Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of inviting Marjorie Maddox to the ol’ Triple-R as a guest blogger to promote her new book, Inside Out (Kelsay Books). Today, I’m very happy to welcome Marjorie back for a brief interview about her newest book, I’m Feeling Blue, Too! (Resource Publications) and the process behind the craft of putting it together.
Welcome back, Marjorie! It’s so nice to chat with you about a book that’s so different from the one we spotlighted in April. Unlike most picture books, the illustrations for Blue were done first…can you explain the genesis for the project and how you came to be a part of it?
My collaborator, illustrator Philip Huber, began the book I’m Feeling Blue, Too! while in college. (To give you a sense of time, he just retired from Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania, where I also teach.) Over the years, Philip kept returning to and revising this series that focuses on the color blue.
Now fast forward forty years. As university colleagues, Philip and I had already worked together to help produce the student literary and arts journal. We also had already published our children’s book on collective nouns A Crossing of Zebras: Animal Packs in Poetry (Boyds Mills Press, 2008; reprinted Wipf & Stock, 2019), which followed a similar process of illustrations first, poetry second.
Having returned to his Blue project, Philip again was on the lookout for text to complement his artwork. Whereas our earlier A Crossing of Zebras called for a narrative for each spread, I’m Feeling Blue, Too! necessitated not only a poem per illustration, but also an overarching story for the book. You guessed it—he called me, the poet-in-residence and a creative writing professor at the university!
And I’m so glad he did. It turns out, I’m Feeling Blue, Too! is the first in a colorful trilogy. In addition, Philip has rendered reflections on yellow and on red. As Philip sees it, the trilogy is focused on opposites: “Blue is sad, so [the character] is happy. Yellow [suggests being] frightened, so [the character] exhibits enormous bravery. Red is rage so that character will be calm.” So, yes, although Philip’s first sketches began decades ago, we both see the series continuing into the future!
How long did it take to figure out how you wanted to approach the manuscript, insofar as deciding on a loose narrative and how you wanted to organize the text?
The opening illustration is of a boy and his dog Blue, readying for the day. This was the first poem that I wrote (in fact the poems were written rather quickly in order of the illustrations), and it set the tone for everything to come. I interpreted the scene as a call to wake up, to get going, to get out into the world and explore all aspects of the color blue! I also took it as a play on the word blue (including the connotations of depression or feeling stuck inside—as in the current pandemic). Symbolically, I wanted to fit the poem into a ray of light. And, thus, these words broke through:
In the last line, I set up the concept of riddles—ways to discover the color blue during one boy’s journey from morning to night.
Philip Huber’s scratchboard illustrations harken back to a more classic style of illustration than we often see today…was there a reason he chose that medium, and do you feel that made a difference in how you responded?
I love Philip’s illustrations, a scratchboard technique that he has developed and refined over the years. It’s a sophisticated, layered (and very time-intensive) version of the crayon-and-ink pictures many of us created in grade school. To me, it’s a bit nostalgic. In addition, the process of scratching off the ink to reveal the beautiful colors beneath— well, it’s perfect for the subject matter of I’m Feeling Blue, Too!
The Trampoline, Flower, and Building Blocks spreads are great examples of the simultaneous energy/action and thoughtfulness that this book offers. Can you tell me your process for writing these three spreads?
Yes. One of the traits that so attracted me to these illustrations is that the boy character is multidimensional. At times full of energy and exuberance, he also loves to contemplate the world around him, as well as create entirely new worlds through his imagination.
Through the artwork, you can certainly experience the joy of jumping on a trampoline, trying so desperately to grab a piece of blue sky. I wanted the poem to capture this sense of elation, of bouncing up and down, of taking off like a rocket ship into the deep blue of possibility. And so I included a poetic countdown with words that jump on the page, grow larger and larger, and eventually “blast off” into adventure.
