Transcript from a video interview with J. Patrick Lewis

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with J. Patrick Lewis. The transcript is divided into the following clips:


They ask me how a columnist becomes a children's poet and my answer is always that I had a very delicate operation. Of course which isn't true. But I would say in a word, serendipity. I didn't discover poetry until I was almost forty years old. And then I became a fool for it and knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing it, but I couldn't quit my day job, so I continued teaching for another ten years. During that time I was actually writing both adult and children's poetry, and publishing it, I think I had about fifteen children's books published before I retired early from this little college where I taught in Ohio.

You know, I won't say it's been smooth sailing because as I tell kids at every school visit, rejection is the name of the game, even when you've published lots and lots of books. I get rejected all the time and it's just something that you come to accept.

I took my children to a place in Kentucky called Cumberland Falls and if you're there at the right time of year, by which I mean there must be a full moon, you will see something there you will never see anywhere else in America, only in Lake Victoria in Africa, it's a — if there's a full moon you'll see a white rainbow.

And in Kentucky they don't call it a rainbow they call it a moonbow and I was so exercised by that that I came home and I thought well I've got to write a story about it, I did, I sent it off, two weeks later a publisher called me and said they wanted to make a book out of it. I said, "Wow this is going to be easy." And two and a half years later that same publisher canceled the contract, and it broke my heart, but it also taught me that this wasn't going to be easy.

So for the next seven years, I got nothing but rejections. And you know I could have given up but I believe in what I was doing, so I kept at it, and I finally got my first acceptance. That was in 1985, published my first book in 1988.

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The life of a poet laureate

What does the poet laureate do? Well I'll tell you. When they called me to tell me that I was the poet laureate, as soon as I got done crying — which I did profusely — the Director of the Poetry Foundation said, "Your responsibilities will be light." And he lied.

No not really, I'm teasing. He said you have to give two major talks in two years. And I've gone beyond that, I've given four, two at the Poetry Foundation, I gave a TED Talk at the Poetry Foundation, and then I talked up there another time, and then I spoke at the Poet's House in New York, and I spoke less than a month ago at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

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Beginning and ending in delight

Well as Robert Frost said, "A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom. And a children's poem begins in delight and ends in delight." And I haven't heard it described any better than that. There really is a world of difference between adult poetry and children's poetry.

I think generally speaking adult poets think that, they think of children's poetry as sort of a cultural demimonde, not quite a legitimate enterprise, and I think that's too bad, I mean we're the ones after all if we're any good are the ones who are sending these young readers onto possibly reading their work.

So I think our mission has to be an important one.

Lucille Clifton, a well known African American poet once said, "I can't tell you what good poetry is, but I can tell you a good poem when I see it." And I think you know, I can't improve on that. I mean poetry is beautiful speech, as Frost said, "It's a momentary stay against confusion."

It's a blind date with enchantment. There are so many, hundreds of definitions for poetry and I think those, most of those definitions apply to children's poetry as well.

I really must say a word against what is commonly referred to as giggle poetry, because giggle poetry is written by poet's who think they must include burps and nose picking and stuff like that to get down to, to speak to children, and that's exactly what they're doing, they're writing to the lowest common denominator. So none of that poetry in my opinion deserves to even be called poetry.

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Poetry immersion

Well they can, if they're able, and obviously many poor parents aren't able, but if they're able, surround their children with good books, with books of poetry. Not just poetry they like, and I'm speaking to teachers as well, fill your classroom full of books of poetry, all kinds of poetry, serious, humorous, all kinds of verse forms.

And what you're doing is allowing the children to see the magic of language, what language can do for them. And to them, it really is an emotional experience. At least that's the way I see it in reading poetry and I read poetry every single day, there's not a day goes by that I don't read poetry.

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How to make chocolate milk

That's the wonder of school visits because every one, every one is different. I do four forty-five minute presentations each day, and you get, you get it's just the craziest things that happen. I was in Hershey, PA not long ago where they make Hershey chocolate, and one third grader said, "Pat", they all call me Pat, he said, "Pat, how do you make chocolate milk?" I said, "I don't know." He said, "You put a Hershey Kiss on a cow's tongue. And the cow swallows and gives chocolate", well of course that's not the way it happens but you know I thought it was great.

And they just say strange things. I was in Champagne, Illinois and a fourth grader came up to me she said, "Pat do you have lambs?" I said, "No." She said, "I have lambs, I have two lambs." I said, "Really? That's great." She said, "Yeah I'm in 4H."

