Category Archives: Writing challenges

How to put together your poetry collection

There are as many ways to do this as there are to do anything worthwhile. I have done it different ways in different books, because the material one has often dictates the structure. Just as, in the writing of a poem, one has to listen to the poem itself, then with a book, one has to listen to the poems and allow them some say in choosing their own order.


Like a lot of other poets, I think it’s vital to print off the poems one hopes to include. It’s a good idea anyway, to have a hard copy of each completed poem; that’s the best way, other than having them published in book form, to guard against computer crashes and lost discs. I’m not always the best at taking my own advice here, I must confess.


My latest collection, The Five Petals of Elderflower, takes both its name and its structure from the title poem, which won first prize in the 2013 Buzzwords national competition. It is a poem in five parts, which can be read as the five stages of life. I divided the poems up into five sections according to the themes of each petal. I am indebted to my editor for this book, Elizabeth Rimmer, who saw at once the structure I was going for, and helped me cut down the manuscript I originally submitted, which was bursting with far too many poems. She had a very good eye for what worked well with those themes; some poems were cut because they will fit better in a later book. When working with an editor, one does fight one’s corner for the poems one loves, so there was some negotiation between us. I am enormously grateful for her acute sensitivity to what I was up to. The Five Petals of Elderflower is now available from my publisher, Red Squirrel Press.




My previous collection, Letting Go, has a different thrust. Because it is a selection of poems, some from out of print collections and some new, but all on the theme of childhood and parenthood, It is divided up into sections and runs chronologically, so it reads like a narrative, if taken in order, which people don’t always do with poetry. They dip, or start at the back, which I often do myself. But the narrative is there if people want to find it. The book doesn’t include every poem I have on those themes. With this one, I worked with Teika Bellamy of Mother’s Milk Books. She knows my previous collections very well and made suggestions as to what she would like to see included. Making the book at all was her idea in the first place, and it was her idea to use named sections, titled by quotations from the poems, which I had also done in an earlier book, The Fiddle (Stride 1999)



Paper Patterns, published by Dennis Greig of Lapwing Press, was structured more thematically, without editorial help. It includes two sequences which I separated by half the book, because readers need space and shorter poems after such lengthy ones. Themes include travel and curiosities, places, elegies, food, the brevity of life, seasonal poems, flower poems, literary references and responses, politics and ageing. Each poem speaks to its companions. This 2012 collection is still available.


I Sing of Bricks (Salt 2011) was a set of poems which were put together as a sample of my work, following my return to full time poetry. It was my first adult publication for four years, and I was asked to send my best poems at the time. What I hadn’t realised, but was pointed out by a very perceptive reviewer, James Roderick Burns, that it was all about work. “For this is a book about work—actual work, be it drudgery or stimulation; the work of starting and sustaining relationships; the dreadful work of mourning, remembering the (many) people who have died, and moving with their memory into something new; the work, in short, of life. “ It’s a very smart reviewer who tells you something you didn’t know about your own work. The point I am making here is that your own obsessions and themes will show themselves wherever your work accumulates.


In summary, here are my tips for putting your own collections together.


  • Print off all the poems you want to include. Re-read them as you do.
  • Spread them individually on a surface like a floor or large table to begin to assess them.
  • Discard any you feel uneasy about or which need more work. Or do the work on them needed.
  • From your re-reading you will have some idea of how they work together. Start to look now for themes, common topics or contrasts.
  • Find a really strong poem to start and end with.
  • From that starting poem, find another one that speaks to it, either by contrast, similarity, different angle on the same topic, or any small link like a word in common, or a place.
  • Repeat until you have picked up all the poems, and making sure the run of poems up to the last one lead nicely to it.
  • Listen to the work. Your order might be chronological like some of my books, grouped in themes like others of mine. There should be some kind of internal logic that facilitates flow for the reader.
  • Pile the poems up in your chosen order, slide on one of those plastic binders to hold together. Go and have a cup of tea, a walk outside, a sleep. Then come back to it and read from start to finish. If it feels right, you are nearly there.
  • If you are not lucky enough to have an editor, and not all collections do, show it to a few people whose judgement you really trust. Listen to what they say. Make necessary adjustments.


