Celebrating Poetry: Marilyn Singer (Part Two)

By Kate Hosford

Hello, Marilyn! 2012 is a big year for you with five poetry books coming out. 

In the first part of this interview, we discussed your rhyming picture book, The Boy Who Cried Alien, illustrated by Brian Biggs (Hyperion), and A Stick is An Excellent Thing: Poems Celebrating Outdoor Play, illustrated by LeUyen Pham (Clarion). 

Today, we will discuss Every Day’s a Dog’s Day, illustrated by Miki Sakamoto (Dial); The Superheroes Employment Agency, illustrated by Noah Z. Jones (Clarion); and A Strange Place to Call Home, illustrated by Ed Young (Chronicle).

Can you describe Every Day’s A Dog’s Day?

I love dogs big time. I’ve noticed that there are some human holidays they prefer—food-oriented ones, of course, and Christmas when they too get gifts—and some that they dislike.

Years ago, I had a beagle who loathed the Fourth of July because of the fireworks.

Marilyn & Oggi

My present poodle, Oggi, is a good watchdog and gets loud when the bell rings, so for Halloween, I’ve learned to sit outside with him where he can wear his Pierrot ruff and happily (and more quietly) greet the treat-or-treaters. My experiences with dogs led me to think about holidays they love or hate and ones they couldn’t possibly understand (St. Patrick’s Day?), and also come up with times that might be exclusive to the dogs themselves. That’s how this book came about.

What inspired you to write about holidays and seasons from a dog’s point of view?

I’ve had dogs since I was a kid. In fact, I would never be without a dog. I’m always “talking” as my dog—verbalizing what I imagine him saying. So that’s where the dog’s point of view comes in.

I like writing from animals’ points of view. My first poetry book, Turtle in July, featured animals each month of the year speaking in their voices (if they could speak English). That book was more serious, and I tried to create the rhythms and sibilance and vocabulary that would fit these animals.

The dog poems are jauntier, and they often rhyme. But then, I think dogs are jauntier and would rhyme if they could.

A Strange Place to Call Home, which will be out this fall, also has animals as its subject matter. Can you describe the book in more detail?

It is a collection of poems about animals that survive and thrive in difficult habitats—tube worms by hydrothermal vents deep in the ocean; mountain goats on peaks; camels in the desert, etc.

I used different forms for the poems—sonnets, triolets, cinquains, haikus, etc. I hadn’t written sonnets in years, so that was fun and challenging. And I also wrote prose bits on each of the animals, which required a lot of research.

I enjoy research, so that was not an onerous task. My research not only involves reading and watching films and shows on nature, but talking to zoologists, which is a total blast!

Over the course of your career, you have written both fiction and nonfiction poetry collections, as well as prose nonfiction, about animals. What role do animals play in your personal life and in your writing life?

Well, I’ve had pets for most of my life—dogs, cats, parakeets, chinchillas, fancy pigeons, and a pet crow named “Quoth” that used to fly around the neighborhood and return to his cage in the evening (on my birthday, many years ago, he or she—we never found out which—left with a flock of crows for good, which was both touching and apt).

Currently, I have two domestic doves and a starling that my husband rescued from the gutter. But I also really like observing animals that aren’t and shouldn’t be pets in zoos, parks, and the wild.

I find all animals fascinating. I’ve never met one I didn’t like (except mosquitoes and ticks!).

I’m grabbed by the similarities, the differences, the deep connections and the lack thereof that we have with these creatures.

I have a sense of wonder about animals and the natural world in general.

I really do believe that maintaining that wonder keeps one young and happy. There’s so much to see and hear and learn that it’s impossible to be bored.

Can you describe your poetry collection, The Superheroes Employment Agency, coming out this summer?

It’s a series of comic poems about B-list superheroes who are in need of jobs. The poems are kind of their resumes. I got to create a whole roster of characters for this book.

One thing I did was look up “existing” superheroes to see what abilities I could use—or parody.

The title is so fabulous. I giggle every time I say it. How did you come up with this idea?

I think it grew out of a discussion about what topics are popular with kids. Somebody—it could’ve been me or an editor—said “Superheroes.” I let that cook for a while and thought it would be funny to write about B-listers, and then to shape it with the employment agency idea.

Humor plays a large part in the majority of the poetry books you have coming out this year. Can you talk a bit about the role of humor in your larger body of work?

I always prefer comedy over tragedy. I prefer to laugh. I’m not particularly sentimental, and I don’t like tear-jerkers at all.

 That’s not to say that I don’t cry. If anything, mushy things make me cry too easily, which is why I don’t gravitate to them. I often cry at happy books, films, and shows where things work out wonderfully.

