Friday, April 10, 2009

Poetry Makers - Linda Ashman

Since 2001, Linda Ashman has authored 20 books. Her work came to my attention last year when two of her poetry books were released, Stella, Unleashed: Notes From the Doghouse and M Is for Mischief: An A to Z of Naughty Children.

Before I talk about these titles and Linda's newest release, let's learn a bit more about her.
How did you get started writing poetry?
Linda: When I started writing fourteen years ago, I knew I wanted to write poetry. What I wrote, though, was bad verse. Because I was (and still am) concerned about the environment, the first story I wrote was a Seussian ode to the three Rs: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Needless to say, it never sold. After attempting a few more rhyming books—and racking up the rejections—I switched to prose. But I loved poetry, and eventually—after reading and learning a lot more—tried again.

Who/what made you want to write?
Linda: The critical impetus was career dissatisfaction. I was unhappy at work, and looking for other positions. When I got a letter in the mail saying I didn’t get the job that I’d really, really wanted, I burst into tears and told my husband, “All I ever wanted to do was write children’s books!” This epiphany (some might say moment of insanity) came as a complete surprise to both of us—I’d worked for years as a real estate market analyst, and had recently gotten my master’s in Urban Planning. But Jack was—and is—amazingly supportive. I quit my job and started writing.

What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
I loved reading fairy tales, poetry and nursery rhymes as a kid. A big part of that was due to the illustrations—I loved the gorgeous (and often a bit scary) worlds created by artists like Arthur Rackham, Kay Nielsen, Maxfield Parrish, Kate Greenaway, Jessie Wilcox Smith, and others. I also remember my mom reciting “The Goops” and reading “Little Orphant Annie” to us as kids. I loved how expressively she read “An’ the Gobble-uns ‘at gits you ef you don’t watch out!”—it both delighted and terrified me. Now my son Jackson and I can recite “The Goops” together, and it feels like a way to connect him with my mom, who he never got to know very well—she had Alzheimer’s, and died a few years ago.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
No formal training. After my first few attempts at writing in rhyme were not well-received, I started reading more poetry and reading about poetry. I took an afternoon workshop on writing children’s books at UCLA which featured several local authors, including poet Myra Cohn Livingston. Unfortunately, Myra was ill by then and couldn’t attend, but I got a copy of her book, Poem-Making, after the workshop. Although it’s really aimed at teaching children to write poems, I found it incredibly valuable in learning the basics of writing poetry—things I should have known before ever attempting to write in verse. And, of course, I read her poetry books, along with many books by other talented poets, all of which were enormously helpful.

By the way, Myra’s replacement that afternoon was a young poet from her class named Janet Wong. She was a delight—very inspiring and really funny. She’s certainly made a name for herself since then!

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Starting something new is always the hardest part. If I don’t immediately know what I want to work on, I’ll get out my “idea files”—manila folders with 14 years worth of ideas, most of them bad, scribbled on scraps of paper. Usually I’ll pick out a few things that have potential, and start playing around with them. If the words don’t start flowing quickly, however, I have to start fighting off the voices of negativity: This is a stupid idea. This will never sell. What’s the point? Maybe you should go back to school. Ugh. If, however, the words are flowing, the process is a joy—if very incremental. I write my first draft by hand, type it on the computer, print it out, scribble on it, go back to the computer, print it out, scribble some more, and so on (and on and on).

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
When it’s going well and the words are flowing, it’s so much fun to write poetry. I love the challenge of finding exactly the right word that expresses my meaning, and fits the pattern of rhyme and rhythm. I love working at home, and having the freedom to work around my son’s school schedule. And, of course, I love reading to enthusiastic kids, hearing from parents, and—treat of all treats—hearing one of my poems quoted back to me by a child, as one of Jackson’s classmates did the other day.

