November 7, 2012
Hardly the Bottom of the Box: An Interview With JonArno Lawson
I practiced the poems from JonArno Lawson’s new children’s poetry collection for two days before meeting with him to talk about them. Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box is an absolute treat to recite, but as I’d discovered that first night reading aloud to my 4-year-old, putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable can result in an unrhythmic stumble and a loss of musicality. A well-rehearsed poem, on the other hand, dances off the tongue and tickles the ears. These were poems that rewarded a careful performance. Consider “Monkeys in the Dump”:
A clump of clumsy monkeys lumbered through the dump.
The clumsiest amongst them tumbled over in the junk-
it jumped and spun and tried to run but crumpled to its rump
then slunk away until it slumped into the muck, and sunk.
I was pleased when I mastered the performative aspect of Lawson’s poems, and surprised to discover that he himself doesn’t enjoy doing readings. It’s a question of temperament rather than a philosophical aversion, but nevertheless unexpected given Lawson’s emphasis on sound.
Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box is a collection of nonsense poems for the young (and young at heart) in the tradition of Dennis Lee and Dr. Seuss. Lawson starts his poems from sounds and builds with orality in mind. The results are clever and fun to read, and so it’s no wonder that he has found success as a children’s poet. He has won the Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry twice (in 2007 and 2009), and has been short-listed for the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children’s Book Award. He estimates he has published ten books so far, though his first two collections of adult poetry have recently been pulped by their publisher, Exile. It has been as a children’s poet that Lawson has found success, though there is nothing about his work which is facile or simple.
Every parent in the country reads poetry to their children, and yet as adults many of us seem to have lost the taste. What changes? Lawson suggests that as adults, we look down on rhythm and rhyming, which is at the core of what we offer to our children. “Adults can recite Dr. Seuss without thinking,” he points out, but we don’t think to look for the same qualities as adult readers. Could that gap be bridged? Perhaps, we agreed. “We could use the lessons from childhood to inform adult poetry.”
Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box is unquestionably a book with adult appeal. It is beautifully produced by Porcupine’s Quill on their distinctive Zephyr Antique paper and features 32 full-page paper-cut prints by Mexican-Canadian artist Alec Dempster. It was this pairing with Dempster that Lawson says sold the book to Porcupine’s Quill. Though Lawson had published A Voweller’s Bestiary with Porcupine’s Quill in 2008, they weren’t sure what to do with the poems that would become Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box. These poems were originally part of the manuscript that would become Kids Can Press‘s Think Again, but they were culled to give Think Again the narrative structure it has in its finished form. Alone the poems of Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box are cute, but alongside Dempster’s stark, surreal relief-cuts the book takes on a stranger, more macabre quality. “The Inksters like a challenge,” Lawson says of his publisher, and the Lawson-Dempster combo gave them an off-the-beaten-path project.
Indeed, life as a children’s poet seems to mean a lot of collaboration. Lawson’s children’s books have been illustrated by a variety of artists, including Voweller’s Bestiary, which he illustrated himself. Speaking of Dennis Lee & Frank Newfeld’s contentious collaborating relationship, Lawson concedes the classic illustrations for Alligator Pie were “Ugly, but unique,” but that it’s good for a poet to be pushed “outside his comfort zone.” He has generally had only a small amount of control over who illustrated his work and how. Dempster certainly seems to have had free reign with Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box, producing more work for the book than anyone thought he would. Lawson only met him a couple of times, including at the book’s launch. The artist and poet produced their contributions independently – but Lawson had faith in Porcupine’s direction, and seems pleased with the results.
As for the kids, I think they’d be pleased too. Lawson’s three children – aged 11, 8 & 4 as of this writing – provided input and inspiration for the work, and Lawson tells me they still read poetry willingly. My 4-year-old found the poems challenging initially, but after some practice on my part she warmed to them. The intended audience is likely the older child, but adults should pay attention too. The language is smart and flows beautifully. An emphasis on sound and rhyme ought to recommend it as much to the adult reader as to the younger. If you need a final selling point, just have a look at a physical copy. You’ll be loathe to relinquish it to the sticky and inexact care of your children! It’s a beautiful work in every sense, and highly recommended.
This review and interview based on a review copy courtesy of Porcupine’s Quill, and an enjoyable in-person chat with JonArno Lawson.