Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with John Rice

Photograph of John RiceJohn Rice is a poet, storyteller, writer-in-education, and photographer who has published numerous books for both children and adults.  Known across the country for his exhilarating school visits, he has also appeared on TV, has been heard on the radio, and still finds time to exist as a real person!  John currently splits his time between working as the Poet-in-Residence for SPT, the regional transportation service, and visiting schools across the north-west.

What does poetry mean to you?

I fell in love with a poet’s words as a young teenager in Ayrshire, Scotland. That poet was Robert Burns (he lived a long time ago) and it was his poems and songs that made me realise that words can sound good as well as mean something. So it was Robert Burns who showed me just how important words and poetry and song would be in my life.

Why is poetry important for children?

Very young babies adore nursery rhymes because they are rhythmic and repetitive. When children are a little older they begin to become fascinated by words and how they look and how they sound different from each other...words become quite attractive and interesting little machines! Poetry allows each of us to experiment with rhythm and sound and also allows us to investigate language and meaning. Poetry is as good for children just as porridge was good for Robert Burns!   

When did you start writing poetry for children?

I had been writing poems since the age of 12 or so. These were ‘adult’ poems; that’s to say they were intended for adults. However, by the time I was a father with three young children, I realised that I was no different from hundreds of other writers, past and present, who all found themselves writing for a child audience when their own wee ones were young! My children loved the stories I’d invent for them each night before sleep...the characters (Boodie, Squean and Scratchmaback!) had such mad adventures and all of those stories were impromptu and improvised. It soon followed that I began writing short rhymes for my children and as they grew up. These little poems became more involved, more complex and more intricate as far as wordplay was concerned. I published my first book of children’s poems in the early 1980s – it was called Zoomballoomballistic.

What part did poetry play in your own childhood?

Sad to say poetry played no part at all in my early life as a child. We had no books in my house and I don’t ever recall hearing or reading poetry at primary school. However, it was at secondary school (St Michael’s College in Irvine, Ayrshire) that I discovered the songs and poems of Robert Burns and, of course, I was growing up in the 1960s and pop music lyrics were becoming much more accomplished and interesting.  Also at secondary school there was an English Teacher called Eddie Mellon (he also taught French and Spanish, both of which I studied) and he would often start his lessons with a poem, a song or a story. His enthusiasm for the spoken and written word inspired many students at St Michael’s.

Which poets or poems do you admire?

Like most other poets I am always astounded and amazed by the wonderful work of Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. I also bow to the amazing poetry of the American poet Sharon Olds.

I am a great admirer of the poems of Vernon Scannell. His poems tell stories and always seem to convey a message or truth that gently unfolds as the poem progresses. And when that message or truth finally arrives, it is a wondrous revelation! He was a very gifted and fascinating man. He wrote for children, young people and adults in a way that everyone would be able to understand...and yet he never ever underestimated his readers. Another poet I admire is Jackie Kay who has written a lot of poems about my home city of Glasgow – I admire how she can be both serious and comic in the same short poem!  For me John Agard and Michael Rosen have always been the most inspirational poets and performers in my time as a children’s writer. I am lucky to have met, read with, learned from and been inspired by each of the poets mentioned in this paragraph. 

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

Yes, now that I think about it, I do follow a kind of process! I live in Sedbergh, Cumbria and on most mornings I go to the cafe in town and set up my laptop to write. I have a collection of about 40 poems which are in the ‘Children’s Poems Working Drafts’ folder and about 15 poems in the ‘Adult Poems Working Drafts’ folder. And as I can’t seem to finish them, some of these drafts have been in those folders for about five years!!! Some are in there for just a few days and suddenly find a life for themselves in the ‘Finalised Poems’ file! They’re the lucky ones!

In the days before computers I used to write lots of drafts (maybe 8, 9, or 10) but now that I am working on either my laptop or the home computer, the poems just simply walk through the cafe door, jump into the computer, change, twist, balance and finalise themselves on screen!  It’s magical! 

Do you read your poems aloud?

Yes, I certainly do! Since I started writing poetry I have always performed the poems in front of an audience...whether that be 7 people or 750 people! I have read my poems in schools, libraries, theatres and arts centres, at folk festivals and in art galleries, in cafes, bookshops and in forests and I have even yelled out my poems to commuters on Maidstone’s Park & Ride buses and (the noisiest place of all)...Glasgow subway!

