This week I’d like introduce Graham Denton, a prolific children’s poet and anthologist.
What poets did you enjoy reading as a child?
To be honest, I don’t really remember being exposed to poetry at an early age. I’ve no doubt that my parents nourished me with nursery rhymes in my infancy. But, when I was growing up, there were very few books in our house of any sort, let alone poetry collections. And I can’t recall ever having poetry read out loud in any primary school class. I may well be wrong, of course. Memory does play naughty tricks on us at times! It wasn’t until my teens that I developed something of an interest but even then it was very limited. I was far more engrossed by song lyrics throughout my teenage years. Lennon and McCartney were a massive influence on me. If there were any one poet that first engaged my young imagination, I’d have to say it was Ogden Nash.
Do you remember the first poem that you ever wrote? How old were you? Can you share it with us?
I was always very much a scribbler of snapshots and quick thoughts. This has generally been reflected in the poems I write. Even to this day, the majority of my poems are quite short. A long poem to me is anything over 4 lines long! But the first full ‘poem’ I wrote, around the age of 13 or 14, was titled ‘The Walls of History’, and it was actually 4 stanzas long, each stanza being about a famous wall in history (Berlin, Hadrian’s, The Great Wall of China, for example). I wrote it down in my English exercise book, not as part of any assignment, simply because I liked my teacher and hoped that she’d read and enjoy what I’d written when I handed the book in with another piece of homework in it. She did. It was marked “A” and had a complimentary comment by its side! I don’t have a copy, so can’t share it. But that might well be a blessing.
Do you write mostly in rhyme or in free verse? Do you know why?
I write mostly in rhyme. Why? I think I enjoy working within the structure that rhyme imposes. It works for me. It can be both inhibiting and liberating. Sometimes a pair of rhyming words will trigger a whole poem. At other times, it’s a pair of words that can hold up the completion of a whole poem! As a small press publisher I receive a great many submissions from people, both young and older. Many make the classic mistake in using rhyme for the sake of it. As a result, most of what they’ve written doesn’t sound ‘true’; they’ve let the rhyme dictate how the poem should be written, rather than they dictating where the poem should go. It is an easy trap to fall into, but one any writer should try to avoid. Poems obviously don’t have to rhyme, and unless you’re using rhyme that enhances what you want to say, I always advise – ironically, given my own bent towards rhyming – that would-be poets well steer clear of it.
Are your poems best performed aloud or read quietly to oneself?
Good question! I don’t feel that I write LOUD poems as such. But neither are my poems ones that necessitate whispering. Throughout the majority of my poems I attempt to weave a thread of humour. For me, nothing beats bringing a smile to a face (or, better yet, many faces) with the words I’ve conjured. I like to think that my poems work both on the page and off it, like any good poem should. If I can share a poem by reading it out to an audience, and it’s one I feel will engage or entertain them, then I will do so. I write the occasional limerick, and they seem to appeal to both young and old, which is always a good thing. Here’s one:
What a Sucker!
As a glassblower, Septimus Grayling
had a rather regrettable failing.
When they laid him to rest,
he’d a PANE in his chest—
‘stead of blowing, he kept on inhaling!
I use that limerick as an example of a poem that will probably only work on the page, simply because only then will the reader get the pun in the spelling of the word ‘Pane’. But hopefully this is a rare case.
Who first published your poetry?
The first two poems I had accepted by a major publisher featured in a collection of ‘music’ poems titled ‘Turn that Racket Down!’, which was edited by Paul Cookson for Macmillan Children’s Books. Even if they did print one of the poems incorrectly, it was such a thrill to see my name in lights for the first time. And I shall be forever grateful to Paul for giving me that initial break.
Where else have your poems been published?
My poems have turned up in all sorts of anthologies and journals since those first two were published. In over 30 books, so too many to mention here. One poem, titled ‘Evening Shifts’ has been my most anthologised, with appearances in 5 or 6 books so far.
Anthologies are often places for poets to seek publication. How would you suggest a new poet find out about upcoming anthologies?
Well, unfortunately, for those aspiring to be published, there is something of a dearth of new anthologies being commissioned by major UK publishers right now. I was lucky that, when I first started submitting poems, children’s poetry was experiencing quite a boom period; there were a great many anthologies every year. What I did at the time was make contact with one poet whom I knew was also an occasional anthologist. I asked about any forthcoming anthologies he knew of and for which I might send off some work. He was very generous and gave me a list of 4 or 5 poetry books that were in the making at the time. I submitted some poems for them and was fortunate to hit the jackpot straightaway. So, my advice would be to do something similar. I actually went to see this poet perform. But that is probably not necessary. Children’s poets and anthologists are fairly accessible these days, with websites, social network sites, etc. And usually they’re more than willing to offer help or guidance where they can. So, network as much as possible, and make contact when and where you can, would be my advice.
Have you published a collection of your own poems?
Not as yet. But it’s something I’m definitely working towards. I plan to publish a first full collection of my own work through my press, Hands Up Books, sometime in 2010. As an anthologist, however, I have published a few collections. These include: ‘Silly Superstitions’ (Macmillan Children’s Books), ‘Wild! Rhymes that Roar’ (Macmillan Children’s Books), ‘Orange Silver Sausage’ (Walker Books), and ‘My Cat is in Love with the Goldfish’ (A&C Black), forthcoming in 2010. All of these are available from Amazon.
What are you working on at the moment?
I, like most poets I’d assume, like to have several plates spinning at once. But, probably also like most poets, I’m a bit reluctant to discuss them too much lest they come crashing to the ground! Without giving too much away, I can say that I am working on a couple of collaborations with another poet, one of which is towards a collection of very small animal poems (that’s very small poems about very small animals!). I always have a number of ideas for new anthologies floating around in my head and/or on the desk of a publisher or two. Whether any of these ever sees the printer’s ink remains to be seen!
Do you have a website/blog/facebook where we can find out more about you?
My small press website is www.handsupbooks.co.uk (though I must confess it’s dreadfully in need of updating). I am hoping to start a poetry blog (or maybe even two) sometime in the New Year. So, watch this space!
Do you have a favourite poetry websites?
There are many websites, and poetry blogs too, that I enjoy. Two of the sites that I’ve visited most regularly over the years have been Roger Stevens’ www.poetryzone.co.uk and Kenn Nesbitt’s www.poetry4kids.com
Would you like to share one of your poems with us?
A Not-So-High Spirit
Our house, it seems, is playing host
to what must be a baby ghost;
each time it flies into the air,
that spook’s inside a BOO-ster chair!
Thanks Graham for taking the time to answer my questions.
Thanks for asking! Graham Denton