Michael Rosen
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Various Writings on Poetry

1) Answers for That's Life, July 2008
2) Answers for Young Times, June 2008
3) Piece for Lovereading.com, July 2008
4) For the Poetry Society 100 Poets in 100 Schools, May 2008
5) For World Book Day, October 2007
6) Answers for Sunday Express, May 2008
7) Junior Education article on poetry, May 2008
8) Interview for National Poetry Foundation website, November 2007
9) Not so much a lesson, more a song and dance - Guardian Online, Oct 2007
10) Take the thing into your hands - poem for Times Cheltenham Festival
11) What is a window - poem for Guardian Dec 2007
12) Junior Education poetry review - May 2008
13) What is a bong tree? Lecture for CLPE official event, September 2007

1) Answers for That's Life July 2008

What makes poetry valuable?

Poetry is valuable for all of us for many reasons: it was invented as a good way to remember important things and interesting things. It still does this, through its musical sounds, rhythms and rhymes. It's also a good way to play with the language around us and playing pleases us. Life goes by very quickly. Poetry is a way of stopping things for a moment and pointing out something to us. It gives us time to reflect. But poems don't have to tell the whole story. They can be mysteries, questions without answers. This leaves us plenty of space to wonder about what's been said, or wonder about ourselves. We need time to do this, and if we grab poetry, poetry will give us that opportunity.

Is rhyme important?

It's one of the musical instruments in a poet's box of tricks. Sometimes it's important, sometimes it's funny, sometimes it doesn't quite work. It all depends.

Has poetry always been important to you and your family?
When I was boy, my parents used to play us recordings of poets reading their own poets. My brother and I used to like imitating that. My mother did poetry programmes for BBC Schools Radio and I liked them. Nearly all my children have liked poetry when they were young.

How much was it part of your own childhood?

Should all children be encouraged to write as well as read poetry? Why?

If children get a chance to write poems, it gives them an opportunity to play with language in a way that no other activity lets them. If you think, schools are places where language comes at them as finished and sorted. It doesn't belong to them. When they write poems, they have a chance to take charge of the language and see what it can do. It also helps them reflect on the world around them and who they are. Poems are like photos in a photo album: moments, objects, people - frozen for us to look at. If you do that with the moments, objects and people in your own life, it gives you a chance to look at yourself. Rather like the way people do when they've got two mirrors!

Is poetry something that children today tend to lose interest in - or 
which becomes overshadowed by other forms of writing?

Yes, I think it is. I fear that's because we start asking children too many questions about poems, rather than encouraging them to write and perform their own.

What is your experience of children's responses to poetry - can you 
think of any solid examples of how it has had an effect on kids 
you've seen?

I've seen many children who don't write and won't write, suddenly discover that they can make poems, patterns of words, interesting ideas. I've been told by many teachers that after they've done workshops or seen poets, there are children who suddenly 'get it' - the business of writing, reading and thinking.

What can parents do to encourage and appreciation of poetry - and 
what are they giving their children in doing so?

The very best thing parents can do is read poetry out loud with their children. If they know any poems, no matter how short, say them out loud in the car, or over the kitchen table, or wherever. Let the sound of poetry go in their ears. There are all sorts of poems that are fun to make up, limericks, little two line jingles and  you can always take a poem or song and make up new words to it. There's an ad at the moment which takes Rod Stewart's line 'We are sailing...' and has turned it into 'We are saving...' Parents could do that sort of thing. It gives children the sound and feel of poetry.

 

2) Answers for Young Times, June 2008

What is so great about poetry?

Poetry is a great way of talking about things that matter to you. You can make music by making the words have rhythms or rhymes. Or you can repeat things in a way that helps people join in or you can make the sounds of words (the consonants and vowels) echo each other. Poetry is very flexible: it can be short or long, any shape you like. This means that it can suit any mood, any thought, and style you like.

Who was your favourite poet when you were a child?

When I was a child, I liked it when my parents played the poems of Dylan Thomas to us on vinyl records.

How did you first start writing poetry?

The very first poem I wrote was in school when I was 11 and I wrote about a train slowing down! The second poem was again in school when I was 13 and the teacher read us some poems by Robert Browning and asked us to write a 'dramatic monologue'. (That means a speech, written in the voice of someone, rather like a speech from a play. The speech should tell us something about the person speaking, something about where he or she is, and something about the situation they are in. The most famous one by Robert Browning is about a rather arrogant man, who reveals (without meaning to) that he has probably murdered his wife, a duchess.) I wrote about a man who is begging to be helped but I left him to die on a beach! And the third poem I wrote entirely out of choice was about a moth flying round my room, after I read a poem by D.H. Lawrence about a bat.

