Author Interview: Julie Larios on Yellow Elephant: A Bright Bestiary

Julie Larios on Julie Larios: “I was born on July 8, 1949, which makes me a child of the first half of the 20th century. So my frame of reference is black-and-white television, Howdy Doody, Joseph McCarthy, JFK, Dallas, LBJ, Vietnam, Berkeley in the 60’s, Hitchcock, The Lettermen, Elvis, Roy Orbison, the Beach Boys, Otis Redding, The Beatles, City Lights Books, beatniks, hippies, Patty Hearst, Students for a Democratic Society and and and and and….so now I’m entering my dotage and can’t remember my name or the date.

“Somehow, that crazy mix is helping me write. I got my M.F.A. in Poetry from the University of Washington, where I studied with brilliant poets–Rick Kenney, Heather McHugh, Linda Bierds. I have three very patient children, all grown now and married and/or in love, all three with frames of reference of their own. My husband comes from Mexico and is very open-minded about my lack of interest in housework.

“I’ve had poetry published in The Atlantic, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, The Georgia Review, Field and others–and my work was chosen to be included in The Best American Poetry 2007, edited by Billy Collins, as well as the Pushcart Prize Anthology XXXI and The Best New Poets 2006. I just won a prize called the Strong Rx Medicine Poetry Prize from the Margie Review. I’m hoping that the strange fence which divides kids’ poetry and poetry for adults can be straddled without too much pain.”

What set you on the path to a poet’s life?

I’d love to say I had some kind of poetry epiphany while reading T.S. Eliot at the precocious age of eleven or twelve, but no such luck. I think it was when I was three or four years old, and I was given “The Bumper Book,” edited by Watty Piper (long out of print). It was full of poems by Robert Louis Stevenson, Eugene Field, and many more. It was a great big, book printed on heavy paper, and I spent lots of slow time reading it before going to bed at night. I still have it (the binding all in tatters) and can still recite by heart most of the poems in it. It had Edward Lear‘s wonderful “The Owl and the Pussycat”–who can forget lines like “They dined on mince, and slices of quince, / Which they ate with a runcible spoon; / And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, / They danced by the light of the moon….” Come to think of it, that’s not far from the best of T.S. Eliot, is it? T.S. himself would agree.

Round about age fourteen, I had a huge crush on my English teacher, Jim Ernst, at Edwin Markham Junior High, and Mr. Ernst gave me Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” as part of a poetry prize. I wrote poetry galore after that–horrible poetry, most of it, though one poem won a national prize from Scholastic Magazine. Ah, sloe-eyed, beautiful James Ernst–that was the beginning of my downfall. And then there was Walt Whitman waiting in the wings–no impressionable 14-year-old girl can resist the “barbaric yawp” of Whitman! (If she can, she’s not going to be a poet.) “I sing the body electric” – yikes.

What are the great joys of it? The challenges?

The great joys of it? Hmmm. Well, poetry is like any other craft where the object you’re producing takes shape very slowly. That slowness is a joy. A piece of wood from a walnut tree becomes a bowl slowly, very slowly, when a woodworker turns it on his lathe. There’s satisfaction in working hard and producing something delicate–a poem–from something as large as language. Most of the joy, I’d say, is in the work. Sometimes the bowl is delightful, too–that’s fun. And of course there’s joy in the words themselves. For example, I made a list recently of the names of certain marbles–shooters, peewees, cat-eyes, steelies, corkscrews, aggies, popeyes, commies, glassies, oxbloods, bricks, jaspars, boulders, bumblebees, guineas, puries, micas, swirlies, slags, eyeballs. A poet gets giddy with joy, just hearing that list.

The challenges of it? Poetry is about a way of being in the world which isn’t always easy: it requires you to slow down, to let your attention come to rest on what my sister calls “the marvelous real.” We all know that the world is a crazy, busy, hurtling place–it’s easy to charge through each day with great speed, doing “what needs to be done.” You forget to proceed slowly and carefully sometimes. You forget to raise your eyes and look around. If you’re a poet, you can’t forget to do that. You have to let some things slide that other people think are important. Once you slow down and begin to see what a mysterious place the world is, then it’s just a matter of working hard (and finding the time to work hard) with language in order to say what you see. Those are the secondary challenges–finding time, and confronting the limitations of language. Of course, confronting language is part of the joy, too–what makes it hard makes it a joy (poetry is nothing if not a riddle.)

I’d like to focus on your most recent title, but let’s touch base with your backlist. Could you tell us briefly about Have You Ever Done That? illustrated by Anne Hunter (Front Street, 2001)?

I like to remember myself as a fearless tomboy, willing to do anything, but the fact is I was a closet worrier. Cows scared me, believe it or not (they’re really so much bigger than we think! Maybe they still scare me….a little. They are huge!) Also, things I couldn’t see under water (like fish and sea grass and kelp) scared me when I was swimming. Sleeping outside scared me and thrilled me, both. So my second book, Have You Ever Done That? begins with the sense that some acts–even small acts, like sleeping underneath the stars on a warm summer night)–require courage. Anne Hunter, who lives in Vermont, is a wonderful artist, and I think she understood the book completely. She enlarged upon the text, the way only a good illustrator can.