Filed under Poetry Collections, Writing challenges

Poems from the Roald Dahl workshop at Huddersfield Library #2

More poems produced by children during my workshop in Huddersfield Library. Caution: may include our own made up words – because anything Dahl can do, we can too!

Mrs Guillotine

The meanest teacher ever found
was from France, and lived a mile underground.
A language teacher originated,
saw the Queen be coronated.
At school she is a complete terror
and if you ever make an error
you’ll find out Mrs Guillotine
will lock you in the school store cupboard.
If you run down the corridor
she will scream at you, making you fall to the floor.
So beware! Do not bump into Mrs Guillotine
or you may end up executed.

by Mei Rivett (age 9)

Miss Lovelyhug

Miss Lovelyhug is a nice teacher.
She has long hair and she is tall.
She wears a butterfly teeshirt
and she moves like a butterfly.
Miss Lovelyhug has blue eyes.

Louanne (age 7)

Butterfuly t shirt


Miss Strawberry is very sweet
with strawberry blond hair and a lovely dress.
She usually says ‘good boy’, ‘good girl’.
She gives you double playtime when you’re good.
She lets you do what you want
and sometimes finish school early.

Mr Tuffnut has spiky hair and spiky nails.
He wears a waistcoat and a top hat.
He sounds like a roaring lion.
Most of the time he says DETENTION
even if you move.
He makes them do double work.

Evan Harris (age 8)

The Wizzle

Miss Littlepeach is nice.
She has brown eyes, chestnut hair
and a lovely pink dress.

Mrs Bignut is big and mean.
She has green eyes like a cat.
She always shouts even when you’re not being naughty.

Mr Light is kind to everybody.
He likes to have a lot of sweets
and he always shares them.

Evie Grace Morton (age 7)





Filed under Education, Poets in schools, Writing challenges

How to deal with rejections

Carol Ann Duffy allegedly used them to paper her smallest room. But that’s not so easy these days when so many of them come by email.
I used to save all my handwritten ones, together with the poems I’d sent out, but life’s too short to do that. In the past, editors like Peter Mortimer, of the long defunct Iron magazine, used to type feedback letters and tell the poet what he liked and didn’t like about the poems. Very few editors these days have the time and energy for that, because so many more people are submitting poetry. Bless the ones who do!

Many rejections take the form of a standard letter, offering generic advice. Sometimes they can come across as patronising, especially to people who have been submitting poetry, with both positive and negative results for many years. One size never fits all, and I would urge editors using these to cut out the parts that do not apply in that case. For example, it is pointless and annoying to suggest a poet subscribes to or reads your magazine when they have made that clear in their cover letter.

Some rejections use a standard letter but include a personalised message. This is always encouraging. It might be that they would really love to publish your work, but it doesn’t fit in with their funding priorities. I have had the most lovely, personalised rejections from two publishers in the past, which softened the blow that they were not able to publish me although they liked my work.

If a magazine editor writes a personalised response, believe that they mean every word of it. I have edited a magazine in the past (Brando’s Hat) with a small team, and some of the poems we had submitted were regretfully rejected because not everyone on the team liked them, or they didn’t fit our brief, or various other reasons. If you get such a personalised rejection, always resubmit with some different poems, after a few months, and thank the editor for their encouragement the last time you sent poems. Editors do an often thankless task and it’s good to show them you appreciate their efforts.

Sometimes, quite understandably, after you have gone to the trouble to choose poems and make a note of them in your submissions book (or whatever you use), and even found the right size envelopes and traipsed to the post office (in the case of snail mail subs), it can seem very disappointing to be rejected, particularly if it is the form letter type. But poets have to learn to take this on the chin. I’ve had poems rejected from magazines only to have them accepted by even more prestigious ones. So it isn’t always about the quality of the poems.

Never complain to the editor, as this can only make the editor avoid your work in future.  If you have something constructive to say in reply, that’s different. On the whole it is best not to reply, unless you say something like ‘thank you for letting me know so promptly’ but even that is unnecessary.

Although a rejection may seem rude, this is probably just your temporary upset getting the better of you. A rejection is not rude unless it uses taboo language, includes personal insults or humiliates the submitter or stops them writing in future. If that is the case, would you really want to appear in a magazine someone like that edits? I know I wouldn’t.

