NCTE Award Winning Poet: J. Patrick Lewis

Interview by Matt Forrest Esenwine

J. Patrick Lewis was born and raised in Gary, Indiana, and was 56 years old when, in 1998, he decided to retire early from his position as professor of economics at Otterbein College in Ohio to become a full-time writer.  He already had 10 books published at the time, along with numerous individual poems in magazines such as Cricket. Since then, he has gone on to write a total of more than 80 books in verse and prose, and has been the recipient of numerous awards.

In addition to receiving the 2011 Poetry Award from the National Council of Teachers of English, Lewis’s The Shoe Tree of Chagrin (2001, illustrated by Chris Sheban) won the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Golden Kite Award, and The Last Resort (2002, illustrated by Roberto Innocenti) was named the New York Times Best Illustrated Book and has been translated into more than a dozen languages). In 2011, Lewis was named 2011-13 U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation.

Lewis has also collaborated with other children’s poets including Jane Yolen, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, and Paul B. Janeczko on various poetry collections and anthologies, and his first book of adult poetry, Gulls Hold Up the Sky, was published in 2010. One of his most recent projects was The National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry (2012), a giant anthology on which he worked as editor and contributor.

First, let me congratulate you on your position as 2011 U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate! As only the third person to receive this honor from the Poetry Foundation (the position was previously held by Mary Ann Hoberman and the inaugural Children’s Poet Laureate, Jack Prelutsky), it brings with it great responsibility. How do you feel about holding a title this prestigious, and what have you been doing to fulfill your obligation to promote children’s poetry?

Despite the Poetry Foundation’s claim that the responsibilities of the laureateship would be “light,” I’ve been extremely busy, especially with travel. Speaking at conferences, giving talks to teachers and librarians, and school visits have kept me hopping. But that’s the role of the children’s poet laureate, isn’t it? To go piping down the valleys wild as the herald for poetry at every possible venue. The thrill of being so named has generated in me an enthusiasm equal to it. It seems a bit comparable to the thrill of carrying a country’s flag at the initial Olympic ceremonies.

So how did a fellow with a PhD in economics end up writing more than 80 children’s books and winning numerous awards such as the 2011 NCTE Award in Children’s Poetry and the 2001 SCBWI Golden Kite Award? You had already had 10 children’s books published by the time you decided to become a full-time writer in 1998…what level of success (a word we all define differently) had you hoped to reach when you were first starting out?

My first book—an original and fanciful folktale I set in my beloved Russia—kept me in a dreamlike state for perhaps a semester! I remember when it first arrived in my mailbox I couldn’t believe I had made this physical thing, an honest-to-goodness book. I took the book to bed with me for three nights. I don’t sleep with my books any longer, but the arrival of each new one is a pinch-me revelation.

I had no idea what I was “hoping for” when I first began writing children’s books for I had not yet become a court jester, a traveling salesman, a Pied Piper for children’s poetry. Once discovered, poetry kindled “a frosted fire,” as I’ve always said, that I expect will burn until I myself have joined the ashes.

What would you say is the most satisfying aspect of writing for children? It’s easy to say it’s the joy that the kids receive from reading – and perhaps that’s true – but the creative process, the collaborations, and the relationships that are built all must certainly be enjoyable, too.

Without being either glib or dismissive, I must say that I really don’t write for children. My audience of one is myself. If poems please me, then I hold out a soupçon of hope that children might enjoy them too. Apart from making school visits and talking about poetry—a joy unimaginable to me 500 school visits ago—the greatest part of writing . . . is writing. Juggling words 10 hours a day. It’s not hard work, not work at all. It’s “hard love.”

As writers, we draw inspiration from all around us – our homes, our families, pretty much anything and everything. Who – or what – inspires you? Who do you trust to critique your material?

In my opinion, no doubt a minority view, inspiration is overrated. Occasionally, lightning strikes with a word/phrase/or rhyme, but for me poems come from dedication. Strapped to a chair. I do wish my Muse were a reliable fixture on my desk, but she is usually off shopping, perhaps because she feels unwanted, which isn’t true of course, but there it is.

