SOOOOO Sweet. This is Spot’s Mama. Spot is furthest left. I LOVE THIS!
A LITTLE POETRY BIOGRAPHY
ABOUT KIDS AND POETRY
I have slowly been getting better acquainted with a few of my selves, my poetry self among them. It takes awhile.
I don’t know exactly how it happened or when I started to write poetry. I cannot recall an AHA! moment, or my first lines, but one thing I do know, I have always been encouraged to follow my instincts. And my instincts and desires were not very different from those of any other child.
Like everyone else I loved to play and to make things up. Imagination was the obvious currency. Music, dance, and words of all varieties, for various reasons, took a big hold on me. Later, when I was around ten, I remember sitting on my parents’ front porch and reading THE WORLD’S BEST LOVED POEMS over and over. I memorised a lot of pieces in that book, including The Gettysburg Address, Sir Walter Scott, Longfellow, without fully understanding what these poems were about. I think I did it just for the pleasure of saying them out loud. And memorising them was fun; I could repeat these words over and over whenever I felt like it.
I don’t really think this was unusual. Most of my friends followed the same path. We found ourselves in a dynamic world where words, lyrics, rhymes and tunes were around us and stimulated us to the core. We sang, danced, made up plays and learned lyrics. These were powerful influences.
( Playing flute in the Margaret Mace School Marching Band in North Wildwood, NJ. Picture taken by my father)
As an adult I came to understand that imagination, and in particular having fun with words, somehow led me to poetry and its trusty companion, metaphor. It became clear that the sheer joy of playing with language is as natural to children, and indeed all humans, as breathing.
Imagine a primitive culture. Native Americans, for example, had only oral languages and lived in direct and intimate contact with nature, in a society in which plants, trees, animals, water, rocks and cosmic entities were daily companions. It would have been natural to reach out, talk to, placate, celebrate and relate to those forces in a personal way.
Now imagine someone from the tribe walking on the savannah. She looks at the grasses blowing lightly in the distance. She turns to her partner: ‘Look. The feather grass is brushing the sky.’ Has she written the world’s first poem? Has she created the world’s first metaphor? Or perhaps the partner turns back and replies: ‘No, the spear grass is slapping the sky.’
I think the primary way we see the world is poetic. We are born alone into a vast profusion of life, a world rich in colour, shape, music and sound whose patterns are always changing. A world at first incomprehensible.
We strive our whole lives to make sense of that world. I believe that the principle path taken, the way we try to learn about everything around us, from the first days when hominoids walked the planet, has been one of assimilation and pattern processing. This route, making imaginative and creative order out of chaos, with play at its core, is an intrinsically artistic process.
So when our Indian sees the grass and compares it to a feather brushing the mountain, she makes a poetic leap. By doing so, she is asserting her creativity and individuality. Her friend, who compares the grass to a spear which is slapping the sky, engages in the same process. In the end, it’s never just a question of WHAT the world is out there, but WHO AM I in relation to the world out there.
These Native Americans have synthesised their understandings of two elements, grass and sky, and have created two different interpretations, both based on familiar elements and both re-ordered to different effects. She and her partner have dipped their toes into the creative process and, in so doing, hitched their wagons to the stars.
Unfortunately this different way of seeing things, this synthesis of ideas (a and b equals not c but say…x, w or z) is one which diminishes and fades as we grow up in contemporary society. Not only are we not in a close relationship to nature, but education directs us towards empirical learning and to structures where creativity, imagination and artistic synthesis play an often reduced role.
But the artist, like the child, cannot help but respond to a different set of imperatives. Her impulse is to make things up, create illusions, offer alternatives.
Our relationship with the world around us, the natural world, has become a lonely distant cousin compared to the energy and sense of brotherhood with nature our species must have felt all those thousands of years ago.
The fact is every child plays and therefore has within them the ability to synthesise and make things up. No matter what the era, the circumstances or place. Imagination is our birthright.
In my case, I think I somehow escaped being bound by traditional thinking. That freedom enabled me to translate my childhood love of words into the skills needed to create grown-up gatherings of words, some of which were destined to emerge as poems.
Because making things up was encouraged when I was small, gradually it became the signature that guided my life. Indeed, it has been the ever present banner, the particular inner tune which I have learned to accompany with words. Words which, through the art of poetry, transform reality from one thing to another.
THE WAY I LOOK AT IT (POETRY I MEAN)
THE WAY I LOOK AT IT….
I like to write poetry.
One reason is because I think in pictures. A lot of people think in pictures. It’s MAGIC. It’s like dreaming when you’re awake.
And when you write poetry, you can figure out how all these unrelated pictures can come together and become an exciting brand new picture. A poem. A poem which you express with words; words which don’t necessarily follow a normal logical order.
It’s something totally surprising and totally YOURS.
Not to mention electrifying. It’s like pulling a white rabbit out of a hat. Only the hat is your head and the white rabbit is this poem that’s been waiting inside you anxious to jump out.
Another reason I like to write poetry is because sometimes when I see something, it makes such an impression on me – a WOW moment – that I want to remember it forever.
