Mandy Coe is the author of six books: four collections of prize-winning poetry, one graphic novel and one non-fiction book Our Thoughts Are Bees (co-written with poet Jean Sprackland), on working with writers and schools. She is a staunch educationalist and believes that ‘Poetry for children brings literature to life and into our lives in a way no other genre can.’
Mandy Coe was born in London to parents who were originally from Yorkshire and the Midlands. She moved back up North and has spent the past 27 years living in Liverpool. She wrote her first poem as a child and attributes her early love of words to her mother, who taught her to read by the age of four and recited 'in her soft Tamworth voice . . . the poems of Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Dylan Thomas', a poetry-loving primary school teacher, and a battered library copy of the 1970s Penguin anthology Voices.
Coe's first adult collection Pinning the Tail on the Donkey was shortlisted for the Aldeburgh First Collection prize in 2000, and her children's collection If You Could See Laughter was shortlisted for the CLPE Award in 2011. Coe is a Hawthornden Fellow; has won numerous prizes, including the Ilkley and Ted Waters Memorial Prize; and has been the recipient of two Arts Council Awards for her poetry in 2000 and 2013.
In its inaugural year, the Manchester Poetry Prize judges – Carol Ann Duffy, Imtiaz Dharker and Gillian Clarke – announced Coe and Lesley Saunders to be joint winners of the £10,000 prize.
Let in the Stars: New poetry for children (Manchester Metropolitan University, 2014) is Coe's most recent project, for which she has been shortlisted for the 2015 CLiPPA award. This much-lauded illustrated anthology edited by Coe features the work of 30 poets – from the UK, Australia, Canada, Ireland, Uganda, and the USA – and is the result of Coe's passion and determination to open up the world of children's poetry at a time when there is a decline in the number of children's publishers launching new works, and fewer opportunities for writers of children's poems to reach their audiences in print. Carol Ann Duffy writes:
Coe's own poetry for children is wonderfully exuberant, an invitation to go wild with thinking, and a demonstration of how effectively poetry can play with pretence and possibility while preserving the most personal and precious of real life experience. The subject matter and style are wide-ranging – the poems find their own form, sometimes rhyming, sometimes not, some in free verse, some fragmented, and always inventive, as in 'Sun Loves Moon' which combines the convention of text-speak with the language of small ads, voicemail, graffiti, diary extract and singing telegram:
Hey Moonie-La, meet me at dawn S x
c u l8r :-) ?
I can see all the poems from If You Could See Laughter (Salt, 2011) working well in the classroom as inspiration for children to do their own writing. These are poems that invite dialogue, encourage response, remind us how to be alive to our senses. It does not seem an accident that the first two poems in the collection open with a line of enquiry. 'Advice for . . .' begins with a direct address to ponies, asking them to:
what do you see?
taste every sound . . .
and the poem 'Seashell' begins:
coil of air. . . about
Coe wants children to have a poetic voice and use it, to tell their thoughts, share their vision of the world, feel free to write about anything, as she does, deliciously. Coe savours the kind of language and imagery that brings the reader right up close – enabling us to see, hear, smell, feel, even taste what is being said. In 'Recipe for Good News' she exults, 'I want to make news/the way a baker bakes cake . . .' Another poem towards the end of her collection, 'Dream Feast', uses the cooking metaphor in this way again:
there's a busy kitchen in my head
dishing up dreams.
There are poems in the collection which have a very clear structure, the kind of scaffolding that even the most poetry-shy type of teacher might easily grab hold of and feel able to present to their class as a prompt for writing. 'Catch Words' is a riddle poem that delights in word association:
and I'll throw you hot
Throw me tea
and I'll throw you . . . ?
'Lost it, Found it' is a list poem which begins 19 of its 21 lines with the words 'I looked . . .', navigating through the kinds of places one might search for something lost, from the ordinary ('inside a pocket' or 'on a train') to the unexpected ('I looked past the red of a rainbow' and 'I looked into an elephant's eye'). The 'it' in the poem could be anything. It's the sort of poem that would leave anyone itching to have a try at continuing the list for themselves.
Whether she is writing for adults or children, Coe's poetry invites us to delight in the wonderfully off-beam way our minds so often work – leading from the ordinary to the extraordinary with profound sensuous detail. She does this deftly, and always in an accessible way with a store of invented words and vocabulary which manages to be both deceptively simple and surprising.
Coe is a poet who loves language and is in touch with the imaginative world of childhood. She demonstrates how every thought and observance, no matter how random or quirky, can become a poem. Her poetry exudes an excitement for writing and evokes a sense of urgency, a reminder that we should never let any thing go unnoticed or unwritten, as in in this poem from Pinning the Tail on the Donkey (Spike Books, 2000):
This vital thought is no sooner caught
than, elusive as ice, it slips out of focus
You doze inside yourself, a passenger
on a Sunday drive; a half-watched world
sliding past . . .
The late Liverpudlian poet and critic Matt Simpson said of her first collection 'Mandy Coe's poems make us see things: they transfigure the world-around-us we think we know but really only half-see . . .'
Coe is a worldly poet, drawing on real place, art and history as much as she does on her imagination. In her third collection, Clay (Shoestring Press, 2009), the poet takes us to Barcelona to view a 16th-century painting, to Zapatas Park in Mexico City, and to the Bay of Bengal. Here too though, the poetry continues to concern itself with ways of looking and seeing, awakening the reader's senses:
in billows, a lover's breast and hips,
ripples of flesh on a smacked arse.
Coe's poetry glides easily between the concerns of adults and those of a child. Clearly her time spent working in schools, museums and galleries creating educational material and running workshops with people of all ages has given her a universal sensibility. However sophisticated her ideas – and they are sophisticated – Coe writes with a colour, clarity and simplicity that excludes no one. She has an impressive ability to render even the most abstract thoughts tangible; hers are poems you feel you can actually hold on to and touch. If You Could See Laughter indeed! Though her work may be classified separately as being specifically for children or for adults, Coe is one of the few poets writing poetry today in which there is often a seamless division between the two.
Let There Be Cherries, Shoestring Press, Nottingham, forthcoming 2015
Clay, Shoestring Press, Nottingham, 2010
The Weight of Cows, Shoestring Press, Nottingham, 2004
Pinning the Tail on the Donkey, Spike Books, 2000
Let in the Stars: new poetry for young readers, ed, Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester, 2014
If You Could See Laughter, Salt, Cromer, 2011
Our thoughts are bees: Writers Working with Schools, with Jean Sprackland, Wordplay Press, Southport, 2006
Contributor to Making Poetry Happen, Bloomsbury, London, 2014
Contributor to Drama at the Heart of the Secondary School: Projects to promote authentic learning, Routledge, Abingdon, 2012
Red Shoes [a graphic novel exploring issue of discrimination], Good Stuff Press, Liverpool, 1997
A Million Brilliant Poems, ed. Roger Stevens, A&C Black, London, 2011
Green Glass Beads, ed. Jacqueline Wilson, Macmillan, London, 2011
Michael Rosen's The Best Poetry, ed. Michael Rosen, Macmillan, London, 2010
Coe's own website
Coe's page at The Poetry Archive
On BBC Schools Radio, 'Talking Poetry'
Write Out Loud review of a gig with Mandy Coe and Brian Patten
Interview for Manchester Children's Book Festival
Coe's anthology Let in the Stars
Coe's graphic novel Red Shoes