Saturday, April 10, 2010

Poetry Makers - JonArno Lawson

A few years ago I read the book Ella Minnow Pea, an epistolary novel written as a series of successive lipograms. (A lipogram is a written work composed of words selected so as to avoid the use of one or more letters of the alphabet.) I became obsessed with the form and began seeking out lipograms. I was thrilled then when I found A Voweller's Bestiary: From Aardvark to Guineafowl (And H) by JonArno Lawson. The poems in this book use cues from the titles to determine the vowels left out. For example, the title Fly, Lynx contains only the vowel y, so the poem contains only words with the vowel y. Impossible, you say? Hardly, and JonArno makes it look so easy.
Fly, Lynx

Lynx: 'Fly, fly.'
Fly: 'Why, lynx?'
Lynx: 'Try.'
Fly: 'Why try?'
Lynx: 'Shy, fly?'
Fly: 'Shy??!! Bzzzzzz! Zm! Zm! Zm!'
Lynx: 'Tsk tsk! My my!'
Before we read more of JonArno's poetry, let's learn a bit about him.

How did you get started writing poetry? What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
JonArno: Listening to song lyrics. I loved the songs of Jim Copp and Ed Brown (they’re still available if you look for them). Also Tom Lehrer, Sheldon Harnick, Yip Harburg, Stephen Sondheim. . .

Re-reading nursery rhymes when I had children re-connected me to children’s poetry. My mother picked up a British CD for us with 30 or 40 old rhymes (sung) and traditional songs too, and that made some of the old rhymes really come to life. My kids seem to enjoy them most when they’re sung as well. Then I started to read what was being done now, and in many cases the poems people were writing for children were more interesting, more playful and thoughtful, than much of the poetry being published now for adults.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
JonArno: Children and young adults are far more likely to have imaginations that are still in good working order. They’re also a much tougher audience. Who you are means nothing to them, reviews mean nothing to them, either they like your work or they don’t. They don’t feel they have to like you because you’ve won an award, or should ignore you because you haven’t. I’ve found that this leads to a very different atmosphere among the writers themselves – there’s more modesty, less ego, greater generosity. Children’s writers tend not to factionalize – I’m generalizing here, but that’s been my experience.

Who/what made you want to write?
JonArno: I’m not sure. It seemed natural to write. I think the need to play about with and enjoy language is universal, everyone loves to make things up – for some it atrophies, unfortunately, but I think the urge to write – if we take writing on the tongue, or the need to imagine as the same thing, is there all the time in everybody. I wouldn’t even say we’re surrounded by hidden talents – just as often we’re simply not paying attention – to others or to ourselves – I’ve come back to people many times and said “Do you remember saying that, or doing this? I found it so interesting, or useful” and they have no memory of it, whatever it was. A fine turn of phrase, or some kind of graceful action. . .an anecdote. . .

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
JonArno: I haven’t had any formal training. I have read widely, and I listen all the time to what people say – not only for the content, but for the way they say it – for unexpected sound connections between words. Often people who speak English as a second language are enriching the language constantly without realizing it, because every time they speak, they hit the vowels or the accents or syllables differently, or invent phrases a native speaker wouldn’t dream of. Children do the same thing – it’s very useful to listen carefully to both. Also, the elderly often have turns of phrase that aren’t commonly used anymore.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
JonArno: I often start from a word, or a phrase I like the sound of, and then if I’m lucky something good emerges. I think that’s how it works, at least some of the time. Occasionally it’s an idea, but then the idea has to be lucky - it has to find words for itself that it can be expressed through in an interesting way – it’s no good if the idea is more interesting than the words used to express it, or vice versa. Then there’s no poem, and no point in pretending.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
JonArno: A poem I wrote for my wife when she was still just my girlfriend, in high school. It’s called “Amy” (that’s her name). If I’ve gotten close to poetry anywhere, that’s where I’ve gotten close, I think.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
JonArno: I’m working on a number of books, and ideas, but I don’t think I can say anything worthwhile about any of them at the moment. Some are progressing well, or at least quickly - some aren’t!

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
JonArno: bpNichol. I can’t think of anyone who loved and lived poetry and experimented and explored and enjoyed himself in it as much as he did. He left behind hundreds of new starting places. I hope his audience widens.