When the idea comes to you for a new poem, does the image or subject come to you first or is it the words that you begin with?

Either it's when a phrase comes to me, often with a bit of rhythm to it or it's a memory of something that happened to me.

Which collections of poems or poets would you recommend as a starting point for getting into reading poetry?

If you read collections of poems by Adrian Mitchell, Roger McGough, Jackie Kay, John Agard, Brian Patten, Kit Wright, Caron Ann Duffy, Steve Turner, Grace Nichols and Benjamin Zephaniah, you'll probably be well set up. If you're an experienced reader, then you might well enjoy the family sonnets in Tony Harrison's 'Selected Poems', any of the books by Simon Armitage or Wendy Cope.

If Young Times readers would like to start writing their own poetry, how would you suggest they begin?

One way to start is to think about 'impossible' writing. By this I mean that you turn the world round. So instead of saying people went into the building, you say that the building swallowed or ate the people. Try looking at a scene and reverse the way  you would usually describe it.

Another place to start is to think about yourself and consider how others see you and how you really feel about yourself. What are the differences? Assemble your thoughts about that. Perhaps it'll come out in pairs of sayings that'll give you a shape.

Another place is picking a moment in a book, a play, a film or a painting. Think of what the person in that moment is thinking. Write a speech in that person's voice to represent what that person is thinking. The greatest model for how this is done, is Shakespeare. You might like to look at Macbeth's speech that begins, 'Tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow...'

Another place to start is to write a speech to say to someone who is no longer in  your life - perhaps they died, or disappeared or you've moved away. Tell them why you want to speak to them, what you think about them and what you want from them.

Finally, think of any sentence or phrase that matters to you - let's say it's 'I had a dream' by Martin Luther King. Try to think of all the ways there are things you think that have something to do with your favourite phrase. Is it a mood? An idea? A feeling? Write these down and see if you want to repeat the phrase as a chorus. Or perhaps you might want to re-write the phrase.

 

3) For Lovereading, July 2008

Poetry is a special way of talking and writing. Poems are often musical, playing with the sounds of language while they tell stories, reveal feelings, make pictures and give us ideas. We all find this pleasurable, but children especially so. I guess that's because for very young children, language often comes at them as something they hear without necessarily understanding it. Then poems come along and hit the same channel, sound, rhythm, rhyme, repetition and all the other tricks in the poet's bag.

Poems can be snapshots: small pictures of a moment, an object, a scene, a feeling. They can be like photos in the family album: a moment frozen which we can look at over and over again and wonder why it matters to us.

Poems are also places where you don't have to say it all,  they don't have to tie it up in a neat knot in the way that stories usually do. Poems can end with questions. Poems can end with no answers. Poems can pose problems. And that's fine, because life doesn't usually finish with neat little endings. Life itself is full of questions and problems. Particularly for children.

Poems are great for exploring those fascinating questions once posed by the painter Paul Gauguin: where do we come from? Where are we know? Where are we going? These are questions about what kind of background we have, what kinds of things we believe in and care about, what do we want our lives to look like in the future. Poems often explore these themes. And they do it in personal, direct ways, saying, in a thousand different ways: this is me, this is us, I wonder what kind of person I am, I wonder what's going to happen, and so on. And aren't these questions that children ask over and over again?

Poetry is great for what is almost the opposite of this: pretending we aren't who we say we are. Poets write poems where they pretend to be goddesses, houses, worms, graves, long dead ancestors, aliens. This allows poets to explore feelings they didn't know they had, and in so doing, they invite children to wonder about other lives, other states of existence, other possibilities.

Poetry can be impossible. As we proceed along our logical, sensible lines, relying on gravity to keep our plates on the table, days to follow nights, our blood to flow round our bodies, poems don't have to obey these rules. Whether it's through nonsense  (remember the dish who ran way with the spoon?) or through making one thing like another, (perhaps our plates aren't sitting on the table; but rather, the table is tired of carrying the plates) poetry can get us to see the world in strange, new ways and from strange points of view.

