Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with Tony Mitton

Image copyright Tony Mitton
Tony Mitton is a widely anthologized and popular children's poet, as well as a teacher and performing poet.

What does poetry mean to you?

Poetry means a lot to me and I’ve had a relationship with it since I was a child. Since the age of around 9 I’ve read it and written it. Sometimes there have been fallow periods where I haven’t read much poetry. And sometimes, similarly, I’ve gone for long periods without writing any. But it always comes back in the end, often with more power, more force, as if refreshed after the break.

For me poetry is language at its sharpest, most evocative, most penetrating, most powerful. It’s like language with the dial turned right up. This doesn’t mean it’s loud and brash like rock music. It just means the power (and this can be a quiet, intense thing) is turned ‘up’. For me poetry is one of the main ways that life can be verbalised into a meaningful shape or form. Poetry is a means for making sense of the world, of life, of experience, of consciousness.

That makes it sound very ‘serious’, very deep, very solemn etc. It need not be so. Poetry can be light and humorous while carrying deep messages in its hold, like a light sailing vessel bearing a heavy, dense cargo over the ocean. Or it can wear a solemn face for a solemn occasion. It can take many shapes and forms, appearing in various moods and styles. Poetry is thought finding itself through the medium or agency of language, the fashioning of experience into a meaningful shape. Or you could say it is just ‘playing with words’. Look after the words and the meanings will look after themselves.

Why is poetry important for children?

I’m not sure whether poetry is important for children or not. Being poetic by nature I’m partial to it, so as a teacher and as a parent I’ve tried to include poetry in my teaching and parenting. I like poetry. I think it’s great stuff. So I want to share it in ways that open it up to anyone and everyone, including children. And I want it to be seen to have all its various forms and styles, from short, silly, light verse through to really serious, earnest poetry.

I know that there are several things that many children respond to in poetry. One is the brevity of many lyric poems. For a novice reader a poem can be less daunting than a long chunk of narrative or discursive prose. There are fewer words. There is more white space around the words, so less the sense of a dense screed to be penetrated. A poem can seem more manageable, less threatening, for its modest length or size. It can seem less of a text and more of a sound bite. In today’s world that is particularly recommending to many children.

Another thing is that many children enjoy the rhythms, rhymes and other textural aspects of the more patterned forms of poetry. The musical traits of the language feature highly in such work and can be seductively employed particularly in humorous work. Spike Milligan’s ‘Ning Nang Nong’ continues to be a great favourite. Nuff said:)

But poetry also has a quiet, lyrical, ruminative voice. Think of classics like de la Mare’s ‘The Listeners’ or James Reeves’s ‘The Sea’ (‘The sea is a hungry dog....etc’). Children can be dreamers and musers. I know this because I taught in primary schools for years. And I’ve watched two children of my own go through childhoods that had many dreaming moments. Poetry speaks to this quiet, reflective aspect of childhood. It is not all bunfights and jellythrowing and silly teasing and mirth. Those are fine and there is a place for them. But children can be as serious and as earnest as any adult, as thoughtful as any philosopher, sage or mystic. The greatest minds in our cultures and canons passed through childhood in their emergence. And serious thought is not only for ‘great’ minds. It is for all minds at the right place and time.

Or the short answer is that if they like it, if it diverts, engages, entertains or instructs them, it is important for them and they should have it.

When did you start writing poetry for children?

I started consciously writing poetry for children around the age of 40. I wrote with children, for them, as a primary teacher, well before that. But that was in the context of the classroom where I was writing as a ‘modeller’ of how one might go about composing text, whether prose or poetry. There I was thinking out loud with them as I wrote on the whiteboard or blackboard. I was creating text live, out loud, to help them get the sense of how one might generate text.

It was my own children who started me actually composing poems for their entertainment. My first ‘poems for children’ were written for fun, to amuse my two children when they were very young. Gradually I began to realise that my poems were as good as many I saw in print. Since I enjoyed the process I began to submit work for publication and it was from there that my late career as a poet for children and verse picture book writer developed.

