Karla Kuskin Interview Transcript
PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5
The author Karla Kuskin was interviewed by Scholastic students.
Why did you decide to become a poet?
I didn't. I just write and I started writing when I was a child. A lot of verse and poetry seemed to come out of my head and my fingers as I wrote. But I have never really thought of myself as a poet. I think of myself, I guess, as somebody trying to write.
What is your favorite children's poem?
Favorites have always given me a lot of trouble - I've never been able to pick a favorite color or a favorite food. And I know I can't pick a favorite children's poem. So, I guess I would pick favorite poets, some of whom are children's poets and some of whom are not.
As a child, I loved A.A. Milne; I loved Walter de la Mare. There are so many people, including things like Edgar Allen Poe - stuff that rushes across the page. I loved all kinds of rhythmic and rhyming poetry and verse when I was a child. So, if I had about one and a half hours, I could come up with a lot more. Including Emily Dickinson, who doesn't rhyme a lot, and Robert Frost. And on and on . . .
How do you get your poems published?
I have several publishers. If you've been writing as long as I have, you acquire people who are interested in your work. You also need to sound like yourself, and not like somebody else, and that makes it easier, I think, to get things published.
How do you encourage children to write, even though they feel writing is a task?
Well, I don't think it is a task - I think it's a way of expressing oneself. That's why I think poetry is so wonderful. Because with a poem, you don't have to worry about grammar, about the structure of getting it right, so much. You can just say what you want to say, or yell, or make a joke - fast or slow. However, I would never ask anybody to write a poem. Because I think that that freezes one - it makes you too self-conscious. I think it's better to start with just learning to describe, learning to look at things, learning to put pictures into words - to make pictures out of words. And then, gradually, you begin to realize that some of what you're writing is poetry.
Did you base The Upstairs Cat on your own cats or on other cats that you know?
One is my own cat, Tootsie, who is asleep right now in the other room. And the other is a cat that belongs to my daughter. She came to New York for a couple of years, and now she's out west with my daughter and her husband - my daughter's husband, not the cat's husband. But the whole thing is a true story! Julia's cat lived on the top floor in my house. Julia is my daughter. And it had run-ins with my cat, Tootsie.
If you could be anything in the world besides a poet, what would it be?
I'd love to be able to draw the way I really want to - I'd love to have a marvelous loose line and to be able to draw people really well, and paint. I've been an illustrator for a long time, but I see much more where I get stuck. I'd love to be a really good visual artist. When I write, I feel a little more in control.
How do you begin writing a poem?
Well, myself, I begin because sometimes a line just appears in my head, and I see if I've got a line to go with it. But it's also a matter of an idea - if you have an idea for a poem, and you find a way of putting it into words. If you have an idea or a sentence or a line with a rhythm to it, can you find one with a rhythm that goes with it? I've taken a lot of pictures in my life, and my mother was a professional photographer, as are my children, and I know that when I have color film in my camera, I see color pictures. When I have black and white film, I'm looking more for texture and light - for black and white photographs. When I'm writing poetry, I'm listening in my head, I think, for a poem. My words become more suited to a poetic form than when I'm writing prose.
What do you do when you're not writing?
I do the wash. I have a husband who lives in Virginia and I go see him. I have a son and his family, all of whom are living in Brussels, and I go see them. And I have a daughter and a son-in-law in Seattle, so I get around a lot. And I take care of the house and I feed the cat. And I watch West Wing .
Who inspired you to write?
I don't know. I think everybody I ever read inspired me. But I started making up poems before I could write. My mother would take dictation. My best poem that I really like I wrote when I was four. She took it down because I couldn't write yet. And every teacher in the world understands that there's nothing like a devoted parent or teacher to encourage a child. So, I was encouraged greatly when I wrote, when I made things up, by parents and teachers.
How many hours a day do you spend writing?
I can't answer it - some days I spend a lot of time writing, and some not at all. It depends on what I'm doing, what I'm working on, where my life is at that point.
Do you keep a diary or journal?
I've kept diaries at various points in my life, and I realize that I write that way when I'm unhappy. But when I'm in a good mood, I don't bother to keep a diary - I just scribble things down. So if anyone were to find my diaries, they would think, "the poor creature!" But it isn't true! Every so often, when something rather startling happens to me, I may write it as a little separate piece of something and tuck it somewhere. And I think it's a very good idea for writers to keep diaries or journals - it's just something I'm not too given to.
What makes a good poem?
I've just been reading a poem by W.H. Auden. It's a poem I've loved for years, and I read it because I had gone to Brussels about a year ago. I went to a museum and saw the Breughels . It was a very sad painting. It's a great poem; it's not a poem for children. I would have to read it with somebody and say what I thought was wonderful about it.