It’s also not to say that I don’t like serious and thoughtful stuff. My nature poetry is often in that vein, as are some of my other works. But I think that laughter is good for the soul.

I also think that humor can sometimes reveal even deeper truths than drama. It may be less likely to win awards or to be taken seriously, but comedy can be quite serious indeed, both in the message delivered and the skill required to write it.

Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to tell us about?

As some readers may know, in 2010, my book Mirror Mirror (Dutton), poems based on fairy tales, was published. For it, I came up with a poetry form called the reverso—which consists of two poems.

Read the first down and it says one thing. Read it back up with changes only in punctuation and capitalization, and it says something else.

I’m thrilled to say that next year I have another book of fairy tale reversos coming out. It’s called Follow Follow (Dial) and it’ll be illustrated by the sublime Josee Masse.

I’ve also been writing a series of prose picture books, published by Clarion and illustrated by the amazing Alexandra Boiger, about Tallulah, a ballet student with rather grandiose ideas, which inevitably get deflated. The first, Tallulah’s Tutu, came out last year. This spring, Tallulah’s Solo, appears. Following that, we’ll see Tallulah’s Toe Shoes and Tallulah’s Nutcracker.

Currently, I’m working on a collection of poems for Hyperion about the U.S. presidents and a kind of “musical comedy” based on Little Miss Muffett for Clarion, as well as some other possible poetry projects.

This will certainly be a busy year for you in terms of book promotion. Which forms of promotion do you find work for you?

I like to attend conferences, to speak to educators, and to do performances of my books. We’re going to have a performance of Tallulah’s Solo, at the Third Street Music School in N.Y.C. this May.

I also do bookstore signings, some library appearances, and I use Facebook. I can’t say whether these have sold lots of copies of my books, but they are mostly enjoyable and they’re what I have the time and energy to do.

While there are many educators and parents who embrace poetry, there are others who seem unsure how to use it in the classroom or approach it with their children. Do you have any tips for demystifying poetry for the public?

One thing is for them to read lots of poetry. Another is to listen to it being read. My husband said he began to understand poetry a lot more when he heard it.

For more tips, I’m going to suggest that folks go to my web site to read my article on the topic (“Knock Poetry off the Pedestal: It’s Time to Make Poems a Part of Children’s Everyday Lives”) in School Library Journal and to watch my Reading Rockets interview.

Finally, do you have any advice for new poets who are trying to enter the children’s book market?

Here are my Ten Tips for Writing Poetry, also found on my web site:

1. Pay attention to the world around you—little things, big things, people, animals, buildings, events, etc. What do you see, hear, taste, smell, feel?

2. Listen to words and sentences. What kind of music do they have? How is the music of poetry different from the music of songs?

3. Read all kinds of poetry. Which poems do you like and why?

4. Read what you write out loud. How does it sound? How could it sound better?

5. Ask yourself: does this poem have to rhyme? Would it be good or better if it didn’t? If it should rhyme, what kind of rhyme would be best? (For example, first and second lines rhyme; third and fourth lines rhyme—“Roses are red/So is your head/Violets are blue/So is your shoe”; or first and third lines rhyme; second and fourth lines rhyme—“What is your name?/Who is your mother?/This poem is quite lame/I should try another.”

6. Ask yourself: does this poem sound phoney? Don’t stick in big words or extra words just because you think a poem ought to have them.

7. A title is part of a poem. It can tell you what the poem is about. It can even be another line of the poem.

8. Before you write, think about what you want your whole poem to say.

9. If you end up saying something else, that’s okay, too. Poet X.J. Kennedy says:

“You intend to write a poem about dogs, say, and poodle is the first word you’re going to find a rhyme for. You might want to talk about police dogs, Saint Bernards, and terriers, but your need for a rhyme will lead you to noodle and strudel. The darned poem will make you forget about dogs and write about food instead.”

10. Go wild. Be funny. Be serious. Be whatever you want! Use your imagination, your own way of seeing.

Cynsational Notes

More on Kate Hosford

Kate Hosford grew up in Waitsfield,
Vermont, and graduated from Amherst College in 1988. She was happy to
return to her home state to attend Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she received her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults in 2011.

Before becoming a writer, Kate worked as a foster care worker, a
teacher, and an illustrator.

Kate is publishing three picture books with
Carolrhoda Books, a division of Lerner Publishing Group: Big Bouffant
(spring, 2011), its sequel, Big Birthday (spring 2012), and Infinity
and Me (fall, 2012). She loves writing picture books, children’s poetry
and middle grade novels.

She has lived in India, Germany and Hong Kong, but presently resides in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and two sons.