Irene Latham has done it again. A couple years ago, she was hanging out at a watering hole on the African savanna (and that’s not a metaphor – by “watering hole,” I mean a real watering hole) and this year she’s at the bottom of the world, on the largest continent – and largest desert – on the planet.
Irene follows up her 2014 children’s poetry collection, Dear Wandering Wildebeest: And Other Poems from the Water Hole (Millbrook Press) with the equally entertaining and insightful When the Sun Shines on Antarctica: And Other Poems from the Frozen Continent (Millbrook Press).
In fifteen poems, Irene not only teaches readers a little bit about the wildlife and habitat of Antarctica, she imbues each of her subjects with a bit of magic here and a touch of tenderness there, so that each poem helps bring the reader a little closer to the truth. The book opens with the dawn of summer and concludes with the start of winter as the sun sets.
When the Sun Shines on Antarctica
as the sky peels
itself of darkness
and stretches awake.
and seals rouse
We’ve been waiting
– © 2016 Irene Latham (Millbrook Press), all rights reserved
The poems are primarily free verse, so Irene makes great use of internal rhyme and enjambment to create touching scenes that are sometimes quiet, and other times full of energy.
One of the nice things about this book – and Wildebeest, as well – is that although there is plenty to learn via Irene’s poems, they never feel didactic; they are poetry for poetry’s sake, first and foremost. Sidebars on each page provide more information about each subject (from seals to krill to brinicles!), and the earthy blues and greens of Anna Wadham’s illustrations complement the icy, watery nature of Irene’s scenery – all adding up to a beautiful book to read as well as simply admire.
I had a chance to chat with Irene about the book, her life of writing, and what she has coming up in the near future!
So tell us, how did a social work major from the University of Alabama end up with 5 books of poetry, 2 middle grade novels, and another poetry collection due out next month?
I took the scenic route, that’s for sure! While I didn’t attend a single writing class in college, all those courses on developmental psychology and family dynamics have certainly enriched my writing life.
Without any training, how did you end up learning your craft? And what was your first published piece? What do you think of it today – still good, not bad, or would you totally revise it?
I started honing my craft by entering contests sponsored by Alabama State Poetry Society. At first I didn’t place at all, then I started getting Honorable Mentions, and eventually prize money! My big break came when I won a chapbook contest — no cash, but publication and 100 copies of my chapbook NOW PLAYING (poems that used classic movie titles, but were often about something else entirely).
I kind of cringe when I read those poems now — as I’ve continued to grow and develop as a poet I can now see all sorts of flaws! But it was my best work at the time, and an essential, precious part of my journey. Those poems are exactly what they needed to be — and one or two of them I do still like.
How do you move between the children’s poetry thought process and an adult’s? Do you work exclusively on one or the other, or do you bounce back and forth, depending on your mood and inspiration?
My initial efforts are most often from my adult self. I was writing a poem last week about pears, and the image that came immediately to mind was Sylvia Plath’s “little Buddhas.” I love that! But of course a kid probably wouldn’t get that. I so admire those children’s poets among us who seem to so easily and naturally find those child-like comparisons. It’s a challenge for me. I am constantly having to coax my inner 8 year old out to play. She’s shy, but one thing I’m good at is persistence.
Two years ago, you were at an African watering hole; this year, you’re in Antarctica! How do you come up with the ideas for your collections, and how long does it usually take you to complete a manuscript?
I have an abundance of obsessions, so coming up with themes/ideas for collections is not my problem. Usually they arise when I read books or go to museums or attend local community events where a speaker might mention something, and I investigate further, and next thing I know, I’m neck-deep!
As for the second part of your question, “complete” is a very slippery word, isn’t it? I could keep tinkering with poems forever and more than once have had a great idea for a way to improve a manuscript after the book is already in print. It’s one of the things that attracts me to writing in the first place – the endless learning curve.
I can churn out a bunch of first-draft poems that will be the skeleton of a poetry book manuscript within a few weeks – I strive for a poem a day. But then it can take years for the individual poems to grow and develop and for me to figure out the point of it all. I’m constantly asking of the manuscript: what is your purpose? what are you trying to say to the world? what else?