The only person I ask to take a critical look at my work (before it goes to an editor) is my living doppelganger, my twin brother, whose opinion I value more than he knows.

Describe your approach to writing poetry: the poem’s creation, its evolution, and its completion – assuming a poem is ever truly “completed.”

A poem does not begin with an idea but with a word, a phrase. Of course, I know beforehand what subject I intend to write about, but I can sit here endlessly thinking of words before liftoff. Since I write on a computer, I keep no first drafts. I just keep rewriting the same poem for hours or days—or I put the poem away for awhile to let it settle, or throw it away altogether. There are more than a few published poems I wish I could take back and rewrite—poets are inveterate tinkerers—but once the poems make their way to the printed page, you must let them go.

Which of your poems would you say you’re the most proud of, and why? What poem or poems have given you the most grief in trying to write?

I wrote a poem for Jesse Owens (“I Could Stay Up in the Air . . . Forever”) and another for Satchel Paige (“Father Time Is Coming”) that I would stand behind. In general, as much as I love writing nonsense verse, I am quite taken with biographical poems, distilling other people’s lives into one-page wonders. Of course, that doesn’t always, or even often, happen, but when was that ever a reason not to try?

And the poem that was the most difficult or laborious to complete?

The book-length poem, The House, illustrated by the inestimable Roberto Innocenti. I did my damnedest to make that poem grace the art with an equivalent beauty. The poem’s text went through at least 20 rewrites, quite properly, before the publisher accepted it. And I must say I’m extremely proud of that book. It could stand alone as a legacy.

You write in a wide variety of styles, from touching, introspective poems like “The Seeker” (about Helen Keller) to fun, rhyming picture books like Kindergarten Cat, and even books like the hugely popular The Last Resort. How does a writer as prolific as J. Patrick Lewis continue to come up with fresh ideas? You’ve been writing for a long time; is it now easier or more difficult to find new things to say and new ways to say them?

That’s a great question because it’s so difficult to answer. More than any other children’s writer I can think of, Dr. Seuss found his own voice, which is the first lesson one learns (they tell me) in creative writing courses. And there must be something to it: Look at Seuss’s success! But from the very first, I never wanted to find my own voice. The goal for me was, and still is, to find a hundred voices, to write so that no one can guess the author.

It does become more difficult over time to uncover new subjects that grab an editor’s attention, in large part because there are so many wonderful writers creating fabulous books. This is not to say that the subjects from which to choose are limited or exhausted. Far from it. Putting them together in truly inventive ways is an endless challenge, and in these dark times for publishing—and children’s poetry in particular!—it borders sometimes on hopelessness.

The children’s publishing industry is, indeed, in a state of flux these days; between independent publishers, self-publishers, print-on-demand, e-books, and e-readers like the Kindle and Nook, it seems editors and agents are more selective than ever. How have these changes affected you and other children’s writers, and what do you foresee as the future of children’s lit?

I’m afraid I was born too soon for the digital age. Figuring out an iPhone is quantum physics to me. In short, I’m probably not the person to ask about such things. What self-publishing, print-on-demand, and e-books will mean for those of us coming late to the party? I dare not prognosticate, but if wishes counted for anything, I can only hope that the physicality of the book—sitting in a parent’s lap and turning the pages of a picture book—will never lose its allure.

Finally, knowing what you know now, and having experienced all that you have…what advice would you give your 56-year-old self, as you contemplated retiring early to become a full-time writer? Would you still give yourself that same advice if you were taking that leap in 2012? And what would you tell poets who have yet to be published?

Back then, the advice that I gave myself—and took!—was that reading is always more important than writing. So many have forsaken reading the classics at their peril.

