Marilyn Singer is one of my favorite poets for children. I had the pleasure of hanging out with her earlier this year at the ALA Convention in Washington, D.C. - I first met her and her wonderful husband, Steve Aronson, over breakfast at an outdoor café (no lie - I was there with Laura Purdie Salas and Tricia Stohr-Hunt when Marilyn and Steve walked up, and Laura - who actually knows every poet, as best I can tell, made the introduction). I was fortunate to be invited to dinner after the Poetry Blast at ALA, which was a wonderful and slighty surreal experience: so many talented poets (so many of whom are idols of mine) all in one place! But I digress.
Since Marilyn has published more than 80 books for children over the years, there was no way I was going to do a book-by-book set of questions. Instead, I thought we'd focus on her most recent titles. But before we get there, I had a few general questions:
1. In looking through a number of your books, I see that you've written both free verse and form poetry, both rhymed and unrhymed poems. Do you prefer one over the other? If deciding what form to use from the many types of formal poetry, do you have a particular favorite?
I like writing both rhymed and unrhymed poetry. The form is dictated by what I’m writing about, the tone I want to achieve, whether or not it’s narrative, etc. Also, if I’m doing a collection of poems on a topic such as, say, water, I’ll go for a balance of rhyme and free verse, formal and informal, humor and gravity, etc.
I really like triolets and cinquains, as well as haikus. Recently, I’ve written a few sonnets, something I hadn’t tried to do for years. They’re challenging and entertaining. I also wrote my first villanelles and terza rima. As far as sestinas go, I have no immediate plans to write any of those. ;-)
2. Speaking of forms, your most recent poetry collection, Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse, illustrated by Josée Masse, is composed of reverso poems, a form you invented. In the back of the book, you give a short example – a poem about your cat:
A cat Incomplete:
without A chair
a chair: without
Incomplete. a cat.
How did you come up with the reverso idea in the first place?
A reverso is two poems in one. You read the first down and it says one thing. You read it back up, with changes only in punctuation and capitalization, and it says something entirely different. It was my husband, Steve Aronson, who suggested that I call these poems “reversos.” No wonder why I adore him!
The cat reverso in the back matter was really the first one that I wrote. I was watching my cat, August, who’s perpetually on a chair or the sofa, and the poem came to me. Then I began to wonder if I could write more poems in that form. The first batch were on various topics, but a bunch of those were based on fairy tales. I showed them to an editor, and she said, “Well, I’m not publishing more poetry right now, but I think you have something here. You might try writing all fairy tale poems.” That was great advice! Fairy tales are universal, appealing and potent. They are also perfect for showing two viewpoints and the power of punctuation.
3. I've tried writing a few reversos, and find it terribly hard to write them so that they make sense in either order, let alone that they tell two sides of the same story. What pointers do you have for writers who want to give the form a try? Are there any tricks you're willing to share?
Writing a reverso is like playing a game. First, you need to let your mind relax. If you’re writing about fairy tales, you need to find strong stories with duel POVs. If you’re writing about other topics, you could start with a few lines that can be flipped—kind of like finding an image that’s the core of the poem. You can build the poem from there. I use a lot of participles, infinitives, and single word sentences, as well as things that can be turned into questions and interjections.
I write most of my poems by hand on yellow legal pads, but for the reversos, I have to use the computer, which makes it a lot easier to move around lines and see if they make sense.
I’ve seen a number of reverso attempts in which the lines do make sense when reversed. However, the second poem often doesn’t say anything new. One blogger’s child called that a “same-o,” which cracked me up. The hardest thing is making the reversed verse have a different meaning. So, it helps if you know in advance what that meaning will be, what you want the reversed verse to say.
4. Is it true you've embarked on writing a second collection of reversos? Anything you can tell us about it yet?
Yes, I’ve written a second collection of reversos based on fairy tales, which will also be illustrated by the divine Josée Masse. I don’t know the title or the pub date yet. I’d say that in this new book, rather than including some fractured versions as I did in Mirror, Mirror (e.g. The Frog Prince and Rapunzel), I hewed more closely to the original tales. That made for some cool research and rigorous writing challenges.
5. I see that you have several picture books coming out next year, including Twosomes: Love Poems from the Animal Kingdom (January 2011), illustrated by Lee Wildish, Tallulah's Tutu (March 2011), illustrated by Alexandra Boiger and What Is Your Dog Doing? (June 2011), illustrated by Kathleen Habbley. It would appear that Twosomes is a poetry collection, but what else can you tell us about it? And can you share a bit about each of the other titles?
I have two poetry collections coming out this winter/spring. Twosomes: Love Poems from the Animal Kingdom (Knopf) is a collection of humorous couplets about animals in love. It was inspired by the great J. Patrick Lewis, who has just deservedly won the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry. A Full Moon Is Rising (Lee & Low), illustrated by Julia Cairns, is a lyrical tour of the world, featuring a full moon and the holidays, events, science, etc. surrounding it. And next fall, Clarion is publishing my collection of poems about everyday play entitled A Stick Is an Excellent Thing, illustrated by LeUyen Pham.
What Is Your Dog Doing? (Atheneum) is a rhymed picture book about the various things dogs do. Tallulah’s Tutu (Clarion) is the first in a series of prose picture books about Tallulah, a young ballet student. It will be out in March. I’m working with the ballet and composition teachers at the Third Street Music School in NYC for a performance by the students there. I’ll be narrating and there’ll be original choreography and music. I’m really, really excited about it!
I also have a nonfiction book on caterpillars. photo-illustrated, coming out soon from a great new publisher, EarlyLight. I love researching and writing nonfiction, especially as a respite from making up stuff in my head!
6. I know you and your husband go out dancing quite a bit. Is it ballroom dancing, swing or both? Do you have a favorite dance form? If you were going to cast Dancing With the Literary Stars, who would you most like to see on the show?
Steve and I have been taking swing, ballroom, and Latin dance classes for four years, and that’s really changed our lives—for the better! We’ve both lost weight, gotten stronger and more flexible, and gained confidence. But the most important thing is that we’re having a blast! We like all the dances we’ve studied, but our favorite is swing—both East Coast (Lindy) and West Coast (closer to Latin).
Ooh, Dancing with the Literary Stars! So many choices! Besides me, there’d have to be:
1) Chris Myers, who keeps threatening to take salsa with us, and his pop, Walter Dean Myers. There’s nothing that guy can’t write, so I’ll bet there’s no dance he can’t do either.
2) Marilyn Nelson, whom we keep threatening to drag to a swing dance in Connecticut. She wrote Sweethearts of Rhythm about a swing band for heaven’s sake—it’s time for her to rock step, triple step!
3) Susanna Reich and Rita Williams Garcia. They both studied dance seriously, so they’d be good ringers.
4) Lee Bennett Hopkins because I want to see him shake his booty.
5) Jon Scieszka. He’d get eliminated early and there’d be more of a chance for me to win. ;-)
6) Laura Purdie Salas. The dark horse who’s game for anything.
7) Neil Gaiman because everyone wants to see him in tight pants.
8) And you, Kelly because you oughta get out from behind that computer SOMETIME!
Cheese or chocolate? Cheese. My downfall.
Coffee or tea? Tea always. I’m a connoisseur. I love Yunnan and a lot of exotic oolongs.
Cats or dogs? Dogs by a mile (I adore my standard poodle), though I also love cats and I have one of
those as well. [Note from KRF: That's Marilyn's dog, Oggi, in the photo up top.]
Favorite color? Jewel tone blues, purples, greens because I look good in them.
Favorite snack food? Fruit, I guess. I’m not really a snacker.
Favorite ice cream? Sorry, but I’m not much of an ice cream eater either, though I occasionally indulge in Japanese green tea ice cream and Indian kulfi.
Water or soda? Seltzer!
What's in your CD player/on iTunes right now? The last CD I listened to (yesterday) was “Rodgers and Hart Revisited.” I listen to a lot of musical comedies.
What's the last movie you memorized lines from? I don’t memorize movie lines. Heck, I can’t even remember lines I’ve written. However, I do memorize and sing songs. The last was “How Little We Know” by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer, which, coincidentally is from a movie—the Bogart/Bacall film, To Have and Have Not. And even more coincidentally, that movie has a famous quote which I do know part of: “You know you don't have to act with me, Steve. You don't have to say anything, and you don't have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and...blow.“
I love that—especially since my husband’s name is Steve and he whistles for me all the time.
A HUGE thank-you to Marilyn for taking the time to sit down for an interview. I cannot wait to read all her new books. And I guess I'd better get myself some dancing shoes!
Other stops on this, the last day of the Winter Blog Blast Tour:
Ted Chiang at Shaken & Stirred
Jennifer Donnelly at Shelf Elf
Julie Kagawa at Hip Writer Mama
Sofia Quintero at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
Maria Snyder at Finding Wonderland