by Viki Radford, Elementary Literacy and Research Center Teacher
If you look at this year’s Sakura Medal selection, you’ll notice that some of the chapter books are a little different. In the Elementary section, the chapter book Owen and the Soldier tells the story of Owen, a young boy attempting to find his voice. It turns out that poetry might be exactly what Owen needs to stand up for what he believes. Lifeboat 12, another Sakura Medal nominated elementary chapter book, channels the immediacy of poetry to bring a little known WW2 story about the children survivors of a boat attacked by torpedoes vividly to life.
And this phenomenon is not limited to elementary school! In the Sakura Medal’s High School section, Toffee uses alternating POV (point of view) poems to represent the fragmented memories of an Alzheimer’s sufferer and the experiences of a traumatised teenager on the run from her terrible home life.
So why is poetry cropping up all over school libraries in Japan - not only in the poetry section, but as a way of telling novel-length stories? I’d like to argue that poetry gives words power, and enables both readers and writers to find connections- to our past, our present, and through these, our futures. Poetry is often a deeply personal, reflective act: inspired by the desire to communicate something that feels important to us - and through communication, we learn, exchange, and grow.
Rhyming poetry has its origins in storytelling around the fire: rhyme helped storytellers to remember the epic poems they shared. And poetry is meant to be spoken out loud. Whether I’m working with kindergarten students, or postgraduates looking to extend their poetic sensibilities, hearing how your creations sound is crucial to pushing your work forward, and my own practice as a poet is deeply rooted in the shared experience that comes from performance.
While at university I was part of a performance poetry collective called Happy Demon, and was very much writing for the stage rather than the page. As I became more experienced, my love for the written word meant I learnt about cadence, rhythms, and stresses through exploring classical poetic forms such as sonnets, terza rima, and villanelles.
Before moving to Japan, I lived in Hong Kong, where there is a small but thriving poetry scene. Through the discipline and exchange of poetry workshops, and monthly spoken word poetry events such as Poetry Outloud, (which has been running now for more than 20 years and is still going strong) I was able to develop my craft, and to publish two books of my own poetry through the support of the Hong Kong Arts Development Council.
The community that grew around Outloud was crucial to my poetic development, and provided many opportunities for poetic exchange: not only in conventional poetry performances, but in mixed media events. I was fortunate to be host and performer in a series of jazz poetry events where skilled musicians responded to the spoken words of poets to create a symphony of word and sound. Again, it is the communication and exchange that allows your craft to develop in ways you could not have predicted!
Here at YIS, I’ve been lucky enough to share my passion for poetry and performance with students, whose fresh approach to words can be an inspiration. We have had poetry workshops in the Creativity Commons lunchtime sessions: with magnetic poetry and blackout poetry workshops challenging our preconceptions about what poetry looks like - and sounds like. Poetry inquiries in elementary school can begin with explorations of the poetry in found objects using the five senses, re-arranging existing poems to explore what makes a poem a poem, and of course, reading our own poems aloud. Performing poetry aloud is wonderful not only for the audience: hearing your own words spoken out loud is very important to learn what works and what doesn’t - it’s an essential part of the editing process!
And you’re never too young to start. Our wonderful elementary teachers have hosted Poetry Cafes where students perform their work. Even kindergarten students can enjoy playing with word and sound: last school year we were lucky to have local writer Holly Thompson lead our kindergarten students in a group poetry creation, inspired by her evocative Sakura Medal nominated picture book Twilight Chant. The joy of shared creation was palpable, and it’s a joy that can be lifelong.
My own writing has been very much inspired by the stories that other people tell: the myths, folktales - even television shows - that inspired me as a young girl formed the backdrop for my second collection of poetry. Girls’ Adventure Stories of Long Ago is framed around Joseph Campbell’s idea of the Hero’s Journey. In times like these, we are sorely in need of heroes: and the stories we tell one another through poetry hold up a mirror to the heroes that we all are in our own lives.
If you’d like to read more poetry in our library, you can find it in our non-fiction shelves, under the Dewey call sign 808.
If you’d like to read more of my poetry, you can read a selection from my most recent book here: Viki Holmes Asian Review of Books.
Some of my work has been translated into Arabic: you can read the originals and their translations here: Viki Holmes Arabic Nadwah.