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Michael Rosen and Adrian Mitchell - The Poetry Trust

Last night you read to an audience of eight hundred. How do you hold an audience of that size and what do you think is the appeal of your work?

Michael Rosen: Everybody finds a different way of doing it. Some people think there must be a kind of formula - it's breathing or voice production. But it isn't. It may be that you concentrate very hard on one person and talk to them at the back of the hall. I try to get inside the poem, the piece, and become me at that moment or that person who's in it. And project it as an actor would. The appeal? You never know that. All you know is that people come up to you and say, that that poem touched them in one way or another.

Adrian Mitchell: Yeah, I think it's like talking to someone and telling them something you want to tell them. I find in real life when I talk to someone about something that moves me I get so moved that I can't convey it. So I write these things down in poems. And the same with jokes - I'm not very good at improvising jokes, so I do some funny poems. To keep the audiences attention, for me, it's having some kind of pattern through the reading like a patchwork quality - different contrasts. Like a tough one next to a soppy one, next to a dark one, next to a very black one. So nothing ever lasts too long. I want to get a switchback ride. I want to be able to talk about things that really move me and things that I'm angry about and things that really amuse me. And things that I love.

You both have popular poems that you must have read so many times. How do you keep them fresh?

Adrian Mitchell: You should never do it if you're feeling stale about it. You have to re-imagine it every time, you have to see those pictures in your head again and again as if for the first time. With a poem like, To Whom It May Concern, I've remixed it and mention Iraq and things like that so people can't evade it and think it's just a poem about the old days. You should only do the poems you really believe in on the night. If you can't get into that mood, do something else instead and luckily with poetry you can do that.

Michael Rosen: I like that. Re-imagine it, you have to re-live it. I've  heard Adrian read 'To Whom It May Concern' many times, including up on a plinth at Trafalgar Square when I was young.

Adrian Mitchell: That's Nelson up on the plinth!

Michael Rosen: Oh was it? I was sure it was you (laughs)! I can hear it's different each time and I'm listening out for the new bits. I remember seeing Van Morrison on one occasion get quite angry with the audience and he stopped half-way through a number and said, 'Look, this is live music. It's not going to be how you heard it on the record.' And then went back to playing. He was making an important point - it was going to be new, there were going to be solos and other stuff. In a way, I bear that in mind. This is a live show, there have got to be different things.

What's the relationship between the page and the stage for you both?

Michael Rosen: I have a sense that there are some poems I'll never read out loud. Whether anybody ever reads them privately to themselves you don't know. One of the amazing things about this huge world of poetry is that there are many ways to receive it and people do get hung up on the idea of 'that's performance' or 'that's something else'. The Metaphysicals' poems are not necessarily great performance pieces. On the other hand the Romantics - Wordsworth and Coleridge, Shelley and Blake - read really well in performance. But there are many different occasions for many different kinds of poems and it's always been like that.

Adrian Mitchell: I don't think you think too much about how you are going to deliver a poem - in print or carved on a tombstone or out loud - when you're writing it. You think about the words and then you may find you've got something that's really good out loud. Or you might find there's a little poem that works perfectly on the page but isn't really much read out loud, it doesn't really gain anything. Of course it's really nice when an audience responds to one right away. The readings matter to me more than the books. I mean, I like the books, I love books. But just about any good poem can work when it's read aloud, including the Metaphysicals. John Donne is fantastic read aloud by somebody who really understands it. You may not get all the meanings first time through, but you get the excitement. It can knock you sideways!

Michael Rosen: Donne is fantastic! It's got that potential for many different occasions or moods, many different voices. I saw Germaine Greer on a video reading a Shakespeare sonnet for someone's wedding. It was absolutely fantastic because she read it with irony and I'd never seen the irony before. It electrified the audience and it was very cheeky because it implied that though these two people were deeply in love, that love itself was something you could question and she did it with her eyebrows and there are no eyebrow movements on the page!

Adrian Mitchell: (laughs) Who asked Germaine Greer to a wedding? That's asking for trouble that is!

Michael Rosen: (laughs) She was brilliant, absolutely brilliant!

Adrian Mitchell: (laughs) You looking for trouble? You come to the right place!

Was there a particular poet in performance who inspired you initially?

