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Paul Cookson Poetry Workshop (Part 2)

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By Paul CooksonLiteracy Time PLUS Poet-in-Residence

Part 2 of our Paul Cookson poetry workshop features two short films: An audience with Paul Cookson captures a question and answer session with a group of primary school children while, in One step at a time, Paul explains his writing process and how he gets ideas for his poems.


Both films can be used for discussion about why and how people write, and as a starting point for the children’s own poems.

‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ probably the question I get asked most in schools. Well, poems can begin from anything – from the little things we all relate to: the way mum brushes your hair, grandad’s habits, playing out – to the things that interest us most. It sounds simple, but if we are interested in a subject then we are more likely to see it through and finish a poem. And I never go anywhere without a notepad, so I can jot down ideas as they come to me. I don’t always write lots down and, because I travel a lot, I rarely start and finish a poem on the same occasion. Most are written over time.

Previous learning

Children should have experience of: listening to a speaker; explaining how figurative/expressive language is used; exploring why/how writers write; using language imaginatively for humour/description.

Key learning outcomes:

  • To explore different question types;
  • To explore how writers use language for comic/dramatic effects/impact;
  • To understand underlying themes;
  • To write poems and edit/improve;
  • To compose sentences using imaginative/descriptive vocabulary.

How to begin

Start by listing ideas about your chosen subject – phrases you like, puns and wordplays, rhymes, anything really. The important thing is to write them all down – even the ideas you think aren’t that good. Sometimes they’re the ones you come back to in the end. Let the ideas flow. Go where they go. They may take you away from your original starting point but that’s okay – you often end up with a better and more original poem that way. Ideas are like a row of dominoes – you knock one down and they all go down … one at a time.

Now look at the list and see which ideas jump out at you. It might be a phrase or line that could turn into something you repeat, or you might have a line/idea that needs to be at the end or the punchline, or a couple of lines that could be a chorus. Write these down. Say them out loud over and over to get the sound and feel of the words. Try them in different orders, using different rhythms.

This will often lead to the basic shape of the poem, the first draft. Then it’s a case of chipping away, taking out words, adding better words, perhaps changing round lines until you’re happy with it.

Two poems

You can find two poems I have written using this list format here on the Literacy Time PLUS website‘Things to find in Santa’s beard’ and ‘Things to find in teacher’s trouser turn-ups’ (from Spill the Beans, Macmillan, 978 03303 92143) – which was inspired one day when I was still a teacher and dropped my pencil. When I bent down to pick it up I saw all the fluff in my turn-ups and got to thinking what else might be there.

In the classroom

Give the children notebooks, just for poems, where they can jot down ideas, lines, phrases. Next, think of an idea which you could make a list for – eg: Things to find … in a monster’s cave, under your brother’s bed, in the teacher’s bag, in a pirate’s pocket, in a giant’s fridge. The activity sheet below starts with ‘in a giant’s fridge’.

Start by listing what would be found in any normal fridge – milk, eggs, cheese, yogurt, broccoli, etc. If it’s a giant’s fridge, they’d be much bigger so how can we describe them?

Milk as big as the sea or the ocean
Eggs the size of rugby balls
Cheese that's shaped like a pyramid
Yogurt as big as a swimming pool
Broccoli that looks like a big tree

Next explore how to make it sound better …

An ocean of milk
Eggs like rugby balls
A pyramid of cheese
A forest of broccoli
A swimming pool of yogurt

This sounds tighter, more concise. To turn this into a poem, try starting with:

In the giant's fridge you can find
An ocean of milk
A pyramid of cheese
Swimming pools of yogurt
And forests of broccoli

Write another verse with another four things in. (Be gruesome: instead of fish fingers, try human fingers!) Each verse can start with the same phrase. Try: There are strange things/You won’t believe what’s/Can you guess what’s … inside the giant’s fridge? Have fun, and remember, it’s a poem – anything can happen!