What part did poetry play in your own childhood?

I did not get much poetry at home in my childhood, as I recall. But my father used to have some songs and rhymes he chanted around bath and bed times (‘Your baby has gorn dahn the plug’ole...’ was one. Another was politer versions of ‘The boy stood on the burning deck...’ and there were one or two pieces based on popular music hall or wartime favourites : ‘Run, rabbit, run rabbit, run, run, run....’ went down well. I may have bounced on my bed to the rhythm of that:) When I was about 9 or 10 I had a teacher at school who used to get us to learn poems by heart, which I seemed to have a natural talent for. It was through him I learned poems like ‘The Listeners’, Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ and others. He got us to write poems of our own, which I also showed a fair leaning toward. Once I got to grammar school, where I again had an enthusiastic and original English teacher and a very good school library, things really took off for me, both in the classroom and in my own time. By my teens I was writing poems for the school magazine and keeping a notebook of my own poems, written out in my best handwriting. No typewriter, no tablet, no device of any kind. Just pencils, biros and a good fountain pen and notebooks. Simple but effective.

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

As I reflect on this I hardly know where to begin. The point is I was reading poetry from my school library from the age of 12 or 13. And I was eager about studying English Literature both for O* Level and for A Level. Also I did French A Level which included a lot of French Literature. And then I went to Cambridge and did the English Tripos, where I was taught (sometimes individually) by Jeremy Prynne (J.H.Prynne) one of Britain’s most erudite poets of the late 20th century (and still going...). From that time I have been reading a range of poetries, on and off, across a lifetime (I am 62 as I write this now). So I’ve read English, French and German poetries as well as other nationalities in translation &/or parallel text. I’ve read a lot of stuff from the United States, especially from Whitman onwards. I’ve read a lot of classic English poetry for children much later in life (from age 25 onwards, partly as a result of being a teacher, partly as a way of ‘making up what I missed in childhood’) : Robert Louis Stevenson, Eleanor Farjeon, Walter de la Mare, A.A. Milne, Ogden Nash, Hilair Belloc James Reeves, Charles Causley, E.V. Rieu, Ian Seraillier. And since becoming a teacher and then a writer for children I’ve read a lot of the work from the 70s onwards which has been published under the banner of poetry for children : Roger McGough, Brian Patten, Michael Rosen, Judith Nicholls, John Agard, Grace Nichols, Valerie Bloom, James Berry, Philip Gross, Allan Ahlberg, Jack Prelutsky, Kit Wright, Gareth Owen, Wes Magee, May Swenson, Lou Lipsidz, Richard Edwards, Carol Ann Duffy, the list is endless.... I could go on and on. Some of these will have influenced me, some more, some less, some that I’m conscious of, others that I’m unaware of at the time. If you’re a published contemporary writer of poems for children I probably have read you so don’t be offended if I haven’t mentioned you. The list above was kind of off the top of my head and I’m already aware of some obvious names that I didn’t get to before I stopped listing.

I admire all poets for doing what they do, or just trying to. Some poets write many fine poems across their lifetime. Others only manage a few. I’m actually conscious these days of admiring poems rather than poets. Many of us have a very uneven and varied output across a lifetime. But most of us just now and then really hit the spot with a poem, come up with something special. And you can never entirely plan for or predict that. You have to keep reading, thinking and writing. After a while you can ease up on the reading as you eventually have a vast store of memory and reference in your mind. But you need to keep musing, thinking, writing, if you’re going to come up now and then with something really good. But chances are it eventually becomes a habit, it’s sewn into your everyday life and almost as instinctive as breathing.

I was, in my early days as a writer of poems for children, particularly fond of and very impressed by the poems for children that Charles Causley, our Cornish poet, wrote. I read his adult work too, but was especially keen on his work for children. He too spent many years as a primary school teacher in his home town of Launceston.

