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Catching Up With J. Patrick Lewis, Children's Poet Laureate

By Betsy Mikel in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 9, 2011 8:30PM

The Poetry Foundation named the third national Children’s Poetry Laureate last month. J. Patrick Lewis is the author of many poetry and prose books for kids (check out his repertoire on Amazon). As the Poet Laureate, J. Patrick Lewis will spend the next two years raising awareness about children’s poetry and getting more kids involved in reading and writing their own poetry. So... what exactly does the Children’s Poetry Laureate do then? Bring poetry to more children how? We asked J. Patrick Lewis that very same question, among others.

Chicagoist: What do you intend to do over the next couple years to bring poetry to more kids? Sounds like you’re already doing a lot of that with elementary school visits and workshops.

J. Patrick Lewis: There are a number of specific initiatives that I would like to promote, and this depends on how successful I am in getting the Poetry Foundation to back me. The most important one for me is to establish a blog. There’s an adult Poet Laureate, Ted Koozer, who has a blog supported by the Poetry Foundation and the Library of Congress called American Life in Poetry. It’s a wonderful blog, and I would like to replicate that for children’s poetry.

My intention is to offer these poems free to teachers for their classrooms and librarians for their libraries and anybody who’s interested. All they’ll have to do at some point is register, and they can use them free as long as they provide the appropriate citations and copyright. I’m hoping to get these poems in schools, libraries and newspapers.

C: Your website says you visit 30 schools a year. What’s your plan of action to engage students without sounding too rehearsed and repetitive?

JPL: I’ve visited about 450 schools, and I pretty much know what works and what doesn’t. It’s not a complete poetry reading. It’s a poetry workshop. I talk about writing, the importance of free writing, and publishing. The major lesson I try to give in schools is that a lot of it is slugging through. If you have an idea for a collection, you just have to keep writing and rewriting. Kids have this incredible compulsion to rhyme, and I say that sounds is just as important as sense. So if they’re trying to write poetry, they just need to write and not put themselves in a box of rhymes.

C: So when it comes to your poetry, what inspires your work?

JPL: I would say generally that writing, and it’s certainly true for poetry, is an inspiration in itself. It’s just sitting and thinking and writing and rewriting and reading and doing that for long hours. If I say it’s a lonely occupation, I don’t want to convey in any sense it’s painful. This is what I love to do.

C: Who are some of your favorite children’s poets?

JPL: I try not to mention anyone in this century because they’re all my friends! My heroes are Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. Their names are going to be around for a lot longer than ours will be. As much as I like Shel Silverstein, I don’t think anyone has surpassed what they did. That might sound like I’m a curmudgeon, because there are some really terrific contemporary poets. But a lot of their work is just timeless.

C: What are some of the topics you most enjoy writing about?

JPL: When I sit down in the morning, the first thing I think about is poetry. It can be serious or funny. People think poetry for children has to be humorous. Maybe half my books are written about serious subjects — extinction and civil rights, for example. At the same time, I have funny books. The nicest thing that you can say about my books is that I write about a lot of subjects. I’m trying to write across the curriculum, from Pre-K to adults, and I hope I’m succeeding at that. I think I am.

C: What's your most recent book and what's it about?

JPL: In the fall, I have two books coming out. One is a prose book called And The Soldiers Sang. It's a story about the 1913 Christmas Truce in Europe at the beginning of World War I. It happened in no man's land in the trenches between the Germans and the English. At Christmas, the Germans started singing Christmas carols, and then the Englishmen started singing Christmas carols, and they put down their guns and moved to no man's land, which was covered with dead bodies. And for 36 hours, they fraternized. After that, their commanders told them to get back to their positions or they would be up for treason, so they went back to their posts and started killing each other again.