Joyce Sidman is a Newbery honor author whose beautiful poetry often focuses on the natural world. Her ecological trilogy including Song of the Water Boatman, and Other Pond Poems, Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow, and Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night offers sensitive depictions of animal life in verse. The poems in This is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness have inspired children (and parents) to write their own apologies and Red Sings From Treetops; A Year in Colors brings the seasons to life through all the senses. Her latest book What the Heart Knows is an exquisite collection of laments, spells, chants, blessings, songs, and more. Here Joyce poses three questions for Irene Latham to consider with a particular focus on Irene's new book of poetry, Dear Wandering Wildebeest.
Joyce asks: The jacket copy for your wonderful new poetry book, Dear Wandering Wildebeest And Other Poems from the Water Hole mentions wildlife photographs from Kenya that inspired the book. Can you tell us more about the genesis of this project—what was it about this subject or these photographs that made you want to go forward?
Irene responds: It wasn't just the photographs Greg du Toit captured – though they are amazing, and you can view them here – it was the story of how he struggled to capture the images. Because the lions were too shy to approach the water hole while du Toit was upright or even crouched on the shore, he made a daring move by submerging himself in the water hole. So, basically, he changed perspectives. And it worked! With only du Toit's head above the water, the lions came right to the water's edged and drank their fill, allowing him to get those amazing shots. And that's poetry. Changing perspectives is what poetry is all about. Looking at something differently. It filled me with a sense of freedom and kind of gave me permission to write about animals, even when the reigning wisdom about publishing poetry for kids in today's market is, no animals. Well, I love animals! And how amazing and unique is the African grassland ecosystem? The water hole gave me a focal point and a new perspective. Fortunately for me, my experience didn't result in three months in the hospital as it did for du Toit.
Joyce asks: In Wildebeest, you’ve used such a satisfying format: pairing poems with nonfiction notes. One of my favorite poems, “What Rhino Knows”, has an equally delightful and poetic nonfiction note. Can you talk a bit about the interplay between these two types of text and how you feel each contributes to the book as a whole?
Irene answers: This question makes me smile as you, Joyce, are the Queen of this format! And your collections are what made me fall in love with books that feature poetry and nonfiction notes. It's important to me to write a poem that's poetic, which means not throwing in every single thing I learn about the animal – only the facts and details that speak to me personally and lend themselves to poetic treatment using images and analogy and language. But that means leaving out a world of research! My hope is that the poems make a reader want to know more – and that's where the nonfiction note comes in. I tried to include information relevant to the poem as a way to expand the reader's experience and to instantly satisfy the reader's curiosity. The notes were actually the most frightening and difficult part of creating this collection – I'm so grateful to amazing editor Carol Hinz whose keen eye (and ear!) and expertise helped shape them.
Irene responds: Thank you! The joke around my house is that I've never met a genre I didn't like. It's kind of a hazard for a writing career – every book feels like starting over. But the world is so big and there's so much out there that interests me... and isn't the endless learning curve one of the most seductive and satisfying things about being a writer?
As to the whole where-it-comes-from part of the question, it's something I love to think about. It's one of life's mysteries, isn't it? For me, writing is spiritual practice, which is about one-ness with the world, and living in the now. I'm not really interested in separating out parts of myself in order to write. And I will admit to a preference for literature that is timeless and classic, with appeal to all ages. I join Lee Bennett Hopkins in championing this type of poetry.
One of the big aha moments for me on the journey to writing poetry for children was attending an SCBWI-sponsored poetry retreat with Rebecca Kai Dotlich (arranged by the amazing Robyn Hood Black) and discovering I don't have to be Shel Silverstein; I can write the way I write for adults – striving to create art and beauty-- except in a way that appeals to children. Sometimes I really struggle when editing my own work (and working with editors) to pull away from the wise, adult voice and to approach a subject with the more-innocent, world-as-wonder child's voice. I find that this is more a matter of choosing the right angle and analogy than worrying about elevated language. (You'll notice WILDEBEEST has lots of big words – and a glossary.) To what would the child-me compare the water hole? What moment in a lion's life is most interesting to the child-me? I still feel like a beginner, and I am so grateful for the warmth, grace, and enthusiasm of the Poetry Friday community. What wonderfully diverse and inspiring voices! I'm honored to be be a part of it.
Thanks so much, Joyce, for the thoughtful questions, and for being one of my poetic heroes. And Sylvia, your passion for poetry is changing the world! Thank you for including me on your blog. Happy day to both!
Sylvia says: THANK YOU BOTH for sharing your time and talents! And of course I'm proud as punch to feature poems by both Joyce and Irene in The Poetry Friday Anthology series that Janet (Wong) and I have compiled. :-)
Image credit: Africageographic.com