Thursday, June 17, 2010

Interview: JonArno Lawson

I got to know JonArno Lawson through his children's collections, The Man in the Moon-Fixer's Mask and Black Stars in a White Night Sky. Then I got to know him better when I emailed him questions for a project I was doing in Poetry for Children class. He's a particularly thoughtful emailer, so I was delighted when he agreed to a blog interview. I knew his responses would be worth reading, and they are!

You've written quite a few collections primarily for children and several adult collections, but your latest, Think Again, is for young adults. Why YA? Why now?

It's a long story, but I'll try to encapsulate it as much as I can.
Just for fun (in the summer of 2006) I started making up short little rhymes for (and with) my kids. I realized I needed to use a form that would allow me to be a happy father and a happy writer at the same time - quatrains fit the bill - I could remember them easily, and I could work on them while I was with my kids in a way that let them participate with suggestions and instant critiques.

After 5 or 6 months I had a big pile of them - some were silly, some were serious - they were all over the place in terms of subject matter - what held them together was their brevity.
I sent them to a press I'd never worked with before (Kids Can), and was lucky they crossed the desk of Sheila Barry (she's Chief Editor there). She was very enthusiastic - but the marketing people had reservations because the book lacked a theme. Sheila and I both kept trying to figure out how to make it work, and then another editor at Kids Can, Karen Li, pointed out there were many love and relationship poems - she wondered if there might be something there. . .so Sheila and I went back and looked it all over again, found a sequence, and there it was!
What I found so interesting about this was that the poems in this "hidden sequence" were nearly all to do with my high school girlfriend, and our relationship - we had a very hard break-up. We lost touch for years. Then, about 15 years ago, we met up again and got married. Now we have three kids. . .anyway, it's interesting that this was all about us at a much earlier time.
I took the rest of the poems and submitted them to Porcupine's Quill - they'll be published next year - which is sort of nice. The big manuscript separated itself fairly naturally into two different books.
To make a long story short, the book (as a YA book - really as a book at all) emerged in a haphazard way. It's definitely a YA book, though my kids object to the designation (being 6 and 9 - our 2 year old, however, doesn't care yet). They say that younger children can appreciate the poems too.
I hadn't thought about it before, but I realized as I answered your question that I really work with conscious intent on poems, but only with half-conscious ideas about how they might later turn into a book. I do think in terms of doing books (not just fugitive poems), but what a book will or might be isn't clear till I have a pile of poems to sort through and work with.

A lot of your poems are based very much on sound. What tends to come first: an appealing phrase, or a concept you want to express somehow? Does it vary depending on the age you write for?

Usually a phrase comes first, it's true. I'm drawn to funny sound coincidences in and between words. They make a puzzle that the mind (or my mind) feels compelled to sort out. But now and then I have an idea that I want to work on. This is less common though. I can only think of three of my poems where the idea came first.

You've said that your children were a major source of ideas. As they get older, how do the ideas you get from them change, or isn't there much change at all?

The biggest change now is that they can write their own poems, so I can't really use their ideas anymore. I've been writing a musical with my daughter for the past few months - she'll write a line, I'll write a line, back and forth - that's a great deal of fun. Hopefully we'll be able to keep working collaboratively - with my middle son it's more a matter of me acting as recorder - I jot down his ideas as he has them. The littlest might still give me ideas I can work on - a few months ago he was saying "minna minna minna minnamum" all the time, as some kind of personal practice sound, so I made up a little rhyme for him using the words "minimum" "mum" "minimal" "subliminal" "criminal" "sum" etc. - it's just silly, but I'm sure I'll do more of those as his language develops.

Did you like to write poetry, or to play with words, as a child? What brought you to poetry, whenever you reached it?

I always liked playing with words - to say them backwards, and to split them up, and sometimes I wrote new lyrics to old tunes. I'm sure good songs - songs with good lyrics - are what brought me to poetry. I really think if you want to engage kids with poetry a good place to start is The Wizard of Oz, or The Court Jester, or The Sound of Music - and then read the lyrics to them as well, or let them read them themselves if they can read. Christmas Carols like "Good King Wenceslas" are quite beautiful to read and sing as well. The lyrics to the "Spiderman" television show theme song are also excellent. Singing helps kids remember the lyrics, and that gives them a sense of mastery - if they're told what they're singing are poems, they can never feel they can't remember or appreciate poetry.
A lot of kids also find lipograms fascinating. What seems too hard or experimental often isn't at all - kids are far more open to experimenting than adults realize, I think. My kids are much better at picking out funny coincidences between words than I am - I think because it's fresher to them, they're not ignoring things I've learned to ignore.

What advice would you give people who want to write poetry?

Enjoy doing it! But be hard on yourself. At the same time, don't take the opinions of other people more seriously than you need to. It's hard (especially early on) not be discouraged, but remember - there's only one you, and only you can speak for yourself, so persist. Don't give up. Keep track of the poems you love - make your own anthology - keep track of lines, words, lyrics, and keep going back to them - relish them, don't forget them. They're keeping something important in you alive, and they're letting you grow. It's important work, never assume otherwise.

Thanks so much, JonArno! I'll keep recommending your collections to customers.

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