When poems limp back home, re-read them. Is there something which needs fixing? Is unclear? Is in need of cutting? Tighten them up and re-submit, either to the same place, pointing out you have worked on the poems (Only do this if you had the encouraging personalised response), or to somewhere else. I enjoyed a lovely correspondence with the late Alan Ross, over a submission to London Magazine a good while back now. He gave me feedback, I kept rewriting and resubmitting, and he ended up (after 3 goes) accepting a sonnet of mine, which appeared next to Joseph Brodsky’s work. It was my first really big acceptance.

If, when you re-read the poems, you still think they are the best they can be, send them out again somewhere else. Repeat until they are accepted.

Finally, one last bit of advice. Don’t rely on publication for validation. Although it’s nice to be accepted, rejection might just mean that the world is not yet ready for that poem. Look at Emily Dickinson, rejected by the only editor she tried, yet one of our best loved poets today.

The real goal is writing the best poems you can, and reading and living poetry.




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Beautiful Dragons



Today I was delighted to read at Lancaster Lit Fest, as part of the Beautiful Dragons showcase event. Beautiful Dragons is a wonderful collaborative writing project run by the energetic and passionate Rebecca Bilkau. I was invited to take part in the third one, Heavenly Bodies, which is when Beautiful Dragons first came to my attention. The idea came from Rebecca, and another poet I admire, Sarah Hymas, writing about the same subject at the same time. Each successive project has involved more and more poets.

The collaboration is run in a non-competitive way. Each poet chooses the aspect of the theme they are going to work on and simply gets on with their own poem. There were 88 poets involved with writing about the 88 constellations for Heavenly Bodies, A Constellation of Poetry (2014) and  an astonishing 118 for the latest book, My Dear Watson, The Very Elements in Poetry (2015). I stand in awe of Rebecca’s energy in producing these books from start to finish, including commissioning the poets, chasing them up (probably similar to herding cats at times) and bringing out elegant, beautifully produced books with gorgeous covers and illustrations by Richard Kenton Webb and Una Murphy.

The range of poets included makes for a great mix of different approaches to the theme, and each poet has a completely different aspect, so the books are held together by a thread but the poems are not limited in style or approach, so long as there is a clear link with the theme.

For example, in Heavenly Bodies, I wrote about Perseus, which was fun, writing as a man (well half god, as he boasts in the poem), Melissa Lee-Houghton wrote about Cancer the Crab, Jan Dean wrote a witty poem about Canis Minor, John Glenday chose Lacerta, Oz Hardwick, Lyra, and Bob Beagrie about Vela. Some of us read our constellations poems today, but the main focus was on the new book.

As Janet Rogerson couldn’t be there because of a clash with the fabulous Poets and Players, which she helps to run, I read her stunning and spare poem on Arsenic. Thanks to Janet for permission to feature her poem here:


In 1849, Rebecca Smith was hanged for the murder of eight of her children. Afraid they ‘might come to want’, she poisoned them while breastfeeding. 

Tip a small moon –  hush rhyme of the sky moon-
white powder. One. Like sugar, like salt, like snow.
Up there’s where heaven is. Two. Like milk,
strong toothless hold, hungry you. Three.
Blanket heavy as day old bread. Drink away
your hunger. Four. Take my fullness take all
you want. I’ll boil his milk, full moon on the river,
he’ll come home drunk wanting me. Five.
Long night I’ll feed you, small mouths
pulling and pulling , mornings drowning in milk.
Six. This dress, tightening fire on skin,
soaked hard into winter. Seven.
Don’t cry.
Come home each night and drink. Eight.

This poem is very compassionate. It demonstrates what straights of poverty this mother was living in, with a husband demanding sex and no birth control. One has only to visit the Foundling Museum in London to see the desperation of these mothers who had to apply for a place for their babies, and the staff were instructed to accept only babies whose mother was of impeccable morals. Rebecca Smith was hanged for this crime, but she was taking what she thought was the kindest course of action. The counting of the babies is heart-rending. Janet Rogerson does not waste a single word here.

