“During dinner, other families discussed politics, watched television or discussed neighborhood gossip,” remembers Michael J. Rosen of his childhood growing up in Columbus, Ohio. “But at our kitchen table, joke-telling was as important as finishing everything on your plate.”
Rosen, an author, illustrator, or editor of more than eighty books for both children and adults, has received numerous awards for his work, including the National Jewish Book Award, the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance Award, the Ohioana Library Career Citation, and The Southside Settlement House’s Arts Freedom Award. But he still recalls the excitement of coming to the dinner table prepared to share a new joke or story.
His father would know several variations of whatever joke or story that the kids might tell, but his father never let on. “He let us roll out the whole joke, perhaps to give us practice,” says Rosen, who attributes whatever sense of humor he might possess, as well as his sense of timing as a poet and storyteller, to the lessons on joke-telling that he learned from his father at that dinner table.
“My father's timing was nearly perfect,” says Rosen. “He never rushed a story, sensing the real pleasure in building anticipation. But he never managed to show off, either.”
Rosen admits that he might not have his father’s memory for jokes, but he always enjoys imitating bits of speech or dialect that he hears around him. Years after leaving home for graduate school, he found the pull of words and stories too great to resist, deciding to leave medical school after six months and enrolling in Columbia’s graduate writing program to pursue his MFA degree.
He’s written poetry ever since junior high school, but he never experimented with haiku until after his father’s sudden death, when he says he found it difficult to concentrate on longer projects.
“I had read a bit of it. But there were no haiku in any of my three volumes of poetry for adults or in any of the books I’ve done to-date for younger readers. It could be that I’m longer-winded than seventeen-syllables allows. It could be that I’m more drawn to narrative forms, to tone, to humor, to cumulative power.”
But the shortness of the form at that time of his life proved meditative for him. “For being so brief, it is nevertheless very long in realizing its prismatic clarity.”
Thanks to the form’s brevity, Rosen could make notes, revise a line or two, and keep the poem in his head while walking or working. “I could write and rewrite almost like reciting a calming, but evolving, mantra. And I could also move on to something else or to another attempt at a different haiku if I felt frustrated by a given poem.”
The short form gave him the opportunity to begin several poems in the same day, “moving them like checker pieces across the board…making several plays with one haiku, leaving another to the side, shifting to a third in order to provide a little time or renewed perspective on the first one.”
For Rosen, writing is always a way of slowing down his racing thoughts.
“As Auden wrote of poetry,” Rosen says, “it’s ‘clear thinking about mixed feelings.’”
Rosen still lives in Ohio, not far from the home in Columbus where he grew up sharing jokes over the family dinner table, and he was kind enough to take time from his current project to share his thoughts on writing with wordswimmer.
Wordswimmer: You’ve mentioned that you’re a swimmer–that you began swimming as a boy–and I’m wondering if swimming has in any way helped you shape your view of yourself as a writer?
Rosen: When I was fourteen, the aquatics director at our community center hired me to help her teach littler kids how to swim. It was my first job, but, an even greater milestone, it was the first time that I was recognized as being the best at something. Or, at least, I felt that I was among the best. I was a good swimmer, although I didn't compete on a team, but more importantly, I was also a lousy player of most team sports. It seemed all the other ball sports just ran one into another like the months—footballbaseketballbaseballfootball—so I never got better at one before it was time to switch to the next. Swimming, however, was a kind of athletics I did on my own, perfecting each stroke at summer camp or at the indoor pool, receiving another patch to sew on swim trunks that I'd outgrow each year (Pollywog, Minnow, Turtle, Dolphin, Whale!). My body was faster, more graceful and coordinated in the water than on the land. Yes, I wanted to have—no, to be Flipper even more than Lassie.
When the instructor asked me to assist in the very classes that I had taken, I felt…I felt…identified in some special way that had never happened on the courts, diamonds, or yard lines of the other sports. I felt that she understood something about me, or that I, suddenly or maybe gradually, understood something about myself.
As I worked beside her over the next few years, demonstrating a stroke in slow motion or drown-proofing the youngest kids, I felt a confidence and a pride that I'd never had before.
In most every thing I create, I want to imagine that a reader will find him- or herself identified in the words, welcomed into the pool of community and humanity, and not sidelined, beached on dry land.
Wordswimmer: How does this sense of yourself as a swimmer help you get into the water each day?
Rosen: Once W. H. Auden was asked what he did “the rest of the time,” that is, when he wasn’t writing poetry. (Indeed, how many hours each day is it possible to sit at a desk puzzling over a poem? How many poems can a person crank out in a day? I mean, poems that, as my mentor William Meredith would say, you are truly called by the Muse to write?) Auden’s answer, and my own, as well: a citizen. You get into the water, because there’s only water. As a writer, you live like fish (this is Virginia Woolf’s metaphor), utterly submerged in your environment, and, constantly taking in water through the gills…in order to breath.
Where are the wellsprings of ideas for poems other than from a life as a citizen, witness, participant? Where is the repository of metaphors and vocabulary? Where is the new perspective or insight that a poet needs to bring to the page? All this comes from total immersion. Not just dipping a toe into the water.
