The Dirigible Balloon
Poetry for Children

Poet Feature ... Brian Mackenwells

Hello Balloonists!

Here in the UK, the summer is upon us and we thought we'd celebrate with a new poet feature.

Picture by Steve Cross
Picture by Steve Cross
Brian Mackenwells is an Irish writer, living in Oxford. He has written for the BBC Boring Talks about pencils, told stories on stage about not getting sick in zero gravity, performed standup about strange superheroes, co-wrote a full-cast audio drama every month for five years, and his Irish-language film-poem ‘Cur Síos‘ was chosen for the ‘Irish Selection’ category at the 2021
“ó bhéal” Irish Poetry Festival

Brian kindly sent us answers to questions we'd asked him about his poetry, plus two new poems for the Dirigible Balloon website.

Happy reading!
JH : )

When did you first realise you enjoyed writing?

I can’t quite remember, as long as I’ve been able to do it! It did take me a while to figure out the kinds of writing I like to do. Initially I wrote short stories, but they were mostly made up of dialogue, and it wasn’t until I joined a theatre group that I realised I actually wanted to write scripts. I hadn’t tried writing poetry at all before around 2018 – when I gave it a go, I realised how interesting and satisfying a form it is to write!

Why do you write poetry?

I enjoy the challenge of it – trying to write something concise, but still impactful, is like a little puzzle. Trying to express a feeling, or land a joke, while (say) sticking to a rhyming scheme is the sort of problem I can chew over for hours.

Where does your inspiration to write come from?

I think you can get inspiration from anywhere at all. So in 2018 I started writing poetry by trying a writing exercise by the poet Ross Sutherland called “The Moon Is”. You pick a noun and an adjective from somewhere in the world around you (eg, the first word in a random page of whatever book is closest, or the next adjective someone on the telly says) – you then use these two words to finish the sentence “The moon is an (adjective) (noun)”. The sentence is the title of your poem, or maybe the first line, and you write to that. You end up trying to write a poem called “The Moon is a tinned liquid”, but you’d be surprised – there’s always some angle you can take. That taught me that you can just look around and pick something to write about – you just need to pay attention to what you find interesting about it. Easier said than done sometimes, but if you sit and write without putting too much pressure on yourself, your brain will come up with something to get you started. I still like that ‘prompt’ based method of writing, I use it to this day.

How did it feel when you had your first piece of writing in print?

I had just started to write poems for kids, and one key thing I try to live by when it comes to my writing is to always Send It Out – so despite the fact I didn’t have much experience, I submitted to The Caterpillar. I wasn’t really expecting anything, but then I got the email from the editor offering to publish “Once a Lunar Month” (which was a “The Moon Is” poem!) in the Spring 2022 issue, I literally gasped, stood up, and backed away from my computer.

Do you have a writer you admire?

So many, it’s hard to pick just one, but I’ll go for Kate Wakeling. She was the one who inspired me to write kids poetry. I came across a video of her doing her wonderful poem “Comet”, and it made me realise that kids poetry was something I might be able to do – up until then, all my favourite poems which I had written had a daftness to them, and I couldn’t imagine them being published in poetry magazines for adults. That video of “Comet” made it click that kid’s poetry might be a good fit for me!

What do you enjoy doing if you’re not writing?

I have a higher-then-average interest in pencils, I
sort of collect them!

What ambitions do you have in terms of writing (projects on the horizon etc.)?

I’ve just applied for some Arts Council funding to get a regular kids poetry event up-and-running, but we’ll see what happens there (the fund is very competitive!) . Even if I don’t get the funding, I’m planning on seeing if I can get it off the ground on the cheap. Other than that, I want to experiment a bit with writing longer narrative poems.

Thank you Brian.

Exorcise Book
by Brian Mackenwells

I found a secret maths book
in a dusty closed-off section
the librarian had blocked
so it would escape detection.

This book claimed to be magic,
but not the white-gloved kind,
it taught you how to free the shapes
from paper where they’re confined

It recommended caution
not to do it just for fun
for once you open Euclid’s door
you may just be overrun.

See triangles all hate laughter,
circles are never brave,
squares are totally ridiculous,
and dodecagons are knaves

Parallelograms are known complainers
and ovals are so boring.
An octagon will steal your lunch
and never gives a warning

Round shapes never stop accusing,
pointy ones never reveal
why they smile so ceaselessly.
What do all those faces conceal?

Be careful in your maths book, so
when asked to draw a shape.
Who knows what you might release
if any were to escape.

A Working Lunch
by Brian Mackenwells

I was once quite alone, on a Tuesday I think,
when I swear that my lunch caught my eye with a wink.

Just the Orange, I should say (my sandwich was mute)
and then it just started to talk, this strange fruit

"Hey you, poet!", it shouted, "put down your dull tea,
it is time to get writing some poems about me!"

I pretended I spoke to rude fruit all the time
and said "I cannot, 'cos your name has no rhyme"

It sighed, "Oh poets, surely you qualify
to make sure a language can't just ossify?"

And it's true, we're makers of fresh words, so for orange
I wrote this here poem in a way most gasmorange.

The pictures in this article were kindly supplied by Brian Mackenwells.
The poems are copyright (©) Brian Mackenwells 2023
The article was edited and organised by Jonathan Humble

About the Writer

Jonathan Humble

Jonathan lives in Cumbria. His work has been published online and in print in a number of magazines and anthologies. His first collection of poetry, My Camel's Name Is Brian, was published by TMB Books in 2015. His second poetry book, Fledge came out in 2020 through Maytree Press. His poems for children have been shortlisted and highly commended in the Caterpillar and Yorkmix poetry competitions and he is the editor of The Dirigible Balloon. His poems Masterclass and This Work is Done were chosen as the Milk House Poem of the Year at the end of 2022 and 2023.