Your favorite place to write?
JonArno: In my notebook in a coffee shop. But usually I work in my frigid basement office.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
JonArno: Quality is the most powerful foe of any type of degeneracy. In society it includes the renunciation of struggle for position, breaking with the cult of stardom, a free look upward and downward, especially where the choice of one’s narrower circle of one’s friends is concerned, the joy in a hidden life as well as the courage for a public life. Culturally the experience of quality involves the return from the newspaper and the radio to books, from busyness to leisure and quiet, from being distraught to being collected, from sensationalism to reflection, from the ideal of the virtuoso to art, from snobbery to modesty, from extravagance to moderation. Quantities quarrel with one another; qualities supplement one another.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p.33, I Loved This People

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
JonArno: Oh, that’s too hard! In some ways, it would be most interesting if the person had to be from another country – if they were brought over for a year from Taiwan, or England, or India, or Liberia, to introduce entirely different elements. Which isn’t to say there aren’t a dozen worthies here at home. But I wouldn’t want the job of picking just one.

A Voweller's Bestiary was my introduction to JonArno. I still pull this book out and find myself marveling at the poems created within such strict constraints. Not only does JonArno restrict himself to using only words containing vowels from the poem's title, but he also restricts himself to using only those words that include ALL the vowels in the title. Here's another example.

Successful ventures
elude luckless turtle.

turbulent, unexpected undercurrent
pushes turtle further under.

Turtle gurgles, unnerved.
Blunders rudderless,

suffers, unsure.
Fumbles, tumbles,


It seems I wasn't the only one enamored of JonArno's work in A Voweller's Bestiary. In 2009 it was the winner of the Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry. Here's what they had to say about his book.
Yet the uncommon success of Lawson’s daunting experiments sets his book apart from the rest of this year’s offerings. A Voweller’s Bestiary is not just a fine book of poetry; it is also a benchmark, a signpost gesturing toward the future of the genre. Indeed, Lawson’s A Voweller’s Bestiary is not just this year’s best book of children’s poetry; it is one of the year’s best books of poetry, period.
Lawson, in fact, is no stranger to this award. Not only did he win it in 2007 for his Black Stars in a White Night Sky, his work The Man in the Moon-Fixer’s Mask was named an honor book in 2005. The forty-five poems in The Man in the Moon-Fixer’s Mask take nonsense rhymes to new heights, while the words sound good in your ears and trip pleasingly off the tongue. Here's an example.
To catch a witch,
first make a wish,
then quietly go put a dish
of dandelions in a ditch.

Rub some ashes on your chin,
tie a feather to your shin.

Draw a circle with some chalk
(that will give a nasty shock
to any witch who wishes to
cast a nasty spell on you!).

Invite her for a glass of sherry
then offer up a magic cherry.
When she eats it, take her shoe
and give it to the dog to chew.
Similarly, the 100+ poems in Black Stars in a White Night Sky are full of puns, wordplay, parodies and more nonsense. In addition to the poems themselves, I'm quite fond of the endnotes (entitled "Small-type notes for those with excellent eyesight") which are filled with interesting tidbits and backstories on many of the poems. Here's one of my favorite poems from the book.
How Without Arms

How, without arms,
did the sun
climb over the trees?

And without knees
to sink on,
how did it sink behind them?

And without eyes
how did it peek
through the leaves?

And without
being wakened,
how did it rise?
JonArno's newest collection, Think Again, was recently released by Kids Can Press. Written in quatrains, the poems deftly capture the uncertainty of adolescence, the ups and downs of romantic entanglements, and the emotional highs and lows of a teen's life. Here are two poems that show this range.

I'm trying to recall your face,
I haven't managed yet.
Why are half-remembered things
The hardest to forget?


Unfulfilled Desire

How strange the ways and flinty strength
Of unfulfilled desire
That sparks and sparks through someone's life
Without once catching fire.
JonArno is the first international poet (he's Canadian) to participate in this series. I'm glad that his books are available here in the US. If you haven't seen his work, you are really missing something special.

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

All poems ©JonArno Lawson. All rights reserved.

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