TO MARK World Book Day, Fordcombe Primary School near Tonbridge invited local wordsmith Tony Peek to take classes for a week as their ‘poet in residence’.
Mr Peek took each year group for a whole morning, discussing the art of poetry, reading his verse and encouraging pupils to try their hand at it.
The week culminated in an assembly where the children read out their own poems – coinciding with World Book Day, so that all the pupils were dressed up as their favourite fictional characters.
Mr Peek, who taught English in a secondary school near Hastings for 13 years, has been running his Poetry Workshops for three years.
It all began when the teachers of one of his seven children heard he wrote poetry for young people and asked him to take assembly at their small primary school.
“The kids were so amazing, so much better than teenagers going ‘oh sir… [groan]’,” Mr Peek recalls. “I was doing Auntie Antonella [one of his creations who decides to eat everything – including herself at the end] and I told them to shut their eyes and imagine buttering the sun, and they were laughing so hard.
“I left there and I was crying, really emotional on my way to the car. So the very next day I went to my headteacher and said I won’t be coming back at the start of next term.”
His methods vary from school to school, either doing half an hour with each year to cover the entire school in one day, or longer residences which allow the pupils to produce their own work under his guidance.
The creative aspect is most important to him – and his students: “What they really like is reading out their own poems to their peers. That’s the best bit.
“I point out the fact that when we start there’s blank sheets of paper and suddenly they’ve filled them up with poems. That’s amazing.
“I think it works because I’m a man in what is essentially a female world, being silly and creative, and that’s great for small kids.”
“I get really nice feedback from teachers saying ‘oh, such and such has never written anything before and now he’s running up to me with poems’ – it’s really touching.”
The easiest way to a young child’s heart is, predictably, to talk about gruesome subjects or toilet humour, from scary monsters to poo and snot.
Sitting in on one of Mr Peek’s workshops, it’s the readings from his forthcoming After Dark book that are the most popular by far.
And as the children are trying out rhymes, he reveals one of his latest limericks:
“The emperor Julius Caesar
Keeps his bogies in the freezer.
When he has nothing to do
His wife gives him two
Which she feeds him by using some tweezers.”
But he also gives them poems with more serious subject matter, such as ‘Cry’ (see panel) and ‘The Grief’, which offer something markedly different.
“There was one child who said to me ‘you’re the poet who writes about poo’, so I’ve got to be really careful and make sure I balance it.
“If you just do that, they are not getting the proper message, and I think it’s really important that they understand what poetry can do, that it really helps us with feelings and it helps us express things, it’s not just fun.”
He decided to focus on primary schools because the children are less world-weary and more susceptible to the new-found power of words.
“It’s a really important time in their lives. I want people to go out into the world being optimistic. By the time they are at secondary school it’s a bit tricky.”
“Really it’s all one long poem made up of all the poems in the world, from humble me to Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare, and the idea is to try and make the world a better place.”
His biggest influence, having lived in Denmark where his youngest children grew up, is a Danish poet called Halfdan Rasmusson, a resistance fighter in World War II who went on to write nonsense verse alongside more serious work.
But what really inspires Peek is the work his students produce. “With Years Five and Six this week I did some haikus and acrostic poems [where the first letters of each line spell out a word], then they wrote three or four poems each.”
Often the children come up and give him their own poetry outside the classroom. “Yesterday it was so sweet, one boy came up to me and said, ‘I’ve got these poems in my drawer and I’ve copied them into my book so you can have them’. That’s really emotional – and rewarding.”
For more information about Tony Peek’s workshops visit www.mrpeekspoetryplace.co.uk
It’s hard to cry, it’s hard to cry
But it’s so good for you,
To let yourself break down a bit
And shed a tear or two.
Some people say they never cry
But I think that’s quite sad,
Whenever I give in to tears
It always makes me glad.
If you keep all your troubles in
They grow and do not mend,
But if you lose them through your eyes
Your tears become your friend.