Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Roger Stevens

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.

The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

Roger Stevens

has published forty books for children. He is a National Poetry Day Ambassador, a founding member of the Able Writers scheme with Brian Moses and runs the award-winning website www.poetryzone.co.uk for children and teachers, which has just celebrated its 20th anniversary.  His book Apes to Zebras – an A to Z of shape poems (Bloomsbury) won the prestigious NSTB award. Recent books include I Am a Jigsaw; puzzling poems to baffle your brain (Bloomsbury); Moonstruck; an anthology of moon poems (Otter-Barry) and Be the Change; poems about sustainability (Macmillan). Roger spends his time between the Loire, in France, and Brighton, where he lives with his wife and a very shy dog called Jasper.

The Interview

1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

I can’t remember the first poem I wrote, but I was probably around 12 or 13. I was at secondary school. This would have been in the mid 1960s. I do remember making books of my poems. I would fill hard-covered exercise books with poems and then ask my cousin, who had a typewriter, to type out the best ones. At school we had two English teachers and I guess I was lucky as they were both brilliant. ‘Old Nick’, as we used to call him, looked stern and quite frightening with a shock of black hair, was a strict disciplinarian – woe betide anyone who answered him back – and taught us about classic and traditional poetry. We studied Shakespeare, Chaucer, Byron… he taught with a passion and made poetry exciting and understandable. ‘Flossie’ was more laid back. He was fun and interested in contemporary literature. It was in his lessons that I first met e. e .cummings, whom I still love. Later, the poems of Roger McGough, Brian Patten and Adrian Henri, published in The Mersey Sound in 1967, had a great influence on me. In a way they were Britain’s answer to America’s beat poets. They showed me that poems could be about anything – girlfriends, a visit to the chip shop, anything at all. Roger McGough is still one of my favourite poets. The other big influence in my teens was Bob Dylan. I was in a band (a beat group we called it back then) and he showed me that song lyrics could be so much more than rhymes about the moon and June. I always thought his lyrics were poetry, something recognised recently of course, by the Nobel Prize people.

1.1. Why do you still love e.e.cummings?

That’s a good question. I think I probably liked him as a teenager because I don’t think I’d ever read anything quite like him. I think it was his sheer audacity – writing WITHOUT USING CAPITAL LETTERS? Wow! Flossie also introduced the class to the novel Tristram Shandy by Laurence Stearn. Written in the mid 1700s – it was a novel way ahead of its time. As a teenager “experimental” writing, as I saw it then, was very appealing. After school I went to art college and became fascinated with all things avant garde. John Cage… the Fluxus school… and that was all reflected in my writing and poems at the time. None of which would be good enough to find a publisher now. And now, when I read ee cummings – it’s not just the cleverness of the style, the content means more too. Which, I guess, speaks to me as a grown-up.

1.2. What other poets do you like to read?

I write mainly for children, and so I read a lot of poetry written for children. My favourite is probably Roger McGough. He writes for children, of course, but also for adults. He writes poems that are accessible, that anyone can read. But that have so much more to them. He can do that thing where you read a poem and he tells you something that’s true – but that you’ve never thought of before. And you think – Ah yes! Of course. I love Billy Collins as well, for similar reasons. It’s a phrase you often see on the backs of poetry books – deceptively simple. But sums them both up. I like Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy… and for children’s writing Michael Rosen. I’m currently reading Stephen Dobyns, a poet that I’ve only just discovered. And enjoying his writing very much.

2. What is your daily writing routine?

I don’t really have a daily routine. I keep a notebook with me at all times and write in that most days, whenever I think of something worth noting or see something that could inspire a poem. I have been known to wake up in the middle of the night to write in my notebook, too!  Now and again I’ll look back at my notes, dig out any ideas that still seem sensible and work at turning them into a poem or a piece of prose.

But usually writing comes in clusters, when I need to spend concentrated bouts on a particular project, for example if a publisher has commissioned a book from me. When I have a deadline ahead, I will set aside a few hours each day, usually in the mornings, to work exclusively on that book. My time won’t be spent only on writing, because projects often involve research. When Brian Moses and I wrote What Are We Fighting For? for Macmillan, it involved a lot of reading about the two world wars and researching the roles played by people and animals at home and abroad. For that book I spent several weeks working all day creating the 60 or so poems that were my contribution.

I am currently working on a ‘best of’ my poetry collection, but the poems for that are already written and so at the moment I spend an afternoon or two every week trying to choose the best hundred from the thousand or so poems that I’ve had published over the years.

I have two writing projects planned for next year. One is an autobiography which will document what life was like for me and my family in the 1950s onwards. I hope my grandchildren, grand nephews and nieces and those who come after them will find this interesting. I will probably self-publish this. I am also going to write an adult crime thriller, which I hope will interest a mainstream publisher. That definitely will involve a daily routine and I will probably sit down to write immediately after breakfast, take a short break for lunch and continue until mid afternoon. The joy of writing for a living is that you can create a routine that suits you – and you’re not tied to being in one place. I can write wherever I am and, in fact, when I’m working on a big project I find I like to be at our house in France, where distractions are fewer than in England, or even away from it all in our camper van, at home or abroad.

3. What was the motivation behind What Are We Fighting For?

Well, firstly I should explain that I have to write, or make music, or create art. I don’t why this is, but I do! So the main motivation for all my work comes from within. I have written novels and poetry since my teens and have always written songs and played in bands.

