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Ian McMillan's Writing Lab interviews: Michael Rosen on... writing poetry

Updated Friday, 26th January 2007
Michael Rosen explains how every poem he's read, and everything he sees, can feed into new work in this exclusive extended interview from Ian McMillan's Writing Lab.

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I think I’ve got hundreds of poems in my head. Now it’s probably not whole poems but chunks of poems, and this stretches back to when I was a child and we did Walter de la Mare at school, and Robert Louis Stevenson, through my secondary school into my university life and since then. So there are all these poems that I’ve read, and they’re jangling around, and sometimes it might just be a word or a phrase or a rhythm that’s in my head. So if you like that’s one route, and it’s all there, you can’t escape from that. That’s what the literary theorist Roland Barthes called the already. It’s all there in my head, so I found myself the other day using the word "nevermore".

Now I can think of two poems that have got "nevermore" in it. One is Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, nevermore, and another one is a surrealist poem by the French poet Benjamin Peret translated Nevermore, and I think it’s quite a joke, it’s something about "nevermore shall the sardines cry on the wall", or something like that. Now when I hit that word "nevermore", if you like what I was doing was rebounding off those two poems. I was, if you like, in jazz terms I was borrowing a very nice little chord, or a sequence or something like that, and using it in my next little solo.

So that’s one way it works, but the other way is when I read a poem, brand new poem, haven’t read it before, and I’m excited by it and I think, well something along the lines, "I could write something like that", or "hey, that reminds me of...". Now ideally I won’t plagiarise, what it will do is spark off something as if maybe I’ve seen a signpost, and I’ve gone off down another road, and that’s my road that I’ve chosen, but the signpost is written by someone else. So I might have read a poem by, say, Sharon Olds or Paul Durkin, or even Ian McMillan, and thought "hey wow, yes I could do that". But I’m not really doing that, I’m using it as a springboard, as a platform.

You can’t escape from rhythm. You can’t escape from it in speech, in life, in writing. There will always be a rhythm to the sequence, and the only way in which you can find that out immediately is if you just repeat what you've just said, if you repeat what you’ve just said, if you repeat what you’ve just said, and there’s the rhythm. So it’s there. And sometimes when I’m writing it might just simply be a repetition that gets me going.

The other day I read something about the fact that they’ve invented balloons, helium balloons, that don’t fall to the floor. Some people will know that Sylvia Plath wrote a lovely poem about the balloons that children have, and they kind of nose around the room in a rather threatening sort of a way. And I thought "they’ve invented balloons that stay on the ceiling. They’ve invented balloons that stay on a ceiling." Suddenly I’ve got a rhythm, and then I felt that this poem was going to be quite funny and odd, and so it probably needed to rhyme but not in a regular sort of a way.

So that sometimes it will be maybe the regular bit, maybe the four-beat line repeated, but then it will also be a two-beat line repeated - "never budging, always nudging" - but other times it might be a little bit more in the way that Ogden Nash writes, which is a completely irregular line length; it’s a regular rhythm, but it rhymes at the end. So I had something in it along the lines of "I think I’ll keep my appointment with disappointment". So clearly - in a way - not much of a regular rhythm there, if you repeated it, it would be, but there is, so it’s got an expectation and then you hit the rhyme in order to make it work.

So yeah, rhythms they’re criss-crossing through everything that we write, and sometimes, so for example, sometimes I might want to be very regular, and that’s usually if you’re being humorous in my case. "Down behind the dust bin, I met a dog called Jim. He didn’t know me, and I didn’t know him." I mean that’s equivalent musically to the dominant scale, isn’t it, where you come back to the doe note. It’s there, it’s got to rhyme with him, what is it that’s going to rhyme with Jim? What is it? And so on.

But on another occasion I might want to replicate jazz. I wrote a thing about typewriters, the old jazz of typewriters, "the bump and slide, go carriage go, the bebop of qwerty-op, dumb with the thumb on the spacebar". So you can see I’m consciously trying to imitate a sax solo if you like. And later it goes "back never wiped, never lost the lot, never turned word into void, never vanished text into the next". So I’m speeding up, I’m mucking around in a jazz way because I want it to say the typewriters, the old typewriters were a form of jazz.

In the past I’ve been quite purist about being content led. I’ve wanted to say, as ideas emerge, get going, start writing, and a form will start becoming apparent to you. I think that only holds water if you’ve read loads and loads and loads of poetry and you allow yourself to be very open to all the different forms that are available to you. There is nothing wrong in starting from form, but you do have to face up to the fact that you may write something that doesn’t actually matter very much to you or mean very much. The question is whether that in itself matters, whether you've just played a little game. Anyone with a reasonable amount of competence can sit down and write a sonnet. The question is whether it’s going to matter to anybody.

So if you want to write something good that you really care about, I say the starting point is read loads and loads of poetry because it informs you of the rhetoric of poetry, it informs you of everything that is available to you, and you will start finding some kind of event in your head, I’ll call it chiming, which is there will be poems that chime because of what they say and poems that chime because of how they say it, and some way or another this chiming is because it’s marrying up with your personality, your social life, your social outlook, your way of thinking about yourself.

So I’m reluctant to be as precise as some people are about this is the way to do it because I think poetry should be kind of touchy feely, fuzzy way to getting to what it is you want. If you go back several hundred years you can see that the subject matter of poetry is confined, that there are appropriate things to be writing about. Writing now in the 21st Century we don’t have to be hidebound by anything at all. We can write about seemingly the most trivial. We can be disgusting. We can be delightful. We can be fantastical. We can try to bite off the whole universe and write about that. So really we’re not limited.

Now of course that’s a little bit frightening because as we sit down with a blank page, it does really look like the blank page. Where are we going to go? What can we write about?

Well, this means that we have to do something else. Instead of thinking about the subject, perhaps what we have to do is put ourselves in a frame of mind in which subjects will start appearing in our minds. So sometimes it’s quite a good idea to just sit very still, perhaps to shut your eyes, or perhaps to just look out of the window, and just see what starts coming into your head. And it may be phrases or it may be images or it may be memories, it may be things that people have said to you, and a little phrase will start appearing, and it’s a good idea just to sit there jotting these down. Just see what happens.

So it might be... I’m going to do it now myself: What’s come up? My dad telling me a story. Now my dad reading me Great Expectations. What’s come up now? I know, the fact that because I’m in a sound studio, somebody once told me that the doors of the sound studio are filled with sand, and I’m thinking just right now I like that, the idea, the unexpected because quite often poetry is good when it’s unexpected, the idea that a door could be filled with sand. Suddenly the Ozymandias is coming to me by Shelley and the idea of "look on my work, ye mighty and despair". Maybe the idea there of a door filled with sand and it makes you despair.

All right? So look there, that’s me just doing it. It’s associative. So it’s not that logical thinking that you're doing when you’re sending off the insurance that I had to do this morning. It’s trying to be associative. Let things crop up and remind you of things so you get a chain of thinking going, and when you get in that frame of mind, that helps you right. I just excluded for a moment there sending off of the insurance, but what a great subject for writing poems are the things that you hate doing. Philip Larkin wrote about the toad work. I think that’s what he called it.

There is nothing wrong with writing about the things that really make you very bored and fed up. So they don’t have to be airy fairy things, they don’t have to be exciting things, they don’t have to be lovey dovey things, you know, they can be the dullest, worst things. The key thing is whether you're going to make it read in some way or another that is going to surprise and delight you, as the first reader, and other readers, the famous phrase to make the familiar unfamiliar.

I think it’s really important to keep some form of notebook because in your notebook what you can put is anything that you've heard or seen or read or thought about that has grabbed your attention. And you’ll start filling up the pages with oddities and quirks and interesting things. This is your little museum, your archaeology fest all for yourself.

