Playing with Words: J. Patrick Lewis
J. Patrick Lewis. Photo by Robert Donaldson
After years of working as an economics professor at Ohio’s Otterbein College, J. Patrick Lewis picked up a passion that made little economic sense: children’s poetry. In 1998, he turned to writing full-time, and has since published some 80 books and visited nearly 500 schools. His work tackles everything from underwear and snoring to World War I and the Mona Lisa---though mercifully, not usually in the same volume. But whether his tone is silly or somber, educational or simply entertaining, his writing is always a joy to read.
In recognition of his versatility and craft, Lewis currently serves as the U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate, a two-year post awarded by the Poetry Foundation. In between writing rhymes and polishing prose, Lewis took time to chat with the Big Read about his writing process, why inspiration is overrated, and what books he reads as “brain snacks.”
NEA: You were an economics professor for many, many years. How do you think this background informs your children’s writing?
J. PATRICK LEWIS: Is there a number less than zero? It has nothing to do with my children's writing. When I left college teaching in 1998, I left economics for good. I stumbled into poetry by accident when I was just shy of 40, and that changed my life. I really thought there was nothing better to do than teach college and it turns out I was wrong. This is much better, for me anyway, not necessarily for everyone.
NEA: How did you “stumble into poetry,” as you say?
LEWIS: I had been married for many years, and then I wasn't. I was single, and I fell for this English professor. She did me the great service of introducing me to poetry. Of course, she had a much greater storehouse of poems than I did, but that's how it happened.
NEA: What's your main goal as the U.S. Children's Poet Laureate?
LEWIS: It's the same as it's always been, because I've been making school visits for many, many years. I guess all children's poets who make school visits think of themselves as pied pipers piping down the valleys wild, just bringing poetry to children. What I do in schools is poetry appreciation. I try to get kids more interested in poetry than their parents are. If I can turn three or four heads out of a school of 400 to take a wider, longer, broader look at poetry, then I figure I've succeeded. So that's what I'm all about.
I can't say that being the Children's Poet Laureate changed my direction in any way. It did change, I suppose, the intensity simply because it's involved more travel. I don't say that in any kind of complaining way, because I'm thrilled with being the Children's Poet Laureate. It's the brass ring, it's the crème de la crème in children's poetry. Who could complain? I’d rather be a Children's Poet Laureate than have three Newberry Awards.
NEA: You've written about a huge range of subjects, from snowflakes and Marc Chagall to Galileo and the Civil Rights Movement. How do you find your subjects?
LEWIS: People say, "What inspires you?" I have to say, I think inspiration is overplayed. To me, it's just dedicated hard work. I'm always looking for new subjects. Once I finish a manuscript, I think, "Oh boy, the well's run dry." But usually two weeks later, I've discovered something else and I'm off and running again. There is just no end of topics, and the nicest thing anyone could say about my work is what you just said---that I write about a whole range of subjects. I don't want to speak with one voice; I want to speak in a hundred voices. I've repeated this so often, but it's true: the poem is always more important than the poet. Poets biodegrade in short periods of time. If there's any chance that the poem might have a half-life after the poet's death, that's wonderful. Not all of us are so lucky. Most of us return to ash, and so do our books after a short time.
But so what? That's not the point. The point is that you get up every day, saying to yourself you're going to write great poetry. It doesn't matter if you fail. The point is that you're trying. If you're not trying to write great poetry, if you're satisfied to write middling poetry, then what is the point?
NEA: You mentioned that you think inspiration is overrated. Can you walk me through your writing process then?
LEWIS: I'm compulsive, I confess, about it. Usually the first thing I try to do is think of an entire subject for a book, like Civil Rights, or women, or black Americans, or Blackbeard the Pirate, or baseball---whatever it happens to be. It depends on whether it's a book-length poem, like say the one for Blackbeard, or whether it's individual poems, like the poems I wrote for famous women: Amelia Earhart and Georgia O'Keeffe, Rosa Parks, and so forth. I know to make a book out of that, I'm going to have to have 25 poems. Even though 16 to 18 will fit in the book, I want to give the editor a choice of poems to use. That kind of writing involves research.