She said, she said "They both won blue ribbons at the Champagne County Fair last month." I said "Wow that's terrific." She got shy, she said "Do you know what their names are?" I said "no", she said "Patrick and Lewis", I said be still my heart. And then in the next breath she said, "We had Lewis for dinner last night." I thought you know from the sublime to the ridiculous. Anyway.

Writing poetry is very, very difficult, and I don't generally do poetry workshops because some teachers and some parents expect their kids to come out of one having written a publishable, polished poem.

And the first thing I say is, I can't write a publishable poem in forty five minutes, why should I expect a fourth grader to be able to do that? So I generally don't write with them. And unfortunately, it's not surprising, but when you talk about poetry with kids the first thing they think of is rhymes because that's what they grew up with I guess.

But I try to encourage them not to rhyme, I mean rhyming is not one of your holiday games, it takes a long time, as my friend Jane Yolen says she uses the BIC method of writing &mash; butt in chair — and that's what you have to do, you have to sit down in a chair for long hours. I mean writing is not inspiration, it is not inspiration, it is dedicated hard work.

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The sound of a poem

The emphasis on sound in poetry is absolutely essential. Most of my poems do indeed rhyme but as I say that just doesn't happen willy-nilly, it happens because you're willing to work at it, and many people aren't, they go for the cheap rhyme or the quick rhyme, and it just doesn't work.

And children are notoriously bad at rhyming. And it's not because they're naturally bad it's because they simply lack the vocabulary, one, and two they lack the time. I mean, what child is going to sit for eight, nine hours a day in a chair thinking about poetry? None of them, and they shouldn't. They're too busy living their lives.

So my advice to them is always first and foremost just write, why put yourself in the box of rhymes? It's too difficult to write yourself out of it. My parents and teachers when I was a kid, used to say, oh don't color outside the lines, well ask any illustrator in America and they will say the first rule of illustrating is break borders, go outside the lines.

And I want to tell children who are starting to write poetry, break the rules, go outside the lines, go outside the rhymes rather, and just write. You know, it's so much easier than trying to come up with good rhymes especially if you have a limited vocabulary.

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A reader, then a writer

If I could just give a couple of words of advice to children, an illustrator of mine, who has done six of my books said, "Pat if a child comes to you and asks what he or she can do to become an illustrator tell them they need to do three things: Draw, draw, draw."

And I would say if a child wants to become a writer do three things: Read, read, read. Never stop reading. Reading is so much important than writing. Samuel Johnson said over two hundred years ago, "Never trust anyone who writes more than he or she reads."

And it's true, you have to be a reader first, first of all.

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All of the great writers of the world have been rewriters. Shakespeare, Milton, Homer, they're all rewriters, everybody who writes for a living is a rewriter. Maybe Shelley's Ozymandias was written once, but that's the exception that proves the rule.

And I know the story about Frost writing Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening and his pen almost never left the page, well that's wonderful but that's a counterpoint to the way writing really happens. It just doesn't happen that way, every poem I write I write twenty to thirty times.

You tell me you want to be a writer, I say to a third grader, I stand first in line to applaud you, the next words out of your mouth should be but I promise I will be a rewriter.

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Follow poetry

I'm not trying to make kids love poetry, in fact I want them to hate poetry less than most Americans do. Most Americans really hate poetry. We're maybe the only country in the world, we are the one country in the world who has less interest in poetry than anyone else.

I go to Russia so often, and my friends are just average Russian citizens and they can recite reams of poetry, Pushkin, Lermontov and other great Russian poets, you go out in the street here and ask somebody a couplet and it would be hard for us to do it. I'm not saying everybody should love poetry, in fact when I leave a school if I have reached three or four students out of a school of four hundred, I feel that I've succeeded.

Encouraging them to follow poetry for maybe the better part of their lives.

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Well I'll tell you, as far as children's poets I try not to mention any of the 20th century for leaving out some because there aren't that many of us, and we're all friends, obviously I have my favorites, so I stick with the 19th century because they haven't been improved in my opinion, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.

They set the standard and it's a standard that hasn't been matched in my opinion. As far as adult poets, oh my the list is endless. Frost, Dickinson, Emily Dickinson, oh my, Philip Larkin, Charles Causley, a British poet, is one of my favorites. And then some second tier poets, E.A Robinson, A.E Housman, there are just so many wonderful poets.

