Friday, April 10, 2009

Poetry Makers - Julie Larios

I started blogging in November 2006. Shortly thereafter I found my way to the Cybils. In that first year of inception I was introduced to many writers I had never met before, including Julie Larios. Her book, Yellow Elephant: A Bright Bestiary was a poetry nominee. This collection of 14 poems describes animals in terms of their colors. Some are imaginary (Purple Puppy, Pink Kitty, Red Donkey), while others are realistic (Green Frog, White Owl, Brown Mouse). Accompanied by the vibrant illustrations of Julie Pashkis this is a standout title that was a Boston Globe-Horn Book honor book in the category of fiction and poetry.

Before I talk more about Julie's work, let's learn a bit more about her.
How did you get started writing poetry?
Julie: I won a poetry contest sponsored by Scholastic Magazine when I was in eighth grade (1963!) Once I breathed the heady ether of success, I was a goner. In the interest of total honesty, I should add that I had a terrible crush on my eighth-grade English teacher, Jim Ernst, who read Walt Whitman to his students. So he was one real motivating factor for my even giving poetry a try. I wanted to impress him. The name of my junior high, by the way, was Edwin Markham JH – so I was surrounded by poets and poetry, everywhere I looked. I went on to win the EMJH Poetry Contest and was given Leaves of Grass as a prize – the inscription says “To Julie…. Winner of first place in the Edwin Markham Poetry Contest, 1963. Congratulations!” And it’s in Mr. Ernst’s own handwriting! (Be still, my beating heart….)

Who/what made you want to write?
Julie: See above – I should probably write an overdue thank you note to Jim Ernst some day. When I think about him reading, “I sing the body electric…” it still makes me feel a little faint. Of course, my love of books and of poetry began a long time before junior high, thanks to my mom and dad, who encouraged that love by reading aloud to my sister and brother and me. In high school, I published HORRIBLE poetry in my high school newspaper. During my undergraduate years at Berkeley, I wanted to be a journalist like Jacob Riis or Lincoln Steffens, uncovering America’s inequities, righting wrongs. Later, I wanted to write leisurely essays about oranges and wooden boats and museums and rocks, like John McPhee. I wasn’t drawn to poetry professionally until much later. But it was always about writing in some form or another. I also think the love of writing is weirdly braided up with a love of the paraphernalia of writing – I have an inordinate love of pencils and pencil boxes, post-it notes, old fountain pens, vellum, architectural paper, school notebooks, scotch tape, erasers, paper clips, ink, envelopes….Maybe I became a writer because I loved stationery stores!

What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Julie: My parents gave my sister, my brother and me a book called The Bumper Book when I was still in preschool – it was filled with poems by Robert Louis Stevenson, A.A. Milne, Edward Lear, William Brighty Rands, Christopher Morley and others. I read that book so many times it literally fell apart in my hands (I still have it stored away, the binding in tatters.) And the idea of a child loving a book that much really intrigued me. I focused on my poetry for adults in graduate school, but things got more complicated when I studied with Richard Kenney at the University of Washington. He encouraged students to think about the cadences of nursery rhymes, proverbs and curses. We studied Mother Goose alongside Ezra Pound and W.H. Auden. Kenney is a brilliant teacher – winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant and certainly worthy of that word, “genius.” I ended up writing essays about play & creativity, and about nonsense (a darker topic than you might imagine) and I wrote a graduate thesis about riddles. We have a long history of riddles in Anglo-Saxon literature, including quite a lot in the work of Emily Dickinson and Richard Wilbur. So something in me has pulled that direction my whole life – wordplay, riddles, the meter of nursery rhymes. I continue to write for both adults and children – and those three elements come into writing for both audiences.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Julie: The teachers I had in my MFA studies at the University of Washington made all the difference in the world to me. Linda Bierds, another MacArthur grant winner, provided a model of intellectual curiosity and research that serves me still. Heather McHugh gave me a love of wordplay of all kinds – she is a master puzzler and master poet, and a powerhouse teacher who just sends you out of the classroom floating, not touching the ground, you feel so inspired. Most influential of all was Rick Kenney, who encouraged me to investigate the joys of formal poetry and who was interested along with me in the mysteries of language acquisition in children, and in how the brain processes language in general.

I don’t understand why people are negative about the proliferation of MFA programs. Everyone should be as lucky as I was, studying with the kind of teachers I had. I came out a very different poet (and a different person) than the one I was when I entered. Good teachers are important, which is why I love my teaching job at Vermont College of Fine Arts. It satisfies the old journalist in me that yearned to change the world. Only instead of changing the world all at once, I’m just trying to do it student by student.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Julie: First comes some kind of generative source – I read something intriguing (mostly non-fiction, or something in the NY Times) and decide to investigate it. I often write “Poem?” in the margins of a new book I’m reading. Sometimes the source of inspiration can be overheard speech – I’m interested in spoken language and the rhythms of it, not just language on the page. Signage is interesting too – the way language is used on all kinds of signs – advertising, traffic, safety. Sounds strange, but I’m interested in all that. And I compile all these notes in an inexpensive notebook.

