Friday, March 13, 2015

Poet to Poet: Allan Wolf and Leslie Bulion

It's time for another installment of my Poet to Poet interview series. This time, Allan Wolf is asking Leslie Bulion some fun questions about her new book, Random Body Parts.

First, you may know Allan Wolf, author, poet, performer, and educator who lives in North Carolina and travels around the country (collecting hotel toiletries and) presenting poetry to audiences of all ages. He was the educational director for Poetry Alive for many years and is one of the driving forces behind that national Poetry Slam movement. He's the author of several books including the historical novels in verse, New Found Land and The Watch that Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic, as well as More Than Friends: Poems from Him and Her (with Sara Holbrook) and Immersed in Verse: An Informative, Slightly Irreverent & Totally Tremendous Guide to Living the Poet's Life. His book, The Blood-Hungry Spleen and Other Poems about Our Parts, is one of my favorites and the main reason I thought of pairing him with Leslie since both have books of poetry about the human body-- a rare and special treat! 

Leslie Bulion is from Long Island and graduated from Cornell University with a degree in biology and society and became a social worker. She has also attended the University of Rhode Island and received an M.S. in Oceanography and Southern Connecticut State University receiving a Masters in Social Work. Her first children’s book, Fatuma’s New Cloth was inspired by her family’s travels in Africa and received the 2003 Children’s Africana Book Award. Her books of poetry include Hey There, Stink Bug; At the Sea Floor Café; Odd Ocean Critter Poems, and her latest, Random Body Parts: Gross Anatomy Riddles in Verse.

Allan kicks things off right away:

Allan: First off, Leslie, I must get a little bit “fanboy” on you and tell you that I love your latest collection of poems, Random Body Parts: Gross Anatomy Riddles in Verse. I mean, honestly, you had me from “borborygmus.” (For those of you who have been living under a rock, borborygmus—bor/bor/RIG/mus—is the growling sound made by your stomach and intestines as they digest your food.)

Question One:
Random Body Parts is what I’d call “anacomically correct.” That is to say, the poems are not just funny, they are also accurate and informative. Your book is obviously well researched, requiring you to transform “informational text” into “literary text.” Do you find it difficult to transform real facts into fantastical verse? How do you find the right balance between accuracy and entertainment?

Leslie: Incredibly kind words coming from the poet who penned The Blood-Hungry Spleen and Other Poems About Our Parts, Allan--thank you! And the credit for "borborygmus" goes to my friend, author-illustrator Deborah Freedman (newest: By Mouse and Frog) who bestowed that borbor-gorgeous word upon me in early days of Random Body Parts--a gift she knew would be fully appreciated. Speaking of fabulous phrases, I'm adopting "anacomically correct" as the official Random Body Parts tagline. 

As a kindred wordplay spirit, I find the lexicon of science perfect fodder for writing what I hope will be funny and informative poetry. Science words have their own wonderful parts, are inherently rhythmic, and lend themselves to rhyme surprises. Those surprises are often the source of humor--they're funny to hear and fun to say. I tend to focus on one or two ideas to tell a science story using juicy words and captivating ideas I discover while researching my subjects. The natural world IS fantastical, so there is no shortage of science stories to inspire--no need to make it up! 

Allan: Question Two:
Random Body Parts combines poetry, prose, riddles, diagrams and pictures. It also includes extensive back matter including a glossary of anatomy terms, a bibliography, and detailed notes on the various poetic forms you’ve included: sonnets, haikus, cinquains, and double dactyls to name a few. And if that isn’t enough, each of the book’s poems also has some intentional connection to William Shakespeare! 

Do you think children’s poetry books today are expected to “do” more, and “be” more, than poetry books of the past?

