Friday, November 08, 2019


It's time for another behind-the-scenes glimpse at a new 2019 poetry book for my EXTRA EXTRA feature. This time, poet and artist Calef Brown has been kind enough to share a bunch of poems from previous works that helps set the stage for his newest book, UP VERSES DOWN. Plus, he shares a glimpse into a very personal work-in-progress. Check it out! 

I’m happy to be here on Extra Extra! 

Since my first book was published in 1998, I’ve especially enjoyed writing poems inspired by various kinds of mash-ups – combinations of ideas, characters and words. Here are a few examples :  

Tattlesnake,  from Dutch Sneakers and Flea Keepers, Houghton Mifflin 2000:

An odd little creature
that every kid fears
is a snake
with unusual stripes
and big ears.
It spies on you,
tells on you,
then disappears.
Leaving the house
with your parents in tears.
Now because of that snake,
and one small mistake,
you’re in trouble 
for sixty or seventy years.

Allicatter Gatorpillar from Flamingos on the Roof,  Houghton Hifflin 2006:

Allicatter Gatorpillar
chews a leaf
shows his teeth.

Allicatter Gatorpillar
sings a song
then he’s gone.

Allicatter Gatorpillar
by and by
my oh my!
Allibutter Gatorfly

The Vumpire, and The Ooompachupa Loompacabra from Hallowilloween, Houghton Hifflin 2010:

The Oompachupa Loompacabra

The Oompachupa Loompacabra
roams the western plains.
On moonless nights
it captures goats
and gobbles up their brains.
“It lures its prey
with chocolate bars,”
a local man explains,
“horns and hooves
and candy wrappers –
little else remains.”

The Vumpire

He only works night games.
His signals are creepy.
When managers argue,
he makes them feel sleepy.
He never appears
in the photos we snap.
A widow’s peak peeks out
from under his cap
when he takes a nap
in the dugout.
His eyes bug out
and he hisses like a frightened cat
at the sight of a broken bat.
How weird is that?
Once, while waiting on deck,
I caught him staring
at the back of the catcher’s neck.

My book Hypnotize a Tiger – Poems About Just About Everything, Christy Ottaviano/Henry Holt 2015  included a section of portmanteau poems called “Word Crashes”. This one is called Yak and Woody:

Guess which one
will soon become

My latest effort,  Up Verses Down – Poems, Paintings and Serious Nonsense, is an 80 page picture book with 55 poems published by Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt this past June. 
When I first gathered together a group of poems for this collection,  there were a couple that fell into the mash-up category, but were different than any of my poems that had appeared in other books, in that the subjects were real people (plus one fictional monster).

The first one is called The Wright Brothers Grimm. 

The Wright Brothers Grimm

Orville and Jacob and Wilbur and Wilhelm
were known as The Wright Brothers Grimm.
They plotted a flight 
through a forest at night.
Their chances seemed frightfully slim.
The first to attack them 
were witches and trolls.
They flew from the branches
and hopped out of holes.
The Brothers, as pilots,
were nimble and deft.
They zigged to the right
and they zagged to the left.
The monsters that rushed them
and fiendishly laughed
by double propellers 
were quartered and halved.
Down swooped a dragon
determined to strike.
The plane did a loop
and The Brothers yelled “Psych!”
At the edge of the forest was one final tree.
As the foursome flew close to it, 
what did they see?
A passel of spectators
out on a limb,
applauding their heroes –
The Wright Brothers Grimm.
I liked the idea of these four characters piloting The Wright Flyer through a fairytale forest full of witches, trolls and monsters. 

The second was a silly poem called Ben Franklinstein;

Ben Franklinstein

Ben Franklinstein,
once like a kind uncle to us,
is now a giant homunculus,
and quite frightening!
Brought back to life
by kite lightning.

The other poems in the collection naturally fell into broad categories – including a Miscellany section,  but these two didn’t fit with the others, again, because they dealt with actual individuals in a way that I hadn’t approached before. I decided to write some more that were ridiculous takes on real people – historical figures and other famous types. Here are two:

Albert E.

A now-famous genius
when only a tot,
was partial to numbers
and math, quite a lot.
His parents encouraged
their smart little guy.
His nickname?
Albert Einszweidrei.

Moz & Bee

Mozart, in truth,
was a wolfgangly youth,
with a neck like a baby giraffe.
A musical stickler. 
An ivory tickler.
He loved to make elephants laugh.
Beethoven too–
he knew what to do
to encourage a pachyderm giggle.
He danced on his toes
while a tune he composed
was performed with a squirm and a wriggle.

