Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Joyce Sidman, Interview

Tuesdays with Morzant:

Getting to Know a Poet

MORZANT: Zulko, humans. Today Ill be interviewing Joyce Sidman, the writer Bigfoot would most like to go newt-hunting with. Zulko, Joyce

JOYCE SIDMAN: Zulko, Morzant.

MORZANT: Joyce, youre a poet. Poetry is an aspect of Earth literature I find increasingly fascinating. Given the topics youve written about, it appears we also share an appreciation for science, mathematics, and Earths natural world. You even like snails. Was poetry the spark that illuminated those interests or did those interests ignite your passion for poetry?

JS: I think two interests converged. Earths natural world is fascinating to me, and so are words and the power of language. Poetry is the perfect form for expressing the wonder I feel when confronted with Earths varied faces. Especially snails. And newts.

MORZANT: On a side note, do you also share my interest in the tensile properties of Rice Krispies Treats?

JS: What sentient being would not? However, I am even more interested in the melting properties of chocolate on the tongue. SorryIassume you have a tongue, Morzant?

MORZANT: As a matter of fact, I do. But until this moment, it never occurred to me to use it as an instrument for conducting scientific studies. The melting properties of chocolate on a tongue would be interesting. Id have to consider milk chocolate versus dark. And, of course, Id have to take into consideration my higher body temperature as compare to a humans. I wonder if marshmallows affect the melting point of chocolate.

Please forgive me. Im easily sidetracked by new scientific pursuits. Lets get back to you and your writing. In my research for this interview, I discovered an essay you wrote in which you listed several reasons you write poetry. You explained how poems can act as a record of an experience for later reflection. Scientific research is similar; however, whereas my research is based on recording precise measurements and objective analytical observations, you employ a literary device called metaphor. Metaphors attempt to convey information about an object or event by comparing it to a seemingly unrelated object or event. How do you explain the extraordinary effectiveness of that paradoxal methodology?

JS: I cant totally explain it. Like many paradoxes, it is mysterious. But I do know that an apt metaphor can convey more in a few words than a whole page of description. For example, the metaphor, his face lit up like a birthday cake says so much more than the exact details of how that face looked. Somehow we knowbecause birthdays among humans are full of bright lights, surprises, and joythat this face is happy and expectant.

MORZANT: Successful metaphors appear to rely on a writer and reader sharing a common pool of knowledge and, therefore, a common frame of reference. Sadly, because Im still learning about your planet, many metaphors in Earth literature escape my understanding. Similarly, unless you had visited my planet, its not likely youd appreciate my intended sentiment when I say your eyes are a Zeentonian sky during dermonitapo season. Do you struggle to select the most effective metaphors for a general audience, an audience that perhaps includes a reader who may be unfamiliar with your planets idiosyncrasies?

JS: Good point. Metaphors need to come from shared knowledge and shared experience. So perhaps the above birthday cake metaphor might not resonate with someone from Zeentoniaunless, of course, Zeentonians celebrate birthdays with many-candled cakes. But to answer your question: yes, I try to find metaphors that are unique and vivid, but also accessible to any reader in the known world.

MORZANT: Zeentonians celebrate birthdays with hutimodrets which are slimy, malodorous, and decidedly unfestive. I have witnessed birthday festivities on Earth during celebrations for my cryptid friends, so Im familiar with the expression of delight you describe. One year, though, the expression was more of alarm than delight. Bigfoots face literally lit up like a birthday cake when he bent too near Normans practical joke re-lighting candles as he tried to blow them out. Fortunately, Norman also had a water balloon at the ready.

While you frequently rely on metaphorical observations in your poetry, Im baffled by another method of comparison you use. In your book RED SINGS FROM TREETOPS: A YEAR IN COLORS you assign contradictory sensory observations to color. For example, you write that in spring, even the rain tastes Green and winter tastes White. Never in my extensive research have I read that human ocular nerves transmit gustatory information to the human brain. Is this a poetic device or is human biology more complex than Ive been led to believe?

JS: Human biology is indeed more complex than you have been led to believe. Many of us humans have a condition known as synesthesia which refers to a melding of sensory perception. These humans see specific colors when they hear different kinds of music or taste different foods. Their senses are a bit blended. Although I am not one of those humans, I borrowed their style of perception to add even more vividness to the colors we see everyday and perhaps overlook.

MORZANT: There is one aspect about humans that has not escaped my attention, but Ive been reluctant to broach the subject. You, however, boldly pronounce at the end of UBIQUITOUS that humans are one of the most destructive species on earth. I hope Im not putting you on the spot by asking you to speak for the entire human race and explain whats behind humans destructive nature.

JS: Thats a tough one. Hmmmmof course I cant speak for the entire human race, but I guess I believe that humans are like all other beings in our wish for food and shelter. We like to order our environment in the way it suits us best. However, unlike a robin or a tree, we have the brainpower to do this on a much larger scale than other organisms. Instead of just building a nest or sending thick roots into the soil, we can plow up huge fields and construct enormous skyscrapersand in doing so, destroy the habitats of many other beings. But beyond this, there is an aggressiveness in certain humans that goes far beyond the instinct for survivalit is an obsessive need for order, control, and conformity. This, I cant explain. Im not sure anyone can.

MORZANT: Perhaps your uneasiness about your inherent annihilatory tendencies is why you sometimes step outside your human perspective and write from the point of view of the organism a particular poem is about. Whats involved in getting into the mindset of lichen or a cricket?

JS: Oh, yes, I love to step out of the human mindset. It is so liberating to leave my humanness behind! Writing mask poems (those written from a different point of view) requires two things: a healthy imagination and good observational skills. To write as a lichen, you must study the lichen in its natural habitat: what might it see, hear, feel, strive for? To personify lichen, one must, in a sense, become the lichen.

MORZANT: Your poems span a wide range of topics from the changing of the seasons to stealing jelly doughnuts from the teachers lounge. Is there any subject matter unsuitable to poetry?

JS: Not that I know of. Although I, personally, would never write about earwax. But thats just me.

MORZANT: As a scientist I tend to fixate on matters of classification. Ive often wondered why poetry books are shelved in the non-fiction section of my library. Do you think of yourself as a non-fiction writer? Although your books contain many facts, taking into account the subjectivity of poetic observations, one could argue that poetry would more appropriately be designated as fiction.

JS: Another excellent question, Morzant. I believe this designation dates back to the olden days, in which all writing was classified as either poetry or prose. In those days, poetry was venerated and prose was consideredwellprosaic. Now we lump everything into fiction or nonfiction, and somehow, since poetry is not fiction (i.e., it isnt a story), then it must be nonfiction. Sometimes this classification bothers me, because it means that, in libraries, poetry is often shelved far away from picture books (which are considered fiction, even though many of them are quite poetic)and kids never even run across them when selecting books.

MORZANT: This is yet another example of the importance of proper classification in all matters. When arbitrary adherence to tradition takes precedent over rationale considerations and innovation, chaos ensues.

Currently, all of your published works are comprised of poems. Even the supplemental expository sections in your books use poetic language. Youve stated, however, that youd like to write a novel. In my studies of Earth literature Ive come across poetry novels which are novels written in verse. Since youre already a skilled and accomplished poet, do you envision writing your first novel in verse or would you implement a more conventional narrative style?

JS: Perhapswho knows? I havent gotten a good enough idea yet to move forward in this direction. But I must say that many poetry novels as you call them are not totally satisfying to me, perhaps because they are neither fish nor fowl. They dont quite pull off either the intense imagery of poetry or the compelling narrative of novels. The good ones have both! But I would hate to write a bad one.

MORZANT: A careful analysis of your previous work indicates the probability that you would write a novel of inferior quality is astronomically low.

JS: Thanks! (I think.)

MORZANT: While I commend your existing poetic tributes to snails, I couldnt help but notice that you devoted an entire book, THE WORLD ACCORDING TO DOG, to poems about dogs. Im certain readers would welcome a comparable collection presenting the world through the eyes of a snail. Im sure youll agree their ommatophores would provide a unique viewpoint.

JS: They would indeed. The world viewed through eye-stalks! Boggles the mind. Some day I might attempt it, but in the meantime, I recommend an excellent book called THE SOUND OF A WILD SNAIL EATING, which includes some fascinating information about snails (and humans) endurance in the face of obstacles.