Example. One day I look out of our kitchen window and see the neighbour’s cats playing in the snowy garden. That night I can’t help it. I think about those two cats over and over. It makes me smile. Suddenly the first few lines of the poem jump into my head:
Pawed in my
People have many ways of creating poetry.
Here’s how I do it.
MY MAGICAL POETRY MIX
First I take all kinds of pictures from my mind that don’t seem to go together. Sometimes I don’t even think very hard because the pictures just pop, spin, fly, slide, bounce, and roll into my brain for some reason.
Suddenly this strange group of images are somersaulting around in my head. And nothing makes any logical sense.
SO I make comparisons – I find ways to link the images. I compare a blue blue sky to a field of summer bluebells or to my friends’ sparkly blue eyes. In my mind they are all alike in some way because they are all too blue to be true. Or I compare the sunrise to a big orange beach ball bouncing in slow motion over the horizon or to a galloping unicorn anxious to start the day.
And PRESTO it becomes totally another way of seeing things – my own private way.
There are a million and one images to compare and another million and one images to compare them to. And more. Much much more.
But the truth is creating poems is a puzzle; an imaginative word and idea puzzle; one which is totally fun and intriquing to work out.
NEXT I keep saying the image words and phrases in my head over and over and re-arranging them on paper or on screen, like furniture in the living room, until I like how they all work together. And as I repeat these words over and over (and often out loud) to myself, eventually I discover the poem’s true secret beat; it’s special rhythm which makes the poem sound just like it should.
Here it’s super important to learn to trust what you like. After all, you write to make someone happy first of all and that someone is YOU!
NOW THE WORDS BEGIN TO FEEL…..
MORE LIKE A POEM
(The above two scribbly pages are from my beautifully bruised and battered old poetry notebooks. These scratches eventually transformed into two poems; THINK OF IT and COMET. Both appear in FIRECRACKERS)
SOMETIMES the words can rhyme and that is fun. Sometimes they don’t. It depends on what I feel like doing with the words and ideas that day. Or rather what the words and ideas feel like doing with me that day.
Poetry is funny like that. You have to be open to it. In other words, you (the you you know very well) can’t always control what goes in or out of your brain. A poet has to trust that there are things they don’t know and wait for the ideas or words from their secret selves to pop out. (This is the tantalising and mysterious part of the whole thing.)
THEN after combining the pictures, the words, and the sounds in an order that I choose, the poems turn out to have a particular meaning. This meaning reflects how I am feeling at any one time. So my poems can be funny, or sad, or unsettling, or lovey, or worried, or silly, or frightened, or bittersweet, or happy. Or a host of other things as well. And sometimes really not even that obvious to me at first.
FINALLY here is the key thing in my magical poetry world.
When I am writing, I know deep down I have something I really want to say. But believe it or not, I don’t always know what it is. So I keep on writing and finally, if I am lucky and the stars are with me, I arrive at exactly what I mean to say.
And there is kind of epiphany! An AHA moment. The moment when the poem flies across the plate like a home run and makes sense. And that is the most exciting thing.
To have figured out a little bit of what is going on inside me.
To have created something new.
And to have found a little bit of a personal link between me and the world out there.
That’s why I like poetry so much – it is a wonderful puzzle to work out and the results are totally unexpected and totally strange and always and forever MAGICAL.
I don’t write specifically for kids but, because of who I am, my poetry tends to emerge kid friendly. Why is that? I am sure, in part, it’s the subterranean conditions, especially when we are young, that influence us in later life. It could be a dreamy meditative landscape, a touch of the shadowy unknown, or something wondrous that catches our fancy one dazzling day. For me, those hidden moonlit non-thoughts were sown growing up next to a wild and woolly sea that could, in a flash, turn into anything. The little seaside resort town in New Jersey where I lived, with its exhilarating boardwalk rides and sparkling amusement arcades, pulsed day and night with thrilling music. It was a magical place, one where finding your groove dancing on the ‘boards’ was as important as breathing. This confluence of sights and sounds, words and emotions eventually turned me into a many-headed literary beast. Each style I tap, from haikus to raps to fairy tales, represents the rhymes and rhythms of my life, and I cannot help but reference them all, playing continually with the razzmatazz of words that magically pop out from my honky-tonk past.
80 YEARS AGO (1933)
Composer Kurt Weill and playwright Bertolt Brecht unveil The Threepenny Opera at the Empire Theatre on Broadway. The play closes after only 12 performances. The show’s opening number, “Mack the Knife,” will eventually become one of the top hits of the century, and will be recorded and performed by famous voices such as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.
60 YEARS AGO (1953)
Talk Radio and subUrbia playwright Eric Bogosian is born in Woburn, Mass. After graduating from Oberlin College in Ohio, Bogosian will move to New York City, going on to write for the stage and for the screen.
40 YEARS AGO (1973)
With young audiences in mind, artist Zaro Weil and fifth grade teacher Lynn Rubright create Metro Theater Circus in St. Louis. They launch their season with 2nd Greatest Show on Earth, and go on to become a touring company. The company will adopt a new name in the ’90s, Metro Theater Company.
