U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate: ‘Poetry should be read out loud even if you are all alone in a room.’

By Maryann Yin 

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

Lewis (pictured, via) worked as an economics professor for many years. The sighting of a moonbow (a white rainbow) inspired him to write his first children’s story.

He has since gone on to write more than eighty books and has collaborated with other respected members of the industry including prolific children’s writer Jane Yolen, illustrator Sophie Blackall, and artist Michael Slack.

Check out the highlights from our interview below…
Q: How did you publish your first book?
A: My story is no doubt similar to that of many beginning authors. After seven years of rejections, a first reader at Knopf passed my original Russian folktale on to Anne Schwartz, who is now at Schwartz & Wade/Random House. Anne called me with the good news that she wanted to publish The Tsar & The Amazing Cow, and I did somersaults to Cincinnati and back. The book appeared in 1988, and I was off and running, though rejection is still a routine part of my writing life, as it is for every writer, I suspect.

Russia is a country I have visited thirteen times since being a Fulbright Fellow there in 1972-73. Anne and I will publish our eighth book together next year.

Q: Has the Internet changed the way you interact with readers?
A: I fear I was born too soon for the digital age. Any fourth grader could teach me how to make a website or run a blog. And I am as far as you can get from social networking. But the internet has become undeniably essential and beneficial. Next to my second home, the library, I turn to the internet for all kinds of information, especially when I am working on biographical and historical poems or pursuing scientific research.

Q: Any advice for reading poetry out loud?
A: Poetry should be read out loud even if you are all alone in a room. Readers should want their ears to have as much fun as their mouths are having. As I’ve told schoolchildren at 500+ author visits, you should be loud and proud when you read poetry in public. A poem should also be read slowly and as naturally as speech. So many youngsters, eager to be done with it, mumble into the paper they are holding. Whatever enjoyment one might have derived from their poems vanishes.

Q: What advice can you share for aspiring poets?
A: 1. Read, read read! Classic poems for children and adults, books about poetry. Never trust anyone who writes more than he or she reads. Even if you want to write free verse, learn verse forms and metrics until your eyes glaze over. You can break those rules, but only after you have learned them first.

2. Make a dictionary your best friend, no matter how geeky that sounds. Most children will speak only one language in their lifetimes, so why not make your fluency in that language as masterful as you can.

3. If you say you want to be a writer (prose or poetry), I applaud you. The next words out of your mouth should be, “But I promise to be a rewriter!” I don’t even know why we use the word “writer.” All the great writers in the world have been rewriters. So buy yourself a big wastebasket, and keep it filled.

Q: What’s next for you?
A: More of the same, I dearly hope. More reading, more writing, more visits to elementary schools to carry poetry’s message. Though I am in the twilight of my career with 85 children’s picture/poetry books published and 10 more titles forthcoming, I want to continue writing until my brain matter resembles Maypo and my fingers become as gnarly as claws.

My tenure as the U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate (2011-2013) ends on June 10th, but there’s no reason I can think to stop traveling down the yellow brick road as a Pied Piper for poetry.