Next month, you have ANOTHER collection for children, Fresh and Delicious! Tell us about that! How did it come about?
FRESH DELICIOUS: Poems from the Farmers’ Market (Wordsong) is my first attempt at poems for a younger (K-2) audience. It started with a contest through my SCBWI region (Southern Breeze, which includes AL, GA, and the FL panhandle). Each June, for free, we can submit some pages for a contest that’s judged by editors. All entries receive a feedback sheet. I wanted to enter the contest, and I had just been to the farmers’ market. Voila! Poems from the farmers’ market!
I was so excited about the poems that I did NOT enter the contest – results aren’t announced until October – and sent them straight to my agent instead. She sent them to Rebecca Davis at WordSong, who had read (and rejected) at least three, perhaps four prior manuscripts (including Dear Wandering Wildebeest). She liked the poems, saw lots of promise, but didn’t feel they were quite ready. Instead, she gave me some brilliant feedback (seriously. BRILLIANT), and off I went, revising away! A couple of revisions later, she presented it at the editorial meeting and we got a green light on the project. O frabjous day!
I am always trying to explain to people that children’s poetry does not need to rhyme! (In fact, I’m hosting a workshop at an upcoming SCBWI conference about free verse) Why do you suppose you are drawn more towards free verse than rhyming poetry?
I am so happy you are teaching people that children’s poetry need not rhyme! Confession: for many years I thought all children’s poetry was Shel Silverstein! I really didn’t know there was a market for the kind of poems I write, which are by and large free verse, until I attended a poetry retreat with Rebecca Kai Dotlich in 2011 (organized by the one and only Robyn Hood Black! I’m so so grateful!). That weekend was a turning point in my writing life.
Afterwards I went on a nearly sleepless writing jag for a week as I discovered I could write the way I write for adults – but for kids. I have a gypsy heart, and being hemmed in by form or rhyme makes me irritable and unhappy. Plus I love beautiful words and lyricism, and for me, writing is a spiritual practice. It’s a way for me to love the world. I am able to achieve all of those things with free verse.
By the way, I’d be remiss if I didn’t congratulate you on TWO OTHER manuscripts you just sold, Pop! Bam! Boom! and It’s Not Black and White. What are they about?
Thank you! Pop! Bam! Boom! started with Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem.” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/175884 I got to thinking about all the things that explode – seed pods and symphonies and dreams – and I started writing. It’s Not Black & White is a special project based on real-life experiences that I co-wrote with Charles Waters. Told in two voices, it’s about friendship, race, and understanding as it happens in a 5th grade classroom when a black boy and a white girl are forced to be partners on a writing project.
Final question! I have to ask…do you ever get a chance to chat with Father Goose -Charles Ghigna – who’s just south of you in Homewood, AL? And what’s the best advice you ever received – from anyone?
Chuck and I do, in fact, chat from time to time! He’s famous around these parts (more than a hundred books to his credit now!), and he’s been a lovely supporter of my work.
As for advice: When my first book of poems came out (2007), my husband gave me a small plaque that reads, “Live Your Poem.” That’s where my blog name comes from! For years I have shared in presentations that writers have a responsibility to “live a life worth writing about.”
But it’s more that that: we need to be present, open, and delight in our lives – really LIVE. That’s poetry! I also love how those words can mean whatever they need to mean to an individual – your poem-life will be different from mine. And every single incarnation is beautiful.
I think that concept is what draws most of us to poetry, Irene…so thank you for taking the time to chat!
Thank you, Matt, for having me, and for your great questions. I’m excited for YOUR forthcoming books. Yay!
To my readers, I’m so glad YOU took the time to read today’s post, I’m going to give you an opportunity to win an autographed copy of Antarctica! Just leave a comment below, and I’ll draw a winner at the end of the month…so please let your friends know, so they can get in on it, as well. (and if you share this post via Twitter (using the Twitter button below), you’ll get an ADDITIONAL entry!)
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