John has years of experience in book and magazine design. In 2004, he released Technically, It's Not My Fault, a book of concrete poetry told from the point of view of young Robert, age 11. Robert is a clever kid. As I noted on Sunday, he's the kind of kid who double-checks Galileo's theory of gravity. He writes backhanded thank-you notes to aunts who give atrocious gifts, wonders why nobody makes scratch-and-sniff fart stickers, and more. John followed Robert's story with a poetry collection featuring Robert's older sister, Jessie. The resulting book, Blue Lipstick was one of my fave poetry books in 2007.
For those of you who are uncertain what a concrete poem is, exactly, I will add that it is sometimes called a pattern poem, shaped poem or visual poem. In a concrete poem, the text is organized in such a way as to form or suggest a visual image. An early (and well-known) example is the poem known as "Mouse's Tale" from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.
1. Your official bio says that you live in Red Bank, NJ with your wife, Joanne, a children's librarian, and Gilbert, an evil cat. What is it that makes Gilbert evil, or is that too difficult a question to work out an answer to?
We've had many cats. We love them but . . . Gilbert is a bad seed. His brother Sullivan was loving and cuddly and well behaved. He died young. Gilbert throws up constantly, claws everything, eats plastic (which makes him throw up more), bites (us and visitors!). When we took him to the vet last month they were stunned to find out that Gilbert was 14 years old. They thought he was 7. Only the good die young.
Gilbert the evil cat
2. You have a background as a book and magazine designer. Is that position more of an art position (or graphic arts position), or more related to text?
It's a visual job but you have to read the text.
When setting up a page in a book, does one part weigh more than the other in the art-text relationship?
Designers do for books and magazines what architects do for buildings. You plan, try to figure out the needs of the client (author, publisher) and make it comes alive. Book designers have to figure out the size, decide what type is suitable for the topic, organize the elements of the page, chapter, and entire book into an appropriate and pleasing unit.
If art is needed you have to figure out how much and where it should go. Should it be full color? Who should be commissioned to do the art? How much encouraging or hand-holding will they need? Then there's the business part of it. How much to pay, working with the budget, getting it done on deadline. Finally, you have to produce the book. Now all page-making and art is done on computers. But you have to be familiar with every step from proofreading through binding.
Is art or design or text the most important part? It changes from project to project. I'm designing a book for Mordicai Gerstein right now. He pretty much takes care of everything. I make suggestions from time to time and do tricky technical stuff. But when I was doing magazines I had to be very definite and firm in my opinions and direction. Magazines have so many elements that visually they can easily spin out of control.
3. When writing a collection such as Technically, It's Not My Fault or Blue Lipstick, both of which are essentially short novels told through individual concrete poems, how do you get started? Do you first outline the story you hope to tell through the individual poems, or do you simply start with a character and see where it takes you?
With Technically . . . I knew the character (not literally. He's an amalgam of a variety of personality traits I like). So I just kept finding interesting situations to put him in. What if he missed an easy lay-up? How could he torture his sister? What kind of food could he hate?
With Blue Lipstick I knew I wanted a narrative arc. At the beginning of the school year Jessie is distrustful, doesn't like a lot of things and people. Gradually she experiences things that make her realize that things are not always black and white. Not that she'll admit it out loud.
4. Let's assume (and this is a safe assumption, by the way), that I'm interested in writing a concrete poem. When crafting a concrete poem, which comes first: the idea for the image or the idea for the text? What's the best way to go about writing a piece of concrete poetry?
Sorry, there's no one way to do it. Let's take for instance, "Skateboard" from Technically . . . In my little town we have a lot of skateboarders. It's an interesting little subculture. The town wanted to get the kids off the streets and sidewalks and parking lots. Too dangerous they said. So they gave the local YMCA money to build a skateboard park. The YMCA took the money and built a basketball court instead. The boarders got rooked. So that's the idea. I put my character in that situation and searched around my brain for a form it could take. I finally came up with the idea that the text follows the path of of his board. Idea first, shape second.
But with "All My Important Thinking Gets Done in the Shower" from Blue Lipstick, I knew what I wanted the poem to look like first. I had seen a poem by Apollinaire about rain. I wanted to take it into the shower. Then I remembered an editor I used to work with (we were starting a magazine and thrashing around for ideas) would come in to work and say "I had the greatest idea in the shower this morning." Eventually started asking about her shower every day. So I put Jessie in the shower to have great ideas. Shape first. Idea second.
5. Can you talk me through the process of laying out one of the poems in manuscript form? Do you use specific programs, or do you literally cut and paste the text where you see it going?
I'm attaching part of a power point show I did for the NY Public Library last year. Children's Book Council asked me and a bunch of other kid's book people to design a letter of the alphabet for an auction. I had just met a snake-obsessed kid and decided to do S for Snake. The first slide is the finished poem.
