Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Poetry Makers - David Harrison

Often times I learn of new poets, or new-to-me poets, because a friend or colleague recommends their work. I learned about David Harrison while in grad school when a friend gave me a copy of a poem called "Monday." (Okay, so Monday was not my favorite day of the week!) It was simply perfect, and I felt like it had been written just for me.

Rain is pouring
Missed the bus
Dad is roaring
Late for school
Forgot my spelling
Soaking wet
Clothes are smelling
Dropped my books
Got them muddy
Flunked a test
Didn't study
Teacher says
I must do better
Lost my money
Tore my sweater
Feeling dumber
Feeling glummer
Monday sure can be
A bummer.
This poem and the book it came from, Somebody Catch My Homework, introduced me to a writer who has been creating books for more than 40 years! Before we read more of David's poetry, let's learn a bit about him.

How did you get started writing poetry? What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
David: My first poems grew from a child’s curiosity about words and rhyme. I thought it was a fun thing to do and rhyming and rhythm came naturally. My parents and teachers bragged me on, and a little praise goes a long way with writers of any age! By the time I began writing professionally, I was a pharmacologist by day. When my first book of poetry was published, I was a grandfather. Instead of writing poems to amuse my six-year-old self, I was now attempting to entertain other people’s children. I hoped they liked some of the same things I liked when I was their age. Most of my research came from that special place in our memories where we keep our childhood.

As a young writer out of college I knew I wanted to write. It took me ten years to discover what. Along the way I wrote a novel, a novelette, dozens of stories, picture books for children, some YA books and, eventually, poetry. Most of the poems were humorous and written for young readers because by then I had published dozens of books for children and loved doing it. When audiences of students began laughing at the right places and asking for more, I was hooked.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
David: Children take their literature to heart. Anyone who has read the same story to a four-year-old five straight times knows that. Poetry has the same magic in it plus two other advantages. One, it’s short. Two, poetry stretches the age range of its readers. Kids are an honest bunch. When I ask for opinions on poems from some upcoming book, I know going in that my young critics won’t cut me any slack. Some random comments:
  • “My favorite poem is Monday because it is a true poem for me.”
  • “That’s exactly what happened to me.”
  • “I know how it feels to be rejected.”
  • “You were just like me when I was learning how to write in cursive. I had trouble with the letter X.”
  • “My favorite poem was the one with you falling off the risers.”
  • “Gross!”
  • “This poem needs to be longer.”
  • “On the wasp poem (in which a wasp dies), I saw my teacher about to cry. I didn’t see why everybody about cried.”
  • “Your book is weird. First, the dog is talking to inanimate objects. For example, the dog was talking to a tree, some grass, and the brook. Clearly you can see the book is kind of out there.”
What more can one ask of his readers?

Who/what made you want to write?
David: My English professor at Drury University taught a creative writing course. I took it my senior year, submitted a story, received encouragement (See the pattern here?), and graduated determined to become a writer no matter what I might do with my science degree.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
David: In 1963 I read a book by Pulitzer winning poet Karl Shapiro with Robert Beum called A Prosody Handbook. I read and reread the book and wondered if I could learn to write poetry. During the years that followed, I continued to read on the subject without trying my hand at writing poetry, until 1988. At that point I wrote nothing but poetry for three years. As Bee Cullinan might say, I marinated myself in poetry. I threw away dozens of early efforts and should have canned a lot of others, but I eventually kept one hundred poems. Armed with what I’d learned from reading, three years of focused effort, and my one hundred poems, I sallied forth in 1991 toward the marketplace with justifiable trepidation.

When I think that I wrote stories for adults for ten years and concentrated on books about poetry for adults, I’m a little surprised that I wound up choosing young people as my primary audience, but I have no regrets and many pleasant experiences as a result of the change.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
David: Ideas come willy-nilly, usually unbidden, from an observation, a scrap of overheard conversation, a flash of memory, the subject of something I’m reading. On occasion I simply put down a word to see where it leads me. The mind can’t respond to a blank sheet of paper so I dutifully get some words down. Yesterday my private amusement sandwiched between normal activities was to search for ways to describe a thin layer of snow that didn’t quite cover the ground. When I got to, “raggedy snow paints the lawn like an old man’s whiskery face,” I figured I was getting close to starting a poem.

What follows for any writer is messy, uncertain, and time consuming. Rewriting should be called writing because the first draft rarely much resembles the final product. Only through patient coaxing and cajoling does the real idea eventually agree to show itself. Who said that spontaneity comes on the 17th draft? I think it was John Ciardi.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
David: Among my books I like Wild Country. It’s a balance between my lifelong fascination with nature, which led to my degrees in biology, and my pleasure in presenting word pictures through poetry. Another favorite is Connecting Dots, a memory-based effort to tell my readers a bit more about my life and some of the moments that helped shape me. For those who prefer humorous poetry, I would go with Somebody Catch My Homework.

