Children's Literature Interest Group Interview with Michael Rosen

Michael Rosen
Image source Michael Rosen website
Michael Rosen is one of the best known figures in the children's book world and the British arts scene. He has written numerous award-winning poetry books, non-fiction and picture books. He is also a journalist, broadcaster, performer, who visits schools in the UK and abroad with his one-man show. He was Children's Laureate from 2007-9, using the post to be "an ambassador of fun."

A new edition of the classic poetry collection YOU TELL ME ME! by Michael Rosen and Roger McGough is published by Frances Lincoln Children's Books in January 2015. New poems are included in this edition and it is illustrated by Korky Paul.

What does poetry mean to you?

It mostly means 'saying important things in small spaces'. It can also mean 'memorable speech', 'making the familiar unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar', it can mean 'finding out what a moment can come to represent' and talking of moments, poetry can be the moment that a story or a play didn't have time to tell us.

Why is poetry important for children?

Most of education is concerned with getting things finished, right and put away in exercise books. Reading and writing poetry is another way of looking at the world: it can involve being suggestive, tentative and tangential. It has the potential of raising more questions than it can answer. It can scavenge the world's utterances for material which it recycles, parodies, cuts up, re-arranges, often with the result of letting us see how language works. This means that poetry is good at revealing our deceptions, self-deceptions, exaggerations. It can also examine how it is we look at the world through language - that's to say, how we 'textualise' the world. Poetry is wonderful at both doing this but also in investigating how we do it.

Elsewhere in the curriculum, there is hardly ever time or willingness to do this. Poetry can often do it very quickly and wittily. We need it to sharpen our wits in a world in which we are constantly asked to look the other way.

When did you start writing poetry for children?

I think I first knew that I was writing a poem for children when I tried to help my mother with her BBC Schools Radio programmes. That was in the late 1960s, early 1970s.

What part did poetry play in your own childhood?

My parents recited a lot of poetry, taught it in their schools, talked about it, played gramophone records of it, listened to it on the radio. Geoffrey Summerfield asked for their advice when he was putting together Voices and Junior Voices for Puffin Education. A lot of the poems from those books were laid out on our sitting room floor and I was asked to read them too. At school, we sometimes recited poems. I belonged to a choral speaking group at primary school. The first time poetry meant something important to me was when I was in second year secondary school and we looked at Browning's dramatic monologues - especially the one known as 'My last duchess'. I thought that this was clever, powerful, creepy, political, brilliant and I knew that I wanted to write things like that

Which poets or poems do you most admire and why? Or which have been most influential in your own development as a poet?

Very hard to select, as I quite often like poetry that I could never write myself or even want to write.

Starting 'long' - I love the Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare's soliloquies and the Pied Piper, Ancient Mariner, Wreck of the Deutschland
Medium - Browning's dramatic monologues
Short - I very much like French surrealist poems, and prose poems. Likewise Raymond Carver.  I think Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon did something magnificent and unmatchable with their whole WW1 oeuvre.  I'm still amazed by Gerard Manley Hopkins poetry. I think the 'violence' he did to the language is wonderful - high risk, original, powerful.
Contemporary - I very much like John Agard, Jackie Kay, Roger McGough, Brian Patten, Adrian Mitchell, Simon Armitage.
I really like Gil Scott-Heron who is not usually listed as a 'poet' but I'm not too worried about that.
I really like Langston Hughes and Carl Sandburg from the early part of the 20th century.
I really like the 'confessional' poetry of Anne Sexton.

Do you follow a regular process in creating your poetry? Do you draft your poems?

Quite often they start from a jotted note…I don't get them right first time, but I wouldn't call them drafts…they are rather in a state of unfinishedness until I think they're finished.

Do you read your poems aloud?

Mostly yes.

Which are your favourite poetic forms and why? Are there any you would still like to try?

I don't have a favourite. I like rhyme and regular rhythms if I'm being satirical, or if I'm trying to convey something ongoing or relentless. I very much like the short prose poem format pioneered by Baudelaire. And I like my rambling stand-up monologues…which of course some people say are not poems.

When you write poems, do you have a target audience in mind?

Most of the time, yes, though recently I've been deliberately trying to write some things where I'm trying to discover the audience by writing it! That's quite hard to describe . There's an idea in my head that hasn't got an audience. I wonder to myself, how shall I write it? I start to write. I start to wonder who might be interested in it. I carry on writing and as I write I start to imagine people I know finding this or that interesting. The people change as I write…this person more than that person…the poem starts to find who I think is it's potential audience. Ha! - then later I may well find that I'm wrong.

Which topics influence your poetry?

I guess I'm interested in irony, absurdity, our unawarenesses of what we say and do, intriguing sights which seem to imply something other than what they are.

How would you describe your poetry?

A lot of it is interested in recounting foibles, misunderstandings, small disasters. Another chunk of it is nearer to traditional nonsense poetry. Some of it is based very strongly in people's speech.

How do you see the role of illustration in poetry books for children?

Word and image interact. Image doesn't really 'illustrate'. So the eye and the mind goes in relay between word and image. This is an active interpreting move that the mind does and I very much like it as a process.

What do you think children get from your poems?

I hope that they get to see aspects of themselves, and aspects of their parents in many of the poems. I hope that this gives them permission to have a go at writing things like that themselves and to read many other poets' poems.

How do you stop writer's block?

Usually, it's by not trying to write anything if I don't feel like it. Then I'll come across something which starts the 'itch' that means in my mind: 'write me'. So I write, to relieve the itch.

Of all the poems you have written, which is your favourite?

I think it's the sequence I've called 'Michael's Big Book of Bad Things'. There are four parts to it, which I split up across 'Michael Rosen's Big Book of Bad Things'.

In this digital age, do you think technology in creating and/or promoting poetry for children?

Oh yes. I've put over 90 poems of mine on YouTube and they've had in all 8.5 million views. I also put new poems up on my website, my blog and Facebook and link to them on twitter.

Can you tell us two secrets about yourself?

I like the smell of Paco Rabane 'Pour Homme'.
I wish I had tried to sing and play harmonica in a blues band.

What advice can you give to aspiring poets?

Find some poets and poetry you really like. Copy out or learn bits of it.
Keep a notebook of words, phrases, ideas, that you find or think of.
Read your notebook and see if it triggers off things to write.

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