Matt Goodfellow: The Life-Changing Power of Poetry
June 2, 2023
Matt Goodfellow is shortlisted for the 2023 CLiPPA (CLPE Children’s Poetry Award) with Let’s Chase Stars Together (Bloomsbury Education). He explains how poetry transforms lives, including his own.
It’s interesting that so many poets working in schools have a background in teaching, including myself. I was a full-time primary school teacher in Manchester for eight years. There are a number of reasons for this, I think. Firstly, it gives you a nuts and bolts understanding of how schools and classrooms work and therefore provides invaluable knowledge of how to run workshops that most effectively suit pupils’ needs. It also helps that most teachers who aspire to be poets are already used to standing up in front of large audiences to present and speak and know how long to talk for, the content, about audience interaction etc.
I became a teacher in my mid-20s having decided (or, rather had it decided for me by a complete lack of musical talent) that my rock-star ambitions were never going to come to fruition. I’d been in bands writing songs since my early teens – and that was the dream. It died - and I needed a re-think. When I became a teacher, I honestly thought all my creative outlet in terms of writing was at an end and that teaching was the future for me. A teacher’s life is so incredibly busy, especially learning the ropes at the start of a career, that it took me a couple of years to remember I was supposed to write (and then a lot longer to work out a way to make this happen). I began to watch authors like Tom Palmer, and poets like the late Wes Magee, come into school and deliver assemblies and workshops; I’d have been in my classroom and at the photocopier since ridiculous o’clock getting ready for the day ahead and these interesting, passionate people would sweep in just before 9 and captivate the children and adults in assemblies and workshops, maybe sign books and then be gone way before the end of day bell. Aha! I thought… I like the idea of that! At the same time, I began to really observe and examine the lives of the children in front of me each day, which in turn made me think back to my own childhood, plus my own children were also of primary school age. I began to write poems and songs and little plays for class assemblies – and all of these things happening awakened something within me… a niggling voice was telling me that my destiny wasn’t to teach, but to write. And here we now are all these years later.
I write about three things: my life, lives that I’ve seen, and stuff I make up. Many, many of the children I taught appear in my poems, sometimes the ‘I’ in a poem is not just one voice but a blend of many, including those of my own children – and myself. It’s no surprise then to find so many other poets have had a similar experience.
Poetry is different. It’s like mercury and nobody can hang age-related expectations on it. It’s the only space within the current education system where teachers can facilitate creativity in a way that allows children the space to write about their own thoughts and feelings – and to do it, should they choose to, in their own voice.
Being a former teacher also means I understand the curriculum. And how narrow and joyless the writing curriculum, in particular, has become. This has nothing to do with teachers but teachers and SLTs still have their hands tied by the current testing, Ofsted-fearing climate.
Poetry is different. It’s like mercury and nobody can hang age-related expectations on it. It’s the only space within the current education system where teachers can facilitate creativity in a way that allows children the space to write about their own thoughts and feelings – and to do it, should they choose to, in their own voice. I really believe that poetry can put the voices of the community right at the heart of the curriculum.
To do this, though, children (and teachers) need to be exposed to a wide range of poetry (and poets). Training needs to be delivered to teachers and SLTs to explore this space – and celebrate it.
Poetry, if allowed to, can change lives – it certainly changed mine.
Matt Goodfellow’s first collection, Chicken on the Roof has become a favourite in schools, his second, Bright Bursts of Colour, won the poetry section of the North Somerset Book Award and was shortlisted for the 2021 CLiPPA. Caterpillar Cake was shortlisted for the CLiPPA in 2022 alongside Being Me Poems about Thoughts, Worries and Feelings which includes poems by Matt, Liz Brownlee and Laura Mucha. He’s a National Poetry Day Ambassador.