Jane Yolen has written or edited hundreds of fantasy, science fiction, and children's books, one of which won a Caldecott Medal and one of which was a Caldecott honor book. She has won two Nebula Awards, a World Fantasy Award, a Rhysling Award, and numerous other accolades. She lives in western Massachusetts.
Mike Allen: Jane, you obviously have an interest in and passion for poetry, and your success as a writer of fiction for both children and adults hasn't caused you to put aside writing poems. Would you tell us a little about how you first discovered poetry, what compelled you to write it yourself, and what keeps you interested in writing it?
Jane Yolen: I think I was a poet from the moment I could speak. Certainly from the moment I could write. I did both poetry (rhymes, jingles) and lyrics to songs I made up. In fact, when I graduated from college, I had two plans: to be a journalist in order to have a job and a poet in order to have a soul.
MA: Who are a few of your favorite poets? How have they influenced your own poetry?
JY: I think the three poets who have most influenced me (in no special order) are Emily Dickinson, W.B. Yeats, and Dylan Thomas. Dickinson for precision and that certain slant; Yeats for his attachment to the world of myth moving through the everyday; and Thomas for the sheer glorying in the tumble of words. I also have specific poems from other poets that rock me silly every time I reread them: whether several of Millay's love sonnets, Donne's "Go and Catch a Falling Star," May Swenson's "Body my house/my horse my hound/what will I do/when you are fallen," Lisel Mueller's fairy tale poems, or Ted Hughes's nature poems.
MA: Solidly rooted in genre as I am, I would tend to call much of your work "fantasy poetry," or at least poems that use imagery one might find in fantasy stories. There are those, however, who balk at putting any sort of genre label on a poem, be it SF, fantasy, horror, cowboy, whatever. Do you think poetry can legitimately be "genre-fied"?
JY: I believe that a great many poets (look at my three major influences for example) could be shoved into genre poetry. But they (and poetry) are bigger than that. Since I believe that poetry works best when it metaphorizes—looking at the real world in terms of the unseen, making disconnects connect—we could easily say that most poetry is poetry of the fantastic. Or at least of fantastic images. ("Knock at my heart three-personed God . . .," "Full fathom five thy father lies;/ Of his bones are coral made;/ Those are pearls that were his eyes:/ Nothing of him that doth fade/ But doth suffer a sea-change/ into something rich and strange./ Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell." "Twas brillig and the slithy toves . . ."—aren't these all fantastic poetry?)
But of course that would make Us into Them—or bring Them into Us. And then where would we be? How could we exist in our happy little ghetto if it became crowded with poets? No, what we should be doing is breaking down the walls between poets, because writing poetry is the hardest job in the world. But the best.
My father, missing the point as he often did, once said to me, "Your poetry is lovely but you can't make a living that way." No, Dad, but you can make a life that way. Which is, of course, what poetry is about.
MA: What projects are you working on now? Anything new in the works poetry-wise?
JY: Several Young Adult novels (some with embedded poetry as song lyrics), a book of nature poems called Count Me a Rhyme, a book of sonnets about Emily Dickinson (probably unsellable, but never mind) and a Guest of Honor book for Worldcon of my published stories and a number of published and unpublished poems, called Once Upon a Time She Said.
I have just sold/placed three poems with fantasy elements: one in Jabberwocky, one called "Kawaku Anansi Walks the Web of the World" for a Datlow & Windling anthology, and one of the Emily Dickinson sonnets in Horn Book magazine.
MA: Your poem "Marchen," one of several you've had reprinted in Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling's Year's Best Fantasy & Horror anthologies, reads like a critique of Wilhelm Grimm's fairytelling. Is that how you intend it?
Wilhelm Grimm loved words,
they waterfalled from his pen.
He was deaf to the telling,
only the told.
Words like camphor.
goblet, ruby, anvil
waxed and waned in him.
He was tidal
I, on the other hand,
drink in tales,
giving them out again
It does not matter
if the matter of the stories
is the coast of Eire
or the Inland Sea,
I swim—ah—ever deeper in them.
JY: It's less a criticism of Grimm—who was, after all, a philologist more than a story lover—than a celebration of my way of coming to story. Of being awash in story.
MA: So you're saying the language mattered more to Grimm than what it said?
JY: I am saying that he seemed more interested in the philological implications (as well as the moral implications) than in the actual stories themselves. But even more than that, I am saying that I (the poet) swim in story in an organic way.
