About Michael Rosen
About Michael Rosen
Michael Rosen (Poet and Children's Laureate) gives expert video advice on: What does a day in the life of a children's laureate involve?; What drives you to write poetry?; When did you first discover that you were a poet? and more...
What does a day in the life of a children's laureate involve?
I've been a children's laureate since June the 11th and today is July the 10th. Every day has been completely different. It's really like a patchwork. When I get home in the evening, I have no idea, it's not in my head what I'm doing tomorrow or the next day. I look in my diary and it says things like "two o'clock - British Library", but I haven't put down who it is that I'm supposed to see. So I have no idea. Every day is completely different. At the moment it's a mixture of appearances, performances, interviews, radio programs, getting on my ISDN line at home - that's a radio line - and talking to radio Cambridge here about nursery rhymes, and the next minute being interviewed for the Daily Telegraph or something like that. At the moment I have no idea. Every day has got about five appointments, and each one of them completely different.
What drives you to write poetry?
I write poems because I find they're the easiest form that I can find to say what I feel, to say what I think about the experiences that I have. It's the simplest and easiest form I can have of remembering things. Also, it's a form that I can use to have fun. I can play with words, and play with language. So it's probably a combination of all those.
When did you first discover that you were a poet?
The first time I realized that I wanted to write poems, I was about sixteen, and I'd read poems by D. H. Lawrence, Gerard Manley Hopkins, A. E. Housman, in a little book called "The Pageant of Modern Poetry". This would be in the late 50's, early 60's, around then, and I thought, "Yes, I would like to write poems."
Why do you write poems for children?
I didn't start out writing poems for children. I thought I was writing poems about my childhood in a way that adults would find interesting, but apart from one BBC producer in Schools Radios, nobody in the children's book world, or the children's world, if you like, was very interested and nobody in the adult world was interested. I wrote some more, and in the end it was a woman who worked in a small publisher called Andre Deutsch in London, and she thought the poems would make a good poetry book for children. I was then married to Quentin Blake, if you like, and the first book came out in 1974.
What do you like most about writing poetry?
I think that what I like most about writing poetry is that it can express what I want to express. Almost any time of day, any mood, and anything that I want to reflect on. So I carry around with me a big pad, and when something occurs to me, I can write it in and write down something in the pad. When I want to remember something and try to get to the meaning of it, if I think I want to write something quite entertaining about that. It's like a wardrobe full of clothes that all fit.
What is the hardest part of being a poet?
I think the hardest bit about being a poet is knowing when to stop tinkering with something. You've written something and you think, "I'll leave it," and then you look at it the next day and think, "No, I won't leave it. I've got to fiddle around with that bit." Well that can go on forever and in a way it does because if you read your poems in public you can go on fiddling about with them in the way you read them out loud to people. So I suppose the hardest thing is knowing when to stop. If you look at the manuscripts of poems in the British Library that are on show, you can see people like Wilfred Owen tinkering around with poems that we know terribly well and are terribly frozen. You can see that he has put his lines through and he has scribbled out things. You think, "Wow that was pretty good! Why didn't he leave that in?" So everybody is at it, I think.
Where do you find inspiration?
I think, first of all, I get inspiration from spotting things that are slightly odd, or ironic, or absurd, and wanting to express that irony. So, it might be something I see or, you know, it might be the language thing I notice. The word tense t-e-n-s-e, is also the same way as I pronounce the word tents, t-e-n-t-s. So, I thought what if you write something about tents getting tense. So, there was some absurdity, something completely silly, much less writing about it. But, also, sometimes I'm spurred if somebody asked me a question like: "What did you do when?" So my daughter asked me: "what was my bedroom like when I was a kid?" And I suddenly remembered that when my brother moved down from my bedroom into the bedroom next door I tried to drill a hole in the wall with the corner of a ruler. But, of course, I had to cover it up so that my dad didn't see it. I suddenly started describing it, and I thought, I must write about that!
What other poets have most inspired you?