It seems to me, and I hope that I’m wrong, that too many younger poets are compelled to get into print now. No matter how successful you are at getting your first or second book of poems accepted for publication, don’t let it go to your head. Don’t quit your day job. I didn’t quit mine for a decade after my first book was published, thinking, finally, that I could become a full-time writer.

Writing children’s poetry, though, is mostly a pauper’s trade. Not the destitution of a John Clare or a William Blake, of course, but as far as I know, money has never been the primum mobile behind the poet’s pen.

Mr. Lewis asked us to include the following essay, which provides some insight on his thoughts about poetry, its words, its sounds…and its importance:

Sound, Interrupted

Moscow, 1921: Alexander Blok, then perhaps Russia’s premier poet, is sitting inconspicuously in the back row of a poetry reading with his friend, the famed master of children’s verse Kornei Chukovsky. A contemptuous young bard on stage declaims: “Blok is already dead!” At which point, Blok leans over to Chukovsky and whispers, “That’s true. He’s telling the truth, I’m dead.”

Known for composing tightrope poetry with neither net nor bar, forever teetering between hope and despair, Blok tells Chukovsky he simply can’t write anymore. “All sounds have stopped,” he says. “Can’t you hear that there are no longer any sounds?”

He died two months later.

I mention this tragedy not to recount one more Russian poet’s inevitable rendezvous with ruin, but to reinforce Blok’s point about the importance of sound.

Rude intrusion: I spent half my life as an economics professor, tone deaf to sound, except the deathless prose of wonky, unicorn fantasies for which the discipline prides itself. How could such a thing happen?  Shocking to relate, I grew up in an atonal atmosphere. I listened to rock ‘n’ roll but only on somebody else’s nickel in jukebox diners. I collected no record albums, rarely turned on the radio. Classical music, I thought, rivaled corsets and bullwhips in a race to antiquity. Music of any kind captivated me almost as much as lawn darts. The ear can be a shamefully ignored organ.

I won’t denigrate my elementary teachers, who were genuinely concerned with my welfare, but what little poetry I was exposed to didn’t resonate. Or if it did, I wouldn’t have heard it. The finger of fault points to me. Evidently, I just wasn’t listening . . . until I got to college. There, in a poetry class disguised as a chem lab, students armed with droppers and stoppers took an entire semester to reduce the acidic “My Last Duchess” of Browning to baseness. Fra Pandolf’s hands finally reached out and slapped me awake.

My ear’s rebellion needed no more reinforcements.

Fast forward two decades: . . . and then, and then . . . just as I was crossing what might well have been the equator of my life, I met a saucy English professor who peppered her speech with thigh-slappers like carpe diem, ad nauseum, favete linguis! (shut up). And she introduced me to . . . It.  (If her ship should pass in the night again, and she runs aground on these rocky words, let me just say: “Ethyl, I am finally compos mentis.”)

By “It,” I mean she sang in two-part poetry: sound and sense. Eventually, she did. First, she had me at ‘Twas brillig . . . . Hearing her recite her favorite poems, I assumed that she had enlisted Wallace Stevens to describe herself: She sang beyond the genius of the sea. Come again? in Just-/spring when the world is mud-/luscious the little/lame balloonman/whistles far and wee— Where? Wee? It didn’t matter that I had no idea what the words meant. I’d been catapulted skyward by a zaftig, nonstop sound machine. The sunlight on the garden/Hardens and grows cold,/We cannot cage a minute/ Within its nets of gold. Pass the smelling salts, Thyllie, this was a language worthy of the seraphim. She read with such infectious brio, I could almost believe Messrs. Carroll, Stevens, cummings, and MacNiece, respectively, self-exhumed to applaud.

Ethyl lent me her Norton’s doorstop with the admonition that I begin, after several decades of disuse, putting my slacker right brain through its paces. Thus began our nightly rituals of reading desultory poems to each other, poems that could charm the chill off a tin ear. I can’t say the experience moved me to embrace the viola or the flugelhorn, though I eventually quit my day job to become a wandering minstrel of sorts. But those first poems began to strum, hum, come to me as the music I had relegated to the benighted. From there it was a short step to a long and endless journey of understanding prosody, and everything else in the poet’s handbag of techniques for producing sound: assonance, alliteration, euphony, meter, and heretofore unheard of rhyme.