When writing for kids, I often begin with some interest in the way words bend in their meanings – wordplay is one generative source. Another is the unexplainable – I love the idea of writing poems that leave kids wondering about questions that can’t be answered.

So that’s my goal as I start – to follow the mysteries of language. In order to help get me out of my own mind-set, I usually think of a form I can use that is appropriate to the content – such as a sonnet, which is the perfect form for believing one thing for the first eight lines and then arguing with yourself for the last six. Or a pantoum, which lends itself to incantation. Or a sestina, which is mind-crushingly difficult to do in a graceful way. I love the complications and restrictions of form. In meeting the requirements of form, you allow certain images to rise up to the surface that you might not have been able to access otherwise. Free verse has its appeal, in terms of language that relies on tone rather than form, but working formally excites me more. I love to read the work of poets who use forms with subtlety and precision.

I’m not sure this actually answers the question you asked about “process.” So let me just say this: once I get an idea and choose a form, I sit down with a piece of paper and write. That’s about as much process as I can muster, other than the fact that I sit down the next day and revise. And revise again. And again.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Julie: I like the fact that I’m helping nurture a love for poetry that is instinctive in young children yet seems to die out as they get in to their teens. My writing for kids is all about giving them permission to stop analyzing it and to keep loving it.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Julie: Ooh, that’s tough. My sister (Mary Cornish, who is a wonderful illustrator and poet) illustrated my first book (On the Stairs), so having our names together on it is very special. But my favorite is my latest, Imaginary Menagerie. I like the quality of mystery that hovers around it – there are unanswerable questions in those poems, as well as some longing, a bit of loss, a bit of mystery. And I like the idea of sending kids to bed wondering what the answers are.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Julie: I’m collaborating with another poet on a project, but I think that’s not quite ready to be talked about. I’m slower than he is at my writing, so he must be pulling his hair right now. Seems like it is going to be great fun though – and I’m in the mood for some good, silly fun right now. Though a lot of people who know me think of me as funny, I can get too quiet, too melancholy – silly fun shakes me up, helps me come back into balance. That’s another reason I love writing for kids – they let poets get silly.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Julie: Only one? Yikes. No, I need five: Walt Whitman, for his expansiveness; Robert Frost, for his understanding of sentence sound; Elizabeth Bishop, for her formal mastery; Pablo Neruda, for his conscience and his lyricism; Basho, for his compression. Oh, it’s dangerous to get me started on favorites. I could name a dozen more. How can I not name Auden, Garcia Lorca, Donne….Gerard Manley Hopkins!

Good thing you didn’t ask me for my favorite Motown songs – that list goes on forever.

Your favorite place to write?
Julie: If you count daydreaming as part of the writing process, I’d say sitting with my back against a log at Rosario Beach, out near Deception Pass on Whidbey Island – that’s my favorite spot to “write.” But maybe daydreaming doesn’t count? Well, I like to take my notebook over to Bottega Italiana – a gelateria & coffee shop near Green Lake in Seattle, and I have a chocolate affogato (a scoop of gelato drowning in espresso) and get to work. I could stay there all day when it’s raining – I do much more writing there than when I’m at my desk. On a sunny day in Seattle, I like to go over to the lake and sit and write while people walk by. I do love to people-watch as part of the writing process.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Julie: “What I like in a good author is not what he says, but what he whispers.” (Logan Pearsall Smith)

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Julie: Ooh, another hard one. Let’s see. Well, how about Francisco Alarcon? Joyce Sidman? Lee Bennett Hopkins? Hope Anita Smith? Douglas Florian? J. Patrick Lewis? Naomi Shihab Nye? I have trouble settling on one of anything – but I’d be happy with someone from that talented bunch of people.

I mentioned that Yellow Elephant was my first introduction to Julie's poetry. Here are two of my favorite poems from this book.

Clinging to a prickly thistle,
the gold finch flutters, whistles,
then flies away.
Some say
his song is only as long
as his tail feathers,
three gold notes
that float.


Now all silver quiver.
Now all dark flash.
She's all water and wonder,
this black fish.
Julie followed up this work with Imaginary Menagerie: A Book of Curious Creatures, a 2008 Cybils finalist in the poetry category. Accompanied once again by Pashkis' illustrations, the poems this time describe all manner of mythical creatures. Readers will find poems for dragon, mermaid, firebird, centaur, trolls, cockatrice, hobgoblins, sea serpent, thunderbird, sphinx, will o' the wishp, gargoyle, naga, and phoenix here. For those unfamiliar with some of these creatures, a full text glossary provides information on the origin of the legend surrounding each one. My son's favorite poem is about dragons.