I get up at 4 a.m. every day. I sit here and I'm motivated most by Emily Dickinson's line: “tell all the truth but tell it slant.” And that's how I want to approach biographical poems. I want to sort of tease the reader and I want to write about a person in such a way that it may not at first be quite obvious who I'm writing about. So I do research on Rosa Parks, and on that day---in her case, that single day informed her whole life---and I just try to write about it in a way that's as mellifluous as I can make it, as poignant as I can make it. Because I think that event is seminal in our history, and it needs to be told. So I'd love to add my voice, even in a very small way, to telling her story.
Half the time, I'm thinking about nonsense. I love writing nonsense verse as well. I just did a book called If You Were a Chocolate Mustache. That's 160-plus poems, so that took quite a while. But I knew when I was writing that book that I could range over every imaginable subject and throw it in the hopper, because it's not a thematic book. I'm particularly drawn to books like that…. If I come up with a great title, I know I've got to finish it. For example, I wrote a book called Please Bury Me in the Library, and I thought that title is just an absolute cinch for librarians. They're all going to want that title. And it's done very well, I think, largely due to library sales. So titles are important to me, and they're important of course to marketing and sales.
As [writer and frequent co-author] Jane Yolen says, she uses the “BIC” method of writing: butt in chair. You just have to sit for long hours thinking and thinking and thinking. People say, "Don't your fingers get tired?" Of course not. It's not like I'm a stenographer, or typing letters all day long. I'm sitting here just staring into space thinking of how best to say something. So my fingers never get tired at all. I get brain freeze occasionally, but it's not a problem with typing.
NEA: A lot of children's nonfiction books are very linear and give a lot of background: "He was born on such a such a day," or “this event happened because of this.” But with your nonfiction poems and prose, you just seem to dive right in.
LEWIS: You have to consider that when you're writing a poem, a person's life has to be distilled. I think of it as a photograph in words of human experience, sort of personified emotion if you will. You know going into it that you don't have to treat the person's whole life. You can single out some anecdote of his or her life that speaks to the whole person, and that's what I try to do. I just love writing biographical poems. I don't claim that they are in any way competitive with full-blown biographies. But the whole idea is to get people, in reading poetry, to look for that "Aha!" moment, when they sit back and say, "Wow, I never thought of it that way before." You read a biography and put it down, perhaps satisfied, perhaps not, and the same thing is true of poetry. But if poetry uses words in a way that nobody else has used them before, it has a chance of living on for a little while. So that's what I'm always after.
NEA: You've worked with so many different forms as well. Do you ever have to abandon a form midway if it's not working for a particular poem or story?
LEWIS: Absolutely. I'm always looking for new forms. I read, read, read as many books of poetry as I can find, and if I find a form that's really unusual, I'm eager to tackle it, as I did the other day with a little-known poet named Morris Bishop. I tried [that form], I got one-and-a-half stanzas, and I'm just stuck. I'll just give up on it. Usually I have more stick-to-it-iveness than that, but as I get older, I realize some things just aren't worth it. You're just not going to get it right, so give it up and turn to something else.
NEA: You use rhyme in many of your poems, but certainly not all. How do you decide when to use that tool?
LEWIS: Bad rhymes cause me indigestion. You almost invariably read bad rhymes when you go to schools, because children think that they write something down once, it's publishable. My first lesson in schools is to try and encourage kids not to rhyme. And if they say, "Well, yeah but a lot of your poems rhyme," I say, "Yeah they do, but you have to remember I sit in my chair nine, ten hours a day, seven days a week if I'm able.” It's not easy. It's hard work. Although it's a labor of love, it's still hard work. No child is going to sit for that long thinking up good rhymes. They're just going to write the first thing that comes into their heads. So consequently, children are just notoriously bad at rhyming. I tell them if you want to write, that's wonderful. But just write---don't put yourself in the box of rhymes.
