National Poetry Month: “Gulper Eel” by Kate Coombs
“For the water sings blue…
and the sky does, too,
and the sea lets you fly like a gull.”
Can’t you just feel the ebb and flow of the waves in those lines, hear the distant cry of that gull, maybe even feel a little sea breeze in your hair…? Ahhhh. And all this thanks to the gorgeous book Water Sings Blue: Ocean Poems by the Book Aunt herself…
I first read Kate’s book as part of my judging duties for this year’s Cybils awards, and boy did it make the judging difficult. I was instantly drawn in by the inviting rhythm of the first poem, “Song of the Boat” (quoted above), which transported me on a high-seas adventure through shipwrecks and coral reefs and encounters with all sorts of creatures of the deep.
In Kate’s underwater world, colorful fish paint the water with their fins, coral reefs celebrate themselves with a proud anthem, and “Old Driftwood” spins tales of the sea for an audience of “attentive astonished twigs.” And then there’s this:
“He slides through the water / like a rumor, like a sneer” is probably my favorite line of all, and each time I read it I am reminded of my favorite lyric from My Fair Lady, sung by Henry Higgins: “oozing charm from every pore / he oils his way across the floor.” I wonder if there are Eliza Doolittle sharks, too!
(This just in — Kate explains the shark line in an email: “By the way, that line from the shark poem was originally “like an oil spill, like a curse,” so your My Fair Lady connection is particularly apt. Melissa didn’t like the oil spill metaphor, though, and “curse” had set me up for a weak ending rhyme (and line). I came up with “sneer” and a better final line, but then she didn’t like whatever word I had in place of “rumor.” It took me three days of auditioning some 30 words, thesaurus in hand, to come up with “rumor”! Lots of work on that one line, but it paid off.”)
With all those goodies wrapped up in Meilo So’s beautiful illustrations, it’s not difficult to understand why Water Sings Blue won the 2013 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award. Well done, Kate!
Now, before I open my astronomical maw for the interview, here’s Kate reciting “Gulper Eel” — you might want to cover your goldfish’s ears!
[heading style=”1″]INTERVIEW with KATE COOMBS[/heading]
What’s up with Kate
Kate: who are you, where are you, and how long have you been a rhyming fool?
After spending most of my life in California, I now live in Utah. It’s very far from the ocean, though we do have the Great Salt Lake. The mountains here almost make up for it. They’re young and craggy, just glorious.
I’ve been a bookworm since I was very small. My parents took us to the library often and read us books every single day. Once when I was three or four, my dad decided to see how long I would listen to him read picture books. His voice gave out before I did! I can’t remember when I first heard poems, but I’m pretty sure it was nursery rhymes and songs. I do recall that we had Robert Louis Stevenson’s poems, A Child’s Garden of Verses. The thing is, I just loved words, words and the books that held them. Besides reading a whole lot, I began writing poems, plays, and stories when I was in about second grade. I wrote a Nancy Drew knockoff in third or fourth grade—I can still picture the red construction paper cover with my girl detective illustration glued onto it.
Can you share the first poem you ever wrote?
The first poem I remember writing began, “The fairies are dancing in a fairy ring/And if you listen carefully you’ll hear the songs they sing.” I was nine or ten and was into fairies and unicorns. Oh, and I won a community Valentine’s Day contest at about that same age for a large valentine I decorated—I put a poem I’d written about love in the middle. I wrote my first sonnet at twelve and was very proud of myself. It was about a bird that got trapped inside a large building, something I had seen and decided to make symbolic.
How did you come to write Water Sings Blue? Did you have a run-in with one of those astronomical maws or are you an oceanographer, a beach babe, a jellyfish stalker…?