The air around me
burns bright as the sun.
I tell wild rivers
which way to run.
I'm arrow tailed,
fish scaled,
a luck bringer.
When I fly,
it's a flame song the world sings.
But you can ride safely
between my wings.
My favorite (today anyway!) is this one.

How can a beast speak
with a stone tongue,
with a stone throat?
My mouth is a rainspout. I screech. I shout.
How can a best fly
with stone wings?
I fly when the bells ring and the hunchback is home.
Does a stone beast sleep
in a stone nest?
I am on guard. I never rest.
To learn more about this book, check out the review at review at Seven Impossible things Before Breakfast where you can see a few images and read another one of the poems.

To celebrate National Poetry Month in 2008, Harcourt produced a Poetry Kit based entirely on Julie's book Imaginary Menagerie: A Book of Curious Creatures. In it there was a short essay by Julie called Playing with Poetry. At the end you'll find this poem.
Poems hum, they come
at you like bees over clover,
and Honey, they can even sting.
Poems ring, like bells, they can sing
Hallelujah or Hush-a-Bye or The Blues.
Like a silver flute, they want to flutter;
like a strong heart, they want to beat.
Ticktock. Poems rock.
If you want to learn more about Julie and her work, visit these sites.
Three cheers for Julie! Thanks so much for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems ©Julie Larios. All rights reserved.


  1. My, my, my, Julie! I just love listening to you talk poetry.

    Thanks for this great interview, Tricia!

  2. These poems do hum and I can't wait to share them with my third graders!
    This interview, along with the others, underscores the profound effect of simply reading poetry to children. I love the Logan Pearsall Smith quote that Julie Larios chose: “What I like in a good author is not what he says, but what he whispers.”
    Or hums. Love Julie Larios' website,too. Great link to an NY Times article about memorizing poetry.

  3. Thank you for interviwing Jule Larios. I have really enjoyed her poetry over the years.

  4. I know Julie only through her posts at The Drift Record, and I've loved the poetry she's shared there. But this! All this backstory---teachers who are master puzzlers (or heartthrobs!) and inspiring signage and floating mounds of gelato and pantoum incantations! I feel like I've just been let into the lair of a poetry dragoness and allowed to view the treasure.

    Thank you both for this. I kind of want to quit everything now and run after the life Julie has described.

  5. Yellow Elephant is one of my favorite poetry books ever. I love the way Julie mixes color, emotion and whimsy. And the art, of course, is fabulous!

  6. Hah! I'm pretty sure I also became a writer because of stationery stores! Thanks for allowing us to get to know Julie better -- and her art and poetry. I'm always stunned by people who are so multi-talented!

  7. I'm definitely going to pick up a copy of this. It's also wonderful to be reminded of how much teachers can influence students' lives in seemingly simple ways.

  8. I need to get a hold of Yellow Elephant...

  9. Can't resist chipping in and saying thanks to you publicly, Tricia, for the wonderful job you are doing this month. I knew you would be posting the interviews, but I didn't know you would be adding in all the excerpts and images and reviews and links - I've just enjoyed your site every day & I raise a glass (of hot cocoa - I live in Seattle & it's a grey, grey day today) to you for all the hard work.

  10. Fabulous, fabulous interview. Love Imaginary Menagerie. Glad I'm not the only one who became a writer because of stationery stores ;) . . .

  11. As Sara said, I've only known Julie through her Poetry Friday posts. I'm glad you shared some of her poems here.

  12. It sounds like I need to reconsider getting a MFA. She makes it sound life-changing and necessary!! Thanks for this great interview.

  13. Julie is not only a fine poet (always surprising) she is a sensational teacher.


  14. Tricia,

    Super interview with Julie. I love her two published poetry books for children--and I'm impatient to read her next collection.

    Mr. Ernst must have been one special teacher to have inspired Julie so. I hope I was able to inspire such a love of poetry in some of the students that I taught over the years.

    It's great having poets like Julie in the blogosphere writing about poetry and posting her own original poems.

  15. Julie's as eloquent in prose as she is in poetry, and she must be a fabulous teacher! I love what she says about poetic forms--yes! That's how I feel, but I couldn't have put it like that.

    Imaginary Menagerie is my favorite of hers so far, and Gargoyle is one I love from that book! Julie plays with words in a way that is so sophisticated and yet so accessible at the same time. What a treat!

    Thank you both for this wonderful interview!