Poems are often full of echoes, gathering together hints and memories of other poems, other stories, films, signs, speeches. They gather up and change words. It's as if poems like this point us at the very language we see and hear around us and invite us to stop, think and wonder if the words we are used to are right, honest or worthwhile. For children, this is especially important. If you think for a moment, very nearly all children enter school, using a language that is theirs, only to find that school is full of language that seems to belong to other people. If poetry plays with language and, through its music, invites children to remember and imitate it, this becomes a language that they can possess.

 

4) For the Poetry Society 100 Poets in 100 Schools campaign, May 2008

It is vital that children hear and see the link between poems on the page and poems in the ear. Poetry is after all 'memorable speech' as W.H.Auden once said. The reason why the link is so important is because most poetry has rhythm and you feel rhythm through the airwaves and in your body. The most exciting and interesting way to get hold of the feel and sound of poetry is with the poet who wrote the poem. It also connects poems with real people and real lives. Instead of poetry existing as a strange form of rhetoric stuck between the pages of a school book, it appears in the room, dressed in the clothes of today, with all the quirks of fully living creature. And then the final step is much easier to make: you can make poems too. Anyone and everyone can make poems, whether it's by writing them, reading them, performing them, making music to them, dancing to them, painting them - however. When you see a live poet doing it, it's like a kind of infection. You get to think you would like to have a go too. Primary schools need this as they need air and light. Poetry gives children the chance to observe, investigate, reflect and play with words. Poetry treats words with the utmost respect and utmost disrespect. It says, 'words are all' but also 'words are for us to do whatever we want with them' - both at the same time. While the child's world is full of words that have to be in a right order, full of words that are about doing this or that in the right way, or according to this or that rule, or about this or that bit of vital knowledge (or not-so vital knowledge), poetry says that words don't have to be like that. They're yours to use however you want, tell it like it is, say it because  you feel it. And you don't have to be right in poetry. You can ask questions,  you can suggest things. Unlike stories, they don't have to end. They don't have to sew things up in a neat ending. Poems can end with the thing that's puzzling you the most. They can ask the reader or the listener a question because you don't know the answer. Poems are great for doubt and wonder. We need doubt and wonder in the world, otherwise we'll be just automatons. Children need doubt and wonder so that they can query the world around them. Poems don't take anything for granted. Grab a poet now.

 

5) For World Book Day October 2007

Poetry is a way of using language that can easily appear strange to inexperienced readers. It can even be off-putting for people who had unhappy or unpleasant experiences reading it in school when they were young. I think two processes are at work here: the years of poets writing poems that are indeed deliberately strange, weird, compressed, difficult ways of writing; an education system that demands of teachers and students to produce neat, packaged answers to questions about such things as the 'effectiveness' of this or that metaphor, or this or that verse structure. The problem with this method is that it doesn't engage with the fun, mystery, ideas and imagination of poetry.

With this in mind, I keep trying to think of ways in which schools, teachers, students and children can be inspired and excited by poetry. I'm interested in this because when we do engage with poetry, many of us discover that it's a terrifically powerful way to think closely about things that happen to us, and to reflect deeply on things that we feel. This might be because we get very close to the way a poet has expressed something we care about. Or it might be because we suddenly come to feel that we ourselves can write this sort of stuff. And it gives us pleasure and consolation to do so - pleasure and consolation that we can take through the whole of our lives. Poems aren't just for Christmas! And you never know when you might need one or indeed when you might want to write one. They are can be our way of supporting our pleasures and our pains. And so cheap with it! If, we discover the delight in all this when we're young, then we'll be able to use it as a resource when we're older.

So, here are some of the things that I'm trying to get happening: a poetry roadshow to tour the country. Perhaps we could get some thirty or so poets on board, and in each venue around the country three or four of them would perform a big public show to thousand or more children. The show could be called 'The A-Z of poetry, from Agard to Zephaniah - diverse verse for all'.

Or some such.

I'm trying to set up two web-based ideas: a Youtube type interactive website for poetry performance that could combine poets reading their own poems with school children and students performing their own, or other peoples' poems.
My other idea is to set up an interactive web page for teachers which I'm calling 'How to make a poetry-friendly classroom'. This is to encourage poets and teachers to talk to each other on the web-page about ways of making classrooms places where poetry can live and flourish. I'll kick it off with a few paragraphs and short films and then let's see what we can build out of it - perhaps a book.

