by A.F. Harrold, author and poet
For February, we put a spotlight on author and poet A.F. Harrold who is teaching on Let's Write, our specialist poetry course, this March. His work for children includes several books with the character Fizzlebert Stump (including Fizzlebert Stump: The Boy Who Did P.E. in his Pants), The Imaginary, The Song from Somewhere Else and poetry collections Things You Find In A Poet's Beard and Midnight Feasts. He also chaired the panel of judges for CLPE's annual poetry award, CLiPPA, in 2019.
Q. What poetry did you read as a child?
As a child I remember Spike Milligan’s odd books (Silly Verse for Kids, but the scrappier strange things like Bits of a Book/A Book of Bits), but also the couple of anthologies around the house which I dipped into finding some lovely odds and ends amongst the chaff, and also the poems in the first Alice book, so generally the quirky funny things. Then as a teenager I grew into the Mersey Sound and William Blake and began exploring wider in the library (eating more and more of Roger McGough’s slim black Cape paperbacks and buying up the secondhand bookshops slim Unwin paperbacks of Brian Patten’s early collections).
You write both poetry and novels for a range of age ranges. How do you go about choosing what to write about?
What to write about is (unless it’s a commissioned piece, like the one I wrote for the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree the other year) not something you know in advance – you discover what you’re writing about by writing it. How I choose the audience I think a particular piece is for – well, if it’s a novel then it’s for the primary school kids, so that’s easy (I have no intention of ever setting foot in a secondary school again, if I can help it), if it’s a funny poem then hopefully it’s for everyone (sometimes it’s simpler and probably for very small people, and that’s fine), if it’s a serious poem (I don’t write a lot of those anymore), then maybe the subject determines the audience – there are adult themes that you might not want to share with kids, or something is treated in a way that a kid would find boring (because it is a boring subject (no kids needs even a funny poem about a mortgage), or a style, say, that requires more foreknowledge of the history of poetry than an eight year old has. But generally I try to be funny and entertaining and hope that the things I make find audiences that like them.
Why do children need exposure to poetry in schools?
Because it can’t hurt. Because it might set a fire in one of their heads. Because it provides new ways of looking at old things. Because it’s a window into other worlds and other minds and other feelings, and we can do with all the windows we can find. Because one of them might enjoy it. Because someone who can’t be doing with reading a whole novel, might find a book of short things more accessible. Because every time a poet visits a school someone says (and it might be a kid, or a teacher in the staffroom), ‘I thought it was going to be dead boring, but that was really cool’. Because meeting people who make things out of words for a living can be inspiring (both as a possible job, but also as a way of saying ‘do things with words!’), and poets can do this quicker, often, than novelists, because we have many small self-contained worlds in our heads. Because if you don’t like this poem, there’ll be another one along in a minute that you might like. (Novels take ages to go past.)
You were the chair of judges for the CLPE’s poetry award, CLiPPA, last year. What was it like to be judge and take part in the award ceremony at the National Theatre?
It was really optimistic to see how many great books of poetry, of so many different kinds, on so many different themes, by so many different authors, were published in the space of a year. We felt that to make our shortlist we had to kick out some brilliant books rather than put in something that was ‘just okay’. When you have too many good things, you know something’s good. The other side to that is, of course, knowing how few of these brilliant books most people will get to see – because the shelf in the bookshop is so small and understocked and untidy and down at the bottom mixed in with joke books and gift books. It’s a tricky thing trying to get poetry out there, because a poetry book that you like is a gift that keeps giving – it’s endlessly re-dippable and re-readable and will be revisited more often than any novels (and I’m a big re-reader of novels).
What simple advice would you give to teachers looking to improve their understanding of poetry?
Start with the CLiPPA shortlist and any other lists of poetry books CLPE has to offer and put a stack of them in your toilet, at work, at home, and dip into them when you sit down. Read a poem per pee and you’ll soon get an idea of what’s going on. So many poets have made videos of them reading their work (and CLPE again has a great archive of videos) – a poem often only lasts a minute or even less – you’ve all got an interactive white board… if you’ve got a spare minute before lunch or the end of the day and everyone’s ready… pop a video on. The only way to find what you like and what you think your kids might like is by reading – and you can dip into a poetry book and read a few poems at random and decide, ‘I like this one’, or ‘not my cup of tea’ and move on… Good luck.