20 YEARS AGO (1993)
The Zuni Collective, rooted at the popular San Francisco Zuni Café, transforms into Z Space, which will become known as one of the nation’s leading laboratories for new work development. David Dower starts Z Space in an effort to support Bay Area theatre artists. The company will go on to produce works from disciplines including theatre, dance, visual art, music and performance art.
unwrapping chocolate …crooning with an all girl rock band …The Band…dancing salsa for too-many-to-count sweaty hours…cooking Indian… hip-hopping forever at the dizzying Starlight Ballroom…Spot and Clem crazy in the snow…Hamlet from last summer in London… writing for Saturday Night Live…Mitsuko Uchida in person…sunsets where I live…mohitos anywhere…a bouquet of pens anywhere…winning the queen Esther contest in a gorgeous white dress…playing dazzling Telemann on my silver flute of yesteryear…reading french novels without a dictionary… ‘The Swerve’ and ‘The Invention of Nature’ …jiving to New Yeller in Brooklyn…turning left getting on a plane… Shakespeare in Stratford…fantastical vegan restaurants…being invited to dinner in a tent by Gertrude Bell …directing Firecrackers with all bells and whistles at the National…knowing ALL the lyrics to key Broadway musicals, folk tunes, classic rock tunes, art songs, juicy opera scenes…protesting and defeating rotten regimes…waking up to a pristine planet…discovering new films at Andre’s…seeing Jo’s illustrations…holding a copy of Firecrackers at long last……………
‘Cos I really love love love you. Especially those wrinkly doleful eyes. Not to mention that fabulous looonnnng trunk. But really it’s your giant feet I dig the most. Pretty please. Just say yes. I know we’re worlds apart. But what the heck. It doesn’t matter. We are talking about LUV.
So sorry little snail. I mean you’re super cute and all and I do admire your flat-footedness and that spirally adorable shell. But the sad truth is we are awfully different. I mean, I must be a million times bigger than you. Look, fact is, I am just too busy. Farrrrr too much going on.
OK. It’s a big secret, but I’ll let you in. I am going on a book tour this spring. Soooo excited. You see, it’s pretty exclusive.
Hey! Can I come?
Sorry, little friend. It’s only for animals who are in FIRECRACKERS. You know, that book that Zaro wrote and that Jo painted the pictures for.
But, Elephant! Whoa. Hang on a minute. I am in that book, too. In fact, there are quite a few poems where I am the featured player. And Zaro asked me if I could go on the tour, as well. So we could both go!!!!! And we could get engaged. And we could be happy forever after. What do you say?
Well, Snail. That all sounds kind of cool. And heck, size doesn’t matter. In fact, nothing matters when you are in love. (blushes) I love you, little snail.
Awwwwwwww ( blushes, too) And I love you.
Hey Clem, any idea where we’re going?
Not a clue. All I’ve heard is something about a publicity tour for Firecrackers.
Cool. I’ve memorised my lines. I know those doggie poems by heart now. How ’bout you?
Yeh. I’m good. I’ve got my barks all lined up. I hear we’re going to visit some kids in schools and do our ‘Let’s Run Away’ rap. I am soooo ready.
Meeee too. Let’s get this train rolling!
All artwork (drawings) on this site are courtesy of Jo Riddell (copyright) Text and photos are courtesy of Zaro Weil (copyright)
ZaZaKids Books is grateful to a few extraordinary individuals who have put their hearts into this fledgling company.
Jo Riddell, the illustrator for Firecrackers, is the same person (Jo Burroughs) who created the wonderful illustrations for ‘Mud, Moon and Me’, over 25 years ago. We count our lucky stars that she agreed to do this book. Jo’s work is an inspiration. She has endowed every page with passion, meaning, and beauty.
Roy Johnson has been a fantastic voice of publishing know-how; gently nurturing and guiding ZaZaKids like the experienced pro that he is.
Louise Millar is a design genie who not only created magnificent covers for our first two books, but who managed to conjure up seriously elegant and imaginative pages.
Judith Elliott (pen name; Our Wonderful Mrs. Picky and long time dear friend) has dedicated much of her time brilliantly editing the book, giving it form, and ensuring that the Firecrackers text is absolutely ship-shape. Now she is busy making heads and tails out of Spot Guevara. We could not do it without her.
Martin West, CEO of Troika Books, has generously taken ZaZaKids Books under his wings, making sure that the company has a good chance of having it’s voice heard.
Lisa Dempsey of lisadempsey.com in Brooklyn is a close friend and inspiration. She has created a beautiful website for ZaZaKids and is always on hand to help with…well… anything.
Jane Wayne, poet extraordinaire from St Louise, has looked over these many of these pieces for years: always with her keen poets eye and always offering subtle, kind, and spot-on critiques.
Katy Riddell, a brilliant young illustrator and daughter of Jo and Chris, is working away concocting the most amazing full colour drawings for Spot Guevara. So exciting.