Recent poets I have hugely enjoyed and admired are two very different poets, but both American: Billy Collins and Mary Oliver. There are times when I fall in love with a poet’s work and this has happened with both of those. They do something that I’ve in some way myself dreamed of or imagined somehow doing but never reached. So there’s a kind of strange recognition which says, “Yes. That’s it. I knew it could be like that. And you’ve done it just beautifully, perfectly. What bliss!”

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

My writing process has developed and changed over the years. I’m sure any poet’s does. I tend to begin poems in longhand, writing with a scribbly fine-point black biro in a cheap supermarket notebook or just on scrap paper or whatever’s to hand. I like to keep the sense that the poem itself is ‘ghostly’ at that point, sort of in my head, in the air, like a vapour or cloud just beginning to take shape in a way I can only partly grasp at. So to scribble bits down is like glimpsing bits of a jigsaw which may eventually form a picture, but what of, or what kind, I may not yet know. To write beautifully with a fountain pen in a fine notebook on expensive paper would suggest the poem was being dictated to me by some godly part of my brain, almost entirely finished before the ink touches the paper, which is NOT how it is, mostly.

But sometimes I do write most of a poem out like clear statement, almost straight away. This may be because I do a lot of prose writing, emailing, writing things like this piece, for instance. Years of practice mean that sometimes I write coherently from scratch, just making a few changes here and there as I work over what I’ve written later. Even so, there’s the moment when I go from paper to laptop. The laptop stage is a bit like my own private publishing house. As I key a poem onto my laptop I see it like a poem printed in a book. So then I edit my own work, in a sense. Seeing it printed on the screen helps me to see it with a kind of critical distance. So, whatever, there’s always some drafting that goes on. I don’t really call it drafting. It’s just an implicit part of writing. Drafting makes it sound like a special, separate activity, which it’s not for me. It’s just, well, d’uh!, writing... :)

Do you read your poems aloud?

You bet. If I’m on my own I read insistently, dramatically, out loud. If I can be overheard, or am on a train etc I read ‘out loud in silence in my head’ (that may sound contradictory but try it and see / there IS such a thing). Or I murmur quietly in a barely audible undertone, maybe covering my mouth with my hand so as not to seem too barmy. I write in various modes or styles, from very rhythmic and patterned to very loose and colloquial (though even then there is tight control and careful crafting, it’s just less obvious). But how the poem sounds when read aloud is a crucial part of the process of making a poem and a crucial aspect of its final shape or form. A poem has perhaps four aspects : meaning / visual / emotional / musical. Even without rhyme, alliteration, assonance, metric rhythm or euphony, a poem still has a musical aspect which needs to be managed. That very much influences what might be called its rhetorical face or aspect, the way it deploys itself to the reader’s or listener’s mind.

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

I’ve always had a great fondness for the ballad, the literary ballad, the kind that is written in quatrains, four beats on one line, three on the next and rhyming line two end word with line four end word. Great for narrative verse. Very traditional. Old fashioned in essence but can sometimes be worked into quite a modern feel. Thus timeless, but rather prosaic in tone. Not good for ruminative, contemplative writing, as a rule, unless those qualities come via the story itself.

I like playing with form quite a lot, so have tackled things like sonnets, villanelles, acrostics, clerihews, raps, tanka, haiku (I quite like introducing rhymes into tanka and haiku, where technically they don’t belong). Also tanka and haiku are of course Japanese in origin and actually more apt for that language. They are not really English forms, so more just a way of setting up a frame within which to write. But that can be quite liberating for novice writers. I also like creating my own forms, sometimes using quite extended one-off metric long lines (eg ‘Nightwriter’ in Plum, ‘Kwan Yin’ or ‘The Taper’ in Come Into This Poem). And when I’m creating a poem as it comes I tend to allow a form to create itself via the writing process, so there’s likely to be a metric going on within it which may not be strictly adhered to, combining with some use of rhyme which again may vary across the poem. I sometimes change step within a poem, to signal a change of direction or even a significant narrative moment. You can see / hear this going on in poems like ‘Dreaming the Unicorn’ or ‘Forbidden Poem’ in Plum, or in ‘The Taper’ in Come Into This Poem.