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Word choice

One question I unfortunately don't ask myself often enough, and I know it is my choice of diction. Some of my poems are less kid-friendly than they should be because I always say I write for an audience of one, namely myself, and I say if it pleases me then maybe somebody else will get some enjoyment out of it, but that isn't always true for a third grader because many of the words are beyond the ken of children.

That's why I have to spend an awful lot of time simply thinking about word choice. Of course I'm also thinking about the verse form, whether it should be a haiku or a limerick, or a villanelle or a sonnet or whatever, or free verse, but mostly it's just about word choice for me.

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Transported by words

Poetry can transport a child to other places. I had wrote a book called Monumental Verses for National Geographic about famous places around the world, and a third grader said to me, "Pat have you been to all of those places?" And I said "No.", well how can you write poems about them?

I said, "Well that's easy, I'm a reader. You don't have to travel to be a writer, all you need is a stack of books and a chair and a pen. I said, I have nothing against traveling, I like to travel, and I do it but if I didn't want to I could still be a writer, I can still write about the Great Wall of China without ever having gone to it.

And poetry, I think poetry does that, when I read poetry, I read it for the a-ha moment. I want to hear what the poet says in a way that no one else has ever said it before. I sit back and think, a-ha. Isn't that amazing? Isn't that amazing what this guy did with three words, this not this guy, woman, this person did with three words.

And I can't help but think that children must feel some part of that as well. If they're lovers of language, and they might well become that completely some day but if they're budding lovers of language that kind of thing is, it's just indescribable.

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Every subject under the sun

My objective, and I've said from the very first, is to write across the curriculum, and to write across the age spectrum. Occasionally I'll write a "I can read" book for the very young. I'd also like to think that I'm helping to create another genre which is adult picture books.

I happen to agree with you, I think some of my books really are intended for adults or at least can be appreciated by adults as well as YA or the YA high school audience. And you know, I'm trying to write about every subject under the sun, math teachers and sciences teachers come up to me and say, I'm sorry math and science it's, they're like oil and water to poetry. I said not to me, I've written a book called Arithmetickle, I've written a book called Edgar Allen Poe's Pie where I put classic poems into math puzzlers.

There's nothing under the sun you can't write a poem about, nothing. And it really bugs me. I heard this today at the school I spoke at, one of the teachers said this and he said it with almost a certain amount of pride, it was too bad because he used the term, and this is to me it's unfortunate, two words that I think are the worst words in the English language when put together: Poetry and unit.

When I hear a teacher talk about a poetry unit, I know that he or she is going to spend maybe 3 or four days at poetry and then thank the lord it's over, we can move onto something really important. But to me, poetry ought to be an everyday experience for every child, and you can do it with DEAR, Drop Everything and Read, take five minutes, you can.

I try to encourage principals at elementary schools, you should be reading a poem every day on morning announcements. It would take fifteen to thirty seconds, you would have no end to volunteers, teachers, students, custodial staff, secretaries, everybody would want to be on it.

Billy Collins actually came up with that idea it's called, "Poetry 180" for 180 days in the school year, he came up with that as the US Poet Laureate, but I wrote to him in fact, I said, "Why didn't you include elementary schools? That's such a wonderful idea." I think it should also be done for elementary schools.

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I wrote a book called Freedom Like Sunlight: Praise Songs for Black Americans, and I was very happy with that book, I still am, in fact it's being reissued this year, came out in 2000, but it's been reissued. And I just thought I had more to say about the subject, and specifically I had something to say about international civil rights leaders.

People like Nelson Mandela and so forth. So I did, and fortunately an editor agreed with that and published When Thunder Comes.

Some of these people I really didn't know that much about, Sylvia Mendez who was a predecessor to the Brown vs Board of Education, but for Latinos in California, I didn't really know that much about her, since then I've been in touch with her because the poem I wrote about her when she was a little girl and became the fulcrum for the Latino civil rights movement.

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Emmett Till

I tell children that poetry should be fun, if it's not fun you should be out on the playground playing soccer. But poetry that is fun does not have to be funny.

Poetry that's fun can be every bit as entertaining if it's serious. If it — I'm not saying instructs but perhaps tells a story in a way that prose does not succeed in doing. Coleridge said, Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, "Prose is words in the best order."

But he said, "Poetry is the best words in the best order." And I think that is exactly so.

