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 November, 2013 is World Rat Day: Poems About Real Holidays You’ve Never Heard Of by J. Patrick Lewis.
Interview with Children’s Poet J. Patrick Lewis
In addition, I interviewed Pat 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?
J. Patrick Lewis: Myra Cohn Livingston was important to me, both as friend and anthologist. She was the first poet to welcome me to the fold by accepting my first children’s poem. And then she kept the door open for her next twenty collections . . . until she passed away in 1996.
As for mentors, my oldest are also my newest—Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. None better, not in their century, nor in ours.
But I hasten to add that I spend at least half my time reading and writing adult poetry. Classic poets are an endless source of pleasure and instruction—Auden, Yeats, Frost, Dickinson, Wilbur, Edward Thomas, Charles Causley. . . . How much time do you have?
KN: What do you think poetry does for children?
JPL: Of the scores of definitions of poetry, one of my favorites—I believe William Cole said it—is that poetry is beautiful speech. Europeans learn two, three, or more languages as a matter of course and geography. Americans, most of them anyway, will speak only one language in their lifetimes. If we fail to make children bilingual, let’s try to encourage them to speak English as well as it can be spoken. Save for the great fiction writers, we don’t turn to prose for verbal wonder. Great poetry does that for children and adults alike. Children won’t gravitate to poetry: It must be brought to them. And if it takes, poetry can become for them a lifelong joy, possibly even a passion.
KN: Tell me a little bit about your career as a children’s poet.
JPL: At the hoary age of forty, I eased out of a career in professing economics to college students. Never blessed with a teacher or librarian who led me to poetry, I discovered it myself and realized I had been toiling with beetles instead of butterflies. But just as I had to study for years to become an economist, I knew the same would be true of life as a poet. This time though I relished the challenge. Reading books of prosody and poetry—classic and contemporary, adult and children’s—has been and continues to be my home schooling.
KN: Tell me about your new poetry book, World Rat Day.
JPL: Most of us are familiar with the national holidays, but few are aware of hundreds of lesser known—some truly bizarre—occasions for throwing a party. Once I had discovered them myself, I realized that they would make ideal if nonsensical subjects for poetry. Voila! World Rat Day.
I’m delighted to bow obsequiously to my wonderful editor, Liz Bicknell at Candlewick Press, maker of some of the world’s most gorgeous children’s books. Liz loves the freaky as much as I do. And to prove it, she signed another exquisite goofball (that’s high praise), the illustrator Anna Raff, who could not have been a better choice to evoke my tongue-in-cheek tributes to animal holidays. Her art is just the kind of nuttiness I was hoping for. Editor, designer, illustrator, and all the other geniuses at Candlewick produced a marvelous homage to the absurd.