Paul B. Janeczko is this year’s CYBILS’ Poetry Award winner for Requiem Poems of the Terezin Ghetto. It’s a magnificent collection of poems about a very dark time in history.
I am so please to share my interview with the blogosphere this morning as I kick off “Poetic Conversation, Interviews with Poets.” Here’s our conversation:
Your Reading Life
MsMac: What books are on your night stand?
Paul: On my night stand I have poetry and fiction. Among the former are editions of WC Williams, Whitman, and Yeats as well as a book of poems by a friend of mine. My current fiction selection is Hoopla by Harry Stein, a novel about the Black Sox World Series scandal of 1919. For bedtime reading, I alternate between “literary fiction” and mysteries. I’m not sure what my next mystery will be, although I have been reading a lot of mysteries by European writers.
MsMac: Yeats is one of my favorites, What was your favorite book as a child? As a teen? As an adult? Does any particular genre stand out?
Paul: I’m not sure I can name a single favorite book when I was a kid, but you almost pick any of the Hardy Boys books. Because of what I was made to read in high school, those years are a reading blank. I spent a lot of time reading the sports page of the newspaper and the backs of baseball cards. As an adult, I was quite taken by Doctor Zhivago. And later, The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary. Beyond that, I’d hate to say. Books are like people we meet in life. And different points in your life, certain people are very important to you. But that often changes.
MsMac: I like that, “Books are like people we meet in life.” Where’s your favorite reading spot?
Paul: In the winter, I love reading in on the sofa in front of the wood stove. I’m up and about by 4:30 or so every morning. I come downstairs and get the fire roaring, make a cup of coffee, and sit back to read. My morning reading is nonfiction. Currently I’m reading Stealing Rembrandts by Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg, (I’m a nut about art theft!) I just finished reading Hellfire by Nick Tosches, a biography of Jerry Lee Lewis. Talk about a wild ride!
MsMac: There are rapid changes in the world of publishing now that tablets/ereaders and such are in the market in a big way? What are your thoughts about ereaders versus a book? Do you have an ereader?
Paul: I own an iPad, and I’ve read one book on it, just to see what it was like. It was okay. But I’m a Book Person, and that means words on paper pages. I just like the feel of a book. I like the smell of a book. I like licking the tip of my finger to turn the page. I like paper bookmarks: old ball game tickets, a business card from a great restaurant, a small cockeyed picture that my daughter drew 15 years ago. For me, that’s all part of reading. Make no mistake. I get a kick out of my iPad, but it will never replace a book for me. Having said all that, I should report that my latest nonfiction book for Candlewick Press, The Dark Game: True Spy Stories will be an e-book in the fall. But it will also be paperback in the fall!
MsMac: I agree about the feel of books in your hand. I just got an iPad so have yet to read a book from it.
Your Writing Life
MsMac: What does a day of work look like for you? What is your favorite time of day to write?
PJ: As I said, I am up around 4:30 each morning and do my non-work-related nonfiction reading. I also use a bit of that time to catch up on my magazines, of which I subscribe to far too many. As part of my study of Buddhism, I will also do a little spiritual reading in the morning. Right now I am reading How to Train a Wild Elephant: and Other Adventures in Mindfulness by Jan Chozen Bays, a Zen teacher. By 9, I try to be in my office and ready to work. I try to do my project work in the morning, and save the more clerical work, like emails and arranging author visits at the end of the day.
MsMac: Writing the first draft or revising? Which is your favorite?
Paul: Both have their joys. Although you can’t beat the enjoyment of starting on a new project, there’s a lot to be said about knowing that you are on the home stretch. Also, I understand that rewriting—and rewriting—is the only way to make my writing as good as it can be.
MsMac: What does your writing space look like?
Paul: Disorganized, unfortunately, although I seem to be able to find things that I need…eventually. My space has all the writer-ly tools you would expect, but I also surround myself with books on 2 of the walls. Also, lots of books stacked on the floor in front of my desk. I am also blessed to work in a room that has 3 large windows.
MsMac: What are your current projects?
Paul: I’m writing the draft of a follow-up book to The Dark Game for Candlewick. This one is called Double Cross: Deception in Time of War and is great fun. The characters involved in deceptions are incredible. I’m reading the final version of World’s Greatest Hoaxes, which will be available in the fall through the Scholastic book clubs. Two editors are considering other nonfiction projects, mostly related to art crime.
MsMac: What advice do you have for poets of any age?
Paul: Read. Read. Read. Read poetry of all kinds, of course, but don’t let your reading stop there. And, of course, pay attention, take notes. Become a watcher. In between the reading and watching and note taking, write. Write. Write. Write. Make it your passion.
MsMac: What might readers find you doing when you’re not writing?
Paul: Reading. Walking, while listening to an audio book. Cooking. Missing my daughter, a college senior who in Bali (!!!) for her semester abroad. She returns in mid-May, graduates 2 weeks later.
Your Reading Life
MsMac: I was very surprised to learn about the Terezin Ghetto and how the Nazi’s created a place for creative Jews. Wow. Where did you find the inspiration for Requiem Poems of the Terezin Ghetto?
