Friday, June 15, 2007

Interview with Poet Rebecca Kai Dotlich

On Wednesday, I posted The Poetry of Rebecca Kai Dotlich in which I discuss Rebecca's poetry and review three of her poetry collections.

Elaine: Can you tell us what inspired you to become a writer of children’s poetry?

Rebecca: Inspiration is some kind of mystery, isn’t it? We speculate, look back, put pieces of the puzzle together, then say, ah-ha, that was it, coupled with this and strengthened by that. Honestly, I only began to write for children after I had them. Immediately upon cradling that first child, I knew it—when I sang the songs my mother sang to me (Mares Eat Oats, How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?, Que Sera, Sera, Mr. Sandman, and Hush Little Baby) while rocking a fevered baby during long, quiet spring nights, and later, playing records for my toddlers, and listening to rhyming Sesame Street songs (Somebody Come and Play), then reading magical Nursery rhymes—I knew I wanted to write poetry for children. I had always had a love and a natural instinct for rhythm and rhyme, but never translated that into just children’s writing. I had written rhymes (never considering them poems) on a toy typewriter when I was maybe 8 or 9 or so, actual poems on a manual typewriter my grandfather gave me in high school and then in college, but about lots of dying and love. Oh, and love. And sometimes love. But when I started reading and singing to my children about moons and muffins, snowflakes and stars, I knew I had found the kind of writing I not only loved, but needed.

Elaine: Did you read or have much poetry read to you when you were a child?

Rebecca: No, I never read poetry as a young child. I do remember hearing, or somehow knowing Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Swing, etc. But I’m not sure exactly where or how. We certainly didn’t have books of poetry in our house, and I never had a teacher in elementary school that introduced or talked about poetry. But I did love Nursery Rhymes, and we did have lots of those around our house, both in book form and records. So they were my first introduction to poetry. Also, even though my parents never read poetry to me, my father sometimes made up silly rhymes at bedtime, and I loved memorizing jump rope rhymes, and traditional quick rhymes like “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.”

And my brother was always playing songs on his little record player, and most of these rhymed: Take Me Out to the Ballgame and Yankee Doodle Dandy.

“Yankee Doodle went to town riding on a pony, He stuck a feather in his hat, And called it Macaroni.”

I couldn’t wait until I got to the Macaroni part. I loved saying that word.
I remember singing the words to Que Sera, Sera, over and over and over, being touched by the sentiment of our futures being myserious and unknown: When I was just a little girl, I asked my mother what will I be. Will I be pretty, will I be rich, and here's what she said to me -- que sera sera, what ever will be, will be, the future’s not ours to see, que sera sera.

Just threw this in: My grandfather wrote lines of poetry here and there, sometimes in the margins of his bible, or on the back of a photograph. My father wrote beautiful letters and had a fondness for quotations. My brother kept a journal in high school and as a young man in the army. My brother and dad were both avid readers.

Elaine: Do you have any favorite children’s poets? If so, can you tell us their names and what you like about their work?

Rebecca: It would be easier to address the poets that I first became familiar with when I began to read and study children’s poetry: Eve Merriam, Karla Kuskin, Jack Prelutsky, Barbara Juster Esbensen, Lee Bennett Hopkins, Aileen Fisher, Dorothy Aldis, Valerie Worth, Lillian Moore, and J. Patrick Lewis. I’m sure there are more, but these few immediately come to mind. I can’t tell you what an honor it is to be writing for, and with, some of these brilliant poets. Some others, sadly, I never got to meet or know.

I can point to a few of the first individual poems that caught my heart and made me first say I wish I could write like that, or, I wish I had written that: Jigsaw Puzzle, by Russell Hoban, Mice by Rose Flyeman, A Story That Could Be True, by William Stafford, Catherine, Snow and Knitted Things, by Karla Kuskin, Grandpa Bear’s Lullaby by Jane Yolen, the color poems (Hailstones and Halibut Bones) by Mary O’Neill, and a poem by David McCord that blew me away. I’d like to quote it here, hopefully doing my part in never letting this important poem be forgotten:


“Blessed Lord, what it is to be young;
To be of, to be for, be among –
Be enchanted, enthralled,
Be the caller, the called,
The singer, the song, and the sung.”

What I read to my Children: I read them lots of Nursery Rhymes and fairy tales, like Rumpelstiltskin. Snow White frightened my daughter, so I put that one on the shelf until they were older. But they all adored Hansel and Gretel, just as I had as a child. The Three Little Pigs, Three Billy Goats Gruff, Dr. Seuss, Pinocchio and There Were Ten in the Bed, Jack and the Beanstalk. Oh, they all (children and grandchild) loved being deliciously scared with the enchanting rhyme: Fee, Fie, Foe Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman! Be he alive or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread!” I read Goodnight Moon quite a bit, and my son had a favorite, which was a thin, small little square of a book, called Little Max the Cement Mixer, and both of my children adored The Runaway Pancake.

Elaine: Do you have a certain writing routine that you follow every day?

Rebecca: Oh, how I wish I did. It’s not in my makeup. The only thing I can say for certain is that I always, always, write early in the morning. I always, always have. I am an early riser, and I love nothing more than having that first cup of coffee and thinking about a poem. I write on and off through the entire day, before, after and in between laundry and buying milk, taking care of grandchildren and baking darn good peanut butter cookies. I don’t usually write at night anymore, although I used to. My eyes and brain just can’t trick themselves anymore into thinking they are young. So I resort to lazy TV watching or reading one of the many books that I’ve started.

Elaine: What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children?

Rebecca: Being able to say something about something in a way that maybe no one else has, or can, just because I’m the only one of me, just like the poets before me, with me, after me; we are all just who we are, but we each have a very different heart, and a unique way of looking at the world; the giggle and the ghost of most every childhood experience or feeling.

