Jack Prelutsky: ‘A poem is a living organism, and no two are alike.’

By Maryann Yin Comment

Happy National Poetry Month! All throughout April, we will interview poets about working in this digital age. Recently we spoke with the United States’ first children’s poet laureate, Jack Prelusky.

Prelutsky did not enjoy studying poetry during his primary school days, but he has since published eighty volumes of children’s poetry.

In his new collection, I’ve Lost my Hippopotamus, the poet talks about real and imaginary animals. Check out the highlights from our interview below…

Q: How did you publish your first book?
A: In the early sixties, I was in my early twenties, and was fishing around for something to do with my life. I had known since early childhood that it would be something in the arts, but I hadn’t yet figured out exactly what. I tried many things, including classical singing, folk singing, acting, pottery, photography, sculpture, and drawing. Among my many projects, I had drawn a series of about two dozen imaginary creatures . . . animals with eleven heads, birds with hundred-foot-long tongues, improbable insects the size of buildings, and so on. One evening, I looked at these creatures and spontaneously decided that they needed poems to accompany them. To this day I don’t know what possessed me, but I’m glad that it happened.

Anyhow, in about two hours I wrote two dozen verses about the creatures that had taken me six months to draw. Then I put the whole business aside on top of a dresser and went on to something else. Perhaps I made a collage or built a terrarium. Several weeks later, a friend who had published several children’s books noticed my drawings and verses, and urged me to show them to his editor. I had my doubts, but brought them to Susan Hirschman, who had just taken over as editor-in-chief of children’s books at Macmillan. She told me that I had no talent whatsoever as an artist (which surprised me), but that I had a natural poetic gift (which surprised me even more). She said that she would love to publish me . . . this surprised me most of all.

She encouraged me to write poems about real animals, which I did for several months. Eventually, I had enough to make a book, which was published by Macmillan in 1967. The title was A GOPHER IN THE GARDEN. That book is long out of print, but most of the poems in it may be found in a compilation of three of my early books entitled, ZOO DOINGS, published in 1983 by Greenwillow Books.

Q: Has the Internet changed the way you interact with readers?
A: It has. In the early days of the Internet I did a number of online poetry-writing workshops with kids, in which I encouraged them to complete or at least continue poems that I had started. These were successful, and I got a lot of creative responses. Some of theseworkshops even led to books. Also, I have a website which is currently undergoing renovation. It’s pretty good now, but soon it will be much bigger and much better, and will include, among other things, letters, poems, and drawings by my readers.

Q: Any advice for reading poetry out loud?
A: A poem is a living organism, and no two are alike. Most poems (perhaps all poems) are read best when read aloud. There is no one best way to recite a poem, but some ways are better than others. One trick about reciting poetry is to put yourself in the poet’s shoes . . . try and imagine what the poet was really trying to say. If the poem has a message that seems to be getting louder, then you should get louder too. If the action in the poem is getting faster, then you should also be faster. Don’t be afraid to experiment, and never be afraid to make mistakes. I can guarantee you that poets make lots of mistakes when they’re writing, but they fix them, and so can you. It may also help to look in the mirror when you’re practicing.

Q: What advice can you share for aspiring poets?
A: Write first about the things you know best—yourself, your family and friends, your pets, your neighborhood, your school, your teachers, and so on. Don’t start out with poems about strange planets inhabited by even stranger beings. You haven’t been to those planets, and you’ve never seen those creatures. There’s plenty of time to write about things like that later. Always carry a notebook (I do) and at least a couple of pens . . . one of them is guaranteed to run out of ink at the worst time. Keep your eyes and your ears open. When you notice something unusual, write it down immediately—I always do. If you don’t write down an idea immediately, you’re liable to forget it, and it may be gone forever. Most of all, practice . . . and practice some more. The more you write, the better you’ll get.

Q: What’s next for you?
A: I’m always working on numerous projects. Currently, I’m writing the libretto for a children’s opera, learning to draw on the computer with the idea of illustrating one of my own books, setting a collection of lullabies I recently wrote to music, and working onseveral more books of poetry. I’m also working on some books for adults, in both prose and poetry. They’re all different from each other—but they’re all funny.