I’ve also been given permission to feature Gill Lambert’s poem about Calcium. This was another stand out poem for me at the Manchester launch (a night of torrential rain and obscuring roadworks) because I am fascinated by the Wars of the Roses. It chimes with the discovery of Richard III’s poor corpse in a Leicester car park, too. But this is not a high royal figure. but one of the common soldiers who died in Britain’s bloodiest battle.

Towton 25*

Before the battle buried me, and snow
filled every hole my body had to offer,
before Palm Sunday, fourteen-sixty-one,
cleaved a question mark into my skull,
I dreamed of this. In every billet-bed
and whoring house, I wondered not how
I would die, but what would be found.

I never considered bones would testify
my truth. That every tooth God gave me,
would be found, but my brain, with my identity
would dissolve into pulp and drain
into the soil. My personality seep
from my body with my liver and my lungs.

There was never any hint in beer-soaked
nightmares that my name would be lost,
eaten away with my woollen vest, rotted
into rags by years of floods and dust-filled
droughts. I’ve emptied my fertility into the land
where the grass has grown lush but my daughters
and my sons would never come to be.

All that’s left of me is here, labelled.
Numbered, tagged and catalogued – my bones,
battle-scarred and stripped of flesh. Aged
between one decade and the next, I have become
an estimate; there are no details of the woman
that I loved or the friend in whose memory
I remained clear, only to die with him.

*Towton 25 is the name of a skeleton that was removed from a mass grave at the site of the battle of Towton, in 1996.
Gill Lambert gives this unknown man a voice and makes him young, innocent and disbelieving in his own anonymity. The rotting of the corpse is so vividly imagined. I love the line about snow filling every hole his body could offer, and the idea of him spilling his possible children into the soil. Like Rogerson’s poem, every word has been chosen with care and judicious thought.

My own poem for this book was about Topical Iodine, referring to a treatment for minor wounds that is now obsolete. Some poets wrote about the element itself, or its discovery or discoverer. There were as many different approaches as poets.

The books are available from Rebecca Bilkau and are reasonably priced at £7.99. All of the poets who were involved are excited to know what her next idea will be for us to tackle. Today was a lovely event, run informally and collaboratively. It was great to meet some of the other poets again, and encounter some I had not met before. A big round of applause for Beautiful Dragons! Apologies to all the poets I have not mentioned! There were loads of brilliant poems in both books. Impossible to mention every one.





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On Rejection

No writer or poet, no matter how well known, is free from the blow of having work rejected. No matter how carefully the poems have been selected, the magazine studied and read carefully, all submission rules followed, the rejections will still come. It is just as likely to be rejected from a small publication as a big one.

The old advice – and I’ve been submitting poems for over 40 years – was to have another look at your poem, polish further and send out somewhere else. This still holds good but there might be nothing wrong with the poems at all. Maybe the magazine was full, perhaps your work was long-listed but didn’t make the final cut for all sorts of reasons nothing to do with the poem, such as it didn’t fit in with the other poems chosen, or there was another one on a similar theme. So much of being published is down to luck. So send the poem out again somewhere else. It’s a little like dating – you have to try a few before finding the right one.

I know rejections can be disappointing, but the thing is, they make our acceptances all the better. Back in the 80s, I had a sonnet in London Magazine, under the editorship of the generous and intelligent Alan Ross. It took me three goes to get in, and he kept coming back to me with helpful advice. Few editors have time to do that now, but the very best still do, and several have made suggestions which have helped me reach a final draft of something I was not quite ‘there’ with yet, because they wanted to publish it. The much missed magazine, Iron, edited by the inimitable Peter Mortimer, finally took a poem of mine after correspondance with Peter, in his famously bad typing, in which he told me my faults and what was wrong with each poem he wasn’t taking. My joy when I finally ‘made it’ was enhanced by all the rejections I had had before from Iron, even though I was reviewing for them and had a lengthy correspondance on their letters page over a few issues.

The truth about rejections is they keep us trying, they stop us being complacent, they make up the darkness in which the hard won acceptances can shine brightly. Embrace them, learn from them. And keep sending those poems about regardless, until they find their forever home.


KPA Workshop


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Poem Doctor: 10 things to try

If your poem is struggling and refusing to breathe, here are some things you might try, to revive it and massage its heart:

1) Change the tense. Quite often present tense can make it more immediate.

2) Lose the first stanza: sometimes that’s just gearing up.