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

Sometimes if I am writing a poem for adults I try to imagine myself reading that poem to just one single person who is seated just opposite me...I like to think my adult poems are so personal that they must be aimed at just one person. It’s different when I’m writing poems for children: then I try to imagine reading the poem out to a whole school hall full of children. These ideas seem to work for me.

Which topics influence your poetry?

More than any other topics I write lots of poems about astronomy, space and the night sky. I have been interested in astronomy since I was a child. During the International Year of Astronomy in 2009 I was Poet-in-Residence in Glasgow and one of the many shows I performed was an evening of my space poetry in the Science Centre Planetarium. Just before the show started I was told that the Astronomer Royal was in the audience! I was so nervous, in fact I was terrified! But after the show he came up to me and said he had really enjoyed the poems and he invited me out to lunch at his university!

How would you describe your poetry?

Oh, that’s a tough question! I’d have to say that my poetry for children is very often created from playfulness – a sense of having fun with words. I like how words can sound like other words, I like how they can be confused for other words, I like how they can be dismantled and then rebuilt to make new meanings...just like a Lego house can be taken apart to make a new building. And of course I also write serious poems for children. For example I have written poems about fear, poems about loneliness, poems about being anxious when just starting secondary school. I have even written a poem about a child who dies whilst on holiday in France and how the whole school comes to terms with that kind of tragedy. The Guardian newspaper praised how I did not shy away from serious issues in my poetry. That was very reassuring because as a writer you can feel very isolated and vulnerable at times.

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

I have published two books of poetry illustrated by the hugely talented artist Charles Fuge. Together we worked on Bears Don’t Like Bananas and Dreaming of Dinosaurs. Both books were very popular and Bears... went through six reprints during the 1990s. Dreaming... was a fabulous project for me because I worked very closely with Charles, exchanging ideas and suggesting themes for each other. I’m often surprised that not more children’s poetry books are illustrated because the illustrator’s art is so unique as he/she often helps to bring the poem alive by offering those lopsided ideas, crazy images and exciting notions that the poem’s words are trying to convey. And if it’s a serious poem, the illustrator can be just as sensitive, just as inventive and just as canny as any poet.

What do you think children get from your poems?

When children read my comic/wordplay poems I hope they are able to tune in to the great sense of fun I have when I am writing them; I also hope that when they read the more serious poems they will understand that difficult things in life can be shared and when they are shared, they are more bearable. If I was to forced to sum up in one word what I think children get from reading my poems I’d say ‘enjoyment and empathy’. And yes, I know that’s three words but I didn’t say I was any good at sums!!!

How do you stop writer’s block?

I read lots of poems by other poets...and then I get really jealous and try to beat them by writing as best as I can...but mainly I get really fed up because they are all so much better at writing than I am and I end up watching the football!

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

I wrote a poem called ‘Dazzledance’ which has appeared in lots of anthologies and has been set to music and recorded by the wonderful Irish singer Padraigin Ni Uallachain on her CD called When I was Young: Children’s Songs from Ireland. It’s a poem that tries to capture the essence of the Celtic cultural spirit as it mentions song, dance, storytelling and music.

Here’s how it goes:

Dazzledance

I have an eye of silver,
I have an eye of gold,
I have a tongue of reed-grass
   and a story to be told.
 
I have a hand of metal,
I have a hand of clay,
I have two arms of granite
   and a song for every day.
 
I have a foot of damson,
I have a foot of corn,
I have two legs of leaf-stalk
   and a dance for every morn.
 
I have a dream of water,
I have a dream of snow,
I have a thought of wildfire
   and a harp-string long and low.
 
I have an eye of silver,
I have an eye of gold,
I have a tongue of reed-grass
   and a story to be told.
 
John Rice

Do you think new technology is important in creating and promoting poetry for young people?

Certainly! Having a laptop computer has already made a huge difference to the way I write and where I write (mainly at Duo Cafe in Sedbergh!) From the cafe I can access a dictionary, a thesaurus and lots of internet sites that help me to create new work (Rhymezone for instance is really helpful for a poet!) And to think I can do all this from just one little machine! Amazing!

I do have a website, but I think teachers tend to use it more than children. Teachers often contact me regarding school visits or they might be asking for a certain poem to use in the class. So far I have not been very good at using social media and other publicity methods though I do realise they can be very helpful for writers and readers.    

And here's a question that John suggested we should ask in future: 

Can you tell us five secret things about yourself?

for myself I’d say things like: I was a spy (true! honestly!) or I have run around the entire circumference of planet Earth (also true, I’m a former marathon runner and triathlete!)

Share this page: