To kick off the first day of National Poetry Month, YARN staffers Kip, Justin, and Lourdes sat down for a chat with verse novelists, Leza Lowitz and Dana Walrath, who were both out in Los Angeles for AWP. Leza lives in Japan, so having fewer time zones to deal with definitely made scheduling the chat easier! It was an absolute pleasure to speak about poetry and the writing life with these two, whose recent verse novels “Up from the Sea” (Leza) and “Like Water on Stone” (Dana) captured our hearts. Without further ado, our chat!
Kip: So excited everyone could make it! Leza, how is your jet lag?
Leza: Thanks, Kip! I’m doing great. Way too many things going on to let jet lag sink in.
Kip: Ha! It must be a real whirlwind. How about you, Dana? Have you been on the west coast for a while?
Dana: Got here Wednesday night for AWP. It’s been busy but energizing!
Justin: Oh man, a bunch of my friends are over in LA for AWP right now, and all their pics with these cool writer folk are making me just slightly jealous.
Leza: Come on over, Justin!
Justin: Lolz, you know, nothing like a quick, cheap flight from Atlanta to LA!
Leza: Justin, you mean you can’t just beam yourself over?
Justin: Working on it, Leza. My engineer brother just keeps dragging his feet.
Kip: So, I can get us started with our first official question! You’re both traveling to promote your books right now. How do you fit in your writing with an otherwise busy life? Do you juggle with teaching or another career? Do you try to keep to any type of writing schedule?
Leza: Great question. It’s very difficult to write while on a book tour, so I’m using this time to percolate and let what I’ve written gestate for a bit rather than trying to switch gears and write right now. I usually write for two hours a day, in the morning, and more if I can swing it while my son is in school. I run my own business, a yoga studio, and also teach yoga, and have a 6th grade son, and live in a foreign country (Japan) so I have to be very organised. But deadlines help! And meeting with friends to write also makes you stick to a schedule.
Kip: Wow! What a busy life!
Justin: Deadlines and good friends for the creative guilt-tripping. That’s some wonderful accountability right there!
Leza: I think we all have lives like this now–the modern writer’s life.
Kip: I think you’re right. My schedule is kind of similar to yours! I also agree that early morning writing is so, so nice. There’s nothing quite like the peace and quiet of a house before everyone else is up. I always say that creative thoughts deserve my “best brain.”
Dana: I didn’t used to be a morning person but finding time for the creative work made me into one. Now I try to stay off email and internet till 2 pm in order to really preserve that writing brain.
Lourdes: Yoga has to help with the writing somehow.
Leza: Absolutely. It keeps me more grounded, and helps me stay calm. It also brings me back to the body, to the senses, and out of the head, which is a good place to be when writing—especially verse novels. Do you do yoga?
Dana: Yoga, meditation and now Qi gong/ Tai Chi. All essential to keeping ground walks in the woods when home in Vermont too.
Lourdes: I want to tackle yoga. I could have done it in HS but did soccer instead. I am a nocturnal writer but then again I am single.
Justin: Ha! The very same ways, Leza! And by signing myself up to do live performances/readings, which I’ll FIND the time for prepping, so I don’t go embarrass myself on stage/in public.
Leza: How do you guys balance?
Dana: I haven’t yet mastered the art of translating my writing rhythms completely to travel but I do manage to just squeeze in a little bit of something every day while on tour. It is so important to be connecting with other writers new and old friends and to be connecting with readers so this is a part of the process. I am balancing this with my work as an anthropologist and just finished taking a textbook I co-author through a set of revisions. I used to be teaching full time as well as an anthropology professor but have backed down to make time for writing and art. The visual art and writing both get my early morning hours and I save the other stuff for later in the day.
Leza: Dana, sounds like heaven. Justin, that sounds like great incentive. Lourdes, I think yoga and soccer are complementary, if you still play soccer.
Justin: Dana, how difficult was it to balance the immense workload that teaching brings with also having something of yourself/your energy left to still create/write?
Dana: It’s like the old Armenian joke when the priest tells the family who was complaining about their house being too small, to keep bringing animals into the house and when the animals finally left it felt plenty big. I didn’t realize how hard it was until I finally stopped having to do it!
