Sunday, August 12, 2007

One Writer's Process: J. Patrick Lewis

By the time J. Patrick Lewis reached his fortieth birthday, Lady Poetry had "seized him by the nape of the neck and wouldn't let go."

Since then Lewis (or Pat, as he prefers to be called by friends) has written more than sixty books, including The Tsar and the Amazing Cow, Heroes and She-roes: Poems of Amazing and Everyday Heroes, Once Upon A Tomb: Gravely Humorous Verses, The Underwear Salesman and Other Odd-Job Verses, Blackbeard the Pirate King, and two new titles due out this fall, The Brothers' War: Civil War Voices in Verse and Michelangelo's World.

Whether writing poetry or prose, the breadth and diversity of Lewis' work is astonishing. He can switch from spooky rhymes to nonsensical ones in seconds, and transport a reader from sober images to hysterical laughter in the time it takes to turn a page. His clever and playful verses have helped readers fall in love with poetry, just as Lewis fell in love with words "all over again" when he switched from writing about economics to writing poems.

When Lewis isn't visiting classrooms around the country, he spends his days writing 8-9 hours. But ninety-eight percent of what he produces, Lewis claims (quoting John Ciardi), isn't worth publishing.

"You wake up every day thinking 'Today I am going to write great poetry,'" writes Lewis. "Do you succeed? No. But that's not the point. Trying is the point. Nothing succeeds like failure."

For Lewis, poetry is "a blind date with enchantment," and his enchantment with the process of writing is evident in his thoughts about writing which he was kind enough to share with Wordswimmer.

Wordswimmer: If writing is like do you get into the water each day?

Lewis: Feet first, swan dive, belly-flop, any way at all to get into the pool. Swimming is actually an apt metaphor for writing, especially for me because I struggle at swimming and I struggle at writing. But it’s a lovely struggle, satisfying in every way. People ask me (and all writers), "Where do you get your ideas for a poem?" The idea for a poem never begins, for me, with an idea. A poem begins with a word or three. To extend the metaphor, I am trying to make words do every stroke imaginable. Sometimes the strokes fail--most of the time, in fact--but that’s never a reason to sit and watch the other swimmers.

Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat...for short work? For longer work?

Lewis: I’m most often interested in doing a collection of poems on a certain subject: extinct animals, black Americans, outstanding women, Christmas, libraries, twins, the Civil War, blues legend Robert Johnson, et al. If an anthologist or educator asks me for a poem on a specific subject, I’ll put the collection aside and get to work on the poem. But the brass ring for me is an entire book of poems on subjects as widely and wildly different from each other as they can be.

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

Lewis: I rarely get caught in the deep end when writing. Occasionally, after I’ve finished a manuscript, I begin to think, The well has finally run dry. But my experience has been that that lasts for two, maybe three weeks, and then I’m off and running on another fool’s errand to another eccentric subject.

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

Lewis: Keeping it new, as Pound said.

Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?

Lewis: Many writers benefit from writers’ groups and creative writing courses. I’ve never done either of those, perhaps because I’m naturally a loner when it comes to writing. But I must tell you that an amazing thing happened to me when I was born: I brought a dear friend along with me. My polymath twin brother is my first reader, my only editor, at least until I am brave enough to send the manuscript on its way. I trust his judgment implicitly and have benefited from it enormously.

Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?

Lewis: Without seeming overly earnest or melodramatic, I would say that it’s the simple pleasure of spending your day playing with words. The Irish poet Michael Longley said, “If I knew where poems came from, I’d go there.” Since we don’t know where they come from, there is an undeniable excitement about the possibility of finding the source. But it’s not the destination that’s the milk and silk and sun, it’s the journey.

For more interviews with J. Patrick Lewis, visit these sites:,jpatrick.htm

For more information about Lewis and his work, visit his website:

And for further details on Lewis' life, visit:


Jack said...

Enjoyed Pat's words on writing poetry; what a great phrase to wrap up with: "But it's not the destination that's the milk and silk and sun, it's the journey."

Becky said...

What a terrific interview. He's one of my sons' (ages 6.5 and 8.5) favorite poets and authors!