Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with James Carter

James CarterJames Carter is a children’s poet, guitarist and educational writer. He travels all over the UK and abroad (with his guitar, Keith) to visit schools, libraries and book festivals to give very lively poetry performances, workshops, INSET sessions and gifted & talented days. A prize-winning and widely-anthologised poet, his many poetry collections include Journey To The Centre Of My Brain  (Macmillan), and Hey, Little Bug! (Francis Lincoln). Over the last ten years, James has written six widely-used and critically-acclaimed creative writing books, including Let’s Do Poetry In Primary Schools! (Bloomsbury) and Just Imagine (Routledge).


What does poetry mean to you?

Big question! To be honest, all I know is that I simply love words. Reading and writing them. In fact, I’m a self-confessed ‘word-nerd’!  I love reading everything from plays to novels to picture books, but nothing, absolutely nothing beats writing poetry for me. I love the musicality, textures and rhythms of poetry. Poetry can and does do everything from telling stories, imagining things, exploring ideas and thoughts and emotions, telling jokes, making sense of the world, reliving your memories. I have no interest whatsoever in writing a novel, but I do like writing prose poems – particularly short pieces in which reflect on or even re-imagine things that have happened to me.

An educationalist once told me that I didn’t have a poetic style. I think he thought he was being insulting! Actually, I took it as a compliment! As a guitarist I dabble in all kinds of musical styles from jazz to rock, jangly pop to funky things. And that’s what I do as a poet – I dabble in all kinds of different forms and voices. And not that I want to deconstruct what I do too much, but I think I have about five or so different voices I write in.

Why is poetry important for children?

Oddly enough, children love poetry, but for some reason, adults rarely recognise this or do anything about it. A child might want to tell you otherwise, but I believe that most children seem to really love not only reading, but also writing and performing poetry. And not just funny poems – all kinds. Boys get a lot from poetry too – they love its brevity, its playfulness, its musicality – as well as the fact that it deals with emotions. Boys don’t like talking about their emotions much, but I’ve discovered they love writing and reading about them. Why don’t more parents / teachers encourage children to pick up poetry? In the last ten years I’ve watched German teenagers love the process of writing haikus, infants performing pirate poems, inner city kids writing animal riddle kennings, prep school kids writing and performing fairy tale raps. Poetry, gives children linguistic models to internalise and to use as models for their own writing. It’s something they can write themselves – to explore their own creativities, and express themselves. It’s great fun to perform. Learning by heart and then performing poems increases your vocabulary, your self-esteem, your performance and public speaking skills – all important life skills. Writing poems make you a better storyteller and communicator and improves your prose writing too.  What not to like, grown ups?

When did you start writing poetry for children?

At the age of 15 I picked up the guitar. For many years I played in bands, writing songs – words and music. I eventually concentrated on the guitar, and writing/recording instrumental music. I still do this. At 29, I went off to train to be a teacher, because I knew I wanted to do something in education with language and music. Within weeks I knew I wanted to write for children, and I started writing stories and sending these off. Over 100 rejection letters (seriously!) later, I realised it wasn’t working. Around that time, I was sat at my computer and had an idea for a poem, so I typed it up. A few days later, the same happened again. And again. I loved writing these poems. Quite quickly my poems were published. After five years, my first collection, Cars Stars Electric Guitars (Walker Books) came out.

What I found with poetry was that I was free to be playful with language in a way I’d never been before. Free to express and explore ideas, thoughts, notions, memories, all kinds. I still occasionally write stories, but often as poems, or very short page-length pieces. Nowadays my writing has two main strands – poetry for children (Macmillan, Frances Lincoln) and creative writing books for teachers (Bloomsbury, Taylor & Francis).

What part did poetry play in your own childhood?

Absolutely zero. Teachers killed it dead by getting us to do rote learning of poems. I was a very shy, wimpy kid that HATED talking in class, so the thought of reciting a poem filled me with dread. I loved reading as a boy, but mainly non-fiction, comics and TinTin. It wasn’t until teenage that I really discovered fiction and novels. And oddly enough, I now LOVE reading poems out loud in schools - it’s what I do as my job! Weird, eh?

Which poets or poems do you most admire and why? Or which have been most influential in your own development as a poet?

I’m quite fussy about what I read. I wanted to be surprised by a book, hence I don’t read genre books, and that’s why I love books like Tan’s Tales From Outer Suburbia, Almond’s Skellig, Gaimon’s Coraline, Dowd’s Bog Child to name but a few.

Same with poetry, and because I write in rhyme quite a bit, I don’t want to read it myself, so I rarely read children’s poetry as most of it rhymes. However there is some fantastic children’s poetry that doesn’t rhyme – and that’s why, together with my great poetry chum Graham Denton, I puit together an anthology of UK/USA poetry - Orange Silver Sausage – poems without rhymes (Walker Books).

But I love Dylan Thomas, particularly Under Milk Wood. Better than Shakespeare – just! I’d say my favourite poet is Billy Collins. His book Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes has to be the best collection of poems ever. I also really love the natural world poetry of Mary Oliver. She’s a genius. My favourite children’s poets would have to be Michael Rosen and John Agard. Both have taught me a great deal. Though not seen as a poem, Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are has been a big influence on my poems. It’s a masterpiece!

Do you follow a regular process in creating your poetry? Do you draft your poems?

DO I DRAFT? ARE YOU KIDDING? Some poems take two years to write! Most, however, will take a few months of tireless tinkering and tweaking. For my latest collection, Journey To The Centre Of My Brain (Macmillan), I wrote over 1000 poems. I chucked  most of them away. As regards my process, most poems tend to start as a line or a phrase or a verse in my head, and this will get scribbled onto an envelope which I keep in my pocket, then either written out a few times and tinkered with in a notebook, or, typed onto my laptop and then printed out for more tweaking. Above all, I want to ensure that each poem is really tight and equally importantly, it says something and says something new. And that’s hard. Really hard!

I have a great job as a wandering poet. I visit a great many schools, libraries and book festivals all over the UK and abroad and so I do most of my writing on trains. This makes makes the drivers very cross…woops! But I do take my writing with me – my big folder of poems. There’s usually about twenty plus work-in-progress poems in there that I’m working on. What I do find, and this is something you learn the more that you write, you can start off with an okay idea, but with time and real crafting you can make it grow and you can try and turn it into something special. People ALWAYS ask ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ Writers know that really, that’s the wrong question, as everything is potentially a good idea, and that it’s not WHAT you write about it’s HOW you write about it – it’s the spin you put on that subject, topic, whatever. More than anything else, writing is about putting the hours in and crafting something that will hopefully turn out really good!

Do you read your poems aloud?

Sometimes I’ll do a Dylan Thomas and pace up and down the kitchen, feeling the words as they’re made in my mouth. I even do this silently as I’m driving or sitting on a train – the chanting, not the pacing! More than anything else, I want my poems to work on the page. I’m an old-fashioned poet, you see. Every poem has to be uber-tight and punchy. I like to put together a book of poems that work together, that offer the young reader all kinds of reading experiences – funny poems, thoughtful poems, reflective poems, daft poems, poems that questions things. And I want readers to go back to my books and find something different every time, or find something in a poem they didn’t spot before. I have no interest at all in performance poetry. I like to write poems that work on the page in a book - and then later as I visit schools I try to work out interesting ways of reading them and bringing them to life for an audience.

Which are your favourite poetic forms and why? Are there any you would still like to try?

I love all forms - free verse, kennings haikus, shape poems, list poems, rhymes. And I like mixing and matching forms too. I have a sequence of rhyming haikus that are fairy tale riddles, I have a kenning poem in the shape of a Viking. I have an ode to a dung beetle, written in the voice of an elephant but in the shape of a dung beetle.  But one day, when I finally grow up, I’d like to write a sonnet.
Here’s a fairly new poem, one for slightly older readers – a rhyming haiku in four stanzas. We were on holiday in Italy and from the train into Florence I saw some amazing graffiti. The four verses came quite quickly. I wrote them later on in the day, sat next to the hotel swimming pool, whilst being attacked by mosquitoes! But it needed a lot of work, the imagery wasn’t right, and it took many weeks to finish it off.

