An interview with Roger McGough and Michael Rosen

posted in: Korky Paul, Michael Rosen, Roger McGough | 7

YOU_TELL_MEI’m more than thrilled to bring you a very special interview today with both “the patron saint of poetry” (according to the current Poet Laureate) and a former Children’s Laureate in conversation. Yes, none other than Roger McGough and Michael Rosen have stopped by my blog today in celebration of a new edition of their classic collection of poetry, You Tell Me, re-issued earlier this year with the addition of some new poems and fabulous and sometimes anarchic illustrations by Korky Paul.

A hugely wide-ranging anthology, with poems about broccoli and bad habits, football and first days at school, toothpaste and tongue twisters, there’s something for everyone in You Tell Me. There are poems to make you laugh out loud, poems to make you think twice and poems which easily turn into earworms. Each poem can be enjoyed as a stand-alone experience, but this anthology really struck me for the way the poems are ordered, with poems by the two different authors placed following or facing each other in such a way as to help me (and no doubt many other readers) make new connections and see different things in each of the individual poems.

Here’s how my conversation with Roger and Michael unfolded:

Roger McGough (L) and Michael Rosen (R)
Roger McGough (L) and Michael Rosen (R)

Playing by the book: Astonishingly it’s 35 years since You Tell Me was first published. How do you see the children’s poetry landscape (in the UK) having changed in the intervening years?

Roger McGough: When I look back I can see that You Tell Me came out at time when attitudes to poets and poetry were changing. Before the 80s few poets went into schools, but within a decade, as more poets visited schools (funded initially through the Poetry Society), publishers committed themselves to publishing single poet collections as well as anthologies, and this commitment snowballed into success, both commercially as well as educationally. Sadly, things have gone down hill since and publishers, in hard times, are reluctant to publish new work. Last year I was the Chair of the judging panel of the CLPE Poetry Award. The judges were really concerned about how few books were submitted and noted that many of the publishers previously associated with poetry – Puffin, Faber and OUP – had nothing to submit. Meanwhile Macmillan and Janetta Otter-Barry at Frances Lincoln Children’s Books do a good job. I gather that Puffin are back on board and look forward to judging the CLPE Poetry Award this year.

Michael Rosen: I think young poets are finding it pretty hard to get published at the moment. However, one aspect of the national curriculum is that it asks teachers to factor in poetry so I find that teachers are once again on the hunt for a wide range of poetry. I fully understand that publishers find it hard to keep up with the whims of central government in these matters but perhaps now is a good time to pull together some good collections of new poets – especially if those poets are the ones who are doing a lot of school visits.

Playing by the book: How do you see your own poetry having changed over the course of the past 35 years?

Roger McGough: I hope it gets better with the more I read – but I never know! I have the same views on life and interest in language.

Michael Rosen: Difficult to say. I keep trying to experiment, trying new rhythms, new themes. Sometimes I read back to myself, things I’ve written over the last few years, and I can see how similar they are to things I was writing 30 years ago, and others, I’m almost surprised I wrote them!

Playing by the book: When You Tell Me was first published how were the poems selected? Did you personally choose them? Did you consult each other? Or was there someone else facilitating? And how has this worked for the new edition which contains several new poems?

Roger McGough: It seems odd now but when the first book was published Michael and I didn’t meet to discuss which poems should be included. Some of mine had been published in books of poetry for adults so, on the whole, Michael’s poems appealed to younger children. The editor at Puffin did a good job making the selection. It’s been a different experience with the new edition. Michael, Janetta Otter-Barry and I have met together to discuss the poems in depth. I was worried about ‘The Lesson‘ – that people may not understand the irony and my references to guns and violence – but Michael and Janetta both felt the poem should go in. We’ve included some new poems too. I enjoyed the experience of discussing the book and I think it’s better for it.

Michael Rosen: Yes, I agree with Roger here.

Playing by the book: Now bear with me on this – I’m deliberately being a little provocative here.. part of me wants to ‘ban’ printed poetry books… at least as the way people, especially children are introduced to poetry. Why? In my experience, especially with children, poetry most truly comes to life when it is spoken and heard… and so I think audio books or podcasts (or especially real live people) should be the door to open poetry books. What do _you_ think?

Roger McGough: I understand what you saying but the reality is that audio books follow the published book. That’s the economics of it.

Michael Rosen: I don’t think we need to get either-or-ish about this. Child and adult readers vary a great deal. This means that some children ‘get’ poetry straight off the page, some don’t. Some like it performed and won’t ever come to look at the page version. Some like to relate the performed version to the printed version…and so on. So I think it’s the job of poets and those who teach poetry to remain open and flexible about all this. Part of this should be to give children plenty of opportunity to perform poems without necessary worrying about learning them off by heart. Meanwhile, children should have the experience of playing with words on the page…seeing what happens when you swap letters, words and phrases around, in ways that are quite difficult to do orally.

Playing by the book: I guess I’m getting at the idea that poetry – when it is heard – is full of rhythm and sounds and emotions that can be harder for younger children to internally hear when presented with black and white text on the page. How can we help children develop that (internal) ear for rhythm and the sounds of language, that will help them hear the poetry even when they are reading from the page?