MA: In your Rhysling Award-winning poem "Will," there is a mixing of the personal and the mythic. The poem begins with a mystery in your grandfather's past (though perhaps a fictional version of him?) and concludes with eerie imagery evoking werewolves and the murderous wolf from the Red Riding Hood tale. Could you tell us a little about the inspiration for this poem?
JY: That particular poem is, in fact, entirely factual, though mythic. My father always led me to believe he had been born in this country, and I didn't know 'till I was 35 that he'd been born in the Ukraine. And he always insisted that his name was Will, not William. (He had an iron will, too, and an ego the size of Manhattan!) But when he died and I got to open his bank box, there were his naturalization papers, signed as William Yolen. He'd been naturalized six months after my birth! My uncle told me his name in the old country had been Velvul—Wolf.
The leap from Wolf to Red Riding Hood was an easy one for a mythologist poet. And as he had been a devouring sort of father, making everything in our family life about him, the poem practically wrote itself. It seems to have struck chords in everyone who has read it. I could never have written it while he was alive. He demanded fealty and admiration and I, so eager for his blessing, gave it. I feel as if, by writing the poem, I have started on my journey out of the dark woods.
MA: That's a great phrase: "mythologist poet." Is that how you define your poetic leanings?
JY: Nah—that's how I get the big bucks, making up phrases like that!
I don't sit around defining my poetic leanings. But I have read a lot of folklore, which redefines the way I see the world, I guess. Or underlines it anyway. In many of my books—both for children and adults—I have worked directly with folk tales, telling and retelling, editing and redacting, and even on occasion fracturing them. Not just the Grimm Brothers' canon, mind you, but world folktales. Books of mine like Favorite Folk Tales from Around the World and Gray Heroes and Mirror, Mirror and Not One Damsel in Distress and Mightier Than the Sword and many others. So it's not surprising that my poetic leanings go that way.
MA: "Will" is hardly the only poem where you've mixed personal and mythic, mundane and legend. Looking at some of your more recent work: the Rhysling Award-nominated "Musings About Seth" seems to speak to a real-life source of sadness, but also invokes Arthur and unicorns; "Black Dog Days" has colonoscopies and aching knees blended with Lakota Indian myth; in "Ridinghood" the wolf returns, this time as your literary agent. Is this mix something that you consciously strive for, or is it instinctual?
JY: You have found me out, I'm afraid. I think in folkloric terms. The poem about Seth was written when I was asked to speak at a memorial service for a young (17 year old) fan of mine who had been killed in a car accident. "Black Dog" was written—almost channeled—at a big mythic convention in Atlanta while I was listened to some heavy duty Joseph Cambellites try and take the story out of Story. I had been suffering from a lot of body aches and doctor visits recently. And someone mentioned that particular Lakota myth which I knew well because it's a story in one of my anthologies (Favorite Folktales). The poem about my beloved agent of 38 years (she died two years ago, alas) was just a joke between us. But the reason I find folklore the go-to images so often in my poetry is simply because folklore and storytelling are part of my cultural respiration.
MA: How have you become so immersed in folklore? Was it something that interested you since childhood, or did your interest come later in life?
JY: Among my favorite books as a child were the Andrew Lang color fairy books. I read them over and over. I was also a folk singer and adored the Border Ballads especially. And when I finally started writing fiction, I began with folk tale redactions. So this has been a lifetime commitment.
MA: The majority of your poetry collections have been marketed for children and young adults. Yet there's a recent major exception, The Radiation Sonnets, published by Algonquin. And here too, myths lurks in the everyday, with references to Eurydice and Orpheus, and the Tarot, among others. It's my understanding that there's a pretty remarkable story behind this book. Would you mind telling it once again?
JY: My husband was diagnosed with a massive inoperable skull-base cancer. Once radiation was begun, I spent my entire day tending to him. 43 days of radiation. Only at night, when he was asleep, I would head up to my writing room in the attic and write a single sonnet based on that day. 43 sonnets in a row. The only writing I did during that time. I did it to save my sanity, to give me a hold on life.
I read the sonnets to my writing group who insisted I get them published, as did my beloved agent. My husband insisted, too, saying, "If the poems can help someone else. . . ." My agent sent the manuscript out to five publishers at once and four quickly said no. The fifth held on without a response.
