This interview has had a gestation more complicated than a multiple pregnancy. Bedeviled by a stolen voice recorder at the Latitude festival, where Rosen was speaking and I was doing press coverage- leaving me with no choice other than to frantically scribble down answers in situ (with a pencil– old school). Then, at home, I was burgled and the bag containing the original notes PLUS transcribed document on a memory stick was nicked. I had come to accept that this was the one that got away. However a few weeks ago the police recovered some of my stolen property including the purse with the stick in. Hence interview.2 reconstructed as best I can. Apologies Mr Rosen for the time-lag.
The previous November, it had been announced that Michael Rosen had been appointed Professor of Children’s Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London in order to run a new MA in Children’s Literature starting in 2014. It was this that I was particularly interested in; the need to build an academic knowledge base for children’s literature and how this could be of benefit at a time (July 2014) where Michael Gove, then the education secretary, was making pronouncements about the worth of one set text over another.
The relative lack of critique and study of literature for children has left us all wide open to Gove-ian interference regarding what is ‘right’ and who gets to arbitrate ‘taste’ (and his departure doesn’t mean we are out of the woods either). The wrong people are exerting influence for reasons motivated by something other than their critical analysis of the texts themselves but until we have that critical rigour, we lie helpless in the face of this.
So, Michael, who is the arbitrator of taste? Who is deciding now what we read as children?
“I gained my MA in the early nineties and have been teaching and involved in education since then, from a position of wanting to share what I have learned- it all comes from that. As artists and critics, we can easily be bypassed, we have zero power and we need to work towards establishing a consensus. Through research and collaboration and educational critique, it is possible in a sense, to all get that opportunity to be a ‘King for a Day’ where we can say ‘my turn to talk…’
And Gove? Where does he come in?
“Power engenders power. It’s a well-oiled party machine and there’s a belief that if they talk ‘this’ way they’ll get ‘it’ into power but Gove…he’s a liability to their side. In whatever role.
“Gove oddly set himself up as a know it all and was not generous in his way of listening and working with teachers, those in education…the children. He has the ‘power of convenient’, he is using his position to impose his own political views. He could have convened a discussion in a human and thoughtful manner. He is very Napoleonic and cannot bear to think of a consensus. Nothing is being set free here. It is all about imposition. We have teachers who have invested their lives in learning how to do what they do really well. He doesn’t want to hear from them.
In previous interviews, Michael Rosen has made clear his belief that despite Gove (and the government) stating that these stipulations allow schools to act as they wish with regard to what is studied in literature, in fact the adding in of extra texts above and beyond those stipulated would be almost impossible for teachers. The workload is already immense.
He goes on to state that there is huge interest and academic potential in children’s literature, not as addendum and tag along to adult literature (nor framed in the light of what we loved as children) but a whole new world of critical theory with more than 10,000 children’s books being published in the United Kingdom every year.
“Children’s books are different, in so many ways and are vulnerable to the opinions of uninformed ‘experts’- they have a dual focus in that they are part of the process of formally educating a child but they are also guiding, reflecting and nurturing. The best do this.”
If you take into account the view that each child’s background will affect their relationship not only with the idea of reading itself but the content on every printed page, it is baffling as to why there has been this snobbery for so long about the formal study of children’s literature. It has made us vulnerable to seeking out the wrong people as arbitrators of taste- people like Gove.
“We can value reading for pleasure. We learn beyond exams and the feeding in of information and the retrieval of it through exams and tests. But we learn through the world and what is around us- our bodies, the earth, the way we play and eat and the energy and life around us.
Go onto Michael Rosen’s website and what strikes you is his love of words- a playfulness and exploration and inquisitiveness that we of course celebrate in children and then find that most of us seem to lose along the way. There are videotapes of poetry readings and interviews conducted by year-sixers, jokes and quizzes and while there are sections for ‘adults’, there is little sense of him hiving off younger age groups. The same applies too, to the different ways in which humans use words. To some of us poetry seems to breathe a more rarified air and it can be a little intimidating- not something for the ‘beginner’ in literature which is a shame. I asked Michael how parents (and non parents too) can engage with poetry despite their unfamiliarity or unease with it-
“But poetry is everyday- it isn’t a separate ‘thing’. Think of nursery rhymes- They are wonderful and surprising little dramas, full of mysteries with all kinds of interesting meanings. Even tiny babies are suddenly engaging with life- a richness of life when they hear them. Think of one- Why was Little Miss Muffet on a tuffet? What is a tuffet? Think of the sound of that word. You can ask questions about them, the child can ask questions about them and it doesn’t matter about the answer.
