Wow, halfway through National Poetry Month already, are we?
Well, today I have another children’s poet in the spotlight – Robert Schechter, whose debut poetry collection The Red Ear Blows Its Nose (Word Galaxy Press, 2023) has been garnering all sorts of wonderful praise since its release – including three starred reviews!
Bob, thank you so much for joining me here at the ol’ Triple-R. I can’t tell you how absolutely thrilled I am for you, finally having your own poetry collection published! I know you’ve been striving for this for years – having individual poems published in various magazines and anthologies like Highlights for Children, the Cricket family of magazines, and even The Washington Post – but a collection of your own has been a long time coming. You must feel a huge sense of satisfaction, especially with the praise The Red Ear Blows Its Nose has received so far! To what do you attribute this accomplishment?
Thanks, Matt. Yes, I’m thrilled to have a collection at last, but you might be surprised to learn that I had not been shopping the manuscript to other publishers. In fact, the manuscript didn’t even exist when Alex Pepple of Word Galaxy asked me one day if I had anything I would care to submit, and it was in response to that solicitation that I put together the manuscript that eventually became The Red Ear Blows Its Nose.
I’ve always felt you had an excellent sense of style, wit, and command of the language, so I’m not at all surprised this book is receiving such a positive response from Kirkus, Booklist, and SLJ, among others!
Thank you for the compliments, Matt. While you may not be surprised that my book has received starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and SLJ, for me it was a huge surprise. I truly had no idea how the poems would be received.
Critics don’t review individual poems in magazines, so having a book was the first time I faced their judgment. I was greatly relieved at the positive reviews, and especially that the reviews were “starred,” which editors reserve for a small number of books they consider exceptional.
Your poems consist of a wide array of poetic forms, rhyme schemes, and subject matter. I know that when it comes to poetry collections, editors love the first two – but they’re not always keen on the “multiple subjects” concept because marketing loves having a “hook,” like ‘poems about the ocean,” or ‘poems about family,’ or ‘poems about transcendental meditation.’ But in this book, you cover a wide range of subjects, from a first snowfall to a champion bee, from Moon Cheese to livestock salesmen! Was the multi-subject format an issue when you were submitting the manuscript? Any feedback?
No other publisher had a chance to offer feedback, since I only submitted the book to Word Galaxy, but I suspect you are correct that most large publishers appear committed to the poetry/picture book model, with a relatively small number of poems (maybe 12-15) on lavishly illustrated spreads with a consistent theme.
I hope my book will help remind publishers that the good old-fashioned miscellaneous poetry collection still has appeal. Frankly, I have no idea why they need reminding, since we all know that the best selling children’s poetry books over the last 50 years have not fit the poetry/picture book model, but have been miscellaneous collections such as Where the Sidewalk Ends. Indeed, between Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky, more than 50% of what you find in the children’s poetry section of most bookstores consists of miscellaneous collections.
Given that literally every single children’s poetry blockbuster in history has been an unthemed collection, I am mystified why so many publishers seem to seem to regard such collections as a non-starter.
Well, I’d say it’s primarily due to marketing departments feeling the need for a “hook,” so to speak – although you are correct that quality poems in and of themselve should be the hook! Speaking of varities of forms and rhyme schemes, one of the poems I wanted to spotlight is “It’s All Me,” which to a normal reader may seem simple and cute, but to a fellow writer of poetry, it’s anything but simple! Ten, two-line stanzas, and each of the two lines rhymes with the others – so you basically have only two rhymes (using multiple words) in the entire poem. How difficult was it to write, and how did you nail down the rhyme scheme in the first place?
I didn’t set out to write a poem with that many repeat rhymes. It just happened. For me the typical process of writing a poem is first getting some words down on paper (for me, “paper” is usually a screen) and then trying to sustain whatever sort of energy those words may trigger. In the case of “It’s All Me”, I believe that I just started with a couple of rhymes and somehow got the impulse to keep going and see what happened.
As I recall, I kept going and cranked out maybe a dozen or more stanzas that fit the rhyme scheme, then fiddled with the order of the stanza to try to give a sense that the thought was developing. I also cut a few of the stanzas that seemed to interfere with the flow. The biggest challenge was to find a way to end the poem that didn’t just feel like I ran out of steam, but somehow gave a feel of closure.
“It’s All Me” was “highly commended” by Naomi Shihab Nye when she judged the Caterpillar Children’s Poetry Contest.
You follow a slightly similar rhyme scheme with the ingenious wordplay in the following poem, “Winning,” as well as the poem “A Chorus of Doris,” so you obviously enjoy these extremely tight rhyme schemes. Do you find poems like these easy to write, or are you just a sucker for punishment?
