Career Builder & Giveaway: J. Patrick Lewis

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

A Ph.D. in Economics (The Ohio State University, 1974), J. Patrick Lewis (“Pat”) turned to children’s poetry at age forty.

He has since published 80 children’s poetry and picture books to date with Creative Editions, Knopf, Atheneum, Dial, Harcourt, Little, Brown, National Geographic, Chronicle Books, Candlewick, Sleeping Bear Press, Scholastic Teaching Resources, and others.

Over one hundred of his adult poems have appeared in small magazines and journals. His first book of adult poems, Gulls Hold Up the Sky, was published by Laughing Fire Press in 2010.

Pat has made nearly 500 school visits all over the world, and he has collected a T-shirt with logo at every school. He was recently given the 2010-2011 NCTE Excellence in Children’s Poetry Award, announced every two years.

In May 2011, he was named the third U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate (2011-2013).

Would you describe your career as a hike up a mountain, a winding road, a path of hills and valleys or hop-scotching from rock to rock across the rapids? Why?

Never having had that electrifying teacher or librarian who turned me to poetry as a kid, I came to it very late in a career that was already “Over there — Behind the shelf” (teaching college economics).

Poetry, once discovered, led to three years of poring over untold numbers of poetry volumes and texts, though I was hardly able to quit my day job.

Included in the multi-book giveaway!

Self-teaching is a bracing experience. The best metaphor to describe my circumstances is the rapids. But there was no “hop-scotching” about it, unless you define the occasional poem accepted in a small journal a success.

I raced down those roiling rapids for seven years, passing hundreds of signs that from the shore that shouted “No!” Rejection followed rejection with the rapidity of tracer bullets.

But my message to schoolchildren is advice that I have always taken myself: Nothing succeeds like failure. Make failure your friend. Ignore the Muse, who is usually on vacation at Richard Wilbur’s.

A sweet whisper from the Muse—inspiration—is overrated anyway. Poetry is mostly dedicated hard work. Create your own Muse by reading, reading, reading. Then and only then are you ready to take up arms against the beast. If you consider yourself a writer, giving up does not enter the conversation.

How have you grown as a writer? What skills have you seen improve over time? What did you do to reach new levels? What are areas that still flummox you at times?

Despite the hard work (and pleasure) of learning the poet’s trade, enthusiasm was not the key to an invitation that I was hoping for. Frankly, but unbeknownst to me at the time, my first poems were embarrassing. And it took some good people, most often my twin brother, to hold up the mirror of my pedestrianism. As Maxim Gorky once said to Chekhov, “When I read your stories, I feel as if I am writing with a log.”

Passion alone is not enough. If I have developed anything over the years, I like to think that my ear has become better attuned to distinguish the great from the good, the middling from the awful, and can tell me just where my own work has gone off the tracks.

The poet Donald Hall once said that poets should wake up every day and tell themselves that they are going to write great poetry. Will they succeed? Not very likely. And yes, that flummoxes me, as it must every poet. But when was that ever the point?

The point is in the trying. You can substitute music, dance, painting or any of the other arts for poetry, and Hall’s assertion would be just as valid.

Do you have any regrets? Is there anything you should have done differently? What and why?

Occasionally, I regret that I didn’t start writing poetry when I was twenty instead of forty, that I didn’t get a Ph.D. in English, or at least an M.F.A. instead of Economics.

But, cliche though it is, good things happen to those who wait.
And I’m pleased that I was never one of the “insiders” who, I think, must unlearn so many bad habits of creative writing classes, not the least of which is trying to write the way their poetry professors do.

I do regret that I wasn’t weaned at an earlier age on classic poetry—adult poems and children’s verse alike. It’s been a long process of “catching up” during my second career.

But I love the chase, discovering minor poets whose work has been overlooked or underrated, stumbling upon new, sometimes foreign, verse forms, and knowing that there is so much poetry to look forward to.

Of all of your books to date, which one are you the most proud of? Why?

I’m asked this question at virtually all of my school visits. My stock answer is that my books are like my three children: I love them all for different reasons.

But of course I do have favorites as far as the art goes, and here I have been
blessed beyond the telling. Pure dumb luck. I’ve been assigned some of the world’s greatest illustrators, for which I can take no credit. These are artists who have evoked my words with unspeakable grace. So there are at least a dozen titles that I would be proud to let stand as a legacy.

As much as I love writing nonsense verse, I am especially gratified with the poems I have written to honor minorities, such as, Freedom Like Sunlight: Praisesongs for Black Americans (Creative Editions), and a forthcoming 2013 book in that vein, When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders (Chronicle Books).

For sheer beauty, though, the two books I have been honored to do with the incomparable illustrator and Hans Christian Andersen winner Roberto InnocentiThe Last Resort and The House (both from Creative Editions)—hold pride of place.

Super Cynsational Giveaway

Wow! Enter to win a signed copies of all of these 2012 titles by Pat:

Take Two! A Celebration of Twins, with Jane Yolen, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (Candlewick)

What’s Looking at You, Kid? illustrated by Renee Graef (Sleeping Bear)

Edgar Allan Poe’s Pie: Math Puzzlers in Classic Poems, illustrated by Michael Slack (Harcourt)

Last Laughs: Animal Epitaphs, with Jane Yolen, illustrated by Jeffrey Stewart Timmons, (Charlesbridge)

Plus, three books in the Tugg & Teeny series: Tugg & Teeny; Tugg & Teeny: Jungle Surprises; and Tugg & Teeny: That’s What Are Friends For (Sleeping Bear).

Author-sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. only. Deadline: midnight CST July 17.

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    More Information

    Pat’s 2012 books also include:

    However, they’re not yet available (and, thus, not included in the giveaway). So keep a lookout for them this fall/winter!

    Cynsational Notes

    The Career Builders series offers insights from children’s-YA authors who written and published books for a decade or more. The focus includes their approach to both the craft of writing and navigating the ever-changing business landscape of trade publishing.

    16 thoughts on “Career Builder & Giveaway: J. Patrick Lewis

    1. Pat has one of my favorite becoming-a-poet stories ever. Yay for surviving the rapids! You inspire the rest of us on the river. KEEP GOING!!!

    2. Wow, Pat gives good interview.
      Very insightful, thanks for bringing him more into the public (my) eye.
      I love the look of these books of his as well.
      Please enter my name for the chance to win some signed copies.

    3. What a superb collection of work for our pleasure and to be discovered, I am sure, by future poetry lovers. I love Pat's earthiness.

    4. Pat is such an inspiration, especially to those of us who, like he did, are coming to children's poetry a bit later than sooner. Thanks to both of you! Animal Epitaphs looks like a hoot…

    5. Loved Pat's interview, very straight from the hip. Very informative. Thanks for this.

    6. Inspiring interview – thanks 🙂 I want to read all these books especially the Math Puzzlers in Classic Poems. I hope to win! Have a great day! From, Fe 🙂

    7. Great interview with fresh questions and Pat's usual incisive responses– and I thought I knew him pretty well already! Amazing how diverse his work is, too.

    8. He is an inspiration. Thanks for sharing his story. I'll find his books at the library now. I'd love to share more poetry with my children.

    9. I have several of Pat's books in my elementary library collection. I love that some are silly and some thought-provoking. It shows the students the wide range of what poetry is/can be. i especially love Spot the Plot – I read it to my students every year and love watching them figure out the riddles.

    10. Thanks for the wonderful interview. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks for the giveaway, too!!!!!

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