I'm also planning an exhibition on the history of children's poetry at the British Library and perhaps a conference to kick it off. I'm hoping that these will help bring some attention to poetry for children from the press.

So, that's the plans.

Meanwhile, I'll carry on visiting schools, doing my poetry and story show and on occasions running workshops for teachers or children. People often ask me what happens when I visit a school, and I must admit, it's a little difficult to describe. It's a bit as if someone like Billy Connolly (without the rude jokes) comes to your school, tells the children stories, gets them to join in with poems and songs, talks about how much fun it is to write about these things, and then sings a few books and disappears. Mostly, schools have done wonderful preparation before I arrive, and the children get so much more out of the visit when they do. This may have meant that they've read a good deal of what I've written, or it may have meant looking very closely at just a few things. This means that they are that engaged and involved when I do my own show and are full of important questions about writing, authorship, books, publishing, illustration and much more.

I send out a sheet with my visits where I say to teachers that though the show may seem a little rambling, a little bit like stand-up comedy, it is in fact a well-worked out routine that tries to incorporate different kinds of language-use, each with a view to enabling children to have a go at writing or collecting such things themselves. So, one moment there might be a street game or playground song, (why not collect these?), and the next an anecdote from my childhood (why not write one?) to something more structured along classic poetic lines, (why not try that too?) along with ideas about how poems grow out of ideas, triggered off by things I've heard, seen, thought or remembered.

In my workshops for teachers, I try to emphasise the importance of making your classrooms places that are congenial for poetry and the need to worry less about getting short-term results because you came up with this or that neat little formula to get a poem out of the children. I suggest, for example, that teachers could simply write out a poem on to a giant piece of paper and put it up on the wall. No need to 'teach it'. Just see what happens. Invite the children to perform poems that they find in the poetry books you bring in. Create a poetry cabaret night for staff, parents and children - reading a mix of poems from books with poems written by staff, parents and children. Take a single collection of poems by a poet, and/or a collection around a theme and turn either into a show, mixing the poems in the book with poems newly written. It could be a mix of poems performed, acted out, mimed, music to accompany or in between. Create a simple set, perhaps have a some kind of narrator or mc to take the audience through the show.

 

6) Answers for Sunday Express, May 2008

1. My favourite poem of yours is "Say Please" because I love tongue twisters. Which is your favourite poem of yours?

My favourite poem changes every week or so. That's because the poems  you write start off being new and fresh. So at the moment, the one I think about is called 'The Lift' and it's on my website.

2. You write lots of very funny poetry, is this because you were only able to read very serious stuff when you were little?

You're right about me mostly reading serious stuff when I was little. To tell the truth it was mostly read to me, rather than me reading it to myself. I thought humour and comedy could only come in plays and stories. I'm only guessing here, but I think I got interested in the idea of bringing the humour in plays and stories into poems.

3. My mum says that you also like classic poetry. Which poet do you think would appeal to a 10 year old boy who loves your stuff?!

Actually 'Anon' is pretty good (in other words, the authors of ballads and folk rhymes). There are really exciting, awful and incredible ballads. They're a bit out of fashion these days, but they're well worth a visit.

4. I love your website and the hypnotiser bit. Did you call it the hypnotiser because once you start watching one, you have to watch them all?!

I called that book 'The Hypnotiser' because there's a poem there about a boy who came to our school and tried to hypnotise us. I then thought 'The Hypnotiser' sounded like the name of an old comic and to start off with, I wanted that book to be done like a comic. That never happened, but I'm very glad you like the poems from that book on my website.

(see The Hypnotiser - is this the world's first video poetry book?)

5. What's been the highlight of your year as THE CHILDREN'S LAUAREATE?

I think it's been planning the things that are coming up: The Roald Dahl Funny Prize and the exhibition and conferences on children's poetry coming up at the British Library in London.

 

7) Junior Education article on poetry, May 2008

At present, poetry in many primary school classrooms is, to my mind, stuck in a thorn bush. The National Literacy Strategy laid down when and how poetry should be taught and following from that, materials and anthologies of poems have been published to fit in with this programme. I think this was the wrong approach. Reading and writing poetry shouldn't be a confined to systems of work that slot neatly into boxes with learning outcomes attached. Reading and writing poetry shouldn't be a matter of following a nationally fixed progression from this or that kind of poem in year 1 to this or that kind of poem in year 2 and so on up through the school. Reading and writing poetry shouldn't be something that is paralysed by the kinds of questions that have only one answer.  You know the kind of thing: how many adjectives? Can you see the metaphor? Where is the personification?