I lived near the Pacific Ocean for many years, though I went to the beach more as a child than as an adult. Back then my brother and sister and I used to go boogie boarding, which is like surfing but easier. You lie on your stomach on a short Styrofoam board and paddle out beyond the breakers. Then you ride the waves in, still lying on your board. Sometimes you get knocked over by a wave, grabbed and tumbled and scraped against the sand. You have to figure out which way is up, and then suddenly you’re standing and breathing and you’re safe again. It was all very exciting. We built sandcastles, we watched the waves roll, we caught little sand crabs and found mussels on the rocks. Another memory is of going on a school field trip to look at the tide pools and the creatures that lived there. Many years later, when I was searching for a theme for a poetry collection, I immediately thought of the ocean and the beach.
What kind of preparation went into the writing of this collection? Did you research each creature or just go to the aquarium and wait for them to “speak” to you?
I started out by making a list of all of the ocean and shore topics I could think of, especially sea creatures. I created a long Word document and divided it into pages, putting one topic on each page. Then I did research online and in books to find still more sea creatures. I added pages for them, as well. Every so often I would pick a different one in no particular order and write a poem. Some of the poems turned out better than others, of course. I rewrote the ones I thought were working many times. Eventually I had about 80 poems. This process took a couple of years. I wrote a few more while working with my editor Melissa Manlove, like the sea turtle and shark poems. You’ll notice that there are 23 poems in Water Sings Blue, which means Melissa and I picked the very best ones.
I’ve made the process sound kind of dry, though, and that’s all wrong for a collection of ocean poems! I will add that I have a strong visual memory and imagination. All of my writing was accompanied by memories and imaginings that helped me come up with the poems. Besides that, I always use “What if?” when I write, whether I say the words each time or not. It’s a powerful incantation, especially if you keep it going beyond the first thought to the second, third, fourth, and beyond. For example, I said something like this to myself at one point: “Hermit crabs live in different abandoned seashells as they get bigger. Hey, the shells are like houses, and the crabs are moving into different houses. So, what if there was a hermit crab that was a real estate agent? What would his sales pitch for those shells be like?”
I am partial to seahorses. What’s your favorite sea creature?
Jellyfish. You’ll find I have three poems about them in Water Sings Blue! They’re so eerily beautiful, at least when they’re swimming. (They are less beautiful when they are lying on the beach in a sad puddle and must not be touched because you can get stung even after they’re dead.) I recall seeing a tank full of moon jellyfish at the Long Beach Aquarium and it just had this otherworldly look. Another time I took a day cruise on a tall ship, and we saw what I was told were by-the-wind jellyfish. I’ve since learned that they are jellyfish cousins, more closely related to the Portuguese man of war. Apparently the name is by-the-wind sailor or Velella velella. The great thing about these creatures is that they are like little boats with a sticking-up sail that allows the wind to blow them across the ocean’s surface.
Besides being a mermaid poet, you are also the published author of several picture books, including Hans My Hedgehog. How did you swim your way to publication?
After I graduated from college and was working as an editor of coffee table books, I began to write short stories—literary fairy tales, actually. At the time I felt I couldn’t write a novel, but eventually I realized that if I thought of each chapter as a short story, I could do it. I just had to keep going. Anyway, someone in Chicago helped me join an SCBWI writing group and author Esther Hershenhorn was a bit of a mentor to me there. Then for years I submitted all kinds of things to various publishers that rejected them. Finally, I sent ten of my stories to Atheneum in the wake of hearing Caitlyn Dlouhy speak at an SCBWI conference, and she published one of them as a picture book called The Secret Keeper. I later sold two comic fantasy novels to Farrar Straus and Giroux, The Runaway Princess and The Runaway Dragon. Then last year the ocean poems came out (Chronicle), as did the retelling of the Grimms’ fairy tale you mentioned, Hans My Hedgehog (Atheneum). The next two projects in the pipeline for me are a picture book called The Tooth Fairy Wars from Atheneum and another poetry collection from Chronicle, this one called Monster School. Of course, there have been a lot more rejection letters along the way, but that’s the nature of the business. I’m just so pleased I’ve been able to see some of my work made into books!
