The Emma Press

Get Inspired to Write for Children: Sohini Basak on children’s poetry

“The first poems I heard in my life were Bengali lullabies. I did not know they were ‘poems’ then, but I loved the ways the words hummed and danced around the dark room as my mother or sometimes my grandmother would sing them to me. I loved how the sounds invited me into a softness.”

Sohini Basak led the first of our ‘Get Inspired to Write for Children’ workshops on 25th October 2022. Here, she reflects on how poetry and literature help children understand the world.

Conducting an Emma Press writing-poetry-for-children workshop was a dream – it was an incredible group of writers who had come in with open hearts and minds to delve into their childhood memories and talk to objects like feathers and rocks and giant sycamore leaves to create new work. Across time zones and geographies, we wrote in silence, we played with words, we spoke about our dreams and fears. Doing the poem-generating exercises myself, I went back to my childhood days – or actually nights, and it was gently surprising to realize how central they were to my journey as a poet.

The first poems I heard in my life were Bengali lullabies. I did not know they were ‘poems’ then, but I loved the ways the words hummed and danced around the dark room as my mother or sometimes my grandmother would sing them to me. I loved how the sounds invited me into a softness. They’d be songs about flowering lemon trees, fox brides or cat grooms, and they would transport me to absurdly beautiful places. In the room, the curtains would move in the summer’s breeze, a firefly would at times sneak in and rest on the corner of our mosquito net, and then the time passed and before I knew it, I was waking up to a bright new day. I was an anxious child, always worrying about big things and small, the way the night arrived each day making the world the dark and unfamiliar. I often worried that the sun would forget to come up the next morning. But it was poems that helped me sleep.

Around the same time, my father bought a large hardbound illustrated book, Fred by Posy Simmonds. It changed my life. The book was about Sophie, a little girl, and about Fred, her beloved cat, who had just died. One night, Sophie and her little brother see a neighbourhood cat in a black suit and top hat, and they decide to follow him – only to realize that their cat Fred was a superstar in the cat community and that dogs and cats (and even rats!) had come from afar to sing at Fred’s funeral. The way the story tackled darkness and death and grief and friendship changed something in me, and made me braver and kinder. I knew I wanted to make something like that someday. And perhaps it was a year or two later when I came across a poem by Eleanor Farjeon which further pinned my desire to create soft magical worlds. The poem goes like this:

The night will never stay,
The night will still go by,
Though with a million stars
You pin it to the sky;

Though you bind it with the blowing wind
And buckle it with the moon,
The night will slip away
Like sorrow or a tune.

And so it was lullabies, and poems, and stories about dead cats that helped me understand the world as a small child, and so when I sit down now to write for children, I often think about those summer nights, the fluttering shadows beneath curtains that first terrified me and then I came to love. How I began to see the night as a soft and restorative and necessary place, how sometimes those shadows turned out to be a friendly cat with patches of black fur and giant green firefly eyes.

Sohini Basak's first poetry collection 'We Live in the Newness of Small Differences' was awarded the inaugural International Beverly Manuscript Prize and published in 2018. She studied literature and creative writing at the universities of Delhi, Warwick, and East Anglia, where she received the 2015 Malcolm Bradbury Grant for Poetry. Sohini is an independent editor specialising in poetry and literary translations, and has previously worked for HarperCollins and Asymptote Journal. She is currently obsessed with the shapes of leaves, line breaks, water colour illustrations, and the neighbourhood cat squad.

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