so that they were learning about couplets and metre and how words work together. By the time they went to their work tables all of them were in a creative mood, chattering about rhyming words, debating the swashbuckling lifestyle of the pirates they were to write about. Some struggled, a lot were good, but to my mind, this one was the best.
Pirates sail the Caribbean
Pirates steal the king's ships
Pirates fight with cutlasses
They wear in scabbards on their hips
Not bad for a six-year-old!
And my poem? It's not much more than doggerel really and was written quickly and to amuse; to tell the children a story that would trigger their enthusiasm, but if you're interested, here it is…
THE FORGETFUL PIRATE
Pirate Jack thought it best
to hide his treasure in a chest.
He covered it with stone and rock
and used an X to mark the spot
so he could find it when he came
to dig his treasure up again.
Gold and silver, jewels and rings,
heaps and piles of sparkly things
were buried in the pirate’s box,
underneath his smelly socks.
He left a message in it too
that said ‘this treasure’s not for you,’
just in case another ship
of wicked pirates made the trip
to the island, where he’d left
all the loot he’d gained by theft.
Years went by and Jack grew old.
‘It’s time I fetched my pirate gold’
he told himself as he set sail,
not thinking he was going to fail
to find the chest he’d hid with rock,
and used an X to mark the spot.
He sailed out on the evening tide
to search the seas both far and wide.
But he never found that buried box
full of gold and smelly socks,
'cos there was something Jack forgot
when he used an X to mark the spot
He forgot to make a map that showed
where the sparkly things were stowed.
So if you ever find a box
of treasure, and some smelly socks,
you’ll know it’s Jack’s, so you be sure
to cover it with rocks once more.
Then do the thing that Jack forgot
when he used an X to mark the spot
MAKE A MAP
So if you meet him one fine day
when you’re sailing far away,
you can show him how to find
the treasure that he left behind,
by giving him what he forgot,
a map, with X to mark the spot