We meet in Oxford’s new ‘Story Museum’, a dilapidated little farmyard renovation on Pembroke Street. The plan is “to open in 2015 as a magical new centre of children’s literature and storytelling”, right now, it’s a little too ‘atmospheric’ to act as residence of childlike wonder and imagination for five eight-hour days a week, so holds a reduced amount of exhibitions and events to make a name for itself. This is where Rosen comes in, and so, another door of opportunity opens for this wide and wild eyed man with a myriad of credits to his name. ‘Jack of all trades’ seems unsuitable for someone awarded the title of ‘Children’s Poet Laureate.’ He tells me that he is bemused by the term, ‘career’. Somewhat side-stepping my leading questions on his identity as ‘poet’, he gives himself the more modest and general term, “writer-broadcaster”. “In terms of the poetry, you can get a bit ansty-pantsy about it – ‘why can’t I be allowed into the pantheon?’ For someone like me, you can accept the major constituency of people who like my poems are children, but, of course, children don’t come unattached – they come in families. So I’ve become a sort of family poet, if you want to call it that.”
We talk a little about his influences, how he controls the suitability of his work and his upcoming book, Fantastic Mr. Dahl, which is “a kind of literary biography [of Roald Dahl] for children,” but the performance – rather than the production of poetry – seems to provoke a more noticeable level of enthusiasm. Rosen, who admits he has been waiting forty years for the phone to ring to offer him a hot new acting role (Oxford film and theatre producers, take note) explains that “if you’re in front of an audience and you see and feel change then that really is quite special and that is something that human beings have been doing for years… it just feels very exciting and immediate.”
The thrill of performance isn’t the only thing bringing Rosen back to Oxford, home to university of his old alma mater. His work with The Story Museum both in Oxford and London seems to be a suitable fusion of his two primary skills. “I have a foot in the story-world. I’m a passionate believer in narrative if you like, in the power of narrative to carry ideas and feelings. One of the ways in which we learn wisdom is through narrative.”
On working in Oxford again, he is “reminded that Oxford has always been a city and not just a university.” The community spirit found in projects such as The Story Museum can fall somewhat under our own college-centered radar. It’s nice to hear that the bubble is not a modern phenomenon. Speaking about his times at Oxford is cue for the poet to have a nostalgic reverie of school-day-socialism of “the big student revolt of ‘68/’69”, and the struggle for a student’s union that wasn’t ‘THE’ Union. “On the one hand, it was a place that did work out many of ideas about my politic. On the other hand, it had this strange Victorian, sometimes medieval aspect to it that I found very odd and strange.” Rosen makes no secret about his political allegiances; his Twitter feed is filled with left-wing commentary.
This aging student socialist seems to have not lost a grip on his struggle for the education system. His poetry is “for children” but he agrees that children are not blind to the changes that affect them and will sometimes address them. For the wider world, his coalition-critical columns in The Guardian aims to “analyze”, rather than “sound off about”, the “bizarre” case with education in which “you’ve got someone in a democratic society behaving in a dictatorial way [with] an immense disrespect… When we’re at school, we not only learn knowledge, we learn passivity. And that’s [sic] very sad that a lot of people learn that they’re not entitled or capable of taking action on their own behalf or taking it collectively. All I can say is that [the articles] are meant to be things that stir up ideas but I can’t say whether it will result in anything.”