Poetry Punishment! Community Workshops and Poems Inspired by Young Herbert's Horrors
When I first began this series of community workshops based around the themes of my spoken word show Young Herbert's Horrors, I hadn't written a word of the script. I knew the show was going to be about a boy - a wannabe pirate - and his Mum who lived on a boat. I also suspected that, although they loved each other very much, they would often find themselves in conflict. And that, finally, as it would be spoken word show exploring parent-child relationships and issues around challenging behaviours, the show was also likely to include some cautionary tales.
I planned to run sessions in a variety of settings, schools, a hospital nursery, a festival, an after-school club and a library where young people and their parents/guardians or teachers, could openly discuss the broad themes of the play and respond creatively with their own poems and stories. We would write poems exploring the sea and pirates, we would discuss our opinions on what constituted "naughty" and "good" behaviours, and, in as good humoured way as possible, touch on the theme of love and conflict between parents and children. . As the sessions went on, I would begin to share more of my own work-in-progress for the show and seek some feedback from the young people too.
I ran the first workshop with a lively group of 3 and 4 year olds at Ladybirds Nursery at Southend Hospital. I was keen to work with nursery groups because one of the trickiest aspects of writing a spoken word piece for children is ensuring it is accessible to the youngest children in the audience while still maintaining it's appeal for the oldest. My last show Big Wow Small Wonder was targetted at 4 - 9 year olds and often played to children up to Year 6 - for this one I was keen to see if I could widen the appeal to reach even younger children.
After delivering a little performance to get things going, I began by asking the group to tell me all the things they knew about pirates. I wrote down all the nouns they gave me and then asked them if they wanted their pirates to be naughty or nice. The children were keen that their pirates would be very naughty indeed and so with the help of a bit of repetition, we ended up with our first poem..
We’re the naughty, naughty, naughty, naughty pirates With our naughty, naughty, naughty, naughty parrots And our naughty, naughty, naughty, naughty swords And our naughty, naughty, naughty, naughty hooks And we are sailing across the naughty naughty water In our naughty, naughty, naughty, naughty boats To steal your treas-ARGH!
This was great fun to add simple actions too and perform - and I note the reptition of naughty also made it into my final script for the show too!
We wrote one more poem together which came out of a group discussion about the things we had done that led us to be praised or told off by our parents. This became our Naughty but Nice poem...
I’m so naughty I went on holiday I’m so naughty I touched a candle I’m so naughty I stole my sister’s Slinky I’m so naughty I stood on the sofa I’m so naughty I woke up in the night And jumped up and down on my bed! But I’m so nice I cuddle my Daddy I’m so nice I cuddle my Mummy I’m so nice I play with my toys nicely I’m so nice I jump on my bicycle and ride it I’m so nice I’m going to get A transforming T-Rex for a present
What I noticed about working in a nursery was how diverse thechildren were in terms of levels of development, confidence and verbal ability. I had to work hard to try to get some of the children to understand and contribute where others had an endless stream of ideas. Children were also reticent to talk about the "naughtiest" things they had done. When, later, I tried to repeat the exercise with a reception class at Eastwood school, some of the children decided to talk about the naughty things their brothers and sisters had done instead. This seemed to free them up to the point where they were also happy to make up some mischevious behaviours too and we wrote a really fun rhyming list poem entitled My Bad Brother.
I had the privilege of spending four days at Eastwood Primary School working initially with reception and Year 2 children before the summer holidays and working with the same groups again (now Year 1 and Year 3) when they returned for the autumn term.
I always like to start with some warm-ups and word games and thought I'd introduce them to the pirate theme with a specifically tailored action verse.
Pirate Dan Pirate Dan Here's the way we clap our hands Pirate Pete Pirate Pete Here's the way we stamp our feet Pirate Ma Pirate Ma Here's the way we all shout ARGGGGH!
And so it went on. We began with this on every session, eventually moving to the point where I could ask the young people to suggest their own rhymes, verses and actions.
With Year 1 children we started the writing process by creating list poems, with the whole class sitting in a circle around large sheets of paper. Paraphasing from Dylan Thomas I asked the young people what a young wannabe Pirate like Pirate Herbert might see "in the deep seas of his dreams". They suggested islands, sharks, boats, treasure, enemies, octopus and submarines. Then I asked for one sillier idea - I got a chicken. Next I explained alliteration and we added describing words such as "interesting islands" and "orange octopus." Already our list was looking more lyrical and poetic. We had added some actions for each noun/object and had some fun with rhyming and finally we had....
In the deep seas of Pirate Herbert's dreams he sees: Interesting Islands full of dinosaurs dancing Sharp-toothed sharks preening and prancing Blue boats jumping and jiggling Tree-trunk treasure tickling and giggling Whale-eaten enemies boxing in a belly Orange octopus chewing on some jelly Singing submarines swirling thier hips And a chlled chicken chomping chips
The stranger the images the better. After all it was a dream!
In Year 3, we began with simple list formats too. One class explored all the countries Herbert might have visited as a pirate and the other class looked at the different outfits their Pirate, Pirate Pearl, wore on different days of the week which seemed to encourage all sorts of naughty behaviours...
On Monday Pirate Pearl wore pink She stuck stinky slime down the sink On Tuesday Pirate Pearl wore red She hid a mouse in her Mum's bed On Wednesday Pirate Pearl wore blue She stuck her Gran to the loo with glue
Until we came to Sunday....
On Sunday Pirate Pearl wore gold And did everything that she was told.
