Interview by Steven Withrow
I was thrilled to read the recent announcement from Penn State University Libraries and the Pennsylvania Center for the Book that Kate Coombs was selected as the winner of the 2013 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award for her brilliant book Water Sings Blue: Ocean Poems (illustrated by Meilo So and published by Chronicle Books).
Established in 1993, the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award is presented annually to an American poet or anthologist for the most outstanding new book of poetry for children published in the previous calendar year.
The award and a $1,000 prize, courtesy of Lee Bennett Hopkins, will be presented on September 28 at Penn State.
Kate grew up near the Pacific Ocean in Southern California, and she started collecting shells and writing poems as a child. Now she likes going to the ocean aquarium to watch the moon jellyfish. Water Sings Blue is Kate’s first poetry collection. She is also the author of a picture book called The Secret-Keeper and two middle grade books, The Runaway Princess and The Runaway Dragon. Her other new book is Hans My Hedgehog: A Tale from the Brothers Grimm.
When was the earliest poem in the collection written? And did you have the idea for a collection in mind all along?
The first poem was “Jellyfish Kitchen,” which I wrote at least 15 years ago. At the time my poetry tended to be a real hodgepodge. Then I went to an SCBWI conference where I heard a workshop presenter say that a poetry collection should have a theme. Who knew? I thought about possible themes and remembered my jellyfish poem, not to mention how much I love the ocean. I made a list of ocean animals and topics like waves, giving each one a page in a long Word document.
After doing some research, I added more ocean animals to the list. Along the way I learned some amazing stuff: did you know a starfish pops out its stomach and inserts it into a clam, where it engulfs its prey before pulling the stomach back into its body? Thus armed with topics and knowledge, I started writing poems about whatever called out to me on a particular day. Eventually I had 80-plus poems.
Have you been writing poems throughout your life? How did you get started and what keeps you writing?
I was a complete bookworm by the age of three, when my appetite for “just one more story” was endless. I know I was writing plays and stories when I was eight. I’m not sure about the poetry, but I do remember a poem I wrote at nine or ten. I was into magic, unicorns, and fairy tales. The poem began, “The fairies are dancing in the fairy ring, / And if you listen carefully you’ll hear the songs they sing.”
I wrote my first sonnet when I was twelve and was very proud of myself. I wrote a lot of poetry in high school, dumping my first boyfriend because he didn’t get my poems. In college I took three independent studies in poetry, one of them with Welsh poet Leslie Norris. Whatever else I’ve written, I’ve kept the poetry going. At one point an agent was interested in working with me, but she said, “Don’t bother writing poetry. It’s a bad market.” I did not sign with her.
Along the way I’ve feasted on poetry by wonderful poets. I was very into Rainer Maria Rilke in college and even more into Sylvia Plath. In fact, my mentor professor and my best friend staged an intervention! They thought I must be suicidal to be so into Plath’s work. Later I fell for Mary Oliver’s poems and Annie Dillard’s prose, which I consider poetry. I was introduced to Billy Collins’ work much later, at an SCBWI workshop given by Arthur Levine. Now I have all of Collins’ books.
That’s not counting children’s poetry by so many talented poets: Deborah Chandra, Barbara Juster Esbensen, Tony Johnston, Karla Kuskin, Marilyn Singer, Alice Schertle, Kristine O’Connell George, Shel Silverstein, and many more. My favorite book of children’s poems is All the Small Things and Fourteen More by Valerie Worth.
Poems are an art form, miniature and precise, visceral and visual. Reading a good poem transforms me with wonder. I’ll never fall out of love with poetry.
I’m really not one for murky, obscure poetry, whether I’m writing for young or old. However, when I’m writing for grown-ups I’m more inclined to let the symbolism rip. Also, as a poet I prefer writing free verse, so my poems for adults are all free verse. Then again, my favorite poems for children are imagistic and a little haunting, not entirely without deeper meaning—and some of them are free verse. But I think you have to write better free verse to catch the attention of a child than you do an adult.
I generally write rhymed poems for children because they like rhyme so much. Of course, rhyme has its pitfalls. When I write funny poems, I’m especially worried about falling prey to what I call “rhymey rhymey thump thump.” You know, “Da DA da DA da DA da DA da DA,” where every accent feels like a punch in the nose. I try to flow my rhymes softly, deemphasizing them so that they don’t take over the poem like a herd of Tribbles.
