Monday, April 12, 2010

Poetry Makers - Kurt Cyrus

It was the book Tadpole Rex that put Kurt Cyrus on my radar. Not only is the book visually stunning, but the story told in verse is a charmer that begs to be read aloud. This is one of the few picture books that my third grader ("I'm too old for picture books, mom!") STILL pulls off the shelf. Yes, the dinosaurs are part of the attraction, but the bold artwork with up-close and personal views of a range of creatures, as well as the story of a frog's growth and possible connection to these extinct creatures makes for a mesmerizing tale. And really, what young reader wouldn't fall in love with a book that begins this way?
Deep in the goop of a long-ago swamp,
a whopping big dinosaur went for a stomp.

Stomp! went the dinosaur. Squish! went the goop.
Up came the bubbles--
The life cycle of the frog, the demise of the dinosaurs, the explosion of amphibians in the class aura--it's all here in a perfect combination of poetry and science. For those needing a bit more information, Kurt has added an author's note that explains the "inner tyrannosaur" reference and shares a bit of frog history. Here's an excerpt.
Frogs really did live alongside tyrannosaurs and triceratops. In fact, frogs existed 100 million years before these particular dinosaurs evolved. Fossils show that some prehistoric frogs had short legs, while others had long. Some had wide heads, others narrow. And many, like Rex, had well-developed teeth. Frogs came in all shapes and sizes, just as they do today.
Before we explore some more of Kurt's work, let's learn a bit about him.

How did you get started writing poetry? What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Kurt: I’d have to credit my family, even though probably none of them would say that they like poetry. First my father. He used to recite rhymes he remembered from childhood, and I loved them. Stuff like:
    Frank, Frank
    turned the crank.
    His mother came out and gave him a spank
    and threw him over the riverbank.
Later, when I was maybe ten or twelve, I fell off my skateboard and spent a day on the couch nursing my wounds. My mother handed me an old copy of Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass, and next thing I knew, I was memorizing The Walrus and the Carpenter.

And then, in our twenties, my younger brother and I exchanged a series of goofy letters that included a few surreal poems we made up just for kicks. I found myself continuing to revise them even after I’d sent them.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Kurt: The "click" that happens when a line snaps into place with perfect rhythm and a perfect rhyme. So I guess that would be the craft, more than the art. I'm a very careful craftsman.

Who/what made you want to write?
Kurt: At first I wrote just to give myself something to illustrate. But the writing quickly became just as satisfying as the drawing. Now I’ve written a picture book of rhymes that will be illustrated by someone other than me, so I feel like I’ve really arrived as a writer.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Kurt: No formal training. But English was always my easiest subject in school.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Kurt: Lie in bed and think, but not too hard. If I find myself laughing out loud about something, repeat it a dozen times so that I’ll remember it until I can get my sorry self out of bed. Then, with my dictionary, thesaurus, and (yes) rhyming dictionary close to hand, start writing and rewriting. Usually those reference books just sit there unopened, but on occasion I’ll reach for them.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Kurt: Hotel Deep, because I invested so much in it. I put a year into the writing and another year into the oil paintings.

But the one that was hands-down the most fun to write is Who's Whom in the Tomb. See next question.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Kurt: Who's Whom in the Tomb is a picture book that will be published by Hyperion in 2012. In it we meet such folks as the toothless skeleton who overcompensates by forever flossing his entire bony self. Also a whole host of other unfortunates with names like Lulu Kaduba, Stubby Flub, and Lem Tremolo, each with a story as quirky as his name. Because of the subject matter we needed an illustrator with a light and humorous, albeit creepy, touch. Crab Scrambly is just that guy.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Kurt: No way. I don’t want to piss off all those other dead poets.

Your favorite place to write?
Kurt: Still the bed.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Kurt: “You’re a poet and you don’t even know it.” -- Warren H. Cyrus

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Kurt: Douglas Florian. I used to consider him my nemesis, because every time I suggested a subject for a picture book of rhymes, my editor would say “we just did one like that by Douglas Florian.” So when I met him at ALA I was all prepared to dislike him. Couldn’t do it! He's an incredibly great guy, considerate and generous, and should be rewarded for that.

The phrase "A perfect blend of science and poetry" applies to Kurt's poetry books, but I'm missing something here, and that is the word ART. That phrase should read "A perfect blend of science, poetry, and art." Not sure what I mean? Take a detour for a moment and spend some time viewing these incredible images from Hotel Deep.

Hotel Deep: Light Verse From Dark Water
is not only a collection of poems that explores creatures in the sea, but also the story of a sardine separated from his (her?) school after the appearance of a marlin. Here's an excerpt (spanning two separate double-page spreads).
One sardine. Apart. Alone.
Welcome to the Mystery Zone.

How do you do?
               Who do you eat?
Have you been chased?
               Glad we could meet.

How do you taste?
          How do you do?
Won't it be wonderful
          swallowing you?
Sardine meets a stonefish, barnacles, an octopus, and more while looking for the school. (All 28 organisma are shown and identified in thumbnails sketches on the copyright page.) The poems are untitled, so I'll identify my favorite as a poem about the deep sea anglerfish.
Silent night. Deepest night.
Tiny lights, like stars in motion,
Twinkle in and out of sight.
Has the sky become the ocean?

Stars that gobble. Stars that bite.
Twinkle, twinkle, little nipper.
Watch those ripples. Douse that light.
Here comes deep-sea Jack the Ripper.

When you wish upon a star,
Wish it won't know where you are.
Oddhopper Opera: A Bug's Garden of Verses provides an unusual view of the garden and its inhabitants in all their (sometimes disgusting) glory. It begins:
Once upon a garden rotten,
Twice forlorn and half forgotten . . .

Drip--drip--cold and wet.
Winter isn't over yet.

Drip--drip--soaking, sopping
Always dripping, never stopping.

Drip--drip--sound of thunder
Wakes a weevil way down under.

Drip--drip--burrow deep.
Wait for spring. Go back to sleep.
When the temperature rises, all manner of oddhoppers (bees, beetles, crickets, fleas, etc.) come out of the woodwork! There's a beetle on his back (kicking to right himself), a snake in the grass, katydids, a walking stick, stinkbug and, more. Here's one that always makes me smile and makes listeners wrinkle their noses in delight.
Bugs are digging--scoop it out.
Move it, boys, let's hack it out!
Front feet, back feet, scrape it out.
        Dig we must.
        Excuse our dust.
Black muck, brown muck, mix it up.
Watch it, boys, it's breaking up!
Punch it! Pat it! Patch it up!
        Bless my soul--
        It's time to roll.
Dung balls rolling--move 'em out!
The rhythm of the text, the cadence that propels you forward, the hidden jokes in the illustrations--all artfully combine to make this one thoroughly enjoyable book. Perhaps most of all I like that Oddhopper Opera is a handsome invitation for young readers to explore the world of the garden and its inhabitants on their own time, while getting down and dirty with some real live bugs.

To learn more about Kurt, check out these sites.
A million thanks to Kurt for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems and artwork © Kurt Cyrus. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Strangely beautiful poetry -- but the most intriguing to me is the wonderful family life a writer like Kurt Cyrus must have had, to be so surrounded by words and poetry, to write them to his brother. I think that's awesome!

    And I can just see the dung beetles. That is hilarious.