WANDERING WILDEBEEST AND WRITING: AN INTERVIEW WITH IRENE LATHAM BY AMY LUDWIG VANDERWATER
In one sentence, how would you summarize your newest book, DEAR WANDERING WILDEBEEST AND OTHER POEMS FROM THE WATER HOLE?
Spend the day at a water hole on the African grasslands, where giraffes gulp, wildebeest graze, impalas leap, vultures squabble, and elephants wallow.
How do you hope readers will be changed by reading these fifteen poems?
Oh, wow. As much as I crave in my own reading life those experiences that will change me, it’s not been a conscious hope of mine as a writer – until now. Thanks, Amy. 🙂 I would be delighted if, through these poems, readers discover the beauty and wonder of the water hole. What greater joy than to introduce someone to our particular passions? One of poetry’s unique gifts is its ability to take something ordinary and often overlooked (like a water hole) and amplify it, encouraging others to see it in a completely different way.
The poems in your books are a delight to read aloud. How do you know when a poem is finished? What do you do to be sure?
Thank you! Reading aloud is very important part of my process. My family hears lots of my poems-in-progress, and they help find the sticky spots.
I’m not sure a poem is ever finished. Even publication feels more like a layover to me than a destination. But, of course, publication requires a stopping point. We are always growing and learning as writers, so all I can do is to strive to create the best work I can within those deadlines. I can pretty much always find some way to improve a poem, even after it’s in print. A big part of my growth as a writer has been learning to love even my earliest efforts and to recognize them as not just valuable, but essential.
Can you tell about the organization of this book? How did you choose the order of the poems?
There is always something happening at the water hole, so the book begins in the early daylight hours and ends at darkest night. In order to balance color and detail in the book as a whole, we did a little shifting around after Anna Wadham‘s gorgeous art came in. One of my favorite things about the book is how it includes all kinds of life, not just the ever-popular elephant and lion, but also lowly dung beetle and bush willow tree.
The dust jacket explains that Greg duToit’s process and photographs inspired you to write DEAR WANDERING WILDEBEEST. Have you ever told him this?
I’ve sent Greg du Toit a note and a copy of the book but haven’t heard back from him yet. Funny thing: when I went to the USPS to mail it, the clerk couldn’t find South Africa on the computer’s list! I kept saying, “but it’s a country!” We were both very frustrated, and I ended up mailing it through UPS instead. I hope it gets there! According to his website, du Toit is very active leading photo safaris in various locations across the African continent. His work is amazing.
You write poems for adults, for children, and for yourself. How does poetry strengthen you as a writer and as a person?
Poetry invites me to step outside of my hula hoop, to be still and to listen to the world, to take imaginative leaps, to play with language and images, and to be brave.
How do you recommend that teachers share DEAR WANDERING WILDEBEEST in the classroom?
I have developed a Discussion Guide for just this purpose! You can find it at my website. The very first thing I would do for any age group is to share Greg du Toit’s photographs, and the story behind the photographs.
What is one favorite poetry lesson that teachers can pull from the pages of this new book?
Since the book’s release, I have been doing persona or “mask” poems with students. What fun to BE the lion (or rhino or meerkat)? I use prompts such as, “What is the best part of your day?” and “What are you scared of?” and “Two lions meet at the water hole. What do they say to one another?”
When you were a little girl, what was the most helpful writing encouragement or advice you ever received?
I am a writer because of my father. He taught me to love words and stories and the worlds we create inside our own minds when we read. When I was small, he sat me on his lap and read Shel Silverstein to me. He never said “no” when I asked for a book of my own or “just one more story.” When I was a teenager, he gave me writing challenges – like, see that leaf twirling to the ground? Tell the leaf’s story. Today, he often sends me books or articles that might spawn my own stories or poems. I’ve been blessed with many encouragers along the way, but no one has been bigger cheerleader for my work than he has. I’m so grateful.
Is there anything else you would like to say about DEAR WANDERING WILDEBEEST, poetry, or your process and writing journey?
I hope to see Nerdy friends new and old at NCTE in November! I am honored to be presenting a session with you, Amy, and with teachers Ann Marie Corgill and Katie DiCesare called “Poem as Storyteller,” Sunday, November 23 at 1 pm. I will also be signing copies of WILDEBEEST (with Laura Purdie Salas, author of WATER CAN BE…) at the Lerner booth, Saturday, November 22 at noon. Please come by and say hello.
Thank you, Amy, for your thoughtful questions, and thanks to the amazing Poetry Friday community for welcoming me into the world of children’s poetry and continuing to offer me patience and enthusiasm as I’ve learned and shared and begun to find my way. I have long held the belief that poetry fans may be few in number, but they are the most passionate – and I am so honored to be a part of the tribe!
In addition to DEAR WANDERING WILDEBEEST, Irene Latham is the author of three volumes of poetry for adults and two award-winning novels for children: LEAVING GEE’S BEND and DON’T FEED THE BOY. Two more collections of poetry for children – FRESH DELICIOUS: POEMS FROM THE FARMERS MARKET and SUMMER IN ANTARCTICA – are forthcoming in 2016. Visit her online at www.irenelatham.com
Amy Ludwig VanDerwater is the author of Forest Has a Song and co-author (with Lucy Calkins and Stephanie Parsons) of Poetry: Big Thoughts in Small Packages. You can find Amy online at www.amyludwigvanderwater.com and www.poemfarm.amylv.com and on Twitter as @amylvpoemfarm.