A short while ago I was contacted by an old friend from my year in France--the multitalented Sandra Guy. When Bobbi Katz found out that we would be spending a year in Paris (2007-2008), she offered to put me in touch with Sandra, whom she had known for some time. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Sandra lived pretty much ACROSS THE STREET from our borrowed apartment in Vincennes--we at number 48 Avenue de Paris and Sandra at number 1 or so! We joked about stretching a rope across the avenue to pulley a basket full of our manuscripts to each other (though mostly we just met in various cafes to critique each others' work).
Sandra was inviting me to participate in a blog tour in which writers for children to respond to four questions about their writing process. She lives now in Amsterdam, where she has been training in acupuncture as well as writing; she is represented in part by Erzsi Deak's agency, Hen&Ink Literary Studio. I was also supposed to recruit two more writers to post on their blogs, but my first round of invitations went to sensible people who were clear that they didn't have time just now (or that they'd already participated). Now that school has started for me, it'll be harder to recruit the next participants, so I'll cross my fingers that someone reading this will want to be next to answer these four questions....
What are you working on now?
In a departure from my usual work for younger readers, I've been busy all summer revising (for the second time!) a poetry manuscript that started out being about how the connections we humans make among ideas are ill-reflected in the way we organize school learning. It had an alchemy theme that is now morphing into a coming-of-age theme for teens--which makes sense considering that I have a nearly-12 and a 15-year-old transforming themselves before my very eyes! I also did some haiku work this summer, for my own development--enough to know that maybe me and haiku are not meant to be together.
Why is your work
different from other work in the same genre?
I often hear the critique that it's hard to know who the audience for my poetry is. I've realized that when I write a poem "naturally," to get it you have to be a grown-up, but to appreciate it, you have to be a kid. This limits my audience rather severely (usually to other children's poets). Thus, part of my writing process is to go back and uncomplicate or clarify or decleverize or trim or recast or layer on more, depending on who my reader is supposed to be.
Why do you write what you
Brains entertain me. How people think--and don't think, or have senior moments (at any age) or "brain farts"--fascinates me. The bareness of their thinking is why I love teaching little children. In my writing I'm most often trying to convey to other brains a tickle of delight or intrigue that I have experienced in my own. I'm therefore not so much a storyteller but more of a moment-catcher, and very often the moment I am trying to capture in words is an intellectual episode with a big emotional impact (or occasionally just a good punchline).
Of course, brains don't work in a vacuum. They need fodder for their delights, intrigues and tickles, and the best brain fodder I know is nature (whence all brains, from human down to ant, arise). Most often my poems sprout up from an encounter with or in nature, and they tend to be sensory--but cerebral: "What can it all mean?"
What is your writing process?
Usually, I hear or see or smell or taste something that sets in motion a chain of possibilities--connections, associations, inventions. A good example of this is the seed for the title poem of my first book, "Squeeze." A preschooler I was teaching said the words "lemon heaven"--who knows why now?--and the rhythm of the syllables, the assonance of the vowels, and the surprising concept all tickled my brain and sent me down a short, sweet and sour path to the power of personal choice.
Practically speaking, I have finally learned to write the first draft by hand on the left side of a notebook spread. This makes it easier to see how the seed sprouted and grew when I more or less immediately redraft it on the right side, fixing things that changed between the first line and the last line in Draft 1. If I'm lucky, Draft 2 is pretty close to what I wanted to catch, so that when I type it out, later that day or the next, I'm making most of the final tweaks...until I show it to someone and they ask, "But who is this poem for?" (See Question 2 above.)
Then Draft 3 might become 4 or 5 over a week or two, and that's usually enough. There are a handful of poems that have suffered through 15-20 drafts (and come out better on the other side--or not), and lots of poems that have undergone what you might call "limb transplants"--the spine of the original idea remains, but all the outer structure changes. This happens most often when I'm trying to fit a poem into a collection and it needs to accomplish some small piece of the arc (or the ark) that it hadn't known it was responsible for. For this big-picture manuscript drafting, there is no substitute for printing it all out and spreading it all over the floor, just like we did with our notecards when we wrote our first term paper. Then all the poems can see and hear and feel each other, which can never happen on a screen.
I'm grateful to Sandra for giving me this opportunity (and I learned a lot just now by having to answer what seemed like rather pedestrian questions at first!). I'm off to nominate a few more writers, and beg forgiveness in this first week of school that I don't have time to add any illustrations. Kindly use your imaginations!