This is the fourth in a series of interviews with children’s writers in New Mexico for the state centennial.

What's for Dinner?

Katherine B. Hauth is the author, most recently, of What’s for Dinner? Quirky, Squirmy Poems from the Animal World (Charlesbridge, 2011, illustrated by David Clark). If you’ve always suspected that nature isn’t all lions lying down with lambs, this is the volume of poetry for you. Its 29 poems, with titles like “Four Ways to Catch a Seal,” cover the range of animal eating habits, and let’s just say that it’s not all vegetarian. Katherine has included a section in the back explaining some of the terminology in the poems, as well as a brief note about the subjects of each poem for young zoologists. What’s for Dinner? was a Junior Library Guild selection, a 2011 NM Book Award for juvenile literature,  an Outstanding Science Trade Book selection by the National Science Teachers Council and is on the master list for the Lee Bennett Hopkins Penn State Poetry Award. Welcome, Katherine. On to the questions.

One of the questions I have about poetry is this: what, exactly, is it? This isn’t the hopeless or meanspirited question that it seems to be. I’m always interested in what poets have to say about their forms, because poetry is such a rich area of literature, and I think it’s often misunderstood (maybe just by me). When you’re not writing in the kind of strict forms that we study in school, how do you know that what you’re writing is poetry? What separates poetry from short snatches of prose?

 I’ve been thinking about this lately as prose poems and books in verse growKatherine Hauth more dominant, and the lines between them become less distinct. With today’s more flexible boundaries, I’m afraid it’s easier for a poet to lose the carefulness, the edge, and for a would-be poet to never achieve it.

When I write poetry, I’m especially attentive to word meanings and sounds, the rhythm of the lines relative to the subject, and to form on the   page. One tends to these things in prose too, but in poetry, more so. In poetry I also get to play with form, upper and lower cases, punctuation, and spacing to complement meaning.
When I read words that are not in stanza form and don’t rely on rhyme, alliteration, and other poetic devices, I recognize the work as poetry by succinct, well-crafted words and their effect. I may come to see a common object or action in fresh light; connect with a life, circumstance, or place I have never known; think about something differently, or just delight in the fresh play of words. If I experience that within a piece of prose, I count it as a “found poem.”
One can argue that some prose produces the same effects. I think it’s how the words are distilled that generally separates poetry from prose.

Quoting a friend, “Poetry is a lot like pornography. I can’t describe it, but I know it when I see it.

Classic! I’ll bet you don’t say that to kids.

I found a quote from Neil Philip the other day that makes a lot of sense to me. He says, “Some would argue that the very notion of poetry for children is a nonsense. Yet there is a recognisable tradition of children’s verse. It is, most crucially, a tradition of immediate apprehension. There is in the best children’s poetry a sense of the world being seen as for the first time, and of language being plucked from the air to describe it. This does not necessarily mean that children’s poems are ‘simple’ in any reductive sense. I would argue that no poem can be called a poem that does not have at its heart some unknowable mystery.” I’ve added italics to those phrases that help to answer that question, not just about children’s poetry, but poetry in general.

You write about the natural world in a fun and, dare I say, quirky way that kids respond to. What subjects do you want to explore in poetry in your future work?

Most of what I write springs from natural history experiences or facts that won’t leave me until I do something with them. I’ve barely begun to             explore animal behavior. I think there also may be geologic forces to be reckoned with.

New Mexico’s a good place for that!

The poems in What’s for Dinner? vary in length, style, & form. There’s haiku, concrete poetry, rhyme, and free verse. How do you match form to content?

Form and poem length seem to follow rather naturally from the subject. Four Ways to Catch a Seal wanted to be four distinct stanzas. Since    that’s traditional form, it follows that I’d use uppercase to start each line and I’d have a regular rhyming pattern. If a poem is quite short, I’ll often see if it can be a haiku. A more complex subject demands more length.

Since a picture is said to be “worth a thousand words,” I enjoy using shape (concrete poetry) to enhance a poem’s action as in Fast Food when a snake is free falling through the air between two hawks. In Not a Banana, I use an offset line for the banana slugs’ escape onto a separate page. Especially for children’s poems, I like to play with shape.

 As I start thinking about a subject and how to describe it, rhyming and alliterative words usually present themselves. I consider appropriate  similes, metaphors, repetition, and patterns. For Cowgirl Spider, I fairly quickly had the words and shape that became the last four lines (two split lines): Fancy twirler, // tricky spinner, // spider cowgirl // catches dinner. //  I knew there would be a poem, but the first portion took quite a  while to get just right. 

It may be poetry, but it’s also science. How much research goes into one of your poems?

Since I’m not an expert in anything, but am fond of exploring things I  don’t know, I often need to do quite a bit of research. I may have a poem rip-roaring along only to find that my assumption is wrong. When I saw hawks passing a snake between them mid-air I was sure it was a  parent and a well-grown youngster. I wrote it that way. Before presenting the poem for publication, however, I needed professional confirmation. I didn’t get it. I needed to change the players in the poem. Usually an error can’t be changed simply by word replacement because rhythm or rhyme becomes adversely affected.

