Harper Collins Publishing asked me if I would like to interview Toronto’s first poet laureate Dennis Lee about his new book Melvis and Elvis. I read Lee’s classic Alligator Pie as an adult and loved the poems. I also spent a lot of time reading them to my son when he was a toddler, and I can still recite many of them from memory.
I love Melvin and Elvis, both the words and the pictures, illustrated by Jeremy Tankard of the Grumpy Bird fame. I loved that Melvis and Elvis made multiple appearances in the book, and hope to see them again.
1. Congratulations on your new children’s book. The pre-copy is on my desk and it seems to grab people’s attention. They said they love the title, and love it more when I tell them Melvis is a monster and Elvis is an elf. How long have you been working on this book?
I have to guesstimate, but it’s been about five years.
2. I read an interview (www.januarymagazine.com/profiles/dennislee.html) that said a book may have 35 or 40 poems offering story, joke and lullaby poems, among others. What is the process of writing? (Do you come up with the main poem first and work around it or does the theme come after?)
I think of a collection of children’s poems as a party – with all the different parts of ourselves being invited. So the rambunctious me can be there, and the tender me, and the me that loves to be told a story, and the me that likes corny jokes, and the me that can be carried away with a sense of wonder. And on and on…
If I start off with an abstract plan for a collection, though, it falls apart in short order. I have to keep shooting arrows in the dark – working on individual poems one by one, and then seeing if there’s any larger organic shape they seem to be part of. If there is, it usually takes me completely by surprise. When I wrote “Melvis and Elvis” (the poem), I had no idea that it would become the anchor of a book. And the idea that the book would take shape as the two title characters stepped into it, and interacted with various poems – that was the farthest thing from my mind. That process of gradual discovery is what keeps things alive and vital, if you’re working on a book for a lengthy period.
3. I enjoyed reading the story about how you came up with Alligator Pie while on the bike ride. The rhythm and the words were there and you plucked them from your head and put them on paper. Do poems always come easy to you or do you get writer’s block? How many revisions do poems usually undergo?
I’m an addictive reviser, with both my adult poetry and my children’s. Even if a first draft comes quickly, I’m likely to go through anywhere from 20 to 50 drafts. The trick is to stop when it has an effortless feel to it – as if it just fell onto the page unprompted. Sometimes I can’t stop myself, though, and I keep revising after that point has been reached. Then it gets much too calculated and over-elaborated; if I have any sense, I go back however many drafts, to the point where it was still a living thing.
4. I will confess that poetry is not my favourite medium, but I love (as does my son) your poetry. They are fun, catchy and memorable, and there aren’t words in there that make you feel like you put it in there simply because it rhymes. I like that I can find Toronto, and Canada, references in your pieces. How do you do it? How do you continue to find new things to write 25 books (or so) later?
I ask myself that every time I sit down with an empty piece of paper, and wait to see whether words will come. I don’t want to turn myself into a Dennis Lee Factory, so I try to set aside everything I’ve done up till now, and dive in like a total beginner. In many ways I’m not that, of course. But the uncertainty about whether there’s another new poem out there, waiting to be written – that’s a constant. If it ever stops, and I start just recycling things I’ve already done, I hope I’ll have the good sense to shut up.
5. I read another interview you did with Peter Gzowski in the ’70s (www.cbc.ca/archives/discover/programs/cat-6534/90-minutes-live/dennis-lee-clip.html) where you said you draw inspiration from one of your inner kids. What kid did you tap into for Melvis and Elvis (who I love and I am so glad I got to read more poetry about them)? How else to you draw inspiration?
