Transcript from an interview with
But then I went to junior high, and I actually wrote a poem. I don't know why or how I came to write the poem. I just remember it was a poem about a werewolf, and it was published in the school yearbook. Now, I grew up in a pretty tough, working-class neighborhood in the Bronx, in New York
When some of the tougher kids in the school found out I'd written a poem, I got beat up, because that wasn't something a guy did in my neighborhood. So, for a while, I thought that poetry was hazardous to my health. And it probably was.
When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I became a folk singer. I lived in Greenwich Village. I taught guitar sometimes. I played guitar and sang in coffeehouses at night, and I got to really like blues and ballads from the southern Appalachians and English, Irish, and Scottish ballads. I was really taken by the plainspoken language of these things. I think those things affected my writing more than anything else in the beginning, so I never used fancy poetic devices. I don't reverse things just to make them rhyme. I really try to write in a natural-sounding way.
Will write for shelter
And I said, "Really? You mean you like my drawings?"
She said, "Oh, no. You're the worst artist I've ever seen, but you have a natural gift here for writing rhyme and verse."
I said, "But Miss Hirschman, I worked for six months on these drawings and two hours on these poems."
She says, "Well, that doesn't matter. You're no good at this. You're very good at that."
And I said, "You really like my poems?"
She said, "Yes."
I said, "That's wonderful. Pay me."
She said, "Well, no. It doesn't work that way. This book is a little far-out. Do you think you could write about real animals?"
Well, it happens that I grew up in the Bronx, and I spent a lot of time when I was a kid going to the Bronx Zoo. Yes, I thought, I could write about real animals. She had me coming in about once a week. I was about 23 years old, and I'd bring her whatever animal poems I'd written. She had a little drawer just for me in her desk. Maybe I'd give her seven poems. She'd keep one, throw the other six out, put that one in her drawer, and then she'd take me to lunch. It would be the only decent meal I'd have in that week.
Well, after months and months of this, we were close to a book, and she took me to a really wonderful lunch and said, "Jack, I think we need five more poems to do a book."
I was in despair. I didn't think I had another poem in me. But I went back down to my illegal living situation - I was living in a commercial loft illegally - and there was a notice on the door - big red letters on white. It said essentially, "PAY UP OR GET OUT - 24 HOURS. THIS MEANS YOU." It might have been 48 hours. It was from the U.S. marshal.
Well, sometimes people ask me what motivates me. That was a motivator! I went to my friend Harry's house and got about two quarts of black coffee, went back to the loft, and I started writing. I stayed up all night, and didn't sleep at all. By morning, I had written six poems.
It was a Friday. I had no money. I had to walk to the publisher. I didn't make an appointment, because I couldn't call the publisher. My phone had been disconnected. So, I walked into the publisher, stormed in, and said, "Susan, here are six poems. Take 'em or leave 'em."
She looked at them and said, "Wow. This one, this one, this one, this one, and this one. This one's not so good. We have a book!"
"We have a book? That's wonderful. Pay me."
Paying your dues
Oh, I had lots of odd jobs. Over the years, I was a furniture mover. I was a piano mover. I picked fruit. I had a brief job putting watchbands on watches. I was a janitor. I shoveled coal. I was a cab driver. I know there were some other things in there, but those are the ones that pop into my head right now. Nothing special, really, because I'd met a lot of writers; and most of them, unless they were born with silver spoons in their mouths - and there are not that many of those - had had a lot of odd jobs. I think it's just part of paying your dues.
Collaborating with Dr. Seuss
Hooray for Diffendoofer Day!, in a way, saved my life, because I had just had prostate cancer surgery. I had just gotten out of the hospital and was in a lot of pain. I was also, frankly, feeling sorry for myself. Guys do that. They feel sorry for themselves. I didn't have much energy, and then this project came along. Dr. Seuss' widow had discovered fragments of a manuscript that he had begun. It didn't have a title. It had a setting - a school. It had a few characters, some of whom I kept. It had a few verses, and it had a few drawings.
One of my publishers is Random House, which published all of Dr. Seuss' books. They said, "What can you do with this?"
I said, "Well, I think I can do something."
The Seuss estate agreed that I was the one to do it. I had to pass muster on this. I had to get it past his agent, his widow, and the lawyers. It was amazing.
