‘Bout time you moseyed over, cuz I’m lookin’ to rustle up a posse and head this no-good outlaw off at the pass:
Yeah, yeah, looks innocent enough, but the folks ’round here kin tell ya a story or two. Rumor has it that this cowboy roams the range spoutin’ that stuff called po-et-ry, gittin’ the young bucks and mares all riled up, causin’ mayhem of a general variety. And if that ain’t enough to spin your spurs, we heared he’s been gallopin’ from one end of the county t’other, hootin’ and hollerin’ and…
Dagnabit! So here’s the lowdown: Goes by the name of David L. Harrison, and by all accounts he’s got more trophies under his ten-gallon hat than a rodeo star on a hot streak. The guy’s strung enough words together to fill eighty books for the young’uns, includin’ this here one that’s the subject of all his recent shenanigans.
Ayup, I reckon it’s all right, what with them lifelike pictures by Dan Burr. That Burr — he’s the accomplice, ya see, a master of disguise. Turns out he’s harborin’ a wanted man in plain sight, tryin’ to pass him off as a cowboy.
Why, just t’other day, we heard this David character’d been seen chowin’ down out on the range. Got so worked up ’bout the cook’s stew that he set himself to versifyin’ right then and there, swingin’ his eatin’ irons in the air and clangin’ on his tins like a tumbleweed banshee.
If you’re a good deputy, you’ll be able to eyeball Harrison in this picture here. His accomplice caught the whole scene in paint. See him?
No? Well, then, take a gander at this new-fangled movin’ picture thing and see if there’s a clue. Aw, go’on — go ahead and enjoy the po-et-ry. I won’t tell the sheriff. When you’re done, I’ll meet ya back at the ranch.
Tonight’s your lucky night, boys.
Look what I fixed for you!
Stood all day in the burning sun
to make this son-of-a-gun stew.
Longhorn steaks two inches thick,
dig in while they’re hot.
The coffee’ll keep you up all night,
belly up to the pot.
You know your Cookie loves you, boys,
loves to see you fed.
Stood all day in the burning sun
to bake this sourdough bread.
Sop up all the stew, boys,
take another steak.
Have another hunk of bread.
You know I love to bake.
You know your Cookie loves you, boys,
tell you what I’ll do—
tomorrow I’ll fix steak and bread
and a big old pot of stew!
[heading style=”1″]SNICKERVIEW™ with DAVID L. HARRISON[/heading]
Well, look what the cat dragged in! It’s David!
David, let’s get serious now: who are you, where are you, and how long have you been a rhyming fool?
Okay, Renée, you asked for it. I made up my first poem when I was five or six. It was a triplet and was inspired by the smell of the fish my mother was preparing in the kitchen. Here it is in its entire, unabridged version.
Sometimes I wish
I had a little fish
Upon a little dish.
Now aren’t you sorry you asked? That was my early poetry period. Some say it was my best work, but that hurts my feelings.
The early poetry period was followed by the joke period. I felt certain that Mr. Bob Hope desperately needed the outrageously funny jokes that I made up on the spot. Lots and lots and lots of them. The callous Mr. Hope never responded. Looking back, I have my suspicions that Mom never mailed them.
Then came my comic book period. I wrote and illustrated a number of them and published them at home for an audience of two, if you counted both parents. Some of the dialogue was brilliant: “POW! BAM! GOT YOU, YOU DIRTY RAT!” Some say it was my best prose, but that hurts my feelings.
After that I took up art. Need a turkey for Thanksgiving? A snowman for Christmas? I’m your man. Or was. These days, not so much.
I ran through all these careers before I was ten. After that came trombone, baseball, and girls. The girl period was rather long and confusing and led, eventually, to my being married. I don’t remember many details. Oh, yes, I went to college, too, and became a scientist.
I also decided to become a writer. After all, I had plenty of experience with poetry, jokes, and comics. After only six years and 67 rejections, I sold a story and banked a cool check for $5.03. The rest is history.
Was Cowboys inspired by your own time on the range?
My family moved from our home in Springfield, Missouri to Ajo (pronounced Ah-ho), Arizona when I was four. I cried halfway there because my life was over. We moved back when I was 8 ½. I cried halfway back because my life was over. During the years between, I fell in love with the west. I loved the cactus-strewn deserts, the purple mountains on the horizons, the songs, and the idea that real cowboys with real boots and real Stetsons could be found along almost any street.
When I was a little older, well, okay, 72, I asked my talented artist friend, Dan Burr, if he would like to do another book with me. Before that we had done Pirates together and had a fine time. Dan lives on a ranch in Idaho and has a lot of cowboy friends. I had all that experience as a five-year-old staring up at cowboys, so it was a natural for both of us.
The poems in this book are free verse. Do you have a preference between free verse and rhyme, and why? Which is more prevalent in your books?
Renée, do I need to repeat my first poem to remind you of what a swell rhymer I am? If you read “The Bunkhouse,” you’ll see how cleverly I rhymed
“Reckon this place could use a cleanin’.”
“Some boys hang their clothes on the floor.”
