Poetry has long been a tough sell, I don’t know why. We know its power, we reach for poetry collections when words escape us, when we want to communicate the indescribable and yet it comes with baggage. We have been taught that there is a correct approach to reading poems (and therefore an incorrect approach). We have been taught that there are gifted poets and then those that just write bad poetry and out of fear of becoming the latter, we dare not put pen to paper.
When I decided I wanted to be a published poet 20 years ago, there were very few publishers publishing poetry for children and very few opportunities for new poets to get published. My emails to editors went unanswered and the agents I met told me that they could do little more for me than I could do for myself. Twelve years of perseverance and writing and leading school poetry sessions later saw the landscape slowly change. I started to take matters into my own hands creating videos on YouTube of my poems that grew in popularity (and directly led to my first picture book being published). I knew that poetry had power as I had seen its impact first hand in schools up and down the country. I had seen children light up with the invitation to pen a poem, I had seen elect mutes choose a poetry session to first share their voice with their class. The power of poetry was undeniable, I just had to wait for the industry to catch up.
I’ve now been published for ten years and am so pleased to see that the poetry publishing landscape is much healthier, with new anthologies coming out from a wider selection of publishers and poets with increasingly inventive anthologies being created, such as the fab multi-poet, multi-illustrator My Heart Is a Poem from Little Tiger Press illustrated by Annalise Barber, Mariana Roldán, Masha Manapov, Nabila Adani, among others, and the huge A Whale of a Time from Nosy Crow illustrated by Matt Hunt and wonderful single collections such a s Simon Lamb’s A Passing on of Shells from Scallywag Press illustrated by Chris Riddell. During my laureateship I have also been busy running a ten-week masterclass in writing poetry for children with ten exciting new voices to children’s poetry. Their work will feature in a brand-new anthology called Spin which will be published by Otter-Barry Books with support from the performance poetry organisation Apples and Snakes.
When I was appointed Children’s Laureate in July 2022 I felt a huge responsibility as only the second poet to hold the post (the first being the indomitable Michael Rosen) to shout about the strength of poetry. So one of my projects as laureate has been Poetry Prompts, a series of YouTube videos that go live every Monday morning at 7:30am, both on my YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/@JosephCoelho), and over on the BookTrust website (www.booktrust.org.uk/Poetryprompts).
Poetry Prompts on YouTube.
The idea behind the prompts was to make poetry as accessible and as fun as possible. Each video is about five minutes long and is a gentle invitation to get kids (and indeed adults) writing a poem. So far I have scripted and, with the wonderful BookTrust team, filmed over 50 Poetry Prompts. Over on the BookTrust website there are also resources created by Charlotte Hacking of CLPE that make curriculum links with the videos. There is also a poster that schools, parents and librarians can download, created by the brilliant Joelle Avelino which serves as a focal point to turn any blank wall, fridge or notice board into a gathering place for poems.
I have recently finished filming some Poetry Prompts with some very special guests, each with unique specialisms in music, science and art, sport and cookery. To find out who, you’ll have to check out the videos. It was such a joy to write poems on a range of subjects and to see the delight in the faces of these talented adults as they turned their skills to poetry, and I hope these prompts will demonstrate that poetry is, at its heart, a flexible medium. You can use poetry to reflect upon any subject and you can find a poem that talks to any theme.
BookTrust 2022 poster.
This autumn I have a new book coming out called Poetry Prompts, illustrated by Georgie Birkett, Viola Wang, Amanda Quartey and Grasya Oliyko, featuring many of the activities that I created for the video series so that young people can write poems at their leisure using a medium that suits them – book or video and with the associated resources, can challenge themselves to take their writing even further.
My hope is that my time as laureate will shine a bit of a spotlight on poetry, encouraging adults and children alike to not only discover the classics but also to dive into the work of new poets and most importantly to claim for themselves the label of poet. I strongly believe that by letting young people know that they too are poets, that their words and voices have power, we can ignite a love for poetry that sees them enjoying the work of others as much as seeing themselves as part of that poetry-creating community.
Coelho, Joseph (illus. Daniel Gray-Barnett) (2022) Smile Out Loud: 25 Happy Poems. London: Wide Eyed Editions.
—— (illus. Daniel Gray-Barnett) (2022) Poems Aloud. London: Wide Eyed Editions.
—— (illus. ‘friends’) (2023) Ten-Word Tiny Tales. London: Walker Books.
Lamb, Simon (illus. Chris Riddell.) (2023) A Passing on of Shells. London: Scallywag Press.
Peacock, Lou (selected by) (illus. Matt Hunt) (2023) A Whale of a Time: A Funny Poem for Every Day of the Year. London: Nosy Crow.
Various authors (illus. Annalise Barber, Mariana Roldán, Masha Manapov and Nabila Adani, and others) (2023) My Heart Is a Poem. London: Little Tiger Press.
Joseph Coelho is an award-winning performance poet, playwright and children’s author. He was appointed Waterstones Children’s Laureate 2022–2024; his aim is to encourage all children to become involved in the creative process of writing whether poetry or prose. His passion for this can be seen across his work – especially in collections such as Smile out Loud, Poems Aloud and Ten-Word Tiny Tales.