by Shauna Darling Robertson
The Federation’s National Share a Story Month theme of myths, magic and mayhem is right up my street, and my poetry collection, Saturdays at the Imaginarium, is full of all three! The book explores and celebrates the power of the human imagination, which has fascinated me since I was a child.
Wikipedia says the imagination is “the ability to produce and simulate novel objects, sensations and ideas in the mind without any immediate input of the senses.” In other words, it makes stuff up! The poems I made up for the book are quite playful and surreal but at the same time they consider some big questions (even Einstein famously said that imagination is more important than knowledge). I can’t promise answers but I hope the book will encourage some inventive ponderings, quirky discussions and creative explorations.
A key part of what makes us human
As a kid I was often told I had ‘too much’ imagination and I suspect that hasn’t changed much, for better or for worse! But the imagination is a key part of what makes us human and it plays a huge part in shaping – while also being shaped by – our sense of self, of ‘other’ and of the world. To put it another way, the possession of an imagination makes us all supreme storytellers whether we realise it or not. Every day we use our imagination to weave random thoughts, feelings and experiences into highly creative narratives that become the stories of our lives – the ‘ordinary’ myths, mayhem and magic of everyday existence.
For example, I spent most of my childhood lugging around a story that I was hopeless at sports and I spent years ducking out of games for fear of making a total penguin of myself. Thankfully I eventually re-wrote the story and these days you’ll find me happily yomping up hills, sea swimming, yoga stretching and sprinting till I’m breathless.
War, peace and empathy
I also work on a research project at the University of Bath which looks at how, after wars and conflicts, the stories people tell about those conflicts and about those on ‘the other side’ tend to determine whether similar conflicts will happen again (mayhem) or if there can be a move towards peace (magic). The imagination, as it turns out, is key to empathy. Can we imagine things from another’s perspective? What if the stories they tell are very different from our own? Does hearing their story help us understand their perspective, even if we disagree with it?
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received is ‘never underestimate the importance of the stories you tell yourself’ and Saturdays at the Imaginarium is partly inspired by that advice.
A mix of real-life and fictional characters
Many of the characters in the poems are based on people I know (shshsh, don’t tell them) or on stories I’ve read. There’s Murray, the mountaineer who’s terrified of heights but doesn’t let his fear stop him conquering peak after peak. There’s Goldilocks’ little sister who feels dwarfed by her sibling’s fame and needs a success story of her own. And there’s a kid who feels like “a hamburger child in a fish finger family” (that tricky push-pull between individuality and belonging which most of us never grow out of!).
There are poems that explore questions about imaginative influence, like how do adverts use stories to make us want to buy things? A boy wants to save his friends from possible danger but they’re not listening since all he has to go on is intuition not solid evidence. A girl deals with hurt feelings by imagining she’s a witch casting revenge spells. In the poem below, a person sees trouble everywhere but then realises that the problem may be in their own eyes. You can also watch an animated film of the poem at www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIMl0LcPYkU&t=75s.
Other poems turn the world on its head in various ways, suggesting fresh perspectives… birds can’t fly but thoughts can; inanimate objects have emotions, and our body parts are removable and can go off and do their own thing. Oh and the Imaginarium in the title poem is a place where whatever you imagine immediately comes true, which may sound like all your banana sundaes come at once, but think about it… magic or mayhem?
I had a magical time working on the book with Troika’s editor Roy Johnson and illustrator Jude Wisdom. There was a bit of mayhem too… it was a wonderfully collaborative process and we drank lots of coffee, ate cake and laughed a lot!
I love that Jude’s illustrations don’t over-explain the poems. I’m not keen on artwork that’s too obvious as it tends to ‘collapse’ a poem into one dominant line of thinking rather than allowing for multiple interpretations. Better to leave space for the imagination – especially in a book about the imagination! (Do look out for Jude’s brand new picture book The Island, it’s a beautifully quirky story about migration and belonging.)
Discover more about Saturdays at the Imaginarium at www.troikabooks.com/saturdays-at-the-imaginarium. You can also visit Shauna’s website www.shaunadarlingrobertson.com for a blog of ideas and exercises based on some of the poems, along with audio recordings and videos too.