And then I love playing with words, being the puppeteer that dances and places the words on the page using nothing but a pencil or a computer, creative juices, and hard work. Poetry can bring a child further into their world, by sharing some of your own. It is truly a magical thing; spending your days playing with words and metaphors. I love writing poetry for children mostly because I adore children. I love connecting with them in both the silly and noisy hours as well as the tender, quiet ones.

And spending mornings in pajamas.

Elaine: Wordsong has published nearly all of your poetry books. Is there a particular editor with whom you work at that publisher?

Rebecca: I’ve had a few editors at Wordsong. My very first editor was Lisa, but she isn’t there anymore, then I worked with Joan Hyman, Wendy Murray, and a young man named Erin. Each and every one brought something different to the editing process, and were, and are, wonderful editors.

Elaine: You dedicated What Is Science?, one of your most recent books, to Lee Bennett Hopkins. Has he been your mentor in regard to your poetry writing?

Rebecca: He certainly has and is. I was lucky enough to connect with Lee soon after I was offered a contract for my first book of poetry. The first collection he invited me to write for was SMALL TALK. Since then he always at least gives me the chance, or the invitation, to try out for a place in his books. I usually write something he chooses, but not always. He’ll often steer me to different waters, urging me to think out of the box; is blunt in telling me when I’m off base, but also raves with praises when I deserve it.

Almost like a good parent. He’s the perfect mentor to have, and a dear, dear friend.

One of the very first books of poetry that I found, bought, studied and read to my children constantly was Side By Side, by Lee Bennett Hopkins.

Elaine: I see that many of your poems appear in anthologies. Are most of them written especially for the anthologies? Do the anthologists, (Lee Bennett Hopkins, Jane Yolen, etc.) request that you write poems for the poetry books they are compiling?

Rebecca: Yes, most of the time I write a new poem with a specific anthology in mind. There are also times anthologists will see a poem in a magazine or another book, or in my own collections, and secure permissions this way. But for the most part, anthologists request a certain poem and they give parameters as to length, form, subject matter, age, tone, etc. I do a lot of this type of writing; it inspires me. I like the challenge, and often am pushed (especially by LBH) to go above and beyond the poem I create, often after I have told myself it is “finished.”

More info about publishing poetry in anthologies: Anthologists, for the most part, don’t post information about their works in progress, so my advice for poets would be to get your own collection out there in the world, and they will see that, and possibly pick up a poem or contact you at some point. Another way, of course, is to go to conferences, make contacts. Still another, and very good way, is to publish your poetry in children’s magazines.

Info about poems appearing multiple places: Often, the same poem will be picked up multiple times by different anthologists. I have had this happen with at least two poems. “A Circle of Sun,” from my book Lemonade Sun and Other Summer Poems, was reprinted in Jack Prelutsky’s 20th Century Children’s Poetry Treasury and in Jane Yolen’s Here’s a Little Poem. Before that, LBH used it in a poetry program of small books and tapes by Sadlier Oxford, Me Myself and I, “Worlds of Poetry.” All have different illustrations that accompany the same poem, which is very interesting to see.

A poem I wrote for an older audience is “Whispers to the Wall,” and is in Paul Janeczko’s Kick in the Head, again in his newest Hey, You!, and will appear in America at War, selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins.

Elaine: You collaborated with J. Patrick Lewis on the book Castles: Old Stone Poems that was published last year. Can you tell us how the two of you connected to write that poetry collection?

Rebecca: Pat and I are very good friends, and email (multiple times) daily. We share poems, sometimes asking for advice, and sometimes just for a quick look with another critical eye. So it seemed natural when we decided to write a book together, but we needed a theme. We threw out ideas, then I told him I was working on a few castle poems, and he jumped on that idea. He loved the mystery of legend and castle lore as much as I did. We researched and made lists of castles we wanted to include, chose and divided up which ones we each would write, and set out to include fact, fantasy, legend and mystery. We traded poems back and forth, trading ideas and revision suggestions as we went along. It didn't take us long, although he is a much quicker writer than I am. He probably wanted to pull his hair out a time or two. You give Pat Lewis a collection of poems to write and he's finished while you sneeze.

Elaine: Are you working on a new collection of poems that you would care to tell us about?

Rebecca: I am always working on a new collection of poems. I am working on a dozen or more – that’s the problem. Like my grandmother always said, “honey, can’t you just stick with one thing?” If I could do that, I would have many, many more books of poetry out by this time. Instead, I have files full of half finished projects. I lose concentration easily. I get bored and jump from one thing to another. I was always like this. You might be able to tell by the way I answer interview questions. Speaking of which, back to your question – since my projects are jumbled, half finished and in progress, I’d probably rather wait until at least one is completed before I talk about it. I will say the poems I’m working on are not about Peeps or Sharpies. (Two of my favorite things.) They are about the magic I felt as a child.

P. S. I am writing a collection of Fairy Tale poems with Jane Yolen.

Visit the website of Rebecca Kai Dotlich to learn more about her and her books.
I would like to thank Rebecca Kai Dotlich for this interesting and informative interview.


Andromeda Jazmon said...

What a great interview! I think I learned a few things here and I really appreciate your sharing.

Elaine Magliaro said...


Rebecca was an outstanding subject for an interview. I hope I'll read some of your haikus at the website of the National Wildlife Federation in the not-too-distant future!

Anonymous said...

Love this interview, and her poetry, and her peanut butter cookies sound mighty fine, too! Thanks...

Anonymous said...

I love Rebecca's poetry! Her imagery is amazing, and her precision and meter always amaze me. She's one of the most fun poets around for young readers. Thanks for this interview, Elaine. I learned new stuff, and I always love to get insight into the processes of writers I admire.