EVENTS Poetry to make your prose sing

September's London Masterclass with Joseph Coelho was a fascinating event that showed us how to use poetry to explore elements of our works in progress, reports Mandy Rabin.

Joseph's debut poetry collection, Werewolf Club Rules, won the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education Poetry (CLPE CLiPPA) award, while his second collection, Overheard in a Towerblock, has been longlisted for the Carnegie medal, shortlisted for the CLPE CLiPPA award and is currently longlisted for the 2019 UKLA Book Awards — and was The Sunday Times Children's Book of the Week.

Joseph started off by giving us all some background on his own journey to becoming a published author of poetry and picture books for children. It was a challenging one. For a start, his family possessed little in the way of books and learning and he felt that people like him just didn't become writers. However, he grew up feeling that "words were ours," and was surrounded at home by rhyme, song and word play.

Joseph talks about his journey to publication.
He wrote his first poem while at secondary school, but it was only much later when, as an adult, he attended a performance poetry workshop that he realised poetry belonged to him too. Despite submitting his work time and again, it was met with many rejections from literary agents unconvinced that poetry would sell. Undeterred, Joseph continued writing, doing various different jobs to pay the bills and running poetry workshops in primary schools, to spread the message he wished he'd had while growing up — that poetry belongs to everyone.

Joseph grew up feeling that "words were ours," and was surrounded at home by rhyme, song and word play

Joseph went on to join a performance poetry organisation, where he learned to write under time pressure. He found the more he delved into making poetry accessible to others, the more it became accessible to him. Performing one-man shows in theatres, halls and libraries gave Joseph a sense of empowerment and control over his own writing.

He learnt what worked with children and what didn't, and honed his craft. Many of his poems were inspired by his love of libraries, as were his shows, and all this work fed into the writing of his first published picture book - Luna Loves Library Day. Eventually, after much persistence and many rejections, it was acquired for publication. Joseph's second picture book, If All the World Were, deals with the themes of memory and loss and also grew from a poem.

Joseph weaves his magic.
After listening to Joseph’s own experiences of getting published, we set to work on the nitty gritty of putting poetry to work on our own works in progress. Joseph introduced this part of the session by emphasising how ideas come from allowing yourself space — by going for a walk, for example, rather than by staring at a computer screen.

He stressed how important it is to keep a sense of joy and wonder when we're writing and said that, rather than being afraid of people stealing our work, we should let the words breathe by performing them to ourselves and to others, sharing work safely in critique groups or online, or at poetry cafes and spoken word events.

He's a fan of writing quickly and said we should write for ourselves rather than keeping publishers in mind. He then showed us how, by making poetry a part of our own creative process, we can use it to learn what makes a story tick.

Writers use poetic devices to develop their own work in progress.
First up, we focused on exploring themes, locations and characters in our own works in progress using a technique that uses several key poetic devices including metaphor, personification, alliteration and simile. He then put us through our paces to deepen our explorations using some specific poetic forms — clerihews and sestinas.

Through these exercises, I gained useful insights into the main character in my work in progress, as well as an important theme, and I was impressed by the quality of the poetry produced by fellow SCBWIs, especially given the limited time we had to master the techniques.

The session ended with a Q&A and saw Joseph fielding questions on a range of topics including:
how hard it is to translate highly formed poems that include homophones and rhyme for the overseas markets; how you write a picture book and leave space for the illustrator to interpret the story creatively; and is there really such a thing as children's poetry, or does all poetry have universal appeal?

I came away feeling inspired by Joseph's perseverance and the creative ways he managed to make a living out of poetry and get the attention of publishers, and with some great new tools with which to explore my own writing.

*All photos: Alison Smith

Mandy Rabin is a writer of middle grade fantasy adventure fiction, represented by Stephanie Thwaites at Curtis Brown Group.


Fran Price is part of the editorial team at Words and Pictures, the online magazine for SCBWI-BI, and is Events Editor. Contact her at

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