It’s hard to choose a single poem to like best but I’ll suggest “My Book,” the final piece in Somebody Catch My Homework. The poem celebrates the exhilaration a child feels after finally reading that very first book without help. “My Book” is sandblasted into the sidewalk of the Children’s Garden at the Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix, Arizona.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
David: At the time I’m writing this there are several projects in the works. By the time your readers see this, some of the proposals may have gone the wrong direction. One never knows. In general terms, I’m working on a new collection of poems, a collaboration with another poet, a new picture book, and two collaborations with educators on professional books. Later this year I should have a new nonfiction book out. A new picture book will be out next year as well as another nonfiction book. These represent three publishers.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
David: Robert Frost.

Your favorite place to write?
David: In my office, alternating between chair, desk, and computer.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
David: None in particular but here’s one worth keeping in mind as we create our deathless prose and poetry for the ages. “There is no average reader, and to reach down toward this mythical character is to deny that each of us is on the way up, is ascending.” – E. B. White

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
David: Jane Yolen.

David has written a number of books that make the scientist in me very happy. From bugs to the rainforest, he explores his subjects with a keen sense of observation. In Sounds of Rain: Poems of the Amazon, readers experience the wonder and beauty found in this part of the world, with creatures large and small making an appearance. Here's one of my favorite pieces.
Caste System

At ground level,
cutter ants with leaf bits
hoisted on their backs
toil like tiny ships
Along the shadowy trail.

Higher up, termites build
shapeless nests that hug
trunks like fat sloths
dressed in gray,
but the view is better.

Higher still, on sunny limb,
wasps buzz their bell-shaped home,
fancy penthouse in the sky,
far beyond the reach
of lower classes.
My favorite poem in the book is the one that lends its name to the title. Click here to listen to David read the poem. You can listen to David read additional poems from Sounds of Rain by visiting the book's web page.

The poem above is a perfect segue into the book Bugs: Poems About Creeping Things. The first thing you'll notice upon picking it up is the small trim size--perfect for the subject matter. The poems beg to be shared aloud, with a number of the selections written for two voices. They are clever and witty and seem to share some inside jokes with young readers. Many of the situations are preposterous, making them all the more fun to consider. Here are two short poems.

Web sparkle
on the lawn
like diamond
at dawn.

Shiny droplets--
small oases--
beckon spiders
to their places.

Silently they
look and lurk.

Time now for
spider work.

cicada ghosts

Haunted skins
to the rough bark
of the hackberry

and farther up
where I can't
ghosts are
Since I'm on a bug roll, let's finish it off with a poem from Farmer's Garden: Rhymes for Two Voices. In this book, Farmer's dog converses with some of the animals and plants he meets in the garden.

Beetle, Beetle,
why so fast?

                              Out of my way!
                              I must get past!

Beetle, Beetle,
where do you run?

                              Away from the lizard
                              and out of the sun.

Beetle, Beetle
what will you do?

                              I'll drink a drop
                              of morning dew.

I may have gone off on a bug tangent here, but David has also written poetry about pirates, a family vacation to the ocean, the homes we live in (do look for the poem "The Thermostat Wars" if you and your mate are summer and winter!), his life, and more. I do hope you'll take some time to explore all the wonderful things he's written.

To learn more about David, visit some of these sites.
A hearty thanks to David for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems © David Harrison. All rights reserved.


  1. Good morning, Tricia,

    Thank you for your care and consideration in presenting me today. I'm honored and flattered.

    All the best,


  2. Thank you Tricia. What a special interview filled with the nature poems I love. Your questions and David's answers allowed me to know you both better. Great job! I love your blog and I will be back. Mary Nida Smith

  3. Great interview.

    And wow! Am I honored. Thanks, David. Knocked me over!


  4. Thank you, Jane.

    You would be perfect for the job. I'll put out yard signs if you want me to.


  5. Many thanks to Tricia for introducing me to a poet I didn't know. Loved the "spiderwebs" poem. I'll second that nomination for JAne Yolen to be the next Children's Poet Laureate.

  6. These are such wonderful poems! I especially like Monday.
    I love how David shared the random comments of readers. Funny!

  7. Dear Bridget and Kelly,

    I appreciate your comments. My thanks to Tricia for her great job in bringing all these poets and poetry to her readers this month. I'm pleased to be among her choices.


  8. Woot! A new poet for me as well, Tricia! I love that after all your exploration into children's poetry, you're also still discovering.

    The poem Monday is far, far too true for me, still! I love the reader comments, and must look up that wasp poem...

    Great interview.

  9. Thank you, Tanita,

    I read "Monday" Saturday to an audience of 500 boys and girls in grades 2 - 6. They, too, shudder about that first day of the week. But as my daughter Robin says, "You can't have Fridays without Mondays."