Kip: I have another question, about your AWP panel. That was yesterday, correct? Crossing Borders with Verse Novels also fascinates us at YARN. Can you each tell us a little bit about your takeaways from the panel?
Leza: Yes, we had our crossing borders with verse novels panel yesterday. One of the takeaways for me was how vibrant and growing this form is–many people in the audience were working on verse novels for MG or YA, and everyone on the panel had such a different background, focus and approach. It seems to be such a growing, diverse form that will be more and more popular and inclusive. I was inspired by the reach of the form and by the commitment by each of the authors to their stories, crafted through years of research and personal investment in another culture and language in many cases.
Dana: The panel was terrific we covered so many different borders cultures and topics but kept on circling back to the same themes regarding the power of the verse form. I LOVED hearing what each of the other panelists had to say. How it can take on tough topics, go straight to the deep emotion connect us to one another.
Leza: Another theme that resonated for me in the panel was how the blank space or whiteness around the page allows the reader to breathe, to bring their own perspective and story into the work in such a beautiful, co-creative way. The power and immediacy of poetry to cut straight to the heart.
Kip: Oh, yes! I absolutely love that about verse novels. They become part of the reader’s experience in a way.
Lourdes: I am loving how poetry is going abroad. It is the perfect medium. it is both restrictive and limitless.
Kip: So true, Lourdes.
Leza: Yes. And I’ve been doing a lot of school visits and getting feedback from teachers of Special Ed, and from parents of kids with learning differences who say that their kids could never finish a book before but they read and finished “Up From the Sea” and it gave them confidence that they could do it again. This was so rewarding. And many of the kids in special ed could relate to the life-or-death themes because these kids have greater concerns than texting and being popular, perhaps.
Dana: I loved hearing that when you spoke, Leza. Verse novels are also great for ESL students. The white space makes reading less intimidating for all of us!
Leza: Dana, yes! And also the multicultural characters in many new verse novels are such a powerful validation of kids from multicultural homes….to see themselves reflected in literature.
Kip: That’s wonderful. As Dana said, verse is just so powerful, and when readers can grab hold of that power especially when prose novels fail them, then it’s a double success.
Justin: So, a question for you both about the formatting of poetry and the form of your poetry books: How does writing a narrative-based manuscript in verse differ from compiling a chapbook (or a more-lengthy book) of poems?
Leza: Great question, Justin. In “Up From the Sea,” basically it is one long poem, a continual verse, so I really had to nail down plot points and character development just as I would have had to have done in a prose novel. with the main character but also the secondary characters. I mentioned last night that as I was writing there were frequent aftershocks–some as big as 7.2 (real quakes, in other words) and it was all I could do to stay at my computer and keep me focus enough to write a few pages at a time. It was a very scary time but on the other hand, that intensity made me realise that I might not have forever and to get my ass in the chair and write it down. The entire experience of this novel was very intense. In the past, I have had more leisure and calm when writing poetry, and the books themselves were organised in a looser way. This one required a lot of discipline and focus and courage, but I also think that KAI, my main character, had to have those things so I was channelling him perhaps.
Kip: It must have been so emotional to write. Your story, too, Dana. They both made me cry.
Lourdes: Yes. Sometimes we need unpleasant events to jolt us into action.
Dana: So powerful, Leza, how you described the aftershocks and its impact on your writing process. My writing process started with some individual moments poems that slowly grew into a story They appeared from all over in the final book and eventually had to be crafted into a plot. As I was going through final revisions, new scenes appeared, each of which was its own poem.
Leza: Dana, what a fascinating process. I had many revelations and inspirations that came at the end as well. Lourdes, absolutely. Failing forward, on a grand scale.
Kip: That teen POV is so emotional in both your books. Can you each tell us a little more about why and how you made the POV choices you did? Dana, as your story is multi-POV, was it always that way, or did it evolve?
Leza: Two months after the tsunami I went up to the devastated area to volunteer. I hadn’t considered writing a book about the disaster, but when I went there, I met a young boy who was the same age as my son, who had lost his mother. He was living in temporary housing with other people, mainly elderly, and they were so grateful that we had come up and wanted to help. He took my hand and said “Don’t forget about us,” and I just knew then in that moment that I had to try to keep the light shining on them, to help in some way, so I decided to write a story about a teen boy caught in the tsunami. I always knew it would be from his POV, even though it was a stretch for me. But having a teen boy in the house who is Japanese also helped me to try to understand Kai’s POV. I wanted people to FEEL this story on a visceral level, so they could empathise and connect beyond the headlines and statistics.
