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Q&A with poet and author Joseph Coelho

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Joseph Coelho’s poems have been published in several anthologies including Green Glass Beads ed. by Jacqueline Wilson. Joseph has been a guest poet on Cbeebies Rhyme Rocket where he was beamed up from The Rhyme Rock to perform his Bug Poem and has featured alongside Michael Rosen and Valerie Bloom on Radio 4’s Poetry Playtime. His début children’s collection Werewolf Club Rules won the 2015 CLPE CLiPPA Poetry Award.

As well as poetry, Joseph also writes picture books including Luna Loves Library Day which made it on to our list of the Top 100 Stories to Share. All of his work has poetry and an element of performance at its heart making his festival and school sessions dynamic occasions.

We caught up with Joseph about his new book, If All The World Were…, a moving, lyrical picture book illustrated by new talent Allison Colpoys, about a young girl’s love for her Grandad and how she copes when he dies. His powerful and ultimately uplifting text is the ideal way to introduce children to the concept of death and dying, particularly children who have lost a grandparent.

If all the world were memories
the past would be rooms I could visit
and in each room would be my Grandad.

Your new book talks about the relationship between a little girl and her grandfather and how she copes with his death. What made you want to write this story?
Death is such a taboo subject when interacting with children, our instinct is to protect them from pain and so when it comes to death we end up, understandably, molly coddling them. I wanted to provide a story that would offer a gentle way for parents to open up that conversation and to perhaps offer a tool to help process the emotions around death and mourning – writing and drawing.

When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer? Tell us about your path to becoming a poet and writer.
I first wanted to be a journalist – some journalists from Reuters came into my school for a days workshop and I recall my English teacher bigging me up in front of them – I think that was one of the first times I thought that maybe I could do something connected to writing. It wasn’t until I finished my degree in Archaeology at UCL that I discovered performance poetry organisation Apples and Snakes and started writing and performing poetry under the guidance of fantastic poets like Jacob Sam La Rose, Francesca Beard and Aoife Mannix. Combining a new found love for writing poetry with the freedom of thought I had picked up from being involved with physical theatre and puppetry companies at Battersea Arts Centre paved the way for me finding new ways to write and perform poems: I started dressing up to host poetry events in flairs with Afro wigs and performing entire poetic plays from within a tent on stage. It was a dynamic time where I was writing a poem on the Monday and performing it on the Thursday. I’m probably looking back at my early 20s with rose tinted spectacles but it felt like a magic time.

What one piece of advice would you give to budding young poets?
Observe the world around you, think outside of yourself and whenever you find that you are being swallowed up be social media and what the next person is doing, realise that in that moment – you’re not writing and make a change.

The illustrations are beautifully done by the very talented Allison Colpoys. Do you have a favourite image that you think particularly captures the essence of the book?
There is a spread that features the protagonist and her grandfather floating in space to accompany the text…

“If all the world were deep space,
I’d orbit my grandad like the moon,
and our laughs would be shooting stars.”

I love the way Allison has them holding hands and looking at each other, for me that image says that for this little girl her grandfather is a huge part of her world and the emptiness of space around them goes some way to represent the vacuum that his absence leaves. But yet within that space there are stars and other planets and shooting stars so though she may have moments of feeling alone when her grandfather passes away, we know that she’ll be ok, she will land on other planets and see other stars.

How do you get your ideas for your poems and stories?
I’ve been asked this question quite a few times over the last week by both adults and children which is funny because only the other day I gave myself a treat and spent an afternoon alone at Kew Gardens and turned off from anything book or word related. I immersed myself in my love of plants and growing and it was here whilst sitting under a pergola of ancient wisteria and listening to the buzzing of the bees in the snoozing sunlight that an answer to a tricky book I’ve been working on popped into my head, and out came my notepad. I think ideas need space, you have to give your mind the space for the ideas to pop up in. You cannot plant seeds in a bed bulging with plants, you need a patch of bare soil.

What do you enjoy most about your job?
I love how different it is from day to day, one moment I’m in a school talking to hundreds of children, the next I’m on the road making my way to a festival, the next I’m in a theatre or museum talking to librarians or teachers at a conference, the next I’m at home grappling with the structure of a poem or novel. No two days are alike and I’m eternally grateful for that.

What does a typical day look like for you?
Well to not contradict what I said above I shall try to describe a typical/ideal writing day. I wake as the body demands, have coffee and breakfast and attend to chores, I struggle to write first thing in the morning, I’m very much a night owl but I’m also fairly hyperactive (went to a special nursery and even then was the only kid who would not nap like the others) so I have to do something in the morning, so I’ll walk to town or do some gardening or go for a run. I find that I also need time to settle into my writing space and that a mundane organisational activity can help with that, so rearranging files, or books or something like that helps, something that I can do with the radio on. Once I’ve been outside and settled into my study and the light is starting to fade, that’s when I am in the right frame of mind to write. It will be slow at first but bit by bit the writing takes control and before I know it the ideas have flowed, many cups of tea have been drunk and bed is calling.

Are you allowed to share with us what you’re working on next?
Ha! I’m not sure if I am, so suffice to say some poetry and some stories that I am hugely excited about and hope to be able to share very soon. I can however talk about a series I recently finished filming with The BBC, CLPE and A Productions called Teach Poetry which will be out later this year.

Luna Loves Library Day was voted as one of the nation’s favourite stories to share. Do you have a book that you love to share with others?
I was so delighted that Luna Loves Library Day was chosen, it still gives me tingles to think that Luna is being widely read and inspiring kids and parents to visit libraries. There are so many books that I love to share so I’m afraid I’m going to wimp out and say two – first is Moon Juice by Kate Wakeling – a fantastically vibrant and suitably challenging poetry collection for young people illustrated by Elina Brasilia and the second is You’re Safe With Me by Chitra Soundar and illustrated by Poonam Mistry as it is such a tender story of animals looking out for one another and illustrated in such a beautifully sophisticated way that will delight and widen children’s experience of art and story.

If All The World Were… by Joseph Coehlo and illustrated by Allison Colpoys is published on 18th June by First Editions, an imprint of Lincoln Children’s Books

Find out more @ www.thepoetryofjosephcoelho.com and follow Joseph on Twitter @poetryjoe

#WorldBookDay