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
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