- What do you enjoy about writing poetry?
I love writing, especially poetry. Perhaps because it is important to me to understand how I feel about certain things in the world. What they mean.
Constructing a poem is like making up your very own mind puzzle and then trying to figure out the answer. What you choose to write about and how is determined by what you are thinking about and how you are feeling at any one time. Until you start writing you often don’t have a clue what is really churning away inside your head and heart.
Of course, we all have lots of thoughts about this or that every day and night. But to get beyond the surface, to explore one’s secret and hidden misty moonlight ideas and to open yourself to connect somehow to the bigger universe in some unknown way…that is something I am drawn to.
Plus (and this is a big plus) I love words. Particularly the way certain words just sound so wonderful together. Like they were made for one another. I love that certain groups of words, metaphors for example, hold secret meanings, and that you have to root around in your head to capture those hidden ideas, those unusual comparisons.
Because I grew up in a world alive with music and dance of all kinds, with all the accompanying rhymes, rhythms and lyrics one could imagine (broadways tunes, rock and roll, religious chants, television ad jingles, etc), restating these rhythmic pulses in writing feels completely natural for me.
So in putting together understanding, words, movement, sounds, rhythm, feelings, art, secret meanings, pretty soon…VOILÀ…I arrived at the door of poetry.
I believe the act of writing is always and forever magic. Like a rabbit popping out of a hat: the rabbit is a poem and the hat is my head. All very magical in the end. And totally exciting.
- How did your most recent book Polka Dot Poems evolve and what do you find particularly engaging about haiku?
Like most of us, I have always loved birthdays and celebrations and special moments. And when I first started reading Haiku, this very special Japanese form of words and lines evoked those special moments I loved.
I came to consider haiku as poignant little picture-perfect word gatherings with feelings attached.
Then one day, out of the blue, I decided to play a game with my mind and try to write 100 HAPPY HAIKU. I think I just liked the way those three words sounded together (and I love to think in titles). Since I adore animals and nature, and since haiku are generally about natural things, my book began.
At the same time, I have a rather silly penchant for polka dots. So I slyly thought it might be fun to illustrate the book with lots of polka dots. In other words, to deconstruct the art scenes into polka dotted scenes.
Next, for the actual writing, it was a serious challenge to me thinking up how to describe a bubble in just 17 syllables, which is one of the haiku conventions, and how to give the poem a nice pop! at the end. Because that is what a haiku is meant to do, to give you a little surprise at the finish. So I set off to write some very small poems that would capture the essence of some very big things… wind… sand… stars…sun….lions…and more. A challenge to be sure.
At some early point my genius friend Judith Elliott (who was my first British publisher back in 1991) suggested that it might be fascinating to include some creatures kids probably didn’t know anything about…a superb lyrebird…a wombat…a platypus…. So I began researching every weird and curious creature I could find.
When we came close to the end, I changed the title from 100 Happy Haiku to POLKA DOT POEMS because our brilliant illustrator, Lucy Wynne, was practically channeling polka dots and making sure that trees and rivers and everything else was really and truly made up of crazy polka dots! So the book just HAD to be called POLKA DOT POEMS. Fortunately my fantastic co-publisher, Roy Johnson of Troika Books, loved how that sounded.
- What is your writing process like (if you have any photos of your desk or papers that would be wonderful)?
Most humans yearn to be inspired and moved by things in the natural world. But that inspiration does not come with a timer. The way I get the ideas flowing is that when I get to my computer every morning and start writing, I begin by redoing what I wrote the day before.
We used to do this ages ago in Metro during rehearsals. We would go over and over each scene each day, trying always to summon up more understanding so as to make the piece more precise and clear. Our goal was to challenge our words and feet and bodies to be ever more articulate.
- What do you like about working with illustrators?
I think one of my favourite things in the world is working with designers, illustrators and artists. I suppose it is because I learn so much from them. When I am working with an illustrator on a book we discuss concepts and meaning and feelings and ideas. It is SUCH a full-on experience. Seeing my original concept, a single idea, through the lens of others who work in other art forms, is something I learned all those years ago in Metro. Because THAT is what we did every day. We synthesised language, movement, art, design and music. THAT is how we created our season’s offering each year.
- How have your years of theater informed your writing?
