Helen Harvey

Author of "Dog at the End of the World"


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Sea poetry for a land-locked school

Long silence is a common symptom of being too busy, a widespread yet oft-overlooked disease.

Poetry has not been a huge feature of the last year. I began teacher training in September and since then I have spent most of my time writing weekly reflections, lesson plans and evaluations, with an occasional essay thrown in. (I usually forget this when people ask “and are you writing?” and say no, but actually I am writing all the time. Regrettably, no fun stuff.)

Until now!

manuscript mermaidI am currently on a placement with a class of 5-7 year olds, and would you know it, we’re halfway through a two-week course of poetry. This is very exciting, not least because  I have more children’s poetry books than I know what to do with.

Last week I entertained them with Ian McMillan‘s 10 Things Found in a Shipwrecked Sailor’s Pocket, told them several fairy tales about mermaids, and we all wrote exciting poems about what murderous mermaids and mouldy mermaids and magical mermaids keep in their  pockets (shark’s teeth, purple poisons, letters from pirates, and sparkly leotards apparently).

This week we’re writing poems based on Pie Corbett’s Imagine poetry, which is all very well and good, only none of Pie’s are really about the sea.

Oh no! Sadness! I will have to write my own sea version for them to read and innovate. My sorrow knows no bounds.

Fortunately writing poetry is something our lecturers have actively encouraged us to do, and to share it with the children. After all, if they don’t see that poetry is a thing that adults genuinely value and do, why should they do it? If they don’t see us go through the process of choosing our vocabulary, ordering lines, editing, umming and ahhing, how will they know to do it?

Now if only I could persuade the school to organise a trip to the nearest beach. We’re only 60 miles from the coast, no big deal….

Imagine –
the sea’s cackle as it fingers cool pebbles,
the stillness of the striped rock
holding centuries of secrets in its veins,
the staring cliff face.

Imagine –
a storm whistling on the cliff tops
calmly toppling stone mountains,
giving the land a fierce hug
to welcome it home.


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Maths Fantasies

At school, maths consisted of sitting at a desk doing the same sum again and again until you were sick of it.

I like maths. So this annoys me.

In my fantasies (perhaps I fantasise about strange things) maths lessons are like this:

ONE: Maths drama!

Every child represents a different number. They move about the room going about whatever business it is numbers get up to (taxes, space travel, calorie counting). Then two numbers collide! They argue, they can’t agree which number is best. Why should 5 bow to 7, when there is a 5p coin and a £5 note, and no equivalents for 7? Why should 7 submit to 5 when 7 is the nation’s most popular lucky number? Then they decide to negotiate: how can we move forward? How can 5 and 7 work together to create universal happiness? Then they come up with a solution. Ahah! Multiplication will sort out our troubled relationship. 5 and 7 can agree on the number 30! 5 and 7 do the dance of 30, which involves spinning round and round like sheets in an environmentally conscientious washing machine.

TWO: Maths catering!

Maths catering!

Students design their own restaurant on a budget, within a certain area, allowing enough space for guests and waiting staff to flow freely around the room. They recruit the right number of staff on the right wages, to serve their guests in the right time limits. They design a menu with a range of options from the healthy 500-calorie option, to the mega 1500 calorie feast. And hey, they can name the place, choose the decor, and design the sign over the door while they’re at it.

THREE: Maths Olympics!

Each class competes for prestige and honour among their year group in the annual maths games! Area sprints, volume rallies, time gymnastics and fractions boxing. The fastest, the slickest, the most exacting mathematician will take home the gold. And of course the Olympics includes the arts: the opening ceremony features an Ode to the 12 Times Table, a Lament for Imperial Weights, and culminates in an Aria for Algebra!

Me and the wonderful Lucinda Murray, posing.


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Actually, “witch” and “poet” are basically synonyms.


Behold! Myself and the epic Lucinda Murray, a-posing as Crane Wife and Wicked Witch with flowers and books at the Parabola Arts Centre. I would point in the direction of my rousing and inspiring book launch speech; however I haven’t uploaded it to the toob yet. Hah. Hah.

Moreover I have totally neglected to update my header, a task which I had a thousand good intentions to complete. So what on earth have I been up to?

Well!

  • I have boiled and bubbled a number of sausage stews
  • I have videoed my cats performing back flips
  • I have clomped around in purple boots
  • I have missed several trains
  • I have drawn cartoons of animals including sloths, giraffes, parrots and lions
  • I have performed sinister rituals with olive oil

So as you can see, I have no excuse.


Dear Teen MeNext week’s blog will be arriving one day early, as I am a stop on the Dear Teen Me blog tour. It will be poetic, it’s will be honest, it will involve embarrassing photos.

The Old Woman and the Red Pumpkin


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Social Skills for Poets

Tonight’s broadcast comes to you from Nottingham University, where I have spent the last five days telling obscure fairy tales to cure the ill and insane.