You do well to zero in on that quote from the Gzowski interview, but in a way, what I said there is all I can say about it. I do think we have earlier selves, of various ages, still latent within us. Like growth rings in a tree – when a new ring develops each year, the earlier ones don’t go away – even though they get farther from the surface. So I try to tap into one of the younger – sometimes much younger – me’s that are still kicking around in my nervous system. But if I connect with one, I have no idea as it’s happening “what kid” it is. I’m inside that child’s sensibility, so I’m not analyzing it from the outside (and it’d probably be fatal to do so). After the poem is finished, I may get more analytic about it – but that’s mostly a process I go through with an editor, as we’re shaping the whole book. As one example, I don’t worry about age-level when I’m working on individual poems. But when you’re putting a book together, you don’t want to include poems that 3- or 4-year-olds can enjoy alongside poems that only an 11 or 12 year old will get. That’s a different kind of process than writing the poems, though.
6. Now that your children are older, who gets to test-drive your poetry?
While I’m still working on a poem – in any of those endless drafts – I’m only concerned with trying to hear the poem, hear what it’s trying to be. So I don’t ‘test-drive’ it on anyone.
Once I’ve got a bunch that feel right, though, it’s helpful to sit down with some kids and do some readings. So I go into schools, and read to groups at what seems like the relevant age levels. My editor at HarperCollins, who’s a really good reader herself, helped arrange that process with Melvis and Elvis, starting a couple of years ago. And I often learn a lot. Some poems that struck me as total winners get a lukewarm response, time and again. Others that I hadn’t taken too seriously strike a chord really noticeably – whether it’s that kids laugh uproariously, or sit unexpectedly quietly and absorb a piece. So that stage of the process has to do with shaping the whole book, not with working on individual poems.
7. Do you have a favourite poem in this book?
Ah, I can’t go out on that particular limb. They feel like my children still, and each child is your favourite.
8. Did all the poems you wrote for this book make it? How many were cut and why?
Overall, I wrote at least twice as many poems as there are here – probably a good deal more. I’ve never counted. Some of them just never achieved lift-off, no matter how many times I tried to resuscitate them. Others were too old for this particular collection. And then there are maybe up to 10 that we would have loved to include, but finally didn’t. Occasionally they were too close in mood or content to ones we were keeping. But some of it was to make sure Jeremy Tankard had room to work his particular magic. We haven’t talked about his illustrations, but they’re just fabulous. And of course they develop across the whole book – they’re not just a series of unconnected pictures. So we had to keep the manuscript loose enough that the pictures could come to the fore at some points, and take second place to the words at others. You can’t explore that kind of changing words-&-pictures rhythm in a vivacious way if the text alone would fill the entire book.
9. I know you also write adult poetry and I understand they are completely different, but do you have a favourite – writing for children or adults? Why?
I sometimes tell people that if I had to choose between writing for adults and writing for children, I wouldn’t. It comes naturally to do both, and there’s no need to choose between them. It’s another form of that tree-ring analogy; it’s true that I still have various children alive in me, but equally I have various adults alive in me – and they all hunger to find a voice.
One thing I notice is something I never set out consciously to do. Namely: the children’s poetry is virtually all in the older, traditional conventions – metrical rhythm, rhyme, and regular stanza forms. But while I love that tradition, it’s not how 98 per cent of my adult poetry comes out; it’s almost all in free verse. (The one exception is a book called SoCool, which was for pre-teens and younger teenagers; there, there’s a mix of the older and the modern conventions.)
10. You were Toronto’s first poet laureate (2001-2004). What was your favourite part of that position? What legacy did you leave?
The main thing I got going is still happening, though it’s mutated a bit. It’s the Toronto Legacy Project – a volunteer group who partner with Heritage Toronto to put plaques on the homes of notable Torontonians. Like the blue plaques in London. We’ve been doing the actual installations for 5 years, and there are 33 in place now. They include Tom Thomson, Frederick Banting, Lester Pearson, Jane Jacobs, Marshall McLuhan, Gwendolyn MacEwen. We hope it’ll keep going for the next 100 years.