I write with the child well-secured inside of me. But it is not caught in amber: in my case that universal child is alive and well and kicking way down deep. Because with every moment of every piece we performed over the 10 years that I was with METRO, we NEVER forgot the child. We metaphorically became the child. And that was while performing two to four shows a day from end September to end May almost EVERY DAY.
Every time we were in front of an audience, we KNEW if we had gotten it right or not. It was simple. If our work didn’t totally engage the child, if it didn’t 100% capture their imaginations we were off. We understood that if the audience wiggled or chatted or stared out the windows, something was wrong with the piece. Not the child.
SO, we worked very hard to discover the particular ENERGY and CLARITY needed to engage every child every moment of the performance. That is something I learned so thoroughly in Metro that it is now something I am lucky enough to be able to apply page by page in my poetry.
I think the drawing card of METRO, which celebrates the emotional intelligence of the child, is something each of us learned close up all those years ago. Kids get it. If you present things well, appropriately and with energy and rhythm and joy and compassion and clarity and, dare I say, LOVE, kids get it.
Even if the kids do not pick up on everything all the time, they are nevertheless caught up in another world where they are in charge. Their imaginations are being fired up. Their own personal store of new images is being conjured up through the art of words or actions or sounds they read or hear or see. Those images belong to them. They are their own personal ideas which are given form and which live and develop in their minds and hearts, things that no one can ever take away.
It is this creation of new thoughts and feelings which is the goal of any art form that is directed at kids. This imaginative development gives kids that bit of extra life-power. Extra fire-power. Not to mention added joy — because they have discovered new parts of themselves through art.
- What is one of your favorite poems from Cherry Moon and why?
I am drawn to the silly and funny as well as the meaningful and poignant. I also love bumpy sound-good language and sometimes, when the lines cross, it makes me smile.
One of my favourite poems in Cherry Moon is Preposterous Penguins. It is just so silly. And preposterous. The idea of penguins having a poetry pageant and each trying to out-peep each other is… well…ridiculous…and tons of fun.
- What is one of your earliest memories of poetry?
In grade 3 in Wildwood, NJ with Miss Barber. Writing this, which my father kept:
As wise as an owl
That sits in a tree
As busy as a busy
As a busy
As a bee
When the leaves go chuckle chuckle
Through the woods
The bees are very busy
Making their goods.
(It goes on, but I will spare you the rest.)
I also loved, at age 8 and without anyone telling me to, to memorise poems I found in one of my parents’ books, “The World’s Best-Loved Poems.” I can still remember them. And even though I didn’t understand those poems very well, I loved how they felt on my tongue, and how they made me feel. As though I had engaged in another world, a world I never before knew existed. That was amazing.
- How do stories or poetry comfort you?
We live stories. Everyone is really the writer, or certainly the interpreter, of their own story. Each one of us is, of course, different, yet we all somehow learn to deal with opportunity or lack of opportunity, with relationships, with family, with friendship, with hopes, with fears, with the past, with the future and a big world more.
Because we all have long stories, being able to write some things down helps me to understand who I am and how to get on in the world. Because reading or writing a story or poem is one of the ways we can relate, in a considered way, to all the things that happen to us so that other people can read/learn our story — and we can read theirs.
As children we are always looking for guidance about how to approach the world, whether from a theater experience, or art or poetry or books or film, or one’s parents or friends. One of the things about being human is that it has always been important to our species to communicate with one another. We do this by developing language and sharing our stories. This is the root of our unique culture as humans.
- Tell us about one of your most memorable Metro Theater Company experiences that surprised you.
I was surprised all the time in Metro. And starry-eyed about everything we were doing.
I experienced each day as an over-the-moon kind of day, even when things were tough to figure out and get right.
I was surprised by how incredibly and heart-throbbingly wonderful and inventive and funny the actors/dancers were. So many moments stand out.
But overall, no one can imagine the profound sense of connectedness we all felt at the end of a performance when the audience of so many extraordinary faces would explode in cheers and claps, and the teachers would smile.
These moments will forever be etched in my heart and mind, they were simply remarkable. We each felt electrified, not just by the connection we had with each other as performers, but with the connections we had with each and every child in the audience.
These heightened experiences, this formative and extraordinary time with Metro, shaped me as a person. At the same time it empowered and inspired my life as a writer.