Of prose and poetry, do you have a preference? Do you have formal training in poetry, or do you just naturally ooze gorgeousness onto the page?
I do like writing prose, whether picture books or novels. But poetry is my first love. I wrote poetry all through high school and college, and I took a couple of independent studies in poetry, the first from Welsh poet Leslie Norris. I’ve learned the most from reading other people’s poems, though. And the bottom line is practicing. In the past 20 years, I’ve written eight poetry collections and even compiled three anthologies that I hope to publish someday. When I look back through that work, I can see I’m a lot better than I used to be. Malcolm Gladwell has said that it takes people 10,000 hours (or 20 years) of practice to really become an expert, and that makes sense to me. While no one ever truly arrives, I do find that it all comes more easily to me now. It’s as if I’ve been putting money in the poetry bank for years and years and now I can make a big withdrawal. So that makes me happy. Writing in general, and writing poetry in particular, is hard work. But it’s also joyful work, a certain kind of challenge to both mind and heart that’s like nothing else.
A little fish told me you’ve taught writing to students from kindergarten to college. Do you think poetry writing can be taught, or is it one of those “you’ve got it or you don’t” kinds of things? What advice would you give to budding poets?
I think poetry writing can be taught, or rather coached. There’s a reason nursery rhymes and songs resonate with young children. I feel the best way to learn how to write poetry is through imitation and pattern poems. I would say that it’s best to avoid rhyme until you’re 30. Okay, maybe 24. Rhyme tends to lead to padded language and awkward phrasing constructed to support a clanky, cranky rhyme. Writing good rhymed poems is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. You have to avoid what I call “rhymey rhymey thump thump.”
So. I would suggest that budding poets read all kinds of poetry and start by writing free verse. For example, I would show young writers William Carlos Williams’ poem about the plums in the icebox and also have them read some of Gail Carson Levine’s spoofs (Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It: False Apology Poems). Then I would ask them to write a serious apology poem as well as a funny one. Eventually I would help students think about how to tighten language and use good metaphors. One helpful strategy is to write three or four poems and then compare them. Which is working best, and why? Which lines pop, and which lines drag? Could some of the lines be cut? Should a metaphor be added or taken out? Some people pooh-pooh the old advice, “Show, don’t tell,” but it’s vital for writing poetry. Abstract language—especially lots of words about feelings—does not make for a bright, tight poem that embraces the reader and then slips away, leaving her a different person. Of course, as I already mentioned, writing poetry is like practicing the piano: you get better at it if you write lots of poems for years and years. I hope to get better at it in the next ten or twenty years.
If you could take a scuba diving trip with any children’s poet (living or otherwise), who would it be and why, and what would the two of you do when you got to the bottom of the sea? ?
Valerie Worth, definitely. The thing is, at the bottom of the sea we wouldn’t be able to talk. But obviously she’s very observant, and I love looking at the world, too. So I can picture us swimming around pointing: Look! Look at this amazing crab! And this fish! And this other fish! But after we got out and were sitting on the deck of the poetry yacht sipping lemonade, I would ask her about herself and her writing. That would be lovely.!
Quick: a rhyming couplet using the word piranha, a fish that is not in your collection.
First I must point out that piranhas are freshwater fish. (Ha, you’re right! I didn’t consider where the fish lived. 🙂 ) But I’m still game! In fact, I’ll give you notes about my process as I go.
My first thought is that piranha rhymes with Madonna. My second is that it rhymes with iguana. I stop and skim the Wiki entry for piranha, feeling slightly guilty for using a source many teachers object to yet nevertheless ending up more informed. Back to my rhymes. I hesitate to rhyme piranha with the religious Madonna because that might be offensive, and I’m not really interested in the singer, though I may come back to her for humorous purposes. I wonder what piranhas have in common with iguanas? Not sure, in fact not in love with the iguana thing, so I look in a rhyming dictionary. Now I’ve got belladonna and prima donna, though I’m bothered that they don’t list iguana.
