University of York

Interview by Students at the University of York

– Congratulations on becoming the new children’s poet laureate. How does it feel to be appointed in such an honourable position?

A bit overwhelming. People in the world of children’s books are immensely enthusiastic and they all hope that  the laureateship can help children to enjoy reading. So, it’s quite a responsibility with so much hope resting on it. I can well imagine that if I did a rubbish job, many, many people would extremely disappointed.

– Do you have any responsibilities to undertake in your new role?

My official responsibilities are to give eight lectures in various places around the UK. These can be about anything I want but are meant to raise interesting questions to do with how children’s literature is produced, read, distributed or used both at home and in schools.

Jacqueline Wilson, the former children’s poet laureate, used her role to promote children reading at bedtime. Do you have any similar aims?

I’m happy to echo all the work that the previous laureates did, but the idea behind each laureateship is that we should each back projects that we can bring some kind of special interest to. I would like to give poetry for children as big a hike as I can, and so I’ve got plans for a big roadshow, provisionally called ‘The A-Z of Poetry – from Agard to Zephaniah’, some exhibitions, an interactive youTube type site of poetry in performance, and a page or website where teachers and poets can exchange ideas of how to create what I call a ‘poetry friendly classroom’. I’ve written about this on my website.
I would also like to do all I can to support the Book Trust’s project ‘The Big Picture’ aimed at reviving interest in children’s picture books.

And I have another plan: there are already some venues and walks you can go on which celebrate well-known children’s authors – places like the Hundred Acre Wood for A.A. Milne and the Roald Dahl Museum. I think localities all over the country could do more. So I would like to get a Children’s Books Trails idea going, with places to see, things to read, quizzes, jokes, etc etc…

– After 33 years of writing, you’re very well known (and loved) by a few generations. Was it always your aim to become a famous children’s writer?

Not at all. One aim when I was a teenager and student was to become an actor. Another was to be a theatre director. Another was to be a playwright. In the end, what I’ve actually become is a writer who writes scripts for himself to perform, which I happen to direct! I visit schools, theatres, libraries all the time, performing my poems and stories. But that just evolved as something that I could do.

You’ve written some adult poetry, is it likely that you will do more of this on the future? Do you prefer writing for children or adults?

Again, this evolved. The immediate spur for ‘Carrying the Elephant’ was the death of my son through meningitis, but I had always scribbled ‘adult’ poetry and published it through what are known as ‘Small Presses’. I also write a political poetry which, again, is published through small presses. I’ve got a book of my selected political poems coming out at the end of June, called ‘Fighters for Life’.

– A lot of your work is often nonsensical and fantastical. Where do you find inspiration for such pieces?

I think nonsense of all kinds is about creating situations where characters or beings don’t have a proper motive for what they do. To take some obvious examples, there is no reason for the dish to run away with the spoon, no reason for an owl to marry a pussy-cat and so on. Nonsense creates parallel worlds (as does fantasy and sci-fi) but whereas as fantasy literature and sci-fi usually tries to create a world with some kind of new logic, nonsense literature usually has some kind of motiveless, logic-less happening.

I find this interesting because we are weighed down with logic and logistics. Everything we do in life either has a motive, a cause and effect, an empirical reality that we are supposed to be aware of, be part of, to probe and, indeed, study! So nonsense gives us a chance to escape this empirical world and explore other possibilities. I’m interested in any kind of literature that helps us explore other possibilities. And sometimes, absurd possibilities give us a kind of temporary freedom.

There are just so many Michael Rosen books to chose from, which one is your favourite?

I think I enjoy re-reading the poems in ‘You Wait Till I’m Older Than You’.

Do you find time to read any modern fiction, for adults or children? If so, do you favour any particular author at the moment?

I re-read Dickens’ ‘Christmas Carol’ yesterday, and I was stunned to see that it’s in fact not just a moral tale but actually very political. Part of the anger in the book is about Malthus and his ideas on poverty and population. I also read ‘Jude the Obscure’ by Thomas Hardy quite recently and I thought that it was stunning. An incredible exploration of sexuality and class. Amazing read.

Do you have any advice for York’s budding young writers of adult and children’s fiction?

Read as often and as widely as you can. Anything and everything. Don’t stint on this. It’s absolutely vital.

Keep a notebook. Whenever you hear, see, read or think anything, just jot it down in your notebook. Don’t worry about what it’s for, or what it might turn into. Just scribble it down. Give yourself time every week or so to look at your notebook and read it. Have a go at writing something at least once a week. Ideally have a go every single day. All the good writers I know, sit down and write something every day.

– Finally, what are your thoughts on the new Harry Potter book coming out? Any plot predictions…?

Harry Potter is a phenomenon, so much more than a book. I think it’s been good for reading for everyone. I’d like to think that reading the HP books has given people a big stimulus to go looking for a similar excitement with some other authors. Fantasy books are in a way a parody of the real world, and there are many kinds of books that explore this even more. I’m very fond of Terry Pratchett, for example.

No predictions. I’m always wrong!