Tasty fairy tale morsels:

  1. The Crystal Ball: in which a witch proves what a terrible mother she is by turning her son into a whale.
  2. East of the Sun, West of the Moon: my version involved a beach lounger on Saturn; sadly I don’t think that’s canonical.
  3. The Old Woman and the Red Pumpkin: a grandmother outwits numerous hungry wild animals by disguising herself as a singing pumpkin.

It’s the launch party for Dog at the End of the World in three days, and a terrible thought has struck me:

I’m going to have to mingle.

Now, I’m sure there was a point in my life where I had social skills, (mostly chatting up graduate students at English faculty events,) but I have no idea how to start a conversation with a stranger if I can’t open with “soooo, tell me about your thesis…”

At this party I’m meant to be the centre of attention: creative, witty, intelligent, engaging. I’m meant to have something to say for myself. I am in terrible trouble.


I tried googling “social skills for poets”, hoping that some helpful person had written a website dedicated to this exact topic. I’m sure I can’t be the only poet out there who doesn’t know how to function in reality. But apparently it’s too niche even for the internet.

So I’m trying to create a bank of as many poetry-related conversation openers as possible. If you have any bright ideas, please let me know what they are.

The last time I went to a civilised gathering I was dressed as Grendel’s mum.

Here’s what I’ve got so far:

  1. Have you read my book?
  2. Don’t you find socks annoying?
  3. Should poetry be difficult to understand?
  4. Do you write? What are you working on?
  5. How many poets does it take to screw in a light bulb?
  6. Do you like cats? I like cats.
  7. So! Carol Ann Duffy, eh?
  8. Do you like my dress? I made it from a couple of men’s shirts and a tote bag.
  9. Would you like another glass of wine?
  10. So! Percy Bysshe Shelley, eh?
  11. Do you like stationery? I do. I have this one folder with multicoloured cows….
  12. So! John Milton’s early works, eh?
  13. If you could meet any dead poet for lunch, who would it be, and what would you eat?
  14. No really, would you like another drink? Look, your glass is empty – I insist!

Help?


Slamtastic Times

John Betjeman loves a good slam.I have never been in a poetry slam before, but the times they are a-changing. In a last-minute line-up alteration, I’m appearing at the Wantage Betjeman Literary Festival Poetry Slam this Sunday. You’re just going to have to cancel all your Sunday night plans, because I know heading to Oxfordshire to hear me slant-rhyme is at the top of your agenda.

Don’t try to hide it. I see through you.

King Lindorm


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An unusual fairy tale…

King Lindorm

One of my favourite lesser-known fairy tales is called King Lindorm. In it, a queen magically gives birth to two sons, but the first is born as a snake (or lindorm) because the queen fails to follow the spell’s instructions correctly.

The queen doesn’t know that her first son is a snake. I like this story for several reasons, and this is the first: imagine the queen, sweating and straining on her bed. PUSH! yells the midwife and the queen pushes. A snake pops out. Is it a girl or a boy? asks the queen. What would the midwife say? Erm, er, um, it’s nothing. Keep pushing. Meanwhile the midwife wraps the thing in her apron and chucks it out the window. How does she get away with it? Pointing the opposite direction as if she’s seen something, then making a dash?

King LindormSo the second son, born straight after his serpentine brother, grows up for twenty years believing he is heir to the throne. He presumably learns kingly things, like hunting deer and feasting lavishly and persecuting peasants. Then he goes off to woo himself a bride, but his journey is interrupted by a huge black lindorm, who crosses his path and demands a mate. The lindorm is described as “terrible” and “hideous”. But the prince invites him back to the castle, where he promptly devours an vast quantity of slave-girl brides thrown at him by the desperate king and queen. Why the people of this country tolerate a king and queen who feed their subjects to a snake, instead of just, say, killing the snake, we never discover. Presumably because it would ruin the fairy tale.

Anyhow, when at last the enchantment on the lindorm is lifted and his royal lineage revealed, (and this is the second thing I like about the story,) his bad character and former cannibalism are entirely forgotten and he becomes king. What happens to his younger brother? He never gets mentioned again. But can you  imagine? You spend your whole life thinking you’re next in line, you’re handsome enough, clever enough, well-brought up etc. etc., a crazy snake comes along and says he’s your big brother and suddenly – nothing! Not a royal sausage. I’m surprised the other prince doesn’t take revenge.

I have to admit, I love a juicy loose end.

Okay, so, a third appealing feature: the strip tease. The clever young maiden, the one who eventually cures the lindorm’s nasty birth defect, does so by putting on seven white shirts. When the lindorm demands she undress, she replies only if you undress first. Minx! The lindorm, seduced, sheds seven skins for her and, lo and behold, inside is a prince. What a lucky maiden!