Good poems, like all good writing, are very specific - I don't think you can generalize that "this is good" and so everything like it is going to be good. I would say that a poem is successful when the writer has his or her own voice and expresses something in a somewhat different way. That strikes us as being interesting and being well said.
Do you have a special place where you write?
No, I really don't. I can write almost anywhere - I wrote one book years ago sitting in the back of a car. (The car was parked.) I write sitting on my bed - when I'm writing longhand. When I'm writing poetry, I always start with longhand and go from there to my computer. And sometimes I'll wake up in the middle of the night with the beginning or middle of something, so I think it's always a good idea if you like to write to keep a pencil or a pen and paper around.
How often do you write a new poem?
Well, there are days when I've written more than one. And then I can go for weeks or a month without writing anything - or without writing a poem - or without writing a poem I like!
Were you good in school?
Yes, I was a good student. I loved school. But I never studied writing. Well, that's not quite fair - in grammar school and high school we were encouraged to write. I went to progressive schools; we were encouraged to be "creative." I had very good English teachers; we read a lot and wrote a lot. In college, I didn't take English courses, and then I transferred into graphic art and did that. So, it was as a graphic artist that I did my first book.
Do places you've traveled to inspire poems?
Every so often they do. My guess is that a lot of what I write comes from what goes on inside me, almost more than what I see. I love to be slightly fantastic in the way I make things up - or slightly odd. But I think things can definitely start with something I've seen somewhere and then it makes its root in one's head and comes out as something else. I think most people - we're in a world and you take stuff in and it filters through your mind. If you're going to write stuff down, you use what you see, but you may make your own thoughts and stories out of it.
When you started writing, did you think you would become famous?
No, I still don't!
Did you play any sports as a kid?
Not very good at sports - not terrible. I liked watching baseball and playing softball. I never played basketball because I was very small. I managed to grow, but it took awhile. So I would go to basketball games and be the scorekeeper.
Is writing hard or easy for you?
I was a reader - that was my sport! It's both. To get something the way I want it to be can be very hard. Sometimes, I can write a poem, bang, and it works. Sometimes I can write a poem over and over and over and finally get it so it works. And sometimes I can work very hard and it never works, and I can't say why.
How long did it take you to appreciate writing and poetry?
Both my parents - I didn't have brothers or sisters - gave me a lot of attention, which doesn't hurt. Both my parents loved to read aloud. I went to school for the first time when I was two. And my teachers all loved to read aloud. So, I think I appreciated rhythmic language, poetry, and being read to very early on.
Do you think when you write or are you simply expressing your feelings?
That's a very good question. A very wonderful writer, E.M. Forester, said: "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" I think for me, writing is a way of discovering what I think about something and how I feel about something. Now, I'm not sure if that answers the question, because of course at times I'm thinking, but at times I'm not consciously thinking "this is my thought," I'm just following the way my mind goes.
I'd like to ask the questioner if he or she can answer the question too - if you write or make up songs or song lyrics, because it's a hard question, really, to answer in an overall way. I think different kinds of work make you answer it in different ways. I know when I draw, there are times when a drawing is going very well, and I know I'm not thinking at all - I'm just in the rhythm of the drawing.
Does your poetry have any secret meanings to you?
Well, they'd have to be more specific! There may be poems that I know either began with something real or are about something specific - but it wouldn't be true for every poem I've written. So, I'm not quite sure how to answer. I know I've written a poem about being very sad, and I can remember the sadness, but the poem may touch someone who may not be in the exact same situation, but has some of the same feelings.
Do you like music?
I like music, but I'm not very musical. I was married to a musician for a long time. But I have a very good sense of rhythm. And I can remember every lyric ever written. But I can't carry a tune!
What are you working on now?
Well, I'm working on three separate collections of poems, plus I did a picture book many years ago called The Animals and the Ark that I illustrated. And now it's being illustrated by another illustrator, and that's almost done. I'm collecting poems about my cat that I've written - that will be one book of verse. Then, I have an editor at Atheneum who asked me in a note what I thought it would be like to be a cat. And that started a verse that begins, "What is it like to be a cat? I'm very glad you asked that." And then I just went on from there, and that's going to be a picture book. And another publisher is doing a collection of a good deal of the poetry I've written over many, many years.
Otherwise, I'm just working on one or two stories - one is short and one is quite long. The long one I wrote years ago and I'm trying to rewrite it so it works. I'm doing the same with the short one, but I didn't write it quite as long ago as the long one.
What do you do about writer's block?