Well, I worked on it for a few hours every day, and then I'd go back to bed; but I had this feeling that he was standing and looking over my shoulder and collaborating with me. It's a little wacky, but, nonetheless, I had that feeling. I tried to write it in a style that was a combination of his style and mine, so that, first of all, you couldn't tell which verses were his; because he had about six or seven verses, which I kept as much as I could. I kept just about all his verses, and I wove them into a story. There was a lot going on about testing in the schools at that time, and I thought, "Well, this is perfect." That's what the book is about, and it's kind of an homage to teachers. It's not kind of an homage; it is an homage to teachers. It's all about teachers - teachers teaching us how to think.
From syrupy to silly
When I did the first large anthology, poets were charging a lot less, and I was able to put in over 600 poems. When I did the twentieth-century anthology, it's about a third the size, and I think it cost more to do. I guess poets wised up.
But a lot of the poetry I read when I was a kid was didactic. It was preachy. It was moralistic. It was condescending. Some of it was syrupy. That's not what kids want. I mean kids are flesh and blood. They want good stuff. So, I made it a point to avoid all of those things. I think that the best poets who've ever written for children are alive now and were alive in the last 20 or 30 years. It just changed. Poets realized that they could write about food fights and about aliens from outer space.
Stacks of notebooks
I'm never without a notebook. I have one here. I wear cargo pants a lot, so it's easier for me to slip a notebook in. I always carry a notebook and at least two pens, in case one runs out of ink. I'm a compulsive note taker.
As it happens, last night I couldn't sleep. I woke up at 3:15, and I went into the bathroom of our hotel room so as not to wake my wife. I turned on the light and put the seat down on the toilet, sat down, and I wrote a poem of three verses that's for New Kid Number Five> that I'm working on right now - a book that has no other title yet. It's about two dragons a little too macho for their own good. What happens when dragons meet and neither of them likes the other? I wrote that last night between three and five in the morning. So, I'm always writing.
I do most of my finish work at home. I've learned to write everywhere. I write in hotels. I write in restaurants. I write on airplanes. But sooner or later, I have to get it down so it's legible and do the fine work, the tweaking. I do that at home. I work on a computer, so I have to do that.
But I have taken so many notes over the years. I have a stack of notebooks now that, if you piled them up, they would probably go way past the ceiling. I've been doing it for about 40 years, and I have a couple of drawers in a fire-resistant safe filled with them. I have this fear that I'll lose them, and I still haven't culled them. There are ideas I haven't touched yet from 30 or 40 years ago. I'm going to have to cull them to do this next book, because I'm running out of new ideas.
Learning through laughing
Poetry can be fun. One of my very first reviews 40 years ago, for my first book, A Gopher in the Garden, said that there's an old Greek idea about learning through laughing. I don't remember who said it. I don't remember who reviewed the book, and the reviewer didn't remember where the quote was from, but I've always kept that in mind. So, I'm conscious that I am teaching things. I'm certainly teaching vocabulary, because I don't condescend. I use very complex vocabulary in some of my poems. Words like "mucilaginous" and "gelatinous" and "eviscerate," "evaporate." In the dragon poem that I wrote last night, I got to put in a six-syllable word: "inextinguishable."
I like to laugh, and I want to make other people laugh. That's really what I'm trying to do. I just happen to be able to make those things rhyme.
Would I have been better off writing prose? I don't think so. There are plenty of people that do it so much better than I do, or could. I'm really happy to do what I'm doing.
There's a key to every poem
You see, these boring teachers I had would recite a poem and then say, "Now open your geography book to page 122," or whatever.
Well, my feeling is this: find a poem that goes along with the other thing you're teaching. If you're teaching math, find some poems about math. If you're teaching about the food chain, you'll find plenty of funny poems about food.
I used to talk about a poem called "Willy Ate a Worm," and I'd say, "Do the food chain and talk about eating a worm." Don't be afraid to combine poetry with other media. We've had kids set poems to music, combine them with art, make little paintings and mobiles and sculptures and dioramas, and put on plays. Really, the only limit is their imagination and the teacher's imagination.
It's the idea that the words are all out there. I do invent some words, but basically, all the words I've ever written are in the dictionary. It's just finding the way to combine them.
Find the key. There's a key to every poem. Remember that when the poem was written, the poet wrote that poem because something happened to the poet first. It was something felt, or thought, or remembered, or dreamt, or experienced. So, try to put a little of the same feeling into recreating the poem in class that the poet put into writing the poem.
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