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Meet J. Patrick Lewis, U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate

Lewis twins
Pat Lewis and his twin brother, Mick

You never know whom you’ll meet when you are invited to a book fair in the Midwest. Last July, at the Norfolk, Nebraska Book Festival,  I had the great fortune to spend three days in the company of Pat Lewis—poet extraordinaire, former economics professor, brother, twin, father, grandfather, current Ohioan, philosopher, linguist, and generally nice guy! Upon noting the one year anniversary of that event, I sent him some questions which he kindly answered for me to share with all of you readers:

Q:   You’ve written many, many excellent collections of poetry, most of them focused on a particular theme or topic. Do you keep a notebook or file on topics you’d like to write about? Once you’ve decided on a topic or theme, can you tell us a bit about your research/ writing process?

A:   Keeping a notebook. Wow. Why didn’t I think of that? No, I’ve never kept a notebook. The closest I’ve come to it is, for lack of a better word, daybook, which contains only vintage quotes I discover in my reading. After many stress-inducing hours/days/weeks, I stumble upon a subject, and then it’s “Katie, bar the door.” Whether it’s a subject that involves research or simply nonsense from a fractured mind, I possess a sticktoitiveness that would qualify me as certifiably loony. Some might see this as virtuous. It’s not. Many authors (wisely) finish part of a poetry manuscript, and send it in on spec. But so convinced am I of the idea’s genius that I charge ahead (ploddingly) until I have what appears to me to be a finished book. I’ve never sent anything to an editor on spec. So naturally, each manuscript takes much longer than it should, and it’s why the shelf sitting directly behind me groans with completely “finished,” un-publishable, and sadly, non-genius manuscripts.

Q:   I see that you’ve published collaborations with other poets (Jane Yolen, for example). How does the process of such books differ from collections you write solo? Do you share decisions on form, subject matter, length, etc.—or is that left up to each poet?

A:   “Collaborations” are what I call them, too, but that’s not quite right. A better term would be “co-authorships.” In only one instance—a book of renga I did with my pal Paul Janeczko (Birds on a Wire)—was there anything like collaboration. And there had to be for that book because a renga implies working cheek by jowl. In most cases, however, when a poet and I agree to do a book together, it’s a matter of saying, “Okay, you write ten poems on the subject, and I’ll write ten, and we’ll see what we’ve got.” Occasionally we make suggestions regarding each other’s work, but in most instances, we’re confident enough of our own poems and each other’s that we are willing to let it stand.

J. Patrick LewisQ:   You have a background in teaching college-level economics. Is there anything about the science/ art of economics that overlaps with poetry? 

A:   Nothing. Oil and water. Apples and pork rinds. Democrats and Republicans. I’ve been asked to write poetry about economics. My response is a kick in the patootie. Seriously, if I were writing a textbook, I might consider adding an “economics poem” just to keep things light. 

Q:   What are your duties and responsibilities as U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate? Any unusual events or unexpected requests you’d like to share?

A:   When the Poetry Foundation called to tell me I was the third Children’s Poet Laureate (after Jack Prelutsky and Mary Ann Hoberman), my first response was to weep copious tears. After I collected myself, they said my duties would be “light.” Tricky devils. My official duties for the Poetry Foundation were to give two major readings in two years, and I’ve done that, one in Chicago, the other in New York, though I am also speaking at the Folger Shakespeare Library in D.C. in April. Beyond that, the laureateship has involved much more travel than my ordinary annual Don Quixotean treks. I’m not complaining, mind you. The Children’s Poet Laureateship is the brass ring for children’s poets, and I am tremendously honored and humbled to have been so named. 

J. Patrick LewisQ:   As we careen into the digital age, where do you see the future of published poetry? Do you feel its audience has expanded or contracted because of e-books, digital publishing, etc? Also—do you do most of your reading from books/print materials or on an electronic device?

A:   As a techie naif born far too soon, I am perhaps the least qualified person to answer that question. It’s a matter in advanced topology for me to turn on my cell phone. My daughters lovingly bought me a Kindle, which has turned out to be an invaluable coaster. So if anyone cares what a dinosaur thinks (and you shouldn’t!), the short answer is: I have no idea what the future holds except … more technology. Which is fine with me, so long as book books [sic] continue to warm, er, cool the planet. Irrespective of what happens digitally, poetry will neither die out nor thrive but will continue to appeal to one-twentieth of the population for whom words are the ne plus ultra of literature.

Thanks very much, Pat, for being my guest on Electric Moccasin. Please come back soon!

Visit Pat’s website.

Read more from Pat on his Poet Laureateship & writing poetry for young people.

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