Michael Rosen on Poetry and Quentin Blake

The award-winning poet and new BookTrust writer-in-residence tells us about collaborating with the celebrated illustrator.

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  • Michael Rosen
  • Exhibitions

Quentin Blake's illustrations for Michael Rosen's poems are featured in our touring exhibition, Quentin Blake: Illustrating Verse. Rosen tells us what it's been like working with Quentin for half a century.

Since the 1970s, I've been very lucky to have done a whole string of books with Quentin Blake. I lose count a bit, but it's more than 10 and it's been amazing. It is an artistic relationship that is now nearly 50 years old.

It began when I wrote some poems, gathered them together, and they landed on the desk of somebody called Pam Royds at Andre Deutsch publishers, and she liked them. She suggested that Quentin’s drawings would go very well with them. She asked me and Quentin to come in to the office at Andre Deutsch; I must have been in my early 20s, and it felt very grand and exciting.

And what I had to do was quite funny, really. I had to sort of act out the poems. The poems were about my childhood, about my brother and I sharing a bedroom and being ticked off by my dad and that sort of thing.

Quentin had a great big sheet of paper and a tiny little pen, and he was doing little drawings. I think some of them were of me and some of them were just what came to mind. And bit by bit, as I acted out these things – whacking my brother over the head with a pillow and throwing clothes about – the paper became covered in Quentin’s beautiful little drawings.

Then we finished and I took the attitude that I've taken it ever since, which is, well, I've done my work. I've done this writing. I'm not going to interfere with what you do. It feels like an act of surrender. In between some of the poems and the pictures, Quentin also drew some scenes that there were no poems for. I was stunned by his inventiveness.

The poetry that I was writing was about enjoying naughtiness, and Quentin picked up on that. He picked up on this sort of sheer delight. His style is informal and inspired by the great French caricaturists like Daumier, so he is able to caricature but stay intimate. That intimacy and liveliness and quality of caricature means it's similar to comics, but at the same time very thought out and careful and full of feeling and character.

For Quentin, as I see it, most of the time, the line is predominant. The line is what gives the expression, the form and the composition. The line tells the story. The key thing with a lot of Quentin’s pictures is the way in which he's able to show you horror or delight or sadness or panic. All these things with the line. That's an incredible skill.

My most recent book with Quentin is called On the Move and it's about poems of migration, but also poems of what happened to my relatives during the Second World War. They were deported from France to Auschwitz. The book relates some of the most traumatic things that have happened in human history, such as deportation to concentration camps where people were killed, as well as isolation and loneliness, and the situation refugees face today. When I heard from the publishers that Quentin was happy and willing to do pictures I was delighted, because I know from various books that I've done with Quentin that he can use illustration to express the deepest feelings.

Quentin has done a wonderful job in in conveying the mood of the poems without expressing the reality of them. People sometimes don't realise the breadth and range of what Quentin can do. Even though he's dealing with dark things that can happen to human life in those images of migrants and war, he's capable of finding some tenderness. People find some companionship on the road or on the move, and Quentin has captured that beautifully. He’s drawn hunched, shadowy figures, but they aren’t menacing – there's a sense that there's a purpose and hope.

See Quentin Blake: Illustrating Verse at Kirkby Gallery and other touring venues.