MORZANT: Thank you for the recommendation. Im always thrilled to discover new snail literature.

In my studies, Ive learned there are many different poetic forms. Im most fond of the ones that rely on rules. Ive even been known to write haiku. At one point your favorite poetry form was pantoum. Is that still the case?

JS: I wish you would share your haiku with us, Morzant. I for one would be interested to read it. Yes, I am fond of pantoums. I love the challenge of using the same lines twice. Another recent favorite of mine is the trioletwhich also uses repeated linesand I am partial to ubi sunts as well.

MORZANT: Why is repetition in poetry considered desirable rather than redundant?

JS: As I mentioned above, the challenge in a pantoum is to use the same line twice, but each time in a slightly different context, so that the phrase resonates and deepens its meaning. A little like a metaphor, in fact.

MORZANT: MEOW RUFF: A STORY IN CONCRETE POETRY introduced me to a form of poetry I had not yet encountered called concrete poetry. As far as I can discern, these poems take the actual shape of the object theyre about. For a tree, words are positioned to look like the branches they describe. In this way, literary art and visual art are combined to provide an explicit reporting of an objects appearance as opposed to the metaphorical imagery provided by other types of poems. When creating concrete poetry, which comes first, the shape or the words?

JS: For me, its the wordsalways the words. Although, lets face it, a concrete poem about a giraffe would certainly look more interesting than one about a pebble. In MEOW RUFF, I wanted to create a world in which everything had a voicethe grass, the clouds, even the ants. It was great fun. But I was dependent on my illustrator to fully bring it to life, to make sure the words looked as delectable as I tried to make them sound.

MORZANT: Finally, it has become a tradition for me to ask my interview subjects a hypothetical question. Since you teach poetry Ill ask: Which of the inventors you wrote about in EUREKA! would you choose to give a poetry lesson to?

JS: Leonardo da Vinci would be wonderful to meet, but Im not sure I could teach him anything about anything, including poetry. So Ill choose Tsai Lun, the inventor of paper, who lived in 1st century China. He would have so much to write aboutall the attempts he made and different materials he used, and all the obstacles he encountered along the way. Then afterwards, he could teach me how to make paper.

MORZANT: Thank you so much, Joyce, for your significant contribution to my knowledge of poetry and for inspiring me to explore the melting properties of chocolate on the tongue. Because you expressed an interest in my haiku-writing ability, I wrote a special haiku for the occasion:

A Farewell Haiku

Happy encounter.

Scientist meets a poet.

Cant tell them apart.

JS: Love that haiku, Morzant! Thanks for sharing! You are one talented alien.

MORZANT: And you are a talented human who exhibits none of the destructive tendencies apparent in others of your species. I wonderperhaps theres an inverse relationship between poetic inclinations and destructive tendencies.

Good-bye for now, humans. Until I investigate the matter further, I cant be sure that poetry counteracts aggressive human behavior. Preliminary observations suggest there may be a connection; therefore, I recommend writing as much poetry as possible. Heres a list of poetry books by Joyce Sidman to inspire you:



(illustrated by Susan Swan; Millbrook Press-Lerner, 2000)


(illustrated by Beckie Prange; Houghton Mifflin, 2005)


(illustrated by Beth Krommes; Houghton Mifflin, 2006)


(illustrated by Michelle Berg; Houghton Mifflin, 2006)


(illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski;

Houghton Mifflin-Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009)


(illustrated by Rick Allen;

Houghton Mifflin-Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010)


(illustrated by Beckie Prange;

Houghton Mifflin-Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010)


(illustrated by Beth Krommes;

Houghton Mifflin-Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)

Contributed to:




(edited by J. Patrick Lewis;

National Geographic Children’s Books, 2012)



(illustrated by K. Bennett Chavez; Millbrook Press-Lerner, 2002)


(illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski; Houghton Mifflin, 2007)

Contributed to:


(edited by Georgia Heard,

illustrated by Antoine Guilloppé; Roaring Brook, 2012)



(photographs by Doug Mindell; Houghton Mifflin, 2003)

1 comment:

Tabatha said...

What a happy surprise to read this ... unique interview! You share a great farewell haiku. It inspires me to write one for you:

Food, metaphors, snails,
conversations travel far,
at home everywhere.