Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Poetry Makers - Douglas Florian

I've been lugging books home every weekend to work on my Poetry Makers posts. This weekend my son went through my bag and found 14 books (14!) by Douglas Florian. As he was flipping through beast feast (the winner of the 1995 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award) he stopped on the anteater page and said, "Mom, don't you just love this stuff?" I replied, "Oh yes, I love him." OOPS! Secret poet crush revealed to 8-year old! So, while son spent the rest of the afternoon giggling, husband just shook his head and (lovingly) said, "Mom, you're such a dork."

Now that I've revealed my super secret poet/artist crush (c'mon, you've all got one, admit it!), I think we should start with a video of Douglas reading from his latest work.

Before we look at Douglas' poetry, let's learn a bit more about him.


How did you get started writing poetry?
Douglas: I first started to love poetry in the fifth grade. Actually it was during my summer vacation between 5th and 6th grade when I wandered into the local library in Queens, New York. It wasn't much of a wander, the library being one block away. Anyway, I came across the witty poetry of Ogden Nash. He peeled my mind. He continues to be my favorite humorous poet.

Who/what made you want to write?
Douglas: When I was in high school I wanted to be a cartoonist. One of my favorite New Yorker cartoonists was James Thurber, who wrote hilarious short stories in addition to his hysterical cartoons. My parents owned Thurber's Alarms and Diversions, which I savored many times. So that was my goal: to be a New Yorker cartoonist and short story writer. I never did sell a short story to The New Yorker, but did eventually draw some cartoons for them. That's how I got to meet the late great Charles Addams.

My first editor, the illustrious Susan Hirshman at Greenwillow also encouraged me to write.

What got you hooked on children’s poetry?

Douglas: A funny thing happened to me. About 30 years ago I was illustrating other people's children's books for Greenwillow and I came across the poetry of Jack Prelutsky. I asked my editor, Libby Shub, if I could illustrate Prelutsky and she said, "Oh, no, there's a whole line of people waiting to do that and James Stevenson already has the job, and he's doing a splendid job." So I decided I would have to write my own poetry to illustrate. Rejection has been very good to me, and now Prelutsky sometimes puts my poems in his books.

That summer I wrote about 500 poems, only about 5 of which have ever been published. I intensely studied all the devises, mechanisms, and foibles in all the children's verse I could get may hands or feet on.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
In Queens College here in New York City I majored in art, but I did take a course in poetry, which I hated.
The course that is, not poetry.
We studied Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost. I got a D in poetry.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
I do an enormous amount of research on my subject. For DINOTHESAURUS this meant going to the American Museum of Natural History several times and reading a great deal of books by paleontologists. The poems emerged from the research, much like a rash or hives. Some poems go through many drafts and revisions. I drove my editor (Andrea Welch) and designers (Ann Bobco and Michael McCartney) crazy with last minute changes. They were very important to the creation of this book.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
The most enjoyable aspect is hearing children laughing at my poems or noticing things in my art. I also enjoy the letters I get from kids telling me how much they love poetry and painting.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Douglas: Actually DINOTHESAURUS is my favorite, and it's my editor Andrea's as well, "hand's down." A recent starred review in Publishers Weekly echoed the idea.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Douglas: I'm doing the art now for a book of poetry about trees. It's growing very well, thank you. There's a few surprises in it, but you'll have to wait until next Spring to see how I'm branching out.

Pop Quiz!

Your favorite dead poet?
Douglas: Ogden Nash for humorous poems. Allen Ginsberg for tragic ones. And Shakespeare for LOVE Sonnets.

Your favorite place to write?
My favorite place is anywhere. Is anywhere good for you too? All I need is a scrap of paper, a pen, and an idea, and ideas have a way of popping up anywhere they want, uninvited.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Douglas: Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead. --Gene Fowler

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Lee Bennett Hopkins, of course.

My affinity for Douglas' work should come as no surprise to readers of this blog who know of my love for the connection between science and poetry. Douglas has written about seasons, space, animals (hundreds of them!), and dinosaurs in a way that marries a love for language, wordplay, art and content. Don't believe me? Here are just a few examples.
The Sea Horse (from in the swim)

You have
No hooves.
You have no hair.
You don't eat oats.
You don't breathe air.
You hatch from eggs.
You cannot race.
(You have no legs
With which to chase.)
You're not a colt
Nor mare
Nor filly.
You're called a horse.
I call that silly.

Winter Burrows (from Winter Eyes)

Beneath the pond a sleeping frog
Recalls she was a polliwog,
Once wiggling wild beside a log.