Well, okay, that one didn’t turn out very well. But how about “Cookie”?
“Tonight’s your lucky night, boys.
Look what I fixed for you!
Stood all day in the burning sun
To make this son-of-a-gun stew.”
Now that really does rhyme. So ha! (Ha. Hahaha. HAHAHAHA! As all the toughest cowboys say…OOPSIE! I must have been dippin’ into the moonshine before writing that question. For the record, David is, indeed, a swell rhymer…and the poem he did in the video that you just watched for my blog that you are currently reading…well, it rhymed.)
But I guess your question is about which I like better: verse (that rhymes) or free verse (that doesn’t rhyme). The answer is, I don’t know. Some poems need to rhyme. I don’t know why. They just do. And others wouldn’t be caught dead rhyming. All I know is that I begin with an idea, roll it around in my head long enough for something to start taking shape, and then experiment with how to write it. Being a cowboy on a cattle drive was serious, dangerous business. Many of the men were young, hardly out of their teens, so you know they must have played a few pranks and shared some songs and laughter, but somehow most of the poems in the book didn’t want to rhyme and I wasn’t going to try to make them.
Besides being a storied cowpoke and outlaw, you are also the Poet Laureate of Drury University and you have an elementary school named after you! Did you have to buy a twenty-gallon hat after all that? What do you see as your “mission” or responsibilities as a children’s poet in light of these honors and, more importantly, did they come with a lifetime supply of sourdough biscuits?
I told them that I prefer chocolate chip cookies to sourdough biscuits. So far I’m still waiting. The problem in writing for kids is that you have to be honest with them. They need the truth. If I get a fact wrong, my readers will learn false information. A nonfiction writer spends a lot of time worrying about getting the information right. A poet must be careful about keeping his poem open and accessible so that young readers can “get it” and find some pleasure in it. Unfamiliar words need to be defined or demonstrated in the text. Learning takes place when a young person encounters something new, understands it, and incorporates it into his/her growing body of knowledge.
That sounded pretty grown up and I apologize. When they named the school after me, the superintendent of schools told me I had to behave myself for the rest of my life and, to make sure I did, he gave my wife the responsibility of keeping an eye on me. Now that’s just not fair!
You’ve written 80 children’s books, many of them themed poetry collections. Which subjects have been your favorites and why? Do you prefer writing for one age group in particular? Poetry or prose?
Now you’re sounding grown up and you should apologize. (You’re right. I’m sorry. The covered wagon carrying the rest of the jokes sank in the Mediterranean, so this is what I ended up with.)
Okay, yes, my degree from Drury was in science and my master’s from Emory involved the study of parasites. You satisfied now? How about this? For my research, I had to study a tapeworm called Hymenolepis diminuta. It starts inside a small beetle called Tribolium confusum and infects rats that eat the grain or flour the beetles have invaded. (Delicious!) That’s why my favorite group to write for is rats, but most rats despise poetry, especially poems about fishes on dishes, so sometimes I write for kids.
I grew up collecting objects of nature: turtle shells, insects, fossils, snake skins, and such. I still love to be outdoors where I can watch and learn. Like all cowboys, I live on a lake in Missouri and fill journal pages with descriptions of the plants and creatures I get to look at every day. I love writing for young people. Many of my books are for kids in elementary grades, but sometimes I take on those big kids in middle school. They’re scary, but when you get to know them, they’re okay.
Your degrees are in science. How did a science guy end up moseying along the path to publication, especially considering how difficult it is to get poetry published?
During my last semester of college at Drury, I took a writing class and rediscovered my love for writing. The professor encouraged me to stick with it, so I did. For a number of years I wrote stories for grownups. Somewhere during that time I accepted a dare from a friend to write something for kids. I liked that better, and over time transitioned from the adult market to the children’s market.
Maybe I’m a poet today because of the fish that Mom cooked when I was little. I have to blame someone! Poetry can be hard to write well. It’s hard to sell. Not everyone likes poetry. One of my books doesn’t even have the word “Poetry” on the cover. We tried to sneak up on ‘em.
Robert Frost called poetry a word game. He also called a poem a feat of association. I think he said that. Anyway, it sounds pretty good, so if he didn’t say it, he should have. A poet friend of mine called this morning and we complained to each other for thirty minutes about how tough it is to get poetry published. By the time we hung up we had not solved one thing. All we agreed on was that we’re poets, so we’re stuck with being poets. It’s sort of like having the shingles, but it lasts longer.
What’s your best advice for kids who want to write poetry?
Choose poems you like and have fun reading them. Read them aloud. With expression. To somebody. More than once. Decide what you like or don’t like about each poem. Pick a theme – school, family, friends – and make a list of subjects you might want to write about that theme. Write a poem about something on the list. Work on it until you like how it sounds when you read it aloud. Don’t be afraid to change words here and there to make it sound better.
Now pick something else from the list and write your second poem. When that one’s done, write your third poem. Don’t stop having fun. I forbid it! I’ve written hundreds and hundreds of poems, but I’ve been writing for more than one hundred years, so I have a head start.