A children’s poem tends to be less pompous than a poem for grown-ups. It also needs to be on a topic children care about. Kids don’t suffer fools gladly, and neither do they suffer poems about goldenrods in fall fields (sorry, Mary Oliver). This is not to say that children can’t appreciate beauty. It’s just that they’re easily bored and need a door into a poem. I can tell you which poems in Water Sings Blue they’re most likely to like, for example. They really do embrace humor, especially funny twists. But even though kids adore Shel Silverstein’s work, you’ll notice that he is more than funny; he’s a good poet. Kids are more discerning than we think.
I do not write with a specific child in mind—I write with many children in mind. I have a great regard and respect for children. I used to teach, and I loved my students dearly. I still do. They’re wonderful, wonderful people.
Tell me a little about the process of working with Melissa Manlove, your editor at Chronicle Books. What does a good editor bring to the revision and selection process? Were there particular challenges or surprises?
Melissa is a superb editor. Thinking about the nuances of poetry takes a unique kind of focus and insight. Melissa pushes me to make every word, line, and poem the strongest it can be. For example, line 6 in my shark poem is now “like a rumor, like a sneer,” but it was originally “like an oil spill, like a curse.” Melissa didn’t like oil spill as a metaphor and thought my line 8, which rhymed “worse” with “curse,” was weak. I’d had a hard time finding a good rhyme for “curse,” so I couldn’t argue with that, but I was pretty attached to the oil spill. After tinkering a lot more, I came up with “sneer” and a new line 8 that definitely worked better; however, the word I had chosen to replace “oil spill” didn’t grab Melissa. I spent three or four days and some 30 possibilities coming up with just the right word: “rumor.” And it all clicked.
Melissa also balanced out my love of subtle, imagistic poems by asking me to include more funny ones. The collection ended up with a better mix and more kid appeal. But arguably, the most wonderful thing Melissa did for the book was to choose Meilo So as an illustrator. I knew the artwork would be good, but it turned out to be shockingly good and to mesh with the poems in a way I could not have imagined.
Are you taking your poems on the road for school visits, and do you write with reading aloud or performing in mind?
I’ve done a few author visits to schools and libraries, and they’re a lot of fun. But because I work full time, it’s hard to get away. I did have a book launch for Hans My Hedgehog and Water Sings Blue last spring at a terrific indie bookstore in Salt Lake City called The King’s English. Of course I read some ocean poems!
When I write, I start by listening to the words of a poem in my mind. After a draft or two, I read the poem out loud to hear if it’s working. I do that for long fiction, too—I read the entire manuscript out loud to myself. You catch things you wouldn’t notice otherwise. But ultimately, fiction is content to be read in silence. Poetry longs to become sound.
Could you talk a little about your path to publication for Water Sings Blue? How does it feel it to have won the Lee Bennett Hopkins Award?
I actually sold a different collection to Chronicle at first—Street of Songs, bilingual poems about a 9-year-old Latina girl living in Los Angeles. Chronicle had lined up a translator and everything. Then they had a budget meeting and decided to cancel the project. The editor who had acquired it was gone, and the new editor was Melissa Manlove. She asked me, “What else have you got?” By that time I had seven poetry collections on file. I sent her three, and she liked the ocean poems best.
Winning the Lee Bennett Hopkins Award makes me take a deep breath and let it out: “Aaah. I really am a poet, and somebody noticed!”
How does the grouping of three jellyfish poems connect in terms of craft, tone, and focus, and how does each one differ from the others?
I think what I call the jellyfish trio works because each one says something different and in quite a different way. “Jellyfish Kitchen” is kind of a showy poem in terms of presenting an extended metaphor using well-loved tools of poetry such as end rhyme and internal rhyme, alliteration, and that little twist we like to find in a poem’s last line. But perhaps I want to say the poem is showy because it reminds me of a grandmother’s front parlor, a bit formal and meant to be looked at, not touched—kind of like a jellyfish. Or, to come full circle, like the cake you weren’t allowed to have till after the grown-ups finished talking, when they measured out a too-thin slice.
“Not Really Jelly” is a pure kids’ poem, the kind that makes them giggle. Of the three, it’s the most fun to read out loud, nearly a tongue-twister. I think the noodle image is a good one, but the verbs-turned-nouns in the last two lines make the metaphor stronger. You could act those out with 6-year-olds and have a very good time.
As I said, my true love is haunting and imagistic free verse, so the haiku is probably my favorite of the three. Even without Meilo’s painting, I feel like the wind and kimono metaphors capture the jellyfish in a new way. Of course, the painting makes the poem that much better—it’s just breathtaking! I should add that I cheated on the haiku because they aren’t usually metaphoric. They’re supposed to use compact description to capture small, intriguing moments or tiny ironies in nature. But I figure you can reinvent a form if you can make it work!