Poetry itself is a way of using language in exciting, musical and suprising ways in order to ask questions of the world inside our heads and around us in the world. It often suggests and probes things, without coming up with fixed conclusions, happy endings and neat resolutions. It's not a neat and tidy way of writing. Poems often start right in the middle of a scene or a feeling without explaining where we are. Sometimes they never tell us and we have to guess. Sometimes one part of a poem is attached to another part without the writer explaining why. This makes them very different from stories, that nearly always do explain such things. And across they world of poetry, they are very different from each other. They come out in in different shapes, different lengths and talk of any subject. Sometimes they seem to tell stories, sometimes they just seem to be about looking, or hearing, or thinking. Quite often, they don't appear to ask anymore of its readers than they should just sit down and  have a bit of a think. Sometimes, we re-read poems without knowing why. Perhaps it's the sound, perhaps it's the pictures in our heads, perhaps it's because of a feeling that echoes with a feeling in our own lives. 

This is why, to my mind, the approach in the NLS is so inappropriate. Instead, I think we should value and cherish this way poetry has of giving readers suggestions, and leaving them time to think and wonder. And this needs a different way of working. We need to make our schools and classrooms, poetry-friendly. This means inventing ways in which whole schools can possess poetry and make it belong to them. In my experience, I've found that the moment a group of teachers is freed up from having to follow the Strategy and invited to come up with ways of enjoying poetry, there's no shortage of ideas. Here are some I've come across as I visit schools:

If we ask, where shall we put poems? then we can say that they're great for reading and performing in assembly - but only if everyone can hear them - use handheld microphones. Think carefully how the performances can be improved - many poems benefit from repeating lines in chorus.  Some are great with pictures projected behind them or accompanied by rhythms on blocks. Some are great with the children taking up the positions as if they're in a freeze frame or photo, as the poem unfolds. 

The corridors and walls of a school are great places to put up poem posters. Get the children to make them or make them  yourselves. No need to restrict the poems you put up to the size of an exercise book page. Make them massive. Project them on to walls. If you put a poem up in a classroom, why not suggest that the children can pin post-its to the poem with their questions and thoughts about the poems?

When it comes to reading poems in class, try to find as many ways as you can for these to be just read and enjoyed, without asking questions. This might mean getting the children to record and perform the poems.  Bring in a box of poetry books. Invite the children to go off in threes, each group with a book, and come back in twenty minutes with the peformance of one poem. Make it an event and say it's a poetry show with ten acts.  Take a collection of poems (anthology or a book by a single author) and work out a way of turning it into a show for the whole school, using the poems to make monologues, dialogues, choruses, mimes, live music interludes, masks and dance. Don't be afraid to change and adapt the poems to fit the overall show. Add in poems and lines written by the children inspired by the collection.

When it comes to asking questions about poems, see if you can restrict the questions to ones that you don't know the answers to. Put the children into groups with a poem with the job of asking: does this poem remind you of anything you've seen, read, heard before? What? Why? Bring them back together and write up the questions and answers as they give them to you. Talk about these answers. Value them. Encourage everyone to ask or answer something. Ask: is there anything you'd like to ask anyone or any thing in the poem? Write up the questions where everyone can see them and see if there's anyone who would like to have a go at being the person or object in the poem to answer the questions. Or is there anything the children would like to ask the poet? Who would like to be the poet and have a go at answering the questions? Use the internet and books to help. Show that you take very question and answer seriously. Add in your own questions in a way that doesn't inhibit the children asking theirs.

This way, poems become focal points for discussion and debate, where ideas and feelings flow. When someone notices something strange or significant about a poem, foreground it. I promise you, if you trust this whole process, and if you trust the poem and the poet, the older children will take you to the processes of poetry too - the alliteration, the rhyme, the metaphors  and similes. They will start to notice the patterns of poetry - how one poem is like or unlike another. And indeed, how they can write like this poet or unlike another.

I've written more about this way of working on the Laureate webpage at Booktrust's website and I'm very keen for teachers to contribute their ideas and work. I think we can all benefit from making this a big conversation. 

For more information about the Poetry-Friendly Classroom, for free resources and hot tips from the Children's Laureate log on to  www.childrenslaureate.org.uk

 

8) Interview for National Poetry Foundation website, November 2007

Questions relating to your new post as Children's Laureate.

