J. Patrick Lewis, who I will now refer to as Pat, is a generous, lovely soul who also happens to be a prolific, well-published children's poet and author. In the email correspondence leading up to this interview, I have formed the decided opinion that I want to hug Pat when I meet him in person. Also, that he is courtly and gallant and funny and kind. All of which are good things.
Pat is, in fact, such a generous soul that he is allowing me to share with you all a brand new, unpublished poem. Here, in its world premiere, is "Mac Diddy: Computer Dog":
Mac Diddy: Computer Dog
by J. Patrick Lewis
Mac Diddy's a dog
Who writes a little blog
For anyone owning a pet.
You'll find on your browser
This miniature schnauzer
M. Diddy writes reviews
On Yorkies, Shih Tzus,
Labradoodles, oh, each breed of dog.
And readers remark
That his bite and his bark
Are almost as bad as his blog.
1. Your biographic information indicates that you have a Ph.D. in Economics, and that you spent 25 years or so as a professor of economics, during which you and your family spent an academic year in the U.S.S.R. in the early 1970s. Did being behind the "Iron Curtain" at that time, or your several trips to former Soviet countries once the "curtain" fell, have an effect on your writing or on your desire to be a writer?
For thirty years I wrote in economics, a field in which you are required to compose deathly prose that could induce misanthropy in a saint, articles that are read on average by 1.6 people—the 1 being the author of the article. (That’s only slight hyperbole.) But as Galway Kinnell has put it, prose is walking, poetry is flying. My first published (adult) poems were actually inspired by what I saw in that strange land. I was also disarmed by the charm of the irrepressibly rollicking verse of Kornei Chukovsky, Russia’s Edward Lear, who gave me my first push into whimsy.
2. In a 2007 interview with Bruce over at Wordswimmer, you said that poetry "seized you by the nape of the neck and wouldn't let go." And to Elaine at Wild Rose Reader, you phrased it this way: "When I finally did discover it at the galumphing old age of 39, I became the village idiot for poetry, which is how I think of myself now." Did you start reading poetry at that age, or writing it, or both? Can you recall what book or books you picked up that pulled you into the poetic quicksand?
Unfortunately, I began writing verse as soon as I fell in love with it only to discover in the cold light of day that my “juvenilia” (at the age of 40!) was deservedly destined for a landfill. Realizing my foolishness—that I had suddenly and would forever spend my life with poetry but that I knew nothing about it—I stopped writing for three years and did nothing but read poetry, poetics, prosody, the classics (for adults and children) until I thought I knew something of “my craft or sullen art.”
To name only the children’s poets who became my vade mecums, Edward Lear, of course (see my homage to him, Boshblobberbosh (Creative Editions, 1998) and Lewis Carroll (see my forthcoming Mr. Nickel & Mrs. Dime, Schwartz & Wade, 2010) top the list. But there are so many minor geniuses, whose names are now in decline or mostly ignored, that I happily tip my cap to: Hilaire Belloc, Arthur Guiterman, Charles and Guy Carryl, W.S. Gilbert, Morris Bishop, Walter de la Mare, Carolyn Wells, Samuel Hoffenstein, Harry Graham, Ogden Nash. Young poets today could learn so much from any and all of them. Apart from their wit and humor, the great lesson they have to teach is technique. As Michael Longley once said, if most people who called themselves poets were tightrope walkers, they’d be dead.
3. In your interview over at Wordswimmer, you stated that your twin brother, Leo Michael Lewis (who goes by the name of Mick and whom you describe as a polymath), is your first reader. (Allow me to say that the term polymath appears to apply to Mick's twin as well. But I digress.) Is Mick also a writer? Being your twin, is he better able to assess whether you've succeeded as you intended than another first reader might do?
I trust my brother’s judgment and his ear. Not that he’s incapable of being wrong, of course, but he is a discerning reader and editor. He’s an expert on the Middle East, but has also taught Shakespeare, China, history, political theory and culture studies at the college level. I value his advice, even when it’s only to suggest that I step back and exercise a little more patience. Another fast friend and daily correspondent is Rebecca Kai Dotlich. For years we’ve had a grand time sailing poems and criticism back and forth—a writer’s group of two.
