I’ve heard you mention that The Little General came to you in a dream. Can you talk about the book’s genesis?
About five years ago, I had a very vivid dream, in which I looked out a window (I was on the second floor of a stone house in England) and saw a smaller-than-usual Napoleon standing on the path below. Moments later, a giant snowflake obscured that view. The combination of the tiny general and the giant snowflake stuck in my head, and eventually I decided to try and write a story about it—partly as a way of understanding the dream. The story came very easily… Napoleon makes his way into my poems every now and then (I also had a pet blue and white budgerigar called Napoleon), because my father has read hundreds and hundreds of books about Napoleon. In this case, I made him a kind of “Everygeneral.”
In your poetry, do you often (or ever) find yourself pulling imagery from dreams?
Sometimes. The title of my first book of poems, Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form came to me in a dream. In my second book, the poem, “The Crowds Cheered As Gloom Galloped Away” came from a dream I had while I was doing a residency at VCCA. In it, I opened a suitcase of sorts (I now have a case like this, but it holds a cocktail shakers and other cocktail tools) and in it was a bottle of antidepressants and a number of tiny living ponies. A dream about being in a mechanical park with my friend Anna Rabinowitz turned into the poem “Color by Number,” and in Modern Life, the demi-title poem, “Implications for Modern Life” stems from a rather alarming dream I had about fields and fields of ham flowers. I was off ham for about three years after that.
Are there any particular children’s books that you love? If you had kids, what would you be reading them?
Growing up, I was a huge fan of Enid Blyton—especially her Faraway Tree series. I was having dinner with my sister and her two-year old son yesterday and I said something about “fish ice-cream” and she said, “you’re thinking of The Faraway Tree,” which, in a way, I always am. That series is so wonderfully imagined—the main conceit is that there’s this tree with a cloud at the top and different lands arrive there. Apparently the children had fish ice cream in the Land of Eat-What-You-Want, or some similarly named land. Predictably, I also liked all the orphaned girl stories—The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, as well as Noel Streatfield’s series, Ballet Shoes,Skating Shoes, Tennis Shoes…
I have a lovely pack of nephews, nieces, godsons and friends’ children now, so I’m always looking out for books to give them. Some of my favorites are George Saunders’ The Very Loathsome Gappers of Frip, illustrated by Lane Smith, Jack Prelutsky’s Scranimals, illustrated by Peter Sis, a book that features wonderful animal-food hybrids—broccolions and antelopetunias and Giselle Potter’s The Year I Didn’t Go to School and The Boy Who Loved Words. I also like giving them handmade books by graphic novelists and artists—Long-Tailed Kitty by Lark Pien (“You’re not on my side, sand in the pants”) and Pencil Pie: A Comic for Tiny Babies by Doug McNamara (“Pinkle tinkle pencil pie, robot squirrels walking by…”) are both genius books.
As someone used to the solitary work of a poet, how was it collaborating with Elizabeth Zechel (the illustrator)?
It was wonderful. Elizabeth is a dream collaborator. The first day I went over to her house, she had baked a cake and then introduced me to her four cats, and I thought, “She’s the one!” If you’re like me and can’t draw, it’s an amazing gift to have someone take your words (and your feedback) to visually create the world you’ve imagined. Elizabeth got the little general just right—with his puffed-out chest, his luxurious moustache, and sad eyes (I found a real approximation of him on a moustache contest website) and we had really interesting conversations about what degree of realism vs. cartoonishness would be right for the book. Often she did a drawing that I could never have imagined that way, like the image that shows the Realists getting confused while trying to a difficult formation—I loved that she made a map of their footprints hover over their heads.
We’re working on another book right now, called These Birds Don’t Fly: An Alphabet of Absurd Birds.
I know that you’re a big fan of graphic novels. Should we expect an interplay of words and pictures in your future work, or are you strictly back to poems these days?
Good guess! Amy Jean Porter and I are collaborating on a book called Of Lamb, which is an erasure of a Charles Lamb biography, with images (more independent imaginative acts than illustrations) by Amy Jean. My next book of poems will also have a combination of text and image. In that one, I’m collaborating with myself— writing poems that have photographs as their titles (about 2” x 2”). The photographs are usually miniature scenes that I set up, which is great fun, but it makes the process of completing one poem about ten times longer.
You once wrote a poem to be read along with Philip Glass’ String Quartet Number 5. Is there a piece of music you’d recommend to accompany The Little General?
Hmm. To start with he’d probably like some John Philip Sousa, but by the end of the story, he’d be open to listening to Air’s Love 2.
In The Little General, there’s a war under way between the Realists and the Dreamers. Who would you take in a fight between Borges and Balzac?
Ah, but there isn’t really a war. The little general just thinks there might be one. If I had to choose a side, it would be Borges.
Between the slashing of arts’ budgets, and the emphasis that No Child Left Behind puts on test scores, there’s no question that imagination has taken a backseat in American schools. How can we ensure kids don’t view imagination as a triviality, or, as the Little General’s encyclopedia puts it, a “disease”?
The cuts in arts funding worry me a great deal, because for me, the delights of school were precisely in those arts programs that are now disappearing. But I don’t think children think about whether or not to be imaginative—at a certain age, they just are, whether they’re making up words, “pillowboat” for sofa or “sleepblow” for snoring (two favorites from a Mr. Solomon Cravitz and a Mr. Toby Campbell, both three and under) or playing out vivid flying baby fantasies. Later on, I think that imagination sometimes get labeled “silly” or “childish,” which is a shame if it’s meant in a negative sense. If you read The Little General I think it’s clear that I’d like as much imagination in my life as possible.