Funny you didn’t ask about what’s least enjoyable. Or maybe that’s obvious. Rejection, economic uncertainty, waiting small eternities for answers from editors, and waiting years (anywhere from 3 to 8 in my experience) to see the book in print.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Linda: That’s such a hard question. Among the poetry collections, Stella, Unleashed is very close to my heart, since it’s based on our own beloved (and now departed) pooch, and because I love dogs so much. But I had a blast writing M Is for Mischief (despite the enormous tedium of compiling interesting words for each letter of the alphabet!) and learned so much writing Come to the Castle! that it’s really hard to choose a favorite. Among the rhyming picture books, I’m very partial to Maxwell’s Magic Mix-Up, which is really fun to read aloud, and Castles, Caves, & Honeycombs, because of Lauren Stringer’s gorgeous illustrations.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Linda: I don’t like talking about current projects (bad luck!), but I’d love to mention two new books. Come to the Castle! , illustrated by the very talented S.D. Schindler, comes out mid-April with Roaring Brook. It’s a collection of poems told in the voices of various inhabitants of—and visitors to—a castle in 13th Century England. It’s a picture book for older children, and I’d love to hear it performed in the classroom (if there are any teachers reading this who try it, please let me know!). And this fall, I have a rhyming picture book coming out with Sterling called Creaky Old House, illustrated by Michael Chesworth. It’s a story about a large family living in a big old house, and the increasingly wacky chain of events set off by a doorknob falling off the front door.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Linda: Egad, just one? I love Lewis Carroll for Father William, A.A. Milne for Disobedience, Eugene Field for The Duel and Wynken, Blynken and Nod, and of course James Whitcomb Riley for Little Orphant Annie and Gelett Burgess for The Goops. Oh, and Dr. Seuss. There are more, but I’ll stop there.

Your favorite place to write?
When I’m actually writing, my office, with our dogs Sammy and Stella on the couch behind me. When I’m editing, my local Peet’s Coffee (the best coffee, and they play classical music). When I’m floundering, or looking at artwork, I spread everything out on the big farm table in our breakfast room.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Linda: Because writing requires a continual sense of enchantment, here’s a quote from one of my favorite—and certainly most dog-eared—books, The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life, by Thomas Moore:
“Enchantment is a condition of unending suspension of disbelief, the willingness to live in a bungalow of stories rather than a warehouse of facts.”

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Linda: Assuming the candidate needs to be an eloquent speaker, a strong advocate for children’s literature, and have a large and impressive body of work . . . well, I’d vote for Jane Yolen.

Stella, Unleashed stole my heart from the minute I opened it, largely because our beloved pooch is a rescue dog. Ashman has done a remarkable job capturing the dog's feelings, thoughts, and voice. Here's the first poem from the book.
Lost & Found

Metal bars.
A cold, hard floor.
No window seat.
No doggy door.

Countless strangers come to call—
I listened,
and sniffed them all . . .

then turned away
and curled up tight
Nice enough but not quite right.

Then, one day, I sniffed a sniff
and got the most delightful whiff:
dirt and candy, grass and cake.
I stuck my paw out for a shake.

A boy knelt down.
I licked his face.
He rubbed my head.
I'd found my place.

That's how I chose this family.
Not perfect, no.

Except for me.
The rest of the book contains poems told from Stella's point of view. They cover topics as varied as selecting a name, the family members, other pets, eating, sleeping, the dog park, and more. One of my favorites describes the youngest member of the family. (I can totally see Stella's point of view!)
About This Baby

Strange little creature.
Interesting scent.
No bark, but it surely can wail.

Not very toothy.
Frequently drools.
Cannot be trusted near tail.

Speedy on four legs.
Wobbly on two.
Often seen traveling with bear.

Splashes my water.
Plays with my toys.
Best when confined to its chair.
M Is for Mischief is an alphabetic compendium of terribly behaved children. In fact, the blurb on the cover reads, "WARNING: This book contains obnoxious children. Read at your own risk." Here's an example of the type of child you will meet in this book.
Catastrophic Coco

Coco came to camp:
Cracked a compass, smacked a lamp.
Clogged a drain, cut a tarp.
Clobbered Curtis with a carp.

Crumbled cookies, crushed a cake.
Crashed a kayak in the lake.
Called the counselor a cow.
Coco's cab is coming now.
Some of the bad habits/behaviors exhibited by children in the book include doodling, eavesdropping, nagging, picky, quarrelsome, rude, untidy, and more. Kids will absolutely love reading about these bad, bad children.