If you’re intrigued (I hope you are) go and read it….


Launch Party? Reviews? Yes Yes YES?

I hope you haven’t forgotten it’s the Dog at the End of the World launch party on Saturday 27th October (next weekend)!

The launch party even has its own place on the internet to chill out until next week, so head over and give it a wave.

There will be fairy tale-related craft acitivities. I will be there, my wonderful illustrator Rowan will be there, there will be sweets and prizes and posters and poetry and art and book signings and silly costumes and we’ll all have unending fun (until 7.30pm, when the event ends).

FURTHERMORE, I would like to draw attention to the fact that my book so far has ZERO reviews on Amazon. I can’t review it myself without creating a fake account, under a different name, and I hear that’s generally frowned upon. So if you’ve read the thing and you want to tell everyone how amazing (/terrible – you know, be honest) it was, please help an author out. I will give imaginary cake to anyone who gives me five stars.


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The Clowns that Dreamed Me

Have you heard of NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month)? It happens in April, the cruellest month of a poet’s year, and the idea is you write a poem a day for 30 days. It’s a bit like NaNoWriMo, but without a website, and WAY easier.

It’s a fantastic month for generating first drafts, most of which you will discard in disgust, and a few of which will be edited, polished, rewritten into Real Poems, and thence find themselves published in collections, such as the well-known and highly acclaimed Dog at the End of the World (can’t remember who it’s by, soz).

Some of the poems I wrote for NaPoWriMo 2006 are pretty good! All of the poems I wrote for NaPoWriMo 2008 are appalling. I’d just started university, see. I was studying Modernism. You understand.


So I was browsing my old NaPoWriMo 2008 poems, and I found this terrifying one about clowns. Since I don’t have any exciting news for you this week, I thought I’d give you nightmares instead.

The Clowns that Dreamed Me

They had the wrong number of limbs
all of them. One had three arms,
one a single leg, one
even had tentacles (I couldn’t count how many)
and their faces weren’t faces
they were purple, blue, triangular,
stretched, warped as if seen in mirrors,
but not, bent by the air, and their
voices were the cries
of animals, and trumpets and flutes
and the music of the spheres and
the retchings of old men, and gaggings
of babies. They were each
fixed, in one emotion, one
would always blubber, one
wore a wide mad grin, one was
bleeding anger, and it dripped and
dripped, scarlet. They fed
on fine jewels, sapphires and diamonds
breaking on their fierce teeth, and
junk from old scrapheaps, and
petals, slurped up, and worms and toads too.
I wish I could have
not looked at them, or heard them, or known them
but it wasn’t my choice, was it,
because I didn’t make them, no, it was
them making me for their own
spectacle.

Sweet dreams!

Launch Party Flyer


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Party at Parabola and Other Exciting Announcements

Launch Party? Launch Party!!!

The loverly loverly people at Parabola Arts Centre in Cheltenham are letting us throw a party! I will be there, Rowan WendesDog’s illustrator, will be there, and we will personally sign/doodle in people’s books. There will also be fairy-tale-themed craft activities, as the launch party is on right before Carol Ann Duffy’s theatre adaptation of Grimm Tales. I love fairy tales. Oh I do.

There will also be (if I have anything to do with it) lots of sweets. Oh yeah. LOTS. Maybe chocolate too. How about chocolate? And cake? Yeah, cake.

Helen Harvey’s First Ever Festival

One year ago, almost to the day, I was stewarding at children’s poet James Carter‘s poetry workshops at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. I sat down on my lunch break with a free notebook and pen I’d acquired from the festival sponsors. I hadn’t written a thing in nearly a year. And that lunch break I wrote the first drafts of ‘House on my Head‘ and ‘Dog at the End of the World’ (though ‘Dog’ was total rubbish!).

I’d never set out to write a poem for children before. It wasn’t something I intended to do seriously, or repeatedly, or ever, really. It was just a silly way to get myself writing again.

That festival I also stewarded a Meg Rosoff event. (I idolise Meg Rosoff.) I pointed out to her that I had stalked her from the Bath Children’s Literature Festival a couple of weeks before, where I’d been brave enough to talk about my own writing, and then she said “hey, maybe next year it’ll be you on the stage at all these festivals” and I was like lol.

Well! Ok, I’m not appearing at Cheltenham (I’m not even volunteering, what with the full time job and all :( ). BUT, I have just made my festival debut at the Taunton Literary Festival

…and it all went surprisingly well! Ok, there was only one under-18 present, but the size of the audience was respectably over the 30 mark, and they laughed? Several times?! (I am always surprised when I make people laugh.) I only trailed off awkwardly once or twice, and some people even enjoyed my event, I mean, seriously? As I mentioned at the time, I’m actually quite a boring person….

And finally

I’m engaged!

Didn’t see that one coming, did you?

(I certainly didn’t.)

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