Roger Stevens

Dom Conlon: Hello, Roger. You’ve done a great many things to help promote the reading of poetry and support the poets who write it. The interviews on The Poetry Zone give us a space to talk about the things we love. You put others first and we all appreciate it. That’s why we thought it would be nice to ask you some questions for a change.

Roger: Why, thank you Dom. I am honoured. I’ll do my best to answer them

James Carter: Roger. Which one of your books – for adults or children – and either a novel or poetry collection – which you most like to be remembered for? 

Probably The Journal of Danny Chaucer (Poet), which I wrote in 2000. I was aware of verse novels, and greatly admired those of Stephen Herrick, in Australia. But there were no verse novels for children in the UK. And so I wrote the book. Danny is starting secondary school and the two things he wants most in life are to be in a rock band and to have a girlfriend. (Yes, based on my own teenage years.) He is a poet and so he keeps a journal. It had brilliant reviews but unfortunately bookshops didn’t quite know what to do with it, so we would find it in the section for younger children’s poetry. It is a story and should have been with teenage fiction. I wrote Part Two, and then my editor left, as so it all fizzled out. I did dramatise it, and perform it as the Radio 4 afternoon play. I am also very proud of Apes to Zebras: an A-Z of Shape Poems, written with Liz and Sue.

Coral Rumble: You’ve written poems about many subjects, but which subjects do you enjoy writing about the most, and why?

When you write for children, they have to be able to relate to what you are writing about. And an endless source of material for me is school. Either from my own school days or as a teacher. I did have a pupil who had a pet snake that went missing in December, and turned up in March, having spent the winter in the boy’s mattress. The fun of parents’ evening. All those trifles, cream cakes and ice-cream that teachers scoff at break time. The day a whole coachload of children went missing on a school trip.

Clare Bevan: Do you prefer writing funny poems, or serious ones? Or spooky ones? And do you scribble notes in a little book, or write directly to a laptop?

I don’t really have a preference. But I love performing funny poems. And writing a poem you think will be funny and performing it and discovering that it IS funny, is the best feeling. I take a note book everywhere. I got into the habit about twenty years ago and so, as you can imagine, I have a massive notebook archive. All full of doodles, half ideas and plans to rule the world.

Andy Seed: What’s the funniest question you’ve been asked during a visit to a school?

Children do ask funny questions don’t they. Do I have two brains? (Yes, doesn’t everyone keep a spare?) Do I live in a mansion? (Yes, but we only really use the West Wing.)

Michaela Morgan: You play a lot of musical instruments and you make up songs – what effect does this have on your poetry?

Yes, I do write and play a lot of music, and so I think I’m always very aware of the rhythm and flow of verse and poetry. A top tip for young poets would be to always read your poems out loud, so that you hear just how well they flow. For me the lyrics of a song are very important. Writing poems does teach you to be precise, and to use the best, and often fewest, words to describe something, or to get an idea across. And that is useful when writing song lyrics. Song lyrics need to be simply understood, too. When you hear a new song you usually pick up the music first. It often takes a few listens to pick up the words.

Eric Ode: Are there differences in the way you approach writing lyrics as compared to writing poems?

Usually I sit down to write one or the other, a song or a poem. Both begin with an initial idea. The song is written with my guitar in hand, or at my piano, and so the words usually start to form with the music. Although sometimes I write the words first. The words for a song are usually written in a simple verse format, with rhymes. With a poem, its form is often dictated by the subject of the poem.

Matt Goodfellow: Would you prefer to have written the greatest song in the world, ever, or the greatest poem in the world, ever?

No contest. The greatest song. My favourite song of all time is Strawberry Fields by The Beatles. If that was the only song I’d ever written I’d be happy. (And they wrote at least twenty other songs just as amazingly brilliant.)

Shauna Darling Robertson: Being a musician and a songwriter as well as a poet, if you could put any existing poem by anyone else (for adults or children) to music, which one would you choose?

That’s an interesting questions. I suppose when I’ve finished this interview I could actually go away and compose it. But what would it be? I think it would have to be something quite long. That would be fun. Setting a long poem to music as a performance piece perhaps. How about The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll? I think I’ll research some longer poems and see if there’s one I fancy, and do just that.

Colin West: Do you consider song lyrics can be poetry? If so, who are your favourite poetic lyricists?

I think lyrics can be poetry. The difficulty is that lyrics look like poems. But lyrics are designed to be one half of a song, and so the question is – without the music does the lyric work on its own? And of course, some work better than others. Bob Dylan has written many lyrics that I would say were poems. As has Leonard Cohen, who was probably a poet first and a musician second.

Chrissie Gittins: Which animals have you found most inspirational for writing poems and why?