Imagine how reading Auden’s “The Fall of Rome” ruffled a misspent youth dawdling in the social sciences: Altogether elsewhere, vast/Herds of reindeer move across/Miles and miles of golden moss,/Silently and very fast. And what was I to do with Roethke’s I wake to sleep and take my waking slow? Or the triple-tongue-tempest Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Caught this morning morning’s minion, king-/dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding . . . .

Equally smitten with the lions of children’s poetry—Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, and lesser lights now all but forgotten—I took to piping down valleys wild with Milne’s James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George DuPree on [a] capital ship for an ocean trip … the Walloping Window Blind (Charles Carryl). Even “mere verse” like Gelett Burgess’s “The Purple Cow,” Morris Bishop’s “Song of the Pop-Bottlers,” and Eliot’s wildly inventive naming of cats served as an affront to tone-deaf economists, lips firmly pursed, who most likely were innocent of ever having been young and easy under the apple boughs. But pity not economists: They don’t know any better. Save compassion for poets like Blok who crash into a wall of silence and are denied the sounds that defined their entire lives.

I learned early that Emily Dickinson’s star shone brightest in the constellation of sound singers. (The woman levitated over Amherst, Massachusetts, a century and a half ago, and the mention of her first name alone, like that of “Abe,” brings instant recognition.) As the British poet and critic Clive James wrote: “[She] could enamel the inside of a raindrop.”

Most readers, even non-poets, might recognize the first couplet in her homage to a train: I like to see it lap the Miles—/And lick the Valleys up. Lap, lick? Of course. No other verbs could do. But to stop there without reading the full four quatrains of the poem is inexplicably to don earmuffs. I’ll wager you cannot think of a single thing to do in the next minute of your life that is as soothing to the ear as reading the entire poem. One minute. And it’s even odds that the memory of the poem, two hours from now, will linger longer than the memory of sex. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

– J. Patrick Lewis

For more information about Pat, his books, awards, and school visit schedule, check out his website here!

8 thoughts on “NCTE Award Winning Poet: J. Patrick Lewis

  1. I’m honored to host this insightful interview and essay. Thanks, Pat and Matt!

    One quote that especially interests me:
    “A poem does not begin with an idea but with a word, a phrase. Of course, I know beforehand what subject I intend to write about, but I can sit here endlessly thinking of words before liftoff.”

    I think of these “liftoff” words as magnets — a string of syllables that attracts other associations: sounds, rhythms, images, structures. Once a magnet comes to me, I move from thinking to composing.

    Is this a common experience for our poet-readers?

  2. I agree with Charles – superb interview and wonderful fodder for poets surfing around for those magnet words. I believe that is an accurate description of the beginnings of composing. These magnet words help me in different ways. Sometimes I seem to wander through words, and then one or more or a phrase sticks and I’m off on my way to a first draft. Or sometimes I get a draft, circle a few words that seem to have power,and they become the magnet words for an improved draft.
    Mr. Lewis’s terrific essay sent me to my Emily Dickinson volume. Here is one of my favorites:

    There is no Frigate like a Book
    To take us Lands away
    Nor any Coursers like a Page
    Of prancing Poetry –
    This Traverse may the poorest take
    Without oppress of Toll –
    How frugal is the Chariot
    That bears the Human soul.

  3. My thanks to Pat for providing such great insight, and to everyone who has taken the time to comment here! I do agree with Steven that those magnet words are of immense importance – whether they conjure up alliterative or metaphorical words, unusual images, or fun sounds…very often a poet doesn’t know where the poem is going to take him or her until those magnets start pulling each other together.

  4. Pingback: Poetry Friday: FOUR new poems at YARN! « Radio, Rhythm & Rhyme

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