Children's Literature Interest Group Interview with Rachel Rooney

rooneyRachel Rooney trained as a special needs teacher and currently works with children with autism. She also teaches poetry workshops for West Sussex's Gifted and Talented Programme, and leads workshops in schools as a visiting poet. She has been shortlisted for the Belmont Poetry Prize and 60 of her poems have been published in children's poetry anthologies. The Language of Cat, published by Frances Lincoln Children's Books, was her first book of collected poems. My Life as a Goldfish, her second book of collected poems will also be published by Frances Lincoln Children's Books on National Poetry Day, 2nd October 2014.

What does poetry mean to you?

At best, poetry is a way of clarifying my fuzzy thoughts or a relief from certain feelings that cling to me. It can be a comfort as well as a challenge.
At worst, it’s a tease.

Why is poetry important for children?

For the same reason it is important for adults - only more so. To experience the power of words. To learn better ways of saying things - and to know when to be quiet. It allows one a voice, whilst teaching the art of listening. It requires self control but it can be liberating, too. Poetry can persuade, clarify, amuse and delight both the reader and the writer.

When did you start writing poetry for children?

When I was a child - I stopped when I entered my teens. These days I write mainly for myself, sometimes with the child in mind. The child usually being me. However, there was a 25 year gap between these events, as I didn’t pick up a pen again until I was 40.

What part did poetry play in your own childhood?

A strong part. There were many poetry books in my house and my father would regularly quote relevant snippets of poetry in passing conversation. One cat was named Skimbleshanks (T.S. Eliot) as we lived near a railway at the time and another, Kinsella, after the poet Thomas Kinsella. The dog was called Janus. My hamster was Hamlet. It was that kind of household. At nine, my older sister and I learned the Witches Speech from Macbeth to recite to our parents. At school I don’t recall writing poetry but I do remember reading the great series of books called Junior Voices. I wrote poems between the ages of 9-13 although I never showed these efforts to anybody. I kept a couple of them and now I’m including one in my next collection, just for fun.

Do you follow a regular process in creating your poetry?

Unlike many poets, I don’t keep a notebook to scribble my ideas in and I’m not constantly writing. These days, I don’t worry too much about writer’s block. I write when the nub of an idea keeps surfacing and resurfacing. Eventually, I give up ignoring it and start to explore my thoughts in writing. I like the sense of urgency that I have when I finally pick up a pen. A bit like squeezing a ripe spot. The idea could be a phrase that gets stuck in my head, or an image I’ve been mulling over, or maybe a complex emotion I can’t shake off. I often don’t know quite what I want to say until I’m a good way into writing the poem. That discovery, and the simultaneous task of finding the form is the hardest part. I can often abandon poems just before I reach this point. The tweaking and editing is the easier, more enjoyable bit for me.
I can only work on one poem at a time. I’d feel unfaithful to be working on two.
I read them aloud as I’m working on them and recite them to myself as I walk the dog.

Which are your favourite poetic forms and why?

I have no favourite but I like the sharpness and musicality of sonnets. I’d like to try the challenge of writing a ghazal or a setina at some point.

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

When I start to write- no, unless I’m writing to a specific anthology brief. At some point I might sit back and think - this is clearly an ‘adult poem’ due to the subject matter or references. Or that it works best as a ‘children’s poem’. Then I tweak it accordingly. Though I like it most when it appears to be for both audiences - or neither, depending on how one looks at it. For then, it just becomes poetry.

Which topics influence your poetry?

People. Relationships. My experience of language - and more broadly, communication. Themes that arose in The Language of Cat were identity, difference, borders and boundaries, love and friendship.
My new collection My Life as a Goldfish has a slightly younger audience in mind, it’s more firmly a junior collection. There’s a greater emphasis on humour, magic, wordplay, metaphor and personification.

How would you describe your poetry?
Hmm. I’d like to think it was clean, sharp and thought provoking.

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

I don’t consider the role of illustration when I’m writing poems. It’s an after thought, a discussion I have with my editors once the poems have been decided upon. I would hope that poetry can stand alone as an art form therefore the illustrations shouldn’t dominate the words, though I appreciate their necessary in today’s publishing world. Illustrations can enhance, highlight or clarify but there’s a lot to be said for having enough white space around the poem.

Can you tell us two secrets about yourself?

I can’t swim and I have Prosopagnosia (face blindness). So don’t expect me to save you when our boat overturns.

What advice can you give to aspiring poets?

Read widely. Find the poems you dislike as well as admire, then work out the reasons why. Experiment with form and styles. Read your work out loud as you write, and listen for the musicality. Expect to edit and re edit.

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