I don't think I suffer a lot from writer's block because generally I have an idea in my head of what I want to do. So, I don't usually feel stuck. I get stuck only because I can't get it to be the way I want it to be. And I thought a long time ago that I'm really more of a rewriter than a writer.
Do you consider writing to be a hobby or a job?
It's the way I try to make a little bit of a living! It's not a hobby!
Why do you like to write children's stuff?
I think I like to write children's stuff because I find that it happens when I get an idea; I'm naturally telling it to a child - it's just the way my mind works and the way my voice works. I said that I didn't have brothers or sisters, and I'm the last generation that grew up before television. I learned very early how to entertain myself, and I just kept on doing the same thing. And I also like to write short!
Is it harder to write silly poems or serious poems?
It's probably harder to be serious, because silly, you can write anything you want. Serious, you have to make sense!
What inspires you as an illustrator?
Well, words! I don't know how else to say it- a wonderful story or a poem. I've mostly illustrated my own work. I've also illustrated maybe 15 works by other people. But it's hard to say - I'd have to pick up a book and read it to myself to know what I like about drawing - either a person or a certain kind of scene. Details, I guess, inspire me as an illustrator. And they also inspire me as a writer.
What do you think of the Internet?
Not much. Every morning, I delete about seven pieces of dumb mail that come over the Internet, and every once in a while I get something interesting. But I love reading for the way things are written. The Internet is speedy, but it doesn't have much real writing. I guess it's good for research, but I haven't really used it that way. It seems to be a lot of information I don't need or don't really want. But maybe I'm just not knowledgeable yet to know how to use it better than I do.
How much rewriting do you do?
Lots and lots and lots. I believe very much in rewriting. This doesn't mean that everything I work on is going to work out, but I do try very hard to get something to please me, and that requires, often, a good deal of rewriting.
Do you ever read your own books later for fun?
Yes, I do. I don't know if I read them for fun - well, sometimes. Sometimes I'm pleased, but sometimes I look and think it could've been different. And I've even changed poems - a line or a word - many years later.
Are you friends with other children's book authors?
Yes, some. We all are sort of working in our own rooms, but over the years I've met some - Paula Fox is a good friend, Jean George, Maurice Sendak - they're all old friends. And I'm sure there are more, because I've met a lot over the years!
What do you do when you are almost finished with a poem and your mind goes blank?
You put it away and you come back to it! I think that time is a great critic, and if you don't knock yourself out and put it to one side and come back later, I bet you'll solve it.
What is your favorite thing about living in the city?
Well, I grew up here - it's my home. I love being able to walk around and not having to drive everywhere. I love the old parts - I like what I see - and I like the business and the life of a city. I like the country too, and I live out in the state of Washington during the summer. But when I'm away from the city for a long amount of time, I miss it. I think it has to do with where you grew up.
How many years have you been writing?
Well, I've been writing almost my whole life - well, making things up, almost my whole life. And I'm old!
What are some of your favorite books that you read when you were a kid?
I read continually as a child and I loved a lot of what I read. I loved everything written my Louisa May Alcott, and the Doctor Doolittle books. I read a lot of poetry. I read early Dr. Seuss - I loved it - To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street ; The Wind in the Willows , Heidi , all the Mary Poppins books - classics. All fairy tales - Grimm's, Anderson, Alice in Wonderland (I liked that better as an adult). The list is as long as any good-sized library - Ferdinand the Bull , I loved that as a child. There weren't as many picture books when I was young, but there were great ones. But I know a lot of stuff as a child and as an adult who's read a lot of children's books. But the stuff on my list I read when I was long. When I was about seven, my mother gave me Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats , which is what the musical was based on. But I could recite the whole thing! It sticks with you!
What advice do you have for kids who want to be writers?
Write. Write and don't be afraid to rewrite and don't be afraid to throw something out if you don't like it. Just read and write as much as you possibly can. There's also a quote I've used a million times, I think it's from James Thurber - it's "don't get it right, get it written." That's how you begin - just put down words - any thoughts or ideas you have. Then, if you want, you start pursuing trying to get it to sound the way you want it to sound.
What are your hobbies?
I don't really have hobbies. I guess you could say planting the boxes on the terrace or watering the plants. My hobbies are what I do - so they're not really hobbies - I write and draw and paint. I love to do those things. Sometimes I do them to make money, and sometimes I do them for myself, if that makes them a hobby.
What do you think of the future of poetry?
I've always thought that more people write poetry than read it - I think that will continue. Many adolescents write terrible romantic poetry - but a lot of people survive that and go on to write better poetry. I think people will continue to write - since I've been writing, styles have changed - there's more free verse, less rhyming, you don't always capitalize the first letter of every line. But I think people will want to continue to express themselves through poetry.