Well I write these adult prose poems. They really are paragraphs or fragments, and the person who was talking to me from the page when I started writing those was Raymond Carver. Raymond Carver writes these prose poems and short stories, so that's what triggered those off. The children stuff, it's a big difficult to say really. One of the voices that triggered those off was an American poet named Carl Sandberg who collected voices of people and turned them into books. So Carl Sandberg's voice was very strong. D.H. Lawrence still, and then writing now, Roger Cough and Brian Patton are two people who speak quite loudly. I suppose certain aspects of the way John Agart performs his poems has affected me. Also Jackie Kay, I've read some parts by Jackie Kay and thought it is lovely the way she has turned that experience into something that she's reflected on in a certain kind of way and thought I'd like to do that. They are probably the poets who influence me now.
How long do it take you to write a poem?
The length of time it takes you to write a poem, it really is, how long is a piece of string. Sometimes you hit lucky and you get a form and a shape and the words flow and you get it all out in about a minute and a half and it's there, boom - just like that. Orally even, you know if you're in the car and the kids want you to make up silly rhymes for them and it just comes and you think, "Oh, yes I'll keep that. At other times it can take a year. No one should ever think a poem takes a certain amount of time to write. It could even take ten years to write a poem if its one that you never quite get right and it sits there on the shelf and then you pull it down again and you think, "Oh I could tinker with that", and then you put it back on the shelf. So, very very quickly, very very slowly.
Where is the best place to write poetry?
I think the best place for me is some space where I can block out the rest of the world. Now for some people that is a very quiet, lonely little place; but for me, I find that the best place is on a railway train. So if I am actually in the train sitting there, and I've got just a little bit of elbow room, and no one is immediately next to me. Somehow the idea of zooming through the countryside in the strange cylinder, we call it train. In addition, I find I can write in these places. I can write at home but railway trains are best for me.
How do you go from inspiration to poem?
First thing I do when I think I'm going to be writing a poem is just instantly start scribbling. I mean preceding all that there will have been several minutes, hours, or weeks of contemplation. And it's very hard to describe that contemplation. It's like a daydreaming. It's like a 'what iffing' where you say 'what if?' about the things you might write down. So you are playing with words, playing with phrases, playing with sentences and shapes in my mind and then take up a pencil and start scribbling. Now when I am starting to scribble it's usually quite a mess. Usually, because though some of those phrases that were floating around in my mind go down others aren't there so I am having to push it a bit and find what's right. 'Le mot just' as the French would say, 'the right word.' And then it's basically fiddling. You then try to sort of smarten it up and get it so the rhythm on the page reflects the rhythm that you want to say it.
Do you prefer writing or performing?
I think if I was really honest, and I'm not going to lie, I would say that I enjoy the performing more than the writing. If I would just like to fib a little bit, I'd say, "Oh yes, I definitely enjoy the writing and that performing, is, oh, it's just a little optional extra!" But no , I'm going to be honest here and say that the business of standing in front of three or four hundred children and building for a laugh with words that I've written down and finding just the right way to perform them, you know, is incredibly satisfying. But, of course, it's not really an either/or because the performances are leaning on what I've written. So I know that when I sit down to write, that if I write this well, this will make for a great performance piece, and that in itself is very satisfying.
Do you edit your poems as you write?
Mostly I do quite a lot of tinkering because if I look back at the drafts that I've got, it would be quite hard for anyone else to read them I think. It's just quite a mess really. I mean I can see where it goes, but quite often there's arrows, and down to the bottom with an asterisk, and a lot of scribbling out, and then a few more insertions, and maybe over the page I start again. All I can say is I usually do quite a lot of tinkering, and I think, probably most poets would say the same. D.H Lawrence claimed that the spontaneous first writing was terribly important, and I would agree with that, but whether you leave it or not, whether you're bold and brave enough. I think probably when you first throw, the chances are you will say some things in quite a banal way, because quite often the first phrasings that come to the surface are quite common, and usual, and banal, and quite often want to make things stranger than that - a little more surprising, and that needs a bit of work.