Wordswimmer: How does thinking about swimming as a metaphor for writing help you put words on paper?
Rosen: The idea of swimming is a beautiful echo of what I have always held as my real need for writing. The speed of life is too fast for genuine comprehension or even appreciation. We have experiences without truly engaging. We let the singular feelings of sentimentally stand in place of the matrix of nuances that accompany each passage, each event. Writing--poetry in particular-- slows that body and the brain. The water, like poetic form or meter, forces more deliberate exertion, more purposeful and strategic movement. So writing, like water, creates a buoyancy that makes certain things easier, but it comes with an accompanying density and resistance that causes reconsideration, rebalancing. When we take language into the swim, as it were, there’s an increased deliberation that allows us to feel and appreciate sensation.
Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?
Rosen: I don’t give myself the option for dry spells. Sometimes the business of poetry stands in for poetry. But I try to discipline myself to work steadily, constantly. Still, more and more, “swimming” has to include a good deal of business: submissions, proposal writing, marketing, Website development, teaching. All of these necessary aspects take more time than I’d like to allow them, but it’s how I have to work these days. My books of prose, humor, picture books—whatever I write, I think poetry is the spine from which my many arms extend.
But one thing I find helpful is to switch channels. To approach things differently. My second book of poems were all short narratives about an invented character. My recent poems have all been georgics, poems of pastoral instruction (in which I’m both giving the information and teaching myself). I like sequences and clusters—they create a momentum. Nothing like saying, I’m going to do 20 poems about various body parts, and then, one by one, ticking them off.
For decades, I swam a mile, a couple times each week, counting each lap. And, then, for whatever reason, I decided that I didn’t want to be concentrating on numbers the whole time: a third done, 24 more laps, 42 done, that’s 12 times up and back—so dull! It never felt second-nature or meditative to me, all that counting. So now I swim for 30 minutes. However many laps that is, fine. No counting. And now, while I focus somewhat on pulling harder or turning my hips for a better kick, etc., I try to work on a small idea as I swim back and forth. Title ideas. A haiku.
Indeed, I find that haiku is something that can be extremely challenging and rewarding, and I can fit it among other projects, thereby giving me a sense of staying in shape.
Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?
Rosen: There are a few phases that make me more anxious. The first is, having a concept I want to explore, working steadily enough to see if it’s going to produce something workable, worthwhile. This is the mining phase. Admittedly, these are the tentative forays, the frustrations, the wondering if anything is going to come of the initial impulse. But, I’m used to this now. I trust that I always feel this way, and that, most of the time, something does come out of it. So I try not to write and edit simultaneously—which would be like running on the pool deck and being the lifeguard whistling, “Walk!”
Indeed, this is probably time to offer another quote that has guided my idea of writing for decades: This is Frost: “Ever since infancy I have had the habit of leaving my blocks carts chairs and such like ordinaries where people would be pretty sure to fall forward over them in the dark. Forward, you understand, and in the dark.”
So that mining phase feels like fumbling. I’m much more comfortable with the molding phase, where I take those fragments and little discoveries and potentials, and begin to combine them, apply pressure, see if I can’t make something of it all. There’s a heady momentum in that stage that I don’t find at first as I just feel my way in.
Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?
Rosen: I’m a total believer in the buddy system! Whether swimming or writing! I’ve always had a small number of individuals to whom I can bring an early draft of something for an extra bit of expansion. Individuals who can read a finished piece and raise questions. When I teach poetry workshops, the primary directive I offer to the students is, if you can see the poem in the light of the author’s intention, then you can offer comments or suggestions that might help the poem come into fuller realization. But it’s only in that light…
Other strategies: I often leave things fallow and return to them after a few months.
Sometimes I deliberately force a radical change such as recasting a story as a poem, or taking a monologue and reshaping it as a series of letters. Or I’ll take something written in blank verse, and see what happens with a much narrower form. I’ll try anything that will allow the introduction of fortuitous material, that will liberate the piece from the previous scaffolding.
Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?
Rosen: Admittedly, the pleasure of reading aloud a seemingly finished poem is enough to brighten the day, ramp up my sense of what’s good about life. All that effort, puzzling, tweaking…suddenly sounds—has the sound of something graceful. You can probably compare it to learning the breast stroke for the first time. There are the land drills. The kickboard-laps perfecting the whip kick. Practicing the breath and keeping the head position so it breaks the water just so. All those individual labors! And then, after enough practice, there’s that day when suddenly, the body is propelled through the water as if it were the most natural motion—not the product of labored timing, exercises. That’s what a finished poem can feel like: something natural. The opposite of artifice.
For more information about Michael J. Rosen, visit his website:
And to read more interviews with Rosen, take a look at:
PS - Rosen has two new books coming out this year, if you'd like to check them out: The Hound Dog's Haiku and Other Poems for Dog Lovers, illustrated by Mary Azarian (Candlewick) and Chanukah Lights, a pop-up book illustrated and paper-engineered by Robert Sabuda (Candlewick).