Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with Roger Stevens

Roger StevensRoger Stevens is an English poet, author and musician. He founded and runs the award-winning Poetry Zone website, which encourages children to write and publish their poetry and offers guidance and ideas for teachers on now to make the teaching of poetry fun and rewarding. He has written 24 books, has poems in over 200 children's anthologies and his teenage verse novel, The Journal of Danny Chaucer (Orion), was broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

What does poetry mean to you?

Starting with the big questions first then, eh? I suppose it’s entertainment. Like watching a film, reading a story or listening to music. It can make you laugh, make you cry, cheer you up, make you think – Wow! That is clever…

Why is poetry important for children?

First of all it’s a great way to help children learn and manipulate language, to communicate on emotional and intellectual levels. It’s also about laying a foundation for children for the future. I want children to grow up loving poetry, because there’s so much wonderful poetry waiting for them when they become grown-ups.

When did you start writing poetry for children?

I was once a teacher. Brian Moses came to my school, gave a performance and ran some workshops, including one in my Year 4 class. And I thought, Wow! That’s something I’d love to do. I’d written lots of poetry for adults, and a children’s novel, but for some reason I hadn’t  considered writing children’s poetry. So I wrote some poems, sent them to Brian and he used one in an anthology. That was the beginning.

What part did poetry play in your own childhood?

I enjoyed poetry, although I don’t remember much about it. Back in the 1950s there were very few poetry books for children. I did enjoy the Rupert Bear books, which were part written in rhyming couplets, and A.A.Milne.

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

I really got hooked on poetry in my teens. The Mersey Poets were a big influence. I enjoyed studying Chaucer, Wordsworth and Byron at school – but The Mersey Poets, Brian Patten, Adrian Henri and Roger McGough,  showed me that poems could be about modern things too. Every day things. Like fish and chips, girlfriends… Roger McGough still is one of my favourite poets. Another big influence was Bob Dylan. He showed me that song lyrics could be meaningful, and poetic.  Other favourites would be Billy Collins and Simon Armitage. I like poetry that has a surface accessibility, but has deeper levels of meaning, of connection. McGough, Collins and Armitage all do that very well.

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

I take my notebook with me everywhere I go. It’s a beautiful Paperchase notebook with plain pages. I write most of my poems there in first draft.

Then I transfer them to my computer to work on. At the moment I’m working on two books for Macmillan, one with Jan Dean and one with Brian Moses. For each I’ve had to write around fifty poems, so I have had to sit at my desk and just think them up.

Do you read your poems aloud?

I usually write for the page. But I always read them aloud a few times, to check that the rhythm is right. And it’s one of the ways to find out if a poem will work in performance. I always counsel children and new writers to read their poems aloud as part of the writing process.

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

I like all sorts of poetic forms. I’ve been wrestling with haiku recently. Writing proper haiku, as opposed to verses written in 5,7,5 syllables, is a very tricky business indeed. (Try Googling haiku expert Alan Summers if you’re interested.) I’m also rather partial to a sonnet.

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

I really write for myself, rather than a specific audience. Whether a poem is for children or not usually depends on its content, what it is about.  But if I’m writing for a particular project, a book for young children for example, then, yes, of course.

Which topics influence your poetry?

Anything, really. Along with most poets, I think, the predominant source of my writing is my childhood and my teens. My children’s poems seem to be written by my nine year old self. I do read a lot of children’s poetry by “adult” poets that doesn’t really work for children. Maybe they can’t find their younger selves?

How would you describe your poetry?

I don’t really know. I like to make people laugh. And to make them think. I like to think that my poems have a good level of technical skill.

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

I like many children’s illustrators. But I’m not sure poetry books really need to be illustrated. Maybe for younger children. My anthology, A Million Brilliant Poems (Part One) wasn’t illustrated, and it wasn’t any the worse for it. I have been lucky, though, working with some very good illustrators. Tony Ross did the covers of my early books. And I love my current illustrator, Nathan Reed.

What do you think children get from your poems?

I hope they enjoy them. I hope my poems will give them a taste for reading more poetry, not just by me but by other poets too. And I hope that they will sometimes inspire them to write their own.

How do you stop writers block?

Luckily this hasn’t happened to me. I think that’s because I always have so many different projects on the go, and if I’m stuck I can move on to the next thing. The best advice I’ve heard for dealing with writer’s block is to just write. Write anything, any old rubbish – just get it on to the page.  The physical act of writing can sometimes stimulate the mind.

Or go for a walk. Many great writers, Dickens for example, were also great walkers.

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

I don’t think I have one. And anyway, if I mention any one poem, the others will get jealous. That’s what I tell children.

In this digital age, what do you think of the way technology is used in creating and/or promoting poetry for children?

Like most writers, I think, I do prefer books. But I’m happy with digital technology. I’m comfortable with Kindle and e-readers. The nature of writing and reading has changed, for the better or worse I’m not sure. So we have to accept it. And we have to share poetry and literature with children – and that means understanding new technologies. (As well as encouraging them to read real books, of course.)

What advice can you give to aspiring poets?

Read as much poetry as you can. Keep a notebook. Write as much as you can. And share your work with other poets. I’ve written an article about writing and submitting children’s poetry for publication. You can find it here.

Writing and submitting poetry for children
 

 

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