Saturday, April 25, 2009

Poetry Makers - Calef Brown

I LOVE Daniel Pinkwater. Because of him ...
What's that? You thought this interview was about Calef Brown? Well, hold onto your hat--I'm getting there! Now, where was I? Oh yes . . .
For any of you uninitiated out there, Daniel Pinkwater frequently joins Scott Simon on Weekend Edition Saturday to discuss children's books. In the years I've been listening I have met new-to-me authors and found many delightful books thanks to their tandem readings and Pinkwater's unabashed enthusiasm. In April of 1999, nearly ten years to the day of THIS interview, I met Calef Brown. (See, I told you I'd get there!) Scott Simon had invited Daniel Pinkwater to talk about poetry for National Poetry Month. When asked what he brought to share, this is what Pinkwater had to say.
I looked at a number of poetry books. This one is a standout. This one is clearly by a genius. A guy by the name of Calef Brown. Never heard of him, but he is a genius. Trust me.
This is Mr. Brown's first book for children. Let it not be his last. It's Polkabats and Octopus Slacks: 14 Stories, he calls them stories, they're not po-ems.
Before you read this interview, you should listen to the NPR episode on Polkabats and Octopus Slacks. Then come back and learn a bit more about Calef and his work.

How did you get started writing poetry?
Calef: I knew that I wanted to create children's books, and I originally tried writing stories in prose , but for whatever reason, found I had a knack for creating short rhyming pieces. For my first two books I didn’t call them poems because I wasn’t sure that they qualified as such, and I knew very little about poetry. Now I’m comfortable with calling myself an artist who writes poems, or a poet who paints, or any combination thereof.

Who/what made you want to write?
Calef: As a kid I was very inspired by Lewis Carroll, Dr. Seuss and A.A. Milne.

My family was a big influence because we all share a love of language and a similar sense of humor. The first things I wrote were just to amuse myself and family and friends. My sister Phebe and I would write stories back and forth when I first moved to the west coast.

My love of music is the other thing that made me want to write, and I have always been inspired by great songs and smart lyrics.I think of the poems in my books as song-like, meant to be read aloud.

What got you hooked on children’s poetry?

Calef: I’m not hooked, I can quit anytime. That’s what I kept saying over and over during my intervention, but everyone just shook their heads and wouldn’t make eye contact with me. I was dragged to a CPA meeting , but after introducing myself with the standard “My name is Calef Brown and I’m a recovering children’s poet”, I broke into an exuberant reading of Kansas City Octopus, and they threw me out. But seriously folks… I was hooked once I started getting a response to my first book, and realized that both kids and adults were digging it. Daniel Pinkwater had a huge part in getting attention for Polkabats and Octopus Slacks when he read it on NPR. Once I realized that there were people out there who liked what I was doing it gave me a boost of confidence and I kept at it.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Calef: No. I’m pretty much self taught. I was really turned off by the way poetry was presented in school, especially in high school, where it was approached as a sort of code to be broken–taken apart and analyzed. I could never get the symbolism and felt left out and alienated by the stuff that we studied. On top of this it was all humorless. I did like some of the poets that my father introduced me to, especially Robert Coffin, a Maine poet who won the Pulitzer in 1936.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Calef: My process revolves around keeping notes and ideas for poems in sketchbooks and trying to put time in each day editing, playing around and refining ideas, as well as spending some time writing in a free association mode.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Calef: First, I really love my process of writing poems–from getting the germ of an idea from a tossed off sketch, or an overheard phrase, a whim, whatever–and building a rhythm and a story. It’s like solving a wonderful puzzle. This is great fun, but what I enjoy most is seeing the effect that my books have on kids and families in the real world, something that I never considered when I started out. I love seeing kids react to the poems and art when I do school visits. I get emails from parents telling me that their four year old has memorized some of my poems, or a grandparent who tells me about little poetry slams of my work that they have with their grandchildren, letters and drawings from kids inspired to make art or poems or both together. I want kids to feel like they can do what I do, because they can!

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Calef: My favorite of my books so far is Flamingos on the Roof because in addition to writing the poems and doing the paintings, I designed it, and also created a font for the text, so it feels like it’s the most my own from cover to cover. A couple of my favorite poems from that book are "Weatherbee’s Diner" and "Tiny Baby Sphinx." My two favorites from my newest book, Soup for Breakfast, are "Painting on Toast" and "One to Ten (and back again)."