Michael Rosen: For me it was Adrian on the plinth at Trafalgar Square, I just thought, that's fantastic. But if you go back earlier, at home we had tapes and records of poets reading their poems - Dylan Thomas and then Richard Burton reading Dylan Thomas. Robert Graves reading his own poems is pretty amazing. It was later on in his life and he had an old crusty, wicked, mischievous sound. Me and my brother used to wander round the house going, 'Down we went, with nothing in our pockets'.

Adrian Mitchell: 'Song of the Lift Boys'!

Michael Rosen: That's it, yeah! Absolutely lovely. And then there's his 'Traveller's Curse After Misdirection'. How old was I? Maybe ten or eleven? I can remember thinking you can just make things up! It could be based on something real and then go off into this wild thing and you could be any age, any shape, any colour and do it. The fact that Graves sounded quite old didn't matter. And at the same time we had Dylan Thomas. What was this weird sound coming out of the record playing going 'and death shall have no dominion'? I remember these old speakers buzzing with his bass voice.

Adrian Mitchell: I saw J.B. Leishman, the scholar, at a weekend course about John Donne. He started reading Donne and after about five lines he put down the book because he knew it all. He was amazing! I was with my best friend, we were about sixteen and the youngest people on the course and we were absolutely knocked out by this. The first poet I suppose I saw was Dylan Thomas. I was just eighteen then and in the Air Force against my will and he was reading at a book club in front of all these ladies in hats and me in my RAF uniform. They gave him a microphone, which was a huge mistake because he just fooled around with it for a time doing imitations of radio comedians - he was very funny. Then after a time he got tired of playing, just put the mic away and then the great trumpet came out and he did his poems. Not just his poems but other people's too. It was fantastic, beautiful music.

Which other poets do you feel an affinity with?

Michael Rosen: The problem of saying, 'Which poets?', is that it becomes a huge great litany. The great thing about readings is that you get a very intimate sense of a poet. If you've been on with John Agard you have a sense of a physicality, almost a preacher-like quality about the way in which he reads his poems. And you think, what would it be like to try that? It's Woody Allen as the human chameleon in Zelig: you want to become the person you're watching. So I can look at loads of my poems and think, oh, there's a bit of Adrian Mitchell. Oh, look, here's some of Hegley, Jean 'Binta' Breeze there, and so on. But I think that's the way we are. Language is a shared thing and we learn how to share and remake stuff all the time from each other.

Adrian Mitchell: With me it's Blake. It's not just his poems, it's his painting and his life, the way he died. Everything about Blake inspires me and excites me. He makes me laugh too. So, I love Blake. I read Blake at an early age and saw some of his paintings too. Border Ballads got me going very early. My father was Scottish and he used to read those and I loved them - Sir Patrick Spens among others. Later on, the blues. I love the words of the blues. 'Cos that's what I felt when I was a teenager. My rebel music was jazz before rock 'n' roll. I loved the American poets, Whitman and Ginsberg and Theodore Roethke and Kenneth Patchen. They were really wild. English poetry at that time was a tame country.

Michael Rosen: The Americans opened the door for a way of speaking, whether it was in performance or on the page, and they learnt it very early on with Carl Sandburg and people like that - how to use voice on the page. You read a Sandburg poem from just after the First World War and it could have been written yesterday.

Adrian Mitchell: Whitman was a great discovery for me. When I was about twelve we had a friend, a merchant sailor, who was on the convoys to New York during the war, and he used to bring us American comics. We'd get Batman, Superman and Green Lantern. And one day he brought me one that was called Walt Whit-Man!

Michael Rosen: (laughs) What is he when he isn't Walt Whit-Man? He works in an office and he suddenly turns into Walt Whit-Man?

Adrian Mitchell: Puts on his beard (laughs)! In the comic there was this old grey man sitting on a park bench saying,  'I could go and live among the animals, they're so placid and self-contained, I look at them long and long'. I said to my mother "is there really a Walt Whitman?" So she said, "I think there is." About a week later she gave me a parcel and it was a beautifully green leather bound edition of Leaves of Grass, which I've still got. I treasure it.

You both write poems for all ages, for everyone. Is it the same process? Do you know from the start of a poem which age group it's going to be for?

