Friday, 13 October 2017

"What does a dinosaur's roar sound like?" Editor Richard O'Brien on dinosaur poems and submissions

When I was a child, I wanted to grow up to be a palaeontologist. I read magazines about dinosaurs at my grandma’s house, spelling out their complicated names over her shoulder; I went to the Natural History Museum and gawped up at its cast diplodocus; I went to dinosaur-themed ‘safari’ parks in faded coastal towns, and at one point wrote a letter earnestly expressing my theories about the great extinction to Tony Robinson, who doubtless wondered what on earth he had to do with it but nonetheless, as I remember, took the trouble to send a brief encouraging reply.

I am not a scientific person. People in my life regularly comment on my shockingly vague understanding of the processes of the physical world. But as a kid, I loved dinosaurs: creatures who existed, or still exist, in a heady hinterland between science and myth. Twenty years on, my nephew loves them just as much as I did. He won’t be the last child whose imagination is fired by the idea of these enormous beasts, lumbering across a fern-filled landscape, alternately tearing chunks off each other and superintending busy level crossings. And though I myself am no longer wholly confident at telling the difference between a T Rex and an Albertosaurus, the names and the feeling associated with them have stuck with me much longer than my other main primordial obsession: models of tractor.

Like many childhood fascinations, dino-mania is kept alive by cultural production, from Dinotopia to The Land That Time Forgot. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say kids — and the adults who write for them — are drawn to that blend of the knowable and unknowable. Unlike human history, paleontology leaves no written traces: it’s up to our creative minds to put flesh, and scales, on the bones. And that leaves room for balsa-wood model-building, wilful anthropomorphism, and for play. What does a dinosaur’s roar sound like? I didn’t know, but I gave it my best shot!

Now, as an adult, my feathered proto-avian reptiles have come home to roost: I’m editing an anthology about dinosaurs for the Emma Press. The last book I edited, an anthology of poems about Birmingham, was concerned with giving a composite portrait of the city. There’s not much linking the subjects, other than the fact that for many London-centric journalists who’ve never been here it might as well be Isla Nublar. But what I found in that project was that most of the poems that really captured my attention started from an obvious love and engagement with their subject, but carried that over in a careful control of their material. It’s easy to pour out ideas, to splurge, but it rarely pays to overlook the small things. That’s how you end up with gender-flipping frog genes, and before you know it the island is over-run, you fools!

When writing for children, that sense of control is also extremely important. I remember viscerally hating the feeling of being patronised as a kid, so that’s not to say that poems have to talk down, or babify their subjects. It is, however, a hard ask to retain the attention of somebody discovering the whole variety of the world for the first time, and I’m looking for poems that speak clearly, that don’t dissolve into cerebral abstraction — that see keeping a child’s interest as a responsibility and a joy. 

I’d also love to see poems that do interesting things with the sounds of language — that remember, in their own DNA, how it felt as a kid to try to parse a word like ‘parasaurolophus’ for the first time. I want poems that explore the intellectual pleasure of science, and poems that just want to share the pure feeling that raptors are awesome. And finally, I want poems that share the thrill of the encounter: what it feels like when dinosaurs, as a concept and as a physical presence, first arrive in a child’s life, and the only question on their lips — the only question there is ­— is ‘Do you think he saw us?’

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The call for dinosaur poems ends on Sunday 29th October. Read all the submission guidelines here.

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