Meanwhile, I was interviewed by my old childhood friend, Susan Levitt who is better known as Susan Stamberg, on NPR, and I read three of the sonnets. An editor at Algonquin heard the show and called my agent and asked to read the manuscript. She called the next day with an offer. Then Penguin (the hold-out company) asked if I would write a nonfiction book about being a caretaker, and a few of the poems could go into the book. I went with Algonquin who brought out The Radiation Sonnets with a gorgeous cover. We sold about 6,000 copies, not bad for a book of sonnets about cancer. My agent neglected to tell me that her interest in the book was partially because her own cancer had returned. She died before the book came out.
My husband, by the way, is right now recording birds in France and Spain and doing well.
[Editor's Note: Since this interview, Ms. Yolen's husband's cancer returned, and he has just recently come out of chemotherapy.]
MA: Do you find writing poetry cathartic or therapeutic, or at least, any more so than other forms of writing?
JY: I find poetry more about me, more personal, than any other forms of writing, so in that way probably cathartic and therapeutic. But it is something I pick up and put down and always come back to.
MA: Many successful genre writers who have an interest in writing poetry have tended to embed poems within their novels rather than publish poems as separate entities. (There are notable exceptions, such as yourself and Joe Haldeman.) What's your take on this practice?
JY: If the poems are good and successfully part of the novel, that is, well-integrated into the piece—not just there because the author couldn't get poetry published elsewhere—that's fine with me. I think it's even admirable. Where I have qualms is when bad poetry is jammed into a book (like Anne Rice using her late husband's poetry) for no reason at all except to get it published.
Even more debatable is the recent Young Adult fad of writing entire novels in poem form. "Verse novels" is what these things have been dubbed, though they don't rhyme and are often not in recognizable verse formats. The majority of the ones I have read are bad poetry and not great fiction either. But they get a lot of press. Usually the mode is: simple sentences broken up into small breath spaces which substitute for character development and setting. The individual "poems" have no metaphoric content and the lines aren't particularly lyrical either. Feh!
MA: Do you find that the markets for children and young adults are more receptive to poetry?
JY: Certainly children's books are more receptive to all kinds of poetry—and pay for it, too! My New York Times-bestselling How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight (sold over 300,000 in hardcover, more in book clubs, book fairs, and special sales) is in rhymed verse. My Caldecott-winning Owl Moon is a blank verse poem. YA novels are being written in verse. Collections of verse and collections of poetry are published every day. Poetry is alive and well in children's and YA books.
MA: There seems to be a lot of talk out there in the popular culture ether that poetry is dead as a literary form, that the public is indifferent to it. Do you think any of this talk has merit? How do you perceive poetry's role in our society?
JY: I think formal poetry is moribund, though not dead. But poetry as verse in song lyrics, hip-hop, rap—is very much alive. Poetry slams are alive. Performance poetry is alive.
I did one open mic reading at an IRA conference, run by Sara Holbrook (a children's/YA poet and Slam Poet) and her partner. They were stunned by the poems I read because they were neither grandmotherly nor serious but wildly funny and anarchic. Partner Michael is now madly in love with me! That's a joke.
MA: So poetry is alive and well among the youth, but poetry—at least the literary form of it—appears moribund among adult readers. Why do you think that is?
JY: Well, moribund anyway among the average adult, not those who write poetry! And not among those who listen to pop songs.
Some possible reasons: the rise of visual media outpacing literary media—poetry killed by teaching in the schools (especially often taught by people who hate poetry)—poetry not being seen as an adult (i.e., well-paid) occupation—being a poet not seen as an actual or realistic life choice—perhaps formal poetry's day is at an end—poetry has become too insular, isolated, disconnected from audience—poets have become too insular, isolated, disconnected from audience—or maybe none of the above.
MA: Earlier, you spoke of making not a living from poetry, but a life. What do you see as the poetic life?
JY: Seeing the world more clearly than through glasses. Sensing a life both macrocosmic and microcosmic. Being lucky enough to be able to find poems with my fingertips. Living the Vie Metaphor.
Did you know that in Greece the word metafora is a kind of moving van and so as you drive around, you see trucks with METAFORA on the side. They are shifting a lot of stuff under the watchful eye of the stone-draped ladies of the Parthenon. There's a poem there.
MA: Indeed there is, and I look forward to reading it. Thank you, Jane.