11. Thank you for your time. Do you think Melvis and Elvis will make another appearance in a future book?
What a cool question. If I tried to bring them back by an effort of conscious will, I suspect they’d just go through the motions, and the result would be a drag. But who knows? If they got together and plotted a return on their own steam, it could be quite nifty. Over that, however, I have no control; I’ll just have to wait and see.
One Book Heavy
One book heavy,
One book light,
One book waiting
For an elf tonight
One book cozy
One book wild
One book waiting
For a Monster child.
One book funny,
One book true,
One book waiting
For a kid – called – YOU.
From Melvis and Elvis © 2015 by Dennis Lee
Melvis and Elvis
Editor’s Note: I have the pre-copy of Melvis and Elvis. I love the illustrations in this book. And I love Melvis and Elvis and the fact they make appearances throughout the book. Thank you HarperCollins for the actual copy of the book. I love it.
February’s theme is all about winter.
Adventures in Cold Places, Activities and Sticker Books
This new sticker activity series for kids three and older shows people the incredible sights and diverse environments of Earth.
Editor’s Note: With more than 750 stickers and lots of activities, you can learn about various cold weather places including Canada.
First Hockey Words
Kids Can Press, http://www.kidscanpress.com
The players have their helmets, skates and sticks – now they need a goal. Cheer on a winning team of characters and learn the basics of the game.
Editor’s Note: When I saw this book, I knew I had to get it for my hockey-obsessed four-year-old nephew. He loved it the moment he took it to his hands. He read along, celebrated the goal and cheered on the winning team. My six-year-old son and eight-year-old niece read along.
Henry Holton Takes the Ice
A story about finding the passion – and the skates – that fit you.
Editor’s Note: Every hockey-mad family with children, or any parent with a passion and children, should read this book. What a great story, told with humour and understanding of boy’s desire to follow his heart.
Lost in the Backyard
Orca Book Publishers, http://www.orcabook.com
Ages nine plus
Flynn hates the outdoors. Always has. Hiking and camping. No way. He leaves that to his little sister an his parents. But when a walk in the woods leads to being lost in the wilderness, Flynn finds out whether one skinny boy in a light hoodie and inappropriate footwear can survive.
Editor’s Note: Unlike Flynn, I like survival stories and the idea of a character being lost in the woods and surviving keeps my attention. Hughes did a great job at showing Flynn’s terror, particularly at night.
Mission: Polar Bear Rescue
All About Polar Bears and How to Save Them
Nancy F. Castaldo and Karen de Seve with National Geographic Explorer Daniel Raven-Ellison
National Geographic Kids, kids.nationalgeographic.com/mission-animal-rescue
Meet the wild polar bear. Once these white bears roamed across the sea ice, but today they struggle to survive. Your mission is to learn all about the polar bear and what you can do to help.
Editor’s Note: I love polar bears. They are beautiful and amazing. This book offers great information about the polar bears along with some stunning, and adorable pictures. There is information, presented in a graphic comic way, about polar bears myths as well as information about ways to help this wonderful creature that is seeing a decline due to climate change.
Over and Under the Snow
Over the snow, the world is hushed and white. But under the snow is a secret world of squirrels and snow hares, bears and bullfrogs and many other animals that live through the winter safe and warm under the snow.
Editor’s Note: My son didn’t make it to the end of the book, maybe because I kept pointing things out rather than let him just enjoy it. It could have been a little shorter.
Winter’s Coming, A story of seasonal change
Owl Kids, http://www.owlkidsbooks.com$17.95
When leaves change colour in Lily’s forest home, the young snowshoe hare is taken by surprise. She hears from the other animals that winter’s coming, but who or what is winter. Lily discovers what other animals do for this winter and wonders if she too will have to do the same.
Editor’s Note: My six year old wasn’t interested in reading to the end, but I thought the story was pretty great. I enjoyed reading what the other animals did for winter and Lily’s reaction to it. I liked how Lily herself subtlety changed.
It is a similar story to Thornhill’s Is This Panama? A Migration Story.
