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Authorgraph No.208


T


ony Mitton is the most recent recipient of the CLPE Poetry Award for his master work Wayland, a long narrative


poem about the myth of Wayland the Blacksmith. Looking at the large collection of well-loved favourites displayed in his writing den, the Amazing Aeroplanes


series,


rhyming picture books such as Down by the Cool of the Pool and


Bumpus Dinosaurumpus Jumpus and his


outstanding first collection of poetry for children, Plum (1998), it is surprising that he hasn’t received the award before now (or the Signal Award as it was in its previous incarnation). However, it is fitting that he should receive it now for a book that is so clearly dear to his heart and perhaps comes closest to embracing the vision of the poet.


Mitton was 40 years old before he had his first collection of children’s poetry published. He explains that he had been undergoing a long apprenticeship. Having trained as an English teacher, he worked fleetingly in a grammar school but was disappointed by the experience and elected to work in primary schools, which he felt was the ideal environment for teaching. The opportunities afforded by being able to combine writing with other curriculum subjects held great appeal. ‘If we were looking at wildlife, for instance, the children could write poems and stories about things they had experienced, rather than rely solely on the imagination.’


For Mitton, the transition from teaching to writing for children was a natural one. In the classroom, he was interested in helping the children discover themselves as writers. He would model and draft with them, demonstrating by thinking aloud how to make changes. Together teacher and pupils would create proto poems, followed by a period of silent writing for the children to hone their own poems. Later, when his own children arrived on the scene, he relished the word play that would grow from reading stories to them and he started to make up little poems for them.


Listening to Mitton recalling this experience with such fondness serves to highlight one of the characteristics of his verse. It is simultaneously child-centred, yet holds within it sentiments that many adults will respond to with recognition and sympathy. To me, it seems that the poems are written as


10 Books for Keeps No.208 September 2014


Tony Mitton interviewed by Nikki Gamble


much to please the poet as they are to appeal to a child reader. It is an assessment that he affirms. ‘I am glad you see that. I feel that a lot of the poems in Plum are readable by children, but they are not poems for children – they are simply poems.’


I suggest that his poetry puts me in mind of Charles Causley. He concurs, ‘When I wrote the poems which were collected in Plum, I had been reading Causley and it struck me after reading his verse that it was permissible to do the things that I had a natural intuition for. I love the textures of English verse: the rhyme, rhythm euphony and scansion. I also absorbed a lot from Ezra Pound who described three aspects of poetry: the idea or subject; the imagery what you see in your head


and the sound – the musicality. I think I would add a fourth – the feeling.


I am keen to explore how these ideas come together in his most recently published book, Wayland. The Judges of the CLPE award cited ‘the mastery of the form, its epic nature and its beauty as a complete piece of art, poetry and legend’ as the qualities which made it stand out.


He tells me that the book had a long journey from genesis to publication. The poem that appears at the end of the long narrative ballad had been included in a submission of some 150 poems to the publisher David Fickling. 50 of those poems were chosen for the collection Plum but David had seen something special in the Wayland poem and asked Mitton to tell him the story. ‘He was captivated and wanted me to write a long narrative version as I had with Saint Brigid’s Cloak and The Selkie Bride.’ The poem was duly written, but it was more than ten years before it was published.


The story of Wayland is one that has special resonance for Mitton. He identifies closely with the Smith. The poem is, he explains, ‘A heart cry of the maker. It is about greed and wealth in relation to creative work. It is about how artists create their own freedom. A message that needs to be said loudly and clearly.’


The ballad form in which it is written is germane to the subject of the poem, but unlike the traditional ballads, the verse is finely wrought and I wonder if the form had been his first choice. ‘I tried other forms, variations on the ballad, even free verse, but the ballad felt most appropriate. The


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