Kip: Indeed. Your book was so, so successful in doing this. Those personal stories, those FEELINGS, made it so real.
Dana: For “Like Water on Stone,” the POV was always multiple but originally there were many more than appeared in the final version. In middle drafts I realized that my trusted readers were having a hard time tracking all these different characters with unfamiliar names and ways of living think. I also knew that the violence of the genocide was getting really hard for them to process. This is when the character of Ardziv, the eagle, appeared. Once he was there, as an omniscient narrator, the storytelling shifted so that I could eliminate many of the other voices. But what he did most if all was protect the young ones, the readers and me as I wrote. I didn’t focus on the story being hard to write as I was doing it. It felt more like something I had to do to honor those who had died, those who are still dying in genocides today. Most of the brutal scenes came to me as a flash and required very little editing. I do remember carrying around bunches of tulips from room to room when writing a particularly hard part. Once I was through though, it was like exorcism and a weight lifted.
Leza: I love the Eagle, the powerful animal spirit narrator. So compelling and magical.
Kip: Me too. I can see it would have been a very different story without him.
Leza: I agree with Dana, I felt I had to try to write this book in order to honor those who had suffered and to help those still suffering, to humanise the disaster. To bring it home. So that is why I tied in 9-11, which was based on the true story of kids from one country helping kids in another. This is what we need to do now and into the future.
Justin: So even though you each approached it from different ends of the spectrum (Leza, more structured; Dana, more free-flowing), each proved successful in the end. Any lessons learned you’d want to share with folks also seeking to create/compile a poetry-novel?
Leza: What was really helpful to me was to plot it out. I don’t usually do that, but it gave the book a structure and framework that I could then vary from if needed, and that was comforting in a way, especially given the very chaotic situation with the triple disaster. We also had the nuclear threat hanging over us, so any way to have a little structure was really necessary. And I am not usually a structured person when writing. It helped a lot to plot it out. Then be free to veer.
Dana: Structure is your friend, the poets like to say. Leza, you made sure that no one would forget him.
Justin: So, Leza, I grew up in the bayous outside of New Orleans and lived through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. (Not quite a tsunami, but similar enough). And I really appreciated your dedication to accurately capturing that destruction in “Up from the Sea,” documenting it for folks who’ll never see it for themselves. So, on a personal level, thank you.
Leza: Justin, what an amazing place to grow up. I think writing about disasters is really tricky and difficult if we did not experience them directly and I was so worried about this aspect of it and so I am really heartened to hear this supportive feedback from you all. Thank you.
Kip: So true, Justin. Even videos and photos don’t quite do what an individual’s story can.
Dana: Absolutely, Justin. Connecting all these disasters is vital. We are all in it together. Leza told us yesterday about an NGO that brings the 3-11 and 9-11 children who lost parents during the respective disasters/violence together. The videos are often distancing, in a story we are there inside with the characters and feel them living and breathing through it.
Kip: Exactly this. Yes.
Leza: Our world is increasingly full of disasters, war, genocide, horrors and I feel the writer has a responsibility to somehow document and bear testament to these things which will be forgotten or whitewashed or buried or spun by politicians or political parties and we have to bear witness.
Kip: Shifting gears a little, if you could give one piece of advice for verse novelists for teens, what would it be?
Dana: Trust yourself to tell the story. Get it out on paper.
Leza: Be authentic. Find the story that only you can tell and get it down in the way that only you can express it and don’t hold back.
Kip: I love how neither of you seemed to hold back with the emotion in your novels. That’s great advice.
Justin: So would either of you describe yourselves as “artist-activists?”
Dana: I think we can do and say things that politicians can’t do.
Justin: Absolutely, Dana.
Leza: Well said, Dana. I always loved Maya Angelou’s quote, something like people will forget what you did, what you said, but not how you made them FEEL.
Dana: Yes, Maya!!!! Activists often meet the social injustice straight on. It is vital. But artists/writers do it slant.
