As Children’s Poet Laureate, one of my jobs is to select a collection of poetry each month to feature on the Poetry Foundation’s website. There you’ll find my monthly book picks, and those of the previous Children’s Poets Laureate. My pick for February, 2014 is We Go Together: A Curious Selection of Affectionate Verse by Calef Brown.
Interview with Children’s Author and Illustrator Calef Brown
In addition, I interviewed Calef about his life as a poet and about his new book. Here is what he had to say.
Kenn Nesbitt: Who / what are most influenced you as you began writing children’s poetry?
Calef Brown: My work is shaped by poetry and verse that I loved as a kid. My parents had a copy of Lear’s Complete Nonsense, I loved Lewis Carroll, Ogden Nash, and I enjoyed ( somewhat obsessively ) memorizing rhyming stories, including Peter Newell’s The Hole Book, and Seuss – especially The Sleep Book, which was, and is, my favorite.
When I decided to start writing poetry with the intention of creating picture books, my other main inspiration was music – songs and lyrics by artists like The Kinks, The Beatles, Captain Beefheart, Robyn Hitchcock, Tom Verlaine and many others. The rhythmic influence of pop music, Jazz, and Hip Hop is a big part of my poetry. The poems I write are meant to be read aloud– energetically, sometimes softly, and I think of them like songs in a way. I love playing with the musicality of language.
KN: How did you come to start writing children’s poetry?
CB: In 1996, after working steadily as a freelance illustrator for five years, I decided to write something of my own to illustrate. I needed to create work that could potentially be around longer than my art in the magazines I was working for. I took a trip to India for six weeks with the idea that I would return with a picture book dummy. When I left I wasn’t specifically intent on writing poetry, but quickly found that it came to me more naturally than other more narrative forms. I found that I love the process of editing down and playing with an idea, a poem, until the perfect expression is found– word by word. It’s like putting together a puzzle that keeps shifting. When I returned home I did have a dummy, which became my first book– Polkabats and Octopus Slacks. I was very unsure of myself as a poet, and so in my first two books the poems are called “stories”.
I didn’t have an agent, or any idea, really, how to put what I had created out there, so I just sent it to about a dozen publishers and Margaret Raymo, an editor at Houghton Mifflin loved it. I’ve worked with her on many books since then.
KN: What do you think poetry does for children?
CB: Poetry gives children a way to enter into invention and playfulness with words which is wonderfully free. I have visited many elementary schools, and done lots of workshops with kids, and there’s nothing like the joy that comes when they write their own poems, tell their stories in verse. I have two young children and seeing their verbal inventiveness and love of wordplay is so wonderful. They will often make me read a poem a dozen or more times in a row if it’s one that tickles their fancy. This nursery rhyme ( or is it a limerick?) is one of their current favorites:
There once were two cats of Kilkenny
Each thought there was one cat too many
So they fought and they fit
And they scratched and they bit
Till (excepting their nails
And the tips of their tails)
Instead of two cats there weren’t any!
KN: Tell me a little bit about your career as a children’s author/poet and illustrator.
CB: The fact that my first book was well received and went through a number of reprints gave me some confidence that I could continue with writing and creating books. I have written and illustrated 11 of my own so far, and illustrated a few by other writers. They seem to alternate between books of illustrated poems, like Polkabats and Octopus Slacks, Hallowilloween, Flamingos on the Roof, and thematic book-length stories written in verse, including Tippintown, Boy Wonders, and Pirateria. There have been peaks and valleys, some of the peaks being hearing my work read on NPR by Daniel Pinkwater, who has become a friend and mentor, some flattering reviews, awards, and having a New York Times best seller. I have had some wonderful opportunities to travel and read my work, at ALA Conventions, The National Book Festival, Museums and Art Centers and lots of elementary schools. The most satisfying part of what I do is meeting and hearing from people that enjoy my work. I love it when parents and kids email me and share their experiences with my books and of writing their own poems and making drawings. The idea that my books have played even a small part in adding to a child’s love of reading and poetry is humbling.
KN: Tell me about your book We Go Together: A Curious Selection of Affectionate Verse.
CB: We Go Together came about as a prompt from my editor to create a book of poetry around the themes of love and friendship. I wanted to write some poems that could be appreciated by both children and adults, so I was dealing with non-romantic love and the bonds of friendship and affection. I enjoyed the challenge of writing poems that were consistent with my other books – offbeat, with a slight edge – but absolutely sincere about the subjects– having a best pal, sticking up for someone, being inspired by a friend, sharing laughter, an older sibling caring for a younger one. I wanted the poems to be moving and emotional, but delivered in a playful and sometimes absurd way. It’s the second book of poetry I have written that has an overall theme – the first being Hallowilloween, and it’s quite a different process than just writing poem to poem, and letting the subjects of a collection be what they will. When I was working on the book my family was living in a cottage on an island in Maine, a very special and memorable year for us. I did the paintings for the book on the kitchen table while helping to care for our newborn daughter, and I’m not sure how I finished them, but they somehow turned out pretty well. The book is dedicated to my wife Anissa, and my kids– Darwin and Matilda.