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Snip, Snip!

A talk with the children's laureate of Britain.
"In primary school I enjoyed what was called 'choral speaking'—a kind of choir that got together in order to recite poems. I didn’t like the poetry we did in lesson time. It always seemed so mournful and sad." Michael Rosen talks to Bruce Black about being a children's poet and becoming the Children's Laureate of Britain.

Few of his legions of fans were surprised when Michael Rosen was appointed the fifth Children’s Laureate of Britain—the first poet to win the honor. Adored for his tongue twisters, puns, rhymes, riddles, and nonsense verse, Rosen also subtly explores the emotional nuances of childhood, including its more serious subjects. In a poem about his grief after the death of his 18-year-old son, Eddie, of meningitis, he wrote:

Sad is a place
that is deep and dark
like the space
under the bed

Recently, Rosen was kind enough to take time from his hectic schedule to share thoughts on writing and to reflect on his post.

Bruce Black: It’s the first time a poet has been selected as children’s laureate. Why is this important?

Michael Rosen: I’m not sure that it’s terribly important, but it does feel like an affirmation for poetry in general. The laureateship is becoming a post that is trying to represent different sectors of the children’s book world. I thought it would get round to poetry one day, and I was a little surprised, but of course delighted, that it got there so soon. It does mean that if the question of poetry and education comes up, the media people have got a reference point.

How does your post enable you to influence the attitudes of adults and children toward poetry?

I’m not sure that it helps much more than before. That’s to say, I spend a lot of time and energy expressing my point of view about the reading of poetry by children and have always done so. A really good thing coming up, though, is that Booktrust [the charity that administers the laureateship] is devoting a Web page to what I’m calling “How to make a poetry-friendly classroom.” It’s an extension of what I’ve been banging on about for some time. This time will be a proper professional job, with the possibility of teachers exchanging views between each other.

What’s the hardest part of being children’s laureate?

Handling the sheer volume of requests—either for readings and performances, or writing articles and doing interviews.

And the easiest?

Talking about how wonderful children’s books are.

And the most surprising?

The way in which people seem so pleased that I’m doing it. I really didn’t expect that.

What’s been your greatest pleasure so far as children’s laureate?

It’s accelerated my thinking around using the Internet for the dissemination of ideas about children’s books and the performance of poetry.

How did you discover your own voice as a poet?

Through reading D.H. Lawrence and Carl Sandburg in particular, but also the early pages of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. These were the voices that I was interested in at first. I then became fascinated by Gerard Manley Hopkins. However, there were the voices in my life from my parents, my brother, and the people at my schools in northwest London. These all contributed to how I wrote—and still do, of course.

Did schooling impede or enhance your understanding of poetry . . . and your voice?

In primary school I enjoyed what was called “choral speaking”—a kind of choir that got together in order to recite poems. I didn’t like the poetry we did in lesson time. It always seemed so mournful and sad. At secondary school, something fizzed when a teacher in my second year introduced us to dramatic monologues—Browning, mostly. I thought that was brilliant. The next time I remember something good going on was when I did GCE [General Certificate of Education, a secondary-level academic qualification], as it was called then. For that, my father and I read A Pageant of Modern Verse, and it has poems in [it] by Lawrence, Housman, Hopkins, and others.

Were any teachers or people influential in encouraging you to follow your dream of writing poetry?

The most influential by miles were my parents, who both loved poetry and filled the house with it, read it themselves and taught poetry in the schools they worked in, and helped judge the national writing competitions run at first by the Daily Mirror and then taken over by W.H. Smith, headed up by Ted Hughes. After that, I’d want to mention one of my father’s colleagues, Nancy Martin, an educationalist who worked at the Institute of Education, London, who read my early stuff and encouraged me. And there was the effect of Geoffrey Summerfield creating the Voices anthologies. He and his editor, Martin Lightfoot, brought early drafts of these anthologies into our home, laid them out on the floor, and invited me to respond to them. My mother, meanwhile, was doing some Schools Radio broadcasts for children on poetry. All that went into the mix.

Did you have the dream of becoming a poet long before you found your voice?

I think possibly I did. It was there in my mind as my first tentative efforts when I was age 15 or 16.

How did you find the strength or courage or stubborn perseverance to keep writing?

I’m not sure I can answer that. I think any writer has to carry on carrying on. I was very lucky in that Andre Deutsch (Pam Royds was the editor there) published the first set of poems I put together. If that hadn’t happened, it is possible I might have drifted into another kind of writing. There is of course a key relationship between this perseverance and any success you might have.

Once you found your voice, how did you know it was suitable for children?

I think that came about because the moment my first book was published, I was invited into schools, libraries, and children’s book groups to read my poems. I quickly found out which ones interested them and which ones didn’t. This was crucial.

So when did you first realize you might write for children?

When Pam Royds at Andre Deutsch said that a group of poems I had written could be published as a children’s book. I had thought that they were “adult” but that children might like them. To tell the truth, I hadn’t really thought it through. I lived in a house where “adult” poetry was repackaged in anthologies and radio broadcasts and given to children—poems by Dylan Thomas, James Stephens, Robert Graves, and the like. So perhaps I thought I was doing that—being an “adult” poet whose poems might be taken up by anthologists putting books together for schools.

Is writing poetry for children different than writing for adults?

I think adults who like poetry have tremendous staying power. They will read and reread poems because they enjoy the effort of untangling them. I think there is a tiny minority of children like that, but in general, poems for children have to sound interesting on a first reading.

And are there any constraints that are part of writing for children?

There are what you might call “institutional limits” that control what is thought appropriate for children’s ears. These tend to focus now on sex, drugs, and violence, though in the past it also included almost any bodily function and any use of what were thought to be “bad” words. The system of “constraints,” as you call it, is invisible but is carried through via a consensus among publishers, editors, librarians, and teachers, and to some degree through coercion from what is called “public opinion.” In truth, this is sometimes not much more than the Daily Mail writing a shock horror piece about a writer like Melvyn Burgess.

Has your new post changed the way that you approach your own writing?

I’m not sure that the post has done that. It’s the continual meeting up with other writers and hearing what they’ve got to say. That goes into the brain somewhere. I’m always so impressed by the way in which writers seem to be so devoted and committed.

Do you have any suggestions for adults who want to help children learn to love poetry?

Just read poems out loud to children. If you know any by heart, then say them at odd times, like when you’re walking down the street or doing the washing up. Leave poetry books lying around the house. Take children to see poets reading their poems.

Would you like to offer any words of encouragement for children who want to become poets?

Read and read and read poetry. Keep a notebook for putting down ideas, thoughts, and “snippings.” A snipping is where you see or hear something that you find interesting or odd. You snip it and put it in your notebook. One day, these will turn up in your poems, or you’ll change one or some so that they can be in your poems.

To learn more about Michael Rosen and his work, visit his Web site: http://www.michaelrosen.co.uk/index.html

Snip, Snip!

A talk with the children's laureate of Britain.

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