“Sing songs to them. Look at Dolly Parton and her song ‘The Coat of Many Colours’ which is written verse and is the loveliest story. Engage children with words that fill their heads with the strangeness of non speech language. Writing and the reading of it alone cannot show them everything that is special about a story. Use non verbal storytelling by singing and acting out the words and show them how emotion can be conveyed through the whole body. That teaches them how to manage their own feelings and how to understand the feelings of others.
So can you recall what your own introduction to poetry was? Your first book?
“My first poetry book was the Kingfisher Book of Children’s Poetry and I love the work of Grace Nichols, Roger McGough and John Foster. My parents loved poetry, we had poets visiting and we all told stories.
Michael goes on to discuss how song and poetry share an affinity through their rhythmic structure and cites the example of ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for which Longfellow invented the four beat line. The tetrameter, (also called strong-stress, native meter or four by four meter) is commonly used in nursery rhymes, ballads and folk songs and has four beats to a line. On a simplistic level, anything with a heartbeat-like rhythm is going to soothe or arouse but more importantly, if you want to introduce yourself or a child to the realm of human experience seen through the prism of poetry, why not exploit what we already know to be familiar and comfortable? Start there and progress onto the other stuff.
Certainly poetry celebrates the rhythm, pitch and sound of language and also the non language sounds that come out of our mouths. Individual words convey meaning in themselves- not only when they are combined with other words. Michael Rosen’s own poetry is testimony to this. Watch this VT of Rosen reading out ‘Chocolate Cake’. There are sounds and expressions that you won’t find in a dictionary and sounds that mean something even if you have an impaired inability to decode language. A son of a friend who was diagnosed with Autism aged three responds to Michael’s sounds of glee with his own glee and it is one of the few times we see him associate joy with sound. It usually troubles him. Small babies are oblivious to the values and meanings attached to words and until they learn those things, they will enjoy a word for the sound it makes solely. We all eventually learn that a word is an object and it has its own tale to tell but there is a kind of joy involved in going back in time through the reactions of the very young to words and poems and stories. Their reaction is unfiltered.
I once read that babies are born able to make every sound of every language in the world. So the acquisition of language is as much about the process of forgetting as it is about learning. Babies are the kings and queens of neologisms, they play with sounds, feel them in their mouths, they listen and experience the sound of speech and noise from the inside out and this is something that poets seem to retain or relearn.
“Babies are natural poets. We as writers and poets morph and invent language- babies do this from the start. They don’t know that the sound you are making is ‘right’ or wrong. They borrow and they invent and poets- they do that too. People like Shakespeare, they didn’t fossilize or get pedantic about what word is ‘right’.
Is poetry more supportive and reflective of changing language and idiom and would you say that it is a more natural vehicle to reflect a child’s lived experience?
“Poetry can and does talk in many voices. I see my own fathers voice..and that of others but you also need to find your own voice too. Poets can use and mine the language of anybody or anything- we do steal the voices of others when we need to. Our language is rich and it reflects what we borrow and what we invent. My own childhood home was full or oral history, tales told, my parents recited poetry and they were teachers and questioned everything.
Michael went on to talk about how he wrote ‘Words are Ours’, a perfect reflection of the way in which language and its signifiers- the signs of the times, the signs of our times morph. The poem Incorporates ‘text-speak’ to wonder what the next thing, the next word will be and what it might say about us and the impermanence of a fast moving technology is the perfect vehicle to convey this
“We’re not statues and we don’t stand still. Poetry is dynamic and changes. We use dialect- Wordsworth wrote in dialect. People like Grace Nichols and Benjamin Zephraniah taught me how to stand and perform and how to reach people using me. I saw how they used their bodies and their voices, how the poems emanated from them.
He has no truck with word snobbishness. He also has no truck with the idea that we must stick to our ‘own’ dialects although he is also emphatic about the role poetry has to play in promoting and valuing regional and cultural variations. Rosen sees poetry being as inclusive as any other art form and beautifully experimental – he talks to me like a poetic Professor Branestawm. Sense of place is important but entrenchment is to be resisted. In a poet like Grace Nichols we see the linguistic gymnastics that move language forward leaving pedants trapped in a mire of their own making. Creole and standard English are woven together in her work BUT this is poetry to be performed, heard, not just left on the page. And it is this lesson that Rosen has really taken on board and demonstrated to us. He has taken it further. As I spoke to him he would break off into verse, would show me what he meant by playing with his own words, either via his own poetry or that of others, or song. He recited a portion of his own poem ‘Hand on the Bridge’ to show me how a dynamic, chanting, speechy way of reciting had been inspired by Benjamin Zephaniah and I, like a typical repressed English person at first sat a little awkwardly then by the third or fourth word, grew still and then spellbound.
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Photographs copyright of Michael Rosen. Taken from his website.