Alphabet Soup has provided a forum for children’s writing ever since it started in 2008 and it’s something I especially love.
When did your interest in poetry begin and what were the circumstances?
My mum used to recite poems to us from when we were very small. To this day, I cannot push a child on a swing without reciting The Swing by Robert Louis Stevenson.
What was your experience with poetry as a child at school?
The year I was in Year 6 our class learned ‘JIM who ran away from his nurse and was eaten by a lion’ by Hilaire Belloc and we recited it as part of a festival. I learned the word ‘inauspicious’ thanks to that poem, and I loved it. Every child at the school also had to take ESB (English Speaking Board) exams and part of the exam was reciting a poem. The best part was that there was a fair bit of practising your poem in front of the class in the lead up to the exam, so I ended up learning 25 poems by heart because I’d heard everyone’s poems over and over.
And then one term in Year 6, our teacher had the class learn a new poem every week – some classics and some more contemporary poems, too. It was part of our homework to learn the bones of the poem over the week and we also spent time in class learning it by heart and reciting it together. I am so grateful to that teacher. I still have lines from those poems pop out at me occasionally, triggered by something around me. (Sometimes I didn’t even realise they were still there in my memory.)
Did you write poetry as a child?
I can still recite the first poem I remember writing for a school project … but I won’t. It was awful and involved a lot of exclamation marks but I was quite proud of it at the time. I was nine. In upper primary I wrote lots more and improved a bit because I had figured out how to self-edit.
When was your first poem published?
I was 11 and I took a workshop for students who loved creative writing. At the end I had a poem published in an anthology of all the students’ poems. (These days it would probably be called a zine — photocopied pages stapled together.)
My first published poem as an adult appeared in Alphabet Soup magazine in 2009 (under a pen name because I was a bit shy). I don’t really count it though, because I was Alphabet Soup’s editor at the time. The first poem I had published elsewhere was in 2014. It was called Odd Socks, published in The School Magazine.
Who are some poets whose writing you love?
Michael Rosen, AA Milne, Judith Wright, Elizabeth Honey, Lorraine Marwood, John Malone, Robert Louis Stevenson, Alfred Noyes, Carol Ann Duffy, Sally Murphy … there are heaps more than that but I’ll stop there!
Have you had any poetry writing mentors?
Not formal mentors. I am lucky to know a few poets who encourage me and keep me writing and submitting. I’ve taken part in Kathryn Apel’s Month of Poetry in January for quite a few years now, and the feedback from other writers there has also been very helpful.
What inspires you to write poetry?
The rhythm of things. Pushing a swing has a rhythm to it that just calls you to capture it — so does walking, brushing your teeth and grating carrots. And recording an important moment or event in my life will often inspire me to write a poem.
When you are writing a poem, what comes first — a subject, a line, a word?
For me it’s usually a line that I carry around in my head for a while until the rest of the poem forms. The exception is when I’m writing a poem as part of Poetry Tag — then I use the word prompts provided by Sally Murphy as my starting point. I find that much harder but it’s surprising what comes out of your head when you are forced to use particular words.
Do you workshop your poems with anyone?
No, not really. A few times I’ve sent a small set of poems to another writer and asked for an opinion or feedback and I have found this extremely helpful.
How do you know a poem you write is finished?
It just feels complete. And the last line is right.
How do you know a poem is ‘good’?
Ah, so subjective! If we’re talking about my own poems, I think it’s good if the poem sounds natural when I read it aloud. There are no places where I stumble while I read it. The audience laughs or sighs in the right spot. All of those things. Plus, it has an invisible glow.
You started the magazine Alphabet Soup, which is now online. How does your own experience of writing poetry influence your approach to selecting the poems to publish?
Now Alphabet Soup is a website and blog I have new freedoms and limitations. Unfortunately — and it’s a big ‘unfortunately’ — there’s no income (I made the decision not to include advertising on the website because the target audience is primary school-aged children). This means I don’t have the money to commission contemporary poems the way I could when Alphabet Soup was a print magazine and had paid subscriptions. I tend to post classic poems (ones that are out of copyright) or feature poems by agreement with a poet as part of an interview with them, or I link to contemporary poems/poets who have poetry online elsewhere. We also post poetry by children (with their parents’ permission). Alphabet Soup has provided a forum for children’s writing ever since it started in 2008 and it’s something I especially love.
So — how does my own poetry-writing influence my approach to selecting the poems on the site? I suppose the reasons in my answer to the previous question will do here too!