Taking a break from his refugee week residency at HistoryWorks, Michael Rosen speaks to Miriam Balanescu
Image: © Helen Weinstein @historyworkstv
Michael Rosen is one of our most prominent poets and children’s authors – and a frequenter of Cambridgeshire’s schools. Returning yearly to HistoryWorks since 2014, Michael’s work spans poetry trails and odes to Stourbridge Fair travellers, aiming to increase accessibility to the arts.
This year, his residency focuses on refugee communities. Following on from 2019’s The Missing, in which he traced the histories of Jewish relatives during World War II, the bard has been building on his research to co-create resources and compose lyrics. A total of 3,000 students have been invited to respond with their own work, culminating in a Refugee Week event at the Corn Exchange on 26 June, which will fuse rhymes, dance and song.
For Hope and Nothing is Forever, to be performed by choirs at the event, Michael drew on deep-rooted memories. “I can remember being taken for a walk by the father of a friend, overlooking Alexandra Palace. He said, ‘You’ve got to have hope.’ It was a very abstract, odd thing to say to nine-year-olds. He was Armenian in origin – his mother had fled,” Michael explains. “In a sense, one of the things refugees are saying just by trying to get away from these disasters is, ‘We have hope.’”
Michael’s family history still resonates. “There was only one survivor out of all the rows and branches in France and Poland,” he says. “He was only 16 or 17 and survived being in a Russian labour camp, fleeing the same areas now oppressed by Russia.”
Writing through a ‘funnel’ of thoughts and experiences, Michael sees endless connections between past and present refugee experiences. While in France commemorating his ancestor Martin Rozen, who died at Auschwitz, many of those in attendance had voted for Marine Le Pen, an advocate of the Vichy regime.
“When you look across history, there is an extraordinary commonality: one country invading another,” he adds. “You don’t want to reduce it, I would almost say you elevate it to commonality. You say, ‘These are common brutalities in which we can find specificities and differences, but let’s not create a league table of oppression.’”
The aim of the project is to educate and offer students an outlet – something poetry is well-equipped for. “All you can ever hope for from this kind of work is empathy. If people experience that, then it may be – and it’s only a maybe – that those people are less likely to participate in brutality,” Michael says. “As a result of huge communal efforts by the media, most of Britain is incredibly sympathetic towards Ukrainians. At the same time, we’ve had newspaper headlines directed towards refugees from the Middle East or Africa as if they are a threat to us.
“To make drinks like whisky, you have to distil,” Michael continues. “Poetry and song create a form of language that gets rid of redundancies – you’re always aiming for an essence. Rhetoric is not in itself good. You have to decide what your social values are when using these things called poems.”
Michael’s collaboration with HistoryWorks is his longest-running, furthest-reaching – and perhaps most important – education project to date. “I come from a tradition in schools where poetry was mostly regarded as apolitical, even when it was World War I poets. It was the pursuit of beauty,” he points out. “Sometimes my work is seemingly trivial, about mild acts of subversion, being slightly transgressive and eating vast amounts of chocolate cake in the middle of the night. This is a treat, because it joins up the dots between poetry, politics, social concern and young people. I hope it gives them freedom to work things through themselves. It isn’t simply saying, ‘This is what you will believe.’”