Now this is then going to be a resource for you because it actually gives you - here’s another metaphor – playground, so that if you've written down, like I’ve written down in my notebook "Pinner zombies"; this gives you something to play with. It gives you the sound of it, Pinner, things that might rhyme with it or alliterate with it. Zombies, what are zombies, what can you think about zombies, what about those bad fifties movies that I used to see about zombies? You can suddenly treat a little phrase as the centre of a spider’s web. Now that seems to me, we can call it an exercise, call it an adventure, because you're trying to associate things in order to make the language and the ideas that you've got richer and odder and less familiar to people reading it.

So starting out from some little phrase, and I can’t predict what it might be for somebody else, but the other day I wrote about the fact that as I was going along on the train: I saw this thing that you get in winter that all the polythene bags that have kind of gone up into the trees in the summer are now in the trees, and it looks as if, in fact, there is a kind of tree that would be the plastic bag tree. So I started to think about that. So all I had down on the paper was "plastic bags tree, tree, plastic bags, winter", and I started playing with that idea.So drawing lines out from plastic bag and tree, I then had the idea of maybe could you have an organic plastic bag tree, "an organic, don’t panic", oh there’s some sort of silly comic thing coming along here, and maybe they’ve got to get them off to the shops. Maybe there’s somebody, ah no, there is a harvest.

So you can see, I’m associating. Now that seems to me to be one of the most important exercises you can do. Let your mind run from the first idea and try to harvest the thoughts that you have as you draw your lines out from that starting point.A lot of the way I have written is I’ve done what I tell children is "talking with my pen". So I get myself into the mode of "I’m going to tell you about the time that I broke my front tooth because I fell off my go-cart". So I get into that mode of talking in my head. And then I try to talk it onto the page, but I cheat as well. It’s not totally honest if that’s all I was doing because I want to accentuate certain things, and I want to create patterns that you’re only half aware are patterns. So to accentuate I might repeat things, I might break things up, I might deliberately go much less syntactic at some points and then go back to something a bit more syntactic.

So in other words I might be quite narrate-y and sentence-y and then go into a heightened piece where it’s really like a rhythmic repetition going on, and then also I would quite often like to create patterns of ideas. I like to think that in poetry there are secret strings. The obvious strings that we know that hold poems together are rhythm and rhyme, but the more secret strings are the ones where you get patterns of repetition of image or of sound that you're not quite so aware of, and sometimes rhythm even, where, let’s say, a poem might begin with two lines that have got the same number of beats and then wander off and then return to two lines of the same number of beats, so you appear to settle back at the point at which you started. So I might talk it onto the page, it might seem anecdotal, the narrative has pushed it along, but then I’ve cheated with it afterwards.

I’m looking at a poem that I wrote about plastic bags floating in trees, and I wrote it for children because I was going to see some children at a school just near Gatwick Airport, and it begins "the bags are ripe on the plastic bag tree, bags as far as the eye can see". How did I know I’d reach the end, and I was content with the format, and content with the poem? It’s very hard to describe the way in which you know that you’ve finished or it will get as good as it will get. I mean some of it is about being technically right, having decided that I would write in these little quatrains, these little four-line verses.

"Shake the branches, gather the crop, it’s time to take them off to the shop." You can see I’m being influenced by the rhythm of the train that I was looking out of.

"Fresh plastic bags on sale today, there’s a choice of colour, black or grey." I suppose, you know when you tell a joke, and the first couple of times you tell it you notice that some people have got it, but then the other people aren’t really laughing, and then the next time, the third time you tell it, you've got it right, you've hit it right. And it might have been the rhythm, and it might have been because you put in something just before the end so that the end worked better, but you have a sense of it working better. And I had that at the very end of this poem because I wanted it to kind of fade away in a sort of repetition. "The bags are ripe on the plastic bag tree, bags as far as the eye can see, bags as far as the eye can see, bags of bags I can see."

So I wanted to finish it with a little gag, something to just sort of close it. So I’ve got a pun on I going there, but the first time I wrote it all I could think of was bags as far as the eye can see, bags as far as the eye can see, bags as far. That was the only gag I had at the end, just the idea that you would just go on repeating it in order to show that the bags did go as far as the eye can see, but then I found that way of closing it, and I thought yes that’s better.


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