Despite doing some initial sketches, at this point it was clear that these poems, and this approach, wasn’t right for Up Verses Down. Aside from being different from my other work, they posed questions about how I might expand on this concept of using historical and cultural figures in a kind of gentle to pithy satire. I feel comfortable having a bit of snarky nonsensical fun at the expense of notable white male European and American subjects, but not anyone outside of that. After mulling it over for a while, I thought I would foreground that constraint, and maybe this could just be a personal project done for my own amusement. So, over the past couple years, in spare moments,  I wrote a bunch more in this vein, and compiled them into a collection of 26 poems titled: 

I try to make my picture books appeal to folks of all ages, but this was a first for me – a collection specifically aimed at adults (although there is nothing inappropriate for older kids and teenagers who may also appreciate it). I approached writing the rest of the poems with a similar process to the way I employ rhyme and wordplay in my children’s books, but aimed at a different audience. Perhaps that audience is just me. As with the examples above, they spin off nonsensical scenarios involving historical and notable figures from various eras. From ancient history to pop culture. From Nostradamus to Sid Vicious. The “And some who never were” part of the subtitle refers to a few fictional dudes who also pop up in the collection, including the afore-referenced Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, Dorian Gray and  Ebenezer Scrooge. They are “about” the subjects to various degrees, including not at all,  but are mostly just spun out of associative wordplay and a particular kind of absurdist and obtuse satire. 
Here are a few of my favorites:

The House of Nostradamus

No one, 
as a prognosticator,
has a legacy greater
than Nostradamus,
who made his offspring promise
to refer to their home
in a reverent tone
as “The Nostradomicile”.
They refused and were evicted.
This was all predicted.

René and Friends

RenĂ© Descartes  
first got his start
as a sitcom songwriter.
He would strum a guitar
and sip strong cider,
until, enraptured,
he totally captured
the vibe of the show.
A consummate pro.
This is his opus 
that all of us know,
(or most of us do):

I’ll be, 
therefore, you.

Vic V.

Sid's brother - Vic Vicious,
despite being fictitious,
was known to kiss pigeons 
and lick fishes.

Pablo Goes Low

Pablo Picasso
was no basso profundo.
He sang for fun, though,
and once hit a note so low
with his a cappella group
it made a fella poop. 

Mea Draculpa

My behavior was feckless.
It was impromptu.
Very reckless.
Sorry I chomped you.

And lastly, the author of Twelfth Night channels (or should I say chunnels) the author of Naked Lunch:

Dig the Bard

William S. burrows 
and tunnels away.
Masterful digging,
I do have to say.
A noble endeavor
that, unlike a play,
will serve every citizen
day after day.
People will travel
and go where they may.
He started in Dover.
His goal is Calais.

I’ve started on some sketches, and will be illustrating the collection with black and white ink wash drawings. What happens after that, I’m not sure, but it’s been fun so far. 

Thank you Sylvia, for inviting me to share some of my nonsense on Extra Extra!

Sylvia; Thank YOU, Calef, for sharing so generously! It's always fascinating to me to see how a poet AND artist works and the decisions you make along the way. It's so cool to see BOTH poems and illustrations that you decided NOT to use in the final book. And it's interesting to see how those "outtakes" lead to yet another project! 

Now head on over to Live Your Poem where the lovely poet Irene Latham is gathering all our Poetry Friday posts!


Michelle Schaub said...

I've alway loved Calef Brown's quirky poems, and I'm excited to know he has a new collection out. It was also fascinating (and validating) to learn that sometimes Calef pursues projects, like his historical figures mash-ups, for his own creative edification not knowing if they will be publishable.

Irene Latham said...

I, too, love seeing the imaginative leaps creators make... what fun this is! You know that old question about who you'd want at your dream literary dinner party? Me being a reserved person more often thinks about whose BRAIN I'd like to wander around in... Calef's brain is definitely on my list! Thank you both for sharing, and happy poetry Friday!

Linda B said...

I read through it all, then again to capture some of the poems I'd like to share with my older granddaughter, who loves quirky things, & I don't think she knows about Calef Brown's work, and now she will. So much fun to read the post, Calef, and laugh with the words like "Albert Einszweidrei." Thanks, Sylvia!

Michelle Heidenrich Barnes said...

How I love Calef's rambling imagination and absurd sense of humor! It was great reading about his latest WIP. This post was also timely—it fits in perfectly with my blog post today so I linked to it. Thanks Sylvia and Calef!

Carol Varsalona said...

Sylvia, you must have had so much fun working with Calef's poetry. His poems are fun, spirited, and quirky. Thanks for sharing them. They made for good bedtime stories.

Michelle Kogan said...

Thanks Calef and Sylvia for this marvelously delightful post from top to bottom– so much fun and energy leaping off the page, and I had many chuckles!

Calef Brown said...

Thank you all for the kind comments, and thanks again to Sylvia for such a wonderful forum for poets. In the spirit of Extra Extra! , if anyone is interested, I recorded a reading that strings together many of the poems in my new book and a previous one, along with a bunch more extra extra content that didn't make it into either book. Can be found here:

Kimberly Hutmacher said...

Such fun mash-ups! I love these. Thank you Caleb and Sylvia for this lively Extra! Extra!

Cheriee Weichel said...

All of these poems were just delightful. Thank you so much for sharing!

GatheringBooks said...

We had Calef Brown in Singapore for the Asian Festival of Children's Content a year ago - he was all kinds of awesome!