Sunday, April 05, 2009

Poetry Makers - J. Patrick Lewis

I'm convinced that there isn't anything J. Patrick Lewis can't write about. His books not only use a variety of poetic forms, but also cover a huge range of topics. One of his newest books, The Underwear Salesman: And Other Jobs for Better or Verse, looks at the world of work and some of the more interesting jobs available.

Before we look at some of Pat's work, let's learn a bit more about him.
How did you get started writing poetry?
Pat: I had been writing for many years in my field of economics (groan), which requires a mind at odds with the universe and one that conveys itself in prose of lead. Anyway, nearing the ripe age of forty, I was hit in the face with a pie (not literally), and I woke up to Yeats, Auden, Frost, Dickinson, Hardy, Larkin, the Usual Suspects.

Who/what made you want to write?
Pat: Well, I wish I could say that I am one with the poet Kenneth Rexroth, who wrote, “I write poetry to seduce women and overthrow the capitalist system. In that order.” But I fear my motives were a bit more exalted than that. The short answer to your question: The same thing that makes me want to breathe.

What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Yeats, Auden, Frost, Dickinson, Hardy, Larkin, the Usual Suspects.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
No, no training, no creative writing courses, the gods be thanked. When I discovered poetry, I realized I wanted to spend the rest of my life with it. All I knew was that I loved it. So I donned a hair shirt, lived on scarabs and watercress, and did nothing but read poetry, books about poetry, poetics, prosody—the classics for both adults and children—for three years until I learned the craft. Without seeming shamefully earnest, I should say that it helps to spend inordinate amounts of time with close friends called the dictionary and the thesaurus.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Yes, I use my friend and co-author Jane Yolen’s BIC method of writing—Butt In Chair (Jane has given me permission!). For me, that usually means 8-9 hours a day, 7 days a week, unless I am at a school visit or a literature conference. Of course, that time includes huge dollops of reading and staring into the ethers, as much as writing.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
I write poetry for children and adult readers in the hope of creating for them what I call an “ah-ha moment,” saying something that might give them a moment’s respite from the day’s minutiae. Do I succeed? Rarely, if ever, but why should that matter? The point of it all is that one tries every day to write great poetry. The short answer to your question: Playing with words the livelong day.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Pat: I often say in response to that question that my books are like my children, of whom I have three, and I love them all for different reasons. But truth be told, I’m most fond of A HIPPOPOTAMUSN’T, FREEDOM LIKE SUNLIGHT: PRAISESONGS FOR BLACK AMERICANS, SWAN SONG: POEMS OF EXTINCTION and VHERSES: FOR OUTSTANDING WOMEN.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Pat: Douglas Florian and I have just co-authored a ms. of futuristic nonsensical car poems that we hope will find a home. I’m also polishing a book length tale in nonsense verse a la the beloved Lewis Carroll entitled GUMMY BABY: THE TOOTHLESS VAMPIRE. And I’m dying to reprise PLEASE BURY ME IN THE LIBRARY with another book about books and reading. So that will be next.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Pat: I apologize, but I can’t provide a pop answer, except for Yeats, Auden, Frost, Dickinson, Hardy, Larkin, the Usual Suspects. When school children ask me my favorite book, I always tell them that answer changes every fifteen seconds. Too many greats to have one favorite. Likewise with poets, so if I’m allowed one minute to answer (fifteen seconds each), I’ll skip the obvious Usual Suspects for the not-so-obvious second tier. In no particular order, they would include: A.E. Housman, E.A. Robinson, Charles Causley and John Betjeman. Anglophiles are suckers for British poets.

Your favorite place to write?
For me, the only place to write: My chair, my room with a view, and my lovely wife’s white noise in the background.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Pat: Am I allowed seven?
“When you catch an adjective, kill it.” (Mark Twain)
“In poetry you must love the words, the ideas and images and rhythms with all your capacity to love anything at all.” (Wallace Stevens)
“God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.” (Italo Svevo)
“A free verse poem that doesn’t justify its line-breaks hardly deserves the name ‘poem.’” (Helen Vendler) (And if I may add, this is especially true of so-called verse novels.)
“Prose is walking, poetry is flying.” (Galway Kinnell)
“Know thyself! If I knew myself, I’d run away.” (Goethe)
“All bad poetry is sincere.” (Oscar Wilde)

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Pat: X. J. Kennedy.

There are 47 slightly odd jobs described in The Underwear Salesman, including banana picker, ventriloquist, butcher, sword swallower, crossword puzzle maker, and more. Here's a sample.
Two rules sword swallowers follow
That normally follow a swallow:

Look up to the ceiling.
Ignore your gut feeling.
This is the shortest poem in the book. Can you guess what job this poem is describing?
I come to de-bug
What's under de rug.
The poems are entertaining and full of wonderful word play. Kids and adults alike will delight in them.

I use a good number of Pat's books in my classroom. I love Arithme-Tickle: An Even Number of Odd Riddle-Rhymes and Scien-Trickery: Riddles in Science, both illustrated by Frank Remkiewicz. Here's a poem from the latter.
The Old Switcheroo

My father's the arc.
My mother's the spark.
Without them you would
Be left in the dark.