Roger McGough: It’s good for children, and adults, to hear poetry. To hear it read at home and at school. It’s also good for them to see what it looks like on the written page and see the shape of the words. The more children have access to poetry – the more they will enjoy it.

Michael Rosen: I agree that hearing poets and teachers (and parents and carers) read poetry enables children to make it work for them on the page. Yes, it supports their private reading.

Playing by the book: So what top tips do you have for helping families fall in love with poetry? (There are quite a few resources aimed at bringing poetry to life in school, but what about in the home?)

Roger McGough: Don’t be afraid of poetry. Just have the books around. Ready to pick up and read.

Michael Rosen: I agree with Roger. Poetry works very well in an incidental way, supporting our lives – and that applies to both reading and writing it. If ever you’ve seen a parrot or a mynah bird listen, they put their heads on one side and sway to and fro. It’s as if they’ve been suddenly bewitched or tickled. Poetry works best if it causes that kind of effect.

Playing by the book: What’s the last poem you read?

Roger McGough:
Wayland by Tony Mitton, winner of the CLPE Poetry Award 2014 [illustrated by John Lawrence/zt], and (for adults) O Captain! My Captain! by Walt Whitman.

Michael Rosen: The last poems I heard are by James Berry, as read by James himself, Grace Nichols and John Agard. My wife, Emma-Louise Williams has made a BBC Radio 4 programme about James called ‘A Story I am In‘ (you can hear the programme on 22 March 4.30pm, BBC Radio 4 and on iPlayer thereafter)

The poems included:

‘On an afternoon train from Purley to Victoria, 1955’

‘In-a Brixtan Markit’

‘Mek Drum Talk’

‘New World Colonial Child’

(from The Story I am in published by Bloodaxe)

Playing by the book: What’s the last poem you wrote?

Roger McGough: It’s not yet published – I have rewritten an adult poem ‘Crocodile in the City’ for children, retitled ‘Crocodile Tears’.

Michael Rosen: ‘Caesar Curb Immigrants, Year Zero’ – in a forthcoming collection called ‘Don’t Mention the Children’ to be published by Smokestack Books.

Playing by the book: What would your 8 (or 3 or 5…) desert island poems be?

Roger McGough:
Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll
Sea Fever by John Masefield
A Smuggler’s Song by Rudyard Kipling
Who Killed Cock Robin? (Anon). This is the first poem that made me cry as a young child.
I am the Song by Charles Causley
Night Mail by W H Auden
La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats

Michael Rosen:
Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen
First they came for the Communists by Pastor Martin Niemöller
The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Poem known as My Last Duchess by Robert Browning
Le Corbeau et le Renard by La Fontaine
It’s raining, it’s pouring, the old man’s snoring (Anon)
‘Larger than life’ by Harold Rosen, my father, about my late son Eddie.

Playing by the book: Thank you, thank you Roger and Michael. Poetry by each of you made a huge impression on me as a child 30 odd years ago and so to be here today able to ask you questions and share your poetry – it’s a magical thing and much treasured experience.

A newspaper clipping from the first time I saw Michael Rosen live
A newspaper clipping from the first time I saw Michael Rosen live

7 Responses

  1. Virginia Lowe

    *You Tell Me* was a great favourite with my children growing up. The book theoretically lived in the toilet, but they were always bringing it out to share a new treasure they’d discovered. They loved it. It really helped to develop their interest in playing with words, learning vocabulary, and in poetry itself of course.

  2. Catherine

    A really interesting read Zoe, I’m intrigued that Roger and Michael both included a nursery rhyme in their desert island poems. Nursery rhymes are often the first poems that children hear.

    Are you in the picture on the newspaper cutting?
    Catherine recently posted..Peace at Last by Jill Murphy

  3. Claire Potter

    Really agree with the idea of poetry working in an “incidental” way. We have kids’ poetry books around (in the toilet for example!) and my daughter dips in and out of them and really enjoys them – and makes up her own ryhming poems (orally) at the drop of a hat as she goes about her life!

    I was reading through the new National Curriculum for primary schools this week and noticed one of the things was expose children to poetry orally that is beyond their reading abilities – thought this was interesting, and good. I think children can pick up on and absorb all kinds of subtleties and sophistication that we might not think them capable of!
    Claire Potter recently posted..Guest interview: “I went to stand-up comedy!”

  4. Marjorie (MWD)

    Wonderful interview – thank you. I can see where you’re coming from, Zoe, when you ask about printed vs. spoken poetry – and I suspect you were playing devil’s advocate a bit 🙂 – I agree that it’s a bit of both. I’ve always loved reading poetry and the intimacy that that immersion gives – and listening in recent years to old recordings of (dead!) poets reading their poetry, I can’t abide many of them because they seem to turn their own poetry into a drone… whereas the performance of poetry now is so exciting (I’ve been lucky enough to hear Michael live twice). My son came back from a Poetry Live! school trip earlier this year absolutely buzzing; hearing the poets read and talk so passionately about poetry has completely changed his attitude to his GCSE poetry – and that is where the balance is, I think – helping kids to find a way into poetry without killing it by it becoming examination drudgery… and I’m not laying anything at the teachers’ door here, either – he was just setting up resistance to it because he was having to study it and somehow he’d decided poetry is more difficult than prose…
    Marjorie (MWD) recently posted..Review: Sequoyah by James Rumford

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