Roger Stevens: A Profile

In our continuing series of Poet Profiles, we asked Roger Stevens to tell us about being a children’s poet:

Who are you?

I am a writer, a musician and an artist.

How long have you been writing poetry for children?

I have always written poetry, since I was a child. One of my early memories is of my teacher praising me for using the phrase “a multitude of rags” in a piece about a tramp. Not a great phrase but a reminder of how these little nuggets of praise are so important to children. After art college, I taught at a large comprehensive school in the Midlands and wrote a couple of novels for adults (never published). Then I wrote a children’s novel, The Howen, which was published by Penguin to really good reviews. As was my second book, Creeper. But it was when I moved to teach at a primary school, about 30 years ago, that I met Brian Moses. He ran a poetry workshop in my classroom and performed for the whole school and I thought – that’s it, I’d like to be a children’s poet.

Which is your favourite amongst the books you’ve written?

I’d have to mention three. The Journal of Danny Chaucer (Orion), the first verse novel for children published in the UK. It garnered great praise and became the afternoon play on Radio 4. Secondly, Apes to Zebras – an A-Z of Shape Poems (Bloomsbury) with Liz Brownlee and Sue-Hardy Dawson. It is, even if I do say so myself, a beautiful book. And thirdly, Razzmatazz (Otter-Barry), a collection of my best and most popular poems.

Which book was most important in your career?

That would have to be I Did Not Eat the Goldfish (Macmillan) which was my first solo collection. Holding your firstborn in your arms for the first time is a magical moment.

What have been your influences in your writing.

As a young child, I read Alice in Wonderland. It was a huge hardback that I found in my parents’ bookcase. I loved the story, the illustrations and the brilliant poems, which planted a seed in my brain that poetry could take many different forms. Much later, at secondary school, we had two English teachers. Mr Nichols (Old Nick) taught Shakespeare, Chaucer and Byron, all of which I enjoyed. The other teacher, whose name I’ve lost, taught us about more contemporary poets such as e.e.cummings. At the time his lack of punctuation and NO CAPITAL LETTERS was exotic! He is still a favourite. The Mersey Poets were a big influence, showing that poetry could be about ordinary, everyday things. Then, of course, Bob Dylan, who taught me that song lyrics could be also be poetry.

What have been your career highlights?

Performing on the last day of the Edinburgh Book Festival in the big tent would have to be up there. But, actually it’s every time I visit a school to perform or run workshops. To share poetry with children, to motivate them, to help them find new ways to express themselves, and communicate through writing, and to have fun being creative, that has to be the very best thing.

When you visit schools do children ever ask you odd things?

All the time. Do you have two brains? Yes. I keep the spare one in my pocket. Do you live in a mansion? Yes, but I only use the west wing.

What do you think makes a good poem?

A good poem is one that gets a response, emotional or intellectual. For me, it’s simple. If a funny poem makes me laugh, if a sad poem makes me feel tearful, if a poem is so clever that at the end I go WOW! Then, for me, that’s a really good poem.

Have you any poetry writing tips?

I’ve talked to many authors and poets about this and it boils down to two things: Always keep a notebook by your side – and use it. Read widely and often.

Tell us about The Poetry Zone.

I launched The Poetry Zone in 1989 as I wanted to create somewhere for teenagers and children to send their poems and see them published, albeit online, and, importantly, where they would be taken seriously. To date it has published around 30,000 children’s poems and had over a million visitors. It’s a labour of love.

So what is new?

I’ve a book of robot poems that I’ve written with fellow poet Phil Waddell that’s looking for a publisher. My poetry book for grown-ups, A Sentience of Sycamores (Rabbit Press), has just come out. And I’m writing an album of jazz tunes, which will be recorded live in May with the legendary Charlotte Glasson.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

Just a very big thank you. To all the publishers and editors who have had faith in me. To my friends in the world of children’s poetry who have been so kind and supportive. And to all the thousands of children who have joined in and laughed at my jokes.

Roger Stevens PoetryZone

Brian Moses: A Profile

As the first in a new series of poets’ profiles, we asked Brian Moses to talk about being a children’s poet.

Who are you?

Brian Moses, Poet, Picture book writer, anthologist, writer in schools, percussionist.

How long have you been writing poetry for children?

Since I became a teacher in 1975 and started getting children to write poetry. I used to read them all my favourite stuff by Michael Rosen, Roger McGough and later on Kit Wright and Wes Magee. Some of the time I couldn’t find suitable children’s poems for the class topics that we were studying so I started writing them myself and using them with the children. Their responses were often quite favourable, probably because I was their teacher and they were being kind to me. But it did encourage me to keep writing more and more.

How did you get started?

I was drawn to poetry through my enjoyment of the lyrics of rock music, particularly singer/songwriters like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and The Doors. The poetry I was offered in school made little impression on me at the time and it wasn’t until I picked up a book of poems by the Liverpool Poets – Adrian Henri, Roger McGough & Brian Patten – that I realised that poetry could be fun, that it could speak to me in  a language that I understood and that it had relevance to my life as a teenager. I wrote my first poem at the age of 16 to try and persuade a girl who lived near me to go out with her. It failed to achieve its purpose.

What do you enjoy about writing?

I love words and the way that poetry allows me to string words together in a variety of ways. I love the rhythms of poetry and being able to underpin those rhythms with a range of percussion instruments. I like the way in which poems can sneak up on me when I least expect them too, the way that they nag at me till I take time to pin them down. I like being able to write in many different places and not being confined to my desk, although that’s where the poems are usually completed.

Have you any poetry writing tips you’d like to share with us?

Keep a writer’s notebook and always listen in to other people’s conversations.

Which is your favourite amongst the books you’ve written?

It has to be my Best of ‘Lost Magic’ as it contains my hundred favourite poems. The hardback edition from Macmillan with a brilliant cover by illustrator Ed Boxall is something I’m so pleased to have on my shelves. I’m also looking forward to my new book ‘Selfies with Komodos’ which Otter-Barry are publishing in January as it has poems written over the past six years that I’m really pleased with.

Which book was most important in your career as a poet?

I sent poems to Cambridge University Press in 1993 hoping they’d be keen to publish a book and was pleasantly surprised to find that they wanted two books from me, one for younger readers which became ‘Hippopotamus Dancing’ and the other ‘Knock Down Ginger’ for older ones. These were published in both hardback and paperback and were my first poetry books from a major publisher.

Anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself?

Over the 34 years that I have worked as a professional poet, it’s the unpredictability of the job that has kept it exciting and rewarding. I’ve never known what was going to happen next or where I’d be invited to go. I’ve performed my poems in many different locations including Iceland, the Edinburgh Festival, Prince Charles’s Summer School for Teachers, an open prison, a New York bookshop , the United Nations Building in Geneva and RAF schools in Cyprus

Anything else you’d like to say about children’s poetry?

Yes, please buy my books!