Sarah Crossan: ‘I really think poetry and arts can transform life’
The Children’s Laureate looks forward to sharing the power of poems
Sarah Crossan: “I can’t tell children that they’re poets if I don’t believe I’m a poet myself. Poet is the one word people are afraid to use because it sounds pretentious.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
If it weren’t for a cheeky schoolboy, Ireland’s newly crowned Children’s Laureate Sarah Crossan might never have become a professional writer, let alone the nation’s new advocate for children’s literature. Crossan was working as an English teacher and, in one lesson, she told her pupils to follow their dreams and believe in themselves. “A kid put up his hand and said, ‘Have you always wanted to be a teacher?’” she says. “And it was like someone punched me in the face.”
Crossan found herself telling the class that she’d thought about being a writer but had never found the time. The boy wasn’t impressed. “He sat back in his chair and said, ‘I think you have a cheek telling us to live our dreams when you’ve never even tried to live yours.’ Normally I would have disciplined him, but he had a point. And on the back of that comment I applied to do a Master’s degree and went back to university to do creative writing.”
Crossan continued to work as a teacher during and after her postgraduate studies, and began writing fiction in verse while teaching in a school in America, where, she says, the verse novel is more firmly established. Her first novel, The Weight of Water, was published in 2011 and was shortlisted for multiple awards; her 2016 novel One won the CILIP Carnegie Medal and CBI Book of the Year Award. As Laureate, she’s following in the footsteps of groundbreaking Irish writers and artists such as Siobhan Parkinson, Eoin Colfer, Niamh Sharkey and outgoing laureate PJ Lynch and, like all the previous laureates, she’s going to put her own stamp on the role. “We Are the Poets is the theme,” she says. “And what that means for me is bringing poetry into the lives of children in a way that’s not confrontational, that’s a fun experience.”
She’s seen for herself that young readers will embrace poetry – if they’re given the chance. “Poetry is the one area where young people still feel that they have to understand it before they’re allowed to have an emotional reaction to it,” she says, pointing out that this attitude often comes from adults. “One thing I do anyway as part of my job is speaking to teachers a lot. And many of them talk about the trauma of poetry at school. How many people hated poetry at school and how many of them are now English teachers bringing this into the classroom? I want to work with teachers and give them the confidence to teach poetry in a way that’s fun and brings pleasure not just to the students but also the teachers.”
And she has plenty of ideas of how to do all this during her two-year stint as laureate. “I want to create resource packs for schools,” she says. “I want to work with Irish poets and performance poets across the world, getting them into communities where children are more vulnerable.” The schools programme won’t kick off until the new academic year in September, but Crossan hopes to reach young potential readers before then. “We want to have a social media campaign where we get well-known figures in Irish culture to recite their favourite poems and talk about poetry, whether it’s about being inspired or being damaged by a terrible teacher.” She hopes to curate “a poetry festival for young people where we have activity stations where they can do fun things with poetry, performance poets, poetry installations. We haven’t got all of the finer details yet – but we’ve got two years.”
Crossan spent her childhood in Dublin before her family moved to the UK, where she went to secondary school and university. After her spell in America, she returned to the UK, where she still lives. She is adamant that the physical distance will be irrelevant when it comes to her laureateship. “I’m over roughly once a month anyway,” she says. “Because I don’t live here and because it’s really important for me to feel a part of the Irish community, I’ve really tried to come over as much as possible.” As someone whose Twitter bio reads “Irish writer, English accent”, this sense of Irishness means a lot to her. “One of the reasons I was so emotional when I was told about this laureateship was because I’ve spent my whole life trying to prove I’m Irish, trying to hold on to that despite people trying to pull it away from me all the time.”
Having grown up in a working-class immigrant community, she’s keen to work with children on the margins. “When you have a decent education and you come from a family that values education, you don’t appreciate the psychological barriers some children have to education and the arts. They completely think this stuff isn’t about them.” Crossan has visited private schools where, she says, the children are already invested in literature and have already enjoyed multiple author visits. “I’m not sure of the value of those visits . . . I’m interested in reaching vulnerable children, children who are homeless or refugee children. What better work can you do?”
Fear of pretension
As someone who writes fiction in verse and who is encouraging young people to embrace poetry, does Crossan consider herself a poet, a novelist who writes poetry, or simply a writer? “I don’t consider myself to be any of these things!” she laughs. “I’m starting to call myself a poet and take ownership of that in a way I haven’t before. I think it’s important that I do because I can’t tell children that they’re poets if I don’t believe I’m a poet myself. Poet is the one word that people are afraid to use because it sounds pretentious. If you painted in watercolours you’d say you were a painter, but for some reason that word poet has an arrogance attached to it. It sounds lofty but it shouldn’t, and one of the things I want to do is allow people to use that word and not be afraid to use it. Because if you start to believe it about yourself you start to create it.”
And this is the heart of Crossan’s inclusive vision. “Once you say the words ‘I am a poet’ or ‘we are the poets’ then young people will start to believe and start to write poetry,” she says. “Take ownership of it. Don’t let academics and snobs take it away from you and tell you it belongs in schools and universities and books and it doesn’t belong to you. Because I was you and I didn’t think poetry belonged to me and it took me a long time to discover it, and when I did it opened a whole world for me. I really think poetry and the arts can transform life. And no one should be excluded from that.”
PREVIOUS LAUREATES SPEAK
When you became laureate, how did you envisage the role?
“As a writer with quite a lot of experience on the schools and libraries circuit, I decided early in my laureateship that there was no point in simply replicating that work that I had been doing for years in my time as laureate. Instead I decided I would try to reach a wider audience of children by speaking to their significant booky adults, so I addressed many audiences of teachers, librarians and other children’s-literature adults, who I knew would have influence with lots and lots of children.”
What was the most challenging aspect of the role?
“Finding the time for the events, [though] I really had to search for a challenging aspect. I have to say I loved being the laureate and missed it when the two years were over. I still wear my medal sometimes and address myself in the mirror.”
What advice would you give the new laureate?
“I would just say to them to be sure to enjoy their time as laureate because it will be over in a flash.”
“My advice would be to enjoy your term in office. The CBI team are experts so they will take care of the logistics. All the laureate has to do is show up and be fabulous.”