This poem, I had written it originally for Emmett Till, and my editor said, she thought I should try to do, to do it again, but this time from the point of view of Emmett Till's mother, and so I have. I don't know if you can see that, it's kind of dark but it's called, there's Emmett Till's mother, and the poem is called The Innocent.

And it seemed to me that this poem would take the best form in the sense of a villanelle, a French verse form. The Innocent.

Dark on that Mississippi Delta day my baby Emmett fell so far from grace that justice, what would justice have to say? I taught him not to sass or disobey, they said he shamed a white girl to her face, dark on a Mississippi Delta day.

They beat him bloody, oh they made him pay, they kicked him, shot, then drowned him just in case, and justice could not find the words to say. The quitters — the killers were acquitted by the way. As Southern virtue gussied up in lace, dark on a Mississippi Delta day.

They closed Emmett's casket to my dismay, seemed like to me it was a hiding place. So Emmett's momma found the words to say, I laid my bloodied boy, my bloodied boy out on display, but fifty thousand mourners won't erase dark from that Mississippi Delta day when justice did have one word to say.

So anyway. That's a serious poem. Half the time when I get up in the morning I'm interested in writing more serious poems, half the time I want to write humorous poems, or nonsense verse. And it just depends upon my mood or it depends upon the collection I'm working on.

So I really can't say ahead of time until I'm actually in my chair what I'm going to be working on at that particular moment.

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200 animals

Well it was certainly not an easy task, this is my very first anthology. I would not claim to be an anthologist by trade. And I knew I had to have 200 poems, and I knew National Geographic had the greatest collection of photographs of animals in the world. And so I just set out, first of all I made a long, long list of animals because I wanted to try to include 200 different animals, I didn't succeed at that, I mean there are a couple of poems about elephants, and a couple of poems about spiders and so forth.

But that's how I did it and I also made a list of potential poets. But the fact is that National Geographic wanted to use as many public domain poems, and anonymous poems as I could find.

And finding a children's poem published before 1923 that resonated in the way that I suggested in the introduction is difficult indeed because those poems were written for a different audience, in a different time. I did use many of those public domain poems but I spend an awful lot of time trying to figure out which ones were the most kid friendly.

And then as far as the other ones go I used poems that were recently published or some, I commissioned some from my friends, I asked them to write about specific topics, and they did so, and in some cases it was a question of choosing between poet A, B, and C for this particular, for a particular elephant, it was a dicey proposition.

Well I think of it as both a coffee table art book but also one that you share with children and grandchildren sitting on your lap on the sofa. I hope this book sets a standard for books of this type for years to come.

I think it, I think in the sense of going from — Of filling out each section was really vital. And doing it as well as I could, and doing it with an admixture of poems that were wildly different from each other. I didn't want page after another coming like tracer bullets, I wanted them to read, I wanted each one to be kind of a stunner, to make, to contain maybe an a-ha moment for the reader, I don't know if I succeeded in that.

But I was — well you can tell I was very pleased with the outcome.

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Hidden poem

Yeah if you take the dust jacket off I've never seen a book with a poem on the cover like this. And I'm particularly fond of this poem. It had been published in an adult journal maybe ten years ago.

But I thought they wanted to include it in the book but they thought it was a little too old, so I thought that was the end of it, and yet they decided to put it on the front cover. But most people, most people aren't going to take off the dust jacket. But that doesn't matter to me, I mean maybe at some point they'll see it, who knows?

Yeah you can tell that it's for an older age group, but it's called Instructions Found After the Flood.

Let the red fox quicken the seasons. Let the zebra buck and clatter in the cage of his skin. Leave the glass lagoons to the blue heron whose eye is steady. Let jungles whisper jaguar whose paw is velvet. Let the worm explore the globe, his apple.

Let the spider embroider the air. Let tongue and belly be called reptile. Let the bat acrobats tumble till down. Let the lowly slug parole the foot paths of Asia Minor. Let seagulls snow down the harbors of the east. Let the panther surround the quiet panic she has made. Let the hippo squat and the antelope lope. Let the rhino bully the bush.

Let the turtle be. Let the snail nod in the hush of her mushroom room. Leave the deserts to the one and two humped emperors. And let the black kite brown the morning mustard fields. Leave afternoons for music, the bees drilling in the lindens. Let owls be your night lanterns, geese your compass, skunks your caution.

Well anyway, a poem that is likely not to be seen by too many people, but that's all right, that's all right, I was pleased to have it there.