So I definitely feel that form is for the taking when writing poetry, whether had off-the-peg or personally bespoke and self-made. I can never write poetry without having some kind of relationship with form, whether with it or against it. If your rhythm happens to be close to a very traditional one, like pentameter, you tend to hear your line in tension with the ghost-pentameter behind it, so to speak.

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

Not usually. Certainly not if I’m writing as an adult. But even if I can tell that what I’m writing codes more as a poem for children, even then it’s pretty vague. I’m more in relation to the poem, myself and the poem, than with some notional audience. My awareness of a potential audience is usually by extension, a later thing, a secondary factor.

There have been times, particularly back when I was doing ‘bespoke’ writing for educational anthologies or popular, light anthologies (eg poems about pets for 5/6 year olds) where I would write as if addressing an imaginary child of that age. Even then it would tend to be addressing myself ‘as if I were a child of that age’ if you see what I mean. So I can do that thing. But I don’t do much bespoke writing these days and prefer to use writing time for writing ‘real poems’ whether these turn out to be essentially adult poems or suitable for children.

I DO very much write with an audience in mind when writing verse picture books for children, however. This aspect of my work has strong determining factors of a commercial nature. Which is to say that Sales teams and editorial teams are often requesting work of a particular content type and nature. So there I am very much working as a ‘commercial’ writer with a requested ‘job’ in mind. I don’t mind this and take a pride in doing a job as well as I can. If it’s going to have my name on it then it must work well as verse as well as plot. There as much as ever I have a reputation to consider. But I’d just hate to let a bad job through. I want people only getting my best.

Which topics influence your poetry?

I’m not sure I understand the question here. I write narrative poems and I write lyric poems. I often start a lyric poem around a ‘thing’, maybe a small thing like a pebble or a leaf, or a coin found on the ground, maybe something larger like a ruined cottage or an old bridge or a tree. Folk myths and legends often provoke me. But simple small things often afford the poetic if one milks them a little, say, the way black squiggly words flow out of the tip of a ball point pen to make a meaningful stream. Or just the way spoken language is lost on the air, meaning that disperses immediately across time and space. It’s less a matter of topics, I think, than of how one considers them. Anything has a poetic potential within it. It’s just a matter of getting it to germinate, to sprout.

How would you describe your poetry?

I would say my lyric poetry is speciously simple. It often appears, plain and blunt, but actually contains further levels of depth or meaning. It often comes across as humorous, light in tone, easy and throwaway, yet actually quietly suggests or says more. It sometimes contains hidden messages, little cryptic jokes (like the Frog saying ‘Croak!’ in ‘Ponderous Frog’ in Come Into This Poem, which is a reference to Zen Koans...aha!) but it’s not essential to get these and maybe I shouldn’t even have mentioned that one. But I should say there’s been a lot of Buddhist (especially Zen) influence in my life which can be read in my relation to myself and the world around me, down to the simplest, apparently material things (such as bread, air, water, grass and chewing gum:) As I say, there’s poetry in everything. You just have to find your angle.

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

The main thing is that it should not come between the child and the poem, between the reader and the poetry. If it’s too bright, colourful, obtrusive etc then it will catch the child’s attention and delight too much at the expense of the intended experience (ie the reading of the poem). I loved the approach of the Angela Huth anthologies from the 80s (or was it 90s?) illustrated by Jane Ray. Jane is a great colourist and used that for her jackets. But inside she restricted herself to monochrome drawings of small things that featured in the poems (a fish on a plate, a pair of old boots, a feather etc... I made those up, as I’m writing from memory, but it was minimal and suggestive, just taking the edge of the unstinting hardness of text-only pages, putting in something visual of relevance but nudging the attention back to the poem). Poems should provoke imagined visual imagery, sometimes complex. Pictures turn this into something ready made, doing the interpreting before the poem has been read. Like seeing the film before reading the book. A poem, minimally illustrated, can exercise the imagination.