Virginia Brimhall Snow
Gibbs Smith, http://www.gibbs-smith.com
Discover the hidden gems of winter through a rhyming tale, activities and winter trivia.
Editor’s Note: What a cool book. Each page has a highlighted word and its picture in colour. Some are just the words, others are part of the story. The main picture is painted, while the rest of the page is in pencil drawing. I liked it a lot and enjoy reading it.
The Night Thief, A Cedric O’Toole Mystery
Raven Books, an imprint of Orca Books Publishers, http://www.rapid-reads.com
Adult, 16-plus (publishes in April)
Cedric O’Toole is determined to catch the creature raiding his fair. After a stakeout and a chase, Cedric discovers the unexpected, what appears to be a homeless boy. Since Cedric has been a ward of children’s services, he is wary of giving the boy up to the police. But when a larger crime comes to light, Cedric must work to solve the mystery of the boy in the forest.
Editor’s Note: I would like to think this stuff – a homeless boy living in the woods and the rest of his story – wouldn’t actually happen, not here in Canada, so I didn’t care about the character as much as I should have. Saying that, I hope if we see Cedric O’Toole in another book, he gets his wish.
All the joy, magic, and wonder of a child’s first experiences are captured in this breathtaking picture book.
Bear can’t wait to go to sleep. He’s exhausted, but his persistent next-door neighbor, Duck, is wide awake and wants to hang out. Each time Bear is just about to fall asleep, Duck comes back with some great plans. Will Bear ever be able to catch some ZZZs?
Mimi and Bear in the Snow
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Ages one to four
Wherever Mimi goes, Bear is sure to be there. But when Bear gets lost, Mimi is heartbroken. Luckily, the snow melts and Mimi and Bear are reunited.
New York Times Snowed in Crosswords
St. Martin’s Press
Since it first ran in 1942, The New York Times Sunday crosswords are the standard by which all others are judged.
Walter de la Mare
Faber & Faber Children’s
Carolina Rabei’s stunning illustrations beautifully illuminate Walter de la Mare’s classic poem in this gorgeous picture book that celebrates snow.
The Winter People
Rebekah L. Purdy
Ages 12 to 17
Salome Montgomery fears winter – the cold, the snow, the ice, but most of all the frozen pond she fell through as child. Haunted by the voices and images of the strange beings that pulled her to safely, she hasn’t forgotten their warning to “stay way”. For 11 years she has done so, but when failing health takes her grandparents to Arizona, she is left in charge of maintaining their estates and this includes the “special gifts” that must be left at the back to the property.
The Boy In Number Four
Penguin Books, http://penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/978067006713/boy-number-fourthe#9780143192992
It takes hard work and dedication to make it to the big league, but those aren’t the only things that are important. Respect, determination and the sheer thrill of the game brought Bobby Orr from a small northern town in Canada to one of the best teams in the NHL. Using Bobby Orr and his journey as a model, The Boy in Number Four celebrates the game of hockey – from backyard rinks to the big leagues. A book for hockey enthusiasts of all ages.
Black History Month
Lasso the Wind
George Elliott Clarke
Nimbus Publishing, http://www.nimbus.ca
Can you lasso the wind?
Can you whip it a-gale?
Can you make oceans bend
To cradle each lost whale?
Lasso the Wind is the first collection of children’s poetry by renowned poet and playwright George Elliott Clarke. Clarke’s poems speak to the vivid wonder, the bright joys and the secret pains of growing up in this world.
Nimbus Publishing, http://www.nimbus.ca/Up-Home-pb-P6501.aspx
Happy memories sparkle in this journey through poet Shauntay Grant’s childhood visits to North Preston, N.S. Her words bring to life the sights, sounds, rhythms and people of a joyful place, while Susan Tooke’s vibrant illustrations capture the warmth of one of Canada’s most important black communities. Up Home celebrates the magic of growing up, and the power in remembering our roots now in a new softcover edition.
~ This was first published at insidetoronto.com