Linda's new book will be released in a few short days and is called Come to the Castle!: A Visit to a Castle in Thirteenth-Century England. It opens with an introduction by the castle's head.
The Earl of Daftwood
Welcome to my castle—
How exquisite, lavish, grand!
So much land in my dominion;
So much staff at my command!

My assistants fetch my water,
Draw the curtains, help me dress,
Run my errands, write my letters,
Serve me dinner, clean my mess.

I've got millers, bakers, butlers,
Pantlers, porters, and a priest.
Carters, jesters, knights, and marshals—
Some one hundred souls at least.

Al committed to my comfort,
All convinced that I'm divine.
Yes, they worship and adore me
(Or they sleep among the swine).
As great a life as this sounds, the Earl is bored. His remedy for the tedium is to host a tournament. What follows are poems told by the members of the castle as they prepare for the event. Each person has a clear voice of his/her own, and the poems are lively and interesting. This one will make for a great read-aloud. I'm quite fond of this poem told from the cook's point of view.
The Cook

I have no fresh capon. No porpoise or eel.
No sumptuous roast for a memorable meal.
Still I must follow the Lady's command,
A feast in two days? I'll use what's on hand:

Gizzards and livers and kidneys and feet—
Grind it up well into mystery meat.

Bind it with egg, mix it with spice,
Throw in some currants and mustard and rice.
Drop it in stews, bake it in pies,
Roll it in balls (or some other disguise).
Toss on some flowers, gild it with gold.
Present it with antlers or feathers. Be bold!

A fine work of art to fill them with awe—
So what if it's cold, or the meat is still raw?
The book is beautifully illustrated by S.D. Schindler and has the look and feel of an illuminated manuscript. There is much to examine in the illustrations and even more to ponder in the poems. This is a real gem of a book. I can't wait to use it with my students in the fall.

You can learn more about Linda, her poetry, and other books at these sites.
Let's extend our gratitude to Linda for participating in the Poetry Makers series. Thanks, Linda!

If you've read this far, you now have the opportunity to win one of Linda Ashman's books. One lucky winner will receive Come to the Castle! and the other will receive M Is for Mischief. You have until midnight tonight to leave a note in the comments. On Saturday morning I will put the names in a hat and let William pick the winners.

All poems ©Linda Ashman. All rights reserved.


  1. I've always felt like our dogs have chosen us with that quickening of the heart that the dog initiates, but I've never heard anyone say so. "Lost and Found" quickened my heart that way, stanza by stanza, and made me remember the different times that I've been found and picked by pups. Can't wait to read more! I love seeing Linda Ashman's favorite childhood poems (The Goops, for one) play out in her work.

  2. I looove Stella, Unleashed and would be thrilled to have my own copy! M is for Mischief is fabulous as well!

  3. I have a sad affinity for naughty children, so I would DEFINITELY read at my own risk!

    And we could have used that cab when I worked at summer camp...

    This is a really fun interview!

  4. Also: it just KILLS ME that she hasn't had any formal training. Wow.

  5. I enjoyed reading the poems you posted here. Linda Ashman is new to me, but I'm going to look for her books.
    Thanks for these terrific interviews!

  6. I just love "Lost & Found"! Like the concept of an idea file; I need that for quilting projects (or blog posts!).

  7. Tricia,

    Thanks for this wonderful interview with Linda Ashman. It was through reading Linda's outstanding picture books in verse that I became an ardent fan of her work. I absolutely LOVE her picture books CASTLES, CAVES, AND HONEYCOMBS and RUB-ADUB SUB! I often give them as gifts to parents of newborns. I'm so happy that she is now writing book of poetry.

  8. Come to the Castle! sounds like a great book. :o)

  9. Castles, Caves, and Honeycombs is one of my favorite pbs--both the text and illustrations. Lovely!

    I adored Stella and M Is for Mischief, too.

    Linda is such a true wordsmith, crafting and shaping her words and rhymes until they glow. I can't wait to see Come to the Castle!