3) Look at your ending. Are you trying too hard to point up a moral? Chop it.

4) Look at your order and structure. Sometimes the ending needs to be the start.

5) Check out individual words. Is the one you have used the very, best most accurate word?

6) Consider changing the form. A free verse poem sometimes wants to be a formal poem. I speak from experience. I once had a poorly draft. Then I noticed there were two or three lines of iambic pentameter. The poem was telling me it was a sonnet. And when I listened to it, it wrote itself – and went on to be published in London Magazine.

7) Cut any parts where you have needlessly repeated yourself. Tautology is the enemy of brevity.

8) Read it aloud. Are there any parts you struggle to say? Then they need redrafting until they sound right.

9) Check your rhythm. Even free verse has a rhythm. (Metre is different, more regular). I often scan my poems out when they don’t feel right; this helps me find where it stumbles.

10)  In free verse, are your line breaks where you want a tiny pause? Don’t be afraid of having irregular line lengths and stanza lengths, because sometimes that can have the effect you want.

Good luck. It’s worth leaving poorly poems aside for a few days, or reading them aloud before you go to bed. Sometimes when you wake up the next day, your wonderful brain will have solved the problem for you and you will know what to do.


P1000269 (2)


Filed under Education, Writing challenges

Winthorpe Able Writers Day 18 October 2011

Over the last two months, I have been shuttling from one end of the country to another (staying in many travel lodges en route!) delivering Able Writers’days for Authors Abroad. As part of the day, which aims to develop pupils’ writing by teaching them techiques in a series of fun but increasingly challenging exercises, I write a poem with them based on their suggestions for a topic, splitting the peom down into stanzas to teach structure, then giving 10 minutes group work to come up with ideas and phrases, which we fit together as a class.

These group poems usually surprise me as well as the children! Over the next few posts I will be sharing some of them, partly so that the children can access them easily, but mostly because they are all good fun.

Here is one:

The Werewolf’s Year

In winter I don’t need a coat:
my teacher thinks I’m cool,
but if she knew what I could do…
When it snows I make a snow wolf
and my carol singing is a charm for the unwary.

In spring, I don’t like chocolate eggs.
I’d rather have a spring lamb, so juicy.
The forest is an inviting misty playground
with tasty little creatures all around.
The moon is a glittering crystal ball.

The long days of summer make me sleepy.
It’s my worst season. too hot for furry skin like mine.

In autumn, the harvest moon is a giant pumpkin.
For Hallowe’en, no-one notices my costume’s real.
That is until they start to scream when I howl.
The bonfires show my silhouette, so beautiful am I.
Brown leaves of autumn make me a cosy bed.

In all seasons I try to keep
what I am a secret from my friends.

Group Poem written by Able Writers at Winthorpe Primary School, Newark, Nottingham on 18 October 2011, led by Angela Topping

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Filed under Able Writers, Children's Poetry, Education, poetry, Writing challenges

Around the World in Words at Blackburn Central Library

I spent yesterday evening in this wonderful art deco library, which used to be a department store, presenting my performance of travel writing. It’s always great to be in Lancashire, my home county (I didn’t move but my town of origin did). I was made to feel most welcome with a grand cuppa made by the librarian, Geraldine Wilson.

This is the group poem the audience wrote at the end of the reading:

Special Places

Travel is the excitement of new sounds and smells,

colours and tastes, bewildering yet inspiring.

Tides of Blackpool, rough seas, this morning

moving fast, darting over and under, views

over the pier getting higher and higher each minute.

To Belgium: Tin Tin Point and Cesar Franke,

Panis Angelicus rings true.

Black, Black, Blakey Burn: water, moor,

the town of my dreams.

Simmering sunlight in Carrera, Spanish hum

teaching the  young culture, language, art and food,

Spain, revolving around the inquisitive ones.

A walk through the woods on an autumn day

in all the leaves on the ground,

the order and scatter of leaves and mud,

the wet ground slipping underfoot.

The past is a foreign country except

when it is your own backyard.

Shades of green, stark hills, water’s edge,

setting sun, prints in mud. I’m home.

Sky full of stars but dark spreads around

and only the moon which we can see

from Earth is bright and shiny.

Paradise can be a city slum and hell

can be the traveller’s heaven.