My first book, On the Stairs, (Front Street, 1995) was illustrated by my sister, Mary Cornish, who is a wonderful poet and artist. She just won the Field Poetry Prize, and Oberlin Press will publish her first book of poetry, Red Studio, next spring. I want to toot her horn a bit. She’s a wonderful writer–such intelligence!

Congratulations on Yellow Elephant: A Bright Bestiary, illustrated by Julie Paschkis (Harcourt, 2006). What was the initial inspiration behind this book?

Yellow Elephant actually began in the head of the illustrator, Julie Paschkis. She had an idea to put colors and animals together, but wasn’t having much luck with the text. She knew my work and liked it, so she handed the text part of the project to me. We presented both art and text as a package to Jeannette Larson at Harcourt, who is a wonderful editor, both practical and imaginative. And Harcourt said yes.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I began work on the project in December of 2003, and it was sent in to Harcourt in mid-March 2004 with sketches by the illustrator. In May, we got the good news that Harcourt wanted it. Then the whole editorial process kicked in, with Jeannette making suggestions for small changes in both text and illustrations, most of which had to do with fine tuning things like the ordering of the poems, the movement from one color/poem to another, the jacket copy, the table of contents.

Jeannette took the project seriously, and she has a good ear and eye for the way poetry and illustrations come together. Though the details were small, they were important to the look and feel of the final book. A good editor like Jeannette is a real blessing. Julie Paschkis was sending in finished artwork to her at this stage, and I got some sneak previews, because Julie P. and I are friends. Final proofs were sent back to us in May of 2005 and the book came out in April, 2006. It’s an agonizingly slow process. The first ingredient for a successful writer might just be patience.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

The biggest challenge for me was conceptual–how to think about animals in a fresh way, using combinations of colors and animals that were unlikely–a frog that turns blue, an elephant that could be yellow if it glowed in the sun, a donkey that turned red when it was angry.

Once I got my head around the idea of seeing each animal not just with my eyes but with my imagination, the poems came. I tried to anchor each poem with something like a rhyming couplet at the end, and I cared about the sound qualities in the poem, but I wanted the meter of each to be loose and unpredictable, not sing-song. That was a challenge–opening the meter up.

Yellow Elephant was a 2006 Boston Globe-Hornbook Award Honor Book in fiction and poetry. Hooray! How did you hear the news, and how did you celebrate?

Harcourt sent me the news by email, and everyone there was lovely. Jeannette Larson sent the most beautiful, huge bouquet of flowers. And I believe Julie Paschkis and I toasted each other’s brilliance over lunch with another good writer and friend, Laura Kvasnosky (author-illustrator interview), at the Essential Baking Company in Seattle.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s poets?

Read, read, read, read, read. That’s the best advice any writer can get. Read slowly. Read the way a writer reads, looking for craft.

Get a good book about poetic forms and experiment with every form in the book. Then look at poems by poets who had nothing to do with poetry for children. Go back to poets like W. H. Auden to hear the cadences of nursery rhymes. Read Dylan Thomas and John Donne and Robert Herrick and John Clare. Read Robert Frost. Look at riddles and curses and blessings and proverbs, try to figure out the “sound” of each. Look at the work done for kids by wonderful poets for adults–poets like Richard Wilbur, X. J. Kennedy, Ted Hughes, Nancy Willard, Valerie Worth. Read Lewis Carroll–immerse yourself in his work! Read some theories on the value of play, and the value of nonsense, and then indulge in wordplay. Read Kay Ryan and Catherine Wing and Jonah Winter to see how crazy and wild modern poetry for adults is getting. Understand the traditions you’re writing from. Then write, write, write, write, write. If you do all of that, you’ll be fine. And you’ll have fun.

How about those building a body of work?

Once you’ve found your voice, I’m not sure you need any more advice, other than making sure that what you write comes from someplace authentic inside you. Trust your own passions. Don’t, for goodness sake, study market trends and try to shape your work to those. Ackkkk–that drives me crazy!

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I usually work part-time job at a bookstore, because I love to touch new books. It’s a bit weird, but people who have the same obsession will understand. Recently I gave up bookstore work in order to teach part-time at Vermont College in their M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults program.

I read a lot and have been known to fall down deep holes researching odd things like Curiosity Cabinets and automata and Civil War medicine. I admit to going through phases of doing absolutely nothing besides dreaming and lolling about. My husband and kids have been very patient with me over the years; they know I go into trances, and I’ve convinced them good poems come from strange places inside my head.

I do like a good baseball game to keep me sane. I used to like gardening, but the other day I saw a dandelion at least four feet tall in my garden, so that’s that. And I’m thinking of trying to find a choir to sing with–not a church choir, just a choral group. I’d love that. There’s nothing like harmony to make you love the world, even when reading a newspaper breaks your heart.

What can your fans look forward to next?

There’ll be a companion book to Yellow Elephant coming out in April 2008 (long agonizing process, etc.) It’s also illustrated by Julie Paschkis and is tentatively titled Curious Creatures. Each poem in it will focus on an imaginary animal–mermaids, firebirds, sea monsters, gargoyles–the list goes on.