When I was a kid, people said, if you're coloring, don't go outside the lines. If [you ask] any illustrator in America, they'll say the first rule is break borders. Go outside the lines. And I would say go outside the rhymes, at least if kids are writing. Why put yourself in handcuffs?
The reason I [rhyme] is that sound is every bit as important as sense…. It's like what Fred Astaire said about dancing. "If it doesn't look easy, you're not working hard enough." I've used that quote before because it's important to me. I want people to look at my work and say, “Wow.” The classic example is Robert Frost. Everything he wrote looks so easy, and yet it must have been so difficult. That's why he's so admired, and will be 100 years from now, unlike the rest of us.
I would say as far as choosing between free verse and rhyme, often times if I'm writing about a serious subject, I will choose free verse because free verse is invariably not funny. If you're writing nonsense, half of the delight is the sound, is the rhyme. So I wouldn't try and write a funny poem in free verse. I suppose it's been done, but certainly not very often.
NEA: What is your favorite part of playing with language?
LEWIS: I've written a whole article on wordplay, because wordplay to me is so much fun. But [it’s] also difficult. Why choose something for your life's work that's easy? There’s no challenge. You want to be challenged. Wordplay involves all kinds of challenges---it's damnably difficult. If you write a couplet or a quatrain or a limerick, and you feel like you've nailed it, there is so much satisfaction from that hard work. Obviously we all crave satisfaction. But it's a pleasurable thing to finish a poem and think you've actually accomplished something great.
NEA: Every writer I've ever spoken with has said that the most important thing, even more important than writing, is reading. Do you read mostly children's lit and poetry?
LEWIS: No, I don't. I read a lot of that, especially when I'm working. But in my leisure hours, I read adult poetry and I confess my secret reading habit, my brain snacks, include detective fiction. I read an awful lot of detective fiction. But I also read a lot of adult poetry, and in 2010 I published my first book of adult poetry. It's hard enough getting a children's book of poetry published, but getting an adult book of poems published in America is like winning the Super Lotto.
NEA: What are you reading right now?
LEWIS: Again, brain snacks. You’ve probably read Stieg Larrson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I read [that series], and then I just fell in love with Scandinavian detective mysteries. I'm reading an Icelandic novel right now. Of course there are a lot of wonderful American mystery writers, and I read them as well.
I'm also re-reading Lewis Turco's New Book of Forms because you can never know enough about verse forms in my opinion. I wish I could convince younger poets of the importance of that, but I guess they have to discover it for themselves.
NEA: Is there anything else you wish I had asked?
LEWIS: One thing. People ask me do I show my work to anyone? I show my work to only one person, and that's my twin brother, Mick. He's my best friend, and I value his opinion so highly. If he says, “Looks good,” I guess I'm ready to send it out. And if he says, “Maybe you better work on it some more,” then I do that. But I don't sit down and write a poem and think, "This should be for a seven year old." I write for an audience of one, and that's me. I figure if it pleases me, then it has a chance of pleasing a child.
I've never been involved in a writer's group. I've never taken a creative writing class. When I first fell in love with poetry and knew nothing about it, I just read poetry for several years until I thought I knew something about the craft, and then I started on my own. And then seven years of rejection later, I got my first manuscript accepted. But rejection happens to everybody. I published 80 books as of this year, and I still get rejected.
NEA: Eighty? That's incredible.
LEWIS: It sounds incredible, but don't call me prolific. Prolific means, it seems to me, implies that you sort of spin these babies out on the weekend. If people only knew how much time I spent at this, I should have 160 books. But obviously it's not the quantity that's important, it's the quality. I tell kids it's hard work, but you see teachers and others who write books who say writing is easy. You're not a writer if you say that. I leave kids with four words: “Nothing succeeds like failure.” I fail every day, a dozen times, and that's just before lunch. But that's okay, because if you're failing, you're trying. I hope everybody sees it that way.