1) What impact has the post had on your own work: positive or negative?

I'd say positive. I find that the more contact I have with other writers the more my mind finds possibilities of other things to write. Obviously there's a limit to that otherwise I'd never have time to write anything!

2) It's the first time a poet has been selected as children's laureate...why is this important?

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 had a feeling that 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. 

3) 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 putting over my point of view about the reading of poetry by children and always have done. The really good thing coming up though is that Booktrust are going to devote a webpage to what I'm calling 'How to make a poetry-friendly classroom'. It's an extension of something I've been banging on about for some time, but this time it's going to a proper professional job with the possibility of teachers exchanging views between each other. I'm pretty excited about this and I've just done some filming for that, so that can go on to the website to help kick it off.

4) What's the hardest part of being children's laureate?

Handling the sheer volume of requests - that's either readings and performances, or writing articles and doing interviews.

5) And the easiest?


Talking about how wonderful children's books are.

6) And the most surprising?

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

7) What's been your greatest pleasure so far as children's laureate?


I think it's been the way that it's accelerated my thinking around using the internet for the dissemination of ideas about children's books and the performance of poetry.

8) Has the 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. 

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

Just read poems outloud to children. If you know any off 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.

10) Do you have any words of encouragement for children who want to become poets?

Read and read and read poetry. Keep a notebook for putting ideas, thoughts, and snippings in. A snipping is where you see or hear something that you find interesting or odd. So 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. 

II. Questions relating to your voice

1) How did you discover your own voice as a poet?

I think it came about 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'. I think 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 north west London. These all contributed to how I wrote and still do, of course.

2) How did schooling impede or enhance your understanding of poetry... and  your voice?

I think my priimary school was helpful in that I enjoyed what was called 'choral speaking' - a kind of choir 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, as it was called then, and my father and I read the 'Pageant of Modern Poetry' and it has poems in by Lawrence, Housman, Hopkins and others.

3) 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.

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

I think possibly I did. Or at least it was there in  my mind as my first tentative efforts aged fifteen/sixteen.

5) 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.

6) 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. 

7) How is writing poetry for children different than  writing for adults?

I think adults who like poetry have tremendous staying power. They will read and re-read 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 got to sound interesting enough on a first reading to draw them in. I know I've read poems for adults that I didn't think were interesting on a first reading but thought I'd give them several goes to see if there's something important I've missed. I'm not sure that any sizeable number of children would do that.

8) When did you first realize you were writing 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.

9) Are there any constraints that are part of writing for children?

Well, there are what you might call 'institutional limits' and these have been created by our systems of control over 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 constraint, as you call it, is invisible but is carried through via a consensus between publishers, editors, librarians, teachers and some degree of coercion from what is called 'public opinion' but in truth is sometimes not much more than the Daily Mail writing a shock horror piece about a writer like Melvyn Burgess.

10) What's the greatest pleasure that you've found in writing for children?

Being able to perform my poems in schools.

 

9) Not so much a lesson, more a song and dance, Tuesday October 2, 2007 The Guardian

To mark National Poetry Day, Michael Rosen suggests fifteen ways to make a classroom poetry friendly.

One of the oddities that has emerged out of years of government-inspired curriculum development is the notion that there are perfect lesson-plans which you follow and these will deliver perfect results. I think the best learning takes place when you create an atmosphere of curiosity and excitement. So, I ask myself, how can we handle poems so that a whole class will be curious and excited enough to want to read, write, perform and think about poems? Poetry has never been written with the intention of making young people irritated, bored, anxious or humiliated, and yet the consequence of the test and exam system often does just that. So, rather than begin with lessons, we can talk about structures with a view to making your classroom poetry-friendly.

1. Find any poem that you think is interesting. Copy it out in your own handwriting on to as big a piece of paper as you can. Pin it up on the wall. Don't ask any questions about it, don't set any homework in relation to it. You could try leaving some post-its next to it, so that the class could write things on the post-its and stick them to the poem. If anyone asks you questions about the poem, see if you can ask back a question about how we might find out the answer. Looking in a book? On the internet? Writing a letter to someone? Or how? After a week, take the poem down and put up another one.

2. Read poems to the class when they know that you can't set them work - that is, just before breaks or at the end of the day.