It’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, such poems are hard to write because they narrow your choices moving forward, and you may find that none of the choices are satisfying. But the narrowing of your choices also makes your task easier, since you don’t have as many options for what to write next. You’re forced to write something that makes use of the words that your formal choices require you to use. Often that means saying something that you never intended to say when you started writing, but that’s perfecly fine with me since I’m generally not trying to say any one thing in particular, but to write a poem that people will enjoy even if it means saying something I never intended to say.
As AE Stallings put it in her Presto Manifesto, “Rhyme frees the poet from what he wants to say.”
Of course, this approach doesn’t always yield fruit. Sometimes you might commit to a rhyme scheme and find that you can’t sustain it. But that’s true of any technique you might use to write a poem. Only now and then, if you’re lucky, does it work out.
Ok, get ready because I’m now going to ask you one of the questions I hate answering the most. (You’re welcome!) And that is, where you get your ideas from. I mean, I get my ideas from everywhere – and half the time, I don’t even know where that is! It’s such a hard question to answer. So I’ll word it a little differently: what is your process for coming up with ideas that aren’t a result of sheer serendipitous inspiration?
No, it’s a great question. For me, poems usually don’t start with idea but with a line or two that I write down without any particular follow-up in mind, and then as I continue writing the poem I try to sustain whatever energy I might have baked into those opening lines and to just let the thought develop as best I can while adhering to any formal requirements I may have set for myself. While sometimes I know in advance roughly how the poem will end, my best poems tend to be the ones where the idea developed simultaneously with the writing, and perhaps arose thanks to the happenstance of a given rhyme being available or not.
Two-part question for you: What is your favorite poem in the book, and can you share a poem you wish you could have included, but didn’t?
I honestly don’t have a favorite poem in the book. Remember, the book contains my best poems written over a twenty year period, which makes it hard to narrow down to just one. However, off the top of my head, I will single out “Thank You, Nose,” a poem that originally appeared in Highlights for Children. What pleases me about the poem is that despite its amusing tone and comical monorhyme, the poem is funny without being jokey or saying anything silly or untrue. The poem is based on the “stop and smell the roses” cliches, but somehow (I hope) it manages to strip the triteness from the cliché by merging its sentiments with a humorous execution. In short, I’m pleased with how the poem in just eight lines manages to be funny about noses while also giving them their proper credit and due regard.
Having been writing so much poetry for so much of your life, is there any particular poem or award of which you’re particularly proud?
When it comes to children’s poetry, I’m proud that I have had poems “highly commended” in separate contests judged by Roger McGough, Naomi Shihab Nye, Brian Moses, and Carole Bromley. In adult poetry, I have won the XJ Kennedy Parody Award as well as the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize.
I’m also proud to have been a “featured poet” in Light. And I was once “Rookie of the Year” and “Loser of the Year” (that’s a good thing, believe it or not) at the Washington Post Style Invitational, the wonderful weekly humor competition that was recently, to the sorrow or its many fans, discontinued after decades of being a regular feature.
By the way, you’re not Robert Schechter, the sculptor from New York City, and you’re also not Robert Schechter, attorney with the New Jersey law firm of Porzio, Bromberg & Newman. Did you ever realize how many of you there are, and is there a poem in there somewhere?
There’s also Robert Schechter the veteranarian who just released a memoir, and a few other namesakes pop up from time to time in my Google Alerts. At least I have the consolation of knowing that “The Red Ear Blows Its Nose” is a phrase you’ll find online exclusively in the context of my book. My name may not be unique, but my title is.
Well, thank you again for joining me, Bob – I truly am happy for you!
Learn more about Bob and find purchase links at his website HERE. For more poetry, visit Jone Rush MacCulluch for the Poetry Friday roundup AND a Classic Found Poetry Palooza! (Sounds fun!)
I’m still booking author visits for the 2023 Spring Semester (and Fall 2023, too)!
I love chatting with elementary and middle school classes about writing: why poetry is fun to read and write, the importance of revision, and how one’s imagination and creativity can lead to a fantastic career! My presentations are tailored to fit the needs of the classes and students’ ages. One day I might be sharing details of how a picture book like Flashlight Night (Astra Young Readers, 2017) was created; the next, I’ll be discussing dinosaur breath or origami sea turtles!
Student presentations include:
- The Making of a Picture Book
- How a Child Saved a Book
- “Once Upon Another Time”
- The Most Imporant Thing about Writing Poetry
- “I Am Today”
- “A Beginner’s Guide to Being Human”
- “Everybody Counts: Counting to 10 in Twelve Languages”
- The Making of a Picture Book
- The Most Important Thing about Writing Poetry
- Free Yourself with Free Verse
- Tight Language, Loose Narratives: Crafting a Non-Traditional Picture Book
Learn more at MattForrest.com!
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