Without a doubt the best animal to write about is the Dog. Dogs are endlesslessly fascinating. They have evolved to share the planet with humans. We feed them, give them a place to live, exercise them and pay their vets’ fees. And in return they wag their tails. How clever is that? And there are working dogs too… so much material for a writer. One of the books I’ve had the most fun writing was The Waggiest Tails with Brian Moses.

Zaro Weil: How does poetry (all, but particularly kids) bridge the literary divide between that which is fresh and waiting to be discovered and that which is known and experienced. Because I think that is what you capture (aside from the wit of it all).

That’s a tricky question, Zaro. (And thank you.) When you see or hear something, or an idea pops up, then that comes naturally I think. It’s something new. You write the poem, using your experience, and hopefully (not always) are successful. It’s harder when writing to a theme. Writing the poems for What Are We Fighting For? with Brian Moses was difficult. It’s easy enough to write a list of facts and turn them into verse. But trying to find something new or fresh to say, and somehow turn those facts into poetry, that’s can be very hard.

Sue Hardy-Dawson: Roger, it is well known you are a lovely kind poet who has inspired and encouraged many poets both young and old. When you were a younger poet who were the poets who inspired you the most?

Rachel Rooney: What’s the first poem you ever remember reading & enjoying?

I’ll answer these together, Sue and Rachel. The actual first poem? That’s so lost in the mists of time. My parents had a large, gold-embossed edition of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.  I loved the weirdness of it, and its language. And it is full of poems, of course. The Walrus and the Carpenter stands out in my memory. And Jabberwocky. I also had a book called Verse and Worse which was full of parodies. So clever, and often hilarious. In fact, there are lots of classical poems that I know, by poets like Wordsworth for example, that I knew the spoof version first. It’s where I first came across alternate nursery rhymes, something that has stood me in good stead over the years. Here’s an example. (by Anon.)

Doctor Bell fell down the well
And broke his collar bone.
Doctors should attend the sick
And leave the well alone.

Liz Brownlee: What makes your heart go KABOOM when you read a poem?

I’m trying to think if any poetry has actually made me THAT excited. It probably did when I was young, and poetry was still new. Discovering McGough and the Mersey Scene in my teens, and listening to Bob Dylan was pretty amazing. The key I think for me is this – how I respond emotionally or intellectually. If the poem actually makes me laugh out loud – then it works. If it really does make me shed a tear, it works. If it’s so clever that at the end I go – WOW! Then it works.

Philip Waddell: Where do you get your ideas and what were your ambitions when you were at school?

Ideas, of course, are all around. You just have to be able to spot them. And that comes with experience. But take a notebook and pen, sit in the park or a shopping centre, and really observe what going on around you. You’ll find plenty of ideas. The thing I was good at primary school was drawing and writing. I also loved music. At secondary school I joined a band, started writing poems and songs, and ended up going to Art college. I then became an Art teacher. And started writing books in my spare time. The message is, I think, when you’re at school, to concentrate on the things that you love. And with hard work, and a little luck along the way, you should be able to achieve your ambitions.

Celia Warren: Which of your poems elicited the most moving, exciting or memorable response from any individual or group?

I’m very pleased to say that there are a few of my poems that teachers enjoy using, and children remember. Such as Louder! About Andrew introducing the school concert. When I’m performing I have a ten-minute poem called Dan Daring, Space Commander, with lots of action and audience participation. That’s VERY exciting. In workshops I love using haiku and cinquains, especially with children who don’t think they are very good at writing but are very good at maths.

Trevor Millum: Do YOU laugh when you write a funny poem?

Yes I do. And when I write funny stories too. Is that a bad thing? There’s a lot of comedy in my last book, The Comic Café. I laughed a lot when I wrote that.

Brian Moses: How difficult did you find it working on books with Brian Moses? And more seriously, how do you see the role of poetry in a post Brexit society?

Working on books with Brian Moses is always great fun. We have written four together, and I’m pleased with them all. (It was Brian, you know, who first gave me the idea that i could be a children’s poet and performer when he visited my school.) I do love collaborating on writing projects. As well as with Brian I’ve written books with Celia Warren, Sue Hardy-Dawson, Liz Brownlee and Matt Goodfellow. Many of those who have asked me questions in this interview in fact. I’ve also put poems by Sue and by Shauna Darling Robertson to music. I think that’s one of the saddest things about leaving the European Community. That sense of belonging. I’ve found that it’s always better to work with people, and to share with people, both the good times and the bad times than to work all on your own.

Dom Conlon: What’s next for you?

I’ve a few more poetry books planned. One I’m working on with Liz and Matt, a follow up to Be the Change; a collaboration with Phil Waddell – a book of Robot Poems; and a best-of collection, coming out in August 2021. I’m working on a new album of songs, written on the piano. And I’m writing an autobiography for my family, so that my great children and great nephews and nieces will know what life was like for a children’s poet in the second half of the last century, and the beginning of this.

Roger Stevens

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