Additionally, in writing poetry, I’m not committed to regular feet. In fact, I find that a slightly ragged rhythm can sound more conversational. To me it’s like writing music—the measures are predictable, but the notes within them aren’t. I won’t write far too many syllables in a given line of a rhymed poem, but I do tend to count off accented syllables rather than specific feet.
For “Sea Turtle” and “Octopus Ink,” could you share any insights about how these two poems came to be written and revised?
My octopus poem was originally about a magician, but it never took off. So I tried another metaphor, this time focusing on connecting the idea of ink to writing and writers. I revised “Octopus Ink” over and over. For one thing, I tinkered quite a bit with the line breaks. “Shy” seems as if it should be an end rhyme, and it isn’t. You’ll notice “hesitates” rhymes with “wait,” though. So instead of having two cooperative sets of end rhymes, I wrote one set of end rhymes (or near rhymes) and another set where I paired an internal rhyme with an end rhyme. To top it off, the rhymes come in lines 1 and 3, then 3 and 6, which makes no sense. But the poem reads right, and that’s what matters. It’s okay to break the rules in all kinds of ways as long as the poem sings.
I don’t know why, but I didn’t include a sea turtle poem in the very large batch I sent Melissa. Months later, we were in the mulling-over process of narrowing the collection when I had lunch with an old friend. I told Devon I was working on a book of ocean poems, and she said, “Oh, good! Benjamin loves sea turtles!” I felt a real pang, picturing this little kid’s woeful face as I confessed I hadn’t written a sea turtle poem. “Maybe I’ll add one,” I told my friend. So I went home and began working on it. I had the idea of the green map in my head, but whatever else I was doing just didn’t jell. I wrote the poem over and over, trying to force my concept to work. After getting increasingly frustrated, I finally said to myself, “I need to try something else.” I took another tack and the poem sprang to life very quickly, green map and all.
For “What the Waves Say,” what did Meilo So bring to this poem through her beautiful illustration? Did you have any chance to interact with the artist during or after the production of the book?
I remember Melissa asked me about two of the poems, thinking they might be hard to illustrate. Or maybe there had been some talk between Meilo and the art director—I’m not sure. Anyway, one was “Water Artist” and the other was “What the Waves Say.” Of “Water Artist,” I said, “It’s about an artist! I’m sure she’ll get it.” I figured Meilo would come up with something for the other poem, too—and the illustration turned out to be just perfect, both in terms of how it represents the poem and as a piece of art.
One job of an editor is to protect illustrators from voracious writers. You know, “Can you put a pink puppy on page 6?” This means that normally I don’t have any interaction with the illustrator except sometimes to comment on the sketches or galleys, and even then, who knows how much is actually necessary and is therefore passed along? I did send little gifts to Meilo and Melissa after the book was finished to thank them. Then Meilo sent me a pretty rock which I added to the rocks and shells on my desk, pleased yet completely clueless. Since I didn’t catch on, she gently let me know that it is the very rock pictured on the endpapers of our book. What a keepsake! Meilo and I later exchanged e-mails because Lara Starr arranged for us to interview each other for Chronicle’s blog. Meilo lives in the Shetland Islands and has some great stories to tell.
Finally, do the poems feel different to you now that they are in print as a collection and paired with So’s immaculate artwork?
Oh, I like “immaculate artwork”! I’ve been swooning over the illustrations since I first saw them, just amazed by their beauty and by how they wrap around the poems and hold them the way the ocean holds a sea otter. As for the poems, I hadn’t read them in a while, but earlier this week I was doing an author visit to one of my mom’s book clubs and thought I’d reread Water Sings Blue. I went straight through it, and when I finished I said, “What good poems!” I laughed at myself, but it is nice to look at something you’ve made and feel it turned out well. I suspect starting off with 80 poems made it a lot easier to find enough cream to skim off the top.
I should probably tell you what I’m working on now. I recently finished writing a collection I was calling Halloween School, but now it’s Monster School. I have to wait to see if my publisher acquires the poems, and that’s always an unpredictable process. But I’m happy with the poems, which are strange and funny and a little scary. They’re intended for a slightly older reader—I’m thinking 4th through 6th graders would be about right.
One more thing: The book was originally named Octopus Ink, but Melissa thought that was a little young and cute considering that several of the poems attempt to capture the grandeur of the ocean and its denizens. She had this vision of vastness. I came up with a bunch of titles, but none of them was quite right. Eventually I hit on Water Sings Blue. I don’t think it was Melissa’s platonic ideal initially, but as you can see, it grew on her.
Other links about Kate’s work:
All poems © Kate Coombs and illustrations © Meilo So. All rights reserved.