We began exploring everyday conflict between parents and children with a conversation poem. We collected a list of phrases that parents might say to children and children might say to parents and split into two groups to perform our poems. One group were particularly keen to rhyme and despite my warning that it might be harder to capture the richness of everyday language when having to rhyme the lines too, the class did a pretty good job....
We say "we don't want a bath" Mum says "don't be dirty, don't be daft" We say "stop bossing us about" Mum says "stop acting like a lout"
One of my favourite of all the community poems on this subject was written by a Year 1 class. We made lists of "nice" things to say to people and compared them with more insulting things. I explained that I had been having fun making up some insults for a nasty pirate character in my show - but that I didn't want to use real insults that people would be upset by. I wanted to see if the children could also create original insults, enjoying the sounds and imagery the words created, but without bringing any nastiness into play. They seemed to respond to this very naturally and an enjoyable twenty minutes or so collecting ideas eventually led to this....
I said to my mum "You are a cackle cucumber" And my mum said to me "You are a bottom eating clown" So I said to my mum "You are a blue squid banana" So my mum said to me "You are a talking tomato" But then I said "You are beautiful flowers" And my mum said "You are a teddy bear cuddle" And so I said "You are a kind kisser" And so my mum said "You are a rainbow butterfly... Now go and tidy your room!"
As the sessions went on I began to introduce more of my writing in progress with the children. I introduced a Year 3 class to the character of Great Uncle Albatross, the strict and fearsome navy captain Hebert's mother threatened him with if he didn't tidy up his toys. I shared some examples of characters I knew that were often used to scare children into "being good" (Wee Willie Winke was the one my parents used if I didn't get to bed) and asked what their parents said to them to get them to behave. This led to a class poem about "Toy Prison" ("Toy Prison" being the place all the children's toys were sent if the children had been "naughty". As the poem concluded "All the toys are doing time/But it was me who did the crime!")
Meanwhile, in the other year 3 class, I shared one of the cautionary tales that Albatross tells to Herbert and we began to explore writing our own. Cautionary tales are not easy to write in their traditional form, tending to be narrative poems in rhyming couplets, so I needed to find an easier format so that all the children would be able to write convincing tales quickly.
Using a template which eschewed regular for occassional rhymes and focussed on repetition we wrote this poem as a class in about ten minutes - before spending a little longer putting it on its feet as a piece of performance. (Template in normal type and original writing in italics)
There was a boy called Flapjack Jack
Who was always eating flapjacks and leaving crumbs
He left crumbs in the car
He left crumbs in the living room
And he even left crumbs in his bed
And so his Mum said "You dirty pickle! What a mess!"
And she made him sit out all night on the naughty step
Until he grew sick with hunger
The moral of this poem is:
Don't leave crumbs
Or upset your Mums
This formulae worked well across a range of workshops with students from Year 3 up. At Hamstel School, where I spent two days, all the students were able to produce a cautionary tale of their own working individually, using this as format as a starting block and in some cases moving on to writing their stories in rhyming couplets or their own original styles to suit their individual narrative.
Back at Eastwood, we finished our work with a really rewarding sharing session, with the classes coming together to share their writing, interwoven with a broad outline of my show's narrative and some of my work in progress.
With Parents and Children together...
When you are writing a children's show you know that almost half your audience will be adults; parents and grandparents at theatre venues and libriarians and teachers in libraries and schools. The protaganist in most children's stories, if they are human, tend to be children themselves and the story and the langauge must be clear, understandable and easily relatable for kids. But I'm also aware when I am writing of this other, adult, audience. That's why it was really helpful to have a chance to work through some of the themes with parents and children together. I ran sessions at The Forum Library and The Village Green festival, as well as at Milton After-School Club and at an after school book club at Hamstel run by the marvellous Jacqueline Johnson of Jacqson Diego bookshop.
The sessions worked best when the poem exercises allowed both the younger and older participants a chance to express some of their everyday grievances openly but with humour.
At the forum library, I gave everyone two strips of paper and asked them to write something that annoyed them about their parents and something which they had done that was really naughty. With everybody contributing two lines each we had more than enough for two different poems. One about "a sad dad and a moany mother", while in the other "my bad brother" made a cheeky reappearance....
My Bad Brother (short version) My Bad Brother Broke the window in the shed Threw a half eaten burger onto next door's roof Sneaked down the stairs for a midnight feast Turned up the oven and burnt the apple pie My Sad Dad and My Moany Mother (edited) My sad dad and my moany mother Brought me brown flares Asked what I brought my brother for Christmas and got me the same thing Told me to do my homework Told me to get off Slither 10 Told the world about my girlfriend Shouted at me forever My sad dad and my moany mother Moved too far away....
In the show Young Herbert is keen to turn Uncle Albatross' scary tales back onto Uncle Albatross himself, so I thought it would be fun to see if, while the parents were using the cautionary tale format to warn their chidren about their "naughty" behaviour, the children could have a go at aiming their cautionary tale at something that annoyed them about their parents.
So, finally, here's a cautionary tale I wrote in the session with my own kids (apparently all about my disgusting habbits!)
My dad is a dustbin He is always eating everybody else's dinners He eat up all of my dinner He eat up all of Mum's dinner And he eat all of the dog's dinner So I said "Stop eating all that food!" And I put him on a lead And took him out for a long walk until he agreed To eat only one dinner He's a bit hairier now but at least he is thinner The moral of the tale is: You are not a dustbin So don't be DISGUSTING!