4. Your collections generally are unified by a particular theme. Once Upon a Tomb: Gravely Humorous Verses is full of epitaphs; Vherses: A Celebration of Outstanding Women gives not only biographical information by insight into a number of remarkable women; The Brothers' War: Civil War Voices in Verse gives readers a new way into a study of the American Civil War; Arithme-tickle and Scien-trickery provide amusing riddles related to math and science, respectively; BoshBlobberBosh is a tribute to Edward Lear; The Last Resort imagines what it would be like to arrive at "the last resort for folks who've lost a piece of mind," with clues to the identities of the various guest; and Monumental Verses, which contains poems paired with spectacular photographs of internationally renowned monuments, including Stonehenge, the Eiffel Tower, and more.
I would never deign to be critical of Dr. Seuss, a true pioneer who opened the door for all the rest of us. He learned the first rule of creative writing courses—so they tell me, I’ve never taken one—namely, Find your own voice. He did that far better than most. So it is no criticism of him to say that you can tell a Seuss poem coming from a mile away. That distinctive voice is always there. But I don’t want to find my own voice. No subject on earth or apart from it is immune from poetry. I am trying to write in a hundred voices and as many forms on as many subjects, to write across the curriculum, about everything under heaven. The poem is always more important than the poet. Poets biodegrade; poems, if they have any merit, stand a middling chance of living on for a little while. My advice is to stretch your mind’s muscles. I set for myself the hard, well-nigh impossible task of writing great poetry every day. Do I succeed? No, but so what? Otherwise, why bother to write?
5. I know you spend between eight and nine hours a day reading and writing poems, and that in some cases (The Last Resort and your forthcoming title, The House, both of which feature the visual art of Roberto Innocenti), the poems are based on the art. Was that true for Monumental Verses as well, which includes gorgeous photographs from National Geographic, or did you first write the poems?
There are so many phenomenal artists these days and Roberto Innocenti has to be counted among the best. He was last year’s winner of the Hans Christian Andersen Medal for illustration. So you can imagine my unbounded glee when the publisher asked me to look at his 75 pictures and write a story around the pictures (The Last Resort), the most difficult yet satisfying writing I’ve ever done. I have reprised that effort now with The House, another Innocenti visual masterpiece that I have told in quatrains about the history of a single house on an Italian hillside over the course of the twentieth century. It’s due out in the fall, 2009.
But no, Monumental Verses began with the poems, after which National Geographic provided glorious photos from its inexhaustible supply.
6. When it comes to some of your other collections, such as the ones I've listed, do you generally start with a topic, then write a collection of poems, or with a poem or two that leads you to the topic?
Yes, I do begin with a topic, a catchall that one hopes, after several months, will transmogrify into a unique book of poems. But lately I have also been collaborating with other good folks: Jane Yolen—we’ve just finished our fourth collection (three are under contract); Rebecca Dotlich—a book on castles (Castles: Old Stone Poems); and Paul B. Janeczko, two titles, the latest just out called Birds On A Wire. And Canadian poet Avis Harley and I have just completed a ms. that we’re hoping to sell.
7. Enquiring minds want to know more about your forthcoming "big book of poems", Countdown to Summer: 180 Poems, or One for Every Day of the School Year (forthcoming from Little Brown). Is this the "brass ring" sort of collection you referred to in your interview with Bruce, where you said "the brass ring for me is an entire book of poems on subjects as widely and wildly different from each other as they can be"?
That’s true. I’m especially gratified because Countdown to Summer, I think, stands a good chance of staying in print longer than the average picture book. The poems in it range hither and yon over so many disparate subjects. I was given great scope and latitude. I believe every children’s poet should have that fabulous opportunity.