 Fashioning a scientific subject in poetic form can be tricky. One of the first editorial comments on poems for my What’s for Dinner? . . . collection was, “The science pushes too hard upon the poetry.” I’m so grateful for that feedback and have been grappling with the dichotomy between poetic and scientific language ever since. In a separate work, every time I was satisfied with the poetry, my technical resource would advise me where and how it misrepresented science—within my subject’s focus or beyond. When I’d get the science absolutely right, the poetic feeling was gone. I was like a pendulum going back and forth between my technical expert and my critique group to achieve the right balance.

What’s one of the best stories from your visits to places like Africa ?

The most interesting/ unexpected experience turned out to be an August 1991 trip down theDanube. I was looking forward to a beautiful and idyllic cruise betweenVienna and Istanbul—with no idea that there would be a coup in Russia while we were on Russian ships. But that was after the flood.

The river was running too high for us to clear the Tito Bridge so we couldn’t leave Budapest as planned. The next day looked possible for the bridge, but all Danube traffic was stopped due to security for the pope’s arrival in Budapest. Jolted awake by a PA announcement in the middle of the night, we were told there would be an “immediate passenger inspection” and strongly advised to “look as much like our passport photos as possible.” The next day, other than a police patrol boat, ours was the only vessel on the river—a rather eerie feeling.

At the Tito Bridge only five inches separated our ship from the grating sound of miscalculation.  The rest should have been clear sailing, but complacency was soon shattered by the whispers, “Gorbachev resigned.” Word spread  among passengers with the feeling that he had been killed. Due to mountainous terrain, CNN International was not reaching the ship. Only Russian radio. What would be true, what false, of anything we heard? We had passed bombings in Vukovar and attack dogs being trained in Bratislava. Would war break out? What would the Russians do with us?

The professionals on the boat kept things running smoothly with most of our scheduled historical and cultural side trips. For a few hours, we  enjoyed Romanian food, lively music, and dance on an upper floor of a hotel. But the program ended, the elevator descended to a drab lobby, and reality. A desk clerk who spoke English told us that the KGB, the army, and the Vice President had been involved in the coup. Gorbachev was under house arrest at his Crimean vacation house—as far as he knew. The papers were a day old. We traveled uneasily between history and an uncertain present.

When we transferred to a second Russian ship to transit the Black Sea to Istanbul, we didn’t set foot in Russia, the usual  procedure, but boarded directly onto the second ship. Questions like Who has control of nuclear weapons? kept coming to mind.

In Istanbul we were able to sandwich CNN International News between tours of mosques and the Grand Bazaar. Shortly before we departed, Gorbachev spoke on TV about his ordeal. He looked older, but was free, and our minds were free of worst-case-scenario fears as we returned home.

I’ve had the pleasure of helping you find books at the library. (I’m telling you, folks, this place is crawling with talented writers.) What kind of books do you read a) for enjoyment, b) for research into current children’s books and c) for research on your own projects?

You generally help me with children’s books—resources for a potential project as well as titles or author names I’ve forgotten. For juvenile and adult reading and writing projects, I tend toward science, especially natural history, and poetry. I also enjoy fiction involving other cultures or subcultures such as Snow Flower and the Secret  Fan, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories, A Texas Trilogy of plays by Preston Jones, and I go through art and photography phases.

I got this question from my interview with Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, whose great-uncle started a bookstore with 5 books, so I’m going to call it the Professor’s question: if you were going to start a store (or a library) with 5 books, which 5 would you choose?

The Complete Works of Shakespeare and an OED are certain. Perhaps Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I’d consider Zen Shorts by Jon Muth or Aesop’s Fables that would be accessible to children and adults. This is an interesting exercise, but with e-readers now one might have to answer, Which 250 books would you include?

What are some of your favorite New Mexico books, for children or adults?

When I first moved to New Mexico’s ranch country I went to the monthly bookmobile to learn about my new home. My favorite books still are   from that time. Almost anything by Frank Waters, Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya, We Fed Them Cactus by Fabiola Cabeza de Baca, No Life for a Lady by Agnes M. Cleaveland, The Sea of Grass by Conrad Richter, Wind Leaves No Shadow by Ruth Laughlin, Zuni Breadstuff by Frank Hamilton Cushing, The Blessing Way and Listening Woman by Tony Hillerman. For children—In My Mother’s House by Ann Nolan Clark and Byrd Baylor’s books, especially when her words are paired with Peter Parnall’s art. Even though all of the latter aren’t strictly of New Mexico, they epitomize my feelings for this state.

 Thank you, Katherine!

Read Kirkus’s review of What’s for Dinner? here. Hint: star!