A poet's advice on tapping your own creative genius
Always carry a notebook—and at least two pens. Those are some of the words of wisdom that first-ever Children's Poet Laureate Jack Prelutsky imparts in his how-to guide, Pizza, Pigs, and Poetry: How to Write a Poem. Having written more than 70 books of poetry in his 40-plus year career, Prelutsky certainly knows a thing or two about the craft. This book, his first-ever work of prose, combines helpful insights, personal anecdotes and several "poemstarts" to help young writers tap into their own creative talents. The book is being published as a companion to Prelutsky's latest book of poetry, My Dog May Be a Genius.
Prelutsky stumbled upon his craft quite by accident. "In my early 20s I was searching," the author recalls in an interview from his home near Seattle. "I always knew I was going to be doing something in the arts." To that end, he acted, he sang folk songs, he made terrariums, he was a sculptor, a photographer and a potter, but the idea of being a poet never crossed his mind. At one point, Prelutsky tried his hand at drawing. "I spent more than six months working on a sketchbook containing two dozen imaginary creatures," he says. As an addition to the project, he sat down one night and wrote verses to accompany the sketches. Soon thereafter, a close friend suggested that Prelutsky show the artwork to his editor. "I had no interest in being published. I didn't even know what I was doing," he says, "but I thought, sure, why not?" His friend's editor happened to be legendary children's book figure Susan Hirschman, who took one look at Prelutsky's work and told him that he was "the worst artist" she had ever seen, but that he did have a natural gift for poetry. More than 40 years, 70 books and a Children's Poet Laureate title later, it seems safe to say that Hirschman was right.
Since that serendipitous encounter, Prelutsky has written poems about witches, vampires, werewolves and skeletons, bananas, pigs, flying turkeys and weasels, baby brothers, moldy leftovers and fed-up fathers, and much, much more. All these subjects are presented in a style that reminds us what it is truly like to be a child—carefree and funny, courageous and silly, and, most of all, curious about the world. As a young boy growing up in the Bronx, Prelutsky had a very active childhood. He would sometimes do childish things, like throwing meatballs out of his sixth-floor apartment window. He could be daring, like the time he and his friend ate worms off the ground. And more often than not, he would do something ridiculous to get himself into trouble, like the time he painted all of his father's underwear with finger paint. "I wasn't the best behaved little boy," Prelutsky admits, but luckily for his legions of young fans, his misbehavior in childhood has led to some very funny poetry. "You have to use your own life to generate ideas," Prelutsky explains. Indeed, the poet suggests that his readers (and future poets) should draw on things that actually happened to them. "Think about something you did, accidentally or on purpose, that made your parents mad at you," the author suggests. "You'll have lots of fun writing about your own misbehavior."
Pizza, Pigs, and Poetry, however, wasn't quite as fun or easy for Prelutsky as his poetry writing. "They had to wring this one out of me," he says. "Prose is not something I do." In fact, he recalls, "I worked on it for several months, and wrote only two pages!" After those first frustrating months, Prelutsky says, "I decided that the book would not be about poetry per se—you don't need me to tell you what a sonnet or iambic pentameter is." Instead, he preferred to talk about the creative process, how to generate ideas and what to do from there. "Once I got into that, I wrote about 30 pages in a day," he says. His tips include such basics as "keep your eyes and ears open," "write your ideas down immediately" and "don't be afraid to exaggerate." For Prelutsky, what makes writing poetry interesting are the surprises encountered in the process. "If the creature you have in mind isn't as big as you want it to be, make it bigger . . . alter its shape and hairstyle," he says. "The only limitation is your own imagination." Prelutsky's own imagination seems boundless. He is currently working on what he calls a "silly" book about birds, inspired by the avian marvels he has seen near his home on Bainbridge Island. Other projects in the works include a lullaby book, a year-round holiday book and a book of scary poems from outer space, just to name a few. "You can never predict when and why an idea is going to happen," the poet says. So, just in case, he always carries a notebook.