Yeah it's good too if you have a certain knack for reading. You know, I'm not saying I'm Dylan Thomas or anybody like that, but that poem I think contains emotions that ought to come out in spoken English. And so I try to read that with a great deal of emotion. And some people are good readers, and some people aren't, they just — you know you can't fault them for it, they may be wonderful poets but they can't read their poems very well, so, thank you.

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The last passenger pigeon

I think one of my favorite books is called Swansong, a lot of my friends have done books about dinosaurs and I will never do a book about dinosaurs because other people have done it and I don't want to do what they do. But I'm fascinated by the subject of extinction, so I did a book called Swansong.

And all of the animals in this book are four hundred, have been extinct less than four hundred years, so obviously no dinosaurs, which went extinct sixty five million years ago. And I had to do research on every single one of them, but it was, I won't say it was the happiest book I ever did because it was about death, but it was the most fascinating book because of the research.

And how these animals, how the last one died, I always loved telling kids about the passenger pigeon. There was at one time, one out of every two birds in America was a passenger pigeon, there were billions, James J. Audubon once said he saw a flock of them. Three hundred twenty miles long and one mile wide.

It took three days for them to fly over, if you shot a gun in the air you would kill two hundred birds with one shot, if they landed on tree branches, the thick as piano legs they snapped them like twigs. If they landed in fields and flew up again the fields were white with bird droppings.

This is where the idea of stool pigeon came from. They would get one of these birds, I don't mean to be gross here, they would sew its eyes shut and they would hammer its feet into a piano stool or a tree stump, and the other birds would see it flapping, flapping its wings in pain, they would fly down to inspect, bang, shoot them out of the air.

Out of the billions and billions of these birds the last, the very last passenger pigeon at one o' clock in the afternoon on September 1st 1914 in the Cincinnati, Ohio Zoo her name was Martha, she was 29 years old, obviously she died from, from either old age or loneliness, or both.

If you ever go to the Cincinnati Zoo you'll see a huge display of Martha and the passenger pigeon, they're doing wonderful things with DNA these days but none of these animals: Stellar sea cow, um, the laughing owl, the Arizona cougar, the bally tiger, none of them will ever be coming back again.

And they're all gone because of the greatest predator on earth, which of course is us, so. That makes I think for a compelling story to fourth and fifth graders who are becoming interested in non-fiction.

You know my poems don't have a message per say but if they can provide some information to kids in a way that sticks with them, I mean, every time I hear that story or tell it, it's just not a story I'm ever going to forget.

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This is one that I've shared quite often in schools, I suppose it's special because my son was the central character. When he was five years old he was climbing up the slide in the park and just as he got to the top of the slide his, it's a hot summer day his pants fell down.

And just as his pants fell down a bee came along and stung him right on the tush. And so I thought, years and years and years later I thought, I was trying to think what I should write about and I remember that day, and since bee stings hurt so much and he was crying, I thought well I'll change this to a mosquito so here it is.

Now you have to remember, my son was five years old in this poem, and he's now forty six, a little bit of time has passed since, well not only since I wrote, but since it happened. Here's the poem it's called Mosquito.

I was climbing up the sliding board when suddenly I felt a mosquito bite my bottom and it raised a big red welt. So I said to that mosquito, I'm sure you wouldn't mind if I took a pair of tweezers and I tweezered your behind.

He shriveled up his body and he shuffled to his feet and he said, I'm awfully sorry but mosquitoes got to eat. Still there are mosquito manners and I must have just forgot'em and I swear I'll never, never, never bite another bottom.

But a minute later Archie Hill and Buck and Theo Brown were horsing on the monkey bars hanging upside down, they must have looked delicious from a mosquitoes point of view cause he bit them on bottoms Archie, Buck, and Theo too. You could hear them going holy, you could hear them going whack, you could hear'em cuss and holler going smack, smack, smack.

A mosquito's awful sneaky, a mosquito is mighty sly, but I never, never, never thought a skeeter tell a lie. So, anyway the kids have fun with that because of course it involves their bottoms.

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Great, good, bad

I wrote a book and it always surprised that it took me so long to write this book because some of my favorite people are librarians, and if I don't get to my local library three days a week I always feel deprived. And I think, this is, I'd written forty five books or so before I wrote this one it was called, Please Bury Me in a Library.

And this is a short poem, six lines, but it says everything I think I ever want to say about books. It's called Great, Good, Bad. A great book is a homing device for navigating paradise. A good book somehow makes you care

"Oh, magic hour, when a child first knows she can read printed words!" — A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1943