Our state of mind is the decider.

I was astonished by the quality of writing from this varied and attentive audience, which included a former English teacher (like me), two schoolgirls (one of whom was amazed to find that I was the author of text 1 in her A level anthology -and I gave her an impromptu 5 minute tutorial on it), a wonderful Asian man who taught me a lot about Indian subcontinent poetry, and even translated one he had in his wallet for me, and a coupke who were riunding off a day out in Blackpool by coming to the reading.

As ever, I feel blessed in my mission to share poetry as widely as I can.

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Filed under Time to Read, Writing challenges

NAWE writers’ retreat at Ty Newydd

I spent last week at Ty Newydd in Wales at my first ever writers’ retreat, organised by NAWE and led by the wonderful Anne Caldwell. We didn’t do much on the first night other than eat dinner together and chill in the library. Anne led some ice-breakers, which was how I discovered the person sitting next to me was Jane Bluett, who is a friend of a friend and closely connected with the A level I moderate. The next day, Anne led a session of exercises for those who wanted, which was most of us. After lunch I went up to my bedroom to work at the desk there. I did achieve some things, such as typing up some poems and going through notebooks, but I soon felt fed up and was counting the hours til dinner. This was how I found out a golden rule about retreats – go out somewhere in the afternoon! The following afternoon I went for a walk with Louise and Sarah, who had simply asked if anyone else wanted to go down to the village with them. I managed to do MORE work than the day before, so having a walk and some fresh air definitely works.

Every morning a small group of poets workshopped each others’ drafts. I have been feeling a bit down about my writing recently, so it was very affirming for me to work with people like Liz Cashdan and Rosie Garland, as they showed exactly the same keenness as me to make work clear and logical. In these sessions, several of my poems improved under the critical knife, and I was able to make suggestions for other poets which were welcomed.

In the evenings we had various readings, listening to Anne read from her new book, sharing favourites and sharing our own work. There was a fair but not excessive amount of wine consumed, as we shared our writing passions and watched the sun set through the famous steamship style windows in Ty Newydd’s Library.Because we are all involved in education, we had so much in common it was easy to bond.

On Thursday afternoon, Ira Lightman and his family came to visit me and we went out for a good few hours to enjoy the sunshine and keep the boys amused. Ira sent the spider I’d been sharing my bathroom with all week out of the window, which was nicer for both of us.

By the last day, I had four new poems, at least, including a new one for The Lightfoot Letters, which is almost finished now, had made some new friends, who I hope will keep in touch, and felt affirmed as a writer. I felt relaxed and calm, though very sad to say goodbye.

As always at Ty Newydd, the food was wonderful, yet healthy, and the magic of the place once again had me under its spell. For most of the week the weather was wonderful too. It was an inspired choice for retreat. I hope to be back there again before too long.

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Poems by Able Writers #1

Over the next few days I will be sharing some of the excellent poems written by children who came to the Able Writers Workshop I ran at a school on 8th March. The poems all appear by permission of their authors.

The Able Writers Scheme is run by the National Education Trust. Six primary schools work together to run three author days with the same (usually) group of children. The able writers then share what they have done with their own schools. This means many more children benefit. The trust has some excellent children’s authors on its list including Brian Moses, Fred Sedgwick, Jan Dean, and me. I have now completed four placements for them: each one has been different and each has been a joy.

The Fire Dragon in the Airing Cupboard

In the airing cupboard
there’s a purple fire dragon
that refuses to come out.
That’s why I store my washing
in the bath.

In the airing cupboard
there’s a purple fire dragon
that refuses to come out
and when I do my hovering
I can hear the footsteps
of the dragon.

In the airing cupboard
there’s a purple fire dragon
that refuses to come out.
And the other day
he set all my washing on fire
so I am clothesless.


My Dog

My dog is a chat chaser
a tail wagger and a bumsniffer
a quick mover, a poo-eater and a kennel hater.
He comes in and settles down to sleep
cause he is a sleep-lover.

At tea, he hears the cutlery
and pounces at me
cause he is a child lover.
I love my dog.
Bark monster wakes me,
he runs downstairs,
grabs his slipper
cause he is a slipper chewer.
My dog is a cute machine.

By Megan
Primary School.

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