Hearing a Michael Rosen poem for the first time in primary school was one of my ‘switch-on moments’ where a lifelong passion is born. I’ve been excited about words, talking, reading and writing ever since. So who better to ask about how to enjoy a life full of wonderful words than Michael Rosen himself?
Having grown up immersed in a languages-rich environment, with bilingual parents who spoke English and Yiddish, as well as knowing German, French, and Latin, Michael made a fatal career mistake as a teenager and switched track to study medicine after his humanities A Levels, eventually zigzagging his way into writing for a living.
He calls poems ‘great places to go’ and we talk about how DH Lawrence’s poetry influenced him, and what prompted him to start writing his own poems and stories as a teenager.
What advice does Michael Rosen give to budding writers?
If writing is a bit like composing a piece of music, with riffs, cadences, snippets of a tune that you can repeat and build up into a piece, then the more you read, the more you get a sense of the ‘whole piece’. Michael recommends ‘reading and reading and reading and reading’ to budding young writers, which might sound obvious but he explains how reading gives us a ‘set of tools in our head’ to help us compose with words, either through oral poetry or writing it down.
The creative process begins with playing with language
As David Crystal described in Episode 8, babies are rap poets from birth! Young children are naturally experimental and love the sound and feel of words. It’s a physical process, attached to our body, as Michael explains. And then writing creeps in and is a once-removed, out-of-body process that can feel alien to children who are not used to the ‘clumsy, turgid, slow thing called writing.’ In fact, many adults do not find much satisfaction in writing either. Michael explores how to continue playing with words on the page, and says that we don’t need to ‘be given permission to play’ and that we don’t have to ‘obey any rules.’
This deadly serious thing called writing
Often silly in his own writing, I ask if poetry needs to be serious or can we allow some silliness into writing too? In fact, as Michael explains, you can explore deadly serious things in a very silly way, and it can be a good method for exploring these serious issues. Playing with words and ‘making up new words out of old words’ goes right back to the origins of language, and brings us to the final section of the podcast where we really start talking about talking.
Oracy or ‘dialogic learning’
Michael’s father was a founding figure in the oracy movement, and you might say that Michael is carrying on that family tradition. (Find more on oracy in Episode 6 with Ben Crystal.) Talking is hugely important and talking about stories, talking about our knowledge or lack of it, talking as a method of helping ourselves get to grips with a subject, it all helps us to ‘take possession’ of what we are doing. Talking can even prevent dangerously incorrect medical diagnoses!
What’s all this got to do with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, neon signs, and plastic noses? Listen to the podcast to find out!
If Shakespeare were alive today, would he be a public speaking coach helping business leaders and professionals ‘talk like TED’? Certainly the art of public speaking and speaking with confidence are subjects that he could advise on. It’s not uncommon to find entrepreneurs who experience fear of public speaking or anxiety about speaking in front of an audience. In the sixth episode of The Language Revolution Podcast, Cate talks to actor, author and producer Ben Crystal about oracy and the art of speaking in public, and whether the works of Shakespeare could be a route into helping us reconnect with the very human activity of storytelling and speaking to each other from the heart.
Where do we even begin to find the words to express our thoughts and opinions, let alone our feelings, about the subjects we care about? Should public speaking be taught in schools? With budget cuts and the arts in general being slowly squeezed out of the curriculum, there are fewer opportunities for children to stand up and speak from the heart, and this leads to adults who are subject experts feeling inhibited when we need to explain our findings, or declare our feelings, to an audience large or small.
Whether that is an entrepreneur explaining a change of direction to their team, or a scientist explaining vital research findings to an audience of non-scientists, we need to be able to find the words to bring people with us on the journey, to create empathy through storytelling so that not only can our audience hear our words, they can relate to the feelings behind them. The speaker is not hiding behind a lectern and notes, but taking the audience with them.
For many, this moment of speaking aloud in front of an audience can feel, as Ben explains, like we are standing on a cliff edge, getting ready to jump. We have a physiological reaction to speaking, testified by our sweaty palms, dry mouth, and sudden need to visit the nearest bathroom. It takes a lot of practice to feel comfortable standing up and speaking, and having the opportunity to practice in a safe environment when we are young might make for a much happier generation of adults. A lack of space for self expression leads to increased mental health problems as we ‘bottle up’ our feelings. Oracy is a skill for life, both professional and personal, but how can we encourage schools to prioritise it when there is so much competing demand for timetable space and budget constrictions?
Are we losing touch?
The world would be a different place if we started earlier with genuinely talking and listening to each other. We discuss what the effect of talking to each other online or through texting might be having on people – are we at risk of losing out on making true connections if we chat in a chat room, rather than a physical common room? Ben’s experience of working with younger actors suggests that our emotional repertoire is at risk of being limited by lack of experience in face-to-face communication and, coupled with the lack of oracy in education, young actors may lack the weaponry too. Has ‘emoji acting’ started to seep into our theatres?
Can Shakespeare help us?
Cate posits that Shakespeare might be a route into learning to speak to each other from the heart, and in the second half of this episode we explore how Ben got into acting and producing Shakespeare plays and why he has spent the last decade peeling back the layers of the theatrical onion to discover the original practices of Elizabethan theatre.
With his father, Professor David Crystal, Ben has worked on reconstructing the original pronunciation (OP) of Shakespeare’s London, and we discuss how performing and speaking Shakespeare’s lines in OP can really open up the plays in new ways, and to new audiences who might otherwise feel alienated from big words like ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘iambic pentameter’. Shakespeare has been claimed by ‘Literature with a capital L,’ leaving generations of children feeling uncomfortable in classrooms with Shakespeare, as if they do not have permission to speak his words. Is it time to reclaim Shakespeare from the few, and how do we do it?
‘Your voice is the right voice for Shakespeare’ – Ben Crystal
Ben is quite clear that, ‘Your voice is the right voice for Shakespeare’ and by tuning Shakespeare’s language back a few hundred years, removing the influence of Received Pronunciation productions and Literature, it’s as if you’re tuning in a radio correctly and getting rid of the ‘fuzziness’, hearing the plays as they are supposed to be heard.
What effect does original pronunciation have on the actors? Well, Ben explains how it changes how the actors move, how they use their voices, and even how they feel and access the emotions of the characters they are playing. OP has been known to change the overall performance time because it is faster, and perhaps more dynamic than declaiming the lines in RP.
Do we need a time machine?
Ben describes the fascinating journey that OP takes you on as an ensemble of actors, but does this mean that we should be focusing on performing plays or exploring the works of Shakespeare only in OP in our classrooms? Is original pronunciation and practice a time machine or bridge back to the past to help students cross over several centuries? Can OP make the plays ‘more accessible’? How does working with OP crack open the plays in new and interesting ways, in particular making sense of famously enigmatic speeches in Hamlet that have puzzled many an actor or director?
Ultimately, is Shakespeare the answer to our ever-increasing aversion to speaking in public, which is at odds with our human predisposition to feel empathy (as proven by the discovery of mirror neurons, of which more in the podcast) and to connect with each other through oral tradition?
Because talking and storytelling are, after all, just what humans do.
Why do humans have an emotional and social predisposition to learn to speak? Listen to Episode 5 of The Language Revolution Podcast with psychologist and language acquisition expert Dr Katerina Draper to explore the subject in more detail.
Listen to Episode 6 of The Language Revolution Podcast to hear Ben Crystal talking about talking: