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'Kids need the opportunity to hear, read and write poetry'

BIG TALENT: Joseph Coelho

SOME OF the UK’s biggest, brightest and boldest children’s authors, illustrators, poets, musicians and artists will be sharing their skills as part of the exciting festival, The Big Write.

Kicking off last week on March 3, in honour of World Book Day, the jam-packed children’s literary celebration will feature a host of events, including exciting storytelling and performance poetry, African-inspired music and dance, and a child-friendly hip-hop, funk and disco block party!

Curated by much-loved children’s novelist and poet Michael Rosen, The Big Write will also feature the poetic prowess of children’s favourite Joseph Coelho. Best-known for his solo poetry collection Werewolf Club Rules, the British poet and playwright, who is of Anglo-Indian Jamaican descent, scooped the prestigious CLPE (Centre for Literacy in Primary Education) Poetry Award last year, and has been hailed ‘a fresh new voice in children’s poetry.’

Here, Coelho talks to The Voice about dispelling poetry’s ‘boring’ reputation, being moved by the work of renowned Jamaican storyteller Jean Binta Breeze, and how children can be a “tough audience” to please.

What inspired your love of poetry?
I remember watching Michael Rosen on TV as a child and in my home, there was always a love of word-play and silly little rhymes of unknown origin. I also remember Jean Binta Breeze coming to my sixth form to read poems; she sat on stage and read a poem about the softest touch. I was totally moved and I suspect that's when I realised that I could be a poet – that it could be my job.

What do you consider to be your ‘big break’?
I believe it came when I decided to take my writing and artistic work seriously. I was about 25, I had worked a series of part-time jobs in advertising, transport planning, retail; I even trained as a gym instructor. All the while, I was trying to fit my writing around these jobs. I knew that if I was ever going to be a writer full time, I had to take that leap and give up the jobs I didn't enjoy. So I took that leap and it was hard. I had little to no money and basically survived on my overdraft, but it was that decision – that I had total control over – that qualifies as my true ‘big break’.

What would you say to young people who think poetry is boring?
I'd read them a poem, a fantastic poem, one of mine, ha! I think there is an idea that poetry is boring because many adults have had boring experiences of poetry as children, as a result of poetry being presented as a difficult, lofty pursuit, rather than the varied, fun, expressive and yes, at times, challenging medium that it is. The only way a young person can be convinced that poetry isn't boring is to show them that it is not. To give them the opportunity to hear, read and write poetry.

What do you think it is about your poetry that has enabled it to resonate so well with young audiences?
I have worked a great deal with young people over the years, listening and talking to them and devising ways to engage them in the classroom. When you've got a classroom of 30 – sometimes more – little bodies in front of you, all with the capacity to scream, play-up and run about, you soon learn what is going to keep them engaged and entertained. I also spend a lot of time thinking about my childhood and what I enjoyed and try to write for the younger me.

Much has been written recently about the lack of diversity in the arts. Does racial prejudice exist in the world of children’s poetry?
Children's poetry is a unique beast in that it is universally not being published as much as it should be, full stop. So speaking of publishing in general, I have not personally come across any racial prejudice.

Before I was published, I spent three years attending the London Book Fair, making a nuisance of myself, showing my manuscripts to editors and publishers. Eventually I met the editor who would publish my first book. Over that time, I met lots of great editors from some of the biggest publishers and many took time out of their schedules to go over my work with me, advise me about my manuscripts and offer encouragement.

Over those three years, I only saw two other writers of colour that I knew attending The London Book Fair, so clearly there is an issue and it is a very complex and multifaceted one. But on my personal journey, I found the industry to be extremely open and welcoming to all, and keen for talent from any quarter.

What is your proudest achievement to date?
Winning the CLPE Poetry Award has to be up there. It was a real honour to be counted among some of the poetic greats and to have the platform to share my poems with more young people up and down the country.

What advice would you offer aspiring writers who would love to pen poetry for children?
Write from the heart and don't make the mistake of thinking that writing for children means writing simple, funny rhymes. Children make a tough audience; they need variety and they yearn to be challenged.

What are your hopes for the future?
I hope to continue creating work that many can relate to, work that speaks to people on many different levels, and I hope that I continue to grow and learn as a writer.

The Big Write takes place until March 11 at Discover Children’s Story Centre, 383-387 High Street, Stratford, London E15 and other venues around Stratford. For more information, visit www.discover.org.uk

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