Michael Rosen: In my case poems start from little hooks of sensation or a word or a feeling. It starts off like that and as it develops I might have a sense whether this will end up a poem for very young children or maybe for an older audience. I've got very young children, so I can try things out orally straight away. We've got this misleading thing about children and adults though. Very young children are mostly in the company of adults and they'll come across a lot of poems through adults. So in fact when you write anything for young children you're actually writing for adults and children to share and that's a very exciting audience to talk with and to.

Adrian Mitchell: Yeah, absolutely. It's sharing a vision, sharing adventures and sharing a love of language with children. I never know when I start a poem who it's for - unless it's for someone's birthday - and usually I don't know who it's for until I've written it. Would children like it? And if I think yeah, it would go in a children's book. But some of them go in children and adult books as well. You read them differently though. Last night I read 'Back in the Playground Blues', about how I was viciously bullied when I was eight. I never used to read this poem to school kids. Now though I read it to eight year olds because it's a warning, but I read it in a different way. In a Comprehensive or to adults I read it in a tough way, with the anger I feel, but with young children I read it quite gently.

Where do you stand on formal poetry?

Michael Rosen: As far as writing, you have to write what you can write and what you feel comfortable with. But in terms of reading: try everything and anything. Poetry isn't one thing. It's like music. If you like Beethoven's Fifth, it doesn't mean you can't like Mahler or Wagner or Bob Dylan or Lilly Allen. If people say, 'Oh well, that isn't poetry because it isn't formal' or 'I only like formal poetry because it's elevated language', I just think, don't close the doors, don't close yourself. It seems such a narrow way of looking at poetry.

Adrian Mitchell: Yes it is, because poetry is a free country. And as a poet you want to explore all the kinds of poetry that you can within the limits of your language. I first wrote poems as a teenager when I was in love for the first time and desperately writing about that. And I was also very worried about war and why people kill each other and I was desperately writing about that too. Sometimes I was writing totally free verse and sometimes I was writing sonnets or villanelles. I was fascinated by those forms, those tight forms and I'm still attracted to them if they're well done and they're very difficult to do well. It's useful to have all those techniques. But that's not why I did it. I did it because I wanted to write poems and I liked the tightness and the challenge of those forms. I still find it attractive but nowadays I'm so cussed that if I did a villanelle I would make a big break in the middle of it...

Michael Rosen: Wreck it! (laughs)

Adrian Mitchell: (laughs) I would just wreck the form at some point to say, look, I'm not confined now. I can do this, I can lean out the window of the villanelle and wave to my friends!

Michael Rosen: I read an interesting thing about T. E. Hulme and his 'Lecture on Modern Poetry' in 1908. He said there's this stuff called 'free verse' and it's really exciting. People say the trouble with free verse is anyone can do it, it's just chopped up prose. And Robert Frost said how it's like tennis with no net. Well, funnily enough, T. E. Hulme was saying the same thing about form. He said formal poetry was just a push-over because as you've got the rhymes there, you're bound to just fill up the spaces with stuff that you don't really care about, whereas the thing about free verse is that it's hard - you pare it down to just the thing you want to say.

In what ways do you hope your writing can change personal or political attitudes? Can writing change anything?

Michael Rosen: One of the things about poets is that you have a sense that they are bringing you news from a place that you don't quite know. I find sometimes an immense sense of gratitude because that person has gone there and brought it to you. Now that can be because they've experienced sadness or love or complexity or an absurdity of some sort. Or it can be because they've experienced an idea, which can be a political idea. So they go, they experience it, express it and then bring it to you almost like a piece of news. When you listen to it, you mash it over in your mind and that's what changes you. We talked about John Donne, he says, 'Mark but this flea' and then this outrageous idea that this flea has bitten his missus, the flea's bitten him and the blood is mingling. That is so sexy and disgusting and wonderful all at the same time. Before you read it, chances are you've never had that thought before. And so, he's brought you the news of that, the felt news, he's felt it. There is a change.

Adrian Mitchell: Yeah, it can focus a light on a particular feeling which maybe somebody has in the audience and it may intensify or clarify that feeling. It may say to that person, there are other people in the world who feel like you. You're not alone in this, get off your arse and do something about it. It's not an agent for reform though. You're not in the evangelical business, I don't mean that. I know that, for instance, my attitude towards war was never friendly because my mother lost both her brothers in the First World War and my father lost all his friends in that war too. But when I read Wilfred Owen, it really clarified my attitude to war and towards suffering. And it affected my ideas about poetry and writing and my ideas about life.




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