What’s your best advice for poets who want to get their poetry published (other than “git along, little dogie”)?
Think long term. If you expect to be published right away, I wish you the best but caution you about setting yourself up for frustration. Poetry has a long history of being hard to publish. In today’s market, the number of poetry books published is small and the competition is worldwide. You have little chance of breaking in with anything less than the best you can do, so prepare to polish your work until it practically glows in the dark.
Study the market, but don’t try to mimic what you see there. Think of something that isn’t there so your editor will see something fresh and new.
Consider the magazine market. Many magazines will publish a poem or two now and then. Submit your work to contests, send poems to publications that produce newsletters, post your work on your own blog or others’. Get your work out there in as many ways as you can think of. It not only feels good to see your poem in print or on a screen, but you increase your chances of eventually getting paid for your work.
What do you do when you’re not galloping into sunsets?
Sandy, my mean old wife, makes me take wonderful trips to places like St. John in the Virgin Islands or Napa Valley in California. Sometimes she makes me go to New York City and watch a bunch of fantastic plays. During the winter, she makes me go have fun in Florida for several weeks. I don’t know how much longer I can take it.
Oh yes, I love to read, too, but doesn’t everybody? The correct answer is yes.
Quick: a rhyming couplet using the phrase “puddin’ foot” (“an awkward horse” according to this Western slang dictionary).
Ack! That’s hard! You don’t play nice!
Puddin’ Foot’s an awkward horse,
So they call me Puddin’ Foot, of course.
Moving right along . . .
And finally, can we come visit you and peruse your wares? (Online, of course, not at your house! Unless you’ve got some leftover son-of-a-gun stew, in which case, we’ll bring our eatin’ irons.)
If you come to my house, I charge a chocolate chip cookie at the door. So it might be cheaper to just hang out with me on my website or blog. I started blogging in 2009 and haven’t missed too many days posting something since then.
One of my favorite pages on the website is for teachers. It suggests several tips to help students get more excited about writing. All of us who write have our own pet methods, so there’s the place where you can find some of mine.
The blog gets a lot of visitors, and many are students. One feature is called “Word of the Month Poetry Challenge.” There’s a division for adults and another for students. Each month I post a new word and challenge poets of all ages to make up a poem inspired by that word. It’s a wonderful exercise for the imagination and serves well to remind us that every word has stories in it when we stop long enough to think about them. Poets in several countries have posted their work.
I don’t make a lot of school visits these days because of so many cutbacks in school budgets. I still love to do it when I can and enjoy working with teachers and students on various aspects of writing.
About the time this interview is posted, Let’s Write This Week with David Harrison will be on the market. It’s a set of twenty videos on DVD. Each one is a 5-minute writing tip presented by me for students in grades 3-5 or so and essentially represents what I do during my school visits. The DVDs are sold as a kit that also includes a teachers’ guide book, twenty copies of a student writing journal, and three of my trade books – one each of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry – that I used as examples with the writing tips. The kit is published by Phoenix Learning Resources and distributed by Stourbridge Distributors. Teachers can also take this as a three hour graduate course online from Drury University.
Also, we didn’t get to it in the interview, but David has also waded into the waters of self-publishing, an area that interests me a great deal. David’s project is a collection of poetry for adults called Goose Lake, beautifully illustrated by Sladjana Vasic and available for Kindle. David wrote a post about the whole shebang!
Thanks for stopping by, David, and for adding “Cookie” to No Water River’s video poetry library, which I hope is going to grow and grow and grow. I thank you so much for taking the time to be a part of it.
Renée, it’s my pleasure to be here, as well as in No Water River’s video library. This is me clapping loudly for your efforts to make more poetry by more poets available for those who want to sample from a full menu of tasty poetic offerings. Thank you so much for inviting me.
It’s sort of like having the shingles, but it lasts longer.
–David Harrison, on being a poet
You heard it here first, folks!
[heading style=”1″]More Stuff about David[/heading]
- David’s bio and childhood picture
- See a list of all of David’s books and awards
- Solve David’s crosswords and secret code or write a poem for his Word of the Month Challenge.
- Find information about David’s school visits and presentations
- Many interviews of David are accessible online. Here are some of my favorites:
[heading style=”1″]Extension Activities for “Cookie”[/heading]
- Use a word or phrase from this Western slang dictionary as the inspiration for a poem. (Teachers, you may want to edit the list of words as not all are suitable for kids.)
- Create a concrete poem in the shape of a cowboy hat, horse, covered wagon, boot, or other cowboy image.
- Learn more about the life of the cowboy with the History Channel documentary, The Real West: Legendary Cowboys.
- I dare you to try this recipe for son-of-a-gun stew!
[heading style=”1″]Coming up next: Poetry Friday, 9/21, is here. It’s a doozy.[/heading]
Video Location: The sometimes scummy but usually lovely Goose Lake in Springfield, Missouri. Oh, wait…I mean out on the dusty range with three thousand heads of cattle and some burly cowboys…See more poems in my poetry video library.
“Cookie” copyright © David L. Harrison. Published in Cowboys, Wordsong, 2012. All rights reserved.