8. In Earth Verses and Water Rhymes (which I particularly adore), the poems were a mixture of free verse and rhyme, with poems dealing with nature and animals. Other collections use a single form (as with your recent collaboration with Paul Janeczko, Birds on a Wire: a Renga 'Round Town) or are more restricted in theme (e.g., Monumental Verses).
Why do you think there aren't more single-poet poetry miscellanies for children out there, collections in which free verse, rhyme, haiku and other forms can intermingle, regardless of topic or tone (i.e., a mixture of the light with the heavy, or the funny with the dark)? Do you foresee that changing in the market any time in the foreseeable future?
The number of “single-poet poetry miscellanies for children” seems to me to be diminishing. Thank you, Kelly, for your kind words for Earth Verses and Water Rhymes (S&S/Atheneum, 1991) but I’d wager that I could not find a publishing house today willing to publish that book. The subject matter is too “soft,” not “edgy” enough. It’s rare these days to find collections devoted solely to oceans or stars or night. As publishers cut back on acceptances, poetry is the first to go, particularly if it isn’t considered commercial or doesn’t have a strong hook.
The other issue you raise is form. Most children’s poets today write either in free verse or in metrics and rhyme. Rarely, do you find a work that integrates both. Rarer still is the collection that admits dark or serious material into pages that are intended to be humorous. That may be a function of the fact that editors look askance at combining apples and pomegranates. I wish it weren’t so.
9. Does your approach to writing a picture book such as last year's Tulip at the Bat differ from writing poems for a collection? In the case of Tulip, which borrows its meter and some of its structure from "Casey at the Bat" by Ernest Thayer, how difficult was it to honor the original without feeling bound by it? From where did the idea to cast ball teams full of animals come?
Well, Tulip at the Bat (Little, Brown, 2007) is written in verse, may be the first animal parody of "Casey at the Bat". The greatness of Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s poem is that quite unexpectedly Casey, the hometown hero, fails. Which is why, though I’m sure Thayer didn’t plan it this way, his inimitable original left the door open to so many parodists. My heroine, Tulip, a larger-than-life hippopotamus centerfielder, also fails…sort of. Her massive bunt, not homer, is so powerful that it drills a hole in the ground making it impossible to find the ball before the runners score.
When I write a non-verse picture book story, though, and I’ve published about ten of them, the writing is entirely different. The power of prose for the writer is that s/he is unfettered by any strictures at all. But speaking about the virtues of strict form, metrics and rhyme, Richard Wilbur has said that the power of the genie comes from its having been stuck in the bottle. Every morning, I get up with the dream of finding the power of the genie.
10. Anything you've always wished someone would ask you, but that you've never had the chance to discuss?
For whatever reason, and there may be several, children’s poetry has hit a most regrettable snag. Sadly, the market remains open to celebrity poetasters whose work is an affront to the very notion of poetry just as it demeans the intelligence of children. But one lives in hope that circumstances will eventually take a more joyful turn.
11. What’s next?
Who can say? Whatever your future holds, Kelly, let it be surrounded by what Oliver Wendell Holmes called epeolatry—the worship of words.
Cheese or chocolate? Chocolate cheese (cake)
Coffee or tea? Decaf
Cats or dogs? Dogs.We have two—a black standard poodle and a white Bichon Frise.
Favorite color? What color are your eyes? That’s my favorite color.
Favorite snack food? Baked pita chips
Favorite ice cream? Any kind without calories.
Water or soda? Soda (if that’s the same thing as pop!)
What's in your CD player/on iTunes right now? Nothing. I don’t own a CD player, iPod or any other musical gadget.
What's the last movie you memorized lines from? Il Postino (The Postman)—“Poetry does not belong to those who write it but to those who need it.”
Other stops on today's tour:
Mayra Lazara Dole, author of teen lesbian LGBT books at Chasing Ray
Frances O'Roark Dowell at Fuse #8
Wendy Mass at Hip Writer Mama
Lisa Ann Sandell at Bildungsroman
Caroline Hickey/Sara Lewis Holmes at Mother Reader
A.S. King at Bookshelves of Doom
Emily Wing Smith at Interactive Reader