Joseph Coelho – Creativity Through Poetry

From the moment Joseph Coelho steps onto the stage, the auditorium is transformed into a relaxed, creative space where the audience is invited to immerse themselves in the poetry and the fun. And as soon becomes clear, inviting audiences in and making them feel part of a collective story is very much part of Joseph’s ethos. For him, everyone is a natural writer and poet, and his Laureateship has been about opening up spaces for children to see themselves as storytellers, and about making poetry compelling and fun rather than intimidating or dry. 

He recalls his sixth-form self meeting the Caribbean dub poet and storyteller, Jean Binta Breeze, and discovering the world of spoken-word poetry. It was this encounter that opened up the possibility of becoming a writer – not something he’d thought of as an option before. And so, he set off. Performing poetry, writing and performing in plays, sometimes living out of his micro-camper, “Elsie-G”, eventually led to a meeting with a publisher at Walker and then to more than 35 books for children of all ages.

As Children’s Laureate, Joseph has been travelling around the UK, visiting and joining 213 libraries, cycling some of the way on a homemade bamboo bike. He proudly shows his collection of library cards before telling us about his Bookmaker Like You project, which is helping to diversify bookshelves and bring children into contact with a wider range of of writers and creators. “Wait for no-one!” he says. “There are no gatekeepers apart from those that you give keys and chains to.” 

Joseph emphasises the importance of play – the “climb, leap and swing” route into poetry for children. It’s certainly not about finding “the right answer”, and as he reads his poem, “An A* from Miss”, in which a teacher seeks to reduce a child’s attempts at poetry writing to clichés and formulaic expressions, there’s a chuckle of recognition in the audience. He then sets about showing us that poetry is innate and belongs to everyone; that it can be limited or boundless, long or short, rhyming or rambling or ridiculous. Images go up on the screen and we yell out suggestions for one-word poems to go with long titles – “The sad tale of a fly”? – “Splatt!” Then the whole audience collaborates on a longer composition, supplying lines about the sun that magically coalesce into an amusing poem. 

At the heart of all this is the message that poetry is not about you and it’s not about me. Poetry, says Joseph, is about giving. It’s a point of connection, most needed when it speaks to something that we can put no other kind of words to. We need poetry, he says, because “it cuts through the sludge to the tendons of the heart”. In times such as these, the world perhaps needs this now more than anything.

Alongside this year’s lecture, the “Creativity through Poetry” exhibition at the Homerton Library offered not only some rare gems from their children’s literature collection, but also a “Poet-tree”, inspired by Joseph’s poem, “Library”: “It is a library, but also, it is alive, it breathes, it is a wood, it is a forest.” Along the branches are snippets of Joseph’s poetry – “you’re going to fill the world with blossoms. / How could you not?” – while paper blossoms offer poetic words of peace and consolation for library visitors to take away. The exhibition is open until 13th July.

Blakeney Clark (MPhil Student, Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature, University of Cambridge)