An Interview with Roger McGough
Roger McGough is an English poet, broadcaster, children’s author and playwright. One of the leading members of the Liverpool poets and influenced by the beat poetry 60s movement, now McGough is reissuing his treasured young adult book of poetry together with Michael Rosen, ‘You Tell Me’.
Some of your poems have caused controversy. Do you have personal favourites?
No, I don’t really think of them as my favourites. Something like The Lesson, I wrote for myself, about my own teaching experience. That’s why I think it’s important – and kids do like that sort of thing. It has to be read in context, like anything used in the proper context. It was just a case of coming from my background of teaching in Liverpool, you have to write and present the poems that appeal to people. They can understand that. I like writing something edgy, but not always – I can be as soppy as the next man, too.
Are you writing at the moment, and if so, what are you drawing on for subject matter?
Yes, I’ve got two projects on the go at the moment; I’m doing a poem about global warming, for Oxfam, which may or may not come out, you know. These commissions sometimes happen like that. There are so many meetings… I’ve also got a book coming out with Puffin in the autumn, called Poetry Pie, which will be totally new poems. So I’m illustrating that and finishing it off – I’m enjoying that.
“Great performance poets”
Any hints as to what ground you’ll be treading with these poems?
Like many of my other books, it will be a bit of a mish-mash, lots of different themes; it is just like a poetry pie, the ingredients are humour, surrealism, things like that.
Which young poets do you admire?
People often ask me what sort of state poetry is in at the moment, and I would say that actually, it is pretty buoyant! There is a lot going on, I see young poets performing at festivals – I was at Latitude last summer and there were some great performance poets there, all reading from their iPad or iPhone or just by wrote, all very energetic. I did admire them!
Why did you decide to reissue You Tell Me?
Well, it was a really nice offer from a lady called Janetta Otter Barry; she works for Francis Lincoln publishers and she is a great advocate of children’s poetry. Last year I was the judge of a poetry book competition, for the CLP (Children’s Literacy in Primary Education) and there are very few publishers who are going in for poetry now, but she is one who believes in what I do, and what Michael does.
She said ‘Look, the book has gone out of print, we should refresh it, get a new illustrator’ and that was about it really; the energy came from her. Refreshed is just the word to describe this reissue, because some of the poems are the same, and some are new. I think what happens is that for some publishers, books like this are on their list for so long that they just get forgotten about, but then a new publisher comes along, gives it a new coat of paint, and there we go!
What is it that you enjoy about writing with Michael Rosen?
We’ve been old pals for a long, long time, and great admirers of each other’s work. We are very different sorts of poets, really, and that was apparent when the original You Tell Me first came out – it demonstrated just how different we really are. Michael is more of a narrative story teller, whereas I focus on more quirky stuff, but between us we aren’t afraid of the more serious stuff, snipers and so on.
We are not afraid of talking about more serious stuff, and that’s why we like each other. And of course, we’d meet on occasion with Janetta, at editorial meetings, to decide what went in and what didn’t. There was one poem called The Lesson, which was very popular with children and with teachers. Less popular with people who write in and say that it’s too violent. I suppose, there have been awful things happen in classrooms over recent years. So you have to decide whether to put it in or not. But we did. Michael was very positive about it. He said ‘you mustn’t give in to one or two people who think poetry should only be about certain things.’
The updated version of ‘You Tell Me’ by Roger McGough and Michael Rosen is out now Frances Lincoln Children’s Books