The rust fox deep in his hole
Dreams of chasing mouse and mole,
Schemes of racing red-backed vole.

The fat-cheeked chipmunk can be found
Inside her burrow underground.
She dreams without a single sound.

And me, I'm burrowed in my bed
With cozy quilt above my head
And dreams of snowmen, sleigh, and sled.

The Beaver (from mammalabilia)


Tree-Tice (from Autumnblings)

One leaf fell,
Then two,
Then three.
Such is autumn industree.
Four leaves fell,
Then five,
Then six.
A tree-tice on

The Moon (from Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars)

A NEW moon isn't really new,
It's merely somewhat dark to view.

A CRESCENT moon may seem to smile,
Gladly back after a while.

A HALF moon is half-dark, half light,
At sunset look due south to sight.

A FULL moon is a sight to see,
Circular in geometry.

After full, the moon will wane
Night by night, then start again.
In Poetry Rules!, a brief article Douglas wrote for Amazon about writing poetry, he said:

What's the first rule of writing poetry? There are no rules. Poetry rules! In other words, you can spell words wrong, use bad grammar, write words upside-down, or even invent new words. In fact you can do anything you want as long as it makes your poem better. That's called poetic license. Your poetic license lets you drive your poem anywhere you want.

For example, in my book, Laugh-eteria, there's a poem called "Dracula" where I rhyme Dracula with blackula, snackula, and Cadillacula (as a matter of factula). Now, you won't find those words in any dictionary. I made them up!

You can invent new words too. What do you call a hippo with the hiccups? A hiccupotamus. What is an octopus with socks on? A socktopus. And why does an elephant need a big nose? To smellephant.

Here are a few poems containing Douglas' "invented" words. In many cases, these are very playful spellings!
The Ant (from zoo's who)

I wANTed to write
A poem on an ANT.
I'm frANTic--
I cAN'T.

The Rhea (from beast feast)

The rhea rheally isn't strange--
It's just an ostrich rhearranged.

The Bear (from mammalabilia)

Come Septem-bear
I sleep, I slum-bear,
Til winter lum-bears
Into spring.
More than that's

Pterosaurs (from Dinothesaurus)
TERR-oh-sawrs (winged lizards)

The pterrifying pterosaurs
Flew ptours the ptime of dinosaurs.
With widespread wings and pteeth pto ptear,
The pterrorized the pteeming air.
They were not ptame.
They were ptenacious--
From the Ptriassic
Pto the Cretaceous.
This last poem is from Douglas' latest book, Dinothesaurus. Leading up to its publication, Douglas shared quite a bit of the artwork and some of the poems on his blog.

I could go on, breaking all kinds of copyright law and expounding on what I love about Douglas' work, but I'll summarize by saying that I'm always entertained and often surprised by what I read. In some cases I feel like he's hit upon a truth that is just so obvious, I'm not sure why I didn't think of it myself.

Since the semester is coming to a close here and we're rushing headlong into summer, I'll share one final poem on what lies ahead.
What I Hate About Summer (from Summersaults)

Skinned knees
Ninety degrees
Long droughts
Dog days
Summer haze
Bee swarms
Humid nights
Mosquito bites
Clothes that stick--
I hate that summer goes so quick.
To learn more about Douglas and his work, consider visiting these sites.
Hats off to Douglas for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems ©Douglas Florian. All rights reserved.


  1. I'm with you, Tricia - Douglas Florian's work always delights me, often intrigues me, often surprises me. I'd like to see an MRI of his brain lighting up as he writes - I bet it's like the 4th of July!

  2. Boy, Dad and William would be shocked how many dorks there are!

    I hate it when a class turns someone off of poetry. Paradise Lost!!? Well. I suppose someone has to read it. But for a non-major class, it seems a bit dense... especially for someone whose beginning was with Ogden Nash, and who quibbles over seahorse nomenclature!

  3. Love love love this interview -- Doug's work is always so uplifting, inventive, and as others have said, surprising. He's a light and I love his positive energy. Thanks!

  4. Great interview, Tricia! Love Doug's work.

  5. What a terrific interview! I'm a fan of Douglas' work. In fact, I was tickled when one of his editors rejected Stampede as being "too similar to Douglas Florian's work." Pinky swear! But it's not. It's just that mine was rhyming and about animals, so I guess they would compete. But Douglas' style is all his own. He's one of those poets whose work you can always pick out of a crowd--it's that distinctive!

    Thanks, Tricia and Douglas!

  6. What a thorough and entertaining interview! Love his wit!
    Yay! A tree poetry book to look forward to! (I am a tree hugger..)