1. The finished poem
2. I admire the typeface Sabon drawn by Jan Tschichold in the 1960s. I especially liked the cap S.
3. I had my shape in my mind and needed to write something funny. Here are three versions of the text.
4. I put a very large Sabon S in the middle of the page. I made it gray so I could see other letters over it.
5. I started laying Sabon Ss along the path of the big S adjusting the size of each S to fit in the big S. I overlapped them so that they looked sort of scaly.
6. When I finished that I got rid of the gray S and changed the little Ss to yellow.
7. I made a snake head by using manipulated forms of the S and a couple of dots.
8. Put the two together.
9. I wanted a deep blue background. Then I made a frame out of the text so it looked like a picture. It took a little fiddling to make it come out even. Finished.
6. When putting together a collection of concrete poetry, such as Technically, It's Not My Fault and Blue Lipstick, how much do you worry about varying the shapes of your poems throughout the collection? Is it a conscious consideration as you go along, or something you don't really look at until later?
It's a big concern. I try to think about it as I go along. But the hard work comes at the end. The first step is to have more than enough material to fill the book. Then my editor, Marcia Leonard, and I spread them out over a huge conference table and try to put them in order. Certain poems have to be in certain places because of the story lines. Other poems had always meant to go together. The shape of each poem is very important for the flow of the book. Then there were poems that didn't make the cut. Heartbreaking. We discussed and argued for hours. We had a bitter disagreement about the order of "Zombie Jocks" and "Pep Rally" (from Blue Lipstick). Now I can't even remember if I won or not.
7. You wrote such a convincing young male protagonist in Robert in Technically, It's Not My Fault. How much of Robert's experiences (if any) are based on your own childhood?
Not much. Robert is the boy I wanted to be. He's smarter, and braver. He really is indifferent to authority figures. "Sleepover Conversation" is practically verbatim from a sleepover at my Cousin Paul's. But most of the other poems are Robert's own experiences. Except I made them up.
8. Was it difficult for you to switch perspectives and tell a story from Jessie's point of view? Having read Blue Lipstick repeatedly, I'd say you completely nailed what it feels like to be a teenage girl. How did a grown male like yourself manage to inhabit the mind of a 15 year-old girl so very well?
Jessie was very hard for me. What do I know about 15-year-old girls? I never was a girl, I didn't have a sister or a daughter. So I did field work. I did research. I collected stories and listened to complaints from parents. I tried to hang around with early teen girls which is hard because I'm 58 and it's sort of inappropriate. I could probably get arrested. But visits and meals with families helped me pick up speech patterns and phrases and attitudes. One Sunday my friend Marianne took me to the mall with her 15-year-old daughter and a friend. We hung for hours. I learned all sort of important things: the cute guys are at the video arcade, not at Mrs. Fields, certain stores are sooooo dorky that you have to keep a 25-foot radius, "You can't go in that store only Abecrombies go in there" (that's a pejorative for preppy kids), the 14-hole Doc Martins are "like way cool," and the 12- hole are "like, duh, really."
9. What's next?
I have two picture books coming out with Clarion:
The Travel Game has been illustrated by R. W. Alley: It's the story of a boy who plays the "spin the globe and point to a country game." Then his aunt tells him what that country is like. Unfortunately, the aunt has never been out of Buffalo, NY.
Ten Rules You Absolutely Must Not Break if You Want to Survive the School Bus is being illustrated by Michael Austin. An older brother tells the main character the perils of riding the bus. Our hero breaks every single rule the first day.
And right now I'm working on a book of concrete poems from the point of view of Robert's dog and Jessie's cat.
Cheese or chocolate? Cheese.
Coffee or tea? Coffee.
Cats or dogs? Both, except for one cat in particular. (You know who I mean.)
Favorite color? Colors are just tools for me. Whatever color works for the job. However, I notice I go through color phases. One publishing season, when I had a real job at a publishing house, my editor pointed out that I had designed every binding with the color green. I'm over it now.
Favorite snack food? Potato chips.
Favorite ice cream? Vanilla.
Water or soda? Water.
What's in your CD player/on iTunes right now?
Levon Helm: Dirt Farmer
J.S. Bach: The Goldberg Variations as played by Glenn Gould, the 1980 recording (although I prefer the one from the 50s}.
Ry Cooder: Jazz
Ray Charles: The Birth of Soul, Vol 2
Treasures of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar
What's the last movie you memorized lines from? Tough one. Of course, The Maltese Falcon, The Philadelphia Story, and any Marx Bros. or Woody Allen film. But most recent? I suppose Monty Python's Holy Grail: "Run Away!!!" or Young Frankinstein: "What hump?"
I'd like to thank John for finishing off the week with such a bang. Don't forget to check out the other stops on the SBBT today, as well as the Poetry Friday posts (which you can find by clicking on the Poetry Friday button, below):
Varian Johnson at Finding Wonderland
Jincy Willett at Shaken & Stirred
Meg Burden at Bookshelves of Doom
Gary D. Schmidt at Miss Erin
Javaka Steptoe at Seven Impossible Things
Mary Hooper at Interactive Reader