VIVA Graffiti!

[a haiku quartet]

Who are these nightlings,
urbanites, risking their lives
working by starlight?

Onto drab concrete
they spray other worldliness.
Coded messages.

Magic images.
Golden monkeys, skulls and fish.
The point of it is?

What matters is this:
alchemy of the city.
Viva graffiti!

James Carter
(copyright @ James Carter 2013)

And below there’s a shape poem. As with most shape poems, it began simply as a word poem, in two stanzas.

I tend not to deliberately pick a topic when I write a poem. I certainly never think ‘What would a 5 year old or ten year old be interested in?’ I write whatever subject comes to mind, and interests me - that’s fundamental to my writing. Sometimes a poem might begin with a word or a phrase or an image. This one I quite consciously wrote for Key Stage 2 teachers to use in class. When I workshop with Years 2 – 4 I often do kennings. They’re great fun, they’re expressive and  language-rich, and children seem to love doing them as riddles, eg.  

What Am !?

day – hater
stare – giver
risk - taker

and so on for an owl. I like doing kennings as riddles as a) they make it more fun, as you have to guess what the animal is and b) it stops children putting down predictable lines like ‘bone-lover’ for a dog or ‘banana-eater’ for amonkey, which is too easy. Even young writers need a bit of a challenge!

Kennings were invented by the Vikings. They called their swords ‘skull-splitters’! Kennings tend to have two words per line, and the second line more often than not ends in the –er sound. I have never visited a class that hasn’t loved doing kennings.

A while back I’d noticed that a number of KS2 classes were doing Vikings as their topic. So, it seemed obvious to write a kenning about Vikings. And I have always been interested in Vikings myself, particularly the fact that there is a stereotypical view of them as aggressive warriors, but that they were also a wholly creative, clever and innovative race, and I wanted to get that over in the poem. A kenning like this allows you to say what Russell Hoban called ‘much-in-little’. To write the same amount in prose would take ages. In just a few words, a kenning can succinctly summarise a lot of details – hence kennings are perfect for all kinds of classroom topics, from space to Henry V111 to the Ancient Egyptians to pirates.

I always want to do something a little different with a poem if I can. I’d already written a draft of the poem, tweaked it for a few weeks and then had that ‘light bulb’ moment that writers seem to have – the ‘what if…’ moment. And this was ‘What if I did it as a shape poem?’ Shape poems are tricky, and I often use punctuation to help me get the shape I’m after – exclamation marks, question marks, arrows, hash tags, all kinds.  In this poem you will see I have used @ symbols for the helmet and beard, Ws for the eyes, plus signs for the eyebrows, all kinds!

I often get emails from teachers asking me if I will come and I write a shape poem with their class. What I have to explain is this – the best way, for me anyway, is to write a normal poem first, getting the words right, and that can take time. From there, you can turn it into a shape – either on a laptop or by hand as a drawing. If children start with a shape, they will inevitably spend more time on the shape than the poem, and it should be the other way round. Shape poems need to be good poems, not just have any old words cobbled together to put inside a shape!  

I often recommend to teachers that they let the children finish their poems, get them working well, and then they can make them into mobiles – by writing the words onto card, drawing around/cutting out an animal shape, attaching a piece of string, and there – a cross-curricular menagerie of animal kennings! What not to like?