Paul: I got the idea for the book in 1993, when I read an article in a classical music magazine about the town. Like you, I had no idea of its history. I photocopied the article and stuck in a file. Over the years, I noticed that name popping up now and again. Then I read a collection of poems and drawings created by the children of Terezin, I Never Saw Another Butterfly. So it was about then that I started thinking about giving voice to the victims of Terezin. In 2008, I had the great joy as a visiting poet at the American School in Warsaw for a week, and when my work at the school was completed, I flew to Prague for the weekend and spent one full day at the camp, just taking pictures and picking up the vibe of the place.
MsMac: The first time I read the book, I paid attention to those voices with a number attached to them. The second time, I paid attention to the small poems which seem to be the voice of Miklos. He seems to be the observer of the Terezin Ghetto. How did that come about?
Paul: Miklos is the observer of the madness. I wanted him in the book for that reason, but also because he was a young voice and most of the poems are about adults. And structurally, his short poems sort of stitch the book together.
MsMac: In your afterward, you explained that Izk Posselberg’s poem is just twenty- five words based on the postcards the Nazi’s allowed the Jews to write. Were you able to read some of the poems?
Paul: I read some excerpts from a few of the postcards, and it seemed that the challenge of writing a poem in 25 words was too good to pass up. In the slide show that I use when I visiting schools or read the poems to adults there is an example of one of the postcards, complete with a stamp with Hitler’s image on it. The Nazis gave these postcards to the inmates when they arrived. They were to write to relatives, telling them they are okay.
MsMac: What did you discover about the people of Terezin Ghetto in your research and by visiting there? What is the place like today?
Paul: Many of them were extraordinarily talented and creative. And, for many of the inmates, it was that spirit of creativity that sustained them through incredibly painful times that nearly always ended horribly.
The town of Terezin is a very pleasant village. There are two or three museums commemorating the history of the Jews of Terezin. Other than that, you would have no idea of the horrors that walked those streets. Many of the barracks that saw so much suffering, disease, and death have been refurbished and painted in lovely pastel colors. That was one of the most startling things about the town, that jarring contrast between how lovely it was when I was there in ’08 and death was in the air 60 years ago.
MsMac: There are illustrations in the book with art credits listed in the back. What can you tell me about the illustrations and the people who drew them?
Paul: The illustrations were created by the inmates, most of who wound up at Auschwitz. Most of the drawings were smuggled out of the camp. Others were hidden until the Russians liberated the camp.
MsMac: Where there any challenges during the writing of the book?
Paul: The biggest challenge was writing a book that was totally dark. When I wrote Worlds Afire, I was able to lighten things up a bit with characters or situations. I couldn’t do that with this book. So, living with that darkness was one challenge. Another one was writing the poems from the point of view of the Nazis because I had to put myself in the mind of a monster.
MsMac: What surprised you about writing these poems?
Paul: It surprised me what we do each other as soon as we separate the world into Us and Them. At the same time, it surprised me what we do for each other when we are only Us.
Paul: In addition to the historical lessons of the Holocaust, I hope young readers see Requiem as the ultimate horrifying bullying book. It’s about labeling people. The label’s not as important as the act of labeling. All labels are really Us and Them. That’s unhealthy, and, as we’ve seen countless times, from the murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming to the acts of the immigration vigilantes to the Holocaust, the consequences are always tragic.
MsMac: How did you find out that you had won the CYBILS award for Poetry?
Paul: This may sound dumb, but I don’t remember! I think it was someone from Candlewick, but I couldn’t swear to that. I had been aware of the award, of course, and knew I’d made the shortlist. I do remember noticing the stiff competition on the shortlist, and that a number of the poets are my friends. It was wonderful to win, no matter how I found out!
Just for Fun
MsMac: Chocolate: Dark or milk?
Paul: 1%, just for my tea and cereal.
MsMac: Coffee or tea?
Paul: Coffee, most of the time, although winter is more of a tea season for me.
MsMac: Dance: funky chicken or the tango?
Paul: No question: tango!
MsMac: Favorite Quote:
Paul: Like a favorite book, it changes the more you read, but two of my favorites: 1) from The Princess Bride–“True love is the best thing in the world, except for cough drops. This one seems to have stood the test of time with me. Which reminds me, you can add the Goldman book to my adult favorites.
2) from The Horse’s Mouth. At the end of the novel, the protagonist, a painter named Gully Jimson, is dying. The nurse attending him has told him that he’s seriously ill. “Not so serious as you’re well,” he tells her. “I should laugh all round my neck at this minute if my shirt wasn’t a bit on the tight side.” She replies, “It would be better for you to pray.” “Same thing, mother.” Okay, so it more of a “scene” that a quote. It’s still delicious.
Thank you, Paul for a great interview. “Paul Janeczko is available for school visits and Skype visits. You can find more information about visits on his website: www.paulbjaneczko.com.”
Come back on Poetry Friday for a poem from Requiem: Poems of the Terezin Ghetto.
Interview Wednesday is being held at Perogies and Gyoga (http://www.perogiesandgyoza.com/)