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Calef: Right now I’m working on a book in the Halloween spirit for Houghton Harcourt, one for Simon and Shuster that is a bit different from my other books, but involves nonsense and wordplay. And lastly I’m illustrating a volume of the work of one of my literary heroes for Chronicle.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Calef: A.A. Milne

Your favorite place to write?
Calef: Harpswell, Maine

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Calef: Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese. ~G.K. Chesterton

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Calef: Adam Rex

Since Calef was kind enough to name some of his favorite poems, I'll start by sharing those here. Here are two of his favorites from Flamingos on the Roof.
Weatherbee’s Diner

Whenever you’re looking for something to eat,
Weatherbee’s Diner is just down the street.
     Start off your meal with a bottle of rain.
     Fog on the glass is imported from Maine.
The thunder is wonderful, order it loud,
with sun-dried tornado on top of a cloud.
     Snow Flurry Curry is also a treat.
     It’s loaded with lightning and slathered in sleet.
Cyclones with hailstones are great for dessert,
but have only one or your belly will hurt.
     Regardless of whether it’s chilly or warm,
     at Weatherbee’s diner they cook up a storm!

Tiny Baby Sphinx

Tiny Baby Sphinx.
She looks at me and blinks.
I offer bits of cat food.
The kind that really stinks.
I wonder what she thinks about
at nighttime when she slinks about
inviting other sphinxes out
to gather in the moonlight.
In his newest book, Soup for Breakfast, Calef has been transformed from a blue elephant to a blue cat. The flap copy about him reads:
Calef Brown was, until recently,
a blue elephant.
He truly does enjoy soup for breakfast,
as does his wife, Anissa.
They live, for now,
in a wooden cottage
on a foggy island in Maine.
Calef tries to write a poem a day.
"Believe it or not," he says,
"I was once very averse to verse,
but now all of my nouns, verbs,
adjective, and adverbs
go forwards and backwards,
riffing and rhyming.
It's all about the timing," he intones,
with a far too serious look on his face.
Here are two of Calef's favorite poems from this book.
Painting on Toast

Thank you for joining me.
I'll be your host.
The name of the program
is “Painting on Toast."
Before getting started,
we need to prepare.
The primer is butter.
Apply it with care.
Blueberry jam
makes a beautiful sky.
Brush on some cream cheese
for clouds going by.
Honey is dandy
for mountains and hills.
Mix it with cinnamon.
Show off your skills.
Now for a barn
with a silo and shed.
Raspberry jelly
is perfectly red.
Our painting is done,
except for the sun—
a dab of orange marmalade.
Look at the farm we made!

One to Ten (and back again)

One, Two, close your eyes,
Think of something strange:
Fog that isn’t foggy.
A day that doesn’t change.

Three, Four, nod your head.
Think of something odd:
Underwater butterflies.
Fuzzy-wuzzy cod.

Five, Six, snap your fingers.
Think of something weird:
Noodles in a haystack.
A baby with a beard.

Seven, Eight, clap your hands
Think of something silly:
Chickens popping bubble wrap.
Statues eating chili.

Nine, Ten, tap your feet.
Think of something fun:
Mulling over foolish whims.
Counting back to one.
I'm still quite fond of the poems that first made me a fan of Calef's. Here's one I love from Polkabats and Octopus Slacks.
Skeleton Flowers

Late October showers
bring delicate skeleton flowers.
A ghostly sight
on Halloween night,
they softly glow for hours.
I love ALL of Calef's book and could share any number of poems from them, but I'll end with my favorite from Dutch Sneakers and Flea Keepers.
Dutch Sneakers

My Dutch Wooden Sneakers from Holland,
the grooviest shoes on the block.
I love 'em so much,
did I mention they're Dutch?
I don't care if it hurts when I walk.

My Dutch Wooden Sneakers from Holland,
handmade out of some sort of pine.
They creak and they squeak,
and they constantly leak,
but I just can't believe that they're mine!
If you'd like to learn more about Calef and his work, check out the sites below.
Boatloads of thanks to Calef for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems ©Calef Brown. All rights reserved.


  1. Sigh! My fave interview here this month. Pinkwater was right. Calef Brown is a genius! Thanks for including Weatherbee's Diner and Painting on Toast. I'm in foodie heaven. :)

  2. I think my favorite of his is the Baby Sphinx. He's another person who is both brilliantly silly and sly.

  3. Weatherbee's Diner!!!!!
    Oh, I am swooning over these.
    And that bit about being hooked on poetry (or not)??? Funny, funny guy....

  4. Calef is a huge inspiration .. I love everything he does