But in the late 1980s I had an idea for a children’s book, which proved commercially successful. It was published in 1993 by Penguin. That was The Howen. Another novel followed, Creeper, and writing for children seemed it could be a viable career. I was teaching at a primary school at the time.

It was not until poet Brian Moses visited my school that I thought about writing poems for children. His spirited performance and the workshop that he ran made me realise this was something I wanted to do. So I wrote some children’s poems, sent them to Brian and my first poem was published in an anthology, My First Has Gone Bonkers, in 1993. That was a good year for me. From then on I had lots of poems published in anthologies, I started visiting schools to perform and run workshops for children and teachers and in 2002 my first solo collection, I Did Not Eat the Goldfish, was published by Macmillan.

By then Brian and I had become good friends. We collaborated on a book which was published to coincide with the 2012 Olympic Games and then looked for another project we could share. The reason our Olympic Games book was so successful was because the Games were held in London and the whole sport thing was really topical. Publishers like to know there will be a market for a book.

We thought there would be a lot of publicity around the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War which we could utilise and our publisher thought so too. Thus, What Are We Fighting For? was born. But it would be wrong to say our motivation was just to cash in on an event. That might have been where the idea for the book came from, but the motivation behind the poems was to convey the evils of this war while acknowledging the bravery of those who were forced to fight in it. Brian and I both had grandparents and parents who’d fought in the two world wars. As children we were keenly aware of the fallout from these conflicts.

There are, of course, some brilliant poets who served in and wrote of both these wars, but their poems are not always easily accessible for children. So we were also motivated by the desire to show the futility of war in a way that children could understand. We wanted to write poems about sadness but with humour and which gave hope for the future. I think we managed it. This was a difficult book to write – to get the tone right – and I also needed to do a lot of research, much more than for most books of poems. It’s a book I’m very proud of.

4. What do you think is the difference between writing for adults and writing for children?

They are the same in so many ways because one writes for the same reasons, no matter what the audience – to communicate ideas. There are some obvious differences, of course: When writing for children I don’t use swear words, sexual or overly violent imagery. The main differences, however, are content and place. I remember being a child quite clearly. This helps, but I was young some while ago! A children’s writer needs to enter the world of children in order to know what matters to them, what will grab them, what will mean something to them. Visiting schools, having children and grandchildren, talking to children helps me keep up to date with the zeitgeist. I also place my writing in a world that is familiar to children. Of course, a poem can be set in a forest and that context can be understood by both adults and children. But a poem about an office, for example, would not work in the same way.  Poems can be set in places that are unfamiliar to children, but the situation has to be manipulated to be meaningful to a young audience. It’s common sense really. What a children’s writer does not have to do, despite a common misconception, is to over simplify the vocabulary used. Children are generally good with words and actually enjoy learning new words. Sometimes you need to keep the syntax straightforward but, in general, when writing for both children and adults the most important thing is that what you’ve written will resonate with those you’ve written it for!

5. Have you any tips or advice for anyone wanting to write children’s poetry?

When writing, remember what I’ve said about relating to children and their world. And always try out your work on a child who will give you honest criticism. If it’s poems you’re writing and you’d like to have them published, probably the best way to start is to submit them for inclusion in anthologies.  But do your research first and find out what the editors are looking for. This year, I compiled Moonstruck for Otter-Barry Books, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first moon-landing. I was sent a lot of poems, as you can imagine.  I am constantly amazed at how many poems seem to have no relation whatsoever to the brief. I had to discard quite a few that were nothing to do with the moon! I always strive for variety. So submit long poems, short poems; haiku, ballads, rhyming poems; silly poems, sad poems, serious poems. Lastly, as an anthologist I search for originality. I was sent lots of poems about the moon being made of cheese and quite a few about the moon being like a balloon – they didn’t make it into the book. I would also suggest that would-be children’s poets read some modern children’s poetry, to get a feel for what children read nowadays, and what publishers publish.

6. Do you write for adults then?

Yes I do. I’ve one adult poetry collection published as a book and two others are available as e-books. I also have a novel e-book and I’m working on a new book at the moment, which I hope will be published in 2020. Next year I’m planning to write a crime novel for adults. I am a musician and singer/songwriter as well as a writer and have three albums on Irregular Records and this year (2019) made a jazz album. I perform in acoustic venues and folk clubs.

7. Have you any more books for children planned?

Yes! Over the years, I have had three novels and 35 of my own poetry books published, some solo collections, some collaborations and some anthologies, and my poems have appeared in about 400 books. I sometimes think about slowing down, had seven books published in the last two years – The Waggiest Tails (Otter-Barry ) with Brian Moses, The Same Inside (Macmillan) with Liz Brownlee and Matt Goodfellow, the award-winning Apes to Zebras (Bloomsbury), a book of shape poems, with Liz Brownlee and Sue Hardy-Dawson and The Poetry Zone – A Celebration of 20 years of Children’s Poetry (Troika) in 2018 and I Am a Jigsaw (Bloomsbury), Moonstruck (Otter-Barry) and Be the Change, Poems to Help You Save the World (Macmillan) with Liz Brownlee and Matt Goodfellow in 2019. So slowing down seems to be just an idea at the moment! I have only two books for children scheduled for next year – my ‘best-of’ collection, which hasn’t yet found a title, and a book of poems about robots. And I will continue to run The Poetry Zone (www.poetryzone.co.uk) where children can publish their own poetry. The thing about being a poet is that it’s sometimes challenging and can take up all your time, but it’s also incredibly rewarding and fun. So I find it difficult to call it work. And I don’t really want to stop – ever!

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