3. Bring in a pile of poetry books, divide the class into twos or threes and ask them to go away and prepare a poem to perform to the rest of the class in 20 minutes' time because that's when you're going to have a poetry concert.

4. Discuss with the children all the different ways you could perform poems: mime, dance, song, using instruments, cutting bits, adding in repetitions that aren't in the original poem, turning some of the scenes of the poem into tableaux and so on.

5. Look at a poem together. Ask questions that you don't know the answers to. Is there any part of the poem that reminds you of anything that has ever happened to you, or that you've heard of happening to someone else? Why and how did it remind you? Is there any part of the poem or sound of the poem that reminds you of anything that you've ever read before? Why? How? Have you got any questions that you would like to ask about the poem?

Ask if any of your students could have a go at answering these questions. Is there anywhere we could go to find answers? Books? Internet? What if you could ask anyone or anything in the poem a question, what question would it be? Would any of your students like to pretend to be that person or thing and answer that question? What if you could ask the poet or the publisher of the poem a question? What question? Anyone want to pretend to be the poet or the publisher and answer it? Anywhere we could find out more about the author or the time and place that author lived through? Are there any patterns or shapes in the poem that anyone wants to talk about? Do you like these? Or not?

6. Choose a book of poems by one poet. What if we turned that book of poems into a show? We could use any poem or part of a poem, we could make up our own, we can use music, photography, costume ...

7. Choose an anthology of poems around a theme. Let's look at this theme. Can we make up some poems on this theme? Make a show of some of the poems in the book mixing it with your students' poems.

8. Have a poetry cabaret night with your students' parents. Everyone is going to bring either a poem they've written or a poem they like and perform it. Turn out all the lights, use a microphone and stage lights. The audience will sit round tables and then poets and performers get up out of the audience to perform their poem. Two sets of 20 minutes each with music in between. Interval - juice and cakes made by the parents.

9. Poetry swap time! Have a session where the teacher and the class swap poems they've chosen and read them out.

10. Turn the poems that the children write into poem posters, poetry booklets and books.

11. Writing poems can start from many, many different places. Use photographs, moments in stories, dreams, music, dance. Use the soliloquy principle, ie stop the action in any art form, any moment, any scene in your own life and ask the protagonist (or yourself) "What are you thinking?" "What can you see?" "What are you going to do?" The answers can make a poem.

12. Write poems for your class or about your class and with your class. Often!

13. Invite a poet to your school and ask her questions.

14. Go to a poetry reading at the local book festival.

15. If an Ofsted inspector comes into your room, ask him to read a poem to the class.

 

10) Take the thing into your hands - poem for Times Cheltenham Festival

Take the thing into your hands
and open it.
You can open it anyway you like.
Many people say that there is a front
and a back
A right way up
and an upside down
But don't be put off by that.
You can open it anyway you like.
You see that door in the side of your head?
Open it.
Now, move the thing in your hands
in any way you like:
Side to side, round and round,
over and over.
Perhaps you'll see that there are
sheets that can be turned over.
You can turn them over and back
You can also hold it still
and move your head.
You can hold your head still
and move your eyes.

Has anything started to come through
the door?
I hope so.
If things do start coming through
the door
I'm fairly sure that they will
start dancing in the room inside.
or sitting on the chairs.
or standing on the table.
or shouting.
or being rude to people you don't like.
or even being rude to people you do like.
or kissing.
or dying.
or going on a boat.
or taking things out of their pockets
and showing them to you.
Some of these things
you may have never seen before.
But now you know them.
Some are as familiar to you as potatoes.
but these potatoes are different.

When you get tired of all this
why not put down the thing in your hands?
And close the door.

Some of the things that came inside
will stay.
You may well start dressing them up
in things that you like.
You might change the tune they were
dancing to.
You might ask them to keep
taking things out of their pockets.
One day
you might find yourself saying the same
rude things.
Or you might change the words round
to make them ruder.
You might go on the boat.
You might start kissing.
I won't say anymore about what else you might do.

If you've liked doing all this
I think you'll probably try to take
another one of these things into your hands
and start all over again.
And then the things that come through
the door the next time
will meet the people who came through
the door last time.
You may even start turning them into each
other.
Look, there's a man hiding under a sheep
so that a giant won't eat him.
And there's a boy running away from
a giant down a beanstalk.
And now you've gone and made the man under the sheep
run down a beanstalk.

Well, well, well

 

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