Children's Literature Interest Group Interview with Joseph Coelho

Photograph of Joseph CoelhoJoseph Coelho is a performance poet and playwright. He has written plays for the Polka Theatre, the Lyric, Hammersmith, and the Unicorn Theatre. He performs his poetry shows with the UK’s top performance poetry organisation, Apples and Snakes, visiting venues across the UK. Joseph’s poems have appeared in many anthologies, including Green Glass Beads by Jacqueline Wilson and The Works 6, edited by Pie Corbett, but Werewolf Club Rules (published by Frances Lincoln Children's Books) is his first solo collection. He lives in Folkestone, Kent.

What does poetry mean to you?

Poetry has, for the longest time, been a form of accessible self expression for me. I remember writing some very early thoughts and feelings down in poetic form whilst growing up. Through the use of the poetic medium I found the courage to share my thoughts and feelings with others. So for me poetry is a vehicle for sharing and finding common ground.

Why is poetry important for children?

By its very nature poetry should be free from restraint and definition; of course there is 'form poetry' but this is the natural result of an artform that begins from a place without structure. It is vital for children to have the opportunity to realise that from openess, flexibility and freedom can come strength, structure and insight. So often I've met children scared to put pen to paper, terrified of 'getting it wrong'. When shared truthfully poetry shows us that there is a eternity of 'rightness' and that anything goes - as long as it's honest. This has repercussions in all aspects of life and can help develop a future generation that is not afraid of difference or risk or not "getting things right".

When did you start writing poetry for children?

At a guess I'd say at the age of 23/24 - I was increasingly being asked to lead poetry workshops in schools and needed more age appropriate material and so started to mine my own childhood and school ldays searching for poems with truth at their heart that I'd hope would connect with a younger audience. So for example my collection features many pieces that draw on teachers I've known both as an an adult and child or situations I've been in. Such as the Poem "Skateboarding' that sums up a time in my childhood when I'd regularly go skateboarding with friends down our streets.

What part did poetry play in your own childhood?

One of my earliest memories of poetry is a copy of Dr Seuss 'The Cat in the Hat', poetry was not otherwise hugely present in a traditional form either in my school or home. However my family have always been great lovers of wordplay especially my grandmother who often purposefully (and skillfully) mispronounces words to comic effect - my favourite being 'murky bucket' for 'Merci Beaucoup'.

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

I am really fond of Edwin Morgan's 'The Lochness Monster's Song' a piece written in sea monsterish complete with punctuation! I love the simplicity of the idea and the sense of story that it creates - what is the sea monster saying? What questions is it asking? How is it feeling? This is a perfect example of how fantastic ideas can go a long way to help craft brilliant poems.

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

If I follow any process I would say it is allowing myself time to listen and to let the poem write itself. Getting down that first draft quickly feels key - once that is done and a rough shape is evident the rest is just rewriting and editing, thinking about structure and considering poetic devices. Drafting is always involved and a poem can take on many guises before its true form is revealed.

Do you read your poems aloud?

I find reading poems aloud essential - there is something magical about birthing a poem from the world of mind and into the almost material world of sound waves. In the head poems must jostle with thoughts and thinking, but read aloud they have a chance to hang in the air and to fill a space, to truly just be and to exist in the mind of many listeners at once being slightly different in each listener's head.

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

I love the challenge of the Sestina and am always on the hunt for homophones that I can use to great effect in this beautiful form. I think form poetry is often avoided by many poets and certainly anything other than an acrostic poem is fled from in the classroom. I feel that's a great shame, form poems are often simpler than their first impression suggests, they just need a to be sat with for a little while and all their secrets unfold and before you know it their structure becomes second nature. I'm yet to get a Villanelle down that I'm totally happy with - the key there is using the repeats to great effect i.e. to build on the development of an idea.

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

Occasionally when writing for a specific purpose but I prefer to just write and let the piece determine its audience.

Which topics influence your poetry?

I'm greatly influenced by family and my own experiences. I feel that using past experiences is a great way to talk authentically about a whole range of topics including ones that on the surface you may seem to have no experience of. That strikes me as the greatest gift any artist in any form has, the ability to translate their own experiences into something universal that can be shared.

How would you describe your poetry?

It feels indulgent to ascribe any label to it - I know that I strive to write pieces that can share an experience in what I hope is an emotive and honest style and in such a way that draws out the universality of an experience. I hope it is playful but unafraid to explore deeper issues or feelings.

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

I think illustrations in childrens poems serve to celebrate a poem and to draw attention to an unexpected/surprising way of interpreting the poem. In this way illustrations can act as a reminder that every reader will bring something different to a poem they read and that for each reader the poem is a unique and personal experience triggering thoughts, feelings and emotions in such a combination that would be impossible to replicate.

What do you think children get from your poems?

I hope they get a smile, a thought, an experience and a giggle.

How do you stop writer's block?

I don't believe in writers blocks only distractions. I think that for a writer, writing is a natural state but we can alter this state with distractions, TV, radio, video games, internet, too much sugar for me! All these things can act as obstacles that make writing harder. Remove those obstacles and the natural rhythm and flow of writing is always there.

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

It has to be "If all the world were paper" It's a piece that refers heavily to family and my family in particular. It's an old poem but forever surprises me with reactions it still manages to engender from teachers crying to students saying "I love your paper poem"- I always wanted my poetry to connect to people in this way and so am very proud and grateful for that piece.

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

I do use technology both in creating and promoting. I tend to write a lot on a laptop or even on my phone if an idea strikes. This last two years I've been touring The PoetryJoe Show which features my poems and the illustrations on John O'leary in a theatrical performance poetry experience. I've used technology a great deal in promoting the show and in letting readers know about my latest collection. I do this through my website www.joseph-coelho.com, via Facebook and Twitter @poetryjoe. I find that technology has so much to offer poetry for children and think we are only now just scratching the surface - I can't wait to see the future advances and ideas that will make full use of the engagement, pleasure and accessibility that children's poetry has to offer.

Can you tell us two secrets about yourself?

I couldn't read until I was 7.

I love playing hide and seek and seek and will go to great lengths to find effective hiding places.

What advice can you give to aspiring poets?

Read as much poetry as you can.
Keep a notebook.
Write little and often.
Remember that writing is a process and having to redraft is a great sign - don't expect your poetry to be perfect straight away and don't assume that that is such thing as a perfect poem!

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