Poetry is like snow, and it isn't scary: Kirsten McKenzie on StAnza's Children's events

Sunday 10 March 2013

 When I was a child, I once talked with a friend about the smell of snow.  I thought it smelled like toothpaste.  She thought it smelled like tin.  I remember the conversation, but what I remember more is the feeling of waiting for the snow.  The way our senses were heightened, the tiny hairs of our skin prickling in anticipation.

And oddly enough, the first poetry workshop I ever gave was also about snow.  It had been snowing outside, and we brought some of the snow into the classroom and let the children touch, smell, feel, taste it (sorry parents!).  I remember one girl telling me that it smelled like paper fresh off the printer, and another that the feeling of the snow was ‘claustrophobic’.

Snow, then, in my mind, is very much like poetry.  As a new experience, it forces us to see and feel things differently, and we translate these feelings into words, into patterns on paper, our own unique patterns, like the angel prints we leave in the snow.  For children it can be a liberating experience, an opportunity to express feelings and sensations all too rare in the traditional classroom environment.

But children can also fear poetry, often because of that very idea of pattern, of structure, that idea that if we don’t build it properly it might fall down.

I was one of those children.  At school, poetry seemed to me to be a slightly scary mathematical formula of rhyme and meter, where nothing ever meant what you thought it meant and you were terrified to say what you thought in case it illuminated your ignorance.

So it was refreshing to see poets dispelling this myth when speaking to pupils as part of Stanza 2013.  Poet Andrew Forster told 2nd years at Madras school that poetry is not a crossword puzzle.  He talked of how he didn’t plan to become a poet and how his first interest in poetry was probably through listening to the lyrics of songs.  He also said that ‘poetry is a personal thing’.  You have permission not to like a poem.  I wish I’d been given that permission at school.

Liz Lochhead said to St Leonard’s sixth formers that she never thought of herself as a poet, but as a writer who wrote ‘poemy things’.  And she said that while poems can have layers of meaning, it’s OK just to say what you mean.  A poem about a little girl and a bull can just be a poem about a little girl and a bull, if you want it to.

At his children’s event yesterday, John Hegley said that he was once asked 'why don't you write proper poems?'.  Children have an idea that a poem is a serious thing that must take a serious form.  And if anything could disprove this it was John Hegley’s versatile performance, a combination of interactive drama, music and spoken word.

John Hegley at Saturday's Children's Show, Hopscotch!/photoJiye Lee

Thankfully, entries to this year’s children’s poetry competition have proved that not all children see it way.  There were poems about frogs and elephants and water and drought.  Poems serious and funny.  Poems of varying structures.  Poems that use all the senses.

Each year Stanza reaches all over the world to bring internationally renowned poets to St Andrews.  But it’s important to remember that Stanza’s education programme, through children’s poetry events, competitions and sending poets into schools, reaches even further.  As John Hegley said to the children in his audience, ‘we are all poets’.  We can all make patterns with words.  Whether or not these children go on to make poetry that is heard by millions, they take with them the confidence to work with words and use them to make their own unique patterns.  Poems that the impression, the angel print of each individual child.

This morning, on the last day of Stanza 2013, it is snowing.  And just as children everywhere will soon be out leaving their impressions in the snow, lets hope Stanza has inspired at least some to leave their impressions in words.

Kirsten McKenzie was part of the team who led the recent StAnza workshops at schools in Fife. She is a writer based in St Monans, Fife.