Justin: Very good point there, Dana. Hadn’t thought of it from that perspective. So, of the individual pieces/poems in your books, which one is your favorite/was the most fun/challenging to write? How come?
Leza: I loved writing the sections with the very old Man (Old Man Sato) and the very young kids (like Guts) because they brought a different perspective on time to Kai. Young kids think every minute is a year-you know, like I’m 3 years old and 27 days…and for the very old, time goes so fast and life is almost over, so they help KAI to live in the moment more fully. This is not stated of course, but something I was playing with when writing those scenes and how they would impact Kai’s decisions. I wanted this book to be inter-generational. Also for me, I learned of the soccer ball washing up in the US late into the writing of this book, and knew I had to put it in. I kept learning of ways people reached out to help each other as I was deep into the writing and so the book just kept becoming richer.
Kip: I loved the soccer ball.
Justin: Ha! Old Man Sato was my favorite character, closely followed by Guts! I really enjoyed the alternate perspectives those characters brought to the larger tale.
Leza: Yes, so much was lost but other things were gained. Some things come back, and come back in different ways and we are changed because of that. I also think it was a kind of spiritual journey for Kai to go to NY and realise that he was not, in fact, alone.
Kip: The NY trip really added another dimension to the story. I think that realization was a huge part of it.
Dana: Poems that involved the love between the siblings when they cared for each other somehow were fun to write and little Mariam, before the genocide was always a breath of air. Probably the hardest part craft wise was how to convey enough factual information in ways that wouldn’t sounds like an info dump. Facts are a bit at odds with poetic forms.
Justin: “Facts are a bit at odds with poetic forms.” — Too true, Dana. Too true.
Kip: My last question, since I don’t want to forget this one: Without giving too much away, can you tell us a little about what else you’re working on?
Leza: I’m writing a love story between a Japanese-American boy, a Jewish girl, and quantum physics.
Kip: AAAAAAH! (Gimme!)
Dana: Nice, Leza!!! I am working on a novel with drawings embedded into it about hoarding disorder and the genetics of mental illness.
Kip: Oh wow, sounds powerful, Dana!
Justin: And for my final question: Who are 3 of your favorite poets / the poets whose work(s) inspires you the most? Why do they speak to you, and how do you see their influence(s) reflected in your own work?
Dana: Thinking poetry or thinking verse novel, Justin?
Kip: Ding! Perfect last question!
Justin: Either! Both!
Leza: Great question. ee cummings, I love his experimentation, radicalism, big-heartedness. Basho, the Japanese haiku poet, stripping down the world to what is essential in nature and human nature, and Maya Angelou, for her unapologetic power and passion. I would hope to someday be able to bring some of each writer’s strength and beauty to bear in my own writing, but whether that happens or not everything we read is fuel and inspiration.
Justin: “Everything we read is fuel and inspiration.” = Bingo
Leza: You guys are awesome. The best questions ever!
Dana: I am always like a kid in the candy store when coming up with favorites. It is so hard to choose! Elizabeth Alexander pops into my mind right away because I am about to see her hear her speak. I love Gwendolyn Brooks, the elegance with which she makes the everyday mundane real. I started out poetry phobic and really only had it open up to me within the past decade or so. I am grateful to Billy Collins and to Karen Hesse who both brought me into the forms showing the humor and accessibility and also the way that poetry can take on really deep things.
Leza: Great writers. Yes, Karen Hesse. I would have to count her as an inspiration too.
Kip: Such excellent choices! I write historical fiction, so I totally agree on Karen Hesse as an inspiration. Wow.
Leza: I can see that, Kip!
Dana: Yes, Kip!! You guys are all great! It is fun to chat this way sort of all speaking at once!!
Kip: Have a wonderful weekend, and don’t get fooled today!
Leza: Oh gosh it is APRIL FOOLS Day. Thank you, it has been such an honor.
Justin: Thank you, all! It was wonderful getting to poke around inside the writer’s mind. And have all of the fun at AWP!
Dana: Thank you! So great to get to know you through this, Justin. Lourdes too! I look forward to in person perhaps the next time. Leza and Kip, what a pleasure!!!
Kip: Thanks, all!