Answer: Electricity!
Last year as part of my April celebration of poetry I reviewed two of Pat's books. You can read more of his poems and learn about these books at Poetry in the Classroom - A World of Wonders and Poetry in the Classroom - The World's Greatest Poems.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite poems from A World of Wonders: Geographic Travels in Verse and Rhyme.
Is the Yellow Sea Yellow?

Is the Yellow Sea yellow?
Is the Red Sea red?
Is the Black Sea black?
Is the Dead Sea dead?

Yes, because there's too much loess
A fine, rich yellow silt.

Yes, because the red seaweed
Is floating like a quilt.

No, the black comes from,
They say, dark, brooding storms.

Yes, it's dead. No fish, no plants,
Or any of life's forms.
It's no one's fault . . .
Just too much salt!
If you want to learn more about Pat and his work, check out these sites.
Three cheers for Pat and a sincere thanks to him for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems ©J. Patrick Lewis. All rights reserved.


  1. Pat is a remarkable poet, indeed, and also an extraordinarily nice, generous-of-spirit gentleman. He might very well be the best thing to come out of the field of economics in recent memory!

    You whole Poetry Makers series is fantastic, by the way. I am very glad to be on the West Coast so I get to read it before going to bed each night!

  2. Wonderful interview, Tricia.
    Pat is a phenomenal talent and a kind and generous man.
    Pat, I love the ah-ha moments. And yes, you do succeed!

  3. Good interview, Tricia. And Pat, if you're reading this, one of these day WE HAVE TO MEET. If only to share thoughts about the Usual Suspects (or better yet, to stare mutually into the ether...and if you ever run out of ether, there's a crack on my ceiling that's very interesting....)

  4. Can I vote for children's poetry laureate, here? Or has Mr. Lewis already been? Economics lost such a brilliant person, to our eternal gain!

  5. Tricia,

    Thanks for this interview with one of the most talented and prolific children's poets. I think A HIPPOPOTAMUSN'T is my favorite book by Pat because it was my introduction to his work--and was one of the most popular poetry books with my elementray students.

    I love the light verse Pat writes for adults--and hope a collection of it gets published one day.

    BTW, I'll be giving away a copy of THE UNDERWEAR SALESMAN as a prize today at my blog Political Verses.

  6. Wonderful interview. A real kick!
    Thanks! And ditto on X.J. Kennedy!

  7. I want to add that A Kick in the Head is one of my favorite books. Very inspiring.

  8. Tess - A KICK IN THE HEAD is by Paul Janeczko. He'll be featured later this month and this will be one of the books I talk about.

  9. "The same thing that makes me want to breathe."

    Ahhhhhhhh, and don't we all feel like we've just inhaled a wonderful breath of fresh air from you, Pat.

    Thanks, Tricia, for these wonderful interviews.

  10. Pat has written so many wonderful books. One I've had for a very long time and still use is Earth Verses and Water Rhymes. It's a great book for inspiring kids to write their own nature poems.

  11. I just discovered your lovely blog via Alice's CWIM blog ( and I'm so glad I did. Great poetry discussions, and I've learned about some poets I didn't already know.

    I'm a mission right now to try to save vintage children's books, and I'm trying to alert all the people who might care about them. Under a new U.S. law that went into effect in February (the CPSIA), it is now illegal to sell or give away (and technically also distribute from a library) any children's books printed in 1984 or earlier (with an exception for a small number of adult-only collectibles). Prior to 1985, there was sometimes a small amount of lead in the inks used to print books - but most books are lead-free and those that aren't are only dangerous to people who eat them. Nonetheless, there is no way to tell if a book is lead-free without using digestive testing, which is both expensive and destroys the book, so they aren't supposed to be sold.

    You can learn more about this law and how it affects children's books at,,,, and my blog,, as well as from articles in Publisher's Weekly (here's the link to the most recent article about it - you can get to there others from there:

    Sorry for such a long, intrusive post. But if more people don't join the fight, old books are just going to gradually fade away. Congress so far is not interested in making any changes to the law.


  12. Oops, spelling error I never make - I meant "their others" not "there others" in the above post.

  13. Oh, mercy. Whenever I read about Pat I feel like such a slouch. Except I can't feel crummy for too long because his poems charm the heck outta me. You're inspiring as a god on the mount, Pat. Thanks...

  14. Woohoo! Pat's poetry and his interview make me want to dance. In words. On paper. In the kitchen. Wherever I can.

    Black Swan, White Crow (haiku) is one of my favorites, and I love World's Greatest, too. Haven't read much by Pat that I didn't love, in fact! His range of serious to hysterial is amazing. Can't wait to read his newest!

    Thanks for the great interview!

  15. What a delightful interview. Love his poetry quotes and remarks about the usual suspects :)!

  16. "BIC method of writing" - priceless!

  17. "Who/what made you want to write? Pat: The same thing that makes me want to breathe."

    OH MY. *swoon and sigh* :o)