Poetry pointers #2

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Poet and writer Stephen Whiteside answers some key questions about writing poetry. To find out more about Stephen and his work, visit his website here


1. Where do you get ideas?

First you need the right state of mind. The best way to achieve this is to try to find an hour or two when you having nothing to do other than to write a poem. As you unwind, ideas will begin to come. The more relaxed you get, the more ideas will arrive, and the more interesting they will be. I often approach a writing session with an idea for a poem in my mind but find that, after half an hour or so of thinking and pottering, I have a much better idea, and one that is nothing like the idea that I first sat down with.
2. How do you write a poem?
I am a rhyming poet. For me, it is very much a matter of writing a first line that I am happy with. The rest will then start to flow. In addition to writing what I want to say, I also have to be mindful of the rhyming pattern. Will it be a simple ABAB, or am I being more ambitious? How many stresses will there be in each line? Will each line be the same length? How many verses will there be? How long will they be? Will they all be the same length? Will there be a repeating line, or a refrain? Will that also change a little each time, or not? And so on…
3. Who publishes poetry?
This is a very good question. I am not sure I know any more. Yes, I know the publishers who (very occasionally) publish collections, but who publishes individual poems? My own collection, ‘The Billy That Died With Its Boots On and Other Australian Verse, published by Walker Books last year, was built heavily around poems that were published in The School Magazine (NSW), the Pearson magazines in Victoria, and The School Journal (New Zealand). Alas, these latter two no longer exist. So, aside from The School Magazine, who does publish poetry for children?
4. How do I become a children’s poet?
Given the dwindling number of publishers, I suspect that it is becoming harder and harder to become a children’s poet. Then again, of course, this is very much a matter of definition. At what point are you a children’s poet? Have you succeeded if you write a poem for your child, or niece or nephew? Or do you need to have had a poem published to be a children’s poet? Or do you need to have had a collection published? Or do you need to have had multiple collections published before you can say you are truly established as a children’s poet?
The obvious answer is to simply write, but writing without publication becomes demoralising after a while, especially if you’ve been trying hard to have poems published without any success. Peer support is important, but there aren’t really enough children’s poets for them to have their own organisation – at least, not yet. Of course the Australian Children’s Poetry web-site is a great asset, but if you want to meet other children’s poets in the flesh, you are probably going to have to join a group for children’s writers generally – such as SCBWI – or a group for poets who write for adults as well as children, or both.
5. What is your top tip for writers who want to write poetry for children?
There are two key points, I think.
1. Make sure you are always enjoying yourself when you write.
2. Never give up (but this only works if you make sure you are continuing to enjoy yourself).

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