I’d rather die from a dose of belladonna
than from meeting a school of piranhas.
Huh. That doesn’t quite jell, and not just because the rhythm needs work. Did you say quick? Maybe not so much. But wait—I don’t have to end the first line with piranha. I’m not that into clever rhymes of the Jack Prelutsky and Ogden Nash variety, anyway. What else could I do?
The piranha is just not the same without his school.
He can’t read or write and he isn’t that cool.
That’s kind of fun! I think I’ll stick with it for the moment. The rhythm is a little off, but there are some possibilities there.
The piranha just isn’t the same when he’s not with his school.
He can’t read or write. He is sad. And he isn’t that cool.
That has a better rhythm, though I’m padding the second line, especially with “He is sad.” (Thoughts of the piranha crying enter my mind, maybe using the word tears, but no, I’m not up for a weeping fish.) Then it occurs to me that same more or less rhymes with gang. Aha! Since piranhas are kind of thuggish, I prefer gang to school.
The piranha just isn’t the same when he’s not with his gang.
The piranha is woeful when he’s lost his gang.
His teeth are still sharp but he isn’t the same.
The piranha is woeful when he’s lost his gang.
His teeth are still sharp but he’s just not the same.
I’m definitely getting into the whole piranha scenario! Normally what I would do next is leave it for a while and come back to it later. Then I’d write a whole new set of possible couplets until I settled on one and began revising it still more. But there you have twenty minutes worth of work.
Can we come visit you and peruse your wares? (Online, of course, not in your mermaid tank. We promise to bring food flakes to pass.)
I have been writing a blog called Book Aunt about children’s books for the past four years, but I just shut it down so I would have more time for my own writing. Check out my website, which has all kinds of interesting nooks and crannies. I would also love to hear from you on Twitter. As for Pinterest, you won’t be surprised to learn that I have a large collection of ocean images!
Thanks for stopping by, Kate, and for adding “Gulper Eel” to No Water River’s video poetry library!
[heading style=”1″]Extension Activities for Water Sings Blue[/heading]
- As Kate mentions in the interview, sometimes a bit of research is required before the poem writing can begin. Choose a sea creature and create a fact sheet for it based on library/online research. Then use your facts to create a poem about your creature. You might include lots of details about the creature (such as where it lives and what it eats) or focus on one aspect of the creature just as Kate focuses on the “astronomical maw” of the gulper eel.
- Expand your reading of ocean poetry with these wonderful books:
- At the Sea Floor Cafe: Odd Ocean Critter Poems by Leslie Bulion (see Leslie on NWR)
- Vacation: We’re Going to the Ocean by David L. Harrison (see David on NWR here and here)
- Sea Stars: Saltwater Poems by Avis Harley (this book introduces various poetic forms)
- In the Sea by David Elliott
- in the swim by Douglas Florian
- On the Blue Shore of Silence: Poems of the Sea (English and Spanish Edition) by Pablo Neruda
- Expand your reading of ocean poetry with these wonderful books:
- Water Sings Blue is full of beautiful artwork and strong images. Use these elements as inspiration for your own work of art. Choose a favorite image/line from one of Kate’s poems and illustrate it. You might want to try watercolors like illustrator Meilo So, or any other medium that sings to you. Include your chosen image/line of poetry on your finished piece.
- Kate’s poems are very lyrical and rhythmic, lending themselves well to choral readings. Choose your favorite poem and read it as a class. You can read it all together, assign lines or single words/phrases to various students, recite the poem in rounds, do a call and response in which the students echo each line after the teacher says it — the possibilities are endless for bringing the poems to life!
- Make oyster pearl cookies.
[heading style=”1″]UP NEXT: AMY LUDWIG VANDERWATER![/heading]
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Video Location: Mermaid Central on a winter’s night.See more poems in my poetry video library.
All poems © Kate Coombs. All illustrations © Meilo So. All rights reserved.