What do you think children get from your poems?

Mostly I think they get something they can actually read and get a grip on. Some ostensibly children’s poetry doesn’t do that. When I say ‘children’ I mean people below the age of 12. I’ve taught many children aged below 12 so I know broadly what can and can’t be said to the age groups below that marker. When poems work for them it can be that they’re moved by a story or situation evoked within a poem, or it may be that they’re amused by a game going on that it plays (like my Rap Rhymes series cf Big Bad Raps, where the ‘game’ is certain genres of tale being delivered in a pastiche of Street Rap style, so creating a gentle kind of ‘comedy of style’). I think the accessibility of much of my children’s work also gives them the sense that they might try writing themselves. It doesn’t seem like an unreachable goal. I WILL be harder, they’ll find if they try. But the objective won’t seem way beyond reach. I hope. I do also try to include a sprinkling of more challenging pieces in a collection as I know that just a few children are precociously and impressively literary even by the age of 9 or 10. So there are some bones to chew on there too, intentionally (Nightwriter, Rainforest Song and such).

How do you stop writer's block?

I’m really not sure there’s such a thing. I suppose if you imagined turning up at your laptop every morning at 9.00am on the dot expecting to come up with a poetic gem by break-time, then, yes, there might be such a thing. But really, if we’re talking poetry, well, you can’t just do it all the time. There are more fertile periods and less so. There is admin and office work to do in a writing life. There’s shopping and cooking and housework. Gardening if you like that kind of thing. There’s exercise. There’s emailing and reading and managing one’s website. Heck, the list goes on.

If you think you have ‘writer’s block’ try freewriting, that thing where you simply make yourself write non stop for 10 minutes at relative speed, not allowing yourself to stop writing, if necessary making yourself repeat the same phrase, the same phrase, the same phrase, the same phrase which will eventually crack open into a green shoot rising toward whatever you next imagine.

It can help simply to say it wouldn’t matter that much if you never wrote another word and that it will all be lost to the cosmos in due course anycase, so why worry. Learning to meditate in any style is good for a poet of my kind. If you DO feel blocked or stuck try just following your breathing without thinking of anything. I assure you that by your third breath you’ll be thinking of something.

Writer’s block just means ‘nothing coming through at the moment’. Causley used to just stop writing, I recall him saying somewhere. Presumably he read and did other things. Usually within a month something would start to happen in his head. Let the brain do its business. Try not to get in the way.

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

Gosh, that’s a hard question. I love many of the poems I’ve written, for various reasons. That may sound arrogant but I don’t mean it that way. I’m not claiming they’re great. I’m just saying I love them because, for me, they’ve come through and taken shape to say something right in the best way I could at the time. The first and last poems in Plum, as children’s poems, are good old faves of mine: ‘My Hat’ and ‘Plum’. Simple, accessible, but in essential ways true, both for me and in general. “It’s my lid. / And I love it.” “you have the making of / a whole new tree.”

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

No. But you can put a short lyric poem on pretty much any hand held device or screen. Or post yourself reciting a poem on YouTube or your website or facebook page etc. But none of that affects my approach to the writing of poems. I’m too old. It came too late. I can access it, I can get my head round some of it. But aged 62 in 2013 I am from a pre-digital era. Having said that I’m writing this on a laptop and will email it to my editor having changed the format.

But I don’t think digital when creating poetry for children. Promotion is another matter. I DO have my own website for my children’s books. So I do think digital in promotional terms. I have had work selected for e-books, apps etc. But that tends to happen after the work is done, as promotion or distribution. It’s not essential and intrinsic to the ‘making’ of the poems. But maybe digi-cyber-wotsits will get beneath my skin somehow, insidiously? :)

What advice can you give to aspiring poets?

Read, write,
live, love,
think, daydream...
Trust to your instincts
& learn to do it your way.

Copyright Tony Mitton 2013

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