A concrete/shaped poem emphasizes the boy’s love of flowers. For this spread, I created a poem within a poem, all shaped like a petal. The “outer” layer alphabetically lists the “official” names of blue flowers (a nod to the scientific). The “inner” layer—PETALS POLLINATE PERIWINKLE AND ASTORS OF AZURE, SO MANY FLOWERS, SO MANY BLUES!— highlights a deep appreciation for the natural world, as well as the discoveries that come through contemplation.
One of my favorite poems in I’m Feeling Blue, Too! narrates our protagonist carefully building a tower of blocks, an action that takes precision, patience, choices, and—of course—imagination and dreams. To me, the power of the imagination—to observe, respond, create, paint, move, write, perform stories—is the crux of I’m Feeling Blue, Too! It’s the light that takes us from those “can’t do nothin’ blues” and brings us into a larger world of creation, a world full of (if we dream it!) colorful possibility.
What surprised you most about doing this project?
How easily one ekphrastic response led to another adventure in color, with Philip’s illustrations as map and guide. That’s not to say that there weren’t plenty of revisions—there were—but the overall narrative came out in a rush of discovery.
Finally, the question that all writers need to ask themselves before (and while) they are working on a book: Why did this book need to be written?
Philip’s artwork called out for the story behind the illustrations, a narrative that would pull the images even more tightly together. That was the original catalyst. However, since this book was so long in the making, these days I believe it begs another question: Why does it need to be read now?
And I think the answer stems from these strange times in which we live: the need to escape the sometimes suffocating experience of being stuck inside with those “can’t do nothin’ blues,” but also the joy of freedom that creativity can bring: to encourage, to learn, to teach, to grow, to make something beautiful, and strong, and powerful even, or especially, in the midst of troubled times.
Thanks so much for visiting, Marjorie – what do you have coming up next?
Because I write poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and children’s literature, I always have something on the burner! I’m currently co-editing a 20th anniversary edition of Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania, which will include all new poems and a teaching guide. In addition, my book of poems (for adults), Begin with a Question, is forthcoming in 2021 from Paraclete Press and addresses issues of faith, as well as a series of poems written during the pandemic.
My circulating poetry manuscript, Seeing Things, explores the ways that we distort or preserve memory, define or alter reality, and see or don’t see those around us on both a personal and national level. Woven throughout the collection is a series of odes.
And, of course, there’s always that trilogy of colors to continue with Philip!
Well, thank you so much for visiting again, Marjorie – and best wishes with Blue and all your upcoming projects!
A little bit about Marjorie Maddox: As Professor of English and Creative Writing at Lock Haven University, Marjorie has published 11 collections of poetry including Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation (Yellowglen Prize); True, False, None of the Above (Illumination Book Award Medalist); Local News from Someplace Else;Perpendicular As I (Sandstone Book Award)—the story collection What She Was Saying (FomitePress); four children’s and YA books—including Inside Out: Poems on Writing and Readiing Poems with Insider Exercises (Finalist Children’s Educational Category 2020 International Book Awards), A Crossing of Zebras: Animal Packs in Poetry ; Rules of the Game: Baseball Poems; and I’m Feeling Blue, Too!—Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania (co-editor); Presence (assistant editor); and 600+ stories, essays, and poems in journals and anthologies. Her book Begin with a Question is forthcoming from Paraclete Press in 2021. She was the chair of the jury of judges for the 2020 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Book Award. For more information visit www.marjoriemaddox.com.
Jama Rattigan, who recently also spotlighted Marjorie’s book, is celebrating autumn by hosting today’s Poetry Friday roundup at Jama’s Alphabet Soup – with with apples, blue jays, and donuts!
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I continue adding to my “Wit & Wordplay” videos ! These videos were created for parents and educators (along with their kids) to learn how to write poetry, appreciate it, and have fun with it. From alliteration and iambs to free verse and spine poetry, I’m pretty sure there’s something in these videos you’ll find surprising! You can view them all on my YouTube channel, and if you have young kids looking for something to keep busy with, I also have several downloadable activity sheets at my website.
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