@                 vvvv                 @
@      +++        vvvv       +++      @
@         W          vvvv        W         @
@                      vvvv                     @
@                       V                      @
@                                        @
@       We were…   @
@                     @
Dark Agers,
land invaders, craft  
traders, ocean gravers, myth-
!!  makers, longboat sailors, wave  !!
!!     riders, fierce fighters, strong     !!    
!!      survivors, kenning scribers,      !!
!!        Nordic dwellers, beardy         !!
!!         fellas. At thieving bling        !!
!!         we were the best, we        !!
!!!          were THE VIKINGS!       !!!
Had you
??   ??
??     ??
??       ??
??       ??
????          ????

Copyright @ 2015
James Carter

When you write poems, do you have a target audience in mind?

Yes, me! For most of my poems, I initially want to entertain myself.  However, with every poem I’ll stop and think ‘Would a bored ten year old boy actually want to read this, and if so, why?’ That sharpens my writing and stops me being waffly and indulgent. In essence, I write mainly for two ages - 0-6 year olds and 7-777 year olds. For little ones, it has to be short, snappy, light and playful. For older children, I can do all kinds of things – be mischevious, be reflective, ask questions, wonder about all kinds of things! In essence, I’m still a ten-year old asking that question ‘Yes, but why?’ I like writing for both age groups, and I enjoy the different challenges both bring.  

Overall, I really like the idea of writing for a reader, to try to intrigue, to amuse or to inspire someone. It’s a great challenge!

Which topics influence your poetry?

 My family. The big world out there. The natural world. Space. The night.  Films - especially animations. Books – novels and non-fiction. Picture books. Fairy tales. Lots and lots of music. A million or so songs, from The Beatles to Ray Charles to Tom Waits to The Decemberists. Monty Python’s Flying Circus. But anything and everything I see, watch, hear, read about, think about, remember – in essence, anything that fills me with wonder.

How would you describe your poetry?

Children’s poetry. Page poetry. Shape poetry. Playful poetry. Poetry for 0-6 year olds. Poetry for 7-777 year olds.

How do you see the role of illustration in poetry books for children?  

It’s not important for me, it’s important for children. With every book I’ve done, I’ve always asked ‘Does this book NEED illustrations? It has shape some poems, and the poems are brimful of images anyway!’ But illustrations help to guide the child reader into the world of the poem. And the reader comes first.

What do you think children get from your poems?  

You’ll have to ask them, that’s not for me to say!

How do you stop writer's block?

Is there such a thing? Sometimes we’re in the mood to write, other times we’re not. Is it a block? I can always write something, but I know that sometimes I write better than others. I can’t control that, but I can always edit my work as ruthlessly as I should.

Sometimes I leave writing alone for a short while. It’s good to have a break. And often I get my best ideas or writing thoughts when I come away from my laptop or folder of poems, and I find myself solving a problem, fixing a line, adding alliteration, brightening up the imagery a bit.  

Of all the poems you have written, which is your favourite?

They’re all my little babies really, but I do have a few faves – Love You More - which I wrote for my wife, The Dark, Tree, The Wolf Outside. But I’ve got lots of new ones on the go and maybe they’ll become favourites – and there are two new shape poems one about a spider, another about the sun that I’ve done and I quite like them too…

In this digital age, do you think technology helps in creating and/or promoting poetry for children?

Yes, children often write on laptops and can find many poems online – and YouTube has many poets performing/reading poems. So IT can increase the chances of children engaging with poetry. I’m wary of computers in my own writing. And In the main, I try to write as much of a poem as I can by hand. I try to squeeze out every single drop, every word, image, phrase of that poem as I can onto paper, anything that I can use to help it grow. Once it’s really starting to come together, I’ll type it up, but always print it out to develop it further. Words look lovely and professional on a shiny screen, but I need to make sure that they really are working well, which I strongly believe you can only do on paper. Then, the best editor of all is time. Leave the poem for a few weeks and print it out, off the screen, and read it as a reader, as if you haven’t written it. See how it works now.

What advice can you give to aspiring poets?

Don’t just read poetry. Read everything. Be inspired by everything. Read lots but also close that book and go and live in the real world too. Don’t write to please anyone but you. Oh yeah, and eat some porridge – it’s really good for you.

Share this page: