Valerie Bloom: ‘Poetry Can Go Anywhere’
August 5, 2022
Valerie Bloom MBE won the 2022 CLiPPA (CLPE Children’s Poetry Award) for her latest collection, Stars with Flaming Tails (Otter Barry Books, 2021). In this blog, Valerie considers the importance of poetry and how it needs to reflect who we are and show the world as it is.
I was born and grew up in the Caribbean and poetry was always part of my life. My mother and grandmother used to recite poetry all the time. The Jamaican Poet, the Honorable Louise Bennett Coverley was a household name and I remember every weekday sitting around the radio with my family and listening to her mid-day programme, Miss Lou’s Views. I live in England now, and have for some time, but I draw heavily on my Caribbean background in subject matter, structure and language. In fact, one of my favourite places to write is my conservatory. I sit in here and I look at the bougainvillaea I have grown, I look at the orchids, the anthuriums, I look at the bromeliads and think I am back in the Caribbean.
My collection Stars with Flaming Tails opens with the poem Welcome (originally commissioned by the BBC for National Poetry Day) and describes the special naming ceremony for a new-born baby that takes place in parts of Africa and the Caribbean. It is held on the eighth day after the baby’s birth.
And on the eighth day they knew for certain
That she had come to stay,
So they touched her lips,
And stroked sugar on her palm,
And ginger for health and oil for calm,
Water for cleansing and washing out strife,
Salt for happiness, cola nut for long life,
And so she tasted the world.
To quote Charlotte Hacking of CLPE, poetry is ‘a carrier of culture’. It marks, shares and shapes who we are and our feelings and experiences of the world. I’m lucky in that the work I do in schools brings me into contact with lots of young people, and I’ve seen how poetry allows them to explore individual identity and the identity of others. Two of my poems were included in the NEAB GCSE syllabus. Both were written in Jamaican. Sometime afterwards I was performing in Leicester when a young lady approached me.
‘I had to come and say thank you,’ she said. ‘For helping me to pass my English exam.’
At my puzzled look she explained that she’d had no interest in English, that she couldn’t understand any of it until she saw my poem. She was convinced she would not have passed her exam but for the poem written in Jamaican. That young woman saw herself in my poems.
Poetry helps us make sense of our world. It’s harder to make sense of a world that’s unrecognisable. When the poem mirrors a child’s experience, the child can place herself in the poem. Conversely, if she can’t see herself in the poetry books, she’ll feel those books belong to others, but not to her. But poems are not just mirrors. They’re windows through which we look into others’ lives, so diversity in poetry benefits everyone.
So many of my fellow writers have said they started writing because they couldn’t see themselves in the books that were available to them. It’s getting better, but the importance of letting children see themselves in poetry books cannot be stressed enough.
Poetry helps us make sense of our world. It’s harder to make sense of a world that’s unrecognisable. When the poem mirrors a child’s experience, the child can place herself in the poem. Conversely, if she can’t see herself in the poetry books, she’ll feel those books belong to others, but not to her.
But poems are not just mirrors. They’re windows through which we look into others’ lives, so diversity in poetry benefits everyone. As well as seeing themselves, children benefit from learning about and understanding other cultures, other experiences. In order to help our children become well-rounded adults, respecting others, we need to help them look into the mirrors and also through the windows of diverse poetry books.
I was delighted and immensely proud when Stars with Flaming Tails was announced winner of the 2022 CLiPPA (CLPE Children’s Poetry Prize). It was a wonderful occasion, a joyful, inclusive celebration of the vitality of children’s poetry, but I was particularly pleased with what Philip Gross, who was chair of the judges, said of my book. Stars with Flaming Tails, he said, is ‘like a passport to the whole world, and beyond. This is poetry that can go anywhere.’ Exactly what I want my poems to be.
Valerie Bloom MBE is the author of several volumes of poetry for adults and children and has edited a number of collections of children’s poetry. She has presented poetry programmes for the BBC, her poetry has been featured in ‘Poems on the Underground’ and included in GCSE and Caribbean exam syllabuses. She was awarded an MBE from the queen for services to poetry. Her latest collection, Stars with Flaming Tails won the 2022 CLiPPA (CLPE Children’s Poetry Award), it is published by Otter Barry Books.