Interview Wednesday: J. Patrick Lewis

Today I am pleased to share my recent interview with J. Patrick Lewis, currently the Children’s Poetry Laureate.

Your Reading Life

MsMac:What books are on your night stand?
JPL: P.G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters, Charles Causley’s Collected Poems, James Fenton’s Out of Danger, Ian MacEwan’s latest novel, Sweet Tooth, The Seashell Anthology of Great Poetry, Lewis Turco’s The New Book of Forms, which makes a nearly quotidian circuit from nightstand to study, and a glass of Chardonnay.

MsMac:What was your favorite book as a child? Was poetry something you enjoyed as a child?

JPL: I was weaned on the venerable Childcraft Series (Aesop’s Fables, the Brothers Grimm, myths and other folktales), though I doubt that too many folks remember those books. As a youngster, I’d wager I read half of the 200 orange Bobbs-Merrill biographies. Poetry never entered my galaxy until I was 39 years old. (Long story.)

MsMac: Where’s your favorite reading spot?
JPL: A chair, any chair—Hepplewhite, Chesterfield, chaise longue, barber’s chair, bean bag, bar stool. A chair.

Your Writing Life

MsMac: What does a day of work look like for you? What is your favorite time of day to write?
JPL:Mirabile dictu, I awake each day at 3:30 AM (warped metabolism!). So I’m in my office no later than 4:30. With breaks for coffee, emails, grazing, a nap, a pedicure, extreme skateboarding, and schmoozing with my wife, I am writing, rewriting, reading, researching until c. 4 PM. I’m not particularly proud to admit that I affirm more than most William James’s adage: “Habit is the great flywheel of society.” As Donald Hall put it (counterintuitively but correctly in my view), one should save the last third of one’s life for work.

All of the above apply on days that I am not visiting schools, traveling to conferences, or TLCaring for the 35 trees I’ve planted in my backyard.

MsMac: love Donald Hall’s statement. Writing the first draft or revising? Which is your favorite?
JPL: I spend so much time revising one continuously changing draft that it always seems like writing the first draft to me. Honestly, I can’t tell the difference.

MsMac: What does your writing space look like?

JPL: Nondescript. A crooked little room in a crooked house with a window looking out on a blue jay cannonballing the birdbath, a sparrow flirting (in vain) with a goldfinch, and Mr. and Mrs. Wren squabbling as usual . . . or a snow plow whizzing by.

MsMac: What are your current projects?
JPL: Make the Earth Your Companion, a lyrical book-length nature poem I am revising for Creative Editions; an ambitious ms., the tentatively-titled Voices from the March, 1963, a book of poems I am writing with my friend George Ella Lyon; my sixth book with the marvelous illustrator, Gary Kelley—James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters; and always, when time allows, the desultory adult poem or light verse.

MsMac: What might readers find you doing when you’re not writing?
JPL: Skyping with my grandchildren in Portland, Oregon and York, England, or with my dear Russian friends of forty years in Moscow. Also, I’m about to fence the entire block with an enormous macramé I have made out of my rejection letters. The letters are twisted in such a way that you can’t see any of my naughty marginalia.

About Your Books and Being the Children’s Poet Laureate

MsMac: As the Children’s Poet Laureate, how has the awareness of children’s poetry been raised? What do you wish for children’s poetry?
JPL: Baseball is not America’s pastime, as I’ve said so often. America’s pastime is not reading poetry. I like to think of myself as a Pied Piper for poetry—before, now, and after the laureateship. Perhaps all children’s poets who visit schools feel the same way. I don’t want children to love poetry. My objective is more modest: I want them to hate poetry less than most Americans do. If, at the end of a school day with 400-500 children, I have turned 4 or 5 heads in such a way that I have convinced them to keep poetry in their quivers for a lifetime, then I call that success.

MsMac: i agree with the desire to keep poetry in their “quivers”. You had seven books published in 2012. What does it take to get that many published in one year?
JPL: Paying various editors large sums of money. Seriously, the answer is a combination of hard work and dumb luck. Children’s poetry has become the demented stepchild of publishing, best kept chained in a broom closet. These days many publishers have embargoed it altogether. So seven books in one year is a mistake and a rarity, at least for me, and I’m sure it will never happen again. To state the obvious, the quantity of books one writes counts for nothing next to the quality.

MsMac:Two books, Last Laughs and Twins were a collaboration with Jane Yolen. What can you share about the collaborative process?
JPL: Collaboration is probably not the right word since it suggests two poetsworking together cheek by jowl, revising one poem, back and forth, until it’s as close to perfection as they can make it. I would say that what I have done with a half dozen children’s poets, including Jane and our three books, is simply “co-authorship.” We settle on a subject that appeals to both of us, then write and rewrite 8 or 9 poems each until we’ve produced what we think is a publishable ms. Sometimes, of course, we’re wrong. For the three books Jane and I have published successfully, three others have died aborning.

MsMac: What do you hope readers/viewers take away?
JPL: My books.

But seriously, I hope to provide them with a soupcon of entertainment in a dwindling-down day. Certainly no “message” and nothing of an “educational” nature appear in my books.

Just for Fun

Dark chocolate or milk chocolate? Either one, with almonds.
Coffee or tea? Decaf

Dance: funky chicken or the tango? If I were to attempt either one, it would be a personal offense to my sacroiliac.

Favorite Quote:

JPL: My favorite quote, like my favorite book or author, changes every 15 seconds. This 15 seconds?

“Technique is important. I think that if most people who called themselves poets were tightrope-walkers they’d be dead.”
~Irish poet Michael Longley

Thank you, Patrick. If you haven’t read his poetry books, run quick to get them.
Happy reading. Come back Friday to read one of his poems.