Sunday, April 12, 2015

NPM Project: Jumping Into Form - Interview with J. Patrick Lewis

In preparation for sharing forms this month, I wrote to a number of poets and asked if they would respond to a short list of questions on poetry, writing, and form. I'm thrilled every time one responds positively and find they have all been extremely generous with their time.

Today I'm sharing the thoughts of J. Patrick Lewis, former Children's Poet Laureate and author of more than 50 books of poetry. The book he curated, National Geographic Book of Nature Poetry: More than 200 Poems With Photographs That Float, Zoom, and Bloom!, will be released in October. You can read more about him at the Poetry Foundation.
How does a poem begin for you — with an idea, a form, an image, or something else? 
Pat: None of the above. A poem for me almost always emerges from a word, one word. “In the beginning was . . .” and so forth. And sooner or later, voila! another word appears. My latest collection began with the word “blue.” I decided to write a series of ekphrastic poems to classical paintings, all of which have a predominance of the color blue in them. If the ms. ever sees the light of
day, that will be its title—BLUE.

How do you choose the form of your poems?
Pat: In poetry, as in architecture, form follows function. In short, it depends on what one intends to write about. Limericks, obviously, are wholly inappropriate for the more serious themes, like civil rights, national monuments, or outstanding women. Likewise, you are unlikely to find sonnets as texts for the very young. I do have a fondness for villanelles, not in spite of but because they are so damnably hard to do well. Elizabeth Bishop took fifteen years to write “One Art,” and it shows. Why write if the challenge isn’t there?

Are there any forms you haven't tried but would like to? Why or why not?
Pat: I’m endlessly working my way through Robin Skelton’s indispensable The Shapes of Our Singing: A Comprehensive Guide to Verse Forms and Metres from Around the World. For any poet eager to experiment, there is a surprise on every page.

I would not write a diamante, which is undeserving of the name “verse form.” Unfortunately, teachers often use diamantes with students, who are then led to believe that writing poems is about the search for adjectives. Since writing poetry is difficult, it could never be about hunting for adjectives, which is easy. Poetry is the search for strong personified verbs.

What tools (rhyming dictionary, book of forms, etc.) do you use in writing poetry (if any)?
Pat: What tools doesn’t one use? Another necessary title that is bolted to my desk is Lewis Turco’s The Book of Forms (revised and expanded edition). Writing poetry without it is like crocheting without needles. I continually turn to Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Traveled for its wisdom, humor, and suggested exercises. Rhyming dictionaries, yes, of course. The Random House Unabridged is on my dictionary stand, and within arm’s reach is Mr. Roget, silent partner in all my endeavors.

I shamelessly admit that I steal forms (as T.S. Eliot advised) from many a volume sharing space on my bookshelf by some now nearly forgotten poets— Samuel Hoffenstein, Harry Graham, the Carryls, père and fils, W.S. Gilbert, Arthur Guiterman, Ms. Anonymous, and of course, the unforgettable Lear and Carroll.

What would you like students or children to know about poetry?
Pat: I would like them to know that, at the age of seven, they should pay no attention to grownups who call them “poets.” They are not poets but practitioners. A seven-year-old who climbs up on a piano stool and bangs on the keys is not a pianist.

Second, and again to paraphrase Eliot, rhyming is not one of your holiday games. If children decide that rhyming is what they want to do, let them begin doing it—at the age of 30 or so. For now, just encourage them to write.

Finally, one of your esteemed colleagues suggested I ask for a poem in a foreign verse form. Would you be willing to share a poem for this project?
Pat: The is a Deibide Baise Fri Toin, an Irish verse form. The rhyme scheme is AABB; the syllable count, 3/7/7/1

North Star

            Night’s begun.
              When I can see just that one
              unimaginable star

              out in space
              winking at the human race,
             I feel positively sky-

Poem ©J. Patrick Lewis, 2015. All rights reserved.

A million thanks to Pat for participating in my Jumping Into Form project this month.


  1. My students had a great time with J. Patrick Lewis's form, the zeno. They still return to it. He wrote about that form on Today's Little Ditty.

    I beg to disagree about 7 year old poets. He just hasn't met Jacob yet. I use the term "writer" with my students because it empowers them to know that their words are important.

    1. Thanks, Margaret. Pat debuted the Zeno here in 2009 and we've been having fun with it ever since!

      If you are looking for another interesting form he invented, we also debuted the homophoem in 2012.

  2. I just went online and ordered a used copy of The Shapes of Our Singing, I was so intrigued by "there is a surprise on every page."

    1. Diane, as soon as I received his interview answers, I did the exact same thing! I am finding it a fascinating read.

  3. Marvelous, marvelous! Thank you, Pat, for your continued championing of verse forms. That Deibide Baise Fri Toin is gorgeous.

  4. Tricia, I'm still desperately doggy-paddling to keep up with all the wonderful things you have on offer here this month– the forms, the interviews... really good stuff– thank you for all of it. Your ongoing support of the poetry community is truly a gift.

    Pat always has a unique perspective and surprise goodies up his sleeve, doesn't he? I agree with Renée that the Irish form Pat mentions (and his expert use of it) is lovely. I may need a lesson in how to pronounce it, however.