I Am the Seed that Grew the Tree, a collection of nature poems published in association with the National Trust and illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon was one of the most spectacular anthologies of 2019. This year Nosy Crow will publish an equally beautiful companion, Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright, animal poems illustrated by Britta Teckentrup. Editor Fiona Waters describes the joys and challenges of choosing an animal poem for every day of the year.
In my experience children light up with poetry and are keen to write their own so we should ensure only the very best is offered to them. This new commission from Nosy Crow therefore turned into a huge search through my very extensive poetry book collection, not just books of poetry written for children, but all my poetry books. After all, a good poem is a good poem, never mind for whom it might have been written originally, so I always cast my net very wide when compiling anthologies. All children lack is experience, they have the same emotions and the same feelings as adults and a challenging poem, especially when shared and read aloud, is always worth sharing.
I am sure you didn’t miss the reference to books. I don’t go online to find poems. My very large library of books is the main tool I use when compiling an anthology. I know where to look. Poetry is a constant in my life and I discover new poets, and indeed old poets I didn’t know, all the time. Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright was put together by reading through hundreds and hundreds of books, sometimes without sight of a single animal, at other times being astonished by what I uncovered. Vividly coloured mini post-it notes were inserted in the relevant pages until some books were positively bristling with their neon alerts. To get to a year’s worth of 366 poems, I and the Nosy Crow team made a longlist of 700 to 800 poems. Some rejections were easy – too many giraffes already – some were ‘just not good enough’ – but others were painful for me. I fought my corner, battalions of pleas and words at the ready, but in reality it was all very civilised and no anthologist was hurt in the making of this book. And who knows, there might always be another collection for on the way as a bonus I made new discoveries and secreted those away.
It seemed very important to me both to give new poets a space, and forgotten poets time back in the limelight and most of all that the voices should be every bit as diverse as the worldwide collection of animals. Some poets were a given – Ted Hughes, Liz Brownlee, George Szirtes, Faustin Charles, Judith Nichols, John Rice, Grace Nichols, Valerie Worth, John Agard – and the simple but elegant Haikus from old Japan, the infinitely wise truths of the Native Americans. And then the unexpected just to make the reader sit up – but all the poets are there because of the beauty of their words and the images they create in the mind’s eye.
I always make things harder for myself when compiling a collection by trying not to use a poem I’ve anthologised before. There are some exceptions naturally: if I am doing a themed collection then it would be foolish to exclude the obvious. But the most disappointing thing on picking up a new anthology is to find you know all the poems already, the same tired, over-used, unadventurous, safe selections. A new collection should be an exciting voyage of discovery with just enough of the familiar to make the reader feel at home.
So yes, there was a poem about a pangolin! And there are poems about yaks and anteaters and Scottish wildcats and spoonbills – the list is wonderfully endless. The commission turned into a world-wide poetry quest for creatures well known – of course there were many, many poems about elephants and kangaroos and lions – but we also wanted the shy; the enormous and the tiny; the vividly coloured and the expertly camouflaged; those in the air, in the trees, on the ground and under the oceans; 366 poems encompassing the entire animal kingdom in all its infinite variety. So there’s a polar bear cub for January 1, bees and their knees for August 25, and pandas, bamboo bandits, on December 12, my birthday. (Everyone confronted with a 366 day collection looks up their own birthday!). It’s a collection of the living, the thriving but also the endangered and those desperately clinging on to survival by their toes, claws, flippers and digits. No mammoths however, aside from the task in hand.
It is impossible to talk about this book without mention of the artist, Britta Teckentrup. Britta has made Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright into a thing of great and stunning beauty, I cried when I first saw a finished copy. The visual images chimed so much with what I had seen in my imagination when choosing the poems. All is here, gentle laughter, awe at great majesty, heart stopping beauty and a shiver at the unlovely. We cannot thank her enough.
A small postscript. In the interests of scrupulous honesty, I did have to go online to find the snow leopards…
Fiona Waters is a highly regarded anthologist with over 100 books to her name. Her anthology Why Does Mum Always Iron a Crease in My Jeans won the CLPE Poetry Prize.
Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright is published by Nosy Crow, 978-1788005678, £25 hbk