Leslie: This is an interesting question, Allan. I think all genres of writing for children change, over time, don't you? As an example, "slice of life" picture books with minimal story arc, once popular, are not as big in today's market. I dislike hearing "quiet book" in its current pejorative iteration, but we all know books of poetry and prose that might not have made it into print following current trends. I do think children's poetry collections in today's market benefit from a clear and unique focus, which helps define and distinguish the poet's voice or the anthologist's sensibilities. 

There are, of course, beautiful, current collections of poetry for children that don't have, and certainly don't need to have as many elements as I've crammed into Random Body Parts. When I start each new poetry collection, I seem to add a layer--some new twist. I've probably already caused head-shaking in editorial quarters, and if I continue in this vein my tenth collection will be more back matter than book body. 

But at some level there is a method to my madness, because there are many different types of readers out there and I'm interested in all of them: those who'll devour a poem, and those who'll gravitate toward the prose science note. Those who will look up every science word in the glossary, those who will be flinging around Shakespearean phrases by the end of the day, and those who will pore over the brilliant illustrations--I hope to share my fascination with science with all of them, and to make reading and writing poetry approachable and fun on many levels.

Allan: Question Three (or is this four questions in one?):
You are also the author of middle grade novels. Can you move from one discipline to the other fluidly? Or is it more complicated? What can poetry do that prose cannot? When do you feel like poetry is the perfect tool for the writing task at hand?

Leslie: I am something of a logical-sequential type. My preference is NOT to multi-task; I like to start one job and work to its completion. I do not work on a novel in the morning and write poems in the afternoon--my gears won't switch like that. For me, writing a novel is immersive. I have a difficult time picking up my writing flow after vacation or Thanksgiving--lots of rereading and wheel-spinning. But life does intervene; I've (mostly) learned to expect it. I try not to worry overmuch as I work my way back into the heads, hearts and voices of my characters. 

When I'm researching a poetry collection, that experience tends to be somewhat immersive too, because I'm trying to assimilate a body of knowledge--the big picture. I need a lot of background information to help me shape my approach and subsequent selections for individual poem subjects. Once my research is mostly done, working on a poetry collection is a bit more forgiving in terms of dealing with interruptions. If I've internalized the big idea, I can break between poems, then resume without losing too much ground. 

Poetry and science both embody elegance: an idea honed to its core of communication, so they're a natural fit, don't you think? My writing process includes careful selection of poetic form to enhance each science story. I try to choose forms that are accessible to readers and to writers. I hope students will want to choose from the variety of forms I include to tell their own juicy science story in verse. 

Each poem I write could include a whole book as further science reading, so when I add prose, I try to limit those science notes to the information that deepens and enhances the poem's specific ideas, rather than an exhaustive treatise on the overall subject. I go back to those prose notes and cut, cut, CUT. I try to be as ruthless as when I'm photos for a vacation album: I only need one shot to remind me that I caught my husband with this oldie riddle:

Thanks so much for your thought-provoking questions, Allan, and for sharing this space with me!

Sylvia: Thank you both, Allan and Leslie, for engaging in this entertaining AND enlightening back-and-forth dialogue! 

UPDATE: Here's a link to a teacher's guide for Random Body Parts!

Now join the Poetry Friday gathering over at Author Amok hosted by Laura this week.

And don't miss the March Madness fun over at ThinkKidThink where poets are rising to the challenge of a poetry tournament!

Image credits: Amazon, Flickr, Leslie Bulion, Peachtree, Allan Wolf


Renee LaTulippe said...

Wonderful wonderful! It's always fascinating to see inside a poet's process. I was particularly interested in Leslie's words about the layering in her books and what collections today need/don't need to catch an editor's eye. Thank you, Leslie, Allan, and Sylvia!

Catherine Johnson said...

Ditto what Renée said. What a great insight. This is something I need to do more putting new, interesting info in a poem. Thanks, Leslie, Allan and Sylvia.

Ed DeCaria said...

I just love reading poet interviews. And to have Allan be the interviewer just makes it that much more enjoyable. Thanks for coordinating and sharing, Sylvia. -Ed